Stuck In The Middle With You

Luke 3.1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!” 

“Repent, for the end is near!”

The words echoed across the campus. 

He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.

Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.

But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe? 

And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.

Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.

The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.

This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

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The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.

And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.

It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful. 

The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.

The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.

The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.

A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.

He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!

Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.

But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.

Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.

And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.

They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.

John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.

John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world. 

John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.

I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.

I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”

He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”

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Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom. 

In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.

Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear. 

But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?

The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:

We cannot save ourselves.

We cannot save anyone else. 

And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival. 

Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.

It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.

We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.

We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.

And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.

Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.

A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.

We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.

It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen. 

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A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

Trust and Disobey

1 John 5.1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and the blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

Annual Conference is a strange beast. It is uniquely United Methodist, and it is the one time each year when church representatives, clergy and lay, from all over our state get together to worship, to pray, and of course, to vote.

The first time I ever went to annual conference, it was years before I actually became a pastor. The lay representative from my home church was unable to attend, so they asked me, a teenager, to go in his place. I, at the time, was beginning to wrestle with a call to ordained ministry so I figured I’d have to find out what all this stuff was about anyway, so I went.

I can’t tell you much about that first annual conference. There were a lot of people in one place uncomfortably shifting around in their seats as we listened to individuals talk about all kinds of stuff that were only barely relevant to the mission of the God in the world, but eventually something happened that I will never forget, and it took place when we came to the time of voting.

Someone, somewhere, put forth a motion requiring every United Methodist church in our conference to take at least one Sunday a year to pray for our country’s troops, and more specifically for those fighting overseas.

There was an audible affirmation of the motion, but before it could be put to a vote, somebody, somewhere, offered an amendment. They walked up to their microphone and said, “I am fine with praying for our troops, frankly we should be doing it anyway without being told to do it at least one Sunday a year. My only concern is that if we mandate and require all churches to be obedient to this rule, then we should also ask them to pray for our enemies, particularly those whom our military is fighting against.”

And like a stick of dynamite, the room exploded in arguments.

It took another hour of debates and amendments and further motions, 60 minutes of pastors and people pontificating about the validity of such a strange and bold request, before we got rid of the original request all together. Not because people were against praying for our troops, but because we could not agree on whether or not to pray for our enemies as well.

Obedience is a dirty word. It is a dirty word because we don’t like getting too close to it; it makes us uncomfortable. In our freedom-worshipping culture, we strive for independence and liberty above all else. We talk about being guided by our inner voice, we promise our children they can become anything they want when they grow up, we tell people to make their own destiny.

And yet Jesus, the one whom we worship, love, and adore, loves us enough to command us toward obedience.

No doubt this sounds authoritarian, and perhaps we don’t like imagining Jesus this way. Maybe we’d rather think of Jesus’ words as suggestions more than commands. From the time we are young we are taught about the folly of fascism and the need to reject superior rulers who tell us what to do. But lest we reject Jesus for his calls to obedience, let us at least admit the truth of our own subjugation.

We are all obeying somebody.

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In this world we respond to a great number of masters with an almost blind and willful ignorance – our peers, our families, our jobs, our government, our political parties, popular fads. They all dictate, in some way, shape, or form, what we are to say, how we are to act, and who we are to be.

We do as we are told.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.

We could debate, much like the people at annual conference did, about what it means to be obedient or not. But perhaps the better question is: “Who do we really obey?”

There are of course some Christians who boldly claim that Jesus, and the bible, are their ultimate authority – and they follow them explicitly.

I love meeting people like that, and not for the right reasons. I love people who blindly obey the bible because there are all kinds of crazy stuff in here, and contrary to John, it can feel pretty burdensome.

In Leviticus the people of God are expressly forbidden from wearing clothing with more than two materials mixed together (Leviticus 19.19). Do you know how hard it is to find clothing made of only one material? Most of what we wear is a blend of more than one substance, and we are so bold in our sinfulness that we brazenly show up to church wearing our sins literally on our sleeves!

Or we can look at other places in Leviticus, like when it says men must not cut the hair on the sides of our heads, or cut the edges of our beards (Leviticus 19.27). Take a good hard look around the room right now; not only do we have heathens in different clothing materials, we’ve got men on a straight shot to eternal damnation because they decided to pull out the bic razor this morning before they came to church!

The laws are indeed burdensome!

And yet, somehow, John is bold to proclaim the opposite.

Jesus requires our obedience to his commandments. We are called to obey that which he calls us to do. And, taking a cue from the New Testament, if we look at the summary of the commandments as loving God and loving neighbor, we can then begin to wrestle with how difficult those two things may or may not be.

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Loving our neighbors is about more than treating folks like family. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly the opposite of what we want! Just think about the last time you gathered around the table for Thanksgiving with family members you fundamentally disagree with! Rules and calls to obedience in terms of loving our neighbors become nothing more than abstractions unless they are somehow tied to a deep awareness of the mystical union we have with God in Christ Jesus.

It is precisely because God loves us, in spite of us, that we can love others. It is in the recognition of our unworthiness that we can actually meet the other where they are and, in spite of differences, we can love one another.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, not because being close to Jesus helps us get what we need or want.

We follow, we are obedient to this law, because we believe that being close to Jesus allows God to fulfill whatever God wants to get out of this world!

We live in a time deeply saturated in pluralism, when countless value systems vie for superiority or are uncritically embraced such that we no longer know who we are or what we are doing. We so root ourselves in ourselves, that we move farther away from God while telling ourselves that at least we are free.

But the Gospel is disorienting. It finds us where we are, in our shadowed existence, or deeply rooted in our own convictions, and it turns it upside down. The messages of grace, of Jesus’ life-death-resurrection, are unnervingly radical!

The commandments to love God and neighbor, though difficult according to the ways of the world, are possible through the impossible possibility of God. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God – when we believe (not just with our minds but with our actions) that Jesus is the Messiah, we begin to see how bound together we all are, and how we, and all of our earthly perspectives, have been conquered by God for something greater.

Right now the contemporary church, from the realm of United Methodism to conservative evangelicalism, is struggling. The church struggles, in large part, because of our failure to recognize how we are bound to God and not to the world – such that many churches take their theological cues from the powers and principalities and assert them on scripture, rather than the other way around.

It is precisely why our divisions are growing wider and our walls are growing taller.

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For too many decades, our denomination (United Methodism) has struggled with the question of human sexuality. We have in our polity the theological position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The belief and claim manifests itself in different ways from leaders barring homosexuals from becoming members at local churches to committees denouncing transgendered individuals, to pastors being punished for officiating at same-sex weddings.

Part of the church’s willingness to claim homosexuality as incompatible is rooted in the fact that our denomination believes that in so doing it is remaining obedient to Jesus’ commandments.

For months there has been a commission within the denomination seeking a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. They have read books, and prayed together, they have listened to stories, and imagined the future of the church. Our governing council of Bishops met this week in Chicago to begin looking at the commission’s proposals about where the church is being called and what’s in store for us.

There have been parliamentary debates and procedures to follow, press releases are being put together, and some churches are already banding together in hopes of starting their own denomination whether leaning traditional or progressive.

And, in the coming months, we’re going to talk more about the commission and the path of the United Methodist Church. But right now we don’t know a whole lot more than what I just told you. However, one thing we do know is that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.

Everyone.

Gay or straight, black or white, soldier or enemy, whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God. We, and they, are made one, by the Spirit, in Christ Jesus who came to live, die, and rise again. We can build our walls higher, we can put stricter language in our institution, we can do all kinds of things, but only Jesus conquers the world.

            Jesus conquers us.

To confess with our lips and with our lives that Jesus is the Messiah is a radical thing. It compels us to tell the world that no one else has the power Jesus has – not a political party, not a government, not even a church institution. It pushes us to look in the face of the powers and principalities and triumphantly declare, “No more!”

It is the beginning of a revolution of our hearts. Amen.

Back To The Future

2 Kings 2.1-12

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed the dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could not longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

 

Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

In 1940 John Lewis was born into a poor sharecropping family in Alabama. He was raised in such a way that he was forced to skip school and help on the farm, to which he decided to rebuff his parents and run out to the School Bus when they weren’t paying attention, knowing full and well that punishment would come when he arrived home in the afternoon.

He eventually left Alabama to attend school in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was there that he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, helping to lead sit-ins at local businesses. Some of us can remember what it was like, and of course some of us are young enough to have no idea what it was like, but there was as a time in this country, in fact for the fast majority of it, where people of different races were not allowed to share anything; not a water fountain, not a bus, and not even a table.

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Lewis became well versed in the work of non-violent resistance, and his involvement (and beating and arrests) eventually introduced him to a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. At the time Lewis was 18 and ready to give his life to something, and the young Dr. King was the kind of mentor and visionary who provided it to him.

During the sit-in protests Dr. King offered him ways out of the demonstrations if necessary, but John Lewis remained committed, though he almost spent more time in jail than he did protesting.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.

After the Nashville sit-in movement resulted in the desegregation of the lunch counters in downtown Nashville, John Lewis continued to be arrested and beaten as he sought to desegregate other parts of the community. In 1960, Lewis became one of 13 original Freedom Riders, who sought to ride in public buses in an integrated fashion. At the time, even though segregation was outlawed, many southern states refused to let people of different races sit next to one another on public transportation.

So Lewis and his companions began riding all over the south. When they arrived at bus stations in places like Birmingham and Montgomery, angry mobs were waiting with KKK members and local police officers to inflict violent retribution before hauling them off to jail. Again, because of the sheer amount of violence, leaders in the Civil Rights movement proposed an end to the Freedom Rides, but Lewis was determined to not let any act of violence keep him and his fellow workers from the goal of freedom and equality.

When the Civil Rights movement marched on Washington D.C. in 1963 John Lewis was the youngest individual invited to speak, and today he is the only one left alive.

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.

In 1964, Lewis began leading what would later be called the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in which he non-violently combatted the inability for some black individuals to register to vote. He organized education classed which helped people to pass the voter registration tests, and he invited college students from all over the country to witness the perils of the black experience of the south.

The responses from the local communities were harsh and violent, and again, leaders from the movement offered a way out for Lewis, encouraging him to go to other parts of the country for work, but he stayed.

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And on March 7, 1965, Lewis began leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, and as they crossed a bridge just on the outskirts of Selma, Alabama State Troopers charged the demonstrators while beating them with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured during the attack, but before he was taken to the hospital he appeared before television cameras calling on President Johnson to bring an end to the injustice in Alabama.

To this day, Lewis still has visible scars from the incident.

Three years after the bloody events of Selma, Dr. King was assassinated, but Lewis has worked tirelessly over the decades to keep his dream alive.

The month of February ties together a handful of narratives. At one moment we are focused on Black History, the individuals and communities that have been long overlooked in the education of young people. At the same time, in the church, we prepare for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. We do so in the church with what we call Transfiguration Sunday, a day in which we remember that holy moment when Elijah and Moses appeared on the mountain while Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. It is in the reading of the story that we are also called to remember the prophet Elijah who was sucked up on the whirlwind of the Lord, and his disciple Elisha who took up his mantle and continued his prophetic work.

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All of us have experienced moments of transfiguration, times and events that dramatically reshape the way we experienced the world. If any of us made a map of our lives, there would be those big locations, those massive landmarks of metamorphosis. Those places are obvious in retrospect; they are as big and bold as Gilgal, where the Israelites camped after crossing the Jordan river. Or like Bethel, the sacred temple site. Or like Jericho, where the Israelites famously defeated the city.

Those moments of transfiguration could be big and bold as Birmingham, Montgomery, or Selma.

These locations are important because they reveal a lens about where we were, but they also play a role in the future as well.

When Elisha followed his friend and mentor to the big bold places, he was experiencing the past of the people of God, while also preparing to be handed the mantle of the future.

When the disciples witnessed their friend and Lord transfigured before them, when they took in the vision of Moses and Elijah on either side, they were at once seeing the entire history of their people while also experiencing a foretaste of the future.

When John Lewis marched and protested in those now infamous moments, he was carrying the history of an oppressed people, while believing in a dream that was handed to him by his friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr.

We are who we are because of the people who paved the ways for us, and the transfigured moments that show up on the map of our histories. However, the most transformative moments tend to happen outside of the big landmarks, in the days of everyday living. It is there in the ordinary moments that life is disrupted in ways both strange and superb.

Transfiguration takes place in the conversations between a prophet and his student on the way to the next town. Transfiguration takes place at a table when a teacher shares bread and a cup with his disciples. Transfiguration takes place in the linked arms of a protest line outside of a no name diner.

And that is why we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It is why we remember the journey of Elijah and Elisha from one place to the next. It is why we take the time to learn about the struggles of a people in this country, who are still suffering under the weight of prejudice and racism even today.

Elisha, the disciples, and even John Lewis were given plenty of opportunities to leave. There were moments when the path before them was clear, and knowing what was at stake did not deter their vision. The work of the Lord, of going to the margins for the sake of people on the margins is no easy task. For many, it results in punishment, isolation, and even death. Yet staying the course resulted not only in their transfigured lives, but also in the transfiguration of all things.

Elisha and Elijah were standing by the Jordan river when Elijah rolled up his mantle and struck the water. And, just like in the days of Moses, the waters were divided to let them pass to the other side. In their final conversation, Elisha asked the prophet for a double share of the spirit, and Elijah was quickly lifted up on the whirlwind of the Lord as Elisha looked on with terror. And when Elijah was finally gone from sight, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces.

The disciples who were on the mountain with Jesus during the Transfiguration stayed with him almost until the end, when he was hung on a cross for all to see. And in the wake of his suffering and death, they wailed and lamented in grief.

John Lewis continued the hard and challenging work of the Civil Rights movement knowing that his life could’ve ended many times, and that it could’ve ended with a gun shot just like his friend who dared to dream.

That is why we remember. That is why we take the time to read the stories, and sing the songs and offer the prayers. Because these stories are who we are. We are there with Elisha crying out into the void, we are there with the disciples shielding our eyes from the brightness of the Transfiguration. We are there with John Lewis marching across the bridge toward certain doom.

We do this because it is in the looking back, that the light of Christ shines before us propelling us back down the mountain, across the river, or even over the bridge. We are propelled back to the future seeing how far we’ve come while also knowing how far we still have to go. Amen.

Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
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“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.

Devotional – Isaiah 43.18-19

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.18-19

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

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On Saturday morning I gathered with a few hundred United Methodists from all over the Virginia Conference for the Bishop’s Convocation on prayer. I was asked to teach a class on spiritual disciplines, but before we broke off into small classes we all met in the sanctuary to hear from our plenary speaker Dr. Fred Schmidt (Reuben P. Job Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.)

Dr. Schmidt’s lecture was focused on the need to reclaim a sense of prayerful discernment. He admitted that countless churches will often use prayer in worship, or at the beginning of committee meetings, but rarely do churches actually strive to discern the will of God through their prayers. He set up this distinction by comparing the church of the 50s and 60s to the contemporary church; a half-century ago the church was comfortable with its role in society but as the church has diminished over the decades we have tried to reclaim that popularity. He mentioned that we now have things like “Ashes-to-go” on Ash Wednesday, we hand out coffee in our narthexes, and we fill worship with things like “how to be a better you.” Year after year we initiate new programs in the hope that they will bring us back to the heyday of the church. Then Dr. Schmidt brought the whole point home: “Part of our problem is that we’ve been seeking to rebuild our attendance and influence instead of rebuilding the body of Christ.”

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The Lord once spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing;” Many of us fall prey to the temptation to make things “just like they once were” and we want the church to be as popular as it once was. However, God does not call us to be popular. God calls us to be faithful.

This week, let us consider how we can discern God’s will in our lives and in our churches. Instead of just assuming that if we water down our ministries more people will show up in the pews on Sundays, let us earnestly pray and wait for God’s will to be revealed. Instead of limiting our faith to “how to be a better person,” let us earnestly live out our faith and pray for God to make us more like Jesus.

Faith Hall of Fame – Hebrews 11.32-40

Hebrews 11.32-40

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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Today we conclude our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” This is the final Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and over the last few weeks we have prepared our hearts and minds for the coming of God in Christ. We began with Abram being called into a strange land. Next we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Last week we explored Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This morning we conclude by looking at the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11.

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And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Fletcher Swink, Sam Stanley, Zig Volskis, Patricia Meadows, and the other pastors — who through faith endured frustrating congregations, proclaimed God’s presence, fought for justice, became mighty in honor, and brought people to the Lord.

Hebrews 11 contains what I call the “Faith Hall of Fame.” The entire chapter is devoted to the great leaders and prophets from the Old Testament and their willingness to stand up for God even when it meant certain doom. They so fervently believed that God was with them, that they were willing to embark on new beginnings when others refused to obey.

The closest thing we have to a Faith Hall of Fame here at St. John’s can be found in our parlor next to the narthex. Inside you will discover a picture of every pastor that has had the good fortune to serve this church since 1954. From Fletcher Swink to yours truly, every pastor has been framed and dated, hung with care, and honored with a spot on the wall.

Have you ever taken the time to look through the pictures? It was one of the first things I did when I was newly appointed, and frankly the room terrifies me. Whenever I sit in the parlor with a group of people, I feel the heavy gaze of the pastors, they look down from their Faith Hall of Fame, and I can’t help but wonder what they think of me.

Marshall Kirby begged me my first week to give him a picture so that he could put me up with everyone else. I hesitated. For weeks he bugged me about getting the picture, about having it be just the right size and tint to blend in with the others. But I continued to put it off. I kept making excuses about how busy I was, or about the priorities I needed to focus on, but the truth is, I didn’t feel worthy of going on the wall. I had been here for such a short amount of time and felt that I hadn’t done anything that earned me a spot in the Hall of Fame.

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about all the things they must have gone through to bring this church to where it is. I think about Fletcher Swink starting the church down the road at the Auto Parts store. I imagine that it required a tremendous amount of faith to believe that God had call him from Durham, NC to Staunton, VA to start a new church; to make something of nothing. How many nights did he pray for God to send him people, how many afternoons did he spend worrying about the new building project, how often did he confront frustrated parishioners about his sermons?

When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about Patricia Meadows being appointed as the first female pastor. I wonder about how hard she had to work to gain the trust of the people, what lengths she had to go to to reignite the flame of faith. I imagine the deep prayers she offered to God about sending new sheep to her flock, the lonely days of sermon preparation, and the terrifying moments of standing by the graveside with friends and family from the church. How often did she wrestle with her call when she felt persecuted, how many days did she spend praying for the people of our community when they were no longer able to offer their own prayers, how did she feel standing up against the injustices around her?

I wonder about all the pastors of this church, and what they went through for God’s kingdom. What was it that set them apart? What did they do that helped to grow and nurture faith in this community?

Last week I was standing in the parlor, admiring the past, when I realized how similar our Faith Hall of Fame is to the one listed in Hebrews 11.

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The people of Israel’s past were not of special value. Gideon was hesitant and timid when he was called by God; Barak had to be shamed by Deborah into fighting for the Lord; Jephthah is remembered mostly for his rash oath; Samson was weak of mind and conscience.

Similarly, there is nothing particularly special about those who have served our church. Though undoubtedly unique, they contained no special powers that set them apart from other clergy. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that became manifest while they served the church.

Our pastors, and the heroes from Israel’s past, were set apart because they did all things “through faith.” They worked knowing that the real significance of what they had done would never be seen in their own time, but something that would come much later. They suffered through persecution and injustice because they believed in God’s goodness even when the world claimed the contrary.

We remember the ways our pastors have suffered: Angry emails/letters about inappropriate sermons, knowing glances and whispers from the committee members in the parking lot (where the real meetings happen). Shouts and finger pointing during counseling sessions. Years of loneliness serving a church full of people who cannot see the pastor as anything other than pastor. Doubts when preparing funerals for people in the community.

We read about all the ways the faithful of Israel suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment. Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, wandered about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented.

This is what evil does to the good. It attacks at the core of our being, shakes our faith, and  encourages us to doubt. Yet, reading these words and remembering our church’s past should bring us courage and hope. We see in them the willingness of people to go and risk it all for God. Pastors who remained brave and faithful when others tried to break them down. Prophets who spoke the truth when others sought to kill them. We see in them the true courage that faith can develop. 

It only takes a moment to see this tremendous faith in the world today, people standing up against injustice when the world argues the contrary. Consider the droves of people standing with their hands up and holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” in response to Ferguson. Consider the droves of people standing shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community during Pride marches in response to fanatical attacks against sexuality.

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We remember and read and see the ways people suffer for God’s kingdom and we commend them for their willingness to go and be grace for the world. God sends into our confused and cruel humanity his messengers and prophets. God sends them into the midst of the wolves so that we might not be left to our evil ways, that we may see in them hope for tomorrow, and in response turn back to the God of mercy.

Yet all these, though they are commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Whether Gideon, Barak, Fletcher Swink, or Zig Volskis, their completion depends on us. Their faith rested in God who would fulfill his promises. They served the Lord as an anchor cast into the days ahead; faith is built on hope for the future.

Abraham’s faith would have been in vain if his descendants never made it to the Land of Promise. Samuel’s faith would have been in vain if he had not responded to God calling him by name in the temple. Paul’s faith would have been in vain if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to him on the road to Damascus.

Apart from us they cannot be made perfect. The completion of those from the Faith Hall of Fame depends on us. We can fulfill their faith even today by going out and being Christ’s body for the world.

We remember the past of scripture, and the past of our church, but we are not to idealize it. We cannot be blind to the mistakes of those who came before us, or allow the past to fasten its dead hand upon us, binding us down to fruitless ideas, ancient prejudices, and old failures. We look back so that we can look forward. Just because “thats the way we’ve always done it” does not mean “thats the way we must do it now.”

Yet too often we forget how indebted we are to the past. We neglect to remember how faithful Abram, Samuel, and Paul were. We brush aside all the pastors who worked with every fiber of their being to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every good thing that we have and enjoy was consecrated by the sacrifices of the past. We have faith because the people of the past passed it along to us. So today, we in our turn cast our anchors into the future. Without those who are to come after us, without the youth of our church and without the children of our preschool, we shall not be made perfect.

We are who we are because of the past. We will become what God intends for us because of the legacy we pass on to the future. Our new beginning comes when we cast our hope into the future of God’s kingdom, when we stand up for something new and different that breaks from the past, when we take steps in faith knowing that God is with us.

God is with us. In a few days we will gather again to celebrate Christ being born into the world to be God with us. We will look to that lowly manger and remember that God came to dwell among us and encourage us to be brave people of faith who remember the past and cast our hope into the future. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.

I still feel uncomfortable whenever I’m in the parlor. Sets of eyes follow me from the past, and I see in them everything they went through to bring our church to where it is. I believe in their hope cast into the future. In all of you I see the seeds that they planted long ago that are blossoming into true discipleship today.

I see my picture on the wall and feel unworthy. But that’s when I remember that it’s not about me and it’s not about what I do. It’s about what God does through me. It’s about what God does through you. Amen.