Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

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

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

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

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

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Devotional – Genesis 12.1

Devotional:

Genesis 12.1

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

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And that’s how it all began. The Lord said to Abram, “Go.” In the entirety of the Old Testament, there are few passages as important and theologically profound as God’s calling of Abram to go to a strange new place. We can talk about Jacob wrestling with the emissary from God by the banks of the Jabbok river, we can talk about Joseph saving the Egyptian people from certain starvation, we can even talk about Moses’ trials and tribulations with the Hebrew people in the wilderness, but this moment with Abram, this call, sets in motion the great narrative of God with God’s people.

The sheer magnitude of such a call cannot be overlooked. During the time of Abram’s life, almost everything was dependent on staying in one’s country and with one’s family. Most people spent their entire lives, from birth to death, within a handful of miles and rarely explored anything outside the normal and comfortable dwelling of “home.” And yet God had the audacity, the boldness, and the faithfulness to call Abram to do the unthinkable: go to a strange new place and leave it all behind.

This, in a sense, is akin to the call of all Christians. We might not be asked to leave our home country, we might not be asked to leave our families, but we are certainly compelled to enter into strange relationships and moments around us. It is easy to stay within a certain bubble throughout our lives and never stretch too far into the unknown. We can develop rhythms and habits that actively prevent us from encountering anything out of the ordinary. But God is extraordinary.

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Lent is a time for us to reflect and repent. We reflect on the many ways God’s has so graced us, and we repent for the many ways we have failed to positively respond to that grace. Lent is a time for us to all recognize the Abram within us, and wonder where God is calling us to go. What place are we avoiding because it makes us uncomfortable? What relationship have we let fall apart because it just felt like too much work? What frustrating behavior in a friend or a spouse or a child have we let percolate for far too long?

In some way, shape, or form God is calling each and every one of us to “go.” God calls us to “go” because our God is a God on the move. God cannot be relegated to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings at 11am, God is not absent until we pray for God’s presence, God is not sitting on a throne up in heaven watching us through a telescope. God moves, and so should we.

Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 

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It happens all the time. I’ll be preaching from the pulpit, or leading a bible study, or praying for a family when someone responds later by quoting back something I said, only I never said it. The sermon will be about the importance of loving our neighbors, and someone will bring  up our “obviously similar” political persuasions while we shake hands after the service. The bible study will move through the book of James and the challenge of being wealthy and Christian, and someone will later thank me for my comments about “sinful multi-national corporations.” I’ll be in a hospital room praying with a family for God’s will to be done, when someone will later attribute the cure to my wishing for a miracle.

In ministry, and in life, something happens between our lips and another person’s ears that we can never prepare for or predict. For as much time as pastors put into their sermons/bible studies/prayers it is a remarkable thing that we often lose control over what we say. The exact moment the words leave our lips they wrench themselves free from our dominion and take on a life of their own. The consequences of this lack of control can be both destructive and life-giving.

Occasionally someone will hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it leads to a divisive and frightening argument. The narthex conversations following worship can be nerve-racking because you never know what to expect. But, more often than not, people hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it gives greater glory to God than I could ever do with my own words. People will open up and confess they believed the words were meant for them alone and they experienced God’s abundant presence speaking into their lives.

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Preaching is meant to be a conversation. The pastor stands at the front speaking words about the reality of God and they pick up subtle clues regarding responses: the occasional head nod and the rare audible “amen.” But they also deeply rely on the comments made after the service regarding the proclamation. Just as the Spirit fell upon all who heard the word from Peter, the Spirit shows up in worship, in bible studies, and in hospital rooms reigniting words, rearranging them, and helping them to sink deeply into people’s lives.

It is hard to relinquish control over something as precious as a sermon, but then again the sermon never belongs to me in the first place; it belongs to God.

This week let us take time to really listen to the people in our lives and engage in conversation with them. Let us give thanks to God for providing the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make something out of our words in spite of us. And let us have the courage to be honest with all the pastors in our lives about what they say and what it means to us.