What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Years ago I was in Michigan helping a church out for a summer. The church was massive in size and in ministries. They had hundreds of people in worship every week and were deeply involved in their community.

I did my best to help in every area of the church, including worship and preaching. However, they had plans for everything, including who would be preaching on what every Sunday six months in advance. So some shuffling was done, and I, the faithful intern, was given an opportunity to preach.

It so happened that I would be preaching on the first Sunday of July, and there would be communion.

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As I said, this church had everything planned out. But not only the text, and the sermon subject – they had metrics and data for worship attendance going back ten years and they used this information to provide necessary items in the sanctuary. That had it so fine-tuned that they were able to print an accurate number of bulletins +/- 10, they knew how many parking attendant workers they would need, and finally, they knew how many pieces of bread would need to be pre-cut for communion.

Here at Cokesbury we serve by intinction, in which I tear off a piece of bread from a common loaf and offer it to every person in worship. But at that church, years ago, they pre-cut every slice of bread, and had them stacked in baskets for people to pick up on their way to the altar where the single cup could be found.

And so I preached, and we moved to the table, the elements were blessed, and then the congregation was invited forward. However, no one thought to augment the numbers of bread pieces, and, as the shiny new intern, more people came to hear me preach than they anticipated.

As the gathered people lined up in the center aisle and walked forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, it was abundantly clear that we were going to run out of Jesus. So, when the last piece was picked out of the basket, I walked back up to the altar where the actual loaf we blessed was, I ripped in in half, and I started giving Jesus so people.

And while I was standing there one of the lay leaders from the church leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Are we even allowed to do this?”

Are we even allowed to do this?

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For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth. I gave you what was given to me. That on the night in which Jesus was betrayed he took a loaf and he took a cup and he said do this in remembrance of me.

Memory is a funny thing. It connects us to the past, in both good ways and bad. We can all reflect on those positive moments from our lives, and we can also remember the visceral pain we have experienced.

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

Paul cherished the memory he received, but he was concerned with the Corinthians ability to remember how transforming the meal was for their community. Like counting the number of bread pieces to such a degree that they no longer gave life, the Corinthian church was partaking in the meal without remembering why.

On any given Sunday, or even a Thursday night, at best the church is called to remember. Remember what God did for God’s people. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. Remember how God has showed up in your life.

Remembering our memories is strange, particular in the time we are living in. Many families and groups are separated in ways impossible in the past – we are separated by geography, estrangement, or even through dementia. And because of all these weird divisions, the art of memory sharing is dying. Memory, however, is the glue that keeps us together, and without it we don’t know who we are.

I’ve had to do a lot of funerals as a pastor, and whenever a family and I sit down to discuss the arrangements; I will ask questions to get the conversation going. “What was your mother passionate about?” “What stories did your grandfather tell you about his childhood.” “What’s a the story about your wife that you’ve told the most?” “How did your husband pop the question?”

And then I will sit back and listen.

And throughout all of the funerals I’ve prepared, and all of the families I’ve listened to, there are two things that have happened every single time.

No matter what the person was like, or how old they were, or even where they lived, at some point some one in the room always says, “I never knew that.”

Children make the comment about one of their parents, a brother will make the comment about his sister, and I’ve even heard a wife make the comment about her husband.

Something is shared, a deeply personal and important memory, and someone’s response is “I never knew that.”

Either we don’t remember these important things, or the memory of them was never shared. It is always a troubling and difficult moment to process in my office in which someone realizes they didn’t know the person as well as they thought they did, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the “I never knew that” comment, there is always a moment in which someone shares a funny story about the person we are about to bury, and 99% of the time, the story takes place around a dinner table.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something mysterious about the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the one place where entire families gather together for a finite period of time, maybe it’s the sharing of food that compels us to share stories, or maybe it’s just the wine that get passed around. At the table memory is shared unlike anywhere else.

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As disciples of Jesus, we believe that whenever we gather at this table, or dare I say any table, Christ is with us breaking the bread and pouring the wine so that we too can be his body redeemed by his blood.

When we break bread, when we pass the cup, when we tell stories, we are connected with the signs and symbols that tell us who we are and whose we are. It is around the table the particularity of bread slices, or the shame in admitting “I never knew that,” disappear. Because at the table things begin to change.

At the table signs of memory are everywhere. In the water we remember our own baptisms, we remember the great stories of scripture where God’s people were delivered through water, we remember the living waters Jesus offers us. We see wedding bands are reminded of a couples’ promise, and God’s promise to us.

            At the table, all sorts of ordinary things become extraordinary.

We break bread, we share the cup, and we remember and retell the story of Jesus death, and resurrection. But it is more than just passing on a story – it is contemplating a mystery.

For years it has been fashionable in certain Christian circles to wear a bracelet with the acronym WWJD on them. WWJD of course meaning: What Would Jesus Do? It is used like a talisman, a final reminder of Jesus’ morality before we make a choice or a decision. And for as helpful as the WWJD reminder can be, it is also inherently problematic. It is problematic because, at the end of the day, we fundamentally can’t do what Jesus did, and that’s kind of the point.

We don’t gather to contemplate how Jesus would respond to a certain situation, we don’t wonder about what Jesus would do, instead we ask ourselves What Did Jesus Do?

Because that question, and the struggle to answer it, is at the heart of the mystery we call faith. This night, tomorrow night, Easter Sunday, every Sunday, they’re not about what we should do. It’s about what Christ did.

The Christian life is predicated on a story handed to us, a story about a poor Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It is Jesus’ story that re-narrates and re-navigates our story. We repeat it again and again and again because is not only reinforces our memory, but it also becomes a proclamation, it is a witness.

We do not gather here tonight for ourselves. We are here because at the table we discover God’s story for us, and not the other way around.

            So, what did Jesus do?

On his final night, while surrounded by his closest friends and disciples, one of whom who betray him and another would deny him, he took an ordinary loaf of bread. He gave thanks to God, and then he broke it. He looked at his friends and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he then took the cup, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let us then remember…

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Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

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If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

A One Hundred and Fifty-Fold Cord

4 years ago, today, I presided over one of my first weddings, and it was for my sister and my (now) brother-in law. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous leading worship than I was that day (so nervous that I forgot to invite my then fiancé (now wife) to offering one of the scripture readings), but we all made it through to the other side. I am grateful for my sister and her husband, I am grateful they asked me to participate in their holy ceremony, and I am grateful that God has so blessed their marriage. Below is the homily I offered 4 years ago…

1 John 4.9-12

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us to much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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28 years. 28 years ago my parents, JT and Sarah Lynn Mertins, stood in the same position as both of you. Haley, I don’t know if you will remember all of this, but we used to watch their wedding VHS tape when we were growing up. Truly I tell you, it is a miracle that the wedding ceremony happened at all. When we would watch the tape, it appeared as if the cameraman had decided to smother vaseline all over the lens in order to achieve some sort of effect that left the viewers nauseous and confused. As my Aunt Laura made her way up the steps toward the altar she stepped on, and ripped, her dress. My uncle Bill Hanff and a friend stood over by piano the prepared to sing a wonderful rendition of “On the Wings of Love” though the pianist started the song in the wrong key and uncle Bill had to match accordingly. And then there was the hair and the dresses. There must have been enough hair spray in this church to light the whole thing on fire, but somehow, by the grace of God, our mother and father were married on this exact day 28 years ago.

And here we are now, ready for the two of you to enter into the holy state of matrimony. As I have looked back over the totality of your relationship, and all of the little steps that led you to this altar on this day, I am convinced that I will never marry a couple that I know as well as both of you for the rest of my life. So before I continue I want to show you something.

(Turn around, look out at the sanctuary. Gathered together in this room are the people who have made you, you. Family, friends, both the foolish and the fun, but more importantly, when you look out I hope you see faith. So soak up this view for a moment, you rarely get to see anything as glorious as this)

Faith, the people gathered together today are indicative of the kind of faith-lives that both of you are living. Everyone here has faith in both of you as individuals, and also as the married couple you are about to become. They have been there for you in every aspect of your lives, and today two families are joining together as a testament to the faith that you have in each other. They say a threefold cord in not quickly broken? Well neither is a one hundred and fifty fold cord.

However, for as much as everyone gathered together in this room are responsible for your relationship, no one can take more credit than God.

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When I found out that Matthew was moving to Africa for a year, I knew that the only thing that would be able to sustain your relationship was a resounding faith in the triune God. I know it wasn’t easy. Even with the notebook Matthew left behind, even with the commitment to read through the entire bible while you were apart, even with the advantages of technological communications such as Skype and email, you would not be standing here today unless you had tremendous faith in God, but more importably God has faith in you.

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One of the things that I love most about you two is that, even with all the planning and the suits and dresses and decorations, today will not be the greatest day of your lives. Both of you strive to discover all of the joy in life and share it with one another. You earnestly love the lives that God has given to you, and you hope to share that love with everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. Thats what it means when we say, “If we love one another, God lives in us.” The two of you have made a commitment to loving one another so that God abides and manifests himself in the world.

Matthew Logan, I have waited 23 years for a brother, and today I’m finally getting one! You are a remarkable man with compassion, faith, and hope. I have been privileged to watch you grow up, in a way, I’ve seen the way that you create and nurture friendships, I’ve seen the way that you have selflessly served others, and I have seen the many ways that you have committed yourself to my sister. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings that you wake up and wonder how such a beautiful woman can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Haley can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Beyond the multitudes that have gathered here today, God almighty is with you in all that you do. As a husband, literally, you have been called to love Haley with all that you are, live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine as a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but profound respect, enduring faith, and unending love for you, my brother.

Haley Lynn, precious sister of mine, you are a beautiful woman who has truly come into her own. I have been privileged to watch you mature into your truest self as you now prepare to enter into marriage with Matthew. I love how your willingness to serve others is so central for understanding who you are and what you do. Whether its helping out your students at school, or volunteering your time and energy for church, or helping your idiot brother match his clothing when we were in high school, serving and loving others is what you do. What a blessing you are to all of us, and what a blessing you will be to all the lives you touch in the future. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings when you wake up and wonder how such a funny man can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Matthew can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Your family, your friends, and your father in heaven are with you in all that you do. As a wife, you have been called to love Matthew with all that you are, to live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but immeasurable respect, enduring hope, and unending love for you, my sister.

Matthew and Haley, God’s love was revealed to all of us through the incarnation in Jesus Christ. In his willingness to take on human flesh, God humbled himself to be just like us, in order to help transform us. God did not mount the hard wood of the cross because we loved him, but instead he came to die and live because he first loved us. Above all things, your marriage should, and will be, a testament to God’s love in the world through the redemptive acts in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In giving yourselves to each other, you are mirroring that great act of God coming to be with us.

And so, as you prepare to take these first steps into wedded life, I call both of you to hold fast to the people that love and support your relationship, hold fast to the faith and hope that you have in one another, but most importantly, hold fast to the good God whose joy knows no bounds, whose grace extends beyond our imaginations, and whose love was made known to all of us in the gift of his Son.

The Mystery of Marriage – A Wedding Homily

1 Corinthians 13.1-3

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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Marriage is a mystery. However, I am an expert. I am an expert because I am a pastor and I’m supposed to be an expert in these types of matters. When a family has a baby and they don’t know quite what to do when the baby becomes a toddler and starts talking back, the family brings the child to church in hopes that someone like me will teach them how to behave properly. Or when a family loses someone they love, they will have a funeral at a church in hopes that someone like me can use words to make sense out of such a terrible loss. Or when a couple is finally ready, and for you two I really mean the words “finally ready”, to take that next step into holy matrimony they start talking with a pastor in order to figure out what marriage is all about.

But all three of those things: life, death, marriage – they are the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in this world.

I don’t understand why people get married. And I say that as a happily married man. To get all these people together, to make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of love and commitment, to look someone in the eye and promise to love and to cherish them the rest of the days of your life is a strange and mysterious thing.

Brianna, I have no memory of my life without you in it. In fact some of my earliest memories are of your remarkably curly hair and wondering what might happen if I stuck a toy in it. I’ve been your friend for every major moment of your life, and frankly I consider myself more of your brother than a friend. I know you well enough to know that you are spectacular and funny and kind and dedicated. I know that there have been, are, and will be times when you know better what to do than anyone in the room. And you’re not afraid to let everyone know that you know. I know that you can be the most extraverted or the most introverted person in the room. And I know that you can throw one hell of a party.

But for as much as I think I’ve got you figured out, and even for as much as you might convince yourself that you know who you are: You are a mystery.

And Alex, I haven’t known you nearly as long as Brianna. But she hasn’t stopped talking about you since the day you met and she has basically forced me to ingest all of this knowledge about the one and only Alex Chatfield. I know that you can provide for other people in a way that will never stop, no matter the consequences. I know that your sense of values and morality are better than most of the Christians I know. And as you so eloquently put it recently, I too know that you’re pretty damn good-looking.

But for as much as I think I’ve figured you out, and even for as much as you think you know who you are: You are a mystery.

Which makes it all the weirder that the two of you are standing here on this occasion making a covenant toward the unknown.

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Now, all of us here can affirm that two are better than one. We know that from our experiences of life. And we know it because the writer of Ecclesiastes talks about it. It’s nice to have someone that can pick you up when you fall down. It’s good to have someone keep you warm when you’re cold. But the last line is the most important: A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Three. Not Two.

The mystery that is marriage is made manageable and magnificent by God. Only God knows who the two of you really are, only God knows what it will take to make your relationship what it needs to be, only God can provide the strength and hope necessary for what you two are about to do.

One of the greatest mysteries in the church is what we call the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Somehow, the three-in-one plurality in unity is what God is. We cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we cannot even understand it. And yet God is. The Trinity, like marriage, is a mystery.

God made the two of you into who you are. God is the one responsible for your quirks and idiosyncrasies. God is the one who ultimately brought your lives into tandem. And God is the one who is going to bless your marriage, who will be the third part of your cord; who will reveal to you what love really means.

Brianna, you once told me that you wanted to be committed to someone who wanted to be committed to you. In other words, you wanted to find a partner.

            Alex, you once told me that you wanted to find someone with whom you could speak the truth in love, even when it was the hardest thing to do.

Your relationship with one another has had its mountaintop moments of joy, and its deep valleys of challenge. From meeting at Webster Hall, to taking care of one another when you both had the Neuro Virus, to sleeping through meeting your future-father-in-law for the first time, to countless parties, vacations, and celebrations.

You’ve seen one another at your best, and at your worst. And with that full knowledge, you believe the time has come to make this holy vow to one another.

I believe both of you are right. And all the people here do too. That’s why they’re here after all. They were willing to travel to this place and listen to someone like me because they believe the two of you have found a partner in one another.

            All of us here are a testament to the love you two share.

And your love, thanks be to God, is deeper and truer than the Hallmark/Lifetime channel version of love we hear about all the time. Both of you know that you could have the greatest job or the greatest car, that you could have all wisdom and all knowledge, that you could have the kind of faith that could move mountains, but without love you would be nothing.

Love, the kind of love that will sustain your marriage, holy love, is Godly love. It is a love unlike anything else on this earth. It is beyond definition and explanation. It is deeper than the deepest ocean, and greater than the tallest mountain. It is sacrifice and resolution. It is compromise and dedication. The love that God has for you is the kind of love you are promising to one another and it is a mystery.

It is only something you can figure out while you’re figuring it out.

We never really know whom we marry; we just think we do. Who you are today will be different tomorrow. As the days, weeks, months, and year pass each of you will become someone new and different. And marriage, being the enormous mystery that it is, means that we are not the same person after we have entered it. The challenge of your marriage, of any marriage really, is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

A few weeks ago the three of us talked about what you wanted your wedding to look like. You both shared how you wanted everyone to feel like they were part of the celebration, you wanted great music and lots of laughter, and above all you wanted your friends and family to recognize how we are all connected.

Through his ministry Jesus was often asked about the kingdom of heaven, and do you know what he compared it to the most? A wedding feast; a party, a time of celebration with great music and laughter, where all sorts of people recognize how connected they really are.

So, whether you knew it or not, your wedding is just about as close as any of us will ever get to having heaven on earth. For it is here, at your wedding, as we party together, that we see and feel the love that God first had for us. Here, in the promises and covenant you make with one another, all of us will be reminded of God’s promise to us in Christ that without love, we are nothing.

Brianna and Alex, I would like you to look one another in the eye for a moment. Bask in the strange, mysterious, and wonderful reality that you are about to take steps into the unknown. Rejoice in the fact that as you see one another, you can also catch glimpses of everyone else here who have promised to help sustain you in your relationship. Between them and God, you two have the best cord anyone could ever ask for. Between these people and God, you will have everything you need to care and love for the stranger you are staring at right now.

May God bless and sustain you in the mystery that will be your marriage, may God give you the strength and the wisdom of how to party like Jesus, and may God provide you with a holy love that will never be broken. Amen.

Devotional – Ezekiel 27.1-2

Devotional:

Ezekiel 37.1-2

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

Weekly Devotional Image

I love challenging couples to pick their own wedding scripture beyond the cliché of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind…). In between premarital counseling sessions, I ask them to dive deep into their bibles in order to final a passage or a verse that really speaks to them, and I have been deeply impressed with the scriptures they’ve picked. I’ve been blessed to bring couples together into holy marriage with the stories of David being anointed by Samuel, Paul’s description of what it means to be a Christian, a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and more.

The scripture passage a couple chooses for their wedding says a lot about what their relationship is like, and what their marriage will be like.

Years ago, two of my friends from Durham were married at a local Presbyterian church that was known for the preaching of the pastor. To start the wedding homily, the pastor described the sanctity of marriage and what it means for two individuals to make this covenant, but then he began shaking his head and said, “You know that these two standing before us are devoutly faithful, because when I asked them to choose their wedding scripture, they picked the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.”

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I can remember sitting with my back against the pew and wondering what in the world he was going to do with the text. The valley of the dry bones is a remarkably beautiful passage, but it doesn’t naturally lend itself to a wedding sermon.

So the pastor continued on with bits of wisdom and advice, he shared stories about successful marriages and what to emulate as well as terrible marriages and what to avoid. But for the better part of ten minutes, he completely avoided the Ezekiel passage. And then, out of nowhere, the Spirit start blowing and he said, “James and Jennifer, I think you two can have a good marriage, but if you think that you can do it without the help of your friends, family, and the Lord, it will never be more than a dry valley filled with old bones. Only your friends, family, and the Lord can breathe the Spirit back into those bones and give them life.”

It was a simple sermonic twist, but it’s one that I think everyone it attendance will never forget.

What does your life look like? Is it filled with vibrancy and energy? Do you feel the Spirit moving in your midst? Or is your life like a deep valley filled with dry bones?

Thanks be to God who calls us into relationship with the Spirit, with our friends, and with our families who can breathe life into the dry bones of our lives.

The End Of The Beginning – Ash Wednesday

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

If you’re here in this place, with these people, on this occasion right now, you are blessed. You are blessed because you understand, you grasp, what the church is really all about. We are a people called church, who follow Jesus and take upon ourselves the sins of the world.

However, we don’t take upon the sins of the world in the way Jesus did. We are told to take up our own crosses, but we don’t drag them up to a place called The Skull, and we don’t wait for people to nail us to them. We take upon the sins of the world in confession, a confession that God is our judge and has every right to be. Because we have failed to be the people God has called us to be over and over and over again.

The United Methodist Church has a document to help us whenever we gather together. The Book of Worship outlines the ways to serve the Lord for just about every occasion, including funerals.

The Service of Committal is brief and is reserved for the graveside. And in our Book of Worship you can find these directions for clergy: “Stand at the head of the coffin and while facing it, cast earth upon it as it is lowered into the grave. The pastor then says, ‘Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son/daughter, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

The last time I did a graveside burial, I held the Book of Worship in my hands like I’ve done too many times before, I read the all too familiar words, and when it came time to cast dirt upon the coffin, I couldn’t find any. I frantically looked at the area around the hole, and they had covered it with a frighteningly sharp bright green carpet of AstroTurf. So I bent down in my robe onto my knees, and I started ripping up the perfectly manicured grass on the edge of the fabricated lawn. I needed some dirt. I needed to dirty this pristine and picturesque committal service because death is ugly and disruptive. I clawed the ground and threw the grass to the side until I scraped enough bare earth with my hands to have a solid mound to drop onto the coffin.

It was a holy thing.

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I took my dirt covered hands and placed them on the coffin, I prayed the words from the Book of Worship, and then I slowly walked away giving the family time to grieve before leaving. And just as I began backing away, the funeral director motioned for the pall bearers to come forward. But they did not bend down to the hole in the ground I had just revealed. No, they took roses, the boutonnieres, from their lapels and laid them silently on the recently dirt covered coffin.

It is, of course, much nicer to throw roses than dirt. But like almost everything in the tradition of the church regarding worship, the dirt has important theological significance.

I wound venture to guess that many Christians, though they hear the words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust at funerals and at Ash Wednesday services, they have no idea where those words come from. But you do. You know where they come from because you just heard it. It is the final announcement from God to Adam and Eve as they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

            For us humans, this is the end of the beginning.

Much has been made about the Genesis story of eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. The slithering serpent who manipulates Eve’s desire; Eve’s treachery through inviting Adam to join her in the prohibited act; Adam hiding his shame and nakedness from God when the Lord returns to the Garden. And its all pretty harsh.

By this act sin was brought into the world. Because of our ancestors’ choice, we were banished from the paradise of God’s created order and were punished. Women must suffer through childbirth. Humans must work and sweat over the earth in order to glean enough produce to survive. Families are torn apart by an individual’s choice that has ramifications far greater than they can ever imagine.

And then we come to a place like this to have ashes smeared across our foreheads in an effort to remember what happened long ago, and what will happen to all of us one day.

We will die.

But we’re content with spending the rest of our days prettying everything that we can. We bring roses to place on the coffins at graveyards. Politicians bump up statistics to make things appear better than the actually are. We do our best to cover our scars, both physical and emotional, as if they were never there. And some churches spend Ash Wednesday not in sanctuaries confessing their sins with their brothers and sisters in faith, but in their parking lots presenting “Ashes to God with a cup of Joe.”

We would rather cover the harsh realities of truth than look at them in the eye.

God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve, that terrifying moment when they were expelled and told that they will suffer until they return to the ground, that strange and all too familiar expression you are dust and to dust you shall return, they strike fear in the hearts of us mortals.

Sometimes its good to be afraid because it reminds us what a tremendous blessing it is to be alive at all. Sometimes its good to get down on our knees and confess our sins before the Lord because it reminds us that we are not God. And sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror on Ash Wednesday to remember who we are, and whose we are.

This day, this Ash Wednesday, is a moment for us to confess our sins, and for all the sins of the people who are not here. We bow our heads and are adorned with a sign of death, not just as a reminder to us and to others that we will die, but that God will not let death be the final Word.

And here is the hope, my brothers and sisters, the hope we need on a day like today. We know how the story ends. We know that the pronouncement at the edge of the Garden was not the final word. We know the final word is not suffering, nor death, nor dirt, nor even dust. We know that the final Word is Jesus Christ.

The ashes that will soon be on our skin are not our crosses to bear, but Christ’s who carried it to The Skull and was nailed to it for the world. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest and final Word because in him the fullness of the Lord was pleased to dwell. In Him the sin of Adam and Eve were reconciled unto the Lord. In Him we are brought back into the dwelling of God’s grace where the light always shines in the darkness.

So wear the ashes with fear and trembling, let them dirty your lives a little bit, but also remember the hope that has been available to us in the one who hung on the cross, and rose again. Amen.

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Too Busy To Welcome – Advent Homily on Romans 15.7

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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When Bob Sharp was sent to Marquis Memorial, I know that he was welcomed because it didn’t take long for the church to paint his office burgundy and gold in honor of his dedicated devotion to the Washington Redskins.

When Courtney Joyner started at St. Paul’s, I know she was welcomed because she is a triple-threat: She can sing, she can jam, and she can preach.

When John Benson first preached at Augusta Street, I know he was welcomed because his people haven’t stopped shouting “Amen!” since his first sermon.

When Won Un showed up at Central, I know he was welcomed because their entire church community has developed an affinity for Kimchi and they know that if they can’t find Won on a nice day, it’s because he’s out riding his bike.

When Janet Knott arrived at Jollivue, I know she was welcomed because she preaches with gifts, and who doesn’t love presents?

When Clayton Payne began at Cherryvale, I know he was welcomed because people keep showing up week after week even though he keeps preaching the same sermon over and over again.

When Bryson Smith was appointed to St. Paul’s, I know he was welcomed because they know if the sermon falls flat, he can always sing a solo and get the people to shout “Praise the Lord!” and “Mercy!”

When Sarah Locke was sent to Christ, I know she was welcomed because people started showing up in her kitchen while she was still unpacking boxes. I know that because I was there!

I know the United Methodist churches of Staunton are a welcoming bunch because you have so warmly welcomed your pastors. But I wonder, do we welcome everyone to our churches in the same way we welcome the pastor when he or she first arrives? Do you really welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us?

When I arrived in Staunton, Won and I got together and thought it seemed about time to resurrect the Lenten and Advent luncheons. We were not here when they used to happen and so we were able to tweak the schedule and the organization a little bit. Important for us was the shifting of host churches and guest speakers so that everyone got a chance to welcome, and every preacher got a chance to preach.

Fun fact: As of Christmas day, I will have preached in every single United Methodist Church in Staunton. And it only took me three and a half years!

Anyway, we got the Lenten luncheons started again, and the first time I was invited to preach we were gathering at Central UMC. At the time, I was young and naive, and I thought it would be a good idea to wear my Carharrt Overalls when I preached from the pulpit in order to really drive home the message. Maybe you were there. Maybe you even remember some of the things I said.

I poured out my heart and soul from the pulpit at Central UMC and I did my best to make the people of St. John’s as proud as possible. Afterwards, during lunch, after the tenth or so person made a comment about my attire, an older woman came up to me and asked if we could talk (I won’t say which church she was from).

So we moved to the corner of the social hall, and she gingerly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand that you’re new to town you might be looking for a church home, so we’d love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”

I remember just standing there stunned. I mean, it was a kind gesture for her to invite me to church (particular when the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 33 years). But going to another church on Sunday is impossible.

She welcomed me, but she didn’t listen to me. I suspect that she was more concerned with having people in the pews, than with knowing who the people are in the pews.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.

How did Jesus welcome? Well, he certainly didn’t wait for people to just show up because he was having a service on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or even on Christmas Eve. Jesus welcomed others by showing up in their lives, he met them where they were and ministered to them in terms and in ways they could understand. He told stories that connected with their daily living, stories about the soil and the birds of the air. He welcomed them in the midst of their suffering and isolation. He welcomed the very people who would abandon him to a table without cost.

At St. John’s we have a Preschool and I spend time every week leading the kids in what we call chapel time. I’ll take a lesson from scripture and try to rework it in ways that can understand and apply to their life.

Last week, after practicing the Christmas pageant for what felt like the thousandth time, I set up a small table near the altar and I invited the kids to come sit and listen. The thirty minutes prior to chapel time were filled with pushing and tripping and laughter and debauchery, but when they sat down around the table I started speaking in a soft voice, and they all started to listen.

I said, “My friends, I have something I want to share with you. This is bread and grape juice, but it is about to me much more than that. For this is a gift that Jesus gives to us. Some of you might do this in your church on Sundays, and whenever we sit at the table we are remembering Christ’s love for us. At this table, all of us are welcome no matter what. So let’s pray… God thank you for loving us so much that you welcome us no matter what we’ve done and no matter who we are. I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us and make us more like Jesus so we can love others. Amen.”

And then one by one I called them by name, I gave each of them a piece of the bread, they dipped it into the cup, and the received communion.

Unlike us, the preschoolers have the benefit of not rushing around through this season of Advent endlessly crossing items off our to-do lists. Unlike us, the preschoolers don’t feel burdened by the tyranny of things and can sit quietly for a moment to receive a gift better than anything under the tree.

It often happens around this time of year that we feel too busy to welcome. We become more concerned with the wrapping paper and the ornaments and appearance of things than with the welcoming love of the Lord who was born into an unwelcoming town. When our sanctuaries fill up with more people than usual on Christmas Eve we are more often burdened by making sure everything is in the right place, than we are by making sure we are in the right place to welcome and be welcomed by the Lord.

And it is at the meal, the Lord’s Supper, the thing that most of us do on the first Sunday of the month, where we learn what it really means to welcome like Jesus. For Jesus is the one inviting you to the table, not merely hoping that you will show up to fill an empty place in a pew, but earnestly and truly yearning for your presence. You are invited because you are unique, you are wonderful, and you are a child of God. There is a place for you at the table no matter what.

Can you imagine what our churches would really look like if we welcomed others as Christ welcomed us?

Amen.