We’re God’s Joke On The World

Devotional:

Psalm 72.11

May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

Weekly Devotional Image

I am sitting in my office after being gone from the church since Christmas Eve. I flew to visit family in the midwest and did my best to find some recreation during my time away. But, of course, living in another’s person house, sleeping in a different bed, driving in different cars, it begins to take a toll on you. It’s as if the disorder from our normal order just gets under our skin and there isn’t much we can do about it.

And then, having avoided the news media for more than a week, I made the foolish decision to turn on the TV to find out what I had been missing!

Some things never change.

Which led me to one of my favorite books from Stanley Hauerwas: Prayers Plainly Spoken. The book is a collection of prayers written without the pretenses often found in prayers that are prayed on Sunday morning. And, over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to this ragtag collection when I am at a loss for words. 

And this was the first prayer I read having returned to my office:

“Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Of course we get tired, bored, worn down by the stupidity that surrounds us. But then that stupid person does something, says something that is wonderful, funny, insightful. How we hate for that to happen. But, thank God, you have given us one another, ensuring we will never be able to get our lives in order. Order finally is no fun, and you are intent on forcing us to see the humor of your kingdom. I mean really, Lord, the Jews! But there you have it. You insist on being known through such a funny people. And now us – part of your joke on the world. Make us your laughter. Make us laugh, and in the laughter may the world be so enthralled by your entertaining presence that we lose the fear that fuels our violence. Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Amen.”

As Christians, the new year for us began 5 weeks ago, but I also find it fitting to think about entering the secular new year with a prayer for laughter. For what could be closer to the voice of God than the sound of laughter?

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Ridiculous Renewal – Sermon on Isaiah 35.1-10

Isaiah 35.1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you did not disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is not done.

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

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

            God delivers us to places yet unknown.

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

            God fills the deserts of our souls with living water.

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

            God offers unending joy to the redeemed.

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

 

Forgiving the Dust – Sermon on Genesis 3.19 & Matthew 6.9-15

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Matthew 6.9-15

“Pray then this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

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This morning marks the beginning of our two part Sermon Series on Questions. After polling the gathered body about the types of questions you all have about God, Faith, and the Church this series was created. We begin by looking at two of the most prevalent questions: What does it mean to forgive? Should the dead be cremated or buried?

Strange things are done for funerals. There are people who insist on placing the favorite objects or tokens from the deceased into the casket in order to bring comfort to the dead, after they’re dead. Others take the ashes of their loved ones to have them placed under high pressure and temperature and have them formed into diamonds to be worn on a finger or necklace. In some communities the location of the burial spot has less to do with geology and availability as it does regarding the direction of the grave.

In Western North Carolina almost every cemetery is organized so that the gravestone, and therefore the bodies, are facing east. While I helped a church in Bryson City, North Carolina it was not uncommon to hear stories about families standing at the graveside, deeply grieving in their loss, when a distant cousin or uncle would pull out a trusty compass and declare that they had the body facing the wrong direction. Whether built in a valley or up on a hill, EVERY grave had to face east. Part of this comes from biblical reasons, but I always heard that it was done so that when Jesus comes back with the sunrise, he wants to see smiling faces, and not rear-ends.

Because I work for the church, I have the privilege to be with people at the paramount of their suffering and help guide them through their grief and pain. Whereas most of the world refuses to talk about death and what comes with it, I relish in the opportunity to declare that even though death is real, it has been defeated. We tend to treat death as an unspeakable subject, when it is at the very heart of what it means to be human.

Even with the sorrow that death brings, I must also admit that comedy often comes along with it.

I could tell you about all the truly scandalous things I have learned about the departed when I meet with a family to plan the funeral. We share stories about the person’s life, what they were passionate about, what set them a part from others. But at some point, and it almost always happens, the friends and families begin to share stories that should not be repeated. I sit there with my pen and paper in hand, fighting the urge to write down every perfect bit of gossip I hear, until someone usually realizes who they are talking to and they politely request that I neglect to mention those parts during the sermon.

I could tell you about how nobody knew what to do with the ashes of my grandfather’s brother after he passed so they just kept him around for awhile. And when my great-grandmother died, my grandfather asked the funeral home if he could spend a few moments alone with her after the viewing. Feigning some sort of important spiritual and prayerful goodbye, he quickly walked up once the room was empty, took a gallon size zip-lox bag containing uncle Preston, and  carefully hid him in the casket with my great-grandmother.

I could tell you about how the first time I met Dick Dickerson, he shared with me all sorts of stories regarding his wife Mildred and he kept motioning over toward the kitchen. I thought that this was a sweet and precious habit that was born out of their relationship, and that Dick was habituated into remembering her being in the kitchen, but when I asked him about it, he laughed out loud and told me that he was keeping her ashes in a bag above the sink.

It is important to remember that it okay to laugh after death. That first laugh or smile often comes with a feeling of guilt, but, if I can be so bold as to speak for the people I have buried, they would be happy to know that we are happy.

Strange things are done for funerals. Sometimes they bring the best out in people; a prodigal son returns home to bury his father; a wayward daughter reconnects with her family. But other times, they bring out the worst.

There were two brothers who fiercely loved their mother. Raised by her alone after losing their father at a young age, they worshipped her and were so very thankful for all that she had given them. The time came for them to start their own families, but they never neglected to remember their wonderful mother. It came as a shock to the local community when she passed away rather abruptly, but the wake of her death was truly felt between her sons.

They met with the pastor to go over funeral arrangements when the fight began…

The older son wanted his mother to be cremated. He claimed it was what she desired and had shared the detail with him on a number of occasions.

The younger son wanted his mother to be buried. He respected her wishes, but he was utterly convinced that the bible said you have to be buried in the ground.

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By the time I arrived in the community, no one could even remember what they wound up doing with the mother, but ever since that fight, the brothers had refused to speak to one another.

Both of them had good points when it came to taking care of their mother’s body- we should respect the wishes of the person, while at the same time remain faithful to scripture.

Some believe that we should only bury bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that out bodies were made in the image of God and will be resurrected when Christ returns. Most of the key people people in both the Old and New Testaments were buried, including the one who was crucified on a cross. It allows us to properly mourn their loss, and even create a place, such as cemeteries, for us to visit and pay our respects to those who helped to shape and mold us. Moreover they claim that burning a body, cremating it, prevents it from being newly constituted in the resurrection.

Some believe that we should only cremate bodies. Their arguments are based on the concept that nothing is impossible with God, that God can most certainly recreate a body for the resurrection. All flesh eventually decays and returns to the earth becoming just like the dust from which we were created. If God can only resurrect those whose bodies are buried, then anyone who has perished under less than ideal circumstances would be withheld from the resurrection. They also argue that cremation can be less expensive than burial and therefore helps families to thrive and serve God and neighbor. They choose to keep the ashes in an urn or scatter them in such a way that it is done in a fruitful and honorable manner.

Bottom line: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. When we die, whether we are cremated or buried in the ground, we are gone. Our bodies remain and eventually return to the dust from which God brought us into being. Nothing is impossible for God. When the time comes for the bodily resurrection, nothing, and I mean nothing, can stop God from forming us into our new bodies, bodies that will not look like the ones we had here on earth, bodies that are brilliant and beyond our imagination. What becomes important for us is the need to be present with the friends and families for those who have died, and be loving in the way that we see to their needs, whatever they are, in order to help them grieve and mourn.

I never had a chance to talk with the brothers about their argument before the funeral. This happened long in the past. I never had a moment for a surprise intervention or reconciliation. I wish I had the opportunity because this is what I would share with them:

“One of the bravest and strangest things we do as Christians is pray the Lord’s Prayer. Asked by his disciples about the way to pray, Jesus taught his friends to say the words that each of us say every Sunday in church. We collectively pray to OUR father, not MY father, or Jesus’ Father, but OUR father. We request that our limited daily means be met, we yearn for the bread that gives us life. And then we pray for God to forgive us just as we forgive those around us. We pray this to God because we are not strong enough to do it on our own and we need the Spirit to move in us and strengthen us for the terrifically difficult work of forgiveness.

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You two lost your mother, you lost the rock that so much of your lives were founded upon. The one who was always there for you, cared for you, and nurtured you was gone and you wanted to do everything you could for her funeral to be perfect. Yet, you let your own opinions get the better of you, and you let your selfishness blind you from the kind of love your mother made manifest here among us. Your mother is gone, I know you might not be ready to hear it, the grief might still be too difficult to bear, but she is gone. She is now with OUR heavenly father. 

What are you two going to do with the lives she gave you, what are you going to do with the lives that God gave you? Will you continue to bear grudges against each other, refuse to speak and commune, ignore the needs of your respective brother? Will you let an argument about funeral practices divide you from the only family you have left?

Forgiveness is the hardest thing in the world; to see the other and look past everything that have done to hurt you and belittle you, and act on love rather than hate. We don’t forgive because God told us to, and we don’t forgive because its what your mother would have wanted, we forgive because its the last thing worth working for. Without forgiveness we are nothing.

God’s love knows no bounds. Neither should ours. Look at each other and stop seeing the old arguments and disagreements, look at each other forgive.”

Strange things are done for funerals and they can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. It is my prayer that funerals might bring out the best in us. Instead of limiting them to a simple worship service to praise God, think about how we could truly recognize the gift of the one who has gone, and strive to live better and braver lives. Let us see those tense and vulnerable moments, like funerals, as opportunities to forgive and start anew with the people in our lives.

Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It is irrational, draining, and frightening. It requires bravery rarely seen, faith rarely developed, and hope rarely witnessed. Yet, if Christ was willing to forgive those who hung him on the cross, if God is willing to forgive us all our trespasses, just imagine how many things we can forgive in our lives, even the dust.

Amen.

To Fear, Or Not To Fear – Sermon on Psalm 112 and Mark 6.45-51

Psalm 112

Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments. Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation for the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. They rise in darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

Mark 6.45-51

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intend to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished.

 

Happy are those who fear the Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It happened in a small town in a small United Methodist Church. A single mother was struggling to raise her two boys who were the talk of the town. At 10 and 12 years of age, the two brothers were often responsible for any of the “accidents” in town. They regularly vandalized certain buildings, were known for shoplifting candy from the local 7-11, and would ding-dong-ditch any house they could find.

Yet, on Sunday morning, there they were sitting on either side of their mother in church. The boys would politely greet the minister when they walked in, sat quietly, but during the sermon they loved to make farting sounds while the preacher paused in a sermon.

They were trouble.

Now because the mother was raising the boys all alone, many of the people in the community that wanted to do something about the two boys, felt that it wasn’t their place; that mother had enough on her plate.

This type of behavior went on for some time. The boys would continue their antics, driving people crazy, until one day when the mother had had enough.

The pastor at the local United Methodist Church was a young man fresh from seminary; he thought he had it all figured out. For weeks he had wanted to call out those two boys from the pulpit in the middle of a sermon, but he thought better of it, he would look down on that poor mother and let it go.

So it came to pass that the mother called the young minister. “Preacher,” she barked into the telephone, “I want you to strike the fear of God into my boys. This has got to stop.”

“It will be my absolute pleasure,” The preacher replied.

The following Sunday, after worship, the minister invited the two young boys toward his office, leaving one to sit outside while the other sat on the hot seat in the office.

In order to achieve some sort of repentance from the boys, the preacher thought about teaching them that God is always present, and therefore sees everything. This, he hoped, would teach them to behave better.

With the first brother sitting across the office table, the preacher began his lesson. “Where is God?”

No response.

“Where is God?!”

The boy began to fidget.

“Where is God!?!”

The lack of response was beginning to irritate the pastor.

“I want you to answer me right now, where is God?!?!”

And with that the boy jumped from his seat and hightailed it out of the office, grabbed his brother, and bolted for the parking lot.

“Whats going on?” The one brother asked the other.

“We’re in real trouble this time. God’s gone missing, and they think we had something to do with it!”

 

The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” I have always found this verse a little strange considering the fact that whenever God shows up in the Bible, whenever God humbles himself to speak with one of his creatures, the first thing he usually says is, “Do not be afraid.”

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In Mark’s gospel we learn about a time when the disciples got into a boat to go to Bethsaida. After dismissing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, leaving his disciples alone on the boat. When Jesus came down he saw how the disciples were straining against the wind so he did what the Son of God would do, he walked on the water out toward the boat. He intended to pass them by, but when they saw him walking on the water they were utterly terrified, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. But immediately Jesus spoke to them across the water, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Yet, in Psalm 112, we hear about the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means that your heart is steady. If our hearts are fixed on evil, we shall become evil. If our hearts are fixed inwardly, we shall become ridiculously selfish. If our hearts are fixed upon things and possessions, we will become overwhelming materialist. All around us, perhaps even some of us, are failing because our minds and hearts are no longer steady, because our hearts are no longer fixed on the right thing.

So the psalmist calls out, blessed are those who fear the Lord. Fear comes to all of us, to the bravest as well as the cowardly. Fear comes to the faithful and to the faithless. Fear can be a good thing, it warns us to keep our eyes peeled for the danger that might lurk just around the corner. Fear teaches us to respect our elders, teachers, and bosses. Fear reminds us of our finitude. However, to be mindful of fear is one thing, to be constantly panic stricken is another.

A good friend of mine, raised in the church and pursuing a call to ministry, was once invited to a spiritual retreat at the cusp of high-school. For a long weekend, hundreds of young Christians would gather together in small groups to talk about the temptations of the world, how to keep the faith, and what it meant to walk with Jesus throughout their teenage years. They would also spend time as a large group worshiping, they would sing along to the contemporary Christian rock band, they would walk forward to receive communion together, and they would all reverently bow their heads to pray.

On the last night of the conference, at the final worship service, at the height of the concluding sermon, the fire alarm went off. The ushers and facilitators rushed everyone out of the building, yelling at the kids to hurry up as they struggled to find their peers. My friend was rushed through one of the hallways, forced around dark corners, until he found himself standing outside in the parking lot.

Spread throughout the area were life boats, and throngs of the young Christians were climbing aboard. My friend, unsure of what was going on, ran forward to the closest boat, grabbed hold of a rope and tried to swing himself on when the fire alarm stopped and a voice cried out over the megaphone: “Take a look around you, there are not enough spaces in the life boats for everyone. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

Fear can be a tool, but it can also warp and manipulate us. My friend refused to enter a church for years after that incident because of the way the people at his retreat attempted to manipulate his faith through fear. That is not the kind of fear that the psalmist calls blessed.

The disciples were on the boat, the wind was against them and they were having problems crossing on to the over side. They were doing their best to follow Jesus’ commands, yet the world was not matching their expectations. They must’ve felt tired and abandoned out there all alone; why had Jesus asked them to do this? Where was he when they really needed him? Somehow, though stricken with overwhelming fear, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water while calling out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When fear was the most appropriate response to the present circumstances, Jesus triumphantly declared, “Do not be afraid.” In the many chaotic moments of our lives, when bashed by the waves of the world, Jesus continues to call out to us, “Do not be afraid.” Christ is there with us on the rocky boats of life’s circumstances, God listens to our prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves through everyone of us to help transform this world into God’s kingdom.

The disciples, the Israelites who sang Psalm 112, and all of us are not called to be motivated by fear, but instead motivated by love. The disciples did not leave everything to follow their God because he had promised them hard days and suffering, though that often comes if we take faith seriously, but instead they were offered a new way of living. Those who do not want to be afraid are those who have decided to see the world through the lens of faith, to be free from the tyranny of the world. People without fear are those who are fully open to the troubles and the needs of their fellow human beings. They, as the psalmist writes, rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous. Their hearts are secure and firm in the Lord, they will not be afraid because they know the Lord is with them.

Fearing the Lord, as the psalmist writes, means loving the Lord. Loving God enough to realize that God wants to us to love one another, to strive for justice, to celebrate peace, to take faith seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Those who cannot sigh with others in the midst of suffering, and laugh a little bit about themselves are the ones who will be controlled by their fear.

There has been plenty of fear used throughout the history of the church, perhaps today more than ever. Churches have become professionals with motivation by fear. If you don’t tithe, if you don’t believe, if you don’t commit to prayer, etc. Right now, what we need more than fear is a little bit of laughter, we need some joy, we need to rediscover the happiness that the church contains for those who want to follow Jesus Christ.

I like to imagine that later in Jesus’ ministry, or perhaps after the resurrection, the disciples would be together joking about the old times. “Do you remember that time Jesus went into the temple and over turned all the tables!? How crazy was that?” “Or when he asked us to go find him a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? What a character!” “Or what about that time we were all shaking with fear on the boat and Jesus calmed the wind like that *snap* what a night that was.”

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Laughter, joy, and excitement must have been a part of the disciples journey through faith.

Thats why I started the sermon with a funny story about two young boys running out of a church. Until we can laugh together about the excitement of faith, then the fear of God will remain what many people get out of church.

Happy are those who fear the Lord, because they realize that God’s love is incredible. We fear God’s love because we recognize that we do not deserve it. We fear God for welcoming us into this journey when we have so little to contribute. We fear God for inviting us into a place to be loved, when we feel unlovable.

We have too often settled for the motivation of fear in church. Can you imagine what the church could look like if instead of gathering to hear about what we must do to change in our lives, we gathered out of joy and excitement and laughter?

Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

Let us all recover that sense of happiness and delight in our faith journeys. Let us be motivated by the good God who calls us by name to laugh, live, and love. Let us rekindle the flame of faith in our lives to be utterly astonished by the God who came to die, and live, for us.

Fear not, for God is with you.

Amen.

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