The End Is Our Beginning

Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead. 

On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.

If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey. 

There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination. 

Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.

I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.

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There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”

There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.

There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.

We did the loop three times.

And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.

It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.

It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.

And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.

No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.

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This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.

But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.

Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.

We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return. 

And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.

It’s enough to give you a headache.

But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting. 

The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread. 

And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes. 

People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.

And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”

That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.

This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story. 

As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.

Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to. 

You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.

But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed. 

If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.

How wonderfully strange!

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Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.

But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.

The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.

The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change. 

Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.

Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.

And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen. 

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We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

 

Years ago I spent a summer working for a Toyota Dealership up in Alexandria. I was a porter and I was responsible for parking customer’s cars, driving them into the bays, and then bringing them back out when the work was completed. Every day I hopped into more cars than I could count and drove with great care through a parking lot that had twice as many cars as it should have.

I loved working there. I loved how every day was different, I loved all the strange and bizarre things people kept in the cars, I even enjoyed the great range of music that people chose to blare through their sound systems. But the part of the job that I loved the most was the people I worked with.

All of the other porters were at least twenty years older then me, and none of them were white. We were quite the motley crew standing together waiting to park cars, and during the slow moments we regaled one another with stories. That summer I learned about Carlos’ difficult journey from Mexico to the United States, I learned about Jamal’s continued experience of racism even though we lived in a supposedly progressive place, and I learned about Michael’s love for his home country of Ghana.

Of all the other porters Michael took me under his wing and always made sure that I was always drinking enough water. He called me Mr. Taylor and would clap his hands when he saw me walking up early in the morning.

We worked side by side for an entire summer and by the end he felt more like a friend than a co-worker.

On one particularly rainy afternoon, while business was slow, I asked Michael about what it was like to live here after spending most of his life in Ghana. He told me about how for years he only dreamed of one thing; saving enough money to bring him and his family to the US. How for years they watched American movies and read American books and they knew they had to do everything they could to get here.

And when they finally saved enough, when they finally came to the US, they were disappointed.

I remember thinking: “Disappointed? How could they be disappointed with all we have to offer here?”

And then he told me that they were disappointed because it was dirty, because there were people in need, and that he and his family still felt like strangers in a strange land.

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Isaiah’s message from the Lord isn’t just some random call from a prophet for the people to know more about God – it comes at a particular time to a particular people in a particular place. These words were, and still are, meant for a people in captivity.

The people of God had grown distant from the Lord and after countless attempts to bring the people back into the fold; they were taken into captivity in Babylon. For two generations God’s people were in a foreign land and it was in the midst of the Babylonian captivity that Isaiah spoke these words from the Lord: I am the first and I am the last, there is no one else like me. If any are so bold as to claim to be like the Lord let them declare what is to come. Do not fear, or be afraid. Have I not told you what was to happen? You are my witnesses!

The people receiving the Word from Isaiah were a people without hope. They had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their faith, their traditions, their roots, their identity, and their sense of belong. The Babylonian empire was known for its power and its majesty, but it was not what they thought it would be. Like my friend Michael from Ghana arriving in a new place, the Israelites were strangers in a strange land. Babylon was a nation with its own roots and customs and gods, and Israel was a tiny nation that had been assimilated into the greater empire.

Every single day God’s people were surrounded by idols clamoring for their worship. But unlike all the idols of Babylon, unlike all of the customs and the experiences, Isaiah declared that only the Lord is first and last, only God calls the future into being.

And to be honest, it is almost impossible for us to connect with the captive situation during the time of Isaiah. We are so entrenched in the culture around us that we cannot even fathom what it would look like to be in bondage, to be chained down, to be strangers in a strange land. But we are.

We are in bondage to the next new thing; in just a few months droves of people will be lining the streets for the next iPhone, Potomac Mills will be nearly impossible to navigate through, and the promise of big deals will cause people to make irrational decisions and choices.

We are controlled by the current political structures that we think determine our lives. Just ponder about how much time we spend watching or reading the news that is now completely and totally focused on who said what, the next vote down the line, and the latest tweet from the White House.

We are chained to economic plateaus that are relatively inescapable. Here in this country we cherish the American Dream, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of us will die in the same economic bracket we were born into.

We think that all of those things determine our lives. They have become our Babylon.

On any given day we will spend more time worrying about a new product, or politics, or our prosperity far more than anything else. Like the Israelites in Babylon, like Michael at the dealership, we Christians are strangers in a strange land. And here’s the frightening part: the longer we spend time in the strange land, the less strange it appears.

I know a man who started attending church later in life and quickly got involved. At first he volunteered as an usher, and pretty soon he was helping to lead worship as a liturgist. He loved church. He embraced the different rhythms and habits of the congregation and threw himself completely in.

And, of course, it didn’t take long for him to join one of the many committees at church. For months he attended the meetings and all of the other activities at church, but suddenly he stopped appearing around the church as frequently until he disappeared all together.

I asked to meet with him to discuss what happened and his answer was simple and hard to hear. He said, “I loved church because it was unlike anything else in my life, but at some point it started feeling the same. I experienced arguments in church meetings, apathy in the pews, and people never stopped lamenting about the past. I came to church to escape that kind of stuff from my life, only to discover that it was here as well.”

If the church is no better than the culture that surrounds it, if it doesn’t embody a different way of being, then it simply isn’t the church.

We are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. While the world around us strives to change our priorities the words of Isaiah ring even louder. While the culture tells us that we have to make it through this life on our own, Jesus tells us that we cannot do it on our own. While cultural idols strive for our allegiance, the Lord speaks loud and clear: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God.

We don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God.

And, as Isaiah is bold to proclaim, our God comes to us from the future. God is concerned about where we are going, whereas we often spend far too much time stuck in the past.

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The Israelites in captivity were stuck in the past just as much as they were stuck in Babylon. Their minds were focused on the old things, the failures of a distant time, memories from days long ago. They needed to hear the good and the true Word of God: “Who else can tell you what is to come? Let them try to prophesy the future. I am coming to you from the future for I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Do not fear, or be afraid! You are my witnesses. Remember what I have done for you, and you will know there is no other rock.

At the time of Isaiah’s proclamation the people were in danger of forgetting who they were, and whose they were. They wallowed in their present circumstances and were giving themselves over to the idols in their midst. They needed a probing and holy Word from the Lord. They needed deliverance from their chains. They needed to hope for things not seen, they needed to believe, they needed to know that God was with them even in the midst of captivity.

But maybe all this Babylonian captivity stuff is too much for today. We haven’t been stolen from our homes and delivered into a foreign country. Perhaps the talk of idols and nationalism, the comparisons within politics, and the particles of God’s time traveling omnipotence are just too heavy. Maybe we’ve got other things to worry about: bills to pay, people to call, children to raise, a marriage to sustain, a future to figure out. Perhaps we are so deeply rooted in this strange land that we can no longer see it as strange. Maybe our captivity has become our home.

Well then let us all hear the adapted word from the prophet Isaiah:

We cannot save ourselves. We have been and will be saved by God. There is nothing on this earth, or in the entire cosmos, like the living God. No amount of materialistic accumulation, economic growth, or political power will ever bring us satisfaction. Every little thing that we want to give meaning to our lives will fall away.

God, however, is almighty, eternal, and full of mercy. God is the one reaching out to us when we no longer have the strength to reach back. God is the one who surrounds us when we feel completely alone. God is the one who delivers us from the captivity to the Babylons in our midst.

As Christians, we are strangers in a strange land. Everything surrounding us is constantly telling us what to think, how to act, and what to believe. The world tries to tell us who we are and whose we are.

But we don’t belong to Babylon. We belong to God. The world’s ways are not our ways!

We are more than the stories of the past. We are more than the failures of the present. We are more than our captivity to the idols competing for our allegiance. We are God’s children.

And our God is an awesome God! Our God is the first and the last. Our God is the beginning and the end. Our God is in control. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God is king of the cosmos. Our God is the solid rock upon which we stand. Our God is concerned with our future. Our God believes in our future. Our God know where we’re going.

Thanks be to God that we don’t belong to Babylon. Amen.

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Romans 4.1-5, 13-17

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

 

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

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

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

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

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What a righteous slogan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We reject people for all sorts of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the same holds true for us today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Why We Do What We Do – Pray

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.

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The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary quickly, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we pray.

We’ve all been there before. We’re driving through the parking lot, maybe running a little bit late, and we cannot find a parking spot to save our lives. We search and search, we circle and circle, but nothing opens up and the more we look at the clock the more nervous and frustrated we become.

The man was driving through the grocery store parking lot with a list of items to purchase in his pocket and not a parking spot in sight. To complicate matters, the man’s wife is pregnant at home and he knows that the only thing that will make her happy is a jar of pickles, ice cream, and a bag of Doritos (all on his list). He had rushed out of the house with the hope of returning home with the necessary items as soon as possible, but the lot is full and he’s running out of time.

He decides its time to resort to the guy in the sky. Not the normal praying type, he’s not sure how to start. “Um… God, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but it’s me calling. I need your help. I don’t know how long I’ve been circling this lot, but I need a parking space. Maybe you don’t realize how getting this stuff for my wife will earn me some major brownie points. And I need those brownie points.”

He keeps driving around with no spots opening up, so he decides its time to step up his game: “God, I’ve been a good guy. I give to charity. I listen to others. I try not to swear. Can’t you just help me out this one time?”

Nothing. If the man was desperate before, now he’s starting to panic. He decides it’s time to make a deal. “Okay God, if you give me a parking space I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I will start tithing money to the church. I’ll even volunteer in the nursery…” When all of the sudden he rounds a corner to see a perfect spot open up just within his reach and decides to finish his prayer: “Forget it God, I found a spot on my own.”

In the story immediately preceding our scripture today James and John (the sons of Zebedee) want something from Jesus. To which Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “We want to sit on your right and left in your glory!” They want power and prestige, and they want Jesus to give it to them. And what does Jesus say? “You do not know what you are asking for.”

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Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples were walking with a large crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth walking by, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” However, the crowds were so large that Jesus was unable to hear Bartimaeus, and those closest to the blind man ordered him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus was no ordinary man so he continued to yell out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus immediately stood still and called the man forward.

The crowds who have just moments ago ordered the blind man to be quiet now begin to shower him with praise: “Take heart! Get up, he is calling you!” Bartimaeus jumped up from the road and threw off his cloak, his one possession of value, and makes his way to the Lord. Then Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked the sons of Zebedee: “What do you want me to do for you.” But Bartimaeus’ prayer is completely different from the disciples and we can almost picture him kneeling before Jesus and saying, “My Lord, let me see again.

Why do we pray?

One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We need something from God so we ask for it through prayer.

Another reason to pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.

Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of a need. Sadly, prayer is often our last resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos in life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.

How do we pray?

For centuries faithful disciples have experimented with ways to pray. Silence is always a good place to start. Finding a quiet space and time in our lives and just letting the worries of the world float away. Like Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak, we look for the ways we can rid ourselves of the baggage that clogs our ears and prevents us from listening.

Another form of prayer comes through the reading of small bits of scripture over and over. Like taking one of the psalms and slowly reading the words as our own prayers to God, letting the words of the past make manifest our needs in the present. We dive into the depth of God’s great Word and slowly begin to realize that God is still using scripture to shape us even today.

If all else fails, we can rely on the helpful acronym of PRAY for Prayer.

P – Praise

God, I praise you for all of your marvelous works in the world, and in particular the gift of you Son Jesus Christ.

R – Repent

Lord, I confess that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

A – Ask

Father, give me the strength to be a better disciple and patience to accept the things I cannot change.

Y – Yield

God, even with my needs and wants, let your will be done in my life and here on earth. Amen.

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There are such a great number of ways to pray, that so long as we are doing what we do with intention, it can be a form of prayer. The greater question is not how do we pray, but are we praying for the right things?

On Wednesday night the youth gathered for The Circle. We went through the words of communion and feasted together, we checked in with each other and caught up about the comings and goings of the last week, and then we started to go through a few accountability questions. Someone pulled out the question “Who do I need to be praying for and why?” and the table responded in silence as we began to think about our responses. We listened as each person shared a particular need for someone else and it was obvious that our Adult volunteer was astounded by their maturity, and could not help himself from asking a new question: “Have any of you ever had your prayers answered? I’m not talking about praying for the Redskins to win, or to pass a test but a real and true prayer.”

It was truly a beautiful and holy moment as each of them shared a particular time when God had answered one of their prayers, a true prayer. Not prayers for a sports team, parking space, or academic grade, but for healing, patience, and purpose.

Bartimaeus is a model for discipleship. Instead of waiting for Jesus to just show up in his life, he calls out from the depth of his being for mercy. Instead of assuming that God will give him everything he needs without sacrifice, he quickly throws off the cloak of the past in order to embrace a new future. Instead of expecting a divine healing and a return the normalcy of life, he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, he fervently prays for mercy, and the crowds catch a glimpse of God’s grace. This event is a miracle. Miracles are those things that bring people from the darkness into the light, not just for the blind man, but everyone gathered around Jesus. Miracles turn our attention to what really matters in this life.

The true power of the miracle rests with Bartimaeus’ prayer. He calls out to Jesus. He comes to Jesus. He prays his true prayer. He sees Jesus better than the disciples, and he was blind.

What are we praying for?

In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will be encouraging each of us to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Bartimaeus.

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So we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the paper in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. But we will mail them back to you in a number of months.

God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened, just like Bartimaeus, to the ways the God is moving in our lives. Amen.

Why We Do What We Do: Worship – Sermon on Luke 24.13-35

Four homilies on why we worship the way we do…

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Gather

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

 

The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings. This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray.

For any of you that have left worship with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you. This morning we begin with “Why We Worship.

Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering on a regular basis to praise God. From the crowded upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the modern gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs, getting together is what we do as Christians.

I would now like to ask each of you to pull out your bulletin. You will notice that our worship is divided into four parts every week: GatheringProclaimingResponding – and Sending Forth. These four parts have connections with the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but it can be specifically drawn to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus gathers the two men on the road, later he proclaims the scriptures and interprets them, then they respond by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes are opened to Jesus’ presence they are sent to proclaim what they had seen and heard to the disciples. These four parts have their beginnings in scripture, and we relive them each and every week.

When does worship begin? Some would claim that it starts whenever someone stands behind the lectern and starts to speak, but worship actually begins long before the moment we are all sitting in the sanctuary. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we walk out our front door, to the thoughts we have while driving, to the quick and joyful conversations in the parking lot, to the greeting in the narthex and the ushers handing out the bulletins. All of these moments are part of God gathering us, and they all have an effect on the way we worship.

Once we arrive and are present in the sanctuary, God continues to gather us together in our announcements about upcoming activities in the church. It is a time of relating to one another and sharing opportunities about how we can grow in love of God and neighbor. Immediately following the announcements, we have what might be the most important piece of the gathering: preparing our hearts and minds for worship.

Rick will play on the organ for a brief period that we use to help center ourselves for the practice of worship. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to strengthen our spirits for the work of ministry in the world. Then the choir will rise to sing a call to worship, in effect calling us to worship the living God. We have a responsive reading as we center ourselves on the theme for the day, and we start singing our first hymn.

Picking hymns is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs best fit with what we will do. And as we sing that first hymn, the acolyte and I will walk into the sanctuary signifying how the light of Christ is here with us in worship, how the light guides us and gathers us together.

By the time I actually make it to the pulpit, God is still gathering us together as we humbly bow and begin to pray as a community. The prayers we offer are a sign of our respect for the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. Finally, we gather our gifts of tithes and offerings to present to God (but we will talk more about why we give next week).

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to change their lives forever. So let’s continue letting God gather us for worship…

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Proclaim

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

 

After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about the things they had seen and heard in Jerusalem, he proclaims the stories of scripture and reinterprets them through his gracious work. But notice, they still do not know who they are talking and walking with on the way.

I will be the first to admit that God’s holy scriptures can be confusing. There’s nothing like a seemingly random assortment of names through a genealogical proclamation that can leave us scratching out heads. But the more we read, the more we interpret how God is still speaking to us through the scriptures, the more it begins to start fitting together.

The second part of our worship is dedicated to proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this every week by reading from the bible, singing a hymn, and then listening to a sermon. The scriptures are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings through a three-year cycle that goes through most of the bible. However, occasionally the scriptures are picked to fit a specific theme (like us using Luke 24.13-35 to talk about worship during this sermon series). We boldly proclaim the words of scripture and pray that somehow or another God can speak through a preacher to interpret these words for our lives today.

The middle hymn of worship is usually picked in reference to the specific text and our connection with it. Today we will sing “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus’ opened the eyes of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, but we also call on God to open our eyes to how the text continues to speak into our lives right now.

The sermon is a little bit harder to explain, because every preacher (and therefore every sermon) is different. Some can be funny and light-hearted; others are specifically focused on the Good News, whereas others can be more convicting about how we are living as disciples. The point of preaching is to challenge us to make God’s Word incarnate by the way we live our lives; which is precisely why preaching can be so hard to hear, and so hard to do.

This is how we proclaim God’s Word every week, just like Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples. So let’s proclaim God’s Word in worship…

 

Sermon:

 

A one sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples and our eyes are opened to Jesus in our midst. Amen.

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Respond

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

 

Jesus made it look like he was going to keep walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While they sat at the table together, he took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road, in the bread and wine on the table, that Christ became real for them.

The third part of our worship is focused on responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by reaffirming our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, we make a public confession of who we are and what we believe. Other weeks we do something unique and special like last week when we broke off into pairs and prayed for each other. But the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.

Breaking down the multiple elements of responding with Communion demands its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and what we’ve done, we confess how we have fallen short of God’s expectations and are forgiven, we share signs of God’s love and peace, and then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table, just like Jesus did with those two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let us respond to God’s Word in worship…

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Send

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 

I’ve always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of those disciples discovering the truth about their encounter from the road. But then I remember that I have had similar experiences: when I see someone come up in line to receive communion with a brilliant smile on their face, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I witness one of our preschoolers reach out in concern toward one of their classmates, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I see you greeting one another in love before, during and after worship, I realize that I am catching glimpses of Jesus.

After their incredible and momentous discovery, the disciples ran back to Jerusalem to share all they seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, the only thing we can do is share what it felt like with others in our lives.

The final part of our worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymns are still resonating deep in our souls, as we continue to contemplate all we have seen and heard in this place, God sends us out into the world to share what we have experienced. I stand before the congregation and offer a benediction of blessing to go with us as we leave, and then the acolyte carries the light of Christ before us, encouraging us to take Christ’s light out into the world. Lastly, the choir sends us off with one final song, blessing us to be a blessing to others.

This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what had happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth to be God’s people for the world…

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Holy Perspective – Sermon on 1 Samuel 16.1-3

1 Samuel 16.1-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord look on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

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One of the things I enjoy most about meeting with couples, and talking about weddings, is the invitation I offer for them to pick a particular scripture for their weddings. Now, I always have backups prepared just in case they are unable to come to a consensus or if they are just unfamiliar with God’s Word. But most of the time, they are willing to look around for something.

Many couples will choose the oft-mentioned 1 Corinthians 13 passage: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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Others will pick something along the lines of the regularly misinterpreted Ephesians 5 passage: Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Or that great passage from Ruth: “Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die I will die.”

The scripture that a couple chooses for their wedding can be quite revealing. It helps to demonstrate where their priorities are, what they expect out of marriage, and frankly, what they want to hear the pastor talk about.

So, you can imagine my surprise, when a couple recently asked me to use the scripture from today for their wedding. Preparing to enter wedded bliss, they didn’t want to hear about love, or marriage, but instead they wanted to hear about Samuel anointing David…

David & Samuel

The people of Israel had demanded a king from their God. For too long they had wandered about without leadership and they cried out for a leader they could follow. Reluctant to provide a human and fallible leader for a people that were supposed to be following their Lord, Saul eventually became king.

Handsomer and taller than any other man in the land, it quickly became clear that Saul was not the right one to rule the nation. He listened to his own heart rather than the Lord, and God eventually rejected him.

Thats where our story begins today. Samuel was sent to see Jesse the Bethlehemite, for the Lord has provided a king among his sons. The prophet took a heifer with him to cover his true actions from the vengeful Saul who might’ve killed him upon discovery.

After arriving, the elders met Samuel with fear and trembling. Turbulent events had always come in the wake of Samuel’s life and the people were responding appropriately. Great men and women always seem to stir up trouble wherever they travel. (It might be worth rediscovering this today in our own faith lives; too often has it been supposed that the role of church is to give all of us peace of mind. Truly I tell you, the greatest churches and sermons are those that challenge us to be better and do more than we already are)

So Samuel begin to evaluate all of Jesse’s sons; first Eliab, then Abinadab, than Shammah, and eventually all of Jesse’s sons had stood before the prophet. But the Lord spoke to Samuel and said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his statue, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Samuel was caught up with outward appearances. It’s like whenever I go to Alexandria to visit my grandmother, there is always a bowl of skittles out on her coffee table. I love skittles. On the outside the skittles always look delicious, the problem is that I don’t know whether they were put out that day, or six months ago. If you’ve never experienced it, trust me, you would rather have fresh skittles. The point being, you cannot tell how they will taste from the surface.

Anyway, the Lord had promised Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be the king, yet the Lord had passed over each one. “Are all of your sons here?” Samuel asked Jesse. “Well, there remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” David was beckoned away from his shepherding duties and brought before the prophet. He was ruddy and had beautiful eyes. The Lord commanded Samuel to anoint this boy, for he was the one. So Samuel took the horn of oil, anointed David in the presence of his brothers, and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

I prepared for the wedding like I have for all the others, I had counseling sessions with the couple, I talked about the major issues that most couples confront once joining together, but the whole time 1 Samuel 16 hung in the back of my head. What was I going to do with the text during the ceremony? How in the world could I proclaim love and wedded bliss in the midst of David being anointed by Samuel.

I was at a shop here in Staunton when I saw a bumper sticker that illuminated the text for me. The bumper sticker said, “Marriage: betting someone half your stuff that you’ll love them forever.” In reading that, I realized what the world sees in marriage is not what God sees. We, myself included, look on marriage and all things with mortal eyes, but the Lord looks on the heart.

All of the sudden 1 Samuel 16 became the perfect wedding scripture! The Lord does not look on our cooly color coordinated outfits, not our perfect hair, not the precise flower arrangements, God looks on the heart. God does not concern himself with the pomp and circumstance of weddings but instead looks at the intentionality of the two being brought together. God does not get caught up with the minor details of all the rights words and ceremony, but cares about the love within two people sharing a life together.

On the outside, marriage looks like it can be sustained by love alone, it appears like a gamble of half of your things, it seems to be a simple agreement to live together. When we look at marital relationships through mortals eyes, we are limited to the surface appearance and we forget to look on the heart.

Marriage is a beautiful and strange thing. Like Samuel pouring oil over David’s head, it can become uncomfortable and weird. At its best, marriage is loving someone knowing that they will not be the same person tomorrow. Its entering into a dance that will evolve over the years with different tempos and time signatures. Marriage is about the inward heart and disposition of two people coming together to share this remarkable thing we call life.

The Lord looks on the heart. This, after all, was a perfect wedding scripture. As I stood before the happy couple, presiding over their marital vows I could tell that their intentions were clear, they were not caught up in all the outside elements, but were committing to their marital covenant together.

In as much as this text fit perfectly for the couple, I believe that it stands as a light in the darkness for churches and Christians today. The Lord looks on the heart – How sad is it then that most human judgments about people are almost always superficial? Those who are physically attractive have many easy advantages in life, while others, by their very appearance, seem to be severely regarded by others.

David was noted by Samuel as being handsome, with beautiful eyes, but he was still one of the least likely candidates to be anointed by the Lord. While his brothers were older and more mature, David was still young and off in the fields tending the sheep. Rather incredibly, while God anointed David to become king, he would have to mature and go through many trials and tribulations before his role would come to fruition. He would have to battle against the mighty Goliath, avoid Saul’s spear in the royal court, and flee for his life hiding in caves before he could event mount the throne of Israel.

In many ways, God ordains each of us, anoints all of our heads, for certain tasks and graces in the world. Some may have occurred already, and many more lie ahead of each of you in your futures.

God does not call the attractive and the strong to bring about his will on earth, he is not caught up with our outward appearance and physical requirements. God is concerned, above all, with our hearts, with our intentions, with our hopes.

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This past week, the Christian organization World Vision made national news. World Vision is a humanitarian agency dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. Like many other similarly focused organizations, it can operate primarily under the radar and achieve a lot of good in the world. That was, until this past week.

In a public statement issued on Monday, the organization announced that it would begin hiring Gay Christians in legal same sex marriages. Prior to the announcement World Vision required all of its employees to maintain heterosexual practices within marriage to be considered for employment. The new policy was described as symbolic not of compromise, but of Christian unity, with the hope that it would inspire unity among other Christians as well.

After a remarkable amount of public outrage by evangelical Christians, and a significant amounts of threats regarding withdrawal of funding for the organization, World Vision reversed its decision to hire Gay christians in same sex marriages.

In only 48 hours, one of the most open, vulnerable, and incredible acts by a Christian group, devoted to helping sponsor children in need, was reversed. The mission of World Vision, the good that they do in the world, was immediately overshadowed by their hiring policy.

I don’t know what to think about all of this. I don’t know if any of the decisions have been right or wrong. What I do know is that a significant number of people who were being helped and saved by an organization were almost put in jeopardy because an agency aspired for greater Christian unity. It would seem to me, that regardless of opinion, the majority of the response was far more focused on the outward appearance of an organization, rather than their heart and intentionality.

I want to be clear that I’m not trying to say that one side was right, or that one side was wrong, but merely question how far we fallen from the idea that God looks on the heart. Every week we gather in this place to affirm our faith in the God who loves us when we don’t love back, that God listens when we run out of words, and that he desires us to be one in the Spirit when it seems as if we cannot agree on anything.

The Lord said to Samuel, and I believe the Lord is still saying to all of us: “Do not look on appearances or on height, do not look on political ideologies or past deeds, do not judge others lest ye be judged; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

How do you look at others in your life? Are you caught up with outward appearances, judging others before you have an opportunity to really learn their story? Do you see the world through mortals eyes, or do you look at the world the way that God looks at us?

This is a tough Word for us to hear today. God called Samuel to look on David through God’s eyes, with holy perspective. We, in the same way, are called to radically love one another, sacrifice for the body of Christ, and be one in the Spirit with holy perspective. It is not easy, and we cannot do it on our own.

So, may God bless us enough to open our eyes to see the world, and one another, the way that God sees us. Amen.

 

Open My Eyes That I May See