Do Pastors Fail?

Yep.

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I was recently invited to join the one and only Todd Littleton on the Patheological podcast to discuss the strange, and often avoided, subject of pastoral failure. Many of us are all too familiar with the failure made manifest in places of church leadership like adultery and embezzlement. Those I would categorize as moral failures. But there are other failures as well.

During our conversation Todd and I cover a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, and how I’ve grown from them. I fundamentally believe our mistakes make us better pastors/Christians AND that we need communities to help us see our failures and push us toward better solutions. Otherwise we pastors run the risk of falling into a frightening statistical category: 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in this country never to return again.

If you would like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here: Pastors Fail?

I highly suggest subscribing to Todd’s podcast – he strives to provide conversations for the pastor/theologian and it has been a tremendous help to me in the past.

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All Things To All People

1 Corinthians 9.19-23

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled a list of questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to our faith. Today we continue the series with, “How do we share the Good News?”

“When did you last speak to someone about your faith?” Throughout John Wesley’s ministry, this was a question to be answered by all people within the Methodist movement. And it’s a question most of us would rather avoid today.

It we’re honest, we don’t want to appear too evangelical (whatever that means). We don’t want to be confused with the kind of bible toting people who seek to win others for Jesus. We don’t want to leave church with tracts to pass out to people in public warning them about their imminent doom unless they accept Jesus as their Lord.

And yet, that question, the one we want to avoid, the one that makes us squirm in our pews, is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask.

When I was in college, I became the de facto cook for my house. There were five young men all living under the same roof, and I tried my best to make a home cooked meal once a week so that we could all sit down and break bread with one another. When we sat around the table for the first time, with our assortment of hand-me-down plates and silverware, I asked my friends to pray with me, and they just stared at me as I bowed my head and asked for God to bless the meal and us.

Week after week we sat around that table, and the longer I prayed for them, the more they adapted to it. Such that, one night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they stopped me from eating and said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?!”

Around that same time I was invited to guest preach at one of the local United Methodist Churches. I, of course, invited all of my roommates to attend and they all sat together in the furthest back pew.

The service was fairly typical, and the sermon was a definite B-, but then we moved to the communion table and the pastor prayed for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and cup into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And while the whole congregation began lining up in the center aisle, my roommates did as well with bewildered looks on their faces.

I realized, as they were walking closer to me, that none of them had received communion before, nor did they have any idea what they were doing.

When they made it to the front they all stood in front of me with wide eyes and nervous ticks. I quietly whispered, “take the bread, dip it in the cup, eat it, and I’ll explain everything at home.”

And so, they did.

There was a time in the life of the church, when we could expect new people to show up on Sunday mornings no matter what. When Christianity was Christendom, which is to say, when Christianity was normative, the majority of people in a community could be found in church on Sunday morning. This meant that for generations, great scores of people were born into, and raised through a church, such that things did not have to be explained or proclaimed, and the work of evangelism was nothing more than standing in front of one’s own church to share what God had done.

But that time is long gone.

And because churches can no longer expect that, “if you build it they will come,” the work of evangelism has increased sharply. Congregations are told that they are in the business of saving souls, and that they must do everything within their power to share the Good News. But more often than not the good news sounds like bad news.

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Fear mongering tactics with threats of hell and eternal damnation are hung over individual heads with hope that it will scare them into church.

            The bible is used as a weapon to attack people for the way they are living in order to shame them into coming to church.

            People are treated as numbers and objects to be placed on a worksheet and empty promises about heavenly rewards are used to get people to come to church.

            And people wonder why the church is shrinking…

When I asked for questions in November, a lot of people asked about ways to share the Good News. Behind those questions was the desire to grow the church. Growth is a good thing, I mean: Jesus sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, but growth for the sake of growth is problematic.

If we want to fill the sanctuary up every Sunday we could do raffles, and giveaways, we could provide financial incentives to get people to invite more people to church, but it wouldn’t be faithful. The only way the church grows is when we believe the church has something so incredible to offer that we’re willing to invite others to discover it.

The point is this: we can no longer just wait for people to magically appear on Sunday morning.

In addition to the questions we received about sharing the good news, there were an equal number of questions about why I participate in a podcast. For the last year and a half I’ve been working with two other United Methodist pastors to produce weekly podcasts (a podcast is a downloadable audio file that you can listen to on your phone and computer). We started it as a way to have conversations about theology and scripture, and as we made the episodes public, they started reaching a lot of people. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. By the end of the month, we should hit our 200,000th download.

But we didn’t start the podcast to become popular. We started it to reach the people who no longer felt comfortable in church. We wanted to provide conversations with zero commitment on behalf of the people listening so that they could encounter the church from a new perspective. Because for as much as this thing we do called worship is what being the church is all about, for some people it’s not enough.

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We were taking a break from a live podcast event back in December when an older man walked across the room and stood right in front of me. He stared at me with a curious look and said, “You sound different in person.” Unsure of whether or not he meant it as a compliment, I inquired as to how. He said, “You sound a little more confident on the podcast than you did tonight. But I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate your vulnerability.”

We talked for a little bit about the guests we had that night, and the challenges of doing a live recording, and then before returning to his seat he said, “I left the church years ago because I felt burned. Too many sermons about what I had done wrong, too many people suffering without anything changing; too many pastors abusing their privileges. But then I discovered the podcast, and I started listening. And the more I listened, the more I heard God, and the more I realized I needed to give the church another chance…”

We live in an ever-changing world where people consume information so quickly that the church can appear archaic and irrelevant. But I believe this is a sad misjudgment. Rather, I believe church has the most important thing to offer of all, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like Paul, we do well to do whatever we can, by whatever means we can, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Paul that meant being a Jew to the Jews, and outside the law to those outside the law, and all things to all people.

For us today, that might take on different meaning, we might be tasked dropping our political identities in order to reach people across the political spectrum, or crucifying our prejudices in order to reach people who do not look like us, or repenting of our judgmental attitudes in order to reach people who frighten us.

As Christians, we are necessarily evangelical. Evangelism means, by definition, sharing the Good News. So much of what we do and who we are is wrapped up in the story of Jesus, recognizing how the story has changed our lives, and the hope that it can change the lives of those around us.

            But, sadly, being evangelical these days often comes off like being a bad and annoying used car salesperson. When the tactics of fire insurance, and bombarding strangers is the best we have to offer others, when winning souls becomes more important than loving others, we cease to be evangelical, at least the way the word is meant to be used.

Last year, I drove up to Cokesbury on a Sunday afternoon to meet a handful of people from the church before it was announced that I would be your new pastor. We sat down in the conference room upstairs, exchanged pleasantries over fruit and cheese, and then we went around the table to introduce ourselves and describe how we are connected to the church. One by one I learned about some of you for the first time, how long you’ve been here, what you like, what you want to change, all of that stuff. And one of the last people to share was Emmett Wright, and all he said was, “I’m an evangelist.”

And, because being evangelical can be so misconstrued these days, all I could think was, “that’s just great [sarcasm].” So I asked him to elaborate and he said something memorable like, “just wait and see.”

On any given week Emmett will invite a score of people to come to experience God’s presence at our church. But he does not evangelize by attacking strangers with threats or empty promises. He meets people where they are and he gets to know them. He sees his evangelism first as a call to friendship, with all people, long before inviting them to church. And because he fosters friendship first, the people he invites to church always want to see what it’s all about.

Emmett is a lot like Paul in that he becomes all things to all people. He never presents the gospel in some stuffy forgotten way; it is always alive and exciting and friendly. Emmett meets people where they are, instead of sitting around waiting for them to show up.

Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism. Over and over again he won people for the sake of the gospel. Not to fill pews, not to frighten them, not to shame them, but because he believed the story of Jesus Christ was the most important story they would ever hear. He believed the message of salvation would change everything about the way they lived. He believed that following Jesus would make all the difference.

Paul became all things to all people because that’s precisely what God was willing to do for us. God became all things to all people in Jesus Christ. God humbled himself in the manger and took on flesh. Though God was free to as God pleased, God made himself a slave to all in Jesus in order to free us from slavery to sin and death.

            Evangelism always begins in friendship, in the intimacy of two people sharing life together. Evangelism takes place in the trust when listening becomes more important than talking. Evangelism comes to fruition when saving and winning others is more about them than us. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 15.1

Devotional:

Luke 15.1

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

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What kind of people do we want in church? What kind of people do we want to encounter in our lives? Day after day I am bombarded by articles with titles like “The Top Ten Ways To Get Millennials Into Church” or “Why Churches Are Losing Young Families” from concerned people within the church. Similarly, because I am considered a “Young Adult Clergy Person” I am often asked (as if I have some magic answer) “What can we do to get young people to come to church?” Our general church culture is consumed with this desire to get younger people sitting in the pews, and therefore makes the assumption that bringing younger people in will fix everything.

Jesus, however, drew in a different kind of crowd.

Through the proclamation of God’s kingdom, and through radical acts of healing, Jesus’ ministry brought in all the tax collectors and the sinners. They, the kind of people we would rather ignore or complain about, were the ones drawn to hear what Jesus had to say. They dropped their daily tasks to discover what God incarnate was really up to.

We, however, want our churches and our lives filled with “good” people. The kind of people who have their lives figured out, pay their taxes, and love their children. We want people with open and uncluttered schedules who can serve on different church committees and can volunteer to work in the church nursery on Sunday mornings. We want people who will sit quietly in the pews during worship and listen intently without questioning what we do.

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Can you imagine what the church (or our lives) would look like if we did our best to attract the same kind of people that Jesus did? What would we have to change in order to draw them in, and what kind of expectations would we have to crucify in order to love them with Christ-like love?

The larger community rejected tax collectors and sinners during the time of Jesus. They were viewed with suspicion and were kept at a distance. And yet Jesus offered something they wanted to hear. Who do you view with suspicion? Who are the tax collectors and sinners of our day? How would you feel if they showed up in church on Sunday?

On Evangelism or: Why The Church Needs Crucifixion

Matthew 28.19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism

We sent out hundreds of post-cards over a month ago inviting the entire neighborhood to join us on the front lawn of the church for a free Community Cook-Out. The post-cards were well designed and inviting with all of the necessary information. For a modest price we were able to reach a whole group of people who we would otherwise miss.

This will be our third annual gathering and it has been largely successful. Half of the people in attendance are usually not from the church and we want them to know that we care about the neighborhood we are in. However, on some level, we also want them to know that we love them enough that we would love to have them join us in worship on Sunday mornings.

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Yet, evangelism is not the goal of our gathering. We have not specifically identified key lay people to go around asking people if Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior. We have not prepared pamphlets to hand out describing the eternal fires of hell if someone does not get saved. We have not invited the neighborhood to our front lawn to get them into heaven.

Instead, we hope that by showing them our love, it will somehow draw them into church to discover where that love comes from: God.

Next week we are going to send out even more post-cards to the local community about our upcoming sermon series titled “Confronting Controversy.” After speaking with a few nominal Christians from the neighborhood about what they want to hear about in church, we synthesized this series to be approachable and life-giving to people who are not currently in the church. The post-card has been well designed with a catchy image and all of the necessary information on the back. We hope that by sending them out, people from the community will join us in worship and discover that what the world thinks about the church may not be the same thing as what God thinks about the world.

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Both of these ventures, a Community Cook-Out and a Controversial Sermon Series, are about trying to grow the church in some way, shape, or form. Many of us call this “evangelism.” But that’s not what evangelism means.

In David Fitch’s recent work Prodigal Christianity, he highlights a moment from his ministry where the church tried to grow and failed:

“When our church, Life on the Vine, was new, we sent out ten thousand postcards to people in our neighborhoods. We artfully displayed a collage of various depictions of Jesus (classical paintings, icons, and European, African, and Asian portrayals) with the question in bold print running across it: “Who is Jesus?” On the back, we invited the neighborhood to have a discussion with us about the question. We were playing off the cultural curiosity around Easter and hope that we could welcome a constructive conversation around the question. The card was not well received. Local “Bible-believing” Christians accused us of straying into relativism with so many different depictions of Jesus. They worried we were losing the truth of Jesus. Meanwhile many others accused us of being intolerant. Were not other religious leaders just as worthy of discussion? We got nasty phone calls asking, “Why are you focusing only on Jesus?” No one, and I mean NO ONE, came to any of our gatherings from this postcard.”[1]

Out of ten thousand postcards, no one came to any of the gatherings. I think a lot of this has to do with our false assumption that just by offering something people will show up. We believe that if we give them an interesting sermon series or bible study people are bound to show up in droves. And if we let them know about it through a postcard we can reach even more people!

These types of evangelism largely fail because we’ve confused evangelism with filling the pews instead of sharing the Good News.

I cringe whenever I encounter an “evangelist” in the midst of life who abruptly asks, “Have you confessed Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Because with their question is the assumption that we have the power to save ourselves, and that they are playing a fundamental role in our salvation. However, Jesus does not command the disciples to go out convincing people to confess him as Lord. Instead he tells them to go and make disciples.

Discipleship formation is primarily about relationships and less about post-cards and Main Street confessions. We become evangelists not when we beg or convince someone to confess Jesus as Lord, but when we intentionally create relationships with individuals through the love that Jesus taught us to live by. We can use sermon series and community events to first bring people into the church, but those types of things will never be enough (by themselves) to evangelize. It takes a willing and loving disciple who sees others not as pew fillers but fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.

As a gathering church we are called to be confident in God’s love for us, and for us to share that same love with others; “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19). We will grow and bear fruit in the kingdom when love becomes our first priority instead of growth. We have failed to grow not because we have been doing things unworthily, but because we’ve grown bored and unhappy. With churches all across the American landscape floundering under the pressure to grow and remain sustainable, the church falls back to the common tropes of Vacation Bible Schools and Sermon Series assuming they will grow the church.

Can you imagine what the church might look like if Christians were actually happy and excited about being the church? That’s where and when evangelism happens – not in the boredom of another series or bible study, but in the community transformed by joy and sharing that joy.

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Evangelism is our call as Christians. We are commanded by the Lord to share the Good News in order to make disciples and transform the world. If we want this kind of dynamic and life-giving evangelism to take place, then we have to be willing to crucify some of our current practices and programs; you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion.

We need to crucify our boring and lifeless activities that we assume will grow the church. Is the annual Cook-Out really sharing the good news with others, or are we doing it to feel good about seeing a lot of people on our property?

We need to ask difficult questions about our programs and whether or not they are designed to evangelize. Are our monthly meetings really about branching out to the community and transforming our cultural landscape, or are we meeting to keep the people already in the church happy?

We need to confront our budgets and demand that they reflect Jesus’ mission. Are we spending our resources according to the great commission, or are we neglecting to be good stewards by wasting our resources of lifeless avenues of ministry?

We need to take a look at our own families and reflect on how we evangelize those closest to us. Are we so consumed by raising our children to choose whether to be Christian or not for their own good, or are we afraid of telling them what we really feel and believe?

What can we crucify in our hearts and in our churches to be resurrected into the kind of evangelists that God is calling us to be?

 

 

[1] Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2013), 32.

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

With A Little Help From My Friends

John 20.19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his said, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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Before I became your pastor, I was a pulpit-filler. If a pastor became sick, or was otherwise unavailable to preach, I was tapped on to come up with something to say from the pulpit. A phone call would arrive in the middle of a week, or even on Sunday morning, and I would have to whip something together right quick. For years I took the ”undesirable” Sundays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter; those Sundays when the regular pastor needed a break.

Every time I was tasked with preaching was an opportunity to grow in my faith while attempting to articular the faith for others.

When I was in college I got the phone call one week to preach for a Sunday evening service. I was fairly familiar with the context because I played the drums for the church every week, but this time they wanted me to come out from behind the drum set to proclaim God’s Word.

At the time I was living with a couple of roommates, but of course none of them went to church. Week after week they would rib me for waking up early on Sunday morning, they would jokingly mock me with questions about God’s presence, and they made sure I knew they thought there were better things I could be doing with my time.

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get them to church.

It was on a Sunday night, so they couldn’t complain about sleeping in. We would be playing contemporary Christian rock songs, so they couldn’t complain about the music. And I was supposed to preach, so they couldn’t complain about it being archaic or a waste of time (I hoped).

I casually invited them to worship while we were having dinner one night; I shared that I was the preacher and that it would be a relatively short sermon, and I made sure to mention that it would really mean a lot to me if they would come.

Under the weight of my communal invitation and guilt, they all came to church that night and sat together in a pew near the back.

The service went well; the music balance was good, and the sermon was short and to the point, and then we moved to the communion table. Our resident pastor began talking about how whenever Jesus gathered with his friends he would breathe new life into them through his words and his presence. And on his final night he took bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body.” And then he took the cup and shared it with his friends saying: “Take. Drink. This is my blood.

One by one every person in the sanctuary gathered in the center aisle and started walking forward for communion. The pastor stood next to me holding the bread, and I stood next to her holding the cup and for each person that came forward we said, “The body of Christ given for you.” Or: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Hands were outstretched penitently while people feasted on the Lord, and then the end of the line came forward, with my roommates.

Unsure of what was actually taking place, they stood up like everybody else and came forward without knowing what to do next. As they stood in front of us, and in front of the whole congregation, the pastor’s eyes darted back and forth between myself, and the ragtag roommates standing in front of us. Her eyes screamed, “Do something!”

So I did what anyone in my position would do. I whispered to my friends as quickly as possible: “I know this will sound weird… But you need to take a piece of bread, dip it in the grape juice, and eat it. Don’t worry I’ll explain it to you later.” And with that they all feasted on the body and blood of our Lord, and returned to their pews confused and bewildered.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, after appearing to Mary Magdalene and calling her by name, Jesus appeared before the disciples. They were locked away in a room full of fear and trembling when Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps they were afraid of being crucified like he was by the Jews, or they were afraid of how the crowds would taunt them when they came out of hiding, or they were afraid of seeing their risen friend in their midst. But Jesus found it fitting to speak words of peace in the midst of their terror.

And immediately Jesus outlined what they were supposed to do: “Go. As the Father sent me, now I send you.” With his proclamation, Jesus empowered his friends to proclaim the Good News for everyone to hear.

But Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there to experience the resurrected Jesus. The disciples tried to explain what they had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. Yet, their eyes and fingers were not enough for Thomas. He did not trust his friends. He wanted to see and touch Jesus for himself.

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Sure enough, a week passed, and Jesus showed up again before the disciples and Thomas. Again Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And he told Thomas to feel the scars on his hands and side, but before Thomas could even reach out he declared, “My Lord and my God!” And thus Jesus concluded the moment by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas gets a pretty bad rap. Every year we follow Easter Sunday with this reading about doubting Thomas. He is the one disciple who gets a qualifier in front of his name. We don’t refer to eager Peter, or betraying Judas, but we do say doubting Thomas. For years pastors like me have used this Sunday and this story to call people like you to learn from the example of Thomas, to not doubt the Lord, to believe without seeing.

But the real problem with Thomas is not his lack of faith in the Lord, but his lack of faith in his friends. For three years he had traveled with this ragtag group of disciples, shoulder-to-shoulder they had watching Jesus perform countless miracles, and now when they tell him the Gospel, he does not believe them.

After the episode of my friends confusedly attending worship and receiving communion, I avoided the topic of church. I knew they had a strange experience through their lack of addressing the service in any way shape or form, and they stopped mocking me for going to church. At the time, I thought they thought I was nuts.

A few weeks passed and the topic of faith was still avoided like the plague until one morning I walked down the stairs and discovered one of my roommates crying on the couch. He had just received a phone call from a long time friend of ours whose father had died. The man was a staple in our community, regularly coached little league sports, and was another father figure for most of us. And when my roommate received the news, it devastated him.

I slowly made my way across the room and sat down next to him. For the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally my roommate looked up from his tears and he said, “I want you to pray for me.

I sat shocked. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued: “You know I don’t know much about God or church. But I know it’s important to you. When you were standing up before us in church I could tell that you really believed. I don’t know what I believe. And I can’t describe it, but I really feel like you need to pray for me.”

So I did.

When Thomas heard the news of the risen Lord through his friends, he didn’t believe them. Even though they were some of the people he should’ve trusted the most, he refused to accept their words.

When my friend felt the sting of death and loss, he didn’t know what to believe. But, for better or worse, he trusted me. Even though he had every reason to be suspicious and weirded out by what he had experienced in worship, he believed in God’s presence through prayer.

Thomas’ kind of radical suspicion of his friends still takes place in our lives today. We view church as a private thing, something we do on the weekends and don’t need to bring up during the week. We might know people in our lives that are suffering or are alone, but we assume that God will send them to us when they’re ready.

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If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, then me must stop distrusting our friends and neighbors. At the very least, we should stop questioning motives or thinking the worst in others when they express a difference of opinion.

To be faithful followers of Jesus requires a willingness to be sent by God to people who do not know God. It requires us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable while inviting others to discover God’s love in a place like this. It requires us to be the agents of belief for people who have not yet seen.

All of us are here because we are the product of someone influencing our faithfulness. Whether a parent or a friend or even a stranger, we were once invited to discover God through the power of church.

Friends, I promise you that the days of people showing up to church because a church is in their neighborhood are long gone. Today, people discover God’s presence, they begin to believe what they see and see what they believe when people like us are brave enough to invite them to church.

Because, for us, this table is the closest we can get to the presence of Christ. In the bread and the cup God invites us into the upper room when Christ shared the meal with his friends. When we feast on his body and blood we receive the grace necessary to be Christ’s body in the world.

This thing we call communion, whether at the table or just gathering in worship, has transformed my life. If you’re here in church, it’s probably changed your life too. So, may the God of grace and glory give us the courage to invite others to be transformed as well. Amen.

Devotional – John 6.60

Devotional:

John 6.60

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

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We have a great lectionary bible study at St. John’s. Every Thursday at 10:30am a dedicated group gathers to pray for one another and then read and discuss the four lectionary readings for the week. The group was started with a simple suggestion, and has grown to become one of the most life-giving teaching ministries of St. John’s.

The group is made up of both members from church, and from other churches throughout the community. With such a diverse background in church experiences, we have come to grow in faith by learning from other traditions, as well as our own.

A few weeks ago, after reading through the week’s Gospel section, one of our most faithful attendees threw up her hands and declared, “How can anyone do all this stuff?” I think that after weeks of hearing Jesus’ commands to the disciples, she was overwhelmed by how much is expected of discipleship and how consuming it can really be.

Her question is one that Christians have been asking themselves since the very first disciples. After a particularly long discussion on being the bread of life (John 6), the disciples throw up their collective hands and say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

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In our contemporary culture, many of us want grace without expectation, we want to leave church on Sundays feeling good about ourselves, and we are ready to commit so long as the commitment is limited. We, like the first disciples, are confused by Jesus’ words when we are asked to start living accordingly. We feel good about sacrificing our time at the Food Pantry, but we refuse to forgive that person in our pew who started a hurtful rumor. We feel good about seeing children in Sunday School, but are easily annoyed by the cries from babies during worship. We feel good about the scriptures that affirm our lifestyles, and use other passages to persecute and oppress those who are different according to our world view.

Jesus’ teachings are difficult, and ask us to sacrifice nothing short of our very lives. But Jesus also offers us something greater than any political promise, social status, or monetary moment; Jesus offers us eternal life.

What teachings do you struggle with? Where do you need support in following the call to discipleship? We can grow in faith by joining bible studies that allow us to wrestle with difficult teachings in community. We can grow in faith by reaching out to the seasoned Christians in our lives and seeking their advice. And we can grow in faith by bringing our struggles to the Lord, and praying for wisdom.