Why Do We Worship?

Philippians 2.1-13

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Gather – Sermon 1

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

407025348_640

I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because so many of us having been going to church for such a long time that we know longer know, or maybe we never learned, what all of this stuff is all about. In the last three months I’ve heard some of you ponder about why the acolyte carries in the flame for worship, or why we spend time studying the bible, or what does it really mean to pray, or why in the world do we pass around an offering plate, or why do we give our time to serving others.

All of those are great questions, and they are questions we will attempt to answer together over the next month. Today we begin with “Why do we worship?”

Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship the living God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the contemporary gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs; getting together is what we do as Christians.

I’d like each of you to take out your bulletins for a moment and scan through the service. Some will call this an Order of Worship, other will call it the liturgy. Liturgy literally means “work of the people” and it is work that we do together to worship God. You will notice that our liturgy is broken into 4 parts: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth. These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specifically connected to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Throughout our service today we will have four sermons for the four parts of our worship as they connect with what happened in the Emmaus experience; Jesus gathered the two men on the road, later he proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, then they responded by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes were opened to Jesus’ presence they were sent to proclaim what they seen and heard.

The beginning of our worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? Does worship begin when the choir processes into the sanctuary? Does it start when I begin to speak? Actually, worship begins before we even walk into the building. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while driving to the church, God is with us in the parking lot when we wave and signal our greetings to our fellow church people, and God is with us through the conversations we have in the narthex and while we’re sitting in the pews.

God continues to gather our focus together as the choir enters the sanctuary singing the prelude all while following the light of Christ carried by an acolyte. The light is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, a light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and in our discipleship.

The work of gathering continues through the announcements, silent reflection, and our call to worship. All of these little movements have a purpose, and they allow us to practice our faith. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to do the work of the Lord.

After the liturgist leads us through the call to worship, we begin singing our first hymn. Picking the hymns for worship is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs will best fit with what we will do is such a privilege. This morning our first hymn will be “Come Christians, Join to Sing.” The lyrics and tune are designed to uniquely gather us together in heart, mind, soul, and body.

When the first hymn ends and all of you return to your pews, I then invite us to join in prayer together. The prayers we offer are a sign of our devotion to the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. But above all, our prayers are another means by which God gathers us for the work of the church.

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

 

Proclaim – Sermon 2

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

road_emmaus

After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. However, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our daily experiences.

We proclaim God’s Word together every week through The Children’s Moment, listening to the choir, offering a prayer for the reading of the Word, we hear scripture read to us, we sing a hymn, and then we listen to a sermon.

Our scriptures, more often than not, are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings over a three-year cycle designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture. We boldly proclaim these words from the bible with prayers and hopes that somehow or another God can and will speak through them to us about what following Jesus is all about.

The middle hymn in our liturgy is usually picked in reference to the specific text or a theme from the text. For instance: today we will sing, “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus opened the eyes of the two disciples from the Emmaus story when they broke bread together. And we’re also calling on God to open our eyes to see how the text is speaking into our lives right now.

The sermon, unlike everything else in the liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to make God’s Word incarnate (again) through the ways we respond to it and live it.

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So let’s hear what God has to say today…

 

Sermon

A one-sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples on the road and we experience God working in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

 

Respond – Sermon 3

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”

communion_elements

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While at the table he took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, that Christ became real for them.

The third part of our liturgy is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by affirming our faith with the Apostles’ Creed and then with the giving of our tithes and offerings. We make public confessions about whom we are and how we understand the world and we give freely from ourselves because God has given so much to us. However, the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.

We could break down all the parts of our communion liturgy, but they really deserve their own sermon series. What we can say right now is that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done, we confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor, we are forgiven, we share signs of Christ’s peace, and then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let’s see how God’s enables us to responding to God’s Word…

 

Sending – Sermon 4

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

go

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like; for every time we gather around the table, with every brilliant smile and grateful affirmation, I realize that I’m catching glimpses of Jesus.

The disciples were so moved by their experience of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the truth, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it felt like with other in our lives.

The fourth and final part of our liturgy is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymn are still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all that we have seen and heard in this place, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

I stand before you, the congregation, and offer a benediction tying the totality of worship together and then we all follow the acolyte and the light of Christ out of the sanctuary in order to shine God’s light in the world.

This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friend what happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world by the living God…

Advertisements

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

1377900993_SAgUiC58QC2wcN6KVafu_book_by_its_cover

And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

the-road-to-emmaus-daniel-bonnell

We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

8676573_G

Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 17.5

Devotional:

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

 Weekly Devotional Image

4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.

St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.

While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into the promise when I received the phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came to St. John’s not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.

PC_grownupnew

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been praying for God’s will to be done and we have discerned that the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to serve as the Pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA at the end of June.

I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.

This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.

In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.

Devotional – Luke 18.9

Devotional:

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Weekly Devotional Image

Jesus knew how to use his words. When he was surrounded by day laborers, he used parables about seeds and vineyards. When he encountered the wealthy and the elite, he used parables about banquets and wedding feasts. Even when he called the first disciples (fishermen) he knew to use imagery about fishing for people to drive the point home.

The stories and parables of Jesus are magnificent in their ability to convey a greater point about the kingdom of God in a way that is approachable and applicable. This is why some of the most memorable sermons we hear (even today) are those that confront and reimagine Jesus’ parables for our time.

However, the beauty and applicability of Jesus’ parables are also a fundamental challenge in that Jesus often used specific parables for specific people. The day laborers heard about seeds and fields because it would make sense to them in a way that it wouldn’t to someone so wealthy they ever had to enter the fields. Similarly, what Jesus says to the rich young man (sell your possessions and give the money to the poor) was meant for the rich young man. Yet, today, many of us preachers apply Jesus’ parables generally for all with ears to hear and not necessarily in the same specific manner that Jesus did.

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is one that receives a pertinent introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This is to say that Jesus used this particular parable for a particular set of people because they needed to hear it. Yet, this Sunday, many preachers will take the time to preach these words to their congregations whether the people trust too much in their own righteousness or not.

1020

Jesus knew how to use his words, and sometimes we do not. In this particularly vitriolic political season we post Facebook statuses as if we hope someone who disagrees with us will read it and be transformed. We send snide emails to family members and friends with the belief that we are right, they are wrong, and our email will fix everything. We speak down to the people around us with mixed metaphors and problematic parables because we are so consumed by judgment that we forget what it means to “be” with others.

It is good and right for us to remember to listen when Jesus speaks whether Jesus’ words were meant for a particular group or not. For it is when we immediately assume that Jesus meant his words for someone we are bickering with, that Jesus is actually talking about us.

Devotional – Luke 17.5-6

Devotional:

Luke 17.5-6

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’ And it would obey you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

We are a people consumed and captured by the power of instant gratification. We want the greatest reward for the smallest effort. We post a picture online and we expect people to like it right away. We show up to church on Sundays and we want to be rewarded for our effort. We pray and we assume that God will answer us quickly.

But we, if we are anything, are slaves to God’s will and that requires patience and hardwork.

We have a church member at St. John’s who wears just about every hat you can think of; Dianne Wright is the lay leader and so much more. On Sunday afternoons she walks across the front lawn with a bunch of letters from the alphabet under her arm to change the marquee. On any given day she is writing cards to, and off visiting, the shut-ins from the church community. And she is forever on the look out for “churchy” objects and images that will help others grow in faith.

A couple months ago Dianne brought a sign over to the church and hung it against the refrigerator in the kitchen. She does things like this all the time but from the moment I saw this sign, the words have percolated in my mind: “Faith can move mountains, but don’t be surprised if God hands you a shovel.”

faith-can-move-mountains-but-dont-be-surprised-if-god-hands-you-a-shovel-4

Faith and discipleship is hard work. The disciples once asked Jesus to increase their faith, as if he could snap his fingers and it would just happen. But Jesus responds by telling them that faith the size of a mustard seed could pull a mulberry bush out of the ground move it to the sea. Have you ever tried to move a mulberry bush? The roots go deep down into the earth and make the work of replanting quite difficult.

Being a slave in God’s kingdom, yielding to God’s will, means that we have to do the right kind of work to increase our faith. We can’t just ask for it and expect everything to change immediately. It takes the habits of prayer, scripture reading, and communal worship to increase our faith. When we work to follow the commands of Jesus, difficult though they may be, our faith will increase.

God owes us nothing, and yet we are still loved. God’s invites us back into the realm of grace over and over even when we do not deserve it. Christ still loved us while we were yet sinners. And God gives us the power to move mountains and uproot mulberry bushes, but only if we’re willing to work for it.

On The Death Penalty

Mark 10.26-27

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Luke 23.44-47

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with The Death Penalty.

 

 

He was sitting with his friends when the police rushed in. Everything moved in a blur while tables were overturned, bodies were thrown to the floor, and he was placed under arrest. The journey to jail and to the courthouse was strangely quiet, but he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Others came and went, he received strange and knowing looks, and he wondered if any of his friends were arrested as well.

When they dragged him in front of the judge, the courtroom was packed and people kept screaming from the back. The judge waited for everyone to calm down and the whole proceeding came down to one question, “Did you do it?” The man replied, “If I tell you what happened, you won’t believe me, and if I ask you a question, you won’t answer.” Again the judge asked, “Did you do it?” And the man replied, “You say that I did.”

In response, the judge smacked his gavel onto the wood and declared, “What further testimony to do we need? We’ve heard it ourselves from his own lips.” And with that, the man was condemned to death.

The courtroom erupted into celebration as the gathered people shouted “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” What made everything worse was the fact that the dead-man walking recognized some of the people who were shouting for his death, but nothing could stop the inevitable.

Time passed, and eventually he found himself walking to his own demise; walking down death row. With every footstep he thought about what had led him to this, he thought about his family and friends that had abandoned him at the end, he thought about how this would be the last time he’d feel the ground beneath his feet.

The executioners were ready to begin the moment he arrived. They took off his clothes, and laid him down. Only then did he notice that two other men were about to be executed as well. Their faces held grave expressions of fear, guilt, and sorrow. But just like with the man, they were on a path that had only one outcome- death.

It was about noon when everything started moving quickly, and the man noticed that it was strangely turning dark outside. They strapped him down until he could barely breathe and then they stood back and waited. With each moment he felt his life slipping away, his chest heaved for air that ceased to fill his lungs, his vision went blurry, and then he died.

His name was Jesus and he was executed by the state.

Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2016-05-12 18:53:36Z | http://piczard.com | http://codecarvings.comÿÿÿ–j¬+

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life, and more often than not it comes down to this: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and we have it in the Old Testament in our Bibles.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and we still employ it for a number of reasons. To kill someone for committing a crime is the only way to guarantee they will never recommit the same crime. It works and functions as a deterrence to influence others to not commit the crime. It helps bring closure to a family who is grieving the loss of someone who was murdered. And it saves the state a lot of money from having to keep someone in prison year after year after year.

In the United States, there are roughly 3,000 people on death row right now, and the death penalty takes place primarily through lethal injections – a poison is injected into someone’s blood stream that brings a quick and painless death, but many states still let people choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The state of Washington however, still uses a noose to kill those who have been convicted. Across the county at least 56% of Americans support the death penalty.

And the state of Virginia, where we live, has executed more prisoners than any other state.

So why are we talking about the Death Penalty in church? Why is this a controversy that we need to confront?

Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people often sight to justify the death penalty can just as easily be argued from a different perspective. The death penalty often fails to work as a deterrence because in the south where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. The closure that families experience in the short-term is present, but in the long-term they tend to experience more guilt and depression in a response to another person’s death. It actually costs the state a lot more money to put someone to death because of the required appeals process and the amount of time and resources that it necessitates. And, this is a very important ‘and’, since 1976 about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.

But all of the statistics and the facts, all of the psychology and the economics, are dwarfed by the fact that Christians still support the death penalty, even when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

We Christians love our crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skin and we wear them around out necks, I even carry one over my shoulder all over Staunton every Good Friday. But we have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, then we’d be wearing nooses around our necks instead of crosses. If Jesus died 50 years ago, then we’d be bowing before an electric chair in the sanctuary instead of a cross. And if Jesus died today, then we’d hang up hypodermic needles in our living rooms instead of crosses.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injection of modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crime.

The fact that 1 in 9 death-row inmates have been exonerated should be enough to give us pause. The fact that the state has murdered innocent people just like Jesus was murdered should give the church reason to repent. But if that’s not enough, then maybe this is: With God nothing is impossible.

And I’ll admit, there are scriptures in the Old Testament that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Old Testament and the New Testament who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like to think about Moses’ encountering the burning bush, we like to imagine Moses leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

            We like to think about David approaching Goliath on the battlefield, we like to imagine him dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with his wife.

            We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground by God on the road to Damascus, we like to imagine him writing letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered countless Christians before his conversion.

christians-and-the-death-penalty-views-on-both-sides

            With God nothing is impossible.

That’s the beginning and the end of theology, that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the drink, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging out our nooses? Why do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we keep strapping them down for a lethal injection? Why do we keep hanging people on crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. Mercy for an adulteress woman who was about to be stoned by the crowd, mercy for short tax collector who preyed on the poor, mercy for a criminal who hung on a cross right next to Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away without consequences, it doesn’t mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the justice system.

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing the same crime. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can continue to take place without disrupting our daily lives.

But people are being murdered for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To retaliate murder for murder will only ever beget more violence, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

God sent his son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, not with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice. God sent his son to walk among us in order that we might catch glimpses of the kingdom. God in Christ ministered to the last, the least, and the lost, people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row. And God sent his son to carry death on his back to the top of a hill to die, so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent true repentance and new life from taking place in those who have fallen prey to evil. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. Amen.

 

Devotional – Luke 15.1

Devotional:

Luke 15.1

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

Weekly Devotional Image

What kind of people do we want in church? What kind of people do we want to encounter in our lives? Day after day I am bombarded by articles with titles like “The Top Ten Ways To Get Millennials Into Church” or “Why Churches Are Losing Young Families” from concerned people within the church. Similarly, because I am considered a “Young Adult Clergy Person” I am often asked (as if I have some magic answer) “What can we do to get young people to come to church?” Our general church culture is consumed with this desire to get younger people sitting in the pews, and therefore makes the assumption that bringing younger people in will fix everything.

Jesus, however, drew in a different kind of crowd.

Through the proclamation of God’s kingdom, and through radical acts of healing, Jesus’ ministry brought in all the tax collectors and the sinners. They, the kind of people we would rather ignore or complain about, were the ones drawn to hear what Jesus had to say. They dropped their daily tasks to discover what God incarnate was really up to.

We, however, want our churches and our lives filled with “good” people. The kind of people who have their lives figured out, pay their taxes, and love their children. We want people with open and uncluttered schedules who can serve on different church committees and can volunteer to work in the church nursery on Sunday mornings. We want people who will sit quietly in the pews during worship and listen intently without questioning what we do.

worship-millennials-youth-young-people-christians-church

Can you imagine what the church (or our lives) would look like if we did our best to attract the same kind of people that Jesus did? What would we have to change in order to draw them in, and what kind of expectations would we have to crucify in order to love them with Christ-like love?

The larger community rejected tax collectors and sinners during the time of Jesus. They were viewed with suspicion and were kept at a distance. And yet Jesus offered something they wanted to hear. Who do you view with suspicion? Who are the tax collectors and sinners of our day? How would you feel if they showed up in church on Sunday?