Stupid Questions

Devotional: 

Mark 9.32

But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 

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“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” 

I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.

But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:

“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”

“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?

“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”

However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.

We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.

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And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing! 

There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces. 

Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be. 

So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.

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Knee-Jerk Love

1 John 4.7-11

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Love has got to be once of the most misused and misunderstood words in our entire lexicon. Think, if you can, about the last time you used the word – perhaps you said it to a family member this morning, or maybe you used it in reference to the breakfast you consumed, or the movie you watched last night, or even the way you feel about this church.

In our daily live we drop the word “love” like it’s going out of fashion – Oh I love your outfit! You’ve got to watch this new show on Netflix, I just love it! There is no restaurant on this planet that I love more than Chic-Fil-A!

We love to love love.

And, more often than not, out love is directed away from what’s essential and toward the things that do not actually provide life. It has become far easier to express our love for meals, and experiences, and even God than toward our families and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

That might seem and sound strange, but it can be pretty easy to love God. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food! God does all kinds of nice and wonderful stuff for us. And because we’ve relegated God to some realm beyond, we can talk about God in this place and use words like “love” while acting as if God isn’t even in the room.

Our world is terribly confused about love.

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Perhaps it’s so confused because love can be so convoluted. We read from 1 John that love is the hoped-for and normal response between people and the Lord. Love is perfected in God, and God is perfected in human love. This love, whatever that actually means, calls us to see the sacred and holy not in God alone, but also in each person whether we think they’re worthy of love or not.

            It is in the loving of the other that we, and they, are made both human and holy.

And this is at the heart of it all. We can talk about how much we love God because God loves us, but without loving our fellow human beings, we cannot know God!

Let that sink in for just a moment – without love for one another, we cannot know God.

And love is difficult! Differences in nation, religion, gender, generation, sexual orientation, race, they all have these unspoken rules and guidelines about who should be included in the loving circle of comfort. However, those same rules and guidelines also tell us implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, who is not worthy of love.

But we’re here in church, so we must be doing something right. Otherwise, why else would we gather early on a Sunday morning to day-dream about God? We could take the time right now to examine the evil people in the world, as opposed to those we love, and explore what it would mean to change our behavior toward them. But that’s no easy task, and that’s not really what John is talking about.

Love is this: Not what we can do, but what God can do through us. We know love, and we know God, because God was, and is, willing to love us even though we do not deserve it. God sacrificed God’s own Son, for us, in spite of us.

That is love.

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Therefore the act of loving the other is not so much about conjuring up in our minds the most evil person in the world and deciding to love him or her, but instead looking a little closer to home at those who produce a knee-jerk reaction in us.

Do you know what I mean when I say knee-jerk reaction? It’s that almost involuntary feeling we experience when we experience something outside of what we are comfortable with.

You might consider yourself a modern person, but how do you feel when you see two men or two women kissing in public? You might imagine that you have a pretty cosmopolitan view of the world, but how did you feel the first time you saw items in the grocery store listed in a different language? You might even think you’re a pretty racially progressive person because you attend a church that looks like this on Sunday morning, but how would you feel if this is what your home looked like on Sunday afternoon?

Those are knee-jerk reactions.     

Just over a year ago my family and I drove up to Woodbridge to start looking at houses. We searched online through our parameters and eventually had a list of homes we wanted to see in person. The very first house was in a nice neighborhood, not too far from the church, and when we pulled up in front of the address we immediately started to imagine ourselves living there. We walked around the front yard while we waited for our realtor, made comments about the trees and expressed our delight in the thought of our son playing in the front yard.

When our realtor finally arrived he walked briskly over to us and said, “I’m glad you two have a list of other homes to see cause you’re not gonna like this one.” I said, “Wow, I appreciate the wisdom, but I’m curious, what is it about the house that make it so bad? Is there something wrong with the roof? The foundation? The air-conditioning?”

All he said was this, “Come back here around 4:30pm and take a good look at the type of kids getting off the school bus. You don’t want to live here. Why don’t you let me show you some nice places in Stafford? I can get you into a nice neighborhood where you won’t have to worry about any of those types of people.”

Those types of people.

He had a knee-jerk reaction toward that which was different from himself. When he looked around the neighborhood and saw different skin pigmentations, he made an assumption that it was not the place for us, because presumably it would not be the place for him.

And that man is no different than any of us here this morning. For some of us it’s race, for others it’s class, or economics, or sexuality, or religious convictions, or political persuasions. We all have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the other in our midst.

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Hopefully some of us are self-aware enough to already know where and who those types of people are for us. It won’t take us long to conjure them up in our minds, and we still experience that knee-jerk of confusion, frustration, and even anger.

For others of us, it will be a little harder. Whether it’s because we think too highly of ourselves and imagine that we have no judgments of others, or because we sit in places of privilege and we are never made to feel less than ourselves by others, or we haven’t taken the time to address our sinful and harmful feelings toward others, it can be very difficult.

Love is a very difficult thing. And again, I’m not talking about the love any of us have for our families or friends or spouses, but the love that we are called to have for the very people who draw forth knee-jerk reactions in us. Love is a very difficult thing.

And yet, and yet, God loves us. And not only that, God is love.

The Greek word for love here in 1 John is AGAPE – it is a love that gives without expecting anything in return. It is a form of love that is sanctified and sacrificial. We might even call it unconditional love. And that’s what God is, AGAPE.

God is not the love that we often experience in our regular daily lives, a love that is contractual, a love in which “I’ll do this if you do that.” That’s is not AGAPE.

God is love, offered freely to us, the very people who have no reason to deserve it. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We are the beloveds of God. We are those who receive the impossibly possible love of the divine.

God is love. God is AGAPE. Dare we say anything different? In this broken and battered world ruled by impersonal forces, ruthless principalities, and extremely complicated issues, some might want another gospel. We might want church to simply be a place where we can gather to feel better about ourselves. I know of no better way to feel joy than to know that God loves me, even me, in spite of me.

Yet, to proclaim this thing we call church as anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion and love and grace for all is to betray the gospel.

God as love, as AGAPE, pushes us to love everybody. And we cannot scare people into acceptance, or terrify them into tolerance. That will only result in a tepid version of reception that has almost nothing to do with love. It will result in a world still ruled by the powers and principalities. It will result in certain people not wanting anything to do with certain people.

In the church, in the fellowship of God with God’s people, there is little room for those who nurse grudges, who seek revenge, who assume superiority, or care little about the needs of others. Mercy and forgiveness and love are at the heart of God, and therefore they are poured on us!

            We are God’s beloved, we are God’s AGAPETOI.

True AGAPE love, the very nature of God, is loving the very people who create within us a knee-jerk reaction. Christ died for the godly and the ungodly. God gave of God’s self for us and for all. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, all of humanity has been bound together by a love that will not let go: A love for the beloved. AGAPE for the AGAPETOI.

In each of your bulletins you will find a very special piece of paper. It is special because it is blank and because it is for you and you alone. All of us are going to take a few moments to prayerfully consider the people who produce knee-jerk reactions within us. We are going to contemplate the people in our lives, not far away and removed, but people we regularly encounter who make us feel uncomfortable, and frustrated, and angry.

And then we’re going to write it down on the piece of paper, and fold it in our hand. We are going to hold onto the name or the type of person tightly in our hand, we are going to grip it tightly until we need to let it go. And then we will. Amen.

 

(During Communion each congregant was invited to drop their paper in a large and clear baptismal bowl, the paper is specially designed to dissolve in the water such that we can experience how, in baptism, all of these false identities have been washed away.)

Devotional – Romans 13.10

Devotional:

Romans 13.10

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

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On Saturday evening I will stand in front of Alex Chatfield and Brianna Gays in order to join them together in what we call “holy matrimony.” Months of planning will come to fruition in their wedding vows as they stare lovingly and longingly into one another’s eyes in front of friends, family, and the Lord. And I will have the best seat in the house (though I won’t be sitting and it won’t be inside) because I have the privilege of asking for God’s help to bless and sustain their marriage.

I have known Brianna longer than just about anyone else in my life. Her father and my father went to high school together and Brianna and I were basically raised as siblings. When she was on the homecoming court at a different High School (my school’s rival), I went to support her. When I was ordained, her family was there to worship with the entire Annual Conference. Countless birthday parties, and gatherings, and family vacations have solidified a friendship that really makes us feel like brother and sister.

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And on Saturday I get to challenge and charge her with a task far greater than anything she has experienced up to this point in her life; I will require and charge her (and Alex) to love one another knowing full and well that they are each marrying the wrong person.

Now to be clear: they are not marrying the wrong person because there’s something wrong with their relationship. They are each marrying the wrong person because they (and we) never really know another person in such a way that we can call a marriage “right.” They will promise to love and to cherish one another without knowing what their lives will look like in five years, or even what they will look like in five years. And they will do all of this under the auspices of “love.”

But what is love? Or, at the very least, what is the kind of love that sustains something like a marriage? Is love about attraction and aesthetics? Is love about commitment and loyalty? What is love?

Love, like marriage, is a mystery.

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Paul writes a lot about love, and more often than not the “love” Paul talks about has nothing to do with the Hallmark version of love that most of us are familiar with. Love, according to Paul, does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, according to Paul, is the fulfilling of the law.

What Alex and Brianna will promise to one another on Saturday night is really no different than what all Christians promise one another. As Christians we make covenants (through baptism) to love one another knowing full and well that we don’t really know one another.

And I believe that Alex and Brianna can, and will, do so faithfully, just as Christians can, not because of any power on their own part, but because God empowers them and us to do some wonderful and strange and remarkable things in this life; like getting married, like having lasting friendship, and like doing no wrong to our neighbors.

On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

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In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

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The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.

O To Be Wise – Sermon on Proverbs 1.20-33

Proverbs 1.20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity come like a whirlwind, when distress and anger come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, there they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

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Wisdom is standing on the street corner shouting at anyone within distance. In all the town squares she is that preacher standing on a box yelling at the crowds to repent from their ways. At the entrance of the largest cities she is the one holding up the signs about our idiocy and the power of God’s wrath. She is all the preachers, prophets, and teachers that weep in sadness that their words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is frightening and demanding.

How long, all you simple minded people in this congregation, how long will you love to remain being so simple in your thoughts and reflections? How long will you enjoy scoffing at the events in your life and hate the knowledge that is given to you in scripture and in church?

Listen to Wisdom right now, because she is pouring out all her thoughts to you and making all of her words known in this place.

Yet, she has called and called, she has screamed and screamed, and none of us have listened. We ignored her words and demands, and now she laughs at our suffering and at us. She will relish in the calamities that come like a whirlwind, she will delight in our frustration and anger. She knows that when we are at the end of our ropes, when we have nowhere else to turn, that we will turn back to her, but it will be too late.

Because we have so consistently hated knowledge and did not fear the Lord, we will eat the fruit of our way, and be sated with our own devices.

Wisdom cries out from the streets, yells at us in our cars and in our pews: “Waywardness kills the simple, and our complacency as fools will be our undoing. But whoever listens to Wisdom will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? When you heard me rambling up here about Wisdom’s disposition, did you squirm in your pews? This is one tough scripture precisely because Wisdom does not mince her words and comes with a clear and stern warning. We can continue in our stupidity that leads to suffering, or we can listen to Wisdom and live in peace.

For a long time, the book of Proverbs has been marginalized and forgotten in contemporary American Christianity. Similarly the church might confess that our wisdom has suffered a similar fate in culture. Many of us no longer read our bibles, we no longer know what it means to pray, and we live in fear rather than in hope.

But are we really at fault? The church has not done the best job of equipping Christians for the work of discipleship, and the world is full of other options for Wisdom. We are constantly overwhelmed with choices and advice. For instance: The front of our church right now is filled with most of the books that I was assigned to read in seminary. You can read about what it means to do church, you can read books about preaching and teaching, you can read about suffering and temptation, but none of those books taught me the true wisdom of what it means to be a pastor.

Any of us can read about the importance of praying for our enemies in scripture, but the words cannot possibly prepare us for the moment when someone grabs us by the hands and actually asks us to pray for them.

Any of us can turn on the news, or search online to hear about the refugee/migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, but all we hear and learn means very little unless we ourselves are forced to flee our home in hopes that someone else will welcome us in.

So it’s not so much that we have not been given the chance to learn and become wise, but because there are so many options out there, we run the risk of feeling like we just walked into at an all-you-can-eat-buffet prepared for people who ate before they arrived.

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Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but lady Wisdom will more often show up in the places where we live our lives. She shows up in the busy streets, in the public squares, and at the bustling intersections. Wisdom appears in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance, and in the quick responses of our children.

On Wednesday night St. John’s hosted the first meeting of “The Circle.” It was designed as a space where the youth of the church can feel comfortable sharing reflections on their own discipleship and partake in communion with one another. Our first meeting went pretty well, the conversation flowed naturally, and I was incredibly impressed by the youth’s ability to convey how Jesus is real for them.

But toward the end of the meeting, I saw the youth really come alive. We were sitting around the table with our bibles opened to Proverbs 1.20-33. We read together about Wisdom yelling out from the streets and then I asked them to share pieces of advice they wished they could tell their parents without fear of getting in trouble.

Up to that point I thought all the youth were really enjoying The Circle, but with one question about advice for their parents, they all became animated and had more advice than I could possibly write down. We went back and forth for at least fifteen minutes before we were able to agree on a solid list that everyone agreed on and, in the true spirit of Wisdom, I am now going to share the list with all of you.

Disclaimer: Parents, your children were vulnerably honest about their responses and they knew I would be sharing them in church. I will not tell you who said what, but listen carefully, because the advice might be for you…

I wish my parents knew that nobody is perfect.

            I wish my parents knew that is not worth it to takes things so seriously all the time.

            I wish my parents knew that they could trust me; after all, I trust them.

           I wish my parents knew how much it hurts when they interrupt me.

            I wish my parents knew that patience is still a virtue, even when you’re old.

            I wish my parents knew that I am smarter than they think I am.

            I wish my parents knew that if they tell me “not to have an attitude,” I am DEFINITELY going to have an attitude.

            I wish my parents knew that I love them, but sometimes I don’t love their cooking.

Wisdom is a tough pill to swallow. But even as difficult as it is to hear Wisdom speak to us this way, whether it be the dreadful warnings in scripture or the advice from our children, it is difficult to argue with her warnings. The advice the youth offered was so profound that it not only applies to parents but to all people. We could read about how we are supposed to behave as rational human beings, but having a youth tells us that patience is a virtue, and to remember that nobody is perfect actually affects us in all the right ways.

It shocks us to hear something so right from someone we least expect. It bewilders us to hear Wisdom crying out in the streets when we would otherwise like to ignore her.

To walk in the way of Wisdom is incredibly demanding. We cannot claim to be wise by reading a lot of books and watching a lot of television, true wisdom requires us to act and move in the world.

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When Wisdom cries out, when we hear about what our children wish they could say to us, it hurts (or at least cuts deep), but it makes sense. When we forget about who we are and whose we are, when we forget about the ways of God built on love, we often get ourselves in terrible predicaments. We say things without thinking, we act without conscience, and we believe we are smarter than the people around us.

I regularly discover wisdom in the people from this church who listen for the still small voice of God while the world is screaming and spinning. I will be in my office after a difficult phone call, or standing outside shaking hands following worship, or walking through the grocery store, when one of you will come up to me and say something that just reorients my entire being. Something like: “Remember God loves you too

Wisdom is all around us, particularly in the people in the pews next to us, calling to us to start behaving like God wants us to. Because Wisdom is finally approachable and possible as we participate in the practices of God, who is Wisdom. We start to see and hear the Wisdom around us as we search for ways to love like God, listen like God, and even laugh like God, in the complicated and ordinary places of life.

I experienced the depth of Wisdom this week when our youth spoke far beyond their ages and dropped some important knowledge on me. In them I experienced a power greater than my own, and realized that if I gave up my false assumption that I was greater than, or wiser than, those youth, I would start to recognize the true wisdom around me and actually listen.

Where do you hear Wisdom? Do you hear her in the scriptures you read? Do you find her in the worship services at St. John’s? Have you seen her shouting through a parent or a spouse or a child? Does she make you uncomfortable when she shows up?

Wisdom speaks to us all the time; we only need the patience to hear her, and the strength to respond. Amen.

Living in Harmony – Sermon on Romans 12.9-18

We tried something different in church this week. Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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Living in Harmony

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversation during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
  2. Ask everyone to share their name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions to ask of the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask them to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen. 

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Homily:

I have wanted to do this activity since I arrived at St. John’s. We do such a good job at welcoming and connecting with one another on Sunday mornings, and during other church activities, but I’m not sure how well we really know one another.

I once knew a man who said the loneliest times in his life occurred at 11am every Sunday morning when he was sitting in our packed sanctuary. For years he was a regular worshipper, and for year no one bothered to reach out; no one knew his name, where he was from, or what was going on in his life. Ever since I was appointed here I thought about breaking us into groups to combat the exact type of loneliness that man described.

I waited and waited and then last week something happened that made me realize how desperately we needed to do what we just did.

Our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man began to cry. He said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future. These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.

I don’t want to be part of a church that does not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I don’t want our sanctuary to be the loneliest place on Sunday mornings. We did not ask and answer the questions today to just learn superficial facts about one another; we did so with the hope that these facts would spark new and lasting relationships. This church should be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness. Amen.

 

Love > Knowledge – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 8.1-9

1 Corinthians 8.1-9

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that, “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us closer to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

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Here’s the situation: The church in Corinth had lots of issues and Paul, as an apostle, wrote to them addressing a number of concerns and problems. At times he wrote about sexual immorality, at others he wrote about the importance of inviting everyone to receive the Lord’s Supper, but here in chapter 8, he brings up the issue of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols.

In Corinth, the elite would sacrifice their livestock to idols and then share the food with others. For some of the Corinthians they believed it was perfectly fine to eat the meat because they knew there is only one Lord and eating food would never bring them closer to God. However, others believed that if they ate some of the meat that was formerly sacrificed, they would be supporting the belief system in idols and would therefore be committing heresy.

Is this still an issue for us today? Unless your butcher is praying to satan before he/she presents your beef, then this probably does not affect you. However, this passage is not merely just about meat sacrificed to idols, and in fact is still relevant to us today.

When I moved into the parsonage I was very excited. I had spent my entire life either living with my family, or sharing apartments with roommates. For the very first time I would be living in a house, with a yard that I could take care of, with a fireplace that I could actually burn wood in! I would be living on a street with neighbors, and I casually day dreamt about someone knocking on the door to ask for some sugar. Staunton was going to be my Mayberry.

Yet, after moving everything in and getting settled I still felt isolated. I had our church community, of course, but I really wanted to meet my neighbors and create new relationships. I waited for them to stop by the house, but no one ever came.

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That’s when Lindsey and I decided to throw the first ever Bowie Street Bash. We actually wanted it to be David Bowie themed, but we were a little worried how our neighbors would respond to me dressing up like Ziggy Stardust complete with tights pants and a lightning bolt across my face. So instead we just made simple invitations to spend a Sunday afternoon together at the parsonage in order to have some fun.

Everyone came and we had a blast. We shared stories and talked about what Staunton used to be like. I saw in my neighbors true friends and realized that I was going to love living on this street.

When things were starting to wrap up, and each neighbor was preparing to head home, we said our goodbyes and promised to get together again sometime soon. However, before one of my neighbors left, she asked if she could speak to me for just a moment.

I don’t know if you drink.” she said, “but if you do, I want you to know that you are more than welcome to put your empty beer bottles in our recycling bin.

I stood there mystified. Why in the world would she offer her recycling bin for our bottles? But before I could even ask, she answered my question: “Some of your church members are known for doing drive-bys to see what you’re really up to.

Can we, as Christians, properly fit into the world of our surrounding culture? What are the lines to be drawn between accommodation to the reality of culture and unacceptable compromise?

For instance: That afternoon I began to wonder about whether or not we, as Christians, can drink alcohol. There are plenty of verses in scripture that speak against it: Do not drink because it leads to debauchery (Ephesians 5.18); Your body is a temple (1 Corinthians 6.19); etc. And there are plenty of verses that allow for it: Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2.1-11); Jesus shares wine with his disciples during the last supper (Matthew 26.17-30); etc.

The question at hand is this: Have we grown too comfortable with our cultural setting?

Almost every Sunday I have someone approach me after worship to apologize for not being here the previous week. Now I want you all to know that I love each and every one of you, but I do not take attendance at church. When some of you have explained and rationalized your lack of attendance, I honestly did not remember that you were not here with us.

“Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our grandchildren were in town and we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible”, “Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our son had a basketball game on Sunday morning and we wanted to support him.” , “Taylor, sorry I was not here last week, I overslept and would not make it in time for worship.”

I almost always respond with an affirmation of your lack of attendance by saying, “you were where you needed to be!” Most of the time I truly believe what I say, but sometimes I wonder… Have we grown so comfortable with our surroundings that church has become just something to do? Or do we believe it is the location of where we discover something worth living for?

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Paul feared how much the Corinthians were growing comfortable with their surroundings. Many professed a strong knowledge that there was only one God, so whenever they ate meat sacrificed to idols they knew what it really was. Paul commends them for their knowledge but then challenges them to see that their wisdom is not enough to help those young and weak in their faith.

You might know that you can drink responsibly, but would you offer wine to a recovering alcoholic? You might know that you love PB&Js, but would you serve one to someone with a peanut allergy?

Each of us has a stumbling block and it might be very different from the people in the pews with us.

Maybe you struggle with alcohol. Perhaps you are guilty of lusting after what others have. Some of us might fret too much about the way we look before we leave the house. A few of us might spend more time worrying who will win the Superbowl than we do about the people wandering around downtown who won’t have a warm place to sleep tonight.

1 Corinthians 8 encourages us to shine a light on our lives to see whether or not we are eating in the temples of the idols that surround us.

One of the most frightening forms of idolatry for churches today is the overwhelming power of materialism. Christians, whether we like to admit it or not, are enmeshed in economic practices that draw our loyalty away from Christ and divide the community by disregarding the poor and the needy.

Other than the irony of fighting for deals on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday is a sobering reminder of the power of materialism in our world today.

Tonight, Americans will eat 14,500 tons of Potato Chips, enough to fill 39 Boeing 747 Airplanes. We will eat 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, which could fill 13.5 million large buckets of popcorn from the movie theater. We will eat 4 million pizzas, which (when stacked on top of each other) would be taller than 910 Leaning Towers of Pisa. We will drink 325.5 million gallons of beer, which could fill 500 olympic size swimming pools. And we will eat 1.23 billion chicken wings, literally enough to give every person in the United States three wings each. (http://mashable.com/2015/01/28/super-bowl-food/)

What does it say about our culture when tonight we, as a country, will eat so much when so many go without food? And don’t even get me started on the commercials; millions upon millions of dollars have been spent for 30 seconds of ad space when people in our country cannot afford to go to the doctor when they are sick.

Love is greater than knowledge.

Love is more important than our looks, football games, our jobs, alcohol, and everything else in all creation. Love is what sets the church apart from the rest of the world. Love is what conquers all things and helps to show the world turned upside down.

Knowing all about the Civil Rights movement means nothing when we speak in prejudiced tones about people who do not look like us.

Knowing all about the importance of feminism means nothing when we still degrade women in the workplace and pay them at a lower percentage than their male counterparts.

Knowing all about the plight of the poor and needy in Staunton means nothing when we neglect to actually do something about it and let our love become manifest.

All of us will profit from looking in the mirror of 1 Corinthians 8 and asking whether there are ways in which we are using knowledge as a weapon rather than as an instrument of love.

Can we drink as Christians? Can we work hard to earn tremendous amounts of wealth? Can we watch the Superbowl and host big parties? Of course we can, so long as things like alcohol, money, and the Superbowl do not become idols that we worship more than the Lord of life.

The idols in our lives will never bring us closer to God. The more time we spend in culturally accepted practices that are disconnected from discipleship, the further we move away from the Lord. For the church in Corinth, they knew that food would not bring them closer to God whether from meat sacrificed to idols or not. Thanks be to God that the meal we will share in just a few moments will no longer be food, but instead it will be the body and blood of Christ.

When we gather at the table, love truly trumps knowledge. All of the idols of life fall away and pale in comparison to the gift of God on the cross for people like you and me. The table is where we discover what love really looks like; sacrifice, faithfulness, and hope.

We have set up a mirror here at the front of church. When you come up to receive the body and blood I encourage you to take a moment to look at yourself in the mirror, open your eyes to your life and see your own stumbling blocks. Let 1 Corinthians 8 be the mirror by which you begin to wrestle with the idols you worship, so that you can turn back to the Lord and let love be greater than knowledge. Amen.