The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.


Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.


We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.


What’s In A Name?

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.

They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.

They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”

So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.

Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.

And look where that got me.


Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.

Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.

And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”

We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.

But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.

And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.


The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.

Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.

They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.

This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.

In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.


Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.

I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.

My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.

A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.

Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.

So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.

Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.

The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.

God is calling us by our names.

The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.

Not My President


Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.



A year ago today I stood in this pulpit and preached about how God’s kingdom is not of this world. I used Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “You say that I am…”) to juxtapose the world’s expectations against God’s expectations. The sermon ended with a staccato’d refrain that emphasized the kingship of Jesus and our allegiance to his kingdom.

I said:

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.

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

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

            The world tells us to 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.

I didn’t think it at the time, but it was a pretty political sermon. After all, making the claim that Christ is our King is a political statement. But what I didn’t anticipate was how the words from that sermon would play out over the next 365 days.

We’re told not to mix politics with religion. Political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere, they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time. We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back the Supreme Court, and I even get emails asking about what the church is going to do regarding local school board decisions.

We hear that the church is not supposed to be political. We shouldn’t endorse particular candidates or platforms. We shouldn’t tell people how to vote, or even to vote at all. The church can’t be political in the sense that it can’t be Republican or Democrat, but the church itself is a politic. To be part of the church, to be part of the body of Christ, implies that our worldview is changed and therefore everything else changes as well.

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

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

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

Throughout the last Christian year from Christ the King to Christ the King, we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God in the stories from Creation to Redemption, we’ve been transformed by the Word of the God becoming incarnate in the way we live our lives…. And all of this, all of the Sundays, all of the sermons, all of the scriptures, have pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about Christians, for us everything starts and ends with Jesus. In his letters Paul addresses this strange and beautiful quality of Jesus over and over again. And rather than trying to accommodate Jesus to the ways of the world, Paul calls for all Christians to put Christ first. Yet, Christ is the King of a Kingdom that is so different, and so far from what we’re comfortable with, that putting Jesus first is difficult.

In Jesus’ kingdom the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about, have been changed.

It’s like being deported to a strange new land where everyone else is speaking a strange language. It takes time to learn the lingo, and adapt to the habits of the people around us. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our week to worship in a church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives; Jesus fits us into his.

We are the ones transferred, moved, and deported from one kingdom to another. We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion; from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty; from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance; from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.

Everything about what we think we know and understand changes in the kingdom of God, because Christ is King.


The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous in our country: Economically disenfranchised people are fearful about the potential of losing their health care coverage, while some devastated Democrats are calling for the murder of Donald Trump. Muslims are being threatened with a registration much like the Jews were forced to register in Germany prior to World War II, while Trump voters are being physically assaulted across the national landscape. Immigrants are cowering in fear over whether or not they’re going to be deported, while countless protestors are flooding the streets of cities and the pages of social media with the declaration: Not My President.

Some are berating and demeaning the crowds for their rejection of Donald Trump as their president as if this is the first time people have rejected the president-elect in the United States. It was only sixteen years ago that tee-shirts and bumper stickers were mass produced with pictures of George W. Bush accompanied by the words: Not My President. It was only 8 years ago that Confederate flags were waved during protests after Barack Obama won the election and people were chanting: Not My President.

Thank God Jesus is not our president.

For if Jesus were our president we would have had to pick him to lead us, and we never would have picked him to lead us. We would never willingly elect someone who told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to open up all the borders and let all the refugees in. We would never willingly elect someone who spent so much time with the riff-raff of society.

If Jesus were our president he would be a product of the world rather than a product of God’s incarnation. He would have to make promises to the rich in order to maintain economic stability. He would have to compromise with other world leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to second-guess the stories he told out of fear that he would not be re-elected in the future.

If Jesus were our president he would have to make us promises that he could never keep, instead of being the glue that keeps all of us together. He would have to take sides in political debates and ostracize entire communities. He would have to brag about the stability of the union rather than name the brokenness that is keeping us from becoming who God is actually calling us to be. He would have to order the extermination of particular individuals and communities in order to keep our country safe.

Thank God Jesus is not our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.

The kingdom Jesus rules is not of this world and it forces us to confront how broken our world really is. Jesus, as our king, subverts the powers and principalities and shows us a new way.

In this broken and flawed world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

When we encounter things that appear diametrically opposed, things like Republicans and Democrats, Christ is the glue that holds it all together. Through the blood of his death, the blood that was poured out for the world, we encounter the “other” as brother and the “stranger” as “sister.” All the worldly things that seek to divide us are broken down by the glory of the cross that seeks to bring peace and reconciliation rather than division and destruction.


It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, to worship Christ as King. We need the strength of God to endure everything with patience while giving thanks to the Father, because we cannot do discipleship on our own. But when Christ becomes first in our lives, when every Sunday is like Christ the King Sunday, when we realize that we a part of a strange new kingdom, everything else starts to change.

Our King does not build walls to keep people out, nor does our king require the registration of different communities under the auspices of “safety.” Our King invites all to the table to discover the power and love of his grace.

Our King does not call for his followers to take up the sword to wipe out political opposition. Our King forgave the people who delivered him to the cross.

Our King does not pander to us with empty promises in order to procure our allegiance. Our King meets us where we are with a simple invitation saying, “follow me.”

Nearly 100 years ago, Christians all across the world needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a Sunday set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it helps to remind us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality of our King being nailed to a cross for the people of his kingdom. It reminds us that peace comes through his sacrifice, a sacrifice that we remember at this table.

Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table. Instead of consuming the politics and priorities of the world, be consumed by the grace of God made manifest is Jesus Christ. Reject the powers and principalities that seek to undo God’s creation, and kneel before the true King: Jesus Christ. Amen.

Naked and Afraid

John 21.1-17

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana of Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now not of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”



Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. The angel at the tomb shared the Good News with the disciples and with the Marys, and later that day Jesus appeared in the room with the disciples. He commanded them to “Go” and spread the Good News to all the earth. But Thomas was not there. Thomas doubted his friends, and their stories about the risen Lord. So a week later Jesus appeared again before the disciples and offered his hands and his side to Thomas to prove the resurrection. He concluded the moment by saying: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

After these incredible moments of resurrected existence, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples for a third time at the sea of Galilee when they returned to their former lives. What a fitting reading for the second Sunday after Easter. Just two weeks ago we were gathered in this sanctuary shouting “Hallelujah!” and praising the Lord for Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We were living in the light of the resurrection, and boy was it bright! The scent of blooming lilies punctuated the air and invaded our nostrils. No matter what was happening in our lives, God bombarded us with the Good News, death defeated, and we left church feeling filled by the Spirit to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

And here we are two weeks later. The lilies are gone, the hallelujahs are still are our lips but they don’t have the same power, and the darkness of life has crept back in. Every year we experience Easter like a mountaintop, but at some point we have to travel back down to the valley of existence.

The disciples, after literally witnessing the resurrected Christ, decide to return to their old lives. Peter says to the boys, “I’m goin’ fishing!” and they reply, “We’re coming with you.”

Do you love me?

It seems strange from our vantage point that the disciples should return to their former occupations, even though Jesus told them to go and spread the news. It feels bizarre to hear about them going back to their boats and nets after their friend transformed the meaning of life and death. Yet, this is how people usually respond to an emotional overload. In the weeks after a baby is born, the new parents wonder about when they will be able to sleep again. After a wife loses her husband she wonders when it will be okay to laugh again. When something deeply and fundamentally transformative occurs, it is only natural to ponder about life before the change.

This story of a reunion by the sea is a reminder that there is no escape from the Lord. Wherever the disciples went, and wherever we go, Jesus is with us.

They were out all night fishing but didn’t catch a thing. Jesus stood on the beach watching the disciple row in to shore, but they did not recognize him. He commanded them to cast out their nets one more time and promised they would catch something. Three years earlier he had said the same thing to Peter and Andrew while they were fishing before they left everything to follow him.

They immediately caught so many fish that they were unable to haul in the net because it was so heavy. In that moment, as the pieces finally came together, Peter recognized who was standing on the shore, put on some clothes and jumped into the sea.

There are many details in this epilogue to John’s gospel: the mention of a charcoal fire draws us back to the charcoal fire around which Peter denied Jesus. The appearance of fish and bread to feed the disciples hunger propels us back to the time when Jesus fed the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus even asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” which connects with the three times he denied Jesus.

But this simple note that Peter was naked on the boat while catching fish, and decides to put his clothes on before swimming to Jesus, really stands out. It would have been easier to fish under the oppressive heat of the climate without the baggage of clothing, but instead of immediately jumping in (as he had done once before) Peter puts on clothes before he see the resurrected Lord for a third time.

Peter was naked and afraid. Not just physically naked without clothing, but maybe he was afraid of making himself completely vulnerable to Jesus. Perhaps he did not want to address the emotional denial of Jesus prior to his death. Maybe he didn’t want to admit his fallibility, or he did not want his life to be altered. But the resurrection changes everything.

Like we all do when we feel vulnerable, we put on the armor of denial and ignorance in order to protect ourselves from others. Afraid of the inevitable confrontation we sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything has gone back to normal. And then Jesus shows up with his question:

Do you love me?

Sure I do Jesus! I come to church nearly every Sunday, I listen to the pastor up in the pulpit, and I even try to sing the hymns in harmony.

Feed my lambs.

Do you love me?

Of course I do Jesus! I wear a cross around my neck, I always have my check written and ready for the offering, and I post pictures of prayers on Facebook for everyone to see.

Tend my sheep.

Do you love me?

Jesus, you’re making me a little uncomfortable… you know everything and you know that I love you. I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I give a little money to charity, I try to pray before I eat my meals… what more could you want?

Feed my sheep.

Most of us have probably never faced a time like Peter did when he denied Jesus outright. We’ve never really had to suffer for our faith, and we’ve never really been afraid for following Jesus. But all of us have had moments where we denied him; we just might not realize it.

We might be in our car driving down the road, and perhaps we’re even listening to a Christian radio station, when we stop at a red light and we see someone standing in the median right next to us with a sign asking for money. Perhaps we reach out our hands to lock our doors, or we make judgments about how they got themselves into whatever trouble their in, and before we know it the light turns green and we are able to get on with our lives without being bothered by the panhandlers.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having a cup of coffee with a friend and the topic of the recent Panama Papers comes up in conversation. We can feel our fists tightening as we complain about the ultra wealthy evading the taxes that all the rest of us have to pay. Perhaps we start drawing connections between the economically elite with criminals who prey on the weak and underprivileged and we wish someone would do something about it. But before too long the conversation moves on to another topic and we finally feel the tension start to slip away as we talk about something else.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having dinner with our family when someone goes on a tirade about a particular political party. We keep our mouths shut because we’ve heard them go off like this but we can’t help but shake our heads in disappointment over their opinion. How could someone be so backward in their thinking? If they believe their candidate can fix all of our problems, then they are going to be sorely mistaken…

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

The conclusion to John’s gospel is like epilogue in its willingness to address many of the elements that made Jesus’ ministry what it was. As we read it, as we smell the fish cooking on the open fire, and we try to dry ourselves off after swimming in the sea, and as we listen to Jesus’ questions it reminds us of darkness.


Through this text we are forced to confront the darkness of our hunger for meaning in our lives, or our failure to recognize Jesus in our midst, or the fact that we have denied him by denying others. But at the same time, this story reminds us that none of the darkness has overcome the light. Christ still died for us while we were yet sinners. God still sent his Son into this broken world to start putting the pieces back together. The Holy Spirit still moves among us and calls us to love one another even when it feels impossible.

Christianity, at its best, is not about what we think or feel about Jesus – it’s about what Jesus does to us. Not a technique for how we can use him to accomplish our goals, but rather his plans for using people like us to transform the world by feeding and tending to the sheep.

Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For many of us, the normalcy of life has returned. The darkness of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

            And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?”

If we love Jesus, then we have to start loving one another. Which means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep by encountering the person on the side of the road asking for money. And not by just addressing their financial situation, but also by treating them with worth and respect. It means that we have to tend to Jesus sheep by helping those trapped by the power of greed to see how their greed affects all of God’s creation. It means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep when they argue and bicker about politics by listening and loving rather than ignoring and judging.

It is here at the lakeshore of life, that we discover what a strange Messiah we follow. A man who came and was hung on a cross only to forgive his murders; a man who went back to the friends who betrayed him, and ate breakfast with them by the sea; a man who got killed for calling people to serve the last, least, and the lost; a man who expects us to love him by loving others. 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?


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.

christ-the-king 2

Why We Do What We Do: Give – Sermon on Luke 12.22-34

Luke 12.22-34

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father know that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.


The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we give.

I was in my final year of seminary when my friend asked me to preach at his church. He had labored for the past few years as a full time student and full time pastor at the same time and needed someone to fill-in. He had received tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that’s where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

When Lindsey and I arrived at the tiny United Methodist Church in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, I was a little nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met, but I figured God would show up even if my sermon fell flat. The sanctuary was tiny, with white walls and bright florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet that I was worried we had arrived at the wrong church.

However, the lay leader was waiting by the door and greeted us as if we were first-time visitors, only to later realize that I was supposed to be the pastor for the day. He quickly led me into the sanctuary, gave me a quick and grand tour, and then informed me that he was the head usher, liturgist, organist, and treasurer.

From what I remember the service went well, though most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by my academic deconstruction of a prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thankfully gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed the entire service. I like to think that she loved my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a chance to actually look around at the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit of the hymns for the day, the offering brought in last week, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why they felt the need to display their deficit for everyone to see every Sunday. I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.


Talking about giving, and in particular financial giving is about as awkward as it gets in the church. Money, in general, is one of the taboo subjects of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we are curious. We avoid asking for financial help because it means admitting too much vulnerability. But then if we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (or the church) we have the double whammy of things we’re not supposed to talk about.

After all, money and religion are personal and private subjects aren’t they? What I do with my money and what I do with my faith should be of no concern to anyone else other than myself…

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give their gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and then conversion.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a teenager and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed here to St. John’s. Now that I had a steady income, Lindsey and I decided to start tithing to the church, and honestly it was really hard. We are a young married couple with debt to the federal government for paying for my seminary education, and we are going to have a baby in April. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder than I thought. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could be spending on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving.


My conversion toward giving did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I gave, the longer the habit continued, the easier it became, and my perspective started to change.

Instead of imagining what I could’ve have done with the money I gave to church, I started to tangibly witness and experience what the money I gave was doing for the church and the kingdom.

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. We are not called to give to St. John’s out of guilt, but out of generosity.

As John Wesley once said: “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever ask or imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world. If we act generously, we are helping God build the kingdom here on earth.

However, we should not be expected to give, or feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say “give give give” prevents us from developing strong relationship with the people and programs we serve. So here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts:

At St. John’s we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months ahead, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s love in the world. This means that we have to keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love through this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At St. John’s we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in the faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, but one of the most profound things we offer is weekly Chapel Time to our Preschoolers. Not only do we help to provide a wonderful facility for them to learn and grow, but we also welcome them into this sanctuary every week to learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Preschoolers discover how much God loves them, and they take those stories home to the families and subsequently teach them about God’s love.

And at St. John’s we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. For the first time in a long time we have paid our Apportionments in full to benefit the greater church, and the world. Some of that money goes to pay for clergy healthcare, some of it goes to domestic and international benevolences funds, and a number of other places. Moreover, we are able to provide a tremendous amount of financial resources to SACRA (Staunton-Augusta Church Relief Association) who then distribute the money to acute needs in the local community.


We give from our blessings to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, the preschoolers who gather to be nurtured and educated, or the countless people in the local and global community who need our help. We give out of generosity, because so much has been given to us.

However I don’t want to make it sound as if giving is the easiest thing in the world, because it does require sacrifice. Living a spiritual life of generosity requires a change of heart, a conversion. It might happen in a moment, or throughout a lifetime of faith, but when the transformation occurs, we become people of generosity.

We all have blessings to offer. Some of us have been blessed by God with incredibly lucrative careers and vocations, God has clothed us with more splendor than Solomon and all his temples, and we can give back to God through our financial giving. Some of us have been blessed by God with powerful relationship skills, God has given us personalities that bring out the best in others, and we can give back to God through our willingness to serve others. And God has blessed all of us with the gift of time, which is the most precious thing we can ever offer to the church and others.

Are we grateful for what God has done for us through this place? Do we appreciate all the blessings we have receiving throughout our lives? Do we want to bless others as we have been blessed?

We give because we have a common yearning for God’s kingdom to reign on earth, and when we give we join a new communion with the people of God. We give because it is the way by which we live out our love toward the church and our brothers and sisters in faith. We give because God first gave to us.

Where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also. Amen

The Upside-Down Kingdom – Sermon on Mark 6.30-34

Mark 6.30-34

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.


Last Sunday our mission team gathered in the parking lot after worship, prayed together, and then set out for the beautiful bounty of West Virginia. I don’t know how the rest of the team felt as we made our way west, but I was excited; we were committing ourselves to a community, we were going to be Christ’s hands and feet, and we were going to experience God’s upside-down kingdom.

McDowell County, West Virginia is nothing short of beautiful. While the roads twist back and forth and the topography ebbs and flows, you are constantly bombarded by the beauty of God’s creation. Sitting behind the wheel, the scenery flies past the window and all evidence of humanity’s presence is gone except for the occasional roadside house and the road beneath the wheels.

By the time we finally made it to Welsh, WV we were ready to work, and we were ready to get out of the cars. But the scenery had drastically changed from the journey; when we arrived in Welsh it felt as if time had stopped. At one time Welch was one of the ten most populated places in the United States. More coal has been found and produced in McDowell County than nearly every other coal mining venture in the rest of the country. The community grew rapidly as the industry boomed, but now it is a ghost town.


The final moments as we drove up to where we would be staying for the week were met with silence as we absorbed our surroundings. Countless empty buildings littered the streets, handwritten signs adorned the windows begging people and businesses to consider renting the space, and for the longest time we drove without seeing another human being.

The apostles, those first ragtag disciples, had gathered all around their teacher to share with him all they had done and taught. They went on and on about the lives they had changed, the miracles they were able to perform, and moments they had experienced God’s presence. But then Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Our mission team had arrived in our deserted place, but we would find little rest. Our church team was divided into two different work groups; the first would be working in a local food pantry, helping them to organize different donations before the weekly distribution on Saturday, the other would be working on painting the floors of house in the small town of War. The time before and after working would be spent in prayer, bible study, fellowship building, and learning about the local community.

From the Food Pantry group we learned that 100% of the children in McDowell County are on Free/Reduced lunch and that more than 50% of the children are considered homeless. From a former coal miner we learned that for a long time McDowell County was one of the wealthiest in the nation thanks to their coal mining, but that now the mines are being shut-down, and more and more people are without work and purpose.


It would have been easy to show up in McDowell, roll up our sleeves, work hard, and leave feeling good about the work we had done. It would have been easy to make a few friendships, pray for the people we met, and return to our lives in Staunton. It would have been easy to return to the pace of life here without being affected by what we had seen and experienced, but Jesus calls us to live in the Upside-Down Kingdom where our lives are flipped around.

When the crowds were gathering to see this special man named Jesus, many were coming and going and the had no leisure even to eat; what a perfect description of the lives that many people are living today. Far too many of us rush through the mundane aspects of daily living without taking the time to reflect on what we are actually doing.

Kids grab Pop-tarts on their way out the door in the morning, young professionals order the same cup of coffee with urgency before their daily commute, families sit down at a communal table to eat but each member has their nose down in a smart phone in order to connect with others, while actually disconnecting from the people in their midst.

Many of us Christians spend our faith lives just like the crowds so long ago. We treat church not like the precious gift that it is, but like any other commodity in our lives. Instead of seeing it as a vital and life-giving space, we see it as another item on the never-ending check-list of existence. Some of us have so much to do, that church has become an occasional venture, rather than a regular necessity. So many of us are coming and going at such a tremendous speed that we no longer have the time to feast on God’s Word in prayer and in worship.

The mission team, however, abandoned the fast pace regularity of life, and were forced to adjust to God’s schedule. Every morning we woke up to eat and begin our devotions; How were we experiencing God’s Upside-Down Kingdom? Where had we seen brokenness in the community? What is God trying to do through us this week? We began and ended every single activity with prayer, and we devoted ourselves to the people we were serving.


Now many saw the disciples and Jesus, so they hurried there on foot from all the nearby towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were wandering like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus loved to teach people about the kingdom of God, and he did so with parables. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; though tiny and small, it grows into one of the greatest plants providing shade and offering life. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding-feast where the least of society are invited to eat at the head table. The Kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out to sow, he knows not how the seeds grow but provides rich soil for the seeds to settle in.

While we settled into the rhythms of mission work in McDowell County, we started to  experience what God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is really like.

The Kingdom of God is like a group of privileged folk from Staunton, Virginia who gave up a week of their lives to serve a community of people they had never met. Time and time again they were questioned by the people about their work. No one could understand why a group such as ours would give up their precious time, give up their vacation, to get down on their hands and knees to change a person’s life. We did not go in order to earn our own salvation, we did not go to make ourselves feel better about our faith, we went because God’s Kingdom is one that has been flipped upside-down by the work of Christ, one that compels us to go and love when the world stands bewildered at our actions.

The Kingdom of God is like a house with plywood floors. Rough around the edges, with splintered pieces jutting out all over the place, in need of a few good coats of paint. The pieces of plywood met in different angles and sizes with the grain of the wood running in different directions, requiring dedicated attention while painting. God invites all to participate in this Kingdom, and we are not meant to be all alike. In fact God calls us to celebrate the things that separate us, so that we can learn to live in harmony with one another in the midst of differing grains.

The Kingdom of God is like a child laughing while running around a tiny yard in the middle of West Virginia with a 6 week old puppy. While adults slaved away in the house painting the floors, young children were laughing in a way that helped us to remember why God called us here in the first place; not to just help someone with their material needs, but share in the joy that comes with recognizing God’s grace in something as simple as a puppy, or as profound as a young family moved to tears because of our sacrifice.

The Kingdom of God is like a foot-washing the night before Jesus died, and the last night of a mission trip. Each of us took a turn in the chair and were prayed over by the rest of the church group. Every person was lifted up to God and we gave thanks for all that they had given, praised God for the witness they were discovering in their life, and asked God to be with them as they were sent forth into new places. Each person was valued, appreciated, and celebrated. In God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, even the smallest of servants, even the tiniest bits of effort, are embraced and lifted up for the true value they contain.

The Kingdom of God is like leaving a mission field, to return home only to realize that everywhere we go is a mission field. That whether we are serving the needs of a community in West Virginia, or living into a new reality of love right here in Staunton, God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is everywhere.

The people we served in West Virginia we hungry for something greater than themselves. Though desperately in need of things like food, clothing, and shelter, they actually hungered for something much more precious: value and worth.

The challenge of the story of Jesus with the crowds, is that we read about a people who were hungry while so many of us are full. We are not like the people who gathered to discover Jesus, we are not like the desperate crowds rushing to meet the Lord ahead of the disciples. Nobody here is so eager to find God that they beat me to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

For many of us, church is just one of the many activities that fills our modern lives, rather than the one place where we discover lives worth living.


Like many mission trips, I think we got more out of it than the people we served. We thought we were going to help them in the midst of suffering, only to discover that we needed to be healed just as much. We needed to stop viewing ourselves as better than the people we were serving, we needed to learn to love them in spite of their behavior and past experiences, we needed to start looking at them the ways God looks at the world: with love.

We went all the way to West Virginia to learn about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom only to realize that we are part of it as well.

When the crowds gathered at the feet of Jesus, when he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he taught them about things like the Kingdom of God. When we get together every week for worship, we are just like those crowds resting at the feet of the Lord eager and ready to learn. It is through our prayers and hymns, through the people in the pews next to us, and through the words of scripture and a sermon that we discover ourselves in the midst of God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, and we begin living accordingly.

What a blessing to know then, that every day is an opportunity to serve God’s kingdom from the beauty of McDowell, West Virginia to the beauty of Staunton, Virginia. We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world, so let’s get out there and do it. Amen.