Love Is A Crazy Thing

Devotional: 

Jeremiah 17.9

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?

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Last night I frantically paced through the grocery store while looking for Valentine’s Day gifts. You might be thinking that I am a delinquent husband neglecting to properly procure said gifts with plenty of days to spare, but these were not little trinkets for my wife. Instead I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could hand out during his Preschool party today. 

Tucked away in the corner of the store were shelves upon shelves of pink, red, and white. And at the bottom were the kid friendly gifts and when my son saw a package containing Lightning McQueen pencils, he tucked them under his arm and triumphantly declared, “We’ve got our plan!”

This morning, as we were walking across the parking lot toward his preschool, he inexplicably looked up at me with his Valentines in his hand and asked, “Daddy, why do we give these presents?”

And I realized that I had yet to even explain Valentine’s Day to him.

In the moment I just offered a brief response about how it’s a kind way to show the people around us that we love them, but upon getting back to my car I couldn’t get his question out of my head.

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Because I know about Saint Valentine for whom the day is named, and it’s always been strange for me to reconcile what so many of us will do tomorrow with who he was.

There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. But perhaps the most famous was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought him his blind daughter and asked him to heal her – if Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.

So Valentine placed his hands on the girls blind eyes and her vision was restored.

Overcome by the miracle the judge eventually agreed to be baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.

Later Valentine was arrested again for his continued attempts to evangelize and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Though Claudius liked having Valentine around, he tried to convince the emperor to become a Christian and the emperor condemned him to death unless he renounced his faith.

Valentine refused the emperor’s request and was beheaded on February 14th, 269.

Later additions to the story imply that shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to the young girl he once healed and signed it “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspired the Hallmark holiday that tomorrow brings.

So what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of flower?

The prophet Jeremiah warns that the heart is devious above all else. It compels people to do incredible things, but it can also compel people to do horrible things. Who can possibly understand what love can make us do?

I often think it’s crazy to see the kind of stuff people will do tomorrow, including the amount of money that people will spend of trivial and fleeting items. But others will say that Valentine’s willingness to give his life for Jesus is even worse.

Love is a crazy thing.

It just also happens to be how God feels about us.

So much so that God in Christ, out of love, mounted the hardwood of the cross to die for us.

Happy early Valentine’s Day!

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All You Need Is…

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can put in the hours of preparation, I can fall to my knees in prayer, but a lot of being a pastor is like fumbling around in the darkness.

My first wedding took place a few months after I arrived at my first church. I had done my due diligence with the couple, took them through the wringer of premarital counseling, I even walked them through the ceremony step by step, but when the actual moment arrived, I felt woefully unprepared.

I knew the expectation was that the bride was supposed to be kept away from the husband until that magical moment she she appeared by the door at the back of the sanctuary when the photographer knew to take a picture of the very-soon-to-be-husband crying as he took in his very-soon-to-be-wife in her wedding dress. So I sequestered the bride and the bridesmaids in a Sunday school room on the other side of the building, and I waited with the groomsmen in the narthex and greeted all of the friends and family on their way in.

When it felt like enough people had arrived and it was time to get things started, I pulled one of the groomsmen to the side and I said, “I’m going to go check on the girls so we can get this show on the road.”

I walked through the empty hallways until I could hear the girls laughing with gleeful expectation, and they told me they needed about 5 more minutes and then they’d be ready to go.

But when I made it back to the narthex, the groomsmen were missing.

Well, they weren’t missing missing. But they certainly weren’t where they were supposed to be. In fact they were already in the sanctuary, standing up at the altar, staring at the narthex doorway, waiting for the bridesmaids and the bride. 

And not only were the groomsmen looking back in anticipation, but so was every single person in the sanctuary.

Now, to be abundantly clear, five minutes might not sound like a long time, but it can feel like an eternity when the expectations are all caught up in the hopes and dreams of a wedding service.

For the first minute people politely smiled and waited patiently. But by minute two, the beads of sweat started appearing on foreheads, and by minute three, groups of people started fanning themselves.

I, trying my best to ease the tension, started walking down the aisle as slowly as I possibly could to make it appear as if this were all part of the plan. But even when I made it to the groom I knew there was still too much time, so I knelt down on the floor and started praying for the girls to hurry up. Because of the architecture of the sanctuary I strained to listen and eventually I heard their high heels scuffling across the floor in the hallway behind us, and finally, FINALLY, they stood in the back and we could get on with everything.

But, as it would have to happen, the first bridesmaid walked in the frame and seeing all of the eyes peering down on her, particularly with the added fear about a potential missing bride situation, she just froze in silence.

I subtly motioned for her to come forward, and then I eventually just started waving my hands out of frustration. And when she did start to move she walked down the aisle even slower than I did.

The poor pianist was running out of music to play.

Eventually the bride stepped onto the carpet, being escorted by her father and everyone stood in joy and excitement. The ceremony could truly begin, and after welcoming everyone into the space I said to the father, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

And he forgot what to say.

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We bring all sorts of cultural expectations with us into the big moments of our faith. Whether or not we’ve attended a lot of weddings, or funerals, or baptisms we certainly know what they’re supposed to look like because we’ve seen them in plenty of movies.

Many of us can remember any number of rom-coms in which the minister says something like, “If anyone should see why these two should not be lawfully married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Many of us can call to mind a great number of scenes in which an entire group of people are covered in black from head to tow, while standing in the rain, watching casket being lowered into the ground.

And many of us can immediately picture the Corleone family flanking the priest by the baptismal font for the infamous baptism scene in the Godfather.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done plenty of weddings, and funerals, and baptisms and to my knowledge none of them have been interrupted by a would-be lover stepping in at the last second, I’ve never been to a perfectly monochromatic funeral service, let alone a burial in the rain, none of the them have resulted in a mafia style massacre.

But those types of things make for great dramatic moments that keep us on the edge of our seats.

And, in the same way we bring our expectations into those moments, we do that with scripture as well. By my estimation this is done more with 1 Corinthians 13 than any other text in the Bible. I probably don’t even need to read the actual words before many of us will immediately think about big white dresses, and rented tuxedos. 

Love is patient, love is kind.

Can you smell the floral bouquets, and hear the nervous pitter pattered footsteps of the ring bearer and flower girl waiting to walk down the aisle?

The majority of us have heard these words before, and we think we know what they mean. They are so familiar that we can scarcely imagine them meaning anything else.

But their familiarity is also their downfall.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I have held fast to one rule in all of them – I will preach on any text from the entirety of the Bible during a wedding ceremony, but I refuse to preach on 1 Corinthians 13. 

It’s all about love, and marriage has to be about more than love. Love, whatever it may be, is not nearly enough to sustain two people through the crucible that marriage is. No love is strong enough when we are stripped of all of our defense and all of our disguises. Love doesn’t help us when all of our imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

So instead, I’ll preach a sermon in which the honesty about the difficulty of marriage will leave people squirming. Not because I get satisfaction out of it (well maybe I do), but because I don’t want people entering into marriage thinking its easier than it really is.

The other reason I refuse to preach on this text, much to the chagrin of some couples, is that it doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage in the first place, of even with love we feel toward other people.

1 Corinthians 13 is about God.

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The Corinthian Christians were abusing their freedom in Christ – they refused to share in common the kinds of things that were normative in the church, certain individuals were not participating in the joy of the community and still yet others were jockeying for positions of respect at the expense of the poor and the marginalized.

The differences within the body of Christ were apparently too difficult to overcome.

The church, since the earliest gatherings, has always been full of differing theological opinions, programs, organizations, missions, and ministries. And for most of the time, there has been plenty of room for this kind of diversity to exist peacefully.

But tensions always rise.

It happened in Corinth.

It’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.

And it will continue to happen in the future.

Fights about space, or time, or money, or personalities, or even political proclivities infuse the church and lead to the kind of divisions that have haunted the church for centuries.

Social and cultural concerns press in upon the church and lead some to insist that its either my way, or no way. Which completely neglects to even consider that Jesus is the way!

When these things happen, Christians seem to have this incredible and blinding power of masking our self-interest with self-righteousness.

I’m right.

You’re wrong.

And this church ain’t big enough for the two of us.

Over and over and over again. 

And in the midst of this infighting, whether in Corinth, or now, or somewhere in the future, we Christians forget that there are most important things than being right or even being powerful!

Whenever we think we have gained everything by standing on principle, or dominating others, or simply being “right”, we have already lost it all.

If we want to be faithful, if we want to follow Jesus as the way, rather than believing we know the way, then this text stings in a way than it doesn’t when its read aloud at weddings. Because the passion of love and intimacy that we might reserve for those who exchange rings implies a willingness to not only know someone else deeply and truly, but also to be known by someone else deeply and truly.

And for us, this takes place between us and God.

This text isn’t about our love for each other, or even our love for God, but God’s love for us.

God is the love that holds up a mirror to who we are and reveals to us the stranger that we are to ourselves.

We, in and of ourselves, are not capable of the kind of love described for us by Paul. We are not patient, nor are we kind. We certainly aren’t free of envy or boasting. Not with our friends, not with our families, not with our spouses, and not even with our church.

The sentimentality of a patient and kindly love expressed at weddings ignores the active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering love that God has for us!

But whenever we come across this text, at a wedding or on a Sunday morning, it is always whittled down to another thing we are supposed to do. In the Bible, the Law is always a list of you must do this, or you must not do this. And it shows up in our lives all the time – all of the shoulds, musts, oughts, that we constantly hear in the back of our minds. 

And, like the expectations we bring to the Bible, when we encounter this call to love, it does not result in a kind of joyful and carefree freedom, instead it bears down upon us like the weight of the world.

Simply because we know we can’t do it. 

The Law and the call to love shines a painful light on all of our failures, all of our fractures, all of our fears. And so when we read this passage about love, the result is that we just kind of wind up feeling worse about ourselves.

But, and it’s a big but, Paul’s talk about love isn’t meant to be the Law. It’s not supposed to be a call to executing the loving order that’s detailed over these thirteen verses. It’s not meant to be a club that we swing around at other people for nothing loving us enough.

In fact, it’s supposed to the opposite of the Law…

It’s the gospel.

As a friend of mine wrote this week: It’s the Law that says, “Be loving.”

But the Gospel says, “You are loved.”

This often used marriage scripture isn’t about what we do, or even how we treat each other. It’s about how Jesus does these things when we cannot.

If God is love, then so is Jesus.

Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Jesus never ends.

So, we can go and love the people around us. We can even love the people we hate. The world could certainly use a little more love. But there is a big difference between “be love” and “be loved.”

The former is the Law.

And the latter is the Gospel. Amen.

Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. Amen. 

Drunk With The Spirit(s)

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The massive sanctuary was eerily quiet at 7am as four of us gathered for morning prayer. It was my first year of seminary and I had committed to join together with the Episcopalians every morning to pray through the liturgy and read scripture together. Some days the room would have 20-30 people, but every once in a while only a few of us would gather.

I remember it was raining and I assumed thats why so few of us managed to make it out so early. I saw by myself, which wasn’t hard to do, and I centered myself for prayer. Typically one of us, a student or a professor, would guide us through the liturgy, but on that day an Episcopal priest walked down the center aisle and guided us from behind the altar.

I know we all raised our voices a little louder than usual as were were tasked to respond because it felt like we needed to. And then right before the final “amen” the priest began praying over communion.

Up until that point in my life I had received communion hundreds of times, but only in the context of a United Methodist Church where we dipped our bread in the common cup, so you can imagine my surprise as I, the last one in line, walked forward the the priest began to bring the chalice to my lips.

I reached out my hand to take the cup myself, but he ignored my movement, and began tilting the cup. Immediately my mouth filled with the strangest and warmest liquid. I, a good Methodist, foolishly assumed that I was about to take a sip of grape juice, but I was wrong. Instead my mouth was filled with warm port wine, and the priest wouldn’t stop pouring. 

I later learned that he was going to have to drink whatever was leftover, and with such a small number of people in attendance, he tried to share the burden with me.

I kid you not, my cheeks were both puffed out as I held the wine inside my mouth, debating whether to swallow or not. I even made it back to my seat before I decided to just get it over with. The sickeningly sweet taste of the port rolled down my throat and my belly immediately felt like it was on fire. It would have been helpful had I eaten breakfast that day, or had anything to drink other than coffee, but of course I hadn’t.

So there I was, sitting in a sanctuary at 7 in the morning, a little buzzed.

I gracefully exited the sanctuary with what probably looked more like stumbling, and I giggled as I made my way to my first lecture for the day. I remember receiving a lot of strange looks from my peers as I gave them my brightest toothy grin with lips that had turned a subtle shade of red, and then as I got closer there noses began to sniff with a detective like quality.

But I was feeling fine.

Right before my professor began the class, one of my friends leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I know Paul said that we’re supposed to be filled with the Spirit, but I don’t think he meant the spirits.”

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Be careful how you live, and make the most of your time. Do not get drunk with wine! But be filled by the Holy Spirit. Paul is getting close to concluding his letter to the Ephesians and he has some final exhortations. Time is a fleeting thing, is it not? Most of us here are all too aware of how life seems to keep passing by regardless of our best efforts to slow it down. 

This thing we call time is all we’ve got. No one can add days on to their life. So with the beautiful and finite time we have, Paul urges us to resist foolishness, to withstand the temptation of temptations, and make the most with what we’ve been given.

No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, all of us will experience times of emptiness. It can manifest itself in strange ways, and with unexpected consequences, but those moments will come for us all.

When the kid leaves home for college.

When the retirement celebrations come to a conclusion.

When we bury a friend.

When we see an empty pew.

And Paul knows that we need to fill those empty spaces, and Paul even knows one of the ways we do it the most: through wine!

Now, to be clear, Paul is not just standing up on his soapbox to address the virtues of temperance, but he is probing and prodding the people of Ephesus with a question, “What’s filling you?”

It’s all too easy to be filled with all sorts of trite and finite salves. Coming home from a hard day on to wallow away in a bottle leaves us withered and distracted. Reeling from a difficult conversation only to waste away some money on a gamble leaves us hollowed and guilty. Feeling frustrated by relationships only to discover the dark and frightening temptations of the internet leaves us ashamed and never truly satisfied.

So Paul suggests that we fill ourselves with something else; not a temporary fix or a hit from the nearest distraction. Paul says we should sing.

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We know today, thanks to scientific studies, that our brains literally change when we are involved in the act of singing. Endorphins are released, feelings of joy and euphoria are present, and something within us transforms.

I could regale all of you with countless stories of visiting older people in retirement homes, people whose communication with the outer world had all but stopped, until I started humming a familiar hymn and the curtain of dementia was be pulled back as we sang together.

O I could tell you the story from Acts 16 when Paul and Silas we singing in prison, singing in the midst of their bondage, when an earthquake happened and it set them free.

Or I could tell you about the time John Wesley was on a ship traveling to the colony of Georgia when a storm appeared out of nowhere and it destroyed the main mast. While he and nearly everyone else thought they were going to die, a group of Moravians were quietly singing psalms. When the storm later passed, Wesley asked them about their strange behavior, and why they chose to sing in the face of death, they responded, “If we die, we know where we’re going.

Music can make us lose control, in the best ways possible. Through music the Holy Spirit somehow grabs hold of us, and shakes us or moves us or prods us to feel something we’ve either missed or ignored. We lose control of the control we so desperately cling to, and sometimes music reminds us of the hard and beautiful truth – we’re not in control.

And most of us have a really hard time with that! Perhaps its because most of us have come of age in a world we are told again and again that we must be in control – that life is up to us, and us alone – and that if we lose control then we’ve lost everything.

Singing, music in general, is a gateway to unanticipated blessings like losing control.

Paul implores the hearers and readers of the letter to not be distracted by things that claim to fill but only leave us empty – he uses music as an alternative, and it would be easy to leave it there. It would wrap up nicely if all we really needed was to sit down every once in a while with our favorite song, or hear our favorite hymn in church.

But it’s about more than that.

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are filled together by the Spirit – it’s not something we’re left to do on our own. And that’s what often confounds us the most — we need each other!

The thrust and theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is that they, and we (!), are no longer strangers! The community of God called the church is a people who respond to the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do together!

Do you know how hard that is? Waking up in the midst of our frustrations and failures only to believe that the way, the best way, to handle it all is to share it we each other… Who wants to do that? Who among us wants to stand hand in hand and sings songs knowing full and well that our lives do not look like what we portray on Sunday morning?

Well, of course, all of us here do. That doesn’t mean its easy; in fact, its incredibly challenging. Most of the time its hard to find the joy and glamour in all of it. But as we live out the ordinary moments of our lives, as we experience both the mountaintops and deep valleys together, we can be filled to overflowing with the Spirit.

This, after all, is the call of the church: to be the body of Christ, a community together, in spite of all our differences. This, all of this, is made possible and tangible in the person of Jesus Christ who came to live and die and live again in a way that makes intelligible our commitment to community.

Our call is to be the church, in all of its simplicity and complexity. And, to use Paul’s language, time is of the essence! Right now is the moment for us to make good on all the possibilities for redemption and transformation and fullness in Christ Jesus. We, the church, cannot afford to waste our time, or fill our days with frivolous pursuits, or miss this particularly poignant call.

When we, the church, are out of touch with our vocation it’s as if we’re stumbling around in the darkness like drunken fools. We might feel a welcome reprieve from the mundanity of life, we might get the hit we need to forget our frivolity, but without our call we cease to be the church.

So the questions arise:

Do we know, deep in our bones, what we are called to do and who we are called to be?

Or, are we just stumbling around in the darkness looking for the next drink, the next distraction, the next filler?

Are we drunk with wine, ego, money, power? 

Or are we filled with the Spirit?

God, strangely enough, desires our drunkenness. God wants us to be so filled and fueled by that which we consume such that we are forced to rely on the person to our left and the person to our right as we stumble around through life. God hopes and yearns for us to throw our cares to the wind as we are three sheets to the wind! 

The time has come for us to lose control and to be filled with the right Spirit. Amen. 

The Anger Will Set You Free

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk comes out of your mouths, but only what it useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of the church. While Christians are gearing up for the joy of Easter morning, pastors like me try to slow everything down so that we can take stock of everything that happened the final week before jumping to the empty tomb.

Some churches embody this patience with dramatic performances. They’ll get actors to play all of the characters including Roman centurions guarding the tomb. And some are crazy enough to even bring a donkey into the sanctuary as a way of remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

Other churches will slow down the week with special music and scriptures. Every night there will be time for reflection and prayer as a choir leads the gathered people through a few songs, and specific individuals will read the stories aloud from Jesus’ final week.

I got the great idea years ago to preach the entirety of Holy Week in a 15-minute sermon.

This meant that I committed the important details between Palm Sunday and Good Friday to memory as I attempted to guide the congregation through a time of encounter and contemplation. I was as passionate as possible, marching up and down the center aisle frantically waving a palm branch like the crowds who gathered outside of Jerusalem. I set up tables by the altar only to flip them over with as much force as possible to frighten the congregation just like Jesus did at the temple. And even at the end, I got out a hammer and knocked on the pulpit to really bring home Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross.

After the service ended, while I was saying goodbye to the community of faith, more than a few people said the same thing to me. “You sure sounded angry today Pastor, is everything okay?”

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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

There is little truth in advertising. In fact, most of advertising is built on selling us a lie. If you buy this car you will finally find the fulfillment you’ve been looking for. If you go on this vacation, your children will actually love you and respect you. If you take this pill you will shed the extra weight you’ve been carrying around.

But Paul, Paul is a terrible advertiser for the church. While we are quick to make sure people know we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, Paul tells the truth. The church in Ephesus is filled with all sorts of bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. So much so that Paul has to tell them to get rid of it all!

Who in their right mind would like to go to a church like that? Who wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Yeah, I want to try that community of selfishness, and greed, and anger!”

Paul doesn’t mince words. The church of Ephesus is messed up. They’ve got tons of problems with no easy solutions. They’ve got to drop a lot before they can pick up their crosses. The Ephesians would have to give up themselves, their need to always be right, their need to feel superior, their grudges and bitterness. They’d have to sacrifice it all if they wanted to be God’s church.

They’d have to start looking like us! Because we’re perfect aren’t we? From where I stand I see a room of beautiful people, filled with nothing but love and joy and hope. I see people with perfect families, and overflowing bank accounts. I see people without fear and loss. I see perfection!

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

What is the truth?

Let us at least admit that we are far from perfect here. We, like the Ephesians, are filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. They might not bubble to the surface often, or even in church, but deep down we know its there. We know the people we’ve maligned, we know the bitterness we feel toward other, we know the wrath that can show up when we least want it to.

But the anger, what are we do to about the anger? Paul, in this passage alone, tells the Ephesians to be angry, and then later to put away their anger. But anger isn’t always, or necessarily, a bad thing.

Jesus was angry all the time in the gospels. As fully God and fully human Jesus could not not be angry. When he encountered the Pharisees looking on those at the margins of life, Jesus got angry. When he saw what was happening inside the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus got angry. When Peter raised a sword in the garden, Jesus got angry.

And whereas other might caution us against adding fuel to the fire of others’ anger, Jesus’ anger is a lens into the divine desire for a different reality.

Paul cautions the people of Ephesus to avoid conflict, which is a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. But he also knows that conflict is at the very heart of who we are. And, in particular, when we are bold enough to speak the truth.

Because the truth, the hard and unavoidable truth, is that we’ve got plenty to be angry about.

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We’re angry that it’s been a year since the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and it feels like nothing has really changed. We’re angry that people in our community don’t have food to eat, or clothes to wear, or beds to sleep in. We’re angry that people are treated as less than whole because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their country of origin.

And we should be angry!

            Being angry isn’t a problem; it’s what we do with it that is.

We can be angry about what happened in Charlottesville, but the people marching and chanting about death to Jews and death to blacks are angry too. They’ve let their anger manifest itself in the violence and degradations of entire populations.

We can be angry about those who are suffering in our community, but there are people who are angry at those who are suffering for no reason other than the fact that they are suffering! They’ve let their anger manifest in selfish ways that belittle people for choices made on their behalf by communities who abandoned them.

We can be angry at all the people who are xenophobic, and sexist, and racist, and homophobic, but those people are angry too. They just let their anger out in horrific ways against people without caring about who they really are.

The line between anger and wrath is slim and mysterious. There is good anger that propels us closer to the divine will, anger that gives us the courage to speak out against injustice in our midst, and anger that provides the strength necessary to imagine a different way of being.

            But there is also anger that propels us closer to violence, anger that encourages us to see the other as other instead of as brother, and anger that justifies a hatred and violent way of being.

There’s a hymn that’s been around since the sixties and is filled with all of the cliché charm made possible by a Christian people in the sixties. It’s called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. And for as much as the hymn paints this hopeful image of the church, a church where people walk hand in hand, and work side by side, it’s a far cry from what the church actually looks like.

            The hymn sounds a lot like the terrible advertisements we see that promise us an impossible world.

And I really wonder how many people outside the church know Christians like us for our love… Because, sometimes, we Christians appear to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around. There are times where Christians like us relish in any opportunity to stir up and perpetuate conflicts rather than resolve them.

            I think, if we asked people outside the church, what they know us for isn’t our love, but for our anger.

So then, who in the world would want to join us? Who in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Gee, you know what, I think I’m going to join those angry Christians at Cokesbury. Maybe that’s just what I need”?

            Why do you keep coming here?

We are an angry people, we Christians, and that’s okay. We worship a Messiah who spent most of his earthly ministry being angry. But our anger, like Christ’s, should not send us into despair or violence. Our anger, like Jesus’, sends us to an even stranger place: telling the truth.

And while Paul might call upon us to tell the truth to our neighbors, no doubt a worthy venture, maybe we should start a little closer to home. Perhaps the person who needs to hear the truth is… me and you.

It is so easy to hear this text from Ephesians, and imagine the other people in our lives that it seems to describe. We can immediately conjure up someone in our minds who is too bitter, too wrathful, and too angry. But the text is also about us. It’s definitely about us. There is no one for whom these words to not represent a profound challenge and a holy opportunity.

The time has come for the truth, for us to take a good hard look in the mirror and accept who we are. We can even be angry about it if we so choose. But then the anger, that raw energy, can be focused into better places, while Jesus starts working on us from the inside out.

You see, that’s why people keep coming to church even when they know it’s filled with angry people. It’s because they’re angry too, and on some level they know that the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, they are like seeds within us sprouting into new life. They know, whether they can articulate it or not, that the church is the place where they can bring their anger, where they can be angry, and the anger will set them free.

People don’t join churches because they are open hearted or open minded, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. People commit their lives to the work of the church, Christ body in the world, because Christ is revealed in this place! Jesus is what makes our anger intelligible and applicable. Jesus takes our pent up frustrations with the world and with ourselves, and he flips them over like the tables in the temple to say, “Follow me!”

            God in Christ doesn’t make our anger disappear, church is not the salve that fixes our ailments. But it is the place where we discover how anger is the beginning of a revolution of the heart, anger is the catalyst that reshapes the possibilities we believe about the world, anger is what Jesus felt as he made his way to the cross.

            So, it’s fine if those outside the church will know we are Christians by our love. But maybe it would be better if they knew us by our anger. Amen.

Incompatible

Ephesians 4.1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Can’t we all just get along?

So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.

Can’t we all just get along?

You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.

Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.

But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?

I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.

But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.

In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.

Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.

Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”

Yeah, me neither.

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Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.

            Easier said than done.

Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.

The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.

And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?

The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”

But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.

A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”

Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.

And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.

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As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.

As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.

There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.

Maybe they want uniformity.

And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.

Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.

And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.

            Maybe they just want everyone to get along…

The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.

And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!

The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.

            Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.

            Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.

We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.

            But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!

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Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.

Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.

Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.

And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.

All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. Amen.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.