The Politics Of The Church

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”

The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.

Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.

Freedom.

On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.

In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).

Freedom.

So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.

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In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!

That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.

            Where’s the freedom in that?

And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.

Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.

And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.

This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.

Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.

The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.

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The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”

Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.

Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.

And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.

We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.

Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.

No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.

And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.

We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.

And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.

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Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Romans 4.1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

 

There are many many many versions of Christianity. And not just denominations like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists; even within something like the United Methodist Church there is a great myriad of ideas about what it means to be the church. For instance: There are 7 UMCs in Staunton, and we could all use the same text on Sunday morning, and just about everything else would be completely different from one another.

But the one thing that might unite all churches, almost more than baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or bulletin, or marquee and you can find a self-made description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. Or just try asking someone about their church and you’re likely to hear: “we love everybody!”

In the United Methodist Church, we like to say we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

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What a righteous slogan.

Inclusivity, being open, they’re quite the buzzwords these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know that they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want to the world to know that we care about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is, there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive (including our own).

A couple weeks ago I preached a sermon on the mission of the church. I made the claim that instead of being consumed by a desire to fill the pews, instead of trying to make the world a better place, the church is called to be the better place that God has already made in the world. And as the better place, church should be the one place where no one is ever lonely. I must’ve said that last part no less than three times from the pulpit.

And when we finished worship, most of us walked up the stairs to the Social Hall for a time of food and fellowship. Like we usually do, a long line was formed and one by one we filled our plates and sat down.

The time difference between proclaiming the sermon and sitting down to eat could not have been more than 30 minutes. And yet there was a young family who were here with us in worship for the very first time, who sat alone in our social hall the entire time. And there was an older gentleman, who has served the needs of this church longer than I’ve been alive, who sat by himself for nearly the entire time.

It is not possible for any church, even St. John’s, to be “inclusive” of everyone. And not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We might not judge others for the stereotypical ways often publicized about the church like being homophobic, or racist, or elitist (though there is plenty of that). No, we also reject others for mental illness, politically different or incorrect views, or for poor social skills and status.

We reject people for all sorts of reasons.

Years ago, when I first entered seminary, I went on a bike ride with some friends to another house full of seminarians. We represented the great mosaic of mainline protestant Christianity and we quickly began addressing why each of us was attracted to the particular church we would serve in the future. The Episcopalian talked about her love of the Book of Common Prayer and being united with Christians all over the world who say the exact same words whenever they get together. The Baptist talked about the beauty of believer’s baptism and getting to bring adults into God’s flock.

One of the Methodists, me, talked about the wonder of God’s prevenient grace, a love that is offered to all without cost or judgment. But then I went on to express my chief disappointment: Our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I joked about how many Methodist churches regularly lock their doors, how many of them are filled with people whose minds are already made up about God and others, and how many of them have people with hearts that have no desire to be open to the strange new reality of God’s kingdom.

To be honest, I got pretty fired up about it. After all, it was the beginning of seminary and I was trying to show off.

But I meant what I said. Our slogan is something we can strive for, but it is not a fair description of who we are. There will always be a newcomer who sits in a pew by herself without anyone coming over to say hello. There will always be a family that risks being ostracized by coming to church only to being judged from afar. There will always be sermon series that make people feel like they are not welcome into the fold of God’s grace.

So I went on and on about this until I looked at the other Methodist whose face had turned bright red. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He paused and then said, “My Dad was on the committee at General Conference that created our slogan. I think it’s the best thing about the United Methodist Church.”

We have a slogan, a nice and pretty slogan that we should strive for, but oftentimes we fall short. When we fall short, we do so because of sin. Sin captivates us in a way that makes it virtually impossible for any church to “unconditionally accept” everyone who comes through the door.

We judge others based on physical and outward appearance. We make assumptions about families for a myriad of reasons. We shake our heads in disgust about couples that do not fit the normative mold that society has established.

And we should be cautious about advertising or describing ourselves as such. We might think we’re righteous enough to live by the slogan, we can even hope for it, but we are far from it.

Only Jesus, the one in whom we live and move, is capable of a truly open heart, open mind, open door ministry because Jesus was God in the flesh. Jesus was righteous.

But what about Abraham? Paul uses this part of his letter to the Romans to use Abraham as an example of righteousness. Abraham was the one who was called to leave the land of his ancestors and family to go where God called him. Abraham was the one in whom the covenant between God and God’s people was made. Abraham was the one who was promised to become the father of many nations. Abraham was the one who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Should we follow Abraham’s example? Would that make us more inclusive and righteous? Could we keep our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors?

Here’s the thing: Abraham did nothing to earn this honor and distinction from God. As Paul puts it, Abraham has no ground for boasting.

Whenever we read about the story of Abraham, whether in worship or in a bible study, he is often lauded for his journey into the unknown, for his faith and steadfast commitment to the Lord, and for his perseverance through suffering and tribulation. But his relationship with God, his faith being reckoned as righteousness, is only possible because of God’s faith in him. Abraham is righteous because God called him and empowered him to go into a strange new world.

Abraham, rather than being the perfect model for inclusivity and righteousness and faithfulness, is an example of a justified sinner. Abraham is one of many unlikely individuals whom God reshapes for God’s purposes. Abraham is chosen not because of anything he has done, but because of God who can do anything.

God is the one who worked in and through Abraham’s life, and not the other way around. Abraham does not justify himself, or transform himself, or redeem himself. That’s what God does.

And the same holds true for us today.

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We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.

This passage, this beautiful piece of theology from Romans, is about more than the example of Abraham and why we need to have faith. Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that God made Abraham righteous. That God has freely poured out grace on the ungodly, people like us. And that God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us and to the world is grossly unmerited and undeserved, and yet it is given to us.

She came to church pretty regularly but she kept to herself. She’d sit off at the end of a pew and keep her head down so as not to attract too much attention. Whenever it was time to sing, she would stand up with everyone else but her voice never made it higher than a whisper. When it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer she would properly bow her head and mouth the words. But whenever the congregation was invited to the front to receive communion, she never left her seat.

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Most of the church was preoccupied with thoughts about their own sins or about where they would eat lunch after the service to notice the woman who remained in her pew while they were feasting on the body and the blood. But the pastor noticed.

After a couple months he caught her after church, and wanted to know why she participated in almost every part of worship, but not in communion. She said, “I don’t feel like I deserve it.”

That, my friends, is the whole point. We don’t deserve it. You don’t, and I don’t. None of us have earned God’s salvation, there’s no list of things we can check off in order to get into heaven. This bread and this cup, the cross and the empty tomb, they are unmerited and undeserved gifts from God to us.

We cannot have a church that is open hearts, open minds, and open doors because we are already in it. Our presence, our sinfulness, makes it impossible to be a totally inclusive community.

Only Christ, only God, only the Spirit have open hearts, open minds, open doors. Only the triune God opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. Only the triune God opens up our eyes to view others without judgment or wrath or fear or anger. Only the triune God opens the doors of the church to the faithful community, to feast at the table that gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.

Only the triune God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. To God be the glory. Amen.

 

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The Mission Of The Church

1 Corinthians 3.1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now, you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

When I lived in Harrisonburg, I played drums for a worship service that met every Sunday evening. On Sunday mornings the sanctuary would be packed with individuals and families from the community who would listen to the organ, sing from the hymnal, pray from the pews, and worship together. On Sunday evenings however, we would set up for a very different type of worship service: we had two electric guitars, a bass, a drum set, and a couple singers. Instead of suits and dresses most people came as they were, and instead of the sanctuary being packed, we were lucky if there were more people in the pews than in the band.

The basic worship formula included playing four or so songs, reading scripture, hearing a sermon, celebrating communion, and then playing one more song. Which meant that I spent most of the evenings sitting behind a drum kit looking out at everyone else. From this vantage point I quickly learned who always came late, who refused to sing certain songs, who let themselves go and put their hands in the air to praise, and who pretended to pray while they were actually texting someone on their phone.

I had been playing with the band for a while when I started to notice a young man, probably about my age, who walked in during the first song, and left during the last song every week. We had other people show up for one Sunday a month, or would be there for a couple weeks in a row only to disappear for a months at a time, but this guy was there EVERY WEEK.

Week after week I watched him arrive only to depart before I had a chance to talk to him. But, even though we didn’t talk, his faithfulness was palpable. As a college student, he came to worship week after week while others were choosing to put their allegiances in other places.

When the academic year was coming to a close, the leadership team for the service met to discuss changes for the future. It was abundantly clear that we were not growing and we wanted to make more disciples of Jesus Christ so we started discussing ways we could get more people to join us.

I suggested that we speak to the young man who snuck in and snuck out; after all, he showed up more than anyone else, and I thought he would have some ideas for us.

So the next Sunday, we purposefully ended with a song that did not use the drums so that I could talk to him before he jettisoned out of the sanctuary. We met by the doorway and I introduced myself. I explained that I saw him come in every week, and apologized for not doing more to make a connection. I then launched into a dense theological reflection about why we need more people to come to the service and that all of us thought he would be a great person to speak with. He listened as I went on and on until he raised his hand and said, “That sounds nice and all, but I’m not a Christian.”

            “Not a Christian? What do you mean you’re not a Christian? Why have you been here every week if you’re not a Christian?”

            “I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else, and I don’t have any friends.”

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We, as human beings, want to belong. We want to belong in the worst ways whether we’re in preschool, high school, or it’s been a long time since we’ve been in school. Out of this desire for belonging we join communities: neighborhood associations, sport teams, civic organizations, and even scout troops.

But they tend to disappoint us. We hope for a sense of identity and purpose and community to magically erupt soon after we begin participating, but because people are so focused on themselves, or someone forgets our name, or someone else argues with us over a matter of opinion, we become disappointed and disillusioned. And before long, we fall back into that pit of loneliness.

The same human desire for belonging was apparently true of the folk in Corinth. The church that Paul helped to inaugurate was struggling. The people wanted desperately to belong, to be part of something. And they joined the church, but then (like we always do) they broke up into factions: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos, or some other leader.

One need not stretch the imagination to hear the same sorts of declarations in the church today: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat. Zig Volskis was the best pastor we ever had. Steve Greer was the best pastor we ever had.

Paul caught word of these divisions and wrote to the church: Who do you belong to? Why are you dividing over issues of leadership? I came to you with the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, but clearly it did not take root deep enough. So long as you continue to quarrel you will not be ready to be Christ’s church.

Who do we belong to?

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written out plainly for all to read and understand.

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The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews.

It results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the building. It results in infantile discipleship. It results in working for the numbers, and not the kingdom.

And then we’ve got this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Do we have the church to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our soul purpose? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of difference and peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Of course, the problem is whether or not our experience of the church matches its definition of being the better place.

I suspect that many of you have experienced the church as Paul experienced it: Disagreements, petty arguments, and at times suffocating silence between bickering factions. For some, the pews of the sanctuary are more like walls of division and less like avenues of connection.

If church is the better place that God has already made in the world, then it should, like it was for that young man in Harrisonburg, be the place to cure loneliness. Because loneliness is something all of us have experienced in some way, shape, or form, and is a wound not easily healed.

I spend an hour every week with the youth of our church at our gathering called The Circle. We always have communion and answer questions and study the bible. But we often just talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives. And, without breaking their trust, I’ll tell you: their lives are not easy. There is such a tremendous amount of pressure placed on them by outside forces. They feel compelled and pushed to change their image, the way they talk, the way they think, and even what they believe in order to be accepted.

Some weeks I leave our Circle meeting feeling broken by what they have to endure on a regular basis, only to have a conversation the next day with an adult who is going through basically the same things in a different context.

The world would have us change. Change your image, hide your faults, be someone else.

As Christians, however, we walk with our wounds and our cracks and our brokenness instead of running away from them. We cannot accept who we are until we discover that we are loved by God because of who we are.

The church can be the better place that God has made in the world because the church is the place where we walk with our wounds and loneliness because of Christ and him crucified. The broken and lonely Christ on the cross knows our brokenness and our loneliness. But he also carries our wounds so that we might see the One who truly loves us.

God is transforming the world. God is the one who makes the first last and the last first. God does, and should, get all the good verbs. Our God is a God of action, of change, of transformation. We are the church, we are the vineyard of God’s garden, we plant the seeds, we water the seeds, but God is the one who makes them grow.

You and I, with our sins and our disappointments, with our fears and loneliness, we have a place here. God invites us to the better place where we are welcomed not because we fit the mold, but because we do not fit the mold. We have a place in this better place because we are caught up in God’s great story.

Just look at the cross, consider the waters of baptism. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through the weak and through the shamed; through babies and wandering Israelites; through tax collectors and fishermen; through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

This is the better place God has made in the world. And in this place we remember our baptisms, we remember our death to self and our resurrection in Jesus Christ. We remember our baptism and through that water we remember the story of creation, of the flood, of the exodus. We remember that in our baptism we became part of the body of Christ, the church, where we should never be lonely. Where we should never be made to feel as if we are not enough.

In baptism we joined the better place God has made in this world.

Who then do we belong to?

Do we belong to political rhetoric and partisan ideology? Do we belong to church growth programs co-opted by a desire to see more people in the pews? Do we belong to isolationism or interventionism? Do we belong to a world that pressures us to become that which we are not? Do we belong to Paul or to Apollos? Do we belong to the flesh and are consumed by jealousy and quarreling?

No.

            In this better place, we belong to God. Amen.

 

(With thanks to Jason Micheli, Stanley Hauerwas, and Will Willimon)

Devotional – Psalm 63.3

Devotional:

Psalm 63.3

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
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When we saw the article in the newspaper we knew we had to do something; the local Valley Mission was in desperate need of items for young children and babies. They were thankful for all of the food and adult clothing they had received over the years, but what they really needed were diapers, toys for toddlers, and an assortment of other items.

Two couples at St. John’s are currently pregnant and we decided to harness the excited energy the church is feeling about new life and channel it into blessing the children at the mission. For weeks we have talked about the items needed during worship, we have sent out email reminders, and it has been an integral part of our prayers. Yesterday was the conclusion of the “baby shower” drive and we encouraged everyone to bring their items into the social hall and enjoy some food and fellowship as we prayed over the items before dropping them off.

Honestly, when we make pleas like this from the pulpit, they can often fall flat. It’s not that the congregation is unwilling to bless others; it just falls in among the many needs the community faces. When we hear about how much someone needs something on a weekly basis, it is very easy to just assume that someone else will take care of it.

Therefore, when I entered the social hall after worship yesterday and saw the tremendous amount of items donated I was shocked: Diapers were falling off the tables, crayons and coloring books were stacked on the floor, baby clothes were neatly arranged, in addition to all the other things that were brought in. It was a holy moment seeing all of the material that had been generously donated to bless others.

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When we can connect a need with something tangible, (when we see pregnant women in the sanctuary and imagine how badly other people might need baby supplies) it encourages a profound generosity within us. When we can remember how badly we needed those types of items for our children, it encourages us to do more than usual. When we can truly proclaim that God’s steadfast love has changed our lives, it encourages us to use our lips and our lives to change others.

God’s steadfast love is revealed in the people around us. Whenever we need something and a friend steps up to help out, that is God’s love in action. But God’s steadfast love is also revealed in scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. This week, as we continue on the way that leads to life, let us look for ways to act like Jesus so that others may experience God’s steadfast love through us.

Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.

Stuck With God’s Love – Sermon on Romans 8.31-39

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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I sat in the back of a room filled with sweaty and smelly teenagers. Between the superabundance of Axe Body Spray, the overly-exaggerated expressions of trying to outshine everyone else, and the constant hum of giggling, sighing, and hair flipping, I finally realized what I had gotten myself into: A middle school mission trip to Raleigh County, West Virginia.

We left immediately following worship last Sunday; after talking about Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat I changed out of my robe, rushed home to grab my bags and eat lunch, to return to our parking lot to disembark for West Virginia. Standing by my car I was less than thrilled to discover that our youth were limited in their enthusiasm for our week of service and prayer. Then again, who could blame them? We were about to leave the comforts of Staunton, our families and friends, to sleep on the floors of an old elementary school, preparing all of our own meals, leaving for the bulk of the day to serve the needs of the community, and then to gather every evening in a room full of hormone wrestling middle schoolers.

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Jesus is our demonstration” was the theme for our week. The first night we read about Jesus’ final evening with his disciples when he knelt on the floor and washed their feet. While our youth were nervously creating new friendships with the 60 other youth in attendance, we discussed what it meant for Jesus to do something like that for his friends.  As we learned about the conditions of the first century, how dirty the disciples’ feet must have been, I scanned the room to see how the information was being received. Honestly, most of them weren’t paying attention. It was our first night, many of us had been traveling all day to get there, and the idea of washing someone else’s feet can be terrifying to a middle schooler.

The evening concluded with individual church time as we further elaborated on the ideas we had discussed that evening. When it became clear that the evening’s theological reflections were not completely cemented in our minds, I decided to change the subject and ask a question of everyone from our group: What are you most excited about and what are you most nervous about this week… Our kids were all excited about serving God and neighbor, but almost every person in that room expressed reservations about mixing together with the other churches; our group was much smaller than the others and our kids were mostly introverted. In their responses I heard, beneath their words, a fear that even with their desire to help, God might not be with them. So, before heading to bed we prayed together for the coming week and for our ability to be in ministry with others.

If God is for us, who is against us? 

That first night, it really felt as if God was not with us. In the boys’ room the smells and sounds were already becoming nauseously palpable when I finally had to shout, with vigor and volume, that it was now time for bed. I learned in the morning that the girls’ room was just as bad if not worse; between the gossiping and giggling our females were unable to sleep through most of the night.

However, throughout the first real day of work that question of God’s presence quickly moved from our limited perspective, to the reality of the people we were serving. Where was God in all of this? As the boys helped organize a Salvation Army Thrift Store and the girls sat with underprivileged children attempting to help them read, we all experienced moments of wondering about the goodness of God. I saw youth stand in silent and frightening awe before a warehouse filled with trash unlike they had ever seen before, I saw youth watching the people who filled the Thrift Store the moment it opened to examine the new items that had come in during the weekend. Were these people really blessed by the grace of God?

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Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As the week continued and we spent more time with people in the local community it became harder and harder to see God’s love in their lives. My group, ironically named Mountain Mamas after a line the John Denver song about West Virginia, served a man named Robert whose house was situated in an abandoned neighborhood surrounded by houses that were being taken over by the local vegetation. The first two days we were unable to spend time with him as he had many errands to run but he nevertheless trusted our youth to paint his interior walls and ceiling. Would any of you trust a group of 12, 13, and 14 year olds to paint the inside of your house?

Robert had fallen on both hardship and distress. After years of a seemingly decent marriage his wife had abandoned him to live a life of solitude in a house paradoxically filled with pictures of his entire family. When we finished the ceiling in his kitchen, and began to paint the walls of his living room, Robert was finally able to spend some time with our group as we worked in his house. He often quietly observed from the corner letting the kids do their own thing, but at certain moments he would remove himself from the work space and retreat to his yard.

On one such occasion, toward the end of the week when I felt that I could leave the youth with the paint cans unsupervised, an act of immense trust, I followed Robert outside. I discovered him standing in the front yard looking at the patchy grass between his feet unaware of my presence. “Robert, is everything okay?” I asked. He slowly looked up from the ground and I saw tears welling up in his eyes as his lip began to quiver. “You all don’t know how much this means to me,” he began, “I feel like I’ve been given another chance. It hasn’t always made sense to me, but it seems like I had to fall to the very deepest pit before I could see the light again. You all have given me hope, a new claim on life, and I am so thankful.

When he felt abandoned, when the hardship and distress had brought him to the lowest time of his life, God sent us to serve Robert. God sent a bunch of crazy young Christians to Raleigh County, West Virginia so that we, like Paul, could triumphantly declare a resounding NO. In all these things, in the tremendous valleys of life, when we feel abandoned and alone, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For a few brief moments, we got to be Christ’s body for Robert reminding him of his worth, his value, and his importance.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome to remind them that God is for us. Whatever happens to us that we might imagine as God’s rejection – trials or tribulation, persecution or hunger, hardship or distress – have lost their power to mean that, because God is for us.

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Suffering and destitution are not God’s last Word. God raised Christ from the dead reminding us forever and ever that death is not the end, we are not abandoned by the God who breathed life into us. God’s care for people like us is shown in the power he gives, through his love and grace, to overcome all dangers, all feelings of loss, and all loneliness.

It was our privilege to be Christ’s body for Robert this week. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to serve his needs, to serve the needs of the children in the reading program, and remind all of them of their worth.

However, a strange thing happened during our trip. Even in the midst of helping love on the last, the least, and the lost, I discovered that some from our group were wrestling with some of these things in their own lives. Every evening while we gathered as a church group I was given glimpses of the struggles and valleys in the lives of our people. They might not have the same physical struggles as the people we served, but it was clear that they were unsure of God’s love in their lives.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On our last evening together our church group gathered in a small conference room, sitting in a circle on the floor with the lights dimmed while contemporary Christian music lightly played in the background. A chair was placed in the middle of the circle with a basin of water waiting near the legs. One at a time I invited every member of our group to sit in the chair and we took turns washing one another’s feet. Truly I tell you, there are few things in life as humbling and life-giving as washing, and having your feet washed, by a brother or sister in faith. One by one every member in our group sat in the chair and after their feet were washed we surrounded them and placed our hands on them and prayed for them.

Almighty God, thank you for the gift of Chris in our lives. It has been a tremendous joy to see the way you have moved through him this week as he lead and guided us. For the many ways that he serves you as a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend with give you thanks.

Great God thank you for your wonderful disciple Luke. We praise your name for this young man that you have shaped. His faith is so real and tangible that it gives me hope for your kingdom. He is a blessing to my life and I give you thanks for sending him here this week.

Father of mercy, thank you for your loving servant Tucker. He has so selflessly served the needs of others this week from scrubbing the floor of Robert’s house to befriending some of the outcasts from other churches. He lives out his faith in wonderful and amazing ways. This week could not have been as incredible without him and we are so thankful for all that you are doing through him.

God of grace thank you for Courtney. As she has served the needs of this community we have seen you at work through her. We are blessed by her honesty and willingness to address the truth of our lives. She works hard for the needs of others and so faithfully lives out the call to love you and her neighbor. What a blessing she is to me and my life, thank you for calling her to lead the life that she has faithfully followed.

Most merciful God thank you for the gift of Willow. As a young woman she has so captivated our hearts this week through her commitment to your kingdom. She is so full of light and vibrancy that she changes every life she touches. Our lives would be so dim and lifeless without her and it has been a joy to watch you work through her this week. Thank you for sending Willow into our lives.

Great God thank you for Grace. She is so clearly not a weed but a wheat of faith. Firmly rooted in your love and mercy she has been your Son’s body this week for others and for us. She is a constant reminder of the way you love us, because she places other people’s needs in front of her own. What a joy it is to call her my friend. We are so thankful for all that you have done and will continue to do through her.

It was through tears, through the water of foot washing, and through the faith of prayer that we told everyone in our group what Paul was trying to tell the people in Rome: You are magnificent and God loves you.

Do you know how magnificent you are? Have you ever been able to see yourself the way God sees you? Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not our doubts, not our failures, not our shortcomings, not our sins, not our disappointments; we are stuck with God’s love. 

You are wonderful and unique, full of grace and glory. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do marvelous things through you. My friends I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You are loved, you are wonderful, and you are magnificent.

Amen.

Devotional – Genesis 28.16-17

Devotional:

Genesis 28.16-17

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 

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Next Sunday, after worship, a group from St. John’s will be leaving for Raleigh County, West Virginia for a week of mission work. Mission trips were foundational for my own faith development and I am excited to share a new experience with some of the youth from our church. Part of our time will be spent doing physical work for people in need, but a large portion of our trip will be dedicated to nurturing and fostering relationships with the children of the community. It is my hope and prayer that the youth will have their eyes opened to the ways we are called to serve our brothers and sisters.

One of the problems that faces many mission trips is the idea that, as the “missionaries,” we will be bringing Jesus to these people. I have seen it happen far too often when a group of privileged Christians make the false assumption that the people they are serving are devoid of God and it is their fundamental responsibility to bring God along as if God was something that they had packed in their suitcases.

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The truth that we often fail to recognize is that God is already in that place! We are called not to bring God along with us, but instead to open our eyes to the way that God is already working in the world. When a mission trip has gone incredibly well, when the proper theology has been outlined for the participants, they come home with a different perspective about their faith; they come home having been helped by the people they served rather than the other way around. God is not something that we can compartmentalize, ship around, open at will, and exchange in a consumeristic program. If that is our idea of mission than we have failed the God we serve because we have wrongly believed that we get to decide where God goes and who gets to experience God’s majesty. God is already in that place! God has gone on ahead of us (just like Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee) and will be made known to us as we serve others.

Jacob, after running away from his angry brother Esau, assumed that he had left everything behind. In a way, he believed that he could not only run away from his family and responsibilities, but that he could escape the God of his father and grandfather. How blessed was he to awake from his dream and discover the truth of God’s grace! “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!”

As we prepare to take steps into a new week let us wake up from the dream that we get to control God and discover the truth, like Jacob did, that God is already in this place! God has been working through the family and friends around you for longer than you can imagine.

Wherever you go this week be assured that the Lord is with you.