The Gospel Is Fun

Devotional: 

Hebrews 13.16

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 

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Years ago one of my seminary professors lectured about how the church survived the first few centuries when Christians were being regularly persecuted for their faith. He first noted that the resurrection of Jesus was so powerful and transformative that the early disciples could not help themselves but stay committed to such a thing. But then he said something else that has stuck with me ever since, “And the gospel is fun!”

On Sunday afternoon I was running around in my “Church Can Happen Anywhere” shirt across out parking lot and thanking God under my breath for the beautiful weather. We had people from all over our local community spread out with more food than they knew what to do with and I was trying to make sure that everything for the celebration was going smoothly. The moon bounce on the other side of the pavilion was a huge hit, the drinks were nice and cold, but for some reason the slip and slip was remaining un-enjoyed over on the hill.

I promptly made my way over to make sure the water was flowing properly when a few kids followed closely on my heels. “Is it working?” “Am I allowed to go on it?” “How cold is it?” were the murmurings behind me and I assured the children that all would be well. 

After checking the hose connection I encouraged the closest child to try it out and before I could talk her through how the whole thing worked she was racing down the hill cackling with joy. Within the new few minutes a small crowd of kids and adults had gathered around the slide and it became abundantly clear the time had come for me, the pastor, to slip and slide down the hill as well.

So I did.

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I spent the rest of the celebration continuing to check in on people as was necessary and when we started cleaning up I overheard one of the little girls exclaiming to her mother (while drenched from head to toe), “This church is fun!”

The church is supposed to be a lot of things: faithful, holy, transformative, contemplative, etc. And sadly, one of the words least associated with church is fun. But on Sunday, we had fun.

The writer of Hebrews notes that doing good and sharing what we have is pleasing to God. Which, when considering the fact that Jesus spent his final evening with his friends doing exactly that, it makes a lot of sense. However, it strikes me that many churches and church-related activities have lost their sense of fun. And if the joy of the gospel was enough to sustain the earliest disciples, why aren’t we seeking that same kind of fun today?

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Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

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One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

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Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

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The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. 

Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions. 

So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?

All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality. 

It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.

The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.

It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. 

Have you ever had to bury someone?

If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.

It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.

Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.

On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.

So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.

It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot. 

And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.

I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”

“Really?” He said incredulously.

That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. 

I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.

So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”

“All of what?”

“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”

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The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.

But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.

Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers. 

And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence. 

That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean? 

And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us! 

We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas. 

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we. 

We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change. 

We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.

But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!

And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened. 

And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?

They don’t believe it.

To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter. 

Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in. 

One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.

All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.

The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation. 

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The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard. 

That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!

The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.

I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”

And he left. 

I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.

But I see resurrection everyday.

I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.

I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.

I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down. 

I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.

I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.

The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen. 

Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Weekly Devotional Image

 On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.

We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”

Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!

praying-man

When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.

Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious. 

However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.

For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are. 

So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.

Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

godly-play

We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)

Give Me Joy Or Give Me Death

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I am convinced that the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are some of the noisiest days in the year. There’s the noise of scratching together the proper shopping list, the boxes of decorations being dragged down from the attic, kids screaming in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, extra services at the local church, and boxing other people out to buy the perfect present at the mall.

And right at the beginning of all this noise, the time of frenetic and frantic noise, we have Christ the King Sunday.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the church calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long long time, Christ the King was only established as an official day in the liturgical year in 1925. It took the church nearly 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between the two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus the Christ is Alpha and Omega, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. This psalm and this day are a reminder of our first and primary allegiance to the Lord.

Joyful_Noise_logo

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, everyone! Praise the Lord with glad and generous hearts; come into the presence of God and sing your hearts out. Know that the Lord is God. The Lord made us and we belong to the Lord. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. With every breath give thanks to God and bless the name of the Lord. God is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We praise and sing with joy because God in Christ is the Good Shepherd. We jump to our feet and throw our hands in the air because God has already done so much for us.

But if we’re honest, sometimes it feels hard to praise God during this time of year. For some of us, all those decorations and all those songs don’t hold the joy they once did.

Rather than hopeful in expectation, we are fearful in deliberation. Instead of thinking about all the God has done for us, all we can think about are all the things we still have to do. And instead of praising God with a joyful noise, we struggle to hear God among all the sounds of this season.

The psalmist proclaims a joy for the Lord that cannot be contained, a joy that must be shouted from the rooftops. But most of us don’t want to sing to the Lord in public. In fact, we don’t want to be confused with the type of people who do sing aloud in public places.

However, Christ the King Sunday prepares us for Advent, the season dedicated to waiting for the arrival of Christ on Christmas. This is joyful, praise-filled waiting. And, ironically, in many churches it does not look like the congregation is making a joyful noise to the Lord. Rather, most churches are filled with people singing along looking slightly bored.

Thanks be to God that this church is not like other churches.

Last Sunday, during the 8:30 service, our sound system decided to no longer cooperate when it was time to sing our final hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” The whole service had built up to the final hymn and our chance to respond to what God had said, and I sighed as I reluctantly announced that we would be singing it acapella knowing it wouldn’t have the full strength as usual. And just when I was about to start singing the first note, Gloria raised her hand from the choir and said, “Pastor, I can play that one on the piano.”

Friends, I don’t know if we’ve ever sounded more joyful than when we sang that hymn last week. And even at the 11 o’clock service, when I knew ahead of time she was going to play it, I ran over to the drums and joined her for our final hymn and the whole congregation made a joyful noise to the Lord.

It was a shot of joy to the arm, and it was a reminder that the Lord is indeed good.

But it forces us to ask ourselves, “How can we be joyful when so much is wrong in the world?”

When a new widower attends church on a Sunday morning, he hears the familiar words of a Christmas hymn and instead of being transported to joyful memories from the past, all he can think about is the now empty spot next to him in the pew.

When a mother goes to the store to purchase Christmas presents, she goes not with the excitement of how the children will react, but with the fear of how the family will be able to afford it all.

When the refugee woman hears similarities between her story and Mary’s, she cowers in fear upon returning home and wondering if she will be caught and shipped back to her home country.

The kind of joy the psalmist sings about is not a surface-level temporary experience. It is not a fall on the floor guttural sense of laughter that eventually fades.

The joy of the Lord comes because God is still God, even when the world feels like its falling apart.

The joy of the Lord comes because we are still God’s people, even when we feel like we’re all alone.

The joy of the Lord comes because Jesus is King, even when it seems like other people are determining what happens in the world.  

joy

When we feel the struggle of making a joyful noise amidst all the other noise, we fall back to God’s great gift of music. For music is the magnificent agent that lifts our hearts to commune with the heavenly angelic choir. Music transforms our hearts and minds such that we give thanks to the Lord through our voices, and we know that the Lord is good.

A few summers ago I took a group of youth down to Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip. My particular group was assigned to help at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise together, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite the shock to the youth to go from the comfort of their homes and friends and family to sitting in a room full of people with limited abilities and limited communication.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and number. I encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but almost all of them just stared off into space. We even tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but it was as if we weren’t even there.

To be honest, we felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all the way to Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of their lives. But then I saw a discarded hymnal on a table, and I started flipping through the pages until I found Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

            ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

            The youth moved closer toward the center and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that had all heard so many times before.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chair, even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

            The Lord has promised good to me, his words my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

The aides and employees who were wandering the hall started gathering in the doorway to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

            Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their minds were found by the time we all joined together for the final verse.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each day, to the smiles and wrinkles breaking forth on individual faces, to the youth singing and dancing in the middle of the room, the Lord was giving us the strength to make a joyful noise.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and we joined together for a number of hymns. That previously silent room was suddenly filled with the words and tunes of Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell they Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

            It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and we get a hint of that same feeling every week when we gather here together.

When I hear all of you say the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus taught his disciples, with one voice, it sends shivers up my spine. When I look out while the choir is singing and I see some of you on the edge of your seats my heart flutters in my chest. When I open my eyes right before saying “Amen” and catch all of you faithful praying with tightly clenched eyes, I feel the Spirit moving through air.

And I am filled with joy.

Even the sounds that drive some of us crazy: the shuffling around of bulletins from someone in the back row, a toddler crying from a pew, a kid cackling on their way up the stairs toward Children’s Church. These are joyful sounds!

They are a reminder of God’s wonderful majesty and mystery. They are a reminder that God still has work for us to do. They are a reminder that Jesus unites us in a way that nothing else on earth can.

We worship the King of kings in Jesus the Christ. We come into God’s presence with gladness and singing because of all that God has done for us. And in response we can make a joyful noise. Amen.