What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?

Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of you hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

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This morning we continue our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we continue with “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?”

 

 

Good morning. It is so nice to see and be with both of you for this premarital counseling session. I am really excited about your wedding and I considerate it a privilege that you’ve asked me to preside over the service.

Before we really get started, let’s pray… Amen.

So, tell me about your last fight… Uh huh, interesting. And would you agree? … Okay. So let me get this straight, your mother keeps offering her unsolicited opinion about what you two should do with your money, and then your mother keeps inserting herself into wedding plans? But the fight really started when you began arguing about where you would be spending your first Christmas as a married couple. You think you should be with your parents and family? And you think you should be with your parents and family?

This is going to be a great session!

Marriage is a strange thing. Out of all the people in the world, out of all the conversations and friendships and relationships, you two have been brought together (somehow or another) and you are now about to make a public covenant that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.

Let’s talk about why you want to be married. Everything in your relationship seems to be going fairly well, so why do you want to move toward marriage?

Because you love each other… How precious. We’ll talk more about love later. What else? What makes you feel like the person next to you in the one you want to wake up next to forever?

You trust each other… nice. You feel complete when the other one is around… good. You want to start your own family together… great.

Marriage is a public union ratified by God in heaven. In gathering together before your friends, families, and the Lord you will make a covenant to embody Christ’s love for us with the person sitting next to you. It is just about the most serious decision and commitment that you will ever make.

So you know why you want to get married. The next question, then, is why do you want to get married in the church? Because the three of us could get in the car and head down to the courthouse right now and you could be married within the hour. It would be a legal marriage in the eyes of the state and it would probably cost a whole lot less. So, why get married in the church?

I love that answer: You believe that marriage is bigger than just the two of you, and you want to the community of faith to be there with you. Wow.

Have you all thought about what scripture you want to use in the service? I encourage all couples to spend time in the bible and search for a verse or a passage that has special meaning for you. My only caveat is this: I will not preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Do you know it? “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 the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

Why won’t I preach on 1 Corinthians 13? Love is not enough to make a marriage work.

A successful marriage will never be contingent on your whims or your romantic feelings for one another. There will come a day, I promise, that you will not look or feel as good as you do right now. Love is not enough to carry you through the changes and the frustrations that will occur. Marriage requires more than love.

Between this session and the next, take the time to dive deeply into your bibles and find a scripture you want to use in the service and we’ll go from there. Just stay away from 1 Corinthians 13.

Have you thought about any hymns you would like to use in the service?

Number 408. Wait… is that “The Gift of Love”?

Were you not listening to anything I just said? Love is not enough. A successful and faithful marriage is based on qualities like endurance, patience and hope, conversion and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation. (sigh)

Anyway. Have you all considered the seriousness of your marriage? Which is to say, have you talked about divorce?

Both sets of parents are currently divorced? And it happened when you were a child, and when you were in college? How do you feel about divorce?

Interesting. You believe this covenant is so important that you will never get divorced? That’s rather admirable.

But here’s a dose of reality. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces per year. Divorce is so remarkably prevalent in our culture and society to the degree that we have become numb to it.

For too long the church has refused to confront divorce. We’d rather talk about every other controversial subject under the sun, but bring up divorce and you start making people really uncomfortable.

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And let me be clear, there are circumstances that occur in marriage where divorce is probably the best possible solution. Situations like physical abuse or traumatic adultery, but people get divorced for the most mundane reasons. “Our interests have grown apart” “We no longer effectively communicate” “We’re not in love anymore.”

As a society, we no longer take the covenant of marriage seriously. Some of us are too quick to end the relationship whenever we feel those first hiccups. As Christians, however, we are called to hear the bible and Jesus who are quite clear in their reflections on divorce.

The pain and complications of divorce cast a great shadow across almost every family and congregation, yet we fail to talk about it. Jesus once told his followers “What God has brought together, let no one separate.” God is the one who does the joining; it is we, with our fallen and broken natures, who do the separating. Marriage is a serious thing, perhaps the most serious, and we need to start taking it seriously. Divorce will always be a possibility, but it should be a last resort.

I have some tips for you. They’re not full-proof ways to avoid having your marriage fall apart. But they are practices that you can initiate now in order to help when things get rocky.

Accept the fact that you two are different. Opposites tend to attract and each of you are not only physically different, but have different backgrounds and outlooks to particular situations. God designed these differences for a reason. The more you learn to celebrate the things that make you different, the stronger your marriage will become.

Leave and cleave. Don’t let either set on in-laws dictate how you will lead your new family. Decide in advance that no one will become a wedge between the two of you. Every couple has lots of other relationships, including the possibility of children at some point, but none of them should be allowed to interfere with the oneness God will create in your marriage.

Make a commitment to the marriage no matter what. Couples usually assume that everything in their marriage will work out, when the reality is that many couples only commit until it becomes difficult or until the love starts to fade. If, and when, you struggle, you need to learn to ask for help. Remove the fear of asking for professional counseling if necessary. It would be better to get help early than to see your marriage disintegrate beyond repair.

Model after the right couples. I encourage both of you to find a couple whose marriage you admire, and follow them closely. If they are as good as you think they are, the probably have stories to share about how they got there. Things may not have been as wonderful throughout their marriage as it is right now.

Put Christ first. This is the one that you were probably expecting me to say, but it’s not just the preacher in me talking, it’s the best way to ensure a lasting marriage. Your individual and collective relationship with Christ will enable you to move through the toughest days in marriage. When I stand with you before all of your friends and family, you will make a vow, but it is not a private one. In marriage, the two of you will enter into a union that is not your own, but will be received in participation with Christ and properly lived out in the church.

Are you still feeling like you want to get married? I know I’ve made it sound like one of the hardest things in the world, but that’s because it is. If you are serious about committing to your marriage, then you have to recognize that the only way it can be done well is with the grace of God. There will come a day when you wake up next to the person you are sitting next to right now, and you will have no idea how it happened. You will move through tragedies and hardships, you will celebrate on the mountaintops of joy, and if you are still married it is because you have found the true nature of marriage through the God of hope.

Marriage, and I mean Christian marriage, is committed and covenanted. Marriage, seen this way, is about as counter-cultural as can be. Marriage can only be sustained in a community, like the church, which understands itself as something strange compared to the world. Marriage is one of the ways the community of faith embodies the surprising hope of new creation.

If you want to know the real secret to a successful marriage, is begins with discipleship. As disciples, you learn about how God’s commitment to us is so strong that God will never divorce himself from us; God will never abandon us. As disciples, you learn about the sacrifice Christ was willing to make for us and therefore we are able to sacrifice for one another. As disciples, you learn that the only way to make it through this thing called life is to have a community around you to support you through it all.

I want to thank both of you for taking the time to meet with me in preparation for your wedding. Over the coming weeks and months we will meet again to talk more about marriage, the church, and your actual ceremony. It’s going to be great. Throughout his ministry, Jesus loved comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. This means that your wedding will be one of the rare times that we can experience a little bit of heaven here on earth. Thank you foe inviting me into this holy and remarkable moment in your lives. But I have to warn you, if you chose to invite me to the reception following the ceremony, I will dance the entire time. Amen.

 

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What Are You Wearing?

Colossians 3.12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to be one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Worshipping so close to Christmas Day is a challenge. Christmas Eve: I love it. The way families come out, the perfect color-coordinated outfits, and we get a ton of people who never come to church. But the crowd on the Sunday after Christmas, you all, you make it tough. You are the real deal. You are the ones who love the light of Christmas Eve but recognize that you need the companionship of other Christians to hold you accountable in between Christmas Eve and Easter. You expect to hear uplifting sermons on Christmas Eve, but you also want to hear about the challenges of living a faithful life. You don’t want the watered-down stuff. You want the authentic discipleship.

Francis Asbury, depicted in this stained glass window to my right, also felt the challenge of preaching on this side of Christmas. In his journal entry from Christmas day in 1788, while making his way through the wilds of Virginia, he wrote: “I preached in the open house at Fairfield on Isaiah 9.6. I felt warm in speaking; but there was an offensive smell of rum among the people.”

From up here in the pulpit I certainly can’t smell rum on your breath, but I can smell all the Christmas food filling up all your Tupperware in the fridge, the ripped wrapping paper stuffed in trash bags, and all of the new clothes and gifts you received. Friends, you stink of Christmas.

Worshipping so close to Christmas day is a challenge. While we are still flying high on all the gifts we opened and gave, while we are admiring all the new clothes we get to wear, God still call us together to hear the Word.

One of my good friends and preaching colleagues is a man by the name of Jason Micheli. He served as a mentor for my faith while I was growing up, and even presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding. Years ago he wanted to preach a sermon that involved a number of props up by the altar. The church had three services on Sunday morning so he would have to preach it three times in a row. The sermon had to do with the fact that all people are invited to feast at God’s communion table, so Jason had set up a variety of different looking dining room chairs around the altar. The point being that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you look like, you are invited.

However, during the sermon, Jason wanted to lift up specific chairs and move them around the altar to get the message to really sink in. At the 8:30am service, while wearing his long white robe and carrying a chair up the steps, he stepped on the front part of his robe and nearly fell straight on his face in front of the whole congregation.

For the 9:30 and 11 o’clock services he made the decision to ditch the robe for fear of actually falling and making a fool of himself during the sermon. So during the final two services he said the same words, lifted the same chairs, made the same points, but did so without a robe.

Like all pastors, Jason heard the kind of generic compliments and critiques that are often expressed in the narthex following worship. “Good sermon” or “You gave us a lot to think about” or “Nice weather today.” But none of the comments prepared him for what happened next.

Over the following days and weeks, Jason received a considerable number of anonymous complaints from church members about the fact that he did not wear a robe during worship. He wasn’t trying to make some point, or go contemporary, or purposely upset people. He just didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. But instead of going to him directly to express their opinion, anonymous notes were left under his door, members went to lay-leaders with their frustrations, and some even bypassed the local church and went straight to the bishop to complain. The situation became so intense so fast that Jason actually received a phone call from the bishop about the fact that he was not wearing a robe in church.

Want to know a secret? God’s doesn’t care what we wear to church.

God couldn’t care less about what we have adorned on ourselves when we gather in this place. So long as we are wearing something, God is content. Yet, we put so much emphasis on the clothing and appearance of one another.

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On Christmas Eve, mere days ago, a time when the church is filled to the brim, I received more comments about the Christmas colored pants I was wearing than anything else. Before and after the service that’s what I heard about.

And it’s not isolated to Christmas Eve. Week after week I overhear seemingly innocent comments from some of you, “Can you believe what she wore to church this week?” or “How can she let him out of the house looking like that?” And two years ago, when I was invited to preach at Central UMC during Lent I wore a pair of Carhart Coveralls in the pulpit. To this day I still run into people in Staunton who remember what I wore far more than what I said. And if I’m honest, I judge on outward appearance as well. Whenever I’m driving through our town, or even when I’m up here in the pulpit, I catch myself making judgments about how other people look.

How strange that we judge on outward appearance, while God cares about the content of our character.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about how to dress properly. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint about someone else, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This Christian work regarding our behavioral and spiritual clothing is tough. We are called to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be bound to one another. This kind of work and effort is not for the faint of heart. This passage is not advice on how to avoid conflict. This passage is not telling us to put on a happy face and smile. This passage is not Paul’s version of accentuate the positive.

This text is about what to do when the real emotional brawls break out in our lives.

When the earliest Christians were baptized, they were told to strip off their clothes before entering the baptismal waters, and then were given new clothes in their new life. The clothes themselves were nothing special, but the whole act was to signify an entirely new way of being and relating to others.

When they stepped foot out of the water they were making a covenant to be clothed with the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They embarked on the difficult practice of bearing with one another and the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. They started on a path on striving to live like Jesus in the world.

God does not care about what we wear to church, but is instead concerned with the way we dress our souls.

We can wear all the right Christian clothes, we can wear clergy collars or robes, we can adorn ourselves with shirts that came from a mission trip, or we can wear the biggest crosses you’ve ever seen around our necks, but until we are clothed with the behavior and compassion of Jesus, all the clothes remain meaningless.

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To be well dressed with Christ is to live in harmony with others. Not just letting other people get away with their behavior and smiling absent-mindedly in response. Not just letting frustrations percolate for years. Not just ignoring people who are different than us.

To be well dressed with Christ is to actually forgive others, actually live our lives with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To be well dressed with Christ is to be clothed with love.

The days after Christmas are always interesting. Worshipping so close to Christmas is obviously a challenge and exemplifies the depth of discipleship. But in our day-to-day lives, the days following Christmas can bring out the worst in us. The joy of presents can be replaced with thoughts of the other things we wanted. The excitement of the family getting together can be replaced with the old arguments and fights. The hope of a baby born in a manger to save the world can be replaced with the scream and tears of our children coming down from a sugar-rush.

Yet, here we are. In the shadow of Christmas trees we gather to remember the light that shines in the darkness. While people rejoice with their new material gifts and possessions we give thanks for the gift of Christ that endures forever. As the marketed desires of the world turn to the next big holiday, we remember that every day is a gift.

We are challenged by the words of Paul today. Paul calls us to act, speak, and behave like Christ. While the world spins and focuses elsewhere, we are pushed to live like the baby born in the manger.

When we wake up every morning, if we do so with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience we will be living according to the ways of the one born in Bethlehem, the one who walked and talked in Galilee, hung on a cross for you and me, and rose three days later magnificently. Amen.

The Gifts of God – Truth

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my soul or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

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Happy New Year! As I mentioned last week, today is the beginning of our year as Christians. We have reset the calendar to rediscover the love of God in our lives and in this place. From now until Christmas Eve, we will have a sermon series on the gifts of God. This is particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we will be reflecting on what God has given us. Today we begin the sermon series with God’s gift of truth.

Make me to know you ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

 

One of God’s greatest gifts to us is truth. God provides for us a way and a path for Christian living and they all point to the truth. The psalmist confesses the beauty of this truth and pleads for God to maintain the truth in all times and in all places.

Advent is a wonderful and strange time for us Christians. In four short weeks we, as a church, are expected to make time and space to prepare our lives for God’s indwelling. All the while, many of us want to quickly break out the carols to accompany the dizzying whirl of parties and purchasing the usually precede Christmas. We want Christmas morning to be here so badly, that we forget about the anticipation of Advent.

True confession: My Christmas lights were up three weeks ago. We had a particularly balmy day and I decided that I might as well get outside and string up the lights, even if I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I have almost purchased all of my Christmas presents. I keep a notebook with me throughout the year and whenever Lindsey makes mention of something she likes, I make a note of it so that I will be prepared for Christmas. And even this morning, while I was praying in our sanctuary and on the front lawn, I caught sight of a particularly beautiful Christmas tree that I will probably bring home this afternoon.

I am impatient. I get so excited about a particular time and event that I often lose sight of the time leading up to it, precious time to be savored and enjoyed. But here’s a truth that God provides for us impatient people: the anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.

If couples went from engagement immediately to the wedding they would not have the important time of really learning what their in-laws are like.

            If young people were given a driver’s license without having a learner’s permit for nine months there would be a tremendous amount of fender benders in Robert E. Lee’s parking lot.

            If we jumped straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas morning then we would believe Christmas is more about gifts under the tree than God’s gift of Jesus for you and me.

The anticipation is just as important as the thing itself.

The psalm describes a profound trust in the Lord, a trust in the Lord’s paths, ways, and truths. God reminds us of these truths through different people and events, and when we confront them we can’t help but admit how true they really are.

The psalm also proclaims an important truth that we all need to hear right now: God is the God of our salvation.

In our contemporary culture, people often use the language of salvation when referring to politicians. President Roosevelt was considered by many to be a savior as was Kennedy and Reagan. Today we still look at our politicians with a messianic lens.

I was walking down Beverley street a few weeks ago when I overheard a couple in front of me discussing Donald Trump’s political astuteness. One of them said, “If only he was president, he would fix all the problems that the democrats started!” I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard what they had to say and I kept on walking. But then when I got in the car and started to drive back to church I heard someone call into NPR to claim that Hillary Clinton has the power to unite all people and will bring us, as in Americans, to the Promised Land. And then I got an email from someone who asked me to use the pulpit as a means by which to convey to all of you that Ben Carson was handpicked by God to bring about infinite prosperity and a return to Christendom here in the United States. And then someone sent me a picture that said, “We should elect Bernie Sanders as a socialist Jew, because we worship another socialist Jew every Sunday in church.”

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In a matter of hours, I heard about how four different political candidates would bring about a peace and wholeness in America that sounds impossible. Politicians cannot save us. They can advocate for us, they can institute law that can help us, but they cannot save us. Donald Trump cannot save us. Hillary Clinton cannot save us. Ben Carson cannot save us. Bernie Sanders cannot save us. Only Jesus saves.

This is one of God’s truths: only God can save. Yet, we all fall to the temptation of believing that political leaders are like messiahs who should be the ultimate objects of our trust and allegiance. Just drive around Staunton for an hour and look at all the political bumper stickers and yard signs covered in red white and blue. Countless Americans will contribute untold sums of money to political campaigns, they will use their precious free time to attend rallies and knock on doors, and they will jump at the first chance to get into an argument with someone who has a difference in political opinion.

Can you imagine what our community would be like if we actually worshipped Jesus like we worship our politicians? Can you picture what Staunton would look like if we put crosses on our cars (letting everyone know what we are supposed to act like) instead of political bumper stickers? Can you imagine what it would be like if we put up mangers in our front yards letting everyone know we worship the kings of kings instead of political banners?

We need politicians for our country. But we only need God for salvation.

That’s what God’s truths are like. On some fundamental level we know them to be true, but life tries to convince us otherwise. Getting excited about Christmas isn’t a bad thing; it’s only when we let the material become more important than the spiritual that God needs to remind us of the truth. Wanting politicians to make substantial and important changes isn’t a bag thing; it’s only when we start worshipping politicians like we are supposed to worship Jesus that God needs to remind us of the truth.

On Thursday evening I was sitting around the table at my parents house in Alexandria, VA for Thanksgiving. Family members had worked all day to get the food exactly the way we wanted, decorations had been set up across the house, and we were finally about to go around the table and share what we were thankful for this year. One of my cousins got the waterworks flowing as he shared that he was thankful for the new life that Lindsey and I will be bringing into the family in April. Both of my sisters expressed thankfulness for our family that has supported them throughout their lives. But then my grandmother started to share.

She told us about a family that lives across the street who has been through the ringer over the last few years: Divorce, unruly children, uncertain employment, etc. The mother of the family has grown close with my grandmother and they were out in the street talking a few weeks ago. The woman asked my grandmother what she would be doing for Thanksgiving and she described the very feast and fellowship that we were currently enjoying. The woman listened patiently to all the things my grandmother described and then said, “Do you know how blessed you are?

My grandmother began to cry and she exclaimed how she takes so many of her blessings for granted: Good health, a family that loves one another, food on the table, her faithfulness. The joy and exuberance of the day quickly transformed into a brief time of silence as we all pondered about the blessings that we take for granted.

Want to know one of God’s truths that we miss the most? We are blessed. Amidst spinning truths and impending threats we have a God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Amidst all of our fears and frustrations we have a savior who was willing to die on a cross to save us. Amidst all of the uncertainties and hypocrisies we have a Spirit that breathes new life into us each and every day. We are blessed.

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Good and upright is our God. He patiently instructs us through his Word in the way that leads to salvation. God leads the humble in what is right and teaches each of us the path to follow. All of the Lord’s ways are steadfast love and faithfulness so long as we remember the truth.

In a moment I’m going to invite us to encounter and confront one of these truths. Some of us will still wish it was Christmas day today, some of us will still worship politicians like we should worship Jesus Christ, but one of the things all of us can do is be thankful for the blessings in our lives. I would like each of us to pair up with someone in the church, someone that we don’t normally spend time with, and I want us to just have a conversation about how God has blessed us this year. Take a few moments to share, perhaps like you did on Thanksgiving, what you are thankful for right now.

One of the gifts of God this advent is the truth. The truth of God’s love made manifest in a baby born in a manger, a baby that embodied the Good News, a baby that carries the promise of transformation of life from sin to salvation, from slavery to freedom, from injustice to peace, and from death to resurrection. We are blessed. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Kings 3.5

Devotional:

1 Kings 3.5

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”

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When I go on mission trips, I love asking youth a familiar set of questions. For instance: After a few days of cold-cut sandwiches for lunch at our work sites, I always ask them to share what would be their ideal meal. In a matter on minutes, strangers become best friends over their intense bonds with the likes of Gummi Bears, Big Macs, Snickers Ice Cream Bars, etc.

Occasionally I will ask them to share their favorite movie or book, and I always wind up asking about their favorite story from the bible. The questions are a mechanism by which conversations will begin to flow, but it also helps to create friendships over shared interests with people that never imagined they could be friends.

A few weeks ago while I was serving with a mission team in McDowell County, WV I asked the group one of my go-to questions: “If a Genie offered to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” Some of the answers were hysterical: “I would ask for a swimming pool full of chocolate syrup” “Definitely a basketball court as my bedroom” and “french fries; lots and lots of french fries.” The question got the conversation flowing and we all began to debate the merits of our particular wishes compared with the wishes of our peers.

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Later on that afternoon, while we were cleaning up our tools before heading back to our main site, one of the younger boys from my crew approached me with a strange look on his face. He stood next to me for what felt like a long time before he finally spoke. “I’ve been thinking about your question, you know the one about the Genie, and I finally got my answer: I would wish to be more patient.” In all the quick responses to the initial Genie question, I neglected to ask this young man what he would wish for, and when he finally shared his answer, it hit me deep in my soul.

After his father David died, Solomon was approached by the Lord and was offered anything he wanted. Solomon, though given the opportunity to request anything in the world, asked for wisdom. That young boy on the mission trip, rather than being led by selfish desires for wealth and power, told me that what he really wanted was patience.

When we go to God in prayer, what do we ask for? Are we treating God like a Genie who will give us our greatest wishes? Or are we seeking the Lord’s power to help shape us into the disciples God knows we can be?

Believing > Understanding – Sermon on Isaiah 40.21-31

Isaiah 40.21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem take root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

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I have witnessed, read, and heard lots of sermons. From as far back as I can remember I was in church on a regular basis listening to people like me stand at the front of church and talk all about the bible. During seminary, I learned about the importance of attending different churches to hear from a variety of preachers. Listening to different pastors helped to cultivate my own sermonic style, and show me what not to do.

I once heard someone preaching about the wonderful story of David and Goliath. He read the corresponding scripture, prayed for God to be with him in his preaching, and then began the sermon with these words: “The stench of war hung in the air like a pungent fart…

There was a time where I heard a young woman preach on the sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis. As a sweet and endearing theologian, she frightened everyone in the room by continuing to beat on the pulpit in rhythm; first the rhythm of Abraham’s heart as he pondered the fact that God called him to sacrifice his son, second the rhythm of Abraham’s axe falling on the wood to prepare for the fire, and then latter the frightening sound of the blade falling in Abraham’s imagination. It shook everyone to their cores.

Right before I was appointed here at St. John’s I heard a pastor from the Eastern Shore preach a sermon on one of the psalms. He stood up before the gathered body and explained that he had felt convicted by the Spirit that week to rewrite the psalm as if he was one of those slam poets, and then proceeded to perform his new rendition for all of us. I can’t remember precisely what he said, but it sounded like this: “My heart beats beats beats, O God my heart beats beats beats. I will sing along to the beat, and make the beat my melody. Awake to the rhythm of my heart beat beat beat. Give thanks for the beating heating sleeting of my heart. For his steadfast love, is like a perfect dove, in the heavens so high, up in the air where the birds fly. Listen to the beat beat beat…” He went on like that for twenty minutes.

Sermons, at their best, make the Word incarnate again so that we can live it out in the world. There are as many styles as there are preachers, but hopefully we all ground what we say in God’s Holy Word. A common rule of thumb for preaching is that the text from scripture should determine the style of sermon. For instance: If the scripture lesson is a letter from Paul to one of the early churches, the sermons should function in a similar way to the church that is listening. If the scripture is a narrative, then a story should be used to help reveal the Good News from the text. If the passage is a parable, then the sermon should leave the people scratching their heads in the same way that the first Christians probably did when Jesus said something like the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

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Our scripture today, though from a prophet, is a poem.  The Babylonians had scattered the Israelites throughout the region and they feared for their existence. They continued to grumble about their situations and constantly blamed God for their misfortunes. Like Jesus praying before his crucifixion, the exile was their Garden of Gethsemane, in which they would pray for the cup to pass from them.

Instead of telling a harrowing tale from Israel’s past, instead of offering a parable about their situation, Isaiah speaks into their situation as a poet. It is now my challenge to do the same.

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Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

God is the one who sits above all things, He is the one who reigns over us. All of us, the people and inhabitants of the earth, we are like insects who come and go.

God is the author of salvation, he has opened up creation for us, dwells besides us, and hopes with us. God is the one who tears governments down, and makes the rulers of the earth fall away like leaves in autumn.

Like flowers in a field they are rarely planted, their roots descend but to not take hold, and when God blows upon them they float away. Crops come and go like the seasons, new plants reach up to the heavens only to disappear, flowers bloom only to wither, but God remains everlasting.

To what, then, shall we compare the Holy One? What kind of associations, experimentations, delineations shall we use to understand the one on high? What kind of metaphor will bring God to light? What kind of story points to his glory?

Lift up your eyes and see!

Look around you at the people in your life, at the blessings of food, function, and faith, at the wonders of God’s creation. God is the author of salvation, the teller of your tale, the sower of your seeds. He brings about life for all creatures then and now. It is only because of God’s great strength and glory that not one thing is missing from your story. 

So, people of God, why do we say and believe that “God does not care about my life!” How can we even utter such an abominable accusation about the author of salvation?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord. Our God reigns forever, our hope, our strong deliverer. He will not faint. He will not grow weary. His understanding is unknowable.

The Lord is the everlasting God. He gives strength to those who are weak, he empowers the powerless, and loves the unlovable. When we look out and see destruction, God sees incarnation. When we experience death, God sees life. When we believe God is missing, He is the one carrying us through our shadow of darkness.

Even the young people, with their strength and vision for the future, they will fall and be weary. The people in church and society that we so admire will crumble. They believe that life is a sprint instead of a marathon. But those who wait for the Lord, those who believe in the power of patience, shall have their strength renewed. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall soar from the highest of heights, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. If you can’t crawl then pray and pray and pray. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

The Lord is the everlasting God.

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Believing is greater than understanding. I’m not talking about the simple belief that God exists, I’m not talking about believing in God. I’m talking about believing God. Believing that He is everlasting, that he creates and commands that stars in the sky, and hopes for us when all things feel hopeless.

The captives were afraid that what they held so dear would disappear to the sands of time. Many of us fear the same thing about what we believe is precious: values, morality, ethics, the church, society, love, hope, patience. But why should we be frightened? God the everlasting remains when all others things are swept away. Kings will reign, politicians will run for office, we will live, grow, and die, but God is the one who remains.

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We are so tempted to get caught up in the here and now that we are unable to see things from God’s perspective. Our humanity prevents us from seeing God’s divinity. We look around and see all the failures of life around us and we fling our “why?” at God; but we should first challenge ourselves. What can I do to make this world better? How can I serve the needs of my brothers and sisters? What can I do to help show people a little glimpse of heaven on earth?

To wait for the Lord requires patience. We will all spend so much of our lives in vain trying to understand all that God has done when all we are called to do is believe.

“What is the text saying?” My professor asked of our class. We had our bibles open to the corresponding verses and began to argue about what it meant.

Some people, who desperately liked hearing the sound of their own voices, waxed lyrical about the historicity of the text and mentioned elements like fragments of papyrus and the corresponding dates of discovery.

Some people, who were more evangelical than others, went on and on about the infallibility of God’s Word and declared that we must take every single word literally and live them out.

Some people, who clearly were not paying attention, skirted around the issues in the text and talked about broad subjects so as to make it appear as if they had done their reading, when in fact everyone could tell they had not.

My professor practiced his patience and let us all argue it out for a while before he raised his hand to indicate silence. “You’re all wrong,” he began, “because you are operating from a false assumption. All of you believe the bible is about you.” He then said something that I will never forget: “The bible is always primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

This poem from Isaiah is a humbling reminder that we are not nearly as important as we think we are. We are not the center of the universe. We can strive to work as hard as we can for our church and our community, but ultimately God is the one who brings about true transformation here on earth. What we pray for and work toward is worthy of our time, we just have to learn to trust that God will bring it about according to his will. Only an everlasting God could have the patience necessary to see the world turned upside down.

We are people of faith. We are people of belief. Let us not give in to the temptations of the world’s expectations of immediate gratification, and instead believe that God is the everlasting perfecter of patience, now and forever. Amen.

Devotional: Mark 1.4

Devotional:

Mark 1.4

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

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I had been waiting at the garage for longer than I had hoped. I had neglected to take the car in for an inspection during the month of November, and I was running the risk of receiving a ticket for my negligence. I was prepared to speak with my hypothetical police officer about the numerous demands on clergy during Advent, but every time I made the list of excuses in my head, the more pitiful they became. Only after Christmas was I willing to finally bite the bullet and wait for my car to be inspected.

I thought it would be a quick in-and-out appointment, but I continued to sit in the waiting room while my car was being checked out. After thirty minutes, I saw my car coming out of the garage and was re-parked right outside the window. However, when I approached the cashier, she informed me that I still needed to wait. The time passed idly by while I made small talk with the other customers about being a pastor in town and the recent arrival of the holidays, but the repair shop neglected to call my name even while my car was parked outside with a new inspection sticker clearly placed on the front window. I tried to be as patient as possible, but when I could no longer take it I went back to the cashier and explained the situation, to which she apologized for making me wait for nothing, and handed me my keys. She explained that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle and asked if there was anything she could do. I laughed to myself and then said, “It’s okay, I’m a pastor and I’m supposed practice what I preach, including patience.”

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After church yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were enjoying lunch at a local pizza shop when she brought up the familiar topic of practicing what I preach. The sermon had been about forgiveness and the need to act on the words that we so faithfully pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week, and it was clear the Lindsey wanted to explore the topic further. She spoke in a way that halted and haunted me: “Taylor, you kept talking about our need to forgive. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Or better yet, do you think there’s anyone out there who might be wrestling with whether or not to forgive you?”

John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is too easy, particularly from my side of the pulpit, to neglect the need to repent for my faults, and forgive others around me. It is even harder to open my eyes to the fact that there might be people who have not forgiven me for something I have done. As we take our first steps into 2015, let it be the year we actually practice what we preach. Let us strive to be people of patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Let us be brave with our love, and seek to be truly reconciled with everyone around us.

What’s Love Got To Do With It? – Sermon on Matthew 22.34-40

Matthew 22.34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

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Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

What a great question. The bible is full of teachings, so many in fact that a number of passages contradict. It details the history of God with God’s people from the beginning of creation, through the patriarchs, politicians, and prophets. The law is complex and detailed at times with provisions for how to treat one another, and behave faithfully. Are we to live by all of the commandments equally or is there one that stands alone? “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, the one that stands alone as a beacon under which all the other laws pale in comparison. The lawyer is looking for a solitary answer, yet Jesus refuses to name only one; for Christ the love of God and neighbor are inseparable.

Jesus said to the lawyer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What I want to know is this: What does it actually mean to love God and neighbor?

A number of years ago I was flying back from Guatemala after a week-long mission trip when I had one of the strangest encounters with love. In order to save money the church had purchased tickets from all over the aircraft and none of us were sitting together. Frankly, after a week of building stoves in the remote highlands of Guatemala I was perfectly fine sitting away from everyone; we smelled, we were irritable, and we were tired. When I boarded the plane all I could think about was the thrill of falling asleep and waking up back at home. My seat was located toward the front of the coach section on the left side, the middle of three seats. I arrived before my seat-mates, and when it was clear that they were a married couple, with me in the middle, I offered to move to the aisle so that they could sit next to one another. Big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong, they were remarkably kind and in good spirits. They had been vacationing together in Guatemala at a resort and were full of joy and happiness. I think they were in their early sixties, and though they had been probably married for a few decades, they looked like the trip had helped them to fall in love all over again.

From what I remember our conversation was pleasant, they told me about their resort, I told them about the stoves we built, they talked about the exquisite food, I told them about my Peanut-Butter and Jelly sandwiches. They asked me about my calling to ministry, and I asked them about their family. Without a doubt the funniest moment occurred when the steward came by and asked what we would like to drink; I was prepared to ask for a ginger ale but they insisted on purchasing me a glass of wine. When I told them that I was not yet old enough to drink alcoholic beverages they giggled and and exclaimed, “well sweetie, we won’t tell anyone,” right in front of the steward. Needless to say: I did not have a glass of wine.

Anyway, when the inflight movie started up on the headsets in front of us, I was dismayed to discover that the entire plane would be watching the romantic comedy “P.S. I Love You.” Now even if you’ve never heard of the movie, thats fine, suffice it to say that it is a romantic comedy with apathetic acting and a very limited narrative; within the first five minutes you know exactly how the movie will end. I decided to rest my eyes and catch some Zs but the couple next to me were hooked. With their headphones plunged deep into their ear canals they kept asking each other questions out loud, “Wait was he her husband?!” “Oh poor thing, what will she do now?!” “Do you think he’s right for her?!” Try as I might, I was unable to fall asleep. When the movie finally ended I muttered a quick prayer to God, thanking him for delivering me from the captivity of the couple sitting next to me, but that’s when the kissing began.

I’m not talking about your simple peck on the lips of affection, but full-on “sitting in the back seat of a car at a drive in movie” kind of kissing. All I can remember is forcing myself as far away as possible in my seat in order to clear myself from being hit by a wayward arm or leg. It was awful. I tried listening to music, I tried reading from a book, but there was nothing that could distract me from the love fest happening to my left. Suddenly however the husband stopped kissing his wife, pulled her away from his face and said with completely sincerity, “PS I Love You honey” and they commenced kissing to an even higher degree.

How are we supposed to love God and neighbor? Are we called to be filled with the Romantic-Comedy-kiss-your-spouse-on-an-airplane kind of love?

Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affection unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. Even in our preschool I witness our children hugging one another and talking about love as if it is a prerequisite for friendship.

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In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined in Christianity that we have become numb to it, or only view it superficially. When we hear that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t ask what it means to love, we just want to know who are neighbors are supposed to be!

In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of love and gratitude may fill our souls as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling that Christ demands of us. Instead, love for God and neighbor is a stubborn and unwavering commitment. We do not have to feel affection for our neighbor, nor for God; to love our neighbors is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.

It is true that God loves us in an affectionate and sweet way. He has called us by name and breathed life into us. But most of God’s love for us can be summarized as putting up with us in spite of all our faults and shortcomings. God has stayed with us when we no longer deserved his presence.

Pre-marital counseling is a privilege in my profession. I must admit that in the beginning I was afraid of pre-martial counseling sessions, but now I really enjoy them. I used sit with couples without having been married myself, but now with 6 months of married life experience, I am an expert! There is something indescribably precious about getting to meet with a couple before their wedding to talk about the deep realities of life-long commitment. When we gather together, it is a time of holiness and vulnerability that, I hope, will help them in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

I also greatly enjoy those counseling sessions because I get to ask questions that would otherwise be completely inappropriate in any other circumstance. If I’m feeling particularly gung-ho I begin with the zinger: “tell me about your last fight.” Couples upon stare back at me in disbelief, or claim that they have never fought. Or I begin with a standard question turned upside down: “Why in the world do you want to get married in the church?” I inform them that we could get in the car and drive down to the courthouse and they could be married that afternoon; it would be easier and cheaper. So what is it that makes you want to get married in a church?

All of the questions I ask are aimed at trying to get them to start thinking about life beyond love. Because when I ask why they want to get married, I almost always hear “because I love her” or “because I love him.”

Love is nice, but love is not enough.

At least not the kind of love that we have been habituated into through Hallmark, Romantic-Comedies, and Trashy Novels. Love, to us, often has more to do with lust and affection than it does with commitment and patience.

Love is not enough because she is not going to look that good in ten years, and nor will he. Whatever physical love you feel for each other, it will change. You think you know each other? You think that love is enough? Just wait till you wake up next to them every morning for an entire year, or he starts snoring every night, or she forgets what you asked her to do week after week.

Are we supposed to love God and neighbor the way we are called to love our spouse? Yes, but it is a type of love that we often lose sight of. It is not the way the world tells us to love, but a love that we learn from God.

For centuries Israel disobeyed the God who brought them out of Egypt, the God of their ancestors, yet God’s love remained steadfast. For centuries the church has disobeyed the Word of the Lord and let sinfulness run rampant. When we act on behalf of the Lord for our own selfish purposes, when we make a mockery of this beautiful thing called the church, when we refuse to go to God in our prayers, we neglect to love the God who loves us in spite of what we do. God has put up with people like you and me for centuries, he has be stubbornly present with us, and thats what love is all about.

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Christ calls us to be stubbornly loving with our neighbor, who, by the way, is everyone, with unwavering commitment. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Catholics, and even Baptists. Blacks, Whites, Heterosexuals, Homosexuals, the rich, the poor, the strong, the weak, the elderly, and the youthful. Loving the neighbor must teach us how to love God. Jesus has radically pushed us into a way of being where we are told to love all our neighbors, even our enemies, and we can only do so when we imitate the kind of love that God has for us.

Someone this week put it this way: It is often easier to love someone than to like them.

Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God.

You might not like what God is doing in your life right now, you might want to cry out with clenched fists in anger about God’s presence, you might feel that God has abandoned you. You don’t have to like God to love God.

You might feel like the people closest to you have ignored your needs and have stopped listening to you, you might feel like the outcasts in our community don’t deserve any of your time or energy, you might feel like your neighbor has done something to you that is beyond forgiveness. You don’t have to like your neighbor, to love your neighbor.

It sure is a strange thing to follow Christ. How bizarre is it that he has turned the world upside down and called to the first to be last and the last to be first? How weird is it that he has shattered the world’s vision to be replaced with God’s imagination?

My friends, let us be stubborn with our patience, unwavering with our commitment, and radical with our love toward God and neighbor. 

Amen.