Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Weekly Devotional Image

Yesterday morning, while countless Christians were passing the peace, or humming the hymns, or celebrating communion all over the country, a man carried a Ruger assault-style rifle into a small Baptist church in southern Texas and murdered 26 people. Officials have reported that the associate pastor was walking up to the pulpit to preach when the gunfire began and that the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72.

Within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened in their own churches.

It was about a month ago that we were all reeling from the news that a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas leaving 58 dead and 546 injured.

And within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened.

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Is God tired of all our talking (and tweeting)? Are the prayers that we offer in the midst of a crisis, and then forget about until the next thing comes, being heard? Is God listening to all of this noise?

What would it look like to let justice roll down like waters in a world that lives in the shadow of the cross? When did we let the words we offer become more important than living lives of righteousness? Is the noise we produce so deafening that we can no longer hear what God has to say?

There’s no easy solution to the recent horrific shooting tragedies. We are clearly a people divided on just about everything these days, and in particular when in comes to gun rights and gun control. But when it comes to the realm of the church, when we think about what this all means for the kingdom of God, we have to ask ourselves if God has grown tired of all our talking.

This is not to say that we should cease to pray. In fact, we should pray without ceasing. But our prayers that we offer to God cannot be limited to words we toss around while our hands are clenched together. Sometimes the most faithful prayers are the ones we make with our actions.

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Devotional – Isaiah 42.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 42.1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

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I need to apologize. At least, I need to apologize to the people of St. John’s who were present in worship on January 1, 2017. We started a new sermon series on “Dumb Things Christians Say” and I decided it would be good to start with “Everything Happens For A Reason.” It is one of those trite and cliché Christianisms that are forever being flung around without anyone thinking about the consequences of such a statement.

I began the sermon with a story and a quote from Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, who recently said that “It wasn’t Russia who intervened in the election of Donald Trump, it was God.” I then went on to theologically proclaim the strange tension Christians live in between and all-powerful God and a free humanity; God rules this world but gives us the freedom to act in the world.

The thrust of the end of the sermon went like this: “Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.

But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.”

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Upon listening to the audio of the sermon, and rereading it before posting it online, I realized that I was very heavy-handed with my language about President-Elect Trump, and that I inadvertently compared his election with the suffering of innocent people in car accidents.

What I should have said was that even though Donald Trump was elected by the people of the United States of America, and not by some divine act of providence, God still uses people like Donald Trump to make God’s will incarnate on earth. The beautiful wonder of the Lord is that God works in and through individuals in ways that we can scarcely imagine; a chance conversation, a fleeting dream, a subtle nudge in the right direction. We can have hope in the Lord regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office because we know that God is the one who has the final Word. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection.

Jesus is the servant who God upholds, the chosen one in whom the Lord delights. Jesus is the one who brings forth comfort to the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Therefore, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to pray for our president in order that he may discern how to bring peace and justice to this world in a way that resonates with Jesus’ peace and justice.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  

Weekly Devotional Image

For me, music makes the worship service. I can listen to a mediocre sermon, but if the organist has been hitting all the notes perfectly I can walk away feeling filled with the Spirit. I can be ignored as a first time visitor, but if the gathered body sings with full vigor I can leave the service feeling that I have encountered the living God. I can witness borderline heretical theology in a bulletin, but if the musicians are truly glorifying the Lord through their instruments, I can believe that the service has been redeemed.

I started playing drums for contemporary worship services when I was in 9th grade. I played all through high school, college, and seminary for a variety of churches in a variety of places. It is difficult to describe the doxological feeling that I experience when playing drums during a service, but suffice it to say that I feel closer to God in those moments than many others. Contemporary services are not for everyone, even I will admit that I enjoy playing for those services rather than experiencing them in the pews, but they help connect a large portion of Christians to the living God in a way that shapes, molds, and grows their faith.

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When I was in college I began playing for the Crave service that was a part of the Wesley Foundation at James Madison University. Every Sunday afternoon the band would get together at Asbury UMC to practice for a few hours before the service began in the evening. We would play songs that got people placing their hands in the air and praising God. We would play songs that got people dancing in the pews. We would play songs that were so familiar and catchy that I could actually hear people singing the words over the volume of the drum-kit.

However, even when we were playing at our best, our music paled in comparison with the one night that we left the church and wandered around downtown Harrisonburg. Instead of gathering for the typical service (3-4 songs, prayer, sermon, communion, 1 song, benediction) we met on the steps of the church and walked downtown to pray for our city. We stopped at specific locations and joined hands to prayerfully lift up our community, and in particular we prayed over the local courthouse so that “justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

You can have the best music in the world at your church, but when the music becomes the only life-giving part of your discipleship formation, when acts of justice and righteousness have gone missing, we limit the depth and beauty that we can experience. Music is most powerful when it points away from ourselves to God, and when it inspires us to be righteous outside of worship.

This week, let us look for the moments when we can let justice roll down like waters for others around us. Let us truly listen to the words of our Christian songs and live them out so that our righteousness can be like an ever-flowing stream.

On Real Religion – Sermon on Micah 6.1-8

Micah 6.1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Pastor, preacher, reverend; titles that I’m still not used to. After only having served this church for seven months, it never ceases to amaze me how many people in the community already identify me through my vocation. I will be sitting at the Bistro downtown ready to order dinner with Lindsey when the waitress begins by asking, “What can I get for you reverend?” Or when I’m sitting behind my computer at Coffee On The Corner my coffee is accompanied with a “here you go preacher.”

Its my own fault really. I love to tell people what I do. Whenever I meet someone new in town, I’m always eager to share with them my excitement at having been appointed to St. John’s.

This past week, I was visiting one of my favorite shops downtown (that will remain nameless) when I was greeted with the familiar title: Pastor. The owner and I have a fairly decent relationship and our conversation flows smoothly whenever we’re together. As he was ringing me up, we exchanged the regular pleasantries, talking about the cold weather and other such things, until he asked me about the church. I told him about how remarkably forgiving many of the congregants are regarding my sermons, and how thankful I am for their willingness to join me in this adventure we call “church.” Thats when the conversation got serious.

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying it,” He said, “But church is just not the thing for me.”

Aside: I almost never ask anyone about church, and yet, people always bring up their attendance, or lack their of, in conversations.

By his tone and inflection, it was clear that he wanted to say more about the subject, so I inquired as to why church is not the thing for him.

“I used to go all the time,” he began. “I’ve popped around between different denominations, I was even an elder for a little while, but about ten years ago I lost faith in the church. We were doing all the right things, we had hundreds of people in worship every Sunday but we never did anything for the community. Everything the church did was so inwardly focused. Debates about the wallpaper, the type of bread for communion, and timing for Sunday services dominated all of our conversations. Whenever I tried to raise a need within the community that the church could meet it was brushed aside as being insignificant. Finally, at a council meeting, I could no longer contain myself. After years of watching this “perfect church” ignore the desperate needs of the people outside the building, I stood up in the front of the leadership and declared, “I think when Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ he really meant to feed his sheep.” I have not been to a church since.”

 

In the sixth chapter of Micah, the prophet relays God’s controversy with his people. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

At that time in Israel’s history, the people had grown weary and bored with their God. They were just going through the motions when it came to worshipping the good God who had been at the center of their very lives for so long.

How could they have become bored with God? He had delivered the people from their oppressors, raised up mighty leaders, sent truthful prophets, and brought all the people to a full awareness of his righteousness. Yet, they had forsaken him. They lived immersed in the love of God, yet were blind to much, if not most, of it.

Micah then describes “real religion” as opposed to the ways to Israelites were behaving: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good. and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah presents the simple essentials of real religion in a verse that has taken its place among the most favored of scripture. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Real religion is predicated on the lived reality of discipleship that changes everything.

God made it known to the Israelites the proper and good response to their Lord. The people are required to practice justice, to seek equality between themselves and others; to love kindness, to maintain a loyal commitment to God and others; and to walk humbly with their God, to live transformed lives conformed to the image of God. Real religion is a journey of faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and life.

So, where are we with God? Have we grown tired and weary of the God we have come to worship? Are we attending church, practicing our faith, and loving others out of obligation or excitement? What do we think the Lord requires of us?

Is our relationship with God determined by our attendance at church, coming to worship at 11am every Sunday, singing a couple hymns, hearing scripture read aloud, and listening to a 15 minute sermon? Are we simply going through the motions of faith, or does our faith shape the way we act outside of this building?

During the time of Micah, God no longer wanted the sacrifice of animals, burnt offerings, and rivers of oil. Instead he wanted what he already showed to be good: justice, kindness, and humility.

And when we read that list of what God does not want, it makes the threefold expectation seem easy. The real demands of God however, are both moral and spiritual, and the proper worship of God is a life obedient to them. Without justice, kindness, and humility, any of our practices in church can wound our faith. Instead of creating worthy habits for life, we appear to be bargaining with God to take something less than he actually wants of us. If our faith can be compartmentalized into one hour a week, if our faith is limited to church worship alone, than we desperately need to hear Micah’s word.

Like the ancient Israelites, we live and die immersed in the love of God. Yet, how often are we blind to much, if not most, of it?

Micah begged the people to exhibit true faith, true worship, and true morality that will come to completion in true behavior. What we believe shapes how we behave. 

However, proper morality is not a substitute for religion. Its not just about “being a good person.” Outward conduct is essential for the life of faith, but it always depends on the inward character that is shaped by the gathering community of faith.

Justice, kindness, and humility might sound easy and comfortable to those who have never tried them, but the overwhelming truth is that these three practices are far more costly than thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or a more contemporary allusion might be that truly practicing justice, kindness, and humility will always be harder than giving numerous possessions away in order to somehow appease God.

If this church takes seriously our commitment to forming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need learn to translate mercy into our regular daily deeds through a close, nurturing, and personal journey of faith with God. The Lord demands our lives, our love, our trust, and our loyalty.

When driving around Staunton, it is nearly impossible to miss the cacophony of churches scratched across the landscape. In my life, I have never lived in a place with so many steeples. In fact, during one of my first weeks here someone told me that Staunton has more churches per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no idea how to confirm whether or not this is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

In my short time here I have created relationships with some of the other clergy in town; I’ve gone out to lunch, initiated a lectionary based breakfast group, and shared numerous cups of coffee. Do you know what the first question is almost every time I meet a different pastor? “How many people do you have in worship?”

This week, while reading over Micah, I realized that getting asked about worship attendance is close to what the Israelites must have felt when someone asked, “how many rams did you sacrifice this week, how many river of oil did you present to God?”

Really? Of all the things that we could possibly talk about, the first question is always about church attendance. I wonder why we aren’t talking about ways that we can practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Why are we all so consumed with the numbers instead of planning ways to serve our community? And I’ll admit that I am certainly guilty of this practice. When I am asked about worship, I proudly respond about the growth of our church and the warm and inviting atmosphere that one encounters when walking through the door. But I have to be reminded too, I have to ask myself, ‘What does the Lord require?’ Does God want us to grow this church and fill it to the brim to the point where we no longer know who we are worshipping with? Or is God calling us to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly? Not that they are mutually exclusive, but until our focus is more on living our faith, rather than filling our building, our building will never be filled.

So, how can we practice justice as individuals and as a church? We can open our eyes to the needs of our community. We can seek out the last, least, and lost, to give them the one true gift worth sharing: love. We can stand up against the small and large injustices that occur everyday, whether its an unfair judgement in the work place, or racist comments, or belittling words between spouses. We can practice justice by living out our faith in the world.

How can we love kindness as individuals and as a church? We can initiate relationships with strangers knowing that God has done the same for us. We can show our love to our families and friends by making the extra phone call to just say “Hi.” We can truly greet one another when we gather in worship, not just the same people we talk with every week, but particularly those who are still strangers to us. We can show our loving kindness but living out our faith in the world.

How can we walk humbly with our God? We can recognize that God is not only concerned with our religious rituals, but calls for us to live out faith beyond these walls. We can admit that we have, and will continue to, fall short of God’s glory. We can find salvation and redemption through our faith in God, and God’s faith in us. We can come forward to the table and receive the bread and wine humbly, knowing that we have done nothing to deserve it. We can walk humbly with our God by living out our faith in the world.

What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 12/9/13

Devotional:

Psalm 146.5-10

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

 

I love to ask questions. For years I have always been “that guy” at dinner or at a party who can orchestrate the direction of the conversation just by asking a few well placed questions. Depending on the season, or company present, some of my favorite questions include: How did you two meet? What was your favorite halloween costume as a child? What was the last best book you read? All of these questions are geared toward opening up a conversation for all people to respond accordingly. It allows for everyone present to reflect on something and then share it with everyone present. My favorite question to ask during Advent has always been: What was the best Christmas present you ever received?

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Its a perfect question. Everyone loves to take a few moments to go through the catalogue in their memory banks of all the presents they received as children, you can detect a positive change in the atmosphere because the memories elicit such joy, and the discussion will continue from that first question toward a full and fruitful conversation.

What was the best Christmas present you ever received? What memories do you have of gathering around the Christmas tree with your family preparing to rip apart the wrapping paper?

I love to ask that question, but recently I’ve begun to wonder whether I should be asking it at all. The celebration of Christmas (according to the ways of the world) has so trumped the theological convictions of Advent that Santa Claus has become frighteningly synonymous with Jesus Christ. Moreover, practices like “The Elf on the Shelf” have led children (and some adults) to grossly misunderstand the depth and breadth of God’s prevenient grace in the world.

When I read from the 146th Psalm I wonder if instead of asking everyone about their favorite present, I should instead ask: “When was the last time you gave food to the hungry?” Or “How are you keeping your faith?”

I know those questions are tougher to swallow, even for me, but I believe they really get at the heart of the Christmas message. How are we living out our faith, particularly during this season of giving? How are we reaching out to those in our community who need to feel the love of Christmas more than anyone else?

So, as we all gather in the shops to find the perfect present, and even as we sit around our perfectly lit and decorated Christmas trees, let us remember the true depth of Christmas. Let us recall that Christ came not to be served but to serve. Let us ask ourselves the difficult and life-changing questions in order that we might live fruitful lives in God’s kingdom.