Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.

I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.

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  1. Names Are Important

Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.

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  1. God Provides

After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.

Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?

Ridiculous Renewal – Sermon on Isaiah 35.1-10

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunts of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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On Christ the King Sunday, the sermon was titled “Not My President.” And before we even started worshipping, more than a few of you made sure I knew your concerns about the impending proclamation. After all, Donald Trump had just procured the necessary electoral college votes to be labeled as president-elect, and people across the country were (and still are) protesting his election with signs saying, “Not My President.” If you were here on Christ the King Sunday, you know that the sermon had very little to do with Mr. Trump, and in fact was all about how grateful we should be that Jesus is not our President.

However, like the good Methodists we are, the sermon was not the pinnacle of our worship that Sunday. You might remember a few lines that I proclaimed from the pulpit, you might even remember one of the hymns we used, but if you sat in the front half of the congregation, I bet the thing you remember most from that service happened during communion.

As always I stood behind the table and I prepared to pray over the bread and the cup. Together we confessed our sins and asked for God to forgive us. We stood up from our pews and shared signs of Christ’s peace with one another. And then I asked God to pour out the Spirit on us gathered together and on the gifts of bread and the cup.

One by one each of you came forward to the front of this sanctuary with hands outstretched to receive the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. One by one I looked each of you in the eye as I tore off a piece of the bread and placed it into your hands. Some of you came up with tears in your eyes. Some of you came up with your eyes focused on the ground, perhaps out of reverence for the precious thing you were about to receive. And some of you came forward with eyebrows askew as if to say, “Who thinks of preaching a sermon about Jesus not being our president?”

The last family to come up for communion sat in the very last pew during worship, and they are connected to the church through our Preschool. Their son is here in the building every week learning about what it means to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, and in love of God. So when his father came up with his hands outstretched I asked if I could offer the bread to his son. The father smiled and said, “Of course.” With his blessing, I knelt down onto the floor and looked at my young friend in the eye and I said, “Owen, this is Jesus.”

To which he smiled, titled his head back slightly, opened his mouth, and waited for me to drop the bread right in.

Without really thinking about it, I took the piece and put it in his mouth, and in response he started chewing while smiling and trying to say, “Thank You Pastor Taylor.”

And I lost it. For whatever reason, I could not contain the laughter that was brewing inside me and I started cracking up. I laughed so hard that I actually snorted. Perhaps it was the seriousness of our service getting flipped upside down by a two year old receiving communion like a little bird from his mother, or maybe it was the smile he offered me while pieces of barely chewed bread were falling out onto the floor, or perhaps it was the little skip in his step while his cheeks were filled like a chipmunk preparing for winter, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

            In that simple and yet profound moment, the desert of our ritualistic liturgy was transformed with blossoms of laughter as other people laughed in response to my snort. In that brief and beautiful moment, God brought this church some much-needed joy.

You see, after spending the better part of two months confronting controversies facing the church and addressing the deep seeded political anger felt in this congregation and across the country, we needed to laugh.

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Isaiah says the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. The prophet looks to the future and shares the ridiculousness of the renewal that is waiting for God’s people. Like a desert blooming in the middle of a drought, like old and worn out people finding strength in their knees, like tongues of the speechless being filled with words, so will the glory of the Lord transform the world.

In this vision everything is made new from the farthest reaches of creation, to the deepest aspects of our souls. The deserts shall rejoice and blossom, flowers will grow abundantly in the forgotten places, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and waters will break forth in the wilderness.

God promises transformation and joy. Though not necessarily the transformations and joys we pray for, but ridiculous and redemptive reversals nonetheless. Isaiah sings of liberation, joyful homecomings, and the end of all sorrow and sighing.

Signs of this future of joy will be made manifest in the weak being strengthened, those with feeble knees will stand firm, the fearful will be strong. Those who have long been isolated to the powers of loneliness will be grafted in and never forgotten.

Isaiah sings about the Holy Highway cutting through the wilderness, a way for God’s travelers to move without threat or fear, a place where the people of God’s can sing on their way home.

It sounds a lot like the Garden of Eden, and it sounds a lot like heaven.

But just like last week, Isaiah’s song about the promises of God are not just things that will happen in the distant future; they are part of God’s wonderful and creative reality here and now.

Yet, there are things in this world that hold us back, accidents on the highway of God’s grace, that prevent us from traveling the way to God’s promised salvation. There are chains and bumps that derail us from the pathway to glory: economic fears, political disappointments, spiritual droughts, emotional baggage, relational frustration, and seasonal depression, to name a few. And yet over and over again, whether it’s through a child walking back to his pew with bits of saliva soaked bread falling out of his mouth, or a host of other means, God transforms this world and fills us with joy.

I love to tell stories. From the time we are young children we learn important lessons more through stories and less through object lessons. That’s why scripture is so powerful, and it’s why Jesus used parables to relate the immensity of God to his disciples. This week, in anticipation of this sermon, I emailed a number of you to ask for stories of how God has transformed your life. I wanted to hear about the times that God’s living water broke forth in the midst of an otherwise desert-like existence.

And you did not disappoint.

One of you came to church for years without it really meaning much. It was just the thing you were supposed to do. And on one particular occasion, you were sitting in these pews listening to the choir sing an anthem. There wasn’t anything particularly moving about the words or even the melody, but you found yourself watching the individuals as they were singing and you could tell they meant it. Though you had seen and heard the choir many times, God spoke to you through their faithfulness that fateful day, and since then you have known and experienced the power of God through the music of our church, and through those who provide it.

One of you expressed how narrow-minded and intolerant you used to be. Whether it had to do with politics, or religion, or social status, you judged others unfairly. And then a pastor came to this church named Zig Volskis and he changed everything for you. His spiritual presence and demeanor taught you the importance of asking the right questions, and the importance of being content with answers that pushed you into a new direction. Instead of treating you like a student who needed to be lectured, Zig encouraged you with amazing insights and discernment. And through God working in him, you began to see the Bible not as a book to be consumed, but a life-giving witness to the reality of God.

One of you wrote about recent event whereby you attended a funeral for a man out of guilt because you were afraid that very few people would be in attendance. And yet, when you arrived, there was a line out the door and across the street full of people trying to get into the chapel. You described the experience as a moment through which God made you aware of one of your many sins, your judgment of others based on accomplishments you deemed as worthy, and through it you were transformed to know and believe that everyone has worth, and everyone is sacred.

God transformed the world through the advent of Jesus Christ, and God continues to transform our lives in ways we cannot even anticipate or imagine. The devastated deserts of our souls will once again blossom through a crowded funeral, a faithful pastor, a passionate choir, or a child-receiving communion. God uses people in our lives to change our lives so that we might change other lives.

Isaiah’s song is all about the ridiculous renewal awaiting us, God’s people. That through God’s transformative work, joy will rain down from the skies, and all the scattered promises of the bible will be fulfilled like a dance – the earth will spring forth new life, bodies will be remade, freedoms will be conferred, the city will be reclaimed, joys will erupt from unexpected places, and sorrow and sighing will be banished from the earth.

Isaiah’s song ends with the happy and joyful homecoming of those who have been liberated from the bondage that keeps them from traveling on the Holy Highway. For there is a new way that cuts through desolate deserts and turns them into beautifully blooming fields. God’s people will travel on this path without threat or fear, they will sing with joyful hearts, because the Lord is doing a new thing.

God is not done.

            God is not done with creation and God is not done with us.

            God breaks the chains of our slavery to sin and death.

            God delivers us to places yet unknown.

            God transforms our hopes and dreams into real and tangible experiences.

            God fills the deserts of our souls with living water.

            God blossoms and brings forth new life and opportunities in ways we cannot even imagine.

            God offers unending joy to the redeemed.

            God makes a way where there is no way. Amen.

 

Too Busy For Sabbath – Isaiah 58.9b-14

Isaiah 58.9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.

At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”

What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.

My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.

My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.

So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.

The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.

But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.

He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”

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The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.

For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.

We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.

But that time is long gone.

Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.

How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.

And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.

We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.

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For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?

John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.

Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?

Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.

The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.

The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.

Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.

If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

The Advent of Abram – Sermon on Genesis 12.1-9

Genesis 12.1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abrams took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord apprised to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

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Today we begin our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” Advent comes from the latin adventus which means “coming.” These few weeks are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. This season lends itself to new beginnings, not just in our church, but in each of our lives. This morning we begin with the Advent of Abram.

Wow,” he exclaimed a little too loudly as he began gripping deeply into my shoulder. I found myself staring at one of the groomsmen from the bridal party. We had spent the better part of an hour attempting to line everything up for the wedding during the rehearsal and were now at the Mill Street Grill for the rehearsal dinner.

Wedding rehearsals are crazy; a conflation of friends and family gather together in a church they have never seen, and listen to a pastor they have never met, telling them where to stand and what to do. In no other aspect of ministry is the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep more appropriate than when I plead with the groomsmen to pay attention and start acting appropriately. Things would go so smoothly if the groomsmen would act like the bridesmaids.

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Anyway, I was staring at the groomsmen when he began to lay on the compliments about how well the rehearsal went and how impressed he was with my disposition. “I can’t believe you’re a pastor! I mean, dude, you’re younger than me! And the way you pray, it sounds like you’re actually talking to God, and for real that was awesome.” I will admit that people are rather honest with me, particularly when the rehearsal dinner has an open bar.

A little later another young person from the bridal party came forward to introduce herself and began opening up about her faith. “It has been a long time since I was in a church, but hearing you speak and seeing how serious you are about all this has reignited my faith; If I lived around here, I would want to worship at St. John’s.”

Still later another young man from the wedding walked over and began speaking to me through jovial chuckles and slaps on my back. “Now man I have got to ask, that good looking girl with the blue eyes, are you two together? Cause if not I would love to get her number.” To which I replied, “Till death do us part” and I walked away.

Conversations as a pastor are often one sided: people bring their own sets of questions and baggage about the church and they are looking for me to confirm their suspicions. “Are you really allowed to be married?” “I never knew pastors could be so young” “What do you think about the Catholic church?” are all frequent elements of dialogue.

However, toward the end of the night, after the last call had been made from the bar, yet another groomsmen came forward. At this point I was getting tired of the same trivial conversations about how I knew the bride, what it takes to become a pastor, and how long had I felt called to the ministry. I am sure that I sighed as he came forward, but his question was unlike any of the others…

“How long have you been serving here?” “It’s been about a year and a half” “Is it still everything you thought it would be?” 

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To follow a call from God may be a costly matter, particularly when it leads to a lonely road. Abram was tasked with following the call of God to leave everything based on God’s Word.

One day, an ordinary day, the Lord told Abram to go from his country and his family to the land that God had prepared with the promise that God would make of him a great nation, he would be blessed, and his name would become so great that he would be a blessing. So Abram went.

The simplicity of “so Abram went” is one of the most deceptive phrases in all of scripture. The extraordinary nature of those three words are lost in Genesis 12 if we gloss over it too quickly. Abram was free from indecision, self-doubt, or stubbornness. His willingness to go is the opposite of what took place in the garden of Eden, and demonstrates a radical dependence on the providence of God.

Abram must turn his back on what had been the familiar and the friendly to go out toward the unwelcome and the unknown. His life would be forever changed in his decision to respond to God’s simple push, something that changed the history of humankind.

The call of Abram is not unlike the many callings that God places in each of our lives. It might not come in the definitive and spoken Word as if from the wind, but there are subtle moves and pushes that God does in order to bring about his will on earth. Many people prefer to stay where they are and as they are rather than to try hard to arrive at something different. Once they reach a level of comfort in their lives, they become content with keeping their eyes trained on the dirt instead of gazing up into the stars.

People of apathy appear throughout the bible, people who might have made their lives significant but never wanted to put their effort in to change. The likes of Esau, Jonah, and Solomon grew complacent with their blessings, and stopped dreaming about the future. Their failure was not generally aiming at anything bad as it was in the fact that they did not aim strongly enough at anything!

Abram could have been apathetic, but instead he responded enthusiastically. He took his wife, his brother’s son, and all his possessions and set forth toward the land of Canaan. When he arrived, God made it clear that this would be the place of his offspring, and Abram made an altar to praise the Lord.

Abram might have accepted the divine message with the momentary enthusiasm of a man who is proud to feel that he has been singled out for something special, but quickly cools when he finds where he must go.

Is is still everything you thought it would be?” As soon as I was asked images from the past year and a half floated through my mind – the baptisms, the deaths, the weddings. The tears spilt in my office, the dreaded phone calls from the hospitals, the shaking hands gripped in prayer. The kids laughing in the Preschool, the palms outstretched for communion, the knocks on the door that carried the weight of the world.

Has my enthusiasm cooled? Is this call to ministry everything I thought it would be? I always dreamed about the sermons that would get people to shout AMEN! from the pews. I dreamt about the people who I would help bring to the light of Christ, people whose lives would be radically transformed through God’s Word from this church. I dreamt about all the positive affirmations I would receive from people at the back of the sanctuary following worship.

The more time I have spent following this call from God, the more that I have realized how similar it is to Abram’s journey. Responding to God is not about the results, packed pews, lots of money in the offering plate, and people lining up to commit their lives to Christ. Responding to the call is about walking the lonely path, standing up for what is right, and calling all of us, including myself, to live better and holier lives. 

Moreover, the call is not just for pastors, but for all of us as Christians. God is not looking for people to say all the right things at the right times, people who will proudly place money in the offering plates, people who have perfect posture in prayer. God is looking for disciples who are willing to say “yes” when the world says “no”, people who fight against injustice, and go into the unknown like Abram.

God tells Abram that he will be blessed in responding to the call. The bible makes it very clear that a person can know and recognize their blessedness not when they have managed to get rid of all the dangers and risks and burdens, but when they have been given great and gallant strength to bear them.

The collective group can only move forward when an individual breaks the path ahead. On every level of life there must be a pioneer. Joseph had to dream dreams that went beyond what his brothers wanted, Moses had to stand before the Lord and plead for the forgiveness of God’s people, and Jesus had to push his friends further and farther than they ever wanted to go.

Only when people are brave enough to rise above the crowd, only when they set out on new beginnings, do they follow the roads of freedom for their souls.

The past week has been filled with frightening examples of our need to start standing up against the crowd mentality of our culture:

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We need a new beginning when it comes to the foolishness of sitting around a family table to give thanks, to then punch one another in the face while wrestling for Black Friday deals. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to a nation flocking to Facebook to express their opinions about what is going on in Ferguson, when they neglect to create real and meaningful relationships with those around them. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to our denomination meeting for a day of “holy conferencing” about homosexuality when we keep talking about it as an “issue” instead of it being about people. 

We need new beginnings all around us, and its up to people like you and me to listen like Abram and start walking down the strange new road.

Wherever Abram went he built an altar to the Lord. While responding to the call of God he recognized the importance of worshipping the Maker in whom we live for the true blessings of life. Having a new beginning implies understanding that worship is important for the cultivation of one’s soul. We gather here in this place week after week to hear the Word of God and respond to it in our lives, we gather to feast on the Word so that we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to take radical steps of faith into new beginnings just like Abram.

Abram left it all for a new beginning in a new place. He traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in the hill country on the east of Bethel. Many years later a young virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a new beginning in a new place. They traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in a village without space at the inn, but brought a child into the world who changed everything.

Is it still everything you thought it would be?” the man asked. I thought for a long time before I responded, reflecting on all that has happened to our precious church over the last year and a half. “No, its not everything I thought it would be. It is so much harder. But thats why its worth it.”

Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/27/14

Devotional:

Psalm 15.1-4

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt.

 

“Being a Christian must be so easy,” a friend of mine once said, “You can do whatever you want, just so long as you confess right before you die, you’ll still go to heaven.”

Responding to those kind of comments has always been difficult for me. Yes, we do believe that God’s forgiveness will always come because nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yes,  you could live your whole life in ignorance of God’s love and mercy, only to discover it in your last days and God would still be there waiting to receive you. However, upon later reflection, I wish I could have responded to that particular comment in the way that Augustine did in the fourth century:

703“Some delude themselves because of God’s mercy. They say: “I still have a little time left to live how I like. Why shouldn’t I live how I like as much as I like and then turn to God later? After all, God has promised to pardon me.” I respond, “True, but he has not promised that you are going to be alive tomorrow.” – St. Augustine, Sermon 339

When Christianity is compartmentalized into “what happens to me after I die?” then all respect and concern for the present is lost. In Psalm 15 we learn about what it means to be welcomed to God’s holy hill, to abide in God’s tent; our faithfulness is far less concerned with our ability to accept God in our last days, than it is about living a life of service and holiness.

A professor of mine once said, “The question should not be, ‘If I die tonight, what will happen to me?’ but instead, ‘If I live for another day, what will I do with it? How will I love God and my neighbor?’”

So, let us all seek to live holy lives in the present. Let us not put off for tomorrow what we can, and should, do today. Let us look at our own lives and ask “am I walking blamelessly, doing what is right, and speaking the truth?”

 

Worship in God’s Church – Sermon on Isaiah 1.10-20

Isaiah 1.10-20

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath calling of convocation – I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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When I was in college I tried to attend as many different worship experiences as I could. At times I gathered with high church Presbyterians, Free Church Pentecostals, non-denominational evangelicals, and southern Baptists. After having already begun to wrestle with a call to ministry, and knowing that I was a Methodist through and through, I thought it would be helpful to experience many forms of Christian liturgical worship, and discover the individual strengths and weaknesses.

There was one campus Christian organization that met every a week in one of the lecture halls at JMU in order to have their worship service. Now this group was one of the most talked about throughout the university and people always raved about the spirit, vigor, and excitement of the services. A few of my friends from the Religion department regularly attended, so one week I decided to give it a shot.

Let me tell you: those people knew how to worship. If you can imagine a full band: drum kit, 3 guitarists, bass, keyboard, and multiple singers. They had stage lighting set up that would change dramatically during the songs, and even during the sermon. They had giant projectors that displayed lyrics, prayers, and even sermonic notes. When the band was playing, everyone had their hands in the air praising. When the preacher was praying, everyone had their heads bowed in submission. It was an experience. The energy in the room was so palpable that I felt on fire for Jesus when I left.

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About a week later, after spending way too many hours in the library, I found myself walking back across the quad late at night toward my locked up bicycle. Across the perfectly mowed grass I saw a young man stumbling and trying desperately to maintain his balance. As our paths inevitably drove us closer and closer I recognized him from the worship service I had been in the week before, this young inebriated college student was the bass player for the worship band. It was obvious that he needed help, and remembering that I was a Christian and thinking that this would be a Christian thing to do, I offered him my arm and began to walk him back to his dorm.

“I loved your service the other night,” I said, “The music was particularly moving.” He met my statements with a suspicious eyebrow, so I awkwardly continued “It was really powerful for me.” “Look man,” he slurred, “I don’t believe in God. I just play in the band because they pay me to.”

Worship is important. As Christians we have gathered together for the last 20 centuries first in synagogues, then basements and homes, eventually we started to build churches, and then cathedrals. Worship is at the heart of what it means to be Christian because we participate in the kind of life that Jesus led with his disciples in the 1st century. You might not realize it, but the basic pattern of our worship service has its roots in the ancient practices of the Israelites, and have been handed down to Christians ever since.

First we gather together: we are brought into this place as a community, the body of Christ. We assemble together from the outside world preparing ourselves to be launched into the realm and praise of God almighty.

Second we proclaim the Word of God. We read from the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. We remember the mighty acts of God in the world as recorded in the Bible and then a sermon is given in order to let the Word become incarnate in our hearing and living.

Third we respond to the proclaimed Word. After hearing about and remembering God’s actions in our lives and the lives of others we return to God with our own participation. Sometimes this response takes place in the form of Communion where we recommit ourselves and are welcomed to God’s table. Other weeks we respond with affirmations of our beliefs such as the Apostles’ Creed.

Finally, we conclude by being sent forth. We re-enter the world bringing with us the light of Christ. As a gathered community we recommit ourselves to life outside of the church being the body of Christ for the world.

Here’s the frightening part: All of that is meaningless unless our lives are transformed.

One of the things that we definitively learn from scripture, particularly the Old Testament is this: the children of God, the objects of divine grace, are not in any way worthy of it. Time and time again in the scriptures we learn about the people of Israel who, by way of their faithlessness, were transgressors of the commandments given to them by almighty God. Just think of some of the so-called “heroes” of the Old Testament: Noah – saved his family and all the animals in his ark and then got drunk and cursed one of his sons for all eternity. Abraham – entered into the holy covenant with God and then pretended to be his wife’s brother and nearly murdered his son. David– delivered the Israelites from the Philistines by killing Goliath, and then stole Bathsheba from her husband and tried to have him murdered. I could go on and on.

The normal sermonic response to these stories of failure and sin is that the children of God are corrupted children. However, in time, God came to dwell among his people and came in the form of a baby named Jesus, the one Israelite who took the place of the disobedient children, the faithless people, and their faithless priests and kings. The Word made flesh. It is only in the light of who Jesus is and was that we see how far humanity had fallen from the grace of God.  What we miss though is the fact that this type of behavior, this faithlessness, does not only apply to the Israelites and the people of Isaiah’s critique, but in fact acts as a mirror for all of us.[1]

Its very easy to read this passage from Isaiah and assume that the Israelites were the one’s who got it wrong, but us enlightened folk in the 21st century, we United Methodists, we’ve got our worship lives together, we are appropriately liturgical. But the Word of God has a most perturbing way of disregarding dates and making truth contemporary.

Isaiah begins, “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” He continues by pointing out all of the failures of their worship: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough burnt offerings!” It’s as if God were looking at us today and saying: “I don’t care about your opening Hymn, I have heard enough of the scriptures read aloud.” All these elements of worship, the types of things we take for granted every week are relatively meaningless to God unless what we do in this place translates into the way we live our lives.

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” These are the things that are important to God. The Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah each denounce worship practices that have no influence on the way we handle our lives. The prophets try again and again to demonstrate that God is far more concerned with the relationships between people than with the details of public worship.

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean.” It is precisely at this moment that the voice of God, through the prophet Isaiah reaches us across the centuries and bids us to look into our own hearts before we come to God. Sometimes we don’t like to admit it, but there is a relationship between corporate worship and individual character. What we believe shapes how we behave.

When I ran into the young man on campus, the bass player for the worship service, I got a glimpse into what Isaiah is getting at in this passage. You can have the “perfect” worship service, we could get the lights going with the projectors and the band and the PowerPoint and the over the ear microphones. We could get people to wave their hands in the air and sing at the top of their lungs. But, worship ceases to be true worship unless our lives are changed when we re-enter the world. Worship becomes just a routine for us if we treat it like that bass player did: just a gig.

We here, good Christian United Methodists, we might not be guilty of the same hypocrisy in our worship, but we need to face the truth that to raise no voice against the evils and injustices of the world, to remain silent in the shadow of corruption and sin, is to leave a fatal gap between the type of Worship we offer to a righteous God, and the attitudes we have toward the wrongs of the world. Throughout history there has been a deep inconsistency between the faith we proclaim on Sunday mornings in the fatherhood, justice, and holiness of God and the type of ethics and moral decisions to which we consent in our lives and particularly in our dealings with other people.

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We should ask ourselves: Is our worship changing the way we live our lives? Are we heeding the call to love the oppressed? Are we content to remain almost Christians, or are we fully embodying what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ? Why do we gather together once a week?

All of this, gathering, proclaiming, responding, being sent forth, remains empty until we are transformed. They will continue to act only as a routine for us unless we enter the strange new world of the Bible and realize that our world has been turned upside down. We gather weekly to turn ourselves back toward God so that we can live lives that follow the teachings and practices of God in Jesus Christ. What we do in this place can function to help transform our lives if we continue to learn the grammar of discipleship and speak that new language when we go back into the world.

The only true worship worthy of God, the worship that God seeks from his people, is the time and space that reveals God’s character through justice, righteousness, unselfishness, and purity. What we are must ratify what we say. Or as one of my professors used to say: We can only live in a world we can see, and we can only see in a world we have been taught to speak. When we learn the stories of scripture, let the tunes and words of the hymns resonate deeply in our lives, we can then learn to be a new people for the world.

It is the responsibility of this church to make the love of God known and to comfort all people with the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. This cannot be done through worship alone, through singing hymns alone, through preaching alone, or by any other institutional method we can come up with, but only through living lives which reflect God’s loving spirit. When you walk out of church this morning I encourage you to remember that God has already transformed you through the life and death of Jesus Christ. As you interact with others remember that we have been called to love the oppressed, and seek justice in the world. I challenge you to do something this week that is truly worthy of God’s worship.

Worship in God’s church takes place right here in this space, but the results of our worship should be manifest in the way we live our lives here and in the world. Amen.


[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics V.1. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing, 2004), 523.