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.

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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.

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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.

Devotional – Psalm 5.1

Devotional:

Psalm 5.1

Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.
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To breathe is to live. And yet, how often do we actually think about our breathing? Unless we’ve been sick with pneumonia, or have climbed to a high elevation, breathing in and out is something we all take for granted. All day, everyday, we take about 26,000 breaths. It happens naturally without our having to really do anything to make it happen. Yet without it, we cannot live.

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital room when my son took in his first breath. Like the rush of a mighty wind, he filled his lungs for the very first time, his skin began to change color, and the remarkable rhythm of his breathing began. I held my breath waiting for him to breathe knowing full and well how necessary it is for life. And yet, during the last 6 weeks, I have grown accustomed to his breath, and am no longer bending over to place my ear near his mouth in the middle of the night.

We all know that we cannot live without breath. Just ask anyone who has been with someone at the moment of death and they will tell you about the profound change that occurs when someone’s breathing comes to a conclusion. But in addition to breath being a necessity for life, it is also a necessity for prayer.

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Every breath is a prayer. As the psalmist cries out, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing.” When we sigh, when we breathe, when we fill our lungs with air, we are participating in the great and cosmic birth of creation over and over again. In the beginning of scripture we learn about God breathing life into the first human and for every one of us that has ever lived since, we have received that same gift at the beginning of our lives.

If we are in a time in our lives when we do not know what to pray, if we are at a loss for words, there is comfort in knowing that every breath is a prayer. To breathe is to remember the paradox of our existence; we’ve been created in the image of God with immense beauty, power, and strength while at the same time our lives are incredibly vulnerable and fragile. Our lives hinge on our breath.

So too, our spiritual lives hinge on our breathing in and out, over and over again, remembering that every breath is a gift from God.

Make the Church Great Again

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

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In the beginning, we met in people’s homes. The church wasn’t even called the church; it was called “ecclesia” which means a gathering. The earliest disciples of Jesus gathered together in homes to retell the story, break bread together, and engage in prayer.

As the centuries passed and the Good News spread across the world, gathering spaces called churches were erected in certain communities. Through this period, we met for worship in whatever church was closest. In didn’t matter if we didn’t agree with what the person at the front said, or even if we hated the people in the pews next to us, we only really had one option for church and it was good enough.

Today, in the American context, we have every possible flavor of church you could ever want. In our town alone there are at least 87 different churches within the city limits. We are no longer bound to attend church based on proximity; instead we attend church based on denominational affiliation, pastoral performance, and opportunities for youth. Whereas we once gathered as a truly diverse community of faith, we now tend to gather with people who make us comfortable and appear just like us. Whereas we used to be stuck with the church in our neighborhood, now there are websites dedicated to church reviews and helping people find the church that fits them best.

This week, I got online and I started reading church reviews from all over the country. After all, it could only help to see what people think of other churches to get an idea about what many of you might think about St. John’s. And, I’ve got to be honest; most of them are awful…

“Absolutely doumbfounded. Checked this church out for the first time today, and really wish I had read some of the other reviews first. It was creepy how strangers kept smiling and maintaining eye contact even after the service started. I lost track after 15 people introduced themselves. And the sermon was about nothing more than tithing. The ushers passed around cards talking about a “90 day challenge” … giving 10% of your income to that church for three months, but that’s not all folks, it said, “if you don’t feel blessed after those 90 days, there is a money back guarantee!!!” It felt more like an infomercial than a worship service. But they did share how they are giving away a free cruise on Father’s day weekend… The thing I regret most is not walking out of there in the middle of the service.

“Young people ruined the church. God used to be the foundation of our community and members got to know each other until they came and everything went downhill. The new young families came in wearing blue jeans and tee shirts; they were disrespectful of what it means to be holy. My heart is heavy that my church has become just another soulless generic space in hipsterland.”

“This was the worst restaurant ever. First of all, their bread was terribly sweet, and they make you literally stand in line for it. Then, you wait in line to dip your bread into a cup of what tastes like decades old grape juice. There was no main course. I sat in a stiff wooden bench for an hour before I was able to eat and there was a man wearing a dress who shouted the whole time. It was free however, though they asked for donations near the end and passed around a plate. I give it 1 star, and do not recommend it to anyone.”

However, I found one review that was so positive that I had to share it:

“In my life, I have never been with a group of people who were so fired up to make positive changes in the world. The entire experience was surreal, in the best way possible. There was a lady near me who came up at the beginning and wanted to know all about me. I honestly didn’t know it could be this exciting. I loved that the speaker didn’t need to use notes while he was talking. It felt genuine and meaningful and he even encouraged us to shout back when we felt the need to do so. Other people might make comments about how the parking lot was crowded but I think that’s a good thing! I’ve gone to gatherings like this my whole life, and for the first time I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and I left feeling charged up for action. It’s time to make America great again!”

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That last review was a mash-up of descriptions from two recent political rallies centered on presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. After reading negative church reviews for an hour, it shocked me that gatherings in support of the next president of the United States were garnering better reviews than households of God. And even more than their positive language, what they described appears like a perfect worship service; except for the fact that they are worshipping politicians rather than almighty God.

From the beginning we have looked for other people to take care of our needs. Whether it was in the Garden, or just the other day in Staunton, it is part of our human condition to rely on the “other” to help us. This is even more prevalent when it comes to our modern days “princes” otherwise known as politicians.

Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with politicians: they stand before us and tell us what they will do for us. We vote for them and they represent our interests. Our failure is in our tendency to look for politicians to be our saviors.

The psalmist knew this basic fact of the human condition. The Hebrew people wanted kings just like all the other gatherings of people and so they got what they wanted. But in raising political leaders to be saviors they committed the ultimate sin that we still commit today: believing that we can save ourselves.

Praise the Lord! Do not put your trust in politicians, in feeble and broken individuals. When their breath departs, when their days come to an end, their plans perish. However, the Lord endures forever. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

God is the one from whom our help will come. God is a nurse who opens the eyes of those who refuse to see. God is a social worker who lifts up those who are bowed down under the weight of the world. God is a political activist who sets the prisoners free and watches over all foreigners. God is the one who reigns and remains steadfast forever.

The question for us, the question the psalm begs us to ask is this: Who do we really worship?

A few weeks ago the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Portland, Oregon, and among other things, they voted on a global annual budget. From now until 2020 the global United Methodist church projects needing and spending $604 million dollars. This money will be used in a variety of ways to support the denomination’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The number, I’ll admit, is staggering. However, it pales in comparison to the 1 billion dollars that has been raised and spent in the 2016 presidential race. Add that to the countless hours we have spent glued to the television during debates, or the infinite number of Internet articles that support the candidate of our choosing, or just the mind-boggling number of bumper stickers and yard signs in Staunton alone and you will start to realize who we really worship.

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It’s time to make the church great again. Not by going back to the days of old to be what we once were, but to look boldly to the future and believe that God can save us, not politicians, not public leaders, not even pastors. Can you imagine how much good the church could do if it was supported like a presidential campaign? Can you picture how many lives could be changed for the better if we worshipped the Lord the way we worship our politics?

God can use politicians to bring about God’s will on earth, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Moreover, the longer we wait for our politicians to save us, the longer we pass the buck on to someone else, the longer we will prevent God from using people like us to make the kingdom come here on earth. Believe it or not, God uses people like us to work for justice, feed to the hungry, love the outcasts; watch over strangers, orphans, and widows. As disciples of Jesus Christ our work is to act like Jesus.

If you get online and search for reviews of St. John’s, you won’t find any. Trust me, I looked. Either we haven’t offended people enough, or we haven’t inspired people enough to write a review of a “worship experience.” But maybe, just maybe, there are no reviews of St. John’s because we know the church is not something to be done and reviewed. We know the church isn’t like a restaurant or business that we can experience at our leisure. We know the church isn’t like a political party that makes promises that cannot be kept. We, after worshipping in these pews – offering these prayers – eating this bread and drinking from this cup, we understand that church isn’t about what we get out of it, but instead it’s about what God gets out of us.

If we really want to make the Church great again, then we need not look further than this table and the meal that has been prepared for us. For it is here, where heaven and earth meet for a brief moment, where we confess and are reconciled, that we remember how the Lord is the one who lifts us up when we’re down; how the Lord opens our eyes when we are blinded by the world; how the Lord reigns forever. Praise the Lord! Amen.