On The Power of Sheer Silence

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Molly Williamson about the readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, 1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Molly is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Duke University and loves talking about God’s Word. The conversation covers a range of topics including the perils of skipping scriptures, how God can speak through silence, and why you can’t ignore the Old Testament. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Sheer Silence

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5 Tips For A Fruitful Vacation Bible School

I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:

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  1. Learn The Names

There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.

 

  1. Ditch The Phone

Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.

  1. Get On Their Level

At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.

  1. Make Connections

VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.

 

  1. Invite, Invite, Invite

Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.

On Limping With God

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 32.22-31, Isaiah 55.1-5, Romans 9.1-5, and Matthew 14.13-21). The conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to wrestle with God, saying “ho” in church, and how the loaves and fishes bring more than an end to hunger. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Limping With God

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The Cost of Heaven

Matthew 13.45-46

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

In my experience sermons are often very one sided. Someone like me, will stand in a place like this, and tell people like you, what God is saying. But sermons are meant to be more than a monologue, they need to be more than a lecture, they must be more than what I come up with in isolation.

So, I would like some of you to describe heaven for me. What do you think it will look like? Who will be there? What’s on the daily agenda?

 

There was once a man who lived a devout life and toward the end of his days God spoke to him and said, “I am so proud of the way you’ve lived that I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: I’m going to allow you to bring something with you to heaven. You may fill a briefcase with whatever you like and it shall be with you for eternity. Now remember I don’t often make this deal, so make sure you give it some thought.”

So the man did. For weeks and months he wrestled with what he would bring with him to heaven. He made pros and cons lists, he consulted his pastor (who was utterly bewildered by his question) and finally he decided on what to put in the briefcase.

Eventually the time came for the man to die and upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter was patiently waiting to greet the man. St. Peter looked him up and down and said, “Hey man, look I’ve gotta ask: what’s in the briefcase? God never lets people bring something inside and he made an exception for you. So, can I see it?”

The man proudly opened his case and showed off 6 gold bars.

St. Peter stood there for a moment and then beckoned for the nearby angels, “Hey everybody, you’ll never believe it. God told this guy he could bring anything he wanted into heaven and he brought asphalt!”

In heaven the streets are paved with gold… Have you ever heard this before? Or maybe the image of heaven inside your mind is a cloud-like place filled with little fat cherubs floating around the air. Or maybe you think heaven is like a never-ending buffet with all of your favorite food.

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I get asked a lot of questions as a pastor. “How am I supposed to pray?” “Where is God in all of this?” “Should I tell my husband what happened?” But the question I’m asked the most, by far, is “What is heaven like?”

Today, when most of us think about heaven, the images conjured in our minds have far more to do with Hallmark than with scripture. Our hopes and dreams about our heavenly reward often reflect what movies and books describe than what the Lord describes.

I wonder if the crowds around Jesus were disappointed when he started talking about the kingdom of heaven. His parables, his long list of comparisons, contain nothing about pearly gates, or endless buffets, or even reuniting with long lost relatives.

The stories Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven are down to earth, literally. At times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed. People disregard it and toss it away, but when it takes root it grows greater than any plant and won’t stop growing.

At other times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like yeast being mixed in with three measures of flour. When mixed and baked properly it would’ve been enough bread to feed hundreds of people.

At other times Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sounds less like heaven and more like hell.

And more often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he compares it to a wedding feast. I like the wedding feast connection because weddings are fun and full of joy and celebration. And, perhaps most importantly, there are always a couple people at the wedding who we never would’ve invited if it was our own, but God’s invitation is not like our invitation.

In today’s short passage, Jesus tells the crowds (and us) that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

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More than a year ago I was down in Roanoke for the start of Annual Conference. Annual Conference is the once a year opportunity for United Methodist from all over Virginia to get together for prayer, worship, renewal, and church business. I arrived early last year to meet with some of my friends for breakfast, and half of us were about to be ordained in full connection. Though we had all served as pastors for a number of years, we had finally made it through the journey to kneel before the Annual Conference and would now serve the Lord as ordained elders.

And though the time at breakfast was filled with great joy and anticipation, there was also a dark cloud hovering over the gathering. The church is not what it once was and it’s hard to ignore how much it has changed. Gone are the days when one could assume that a church would grow simply by being in a neighborhood. Gone are the days when young couples and families show up on Sunday morning without an invitation. Gone are the days when the church is regarded with high esteem by the surrounding culture.

Last year, as it is now, the church is in a place where just having the doors open is not enough. The church is disproportionately skewing to an older age demographic. And the church is forever suffering under the weight of controversies like the Book of Discipline’s language about homosexuality.

So there we were at breakfast, sharing our excitement about joining the ship of Methodism in full connection, while the ship appears to flooding and without direction. We lamented the church’s current state of affairs, we offered opinions about how we might fix certain items, or how to change certain opinions, and then my friend Morgan interrupted everything.

He said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parables recently, and one in particular. He tells the disciples that the kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” He had been looking down at the table up to this point, but then he raised his head and looked us in the eyes and said, “Do we still feel that way about the kingdom? I mean, are we willing to risk it all, to throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in our churches?”

Today the church feels afraid. Few are willing to takes risks, we hold up frightening statistics as a way to guilt people into doing more, and we ask so many questions about the viability of the church going forward. But Jesus doesn’t transform life by scaring the hell out of people. No, Jesus transforms life by helping people like us see how heaven is close at hand.

Morgan’s question has haunted me for more than a year. With all the talk of negativity in the church, with all the fear and frustrations, Morgan turned it all upside down. Where is the pearl of great price in this place? What would I give up everything to possess in the kingdom?

When my son was one month old we brought him to church for the first time. I had taken 4 Sundays off to be at home with Lindsey as we adjusted to life with a newborn, but the time had come to return to the pulpit. I can’t tell you much about the service because I was so sleep deprived that most of it is a blur. But I will never forget the moment Lindsey brought him up to the front to receive communion. Without talking about it ahead of time I took the tiniest piece of bread, dipped it in the cup, and placed it in his mouth.

He has no idea what communion means or even what it is. But for the majority of his little life he has been in church every single week, learning the habits of God in worship, and receiving the body and blood of the one we call Lord. My son knows of no life outside the church. His life has been one defined by the movements not of the world, but by the liturgy.

And seeing him in church, watching him receive communion, hearing him say “amen” without even knowing what it means… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

On Thursday morning I got to church early after working on the sermon a little bit and I discovered a great crowd of people in our parking lot. There were volunteers from Cokesbury, Old Bridge UMC, and from the Salvation Army, and they were all working together to distribute food to those in need. There was no cash box at the front for community members to pay for the food, there was no expectation that they would ever repay us, and (perhaps most importantly) there was no judgment about the fact that they needed food.

I stayed toward the sides of our lot and took it all in for the first time, though I introduced myself to a handful of families patiently waiting for the food. There was one woman who kept her eyes on me while I was moving about and I eventually went up to introduce myself. As I got close she took my hand all she said was, “Thank you. This has saved my life.”

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Experiencing her salvation in our parking lot, seeing the wonder and joy in her eyes, feeling her hope… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

Tomorrow morning we are going to open our doors to all sorts of kids from the community for Vacation Bible School. Some will come from privileged families and will have been here before. Some will come from situations they won’t talk about though it will be clear that the food we offer them will be the first food they taste that day. And a few will come from somewhere in between.

Our volunteers will fill the halls with joy and hope and laughter as we do arts and crafts, as we sing and dance, and as we all learn more about the bible.

Seeing the children and volunteers working together, hearing children excited to learn more about God, seeing individuals interact with one another in a place like this… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

And all of them, from my son in worship, to the woman in the parking lot, to the children in our building will experience the grace of God and they will leave transformed without cost.

In the parable the man sells everything he has for the pearl of great value – the pearl of God’s kingdom is of such importance that merchant gives away his very livelihood to hold on to a little slice of heaven. More important than the money he uses to purchase the pearl is his willingness to trust that the gift of God’s kingdom is more important than any earthly thing.

Friends, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is not just some place waiting for us in the by and by, it is also something that we can experience here and now. Because the kingdom is something that God is doing, and it is to be received as a gift; a gift like the bread and the cup, a gift like food in a parking lot, a gift like vacation bible school.

The kingdom of heaven is not something that can be acquired, or earn, or purchased; it is a way of being into which we can enter.

This beautiful and brief parable from the lips of Jesus is not about the cost of heaven. It is, instead, a testament to the fact that our response to the kingdom is total, it is everything we have. To be joined up in to this kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom that is both here and not yet, means committing our whole beings, without reserve, and with totality.

The kingdom of heaven is a gift that transforms every bit of our lives here and now.

There is no amount of money on earth that can purchase salvation. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.” But the parable begs us to ask ourselves the same questions that Morgan asked me, “Do we feel like the merchant? Are we willing to risk it all, and throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in this place?” Amen.

An Altar Call To Dust

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 28.10-19a, Isaiah 44.6-8, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). The conversation covers a range of topics including Little House on the Prairie, Christian time travelers, being scared @#$%less, altar calls, and growing weeds with the wheat. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Altar Call To Dust 

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Don’t Let God Take Care Of Your Garden

Matthew 13.1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

“What kind of soil do you have?!” The street preacher was screaming at anyone with ears to hear and most people were moving as far away as possible. The young college students were far more concerned with getting to class on time than they were with the strange man yelling at them, but he persisted.

“Are you receptive to the Word of God?” Many of the people walking across campus at that moment had spent the last few months and years being receptive to the manifold number of new ideas they encountered in their classroom. The man berating them represented the old way of doing things, the unsophisticated, unkind ways of spreading the news. No one so much as even looked him in the eye.

“If you do not receive the Word you will scorch and wither away for all of eternity!” At some time the threat might have caused people to shudder in fear, or at the very least stop in their tracks and contemplate what their eternal reward might look like. But on that day his words were falling on deaf ears, but he just kept getting louder and louder and louder.

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Unlike the street preacher filled with a faulty sense of evangelism, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. He did not frighten people in the midst of their daily lives, he did not berate them in the streets, his life and witness captivated people to his presence and they joined him by the water.

Unlike the street preacher, Jesus did not stand on soapbox or peer down on people from the height of a pulpit, he pushed off from shore in a little boat and sat down to tell them parables.

Parables are meant to be confusing. They are not simple and straightforward comments about the kingdom of God. Instead they are meant to leave us scratching our heads until God says what God wants to say.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he threw out the seeds as far as he could, some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they sprang up quickly but were unable to root deeply and were scorched by the rising sun. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked out the growth. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

Many of us might have gardens, or at the least we’ve planted something at some point in our lives. We’ve taken the time to find the perfect soil, and the right seed, and the optimum sunlight, and the proper amount of water and we’ve patiently waited for the seed to grow. We know, even the non-gardeners among us, the value of being attentive to the seed, soil, sunlight, and water. Which makes this parable all the more strange because the sower is terrible at his job.

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I mean he goes about flinging the seed this way and that. He doesn’t take the time to assess the pH level of the soil, he doesn’t dig small holes for the seed to be covered, he doesn’t even clear the area of other growth before he casts the seed. The sower in the parable is like a businessman who offers loans to people who have no hope of ever paying it back; like a wealthy family giving food to homeless people who will never find employment, like a parent who keeps forgiving a wayward child knowing they will not change, like a church opening its doors to a bunch of sinners who will always fall back.

The sower doesn’t know what he’s doing. Think about all the seeds that he threw in vain, think about all the time he wasted sowing seeds in the wrong places; what a fool.

And yet this is what God is like: God is the sower who scatters the seed regardless of the soil. Our God is a foolish gardener. At least according to the ways of the world.

Jesus shared this parable with the crowds from the boat on the water. But it was not just a story, it’s how he lived his life. Jesus went from place to place offering the grace and mercy of God without concern for the type of people receiving it. He did not overlook anyone as if they weren’t good enough for the kingdom. He did not scream at people until he was blue in the face trying to convince them to follow him. He just went out to sow.

For the early church this was more than a story that resonated deeply. It was hard to be a disciple shortly after the resurrection of Jesus; poverty and persecution, false prophets and poor communication. The early Christians scattered the seed like Jesus and people rejected it. Not because it was wrong or false or faulty, but because sometimes seeds don’t grow, whether in farming or in faith.

For the people of today, it’s more than story that resonates as well. It should ring familiar to the parent whose words of guidance and support fall on the ears of children who do not listen. They know about hard packed soil. It should connect with the business owner who produces a great product only to have the customer seek out a cheaper company. They know about shallow roots. It should ring true with the church that invites families and individuals to experience the love and grace of God only to have fewer people in the pews each year. They know the heartache of bad sowing.

In ministry, and in life, we spend a lot of time lamenting and despairing about the seeds that don’t take root. We spend countless hours reflecting on why something failed, and what we can do to bring new energy to a dead program, or hope to a lifeless tradition. We keep funneling money into places with the expectation that it will make a difference and we just keep seeing the same thing over and over again.

But the Sower in Jesus’ parable doesn’t do that. The Sower accepts the reality that some seeds will never grow and he keeps on sowing anyway. He is willing to throw out the seed anywhere no matter what the soil looks like. The Sower doesn’t return to the rocky ground and fume with frustration when the seeds don’t grow. No, the Sower has hope that by casting the seed anywhere it will eventually find the right soil and grow abundantly.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard this passage discussed in such a way that congregations are called to reflect on their personal soil. Like the street preacher I heard in college we are forced to ask ourselves: Do I have shallow soil? Am I a patch of barren ground? Do I have well cultivated soil for God’s seed?

Sermons like that leave congregations reeling on their way out, not feeling confused about the parable. Instead, people like you and me leave church feeling guilty about our dirt.

But the parable is not about us! When we limit this story to our soil we neglect to encounter the beauty and the truth of Jesus’ words. If we leave this place only thinking about the soil of our receptiveness we will miss the miracle of God’s grace. The Sower trusts that the harvest will be plentiful, even a hundredfold.

During the time of Christ sevenfold meant a really good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. If a farmer reaped thirtyfold it would feed a village for a year. But a hundredfold, the abundance that Jesus speaks about, would let a farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.

The Sower therefore, is not foolish and brash in his sowing; the sower is trusting and faithful.

Do we trust like that? Are we willing to scatter the seeds of God’s grace indiscriminately? Are we filled with hopeful expectation?

Or are we afraid? Would we rather keep putting our hopes and trust in earthly things? Do we think we’re better gardeners than the One who created the Garden?

The parable by the seashore is for those with ears to hear. It is not a call for blind and reckless optimism, but a call to trust that God will provide if we are willing to be seeds for others. Because that’s the thing… sometimes God sows us into the strangest and most unlikely of places.

The older man walked into the back of the church as the announcements were being made. He looked uncomfortable sitting in the pew all by himself and held the bulletin at a distance as if it might attack him. When other people stood up to sing he stood as well but remained silent, and then the pastor asked everyone to pass the peace of Christ.

Immediately the sanctuary erupted into a cacophony of sound as people wandered around greeting one another. The man stood alone for the briefest of moments before someone walked up and wrapped their arms around him. The man was so shocked that he just stood there as a few other people walked over to greet him.

For the rest of the service he sat in his pew staring at the ground and did not listen to a word the preacher said.

And when worship ended and people started to filter of the sanctuary the man began to cry. His eyes welled up slowly at first but the longer he sat there the harder he cried. Eventually one of the ushers saw the man and made his way over to make sure everything was okay.

The crying man looked up and asked, “Do you all greet each other like that every week?”

            The usher shrugged and said, “Of course we do.”

            The crying man then said, “That was the first time anyone hugged me since my wife died six months ago.”

Can you imagine what that man must have felt like that morning? Can you picture how he looked sitting in the pew all by himself? And the hug of a stranger at the beginning of worship changed his life.

That man was in no shape to receive the Word. His life had become the rocky sun scorched ground but God had thrown down a seed anyway. Jesus’ story is about more than having the right soil to receive the Word, it’s about the good Sower who spreads the Word.

All of us are here because God sowed a seed in our lives. It might’ve happened when we were really young through a family member, or it might’ve happened recently through a complete stranger, but we are products of the seeds God has sowed.

And our God is a high risk God. Our God flings seeds this way and that. Our God is relentless in offering opportunities to all people. Over and over again in scripture God calls on the last, the least, and the lost to guide, nurture, and sustain God’s people.

We might not want to let God take care of our backyard gardens, wasting seeds left and right. But when it comes to the garden of the church, when it comes to people like you and me, there is no greater gardener than the Lord. Amen.

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man who was about to embark on his second appointment in the United Methodist Church. He had gone to the right seminary and learned from the best professors. He had served his first church faithfully, but the time had come for him to follow his call at a new church.

However, he didn’t know much about where he was being sent. All he knew was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

For four years the young man had worked hard for his first church, he had made just enough mistakes to know what was right and what was wrong, and when he drove into town with the moving van full of his belongings, he went to the church before he went to the parsonage. Filled with excitement and hope he drove out on the old country road but when he arrived at the right address there was no church. So he doubled back and went down the empty road until he found a very disheveled looking building with the biggest and the most hideous tree he had ever seen blocking the sign and most of the church.

The place needed some work: a new roof, new paint, new everything really. But above all things, it needed to have that tree uprooted. The young pastor stood on the front lawn of the property and the wheels started clicking in his mind… How many people had driven past the building without evening knowing it was a church? How could they let such an ugly tree blemish God’s house? And then he knew what he needed to do.

He got in his car and went back to the parsonage, but instead of unpacking all his belongings and getting settled, he was on a mission for one particular box, the one labeled: chainsaw.

Hours later, with sweat dripping from his brow, the pastor stood proudly on the front lawn with the church now being completely visible from the road. The marquee shined with a new brilliance, the side of the building was available for all to see, and the old gnarled tree was perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor continued to day dream about how many more people would be there for his first service simply because the tree was gone. And he was working on his first sermon when the telephone rang; it was the District Superintendent. For a fleeting moment the young pastor thought that maybe the DS was calling to congratulate him for taking the initiative to beautify the church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s, John Wesley himself had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all the Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love of the scriptures, and its shade was enjoyed like the mustard bush from the time of our Lord.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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I haven’t been here long, but I love how we have these open windows in the sanctuary, windows through which we can see the church property. And I want to be clear: no trees have been chopped down since I arrived in town!

Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

We are the stories we tell. And today we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps even more frighteningly, who we are to be.

We only need to think back to the recent presidential election to see how much it further divided us as a country, we only need to turn on the television to see how violence and anger and fear are separating us as a people, we only need to get online for a brief moment to see how broken this world really is.

Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us how to think, speak, and act through stories.

But God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationships with those who are different from you.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty of scripture such that it speaks new and good and true words into your lives. Let the story of God with God’s people wash over your like the waters of baptism such that you can take steps into a new life. Feast on the bread and the cup at this table such that it will bring you to the upper room from long ago and you can hear Jesus speak into your ear: “You are mine and I am thine.”

We are the stories we tell.

When the stories of the world become the only stories we tell then we fail to be the church that God is calling us to be. If who we voted for, or what team we celebrate, or what show we love is more important than the living God, we are no longer the church at all.

Paul proclaims that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our truest story. The story of God in the flesh, of a baby born in a manger, a child who sat at the feet of the teachers, a man who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, a savior who turned the world upside-down, a Messiah who died on a cross, a Hope that broke forth from the tomb three days later.

That is our story.

Two weeks ago I sat down at a Chili’s in Hampton with four people from Cokesbury Church. We introduced ourselves and got to know one another. I asked questions in order to find out what the church was like, and they asked questions to find out whether or not the church would like me.

It was a hope filled conversation as we casted visions about what the church can be. But if you had been with us an hour earlier in the midst of Annual Conference with all of the other United Methodists from Virginia, you would’ve felt the whiplash.

According to the ways of the world, Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, worship attendance is plummeting, and churches are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are absent from the reality of church. At Conference we went over all the statistics, we learned about how the average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. We learned that most churches have attendance that has stayed the same or dropped even when the communities surrounding the churches are growing. And we learned that most people who claim to be part of a United Methodist Church invite another person to worship once every 33 years.

By the standards of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place.

Well then thanks be to God that Jesus is the solid rock upon which the church stands! Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Thanks be to God that the Lord is not in the business of statistics and analytics, God, our God, is in the business of making all things new!

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The story of Cokesbury Church is entering a new chapter. God is breathing new life into this church, and not through a new pastor, but through our willingness to know and believe that God will provide. We can name and claim this because our church story is part of God’s great story.

And at the heart of what it means to be the church is a willingness to learn one another’s stories. We learn one another stories by gathering here for worship, by meeting together to study God’s Word, and by going out to serve the community. We learn one another’s stories so that we can cherish the trees of our foundation while at the same time look to the future with hope because God is doing a new thing.

In time I will come to learn your story. I will discover who you are, what you believe, how you think, and how you act. And in time you will come to learn my story, how I felt called to the ministry, what I believe, how I think, how I act. But in learning one another’s stories we will be doing so much more. In fact, in telling our stories we will discover how we are caught up in God’s great story.

Friends, we are more than the stories of the world. We are more than the statistics and the estimates and the analytics. We are God’s people and this is God’s church!

And this is why we read from the story that is our story. The story of scripture speaks greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. In it we learn about who we are and whose we are.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world; my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand.

We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about God’s story. The ways of the world, the stories competing for our allegiance, will falter and crack and fissure, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Tell the story that is our story! Remember your truest identity in Christ Jesus. Listen for who you are and whose you are in the Word of God. Remember your baptisms and be thankful. Come to the table and see that the Lord is good. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Amen.

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