God Is Out Of Control

In an attempt to live into my fear, I stepped up to the pulpit without a pre-written sermon and offered this about The Transfiguration…

 

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The Cross in Creation – Karl Barth and Genesis 1.1-2

Genesis 1.1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

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While I was in seminary I spent one of my summers helping Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, North Carolina. Bryson City is surround by the Great Smokey Mountains and is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an incredible experience that directly shaped the way I do ministry today.

During my time at the church I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group with local clergy. Every Monday morning the pastors and priests of Bryson City would get together to talk about the scripture readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading from the bible and shared what we thought we would preach about on Sunday.

Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptists, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

On one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by those familiar pastors and priests as we read the texts aloud. The lectionary always had four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three-year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the test during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “I anyone planning to preach on Genesis 1?” The silence remained. I remember thinking to myself, “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was obvious that most of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading, but I felt compelled to ask another question: “Have any of you every preaching on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever proclaimed a sermon on the beginning of creation.

While they moved on to a different reading and a different conversation, I silently began calculating from my chair: In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever preached from Genesis 1.

Why do we ignore Genesis 1? What is it about the text that makes us afraid to bring it up in worship or in bible study?

On some level I think it is good to be afraid of God’s Word; that fear reminds us that God is God and we are not. But Genesis 1 is not something to be ignored or forgotten.

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Of all the writing I’ve read on Genesis 1, it is Karl Barth’s exegesis of the text that gives me hope for its return to the pulpits and congregations of our churches.

Barth, unlike so many modern theologians and pastors, rejects the fear and presumption that there is dissonance between creation as recorded in scripture and the scientific method. Instead of attempting to rationalize the theory of the Big Bang with the details of Genesis 1, and instead of struggling to line up Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection with the order of creation in scripture, Barth rejoices in the knowledge that the earth was in a hopeless situation of chaos and utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. The “how?” and “why?” of creation is simply answered with “Word” and “love.”

Writing and reflecting from this vantage point gives Barth the ability to freely respond to the words contained in Genesis 1 with a freshness that is often lost in the church today; his exegesis of Genesis 1 is a worthy read for clergy and laity alike.

In §41.2 “Creation As The External Basis Of The Covenant” (III.1 The Doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics) Barth begins his exegesis with the very first words of God from the Word of God.

The first word in the Hebrew Bible is bereshith, which roughly translates to “start” or “beginning.” In English we render this as “In the beginning…” but for Barth the distinction is important. To begin with “beginning” tells us “that this history, and with it the existence and being of the world, had a beginning, i.e., that unlike God Himself it was not without a beginning, but that with this beginning it also looks to an end.”[1] There is no other word that can quite compare with the one that inaugurates God’s holy scripture. From the beginning of all things God created a beginning to have an end. The Lord did not create the world like a watchmaker and then step back to see how it would run. God was intimately involved in the creative act knowing full and well that there was a necessary end, or conclusion, to the creative act. Unlike an author who begins a story without knowing how it will come to close, God created from beginning with an ending.

For years I’ve read the creation account from Genesis 1 and thought of it just like that: an account of creation. The words were there on the page, though they hardly jumped out at me. Like those pastors in Bryson City, Genesis 1 is one of those chapters in the bible that I have not so subtly avoided because of the difficulty of rationalizing it with modern science. And yet Barth writes about the first two verses of scripture with such conviction that it challenges me to re-engage with the text and see the beauty of what God did, and is doing.

Verse 2 (the earth was a formless void…) has been similarly read with haste and overlooked for the richness it holds. Everything else, which is to say everything neutral or against God’s will, ceased to exist when time began with God’s action and accomplishment. The whole of creation was worked into being and order by God in time. In God’s freedom to create was the earth brought into meaning through God’s action and through God’s word to create.

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The challenge of verse 2 has vexed theologians and Christians alike for centuries regarding the chaos, whether or not God created it, and if God willed a reality of chaos into existence. This, I think, has factored into the disappearance of Genesis 1 from pulpits because we are unsure of how to speak about evil in the world, and whether or not God ordained it.

The question of God’s role in the creative act resulting in, or presupposing evil, is usually limited to two answers: God either did create the darkness and evil, or God did not.

Barth totally rejects this dualistic presumption.

Instead, Barth begins by confronting what is actually stated: “In verse 2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to verse 1 and the continuation. There is only “chaos.” … that which is absolutely without basis or future, utter darkness… According to this phrase the situation in which the earth finds itself is the very opposite of promising. It is quite hopeless.”[2]

For Barth the question over evil and whether or not the violent and chaotic state of the world is self-originated or willed by God pales in comparison to the fact the earth was in a hopeless situation of utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. Verse 2 therefore posits a world in which the Word of God had not been uttered. The “nothingness” of creation is utterly destroyed and rendered impossible by the possibility of God in the creative act.

The ugliness of the existence prior to the Word of God did exist almost like a shadow of the actual creative act of God. And because it was like a shadow, in the freedom of humanity we can look back and return to that past and bring forth the shadow of verse 2. In so doing, by rejecting the Word of God, the past defies its own nature and becomes present and future. However, God totally and utterly rejected and rejects the shadow and speaks forth the Word to shine in the darkness.

The temptation of humanity to return to the shadow is ever present. Whenever we deny mercy to God’s creatures, we are retreating to the moment precisely before the Word of God. It is in our broken and sinful nature that we reject God’s Word and substitute our own. The shadow of darkness is around us whenever we encounter death and destruction. But no shadow can compare with the one of the cross: “This – this moment of darkness in which His own creative Word, His only begotten Son, will cry on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ – will be ‘the small moment’ of His wrath in which all that is indicated in Genesis 1.2 will become real. For all the analogy to other kinds of darkness, there is no other moment such as this.”[3]

In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shadow of the cross, humanity encounters the true and total darkness prior to God’s Word. But it is through Jesus Christ (as the Word) that God will reconcile creation to God’s self. In the one incarnate creature, at that particular moment and time in the cosmos, the Word will again become the Light over all creation. The brilliance of the empty tomb shines like the first light hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1.2.

The “old things” of creation prior to the Word have radically passed away in a dynamic and divine act of the Lord speaking the Word and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first two verses of scriptures contain the fullness of all God’s scripture. In beginning we see the ending. In the darkness we see the cross. In the light we see the empty tomb and resurrection. What Barth does with scripture is like what a Jazz musician does with the form of a tune; Barth improvises over the lines and draws connections to melodies that we have scarcely imagined.

To reclaim the brilliance of Genesis 1, to jump into the strange new world of the bible like Barth, will give us the strength to encounter creation and believe that it is worthy to be preached and proclaimed. But more than anything, it will give us the vision to see creation and declare, like the Lord, “it is good.”

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.1 (Peabody, Massachusets: Hendrickson Publishers), 99.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 110.

Christmas Eve – Extra(Ordinary)

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in their fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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Merry Christmas! O what a time to be gathered together. Christmas is just special. The way we decorate our homes with lights and manger scenes. The presents all piled up under the trees. The advent calendars filled with mediocre pieces of chocolate.

It’s hard not to get nostalgic and reminiscent during the holidays. When you pull out the favorite ornament, you remember your grandmother who crafted it with care. When you see the cracked serving platter you remember the uncle who had a little too much nog that one year and dropped it. When you finally plug in the lights on the front of the house, you remember all the years your father mumbled under his breath as he struggled to untangle all the cords.

Christmas is the best. Among the decorations, and the songs, and the gifts, we are reminded of the great story of Jesus’ birth. This is a story we have told again and again to the point that I bet you know all the details….

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to the city of David called ­­­Bethlehem. He went there to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and was expecting a child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What a story, but it could have gone like this…

Mary sat in the uncomfortable airport lounge and could not believe that she could actually no longer see her feet. Everyday her body was changing with new movements, sounds, and smells. She found herself wishing for an easier pregnancy, feet that would stop swelling, and a baby that would stop kicking her in the side every time she fell asleep.

Mary was thankful for Joseph, how much he doted on her over the last 9 months, but if he made one more comment about how beautiful she looked she was going to punch him in the face. “I know I look like a cow!” she would say, “stop pretending that I’m something that I’m not.” Mary blamed the outbursts on the hormones, but sometimes it just felt nice to speak her mind.

She sat in the airport lounge, and couldn’t believe she had agreed to travel while pregnant. Joseph had been initially suspicious of the pregnancy, but he was a good man and stuck by her side. And here they were, waiting to get on the plane, and it felt like people’s eyes were magnetized to her belly.

Is it a boy or a girl?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her right and tried to return the smile, but her sarcasm got the better or her, and she said, “We’re just hoping it’s a human!

Are you going to try natural child birth?” someone asked for the thousandth time. Mary turned to her left and tried to return the smile, but declared, “That’s frankly none of your business!

Finally, a woman from the airline announced that anyone with medical needs could begin boarding the plane. “One of the rare perks…” thought Mary as she pushed herself up from the seat. She wobbled over to the gate like a penguin when an older woman walked up with her hand outstretched to rub Mary’s belly. Joseph quickly jumped in front to stop the arm from making contact and instead put out his arm to on a direct course to the woman’s abdomen and said, “How would you feel if a stranger tried to rub your belly?

Mary’s seat on the airplane felt smaller than usual and, try as she might, she couldn’t sleep. Joseph sat next to her with his earmarked copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting open to the section on child-birth. And Mary cringed when she thought about what her body would be doing in the not too distant future.

By the time they finally landed, stood in line for the rental car, and finally made it out of the airport, Mary was exhausted. Her feet felt like flippers, and she was starting to feel what she thought were contractions, but she was determined to believe it was something else.

As they drove through the empty city streets late that night, the feeling grew worse and more regular until it came with such suddenness that Mary yelled at Joseph to pull the car over. In the dimly lit alley with cats meowing behind cardboard boxes and passersby ignoring the scene right in front of them, Mary gave birth to a baby boy, wrapped him in her fiancés sweater, and grinned from ear to ear.

All the pain she had felt, all the fear of how much her life would change, all the frustrations with strangers and inappropriate comments started to fade away into the darkness. Instead she saw her little baby as the light of the world. In him she saw a better and brighter future. In him she knew the world would be turned upside down. And she named him Jesus.

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We know the story. We hear it year after year. We see it portrayed by children in church productions, and on the front lawns of countless homes. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because the emperor believed that everyone needed to be registered. When they arrived there was no room at the inn, so Mary had her baby and placed him in a manger.

The text from Luke, rather than romanticizing the poverty of Mary and Joseph, invites us to see them as people much like us. The details are lacking and the narrative flows in a way that feels rather ordinary. Mary and Joseph were just two people trying to make their way in the world, like a couple traveling during the holidays. They were normal people; people who felt the pressures of the world and the judgments of others; people who were squeezed by rising taxes and governmental expectations; people who were weary from a variety of struggles including the fear of childbirth; people who were badly in need of hope.

And, as God would have it, the hope they so desperately needed came to them that night as a baby. In the ordinary ways of the world, something extraordinary happened. Jesus, the light of the world, was born to that struggling couple surrounded by the most ordinary of circumstances and changed the world forever.

The baby was extraordinary, God incarnate, capable of miracles and filled with Messianic hope. The baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, God in the flesh, was born to guide the world in the ways that lead to life.

We are like Mary and Joseph and Jesus was born to us and for us. The story takes places in the ordinary but makes our lives extraordinary. So often we hear about how Jesus’ birth changed the cosmos and the very history of the world that we forget about how this wonderful and precious moment actually changed our individual lives as well. It changed us, people who are trying to understand our ordinary lives in light of the extraordinary news that God came as a baby for us.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible, this is how it works. If you haven’t experienced much of God’s presence, this is how God works. The extraordinary arises within the ordinary. The heavens break forth in the middle of a moment here on earth. What we usually see as normal and commonplace is often the realm of God’s marvelous work among us.

If you want to know God, you don’t have to go off on some high mountaintop, you don’t have to sink deep into the recesses of your ego. You just have to be in a place like Bethlehem, or an airport, or a rental car, or a church. You just need to be in the midst of trying to make your way in the world, getting along as best you can with what you’ve got. That’s when God loves to show up and change our lives forever.

When Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph the ordinary became extraordinary. In that tiny baby they would come to discover what it means to love God and neighbor in new and radical ways. In that tiny baby they would have their sins forgiven and salvation presented. In that tiny baby they would finally understand how much God loved them.

God loves to show up in the ordinary things of life. God shows up in the bread and juice offered to us at the table without cost. God shows up in the flicker of a flame as we sing silent night together. God shows up in the cry of a baby who came to change the world.

God shows up and makes our ordinary lives extraordinary. What a gift.

Merry Christmas.

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Devotional – Isaiah 9.2

Devotional

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
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When I was preparing my Christmas Eve sermon last year, I was struck by the importance of God’s light shining in the darkness. During the weeks leading up to Christmas I read over the differing texts, and explored different hymns, but the image of God’s light stayed at the forefront of my mind. So when it came time to conclude my thoughts on God’s greatest gift from the pulpit, this is what I said:

“For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

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Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.”

It is my hope and prayer that no matter where you are, or who you’re with, God’s light will shine in your lives. Merry Christmas.

Christmas In The Room – Christmas Eve Sermon on John 1.1-5

John 1.1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Merry Christmas! To me, there are few things as wonderful as gathering together to celebrate the birth of Christ. This is what church is all about; a community coming together to rejoice in our Savior.

Have you noticed all the lights around the neighborhoods? The different decorations throughout Staunton? Have you seen all the wonderful manger scenes displayed in front yards and on coffee tables?

One of the things I love most about Christmas is that every year we try new things to make Christmas real again. Many of us are very familiar with the story; we can imagine the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary, we can picture the manger scene with all the animals gathering close to baby Jesus, we can almost hear the angelic host proclaiming the Good News to the shepherds. This story has so captivated our hearts, minds, and imaginations that every year we gather to remember it in new and exciting ways.

This year our Preschool chose to remember the story by putting on a Christmas pageant. Now this wasn’t your simple and typical pageant; almost every one of our students had a line to perform in the microphone in front of a packed sanctuary. We practiced for weeks in the chancel area, rehearsing our lines, standing in our spots, and getting the story exactly right. On the morning of the big show, the kids and I were all here going through every bit one last time. However, this was the first time that they were all in costume.

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Some of our precious three years olds were sheep, though they looked more like pillows as they walked to the microphone and quietly whispered: “I shared my wool with baby Jesus.” We had a manger mouse with big ears and a tail who said with a smile: “I peeked at baby Jesus!” We even had an angel choir of two-year olds who started from the back and walked all the way down carrying electric candles to guide the wisemen.

When it came time for Mary and Joseph to appear I was so pleased with how well everything was going. This was going to be a great performance for all of the friends and family. Our little Mary came up to the microphone to sweetly say, “A baby will soon be born.” And then Joseph, one of our most precocious four year olds, said with loud emphasis: “I MUST FIND A PLACE FOR US TO STAY!

Everything was perfect. The kids were sitting quietly in place, they had all nailed their lines, and I could just imagine all of the tears that would be spilt watching these precious lambs of Jesus Christ. I even found myself getting emotional. I remember thinking: “this is what Christmas is all about.” Look at these children retelling the story centuries later. They embody the sweetness that just have been felt in the manger. Their child-like innocence is why God came into the world for us. Those little kids made Christmas real for me.

That was, until I noticed our little Mary fidgeting around by the crib. We continued with the pageant but Mary was far more focused on the little baby-doll Jesus than anything else. “Well,” I thought, “she’s just being attentive like any good mother would be” when all of the sudden she picked up Jesus by his ankle, dangled him back and forth and then dropped him on his plastic head!

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of Preschoolers being dressed up like animals and adults acting out the story.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

There is a church somewhere in the midwest that REALLY believes in retelling the story. On Christmas Eve they invite people from the community into their sanctuary, but they don’t just listen to a pastor in the pulpit, they don’t just pray in their pews, they bring in all sorts of animals and actors to make it come alive.

Animal trainers help guide the donkeys and sheep into the space and lead them up to the altar near a newborn baby being cradled by his mother. The church has a full orchestra and light show to go along with the actors and animals; they have no limitations when it comes to fully immersing the people in the story.

However, a few years ago the church became responsible for a viral video that made its way across the internet. At the height of the production, as the human-angels were hung by wires to sing Hallelujah, as the majestic magi were making their way up to the altar, as people were completely captivated by the story, a camel was being led down the center aisle.

It was at that precise moment, at the paramount of the Christmas production, the camel decided that he no longer wanted to be part of the story. The video shows the trainer in the middle of the church struggling to guide the camel forward, the camel ignoring his suggestive movements, and deciding that he should take a break on top of all of the people sitting on the right hand side. Like a tree falling in the woods, the camel fell to his side and quickly buried a few people under his girth.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced with the reality of what happens when you bring the zoo into a church.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

Years ago I went to church on Christmas Eve and experienced a service unlike any other. Instead of a typical sermon, the pastor decided to make it into a drama with particular characters acting out the story.

Mary and Joseph stood on opposite sides of the altar, wearing robes from the days of old. The gazed off into the distance pondering the incredible messages the the angel Gabriel had shared with each of them.

While the pastor described the man named Joseph, he began to remove his robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a middle age man wearing a business suit. The pastor was attempting to make the story real again by showing what it would look like if it happened today. Joseph was a respected man and much older than Mary. Can you imagine how he would have reacted when he found out that she was pregnant? Can you picture how embarrassed he must have been by her?

While the pastor described the woman named Mary, she began to remove her robes, shedding the costume from the past, and revealed a teenage girl wearing a cheerleading uniform. Mary was a young woman with future full of potential. She was much younger than Joseph, and was told by the angel that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. Do you think she believed this was Good News? Can you imagine how her family would have regarded her for becoming pregnant before getting married?

There stood Mary and Joseph, not the couple from the manger scenes kneeling quietly over the new born king, but a business man and a cheerleader who would be ridiculed by the community.

The realness of Christmas was quickly replaced by the reality of social relations that develop when an unwed teenage girl becomes pregnant.

Every Christmas we strive to reimagine the story so that we can reconnect with it’s incredible message.

I always look forward to this season because it affords me the opportunity to ask others what they love about Christmas. I often hear about the joy of opening gifts, the wonder of putting up all the decorations, and even the changed behavior of children in response to the elf on the shelf. Yet all of those things don’t make Christmas real. Yes they make it feel like Christmas, but they do not fully convey the depth of what it means for God to have come into the world as a baby in Bethlehem.

For me, Christmas is at it’s realest when we light our candles as we sing Silent Night. Some of my earliest memories are standing in a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve while people around me are singing. In mere minutes the darkness is replaced by a brilliant light, made remarkable by the God who took on our flesh to dwell among us, to be God with us.

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Jesus is the light of the world who shines in the darkness. Whatever that darkness might look like for you, whether it be an uncertain future, fears about your children, frustrating family members, the loss of a loved one, a heavy diagnosis, or the lack of love in your life, Jesus stands in stark contrast as the one who brings the light into our lives.

Christmas Eves always mean the most and convey the most when we feel the depth of the  darkness. Because new life always starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark. 

At the end of our service we will turn out all the lights, from the one candle, the Christ candle, we will light all others as we sing Silent Night. As we do so let us open our eyes the different forms of darkness in our lives and give thanks to the light of the world who shines in the darkness.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we hear the familiar words that have been sung for centuries exclaiming the great joy of the newborn king.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we gather as God’s table to feast on the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation.

It will feel like Christmas in the room, when we see the light of Christ shining in one another.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

The Advent of Paul – Sermon on Acts 9.1-9

Acts 9.1-9

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church community in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. We began with Abram being called to go to a strange land, and then we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Paul.

Most pastors love to talk. They spend their Sundays standing before the gathered people proclaiming the Word of God with the hope of it becoming incarnate. It takes hours of preparation, study, and prayer to craft a sermon and many pastors find excitement and fulfillment when they are speaking. Whether they are preaching from a pulpit, leading a bible study, or huddling together in prayer, words are at the foundation of what we do.

Most pastors love to talk, and when you get a group of us together, sometimes the talking never stops…

I was at Licensing School, a required element to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church, but frankly it could’ve happened at any clergy gathering. The routine is typical, everyone tries to size one another up based upon appearances, we try to guess what kind of churches are represented; Is this their first career, second, or third? What kind of call story do they have? Did she have all that gray hair before she became a pastor? We are usually forced to sit with people who we have yet to meet and then comes the ice breaker questions that will hopefully move us from strangers to friends.

The familiar questions focus on our ability to share our call narrative. I like to call it the elevator speech. In the time that it takes you to get from the lobby to the top floor, can you share how God has called you to ministry?

Here is my elevator speech:

“Born and raised as a United Methodist in Alexandria, VA, I began wrestling with a call to ministry when I was in high school. There were a number of formative experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to ordained ministry including: being the crew chaplain for a Boy Scout High Adventure trip in Philmont, New Mexico, creating and leading a youth band for my home church, and helping to organize a weekly youth bible study. However, my awareness of the call truly came into focus when one of my dear friends died in a car accident right before Christmas. As we mourned her death I found myself comforting those around me with words that were not my own, and one night I was pulled to my knees on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt Road to pray. I prayed and prayed and when I stood up, I knew there was nothing else in my life that I could do other than proclaim the Word of the Lord through ministry.

I have had to tell it so many times that I have learned how to include just the right amount of details in just the right amount of time.

For others, this process can take multiple elevator rides. They go on and on about the ways God has called them, and when I was at Licensing School I learned a lot about the people I would be serving with for the rest of my life.

You call that a call story? My husband left me right before the cancer came back. My children had grown up and moved off to different places with their own families and I was all alone. I went to support groups, and tried to keep a positive attitude but nothing was working. It was then that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and put my whole trust in his grace. Later, when I beat the cancer, Jesus told me to become a pastor and share the Good News like he had done with me.”

You call that a call story? I was killing more brain cells than Paul was killing Christians when God called me to a new life in Jesus Christ. The bottle was my bible. Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam were my best friends and were with me through the important moments of life, though I could never remember any of them. It was deep in the trenches of one of my worst benders that Jesus told me it was time to live a new life, that he had a mission for me, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

These call stories went on and on with every new story going deeper and farther than the last. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized that I was doing the same thing, and that we were trying to “out-Paul” one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love the story of Paul on the road, but sadly, we have too often used it to judge what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, once said “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse!” Her statement gets at the heart of the matter for Paul’s conversion, but oddly enough there is no horse in the story.

But that helps to show how “well” we think we know the story. It has been told so many time in such a variety of ways. Most of the art depicting this scene has Paul falling off his horse, when this is a detail missing from the scripture. Regardless of equine presence, the story is one that captivates us even today.

The first detail we learn about Paul is that he was a young man who watched over the garments of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not just any young man, not just an innocent bystander. He not only approved of Stephen’s death, but also led a violent persecution of the budding Christian community.

Paul was enemy number one to the church, and God would turn his life around to become evangelist number one.

While he was threatening and murdering the disciples of God, Paul went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any Christians on the way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. He was not just a concerned citizen, Paul was an active go-getter against the subversive community, willing to go above and beyond his duty.

It was on the way to Damascus that a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul’s companions that were traveling stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. After being helped up from the ground Paul could see nothing, so his friends had to guide him the rest of the way to Damascus.

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Some have subjected this story to psychological reflection about the inner-turmoil bubbling within Paul’s soul regarding his willingness to kill Christians. They see the Damascus road experience as an inward struggle that results in a changed life.

However, the details of the narrative argue the contrary. This is not an account of what was going on within Paul, but rather a story about a man who was encountered by something outside of himself. Conversion has to do with being approached by God, and being changed in the process of the encounter.

Paul was helpless and totally dependent on others after encountering Christ on the road. God, meanwhile, spoke with a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. He was commanded to go and meet the man from the road, Paul from Tarsus, lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. Ananias hesitated knowing the kind of wrath and destruction that Paul had brought on his fellow Christians, but the Lord insisted “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

So Ananias went and laid his hands on Paul to restore his sight. Paul was then filled with the Holy Spirt, was baptized, and regained his strength. Through the power of God made manifest in Ananias, Paul went from being an enemy to being a brother; his life was completely turned around.

When pastors get together we can attempt to “out-Paul” one another. We strive to substantiate our call stories by comparing it with the one who was confronted on the road to Damascus. I have seriously heard people begin their stories with, “It was like I was on my own road to Damascus when God called me to a new life…” This story has become the prototype for many Christians, and we use it as a lens by which we judge others’ calls to different forms of discipleship.

This is a problem.

It is a problem because we forget that the radical kind of change worked in Paul is something that Christ does, not us. Sometimes we become so concerned with the desire to convert others that we foolishly put all of the responsibility on our shoulders when God is the true agent of change. We can show people the door of faith, but God is the one who gives them the strength to walk through it.

It is also a problem because it is not universal. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is wonderful and miraculous, but it should not lead us to conclude that every conversion is basically the same.

Different people come to Jesus along different routes. When we consider the wealth of conversion stories from scripture, in addition to the tales of fellow Christians in our lives, it become self-evident that God calls individuals according to his will, not a singular story by which all others should be judged. Paul was called in a way that was proportionate to the life he was living – he needed to be knocked down in order to start a new life. But not all of us have lived like Paul. 

The one thing that is universal regarding the story of Paul on the road is that meeting God changes the way we see everything. When we encounter the divine we become dependent on those already versed in the faith, we need Ananiases to help guide and nurture us when our vision has been turned upside down.

God met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever. God brought me down to my knees on a cold December evening when I was sixteen years old and changed my life forever. God spoke through Gabriel to a virgin named Mary about her bringing a baby into the world which changed her life forever.

Paul’s story is a great. It is full of beautiful details and demonstrates God’s power to change lives. But his story is not the only one. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about people whose lives were changed by God in incredible ways. Our church is filled with people who have encountered the good God in ways that are beyond our imaginations.

Whenever we meet God, whether through a particularly poignant moment, the reading of scripture, or the deep thoughts of prayer we embark on a new beginning. Like Paul, everything gets changed and we see the world a little more clearly, we see God’s grace manifest through the friends and family around us and we realize the deepest truth about Christmas – that God does not leave us to our own devices. Amen.

Take Up Your (Cross) Collar – Sermon on Matthew 11.25-30

Matthew 11.25-30

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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I wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Bartholomew probably nodded along in agreement, James and John might have clapped in approval, but there’s a chance that Peter said what I think whenever I come across this passage: “Is he serious?

I mean, in reality, it would seem that what Jesus is talking about here is rather ironic. My yoke is easy and the burden is light? Coming from the one who said: take up your cross and follow me, those who wish to save their life must lose it, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor, let the dead bury the dead, is it easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven… it seems a little paradoxical for him to claim that is yoke his easy and the burden is light. 

When we take a step back and look at the greater picture of this address, Jesus’ invitation is not to the work burdened, nor the sin-burdened, but to the law burdened, to those who felt the heavy weight of religiosity. At a time when law observance was followed by some to a ridiculous degree, Jesus triumphantly invited the weary to come to him for rest.

The promise for the weary is not, however, a rest from inactivity. What Christ offers to the tired is not a vacation from the law but a less burdensome way of fulfilling it. At particular points during his ministry Jesus’ interpretation of the law was more lenient (observing the Sabbath) and at other times more stringent (divorce, acts of mercy, forgiveness). The main thrust being that the weighted matters of the law can be simplified by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Compared to the other law followers of his time, Jesus is offering a lesser burden of religious existence. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

It brings me more joy than I can describe to know that I have been serving as the pastor of St. John’s for more than a year. I have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective story, the way we have all come to know God in our lives, and I look forward to our continued journeys of faith.

Years ago a good friend of mine had just finished his first year in ministry, like me, when the “honeymoon” period came to an abrupt end. They say that the “honeymoon” period can last anywhere from 6-18 months; the church body becomes so excited with a new pastor that they are willing to look past the old problems to envision a new reality of faith. However, as with all things, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end. Honeymoons can end by a simple mistake from the pulpit, a forgotten phone call to a parishioner in need, or simply when the new shiny toy looses its luster. For my friend, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt during a church council meeting.

After serving for an entire year it appeared as if things were finally getting better for the church; they had new visitors attending worship, new programs had taken off, and they even had a few youth present during church gatherings. Some of the lay people had come to describe this new young pastor as the shot in the arm that the church had desperately needed. He was their little Messiah, inaugurating a new age and time for the church when it could return to its former glory.

The church council meeting took place in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee one evening shortly after his one year anniversary. The leadership of the church sat appropriately in the stiff folding chairs and exchanged pleasantries about the comings and goings of town until the real business came to the floor: The much needed update to the curtains in the fellowship hall. He describes the moment as a eternity of debating what color would best accent the needs of the hall where peoples’ feeling were hurt over the color-coordination. And then they talked about replacing the organ, and the sanctuary windows. They talked about the only two children in worship, just two, who were deemed disruptive to the older folk. And when they were done complaining about the children, they started to complain about my friend…

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The shut-in list was passed around the table until it arrived in his lap when someone said, “the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list. Our last pastor made sure that each of them were visited one a week.” “Thats wonderful” my friend replied, “Who visits them?” “The pastor does!” they all agreed in unison.

My friend looked down at the list and read the names of the faithful church members who could no longer attend. While he sat there in silence reading over the list one of the older women spoke up, “this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’ve always been successful

“Successful at what?” he said. “There are 36 names on this list. That means there were 4 more people on this list than there were in church last Sunday. I don’t think you’ve been successful at all.”

And thus the honeymoon came to an abrupt conclusion. 

 

My friend was young, brash, and foolish, and he was wrong. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to visit the shut-ins, to maintain a connection between the people and their church. But he was also right about something; the call of discipleship rest on all of us, not just the pastor.

Once, while I was working on a sermon, I got a call letting me know that a beloved woman from the church I was serving had just been admitted to the local hospital after having a stroke. I remember leaving my my computer and bible open on my desk, and driving straight to the hospital. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she talked to me about everything that had happened to her, her inability to move some of her fingers, her fears about being able to return to the normalcy of life, but the thing that stuck with me most was the last thing she said before I left.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she said. “I miss my church. I’m so sorry that I haven’t had a chance to come hear you preach, but I’ve been too sick to leave the house and my hearing has gotten so bad. I miss the people. I’ve received a lot of cards that have helped to cheer me up. But you know what? No one has come to visit me. And the only reason you’re here is because I’m in the hospital.

I am a professional Christian. I have it easy. I am paid by you to live out my faith, order the church, preside over the sacraments, proclaim the Word of the Lord, and serve the needs of the community. I attend our committee meetings to help with the ordering of the church, I pray over the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, I preach sermons from this pulpit every week, and when someone has a need I leave what I’m doing to be with them. Going to visit someone in the hospital is what I am called to do. However, one of the hardest things to accept and live into, is our shared commitment to take care of one another.

I went to see that woman in the hospital because I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I went because I am a pastor, but more importantly I went because I am a Christian. When I wear my clergy collar it is a constant reminder that I am called to act, think, live, and behave like a Christian. This collar has become my yoke. It sits uncomfortably around my neck as a constant reminder of who I am and whose I am. Im not proud to admit it but, sometimes, I need to wear it in order to live out my faith. Without this yoke around my neck it becomes too easy to fade into the crowd and forget my obligation to make God’s kingdom alive in the world. I am weak enough that I need to have something like this to help me remain faithful.

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And so I wonder… I ask myself: Did I go see her because it was the right thing to do? Or did I go see her because that’s what you expect me to do?

When you wear something like this around your neck you begin to act differently. It is an inescapable demarkation that I have given my life to Christ to live a radically transformed life that often feels burdensome and heavy, unlike the easy yoke of today’s scripture.

Jesus calls the weary to come to him because his yoke is easy. A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing for the animal. Jesus’ yoke therefore is one that is supposed to be kind to our shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. But I will be the first to tell you, sometimes the weight feels unbearable.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In our discipleship we are not merely called to listen to Jesus’ words and reflect on them. In other words, our faith in not one that is limited to the mind. From Christ we are to learn not only to think, but to do. We gather in this place every Sunday to learn by listening and then living out God’s Word in the world. The yoke of discipleship, much like this collar, is not one that Jesus imposes on us, but one that he wore and continues to wear alongside us. 

When the weight of discipleship begins to feel too heavy for me, I call for Christ’s help with the load. I cannot do this on my own for I am a wretched man, full of sin and devoid of glory. Only through Christ’s love and grace am I able to take up my cross, which is to say I am able to take up my collar, and live as a Christian fully and deeply. 

Imagine what it would look like if we all started acting like Jesus here and everywhere. The burden of wearing a collar like this in the world is mine to bear. But think, if you can, how differently you would act if you wore one around your neck. That’s why I have placed 100 collars in our sanctuary this morning. Take one home with you, leave it in a place where you will see it regularly, and when you do, ask yourself, “how would I behave today if that yoke was hanging around my neck?”

Christ is on the other side of your yoke, helping you to carry this burden of being his body for the world; it is not easy being Christian. The cost of discipleship is one that will cost us our very lives. And just as Christ is helping to carry your yoke, so also are we called to help one another.

When we hear about the sufferings within our community we have been given the great privilege to help carry those who are in their deepest valleys while at the same time recognize that we need to be helped through our sufferings as well.

I count myself blessed to serve the needs of this church, to wear this collar that comes at a price, to take Christ’s yoke upon my shoulders because it is through God’s love, Christ’s mercy, and the Spirit’s presence through people like you that the yoke becomes easy and the burden is light.

Let us all put Christ’s yoke upon our shoulders, let us take up our collars to live as Christ’s body for the world, serving the needs of others while lifting up one another in faith.

Amen.