Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 

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It happens all the time. I’ll be preaching from the pulpit, or leading a bible study, or praying for a family when someone responds later by quoting back something I said, only I never said it. The sermon will be about the importance of loving our neighbors, and someone will bring  up our “obviously similar” political persuasions while we shake hands after the service. The bible study will move through the book of James and the challenge of being wealthy and Christian, and someone will later thank me for my comments about “sinful multi-national corporations.” I’ll be in a hospital room praying with a family for God’s will to be done, when someone will later attribute the cure to my wishing for a miracle.

In ministry, and in life, something happens between our lips and another person’s ears that we can never prepare for or predict. For as much time as pastors put into their sermons/bible studies/prayers it is a remarkable thing that we often lose control over what we say. The exact moment the words leave our lips they wrench themselves free from our dominion and take on a life of their own. The consequences of this lack of control can be both destructive and life-giving.

Occasionally someone will hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it leads to a divisive and frightening argument. The narthex conversations following worship can be nerve-racking because you never know what to expect. But, more often than not, people hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it gives greater glory to God than I could ever do with my own words. People will open up and confess they believed the words were meant for them alone and they experienced God’s abundant presence speaking into their lives.

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Preaching is meant to be a conversation. The pastor stands at the front speaking words about the reality of God and they pick up subtle clues regarding responses: the occasional head nod and the rare audible “amen.” But they also deeply rely on the comments made after the service regarding the proclamation. Just as the Spirit fell upon all who heard the word from Peter, the Spirit shows up in worship, in bible studies, and in hospital rooms reigniting words, rearranging them, and helping them to sink deeply into people’s lives.

It is hard to relinquish control over something as precious as a sermon, but then again the sermon never belongs to me in the first place; it belongs to God.

This week let us take time to really listen to the people in our lives and engage in conversation with them. Let us give thanks to God for providing the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make something out of our words in spite of us. And let us have the courage to be honest with all the pastors in our lives about what they say and what it means to us.

Who Is This? – Sermon on Matthew 21.1-11

Matthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken though the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

When Jesus tells you to do something, you do it. Sometimes it takes us a long time to figure this out, but for the disciples it must have been second nature. Two disciples were told to enter the next village and there they would find the necessary transportation; a donkey and a colt. “If anyone asks what you are doing, don’t worry about it, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs them.’

So the disciples went into the village, found the animals, and brought them back to Jesus. The rest of the disciples took off their cloaks and placed them on the donkey for Jesus to sit on. As they approached Jerusalem crowds of people took off their own cloaks, gathered palms from the fields, and placed them on the road for Jesus’ donkey to trample on. The people were shouting “Hosanna (Save us now!) to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

Finally, when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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This story opens up for us Jesus’ royal status in a public setting. Rather than entering the holy city with an army wielding swords and shields, this king of kings entered Jerusalem humbly and gently on the back of a donkey. This was, of course, to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” Yet, you have to wonder, what did the crowds make of this prophet entering Jerusalem the way he did?

Matthew tells us that the crowds rejoiced to such a degree that they took off their clothes to place them on the road. They were so enamored by this coming prophet that they took it upon themselves to adorn the dirty roads with their cloaks as a symbol of royalty. They shouted “Hosanna Hosanna” while waving the palms branches just as we did this morning. But, at the end of the scripture, the whole city of Jerusalem is apparently in turmoil, as if an earthquake had happened, and they begin to ask, “Who is this?

The irony that follows our particular story is tragic. Within a week’s time the crowds that were shouting “Hosanna!” began to shout “Crucify!” The disciples that were so willing to find the donkey and use their own clothing as a saddle, would fall asleep on their Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. The people who walked before Jesus announcing his triumphant entry in the holy city, would follow behind him as he dragged his own cross to the top of calvary. In Jesus’ last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the son of David reenters David’s city, but the only throne he will find is on a cross.

Is is frighteningly easy for us to think that by celebrating Palm Sunday we are acknowledging Jesus as a king in the way that Jerusalem failed to do! We need to be constantly reminded of how easy our shouts of “Hosanna” can change to “Crucify.”

Over the course of Lent this year, our confirmation class has been gathering together every week after church to learn more and more about this thing we call discipleship. Every time we gathered we shared a meal, just like Jesus would have with his disciples, and then we jumped right into the lesson. We focused on how Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches; to follow Christ we need to bear fruit in our lives.

The weekly lesson always had activities paired with them in order to flesh out what we had been talking about. When we looked at God the Father we discussed creation, sin, and redemption. We cut out pictures from magazines that reminded us of sin and discussed ways to avoid the temptations of our lives. When we focused on the Holy Spirit we all took turns wearing blind folds and walked around the church property helping to guide one another the way that the Spirit guides us. When we talked about Paul we wrote letters to our church about things we do well, and things that we need to change. I gave the youth old dinner plates and a permanent marker, inviting them to write down any negative memories, disappointments, or frustrations, and then we took the plates into the parking lot and smashed them into a hundred pieces. The following week we used those broken pieces to adorn our cross that now stands here in the sanctuary.

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One of my favorite actives from confirmation this year occurred when we talked about God the Son, Jesus Christ. I invited each of the confirmands to take 10 minutes to walk around our church building and look for Jesus. They were told to find words, phrases, or pictures that reminded them of their Lord and then write it down. Once we gathered back together, we shared what we had found and then I asked them the same question that the people in Jerusalem asked after Jesus entered on the back of a donkey: “Who is Jesus?”

The room was silent. Even though they had walked around the building and shared their discoveries with one another, they were reluctant to even attempt to answer the question.

As I stood there before our confirmands, uncomfortably waiting in the silence, I realized how difficult that question is: Who is Jesus?

I have often heard people remark that the youth are the future of the church. Logically speaking, this is true. One day we will return to dust and those who are younger than us will remain. But they are also very much the church right now. So, young people, listen to me very carefully: Confirmation is just like taking those first steps into Jerusalem. All of the adults here are looking at you to save them and the church. But, be careful, because their cries of hosanna can change to crucify before you even realize it.

We all do it. We look at the promise of youth, thanking God for their lives and imaginations, but as soon as they step too far we are ready to chastise them. So, as an example, here are some of the things that our confirmands wrote to our church:

Dear St John’s… I love the way that you greet everyone when they enter church. I love how our church feels like one big family. I love the way you care about me.

All wonderful and positive affirmations about what we do. Hosanna indeed.

But each letter also had to include things that we could change, ways that we could be better:

I wish we had younger people in church on Sundays. I think that we need actually start doing something for those in need. Maybe we can start a garden and give all of the produce away. I think we should start clapping for the choir after they sing a really wonderful song, rather than just sit in silence.

Not terribly offensive, but certainly different. I imagine that these young minds have countless suggestions of how we can do church differently, how we can embody the will of God in what we do, how we can make the Word incarnate in our lives. But, if it makes us uncomfortable, if it pushes us too far, how are we going to react? Will we still look at them with “hosannas” on our mind, or will we dismiss these new innovative ideas just as Jesus was dismissed by the crowds?

So, to the more mature gathered here at St. John’s this morning: I encourage you to look on these bright young confirmands with hope and respect. Do not jump to conclusions about their ideas simply because they are young and inexperienced, they could be closer to the will of God than any of us. Their answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” might be completely different than yours, but if you ask them, they can show you a side of our Lord that you’ve never known.

And to the confirmands I say this: Remember that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a humble way, without a sword, vulnerable to whatever his enemies wished to do to him. As Albus Dumbledore once said, “the truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with caution.” We want to hear your ideas, we want to see the world and the church through new perspectives, but be humble in the way you share what you see with us. Be kind in your sharing, and we will return that kindness in our hearing. Their answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” might be completely different than yours, but if you ask them, they can show you a side of our Lord that you’ve never known.

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Today, Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is a cautionary tale reminding us of how quickly our opinion can sway; how quickly we can be divided; how quickly we can forget that we are one body in Jesus Christ. Young or old, experienced or recent to the faith, we are in this church together. We join together for worship week after week learning to speak and act and think and live and love as Christians.

This message isn’t just for our confirmation class; its for each and every single one of us gathered here today. We have a choice, we can choose to follow our own path, ignore the needs of those who bother us, and learn to take care of ourselves alone. We can move with the crowds and let our shouts from “hosanna” quickly change to “crucify” whenever we so choose. Or, we can march up to Calvary with our Lord carrying our own crosses. We can work together to bear fruit in God’s kingdom on earth. We can love the unlovable because God loves us.

“Who is this?” the crowds asked. Who is this strange man entering into the holy city to turn the world upside down? Who is this prophet who knows our innermost desires and listens to us when we feel alone? Who is this king who sits on the throne of a cross? Who is this priest that shares his bread and wine, body and blood, with and for us? Who is this incarnate God who died for the sins of the World? Who is this man that healed the sick, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked? Who is this teacher that shares all of his parables with us? Who is this Lord that humbles himself to be just like us? Who is this Savior that is completely unlike us?

If someone asked you, “Who is this?” how would you respond?

Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional – 1/13/14

Devotional:

John 11.27-28:

She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

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We sat around the room, uncomfortably crossing our legs occasionally while sitting in stiff chairs. The fellowship room at Asbury UMC in Harrisonburg, VA was welcoming but something was wrong with the thermostat; the heat was on full blast and the windows were open to help offset the sauna-like atmosphere. As is common in most Methodist gatherings, conversation percolated about the weather, parking in the immediate area, and church identities.

We were all there to talk about prayer. Lay and clergy alike, someone had invited each one of us to participate in this “Kindred Project” to focus on the importance of spiritual disciplines in the lives of our churches. We exchanged the typical pleasantries, identified our positions in local churches, and then entered a time of contemplative prayer.

Our leaders began to read from the 11th chapter of the gospel according to John, repeating the line: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” While sitting in the circle, we each looked to the person on our right and repeated the line to them, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” When the statement had finally made its way around the whole group, we entered a period of silence for 20 minutes.

Silence is difficult. Its hard to maintain focus without a myriad of thoughts beginning to sprout in the gray matter. I tried to keep focusing on that one sentence, but others ideas began to creep in: What am I going to preach about on Sunday? Who do I need to call this afternoon? etc. So, after a few moments of silence, unsuccessful in focusing on prayer, I removed myself from the circle, walked around the room for a minute and sat down on a rug in the corner. The silence weighed heavily on my heart as a tried to seek focus and contemplation. As I pushed my extra thoughts out of my mind the word teacher began to move through my head in a rhythmic fashion. Teacher, teacher, teacher.

When our twenty minutes were up, we shared our experiences and prayers with the rest of the group. This is what I said:

“I’ve been serving St. John’s for 6 months. I have embraced the role of teacher and preacher in a number of different ways and have thoroughly enjoyed my time so far. It often feels that I am supposed to be a master of the text (scripture) for the laity and provide for them concise and coherent reflections about how scripture continues to speak to us. However, during the last twenty minutes of silence, I realized that I’ve been looking at scripture and my calling to pastoral ministry a little backwards. I am not supposed to be a master of the text, but instead a servant of the Word. I am not called to be The Teacher, but must remember that I am still a student of God’s Word for me and my life.”

It never ceases to amaze me how God can use some of the most mundane moments to remind me what faith and discipleship is all about. For as much time as I spend in scripture to prepare sermons and bible studies, I must also remember my commitment to study the Word of the Lord in order to transform and shape my life as a Christian.

So, I encourage you to remember that “the Teacher is here and is calling for you.” It does not matter whether you have a degree in biblical theology, or you’ve never even opened a bible. Discipleship is about recognizing that we are forever students on the journey of faith. God’s Word is alive for you and me because whenever we approach it, it can speak a new word into our lives. So, if you have time this week, open your bibles to a passage of familiarity, read it aloud, read it silently, and dwell upon those words. How is God using them to speak into your life? What lesson is the great Teacher offering you right now?