We Don’t Belong To Babylon

Isaiah 44.6-8

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Altar Call To Dust

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

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Don’t Let God Take Care Of Your Garden

Matthew 13.1-9

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prisoners of Hope

Zechariah 9.9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

 

People of Cokesbury Church: the time has come to rejoice! And I don’t mean the easy-going, carefree, yeah we’re happy kind of joy, but jumping on the pews, putting your hands in the air, shouting to the Lord kind of joy. Glory glory glory!

Behold! Our king comes to us, he is triumphant and mighty and victorious. He comes humbly on the back of a donkey. He will destroy the tanks of armies and the defenses of countries. The missiles and the guns and weapons will be obliterated and peace will reign. Our donkey-riding king will rule from east to west and over the whole earth.

We’ve got reason to celebrate! Our king frees us from the waterless pit of our despair and depression. We prisoners of hope have been delivered.

Or maybe, we don’t feel like celebrating. Perhaps our lives don’t match up with the glory described by Zechariah. Maybe the world is a little too broken for peace to rain down like waters. Perhaps we don’t feel like dancing and shouting because we are stuck in a pit; a pit of anger or bitterness or fear or shame or loneliness.

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There was a man who was walking down the street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and after struggling for a time he began to cry out for help.

A doctor was passing by along the road and he looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment while stroking the stethoscope around his neck, and then he reached into his pocket, wrote a prescription, dropped it into the hole, and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Hey Reverend! I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me out?” The pastor very slowly and deliberately put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next a sweet older woman from the local church came up to the edge of the hole and the man yelled, “Excuse me! Please help me out of here.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “It’s me, I’m stuck in the hole, can you help me out?” To which the friend jumped right down into the hole. The man said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Today I am forever hearing about how we need to get others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord in Savior. As if people are wandering around aimlessly looking for something to give meaning to their lives, and so long as they open up their hearts Jesus will be there waiting for them.

The problem with all of that is the fact that Jesus is the king who comes to us, not the other way around. We often get trapped in the pit of believing that we’ve got to go looking for Jesus when he’s the one looking for us.

Our Lord is the one who finds us wandering around the pit of our sorrow and jumps in to show us the way out. Jumping into the pit, after all, is the great story of scripture. God saw what God had made in Genesis and jumped down into the Garden to make humanity in the divine image. God saw Jacob struggling with his relationships and identity and jumped down to wrestle with him by the banks of the river. God saw the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and jumped down to call Moses from the burning bush. God saw the directionless plight of the people and jumped down to anoint David to rule as king. God saw the brokenness of the world and jumped down to take on flesh in the form of a baby born in a manger.

Jesus is the king who jumps down into the pit of our existence and offers us hope.

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I’ve only been here a short while, but I’ve already seen signs of hope in this church and in this community. Complete strangers in my neighborhood have introduced themselves simply because I’m new, employees at particular businesses have gone above and beyond to be kind and welcoming, a certain someone at the church even gave my wife a bouquet of roses last week.

And from where I stand this morning I see hope. I see individuals whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. I don’t even know many of your names but I know God has acted in your lives, I know that God has delivered you from the pit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

From where I stand I see a church not built on demographics and like-mindedness. I don’t see a church consumed by consumption and driven by desire. I don’t see a church fixated on financial matter or obsessed with objectives.

I see a church of different opinions but similar love. I see a church of faith and fellowship. I see a church of love and hope.

This is a church with prisoners of hope.

We are captivated more by the optimism of “what if” than the pessimism of “it’s too late.” We are held in bondage to the belief that we are more than the mistakes of the past, more that the pain of the present, and more than the unknown of the future. We are prisoners of hope.

And our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who finds us in the pit and shows us the way out. To be clear: the way out is a way out. It’s not a simple affirmation or secret sentence that fixes everything. Jesus invites us to follow him on the way that leads to life.

The church, as the body of Christ, as the gathering of disciples on the Way, is not a building or a program or an institution. It is neither stuck nor static. The church is a living, breathing, and moving thing.

Institutions care about maintaining the institution, keeping the doors open from week to week, working to keep it working like the past. Movements, however, care about the people, about keeping them from falling into pits of despair and jumping in when someone falls in regardless.

We move on the way out of the pit by following our king. And our king is not like worldly leaders. Our king doesn’t live in a white house or control the gathering of nations. He’s not waking up with Wall Street or guiding troops into battle. Our king comes to us humble on a donkey.

Christ is victorious against the powers of this world, the powers of nations and economics and militaristic might. And even more Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemy, death. But this doesn’t mean that death no longer stings, it does. Without the sting of death there would be no need for hope.

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And we are prisoners of that hope. We look out at this broken and shattered world around us as an opportunity to be put back together. We don’t limit our vision of the man on the corner to his economic situation, we don’t see the young teen loitering as a criminal, we don’t see the loud neighbors as a threat to our security. We are prisoners of hope, we believe in the goodness of all people even when they try to prove the contrary.

This was my first full week at the church and I was wrong about what to expect. I figured that you all knew that I would be overwhelmed by having to unpack my office and adjust to a new community. I assumed that you all would leave me alone for a couple weeks until I got settled. But you all just kept showing up everyday as if I was your pastor.

And you’ve had your questions and I tried to field them as best as I could. I listened to your thoughts and reflections. But if you came by the office this week you know that I won’t let you leave without asking a question of my own: Why Cokesbury Church?

There is a plethora of churches in the Woodbridge community, churches of all shapes and sizes and worship styles. So of all the churches here in this place, why do you choose to gather at this place?

“I’ve been going here as long as I can remember…”

            “The people are just so friendly…”

            “Someone signed me up for the Flea Market and I’ve been coming ever since.”

I’ve enjoyed hearing the answers because they’ve provided a slice of the identity of this place, but one particular answer has really stuck with me.

I won’t say who it was, but someone from this church came by this week and I asked him or her why he or she came to this church. The person thought about it for a good amount of time before answering. “I was lost and Jesus found me in this place.”

Notice: the answer wasn’t I found Jesus here, but that Jesus found me in this place.

All of us have been lost at one point or another. We have fallen into pits that we simply could not escape on our own. We’ve been burdened by financial fear, relationship woes, or employment uncertainty. We’ve felt suffocated by limited direction, unending loneliness, or deep despair. We’ve been bullied, belittled, or berated. But Jesus found us and guided us out.

Thanks be to God that we are shackled as prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God that the Lord has delivered us from a faulty and limited vision of what can be. Thanks be to God that the Lord made a way where there was no way.

The promise of our hope, the hope that we are held captive by, is the restoration of all people and of all things. There is victory in Jesus, victory over the powers and the principalities bent on holding us down, victory over the steeps walls that feel inescapable, even victory over the chains of death.

I don’t know what most of you are going through right now. I don’t know what’s keeping you awake at night, what’s driving you crazy whenever you turn on the television, what causes your fists to clench up whenever you hear it. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, what you’re missing, or what you need. I don’t know where you’ve been, where you are, or where you’re going.

But I do know that Jesus does not leave us abandoned. Jesus jumps down into the miry bog of our lives and says, “Follow me, I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.” Amen.

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are the stories we tell.

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

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

That is our story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Are The Stories We Tell (Final Sermon at St. John’s UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

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

 

Years ago there was a young man fresh out of seminary, ready and eager to begin serving his first appoint in the United Methodist Church. He had taken all the right classes, learned from the best professors, and was excited about finally embarking on the ministry he had imagined for so long.

All he knew about his church was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

The young man was so anxious about the appointment that when he first got to town, a few days before his first Sunday, he got in his car and drove straight to the church. But when he arrived at what he thought was the address there was no church, so he doubled back and drove down the empty road until he found a disheveled looking building with the biggest and most unruly tree he had ever seen blocking the marquee and most of the structure.

The church clearly needed work: a new roof, new paint, new everything, it even had a bell tower without a bell. But above all it needed to have the tree uprooted. The young man stood there on the front lawn looking at the tree and the wheels started clicking in his mind… He thought that if he took the tree down, individuals from the community would be able to see the church and the sign from the main road and they might even get a couple extra visitors on his first Sunday.

So instead of going back to the parsonage to unpack all of his belongings and get settled, he went straight to the box with his chain saw and he went back to John Wesley UMC.

Hours later, with sweat dripping down his brow, the young pastor stood proudly in front of the church that was now completely visible from the road with the old gnarled tree perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor was sitting in the study at the parsonage preparing his very first sermon in his very first church when the phone rang. It was the District Superintendent and the pastor briefly thought that maybe his boss was calling to congratulate him on the quick work with the tree and the beauty of the totally visible church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet, because you’re being sent to a different church.

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

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

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

Stories are remarkably important. I’ve been saying some version of that sentence in every sermon over the last 4 years. It’s what I started with, and it’s what I’m ending with.

            We are the stories we tell.

By my rough calculations I’ve preached over 250 times while serving St. John’s and written about as many devotionals. I’ve traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles, read countless books, and gone to the hospital enough time that a few of the security guards will wave me into the ER without having to ask who I am.

I’ve gone to more meetings than I ever thought possible, compiled annual budgets I though we could never meet (though we always did), and led bible studies that have addressed almost every book of the bible.

And in all of this, I’ve written close to a million words in four years. Between the sermons and the studies, the devotionals and the prayers, even the chapel times and the epistles, nearly one million words.

All of those million words, in whatever context they appeared, they have been my attempt at saying these words: We are the stories we tell.

I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever walked into this sanctuary it was late in the evening on Good Friday in 2013 and no one could figure out how to turn the lights on. I groped around this room in the dark hoping to have a sense of what it looked like and left none the wiser. I love that story because it became indicative of our time together: rediscovering the light of Christ that burns in our lives.

Or I could tell you the story about how the first time I ever led the Children’s Message during worship I realized that I was closer in age to the kids sitting on the steps than to the vast majority of you folk sitting in the pews. I love that story because it quickly embodied how this church needed to discover it’s multi-generational gifts and people of all different ages have really grown closer together.

Or I could tell you the story about how on my very first Sunday I remembered to do everything except I forgot to give the ushers the offerings plates. It was good for a refreshing laugh that first worship service and I love that story because in it we learned, as a church, to stop worrying about the offering plate and instead we began to believe that the Lord would provide, and the Lord has provided ever since.

We, preachers and laypeople alike, tell stories in order that they might be remembered. We tell children about George Washington and his tree so that they will tell the truth. We tell high school students about political elections from the past so that they might cast informed votes in the future. We tell older adults about what our children have been up to so that they might live a little through them.

We tell stories because we want them to be remembered.

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But recently I was reading a book by Ellen Davis and she believes that a successful sermon is one that isn’t remembered. Sounds strange right? I’ve stood in this pulpit for four years in the hopes that you might actually remember what I said. But after reading that part of her book, I went through the archives and I came across a ton of sermons that I barely remember writing, let alone preaching.

A forgotten sermon is successful because we have to keep showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear again the story that makes us who we are.

If one sermon was capable of proclaiming all that the bible has to tell, all of the life of Jesus Christ, all of God’s glory, all of the fellowship of the Spirit, then we would never come back and our lives would be perfect from then on.

            But that’s not the way our lives work!

The goal of preaching, and of good story telling, is the hope that people won’t remember what you said. The goal should be that the next time someone turns to that part of the Bible it will say a little more to him or her. The purpose of the church, of doing worship week after week, is to give the bible a little more room to shine.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I hope you won’t forget me. I hope you will think back over these last years with fondness. I’m even bold to hope that you might remember some of my sermons. But more than that, I hope when you open up your bibles, the story of God with God’s people shines a light in your life, regardless of whomever the person was that stood in this pulpit.

Because today, the world is full of stories, competing narratives vying for our allegiance. It is almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything without someone or something telling us how we are supposed to understand the world.

And Paul dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you understand others, don’t let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationship with those who are of a different opinion. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Tell the story that is our story! Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. God transforms our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship and whenever we tell the story. The story of God in Christ reconciling himself to the World is what transforms us into the very people God is calling us to be.

According to the world, the church is in between a rock and a hard place. Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, people are no longer attending church like they once did, offering plates feel lighter and lighter. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are disappearing from the fabric of church.

The church is between a rock and a hard place.

            Thanks be to God then that Jesus Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand! We don’t have to be conformed to the ways of the world! We get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our story!

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say bring me your votes and your mortgages and your perfect families. Jesus says, bring me your burdens and I will bring you rest.

Jesus does not tell us to earn all that we can and save all that we can. Jesus tells us to give away all we can.

Jesus does not say that our religious convictions are private and something to keep to ourselves. Jesus tells us to go tell it on the mountain and share the Good News.

Jesus does not look at our outward appearance and say you’re too fat, or short, or tall, or dumb, or slow, or strange. Jesus looks into our hearts and says, “You are mine and I am thine.

This church, St. John’s, is on the precipice of a great journey; you’re about to receive a new pastor. But at the same time, this is nothing new. This is what the church is! It is the place where disciples gather to hear the story over and over and over again.

The stories of the world will never compare to the actions of God in the world through Jesus Christ. Whether you’re a brother or a sister, mother or father, republican or democrat, rich or poor, old or young, none of those narratives, none of those identities, none of those stories compare with what it means to follow Jesus.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, it’s not in Pastor Chuck Cole, my hope is not built on the ways of the world. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands. Jesus Christ is Lord and that means that the ways of the world crumble away when compared to the foundation made manifest in God in the flesh.

We are here in this place to share our stories with one another in order that we might learn more about how we are caught up in God’s great story. The ways of the world are nothing but sinking sand, they falter and flounder, they creak and groan, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Remember that Jesus is Lord! Keep the faith! Let the stories of scripture wash over you like the waters of baptism. Feast at this table like the disciples did with Jesus long ago!

            Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! To God be the Glory!

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Last Things (Part 1)

2 Corinthians 13.11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls on the first day of a new liturgical season we call ordinary time (terrible name) and it is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is often used as an opportunity for preachers to explain away the complicated math of a three-in-one God with metaphors that often leave congregations more confused than when they arrived. On Trinity Sunday we usually read a passage contains examples of the three parts of the Godhead working together in such a way that it can help the preacher out. However, sermons on Trinity Sunday run the risk of sounding more like a lecture, or a dogmatic defense, than sounding like the proclamation of God’s living Word.

And for us today, the scripture for Trinity Sunday has taken on another ironic twist. This bit from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth contains some interesting language for what will be my second to last sermon in this church: Finally, farewell. Put things in order, listen to what I’ve said, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

After serving God in this place for four years, this would not be a bad scripture to end with (Though I still have one Sunday left). It contains all the things I would want to leave you with much like what Paul wanted to leave with the Corinthians. If you live in peace with one another the God of love will be with you.

But Paul goes on to implore the gathered community to greet one another with a holy kiss, which sounds like doing a lot more than just living in peace with one another.

Holy kisses require an intimacy that many of us might find uncomfortable. To be clear: it doesn’t mean the pews turn into the back seats of parked cars at “make out point”, but it does imply a willingness to know and encounter the stranger as sister and the other as brother.

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I spent last week on the Easter Shore of Virginia with 40 United Methodists from the Staunton-Waynesboro Area for a mission trip. We represented a handful of churches and our youth were tasked with a number of work projects from reorganizing a Thrift Store to painting a dining hall to building a Habitat for Humanity House.

On our first night it was clear that this mission trip was going to be like a lot of others in that when we finally arrived and unpacked the vans, the youth broke off into their comfortable cliques from their respective churches. So we did what we always do: ice breakers and group activities. We quickly learned the names of everyone on the trip and random factoids that gave us glimpses of one another’s personalities and preferences.

But unlike other mission trips, by the first morning the home church groups started to fade and dissolve which left new friendships to determine the gatherings of our youth. I don’t know to what I can attribute the quick change and adaptation short of the fact that the youth greeted one another with “holy kisses” that first evening through questions and jokes and laughter such that they were in a new communion with one another by the next day.

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This was made abundantly evident through a number of situations, such as when we went kayaking and canoeing and the pairs did not know each other prior to arriving at camp, but it also showed up in more intimate and beautiful ways…

One of our youth, Grace, was the only girl from our church on the trip. The boys from St. John’s all love the same things: video games, Star Wars, and the internet, (they’re like younger versions of me) but Grace is not of the same persuasion. And it could have been easy for Grace to sulk in a corner and remain isolated, she could have retreated to the false sense of communion on her phone with friends back home, but instead Grace actively sought out new friends in this new place. She quickly bonded with a girl from another church and they discovered that they shared more in common than their similar sense of humor and quick wit: both of their mothers had breast cancer at the same time and were being treated at the same facility and had the same surgery.

Their bond over a shared experience was the holy kiss that filled them with the same type communion that connects the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Trinity.

There was a boy on the trip from a different church who, years ago, had an accident that resulted in severe burns over 40% of his body. I knew him before hand well enough to know that he is remarkably self-conscious about what his skin looks like and was afraid to get ready for bed in front of the other boys in my cabin. And on that first night, after all the games designed to bring us closer together, he tentatively lifted off his shirt to which one of the boys pointed and shouted for the rest of the cabin to hear. I immediately winced and prepared myself to intervene in order to protect the boy’s dignity but then I heard what the other boy had shouted: “Dude, that’s so cool!” The majority of the cabin immediately gathered around the young boy and he beamed with pride about his scars.

And the thing that had so often brought him shame and ridicule became a beautiful example of how the holy kiss of friendship filled our cabin with the same type of communion between the Trinity.

I don’t like to make comparisons like this, but our trip to the Eastern Shore was one of the best mission trips I’ve ever been on precisely because we connected with one another in a faithful and intimate way. Rather than scattered pockets of groups and cliques we got to know each other and therefore our work became that much more faithful and fruitful.

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When we are bold and brave enough to reach out in intimacy toward the church around us we connect with all the saints and we enter into the same friendship within the Trinity.

There is bravery and boldness and confidence in Paul’s willingness to say farewell to the church in Corinth. After doing the work to unite a community and sharing with them the Good News he could have held control over what they were doing from afar, he could have micromanaged every situation, but instead he knew that God’s church is far bigger than anything he could ever do. He was able to look at that collection of Christians and know that he could say farewell because they would thrive with or without him; after all the church didn’t belong to Paul, nor was it successful because of Paul. The church in Corinth thrived and was fruitful because it belonged to the Lord.

In addition to it being Trinity Sunday, we’ve also used part of our worship service today to thank the staff of St. John’s. They have all done tremendous work for and in this place whether it’s playing music on Sunday mornings, educating the preschoolers during the week, keeping everything safe and clean, or (in the case of our secretary) being the real boss around here. But their work has been productive and faithful because they are intimately connected with one another. They do not see their jobs as jobs. Instead they see what they do here as an extension of their community such that all of them will arrive early not just to get their tasks completed but to check in on one another and do whatever they can to help each other whether it connects to their work here or not.

But even beyond this church, beyond the wonderful people sitting in the pews this morning, God is the one who makes their work, and the work of the church possible. God has blessed them with unique gifts suited for making the kingdom come here on earth through their work at St. John’s. God is the one who has filled them with grace, love, and a sense of communion that makes possible the fruitfulness this church has embodied.

And that is what rests at the heart of Trinity Sunday. Not metaphors and dogmatic dissertations, but the communion and fellowship between the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That very communion, the friendship of the Trinity, is made manifest here every week, and whenever we gather together, as the church. It was there with us on the mission trip last week. It’s here between the staff members and all of their work. It rests in between us in these pews and is most certainly present at this table and in this meal.

We become God’s people, a people of holy kisses, when the pews of the sanctuary become avenues of connection instead of walls of division. We could easily remain isolated in our own comfortable boxes of experience, or we can do the good and bold and challenging work of Trinitarian communion – like the youth on our mission trip and the staff of this church, we can open our eyes to the fundamental reality of what God is calling our lives to look like, we can believe that we have been made one in Christ Jesus, and we can know that God is the one working in our lives binding us together for the work of the kingdom.

And so, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us. Amen.