The Judged Judge

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Beth Demme about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Beth is a Licensed Local Pastor in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ministry mistakes, something from nothing, burning the patriarchy down, good guests, equitable equality, divine judgment, essentials for life, being between two trees, peace in the kingdom, and losing control. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Judged Judge

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Do Pastors Fail?

Yep.

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I was recently invited to join the one and only Todd Littleton on the Patheological podcast to discuss the strange, and often avoided, subject of pastoral failure. Many of us are all too familiar with the failure made manifest in places of church leadership like adultery and embezzlement. Those I would categorize as moral failures. But there are other failures as well.

During our conversation Todd and I cover a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, and how I’ve grown from them. I fundamentally believe our mistakes make us better pastors/Christians AND that we need communities to help us see our failures and push us toward better solutions. Otherwise we pastors run the risk of falling into a frightening statistical category: 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month in this country never to return again.

If you would like to listen to our conversation, you can do so here: Pastors Fail?

I highly suggest subscribing to Todd’s podcast – he strives to provide conversations for the pastor/theologian and it has been a tremendous help to me in the past.

Devotional – Jeremiah 1.9-10

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.9-10

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and the plant.”

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Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” His quote is remarkably indicative of what our contemporary experience is like with new projects constantly fading away into obscurity. For instance, while the world tunes in for the Olympic games in Rio, the former Olympic site in Athens, Greece is falling apart and is being used as a living area for Syrian refugees. Millions are spent on building the stadiums for the Olympics, and within a decade most of them start crumbling.

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In our churches this same type of behavior is common. Whenever a new opportunity for ministry pops up it garners support from the majority of congregations. Money will come in, people will volunteer their time, and the project usually bears fruit. However, after a program loses its luster it (like Olympic sites) begins to fade away from focus and fails to bear the fruit that it once did.

Moreover, the same principle holds true for our own discipleship. Whenever we encounter a new spiritual discipline, or a new bible study, it captures our initial interest and we start to grow more in our faith. We might commit to praying every morning as soon as we wake up, and for the first few weeks it is incredibly life giving. But as time passes, and the new behavior feels more like an old routine, we stop giving it our full attention and effort.

We like building, but we don’t like maintenance.

When the Lord first called Jeremiah to be a prophet, he gave him a difficult task: “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah’s mission would not be limited to starting new programs and building new buildings alone. Instead, he was tasked with the even harder work of maintaining the people by plucking up and pulling down practices and behaviors that were no longer bearing fruit. He had the unenviable responsibility of maintaining what the Lord had created by destroying and overthrowing whatever stood in the way of God’s will.

What kind of maintenance work are we avoiding? What do we need to pluck up and pull down in our churches for them to truly become the body of Christ for the world? What do we need to destroy and overthrow in our lives to become the disciples that God is calling us to be?

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

10 Things I Learned From My Second Year Of Ministry

Last year my friend, peer, colleague, and theological-hero Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) asked me to write a post on ten things I learned my first year of ministry. Next week marks the beginning of my third year as a United Methodist pastor so I decided to write another post on ten things I learned during year two.

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1.       The Church Is Huge

How do you measure the size of a church? Is the church as large as the Sunday worship attendance? The membership role? Throughout the last two years I have realized that the church is almost always larger than I think it is. I’ll be out somewhere with my wife when a stranger will ask if I am the pastor of St. John’s. Between our preschool and missional involvement, the community of faith (also known as the church) has connections with people all over the place. It is always important for me to remember that I have been called to serve the needs of the community, which is usually larger than I think it is.

2.       Praying Is As Important As Breathing

The Bishop for the Virginia Annual Conference, Young Jin Cho, is known for saying “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations.” And he’s right. Prayer, and other spiritual disciples, are immensely important for the work of ministry and the local church. I strive to begin every morning in the sanctuary with time dedicated to prayer. If I neglect this discipline it has a negative impact on the rest of my day. Like feeling short of breath, I am not as active nor am I as attuned to the Spirit’s work in my midst. Regular prayer is as important to discipleship as breathing is to living.

3.       Collaboration > Competition

There are a lot of churches in the community I serve (I can see four different steeples from my front yard). I have heard on a number of occasions that there are more churches in Staunton per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no way to confirm whether or not this is true, but just driving around town leads me to believe that it could be true. Over the last two years I have had the privilege of working with other pastors to help live into the kingdom of God here on earth. When we work in collaboration, and stop seeing each other as competition, we participate in Jesus final prayer: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17.23) If the church wants to thrive, then we need to realize that we are all in this together, regardless of our denominational affiliations.

4.       Weddings Are Hard

Compared to some of my colleagues I have done a high number of weddings during my short time in ministry. At the age of 27 I meet a lot of people who are nearing their wedding and I am often asked to officiate. I love celebrating the covenant of marriage, but it can be very hard. What an average person experiences during a wedding is a beautiful thing, but it requires a tremendous amount of planning and work to go well. Not only do I have to take the time to meet with the couple ahead of time for premarital counseling, but I want to make sure that I give them all that I can to make their day worthy of God’s blessing. The metaphor of a shepherd with sheep finds its fullest meaning during weddings when I feel like I am primarily a people-mover. Weddings are great, but they can be hard.

5.       Funerals Are Harder

I once heard a pastor say, “I would take a funeral over a wedding any day.” That comment confused me when I heard it for the first time, and still confuses me to this day. During my first year of ministry no one passed away within the community of faith, and I therefore was not required to preside over a funeral. During my second year of ministry I had 14 funerals. Most of the people had lived long and full lives, but that does not diminish the amount of grief that our community has experienced over the last year. It is such a privilege to be invited into the midst of such uncertainty in people’s lives, but it is also incredibly difficult. I spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for every funeral because I believe in the incredible importance of celebrating every life, death, and resurrection.

6.       Trust Happens

Over the last two years I have lost track of how many times I have heard someone say, “You’re the first person I’ve ever shared that with.” It happens on a regular basis that an individual will come to my office, share a vulnerable story, and then slowly realize that they had never shared that with anyone. Regardless of what I say of Sunday mornings, or even how I pray, people trust the office of pastor. There is an acceptance of confidentiality and a comfort of confession that takes place in my office that I am rarely prepared for. Trust happens all the time and it is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others.

7.       Change Happens

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Just because something worked the first year, it doesn’t mean that it will work the second. And just because something failed the first year, it doesn’t mean that it won’t succeed during the second. For example: During my first Good Friday I carried a cross on my shoulder through the greater Staunton community and received almost no response. People avoided me on the streets, averted their eyes, and acted as if I was invisible. This year I did the same thing on Good Friday and people would not stop talking to me! People wanted to know what I was doing, offered to pray with me, and I even shared the story of Jesus with a woman who started crying when she saw me on the street. Change happens in ministry and that is a good thing! If doing church was just about maintaining the status quo year after year, we would cease to be fruitful for God’s kingdom.

8.       I Am My Own Worst Enemy

I know of few vocations where someone has to produce something on such a regular basis and is met with immediate feedback. In two years I have written and preached more than 104 sermons. Every Sunday, within 30 minutes of preaching, everyone lines up to shake my hand and tell me what they thought. I have discovered that the sermons I worried about the most are the ones that were the most life-giving to the congregation, and the sermons I was most confident about meant very little to the gathered body. I am my own harshest critic when it comes to ministerial responsibilities and I have to constantly remind myself of who I am, and whose I am. If I put too much weight on my inner-monologue, I neglect to remember that I am working for the kingdom, and not for myself.

9.       Numbers Are Important [And Dangerous]

Every week churches in United Methodism are required to log their statistical data and send it along to the conference. Though I actively worry about how the measuring of statistical data is negatively affecting God’s church, it is important because numbers represent people. Whether we like to admit it or not, Jesus commanded his disciples to “go and make disciples.” If we are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones to welcome people into our church and help to grow the kingdom. However, even though numbers are important, they are also dangerous. I have caught myself, on a number of Sunday mornings, counting the number of heads in worship before the opening hymn. And sometimes I let that number have too much of an impact of what takes place after the opening hymn (both positively and negatively). Doing ministry is about living in the tension between growing the vineyard, and nurturing the vines. Numbers are important, but they are also dangerous.

10.   I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Stanley Hauerwas once said that “doing ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” There are days in ministry that affirm his comment, but most of the time it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

With Buttocks Uncovered – Sermon on Isaiah 20.1-6 & Mark 14.51-52

Isaiah 20.1-6

In the years that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it – at that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot from three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be dismayed and confounded because of Ethiopia their hope and of Egypt their boast. In that day the inhabitants of this coastland will say, ‘See, this is what happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’ “

Mark 14.51-52

And a certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

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This morning we conclude our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I have mentioned previously, this series came to fruition through a desire to proclaim some of the more bizarre texts in church, particularly those that are rarely discussed. There is a wealth of biblical treasure just waiting to be uncovered; this series is our attempt to begin unearthing some of the great moments from the Bible. Our first week we talked about a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep while Paul was preaching, last week we learned about the incident with Elisha and the she-bears, today we conclude by looking at the prophet Isaiah’s naked faith.

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The Lord spoke to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet, “ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot.

On the outside it looks like your typical chapel: painted white with a perfectly trimmed and manicured lawn. When Sunday morning comes the parishioners lazily make their way to the pews in order to prepare their hearts and minds for worship. Located in Ivor, Virginia worship attendance has steadily increased over the last few years as the church has taken very seriously its commitment to “come as you are.” No judgments are made as people enter the sanctuary, they see one another as God’s children, and the community has benefited from this focused ministry.

Whitetail Chapel rests as an example for other churches. They continue to serve the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, and souls, while other churches are just trying to figure out how to stay open. The people who attend the church are excited and jazzed up about their faith, and are known for their willingness to invite anyone they meet to attend.

If any of you were privileged enough to attend one Sunday I believe that it would be a tremendous experience. The preaching would open your hearts to God’s kingdom in the world, the fellowship with other parishioners would cement your importance and vitality to the body of Christ, and you would have a new vision of what the church can be.

However, even with all these accolades, I am positive that the one thing you would remember most about attending Whitetail Chapel is the fact that they worship in the nude…

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Those in attendance in worship do not have to worry about finding something special to wear on Sunday mornings because they strut their stuff in their birthday suits. “Come as you are,” indeed. When asked about why they choose to worship in the nude, the pastor replied, “Some of Jesus’ most important moments happened when he was naked: he was born naked, he died naked, and when he arose he lefts his clothes in the tomb so that he could be naked. If God made us that way, how can that be wrong?”

Some churches take the ministry of the prophet Isaiah a little too seriously.

During a time of revolt, when the people began to act our against the imperial ruling of Assyria, the prophet Isaiah was called to do something very dramatic. Ashdod, a city of strength, began the internal campaign against Assyria and urged for support from the surrounding nations including Judah with the promise that Egyptian and Ethiopian forces would soon come to help. As is common throughout scripture, and even in our lives today, the will and desire of the people did not match up with the ways of the Lord.

The Lord spoke to the prophet Isaiah, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he did so, and began to walk around naked and barefoot. For three years Isaiah rid himself of the clothing and footwear that he had grown accustomed to and continued to embody, nakedly, the calling of the Lord.

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Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered. And when that day comes to pass the inhabitants of the land will say, ‘See, this is what happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’”

During the timespan of the revolt, Isaiah walked around naked to symbolize the captivity that would soon overtake Egypt and Ethiopia, thus warning his people not to trust these allies nor join in the rebellion.

I know we’ve talked about some strange stories recently: A young man falls asleep under the warm glow of lanterns during a late night church service, only to fall out a window, die, and then be brought back to life. A young bald prophet overreacts to a group of young hoodlums and curses them in the name of the Lord to which 2 females bears maul 42 of the young men from the crowd. But today’s reading takes the cake for one of the strangest examples of faith in the bible.

From our modern sensibilities we find it difficult to imagine and believe that a prophet of the Lord, particularly one like Isaiah, would ever do something such as this. Certainly today, no members of the contemporary church would expose themselves to such embarrassing tactics.

This week, in preparation for the sermon, I asked a simple question of the Christians in my life: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for your faith? At first I heard nothing, a fearful sign that perhaps we are not pushing the boundaries for our faith, but eventually some people began to respond. One woman on twitter said, “I took a sabbatical, packed up all my “stuff,” became homeless, and traveled the world for a year following Jesus daily. My mother answered with, “I received Ecoli poisoning while on a mission trip to Guatemala.” And still yet another man said that he had to spend two and a half years in prison before figuring out that God loved him, and had a plan for him.

The craziest thing I have ever done for my faith was carry our confirmation cross over my shoulder throughout Staunton on Good Friday. I arrived at the church around noon, picked up our cross, and began walking. For 3 hours I explored our town by foot with the hope of marking our hallowed day and reminding those in Staunton what Christ did for us. I will freely admit that part of my desire was to upset people, to disrupt the common expectations of a normal Friday afternoon, and to challenge the vision of the church simply being a place where you gather for one hour every week.

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However, I will also admit that I was being selfish while carrying the cross around Staunton. I know that I felt led and called to do so by God, but I recognize that it was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and looking forward to for a number of years. Some small part of me desired that people would recognize that I was the one carrying the cross.

Notice however that the prophet Isaiah had a complete lack of self-consciousness. He was a man with a mission and did not hesitate to accept scorn or derision in following his duty. When the Lord called upon Isaiah to do something bizarre and strange, he did not wait for awhile and weigh the pros and cons of his calling. He did not wait to see if any other opportunities came knocking at his door. He did not fret over what his reputation would look like after his prophetically naked embodiment. Instead, he immediately stripped off his clothing and began to do what the Lord required.

The counter to our story this morning takes place at the end of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus has already been arrested and is being brought to Pilate for questioning, the disciples have all fled for their own safety, when the captors discover a young man who was following them. Wearing nothing but a linen cloth the young man continued to follow Christ even after his closest friends had abandoned him, but when the guards caught hold of him, he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

The young man was sharing in the experience of Jesus. Even when the disciples had left, the young man remained. Yet when the calling got too dangerous, he was ready to run off completely naked. It seems to make sense for the young man and the disciples to flee in order to preserve their own lives, but the followers of Christ are called to lose life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel.

The nude dude from Mark’s gospel is naked and afraid. Isaiah, in stark contrast, is naked and prophetic. Rather than run away from the situation, instead of merely looking out for his life alone, Isaiah was willing to go to extreme measures in order to warn God’s people against putting too much faith in the other nations, rather than the almighty God.

Even with this dramatic and captivating imagery from the life of Isaiah, I believe we can ask about Isaiah’s effectiveness. Remember: we’re talking about a man who walked around naked and barefoot for three years. Isaiah, to all the people, must have appeared crazy and deranged. He must’ve looked like one of those people we are often tempted to ignore in our lives, people who are so zealous and outspoken to the degree that we can pretend they do not exist. But he did what the Lord required.

Even with all the dramatic and captivating elements of our worship service, I believe we can ask about the church’s effectiveness. I am comfortably standing behind a protective barrier surrounded by people who chose to be here this morning. In worship we are caught up and part of the body of Christ who willingly woke up this morning, who decided to come to church, and who yearned to hear God’s Word spoken.

Isaiah’s ministry confronted the fundamental elements of peoples’ lives, he shook everything up with his prophetic vision, and left them with something they would never forget.

Proclaiming the Word of the Lord is not something that can be left up to church worship and preachers alone. This space is sacred for us to gather and be reinvigorated for living out our faith until next Sunday. True transformative ministry takes place out there.

Isaiah’s actions, his willingness to remain naked and barefoot for three years to protect God’s people, ought to shame us into wanting to do more and live out our faith in strong and incredible ways. If we are passionate for Christ to be known, for the kingdom of God to reign, then we must ask how far we are willing to go for our faith.

Not let me be very, very, very clear: I am not saying that we need to loose the sackcloth from our loins and take the sandals off our feet. I am not saying that we need to roam around the hills of Staunton naked and barefoot for the next three years. That was Isaiah’s calling, not ours.

But if Isaiah was willing to go that far for his Lord, how far are we willing to go? Perhaps this morning we are being poked and prodded to be naked with our faith, to be vulnerable with those around us about what the Lord has done for and through us.

What would it look like this week if you asked one person if you could tell them about your faith? Who would you share your faith with? I’m not talking about trying to save someone, or trying to tell them the whole story of both the Old and New Testaments. But what if you sat down and told them what God has down for your life?

I know that for some of us to share our faith in that way would be very uncomfortable. We might rather walk around naked and barefoot for three years than sit down and be vulnerable and open about how God has changed us. 

But if God could save his people from making a terrible alliance through Isaiah, if God could save us from death through Christ on the cross, just imagine what God can do through you.

Amen.

Hairs, Prayers, and Bears (Oh My!) – Sermon on 2 Kings 2.23-25

Strange Stories from Scripture Part 2

2 Kings 2.23-25

He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

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This morning we continue with the second part of our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I mentioned last week, the drive for our sermon series comes from the wealth of scriptural treasure begging to be preached, in addition to my desire to not fall into a rut of preaching the same, favorite, and familiar texts over and over. Last week we talked about the fate of a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep during church. Today we are exploring the story of Elisha and the she-bears.

 

And while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”

In my opinion, this is one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture. I can look into both the Old and New Testaments and find scriptures that challenge my faith, passages that require me to pray for understanding and discernment, there are even passages that I would rather ignore than affirm from a place such as this, but there are few stories as dramatic and frightening as the one we have read this morning.

While Elisha was on his way to Bethel, sweating under the heat of the sun, some young boys came out from the city ahead of him and began to make fun of him. “Get outta here baldy! We don’t want you and your shiny head around us!” Perhaps he tried to ignore them at first, but when the taunting became so distracting and loud, Elisha turned around to face the crowd of young boys and cursed them in the name of the Lord. As if on cue, two mama bears came barreling out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. From there Elisha continued on his journey to Mount Carmel, and then he returned to Samaria.

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Before we can even begin to address what happened on the road we need to go back, we need to get a larger picture of the story.

Elisha followed the reign of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is remembered for bringing a widow’s son back to life, for finding God in the sheer silence, and for confronting idol worshippers. Elijah was a favorite prophet for the New Testament writers who often drew the connection between the prophetic life of Elijah and the messianic life of Christ.

At the end of Elijah’s time Elisha followed him to the Jordan and watched him ascend on a whirlwind into heaven after having received a share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha took up Elijah’s ministry, he literally took Elijah’s mantle with him, and continued to be a messenger and example of God’s Word for the people.

The story of Elisha and the she bears is one of the first things that took place during Elisha’s time as a prophet. As a young and novice messenger, he is making his way to Bethel and other parts of the land to bring the people back to their Lord.

What do you make of this passage? Is it one that you, like me, would rather ignore and pass over? Does it challenge your understanding of God and the role of the prophets? 

For centuries theologians, scholars, pastors, and Christian-disciples have attempted to make sense of this story; they have worked hard to explain what is really going on.

I could begin by telling you that there is more at work in this story than appears on the surface. In Hebrew, the designation for the “small boys” is more akin to “young men” and more particularly young men who do not want the prophet coming to their town to tell them what they have done wrong.

I could continue by showing you that, though Elisha was bald, he was in fact probably only 25 or 26 when this transpired; he was my age when he was taunted for being bald and cursed the young men!

Similarly the point can be made that the harmless teasing was in fact very troubling. They were not merely making fun of his shiny head but were denying his prophetic ability. After taking up his former prophet’s mantle, Elisha was being accosted; in so doing the crowd of young men was not only attacking a young prophet but denouncing the Lord as well.

Moreover I could share with you the simple fact that Elisha did not call out the she bears, he just pronounced judgment on the demonstrators and God decided the form of response. And even when the bears came out of the woods they did not kill 42 of the young men, they simply mauled them. Perhaps God was using the bears in a way that none of the young men would perish, but so that they would all be punished.

Yet, even with all these new details, the story still troubles me.

As I prepared for the sermon this week I consulted numerous commentaries on 2 Kings and I was shocked to discover some of the reflections regarding this passage.

One commentary claimed that Elisha was not the kind of man to summon bears from the woods. The “irreverence, lawlessness, and hoodlumism of youth are sure to result in moral disaster.” The bears function as symbols of the punishment that overtakes vicious behavior. It went on to state that the boys in the story are the prototype for thousands of youth today. Only if they are educated at home, in school, and in church will they be able to avoid the punishment of the Lord that will surely come in one form or another. (The Interpreters Bible, vol. 3)

Another commentary made the same point, but in a shorter and more direct way: Rich and poor, high and low, young and old, ALL must be punished for their transgressions… (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 12)

I went on to consult numerous sermons on the passage and was frightened to discover that most of them, few that they are, articulate a theology that the kids got what they deserved. They might have all ended by saying, “our children, your children, will wind up like those boys because we have failed to train them as polite young people. We need to bring our children to church, and encourage them to bring their friends, so that we can shape their future to avoid the bears of God’s wrath.”

Breathe.

I am now going to do what many of my professors warned me about in seminary, I am going to preach against this text.

Whereas many scholars, pastors, and Christians believe that the children are at fault, (I agree, they are) I believe that Elisha is just as at fault for his quick curse of the bullying boys.

In 2007 Duke University did a study and found that 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% flee before retirement. Many of these pastors that run away from the ministry never return to church. (Read more here: Keeping Your Pastor)

With the rise in expectations of pastoral ministry, coupled with dying churches and lowered pay, its no wonder that many pastors abandon their flock. When many churches are running on financial fumes, while also expecting their pastors to continually go above and beyond their call, the result is a collection of pastors who are burned out and have lost sight of the Lord and their calling.

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I imagine the Elisha felt a lot like ministers in the first few years of their appointments. After all, Elisha found himself following in the steps of the renown and powerful prophet Elijah who no doubt cast a great shadow for the young prophet. Most of the people would be evaluating this young man based on the actions of his predecessors.

This wasn’t something that Elisha inherited but was called into. He could have remained a farmer, tending to the plows with the oxen, but instead he was called out of his life into something new, strange, and at times, terrible.

As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prophet, Elisha had everything to prove. And here in 2 Kings 2 Elisha find himself at the beginning of his ministry filled with passion for the Lord when a crowd of youngsters attack him for that very call.

I think that Elisha’s pride got the better of him when he was walking to Bethel. Unlike the Son of Man who would one day tell his disciples to turn the other cheek and love those who persecute you, Elisha immediately cursed the youngsters and they were mauled.

If this story is about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord, then I would argue that the biggest take away is that we must be very careful with our prayers. God listens to our prayers and He answers them, sometimes in ways that we do not want and sometimes in ways that we do not expect. Be careful what you pray for.

When I arrived at this church I felt very much like what I imagine Elisha felt like at the beginning of his prophetic ministry. I was following in the footsteps of countless pastors who have shaped and nurtured this congregation into what it is today. I recognize that I will always live in the shadow of the likes of Fletcher Swink, Zig Volskis, and Patricia Meadows.

I sat in my office the week before my first sermon and thought about everything I had to live up to. I stewed over what my reputation would be at this place. I over-analyzed every word and sentence for that sermon, fearing how I might be received. 

I stood in this pulpit over a year ago, afraid of how all of you would respond. And, if I’m being honest, I stand here this morning still consumed by thoughts of what you think about these words, my delivery, and the connections with scripture.

Being a pastor is, at times, terrifying. Many weeks pass when I feel like I did not get enough done. There have been a number of Saturday nights that I lay awake in bed rehearsing in my head what I will be saying on Sunday. I have had many tough conversations with families, couples, and individuals about the sins in their lives. There have been countless visits when I wonder if I have actually helped at all.

And its when I reflect on all of these elements of ministry, that I realize how difficult it must have been to be Elisha. I begin to understand why he was so quick to curse those young men who spoke against his calling.

And the more I think about it, the more I see connections not only between Elisha and pastors, but also between Elisha and all of us.

How quick are we to curse those who speak against us? How inclined are we to forget our discipleship the minute our calling is called into question?

I know of an older gentleman who had not exchanged a word with one of his sons in years because of a foolish argument they had in the past. I know a woman who refuses to shop at certain stores in our town because of the color of some of the employees. I know neighbors that never wave or acknowledge one another because one of them went to Virginia Tech and the other went to UVA.

In today’s world it is too easy to put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to shine brightly in the darkness. We set goals for ourselves that are lofty and unreachable. We expect greatness from our lives and the lives around us on a daily basis.

When we get caught up in the expectations of the world that we place on ourselves, we fall into the trap of quickly cursing others around us. When we fail, we jump to blame someone else. When we miss the mark we can come up with a list of excuses faster than we can come up with better solutions.

Being a pastor is hard, but being a disciple is harder. We are called to walk in the world as prophets, seeing this created place through God’s eyes. We have the unenviable task of reaching out to the last and the least and the lost. We have been baptized into a new order where the world has been turned upside down.

When we are accosted for out faith, when we are judged for our Christian allegiance, it will manifest itself in different forms. 

Elisha was made fun of for being bald.

You might be attacked for praying in public, for wearing a cross around your neck. You might be made fun of for offering up your gifts and tithes to a place like the church. You might be judged for praying to a God who often responds in silence.

But nevertheless, we are not called to respond to these threats by cursing on enemies. We have been commanded to love them.

What a crazy and wonderful thing it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.