Billboards In The Kingdom

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and the sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

I have a love-hate relationship with church signs and billboards.

Every once in a while I’ll pass by a church with a sign that just knocks me back with laugher. I’ll never forget the time I was driving, soon after receiving my driver’s license, and I passed a local Presbyterian church with a sign that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites… there’s always room for more!”

And then there are the witty signs that are biblically accurate and memorable. For instance: I was lost driving through the middle of nowhere Virginia and I saw a handwritten sign in the front yard of a very small chapel that said, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming!”

Or there are those that just hit a little too close to home: “Having trouble sleeping? We have sermons. Come hear one!” or the equally pastoral: “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our pastor.”

And then there’s those signs where you can’t help but wonder what led someone to put that up for everyone in the world to see. Like: “Don’t let worries kill you, let the church help” and “God answers our kneemail” and “Can’t take the heat outside? This church is prayer conditioned.”

But there is one church sign that takes the cake, one sign that was so poignant that it has stuck with me over the years. In big blocky letters it said, “To whomever stole our AC unit. Keep it. You’ll need it where you’re going…”

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And for every funny, and witty, and strange church sign, there are an equal number of terrible, shameful, and problematic church signs.

I can remember driving with my family years and years ago when I saw a church with a sign that said, “No gay marriage: it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”

There was quite a controversy a few years ago in a small southern community where a few teenagers died in a car accident and a local church put up a sign the next day that said: “Honk if you love Jesus! Text while driving if you want to meet him!”

And last weekend, while I was driving down to Durham, NC, we passed a huge billboard in Richmond that said, “The End is near! Accept Jesus or go to Hell.”

These billboards and church signs shout at passing cars and pedestrians about the brokenness of the world and the desperate need to change here and now. They play into our fears and frustrations, they tap into our emotions, and they make it all about us.

Notice, the signs I described, they’re almost all about our experience, and our need to change, and our sin. Very few church signs are actually about God.

How strange.

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And, because we take our lessons from the world around us rather than from God’s Word, we’ve let this slip off the billboards and into the church. So much of what we do on Sunday mornings has become primarily focused on our experience.

We ask questions like, “What did you get out of church today?” when it’s actually about what God gets out of us.

We preach and hear sermons that end with “let us now go and do likewise” instead of reflecting on how God is the one moving in and through us.

We make church all about us, instead of about God.

Our text from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is apocalyptic. Apocalyptism is one of the frightening words we tend to avoid at all costs. When we hear the word our minds immediately flock to frightening movie scenes, and fire raining from the sky, death and destruction all around. We think about the people wearing signs on street corners or the not-so-subtle church billboards near the highway.

But apocalyptic writing is nothing more than the revelation of God. It is an experience of the presence of the divine that breaks down every barrier for humans in the universe.

These kind of writings and reflections rise to the surface whenever Christians feel pressured by the world; when oppressive regimes like Rome, or slavery, or the system itself rises to power, they put all of life’s choices into the binary of God or the devil. And hope for God’s in breaking, God’s revelation, may be all that keeps us going when everything feels like it’s falling apart.

It should come as no surprise that considering what has taken place across the American landscape over the last year, many people, Christians in particular, believe we are in the end times.

Evangelicals feel attacked and belittled by the federal government for just about everything under the sun.

Pastors lament from the pulpit about the so-called war on Christianity or the war on Advent and they strive to frighten their people into recognizing the apocalypse at hand.

Even Roy Moore, the current Alabaman Republican candidate for a Senate seat, in light of all the accusations coming in for sexual harassment and misconduct, he has denied them vehemently and labeled them an attack on his Christian identity and virtue.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Manipulation always takes place when individual fears are tapped into.

That’s why political races are won by showing what’s wrong with the other candidate rather than addressing what a particular candidate wants to see happen.

It’s also why children are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety in modern history because they feel pressured to perform well, rather than being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.

And it’s why churches put up big billboards with slogans like “Accept Jesus or Suffer The Consequences” rather than “Jesus loves you.”

Today, there is so much going on that there is plenty of pressure for us to forget that we are citizens of the age yet to come.

Fear is powerful.

And even here in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonicans, he appeals to their fear:

You all of all people know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The world might seem nice and good, but that’s exactly when the sudden destruction will arrive, like labor pains in a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

            But unlike the billboards that speckle our American landscape, unlike the 24-hour news cycle that is almost entirely devoted to political fears, Paul raises the issue of revelation not for fear mongering, but for encouragement.

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The world might be falling apart, but we are not in darkness. We are children of the light and children of the day. We cannot become blind to who we are and whose we are, we must remember our truest identities and what has been done for us. So, let us clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet we shall wear the hope of salvation. For God has destined us for greater things; not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, do the good and right work of encouraging one another, and build up each other.

Paul, throughout the centuries, fills our ears with the very words we need to hear: Stay the course, remember we belong to the light, trust God and trust God’s promises, build the kingdom, love one another.

All of those things would be far better on a church billboard than most of the stuff we see on a regular basis.

On Sunday afternoon, shortly after most of us left the church, I received a phone call from our Secretary, Louise. Now, to be clear, Sunday afternoons are holy times for clergy people as they struggle to keep awake after struggling to keep people like you awake during church. So when I receive a phone call on a Sunday afternoon, right after being in this space with all of you, I know it’s important.

I answered my phone and Louise quickly filled me in one what had taken place right after I left… A drunk driver had crashed into our church sign.

When he came down the road he was traveling at such a high speed that when he smashed into the brick and mortar sign, it flipped the vehicle and it flew another 30 feet before it finally came to stop.

Police officers were on the scene and the driver had already been rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. He thankfully only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but when I got on the phone with the first officer he kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s lucky to be alive.”

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Thankfully, our sign that now stands broken and cracked on the corner of our property is not filled with any of the hateful rhetoric found on some other billboards. I say that with gratitude because the guy who crashed last Sunday easily could’ve died. He was going fast enough to end his life. And as I thought about what happened this week, as I read through Paul’s letter, I kept thinking about how terrible it would’ve been if those kinds of words were the last he ever saw.

Friends, life is far too short to be filled with negativity and fear and belittling attacks meant to manipulate. There is enough anxiety already in the world today. And when we think that all of this church stuff is up to us, and to us alone, we only increase the pessimism that so controls the world.

Paul writes to the church, and to us, and boldly declares that we have received a great gift in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been awakened to God’s movements in the world, we have the privilege of living as God’s people in the light, and we get to experience the profound and wonderful mystery of resurrection here and now in and through one another.

We can, like others, spend our days worried about what will happen to us when we die. We can fall prey to the fearful signs that fill the horizons. But Christ died so that we may live.

Therefore, instead of breaking one another down, we build one another up. Instead of using fear to manipulate others, we give thanks for the love of God that has no end. And instead of cowering in the shadow of the cross, we rejoice in the light of the resurrection. Amen.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.

Go and Lo – Sermon on Matthew 28.16-20

Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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I disliked the orthodontist. Every month I would see the appointment on the calendar and I dreaded moving closer and closer to the date. I often thought of excuses that could get me out of going, but I would inevitably have to return at some point to have my braces examined, shifted, and adjusted. Going to the orthodontist was dreadful because I knew, no matter what, I would walk out with my mouth hurting. Going to the dentist was fine, you get you teeth checked and cleaned, but the orthodontist… he was going to put pliers into my mouth and adjust all the little metal bits that were stretching all over my teeth.

When I think back on the orthodontist, it wasn’t so much the pain that I dreaded, but the entire experience. I can vividly recall the frighteningly exaggerated images of people smiling with dreadful teeth in a “before” image alongside of the perfectly straight and whitened smile in the “after” picture. I remember the orthodontist doing magic tricks in the waiting room in order to calm down the terrified children that only went to further their anxieties. But most of all, I remember the poster on the wall by the chair I sat in every month.

When it was my turn to take the seat, I would be propped back and told to wait for a few moments. From that position I could only see one thing, month after month, mocking me from the wall: The popular poem “Footprints

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the poem; the text is often set above an image of a beach or a sunset. But in case you’ve never been lucky enough to experience the poem I will share it with you now…

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One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I disliked the orthodontist, but I loathed this poem. Month after month it sneered down from the wall as if it was mocking me and challenging me to accept my fate. What kind of twisted orthodontist places a poem about being carried through suffering on the wall by the chair with knobs, pliers, and wires with a bright light hanging above as if to interrogate you? But there was the poem. Even when I closed my eyes I could still see the text, the badly cropped image of the footprints in the sand, never leaving me alone.

As I grew older I continued to resent the poem, perhaps because of my mental association of the words with the orthodontist, but I also came to dismiss the poem in light of its cliche and trite claims. To me, it always sounded like the type of thing that an incompetent and bored pastor would offer a grieving family in the wake of a loss.

I can’t stand the poem. But what drives me craziest about it, is the fact that its true. Even with its overly simplistic explanation, with its trite metaphorical conclusions, with its cliche affirmations, it is absolutely true. In the midst of our sufferings it can be very difficult to experience God’s presence, but when we look back, when we reflect on the troublesome moments of life, we can see that it was God who carried us through. “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Make-Disciples

The end of the gospel according to Matthew. Mark ends abruptly with the women running from the tomb say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Luke ends with the people constantly praising in the temple for all they had seen and witnessed. John ends saying the gospel could not contain everything that Christ said and did. But Matthew’s gospel ends with the promise of the never-failing presence of Christ. 

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, as they had been told to do, and there on the mountain the saw the risen Christ and they worshipped him, though some doubted. And Jesus told his friends, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Even though they were in the presence in the resurrected Christ, even though many of them worshipped him, some doubted. There will always be those who question what they worship. Faith is never as perfect and clear as we like it to be; our ways our cloudy and the ways of God are a great and deep mystery. With worship and reverence, doubt is almost always waiting in the shadows, prepared to creep in at our most vulnerable moments.

However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Show me a person without doubt and I will show you their lack of faith. Doubt helps fuel our faith because it encourages us to question and ponder. Doubt cannot be overcome with arguments, logic, speech, sermons, and reason; the best bible studies and preaching cannot erase our most fundamental doubts. Instead, we need to bring our doubts out of the shadowy recesses of our minds, and venture with them toward God in prayer.

And while some doubted, Jesus gave them their final commandment: Go therefore and make disciples. The church that is not going out, the church that is not on the move sharing the story, is not the trinitarian and believing church that Christ is talking to. We were not told to build a nice and beautiful church in the Shenandoah valley, show up for an hour on Sunday mornings, remember the same story over and over, surround ourselves with people who look, act, and talk just like us, and then return home until the following week. We have been told to GO! Share this incredible story with people who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We often treat this building/sanctuary like our home. We find comfort here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some of you say, “When I sit in these pews, when I see the Good Shepherd stained glass, it feels like I’m home.” But my friends, if we hear anything that God is saying today it is this: home is on the go, home is where we meet God in others outside of this place. 

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Even when you feel like God is gone, when you feel lonely and abandoned by your Creator, God is still there. There are always days of faith, and days of doubt; days of peace, and days of war; days of joy, and days of sorrow. The end of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even when we share the story with someone and feel as if we have failed to convey the gospel, we are not alone. God is with us, even to the end of the age. We have been baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have been brought into the protection and possession of God, we are incorporated into the church and have been surrounded by a new family that has vowed to keep us close, raise us in faith, and nurture us in love.

The disciples’ journey to share the good news with the nations was not an easy adventure. The books of Acts reminds us again and again how often the disciples were harassed, ignored, and persecuted. I am sure that, at the ends of their lives, many of them wondered why God had abandoned them at their worst moments. Perhaps some of them were fortunate enough to hear those familiar words: “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Many years ago a man named Samuel Morrison spent 25 years of his life as a Christian missionary in Africa. Maybe, while a younger man, he had heard the words that we read today: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Maybe he felt the call of God to do exactly that and left behind the familiarity of home to be Christ’s body for the world.

After 25 years of giving it his all, it was time to return home. There had been days of great success where Samuel had brought many to the knowledge and love of God, but there were also days of great suffering and fruitlessness. When it came time to go home, he boarded his ship and bid farewell to his missionary field of Africa.

And so it came to pass that Teddy Roosevelt was on the same ship with Samuel Morrison returning from a three-week hunting adventure in Africa. Whether they knew about one another’s presence or not, they both sailed across the Atlantic back to the United States.

When the boat arrived in New York City, Samuel was thrilled to discover countless individuals who had gathered at the port with banners and signs echoing cries of “welcome home!” He even noticed a band playing on the dock in celebration of a successful voyage. Samuel’s spirits were high and he truly felt the love of God in his soul.

However, when Samuel made his way down the steps off of the ship, he was disappointed to discover that the crowds, and the signs, and the band were all for Teddy Roosevelt. Thousands had gathered to welcome home a man who had been hunting and killing animals for three weeks; Samuel Morrison had spent 25 years sharing the Word of God, and no one was waiting for him.

He weaved his way in and out of the crowd, disappearing into the shadows, and was quickly lost in the multitudes. Samuel Morrison felt abandoned by God. He found himself walking through the empty streets and alleys of New York praying and disappointed in God. “Why God? Why have you left me alone? Where are you now? I did what you called me to do. I left everything behind to follow your Son and this is what happens when I return home? I gave 25 years of my life for your kingdom! Where are you!?”

Silence. Samuel Morrison walked in silence after screaming out to the Lord and demanding to know what had happened. He continued to walk alone until he heard a small voice, as light as the wind: “I am right here my Son, and you are not home yet.

Amen.