Dying To Live

Luke 10.25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

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Dear Logan,

When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.

For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.

But don’t blame me for your new life.

You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.

But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.

You don’t get a choice.

Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.

A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment. 

Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”

Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one. 

They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.

But instead, they trusted me.

So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.

Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.

One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.

Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”

The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.

Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.

And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.

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It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.

This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created. 

What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.

Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.

But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it. 

At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.

Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less. 

Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.

It’s up to Jesus.

Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us. 

Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that. 

Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer. 

But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me. 

The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.

We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story. 

You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love. 

But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love. 

In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.

The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.

The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.

Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.

And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.

Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”

So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Dear Church…

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit that he has given us.

Since Easter Sunday we, as a congregation, have been reading through 1 John. Every worship service, every scripture reading, every sermon, even the hymns have all been based on this one letter written centuries ago.

And it is important to remember that 1 John was, and is, a letter. It is a document written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are in the midst of their faith journeys by addressing the challenges of discipleship.

For John, following Jesus was all about love… We know love by this, that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we ought to do the same for one another. Let us not love with words or speech, but in truth and action. And we shall do all of this because God is greater than our hearts.

Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader; seriously, I made you all play around with crayons, balancing blocks, and play-dough last week! I don’t have decades of experience to rely upon when addressing the marks of following Jesus. The well of my wisdom is shallow compared to the deep insight that John shares in his letter.

I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place. It was a written communication designed to sustain people like me, and you, in the midst of this strange and beautiful thing we call faith.

During the time of John letters were carefully crafted, parchment/papyrus were expensive and rare, reading and writing was uncommon. A lot of thought went into a letter before it was sent out. And this was even more particular in the realm of the early church when letters were shared with more than one gathering. They were sacred pieces of text that were treated with the utmost care.

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Today, however, we communicate in a variety of different forms. Sure, some of us still take the time to write our thoughts by hand, and then send it through the mail. But many of us, if not all of us, are versed in the instantaneous forms of email, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Instragramming, and even snap-chatting.

One of the biggest differences in the way we communicate today, as compared to the time of John, is that many of us offer our opinions and weigh into debates without really taking time at all to think about what we are offering. It is so easy to type a few lines, or click the share button, or take a picture on our cell phones that we do it without even realizing what we’re doing.

Today there exists computer programs designed to test whether information being shared in true, fair, and accurate. The fact that we need those things, because we simply don’t have the time to look into ourselves, is absurd.

But, when you consider how much is being produced, how much content is being created, we need something to help us sift through everything. Believe it or not, we, as a species, create as much content in 2 days as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

            That’s craziness.

If you talk to a writer or a poet, they’ll tell you that if they got a paragraph together in one day, then it was a very good day. Sometimes all they can muster is a single sentence. But that’s because they take the time to weigh out what they’re trying to say.

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On the other side of the spectrum, most of us try to get out what we’re saying as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. We don’t like our time wasted so we just throw words out and hope something sticks.

And so, while recognizing that I am not like John, and that we are bombarded with so much information, I reached out to a number of people this week. I asked a simple question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?”

It was my attempt to get people to think like John and speak the truth about what the condition of the church is like.

And, like seasoned and faithful Johns, a number of people put together their ideas about love and discipleship for our benefit. Whether it was on Facebook, email, Twitter, or YouTube, insight rained down upon our church office, and now you will be blessed to receive those same messages.

Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…

 

Dear Church,

One of the best things about our church is the way we love each other. I can’t think of a Sunday when I came to worship without someone checking in on me. And that’s what I really care about. It doesn’t matter if the sermon falls flat, or if one of the hymns is too hard to sing, when I worship I feel loved.

 

Dear Church,

Life can be really difficult. But when it’s hard we have a choice, we can lay down and take whatever comes or we can get up and work on solving the problem. The choice is up to us.

 

Dear Church,

We should be doing God’s will, not power-hungry people’s will.

 

Dear Church,

What the church does is all about sharing the good news. And the good news is the fact that God loves sinners. And all of us are sinners. All of us.

 

Dear Church,,

I don’t care what church it is; if I have to hear another political sermon I’m going to lose my mind! The gospel is not about creating strong political opinions or calling people to march in protest. Jesus doesn’t share the Good News so that we know what political party to join, or which candidate to support. So many preachers today sound like wannabe politicians and I just can’t stand it anymore!

Following Jesus is not about whose political sign is in your yard or on your bumper; it’s a call for the people who have the resources and goods to open their hearts to people who have need. Love is about action, yes. But love is not a doctrine, or a sermon, or a political persuasion.

It is what you do, not what you think.

 

Dear Church,

I’ve been worshipping here for a while now, and I don’t think anyone knows my name.

 

Dear Church,

Love is more than a word.

 

Dear Church,

How can any church call itself a church when it refuses to help, or ignores altogether, people in need? This is why the church is dying. Not because it’s boring. Not because it’s old fashioned. The church is dying because it is hypocritical.

 

Dear Church,

Speaking up for the good of people is risky. You can lose your job, relationships, money, and even your life for living by the kind of love we talk about at church. But isn’t that what Jesus was willing to risk?

 

Dear Church,

Laying down your life for someone is different than dying for them. When push come to shove, many of us would consider sacrificing ourselves for the good of those we love. But laying down one’s life, laying aside your goals and priorities and dreams for the betterment of someone else, that’s entirely different. We need not die for anyone, but we certainly must lay aside our needs for others.

 

Dear Church…

 

After receiving these comments, and many more, I thought long and hard about what I might say. I pondered about what kind of letter I would write to this church, or any church, about what is really at stake. I prayed about what kind of shocking wisdom we might need to hear in this place.

And yet, rather than pontificating from the pulpit, I’d like to hear from you. I know this is uncomfortable, perhaps even worse that having to spend 15 minutes with playdough like last week, but if you could say anything to the church about what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to love, what would you say?

Imagine, if you can, that this was your final communication to the church, and that you had the opportunity to speak some truth into the midst of all of our lives, perhaps about what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly – What would you say?

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We can open up forums on the church website. We can solicit responses from people all over the Internet. We can even listen to the people in the pews next to us.

And we can also listen to John, speaking through the centuries, about the wisdom of loving and being loved:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Amen.

The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

I’m in my fifth year of full-time ministry and I just received my first piece of anonymous “hate” mail. I use the word “hate” loosely, because at no point in the letter am I threatened or made to feel afraid, but the person clearly hated a sermon of mine and took the time to write a full page with bolded words, underlined sentences, and even a section entirely in the color red.

On Sunday I preached a sermon about why Christians pray and in it I said: “…the missing demographic from the church, the so-called millennial generation, are missing because they (we) have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves people feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference. But that’s the thing: the church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and the valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God. And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down… I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has answered our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us until we have eyes to see what God has done.”

And today, Wednesday, I received an anonymous letter ripping apart my claim that the Church doesn’t exist to make a difference. Basically, he/she feels that the church is only one of the ways for an individual to experience God in the world, and the the church has failed to take care of people in need, and therefore it’s up to people like the writer to support the needs left unattended in the world through political means and civic organizations.

I wish the person had included their name, or at least a way to respond to their criticism, such that we could have a conversation about the subject. But without any way to do so, I decided to put it up here on the blog in hopes that it reaches him/her:

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written our plainly for all to read and understand: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Go therefore and make disciples…). But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews; it results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with people already in the building, it results in infantile/surface level discipleship, and it results in working for the numbers instead of the kingdom.

And then we have this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our only focus? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Today we are so steeped in the allure and promises of our political ideologies that we often superimpose them onto the church. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But look at what makes the church the church: Jesus Christ. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through wandering Israelites, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is the better place God has made in the world because many of us worship our government, or social programs, the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about local civic organizations as if they are going to bring us salvation that we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus already brought.

Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again or Make The World A Better Place. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of civic organizations that work to change the world, nor is it meant to be a critique of policies of the political right or left. Neither is it a denial of the importance of caring for the last, least, and lost in our communities. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that organizations and political parties determine our lives more than the living God.

Yes, everyone is free to use their money and their time and their talents as they see fit. In our country we worship this freedom to a frightening degree (However, we tend to only relish in our freedom to say and do what we want, and the moment we encounter the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.). We can try to do what we can to make the world a better and safer place.

But being a Christian is not about (political) freedom or being safe. After all, we Christians worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Following Jesus means believing the greatest freedom and power we’ve ever received did not come from the Declaration of Independence, or from giving money to a group like Kiwanis, but through Jesus Christ who died on a cross.

I do sincerely apologize for making a claim about the church not making a difference in the world. After all, I am a pastor because the church changed my life. But I also recognize that for as much as I want to attribute the difference I have experienced to the church, Jesus is the one who made all the difference.

We spend so much time thinking and living into a strange reality that assumes the church exists to serve the members of the church, or to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t have much to do with Jesus. Any political party and any civic organization can do lots of things to make their members happier and safer and better (at least in terms familiar to the world).

But the church, as the body of Christ, exists to be the better place God has already made in the world. God in Christ transformed the powers and principalities such that the world has been turned upside down. God in Christ captivates our hearts and souls by proclaim who we really are and whose we really are. God in Christ is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God in Christ has made all the difference.

Not To Boast, But…

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of this call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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“I’d like to come by and shoot a story about St. John’s.”

The producer from WHSV had called the church and when I heard his request through the phone I was both nervous and excited. A story. About St. John’s. On Television. But then I realized I needed to ask a question.

“About what exactly?”

We do a fair amount for our local community, but I had a feeling this request was for something else. And in the pit of my stomach I was worried that he wanted to do a story about the controversy series we recently finished. After two months of standing up in the pulpit and belaboring different points of friction, I was looking forward to leaving the controversies aside for a little while, and did not want to speak on behalf of a church where we are clearly divided over a number of issues.

But then he said, “I saw on your website that your church is hosting a communion service on Election Day, and I thought that was something more people should know about.”

He arrived about 30 minutes later with a bag full of camera equipment and a spiral bound notebook full of questions. He set everything up in the office and ran a microphone cable under the desk and into my lap to pick up on all of the dialogue. We tested for light and volume levels for a couple minutes, made sure I was in the frame, went over the specifics about looking at him and not directly into the camera, and then he pressed the record button.

“Tell me a little about the church…”

“Well,” I began, “Not to boast, but, this is the best church in the entire Shenandoah Valley. We’ve got a Preschool that has been in existence for about 30 years and has the greatest reputation for its education. The children are nurtured by our beloved teachers, they receive the necessarily information to excel when they leave for Kindergarten, and we strive to teach them about the virtues of love, grace, and mercy.

We have a solid youth group that meets on Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm for communion, discipleship formation, and bible study. The group contains the best and brightest kids from Staunton and they regularly out disciple me, their pastor. They have a hunger for the Word and are willing to vulnerably encounter one another in questions about their faith. To be honest, they give me hope for the future of the church because they believe in what we are doing almost more than most of the adults.

We have a lectionary bible study of which more than half of the attendees are not members of our church. Every week they gather in the room next door to read four scripture texts and prayerfully discern what God is saying to them through the text. They bring their experience and love of the bible to that group and all of us have grown in our faith because of that bible study.

On Sunday mornings we have some of the best worship that any church in Staunton has to offer. Our order of worship is streamlined for maximum impact, our hymns directly relate to the greater theme and narrative of worship, most of the time the sermons aren’t half bad, and we’ve got an organist who can really make our organ move and groove. The kind of hospitality that our church members extend to strangers and longtime members is worthy of imitation by all churches and they are truly the reason people come back week after week.

On any given week our building is used by a number of local civic organizations including girl scouts, cub scouts, and boy scouts. We have a quilt-for-a-cause team that regularly works on quilts that are then given away to local children in need. We’ve got a group of volunteers called the Cheer Team who take time to visit with those who are lonely or afraid in the community. We’ve got others who go to the Trinity Soup kitchen to cook and serve food to the homeless. We send a mission team of youth every summer to help different communities in need. We’ve got…”

“Just a little bit” he said. “Now,” he went on, “tell me about this Election Day communion service.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know more about St. John’s? I really could go on, I was only really getting started.”

“No, let’s try to stay on task.”

So for the next 45 minutes he recorded as we went back and forth about the current state of politics in our country, we waxed lyrical about pamphlets and fliers we’ve received here at the church about who we should vote for as Christians, we explored the theological implications of a communion service in the midst of such political division, and we even discussed the practical matters of how much bread to purchase and how many people we should expect to attend.

All in all, we examined just about every aspect of the Election Day Communion service and when we had gone through all his questions, we shook hands and he left to get some exterior shots of the building. The last thing he said was, “It should be on the evening news in the next day or two.”

We don’t have cable at the parsonage, but you better believe I kept checking the WHSV website for the story about our church. With every click to reload the page I dreamt about how many people would see the wonderful descriptions of the church, I imagined how many people would hear all the things I boasted about, and I began picturing our pews filled to the brim on Sunday morning.

Two days later, the story finally appeared on in the news cycle. The opening shot was an image of our altar, the one right behind me, and as the news anchor began introducing the story my teeth chattered with excitement.

The anchor said, “St. John’s Pastor Taylor Mertins has this to say….”

Then the shot cuts to me in the office, with Star Wars figurines and works of theology on my shelves. Here was the big moment. And then I watched myself say, “We are going to pray for our political leaders whether it’s the person we voted for or not. That would be the most Christian thing we could do.”

And then it ended. 10 seconds. The vast majority of our conversation was left on the cutting room floor, and 45 minutes of bragging was reduced to a 10 second sound bite.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that WHSV came to do a story about our Election Communion Service, it will be a profound moment of unity in the midst of chaos and division, I only wish that everyone watching got to hear and experience all the things that make our church what it is.

And then I reread our scripture text for this morning.

2 Thessalonians is one of the earliest Christian documents that the church has. It is the second letter written by Paul to the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, the Thessalonians have their act together. Not only does Paul mention the fact that he gives thanks and prays for their little community, but also Paul boasts about their church to all the other churches. They are the city on the hill to which all the others churches should aspire to, they are the standard by which other churches should measure themselves, and they are worth bragging about.

But why did Paul choose to brag about them?

Was it the number of people they had in the pews on Sunday morning? Perhaps they had a remarkable preschool that was helping to shape the future? Maybe they had a youth group that met once a week for communion, fellowship, and bible study? Or perhaps they had streamlined their worship services to connect all of the hymns with the scripture, and the sermon, and the offering, and the prayers?

No.

Paul boasted about the Thessalonians because they remained steadfast in their faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. Paul boasted about their church because they grasped and lived into the mission of the church: to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We, the church, are a different people. We, the church, are an alternative form of community. Rather than being labeled and defined by the marks of culture that surround us – consumption, power, greed, political parties, nationalities, sexual identities, economics – we are like strangers living in a strange land.

What we value and desire is not what the world values and desires.

            What we proclaim and believe is not what the world proclaims and believes.

            What we worship and affirm is not what the world worships and affirms.

            We are a different people, we Christians.

Though the world may change, though new presidents may reside in the oval office, though new pastors can be sent to different churches, we grow in love of God and love of neighbor. That is our mission, and if anyone can say we love God and others, if that’s what they boast about, well that’s good enough.

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So perhaps, the ten-second sound bite about the Election Day Communion service is precisely what the community should know about our church. They don’t need to know about our different activities and ministerial programs, they don’t need to know the specifics of our Sunday liturgy, they don’t need to hear a forty-five minute speech about all the best things we’ve got going on at St. John’s.

All they need to know is that we are growing in love of God and neighbor by putting aside things like all of our political differences and joining together to feast at God’s table. Instead of being captivated by the world as the results pour in on Novembers 8th, we will be here loving one another and remembering that we worship the living God.

Therefore, maybe it is our sense of challenge, our willingness to return to this place Sunday after Sunday that connects us with the church in Thessalonica from so long ago. They suffered under persecution and affliction and were able to keep the faith. We wrestle with the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance and we keep the faith. Rather than falling prey to the whims of the world, instead of being consumed by the popularity of politics, we remember that we are God’s people. This land is going through a time of great division and schism, but because of God’s grace, we have not lost sight of who we are and whose we are.

To this end we pray, asking that God will continue to make us worthy of the call and that God will fulfill by His power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace and mercy of God.

The mission of the church, and the mission of all Christians, is to love God and love others. That’s it. Amen.

 

Devotional – Luke 11.1

Devotional:

Luke 11.1

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

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Back in October I preached a sermon series on why we do what we do. One Sunday we explored why we give our gifts to the church, another Sunday we explored why we worship the way we do, and on the final Sunday we talked about why we pray.

Of course, we usually pray because we want something from God; we cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We know why we pray, and Jesus answered the question of “How to pray?” by giving the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

But I often wonder if we are praying for the right things.

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To conclude the sermon back in October I asked everyone in worship to open their bulletins and pull out the envelope and blank piece of paper that had been placed inside. I said, “I would like each of us to take out the paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Jesus. So write out your prayer, and then place it in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. And we will mail them back to you in a number of months. God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened to the ways God is moving in our lives.”

That was nine months ago, and today the envelopes are being sent back out.

We currently live in a culture so steeped in instant gratification that we expect God to answer our prayers immediately. However, God’s time is not the same thing as our time. It is my belief that God has, in some way, shape, or form, answered our prayers over the last nine months and perhaps we can only see that now looking back. So keep your eye out for your mailbox this week, rejoice in the prayer that you once offered, and give thanks for the way God has responded.

Devotional – Ephesians 4.29

Devotional:

Ephesians 4.29

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Weekly Devotional Image

A few weeks ago Gwen Hammer, a wonderful member of St. John’s, came into my office with a gift. She and her family had been on vacation and she said they found something I “just had to have.” So with eager anticipation and excitement I opened up the package to discover one of the funniest signs I’ve ever read, a sign that is now hanging in my office for everyone to see: “Live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”

Whenever I meet with families and friends to prepare for a funeral, I hear wonderful stories about the person who has died. Without having to ask questions, I quickly learn about what it was like to grow up with the person, how they met their spouse, what it meant to them to be a parent, and a slew of other details. I hear the funny stories that have been told and retold countless times at family gatherings. I start to see how God’s grace developed in the person’s life and led them to live the way they did.

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But at some point, stories pop up that I would not want to share from the pulpit; disappointments regarding a grudge that was never settled, failures to communicate what was really happening, and frustrations over choices with larger implications. I always do my best to sit and listen patiently, knowing that it is important for the friends and family to experience their grief in different ways. But when it comes time to craft the words that will be shared at the funeral, I do my best to include the truth about the person’s life, while emphasizing the details that help to build up the community of faith.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about what it means to live in community: “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As human beings we tend to emphasize and remember our problems, but as Christians we are called to speak in a way that benefits the people around us. In our everyday lives we have opportunities to share kind words toward others such as complimenting their work or affirming their character. Whatever we can do to live in such a way that we build others up, rather than breaking them down, will allow us to fully live into God’s kingdom.

This week, let us speak in such a way that our words may give grace to those who hear, and live in such a way so that the preacher won’t have to lie at our funeral.

What Is Love? (Jesus Don’t Hurt Me) – Sermon on 1 John 3.16-24

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater that our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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1 John is a letter written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are new and young to the faith by addressing the challenges of discipleship. What we have read this morning encompasses John’s understanding of love, Christ’s love, and the need for Christians to find this same love in their lives. Now, to be clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader, with years of experience to rely upon. I cannot pull from the wisdom of leading churches throughout the decades to help those who are struggling. I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place.

Yet, knowing I am not qualified, I decided to write my own letter this week as if I were John to our contemporary church…

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Dear St. John’s,

What is love? Do you ever find yourself asking that very question? Love seems to be one of those things, those words, that we tend to just throw around without really thinking about what it means. I love your outfit! I love what you’ve done with the place! I love eating frozen Kit Kats! I love you!

Love, as a word, has the power to mean everything and nothing. For instance: when we start dating and we grow closer and closer to someone else and they say for the first time: “I love you” it can mean everything in the world. Time can slow down and we can remember the way we felt when we heard it for the first time. However, years later, “love” can become routine, that word we use to end conversations rather than to declare how we feel in our heart of hearts. Love becomes a filler rather than a feeling.

What is love? Is it something that we can only experience in a romantic way? Can we love our friends and family? Can we love our church? Can we love the Lord?

This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to do the same for one another. Now, stay with me if you can, I know that as you read this letter you might already start to grow weary of this thing called love. How willing are we to really lay down our lives for other people? Frankly, most of us will never have to come that far, we will never be martyred for our faith. For as much as we talk about lifting up our cross to follow Christ, it is unlikely that we will ever find ourselves hanging on that cross for what we believe.

Yet, as Christians, this is how we know what love looks like. That a man, fully God and fully human, delivered himself to die for us even when we did not deserve it.

St. John’s, how can the Lord’s love abide in us when we are filled with the world’s goods, but we refuse to help our brothers and sisters in need? Is it possible to love without sacrifice?

Most of us want to love and be loved so long as it doesn’t hurt. We want to know all about love, and we are ready to follow the Lord’s commands so long as it won’t cost us anything.

Love is never really love unless it has the power to harm us.

Discipleship is never holy unless we are willing to sacrifice and be deeply honest with ourselves and others. Trust is never fully possible until we know what’s its like to have our trust broken. Love is what it is because it can both build us up and tear us down.

We might never have to die for somebody else like Jesus did for us, but to love others implies a willingness to lay down our needs and desires for someone else’s needs and desires. What is love if not a willingness to be vulnerable with another?

So, if we want to love, let us do so not with words or speeches, but in truth and action. Anybody can say “I love you”; it is far harder for our lives to match our words. Do we practice what we preach? Are our feet and tongues in alignment? Do our actions match our professions?

Love is hard. It requires dedication and commitment, vulnerability and sacrifice, honesty and attention. We would rather love with our words because we do not have the strength to love with our actions. This is why we pray; We pray for the Lord to give us the strength to love the unlovable because we cannot do it on our own.

Have you ever noticed the covenants made at a wedding? The couple consents and promises to love one another in the sight of God and witnesses, but then the entire congregation makes a promise to nurture that couple in love. Romantic love and a promise between two people is not enough to sustain a life-long marriage. We need others to hold us accountable to the promises of love, and in particular to the love between partners.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in fact many times, the Lord does not answer our prayers? Or at least not the way we would want to the Lord to answer them? We know that the Lord is greater than our fickle hearts and that he answers our prayers, but sometimes we ask for the wrong things.

How often do we pray for the Lord to fix this or that, to make our children better, to rid us of our sickness when we could be praying for the Lord to give us the strength to address our own problems, the courage to be honest with our kids, and the endurance to bear the pain?

The Lord is greater than all of our selfish desires and trite fixations. The Lord’s love knows no bounds and continues to seek us out even when we turn away. This is the truth of the Good News, that God’s love remains steadfast even as ours falters. We will never be able to love others in the exact same way that God does, but our challenges is to strive for it nonetheless.

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St. John’s, our church needs some encouragement so despair will not take root. We need to love and feel loved. We need to lift one another up with this sacrificial love so that we might know and experience God’s love right now through each other.

If we fail in our own eyes, if we feel that we have been a disappointment, be assured that God knows our hearts better than we do. We might look in the mirror every morning and see regrets, failures, and short-comings, but the Lord sees hope, beauty, and wonder. We might replay in our minds the hateful words that have been shouted at us by our bosses, friends, and spouses, but the Lord wants us to hear only one thing: you are loved.

Do we know that we are loved? Do we feel it in our lives on a regular basis? Do we experience a feeling of worth from the Lord through others?

The Lord has given us a worthy commandment: we should believe in the power of his Son Jesus Christ, and we should love one another. 

I asked the children of our preschool about love and they were able to describe it in a way that many of us forget by the time we grow up. They want to love because it makes them happy, they feel love through hugs and snuggles and time well spent. Yet, when I asked one particular boy if he feels loved, this is what he said: “I feel loved by my mommy and daddy whenever they hug me and sit with me. But I don’t know why they love me.

It is so sad that we believe love can only exist when it is deserved or warranted. We live in such a commodified society, that we expect that love only accompanies good behavior.

God’s love is unconditional, and ours should be to.

You might not know it, or even believe it, but I have seen this love made real and tangible through the people in our pews.

When we learned about the needs of a community in West Virginia, men from our church volunteered to shave their faces just so we could raise money for the mission trip. They literally put their faces on the line for God’s kingdom. At the same time, everyone that contributed financially sacrificed from their lives so that we might bless and love on others in need. We responded in love not because of what people deserve, but simply as a reaction to need.

When we learn about someone’s recent diagnosis or loss of a loved one, we gather together to nurture them and surround them with care. We write cards and offer prayers, we drive to homes and cemeteries, we sit and we listen. We respond in love not because they once did the same for us and we believe that we owe it to them, but we do so because living by loving is the only way that makes sense as Christians.

If love is real, there is no “why?”

What is love? God is. We love others because God loves us. God was willing to humble himself to the form of flesh, to know what we know and feel. God was willing to walk among the people and listen to their needs and hopes, to lift them up and offer them worth. God was willing to carry death on his back and hang there for all to see. God was willing to die for you and the world. God was willing to love us, and continues to through every moment of our lives.

Do you know that you are loved? Whenever you look at a cross, remember that Jesus died on one for you. Whenever you look at a loaf of bread, remember that Christ’s body was given so that you could live. Whenever you look at another person, remember that Christ died for them just as much as he died for you. 

When we love we abide in the Lord and he abides in us. Loving others is the closest we can ever get to really being Christ’s body for the world. When we love with our actions we allow the Holy Spirit to live and move through us. Whether we love with a hug or a letter, a smile or a sacrifice, a commitment or a vow, we are abiding in the Lord.

St. John’s, loving is the greatest thing in the world, but it can also be the hardest. Love can build us up and break us down. Love can inspire majesty and travesty. Love can bring us closer to God and drive us away.

Love is hard, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. Amen.