Dear Church…

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit that he has given us.

Since Easter Sunday we, as a congregation, have been reading through 1 John. Every worship service, every scripture reading, every sermon, even the hymns have all been based on this one letter written centuries ago.

And it is important to remember that 1 John was, and is, a letter. It is a document written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are in the midst of their faith journeys by addressing the challenges of discipleship.

For John, following Jesus was all about love… We know love by this, that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we ought to do the same for one another. Let us not love with words or speech, but in truth and action. And we shall do all of this because God is greater than our hearts.

Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader; seriously, I made you all play around with crayons, balancing blocks, and play-dough last week! I don’t have decades of experience to rely upon when addressing the marks of following Jesus. The well of my wisdom is shallow compared to the deep insight that John shares in his letter.

I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place. It was a written communication designed to sustain people like me, and you, in the midst of this strange and beautiful thing we call faith.

During the time of John letters were carefully crafted, parchment/papyrus were expensive and rare, reading and writing was uncommon. A lot of thought went into a letter before it was sent out. And this was even more particular in the realm of the early church when letters were shared with more than one gathering. They were sacred pieces of text that were treated with the utmost care.

DearChurch (1)

Today, however, we communicate in a variety of different forms. Sure, some of us still take the time to write our thoughts by hand, and then send it through the mail. But many of us, if not all of us, are versed in the instantaneous forms of email, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Instragramming, and even snap-chatting.

One of the biggest differences in the way we communicate today, as compared to the time of John, is that many of us offer our opinions and weigh into debates without really taking time at all to think about what we are offering. It is so easy to type a few lines, or click the share button, or take a picture on our cell phones that we do it without even realizing what we’re doing.

Today there exists computer programs designed to test whether information being shared in true, fair, and accurate. The fact that we need those things, because we simply don’t have the time to look into ourselves, is absurd.

But, when you consider how much is being produced, how much content is being created, we need something to help us sift through everything. Believe it or not, we, as a species, create as much content in 2 days as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

            That’s craziness.

If you talk to a writer or a poet, they’ll tell you that if they got a paragraph together in one day, then it was a very good day. Sometimes all they can muster is a single sentence. But that’s because they take the time to weigh out what they’re trying to say.

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On the other side of the spectrum, most of us try to get out what we’re saying as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. We don’t like our time wasted so we just throw words out and hope something sticks.

And so, while recognizing that I am not like John, and that we are bombarded with so much information, I reached out to a number of people this week. I asked a simple question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?”

It was my attempt to get people to think like John and speak the truth about what the condition of the church is like.

And, like seasoned and faithful Johns, a number of people put together their ideas about love and discipleship for our benefit. Whether it was on Facebook, email, Twitter, or YouTube, insight rained down upon our church office, and now you will be blessed to receive those same messages.

Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…

 

Dear Church,

One of the best things about our church is the way we love each other. I can’t think of a Sunday when I came to worship without someone checking in on me. And that’s what I really care about. It doesn’t matter if the sermon falls flat, or if one of the hymns is too hard to sing, when I worship I feel loved.

 

Dear Church,

Life can be really difficult. But when it’s hard we have a choice, we can lay down and take whatever comes or we can get up and work on solving the problem. The choice is up to us.

 

Dear Church,

We should be doing God’s will, not power-hungry people’s will.

 

Dear Church,

What the church does is all about sharing the good news. And the good news is the fact that God loves sinners. And all of us are sinners. All of us.

 

Dear Church,,

I don’t care what church it is; if I have to hear another political sermon I’m going to lose my mind! The gospel is not about creating strong political opinions or calling people to march in protest. Jesus doesn’t share the Good News so that we know what political party to join, or which candidate to support. So many preachers today sound like wannabe politicians and I just can’t stand it anymore!

Following Jesus is not about whose political sign is in your yard or on your bumper; it’s a call for the people who have the resources and goods to open their hearts to people who have need. Love is about action, yes. But love is not a doctrine, or a sermon, or a political persuasion.

It is what you do, not what you think.

 

Dear Church,

I’ve been worshipping here for a while now, and I don’t think anyone knows my name.

 

Dear Church,

Love is more than a word.

 

Dear Church,

How can any church call itself a church when it refuses to help, or ignores altogether, people in need? This is why the church is dying. Not because it’s boring. Not because it’s old fashioned. The church is dying because it is hypocritical.

 

Dear Church,

Speaking up for the good of people is risky. You can lose your job, relationships, money, and even your life for living by the kind of love we talk about at church. But isn’t that what Jesus was willing to risk?

 

Dear Church,

Laying down your life for someone is different than dying for them. When push come to shove, many of us would consider sacrificing ourselves for the good of those we love. But laying down one’s life, laying aside your goals and priorities and dreams for the betterment of someone else, that’s entirely different. We need not die for anyone, but we certainly must lay aside our needs for others.

 

Dear Church…

 

After receiving these comments, and many more, I thought long and hard about what I might say. I pondered about what kind of letter I would write to this church, or any church, about what is really at stake. I prayed about what kind of shocking wisdom we might need to hear in this place.

And yet, rather than pontificating from the pulpit, I’d like to hear from you. I know this is uncomfortable, perhaps even worse that having to spend 15 minutes with playdough like last week, but if you could say anything to the church about what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to love, what would you say?

Imagine, if you can, that this was your final communication to the church, and that you had the opportunity to speak some truth into the midst of all of our lives, perhaps about what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly – What would you say?

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We can open up forums on the church website. We can solicit responses from people all over the Internet. We can even listen to the people in the pews next to us.

And we can also listen to John, speaking through the centuries, about the wisdom of loving and being loved:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Amen.

Love Hurts

John 13.31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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Two weeks ago I stood before all of you and preached about love. I said, “Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For us the normalcy of life has returned. The shadow of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

“And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?If we love Jesus, then we have to love one another.”

I think the message was pretty straightforward. Jesus loves us so we should love each other. In fact, none of you complained about the service while shaking hands afterwards, I received zero emails regarding the content of the sermon, and after singing the hymn “Lord, I Want To Be a Christian” most of us left with smiles on our faces.

Today we are here in church reading about another example of Jesus calling us to love. We love this story. It repeats for us our assumption that whatever it means to be Christian, whatever creeds we affirm, whatever beliefs we proclaim, it at least means we are supposed to be nice and loving toward other people.

The fact that we often boil Jesus down to a guy preaching love makes sense. Jesus talks about love all the time in the gospels, toward all people regardless of circumstances. Love, in fact, seems to be what Jesus is all about. And in this story, during his final night with his friends, in his concluding remarks, he tells them to love one another just as he loved them.

Loving one another like Jesus sounds pretty nice. Don’t you think the world really would be a better place if we could all just get along?

Love is lovely, but it also gets us into trouble. If Jesus really was all about love in the Hallmark sense of the word, if we can whittle the entirety of the gospel down to “love one another” then why did Jesus have to die? Why would you put someone to death who is recommending that we love each other?

Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

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Just as I have loved you…

A couple months ago I was sitting at a coffee shop downtown working on a sermon. As I often do, I was wearing a clergy collar and sitting near the door with a cup of coffee and my computer. For the overwhelmingly majority of my sermon writing coffee shop experiences, everyone ignores the pastor in the corner, but not this day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar and, before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started to kiss my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak to me outside.

We sat down on a bench and he began to tell me about his troubles. He was down on his luck, no money, no job, no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but heard a rumor that he could get better help in Charlottesville. As he went on I caught myself preparing my response in my head rather than really listening to his dilemma. And as I often do I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he try SACRA or any number of other places in town.

He looked at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Charlottesville.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response but I’m sure that I made excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listing my justifications he stood up while I was talking and he left me there sitting on the bench. My voice trailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner he said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to correct them when they were wrong. When Peter tried to tell him that he was not supposed to die on a cross, Jesus quickly replied, “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Jesus was unwilling to sit idly by while people continued to miss signs of the kingdom and regularly corrected others when necessary.

And once, while I sat stunned on a bench, Jesus lovingly used the words from the story of the Good Samaritan through a homeless man to correct my understanding of what I was doing. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, correcting them with love when they fell from the path

Just as I loved you…

A friend of mine was vexed when someone from his church continued to cheat on his wife. They all lived in a small community where everyone knew everyone’s business. And this particular man would get in his truck, drive to the other side of town, and cheat on his wife. Of course, the wife remained faithful and steadfast, even through she was traumatized by his infidelity.

Friends tried to convince the man that he needed to stop, and he even admitted that he knew what he was doing was wrong and against God’s will, but he couldn’t help himself. They tried getting him in therapy, they tried calling him everyday to remind him to remain faithful, but no matter what they did, it continued.

One day my friend grew so frustrated with the infidelity of the man that he showed up at his house and demanded the keys to the truck. He said, “It doesn’t seem like you can stop yourself, but you’ll have a hard time getting over there without your truck.”

And you know what? It worked.

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to disrupt their lives and sensibilities when they were wrong. He once gathered people together and said, “If your arm causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” Jesus was unwilling to sit idly by while people committed horrendous sins against other people and neglected to honor God through their behavior.

And once, through a demand for car keys, Jesus lovingly disrupted a man’s adulterous tendencies. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, disrupting them with love when they fell from the path.

Just as I loved you…

Back in June a young white man entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina for bible study. The group gathered together to study God’s Word, and the man listened while they discussed scripture. However, when they bowed their heads in prayer, he took out a gun and killed nine of them.

After he was arrested, the family members of the nine victims were able to speak directly to the shooter during his first court appearance. One by one, each person addressed the murderer and offered him forgiveness.

“I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of one of the deceased. “But one thing my sister taught me what that we are the family that love built and we don’t have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray for God to have mercy on you.”

“I forgive you,” said the daughter of one of the deceased. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Near the end, the granddaughter of one of the victims stood up and said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to forgive their faults and transgressions even at the point of his death. While the crowds gathered at the foot of the cross, while the crown of thorns dug into his skin, while he felt his life slipping away he prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus was unwilling to let anger, and aggression, and hatred get the better of him. He witnessed the abandonment of his disciples and followers, he experienced the people’s movement from “hosanna” to “crucify” and he still forgave them.

And once, while a murderer sat in a courtroom surrounded by the families of his victims, Jesus lovingly forgave him through their willingness to forgive. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, forgiving them with love when they fell from the path.

Jesus didn’t get killed for loving too much. At least not in the way that many of us belittle the kind of radical love Jesus had for the people around him. Jesus got killed because his way of loving challenged the status quo and upset sensibilities. Jesus got killed because his love hurt.

On his final night with his friends, the very people that would be responsible for continuing his message of salvation and love, Jesus offered them a final commandment. “You have to love one another. Just as I loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus loved people so much that he was willing to confront others in the midst of their wayward behavior. He knew that time is a fleeting thing and that love, God’s love, demands confrontational action when we act selfishly rather than selflessly.

He was also willing to disrupt actions and attitudes that led to brokenness and abuse. He saw all people for their fundamental worth and he challenged others to seek holiness in every way, shape, or form.

And Jesus was convinced by the power of forgiveness when he was betrayed, broken, and even killed. He lived his life as God in the flesh to point others toward the power of grace and mercy.

To love like Jesus will hurt. It will put us in positions we would rather avoid, it will call our kind of behaviors and practices into question, and it will force us to confront the brokenness in one another. But this is the way everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we love each other just as he loved us. Amen.

 

What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?

Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of you hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

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

 

 

Good morning. It is so nice to see and be with both of you for this premarital counseling session. I am really excited about your wedding and I considerate it a privilege that you’ve asked me to preside over the service.

Before we really get started, let’s pray… Amen.

So, tell me about your last fight… Uh huh, interesting. And would you agree? … Okay. So let me get this straight, your mother keeps offering her unsolicited opinion about what you two should do with your money, and then your mother keeps inserting herself into wedding plans? But the fight really started when you began arguing about where you would be spending your first Christmas as a married couple. You think you should be with your parents and family? And you think you should be with your parents and family?

This is going to be a great session!

Marriage is a strange thing. Out of all the people in the world, out of all the conversations and friendships and relationships, you two have been brought together (somehow or another) and you are now about to make a public covenant that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.

Let’s talk about why you want to be married. Everything in your relationship seems to be going fairly well, so why do you want to move toward marriage?

Because you love each other… How precious. We’ll talk more about love later. What else? What makes you feel like the person next to you in the one you want to wake up next to forever?

You trust each other… nice. You feel complete when the other one is around… good. You want to start your own family together… great.

Marriage is a public union ratified by God in heaven. In gathering together before your friends, families, and the Lord you will make a covenant to embody Christ’s love for us with the person sitting next to you. It is just about the most serious decision and commitment that you will ever make.

So you know why you want to get married. The next question, then, is why do you want to get married in the church? Because the three of us could get in the car and head down to the courthouse right now and you could be married within the hour. It would be a legal marriage in the eyes of the state and it would probably cost a whole lot less. So, why get married in the church?

I love that answer: You believe that marriage is bigger than just the two of you, and you want to the community of faith to be there with you. Wow.

Have you all thought about what scripture you want to use in the service? I encourage all couples to spend time in the bible and search for a verse or a passage that has special meaning for you. My only caveat is this: I will not preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Do you know it? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

Why won’t I preach on 1 Corinthians 13? Love is not enough to make a marriage work.

A successful marriage will never be contingent on your whims or your romantic feelings for one another. There will come a day, I promise, that you will not look or feel as good as you do right now. Love is not enough to carry you through the changes and the frustrations that will occur. Marriage requires more than love.

Between this session and the next, take the time to dive deeply into your bibles and find a scripture you want to use in the service and we’ll go from there. Just stay away from 1 Corinthians 13.

Have you thought about any hymns you would like to use in the service?

Number 408. Wait… is that “The Gift of Love”?

Were you not listening to anything I just said? Love is not enough. A successful and faithful marriage is based on qualities like endurance, patience and hope, conversion and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation. (sigh)

Anyway. Have you all considered the seriousness of your marriage? Which is to say, have you talked about divorce?

Both sets of parents are currently divorced? And it happened when you were a child, and when you were in college? How do you feel about divorce?

Interesting. You believe this covenant is so important that you will never get divorced? That’s rather admirable.

But here’s a dose of reality. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces per year. Divorce is so remarkably prevalent in our culture and society to the degree that we have become numb to it.

For too long the church has refused to confront divorce. We’d rather talk about every other controversial subject under the sun, but bring up divorce and you start making people really uncomfortable.

Bride and groom figurines standing on two separated slices of wedding cake

And let me be clear, there are circumstances that occur in marriage where divorce is probably the best possible solution. Situations like physical abuse or traumatic adultery, but people get divorced for the most mundane reasons. “Our interests have grown apart” “We no longer effectively communicate” “We’re not in love anymore.”

As a society, we no longer take the covenant of marriage seriously. Some of us are too quick to end the relationship whenever we feel those first hiccups. As Christians, however, we are called to hear the bible and Jesus who are quite clear in their reflections on divorce.

The pain and complications of divorce cast a great shadow across almost every family and congregation, yet we fail to talk about it. Jesus once told his followers “What God has brought together, let no one separate.” God is the one who does the joining; it is we, with our fallen and broken natures, who do the separating. Marriage is a serious thing, perhaps the most serious, and we need to start taking it seriously. Divorce will always be a possibility, but it should be a last resort.

I have some tips for you. They’re not full-proof ways to avoid having your marriage fall apart. But they are practices that you can initiate now in order to help when things get rocky.

Accept the fact that you two are different. Opposites tend to attract and each of you are not only physically different, but have different backgrounds and outlooks to particular situations. God designed these differences for a reason. The more you learn to celebrate the things that make you different, the stronger your marriage will become.

Leave and cleave. Don’t let either set on in-laws dictate how you will lead your new family. Decide in advance that no one will become a wedge between the two of you. Every couple has lots of other relationships, including the possibility of children at some point, but none of them should be allowed to interfere with the oneness God will create in your marriage.

Make a commitment to the marriage no matter what. Couples usually assume that everything in their marriage will work out, when the reality is that many couples only commit until it becomes difficult or until the love starts to fade. If, and when, you struggle, you need to learn to ask for help. Remove the fear of asking for professional counseling if necessary. It would be better to get help early than to see your marriage disintegrate beyond repair.

Model after the right couples. I encourage both of you to find a couple whose marriage you admire, and follow them closely. If they are as good as you think they are, the probably have stories to share about how they got there. Things may not have been as wonderful throughout their marriage as it is right now.

Put Christ first. This is the one that you were probably expecting me to say, but it’s not just the preacher in me talking, it’s the best way to ensure a lasting marriage. Your individual and collective relationship with Christ will enable you to move through the toughest days in marriage. When I stand with you before all of your friends and family, you will make a vow, but it is not a private one. In marriage, the two of you will enter into a union that is not your own, but will be received in participation with Christ and properly lived out in the church.

Are you still feeling like you want to get married? I know I’ve made it sound like one of the hardest things in the world, but that’s because it is. If you are serious about committing to your marriage, then you have to recognize that the only way it can be done well is with the grace of God. There will come a day when you wake up next to the person you are sitting next to right now, and you will have no idea how it happened. You will move through tragedies and hardships, you will celebrate on the mountaintops of joy, and if you are still married it is because you have found the true nature of marriage through the God of hope.

Marriage, and I mean Christian marriage, is committed and covenanted. Marriage, seen this way, is about as counter-cultural as can be. Marriage can only be sustained in a community, like the church, which understands itself as something strange compared to the world. Marriage is one of the ways the community of faith embodies the surprising hope of new creation.

If you want to know the real secret to a successful marriage, is begins with discipleship. As disciples, you learn about how God’s commitment to us is so strong that God will never divorce himself from us; God will never abandon us. As disciples, you learn about the sacrifice Christ was willing to make for us and therefore we are able to sacrifice for one another. As disciples, you learn that the only way to make it through this thing called life is to have a community around you to support you through it all.

I want to thank both of you for taking the time to meet with me in preparation for your wedding. Over the coming weeks and months we will meet again to talk more about marriage, the church, and your actual ceremony. It’s going to be great. Throughout his ministry, Jesus loved comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. This means that your wedding will be one of the rare times that we can experience a little bit of heaven here on earth. Thank you foe inviting me into this holy and remarkable moment in your lives. But I have to warn you, if you chose to invite me to the reception following the ceremony, I will dance the entire time. Amen.

 

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Why We Do What We Do: Give – Sermon on Luke 12.22-34

Luke 12.22-34

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father know that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.

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The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we give.

I was in my final year of seminary when my friend asked me to preach at his church. He had labored for the past few years as a full time student and full time pastor at the same time and needed someone to fill-in. He had received tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that’s where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

When Lindsey and I arrived at the tiny United Methodist Church in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, I was a little nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met, but I figured God would show up even if my sermon fell flat. The sanctuary was tiny, with white walls and bright florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet that I was worried we had arrived at the wrong church.

However, the lay leader was waiting by the door and greeted us as if we were first-time visitors, only to later realize that I was supposed to be the pastor for the day. He quickly led me into the sanctuary, gave me a quick and grand tour, and then informed me that he was the head usher, liturgist, organist, and treasurer.

From what I remember the service went well, though most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by my academic deconstruction of a prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thankfully gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed the entire service. I like to think that she loved my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a chance to actually look around at the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit of the hymns for the day, the offering brought in last week, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why they felt the need to display their deficit for everyone to see every Sunday. I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.

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Talking about giving, and in particular financial giving is about as awkward as it gets in the church. Money, in general, is one of the taboo subjects of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we are curious. We avoid asking for financial help because it means admitting too much vulnerability. But then if we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (or the church) we have the double whammy of things we’re not supposed to talk about.

After all, money and religion are personal and private subjects aren’t they? What I do with my money and what I do with my faith should be of no concern to anyone else other than myself…

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give their gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and then conversion.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a teenager and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed here to St. John’s. Now that I had a steady income, Lindsey and I decided to start tithing to the church, and honestly it was really hard. We are a young married couple with debt to the federal government for paying for my seminary education, and we are going to have a baby in April. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder than I thought. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could be spending on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving.

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My conversion toward giving did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I gave, the longer the habit continued, the easier it became, and my perspective started to change.

Instead of imagining what I could’ve have done with the money I gave to church, I started to tangibly witness and experience what the money I gave was doing for the church and the kingdom.

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. We are not called to give to St. John’s out of guilt, but out of generosity.

As John Wesley once said: “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world. If we act generously, we are helping God build the kingdom here on earth.

However, we should not be expected to give, or feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say “give give give” prevents us from developing strong relationship with the people and programs we serve. So here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts:

At St. John’s we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months ahead, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s love in the world. This means that we have to keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love through this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At St. John’s we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in the faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, but one of the most profound things we offer is weekly Chapel Time to our Preschoolers. Not only do we help to provide a wonderful facility for them to learn and grow, but we also welcome them into this sanctuary every week to learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Preschoolers discover how much God loves them, and they take those stories home to the families and subsequently teach them about God’s love.

And at St. John’s we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. For the first time in a long time we have paid our Apportionments in full to benefit the greater church, and the world. Some of that money goes to pay for clergy healthcare, some of it goes to domestic and international benevolences funds, and a number of other places. Moreover, we are able to provide a tremendous amount of financial resources to SACRA (Staunton-Augusta Church Relief Association) who then distribute the money to acute needs in the local community.

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We give from our blessings to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, the preschoolers who gather to be nurtured and educated, or the countless people in the local and global community who need our help. We give out of generosity, because so much has been given to us.

However I don’t want to make it sound as if giving is the easiest thing in the world, because it does require sacrifice. Living a spiritual life of generosity requires a change of heart, a conversion. It might happen in a moment, or throughout a lifetime of faith, but when the transformation occurs, we become people of generosity.

We all have blessings to offer. Some of us have been blessed by God with incredibly lucrative careers and vocations, God has clothed us with more splendor than Solomon and all his temples, and we can give back to God through our financial giving. Some of us have been blessed by God with powerful relationship skills, God has given us personalities that bring out the best in others, and we can give back to God through our willingness to serve others. And God has blessed all of us with the gift of time, which is the most precious thing we can ever offer to the church and others.

Are we grateful for what God has done for us through this place? Do we appreciate all the blessings we have receiving throughout our lives? Do we want to bless others as we have been blessed?

We give because we have a common yearning for God’s kingdom to reign on earth, and when we give we join a new communion with the people of God. We give because it is the way by which we live out our love toward the church and our brothers and sisters in faith. We give because God first gave to us.

Where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also. Amen

Devotional – Mark 14.36

Devotional:

Mark 14.36

He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 

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“Let us now pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: Our Father, who art in heaven…” The familiar introduction to the Lord’s Prayer is a regular occurrence in most churches. At some point during worship there is an opportunity to pray the same words that countless Christians have prayed together since the days of Jesus’ ministry. Through a simple, yet profound, prayer we are connected with the church universal as we pray according to the way that Christ taught his disciples to pray.

At St. John’s we print all the words to the prayer in the bulletin for anyone who might not be familiar with it. Most of the time, however, the gathered body prays without having to look down; whether they were here the week before, or it had been years since they entered a church, the Lord’s Prayer is something that most people remember forever.

The familiarity of the prayer is a blessing and a curse. For centuries it has brought Christians closer to the Lord, though sometimes the more familiar we are with the prayer, the less we think about the actual words we are praying. To sit amidst the body of Christ and pray “thy will be done” is one of the most profound acts in a discipled life.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, the gifted essayist and writer, makes a similar point in his incredible novel Jayber Crow: “This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

On Jesus’ final night, after he shared an incredible meal with his closest friends, he prayed alone in the garden of Gethsemane. In many ways one of his last prayers to the Lord was simply “thy will be done.”

The season of lent is an incredible reminder that life does not become perfect and easy for us the moment we become Christians. With the current abundance of Prosperity Preachers/Churches it is important to remember, as Berry puts it, praying the Lord’s Prayer means that our will and God’s will might not be the same thing.

As we come closer and closer to Holy Week, let us take time to be with God in prayer. If you find yourself at a loss for words during your time with the Lord, follow the example of Jesus and offer up one of the most profound statements you can ever utter: “thy will be done.”

Devotional – 2 Corinthians 4.5

Devotional:

2 Corinthians 4.5

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 

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Have you ever listened to someone discuss a topic only to realize that you learned more about the speaker than you did about the subject?

There were many times in college that I would leave a lecture knowing more about my professor’s interpretation of an event than I did the actual event. Similarly, there have been church services that taught me more about what the pastor was doing in his/her life than what I should be doing to live out God’s Word in mine. The temptation, for all of us, is to point at ourselves rather than the subject at hand.

Brian Williams, the anchor for NBC’s Nightly News, recently fell into controversy regarding comments he made about his experiences during the US invasion of Iraq. Williams stated that he was on an helicopter that was hit by an RPG and forced to land. However, reports have subsequently come to light that call his memory into question; a flight engineer who was on board one of three helicopters that were hit, reported that William’s helicopter arrived at the scene nearly an hour later to interview the crew members about the attack.

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In the days that followed William’s false report, he has been scrutinized by a number of media outlets and veterans about his claims. He has taken a leave from his regular Nightly News  broadcast, and executives from NBC have announced there would be an internal investigation into William’s reports on Iraq and other issues. Moreover, debates are taking place regarding whether or not he will be replaced in relation to his newscast.

When we share information with our friends and family about issues facing the world, there is a strong temptation to point at our relation to the subject rather than the subject itself. Instead of talking about the issue of poverty we talk about how we have interacted with people begging on the streets. Instead of talking about what we can do to help our education system, we share stories about what we experienced in school. Instead of talking about what Jesus did for us, we talk about the many ways we are living out our Christianity on a regular basis.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth as a reminder about who was truly at the center of the church: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” As Christians, we are called to the same proclamation.

When we feel the temptation to point to ourselves and what we have done, Paul helps us to remember to point to Jesus. We can certainly celebrate our accomplishments in our faith journeys, but we are called to serve one another as slaves for Jesus’ sake.

This week, let us point away from ourselves to Christ, and seek new ways to serve those around us.

Devotional – Psalm 139.4

Devotional:

Psalm 139.4

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 

Weekly Devotional Image

I was in the middle of wrapping Christmas presents when my cell phone began to ring. My fingers were covered in tape and I fumbled with answering the phone while keeping the paper pulled tight over the box. Frankly, I’m not a very good wrapper, so I welcomed the distraction of the call with hopes that it would somehow result in me taking enough time away that I would return with perfect wrapping capabilities. The season of Advent and Christmas can be very lonely for pastors as they seek to serve the needs of others so I was greatly pleased when I saw that my friend, and best man, was calling me out of the blue.

Josh and I met in seminary, and when we graduated he went out to Wichita, KS to work for the Apprentice Institute at Friends University while I became a pastor in the UMC. Josh and his wife recently welcomed their first daughter into the world (Isla Rose) and I specifically tried to not overburden him with phone calls and video-chats, even though I wanted to hear and see everything about his family and time as a father. I have known for a long time that he would be a great Dad and I was excited to hear about how things were going for him when he called. However, the phone conversation focused on a topic of conversation that I was not necessarily prepared for.

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We spent the first few minutes catching up about the typical things when Josh’s tone suddenly changed and I knew he was calling for a specific reason. Instead of piling up the preliminary excuses and attempting to justify his decision he put it simply: “I am leaving my work with Apprentice, and going to work in the secular world.” At first I was completely shocked; Josh is one of the greatest disciples I have ever met, he ministered to me while we were in school together, and he would no longer be working for the church. He shared with me his reasons (all valid) and my shock quickly changed to compassion. He told me that he had been wrestling with the decision for a long time but was afraid to share it with me. He was worried that I would be disappointed or react in such a way that it would change our friendship.

I am disappointed that the Church has lost such a great and promising leader, but at the same time I recognize that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways and perhaps Josh can now be even more fruitful for the kingdom of God. I believe that God has moved in Josh’s life for this specific change and it will bring glory to the triune God here on earth. My only wish is that Josh would not have feared about my reaction, and would have known that nothing could change our friendship.

God knows our words and thoughts even before they are on our tongues and minds. God’s love remains steadfast toward us regardless of our decisions and actions. Can you imagine how differently we would interact with others if we trusted them the same way that we trust God? Can you picture what that kind of love and forgiveness would look like in your life?

This week, let us show our friends how much we love them. All it might take is a phone call, an email, or a text message, but it could make all the difference in the world.