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Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.17-18

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

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My family, like a lot of others, grew up watching Disney movies. To this day I have the entirety of the Lion King memorized, I can whistle along to all of the songs from the Little Mermaid, and I still laugh at all the bits from Robin Williams in Aladdin.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I owe a great deal of ice breakers to that movie. For, whenever a conversation is in need of beginning, or restarting, one of the easiest questions to ask is as follows: “If you had a magic genie, what would your three wishes be?”

There’s something quaint about the idea. It’s not just one stand alone thing you could want, and the availability of wishes don’t go on forever either – it forces the person answering to really consider what he or she would ask for. And other the years I’ve asked that very question A LOT and I can say with assurance that the majority of answers have been about money, comfort, and fame.

All of those things smack us across the face with our relentless pursuit of happiness. We open up Instagram to discover perfect looking people with their perfect lives and their perfect homes and their perfect possessions. We pass by the magazine rack at the grocery store, we turn on the television, and it goes on and on and on.

It seems that the American Dream, however we might define it, has been commoditized to consist of wealth and possessions with a profound emphasis on the idea of more. Without thinking much about what we are doing, we work more hours and we pour out more effort into a never-ending desire for more money, more success, more comfort, and more of anything that money can buy.

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I’ve heard it thousands of times that “money can’t buy happiness” but rich people seem to look pretty happy!

And then we read from Paul’s first letter to Timothy and things take on an ominous tone: As for those who are rich, command them to stop pursuing their wealth and instead focus on the Lord – the rich are supposed to do good, to be generous, and to share what they have with others. 

It’s right there in scripture and yet when we think about or talk about money it is almost always in the sense of accumulating more for ourselves, even at the expense of others. 

A friend of mine from seminary recently started his own church in North Carolina and part of their whole ethos is, of course, worshipping the living God but by doing so through paying off the debts of the congregation collectively. 

And, to be clear, not the church’s debts! The people who participate in the church willfully contribute money each and every week dedicated to the sole purpose of paying off one person/family’s debts at a time. 

And when the church’s program was announced it was ridiculed by people from other Christian communities as being antithetical to the American Dream.

Which leaves me wondering: When did the American Dream become more important that God’s Dream?

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The Problem With Families Today – Sermon on Mark 3.20-30

Mark 3.20-30

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom id divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

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What a strange story. Jesus has been going around healing people and listening to their stories, he has called the twelve disciples together and announced what their ministry will be, and now so many people have gathered together to see this incredible man, that they couldn’t even eat. And what happens? His family catches wind of the crowds gathering and they go out to stop Jesus because they thought he was going out of his mind.

But then the scribes from Jerusalem arrive and accuse him of having a demon. Does this passage sound bizarre to you? Beelzebub? Satan? Demons?

Jesus hears the accusations and then responds in parables, furthering the confusion of the crowds and modern readers: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If someone entered the house of a rich man, they would not be able to steal anything unless the man was first tied up. Truly, people will be forgiven their sins and doubts, but anyone who ignores what the Holy Spirit is doing will be guilty of an eternal sin.”

What? I don’t know about you, but when I come across passages like this I am often left scratching my head about what Jesus is saying. I read words like Beelzebub and Satan and I can’t help myself from questioning the text. I read about Jesus’ family appearing to restrain him and I can’t help but agree with them; maybe Jesus has lost his mind.

Who can blame them for trying to get him under control? If not out of fear for his life, at least to remove their own embarrassment for what he was doing and saying. We all have a need to uphold our reputations amidst the crowds of life and if a family member starts going out and proclaiming strange things, it might reflect poorly on us.

A few summers ago I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session in Michigan. For a few days, clergy and lay representatives gathered together to worship the Lord, pray for the renewal of the church, and vote on pertinent matters affecting the denomination.

When I arrived the assembly was debating whether or not secretaries should be allowed to keep handguns in the church offices to protect themselves. Later that afternoon they argued about the bishop sending a letter to the President Obama about whether or not unmanned drones should be allowed to fly over the Upper Peninsula.

When the evening rolled around, I was invited by a colleague to attend the “Young Adult” gathering. I thought that sounded splendid after spending what felt like eternity with a bunch of blue-haired Methodists, so I quickly made my way to the basement of a nearby building. I assumed the designation “Young Adult” meant that I would be spending time with people in their mid-twenties to early-thirties, but it was just a bunch of high-schoolers and myself. Nevertheless I had a wonderful time with the group as we talked and prayed together for the future of the church.

That night I had one of the most powerful conversations of my life with a 16 year old boy named Sam. After introducing ourselves to one another, Sam informed me that this was his 8th Annual Conference in a row. He came for the first time when he was 8 years old and had come back every summer. I immediately thought he was crazy! Annual Conference, for me, can be a life-giving endeavor while at the same time a constant reminder of the brokenness of our church. But he wasn’t crazy. He was faithful.

I saw in his eyes a sincerity about the value of conferencing so I asked him to explain what it meant to him. He said, “Going to church every week has done a lot to help me grow in faith, but being around the same people all the time just kind of felt boring. But when I come here, I encounter thousands of Methodist from all over Michigan who have given their lives to Jesus, I sing with the faithful remnant and our voices echo like the angels in heaven, I discover that I am part of something so much bigger than myself.”

I was stunned. While I felt apathetic and cynical about Annual Conference, this young man had discovered, and grabbed hold of, what it could be.

Our conversation continued and he told me that about a year prior he started wrestling with a call to ordained ministry. How perfect – here I was a young seminarian responding to the call of God on my life and I had the opportunity to share this moment with a faithful and clearly gifted young man.

But I’ll never become a pastor.” He said.

“What are you talking about?” I nearly shouted. “In just a few minutes you have articulated a deeper faith than many Christians I know. You have all the potential in the world to be a gifted pastor. Are you worried about how much it will cost? The conference can help you out. Are you worried about how much work it will take? God will give you the strength to make it through.”

No” he sighed. “I’m gay.

I’m gay and I’m open about it. I am not ashamed of who I am and how God made me. But I also know that if I’m openly gay I can never become a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

I was speechless. This young man felt so committed to the church that he had attended Annual Conference eight years in a row, and yet he knew that same church believed there was something wrong with him. I didn’t know what to say in return. How could he be sitting with me in the midst of all this denominational stuff knowing what the denomination believed?

In reaction to my silence he continued, “When I told my family, they disowned me, told me I was wrong and that I had lost my mind. But my church… they welcomed me just as I am. My church has become my new family. But that same church says I can never become a pastor and that who I am is incompatible with Christian teaching.

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The story of Jesus with the crowds is a strange one. We hear about demons and Beelzebub and Satan and we immediately wonder what it means. But Satan does not necessarily mean a person with horns and a bifurcated tail, but the name does represent a demonic power that attempts to divide us from the Lord. Satan is anything that separates us from doing what is right, and good, and true.

The powers of Satan, demonic powers that capture our attention cause us to hurt ourselves, others, and our relationship with God.

There is the demonic power of Racism – which tells us to believe and act as if one group’s pigmentation or cultural values are superior to another.

There is the demonic power of Patriarchy – which tells us that men should dominate women.

There is the demonic power of Materialism – which tells us that the accumulation of wealth and goods will bring us everything we need to be happy.

And there is the demonic power of Homophobia – which tells us that anything outside of male-female relationships is an abomination.

Whether or not we believe that Satan is a real person acting in our midst is not as important as recognizing our captivity to powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to affect our lives everyday.

Regrettably, churches are often the focal arena where these powers take hold: hostility, fear, and anger boil over between groups debating the value of human beings. Yet, through the story of Jesus with the crowds, we learn that the powers of Satan must be recognized and confronted if we are to truly experience the incredible love of God.

Jesus’s family tried to stop him. Just like a racist white mother tries to stop her daughter from going on a date with a black man. Just like a homophobic father berates his son for holding hands with another boy. Just like a liberal college student chastises his parents for being too conservative. Jesus’ family tried to stop him. Sam’s family tried to stop him too.

Living out our faith means discovering a new solidarity with ALL of God’s people; all of humanity. Jesus bids us to cry with those who are suffering and rejoice with those who feel free to live their lives as they are. Jesus asks us to look on the people around us who are different from us and love them because they are different from us.

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Whether we admit it or not, we are products of our families and culture. We might believe in the idea of equality, but we grow hesitant because we were cultured into things like racism, and homophobia, and materialism, and sexism. We were taught by the people around us, not because they were evil, but because they were caught captive to the same evil powers that are desperately seeking our allegiances.

The problem with families today is that we don’t challenge ourselves enough to be better. Jesus was not against his family, but he saw them as a challenge to the kind of community and kingdom he was preparing. Today we still face the challenge of how our families prevent us from seeing one another the way God see us: equal.

Wrestling with the powers of the world is difficult. The story of Jesus being accused of having a demon is not easy to handle. Learning about a young man who loves the church in spite of it’s declaration about his identity is sad.

But they also remind us of the great possibilities for hope, love, and recreation in God’s kingdom. They help us to see the moments where we can become better, opportunities for us to dig deeper in our faith, and occasions to say “Yes” to the wonder of God’s kingdom while saying “No” to the backwards values of the past.

Jesus Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings, came into the world to turn it upside down, to show us the way the truth and the life, and to create a new family where ALL are welcome. And all means ALL. Amen.

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Love > Knowledge – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 8.1-9

1 Corinthians 8.1-9

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that, “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us closer to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

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Here’s the situation: The church in Corinth had lots of issues and Paul, as an apostle, wrote to them addressing a number of concerns and problems. At times he wrote about sexual immorality, at others he wrote about the importance of inviting everyone to receive the Lord’s Supper, but here in chapter 8, he brings up the issue of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols.

In Corinth, the elite would sacrifice their livestock to idols and then share the food with others. For some of the Corinthians they believed it was perfectly fine to eat the meat because they knew there is only one Lord and eating food would never bring them closer to God. However, others believed that if they ate some of the meat that was formerly sacrificed, they would be supporting the belief system in idols and would therefore be committing heresy.

Is this still an issue for us today? Unless your butcher is praying to satan before he/she presents your beef, then this probably does not affect you. However, this passage is not merely just about meat sacrificed to idols, and in fact is still relevant to us today.

When I moved into the parsonage I was very excited. I had spent my entire life either living with my family, or sharing apartments with roommates. For the very first time I would be living in a house, with a yard that I could take care of, with a fireplace that I could actually burn wood in! I would be living on a street with neighbors, and I casually day dreamt about someone knocking on the door to ask for some sugar. Staunton was going to be my Mayberry.

Yet, after moving everything in and getting settled I still felt isolated. I had our church community, of course, but I really wanted to meet my neighbors and create new relationships. I waited for them to stop by the house, but no one ever came.

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That’s when Lindsey and I decided to throw the first ever Bowie Street Bash. We actually wanted it to be David Bowie themed, but we were a little worried how our neighbors would respond to me dressing up like Ziggy Stardust complete with tights pants and a lightning bolt across my face. So instead we just made simple invitations to spend a Sunday afternoon together at the parsonage in order to have some fun.

Everyone came and we had a blast. We shared stories and talked about what Staunton used to be like. I saw in my neighbors true friends and realized that I was going to love living on this street.

When things were starting to wrap up, and each neighbor was preparing to head home, we said our goodbyes and promised to get together again sometime soon. However, before one of my neighbors left, she asked if she could speak to me for just a moment.

I don’t know if you drink.” she said, “but if you do, I want you to know that you are more than welcome to put your empty beer bottles in our recycling bin.

I stood there mystified. Why in the world would she offer her recycling bin for our bottles? But before I could even ask, she answered my question: “Some of your church members are known for doing drive-bys to see what you’re really up to.

Can we, as Christians, properly fit into the world of our surrounding culture? What are the lines to be drawn between accommodation to the reality of culture and unacceptable compromise?

For instance: That afternoon I began to wonder about whether or not we, as Christians, can drink alcohol. There are plenty of verses in scripture that speak against it: Do not drink because it leads to debauchery (Ephesians 5.18); Your body is a temple (1 Corinthians 6.19); etc. And there are plenty of verses that allow for it: Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2.1-11); Jesus shares wine with his disciples during the last supper (Matthew 26.17-30); etc.

The question at hand is this: Have we grown too comfortable with our cultural setting?

Almost every Sunday I have someone approach me after worship to apologize for not being here the previous week. Now I want you all to know that I love each and every one of you, but I do not take attendance at church. When some of you have explained and rationalized your lack of attendance, I honestly did not remember that you were not here with us.

“Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our grandchildren were in town and we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible”, “Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our son had a basketball game on Sunday morning and we wanted to support him.” , “Taylor, sorry I was not here last week, I overslept and would not make it in time for worship.”

I almost always respond with an affirmation of your lack of attendance by saying, “you were where you needed to be!” Most of the time I truly believe what I say, but sometimes I wonder… Have we grown so comfortable with our surroundings that church has become just something to do? Or do we believe it is the location of where we discover something worth living for?

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Paul feared how much the Corinthians were growing comfortable with their surroundings. Many professed a strong knowledge that there was only one God, so whenever they ate meat sacrificed to idols they knew what it really was. Paul commends them for their knowledge but then challenges them to see that their wisdom is not enough to help those young and weak in their faith.

You might know that you can drink responsibly, but would you offer wine to a recovering alcoholic? You might know that you love PB&Js, but would you serve one to someone with a peanut allergy?

Each of us has a stumbling block and it might be very different from the people in the pews with us.

Maybe you struggle with alcohol. Perhaps you are guilty of lusting after what others have. Some of us might fret too much about the way we look before we leave the house. A few of us might spend more time worrying who will win the Superbowl than we do about the people wandering around downtown who won’t have a warm place to sleep tonight.

1 Corinthians 8 encourages us to shine a light on our lives to see whether or not we are eating in the temples of the idols that surround us.

One of the most frightening forms of idolatry for churches today is the overwhelming power of materialism. Christians, whether we like to admit it or not, are enmeshed in economic practices that draw our loyalty away from Christ and divide the community by disregarding the poor and the needy.

Other than the irony of fighting for deals on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday is a sobering reminder of the power of materialism in our world today.

Tonight, Americans will eat 14,500 tons of Potato Chips, enough to fill 39 Boeing 747 Airplanes. We will eat 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, which could fill 13.5 million large buckets of popcorn from the movie theater. We will eat 4 million pizzas, which (when stacked on top of each other) would be taller than 910 Leaning Towers of Pisa. We will drink 325.5 million gallons of beer, which could fill 500 olympic size swimming pools. And we will eat 1.23 billion chicken wings, literally enough to give every person in the United States three wings each. (http://mashable.com/2015/01/28/super-bowl-food/)

What does it say about our culture when tonight we, as a country, will eat so much when so many go without food? And don’t even get me started on the commercials; millions upon millions of dollars have been spent for 30 seconds of ad space when people in our country cannot afford to go to the doctor when they are sick.

Love is greater than knowledge.

Love is more important than our looks, football games, our jobs, alcohol, and everything else in all creation. Love is what sets the church apart from the rest of the world. Love is what conquers all things and helps to show the world turned upside down.

Knowing all about the Civil Rights movement means nothing when we speak in prejudiced tones about people who do not look like us.

Knowing all about the importance of feminism means nothing when we still degrade women in the workplace and pay them at a lower percentage than their male counterparts.

Knowing all about the plight of the poor and needy in Staunton means nothing when we neglect to actually do something about it and let our love become manifest.

All of us will profit from looking in the mirror of 1 Corinthians 8 and asking whether there are ways in which we are using knowledge as a weapon rather than as an instrument of love.

Can we drink as Christians? Can we work hard to earn tremendous amounts of wealth? Can we watch the Superbowl and host big parties? Of course we can, so long as things like alcohol, money, and the Superbowl do not become idols that we worship more than the Lord of life.

The idols in our lives will never bring us closer to God. The more time we spend in culturally accepted practices that are disconnected from discipleship, the further we move away from the Lord. For the church in Corinth, they knew that food would not bring them closer to God whether from meat sacrificed to idols or not. Thanks be to God that the meal we will share in just a few moments will no longer be food, but instead it will be the body and blood of Christ.

When we gather at the table, love truly trumps knowledge. All of the idols of life fall away and pale in comparison to the gift of God on the cross for people like you and me. The table is where we discover what love really looks like; sacrifice, faithfulness, and hope.

We have set up a mirror here at the front of church. When you come up to receive the body and blood I encourage you to take a moment to look at yourself in the mirror, open your eyes to your life and see your own stumbling blocks. Let 1 Corinthians 8 be the mirror by which you begin to wrestle with the idols you worship, so that you can turn back to the Lord and let love be greater than knowledge. Amen.