Stuck In The Middle

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Matt Hambrick about the readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Judges 4.1-7, Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Matt is the pastor of Trinity UMC in San Diego, California . The conversation covers a range of topics including the joy of collecting vinyl records (and why OK Computer is so good), the importance of place-names, the myth of originality, being stuck between joy and sorrow, militaristic language, and using our God given talents. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stuck In The Middle

 

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Devotional – Psalm 34.8

Devotional:

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

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Last night, after we finished dinner, my wife and I got out the Robin costume for our 18 month old Elijah. The Halloween decorations had been up for weeks, we were stocked with candy for the neighborhood kids, and the time had come to begin trick-or-treating. And, wonderfully enough, this was to be Elijah’s first ever outing on Halloween and the excitement was palpable in the air.

However, once we made it outside we realized that no one else was combing the neighborhood. And, not wanting to be that family, we patiently waited in our front yard until we saw at least one other costumed child before we guided Elijah up to our neighbor’s front door. He only made it to ten houses last night but he ran down every sidewalk with the kind of excitement that leaves parents smiling and giddy with joy.

When we returned to our house, we set up chairs in the front yard and waited to pass out candy to kids from the neighborhood. And for the first fifteen minutes Elijah was fine with sitting on my lap, but at some point he remembered that people had strangely handed him pieces of candy and he wanted it. Lindsey and I quickly agreed that it would be fine for him to have one piece of candy (he’s maybe tasted chocolate all of three times in his life) and when he crunched down on his Kit-Kat bar his eyes lit up like fireworks. For the next fifteen minutes all he said was “mmmmmm” and “more.”

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In some strange way, the kind of excitement and joy that my kid experienced last night is the same kind of excitement and joy that we are privileged to experience in the church. The fleeting sugar rush that entered Elijah’s blood stream eventually disappeared, but the table that we feast at as a community of faith has an everlasting significance. The hope and wonder Elijah had while walking up to other homes is the same hope and wonder we discover when we actually do the good and hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The challenge of a holiday like Halloween is that there is so much build-up and when its over, its over. But with God we discover something that is truly good; we find a refuge offered without cost.

We can find happiness in this life through experiences of glee and moments of wonder, we can decorate our homes for all of the pertinent holidays, but true happiness comes when we discover that the Lord is good, and that one holy day with God is more powerful than any holiday.

Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

On Rediscovering Joy At Easter

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the first Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about heresy, the paradox of Easter, and destroying lilies in worship, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 1 – Year A

 

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Devotional – Psalm 80.3

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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On Sunday mornings I drive to church hours before worship so that I can properly prepare. I always begin in the sanctuary by praying by the altar and then I pray over every single pew. After I feel like have spent enough time with the Lord I will make sure the doors are unlocked and the heat is working before I step up into the pulpit to preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary. I will go through the sermon line by line and make any changes necessary before printing off the final version.

Yesterday morning I was standing in the pulpit and preaching to an empty sanctuary when I heard a soft voice say, “Hello?” My first instinct was to look up in case God was telling me to make a change to the sermon, but it was actually someone who walked into the church through the main office door. When I went to shake his hand in the hallway it was clear that he had been outside for a long time because he had very red cheeks and he kept bringing his hands up to his mouth to blow on his fingers. He explained that he was homeless and was walking down the street when he felt the need to walk into the church. He told me about various life situations that led him to where he currently is and then I invited him in the sanctuary so that we could sit down and talk some more.

I motioned for him to join me in one of the front pews and asked him to continue. But he didn’t. Instead, his eyes rapidly filled with tears and he wept. I sat stunned and unsure if I had said something wrong, and then asked him if everything was okay. He said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a Christmas tree.”

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What I had neglected to think about was the overwhelming sense of joy that was radiating through our seemingly countless poinsettias and our perfectly adorned and lit Christmas trees; a sense of joy that was in sharp dissonance with what the man has experienced recently.

We talked some more and I learned all about his life, and when it felt like the conversation was coming to an end I asked how I could help him, or how the church could help him. To which he responded, “Honestly, I was just cold and lonely. All I wanted was to warm up and have some company. Thank you.” After that, we prayed together, shook hands, and he left.

This strange season of Advent is one that often leaves us filled with joy, but it can also be a time of deep sorrow. Instead of fondly remembering presents under the tree, we might remember our parents fighting and yelling at one another. Instead of recalling the smells of a delicious Christmas dinner, we might feel suffocated by the sadness of another Christmas without someone we love. Instead of humming the familiar hymns with a twinkle in our eyes, we might not even remember the last time we saw a Christmas tree.

The psalmist cries out: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” O that the Lord would make his face to shine upon all of us through the lights of a Christmas tree, and give us the hope and the joy and the peace we so desperately need this time of year.

Ridiculous Renewal – Sermon on Isaiah 35.1-10

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunts of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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On Christ the King Sunday, the sermon was titled “Not My President.” And before we even started worshipping, more than a few of you made sure I knew your concerns about the impending proclamation. After all, Donald Trump had just procured the necessary electoral college votes to be labeled as president-elect, and people across the country were (and still are) protesting his election with signs saying, “Not My President.” If you were here on Christ the King Sunday, you know that the sermon had very little to do with Mr. Trump, and in fact was all about how grateful we should be that Jesus is not our President.

However, like the good Methodists we are, the sermon was not the pinnacle of our worship that Sunday. You might remember a few lines that I proclaimed from the pulpit, you might even remember one of the hymns we used, but if you sat in the front half of the congregation, I bet the thing you remember most from that service happened during communion.

As always I stood behind the table and I prepared to pray over the bread and the cup. Together we confessed our sins and asked for God to forgive us. We stood up from our pews and shared signs of Christ’s peace with one another. And then I asked God to pour out the Spirit on us gathered together and on the gifts of bread and the cup.

One by one each of you came forward to the front of this sanctuary with hands outstretched to receive the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. One by one I looked each of you in the eye as I tore off a piece of the bread and placed it into your hands. Some of you came up with tears in your eyes. Some of you came up with your eyes focused on the ground, perhaps out of reverence for the precious thing you were about to receive. And some of you came forward with eyebrows askew as if to say, “Who thinks of preaching a sermon about Jesus not being our president?”

The last family to come up for communion sat in the very last pew during worship, and they are connected to the church through our Preschool. Their son is here in the building every week learning about what it means to grow in knowledge, in wisdom, and in love of God. So when his father came up with his hands outstretched I asked if I could offer the bread to his son. The father smiled and said, “Of course.” With his blessing, I knelt down onto the floor and looked at my young friend in the eye and I said, “Owen, this is Jesus.”

To which he smiled, titled his head back slightly, opened his mouth, and waited for me to drop the bread right in.

Without really thinking about it, I took the piece and put it in his mouth, and in response he started chewing while smiling and trying to say, “Thank You Pastor Taylor.”

And I lost it. For whatever reason, I could not contain the laughter that was brewing inside me and I started cracking up. I laughed so hard that I actually snorted. Perhaps it was the seriousness of our service getting flipped upside down by a two year old receiving communion like a little bird from his mother, or maybe it was the smile he offered me while pieces of barely chewed bread were falling out onto the floor, or perhaps it was the little skip in his step while his cheeks were filled like a chipmunk preparing for winter, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

            In that simple and yet profound moment, the desert of our ritualistic liturgy was transformed with blossoms of laughter as other people laughed in response to my snort. In that brief and beautiful moment, God brought this church some much-needed joy.

You see, after spending the better part of two months confronting controversies facing the church and addressing the deep seeded political anger felt in this congregation and across the country, we needed to laugh.

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Isaiah says the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom. The prophet looks to the future and shares the ridiculousness of the renewal that is waiting for God’s people. Like a desert blooming in the middle of a drought, like old and worn out people finding strength in their knees, like tongues of the speechless being filled with words, so will the glory of the Lord transform the world.

In this vision everything is made new from the farthest reaches of creation, to the deepest aspects of our souls. The deserts shall rejoice and blossom, flowers will grow abundantly in the forgotten places, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and waters will break forth in the wilderness.

God promises transformation and joy. Though not necessarily the transformations and joys we pray for, but ridiculous and redemptive reversals nonetheless. Isaiah sings of liberation, joyful homecomings, and the end of all sorrow and sighing.

Signs of this future of joy will be made manifest in the weak being strengthened, those with feeble knees will stand firm, the fearful will be strong. Those who have long been isolated to the powers of loneliness will be grafted in and never forgotten.

Isaiah sings about the Holy Highway cutting through the wilderness, a way for God’s travelers to move without threat or fear, a place where the people of God’s can sing on their way home.

It sounds a lot like the Garden of Eden, and it sounds a lot like heaven.

But just like last week, Isaiah’s song about the promises of God are not just things that will happen in the distant future; they are part of God’s wonderful and creative reality here and now.

Yet, there are things in this world that hold us back, accidents on the highway of God’s grace, that prevent us from traveling the way to God’s promised salvation. There are chains and bumps that derail us from the pathway to glory: economic fears, political disappointments, spiritual droughts, emotional baggage, relational frustration, and seasonal depression, to name a few. And yet over and over again, whether it’s through a child walking back to his pew with bits of saliva soaked bread falling out of his mouth, or a host of other means, God transforms this world and fills us with joy.

I love to tell stories. From the time we are young children we learn important lessons more through stories and less through object lessons. That’s why scripture is so powerful, and it’s why Jesus used parables to relate the immensity of God to his disciples. This week, in anticipation of this sermon, I emailed a number of you to ask for stories of how God has transformed your life. I wanted to hear about the times that God’s living water broke forth in the midst of an otherwise desert-like existence.

And you did not disappoint.

One of you came to church for years without it really meaning much. It was just the thing you were supposed to do. And on one particular occasion, you were sitting in these pews listening to the choir sing an anthem. There wasn’t anything particularly moving about the words or even the melody, but you found yourself watching the individuals as they were singing and you could tell they meant it. Though you had seen and heard the choir many times, God spoke to you through their faithfulness that fateful day, and since then you have known and experienced the power of God through the music of our church, and through those who provide it.

One of you expressed how narrow-minded and intolerant you used to be. Whether it had to do with politics, or religion, or social status, you judged others unfairly. And then a pastor came to this church named Zig Volskis and he changed everything for you. His spiritual presence and demeanor taught you the importance of asking the right questions, and the importance of being content with answers that pushed you into a new direction. Instead of treating you like a student who needed to be lectured, Zig encouraged you with amazing insights and discernment. And through God working in him, you began to see the Bible not as a book to be consumed, but a life-giving witness to the reality of God.

One of you wrote about recent event whereby you attended a funeral for a man out of guilt because you were afraid that very few people would be in attendance. And yet, when you arrived, there was a line out the door and across the street full of people trying to get into the chapel. You described the experience as a moment through which God made you aware of one of your many sins, your judgment of others based on accomplishments you deemed as worthy, and through it you were transformed to know and believe that everyone has worth, and everyone is sacred.

God transformed the world through the advent of Jesus Christ, and God continues to transform our lives in ways we cannot even anticipate or imagine. The devastated deserts of our souls will once again blossom through a crowded funeral, a faithful pastor, a passionate choir, or a child-receiving communion. God uses people in our lives to change our lives so that we might change other lives.

Isaiah’s song is all about the ridiculous renewal awaiting us, God’s people. That through God’s transformative work, joy will rain down from the skies, and all the scattered promises of the bible will be fulfilled like a dance – the earth will spring forth new life, bodies will be remade, freedoms will be conferred, the city will be reclaimed, joys will erupt from unexpected places, and sorrow and sighing will be banished from the earth.

Isaiah’s song ends with the happy and joyful homecoming of those who have been liberated from the bondage that keeps them from traveling on the Holy Highway. For there is a new way that cuts through desolate deserts and turns them into beautifully blooming fields. God’s people will travel on this path without threat or fear, they will sing with joyful hearts, because the Lord is doing a new thing.

God is not done.

            God is not done with creation and God is not done with us.

            God breaks the chains of our slavery to sin and death.

            God delivers us to places yet unknown.

            God transforms our hopes and dreams into real and tangible experiences.

            God fills the deserts of our souls with living water.

            God blossoms and brings forth new life and opportunities in ways we cannot even imagine.

            God offers unending joy to the redeemed.

            God makes a way where there is no way. Amen.

 

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

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

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

Apart

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.