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?

Water bucket being raised from a well

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.

This Is NOT Appropriate For Church – Sermon on Joshua 2.1-14

Joshua 2.1-14

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a good sign of faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Today we begin our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Last Advent I asked all of you to submit questions or topics for preaching that you have always wanted to hear about from the pulpit. I received so many questions and comments that I was unable to address all of them during our January series on Questions, so I decided to save this particular series for later. It was incredible for me to discover how many of you wanted to hear about the women from scripture. I remember one card said, “I hear there are these great women from the Bible, but no one ever preaches on them.” So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore dynamic and feminine faith.

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Sometimes we read stories from the bible that are not appropriate for church. A few weeks ago we did just that as we remembered Elisha and the she-bears, and Isaiah getting naked for three years. Every once and a while we come across that passage that is so daring and vulgar that we would rather ignore it, and most of all, we would not read it aloud in church.

Rahab the harlot. A woman of ill-repute. From the Red Light district becomes the savior for a few spies.

Why in the world would God use her to save his people? Rahab the harlot? I mean I would understand if God chose Rahab the UMW president, or Rahab the Sunday School teacher, but Rahab the prostitute? This is not appropriate for church.

Moses has died. He led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, and handed over God’s people to Joshua. Joshua in turn takes care of the nomadic nation and sends spies ahead of them to survey the land and, in particular, Jericho.

Two men, hand-picked by their leader, sneak their way into the city, and as it sometimes happens to young men close to the edge of death, they arrive at Rahab’s place in the bad part of town.

The king catches wind that some spies had entered the city and he sent his own men to capture them. When the foot-soldiers arrive at Rahab’s place, she listens to their questions, and she lies! Perhaps as only women of the night can do, she peaked from behind the door, offered that dynamite smile, and said with confidence, “Sure, there were two Jewish guys here earlier, but they paid for everything, and went on their way. I’m sure if you start after them right now, you’ll be able to catch them.

While the king’s men traveled down the road, sure their bounty was just ahead of them, Rahab returned to the roof where she had hidden the Hebrews. She explains that she had heard of the mighty acts of their God, how they were delivered from Egypt, and defeated their enemies. In return for saving their lives, she asks for them to repay the favor when they return to Jericho to destroy the city.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking right now: Seriously Taylor? You told us you were going to preach on women of faith and this is who you picked for us? Rahab? She’s a conniving and lying harlot! 

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However, the Old and New Testaments are filled with saintly characters who have both enviable and regrettable characteristics. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked after landing the Ark, King David lusts after Bathsheba and plots to have her husband killed, Peter denies Christ three times after his arrest. What becomes important, what sets them apart, is that God wants them to do something holy, not that they were holy to begin with.

Rahab, full of faith, heard about how the Lord delivered his people, and Rahab believes and embraces God as supreme. Her declaration and acts of salvation towards the spies are more than actions and words; she is worshipping the Almighty. Even with her scandalous background, something not appropriate for church, Rahab experienced the greatest wonder of all – God’s limitless love and power to use and save the least likely of people. 

After church last week Lindsey and I left Staunton and we traveled to Alexandria to be with my family. Not only were we planning to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, but we were going to surprise one of my grandmothers for her 81st birthday.

I love my grandmother tremendously. Ever since I was a child she has referred to me as “precious lamb of Jesus Christ,” she has been there for every major moment of my life, and still shouts out with great joy every time I call her or visit her.

On Monday evening, after surprising her, we sat around my parents’ dining room table to enjoy a home cooked meal and celebrate my Gran. One of the more wonderful qualities that I inherited from her is the ability to ask questions that lead to conversation. I began with: “I want everyone to go around the table and share a story about Gran that brings you joy or made you laugh.

My mother told the story about how when she was a child, my grandmother would dress up like a waitress, sit my mother and her friends down at the table, and would take their order for lunch. The options were obviously limited, but it made the girls feel special, and I can just imagine them giggling as my grandmother scribbled away the orders for Grilled Cheese sandwiches.

I told the story about how my grandmother was always trying to teach us something new. When I was quite young, she used to require my sisters and I to learn a new word from the dictionary whenever we stayed the night at her house. The only word I can remember learning was “Taxidermy.” But not only were we required to learn a new word, but we had to use it in a sentence when our parents returned! I can only imagine the kind of sentence I came up with when I was 8 years old with the word taxidermy in it!

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But my favorite story is the one that Lindsey told. Gran had come over for dinner one night while we were all together, and when the evening came to a close she could not find her keys anywhere. We searched all over that house; taking off the couch cushions, crawling on the carpets while sweeping our hands, we even emptied out the trashcan just in case. But as it would happen, the keys were nowhere to be found. I eventually drove her home in my own car and used the spare key to let her into her house, with the hope of finding her car key sometime soon. Thirty minutes later my grandmother called. “I was just getting ready for bed,” she said, “and wouldn’t you know it, but I found my keys in my bosom!

Some things are not appropriate for church.

While I sat there listening to the hilarious stories from my grandmother’s life I was struck with the sensation of awe and love. My grandmother has embodied, for me, a life of faith and dedication, one that I try to emulate daily. But I also realized, that I know nothing negative about her. In my experience, coupled with all the stories I have heard, everything about her life is positive. Yet I know that she could not have lived a perfect life. That, like me, she has sinned, she has fallen short of God’s glory, she has made mistakes, she has regrets.

Everyone has something from their past that they are not proud of. What I believe Rahab, and my grandmother, have to teach us this morning is that we are not defined by the mistakes and shortcomings and judgements from the past.

By the time the New Testament was written, Rahab is remembered among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.5), regarded as an example of living faith (Hebrews 11.31), and justified by her works (James 2.25). By the time I was born my Grandmother had become the sweet woman full of life and laughter that I have always experienced. Whatever they did in the past matters little to the Lord. He did not judge them for their lives, but called them to respond to the grace poured out on their lives.

Can you imagine how strong Rahab’s belief and faith must have been? To sell her body the way she did, to be powerless and insignificant, and then she grabbed hold of her own destiny and lived faithfully. Two strangers had appeared that night, just like everyone else that walked through her doors, but her fear and faith propelled her into hiding them. She saw an opportunity to change her life, to save the lives of her family, and she did so.

Rahab, thinking of all that she had heard about the Lord, lied to the king’s men and came to terms with the spies. She refused to let her status and place in life limit her power for saving others. She was convinced that the city would fall at the hands of the Hebrews, but she was not simply motivated by fear; she was profoundly impressed with the news and strength of the God of Israel. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Her profession might not be appropriate for church, but her faithfulness is something we can all admire.

If you take a moment to look around the sanctuary, what do you see? Do you see perfect couples sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand? Do you see loving families with children all sitting neatly in their pews? Do you see men and women who are full of faith and grace, capable of love and mercy? Do you see grandparents who adore their grandchildren?

I see a church full of Rahabs. I see people sitting in the pews with pasts they would prefer to remain hidden and untouched. I see families that are broken and full of disappointment. I see careers that have floundered, former decisions that have derailed lives, and regrets about choices that changed everything.

The beauty of the church is that it is full of Rahabs, people like you and me, that have been brought together to be the body of Christ for the world. The immense wonder and joy of the church is that in spite of our dark pasts we have been called to a brilliant present. That like Rahab we can become saintly by responding to the tasks and call that God places on our lives.

If we kept out everything that was not appropriate for church, then we would have an empty building. All of us, with our brokenness and disappointments, with our sins and temptations, have moments from our lives that are not appropriate for this place. However, that is precisely why we are here.

God’s sees us, knows us, calls us by name, and recognizes our potential in spite of our faults. God looks on all the Rahabs of the world, people like us, and beckons us to the Table, to the feast that we do not deserve simply because he loves us.

Look around at one another my friends, do not cast the first stone in judgement, do not sit high and look down on your brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, rejoice; give thanks to the Lord of heaven and earth who loves you, the God who calls on harlots to be helpers, sinners to be saints, and Christians to act like Christ.

Amen.

Take Up Your (Cross) Collar – Sermon on Matthew 11.25-30

Matthew 11.25-30

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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I wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Bartholomew probably nodded along in agreement, James and John might have clapped in approval, but there’s a chance that Peter said what I think whenever I come across this passage: “Is he serious?

I mean, in reality, it would seem that what Jesus is talking about here is rather ironic. My yoke is easy and the burden is light? Coming from the one who said: take up your cross and follow me, those who wish to save their life must lose it, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor, let the dead bury the dead, is it easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven… it seems a little paradoxical for him to claim that is yoke his easy and the burden is light. 

When we take a step back and look at the greater picture of this address, Jesus’ invitation is not to the work burdened, nor the sin-burdened, but to the law burdened, to those who felt the heavy weight of religiosity. At a time when law observance was followed by some to a ridiculous degree, Jesus triumphantly invited the weary to come to him for rest.

The promise for the weary is not, however, a rest from inactivity. What Christ offers to the tired is not a vacation from the law but a less burdensome way of fulfilling it. At particular points during his ministry Jesus’ interpretation of the law was more lenient (observing the Sabbath) and at other times more stringent (divorce, acts of mercy, forgiveness). The main thrust being that the weighted matters of the law can be simplified by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Compared to the other law followers of his time, Jesus is offering a lesser burden of religious existence. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

It brings me more joy than I can describe to know that I have been serving as the pastor of St. John’s for more than a year. I have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective story, the way we have all come to know God in our lives, and I look forward to our continued journeys of faith.

Years ago a good friend of mine had just finished his first year in ministry, like me, when the “honeymoon” period came to an abrupt end. They say that the “honeymoon” period can last anywhere from 6-18 months; the church body becomes so excited with a new pastor that they are willing to look past the old problems to envision a new reality of faith. However, as with all things, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end. Honeymoons can end by a simple mistake from the pulpit, a forgotten phone call to a parishioner in need, or simply when the new shiny toy looses its luster. For my friend, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt during a church council meeting.

After serving for an entire year it appeared as if things were finally getting better for the church; they had new visitors attending worship, new programs had taken off, and they even had a few youth present during church gatherings. Some of the lay people had come to describe this new young pastor as the shot in the arm that the church had desperately needed. He was their little Messiah, inaugurating a new age and time for the church when it could return to its former glory.

The church council meeting took place in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee one evening shortly after his one year anniversary. The leadership of the church sat appropriately in the stiff folding chairs and exchanged pleasantries about the comings and goings of town until the real business came to the floor: The much needed update to the curtains in the fellowship hall. He describes the moment as a eternity of debating what color would best accent the needs of the hall where peoples’ feeling were hurt over the color-coordination. And then they talked about replacing the organ, and the sanctuary windows. They talked about the only two children in worship, just two, who were deemed disruptive to the older folk. And when they were done complaining about the children, they started to complain about my friend…

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The shut-in list was passed around the table until it arrived in his lap when someone said, “the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list. Our last pastor made sure that each of them were visited one a week.” “Thats wonderful” my friend replied, “Who visits them?” “The pastor does!” they all agreed in unison.

My friend looked down at the list and read the names of the faithful church members who could no longer attend. While he sat there in silence reading over the list one of the older women spoke up, “this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’ve always been successful

“Successful at what?” he said. “There are 36 names on this list. That means there were 4 more people on this list than there were in church last Sunday. I don’t think you’ve been successful at all.”

And thus the honeymoon came to an abrupt conclusion. 

 

My friend was young, brash, and foolish, and he was wrong. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to visit the shut-ins, to maintain a connection between the people and their church. But he was also right about something; the call of discipleship rest on all of us, not just the pastor.

Once, while I was working on a sermon, I got a call letting me know that a beloved woman from the church I was serving had just been admitted to the local hospital after having a stroke. I remember leaving my my computer and bible open on my desk, and driving straight to the hospital. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she talked to me about everything that had happened to her, her inability to move some of her fingers, her fears about being able to return to the normalcy of life, but the thing that stuck with me most was the last thing she said before I left.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she said. “I miss my church. I’m so sorry that I haven’t had a chance to come hear you preach, but I’ve been too sick to leave the house and my hearing has gotten so bad. I miss the people. I’ve received a lot of cards that have helped to cheer me up. But you know what? No one has come to visit me. And the only reason you’re here is because I’m in the hospital.

I am a professional Christian. I have it easy. I am paid by you to live out my faith, order the church, preside over the sacraments, proclaim the Word of the Lord, and serve the needs of the community. I attend our committee meetings to help with the ordering of the church, I pray over the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, I preach sermons from this pulpit every week, and when someone has a need I leave what I’m doing to be with them. Going to visit someone in the hospital is what I am called to do. However, one of the hardest things to accept and live into, is our shared commitment to take care of one another.

I went to see that woman in the hospital because I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I went because I am a pastor, but more importantly I went because I am a Christian. When I wear my clergy collar it is a constant reminder that I am called to act, think, live, and behave like a Christian. This collar has become my yoke. It sits uncomfortably around my neck as a constant reminder of who I am and whose I am. Im not proud to admit it but, sometimes, I need to wear it in order to live out my faith. Without this yoke around my neck it becomes too easy to fade into the crowd and forget my obligation to make God’s kingdom alive in the world. I am weak enough that I need to have something like this to help me remain faithful.

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And so I wonder… I ask myself: Did I go see her because it was the right thing to do? Or did I go see her because that’s what you expect me to do?

When you wear something like this around your neck you begin to act differently. It is an inescapable demarkation that I have given my life to Christ to live a radically transformed life that often feels burdensome and heavy, unlike the easy yoke of today’s scripture.

Jesus calls the weary to come to him because his yoke is easy. A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing for the animal. Jesus’ yoke therefore is one that is supposed to be kind to our shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. But I will be the first to tell you, sometimes the weight feels unbearable.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In our discipleship we are not merely called to listen to Jesus’ words and reflect on them. In other words, our faith in not one that is limited to the mind. From Christ we are to learn not only to think, but to do. We gather in this place every Sunday to learn by listening and then living out God’s Word in the world. The yoke of discipleship, much like this collar, is not one that Jesus imposes on us, but one that he wore and continues to wear alongside us. 

When the weight of discipleship begins to feel too heavy for me, I call for Christ’s help with the load. I cannot do this on my own for I am a wretched man, full of sin and devoid of glory. Only through Christ’s love and grace am I able to take up my cross, which is to say I am able to take up my collar, and live as a Christian fully and deeply. 

Imagine what it would look like if we all started acting like Jesus here and everywhere. The burden of wearing a collar like this in the world is mine to bear. But think, if you can, how differently you would act if you wore one around your neck. That’s why I have placed 100 collars in our sanctuary this morning. Take one home with you, leave it in a place where you will see it regularly, and when you do, ask yourself, “how would I behave today if that yoke was hanging around my neck?”

Christ is on the other side of your yoke, helping you to carry this burden of being his body for the world; it is not easy being Christian. The cost of discipleship is one that will cost us our very lives. And just as Christ is helping to carry your yoke, so also are we called to help one another.

When we hear about the sufferings within our community we have been given the great privilege to help carry those who are in their deepest valleys while at the same time recognize that we need to be helped through our sufferings as well.

I count myself blessed to serve the needs of this church, to wear this collar that comes at a price, to take Christ’s yoke upon my shoulders because it is through God’s love, Christ’s mercy, and the Spirit’s presence through people like you that the yoke becomes easy and the burden is light.

Let us all put Christ’s yoke upon our shoulders, let us take up our collars to live as Christ’s body for the world, serving the needs of others while lifting up one another in faith.

Amen.

Ordination – A Reflection on Interviewing for the UMC

In the next few weeks, a number of United Methodist seminarians will sit before their respective Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether or not they are prepared for, or effective in, ministry. The interviews can be a terrifying process; for years these students have studied diligently and now they are being asked to demonstrate their ability to articulate their theology. After going before the Virginia Conference’s Board last year, I have been asked by a number of friends/peers to reflect on the journey and offer advice. Below I have copied my response to one such friend. Though the the reflections are largely geared toward those interested in ministry, I believe they also function to help encourage theological reflection in all forms of Christian discipleship.

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1) Prepare yourself to be surprised. For as much as our fellow peers have gone through the ringer of these interviews, you can never prepare yourself for EVERY question. There will come a moment that you are asked to respond and you will be completely lost for a moment because you never though they would have asked that question. So, (heres the advice part) do NOT try to just memorize particular answers to particular questions. Most of these people have read through more papers than they can count and they’ve heard all the same answers over and over. Calm yourself and let your answers be more organic than regimented. Instead of answering everything in three points (or through every avenue of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) try instead to relate it to YOUR experience of God in the world. The committee will then know that you are answering from Truth rather than truth. Be God’s Yes and No to the world at the same time. (which is to say: be dialectical, without confusing the committee members)

 

2) Scripture scripture scripture. If there is any technique or trick to help with the interviews, its to read the bible before you go. It will rest in the fabric of your being as a well from which you can draw the living water of theological and liturgical reflection. When possible, use examples from scripture to answer any of the questions you are asked. Not only will it demonstrate your commitment to the Word, but it will also show how you have a scripturally shaped imagination. For example: you might not be familiar with terrible suffering in your own life, but the lives remembered from the biblical corpus certainly have and they can be your examples to answer the questions.

 

3) Be Methodist (but not too Methodist). Use Wesley’s life and teaching to inform your answers, but don’t isolate yourself to ONLY thinking in a Wesleyan way. We have all been trained by a wide variety of theologians, we’ve read from the greats in church history, and we’ve experienced churches beyond the UMC. Ecumenism is not just some idealistic practice, but should instead be one of the great aims of the church. Use sources outside of your church family to answer questions, yet make sure they match up with the Theological and Doctrinal Standards of our faith.

 

4) Baptism, Eucharist, Sacraments (Oh MY!) – Sacramental theology is at the heart of what it means to be Christian (particularly United Methodist). Though some sacramental functions have been downplayed in the contemporary church they were CENTRAL to Wesley’s approach. Also, sacraments are what separates the laity from the clergy; they are our responsibility to maintain and provide for the people.

 

5) Remember: you are intimidating. (I mean this as a compliment) Most of the people in your interviews (in fact, probably all of them) will be older than you, and have a lesser theological education. You will do well to remember this. As a young and confident person, you will be viewed with suspicion by some members of the committee (I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is). Show a command of the material, but don’t overdo it. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of our peers in different conferences was that the committees were bothered with their lack of translation between seminary and the normalcy of church life. They want to hear what you have to say IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN UNDERSTAND. For example: for as much as I love Barth, be very careful with his language and conceptions of God. They will mean little to the members on the committees.

 

6) Pray. Seriously. Pray before you interview. Pray between each committee room. Remember why you’re doing this and for whom (The answer is God)

 

7) Materials can be important. Bring your papers with you, but don’t anchor yourself to them. You might be asked to clarify a specific response that you wrote. If this is the case, don’t worry about what you wrote, but carefully respond to their question in the moment. They want to give you as many chances as they can to clarify what you mean.

 

8) Take your time. Before jumping to answer their questions, make sure you know what they’re asking. If they’re unclear, ask them to rephrase. Better for you to get the question right before you give a wrong answer.

 

9) Be humble. I know you will have an answer to every question, but showing that you still have room for growth will go a long way in reaching the hearts of the committee members. I remember being asked about death and instead of just throwing out a response I said something to the effect of “You know, thats a really difficult question. Death is one of those many things that we do not have a black and white answer to, death is something caught up in the mystery of God. Its hard for me to respond to hypothetical responses regarding death, but I can tell you that scripture says…” Owning up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers reinforces the reasons that Jesus had to come in the first place. If we had it all figured out, we never would’ve needed God to come in flesh to die, and live, for us.

 

10) Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. If you’re pushed out of your comfort zone by a question, make them know they have done so. If you feel like your integrity might be compromised by giving them the answer they want to hear, rather than the one you believe, I say be true to yourself more than them. (this is debatable regarding the question) However, in my experience, they would rather see YOU answer the question as YOU perceive and understand rather than handing them over the perfectly crafted three sentence response they have been hearing all day. Theology is alive. New ideas and concepts and faith-struggles occur everyday. If we only reuse the same theologies over and over than we will never grow as a church, and the kingdom of God will remain tacit, fruitless, and stale. The Church needs imagination now, perhaps more than ever before.

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