Prisoners of Hope

Zechariah 9.9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

 

People of Cokesbury Church: the time has come to rejoice! And I don’t mean the easy-going, carefree, yeah we’re happy kind of joy, but jumping on the pews, putting your hands in the air, shouting to the Lord kind of joy. Glory glory glory!

Behold! Our king comes to us, he is triumphant and mighty and victorious. He comes humbly on the back of a donkey. He will destroy the tanks of armies and the defenses of countries. The missiles and the guns and weapons will be obliterated and peace will reign. Our donkey-riding king will rule from east to west and over the whole earth.

We’ve got reason to celebrate! Our king frees us from the waterless pit of our despair and depression. We prisoners of hope have been delivered.

Or maybe, we don’t feel like celebrating. Perhaps our lives don’t match up with the glory described by Zechariah. Maybe the world is a little too broken for peace to rain down like waters. Perhaps we don’t feel like dancing and shouting because we are stuck in a pit; a pit of anger or bitterness or fear or shame or loneliness.

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There was a man who was walking down the street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and after struggling for a time he began to cry out for help.

A doctor was passing by along the road and he looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment while stroking the stethoscope around his neck, and then he reached into his pocket, wrote a prescription, dropped it into the hole, and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Hey Reverend! I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me out?” The pastor very slowly and deliberately put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next a sweet older woman from the local church came up to the edge of the hole and the man yelled, “Excuse me! Please help me out of here.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “It’s me, I’m stuck in the hole, can you help me out?” To which the friend jumped right down into the hole. The man said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Today I am forever hearing about how we need to get others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord in Savior. As if people are wandering around aimlessly looking for something to give meaning to their lives, and so long as they open up their hearts Jesus will be there waiting for them.

The problem with all of that is the fact that Jesus is the king who comes to us, not the other way around. We often get trapped in the pit of believing that we’ve got to go looking for Jesus when he’s the one looking for us.

Our Lord is the one who finds us wandering around the pit of our sorrow and jumps in to show us the way out. Jumping into the pit, after all, is the great story of scripture. God saw what God had made in Genesis and jumped down into the Garden to make humanity in the divine image. God saw Jacob struggling with his relationships and identity and jumped down to wrestle with him by the banks of the river. God saw the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and jumped down to call Moses from the burning bush. God saw the directionless plight of the people and jumped down to anoint David to rule as king. God saw the brokenness of the world and jumped down to take on flesh in the form of a baby born in a manger.

Jesus is the king who jumps down into the pit of our existence and offers us hope.

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I’ve only been here a short while, but I’ve already seen signs of hope in this church and in this community. Complete strangers in my neighborhood have introduced themselves simply because I’m new, employees at particular businesses have gone above and beyond to be kind and welcoming, a certain someone at the church even gave my wife a bouquet of roses last week.

And from where I stand this morning I see hope. I see individuals whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. I don’t even know many of your names but I know God has acted in your lives, I know that God has delivered you from the pit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

From where I stand I see a church not built on demographics and like-mindedness. I don’t see a church consumed by consumption and driven by desire. I don’t see a church fixated on financial matter or obsessed with objectives.

I see a church of different opinions but similar love. I see a church of faith and fellowship. I see a church of love and hope.

This is a church with prisoners of hope.

We are captivated more by the optimism of “what if” than the pessimism of “it’s too late.” We are held in bondage to the belief that we are more than the mistakes of the past, more that the pain of the present, and more than the unknown of the future. We are prisoners of hope.

And our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who finds us in the pit and shows us the way out. To be clear: the way out is a way out. It’s not a simple affirmation or secret sentence that fixes everything. Jesus invites us to follow him on the way that leads to life.

The church, as the body of Christ, as the gathering of disciples on the Way, is not a building or a program or an institution. It is neither stuck nor static. The church is a living, breathing, and moving thing.

Institutions care about maintaining the institution, keeping the doors open from week to week, working to keep it working like the past. Movements, however, care about the people, about keeping them from falling into pits of despair and jumping in when someone falls in regardless.

We move on the way out of the pit by following our king. And our king is not like worldly leaders. Our king doesn’t live in a white house or control the gathering of nations. He’s not waking up with Wall Street or guiding troops into battle. Our king comes to us humble on a donkey.

Christ is victorious against the powers of this world, the powers of nations and economics and militaristic might. And even more Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemy, death. But this doesn’t mean that death no longer stings, it does. Without the sting of death there would be no need for hope.

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And we are prisoners of that hope. We look out at this broken and shattered world around us as an opportunity to be put back together. We don’t limit our vision of the man on the corner to his economic situation, we don’t see the young teen loitering as a criminal, we don’t see the loud neighbors as a threat to our security. We are prisoners of hope, we believe in the goodness of all people even when they try to prove the contrary.

This was my first full week at the church and I was wrong about what to expect. I figured that you all knew that I would be overwhelmed by having to unpack my office and adjust to a new community. I assumed that you all would leave me alone for a couple weeks until I got settled. But you all just kept showing up everyday as if I was your pastor.

And you’ve had your questions and I tried to field them as best as I could. I listened to your thoughts and reflections. But if you came by the office this week you know that I won’t let you leave without asking a question of my own: Why Cokesbury Church?

There is a plethora of churches in the Woodbridge community, churches of all shapes and sizes and worship styles. So of all the churches here in this place, why do you choose to gather at this place?

“I’ve been going here as long as I can remember…”

            “The people are just so friendly…”

            “Someone signed me up for the Flea Market and I’ve been coming ever since.”

I’ve enjoyed hearing the answers because they’ve provided a slice of the identity of this place, but one particular answer has really stuck with me.

I won’t say who it was, but someone from this church came by this week and I asked him or her why he or she came to this church. The person thought about it for a good amount of time before answering. “I was lost and Jesus found me in this place.”

Notice: the answer wasn’t I found Jesus here, but that Jesus found me in this place.

All of us have been lost at one point or another. We have fallen into pits that we simply could not escape on our own. We’ve been burdened by financial fear, relationship woes, or employment uncertainty. We’ve felt suffocated by limited direction, unending loneliness, or deep despair. We’ve been bullied, belittled, or berated. But Jesus found us and guided us out.

Thanks be to God that we are shackled as prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God that the Lord has delivered us from a faulty and limited vision of what can be. Thanks be to God that the Lord made a way where there was no way.

The promise of our hope, the hope that we are held captive by, is the restoration of all people and of all things. There is victory in Jesus, victory over the powers and the principalities bent on holding us down, victory over the steeps walls that feel inescapable, even victory over the chains of death.

I don’t know what most of you are going through right now. I don’t know what’s keeping you awake at night, what’s driving you crazy whenever you turn on the television, what causes your fists to clench up whenever you hear it. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, what you’re missing, or what you need. I don’t know where you’ve been, where you are, or where you’re going.

But I do know that Jesus does not leave us abandoned. Jesus jumps down into the miry bog of our lives and says, “Follow me, I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.” Amen.

Devotional – Zechariah 9.9

Devotional:

Zechariah 9.9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

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I just entered into my fifth year of ministry and one of the things that has sustained me the most throughout my vocation is the weekly reading of sermons that have nothing to do with the sermon I’m working on. I quickly learned that when you make the jump from receiving sermons to preaching sermons, you lose the important part of worship that is hearing the Word afresh and anew.

Some of my favorite preachers come from a variety of backgrounds and denominational affiliations, but perhaps my favorite preacher is Stanley Hauerwas. What makes Hauerwas’ sermons so powerful is the fact that he’s not a preacher. Though deeply involved in the work of ethics and theology, Hauerwas is still a lay-person and when he proclaims the Word from the pulpit it hits me more than from a lot of long time clergy.

Another reason I love Hauerwas’ preaching, perhaps the most important reason, is that he can get away with saying a lot more from the pulpit than most pastors precisely because he’s not a pastor. There’s a delicate balance the preacher has to find between saying what God wants to be said, and doing it in such a way that it doesn’t alienate everyone such that they won’t be back the next Sunday. But Hauerwas, as a layperson, can say just about whatever he wants.

His sermon on the Fourth of July is one that he stuck with me ever since the first time I read it, and particularly the last few paragraphs. Hauerwas again and again makes the claim that we are so entrenched in the worship of America that we can no longer recognize it for the idolatry that it is. He says that this is evident in the way that the political arena has overshadowed the reality of the church and in how we no longer question if the country has done anything wrong. Instead, we assume that if something is done in the name of America, it is for the greater good.

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Try saying that from the pulpit in a church during the fourth of July weekend and you might not have a church to come back to the following Sunday.

But at the end of the sermon Hauerwas makes one final claim that is worthy of repetition. If the fireworks that burst in the sky and the red, white, and blue on our clothing are more captivating than the bread and wine at the table, then we are not the church. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t join together with neighbors to celebrate our country’s independence, or that we can’t sing patriotic songs or eat hot dogs or light off fireworks. But if all of those things are more important to us, if they speak a greater narrative in and to our lives, then we have to ask ourselves whom we really worship.

The prophet Zechariah proclaims that our King comes to us humble and riding on a donkey. As Christians, our King is not in the fireworks and the festivities and the food of the fourth of July. Our King is with the marginalized, the fearful, and the lonely.

Our King is not of this world. Our King rules the world.

Our King is not in a flag or in a pledge of allegiance. Our King is crucified and calls for our allegiance.

And so rejoice, Christians, sing aloud, for our King is triumphant and victorious. But he is not the same thing as our country.

The Oval Office Of The Universe

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

On Tuesday afternoon I went into the Preschool and sat on the floor of the yellow room with our Preschoolers. In mere minutes I would be walking with them into the sanctuary for their end of year performance and graduation, but for the moment we were sitting crisscross applesauce on the alphabet carpet.

Some of the kids were visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on the floor knees tucked into their chests, others were focused and practicing the words to the songs under their breath, and others were completely oblivious to what we were about to do and instead were making faces at one another and then cackling from the depth of their hilarity.

When I got the signal from our director that the time had come to stand, line up, and make our way into the sanctuary I bounced off the floor and called for attention. I said, “My friends, whose ready to have some fun?!” To which they responded with a conflated and cacophonous scream.

“Well,” I continued, “Before we go upstairs I want everyone to take a deep breath. Good, hold it, now blow it our slowly and listen carefully. I want you all to know that no matter what, this is going to be great, because your families love you, I love you, and Jesus loves you.

One by one they lined up in the hallway in their specific order and just before we started to move one of our boys grabbed me by the pant leg. “But Pastor Taylor, I have a question.” Figuring he needed to use the bathroom or some such thing, I got down on my knees and said, “What is it Keller?” He said, “I know my parents love me because they’re here, and I know you love me because you’re right here, but where’s Jesus?”

I said, “C’mon Keller! We’re seconds away from the program beginning and you want to know where Jesus is?! I don’t have time for this theological nonsense!”

Just kidding. But in the moment I thought about how to answer the question, what would satisfy his longing and curiosity. Where is Jesus?

I thought about placing my one hand on his shoulder and using my other hand to point toward his chest and saying, “Keller, Jesus is in our hearts!”

I thought about grabbing a nearby children’s bible to show him a picture of the Ascension, but of course, children’s bibles only contain stories like Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and an Easter Sunday that has more to do with budding flowers than a dead man being raised back into life.

So I settled for this: “I’ll tell you where Jesus is after we finish the program.”

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When the disciples came together they asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After years of listening to parables, watching miracles, and being fed out of nowhere, after encountering their resurrected friend, they still didn’t get it. Jesus replied, “There are some things you are not meant to know. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

When he said this, the disciples watched as he ascended into the sky and a cloud took him out of their sight. And two men in white came by and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand with your eyes in the sky?” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and they devoted themselves to prayer while they waited.

The Ascension is important. Sadly, however, it is one of the Sundays that gets lost in the liturgical year and is overshadowed by the likes of Pentecost and Christ the King. This story of what took place 40 days after the first Easter answers our little preschooler’s question about where Jesus is, but it also does so much more.

The Ascension is not about where Jesus is, but where Jesus rules. In the Ascension, Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father and becomes the King who rules our lives here and now. In this spectacular moment, a vision that would keep our eyes in the sky, God brings full circle the incarnation that took place in Mary’s womb. God became what we are, and as Jesus returned to the Father the humanity of our existence was brought into the divine.

Far too often we use the Ascension story to explain Christ’s absence from our lives, we use it as the means by which we calm the questions of preschoolers, and comfort those who are in the midst of suffering. But the Ascension loses it’s beauty, majesty, and power when we limit it to the physical location of the Son of God.

When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father he received the authority to rule here and now through a particular people called church; people like us.

Today, we throw the word “heaven” around like we throw around the word “love.” We use it as a filler or a descriptor to such a degree that it no longer means anything. And therefore when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we no longer know what we are saying.

In the Ascension, Christ is exalted to the Oval Office of the universe to rule forever and ever.

I use the Oval Office specifically because the Oval Office means something to us, it embodies power and gravitas and even a little bit of fear. It is the place where things get done, where decisions are made that have an effect on our lives, it is where our leader rules.

But of course, our real Leader doesn’t reside in a White House, nor does our Leader work in an Oval Office made by the hands of morals.

Our Lord is Jesus Christ who rules from the Oval Office of the Universe.

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Just as we throw around the term “heaven” today without knowing what we are saying, the same thing happens with “the mission of the church.” Ask any good United Methodist about the mission of the church and they will tell you that we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, the church is already the better place that God has made in the world.

It would seem then, that perhaps the real mission of the church, particularly in the world we live in today, is to reclaim the understanding and belief that Jesus is Lord.

            Because we either live under that reality or we don’t.

After my brief theological conundrum in the basement, I walked up the stairs with the kids and we entered the sanctuary for the program. The kids stood attentively as I welcomed the families and friends, they belted out the songs with such volume that they drowned out the sound system with the backing music, and then we came to the final song.

It’s really simple and it goes like this: “I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day because I know He loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah!” And of course, I popped out into the chancel area and jumped with the kids while we were singing. The second time through its all about clapping, so we did that. And then the third time through we sing about dancing, and we did that as well.

While performing with the kids I could hear the parents laughing and clapping along as I made a fool of myself with a bunch of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but the thing is, they really meant it. The kids threw every bit of themselves into the three verses of that song and they jumped, clapped, and danced with reckless abandon.

After the last song I announced the graduates of the Preschool, those who are going to kindergarten in the fall, and then I dismissed everyone from the sanctuary for a meal in the fellowship hall.

While the families and children were milling about I went to go find Keller to finish our conversation about the location of the Lord. I scanned through all the people and thought about what I might say, what story I could tell, how I could make it intelligible to a 4 year old when I felt another tug at my leg.

Keller was standing there with a huge smile on his face. I said, “Keller, you did a great job and I have my answer for you about where Jesus is.” And he just stood there grinning from ear to ear and said, “I know now Pastor Taylor, I felt him up there when we were dancing!”

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Our Christ is a cosmic King who rules and reigns over us. In the ascension Jesus broke forth from the chains of being one of us, among us, into a freedom to rule with authority and power at the right hand of God. We are now his witnesses in Staunton, Augusta County, and to the ends of the earth. As Christians we believe that Christ is with us in the midst of being this strange, wonderful, and beautiful thing called church. Jesus makes himself manifest with us when we break bread, when we pass the peace, when we encounter the stranger, and even when we’re dancing in the sanctuary.

The story of the ascension is transformative for us Christians because in it we recognize our inability to go it alone. The first disciples met together, traveled together, worked together, prayed together, wept together, and rejoiced together, and even danced together all in Christ’s name. Just like them, we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, love and grace, to live into the reality that the church is the witness to Jesus Christ.

Jesus reigns from the Oval Office of the Universe at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for as much as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is also with us, the resurrected Christ is the one who makes possible our resurrection, who brings forth reconciliation in our lives, who offers us a story when we have no story, who dances with us, who weeps with us, who is our Lord. Amen.

What Is Truth?

John 18.33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

During the celebration of holy mass in the chapel of the Carmelite Monastery 6 members of the OCDS community made promises to the Order.  Dr. Jason Bourgeois and Judy Hawkins professed their temporary vows for 2 years and David Travers, Suzie Megown, Kathryn Theobald and Wendy Corbella professed their Difinitive Promise to the Secular Order.  Fr. Lawrence Herzog, OCD celebrated the mass which was attended by the Carmelite Nuns and families of the OCDS community.

 

Christ the King Sunday is the New Year’s Eve of the Christian calendar. Many of us might celebrate the New Year beginning on January 1st, but in the church the season of Advent is the beginning of our year as we wait for the coming of the Lord on Christmas. For centuries the church has celebrated this rhythm where we start a new year in anticipation of Jesus’s birth, we proclaim Jesus’ life and teachings, and we mark his death and resurrection with Holy Week. Then we look forward to the celebration of Pentecost when God’s Spirit was poured out on the first disciples, and we have a long season of what we call ordinary time to learn more about the stories from scripture.

The Christian year is built the way it is so that we retell the greatest story ever told, every year.

But just like with the celebration of New Years Eve we need a big party to mark the end of our year, we need to pull out all the stops and look back over where we’ve been, and get excited about where we’re going. We need our New Years Eve, but for us we call it Christ the King Sunday.

Since the foundation of the early church, disciples have worshipped Christ in his three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as Prophet whenever he shared a lesson with the disciples, whenever he told a parable, and whenever he spoke out against the injustices of the world. Like a true Prophet Jesus spoke the truth in love. He went out to the last, least, and lost and helped to speak words that gave them value. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of society and challenged the world to behave according to the way God would have us to behave.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as Priest whenever he healed the sick, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. Like a true and holy Priest Jesus shared his final meal with his friends and told them he was offering his body and blood for their sake and for others.

Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by sacrificing himself and dying a terrible death on a cross.

Throughout the Christian year we learn about Jesus as King whenever we hear about the kingdom of God, whenever we discuss what it means to take up our cross to follow him, and whenever we confess Jesus as Lord. Like a true King Jesus watched out for the people of his community, fed the multitudes and offered a new way of life. But perhaps one of the greatest insights into what it means to worship Christ as King comes from Jesus’ interaction with Pontius Pilate.

It was early in the morning when the Jewish elders brought Jesus to Pilate with death on their minds. Of course, according to the Law, they could not kill him but they knew that the Roman leader could. So Pilate entered the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you asking because you want to know, or did other people tell you about who I am?” Pilate replied, “I’m not Jewish! Your people, your chief priests, your nation handed you over to me. So, what have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If it were from this world, my followers would be fighting to the death to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?

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What is truth?

Pilate wanted to know. Christians have wanted to know. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we want to know as well. What is truth?

Seeing as how today is our New Year’s Eve, I thought we would do well to look back over the last year and examine what we have learned to be true…

In Advent we learned about how everyone is given a new beginning in Jesus Christ. That when God came into the world it changed everything, and when you discover Jesus in your heart it changes everything. It changes the way you think, the way you speak, and the way you act.

During the winter we asked tough questions about are faith like “Is it better to be cremated or buried?” and “Is it appropriate to have an American Flag in our sanctuary?” We talked about how being a Christian means sacrifice, how food will not bring us closer to God, and how God strengthens the weak.

During Lent we spent the season praying for God to cleanse us of our sins, and heal our brokenness. We got back to the basics of our faith by looking at the Ten Commandments, admitting that we cannot save ourselves, and that God is God (and we are not).

During Holy Week we went from the joy of the last supper with a foot washing on Maundy Thursday, to the shadow of the cross on Good Friday, to the glory of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Before Pentecost we looked to the stained glass windows in our sanctuary to learn about the faith attested in the Good Shepherd, the Methodists, and the Johns. On Pentecost we listened to two of our youth proclaim that the church is not a building but a people.

Throughout the summer we retold some of the greatest and strangest stories from the Old Testament, we even had a donkey preach one of the sermons, and we spent time praying for one another.

And this fall we addressed why we do what we do. Why we worship, why we give, why we serve, and why we pray. (All of them bring us closer to God)

What is truth? Every Sunday that we gather in this sanctuary is an attempt to answer that very question. Every sermon, every prayer, every hymn is all geared toward discovering the truth in our lives.

As we look forward to a new year in the Christian calendar we anticipate more services attempting to answer Pontius Pilate’s question and the question that rests in our hearts. We will have sermon series and bible studies, we will have prayer vigils and fellowship events, we will have baptisms, and we will have funerals, all striving to answer “What is truth?

For us today, sitting here in this worship service, Jesus has a simple and profound answer: My kingdom is not of this world.

In the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, the French community continues to mourn and grieve over the fragility of life. For days, Parisians have gathered from across the city to place flowers and light candles in memory of all the innocent people who lost their lives.

A French interviewer recently caught sight of a father and son who were kneeling by the flowers and the interviewer asked the boy if he understood what had happened. The four year old said, “bad guys who were very mean did something very bad. We need to be very careful and my family has to move out of France.” The father quickly interrupted and said that they did not need to leave because France was their home but the son, with a quiver in his lip reminded his father about the bad guys who have guns and can shoot us because they’re really mean.

The father took a moment to think about what his son said, and then he replied, “Yes. They have guns. But we have flowers.”

The son was incredulous, “But flowers don’t do anything!”

“Of course they do,” said the father, “look, everyone is putting flowers here. It’s to fight against guns.”

“It’s to protect us?” “Exactly”

Then the son asked, “And the candles too?” “Yes. The candles are to remember all the people who are gone.”

The boy, who had clearly been distraught the whole time, finally began to smile as he took in the abundance of flowers and candles in the square and looked right at the interviewer to say, “The flowers and the candles are here to protect us.”

We live in a remarkably tumultuous world that feels like it’s on the brink of something terrible. Just turn on the television or open a newspaper and you are immediately bombarded by tragedy after tragedy. But when a young boy discovers the power of a flower, something dismissed by so much of the world, we are reminded that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

It is not easy thing to be a Christian, to live our lives in such a way that Jesus is our king. Because our king asks us to do some strange things like: pray for our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give away our clothing and possessions to help those in need. But Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, it does not harmonize with the expectations of the world.

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies as ourselves.

            The world tells us that we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

What is truth? The answer to the question is our collective effort to know who we are and whose we are, to remember the stories of scripture so that they shape our lives, to live out the incarnation so that the world can be transformed.

The whole Christian year is the attempt to answer: “What is truth?

But today Jesus gives us one response: “My kingdom is not of this world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

God Is God And We Are Not – Sermon on Psalm 24

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

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Be careful.” That’s what they kept saying when they found out I was invited to preach at a church in the heart of Detroit. I had been living in Birmingham, Michigan (a rather wealthy suburb north of Detroit) helping serve a church for the summer when I received the opportunity to fill in at another church one Sunday. And as soon as I was asked, all the warnings started coming in: “Be careful” “Park as close as possible to the church” “Keep your wallet in your front pocket.

I remember thinking these people were crippled by fear, how bad could it really be? We were talking about driving into Detroit on a Sunday morning to preach at a church…

When the morning arrived I was filled with excitement. I picked out the perfect bow tie to go with my blazer, hoping to assert my authority regardless of my young age, I had a prepared a theologically profound manuscript sermon, hoping that it would get people to shout “amen!” from the pews, and I spent the long drive down Woodward Avenue in silence, hoping to boost my holiness before the service began.

The closer I got to the church, the stranger I began to feel. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the longer I drove, the less people I saw on the streets. The buildings went from inviting homes and businesses to abandoned shells of carpentry. The streets went from well maintained to pot holes that required a car to drive up on the sidewalk in order to avoid.

In a matter of minutes I had gone from “Pleasantville” to a post-apocalyptic movie set, and my excitement was quickly replaced by fear.

By the time I pulled in the parking lot, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being for at least ten minutes. The streets had been largely deserted leading up to Cass UMC, and it was strangely silent when I stepped out of my car.

So here I was, standing in the heart of Detroit, in a bowtie and blazer, with a bible and sermon tucked under my arm, completely alone on a Sunday morning.

My footsteps across the concrete reverberated in echoes through the abandoned buildings flanking the church and even though it was a bright sunny day, I felt like I was walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece having been built in 1883 with Tiffany’s stained glass windows, though I could tell from the street that bullet holes had cut through the once remarkable windows.

When I reached out my hand to open the doors, the height of my new fears were realized: It was locked.

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I knew no one from the church, I had no way to contact anyone, and all of the warnings started to really flow through my mind. But I did what any good pastor would do, I sat down on the front steps and waited for someone to open the door.

30 minutes later, a disheveled looking old man, the first person I had seen in a long time, peeked from around the corner, walked up the steps, and unlocked the front door without saying a word. I wandered around the building until I found the sanctuary, searched in vain for a worship bulletin, and resigned myself to sit down in a chair by the altar.

During the next hour, the most random assortment of people started flowing in through the sanctuary doors. The church, once renown in the heart of Detroit, was being filled with people who slept outside the night before, people who had no money to put in the offering plate, and people who were having conversations with themselves at a volume loud enough for everyone else to experience.

A group of 7 older black women arranged themselves on folding chairs near the front, and without really discussing it they all flipped their hymnals to the same page and started to sing. A man with wrinkled fingers was hunched over a piano in the corner struggling to keep up with the singing, and a young man had seated himself behind a drum-set hidden in the corner, and was wailing away to a song that only he could hear.

When the first hymn ended, the women huddled together to pick another hymn and began singing. At some point in the middle of their fourth hymn, with the pianist still planking away, and the drummer smashing the cymbals, a gentleman stood up in the middle of the sanctuary with his eyes trained on me. He walked down the main aisle slowly and deliberately until he was towering over me and then declared, “Son, if you don’t start talking, they ain’t liable to quit singing.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, from the sea to the mountains, from the rivers to the deserts, from the people to the animals; for the Lord has founded life upon the earth. Who then shall worship the Lord in holiness? And who shall stand with the Lord in the holiest of places? Only those who have clean hands, and pure hearts, those who do not lift up their souls to what is false, who do not break their promises. They will receive a blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord.

I stood up after the end of the next hymn, and grabbed the hand held microphone to start participating in worship. I felt like a fool standing in my khakis and blazer, with my bowtie tilted just slightly to the side. I felt ridiculous with my over examined sermon under my arm, and bible in my hand. I felt like I didn’t deserve to stand before the congregation, but all of their eyes were on me. (just like all of yours are right now)

I took off the jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, ditched the sermon on my chair, and let the Holy Spirit go to work.

Let us pray” I began, and before I could start praying for our service, the people started shouting out their own prayers. “O Lord, help this boy to preach.” “Yes Lord, show us your mercy.”My God show me your glory!” “Remove our sins, give us your Spirit, clean our hearts!” “Your will be done!” “Have thine own way Lord!” “Help this boy preach, preach preach.

It was only after a few moments of silence that I finally said “amen” without having added any of my own prayers.

I preached on the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, about the new creation that comes in knowing Christ. I talked about moments that transform our lives. I said things like “there is a new life in Christ, but just because we find Christ it doesn’t mean our life will get better, but that we are called to make other lives better.” And instead of the typical, and silent, congregation I was used to, the people kept shouting at me while I preached. “Ain’t that the truth!” “Yes Lord!” “We know it, we know it” “Lord, give him strength to preach.” “Speak through him God.

When I got around to the close of the service, when I offered a benediction to the congregation, when the final amen was uttered, I heard them say in return, “Thank you Jesus.”

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Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! the King of glory is coming. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, merciful and majestic, the Lord. Jesus Christ the author of salvation, the Good News, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit full of wisdom and truth, giver of life, and partner to our prayers. Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! The King of glory is coming! Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

We can dress the part, we can read all the right books, we can memorize all the hymns and prayers, but unless we are looking for holiness in our lives, unless we are ready to bow down to the King of glory, then we are forgetting the truth: God is God and we are not.

Many of us are good Christians, we pray for our friends and family, we come to church, we put money in the plate, but there is a profound difference between believing we are holy, and wanting to be holy.

When I arrived at that church in Detroit years ago, I foolishly thought I was bringing something to them. With my well prepared outfit and sermon, I made the assumption that I was bringing God with me, nice and shiny, like a school project. I became my own main character in the story of worship, and it prevented me from seeing the King of glory.

When I stood up in the pulpit to proclaim the words, the people did not see a young man with a seminary education, they did not see some white fool trying his best to not pass out, they saw a vessel for the Lord. Their prayers were not to me, but for the Lord to work through me. The recognized the great division between God and me, and knew that Jesus was the bridge between the two.

They knew that God is God and we are not.

In our contemporary American culture, we tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.

We assume that everything revolves around us, and that so long as our needs are being me, then everything else should be fine.

We believe that if we wear the right clothes, and get the right education, that holiness will follow accordingly.

We feel holy for giving up an hour every week to sit in a place like this and sing hymns, offer prayers, and listen to a sermon.

That church in Detroit had something that I never knew I needed: They believed that God was the center of the story, that God had the power to transform their lives, and that God really was the King of glory.

Too many of my friends have left the church because they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They might try different styles of worship and different denominations, but if they don’t get anything out of it, they will rarely return. However, church isn’t about what we get out of it, its about what God gets out of us.

Believing we are already holy limits God’s power to make us holy.

It is in the recognition of the great divide between humanity and the Lord that we can let Jesus get to work on our hearts and souls. It is in the great admission of Jesus as the King of glory we start to see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but instruments for God’s love to be heard in the world. It is in the words of our worship that we recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst and our lives start to change.

If we remain in the assumption of our holiness, then our lives will stay the same.

But if we truly desire for the Lord to make us holy, then our lives will be transformed. Amen.

Holy Perspective – Sermon on 1 Samuel 16.1-3

1 Samuel 16.1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord look on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

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One of the things I enjoy most about meeting with couples, and talking about weddings, is the invitation I offer for them to pick a particular scripture for their weddings. Now, I always have backups prepared just in case they are unable to come to a consensus or if they are just unfamiliar with God’s Word. But most of the time, they are willing to look around for something.

Many couples will choose the oft-mentioned 1 Corinthians 13 passage: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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Others will pick something along the lines of the regularly misinterpreted Ephesians 5 passage: Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Or that great passage from Ruth: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die I will die.”

The scripture that a couple chooses for their wedding can be quite revealing. It helps to demonstrate where their priorities are, what they expect out of marriage, and frankly, what they want to hear the pastor talk about.

So, you can imagine my surprise, when a couple recently asked me to use the scripture from today for their wedding. Preparing to enter wedded bliss, they didn’t want to hear about love, or marriage, but instead they wanted to hear about Samuel anointing David…

David & Samuel

The people of Israel had demanded a king from their God. For too long they had wandered about without leadership and they cried out for a leader they could follow. Reluctant to provide a human and fallible leader for a people that were supposed to be following their Lord, Saul eventually became king.

Handsomer and taller than any other man in the land, it quickly became clear that Saul was not the right one to rule the nation. He listened to his own heart rather than the Lord, and God eventually rejected him.

Thats where our story begins today. Samuel was sent to see Jesse the Bethlehemite, for the Lord has provided a king among his sons. The prophet took a heifer with him to cover his true actions from the vengeful Saul who might’ve killed him upon discovery.

After arriving, the elders met Samuel with fear and trembling. Turbulent events had always come in the wake of Samuel’s life and the people were responding appropriately. Great men and women always seem to stir up trouble wherever they travel. (It might be worth rediscovering this today in our own faith lives; too often has it been supposed that the role of church is to give all of us peace of mind. Truly I tell you, the greatest churches and sermons are those that challenge us to be better and do more than we already are)

So Samuel begin to evaluate all of Jesse’s sons; first Eliab, then Abinadab, than Shammah, and eventually all of Jesse’s sons had stood before the prophet. But the Lord spoke to Samuel and said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his statue, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Samuel was caught up with outward appearances. It’s like whenever I go to Alexandria to visit my grandmother, there is always a bowl of skittles out on her coffee table. I love skittles. On the outside the skittles always look delicious, the problem is that I don’t know whether they were put out that day, or six months ago. If you’ve never experienced it, trust me, you would rather have fresh skittles. The point being, you cannot tell how they will taste from the surface.

Anyway, the Lord had promised Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be the king, yet the Lord had passed over each one. “Are all of your sons here?” Samuel asked Jesse. “Well, there remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” David was beckoned away from his shepherding duties and brought before the prophet. He was ruddy and had beautiful eyes. The Lord commanded Samuel to anoint this boy, for he was the one. So Samuel took the horn of oil, anointed David in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

I prepared for the wedding like I have for all the others, I had counseling sessions with the couple, I talked about the major issues that most couples confront once joining together, but the whole time 1 Samuel 16 hung in the back of my head. What was I going to do with the text during the ceremony? How in the world could I proclaim love and wedded bliss in the midst of David being anointed by Samuel.

I was at a shop here in Staunton when I saw a bumper sticker that illuminated the text for me. The bumper sticker said, “Marriage: betting someone half your stuff that you’ll love them forever.” In reading that, I realized what the world sees in marriage is not what God sees. We, myself included, look on marriage and all things with mortal eyes, but the Lord looks on the heart.

All of the sudden 1 Samuel 16 became the perfect wedding scripture! The Lord does not look on our cooly color coordinated outfits, not our perfect hair, not the precise flower arrangements, God looks on the heart. God does not concern himself with the pomp and circumstance of weddings but instead looks at the intentionality of the two being brought together. God does not get caught up with the minor details of all the rights words and ceremony, but cares about the love within two people sharing a life together.

On the outside, marriage looks like it can be sustained by love alone, it appears like a gamble of half of your things, it seems to be a simple agreement to live together. When we look at marital relationships through mortals eyes, we are limited to the surface appearance and we forget to look on the heart.

Marriage is a beautiful and strange thing. Like Samuel pouring oil over David’s head, it can become uncomfortable and weird. At its best, marriage is loving someone knowing that they will not be the same person tomorrow. Its entering into a dance that will evolve over the years with different tempos and time signatures. Marriage is about the inward heart and disposition of two people coming together to share this remarkable thing we call life.

The Lord looks on the heart. This, after all, was a perfect wedding scripture. As I stood before the happy couple, presiding over their marital vows I could tell that their intentions were clear, they were not caught up in all the outside elements, but were committing to their marital covenant together.

In as much as this text fit perfectly for the couple, I believe that it stands as a light in the darkness for churches and Christians today. The Lord looks on the heart – How sad is it then that most human judgments about people are almost always superficial? Those who are physically attractive have many easy advantages in life, while others, by their very appearance, seem to be severely regarded by others.

David was noted by Samuel as being handsome, with beautiful eyes, but he was still one of the least likely candidates to be anointed by the Lord. While his brothers were older and more mature, David was still young and off in the fields tending the sheep. Rather incredibly, while God anointed David to become king, he would have to mature and go through many trials and tribulations before his role would come to fruition. He would have to battle against the mighty Goliath, avoid Saul’s spear in the royal court, and flee for his life hiding in caves before he could event mount the throne of Israel.

In many ways, God ordains each of us, anoints all of our heads, for certain tasks and graces in the world. Some may have occurred already, and many more lie ahead of each of you in your futures.

God does not call the attractive and the strong to bring about his will on earth, he is not caught up with our outward appearance and physical requirements. God is concerned, above all, with our hearts, with our intentions, with our hopes.

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This past week, the Christian organization World Vision made national news. World Vision is a humanitarian agency dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. Like many other similarly focused organizations, it can operate primarily under the radar and achieve a lot of good in the world. That was, until this past week.

In a public statement issued on Monday, the organization announced that it would begin hiring Gay Christians in legal same sex marriages. Prior to the announcement World Vision required all of its employees to maintain heterosexual practices within marriage to be considered for employment. The new policy was described as symbolic not of compromise, but of Christian unity, with the hope that it would inspire unity among other Christians as well.

After a remarkable amount of public outrage by evangelical Christians, and a significant amounts of threats regarding withdrawal of funding for the organization, World Vision reversed its decision to hire Gay christians in same sex marriages.

In only 48 hours, one of the most open, vulnerable, and incredible acts by a Christian group, devoted to helping sponsor children in need, was reversed. The mission of World Vision, the good that they do in the world, was immediately overshadowed by their hiring policy.

I don’t know what to think about all of this. I don’t know if any of the decisions have been right or wrong. What I do know is that a significant number of people who were being helped and saved by an organization were almost put in jeopardy because an agency aspired for greater Christian unity. It would seem to me, that regardless of opinion, the majority of the response was far more focused on the outward appearance of an organization, rather than their heart and intentionality.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to say that one side was right, or that one side was wrong, but merely question how far we fallen from the idea that God looks on the heart. Every week we gather in this place to affirm our faith in the God who loves us when we don’t love back, that God listens when we run out of words, and that he desires us to be one in the Spirit when it seems as if we cannot agree on anything.

The Lord said to Samuel, and I believe the Lord is still saying to all of us: “Do not look on appearances or on height, do not look on political ideologies or past deeds, do not judge others lest ye be judged; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

How do you look at others in your life? Are you caught up with outward appearances, judging others before you have an opportunity to really learn their story? Do you see the world through mortals eyes, or do you look at the world the way that God looks at us?

This is a tough Word for us to hear today. God called Samuel to look on David through God’s eyes, with holy perspective. We, in the same way, are called to radically love one another, sacrifice for the body of Christ, and be one in the Spirit with holy perspective. It is not easy, and we cannot do it on our own.

So, may God bless us enough to open our eyes to see the world, and one another, the way that God sees us. Amen.

 

Open My Eyes That I May See