I AM WHO I AM

Exodus 3.1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up our of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses sais to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

I have always loved churches. But before I loved the church for the people in the church, I loved churches because of their sanctuaries. Ever since I was a young child I felt a since of awe and wonder and peace whenever I entered a sanctuary. When I got my driver’s license I would drive myself over to the church in the middle of the week just to spend some time in the sanctuary. And it’s not like I would always kneel at the altar and pour out my soul to God, though I did, I just loved the feeling of being in the sanctuary.

When I was in seminary I was part of a church worship band, and I would drive to the church really early every week just to sit in the sanctuary before the rest of the group arrived. On one such occasion, I was sitting in a random pew and looking at a stained glass window when a man ran into the sanctuary screaming for help.

I immediately rushed to him and we met in the middle of the center aisle and before I had a chance to ask what was wrong he mumbled something out about being afraid and needing help and wanting prayer. I took him by the arm and tried to calm him down but the more I soothed the louder he wailed. Finally I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “What’s your name?”

He stopped.

“I’m Marcus,” he said almost as if he was asking a question.

“Well then, Marcus, tell me what’s going on.”

Over the next fifteen minutes I listened to him as he described his fear and shock. His wife was pregnant and they had gone to the doctor that morning and heard the heart-beat for the first time. And instead of it filling him with joy, it terrified him. Not because of the responsibilities that were about to fall into his lap, but a terror about what would happen to his baby if he, as a father, died. He told me about how he had never been in a church before, that he never even wanted to go to church, but that he had been walking through the neighborhood crying, and before he knew it he started running. He told me about how he ran and he ran, and all the sudden he wound up in the sanctuary with me.

I listened as he shared his fears, and then I prayed for him. After the “amen” he hugged me and he left almost as quickly as he arrived.

Two weeks later I was driving near the church when I saw him walking down the road and before I knew what I was doing I pulled over, got out of my car and jogged up to him. “Marcus, Marcus!” I yelled, when he turned around it was like I was looking at a different person. He talked and he told me about how he was feeling better and that he was excited about the baby, and that he didn’t know who that God was I kept talking to that night but he felt like something changed. And then, as we were getting ready to say goodbye, he grabbed me by the arm and said something I’ll never forget: “Thanks for remembering my name.”

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Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when he came upon a burning bush. Moses saw the strange and wonderful sight and chose to turn toward it. And that’s when the Lord declared, “Moses, Moses!”

What follows is perhaps one of the most well known stories from the Bible. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and calls him to help deliver God’s people out of Egypt. But Moses, like almost everyone encountered by God in scripture, feels unsure of the call. “Well, when the Hebrew people ask about you, who should I tell them you are?” And God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

            The Tetragrammaton: I AM WHO I AM. YHWH. Yahweh.

For many Jews, the name of God revealed to Moses is so holy, so precious, that it cannot be uttered by the lips of mere mortals. Instead, there are other names for God like Adonai and Lord. In the Christian tradition, we will call God Yahweh, but the name of God revealed by God is unlike anything else and demands a respect and holiness that is rarely seen.

The passage about Moses in the wilderness with the burning bush is usually interpreted in such a way that it is all about Moses. Moses is walking, Moses is given a command, Moses responds. But there’s more to the story than Moses; it is the revealing of God’s holiness.

We could not have found this name, this Yahweh, by ourselves. Even if we entered into a long and passionate search through prayer or any other spiritual discipline we are not capable of finding out whom God is on our own. God’s name had to be revealed. God alone can tell us who God is.

And what does God say, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The divine name is a non-name in the best sense. Can you imagine Moses returning to the land of Egypt, mixing and mingling with the Hebrew slaves and saying, “Don’t worry, I AM WHO I AM sent me to set us free.”

What’s the purpose of a name? Do we name individuals to distinguish them from others? Do we give names to children in order to stroke our egos in attempts to live forever? Do we give names to people in order to build them up or break them down? What’s in a name?

I’ve been in enough hospitals to hear doctors refer to their patients not by Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but by a room number (or worse: by their disease).

There are plenty of people who are judged simply because of the color of their skin, or their political persuasion, or their sexual orientation without their names ever being mentioned.

Names are important.

They are important in our everyday lives whether it’s learning the names of our neighbors, or our classmates, or our coworkers, or even the people in the pews next to us right now. Learning the name of the other, and actually using it, breaks down the walls and barriers that often lead us to judge rather than listen. Learning the name of the other prevents them from remaining a stranger. Learning the name of the other builds a bridge into something new instead of moving in the opposite direction.

God reveals God’s name to Moses in such a way that it bridges the divide but it also keeps the mystery. And I mean mystery in the most beautiful and theological way possible. We finite creatures cannot understand the infinite wonder that is I AM WHO I AM. There is a mystery to who God is simply because God is completely unlike us, but knowing how God reveals God’s name is important.

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If God is not given a proper name, God becomes a faceless unknown god with no story or history. But our God is a God of the story; our God has a name and is known by connections with other names.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and God also said so much more. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Over and over again we are reminded in scripture that our God knows God’s people by their right names; God calls them and us by such: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Mary, Martha, Peter.

God knows our names, and we should know God’s name as well.

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper this week you’ve seen some of the horrific and awful images coming out of Houston in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While some have taken to the internet to chastise and ridicule those in leadership about their lack of preparation or their delay in response, normal (and not-so-normal) people have done some heroic things so bring safety, life, and hope to the people who feel no hope.

And as I watched videos from Houston this week, as I saw boat after boat traveling up and down streets in attempts to bring people to safety, I was struck by one thing. In every instance of rescue, the rescuer began with the same question, “What’s your name?”

Think about that for a moment. While surrounded by signs of terror and fear, instead of commanding a person to leave their belongings or throw them over the shoulder, every rescuer looked in the eyes of the fearful other and asked the one question that would remove their otherness.

“What’s your name?”

From the burning bush God called Moses by name. Through words and flames Moses was changed through learning the name of God. I AM WHO I AM shows up in our lives at all kinds of strange moments, we could be shepherding, or sitting in a sanctuary, or waiting for rescue in a flooded house when the Lord calls out to us.

And we can trust I AM WHO I AM for the very same reason that Moses could. Because I AM WHO I AM is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Yahweh is the God who made a covenant with out ancestors, who delivered God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, who delivered us out of our captivity to sin and death. I AM WHO I AM is the God who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I AM WHO I AM is the Spirit that lives and moves among us.

I AM WHO I AM is as mysterious as it is intimate. I AM WHO I AM comes to us in the intimacy of a piece of bread, and through the mystery of is being the flesh of Christ. I AM WHO I AM is as close as the person next to us and is as mysterious as the person sitting next to us. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God who calls us by name. Amen.

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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Isaiah 55.1-5

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

I’ve been here in Woodbridge for about a month and I feel like I’m finally getting my bearings. I know where all of the essential stores are; I know what roads to avoid during rush hour; and I’m even starting to learn most of your names!

To preach properly you need to know your people.” I heard that over and over again in seminary and it’s so true. You’ve got to know the people before you can just stand up and tell them what God is saying. And so, over the last month, I’ve tried to learn a lot about a lot of you. And not just your names… I know who makes the best food and where it’s kept in the church kitchen. I know that a lot of the real meetings happen in the parking lot and not the conference room. And for a good number of you, I’ve learned what drew you here in the first place. But for as much as I want to learn about you, I also want to learn about the people who are not here yet.

This means I want to know about our community, what makes it tick, and how it transforms the people who call it home.

For instance: I’ve gone to a few local businesses just to ask questions without expectations. I’ve started conversations with total strangers in restaurants just to ask questions without expectations. And a few weeks ago, my wife, son, and I went to the most culturally relevant location in the area: Potomac Mills.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Potomac Mills is one of the largest outlet malls in the country and it is what smaller malls aspire to be. It’s huge. It’s overwhelming. It’s capitalism at it’s finest.

Anyway, we got in the car and drove over to the mall with our stroller. When we parked and strapped Elijah in, we headed for the nearest door and entered the great arena of commerce. Now, some of you are probably wondering what we were looking for at the mall, you’re pondering the specific item we were searching for. But here’s the thing: we weren’t looking for anything. We just wanted to see what the mall was like.

And now some of you are thinking that we’re crazy.

It took a long time to do the whole loop at the mall, particularly with all of the random people and families moving about like fish against the current. And the thing that surprised me most wasn’t how many stores there were, or even how many people there were, but how quiet it was.

It was a strange and eerie experience to be in a place with so many people and have it be so subdued. At first I was worried that my ears were stopped up, but then I realized that it was so quiet because so many people were on their cell phones.

And that’s honestly what made it so hard to navigate, not the number of people, but the fact that most of the people had their heads down in their hands and were completely oblivious to everything else going on. Even the venders in their middle kiosks could have cared less about us as we milled about Potomac Mills.

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Isaiah felt like trying to reach God’s people. The prophet of the Lord attempts to interrupt the sensibilities of the crowd with a declaration, but the people were in Babylon, far removed from home, and they had other things to worry about. Like a crowd of people at the mall focused on their phones, perhaps Isaiah struggled to captivate the attention of the passing people with his enthusiasm and excitement. Picture, if you can, a person doing everything he or she can to convey the truth to a group of people who are far happier with a lie.

That’s Isaiah in our scripture today.

Attention! If you’re thirsty, come to the water. And those of you without money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you keep spending your money on things that cannot bring you satisfaction? Listen to the Lord so that you may live. God is making a covenant, a promise, to love us even when we cannot love ourselves. God is blessing us daily, God is glorifying us, and most of the time we completely miss it.

Today many, if not most, of us are so caught up in our gadgets and spider-webs of false connections that we really feel empty inside. Or we are spending our money and our savings on products and commodities that offer no real satisfaction. Or we believe that so long as we ascertain the right car, or the right job, or the right spouse, we will finally find that one missing thing to give meaning to our lives.

But in the kingdom of God, the normal rules of commerce and capitalism do not apply. In fact, they have been completely overturned.

Unlike just about everything else in the world, at God’s celebration we need not bring goods or money in order to procure a place at the table. Instead, water, bread, wine, and food will be provided without cost. Whereas we think that who we are, and what we’ve earned, and what we’ve saved defines us, God only requires that we bring two things: our thirst and our hunger.

Unlike the world, where many of us prefer to fellowship and worship and commune and eat with those whose income and status and skin tone are similar to our own, God’s vision of life in the kingdom is completely different.

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On Monday morning we opened our doors to children and youth from the community for Vacation Bible School. I, like a fool, stood by the entrance in my adult size Batman costume and welcomed everyone for a week of experiencing the love of God through Hero Central. Each day the kids learned about what it takes to be a hero in God’s kingdom: heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and strength. They did crafts and science experiments, they danced and sang, and they feasted around a common table. They learned bible stories about King David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost.

On our last day I was sitting at the table with all of the kids, when one of them approached me with a huge smile on her face and all she said was, “I wish church was like this every day.”

I imagine that she wished church could be like that every day because Vacation Bible School was fun and exciting, but I think there was more to her wish than that alone. This week, the distractions of phones and the siren call of social media disappeared. Instead of a mall filled with adults staring into screens, the children experienced a church full of adults who got down on their level to share with them the love of God.

Instead of an experience where everyone looked the same, earned the same, and sounded the same, the children experienced a church full of disciples who could not have been more different from one another.

This week, our children and youth caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God made manifest on earth in a way that so few of us ever get to experience. Because in God’s kingdom, the place that Isaiah beckons the crowds to experience, invitations are made to all people: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the perfect and the broken. The beautiful wonder and glory of this scripture is the fact that God welcomes ALL to the table. Always.

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During the time of Isaiah, and today, so much time is wasted on sustaining existence. We hear about the next new thing and we become obsessed even though we know that when it finally arrives we will be distracted by the next new thing coming down the pike. We ask ourselves questions that are predicated on maintaining the status quo. We go to things like the mall hoping for consumerism to fill a hole that no amount of money, or goods, or experiences ever can.

But God offers us something different. God looks at the shallow nature of our lives, God examines the mistakes and sins of our past, God evaluates what our minds stay focused on, and instead of leaving us to our own devices, God shares with us a new covenant. God makes a promise to be with us in spite of us.

God shows us a life that is based not on blessing the wealthy, but on protecting the poor.

God offers a covenant in which greed is shunned, and humility is glorified.

God presents a promise in which divisions are destroyed and community is congratulated.

Isaiah pleaded with the people of the Lord to open their eyes to the truth that no product could ever offer. Isaiah interrupted the distracted crowds with a vision of the kingdom on earth where those who are different are brought together in unity around a table where God is the host.

Opening up the doors of this church for a week of Vacation Bible School is a radical thing. We gave the children food, and education, and time for no other reason than the fact that God loves them. Compared to the priorities of the world, this place was strange this week.

Gathering together in a space like this for worship is a radical thing. While the world is consumed by the next new thing and a false community you can keep in your pocket, the church stands as a witness to the truth of God’s dominion. We lift up our prayers and we bend our knees because we know that what we believe shapes how we behave.

Coming to the table to feast on the Lord’s Supper is a radical thing. We search daily for products and goods to fill the holes we feel, we spend our time with people who look like us and sound like us. And yet at this simple meal, we are invited to a table with people who are completely unlike us. At this meal we get to taste a little bit of heaven on earth and we receive the only thing that can bring real satisfaction.

Today we live in a world where we are forever asking “Who gets in?” What does it take to earn a spot at the table? What kind of grades do I need to make to get into college? How long will I have to wait before it’s my turn?

But in the kingdom of God, at this table, all are welcome. Always. Amen.

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The Oval Office Of The Universe

Acts 1.6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

On Tuesday afternoon I went into the Preschool and sat on the floor of the yellow room with our Preschoolers. In mere minutes I would be walking with them into the sanctuary for their end of year performance and graduation, but for the moment we were sitting crisscross applesauce on the alphabet carpet.

Some of the kids were visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on the floor knees tucked into their chests, others were focused and practicing the words to the songs under their breath, and others were completely oblivious to what we were about to do and instead were making faces at one another and then cackling from the depth of their hilarity.

When I got the signal from our director that the time had come to stand, line up, and make our way into the sanctuary I bounced off the floor and called for attention. I said, “My friends, whose ready to have some fun?!” To which they responded with a conflated and cacophonous scream.

“Well,” I continued, “Before we go upstairs I want everyone to take a deep breath. Good, hold it, now blow it our slowly and listen carefully. I want you all to know that no matter what, this is going to be great, because your families love you, I love you, and Jesus loves you.

One by one they lined up in the hallway in their specific order and just before we started to move one of our boys grabbed me by the pant leg. “But Pastor Taylor, I have a question.” Figuring he needed to use the bathroom or some such thing, I got down on my knees and said, “What is it Keller?” He said, “I know my parents love me because they’re here, and I know you love me because you’re right here, but where’s Jesus?”

I said, “C’mon Keller! We’re seconds away from the program beginning and you want to know where Jesus is?! I don’t have time for this theological nonsense!”

Just kidding. But in the moment I thought about how to answer the question, what would satisfy his longing and curiosity. Where is Jesus?

I thought about placing my one hand on his shoulder and using my other hand to point toward his chest and saying, “Keller, Jesus is in our hearts!”

I thought about grabbing a nearby children’s bible to show him a picture of the Ascension, but of course, children’s bibles only contain stories like Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and an Easter Sunday that has more to do with budding flowers than a dead man being raised back into life.

So I settled for this: “I’ll tell you where Jesus is after we finish the program.”

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When the disciples came together they asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After years of listening to parables, watching miracles, and being fed out of nowhere, after encountering their resurrected friend, they still didn’t get it. Jesus replied, “There are some things you are not meant to know. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

When he said this, the disciples watched as he ascended into the sky and a cloud took him out of their sight. And two men in white came by and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand with your eyes in the sky?” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and they devoted themselves to prayer while they waited.

The Ascension is important. Sadly, however, it is one of the Sundays that gets lost in the liturgical year and is overshadowed by the likes of Pentecost and Christ the King. This story of what took place 40 days after the first Easter answers our little preschooler’s question about where Jesus is, but it also does so much more.

The Ascension is not about where Jesus is, but where Jesus rules. In the Ascension, Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father and becomes the King who rules our lives here and now. In this spectacular moment, a vision that would keep our eyes in the sky, God brings full circle the incarnation that took place in Mary’s womb. God became what we are, and as Jesus returned to the Father the humanity of our existence was brought into the divine.

Far too often we use the Ascension story to explain Christ’s absence from our lives, we use it as the means by which we calm the questions of preschoolers, and comfort those who are in the midst of suffering. But the Ascension loses it’s beauty, majesty, and power when we limit it to the physical location of the Son of God.

When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father he received the authority to rule here and now through a particular people called church; people like us.

Today, we throw the word “heaven” around like we throw around the word “love.” We use it as a filler or a descriptor to such a degree that it no longer means anything. And therefore when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we no longer know what we are saying.

In the Ascension, Christ is exalted to the Oval Office of the universe to rule forever and ever.

I use the Oval Office specifically because the Oval Office means something to us, it embodies power and gravitas and even a little bit of fear. It is the place where things get done, where decisions are made that have an effect on our lives, it is where our leader rules.

But of course, our real Leader doesn’t reside in a White House, nor does our Leader work in an Oval Office made by the hands of morals.

Our Lord is Jesus Christ who rules from the Oval Office of the Universe.

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Just as we throw around the term “heaven” today without knowing what we are saying, the same thing happens with “the mission of the church.” Ask any good United Methodist about the mission of the church and they will tell you that we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, the church is already the better place that God has made in the world.

It would seem then, that perhaps the real mission of the church, particularly in the world we live in today, is to reclaim the understanding and belief that Jesus is Lord.

            Because we either live under that reality or we don’t.

After my brief theological conundrum in the basement, I walked up the stairs with the kids and we entered the sanctuary for the program. The kids stood attentively as I welcomed the families and friends, they belted out the songs with such volume that they drowned out the sound system with the backing music, and then we came to the final song.

It’s really simple and it goes like this: “I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day because I know He loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah!” And of course, I popped out into the chancel area and jumped with the kids while we were singing. The second time through its all about clapping, so we did that. And then the third time through we sing about dancing, and we did that as well.

While performing with the kids I could hear the parents laughing and clapping along as I made a fool of myself with a bunch of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but the thing is, they really meant it. The kids threw every bit of themselves into the three verses of that song and they jumped, clapped, and danced with reckless abandon.

After the last song I announced the graduates of the Preschool, those who are going to kindergarten in the fall, and then I dismissed everyone from the sanctuary for a meal in the fellowship hall.

While the families and children were milling about I went to go find Keller to finish our conversation about the location of the Lord. I scanned through all the people and thought about what I might say, what story I could tell, how I could make it intelligible to a 4 year old when I felt another tug at my leg.

Keller was standing there with a huge smile on his face. I said, “Keller, you did a great job and I have my answer for you about where Jesus is.” And he just stood there grinning from ear to ear and said, “I know now Pastor Taylor, I felt him up there when we were dancing!”

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Our Christ is a cosmic King who rules and reigns over us. In the ascension Jesus broke forth from the chains of being one of us, among us, into a freedom to rule with authority and power at the right hand of God. We are now his witnesses in Staunton, Augusta County, and to the ends of the earth. As Christians we believe that Christ is with us in the midst of being this strange, wonderful, and beautiful thing called church. Jesus makes himself manifest with us when we break bread, when we pass the peace, when we encounter the stranger, and even when we’re dancing in the sanctuary.

The story of the ascension is transformative for us Christians because in it we recognize our inability to go it alone. The first disciples met together, traveled together, worked together, prayed together, wept together, and rejoiced together, and even danced together all in Christ’s name. Just like them, we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, love and grace, to live into the reality that the church is the witness to Jesus Christ.

Jesus reigns from the Oval Office of the Universe at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for as much as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is also with us, the resurrected Christ is the one who makes possible our resurrection, who brings forth reconciliation in our lives, who offers us a story when we have no story, who dances with us, who weeps with us, who is our Lord. Amen.

On The Lordship Of Jesus or: How To Preach For Memorial Day Weekend

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Sunday), Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about preaching Memorial Day weekend, how Jesus is Lord and everything else is B@#$%^&*, identity, clapping in worship, Lee Greenwood, and why Ascension Sunday might be the most important Sunday of the year (even more than Easter???) you can check out the podcast here: Ascension Sunday – Year A

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Devotional – Psalm 145.1

Psalm 145.1

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.

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On Saturday afternoon, the United Methodist Churches of Staunton, Virginia hosted our 2nd Trunk or Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. Over the last few months we collected monetary donations and countless bags of candy in order to distribute candy to all the children who would come to the park. Each trunk was uniquely decorated and when it was time to begin you could see the excitement in the volunteers and the children snaking in a long line around the lot.

For the better part of 2 hours we gave out candy to over 2000 children. I saw Annas and Elsas, at least 7 Marshalls (from Paw Patrol), a bunch of Darth Vaders, every princess you can imagine, and enough football players to make two full teams. Most of the children were remarkably polite, thanking each and every person as they made their way from trunk to trunk. And through it all we, as the church, lived into the reality of the body of Christ and loved our community through candy and fellowship on Saturday afternoon.

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When the line finally dwindled down to the last few families, we started to clean up our respective areas and prepared to leave. I had a few bags of candy left and my wife suggested bringing them over to the older boys who were skateboarding in the park. Too old to trunk or treat, most of them had watched us over the last two hours and were still skating as we were leaving. So I drove the car over to the skate area, and carried the largest bag of candy right up to who I imagined was the leader of the group (FYI I was still wearing my Hagrid costume). I handed the bag over and said, “Hey, I’m a pastor from town and we just finished this big trunk or treat and I’ve got some extra candy. I know you don’t know me, but I want you to know that God loves you.” To which the skater replied, “That’s like, righteous, man.” And I said, “You have no idea how appropriate that word is in this situation.”

How often do we extoll our God and King? Many of us are willing to take an hour out of our busy weeks to sit down in a sanctuary to praise the Lord, but how do we praise the Lord from Monday to Saturday? Some of us proclaimed the love of the Lord in each little piece of candy we distributed on Saturday afternoon, and even some skateboarders experienced our willingness to praise the Lord. After all, we learn to be generous from the One who is ultimate generosity. But extolling the Lord does not, and should not, be a rare occasion.

If we extoll the Lord, we do so knowing that the Lord is the giver of all gifts, including the gift of life. We praise the Lord because the Lord is the one rightly to be praised. We bless the name of the Lord forever and ever because the Lord has blessed us again and again.

Candy and Trunk or Treats, in and of themselves, can never bring us closer to God. Only when we extoll the name of the Lord, only when we realize that we are making the Word incarnate by becoming the body of Christ for our local communities, will those ordinary things become extraordinary avenues by which others can experience the powerful grace and mercy of the living God.

 

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On Suicide

Isaiah 43.1-2

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Romans 8.35-39

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

suicide

 

It was 2003 and I was a freshman in High School. And like most High School freshman, I spent many an evening on my computer typing to my friends on Instant Messenger. This was long before Facebook’s wild popularity, Twitter’s terse communication style was far away from coming into reality, and none of us even had cameras on our cell phones. But night after night we would sit in front of our computer screens typing away about what we thought were the most important things in the entire world.

One night in the spring, I waited for my parents to go to bed and then I snuck downstairs to get back on the computer. Most of the conversations were frivolous and limited by the speed at which our fingers could move over the keyboard. I can’t remember what the topic was that evening, but I do remember a new box appearing on the screen that changed everything.

At the time, my best friend was dating a girl and things were less than perfect. They fought about all kinds of stupid things and were the epitome of every high school relationship cliché. She, the girlfriend, was the one who sent me a message that night. All it said was, “We got in a really bad fight, he told me he was going to kill himself, and I don’t know what to do.

Suicide is ugly. It leaves families and friends reeling in whiplash, it creates guilt and unanswered questions, and it produces feelings of morbidity and fear.

Suicide is controversial in the church for a number of reasons. Many churches and Christians believe that suicide is ultimately sinful and worthy of eternal damnation. To have suicidal thoughts is to not have enough faith. Some pastors will even refuse to preside over funerals for those who have committed suicide.

If you look through the entirety of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, you will not find a passage that condemns suicide. None of the prophets, or priests, or kings have anything to say about suicide or what happens to those who commit suicide. However, Augustine (an important theologian from the early church) read the commandment “thou shall not kill” as a prohibition against suicide. And from Augustine’s reflection on the topic, suicide became the black sheep of sins in the church.

For a thousand years, suicide was a mortal sin and an affront against God’s goodness. Those who committed suicide were treated as criminals and refused Christian burials. By the 1500s those who attempted suicide were excommunicated by the church and were punished by the civil authorities.

And still today, suicide carries an awful stigma in the realm of the church and is one that is either referred to with eternal damnation or complete silence.

            That silence, the utter and complete darkness of a topic that is remarkably relevant for our time and reflection, is a controversy worth confronting.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), on average, one person dies by suicide in the state of Virginia every 8 hours. It is the 11th leading cause of death in our state, and it is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.

Among high school students across the country, 17% seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. And 8% attempted suicide one or more times in the last year.

If you’re like me, you tend to think about young people being the most susceptible to suicide attempts, but suicide rates are actually highest among people middle aged and older, by a lot. In fact, middle aged and older adults are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as young people.

And right now, suicide has surged to its highest levels in thirty years.

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When I received that message on my computer back at the beginning of high school, I grabbed my things and was out the door before I even had a chance to really think about what I was doing. All I knew was that my friend would not just make an empty threat about suicide like that, and I had to do something about it. So I grabbed my bicycle out of the garage and I started riding as fast as I possibly could in the middle of the night. He lived a couple miles away and when I screeched into his driveway I was drenched in sweat.

I dumped the bike right there and I ran to the front door and started banging with my fist and I started yelling. Within a minute his parents were coming down the stairs in their pajamas with tired and angry looks on their faces. When they opened the door and saw me standing and sweating in the dark they were utterly bewildered and then I told them why I was there.

We immediately went to check on him in his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. We searched the house from top to bottom and we finally found him in the basement. He was sitting on the couch with tears in his eyes and he had just swallowed an entire bottle of ibuprofen.

They wound up taking him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped. They sat there and held their son while he cried and cried. And they saved his life.

Suicide is not the way any human life should end. The church, this church, has an obligation to see that all persons are grafted into a community of love and are cared for in the midst of isolation, depression, and despair.

Life is a gift, plain and simple. It is a gift from God and therefore we are called to be good stewards of this gift: our lives and the lives of others.

We cannot ignore this topic as if it has nothing to do with us. The statistics confront us with a stark reality about the prevalence of suicide in our culture. With the advent of the Internet and instant communication, young people are being bullied and attacked at a degree that few of us can even fathom. With an economy that moves up and down like a roller coaster, people in the middle of life are undergoing identity crises and are wondering how they can provide for their families. Older people who receive a grim diagnosis or the loss of a spouse struggle to justify living with such a horrible outlook for the days ahead.

We know that we are supposed to be present for and with one another, like being there for friends and family at a moment of tragedy. We rarely know what to say on such occasions, but we know we should be there. We, above all things, are called to be present for others in the midst of suffering and loneliness and depression that often lead to the contemplation of suicide. To be part of the faithful community requires us to be for one another.

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We live because life is a gift. We are not our own creators. We Christians are the people who must learn to live by the fact that life is a gift. We therefore can live each and every day not as a survival technique, but through recognizing that each and every day is an opportunity to live and love in the service of our Lord.

When we talk about suicide, we say it is “the taking of one’s life.” But even the way we talk about suicide shows how much a problem we have with it. Our lives are not our own. As the Lord says through the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” We belong to the Lord and to one another. God tells us to not be afraid because God will be with us as we pass through the waters, and the rivers of life shall not overwhelm us, we shall not be burned by the fires of frustration. Not because they won’t hurt or be terrifying, but because we belong to the Lord and the Lord is with us.

If we’re here in the sanctuary this morning, we have some sense of this in our lives. We know that God is with us, we feel God’s presence in this place and we know that we are not alone. It is through encountering the divine love of God in worship that we are given the strength to be God’s presence for others who sink under the waters of life and who feel burned by the world. It is our charge to be shaped and called by God’s love and to reach out to those who contemplate ending their days. We have the challenge of showing all people, even those who see no value to their lives, how our lives are not defined by what we have done with them, but by what God will do with them.

Six months after my friend had his stomach pumped, he attempted to commit suicide again. This time he did it with a hose running from his exhaust pipe into his car. But his little brother heard the car door close and it woke him up, and then he woke up his parents. In the strange and quiet time of the darkness of night they pulled their son out of the car and they got him help. It took a long time for him to move on. It took counselors and therapists, it took friends and family, it took the power of God’s grace to show him that his life could get better, that there was hope for the future, that there was something worth living for. And because people in his life were brave enough to confront his suicide attempts, he still lives today.

But there will always be some that we cannot reach. There will be people who feel so suffocated by the weight of the world that they will make that dreadful decision to end the life that God’s has given to them. And for them, for those who will die by their own hand, what will happen to them? For centuries the church saw suicide as an unpardonable sin, something that eternally damns those who do it. Will God abandon them for making such a choice? Will God refuse to love the people who felt no love in their lives? Will the God of mercy punish them until the end of time?

           No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

Controversy Original

Devotional – Hebrews 13.8

Devotional:

Hebrews 13.8

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Weekly Devotional Image

I try hard to read some theology every week that has nothing to do with the sermon for Sunday. I do this in order to learn more about what it means to follow Jesus without it being intimately connected with whatever will be proclaimed from the pulpit; discipleship is something I need to work on outside of the work required for the vocation.

Last week I opened up Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? and started to read. (I discovered the book through a podcast that mentioned the title and I decided to check it out.) The premise is straightforward in that Fuller wants the reader to confront the totality of Jesus’ identity, but I had a hard time getting through the first few pages. Fuller writes, “The full humanity of Jesus is something every Christian affirms, but when it comes to discussing his journey through adolescence, we like to keep it vague – “He grew in wisdom and stature” is the only mention in the Bible of his teen years. Of course, we don’t spend much time thinking about Jesus having lice in his hair or pooping, even if he did such things in the holiest of ways.”[1]

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I understand that Fuller wants the reader to encounter the depth of Jesus humanity, but today we seem to emphasize his humanity over and against his divinity. In church and in theology we hear so much about how Jesus is just like us that we sometimes forget he is also completely unlike us. We want to know that Jesus knows our struggles and is there alongside us when we are going through the valleys of life. But in so doing, we’ve made Jesus out to be a good teacher or an ethical leader, and not God in the flesh.

In Hebrews we read about how “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Jesus remains steadfast to love and forgiveness and Jesus remains committed to grace and mercy. We, on the other hand, neglect to love and forgive others. We forget what it means to give and receive grace and mercy. We change each and every day like the blowing of the wind. But Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Jesus is like us and totally unlike us. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Jesus went through his own angst-filled teenage years and shows us the light of the Lord in the midst of the darkness.

For as much as we want to identify with the humanity of Christ, we also do well to remember that Jesus, like God, never changes.

 

 

[1] Fuller, Tripp. Homebrewed Christianity: Guide to Jesus – Lord, Liar, Lunatic… Or Awesome? (Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 2015), 2.