(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Isaiah 55.1-5

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

I’ve been here in Woodbridge for about a month and I feel like I’m finally getting my bearings. I know where all of the essential stores are; I know what roads to avoid during rush hour; and I’m even starting to learn most of your names!

To preach properly you need to know your people.” I heard that over and over again in seminary and it’s so true. You’ve got to know the people before you can just stand up and tell them what God is saying. And so, over the last month, I’ve tried to learn a lot about a lot of you. And not just your names… I know who makes the best food and where it’s kept in the church kitchen. I know that a lot of the real meetings happen in the parking lot and not the conference room. And for a good number of you, I’ve learned what drew you here in the first place. But for as much as I want to learn about you, I also want to learn about the people who are not here yet.

This means I want to know about our community, what makes it tick, and how it transforms the people who call it home.

For instance: I’ve gone to a few local businesses just to ask questions without expectations. I’ve started conversations with total strangers in restaurants just to ask questions without expectations. And a few weeks ago, my wife, son, and I went to the most culturally relevant location in the area: Potomac Mills.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Potomac Mills is one of the largest outlet malls in the country and it is what smaller malls aspire to be. It’s huge. It’s overwhelming. It’s capitalism at it’s finest.

Anyway, we got in the car and drove over to the mall with our stroller. When we parked and strapped Elijah in, we headed for the nearest door and entered the great arena of commerce. Now, some of you are probably wondering what we were looking for at the mall, you’re pondering the specific item we were searching for. But here’s the thing: we weren’t looking for anything. We just wanted to see what the mall was like.

And now some of you are thinking that we’re crazy.

It took a long time to do the whole loop at the mall, particularly with all of the random people and families moving about like fish against the current. And the thing that surprised me most wasn’t how many stores there were, or even how many people there were, but how quiet it was.

It was a strange and eerie experience to be in a place with so many people and have it be so subdued. At first I was worried that my ears were stopped up, but then I realized that it was so quiet because so many people were on their cell phones.

And that’s honestly what made it so hard to navigate, not the number of people, but the fact that most of the people had their heads down in their hands and were completely oblivious to everything else going on. Even the venders in their middle kiosks could have cared less about us as we milled about Potomac Mills.

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Isaiah felt like trying to reach God’s people. The prophet of the Lord attempts to interrupt the sensibilities of the crowd with a declaration, but the people were in Babylon, far removed from home, and they had other things to worry about. Like a crowd of people at the mall focused on their phones, perhaps Isaiah struggled to captivate the attention of the passing people with his enthusiasm and excitement. Picture, if you can, a person doing everything he or she can to convey the truth to a group of people who are far happier with a lie.

That’s Isaiah in our scripture today.

Attention! If you’re thirsty, come to the water. And those of you without money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you keep spending your money on things that cannot bring you satisfaction? Listen to the Lord so that you may live. God is making a covenant, a promise, to love us even when we cannot love ourselves. God is blessing us daily, God is glorifying us, and most of the time we completely miss it.

Today many, if not most, of us are so caught up in our gadgets and spider-webs of false connections that we really feel empty inside. Or we are spending our money and our savings on products and commodities that offer no real satisfaction. Or we believe that so long as we ascertain the right car, or the right job, or the right spouse, we will finally find that one missing thing to give meaning to our lives.

But in the kingdom of God, the normal rules of commerce and capitalism do not apply. In fact, they have been completely overturned.

Unlike just about everything else in the world, at God’s celebration we need not bring goods or money in order to procure a place at the table. Instead, water, bread, wine, and food will be provided without cost. Whereas we think that who we are, and what we’ve earned, and what we’ve saved defines us, God only requires that we bring two things: our thirst and our hunger.

Unlike the world, where many of us prefer to fellowship and worship and commune and eat with those whose income and status and skin tone are similar to our own, God’s vision of life in the kingdom is completely different.

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On Monday morning we opened our doors to children and youth from the community for Vacation Bible School. I, like a fool, stood by the entrance in my adult size Batman costume and welcomed everyone for a week of experiencing the love of God through Hero Central. Each day the kids learned about what it takes to be a hero in God’s kingdom: heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and strength. They did crafts and science experiments, they danced and sang, and they feasted around a common table. They learned bible stories about King David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost.

On our last day I was sitting at the table with all of the kids, when one of them approached me with a huge smile on her face and all she said was, “I wish church was like this every day.”

I imagine that she wished church could be like that every day because Vacation Bible School was fun and exciting, but I think there was more to her wish than that alone. This week, the distractions of phones and the siren call of social media disappeared. Instead of a mall filled with adults staring into screens, the children experienced a church full of adults who got down on their level to share with them the love of God.

Instead of an experience where everyone looked the same, earned the same, and sounded the same, the children experienced a church full of disciples who could not have been more different from one another.

This week, our children and youth caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God made manifest on earth in a way that so few of us ever get to experience. Because in God’s kingdom, the place that Isaiah beckons the crowds to experience, invitations are made to all people: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the perfect and the broken. The beautiful wonder and glory of this scripture is the fact that God welcomes ALL to the table. Always.

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During the time of Isaiah, and today, so much time is wasted on sustaining existence. We hear about the next new thing and we become obsessed even though we know that when it finally arrives we will be distracted by the next new thing coming down the pike. We ask ourselves questions that are predicated on maintaining the status quo. We go to things like the mall hoping for consumerism to fill a hole that no amount of money, or goods, or experiences ever can.

But God offers us something different. God looks at the shallow nature of our lives, God examines the mistakes and sins of our past, God evaluates what our minds stay focused on, and instead of leaving us to our own devices, God shares with us a new covenant. God makes a promise to be with us in spite of us.

God shows us a life that is based not on blessing the wealthy, but on protecting the poor.

God offers a covenant in which greed is shunned, and humility is glorified.

God presents a promise in which divisions are destroyed and community is congratulated.

Isaiah pleaded with the people of the Lord to open their eyes to the truth that no product could ever offer. Isaiah interrupted the distracted crowds with a vision of the kingdom on earth where those who are different are brought together in unity around a table where God is the host.

Opening up the doors of this church for a week of Vacation Bible School is a radical thing. We gave the children food, and education, and time for no other reason than the fact that God loves them. Compared to the priorities of the world, this place was strange this week.

Gathering together in a space like this for worship is a radical thing. While the world is consumed by the next new thing and a false community you can keep in your pocket, the church stands as a witness to the truth of God’s dominion. We lift up our prayers and we bend our knees because we know that what we believe shapes how we behave.

Coming to the table to feast on the Lord’s Supper is a radical thing. We search daily for products and goods to fill the holes we feel, we spend our time with people who look like us and sound like us. And yet at this simple meal, we are invited to a table with people who are completely unlike us. At this meal we get to taste a little bit of heaven on earth and we receive the only thing that can bring real satisfaction.

Today we live in a world where we are forever asking “Who gets in?” What does it take to earn a spot at the table? What kind of grades do I need to make to get into college? How long will I have to wait before it’s my turn?

But in the kingdom of God, at this table, all are welcome. Always. Amen.

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On Sitting At The Reject Table – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Luke 14.1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friend or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

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Throughout the gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven. What does it take to get in? Who will be there? When will it happen?

And whenever Jesus is asked about the kingdom of heaven, do you know what he compares it to most often? A wedding feast.

I love weddings. I love getting to spend time with a couple as their special day gets closer and closer. I love working with families in terms of making the wedding ceremony as special and faithful as possible. I love being invited into this profoundly holy moment at the altar of marriage and bringing two people into an everlasting covenant. But more than all of that, I love weddings because they are as close as we can get to heaven on earth.

During the months leading up to a wedding, while I’m working on pre-marital counseling and the homily and the order of worship, the couple has a lot of work to do as well. They have to procure a reception location, taste test the hors d’oeuvres and the main course, and find the perfect DJ. But perhaps the most difficult and taxing requirements prior to the wedding are the guest list and the seating arrangements.

Nearly every couple I have married has struggled with who to invite and where to seat them. Does that uncle that no one has seen in years warrant an invitation? And what about your cousin’s ex-wife? Maybe we should just send her an invitation to be kind, but if she shows up where can we put her? And where in the world are we going to put the pastor and his wife?

At one wedding, I rushed through the rehearsal under the blistering sun and everyone was remarkably thankful when I stopped talking. Because the wedding was out of town, we were invited to the rehearsal dinner and upon arrival we did not know where to sit. There was clearly an area for the bridal party, so we avoided that table and decided to just sit at a table in the middle of the room. Like an awkward moment in a middle school cafeteria, we waited to see who would sit next to us, but as family members and friends entered the room, the father of the groom stood up to make a speech. He welcomed everyone and thanked the room for supporting his son and soon to be daughter-in-law, and then he pointed over at me. He said, “Now everyone, this is my pastor and the woman sitting next to him is his wife. So all you young men, you need to stay away from her tonight. Because Taylor has the power to send you to heaven, or to hell.” The room erupted in laughter at the joke, and it was pretty funny, but no one, and I mean no one, sat next to us for a long time.

Jesus was once invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees and was being watched closely. When he arrived he noticed how particular people chose to sit in places of honor and he used the moment to teach about the kingdom of God. “When you get an invitation to a wedding, do not sit in the places of respect and honor. Someone might come up to you who is more distinguished and important and they will take your place. You will then have to disgracefully move to the reject table. Instead go and sit at the reject table from the beginning, so that when the host comes by he may call you to a grander table. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There is always a strange moment at wedding receptions when all the guests stand in line at a poster or some other Pinterestly designed labeling system for where each of us will be sitting. At another wedding, after preaching and leading the ceremony, we got in line with everyone else to find our names and our corresponding table. As my eyes went down the list, I knew that we literally knew no one at the wedding (except the bride and groom) and I wasn’t hoping for anything special. But when my eyes finally made it to the end of the list, I knew that we were definitely assigned to the reject table.

You know the one, the table where you send the odds and ends, that strange second cousin that you had to invite and you hope he doesn’t get too rowdy, the piano teacher from a decade ago, the weird friend your mother insisted on inviting but who always drove you utterly crazy. That table.

When we made our way to the back of the room, it only took one glance to confirm our suspicions that we were at the reject table because no one was talking and none of the people knew each other. At every other table in the reception area conversations were flowing and laughter was breaking out, but at the reject table it was silent.

In the silence you could almost sense the recognition of our reject status, but the nail on the coffin was when the pastor and his wife pulled out their chairs and sat down. At a wedding, if I sit at your table, you are part of the rejects.

At first we just further perpetuated the silence by sitting there awkwardly fumbling with our cell phones and such, until I decided to break the ice and compliment the camouflage koozie that was keeping a beer cold in the hand of who I can only imagine was a distant cousin. I said something stupid like, “Man, I could barely tell you were even drinking a beer.” At first he didn’t respond, either because the joke wasn’t funny, or because he was unsure of how to speak to a pastor about beer. But when Lindsey laughed at my foolish attempt to be funny, the whole table seemed to take a collective breath and relax.

From that first, albeit strange, compliment a conversation began to percolate and eventually spilled out over the whole table. Within ten minutes we were probably the rowdiest table in the entire room and were regularly being shushed by other guests while the speeches were being made. We didn’t care that we couldn’t see the bride and groom at their table in the front, we didn’t care that we were the very last table to be called to go through the buffet line, we didn’t care that we were the misfits at the reject table. Instead, we were just happy to be there.

From the humility of the reject table we were exalted to the joy of the wedding celebration.

Jesus spoke to the people gathered together to teach them about the virtues of humility. And in telling the parable of the wedding banquet he was not just assigning them to be humble at weddings, but in all aspects of life. To live the kind of selfish and exalted life of the best table is to forget that we depend on God. It is to believe that we are in control of our lives and that we have the power to save ourselves. It is a fundamental lack of trust that the Lord will provide.

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Humility, on the other hand, is an unselfish way of living while depending on the Lord. It is to believe that our lives are not our own and that only God has the power to save us. It is a fundamental trust in the Lord’s ability to provide.

And Jesus does not leave it at that. He pushes the gathered body even further. Whenever you’re invited somewhere, live humbly. And whenever you are the host, do not invite people with the expectation that they will provide the same courtesy. Do not invite your family, and your neighbors, or your rich friends assuming they will do the same. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people you would otherwise ignore. And you will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay you.

This is a tough commandment for all soon to be married couples. Most of them would never dream of omitting an invitation to family members, and friends, and rich relatives who give the best wedding gifts. They would never dream of inviting strangers and outcasts and rejects to their wedding feast and celebration.

But the marriage of Christ with Christ’s church is a wedding celebration that all of us have been invited to. We are here in the midst of worship: the wedding of God with God’s people, and none of us should have been invited. We can never repay the kindness of God’s invitation, we are unworthy of sitting in these pews, we fail to be obedient to the kind of love that we experience here. And yet we are invited. And frankly, we are all sitting at the reject table.

Jesus Christ invites us to this place to celebrate the great victory over death, the resurrection of glory, and the reconciliation of all things. And that’s different than just being included. Many churches love to claim and proclaim their inclusiveness. Inclusive has become such a buzzword in Christianity that you will find it on nearly every church website and every church bulletin you come across. We so desperately want to appear welcoming and inclusive with the hope that it will draw people into our wedding celebration called the church.

But being inclusive is lazy. Because being inclusive does not require us to do anything but sit here, stare at the doors, and hope people will show up.

            Jesus did not lead an inclusive ministry.

            What Jesus led was a ministry of invitation.

Much like being invited to a modern wedding celebration, Jesus actively went out seeking others to draw them into the party. He met them where they were and invited them to join him on the way that leads to life. His ministry was about breaking down the labels and constructs that people were isolated into, and gathering all of the so called rejects together to celebrate the glory of God.

Our Lord invites all without expectation and without assumption. God Almighty knows our sin and our failures and still sees potential. The Lord meets us where we are through the words of our worship and through our friendships. The great story of scripture, from this passage in Luke to the entire narrative, is not about God waiting for us to show up, but God’s great work to find and transform us.

Sitting at the reject table comes at a cost. It means being surrounded by people we do not know, people we probably don’t agree with, and people who might drive us crazy. It requires a tremendous amount of humility and trust and faith. But it’s also the way we got invited to this party. Amen.

 

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Devotional – Hebrews 12.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 12.1-2

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

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

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

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

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

Partying with Jesus

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

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Today marks the beginning of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. Over the next month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

I really didn’t want to go. I’m not one to feel anxious but the entire car ride was white knuckled and nauseating. As we went around the block until we could find an available parking space I came up with even more excuses to why we shouldn’t go into the party but I kept my mouth shut. While walking up the front steps my knees began to wobble but Lindsey put her hand in mine and confidently opened the front door and walked right in.

I really didn’t want to do.

Days before Lindsey had casually mentioned that we were invited to an engagement party for someone she knew from work. We were dating at the time so I was willing to do pretty much anything to keep her interested in me so I agreed to attend. The days passed and finally I decided to learn a little more about this couple before we showed up for their party. I assumed that the bride-to-be was a fellow coworker with Lindsey, that they had spent countless hours together learning about one another, but I was wrong.

She met the woman through work because she was a customer who happened to strike up a conversation one time and casually invited Lindsey to attend her engagement party. They had barely spent 30 minutes together and we were now supposed to join her and her husband-to-be for a celebration of their impending wedding.

“We can’t go,” I declared. “We don’t know them at all! If this was just a casual double date or even a dinner party I would entertain the thought of going, but we absolutely, positively, cannot go to a stranger’s engagement party!”

            Lindsey replied, “Oh yes we can, and yes we will!”

The moment Lindsey and I walked through the doorway we were engulfed into a living room filled to the brim with party-goers. Like the proverbial record scratching through a speaker system, most people turned to look at us and when no one recognized who we were they all went back to their prior conversations. To me, it was a nightmare.

Lindsey, on the other hand, was lapping it all up. She thrives on this kind of unexpected atmosphere and quickly began floating through the house to find the happy couple. I remained transfixed just on the inside of the front door watching her disappear into a large community filled with joy. It was only when she completely disappeared from view that it really hit me how even though I was in a room full of people, I felt absolutely alone.

Jesus was surrounded by a group of people at a party when someone shouted out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “A man decided to have a party and invited many. He sent out his people to those who had been invited to announce that everything was ready, but each of them started to make excuses. One of them said, ‘Sorry, I just moved and I’ve got so much to take care of at the new house; please accept my regrets.’ Another said ‘I just bought a new car and I really want to give it a test spin; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “We just got home from the honeymoon, and therefore we cannot come.’ So they returned to the party with bad news about the impending lack of attendance. The man throwing the party became frustrated and sent them back out into the streets to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”

I wandered around the party, looking for an opportunity to jump into a conversation with anyone about anything. Lindsey was invited, but I felt compelled to attend and was trying to make the best of it. I literally knew no one in the house and was hoping to find a place to stay put until Lindsey returned. In the den I encountered a group of good looking young couples who were talking about their strong financial portfolios, so I kept walking right passed them. In the backyard, sitting around a fire, there was another group of friends talking about the virtues of libertarianism, so I kept walking right passed them. In the dining room I experienced an air of exclusivism as the group insisted on telling one inside joke after another, and I decided to start the loop all over again. These were not my people.

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The crowded house felt like a never-ending loop of diversity and strangeness whereby I found no one like me. Everyone seemed so different and unlikely paired up in conversations and I continued to mingle about without ever opening my mouth.

In the kitchen I saw an opportunity for a small reprieve: a glass of water. My hope was that the act of walking into the space for a glass would give me a brief moment of purpose. With a glass in my hand, I turned away from the sink and was immediately met with an outstretched hand from a middle-aged man with a wide smile.

The servants returned from rounding up the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and still there was room at the party. The host had enough and he sent them back out once more and ordered them to compel people to come in, so that the party might be full.

The wide smile said, “My name’s Mark. Who are you?”

I returned the smile and attempted to introduce myself without giving away the strangeness of my attending a party to which I did not belong. He asked me about my work, I told him I was a student. I asked him about his work and he told me that he was in sales. We talked for about five minutes before he asked the question I dreaded: “So how do you know the happy couple?

I briefly thought about lying and making up some intricate story of our long time friendship, but after walking around without conversation for so long I decided to stick to the truth. I explained that I had no idea who they were, that they could be standing with us in the kitchen and I wouldn’t even know which two people we were celebrating. I confessed my discomfort in walking around a house without knowing a soul inside, and laid it all out.

The man looked back at me the whole time with a puzzled look on his face and then he said, “Well, I’m the father of the bride. And in my opinion it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all. So I’m happy you’re here.

Parables are a strange breed. They are heard in a number of ways, even by the same person at different times. They defy explanation and demand proclamation. They should leave us scratching our heads just likes the first disciples, they should jolt us, and they should shock us.

At times we can identify with the party host. We have all spent time preparing for a celebration, filling out all the invitations, only to have people make excuses for not attending. We have known the embarrassment of putting all our energy into something and not having nearly enough people show up for the event.

At times we can identify with the people who have excuses. We’ve all received invitations to something we don’t want to attend, or something that has grown so familiar that it no longer holds the luster it once did. We have known the ease of creating an excuse in the midst of a moment and the hope that enough other people will show up to distract from our lack of attendance.

And at times we can identify with the people compelled to attend. We have found ourselves in an environment we did not deserve to be a part of. We know the strangeness of being surrounded by people who do not look like us, nor think like us, nor speak like us. We have known the joy that comes with being caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and the thrill that comes with being welcomed into a strange and new community.

That’s the power of a parable: it can strike us differently every time we hear it. A new detail will emerge that we’ve never seen before, or we will identify with a character we’ve never thought about before. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus without succumbing to the desire of explanation. We know what it means without anyone telling us what it means, even if it upsets our expectations about what the kingdom will look like. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

A man was sitting in church one Sunday when he felt compelled to invite others to attend the following week. Whenever he brought the subject up with coworkers and friends they quickly and politely made excuses for not being able to attend. He couldn’t believe it; he was inviting them to discover God’s grace, not go to an office party. And as Sunday loomed closer, he began inviting complete strangers to join him in worship. He would rather have a church filled with oddballs and strangers discovering the grace of God, than no one at all.

A mother becomes distraught when all of the kids she invited to her son’s birthday party made excuses for not coming. She can’t bear to picture her son’s face while she places a birthday cake down at a table surrounded by empty chairs. So she gets onto Facebook and makes a plea for anyone, anyone, to come to her son’s birthday party. She would rather have a house full of strangers to celebrate her son, than for him to sit at that table all by himself.

A father rejoices when his daughter meets the man of her dreams and they plan to get married. In order to properly celebrate he sends out all the invitations he can afford to fill his house to the brim. And in the middle of the party he meets a complete stranger in the kitchen and believes that it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all.

Partying with Jesus is a strange, unexpected, and beautiful thing; precisely because Jesus loved filling places with people who by all other accounts did not belong together. He was the original melting pot for diversity. He compelled his disciples to go out into the streets to share the good news. He knew that what he had to offer would radically transform the lives of the people who received it.

All of us are here, not because we received an invitation in the mail, but because someone once compelled us to come. They believed that bringing us in to this party was worth it because it would transform our very lives. And now we are compelled again to come to the party and to the table. Here we will feast and rejoice with the bread and the cup and Jesus is the one who looks at us in the middle of the party and says, “I’m happy you’re here.” Amen.

 

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Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
Weekly Devotional Image

“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.

Sinners, Outcasts, and the Poor

John 4.3-10

But he had to go back through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritan.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.”

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If you want to know about Jesus, this is the story to read. We can read about his remarkable birth in a manger in Bethlehem, we can read about him feeding the multitudes by the sea, we can even read about him turning water into wine, but this little episode by the well is quintessential Jesus.

At the time, Jews avoided Samaritans. If they had to travel from the northern area of Galilee to the southern area of Jerusalem, most Jews would go hours or days out of their way to avoid passing through the region of Samaria that separated the two. Like Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States, the people were separated in all things. This kind of negative and polarized relationship between the groups of people had gone on for centuries to the point where, even though they had many things in common, they believed the divide was irreparable.

And yet Jesus shows up in this Samaritan city, and under the heat of the sun at noon, he goes to the well to rest. While resting, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said, “Give me a drink.”

In this simple moment, a lot is going on. To begin, the unnamed woman coming to the well at the hottest part of the day is strange. Most women would have gone to the well early in the morning when it was still cool outside. The well was the area for local gossip and fellowship; it was a site for the community. And she came to the well all alone. We learn later in the scripture that she had gone from one man to another, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture why she was separated from the other Samaritan woman, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how lonely she must have felt, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what the people in the village would have called her: “sinner.”

The woman could not believe that this Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman. And Jesus responds by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.

Jesus loves sinners. Here in this little story by the well we confront Jesus’ love for the marginalized, and his belief in the inherent worth of all people. When we imagine the depth of her thirst for acceptance, and the relief of the living water offered to her without cost, it compels us to ask: Do we see all people as children of God? Or do we see them as society sees them – sinners, outcasts, and poor?

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There is a church in Virginia that is located right across the street from a major university. For years they have explored numerous ways to get “the young people to come to church” but they have continued to decline. They thought that by offering lectures on the importance of abstinence, or the effects of excessive drinking, or how to be political and faithful, droves of the coming generations would fill the pews on Sunday mornings.

Next to the church is a row of college housing that becomes loud and filled with debauchery on the weekends. Even though the church parking lot has numerous signs saying: “Church Parking Only” certain members were known for driving by on Saturday evenings with the explicit purpose of calling the tow company to have the party goers’ cars removed.

On one particular Friday evening, while one of the committees was meeting in the social hall, a loud and sinful party was happening right across the parking lot. The members, though tasked with discussing something like the new color for the parlor, focused their time and effort on how to fix the problem next door. They finally decided to march across the parking lot and demand that the college students stop their partying and remove their cars from the parking lot.

As they knocked and knocked on the doors the sound of their knuckles disappeared into the thundering boom of the bass and they decided they had had enough and they called the police.

With satisfied smiles across their faces, the committee stood proudly in the parking lot while tow trucks removed the vehicles, and while the police escorted those who were too young to be legally drinking in handcuffs to their cruisers.

And they still wonder why no young people attend church.

Notice: in the episode with Jesus by the well he does not say to the woman, “I know you’re a sinner, and you need to be punished for your sins.” He does not call the religious authorities for her transgressions against the law. And he does not stand by with a smug look on his face when he confronts her sinful past. Instead he says, “I can offer you living water.”

There is another church in Virginia that is located right across the street from another major university. Like the first church they struggled to get the college age population to attend their church, they struggled with the sinful behavior that was happening so close, and they wondered how they could be Jesus for these young people. One night, after a steady stream of weeks when empty beers cans were found every Sunday morning on the lawn, the pastor and a group of leaders gathered in the church to pray for the community and prayerfully discern how to move forward. They contemplated calling the police, they weighed the outcome of going over to the house and knocking on the door, but an older woman suggested that they go to the Greek life council and ask how they could help.

When the president of one of the fraternities heard their question, he laughed in response and said jokingly, “If you want to help us… we could use some food and a place to hang out in the middle of the night after a party.” Without missing a beat the same older woman from the church said, “Okay. What time?”

The following weekend, a group of faithful volunteers arrived at the church at midnight and fired up their grills. They cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, set up bean bags in the social hall, and placed signs on the lawn welcoming any college student in, regardless of inebriation, for free food. The first night only a handful of students bravely entered with puzzled looks on their faces in regard to a church that was not condemning them for their behavior, but was just trying to offer food and fellowship. But over the following weeks, more and more people arrived in the social hall every weekend thankful for the love they were experiencing.

And the strangest thing started to happen. On Sundays, when church members arrived for worship, the lawn was free of empty beers can, and though some members came in with bags under their eyes, they were thrilled to discover that many of the students who had sat on the bean bags with hamburgers in their hands the night before were sitting in the pews next to them on Sunday morning.

Who are the Samaritans to us? Our church is not located next to a large university where partying behavior can be experienced through empty beer cans on our front lawn, but there are plenty of people that we want to avoid or ignore. Many of us find that the longer we’re Christian, the more likely it is that all our friends are Christians too. Following Jesus however, means building relationships with people outside the church. We, like Jesus, are called to encounter the Samaritans and show them the love of Christ, whether they ever come to church or not.

Samaritans, therefore, are the people we ignore or avoid. That neighbor who insists on letting his dog use our lawn as a toilet; that coworker who incessantly complains about everything wrong with the business without doing anything about it; that in-law who tells us how to raise our family; that homeless man who sits on the corner of the street asking for money; that college student who plays the music in his car way too loud; that woman who has gone from man to man without finding love.

Where can we find them? We don’t have a well on the front lawn of our church, and frankly it is nearly impossible to discover our Samaritans at church. They, like the college students with churches right across the street, will not come to us; we have to go to them. We can find them in the communal spaces of life: our workplaces, our neighbors, our families. Remember that Jesus did not wait in Galilee for the Samaritans to come to him; he left the comfort and convention of the day and went to meet them where they were.

How can we give them living water? We don’t have to bring a bottle of water to everyone that exists outside of the church to share with them the love of Jesus, but’s that’s not necessarily a bad place to start. That one church found that by offering food and fellowship to their local community of college students they were offering the living water that is the love of Jesus. When we host our community cook-outs on our front lawn we are offering living water to the community through bouncy houses and free food. But finding the Samaritans in our lives, and offering them living water should be a regular occurrence and not just a once a year activity.

We give Samaritans living water by loving them no matter what. Instead of wagging our fingers in judgment against their sins or strange ways, we open our ears and listen to their struggles. Instead of looking down on others and trying to fix their problems, we share with them the crazy truth that we are broken just like them. Instead of ignoring people and leaving them to their own devices, we find them where they are and offer them the living water.

This great and powerful story is a reminder, now and always, that people who are nobodies to us are usually somebodies in the eyes of Jesus. The people we ignore are often the ones Jesus would seek out. The people we would deem sinners are the ones Jesus would spend time with.

We often think of God and Church in these big and sweeping images. We read about God’s overpowering magnificence and we experience God’s presence in majestic churches like this one. So we ask: Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, like a cheeseburger in the middle of the night, like an invitation to worship, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? The answer is yes; and we will never know what the living water can transform until we meet the Samaritan where they are and offer it in the first place. Amen.

The Story (Chapter 2) – Sermon on Romans 12.1-8

Romans 12.1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.

He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.

Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.

A few days later, as the young pastor sat in the study of the parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.

Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.

We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.

Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.

The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.

We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.

A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.

According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.

At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:

The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.

I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

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For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.

It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.

But we can do more.

We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.

When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.

When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.

When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?

When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?

The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.

As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.

We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!

The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.