We Still Need To Talk

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside.

How should we react to this? Does it make us grieve with disappointment about the state of the world? Do we feel a sense of shame for the times we’ve passed by a beggar by the roadside without offering a thing? 

Here in one sentence we have the sad fate of a man, but it is, at the same time, the entire state of humanity itself. It should go without saying that in the man by the roadside we have what “life” can make of any of us today, tomorrow, or a year from now.

Life is a harsh mistress. When all is well, we forget about those who experience a life of hell. When life is good we continue through day after day without a thought about those by the roadside. We feel surrounded by those who love us, we rest in the comfort of our own existence, and we feel the sun shining even on gloomy days.

But life can change in an instant and we never know when it might grab us by the heel, throw us to the ground, and roll us in the mud. Life exists on change, sometimes gradual and sometimes immediate – change that results in even the best being knocked off course toward a roadside of ignorance. 

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. 

Look at what life has made of the man who can no longer look at anything! Why is he blind? How long has it been since he could see? Was he given improper treatment from a doctor? Did he experience some horrible attack from the powers and principalities? Has he been in a war? Was he beaten by the police?

Life, and scripture, pay no attention to such questions.

We simply do not know. All we know is that the man has experienced misfortune, and such he has resigned himself to a life of begging by the roadside.

Can you imagine the questions in his mind as he listens to the constant footsteps of passersby? “What good am I?” “Is this all life has to offer?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

His life has ceased to be lively.

And so he begs. A blind beggar by the side of the road, among the healthy and the wealthy, the strong and the powerful. He is totally and completely reliant on those who have exactly what he does not. 

The whole world looks remarkably different when seen in the darkness of the blind, or through the small windows of a hospital room, or through the bars of a jail, or from the many places of abject poverty even here in our community. 

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The whole world looks different to an older individual who wanders around from town to town without a job and hoping for one. Or to a homeless family that tries to keep their children’s truth a secret from the classmates at school. Or to the family running away from fear of death to a new country of new possibilities.

The whole world looks different to the grieving widow who cannot seem to take a step in any direction after the sudden death of her spouse. Or to the child who continues to bounce from family to family in the foster care system. Or to the family who waits out in the cold every month at the food distribution hoping for something fresh to eat.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What can he do except accept his fate? He has been cast aside by the very life that so many of us desperately cling to, and he no longer has bootstraps from which he can pull himself up. 

He will humbly beseech each set of footsteps he hears along the road, he will pray for good people moved by compassion to pass him some coins, he will express his gratitude to anyone who offers him a scrap of food.

But under it all he is filled with a rage. Can we blame him? His world, his life, is nothing but suffering, and fear, and uncertainty. Does he curse God under his breath with every passing footstep?

So, who is right, who sees the world as it is? The blind beggar by the road side or we who are secure, happy, and healthy?

We fill our conversations with the false platitudes of self-righteous indignation. We believe we have received what we have received because we deserve it or we have earned it. We assume that God rewards those who take matters into their own hands.

And we are so sure that we are right! We continue to walk by the blind beggars, and the weeping widows, and the fractured families. We convince ourselves the the world is simple the way that it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And yet, there is something in the blind beggar by the roadside that captures our attention. Somehow, he sees the world as it is. He, in his blindness, understands the world better than we do with our perfect vision. We are deceived, but he is to be believed. 

Life is a harsh mistress, and he knows it, but we miss it.

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Though sometimes we catch a glimpse of the truth – when we find ourselves sitting in the pews while a casket sits at the front of the sanctuary, when we hear word of a friend who has fallen prey to the temptations of sin, when we hear about people gunned down in the middle of a worship service

Where is the hope in the middle of such terrible suffering? What does it mean for us to live in a world where the blind wait by the roadsides for help? Is this all life has to offer?

At best, we can place ourselves beside those trapped in the amber of despair, and we can jointly lift up our accusations against brutal inhumanity of humanity. We can raise clenched fists of rage against systems that profit on the poor while rewarding the rich. We can scream into the ether our frustrations against the insanity of war, the ignorance of isolation, and the injustice of life.

But what good does it do? It’s as if with every scream, and fist, and posture of solidarity, life continues to blow past without much of a care. We might help bring a little light to those who rest in the shadow of the cross, but mostly, it just feel like life stays the same.

But, now another person passes the blind beggar by the roadside. He too is a human being who suffers under the weight of the world. He too is a victim of the cruel fate that life tends to throw. He too will be pushed by the people around him toward the road, and eventually to be thrown out among the dead. 

He is not like others who pass the blind man. He does not walk with airs of superiority, he does not relish in the suffering of the marginalized, he does not profit off of the poor remaining poor. 

He, like the blind man, has lost the possibility of proper and holy friendships with all the right people. He, like the blind man, has suffered tremendously and will only suffer more in his remaining days. He, like the blind man, knows what injustice looks like and soon he will see it from the vantage point of Golgotha.

He comes from Narareth, but Nazareth wants nothing more to do with him. The bridges were burned. His mother and brothers consider him a crazy fool, the people of his home town plotted to kill him after his first sermon, and even those who know him best, his so-called disciples, are still arguing about which of them is the best and which one will hold all the power in the new kingdom. 

He is followed by a crowd as he passes the blind man, and yet they will all desert him and betray him when he needs them most.

Life is a harsh mistress.

And for this brief moment –  these two are in one another’s company. They see the world as it really is. They know the truth of what life has to offer. And yet they are different. 

One is disappointed and shocked by the hand life has dealt.

The Other knows the deep and indiscriminate power of what life has to offer.

One is abandoned by the side of the road with no hope of a future.

The Other will be abandoned in a tomb that cannot contain him.

One is the result of world in which individualism reigns supreme.

The Other will destroy the expectations of the world and will forever reign supreme.

So what will this Other say to the blind man? Will he preach a sermon about God helping those who help themselves? Will he sigh under his breath and mutter a “sorry about your bad luck”? Will he toss in a coin and continue walking as if unaffected?

No, this Other is not the one who proclaims a gospel of settling, a gospel of making lemons out of lemonade, a gospel of silver-linings. No, again and again, this Other promises that life must not remain as it is, that none of the darkness will outweigh the light, that with God all things are possible.

The Other will make the impossible possible while mounted on the hard wood of the cursed tree, and while breaking forth from the tomb with liberty. He will bear on himself the whole burden of humanity’s inhumanity in order that we might see, truly see, that God is the divine master of all things, that God is victorious over the old life of indiscriminate suffering, that resurrection is greater than any word offered on the side of the road or any miracle of sight being offered to the blind. 

And thus we begin to see, behind the curtain of the gospel, the truth. The blind man, and all who are like him, people like you and me, we suffer in this life and we do not know why. Most of the time we don’t even notice how bad things are until its too late. We trudge through the muck of life day after day after day, but Jesus refuses to leave us in our sad estate and wills to make all things new, not without us, but with us.

And so the Other walks past the blind man by the side of the road, and yet something happens. The blind man notices something, he feels something, he sees something he should not have been able to in the Other who walked by. And behold, he jumps from the road, he abandons the posture of weak resignation, he forgets the shackles that life has wrapped around him. 

Behold, he begins to understand the truth that we seek. God can help and God will help. 

Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!

And the bridge made possible by the incarnation and the cross is already taking form as he catches a glimpse of the future ahead. This Jesus who walks with all the suffering of the world shines a light, a blinding light among the blind, and something has been changed for good.

And Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

“Go, your faith has made you well.” 

And immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way. Amen.

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From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

graduation-sunday

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.

Crucified Faith – Lenten Homily on John 14.1-7

John 14.1- 7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

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Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life.

I know a lot of people who want the greatest amount of reward for the least amount of effort. They have a faulty perception about how much they deserve based on how much they work.

Its like the guy who lets his grass grow and grow until you can barely see his porch because he only wants to have to mow it once. Or like the woman I recently saw at Food Lion who was using every single finger and both elbows to carry all of her bags to the car instead of making multiple trips. Or like the foolish pastor (cough *Me* cough) who believes that so long as he picks a scripture and prays about it, that God will give him a sermon to preach that will having people jumping and shouting “Amen!”

Sadly, I have come across a number of people (even myself at times) who want God without Jesus. We believe on some level that so long as we show up to church, and live a decent life, that we are doing all that the Lord would have us to do. We want salvation without suffering. We want love without expectations. We want resurrection without crucifixion.

Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him.

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The disciples are confused. Jesus tells them that he will go and prepare a place for them because there are many rooms in his Father’s house and they know where he is going. Then Thomas asks the question that all the other disciples are thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds with hopeful and frightening words: I am the way.

The destiny in store for Jesus is likewise laid up for his friends, and for us. Those who want to save their life will lose it. If we want to experience the presence of God here and now, we can only do so by following the way, by following Jesus.

Sam Wells, the former dean of Duke Chapel, was appointed to a new church, and wanted to experience every single aspect of its mission. For the first few months he spent a couple of days each week going through the ins and outs of the church as if he was not the pastor; He toured the preschool like a prospective parent with a three-year old; He went to weekly prayer services and sat in the back like a stranger might if they randomly walked in off the street; He stood in line at the food pantry and patiently waited for his turn to receive some food.

One of the last things he needed to experience was the homeless shelter. He had heard that it was frequently attended because they gave out the best food and had the nicest provisions and he wanted to see it with his own eyes and taste it with his own tongue. So, for a few days before the experience, he stopped showering and shaving, he found some of his oldest and rattiest clothes, and prepared to spend a night with others in the basement of the building.

He began by waiting outside in line with everyone else. He tried to keep a low profile, but most of the people spotted his costume immediately. For whatever reason they welcomed him into their little group anyway and spent most of the night talking and learning about one another. He asked about their pasts and what had led them to where they were, most of them had normal lives until some unforeseen circumstance sent them out to the streets.

However, before the night ended one of the men shared an important perspective with the pastor. “We don’t come here for the food or for the warmth,” he said, “we come here because this is the only place where we can be with other people like us. Sure the food and shelter is nice, but the community is what we really need.

I don’t think Sam would necessarily put it this way, but I believe he encountered the living God in those homeless men and women precisely because he was acting like Jesus. I don’t think Sam actively went out with the hope that he could walk around like Jesus, but in meeting the people where they were he followed the way that Christ set up for us.

Sometimes the hardest part of being a Christian is recognizing that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. More often than not we need to crucify a part of our lives before we can meet and encounter the living God.

Maybe we need to crucify our false assumptions about the poor and how they wind up living on the streets. Perhaps we need to crucify our ridiculous prejudices toward people who are of a different sexual orientation. Maybe we need to crucify our faulty self-perceptions. Perhaps we need to crucify our selfish desires to crave our passions. Maybe we need to crucify a program in our church that is no longer giving life to anyone involved. Perhaps we need to crucify our willingness to hold on to a grudge from the distant past. Maybe we need to crucify our love and obsession with money.

Jesus is the way and we have been given the precious opportunity to follow him, even to the cross. If we want to encounter the living God, we can only do so by crucifying our brokenness and seeking out ways to be resurrected here and now. Amen.

C.O.G. – Sermon on Galatians 4.4-7

Galatians 4.4-7

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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The sermon title this morning is C.O.G. which, if you are unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Child of God. Made popular by the evangelical movement, COG is an identification with those who are part of a Christian community. For me, the use of child of God, happens whenever I baptize an infant or an adult. After going through the entire liturgy, blessing the water, and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I always announce that they are a child of God. There is just something incredible about receiving a new identity and a family through baptism that orients one’s priorities toward the divine and the new family that is the church.

Other than baptisms, I use Child of God when referring to our little preschoolers that gather here during the week. It has been strange recently, since they are on Christmas break, the hallways and building have been significantly quieter, and I have gotten a lot more work done! Nevertheless the COGs in our Preschool are one of the most important elements of our church and I believe in sanctioning my time in such a way that I can be with them and communicate the gospel in as many ways as possible.

This has taken place from being present at the basement doors every morning to welcome the children and families, to inviting them for regular church functions. But the way that the gospel is best communicated is during our weekly chapel time here in the sanctuary. While many of you are at work or home, studying in school or day-dreaming about the future, all of our COGs make their way to the choir loft and they sit in eager anticipation of a new story. We began in Genesis and have made our way to the time of David, we have made Chicken Noodle Soup, and gone through obstacle courses, we have drawn our own technicolor dream coats, and we have pretended to be our favorite animals on Noah’s Ark.

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The most profound Chapel Time experience, for me, took place when we prepared to wrestle with God. The kids lined up in the center aisle and did push ups and sit-ups in order to gain some strength, and then one by one I wrestled each of them by the altar in the same way that Jacob wrestled with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok river. Each of them came forward, we would go back in forth, I would let them think they would beat me, and then I would pick them up over my head and spin them around as they giggled and screamed. When our last four year old, Jack, made his way forward I began to bring the lesson home…

I got down on my knees and we grabbed hold of one another and I said to the kids: “This is what God is like. We can wrestle with the things that happen in the world, we can question and be angry and upset, and no matter how confused or frustrated we become God will never let us go. That’s how much God loves us. He can put up with all of our tantrums and yelling, He is patient with us when we no longer have patience. God loves us no matter what.

The kids were silent and listening attentively. I don’t remember anything else I said, even though I went on for awhile, because I was distracted by something else. While I was holding Jack in my arms, I could feel his heartbeat through my hand. This precious and vulnerable little child, who I was wrestling with, was gripping me so tightly that I could feel his little heart beat. In an instant the lesson I was trying to communicate took a different form for me as I realized how fragile this child was in my arms and the kind of ways that we strive to take care of other children. In a fraction of a second I felt afraid of letting him go, out of fear of what could happen to him. Though not even a father, I felt responsible for him, and was terrified of what might happen if I let him go.

When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son in order to redeem us so that we might receive adoption as children. The world was a strange place when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; indeed the fullness of time had come. Between the Old and New Testaments a lot had taken place and changed. For a while the Jewish people flourished as their culture continued to grow and spread until Antiochus Epiphanes brought about a horrific wave of persecution. The Jews were hated and tortured for their faith and were driven to armed rebellion.

People, for the first time, were traveling beyond the cities and towns of their birth to see greater parts of the world.

During the time of Christ’s birth, the world was full of change and excitement. Add to that the Roman network of international highways over which the first Christian missionaries traveled, and the Greek language that united many different people under one tongue.

For Paul, writing the letter to the Galatians, the timing of Jesus’ birth was remarkably important. We too celebrate this event in such a way as to date everything that happened BC (Before Christ) or after his birth AD (Anno Domini) “in the year of our Lord.” (Now known as BCE “Before Common Era” and CE “Common Era”)

This was the specific and the right time for God’s new intervention in the world. Long anticipated through the Old Testament, the time of the Lord’s favor had begun.

Born into the rude stable that so many of us display on our coffee tables and mantles, God’s Word became incarnate in a baby born to a virgin. By becoming like us, by taking on our flesh to be just like us, God adopted us into his heavenly family so that we might become heirs and children of God.

Paul is then writing and pleading for the very thing that makes Christianity unique; the change that Christ can make in someone’s life so that they can possess and exercise total freedom.

Being Christian is all about freedom. God came into the world to free us from sin, and to free us for a new life.

However, this incredible gift cannot be brought about by unquestioning adherence to a book of rules. Otherwise we choose to break the rules, or we let the rules break us.

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Too many of my friends have left the church, and left the faith, because it was made into a rule-system by which they were required to follow. Like the child I held in my arms during chapel time, the church refused to let them go and experience the freedom to question, doubt, and explore. Perhaps when they were younger the church had been life-giving and exciting, but as they grew older it felt suffocating and demanding. They heard about the “freedom” that Paul wrote about, but they certainly didn’t feel it in their own lives. They were taught to so fervently keep the faith whenever they doubted, even just a little, that when they had a crisis of faith their entire discipleship fell apart and they left the church.

Paul’s thoughts to the Galatians opens up a new vision of what it means to be a Child of God, and how we can, in turn, nurture other COGs around us.

I held on to Jack and I felt his little heart beat in my hand. I began to play in my head all the terrible things that could happen to him once he was released from my protective bubble. I thought about what I had shared with the children: God loves you so much that he will never let you go. But that’s not exactly true.

God loves us to such a degree that He will not abandon us, but at the same time God gives us the freedom to question, to raise our clenched fists in the sky in frustration, and to wonder about what all of this faith stuff actually means. 

In that profound moment kneeling on the floor of our chancel I recognized that, like God, I had to let him go. That God’s love was so great and incredible that no matter what happens to him, God will never abandon him. That we have to give our children freedom to make mistakes and explore the world, because that’s the only way that they will come to know our God as “father.” They cannot experience God’s divine loves through a book and moral expectations alone. They will discover God’s majesty in those moments when they begin to doubt, and recognize that God’s love remains with them anyway.

Only a bible like ours would contain the psalms, a tremendous source of writing that has almost every single human emotion, most of them directed at God.

Only a faith like ours would gather in grieving people for funerals and triumphantly declare that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ even when the loss of a loved one feels so horrifically overpowering.

Only a God like ours would let us wrestle and walk away and still see us as his children.

Years ago I was lamenting with one of my friends about the ways certain Christians give others Christians such a bad name. It felt like every time I turned on the TV there was a report of some pastor abusing power from the pulpit, some church spouting off with heretical theology, or some Christian organization bashing anything and anyone that did not look or sound just like them.

I remember feeling beaten by these rogue Christians. How could we ever make the church appealing again if people like that are getting all of the attention from the media? Why don’t we share information about all the good the church is doing in the world? Why don’t we ever hear about the food pantries and clothing drives that are saving communities?

My friend listened patiently as I went on and on listing my complaints. She smiled politely whenever I went off on another tangent and waited for me to finish.

She said: “They’ll figure it out someday Taylor. When? No one knows, but at some point they will see how far they have moved away from God’s commands.

What makes you so sure?” I demanded.

They’re children of God, just like you and me.

Part of what makes our faith so beautiful is that we have been brought into God’s great family as children. We have been adopted into a new identity because God came to be Emmanuel by our sides. As God’s children we have been given the freedom to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls, and we have been given the freedom to question and wonder.

The future of our faith will largely depend on how we continue to nurture the spiritual questions of people young in the faith. We might want to grip those around us with structured rules of how to live and behave, but remember that God came to be with us to adopt us as children; our heavenly Father has given us the freedom that brings about true faith.

The world was a strange place and full of new and exciting things when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The world is still a strange place and full of new and exciting things. It will take a tremendous amount of courage to see others as Children of God just like you and me; to give them freedom to doubt, to be patient with their foolish ways, and to not abandon them. But if God is willing to do it, shouldn’t we?

Amen.

The Advent of Paul – Sermon on Acts 9.1-9

Acts 9.1-9

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church community in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. We began with Abram being called to go to a strange land, and then we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Paul.

Most pastors love to talk. They spend their Sundays standing before the gathered people proclaiming the Word of God with the hope of it becoming incarnate. It takes hours of preparation, study, and prayer to craft a sermon and many pastors find excitement and fulfillment when they are speaking. Whether they are preaching from a pulpit, leading a bible study, or huddling together in prayer, words are at the foundation of what we do.

Most pastors love to talk, and when you get a group of us together, sometimes the talking never stops…

I was at Licensing School, a required element to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church, but frankly it could’ve happened at any clergy gathering. The routine is typical, everyone tries to size one another up based upon appearances, we try to guess what kind of churches are represented; Is this their first career, second, or third? What kind of call story do they have? Did she have all that gray hair before she became a pastor? We are usually forced to sit with people who we have yet to meet and then comes the ice breaker questions that will hopefully move us from strangers to friends.

The familiar questions focus on our ability to share our call narrative. I like to call it the elevator speech. In the time that it takes you to get from the lobby to the top floor, can you share how God has called you to ministry?

Here is my elevator speech:

“Born and raised as a United Methodist in Alexandria, VA, I began wrestling with a call to ministry when I was in high school. There were a number of formative experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to ordained ministry including: being the crew chaplain for a Boy Scout High Adventure trip in Philmont, New Mexico, creating and leading a youth band for my home church, and helping to organize a weekly youth bible study. However, my awareness of the call truly came into focus when one of my dear friends died in a car accident right before Christmas. As we mourned her death I found myself comforting those around me with words that were not my own, and one night I was pulled to my knees on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt Road to pray. I prayed and prayed and when I stood up, I knew there was nothing else in my life that I could do other than proclaim the Word of the Lord through ministry.

I have had to tell it so many times that I have learned how to include just the right amount of details in just the right amount of time.

For others, this process can take multiple elevator rides. They go on and on about the ways God has called them, and when I was at Licensing School I learned a lot about the people I would be serving with for the rest of my life.

You call that a call story? My husband left me right before the cancer came back. My children had grown up and moved off to different places with their own families and I was all alone. I went to support groups, and tried to keep a positive attitude but nothing was working. It was then that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and put my whole trust in his grace. Later, when I beat the cancer, Jesus told me to become a pastor and share the Good News like he had done with me.”

You call that a call story? I was killing more brain cells than Paul was killing Christians when God called me to a new life in Jesus Christ. The bottle was my bible. Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam were my best friends and were with me through the important moments of life, though I could never remember any of them. It was deep in the trenches of one of my worst benders that Jesus told me it was time to live a new life, that he had a mission for me, and I haven’t had a drink since.”

These call stories went on and on with every new story going deeper and farther than the last. The more I sat and listened, the more I realized that I was doing the same thing, and that we were trying to “out-Paul” one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I love the story of Paul on the road, but sadly, we have too often used it to judge what Christianity is supposed to look like.

Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, once said “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse!” Her statement gets at the heart of the matter for Paul’s conversion, but oddly enough there is no horse in the story.

But that helps to show how “well” we think we know the story. It has been told so many time in such a variety of ways. Most of the art depicting this scene has Paul falling off his horse, when this is a detail missing from the scripture. Regardless of equine presence, the story is one that captivates us even today.

The first detail we learn about Paul is that he was a young man who watched over the garments of those who stoned Stephen. But he was not just any young man, not just an innocent bystander. He not only approved of Stephen’s death, but also led a violent persecution of the budding Christian community.

Paul was enemy number one to the church, and God would turn his life around to become evangelist number one.

While he was threatening and murdering the disciples of God, Paul went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any Christians on the way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. He was not just a concerned citizen, Paul was an active go-getter against the subversive community, willing to go above and beyond his duty.

It was on the way to Damascus that a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul’s companions that were traveling stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. After being helped up from the ground Paul could see nothing, so his friends had to guide him the rest of the way to Damascus.

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Some have subjected this story to psychological reflection about the inner-turmoil bubbling within Paul’s soul regarding his willingness to kill Christians. They see the Damascus road experience as an inward struggle that results in a changed life.

However, the details of the narrative argue the contrary. This is not an account of what was going on within Paul, but rather a story about a man who was encountered by something outside of himself. Conversion has to do with being approached by God, and being changed in the process of the encounter.

Paul was helpless and totally dependent on others after encountering Christ on the road. God, meanwhile, spoke with a disciple named Ananias in Damascus. He was commanded to go and meet the man from the road, Paul from Tarsus, lay hands on him so that he might recover his sight. Ananias hesitated knowing the kind of wrath and destruction that Paul had brought on his fellow Christians, but the Lord insisted “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

So Ananias went and laid his hands on Paul to restore his sight. Paul was then filled with the Holy Spirt, was baptized, and regained his strength. Through the power of God made manifest in Ananias, Paul went from being an enemy to being a brother; his life was completely turned around.

When pastors get together we can attempt to “out-Paul” one another. We strive to substantiate our call stories by comparing it with the one who was confronted on the road to Damascus. I have seriously heard people begin their stories with, “It was like I was on my own road to Damascus when God called me to a new life…” This story has become the prototype for many Christians, and we use it as a lens by which we judge others’ calls to different forms of discipleship.

This is a problem.

It is a problem because we forget that the radical kind of change worked in Paul is something that Christ does, not us. Sometimes we become so concerned with the desire to convert others that we foolishly put all of the responsibility on our shoulders when God is the true agent of change. We can show people the door of faith, but God is the one who gives them the strength to walk through it.

It is also a problem because it is not universal. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is wonderful and miraculous, but it should not lead us to conclude that every conversion is basically the same.

Different people come to Jesus along different routes. When we consider the wealth of conversion stories from scripture, in addition to the tales of fellow Christians in our lives, it become self-evident that God calls individuals according to his will, not a singular story by which all others should be judged. Paul was called in a way that was proportionate to the life he was living – he needed to be knocked down in order to start a new life. But not all of us have lived like Paul. 

The one thing that is universal regarding the story of Paul on the road is that meeting God changes the way we see everything. When we encounter the divine we become dependent on those already versed in the faith, we need Ananiases to help guide and nurture us when our vision has been turned upside down.

God met Paul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever. God brought me down to my knees on a cold December evening when I was sixteen years old and changed my life forever. God spoke through Gabriel to a virgin named Mary about her bringing a baby into the world which changed her life forever.

Paul’s story is a great. It is full of beautiful details and demonstrates God’s power to change lives. But his story is not the only one. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about people whose lives were changed by God in incredible ways. Our church is filled with people who have encountered the good God in ways that are beyond our imaginations.

Whenever we meet God, whether through a particularly poignant moment, the reading of scripture, or the deep thoughts of prayer we embark on a new beginning. Like Paul, everything gets changed and we see the world a little more clearly, we see God’s grace manifest through the friends and family around us and we realize the deepest truth about Christmas – that God does not leave us to our own devices. Amen.

This Is NOT Appropriate For Church – Sermon on Joshua 2.1-14

Joshua 2.1-14

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a good sign of faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Today we begin our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Last Advent I asked all of you to submit questions or topics for preaching that you have always wanted to hear about from the pulpit. I received so many questions and comments that I was unable to address all of them during our January series on Questions, so I decided to save this particular series for later. It was incredible for me to discover how many of you wanted to hear about the women from scripture. I remember one card said, “I hear there are these great women from the Bible, but no one ever preaches on them.” So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore dynamic and feminine faith.

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Sometimes we read stories from the bible that are not appropriate for church. A few weeks ago we did just that as we remembered Elisha and the she-bears, and Isaiah getting naked for three years. Every once and a while we come across that passage that is so daring and vulgar that we would rather ignore it, and most of all, we would not read it aloud in church.

Rahab the harlot. A woman of ill-repute. From the Red Light district becomes the savior for a few spies.

Why in the world would God use her to save his people? Rahab the harlot? I mean I would understand if God chose Rahab the UMW president, or Rahab the Sunday School teacher, but Rahab the prostitute? This is not appropriate for church.

Moses has died. He led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, and handed over God’s people to Joshua. Joshua in turn takes care of the nomadic nation and sends spies ahead of them to survey the land and, in particular, Jericho.

Two men, hand-picked by their leader, sneak their way into the city, and as it sometimes happens to young men close to the edge of death, they arrive at Rahab’s place in the bad part of town.

The king catches wind that some spies had entered the city and he sent his own men to capture them. When the foot-soldiers arrive at Rahab’s place, she listens to their questions, and she lies! Perhaps as only women of the night can do, she peaked from behind the door, offered that dynamite smile, and said with confidence, “Sure, there were two Jewish guys here earlier, but they paid for everything, and went on their way. I’m sure if you start after them right now, you’ll be able to catch them.

While the king’s men traveled down the road, sure their bounty was just ahead of them, Rahab returned to the roof where she had hidden the Hebrews. She explains that she had heard of the mighty acts of their God, how they were delivered from Egypt, and defeated their enemies. In return for saving their lives, she asks for them to repay the favor when they return to Jericho to destroy the city.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking right now: Seriously Taylor? You told us you were going to preach on women of faith and this is who you picked for us? Rahab? She’s a conniving and lying harlot! 

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However, the Old and New Testaments are filled with saintly characters who have both enviable and regrettable characteristics. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked after landing the Ark, King David lusts after Bathsheba and plots to have her husband killed, Peter denies Christ three times after his arrest. What becomes important, what sets them apart, is that God wants them to do something holy, not that they were holy to begin with.

Rahab, full of faith, heard about how the Lord delivered his people, and Rahab believes and embraces God as supreme. Her declaration and acts of salvation towards the spies are more than actions and words; she is worshipping the Almighty. Even with her scandalous background, something not appropriate for church, Rahab experienced the greatest wonder of all – God’s limitless love and power to use and save the least likely of people. 

After church last week Lindsey and I left Staunton and we traveled to Alexandria to be with my family. Not only were we planning to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, but we were going to surprise one of my grandmothers for her 81st birthday.

I love my grandmother tremendously. Ever since I was a child she has referred to me as “precious lamb of Jesus Christ,” she has been there for every major moment of my life, and still shouts out with great joy every time I call her or visit her.

On Monday evening, after surprising her, we sat around my parents’ dining room table to enjoy a home cooked meal and celebrate my Gran. One of the more wonderful qualities that I inherited from her is the ability to ask questions that lead to conversation. I began with: “I want everyone to go around the table and share a story about Gran that brings you joy or made you laugh.

My mother told the story about how when she was a child, my grandmother would dress up like a waitress, sit my mother and her friends down at the table, and would take their order for lunch. The options were obviously limited, but it made the girls feel special, and I can just imagine them giggling as my grandmother scribbled away the orders for Grilled Cheese sandwiches.

I told the story about how my grandmother was always trying to teach us something new. When I was quite young, she used to require my sisters and I to learn a new word from the dictionary whenever we stayed the night at her house. The only word I can remember learning was “Taxidermy.” But not only were we required to learn a new word, but we had to use it in a sentence when our parents returned! I can only imagine the kind of sentence I came up with when I was 8 years old with the word taxidermy in it!

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But my favorite story is the one that Lindsey told. Gran had come over for dinner one night while we were all together, and when the evening came to a close she could not find her keys anywhere. We searched all over that house; taking off the couch cushions, crawling on the carpets while sweeping our hands, we even emptied out the trashcan just in case. But as it would happen, the keys were nowhere to be found. I eventually drove her home in my own car and used the spare key to let her into her house, with the hope of finding her car key sometime soon. Thirty minutes later my grandmother called. “I was just getting ready for bed,” she said, “and wouldn’t you know it, but I found my keys in my bosom!

Some things are not appropriate for church.

While I sat there listening to the hilarious stories from my grandmother’s life I was struck with the sensation of awe and love. My grandmother has embodied, for me, a life of faith and dedication, one that I try to emulate daily. But I also realized, that I know nothing negative about her. In my experience, coupled with all the stories I have heard, everything about her life is positive. Yet I know that she could not have lived a perfect life. That, like me, she has sinned, she has fallen short of God’s glory, she has made mistakes, she has regrets.

Everyone has something from their past that they are not proud of. What I believe Rahab, and my grandmother, have to teach us this morning is that we are not defined by the mistakes and shortcomings and judgements from the past.

By the time the New Testament was written, Rahab is remembered among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.5), regarded as an example of living faith (Hebrews 11.31), and justified by her works (James 2.25). By the time I was born my Grandmother had become the sweet woman full of life and laughter that I have always experienced. Whatever they did in the past matters little to the Lord. He did not judge them for their lives, but called them to respond to the grace poured out on their lives.

Can you imagine how strong Rahab’s belief and faith must have been? To sell her body the way she did, to be powerless and insignificant, and then she grabbed hold of her own destiny and lived faithfully. Two strangers had appeared that night, just like everyone else that walked through her doors, but her fear and faith propelled her into hiding them. She saw an opportunity to change her life, to save the lives of her family, and she did so.

Rahab, thinking of all that she had heard about the Lord, lied to the king’s men and came to terms with the spies. She refused to let her status and place in life limit her power for saving others. She was convinced that the city would fall at the hands of the Hebrews, but she was not simply motivated by fear; she was profoundly impressed with the news and strength of the God of Israel. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Her profession might not be appropriate for church, but her faithfulness is something we can all admire.

If you take a moment to look around the sanctuary, what do you see? Do you see perfect couples sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand? Do you see loving families with children all sitting neatly in their pews? Do you see men and women who are full of faith and grace, capable of love and mercy? Do you see grandparents who adore their grandchildren?

I see a church full of Rahabs. I see people sitting in the pews with pasts they would prefer to remain hidden and untouched. I see families that are broken and full of disappointment. I see careers that have floundered, former decisions that have derailed lives, and regrets about choices that changed everything.

The beauty of the church is that it is full of Rahabs, people like you and me, that have been brought together to be the body of Christ for the world. The immense wonder and joy of the church is that in spite of our dark pasts we have been called to a brilliant present. That like Rahab we can become saintly by responding to the tasks and call that God places on our lives.

If we kept out everything that was not appropriate for church, then we would have an empty building. All of us, with our brokenness and disappointments, with our sins and temptations, have moments from our lives that are not appropriate for this place. However, that is precisely why we are here.

God’s sees us, knows us, calls us by name, and recognizes our potential in spite of our faults. God looks on all the Rahabs of the world, people like us, and beckons us to the Table, to the feast that we do not deserve simply because he loves us.

Look around at one another my friends, do not cast the first stone in judgement, do not sit high and look down on your brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, rejoice; give thanks to the Lord of heaven and earth who loves you, the God who calls on harlots to be helpers, sinners to be saints, and Christians to act like Christ.

Amen.