This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.
The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.
The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.
The man lived a good and faithful life. He had a loving family, a lucrative career, and he was in church nearly every single Sunday.
As he got closer to the end of his life, he heard God speak to him one day. “You have been good and faithful” boomed the voice from beyond, “and though I don’t usually do this, I’m going to grant you a special dispensation. When you die you may bring a briefcase full of whatever you want to heaven.”
The man was overwhelmed by the generous act of God, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an incredibly difficult decision to make. Most night he laid awake staring at the ceiling running through his possessions in his mind until, after months of deliberation, he came to a decision.
When his days came to an end, he found himself standing in line outside the pearly gates with a great assortment of people. Though, unlike anyone else, he held a briefcase in his hand. The whispers and stares followed him all the way through the line until he stood right before St. Peter.
The first disciple asked, “What’s that in your hand?”
The man proudly retorted that he and God had come to an agreement and that he was able to bring a briefcase to heaven.
Peter jumped up off his cloud, and clasped his hands to his mouth. “So you’re the one! The angels and I have been talking about you for a long time, and we’ve got a pretty good pool going about what’s inside. So, do you mind? Can I take a peak?”
The man beamed with bride as he laid the briefcase on the ground and opened it up.
Of all the things the man could’ve picked, among all his possessions, he decided to bring a few gold bars.
He looked up at Peter excited to see the look on his face, but Peter just raised an eyebrow and said, “Asphalt?”
Because, you know, in heaven the streets are paved with gold…
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth! Friends, Jesus is speaking to us throughout the centuries and the time has come for all of us to close our bank accounts, empty out all of our garages and attics, and start saving in heaven!
We’re going to spend more time talking specifically about money next week, but today we are talking about possessions, and specifically how possessed we are by our possessions.
Check this out: Did you know that here in the United States there are more self-storage facilities than Starbucks and McDonalds combined!?!?
Think about that for just a moment, think about how you can’t go anywhere around here without the coffee seller or the golden arches, and yet there are more self-storage facilities!
The amount of space in our self-storage facilities is so ridiculously large in fact, that we could fit every man, woman, and child inside of them with room to spare.
And of the people who own a storage unit, the majority of them have both attic space and garage space at home.
I joked months ago that this church has a storage problem because we simply had too much stuff. And so we decided to take a day to go through most of the items we had stored just to start clearing things out – Friends we had more ziplock bags full of dried out markers than I could count – we had Vacation Bible School materials from 20 years ago – we have copies of every bulletin this church has ever used. EVER.
The church is not immune to the problem of possessions.
Jesus’ little vignette in which he lays out the dilemma is one that I’m sure most of us are familiar with – but there’s some subtle wordplay that we miss. Because, in English, we translate Jesus’ words as, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” But in Greek it reads more like, “Do not treasure up your treasures.”
But why not? What’s so wrong with working hard to accumulate possessions? What’s the problem with running out of space to store all of our stuff?
Well, Jesus would have us remember that treasuring up all of that treasure ultimately leads to its demise. Moths, rust, and thieves will consume all that we save is we treasure it away.
And we’ve got to hand it to Jesus on this one – he’s right. The more we accumulate, the more we store, the more we possess, the more the dust accumulates, the more we run out of space, the more we can’t even really remember what’s in the bottom of that box on the far side of the garage.
But Jesus is also pushing us to a different understanding as well. He’s not just gathering the disciples around for a little advice on how to be mindful of the fragility of our possessions, but its also a lesson in the theological ramifications of treasuring up our treasures.
It, the struggle with possessions, runs throughout the scriptures. Abraham desperately wants a son, someone to pass his possessions on to. The Hebrews are delivered from slavery in Egypt only to think back on all the stuff they left back in Egypt. After entering the Promised Land, the people of God habitually lament losing the thing they care about most over and over again – not their relationship with God, but all of their stuff back in Jerusalem.
Even in the New Testament, the rich young ruler, James and John, Ananias and Sapphira, they all experience the loss (or potential loss) of worldly goods and it just about undoes them.
Having stuff, accumulating possessions, isn’t a sin. Our things can be used for both good and evil. It’s when the love of our stuff, when we feel an intense desire to lock it up and away, that we become blind from other things in our lives. And, God forbid, we start encroaching on a slippery slope that seems to never end.
First we possess something we truly desire – but then when we see what other people have and we start doing whatever it takes to get it. It’s why the line for new iPhones every fall stretches far beyond every Apple Store.
Then, whenever we acquire the item that was pulling at our heart strings, we intensely desire something else or more of the original item and we are less inclined to share what we have. It’s why we find ourselves trading in a car for the updated model when nothing is really wrong with out current mode of transportation.
And finally we just keep consuming one thing after another, even when we are beyond full. It’s why the self-storage business is a multi-billion dollar industry and we wind up buying space just to have room for all of our stuff.
But don’t we have enough already? Are we so discontented by our stuff that the only remedy is more of it? Do we possess our possessions, or are we possessed by our possessions?
Here’s a dose of some hard truth – at the end of our days, everything goes into a box. A box that’s about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. And we can’t take anything else with us.
Do not treasure up your treasures on earth, but treasure up your treasures in heaven. Some will say that Jesus is pleading with his followers across the sands of time to treasure up our treasures in heaven by giving money to the church. And, though you can take it that way, I think Jesus is being a little more subtle. As the King of the Kingdom, as the one inaugurating the new way, Jesus knows that when we treasure up our treasures on earth, they no longer make a difference, and they start to weigh us down.
But by treasuring up our treasures in heaven, by knowing what really matters and what really doesn’t, we are freed from the tyranny of sinful accumulation and we start to see and know that we are God’s treasure.
Because, God’s heart is with us.
As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. Last week we were tasked with taking time everyday to be grateful by our time. This week we have a clean out challenge.
We are asking that everyone set aside some time this week to get rid of some stuff. In my house we have a drawer that has a little bit of everything in it, and maybe you have one like that, and perhaps thats the project you want to tackle. Take out the drawer, go through every item, and really ask yourself whether you need it or not. If the items you discard can be used by someone else, then take them to a local goodwill or salvation army, if they can be recycled then recycle them.
Pick one drawer, one box, one closet – it doesn’t matter what it is, but go through it and get ride of some of your possessions. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.
With the crazy and ridiculous ways that we are accumulating far more items than we could ever possibility need, too many us us are are focusing on earthly things instead of heavenly things.
So you can keep it as simple as cleaning out one place, one depository of items. Or you can take it a step farther and clean out an entire room – going through every drawer, every box, every shelf while asking what of all the items are actually giving you life, and which are holding you back.
Or you can even take it one step farther and pick out individuals whom you know would be blessed by some of your possessions. Instead of taking it to a local donation place, bring them to someone you know would love it and let them experience something that used to bring you life and joy.
As we hear about the perennial struggle with possessions, as we begin to imagine that space in our homes that is overrun with stuff, we might become so bogged down in our worry and fear and attachment that we forget how God was willing to part with God’s greatest possession.
Because, strangely enough, God’s greatest possession, God’s beloved, is Jesus Christ. And, in God’s great and perplexing wisdom, God chose not to treasure up God’s greatest treasure but instead decided to give it away on our behalf.
We know where God’s heart is because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We know how much of a challenge this will be because we find ourselves surrounded by mountains of stuff that shackle us to limited visions of reality.
We know the frightening dimension of giving away our possessions because as Christians we regularly encounter the knowledge of God’s profound generosity in the gift of his only begotten Son.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost (Songs of Songs 2.8-13, Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9, James 1.17-27, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Jason serves as the senior pastor of Annandale UMC, in Annandale VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the most handsome of men, Karl Barth and Methodism, the g-spot, Jesus’ crush on the church, being prune by the Word, divine equity, biblical advice, looking in the mirror, and the truth in our hearts. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We’re All Dirty On The Inside
The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
I arrived at church this morning mentally prepared for Vacation Bible School. I had read over the “Bible Story Teller” section, I knew where I needed to be and at what time, and I even had the perfect costume picked out: Batman.
However, I had assumed, foolishly, that the other adults would also arrive in some form of superhero costume. So, instead of blending in among a crowd of heroes, I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, when the children arrived (some from the church and some from the community) they were all shocked that the Caped Crusader was making his way around the building.
After our initial assembly time we broke out into age groups and then began making the rounds through the different centers. I made my way to the storyteller room and started teaching all of the children and youth about Samuel anointing a young David. The groups listened to my rendition and appropriately laughed at my silly jokes, they left with a sense that to be a hero in God’s kingdom one needs to have a compassionate heart, and they learned about how God is our true hero.
Toward the end of the day, in my last bible story session, one of the youth was not as engaged in the others. I tried to include her as much as possible, but there was clearly something distracting her. When we finished, the rest of the youth walked out of the room, but she stayed behind as if to ask a question. Without prompting she lifted up her head and said, “Did you really mean that?” I said, “What do you mean?” She replied, “That God really loves everyone? Even me? You said that God’s love for David is the same as God’s love for eveyrone, and I want to know if that’s true.” And I said the only thing I could say, “Of course it’s true.”
I don’t know what’s going in her life to warrant her isolated behavior, or even her stark wonder at the fact that God could love her, but I am grateful for the opportunity to tell her the truth. As the psalmist says, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” God’s love and grace and mercy know no bounds. They are for ALL. And all means all!
From the youth who arrived for Vacation Bible School while wrestling with something beyond herself, to the man panhandling on the street corner, to the family sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, God’s love is for ALL.
Sometimes we lose sight of the tremendous extent of God’s love when we encounter people that we cannot love. When we disagree with them, or are angry with them, they feel outside the realm of God’s grace.
And sometimes we lose sight of the tremendous extent of God’s love when we feel like we know longer deserve it. When we really think about how we have sinned, or how we could be better, we feel outside the realm of God’s grace.
Then let us all hear the good news, the best news: The Lord is good to ALL, and his compassion is over ALL that he has made.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Meanwhile, when the crowds gathered by the thousands to hear him talk, so many in fact that they began to trample on one another, Jesus rose to speak. He warned his disciples against hypocrisy – live honest lives. He instructed them to confess fearlessly – all who earnestly repent will be forgiven. He shared the parable of the rich fool – you can’t take your money to heaven. And then he gave them some final instructions:
“Do not be afraid little sheep! For it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give away your money, use your gifts to bless others here and now. For where your treasure it, there your heart will be also.”
Sometimes Christians drive me crazy. You know, the super pious ones who are forever wearing their faith on their sleeves; the ones who stand on the street corners of life blasting off about some passage or another; the ones who come knocking on your door and try to sell you on the gift of eternal life instead of the fires of hell.
Have you ever met or encountered a Christian like that? I can’t help but feel like they are the kinds of Christians that are giving the rest of us Christians a bad name. Jesus never instructed his disciples to act like the people from Westboro Baptist church who are forever picketing the funerals of people whom they believe did not live up to Christ’s expectations. Jesus never called his disciples to be racist or bigoted toward peoples of different nationalities, or race, or creed, or sexual orientation. Jesus never implored the disciples to use fear mongering to convince people to come to church or otherwise be threatened with the fires of eternal punishment. Yet, if you turn on the news, or get online, those are the kinds of Christians we hear about the most; the ones who give the rest of us Christians a bad name.
Like Hillary Clinton proudly claiming to be a Methodist over and over again, and how much her Methodism has shaped her politics. But we know that she has gone back and forth on a number of issues and made untruthful claims when the bible is pretty clear: you shall not bear false witness.
Or like Donald Trump who, when asked about his faith said that he’s never needed to pray for forgiveness and when asked about his favorite scripture was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Except the scripture he was talking about actually goes like this: “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’”
Just once I would like a good Christian to be featured for all to see; someone who has absorbed the Word throughout his or her life and has lived accordingly; someone who believes the good news is so good, that is worth sharing not to fill the pews, but to fill hearts; someone who could stand like an earthly example for the rest of us to catch a glimpse of the ways Jesus calls us to behave.
This winter I was asked to be a guest preacher at Augusta Street UMC just down the road. We had a midweek and midday service and I decided to preach about how good it is when we dwell together in unity. The service was well received and we gathered in the social hall after worship for a light lunch. I walked around for a couple minutes until I found an empty chair next to Wilford Kirby who was deeply engrossed in a conversation with someone else.
Elsewhere in the room, United Methodists from all of the churches in our town were sitting with their friends from their churches. Like cliques in a high school, the Central folk were at one table, the Cherryvale folk at another, and so on. But Wilford refused to be subject to this paradigm. He was sitting with the preacher from Augusta Street, though I don’t think he knew that he was the preacher. Because I eavesdropped on the end of their conversation, and the last thing Wilford said to the preacher was: “You should come try out our church on Sundays.”
Anyway, I sat with Wilford and he was quick to make a couple comments about their church facility in comparison with ours, offered a few critiques on how my sermon could have been better, and continued to eat his soup and sandwiches. I had other things to get done that afternoon, so after I finished eating I excused myself and told Wilford that I’d see him in church on Sunday and left.
Not fifteen minutes later was my phone ringing. When I answered all I heard was: “Wilford fell, broke some ribs, on his way to the hospital.”
I immediately turned my car toward the direction of Augusta health and beat the ambulance to the Emergency Department. But because they needed to do some x-rays and have him checked out I wasn’t able to get back, and he didn’t want me to anyway.
The next day I showed up at his house and banged on his door until he slowly made his way to the front of the house and let me in. I should have been a little more compassionate and patient regarding the fact that he was walking around with a few broken ribs, but I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to make sure he was okay. I wanted to pray for him.
And as we sat down in his basement, before I could even open my mouth, he asked me how I was doing, and then went through the list of everyone he had been praying for and wanted updates since he had been out of the loop for a whole day.
Wilford Kirby is the kind of Christian that makes the rest of us Christians look better.
Wilford Kirby is an example to us all about what it means to follow Christ in this life.
Luke, in this passage about our treasures and our hearts, calls for us to put first things first. The things of the Lord are to be the most urgent and pressing priority in every Christian’s life. We are not to be afraid nor are we to succumb to the worldly distractions of wealth that constantly distract us from God’s love and care. There are no wallets, or stock portfolios, or bonds that will not wear out in time. God promises not to fill us with earthly wealth and material possessions, but instead surprises us with the gift of the kingdom.
Receiving this gift, the kingdom, makes us rich beyond our ability to comprehend. But being rich toward God is not about putting sizable sums in the offering plate during worship. What Jesus rejoices in, is our reorientation toward the whole of life as an abundant gift from a generous God – a gift that can be given away with abandon.
Wilford Kirby has given his life to the kingdom, because the kingdom was first given to him.
He has easily attended more worship services than anyone in this church over the last three years, including me (and I’m the pastor!). On Sunday mornings Wilford is the first layperson to enter the sanctuary making sure our heat is pumping in the winter, and the AC is on during the summer. He checks the lights for optimum worship participation, and he checks through the bulletins to make sure everything will go smoothly.
Every winter he sits out in his truck for hours on end waiting for people to come take a peek at our Christmas trees and offer them his assistance. Even though we have a giant sign advertising the times the lot will be open, Wilford believes in being present for the kind of people who ignore signs like those.
He is here an hour before our special services throughout the year like Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday, and Christmas Eve just in case anyone arrives extra early.
He is almost always the first person to show up in my office to find out how someone from our church is doing and how he can be praying for him or her.
For years he has mowed the lawn of our church and took care of the property as a volunteer. He never complained; he never sought recognition; he never wanted praise. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in the comfort of my air-conditioned office day-dreaming about God when I’d see Wilford come flying past my window on the lawn mower with a smile hidden underneath his dust-mask.
Wilford has been here for every funeral since I arrived. Even for people he never knew. Yet he always stands in the back greeting people as they walk in, not because he was asked to, not because he was told to, be because he believes it’s the right thing to do.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The greatest treasure that Wilford Kirby has offered this church has been his very life, and he has given it with abandon.
But why? Wilford could be spending his precious time working with other civic organizations trying to make the world better. He could be spending his afternoons on the golf course or relaxing in the comfort of his home. He could use his life to do any number of things, but instead he has given it to this church.
My suspicion is that Wilford has given his life to the church because he knows and has experienced how the kingdom was given to him, and he wants to share that gift with others. He trusts that the Lord will provide. He humbly obeys the commands to love even the unlovable. He has seen first-hand how the kingdom of God can become manifest in other peoples’ lives. He put his treasure in this place because his heart has always been here. He wants other people to be blessed in the ways that he has been blessed. So he shows up. He prays. He cares. He loves. And he is an example to us all.
But that’s not to say that Wilford is perfect; he’s not. There are plenty of Sunday mornings when I finish a service and walk down the center aisle only to see Wilford standing in the back with his arm outstretched and his finger pulling me in as if to say, “Let me offer a suggestion.” Or there have been plenty of times that I’ve heard his footsteps walking down the hallway and I know from the texture of his tempo that he’s coming not to congratulate me on something but to complain about something that has happened in the church. But the thing is, even when Wilford is frustrated or upset it is because he believes our church can be better. He believes that we are part of the kingdom and we can’t be just like any other church. He expects excellence precisely because that’s what God expects from all of us.
Being rich toward God involves a generosity of spirit that opens our perceptions toward God’s generosity. Wilford knows how blessed he is, for the kind of life that he has had, and therefore he knows no other way to live than the way that he does.
Theses words from Jesus first meant for the crowd, and now meant for us, decisively interrupt our lives in this place and on this day calling us to focus not on the demands of the overly scheduled life, but on the Lord who comes in surprising ways to offer comfort, assurance, and love. Through these words we hear Jesus telling us that the time is now to start living a new life, not dictated by the past, but defined by God’s belief in our future. God uses people like us, people like Wilford, to make the kingdom manifest so that lasting joy will come to God’s little flock we call the church.
At this table, where Wilford has come time and time again, we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In this profound moment we are offered the kingdom again even though we do not deserve it. We come forward with hands outstretched remembering this incredible gift that has been given without cost. And by receiving this gift, we cannot help ourselves but live transformed lives.
So come and see that the Lord is good. Feast at this table where heaven and earth are bound together. Join together with Wilford Kirby as he walks to the front to receive the gift of the kingdom once again. And let it change your life like it has changed his. Amen.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.
Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.
There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.
There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.
There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.
Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.
Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.
The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.
If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.
During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.
For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.
It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.
Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.
It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.
Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.
I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.
After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.
The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.
I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.
But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.
How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!
I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.
The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?
The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.
Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.
In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.
First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.
Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.
And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.
If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pray before those who fear him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
“How can we get young people to worship?” I get asked this question all the time. Because I am young and involved the church, many assume that I have the secret to unlocking the riddle of putting younger people in pews. The truth is, I have no answer to the question. For me, it is as simple as discovering God in a place and time such as this, and therefore I return week after week because it provides the strength for my own discipleship. I don’t know what to do to get younger people to worship other than doing what we do well.
However, some believe the key to growing the church can be found in contemporary worship. The belief goes that traditional worship styles with stained glass sanctuaries, organs, and hymnals, no longer connect with people and give life.
So, contemporary services strive for the opposite, instead of traditional church architecture they meet in auditoriums or gymnasiums, instead of stained glass they use projectors and screens, instead of an organ and hymnals they use a rock band and display lyrics on the screen. Many church planters believe this is the future of worship, that if we want the church to grow we have to be willing to let go of the past and embrace the future.
I’m not so sure.
Interestingly, many young people are finding themselves drawn to traditional worship, while contemporary services are regularly filled by the boomer generation. Why? What we discover in traditional worship is unlike anything we encounter during the week. Worship is supposed to be different than our daily lives and fill us with God’s grace. I could go on an on about the importance of listening to the organ and singing our faith from the hymnal, but I’ll save that for another sermon series. This month we will take time each week looking at the Stained Glass of our sanctuary and wrestle with how they convey the Good News to us today.
We begin with what I call “The Methodists.”
The first window contains the mother of Methodism Susanna Wesley. Born in 1669, Susanna was the twenty-fifth of twenty-five children. Her father, was a preacher of sorts who rebelled against the status quo of the Church on England and he consistently encouraged his daughter to study books from his library (against the conventional wisdom). Susanna eventually married Samuel Wesley, a clergyman from the Church of England and gave birth to 19 children, of which only 10 lived to adulthood.
Because her husband was often busy with the responsibilities of the parish, Susanna was left to raise and educate the children on her own. They all learned Latin and Greek and were well informed in classical studies.
The image in our window shows Susanna teaching two of her sons, John and Charles Wesley. She took seriously the need for her children to be raised with a proper education and also put a tremendous emphasis on raising them in the faith. I don’t know for sure why the artist chose this particular representation, but I imagine it has something to do with an episode during her life when her willingness to engage her children sent them on a path that led to a renewal within the church, and eventually a new church.
The story goes that her husband was gone in London for a period of time, and a guest preacher was brought into the local parish. After a few weeks of particularly sub-par sermons, Susanna decided to assemble her children on Sunday afternoon for her own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, then Susanna read a sermon written by her father or husband, and concluded the worship with another psalm. Word about the services began to spread and people started to ask if they could attend. At the height of her Sunday afternoon services, over two hundred people were attending regularly, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.
Susanna, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering and returning to the Lord. She took time each week to educate her children, and the local community, about God’s dominion so that future generations would be told about the Lord.
Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that we, like Susanna, are called to nurture and teach and love those around us. John and Charles Wesley would eventually grow into the men who sparked a theological revolution. Charles will always be remembered for his hymn writing (all of the hymns we are using this morning were written by him) and John would become the founder of Methodism.
This window helps us to remember that we can serve the Lord by sharing the Lord with others. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
The second window portrays a grown John Wesley during the height of the Methodist renewal movement. Born in 1703, he was raised and taught by his mother and followed a call to ministry within the Church of England. However, John grew disenfranchised with the way the church was being run, he saw pastors who were following a career path rather than giving their lives to Christ. He saw people fighting for positions within the church rather than submitting to the will of God. He saw hypocritical preachers rather than people seeking holiness of heart and life.
After a particular string of episodes that left him filled with doubt, John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed during a small service on Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (The Journal of John Wesley, 35).
The glowing heart in our window is a reminder of his conversion experience. From that point forward he felt called to spread scriptural holiness of heart and life throughout the lands and helped to form small groups through the country to help disciples grow in love of God and one another. The moment of heart warming encouraged him to see the world as his parish. Rather than being limited to a particular time and place, John Wesley listened to the Spirit’s call and moved according to God’s will.
John, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering the Lord’s works even to the ends of the earth. He understood Jesus as Lord and did whatever he could to share the love he experienced in his heart with other people.
Whenever we take in the beauty of this window we remember that we, like John, are called to feel and experience God’s pardoning and loving nature. Having our hearts strangely warmed is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and give our lives to discipleship. Yet, once we feel this assurance like Wesley did, we cannot just keep it to ourselves. If it really is something that transforms our very lives then we should be willing to go even to the ends of the earth to help others remember the Lord.
The gift of God’s love is something worth sharing with others just like John did. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
Our third window displays Francis Asbury, the symbol of American Methodism. John Wesley discovered Asbury while a young man in England and encouraged him to become a circuit riding lay-preacher for the renewal movement. He was remarkably successful as a preacher even at a young age.
In 1771 Wesley sent lay preachers to continue the movement in the colonies including the young and talented Francis Asbury. However, by 1777, at the height of the American Revolution, all but one, Asbury, would return back to England. For Asbury the kingdom of God was more important than any human nation, and nothing would stop him from following his call.
Asbury became the de facto leader of the movement and spent the rest of his life traveling on horse back to spread scriptural holiness. When he arrived in the colonies there were 600 people participating in Methodist ministries. By the year of his death (1816) there were more than 200,000 members (2.3% of the population) making it the single largest Christian tradition in America at the time.
Why was he so successful? In our stained glass we see Asbury holding a bible and riding on a horse. He had a strong and fundamental belief that the Lord was calling him to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. Asbury was willing to go wherever whenever with only the Word of God to guide his words and actions. He traveled so widely across the landscape that at one time he was the most well known man in America simply because of how much he traveled.
Asbury, like the psalmist, believed the people were hungry and yearning for something greater than themselves. He understood that if he was willing to bring the Word to the people, that they would feast and be satisfied. He gave his life to the mission of spreading holiness so that people would praise the Lord.
Whenever we gaze upon this particular window we remember that we, like Asbury, have a responsibility to help people feast on the Word. Going out and meeting people where they are is fundamental to the kingdom of God. If we are content to just wait for people to show up with their questions and hopes, then we will be disappointed. This window gives us the encouragement to give of ourselves for other people just like Francis Asbury was willing to do.
The gift of God’s grace and mercy is something worth sharing so that others might feast and be satisfied. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
What we do in worship, how we understand discipleship, and even why we gather for communion was largely determined by the three Methodists in our stained glass. From Susanna’s Sunday afternoon lessons, to John’s heart-warming experience, to Asbury’s commitment to mission of God, we are who we are because of what they did. However, if we call ourselves Wesleyans or Methodists, it is fundamentally important to remember that we are first disciples of Jesus Christ.
These three Methodists followed Christ and their lives were results of their discipleship. It was through their reading of scripture and persistent prayers that they started a revolution within the greater church and brought the Word to people to tell them about the Lord.
When we come to gather at the Lord’s table in a few moments, let us remember that Susanna, John, and Asbury all gathered at a table such as this to feast on the Lord and receive the strength for their discipleship. Wesley in particular believed in constant communion, doing whatever he could to experience the Lord’s grace at all times. If you want to know God’s grace and love, look no further than this table.
But after we feast, what shall we do? Shall we return to the busyness of our lives and forget the importance and value of finding holiness? Will we limit the power of the Lord to Sunday mornings at 11am?
Or will we take the bread and cup and let it nourish our souls for the work of discipleship? Will we pray fervently for the Lord’s will to be done? Will we go out into the world to tell future generations about the power of God?
Now is the time for a revolution of the heart. Amen.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
I was sitting in a room full of pastors and priests when I made a promise to myself: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1. Today is the day that I make good on that promise.
I had been helping a church in Bryson City, North Carolina when I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group. Every Monday morning the clergy people of Bryson City would get together to talk about the readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large local Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading the scriptures and share what we thought we would preach about.
Without a doubt, this was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.
It came to pass that one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by pastors as we read the texts out loud. The lectionary always has four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…
When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the text during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “Is anyone preaching on Genesis 1 this week?” The silence remained. I remember thinking “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was clear that some of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading but I felt compelled to ask another question, “Have any of you ever preached on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever delivered a sermon on the beginning of Genesis.
Now I know that they quickly propelled the conversation in another direction but I silently began calculating from my chair. In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever proclaimed the beauty of God’s creation from Genesis.
So I made a promise to myself that very morning: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1.
Why do you think they chose to ignore Genesis 1? What makes this text so unappealing to proclaim in church?
The main thrust of the text is contained within these first words: In the beginning God. Here we discover our faith in the foundation of all life, that God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This profoundly simple yet unimaginable claim is the bedrock for everything that follows throughout the rest of the Bible. God and his creation are connected powerfully together for all time.
How does God bind creation together? The text is clear: In the beginning the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Notice: with this description of creation we need to see that this text is NOT a scientific description, but instead a theological affirmation. It has been urged for centuries that Genesis 1 is a historically analytical account of what “actually happened.” But that kind of scientific, descriptive, and forever definitive reporting is foreign to the text and to the world of the Bible.
God’s Word is not a textbook. The bonding of creation cannot be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed.
Many who have struggled with their faith want to know the answer to “how?” But, when reading from Genesis, we discover that the convictions expressed in the scripture did not come from sight, recordings, and measurements. Whoever wrote about the creation in Genesis 1 was not standing by when God created. Our Lord is not an object to be perceived and measured like other objects in the world. It is by faith that we affirm this creation, not because we saw it and observed it and measured it, but that our lives and relationships with God affirm that goodness and interconnectedness of our lives with the God who created life.
Perhaps the pastors reluctance toward preaching this text was born out of the fear that comes with reconciling Genesis 1 with scientific claims about the beginning of the universe. Maybe they ignored this text because they were unsure how to explain the way God created. However, the job of preaching is not to explain, but to proclaim.
At the heart of Genesis 1 is mystery, and sometimes mysteries cannot be explained. Yet, in proclaiming the mystery, in faithfully acknowledging the text, we can have our eyes and ears opened to the great question not of “how?”, but of “why did God create?”
The words ‘create’ and ‘make’ are used prevalently here in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth, God made the dome and separated the waters, God created the creatures in the water and the birds of every kind, God made the wild animals of earth, God created humankind in the image of God, etc. The actions are important but the dominant mode of creation takes place in speech. God spoke creation into existence. The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before. God is the author and orator of life.
God speaking life into existence cannot be explained by the ways of the world, yet we are all here because God spoke life into all of us. Genesis 1 makes the great and wonderful theological claim that a new word has been spoken that transforms reality. The word of the Lord that shaped creation is an action which alters reality forever.
God created all things through God’s word, and his creation did not stop with the creation of humankind. God continues to speak new words into existence every single moment. Every infant child is a word spoken by God, every new blooming flower, every river that flows, every sun rise and sunset are caught up in God’s continued commitment to speak to us, through us, and for us.
God is always speaking something new and fresh into the world, we need only stop and listen to let God speak.
276 years ago yesterday, John Wesley’s life was changed forever. Wesley spent most of his young life believing that nothing could save him from God’s wrath other than strict obedience and keeping all of God’s commandments constantly. He read voraciously, served unconditionally, loved immeasurably, and somehow he never felt or experienced God’s love in his own life. He traveled to the British colony of Georgia to serve the needs of the Anglican church and wrote about his experience later saying that after two years of spreading Christianity he still was no closer to discovering the love of God. He wrote: “Why that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”
When Wesley returned to England he was no closer to finding what he had been searching for. He continued to fill his life to the brim with service and preaching to the point that he shut out any other influence.
However, on May 24th, 1738 Wesley unwillingly attend a Moravian society meeting in the evening when Martin Luther’s preface to the letter of Romans was being read. While the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He experienced for the first time a trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. An assurance was given to Wesley that Christ had taken away his sins and saved him from death.
Wesley had a difficult time explaining exactly was happened to him that day; it was beyond his ability to describe in such a way that it could be measured and known. But to him, it was as real as life could get. From that moment everything changed in his life and his commitment to the love of God in the world was the seed that blossomed into what we now call the United Methodist Church.
When I was in Boy Scouts I had the opportunity to hike throughout northern New Mexico at a place called Philmont. Toward the end of our 100 mile hiking adventure we gathered one evening in a white pine forrest near the top of Mount Phillips. We spread apart to spend time in silence to reflect on our time in the wilderness. As I sat there with the wind blowing the grass I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I had already witnessed perfect sunsets and flowing rivers, but for whatever reason that night was the first time that I began to witness the depth of God’s love through his creation.
Like Wesley, I believe that I was opened to the wonder of God because I had finally stopped trying to fill my life with so many other distractions. It was only when I stopped to let God speak, that I heard God’s calling of creation.
We can fill our lives with distractions and information. We can read all the magazines and books that explain how God created the world, whether in seven literal days or in seven ages of time. We can listen to pastors and preachers explain away the creation of life with simple metaphors and memorable one liners. But the truth of God’s creation can only be discovered in letting God speak.
Creation was not a one time, one moment, event. Creation continues to take place every moment of every day. God’s word is alive and filling all things with glory around us.
In the beginning, God. Can you think of anything more comforting than the fact that God has been at the beginning of all things? Not just the creation of life, but God was there when you came into being, God sits at the very beginning of each and every one of us. At the inception of every relationship, every idea, every belief, every smile, and every laugh God is there.
God is, and because God is, we are.
It took me a long time to learn to let God speak. And frankly, I’m still not very good at it. But until I began to try to quiet myself, to learn to listen, God’s Word was limited to words on paper. Creation came alive for me when I stopped long enough to realize that God’s love for us, in creation, is beyond my ability to fully grasp, comprehend, or explain. There is an immeasurable beauty in standing before something that you cannot fully know. There is wonder in letting God speak something new and fresh into your life. There is peace that comes in hearing the Word become incarnate in the way we live.
Genesis 1 is powerful and beautiful. It is strange and unknowable. It conveys the depth of God’s love in a way that we can never explain. It refuses to be compartmentalized, rationalized, and sterilized. Instead, its delightfully mysterious, curious, and glorious.
In the beginning God spoke life into creation, and God continues to do so every moment.