Devotional – Hebrews 13.8

Devotional:

Hebrews 13.8

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

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I try hard to read some theology every week that has nothing to do with the sermon for Sunday. I do this in order to learn more about what it means to follow Jesus without it being intimately connected with whatever will be proclaimed from the pulpit; discipleship is something I need to work on outside of the work required for the vocation.

Last week I opened up Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? and started to read. (I discovered the book through a podcast that mentioned the title and I decided to check it out.) The premise is straightforward in that Fuller wants the reader to confront the totality of Jesus’ identity, but I had a hard time getting through the first few pages. Fuller writes, “The full humanity of Jesus is something every Christian affirms, but when it comes to discussing his journey through adolescence, we like to keep it vague – “He grew in wisdom and stature” is the only mention in the Bible of his teen years. Of course, we don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus having lice in his hair or pooping, even if he did such things in the holiest of ways.”[1]

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I understand that Fuller wants the reader to encounter the depth of Jesus humanity, but today we seem to emphasize his humanity over and against his divinity. In church and in theology we hear so much about how Jesus is just like us that we sometimes forget he is also completely unlike us. We want to know that Jesus knows our struggles and is there alongside us when we are going through the valleys of life. But in so doing, we’ve made Jesus out to be a good teacher or an ethical leader, and not God in the flesh.

In Hebrews we read about how “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus remains steadfast to love and forgiveness and Jesus remains committed to grace and mercy. We, on the other hand, neglect to love and forgive others. We forget what it means to give and receive grace and mercy. We change each and every day like the blowing of the wind. But Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Jesus is like us and totally unlike us. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Jesus went through his own angst-filled teenage years and shows us the light of the Lord in the midst of the darkness.

For as much as we want to identify with the humanity of Christ, we also do well to remember that Jesus, like God, never changes.

 

 

[1] Fuller, Tripp. Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? (Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 2015), 2.

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Devotional – Hebrews 12.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 12.1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Weekly Devotional Image             On Saturday afternoon, by God’s will, we will gather on the front lawn of St. John’s UMC with a cohort from the community. Our third Annual Community Cook-Out will be filled with familiar and strange faces, we will have more food than we’ll know what to do with, we’ll have children jumping on bouncy houses, and we’ll even have a dunk tank set up (I’ll be the first to be knocked in!). For years and years this church has stood in the middle of the community, but for too long it has been disconnected from the lives of the people in the immediate neighborhood. Therefore, the Cook-Out is our opportunity to share Christ’s love with those who surround us.

During the last two Cook-Outs it has been a joy to see strangers becoming friends through a shared meal and fellowship, but there is always the temptation to stay where we feel comfortable and only talk to the people we know. The Cook-Out is by no means an attempt to “evangelize the neighborhood” and get everyone saved. But if we are not willing to follow the example of Christ by reaching out to strangers, then the church is failing to be the body of Christ for the world.

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St. John’s exists and thrives because of the great cloud of witnesses that brought us to where we are. We owe a great deal to the saints who have come before us, the ones who first invited us to discover God’s love in a place like this, and now the time has come for us to follow them on the path to Christlikeness. For it is when we humble ourselves, when we disregard the shame of embarrassment, we join together with the one who never knew a stranger, the one who came to change the world, the one who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

To follow Jesus on the way that leads to life requires us to actually act like him here and now. It means crucifying our selfish ways and opinions so that we might encounter the other without pretense. It means laying aside every weight that prevents us from sharing the Good News. It means running the race with perseverance so that we might bless others in the same ways we that we have been blessed.

What Are Angels?

Hebrews 13.1-3

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

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This morning marks the beginning of our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive over the next few weeks to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we begin with “What Are Angels?”

Close your eyes. Seriously. Close your eyes. Picture, if you can, an angel. What do you see? Think about the movies you’ve watched, or the stories you’ve read about angels and try to picture one in your mind. What do you see? If you’re anything like the people I encountered this week, people who tried to picture an angel in their mind, you would describe the vision like so: “Angels are clothed in white and might be glowing.” “All angels have halos hovering above their heads.” “You can’t be an angel without wings.” “When we lose someone we love, they come back to us as angels.”

If we want to know what angels are, then we should begin with what they look like. And if we want to know what they look like, we should begin with scripture.

Angels are mentioned 273 times in the Bible. That’s a lot. They appear in both the Old and New Testaments. They appear to prophets and paupers. They minister to the wealthy and the weak.

I know many of us like the image of an angel with a halo, during our Preschool Pageant all of the angels had pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads, but halos are never mentioned in scripture. Angels, when they do appear, are oftentimes described as having a particular shine or brightness, but they don’t have floating discs above their heads.

Some passages describe angels having wings, but others just describe them as looking like human beings. Zechariah is in the temple when an angel, who looked like a man, appeared and told him about his son John the Baptist. After Jesus was born, an angel appeared in Joseph’s dream and warmed him to get the child out of Bethlehem. Even when the disciples went to the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion they saw two men in shining garments who told them about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Well then, what do angels do? They report to God, they observe God’s people (us), they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields, they help God’s people when they are in need, and they rejoice in God’s creation and offering of salvation.

The descriptions and stories of angels in scripture vary and are all over the place. They certainly exist and work for God’s purposes, but that doesn’t make them any easier to understand or grasp. However, there is one thing that connects most of the angels in the bible, and it’s the way people react to their presence: fear.

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Before I came to St. John’s, I spent a year working as an on-call chaplain for Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Every week I gathered with other chaplains to talk about grief, death, and suffering. We worked through our own issues with the brokenness in the world, and we were responsible for visiting people in need throughout the community.

I often met with people near the end of life who were tasked with making decisions about the way they wanted to die. Throughout my time in chaplaincy I became well versed in the topics of Do-Not-Resuscitate, Advanced Directives, and Power of Attorney. I was invited into some of the darkest moments of peoples lives and while everyone else would tell someone that they were going to be okay, that they would get better, I was one of the few people tasked with telling the truth: no one makes it out of this life alive.

During my year of chaplaincy, I had multiple 24-hour shifts at the hospital. I would put on my overly large white lab coat and respond to particular patients and their needs. More often that not I would be called to a room for someone who was lonely and just wanted another human being to be present with them. But every once in a while, I would be called to a room with a patient who needed something more.

It was 4 am, and I had been running around the hospital for my entire shift. Every time I thought I would have a moment to rest, a patient would die and I would have to meet with the grieving family. At 4am I received a page to a particular unit on the other side of the hospital with the words: We Need You.

Outside of the patient’s room I learned from the doctor and nurses that the patient was about to die; there was nothing else they could do to prolong her life and they wanted me to sit with her. Normally one of the nurses would stay in the room but they were so swamped with other patients that they could not spare another nurse. Of course, I asked about any family member that would want to be present and the staff just looked back at me with empty eyes and said, “She’s all alone.”

They left me standing there in the hallway, so I said a brief prayer and then walked right in.

Something about the hospital room was different. Whereas most are filled with machines making lots of noises, this room was quiet and peaceful. And strangely enough, I remember it being very warm; warm enough that I had to take off my lab coat and roll up my sleeves. The woman was lying in the hospital bed and was going in and out of consciousness. So I pulled up a chair and started to hold her hand.

For thirty minutes I sat there looking at the wrinkles on her skin wondering about her life, wondering about why no one else was there with her at the end, and if I should say anything. Instead, I just sat and held her hand at the minutes went by. I couldn’t even imagine the kind of pain and hurt I would’ve felt if I was in a room all by myself at the end of my life, and if I’m honest, the thought of it made me cry while I sat there holding her hand.

I don’t know how long I had been there when she started to move around a little bit more and opened her eyes to look right at me. We held one another in sight for some time when I felt like I needed to explain why I was there, so I said, “I’m the chaplain and I didn’t want you to be alone.”

            In response, she smiled her so slightly and said, “I’m not alone.”

After that holy moment, we continued holding hands in silence until her breathing started to fade away, until her heart stopped beating, until she died.

That night at the hospital, when I was afraid of the power of loneliness, when that woman was facing her final earthly moments, I believe there was an angel in the room with us. I couldn’t see it, but as soon as she told me that she wasn’t alone, I knew it was true.

If and when God sends angels to us, we are either very afraid, or are about to be afraid by their presence. It is a humbling and powerful thing to be attended to by the likes of an angel and it really puts us in our place. I have asked countless people form our church if they have ever seen or experienced an angel and I was shocked, in a good way, by how many people said yes.

I heard things like: “My grandfather had just passed away and my brother and I were driving around Staunton when we saw a man who looked exactly like our grandfather walking down the street, wearing the same type of clothes, who took out a comb just like our grandfather did to comb his hair, and we knew that even though he died, he was still with us.”

“My sister was driving in her car when she felt asleep at the wheel and veered off the road. She woke up while the car was flipping over and she said she felt time slow down and arms wrap around her to protect her. While the car tumbled and tumbled she was held tight and only after the car stopped moving did she feel the protective arms let go and she was okay.”

Big and small, dramatic and simple, angels have showed up in our lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us to be faithful in our hospitality toward others because we never know when an angel will show up in our midst. Whether it’s in a hospital room, or driving through town, or even in church, angels show up.

When I first felt God calling me to ministry I was afraid. I was afraid of how my family would respond, and what my friends would think. I was afraid of whether or not I had what it would take to be a pastor. I was afraid of how much it would change my life.

And then at 16, while walking down Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, VA I felt pulled to my knees and I prayed and prayed. I didn’t see an angel near me, or hear an angel speak to me, but I felt an angel’s presence with me as I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life, and not my own.

I can only articulate that experience of an angel in my life and in that hospital room because the church has given me the vocabulary of divine intercession. I can only look back and say that an angel was with me, because the church taught me how to open my eyes to the ways that God actually works in the world. Others might talk about a bizarre feeling they had or a strange movement in their midst. The church taught me to understand those experiences as angelic and holy moments.

What are angels? Angels are God’s way of helping us to see and experience God’s will in our lives. Angels are God’s way of pushing and nudging us in the right direction. Angels are God’s way of bringing us peace when we feel the depth of fear. Angels are God’s way of reuniting the heavens and the earth in profound and holy moments. Angels are God’s way of rescuing us from ourselves. Angel’s are God’s way of reminding us that we are never alone.

I conclude with these words from the hymn that we will sing in a few moments. I offer these words so that they might help us to recognize and experience the angels in our midst. O Lord, Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth though hast for me. Open my ears that I may hear, voices of truth thou sendest clear. Open my mouth and let me bear, gladly the warm truth everywhere. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine. Amen.

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Devotional – Hebrews 1.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 1.1-2

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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When I was growing up in the church I loved to ask questions. I thought the beauty of what we were doing as Christians was the fact that it was never a one-sided conversation; the moments following worship or bible studies when I had the freedom to wonder are still some of my fondest memories. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

I remember in particular one meeting in a youth room filled with old soft couches that just consumed those who sat on/in them. We were going around the room sharing our experiences of prayer and what we got out of it. One of my friends made a comment about how important it was for his family to pray before every meal remembering that God had really blessed them. Another friend shyly admitted that the only time she ever prayed was at church or in youth group because she didn’t know how to pray by herself. But one of my friends sat on his own couch with his arms crossed around his chest in frustration. When it came time for him to share he said, “I don’t understand prayer. We’re told to ask God to help us, but I never hear God say anything back. We learn about all these stories in the bible when God speaks to the people, so why doesn’t God speak to us like that anymore?”

All the eyes in the room immediately darted to our leader in anticipation of his answer. He calmly smiled and said, “God spoke his truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speak in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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That memory has stuck with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect prayer to be like a phone conversation with one of our friends, and then become immediately disappointed when God does not speak back. However, that leader was right: God spoke God’s fullest Word in Jesus Christ (as the incarnate Word). God can still speak to us today through our friends, or even in the still small silence, but God decisively speaks in our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading scripture like a collection of stories from long ago, can you imagine how life giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was speaking to us here and now? The beauty of the bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him speak in the present.

Faith Hall of Fame – Hebrews 11.32-40

Hebrews 11.32-40

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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Today we conclude our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” This is the final Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and over the last few weeks we have prepared our hearts and minds for the coming of God in Christ. We began with Abram being called into a strange land. Next we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Last week we explored Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This morning we conclude by looking at the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11.

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And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Fletcher Swink, Sam Stanley, Zig Volskis, Patricia Meadows, and the other pastors — who through faith endured frustrating congregations, proclaimed God’s presence, fought for justice, became mighty in honor, and brought people to the Lord.

Hebrews 11 contains what I call the “Faith Hall of Fame.” The entire chapter is devoted to the great leaders and prophets from the Old Testament and their willingness to stand up for God even when it meant certain doom. They so fervently believed that God was with them, that they were willing to embark on new beginnings when others refused to obey.

The closest thing we have to a Faith Hall of Fame here at St. John’s can be found in our parlor next to the narthex. Inside you will discover a picture of every pastor that has had the good fortune to serve this church since 1954. From Fletcher Swink to yours truly, every pastor has been framed and dated, hung with care, and honored with a spot on the wall.

Have you ever taken the time to look through the pictures? It was one of the first things I did when I was newly appointed, and frankly the room terrifies me. Whenever I sit in the parlor with a group of people, I feel the heavy gaze of the pastors, they look down from their Faith Hall of Fame, and I can’t help but wonder what they think of me.

Marshall Kirby begged me my first week to give him a picture so that he could put me up with everyone else. I hesitated. For weeks he bugged me about getting the picture, about having it be just the right size and tint to blend in with the others. But I continued to put it off. I kept making excuses about how busy I was, or about the priorities I needed to focus on, but the truth is, I didn’t feel worthy of going on the wall. I had been here for such a short amount of time and felt that I hadn’t done anything that earned me a spot in the Hall of Fame.

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about all the things they must have gone through to bring this church to where it is. I think about Fletcher Swink starting the church down the road at the Auto Parts store. I imagine that it required a tremendous amount of faith to believe that God had call him from Durham, NC to Staunton, VA to start a new church; to make something of nothing. How many nights did he pray for God to send him people, how many afternoons did he spend worrying about the new building project, how often did he confront frustrated parishioners about his sermons?

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about Patricia Meadows being appointed as the first female pastor. I wonder about how hard she had to work to gain the trust of the people, what lengths she had to go to to reignite the flame of faith. I imagine the deep prayers she offered to God about sending new sheep to her flock, the lonely days of sermon preparation, and the terrifying moments of standing by the graveside with friends and family from the church. How often did she wrestle with her call when she felt persecuted, how many days did she spend praying for the people of our community when they were no longer able to offer their own prayers, how did she feel standing up against the injustices around her?

I wonder about all the pastors of this church, and what they went through for God’s kingdom. What was it that set them apart? What did they do that helped to grow and nurture faith in this community?

Last week I was standing in the parlor, admiring the past, when I realized how similar our Faith Hall of Fame is to the one listed in Hebrews 11.

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The people of Israel’s past were not of special value. Gideon was hesitant and timid when he was called by God; Barak had to be shamed by Deborah into fighting for the Lord; Jephthah is remembered mostly for his rash oath; Samson was weak of mind and conscience.

Similarly, there is nothing particularly special about those who have served our church. Though undoubtedly unique, they contained no special powers that set them apart from other clergy. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that became manifest while they served the church.

Our pastors, and the heroes from Israel’s past, were set apart because they did all things “through faith.” They worked knowing that the real significance of what they had done would never be seen in their own time, but something that would come much later. They suffered through persecution and injustice because they believed in God’s goodness even when the world claimed the contrary.

We remember the ways our pastors have suffered: Angry emails/letters about inappropriate sermons, knowing glances and whispers from the committee members in the parking lot (where the real meetings happen). Shouts and finger pointing during counseling sessions. Years of loneliness serving a church full of people who cannot see the pastor as anything other than pastor. Doubts when preparing funerals for people in the community.

We read about all the ways the faithful of Israel suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment. Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, wandered about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented.

This is what evil does to the good. It attacks at the core of our being, shakes our faith, and  encourages us to doubt. Yet, reading these words and remembering our church’s past should bring us courage and hope. We see in them the willingness of people to go and risk it all for God. Pastors who remained brave and faithful when others tried to break them down. Prophets who spoke the truth when others sought to kill them. We see in them the true courage that faith can develop. 

It only takes a moment to see this tremendous faith in the world today, people standing up against injustice when the world argues the contrary. Consider the droves of people standing with their hands up and holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” in response to Ferguson. Consider the droves of people standing shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community during Pride marches in response to fanatical attacks against sexuality.

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We remember and read and see the ways people suffer for God’s kingdom and we commend them for their willingness to go and be grace for the world. God sends into our confused and cruel humanity his messengers and prophets. God sends them into the midst of the wolves so that we might not be left to our evil ways, that we may see in them hope for tomorrow, and in response turn back to the God of mercy.

Yet all these, though they are commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Whether Gideon, Barak, Fletcher Swink, or Zig Volskis, their completion depends on us. Their faith rested in God who would fulfill his promises. They served the Lord as an anchor cast into the days ahead; faith is built on hope for the future.

Abraham’s faith would have been in vain if his descendants never made it to the Land of Promise. Samuel’s faith would have been in vain if he had not responded to God calling him by name in the temple. Paul’s faith would have been in vain if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to him on the road to Damascus.

Apart from us they cannot be made perfect. The completion of those from the Faith Hall of Fame depends on us. We can fulfill their faith even today by going out and being Christ’s body for the world.

We remember the past of scripture, and the past of our church, but we are not to idealize it. We cannot be blind to the mistakes of those who came before us, or allow the past to fasten its dead hand upon us, binding us down to fruitless ideas, ancient prejudices, and old failures. We look back so that we can look forward. Just because “thats the way we’ve always done it” does not mean “thats the way we must do it now.”

Yet too often we forget how indebted we are to the past. We neglect to remember how faithful Abram, Samuel, and Paul were. We brush aside all the pastors who worked with every fiber of their being to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every good thing that we have and enjoy was consecrated by the sacrifices of the past. We have faith because the people of the past passed it along to us. So today, we in our turn cast our anchors into the future. Without those who are to come after us, without the youth of our church and without the children of our preschool, we shall not be made perfect.

We are who we are because of the past. We will become what God intends for us because of the legacy we pass on to the future. Our new beginning comes when we cast our hope into the future of God’s kingdom, when we stand up for something new and different that breaks from the past, when we take steps in faith knowing that God is with us.

God is with us. In a few days we will gather again to celebrate Christ being born into the world to be God with us. We will look to that lowly manger and remember that God came to dwell among us and encourage us to be brave people of faith who remember the past and cast our hope into the future. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.

I still feel uncomfortable whenever I’m in the parlor. Sets of eyes follow me from the past, and I see in them everything they went through to bring our church to where it is. I believe in their hope cast into the future. In all of you I see the seeds that they planted long ago that are blossoming into true discipleship today.

I see my picture on the wall and feel unworthy. But that’s when I remember that it’s not about me and it’s not about what I do. It’s about what God does through me. It’s about what God does through you. Amen.