Stupid Questions

Devotional: 

Mark 9.32

But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 

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“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” 

I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.

But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:

“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”

“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”

However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.

We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.

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And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing! 

There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces. 

Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be. 

So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.

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Enough Already!

Matthew 6.19-21

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.

The man lived a good and faithful life. He had a loving family, a lucrative career, and he was in church nearly every single Sunday.

As he got closer to the end of his life, he heard God speak to him one day. “You have been good and faithful” boomed the voice from beyond, “and though I don’t usually do this, I’m going to grant you a special dispensation. When you die you may bring a briefcase full of whatever you want to heaven.

The man was overwhelmed by the generous act of God, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an incredibly difficult decision to make. Most night he laid awake staring at the ceiling running through his possessions in his mind until, after months of deliberation, he came to a decision.

When his days came to an end, he found himself standing in line outside the pearly gates with a great assortment of people. Though, unlike anyone else, he held a briefcase in his hand. The whispers and stares followed him all the way through the line until he stood right before St. Peter.

The first disciple asked, “What’s that in your hand?”

The man proudly retorted that he and God had come to an agreement and that he was able to bring a briefcase to heaven.

Peter jumped up off his cloud, and clasped his hands to his mouth. “So you’re the one! The angels and I have been talking about you for a long time, and we’ve got a pretty good pool going about what’s inside. So, do you mind? Can I take a peak?”

The man beamed with bride as he laid the briefcase on the ground and opened it up.

Gold bars.

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Of all the things the man could’ve picked, among all his possessions, he decided to bring a few gold bars.

He looked up at Peter excited to see the look on his face, but Peter just raised an eyebrow and said, “Asphalt?”

Because, you know, in heaven the streets are paved with gold…

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth! Friends, Jesus is speaking to us throughout the centuries and the time has come for all of us to close our bank accounts, empty out all of our garages and attics, and start saving in heaven!

Right?

We’re going to spend more time talking specifically about money next week, but today we are talking about possessions, and specifically how possessed we are by our possessions. 

Check this out: Did you know that here in the United States there are more self-storage facilities than Starbucks and McDonalds combined!?!?

Think about that for just a moment, think about how you can’t go anywhere around here without the coffee seller or the golden arches, and yet there are more self-storage facilities!

The amount of space in our self-storage facilities is so ridiculously large in fact, that we could fit every man, woman, and child inside of them with room to spare.

And of the people who own a storage unit, the majority of them have both attic space and garage space at home.

Possessions

I joked months ago that this church has a storage problem because we simply had too much stuff. And so we decided to take a day to go through most of the items we had stored just to start clearing things out – Friends we had more ziplock bags full of dried out markers than I could count – we had Vacation Bible School materials from 20 years ago – we have copies of every bulletin this church has ever used. EVER.

The church is not immune to the problem of possessions.

Jesus’ little vignette in which he lays out the dilemma is one that I’m sure most of us are familiar with – but there’s some subtle wordplay that we miss. Because, in English, we translate Jesus’ words as, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” But in Greek it reads more like, “Do not treasure up your treasures.”

But why not? What’s so wrong with working hard to accumulate possessions? What’s the problem with running out of space to store all of our stuff? 

Well, Jesus would have us remember that treasuring up all of that treasure ultimately leads to its demise. Moths, rust, and thieves will consume all that we save is we treasure it away. 

And we’ve got to hand it to Jesus on this one – he’s right. The more we accumulate, the more we store, the more we possess, the more the dust accumulates, the more we run out of space, the more we can’t even really remember what’s in the bottom of that box on the far side of the garage.

But Jesus is also pushing us to a different understanding as well. He’s not just gathering the disciples around for a little advice on how to be mindful of the fragility of our possessions, but its also a lesson in the theological ramifications of treasuring up our treasures.

It, the struggle with possessions, runs throughout the scriptures. Abraham desperately wants a son, someone to pass his possessions on to. The Hebrews are delivered from slavery in Egypt only to think back on all the stuff they left back in Egypt. After entering the Promised Land, the people of God habitually lament losing the thing they care about most over and over again – not their relationship with God, but all of their stuff back in Jerusalem.

Even in the New Testament, the rich young ruler, James and John, Ananias and Sapphira, they all experience the loss (or potential loss) of worldly goods and it just about undoes them. 

Having stuff, accumulating possessions, isn’t a sin. Our things can be used for both good and evil. It’s when the love of our stuff, when we feel an intense desire to lock it up and away, that we become blind from other things in our lives. And, God forbid, we start encroaching on a slippery slope that seems to never end.

First we possess something we truly desire – but then when we see what other people have and we start doing whatever it takes to get it. It’s why the line for new iPhones every fall stretches far beyond every Apple Store.

Then, whenever we acquire the item that was pulling at our heart strings, we intensely desire something else or more of the original item and we are less inclined to share what we have. It’s why we find ourselves trading in a car for the updated model when nothing is really wrong with out current mode of transportation.

And finally we just keep consuming one thing after another, even when we are beyond full. It’s why the self-storage business is a multi-billion dollar industry and we wind up buying space just to have room for all of our stuff.

But don’t we have enough already? Are we so discontented by our stuff that the only remedy is more of it? Do we possess our possessions, or are we possessed by our possessions?

Here’s a dose of some hard truth – at the end of our days, everything goes into a box. A box that’s about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. And we can’t take anything else with us.

Do not treasure up your treasures on earth, but treasure up your treasures in heaven. Some will say that Jesus is pleading with his followers across the sands of time to treasure up our treasures in heaven by giving money to the church. And, though you can take it that way, I think Jesus is being a little more subtle. As the King of the Kingdom, as the one inaugurating the new way, Jesus knows that when we treasure up our treasures on earth, they no longer make a difference, and they start to weigh us down.

But by treasuring up our treasures in heaven, by knowing what really matters and what really doesn’t, we are freed from the tyranny of sinful accumulation and we start to see and know that we are God’s treasure.

Because, God’s heart is with us.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. Last week we were tasked with taking time everyday to be grateful by our time. This week we have a clean out challenge.

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We are asking that everyone set aside some time this week to get rid of some stuff. In my house we have a drawer that has a little bit of everything in it, and maybe you have one like that, and perhaps thats the project you want to tackle. Take out the drawer, go through every item, and really ask yourself whether you need it or not. If the items you discard can be used by someone else, then take them to a local goodwill or salvation army, if they can be recycled then recycle them.

Pick one drawer, one box, one closet – it doesn’t matter what it is, but go through it and get ride of some of your possessions. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the crazy and ridiculous ways that we are accumulating far more items than we could ever possibility need, too many us us are are focusing on earthly things instead of heavenly things.

So you can keep it as simple as cleaning out one place, one depository of items. Or you can take it a step farther and clean out an entire room – going through every drawer, every box, every shelf while asking what of all the items are actually giving you life, and which are holding you back.

Or you can even take it one step farther and pick out individuals whom you know would be blessed by some of your possessions. Instead of taking it to a local donation place, bring them to someone you know would love it and let them experience something that used to bring you life and joy. 

As we hear about the perennial struggle with possessions, as we begin to imagine that space in our homes that is overrun with stuff, we might become so bogged down in our worry and fear and attachment that we forget how God was willing to part with God’s greatest possession.

Because, strangely enough, God’s greatest possession, God’s beloved, is Jesus Christ. And, in God’s great and perplexing wisdom, God chose not to treasure up God’s greatest treasure but instead decided to give it away on our behalf. 

We know where God’s heart is because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We know how much of a challenge this will be because we find ourselves surrounded by mountains of stuff that shackle us to limited visions of reality. 

We know the frightening dimension of giving away our possessions because as Christians we regularly encounter the knowledge of God’s profound generosity in the gift of his only begotten Son.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen. 

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Psalm 90.1-12

Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 

For the month of September we’re going to keep things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, money, possessions, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today. 

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I walked into the oil change waiting room and discovered a great mosaic of people who littered the chairs and walls with their waiting bodies. There, in that tiny dimly lit room, was a microcosm of Woodbridge in which just about every person and culture and community was represented. And in the midst of this great variety of differences, there was one thing that bound all of us together: impatience.

From the time it took to walk through the door to the only open seat, I took in the surroundings like a detective looking for clues… 

There was the mom fiddling with her cellphone while using her other hand to gently rock her infant back and forth in a stroller while her toddler was laughing manically in the corner as he ripped pages out of magazines one at a time.

There was a youngish businessman who looked like he was going to wear straight through the bottom of his $900 shoes as he paced back and forth muttering profanities under his breath.

There was the teenager who, I kid you not, was using a cellphone in each hand while his eyes were dashing back and forth as he no doubt kept his friends updated through every form of social media about the buzzkill of waiting for his car to be ready.

And there was me, the inconspicuous pastor who sat down and promptly opened up my laptop to start working on this very sermon. I got all of one line written when a much older gentleman caned his way into the room and decisively frowned as he saw not a single open chair.

Friends, I have to admit that my first reaction was to sink a little lower in my chair and tell myself not to make eye contact, because if I made eye contact I knew I would offer my spot, and the hoped for hour of good work would be lost, and he would probably try to have a conversation with me.

But with every passing second, and every ignored glance, the man just kept standing there as if the only thing holding him up was the tennis balled walker that shook ever so slightly under his hands.

So, of course, I begrudgingly packed up the computer, and motioned for the man to take my seat.

And he beamed.

If I were to ask you to describe your life, not here in front of everyone but say we were having lunch, what would you say? Where does your mind travel first?

Do you think your life is simple, or does it feel complicated? 

Time is something all of us think about and mull over more than just about anything else. I could go on and on with stories of people feeling overwhelmed by the concerns and constrains of time. We are fascinated by the fictitious accounts of time travel because they drive deep into the heart of our fears regarding time. We listen to songs about how time keeps on slipping slipping slipping. 

Even in our hymns! Time is now fleeting the moments are passing…

We all experience time differently – those of us chasing our kids around feel very different about time than the empty nesters next door, and very different than the teenagers just hoping to breeze through high school. 

Time is a harsh mistress.

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And even though we all experience it differently, our general attitude toward it is largely the same: we don’t have enough of it.

Last week, I stood here before all of you at the beginning of our worship service, and I made a joke about how even though I was on vacation for a week at the beach, I spent most of it chasing my son from the dunes to the ocean over and over again. I told you that it was exhausting. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that off the cuff comment in worship. Because I went on vacation! And then came back to all of this, only to complain about my vacation!

The fact that we live in a world in which some of us believe we need vacation from vacation should be enough to give us pause about our struggles with time.

And so of course, we wrestle with the day to day, we complain about not having enough time, we lament all the things we have been unable to complete, we stress about future endeavors, and our time becomes incredibly complex.

I stood just off to the side leaning against the wall as the older gentleman eased into my former seat. I motioned to grab a book out of my bag but before I had a chance to open it up the man said, “Don’t you just love getting your oil changed?” Thinking he was maybe addressing the room, I waited for anyone to respond until it was clear he was speaking to me. And then, as I thought about the question, I wondered, “Who in the world likes getting their oil changed?!?!” So I just muttered some sort of inaudible affirmation and the man said, “When else do you get such a great opportunity to make a stranger into a friend?” 

And then he did.

For an hour and a half, that honestly only felt like fifteen minutes, we started the bonds of friendship. I learned about his life and wife, his favorite television program (his words), and I even discovered that he has a pretty consistent record of ruining meatloaf.

And the more we talked, the more I found myself relaxing, the more I forgot why I was standing around in a room full of strangers, and when the service writer called out my name, I thought about ignoring it just so I could stick around a little longer.

When I went to shake his hand and say goodbye the last thing he said to me was, “Thanks for sharing your time with me.”

Our time has been changed in Jesus Christ because Jesus is God’s time for us. While we continue to stumble around in a world in which we feel like we never have enough time, God triumphantly declares, “I have time for you!” That, in its deepest and simplest way, its what the incarnation is. God made God’s self available to us in the person of Christ that we might truly know what the gift of time really is.

Because here, on this side of Easter, we live in a new created time. God is free for us, and God is with us and among us, God has become us. And that Good News is all the stranger when we encounter the words read for us this morning. According to the psalmist… God is anything but us! For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, you sweep them away. We fly away but you are God forever. 

The psalmist creates for us a vision of the divine as the unmovable and unshakable presence of eternity in which all of us are like the sands of time swept away almost without notice. Reading this psalm, at face value, makes us dread the passage of time even more! But it is the light of Christ, in the glorious news of God’s incarnation, we discover the passion of the Good News that God gave us time in Jesus.

To have time for someone else might not seem like much. Most of us here encounter a great number of people every day or every week, we exchange news and maintain conversations without having to give it much thought. But in reality, having time for someone else is to make manifest all the blessings one person can show another.

When we give anyone our time, we give them the last and most personal thing we have to give at all, namely ourselves.

Time, with its finite and fleeting nature, is the one thing all of us have, though none of us know how much of it we have. That’s what makes it so confounding. We imagine it to be so much of a precious commodity that we worry ourselves into oblivion about wasting any of it.

But time, at least Godly time – biblical time, is much more simple than that. 

So teach us, O Lord, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart – When we spend as much time as we do worrying about time, we neglect to do the good and important work of being appreciative for the time we have been given. Or, to put it another way, we spend so much time worrying about time, that we aren’t grateful for time at all.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, each Sunday this month we will encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. This week, each of us will be challenged to reimagine our calendars (and these instructions will be handed out after the service). We are asking that every night, until next Sunday, you take the time to write down in a journal at least one thing that happened to you during that day for which you are grateful. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the myriad of ways we are fast-forwarding through the frantic and frantic pace of life, far too many of us are not taking the time to be mindful of our time. 

So you can keep it as simple as writing down one thing that happened for which you are grateful. Time set apart to reflect on your time. 

Or you can take it a step farther and write about how much time you spent on things that give you life, and things that don’t. 

Or you can take it even one step farther and write about ways in which you will try to spend more more time the following day on connecting with God, and with other people. 

When we take the time, to be grateful for our time, that’s when the time around us begins to change. Because instead of resenting our lack of time we begin to appreciate what time we do have. Instead of belittling others for taking up our time, we begin to see them as timely people who have given their time to us. And instead of continuing to meander and miss the beauty of the time we have been given, we begin to see that God is the one who gave it to us. Amen.

Being A Christian Is Awesome

John 6.48

I am the bread of life.

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The disciples must have scratched their heads a lot. I mean… Jesus can be pretty obtuse. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” “One must be born again…” “I am the bread of life.” When we read Jesus’ words today, we are blessed (and cursed) with anachronism. Which is to say, we read backwards from our own frame of reference, and it makes it very difficult to hear the words as the disciples heard them.

We know from Sunday School lessons and half-decent sermons that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed because only a tiny amount of faith is necessary to transform the entire world – The disciples’ fledging faith following the crucifixion (and resurrection) was enough to turn the world upside down.

We know from randomly exploring the bible during mediocre sermons that being born again does not mean a literal re-birth from our mother’s wombs. However, we find new life, redeemed life, in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

And we know through regular journeys down the aisle to the altar that Jesus is the bread offered to us as the spiritual food necessary for this strange thing we call life.

But how confusing was all of this to the first disciples? We have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, but they had to hear all of this for the first time, without a lot of context.

Years ago, after a worship service ended, a number of us were standing around enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened.

“So let me get this straight” the boy started, “when we have communion, everyone is invited?

“Of course,” the grandfather remarked casually.

“And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?”

The grandfather hesitated for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy, of course, stood silently for a moment, and then all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “Being a Christian is awesome!”

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That young boy’s encounter with the strange and beautiful mystery of Jesus as the bread of life is as close as I’ve ever seen someone come to how the disciples must have felt. It is perplexing and wonderful and awesome. But even more perplexing, wonderful, and awesome than the truth that Jesus is the bread of life is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it! Regardless of our failures and shortcomings, in spite of our desires and desertions, beyond our anachronism and any other isms, Jesus offers us himself, the bread of life.

And it is enough.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.

The Cost of Victory

2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

Early in the morning on the 4th of July, a young woman and a group of friends made their way to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty looks out across the waters. Like countless people gathering to celebrate Independence Day, they looked like everybody else ready to enjoy the day. However, upon arrival, they quickly unfurled a banner over a railing near the base of the statue that said, “Abolish ICE!” and they boosted the young woman up onto the statue.

For nearly three hours she made her way around the statue while police attempted to bring her down. Whenever they got close she shouted out her intention, “I will stay here until all the children are released!”

But after three hours of evasion, the police eventually arrested her, and brought her down off of Lady Liberty.

A spokesperson for the protestors said the demonstration was thematically charged by the belief that Lady Liberty weeps over how the country is treating children and families at the border.

The main protestor, the young woman, was eventually identified and taken in to custody. She clearly violated a number of state and federal laws, and will be prosecuted in the not too distant future.

            So what will be the cost of her victory? Prison? Steep financial fines?

            And was she even victorious? What was she hoping to accomplish?

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All the tribes of Israel came together to speak with David. Echoing the profound words of their first ancestor “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” they said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. Saul was once king but you are the one who led Israel.” And they anointed David king. He was thirty years old.

After thirty years of serving the Lord, from striking down Goliath, to attending the needs of the mad king, to lamenting over his death, David finally became the king.

When you imagine David, what do you picture? Do you see the little shepherd boy with curly hair running through the fields? Do you think of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant with nothing but a loincloth? Do you see the humble king walking among the people of God?

David is the de facto king figure of scripture. From this point forward he, even more than Moses, is the archetype for what it means to lead God’s people. Solomon will ask God to make him a leader like his father David, the prophets will remember the faithful times of David’s reign when looking out at idolatry. Even during the days of Jesus, the people of God will look for a new David to lead the revolt against the imperial power of Rome.

And we might like the version of David often handed to us: the Goliath killer, the lute player, the psalm scribers, the king who united Israel. But it all came with a cost.

            Every great victory leaves a loser in the ditch, and David is no exception.

I’ve brought this up before, but it’s helpful to know that someone like me does not pick the scriptures we use on Sunday morning at random. Years ago a group of ecumenical Christians compiled a three-year cycle of four readings for every Sunday called the revised common lectionary. It was designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture without being constrained by the choice of the preacher.

Depending on the season we might spend weeks going through one of Paul’s letters, or we can jump around the psalter, or just follow the narrative of Jesus’ life from the gospel. Regardless of what we hear in church, it was almost always decided for us.

Today is no exception.

The Lectionary says that the Old Testament reading today should be 2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10. It’s a brilliant little vignette in David’s rise to the throne of Israel. But notice: there are three verses missing.

            Why?

Sometimes verses are omitted because we are brought to the conclusion of a story without being weighed down by superfluous details. Sometimes the narrative is interrupted and it makes logical sense to jump from one place to another.

But sometimes the lectionary omits verses because they are difficult to handle, they make people like you and me uncomfortable, and we don’t know what to do with them.

I don’t often ask you to do this, but I would like all of us to pick up a pew bible and turn to 2 Samuel 5 (OT page 218). We read earlier that all of the elders joined together, and they anointed David king. We read about how David was thirty years old when he began to reign. We read about how long he ruled. But before we jump to verse 9, where we learn he occupied Jerusalem, let’s read about what he had to do to achieve that victory…

6 – The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” – thinking, “David cannot come in here.”

7 – Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David.

8 – David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those who David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

The Lectionary, which thousands of churches follow, omits those three verses. And those three verses completely change the emotional impact of the story. Because without those three verses all we learn about is David becoming king. And with the three verses, we learn what kind of king David would be.

            Victory comes with a cost.

David sent his warriors on a surprise attack into the city through the water shaft. However, they would not only sneak through to shock the enemy combatants, but David also ordered the massacre of the blind and the lame.

And after the carnage, they occupied the stronghold and named the place the city of David. A great and decisive victory for the people of God, one in which even the blind and lame were left bloodied in the streets.

Scripture is no joke my friends. In this crazy and bewildering assortment of poetry, prose, and pragmatism, we discover the incredible mountaintop moments of God’s glory, and the deep valleys of humanity’s shame.

It is said that the winners write the history books, and this is true. Where might we find the details from the Jebusites perspective? Where can we read about the plight of the blind and lame left to die in the city of David?

We can’t, because they lost.

And yet when we look back on the life of David, we know and remember that his first act as king from taking the city of Jerusalem and uniting the people called Israel. But if we follow the lectionary, we lose sight of how far he was willing to go to do so.

On Wednesday morning my family and I piled up our supplies in our Radio Flyer wagon and we made our way down to our neighborhood’s 4th of July parade. We sat in the limited shade with great anticipation as we heard the sirens and marching bands in the distance. And for more than an hour we cheered and celebrated as all sorts of people from the community walked past us in celebration of our country’s independence.

Hours later, we gathered with neighbors for a backyard barbeque and watched as our children splashed around in a kiddie pool. We exchanged stories of 4th of Julys past, and offered thoughts about future celebrations.

In the evening, I rocked my son to sleep with the faint smell of gunpowder wafting up from his hair, still holding on to the firework displays in our front yard, and the distant pops of fireworks echoed in his room.

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It was a great day, one for which I am grateful. I love living in this place we call the United States, for the freedoms I experience to worship the God I love, and to gather with people like you to do so.

            But throughout the sea of red, white, and blue, between hot dogs and hamburgers, surrounding the bright colors in the sky was the constant and ringing reminder: What price did we pay for this?

            Or, better put, what price did others pay for this?

This country, and our love of it, flirts very closely with what Jesus called idolatry. When the country we live in becomes more important than the God who created us, when the lights in the sky on the 4th of July shine brighter than the bread and cup on this table, when we care more about what’s happening in Washington DC than what’s happening in our local community, then we have a problem.

And part of the problem is that, like David, we forget the tremendous cost of our victory.

We don’t take the time to repent for the millions of lives that have been taken in order for us to form a more perfect union. We ignore the stories and plights of the native peoples from whom we stole this land. We dismiss the broken systems of racial inequality that are still very much manifest in ways that began when black and brown bodies were stolen and forced into slave labor. We overlook how women were, and still are, mistreated and disrespected for no reason other than their difference in genitalia.

What we have here, it’s pretty good. Better than most places in the world, if not the best. But it all came with a cost.

People matter. Regardless of whether they are blind or lame, native or immigrant, black or white, male or female, people matter.

And for David, some people didn’t matter.

David occupied the city Jerusalem with the bodies of his own people, by showing up in flesh and blood and bone – By sneaking through the water shaft to kill the blind and the lame.

Centuries ago, this country was occupied with bodies by those who showed up in flesh and blood and bone – By stealing land from those who were here before, by breaking the bones of those forced to work the land, by belittling those who bore the next generations in their wombs.

David occupied Jerusalem with violence, with the threats against the blood and bones of others. So too, America is occupied with violence, with threat against the blood and the bones of others.

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That same violence was present in the city of Jerusalem centuries after David stormed through the city, when the gathered people shouted the name of a different shepherd boy, though this time they demanded for him to be crucified on a cross. With every hammer and nail through his bones and flesh, echoes of the past, present, and future rang for everyone to hear. With his cross hanging high in the sky, all of the bodies whose blood rolled through the streets of Jerusalem, and every broken body that would pave the way for this country were also held high for all to see.

In Jesus we discover the true victory, a triumph that came at the cost of God’s own life. At this meal, in this bread and cup, we find the peace of Jesus that occupies us when we feast. In these pews, in the space between us filled by the Spirit, we experience the beginning of a new reality in which victory is defined not by violence, but by grace.

David is a far more complex character than we ever give him credit for, and America is far more complicit with the violence and brokenness of the world than we often remember, but that does not mean that both of them should be dismissed or broken down. We can still rejoice in the shepherd boy who united Israel, and we can still celebrate the country in which we live. But we cannot forget the cost of their victories, nor can we forget the blood that has been spilled in both of their names.

Because in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection we encounter the end of sacrifices, the end of violence as a means by which we change the world. Jesus has already changed the world, Jesus occupied our place on the cross, and God is with us. Amen.

Christianity and the Fourth of July

2 Corinthians 12.10

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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On the 4th of July, Americans bring out all the red, white, and blue we can muster and we fill the sky with fireworks. It is always a spectacle to behold. The day encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, festivities, and food!

And behind the colorful outfits, and backyard barbeques, and displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th of July is all about strength. So much of what Americans do on the 4th points to the country’s strength in the realm of economics and militaristic might and total freedom.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in our communities celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that the day doesn’t really belong to us.

Can we wear red, white, and blue? Of course, though we should oppose forms of nationalism that result in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course, but we must not forget that America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Of course, though we cannot let them blind us to the injustice that is taking place each and every day within our borders.

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The 4th of July does not belong to us not because Christians are against America, but simply because our hopes, dreams, and desires have been formed by the Lord. What we experience across the country as we mark the independence is fun and full of power, but it will never compare to the weakness that is true strength in the bread and wine at the communion table and the water in the baptismal font.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us such that we wouldn’t have to.

Therefore, should we avoid the practices that make the 4th of July what it is? Should we abstain from the hot dogs, and pool parties, and fireworks?

Of course not.

But if those things are more compelling and life-giving that the Word of the Lord revealed through Jesus the Christ, then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move and have our being such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that overshadows all fireworks.

In Jesus Christ we begin to see that weakness is actually strength.