Love Loves To Love Love

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Easter 5B (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Alan is the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interruptions in worship, King’s Hawaiian Bread with Welch’s Grape Juice, coffee communion, the need for discipled guidance, ambiguity in the psalms, choosing scriptures, theologically problematic hymns, the cosmic Jesus, and growing by subtraction. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Love Loves To Love Love

AC

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Dear Church…

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit that he has given us.

Since Easter Sunday we, as a congregation, have been reading through 1 John. Every worship service, every scripture reading, every sermon, even the hymns have all been based on this one letter written centuries ago.

And it is important to remember that 1 John was, and is, a letter. It is a document written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are in the midst of their faith journeys by addressing the challenges of discipleship.

For John, following Jesus was all about love… We know love by this, that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we ought to do the same for one another. Let us not love with words or speech, but in truth and action. And we shall do all of this because God is greater than our hearts.

Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader; seriously, I made you all play around with crayons, balancing blocks, and play-dough last week! I don’t have decades of experience to rely upon when addressing the marks of following Jesus. The well of my wisdom is shallow compared to the deep insight that John shares in his letter.

I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place. It was a written communication designed to sustain people like me, and you, in the midst of this strange and beautiful thing we call faith.

During the time of John letters were carefully crafted, parchment/papyrus were expensive and rare, reading and writing was uncommon. A lot of thought went into a letter before it was sent out. And this was even more particular in the realm of the early church when letters were shared with more than one gathering. They were sacred pieces of text that were treated with the utmost care.

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Today, however, we communicate in a variety of different forms. Sure, some of us still take the time to write our thoughts by hand, and then send it through the mail. But many of us, if not all of us, are versed in the instantaneous forms of email, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Instragramming, and even snap-chatting.

One of the biggest differences in the way we communicate today, as compared to the time of John, is that many of us offer our opinions and weigh into debates without really taking time at all to think about what we are offering. It is so easy to type a few lines, or click the share button, or take a picture on our cell phones that we do it without even realizing what we’re doing.

Today there exists computer programs designed to test whether information being shared in true, fair, and accurate. The fact that we need those things, because we simply don’t have the time to look into ourselves, is absurd.

But, when you consider how much is being produced, how much content is being created, we need something to help us sift through everything. Believe it or not, we, as a species, create as much content in 2 days as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

            That’s craziness.

If you talk to a writer or a poet, they’ll tell you that if they got a paragraph together in one day, then it was a very good day. Sometimes all they can muster is a single sentence. But that’s because they take the time to weigh out what they’re trying to say.

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On the other side of the spectrum, most of us try to get out what we’re saying as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. We don’t like our time wasted so we just throw words out and hope something sticks.

And so, while recognizing that I am not like John, and that we are bombarded with so much information, I reached out to a number of people this week. I asked a simple question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?”

It was my attempt to get people to think like John and speak the truth about what the condition of the church is like.

And, like seasoned and faithful Johns, a number of people put together their ideas about love and discipleship for our benefit. Whether it was on Facebook, email, Twitter, or YouTube, insight rained down upon our church office, and now you will be blessed to receive those same messages.

Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…

 

Dear Church,

One of the best things about our church is the way we love each other. I can’t think of a Sunday when I came to worship without someone checking in on me. And that’s what I really care about. It doesn’t matter if the sermon falls flat, or if one of the hymns is too hard to sing, when I worship I feel loved.

 

Dear Church,

Life can be really difficult. But when it’s hard we have a choice, we can lay down and take whatever comes or we can get up and work on solving the problem. The choice is up to us.

 

Dear Church,

We should be doing God’s will, not power-hungry people’s will.

 

Dear Church,

What the church does is all about sharing the good news. And the good news is the fact that God loves sinners. And all of us are sinners. All of us.

 

Dear Church,,

I don’t care what church it is; if I have to hear another political sermon I’m going to lose my mind! The gospel is not about creating strong political opinions or calling people to march in protest. Jesus doesn’t share the Good News so that we know what political party to join, or which candidate to support. So many preachers today sound like wannabe politicians and I just can’t stand it anymore!

Following Jesus is not about whose political sign is in your yard or on your bumper; it’s a call for the people who have the resources and goods to open their hearts to people who have need. Love is about action, yes. But love is not a doctrine, or a sermon, or a political persuasion.

It is what you do, not what you think.

 

Dear Church,

I’ve been worshipping here for a while now, and I don’t think anyone knows my name.

 

Dear Church,

Love is more than a word.

 

Dear Church,

How can any church call itself a church when it refuses to help, or ignores altogether, people in need? This is why the church is dying. Not because it’s boring. Not because it’s old fashioned. The church is dying because it is hypocritical.

 

Dear Church,

Speaking up for the good of people is risky. You can lose your job, relationships, money, and even your life for living by the kind of love we talk about at church. But isn’t that what Jesus was willing to risk?

 

Dear Church,

Laying down your life for someone is different than dying for them. When push come to shove, many of us would consider sacrificing ourselves for the good of those we love. But laying down one’s life, laying aside your goals and priorities and dreams for the betterment of someone else, that’s entirely different. We need not die for anyone, but we certainly must lay aside our needs for others.

 

Dear Church…

 

After receiving these comments, and many more, I thought long and hard about what I might say. I pondered about what kind of letter I would write to this church, or any church, about what is really at stake. I prayed about what kind of shocking wisdom we might need to hear in this place.

And yet, rather than pontificating from the pulpit, I’d like to hear from you. I know this is uncomfortable, perhaps even worse that having to spend 15 minutes with playdough like last week, but if you could say anything to the church about what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to love, what would you say?

Imagine, if you can, that this was your final communication to the church, and that you had the opportunity to speak some truth into the midst of all of our lives, perhaps about what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly – What would you say?

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We can open up forums on the church website. We can solicit responses from people all over the Internet. We can even listen to the people in the pews next to us.

And we can also listen to John, speaking through the centuries, about the wisdom of loving and being loved:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Amen.

You Are NOT The Good Shepherd

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Easter 4B (Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3.16-24, John 10.11-18). Alan is the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the beauty and wonder of Twitter, bad television, preaching Acts during Eastertide, breaking down stained glass language, sacrificial/sanctified love, knowing the sheep, and pastor shopping. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: You Are NOT The Good Shepherd

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Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

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We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)

Don’t Make Jesus Hangry

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Easter 3B (Acts 3.12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3.1-7, Luke 24.36b-48). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and he and I help share the responsibilities for editing the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including tee-ball, the challenges of returning to church after paternity leave, looking at the verses before the lectionary text, offensive evangelism, the elect and the reject, MLK’s legacy, the absence of silence, hol(e)y hands, and Jesus’ immoral teaching. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Make Jesus Hangry

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Walking The Walk

1 John 1.1-2.2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faith and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Here, on the other side of Easter, I’ve been doing some thinking. On Easter we were singing the hymns, and praising the Lord; we were on the mountaintop. But here on the other side, though we still walk in the light, we have to confront reality. And as I’ve been thinking, and confronting, I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Our country is pretty messed up.

We can listen to the talking heads talk about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle, and all that sort of stuff. But I’m talking about brokenness on an entirely different level.

We are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity, that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. It is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

As a nation, we spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on programs of social uplift, which is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country: racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

            Something must change.

Pause: how do you feel about all that I just said? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are ready to do something about it? Are you clenching your fists because you’re angry that I’ve criticized our country and our culture?

            Most of what I just said did not come from me, but from another preacher, one by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things like what I just said that he was murdered.

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This past week saw the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. 5 decades have come and gone since he stood on the balcony of his motel and was gunned down. 5 decades of wondering whether his dream will ever become a reality. 5 decades spent holding up his quotes and remembering his speeches.

But what do we actually remember?

Perhaps the two most remembered passages from Dr. King’s great collection of speeches and addresses are his “I Have A Dream” speech which he offered in Washington DC, and the quote that I saw again and again this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

It’s a great quote. And it fits perfectly with out scripture today: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

There’s a nice and easy sermon there in which you can use Dr. King’s witness, and his quote about darkness and light, to describe and point toward the kingdom of heaven. But that sermon would leave us walking out of here with our chins held high, and perhaps would encourage us to pat ourselves on the back.

But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote or one speech or even one issue. Just as Jesus’s life was about far more than just being kind to everyone.

Here in 2018 it’s hard to remember that a year before Dr. King was killed, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Contrary to what we see displayed every January when we celebrate his legacy, when King died he was not an icon of freedom and equality. In 1987 a poll revealed that almost 75% of Americans had a favorable rating of Dr. King, and Americans named him as the person they admired and respected more than any other person in the country’s history. And yet shortly before his death, in late 1966, 63% of Americans were vocally opposed to his words and work.

It’s hard to remember this, or even acknowledge it, because today everybody loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But it’s easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice (to the powers and principalities) in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and poverty. In fact he was shot the night after deliver a now infamous speech, not on securing the right to vote for black individuals, not on dismantling Jim Crow Laws, but on establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

We have so sanitized the legacy of his life that we forget he was once one of the most hated men in the country, we forget that he pushed an entire nation into places of discomfort; we forget that he was killed for challenging the way things were.

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Our sinfulness overwhelms our ability to remember and to be rational. We hear about godlessness and we immediately pull to our minds all those we believe who have fallen away, we encounter the challenges of God in scripture and immediately think about people in our lives who need to hear those words, and in so doing we forget that we are broken people, and that we need to hear those words as well.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. We continually participate in a world in which people are battered, broken, and bruised over and over again. We, to use the language from our hymnal, do terrible things, and we leave things undone that we should’ve changed.

We hear about a young black boy in California who was shot for holding a cell phone, and we think there’s nothing we can do about it and after a few weeks we stop thinking about it all together.

We see images of families being literally ripped apart as mothers and fathers are sent back to countries they fled from and are forced to leave children here to fend for themselves. And we feel bad, but if don’t see it happening to our families, or in our neighborhoods, we just move on.

We drive by people in our community standing on the street corners begging for financial assistance, pleading for food, yearning for help, and we roll up our windows and lock our doors.

But the light of the resurrection shines out of the darkness of the cross and the tomb! That light pushes us into realms of discomfort as we are forced to reckon with our on sin and say, “no more!”

Talk of sin makes us uncomfortable particularly because we are far too comfortable in our sins. We don’t want our boats rocked; we don’t want to wrestle with what needs to change. And yet we worship a God who was nailed to a cross for challenging the expectations of the world.

All of this, the church, the faith, they exist because they have been handed down to us. Just as they were handed to Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, it is what gave him the confidence to say and believe that something needed to change.

He walked the walk.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us. Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered. Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

We are here on the Sunday after Easter, the banners are still raised high, the “hallelujahs” still feel fresh on our tongues, and we are getting back to our routine, whatever that is. And we are reminded here in the glory of Eastertide, in the words of 1 John, in the witness of Dr. King, that we all sin. If we say we are without sin, we are contradicted by the reality of sin.

However, we also receive forgiveness in the risen Lord, a forgiveness experienced by the very first disciples who struggled under the weight of a new world in which God gave life to the dead. They, the disciples, heard, saw, and touched the Word. And in so doing they began the delicate walk of faith in which they recognized their sin and their forgiveness together.

The sinfulness to which we are so bound is made present in our individual lives, in our communities, and in our institutions. No person, no gathering, no organization is without sin. Which makes it all the more vitally important to remember the truth of Jesus’ life, to remember his words of conviction, and to remember that he died for both the godly and the ungodly so that we, all of us, may not sin.

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One of my professors loved to tell a story about his roommate from college. They were going to school in South Carolina during the height of the Civil Rights movement when my professor’s friend decided to travel to Washington DC in order to participate in a Civil Rights March. Upon returning back to school, the friend relayed what had happened during the trip:

He described that everything was about as normal as you could imagine. he arrived, met up with the people he needed to, marched where he was supposed to, handed out flyers. By the time it was over he was exhausted while waiting for his plane to bring him home. As he sauntered onto the airplane, he sat down in my seat and, you’ll never believe this, he was sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the craziest thing. He had gone all the way to DC and here he was, sitting on an airplane, next to his hero.

“So,” my professor asked, “what happened?!” Well, he got so nervous, and he was sweating, and fidgeting, and rehearsing what he might say, but there was a small problem. Martin Luther King Jr. was asleep. I mean what was he going to do? Wake up the leader of the Civil Rights movement? So he just waited, sitting there, staring at him, watching him sleep. After the flight had nearly reached its destination, he finally opened his eyes. “Dr. King I don’t know what to say. You are my hero. I just traveled all the way to DC to help march for Civil Rights, you are such an inspiration, I am so impressed with…” “Thank you. God Bless.” he interrupted, seemingly ending the conversation.

But the young man was undeterred. “Dr. King you don’t understand, you have changed my life, you have opened my eyes to the many opportunities that are not available to others… “I appreciate your kind words son.” Dr King interrupted again. However he was was not finished, “Dr. King, you don’t understand. My father is a racist. I left home because of him and his prejudice. He offered to pay for my college, but I have cut all ties with him. We have not exchanged a word in years because of his racial bigotry.” At this point Dr. King’s eyes widened, he turned his body to face this young college student and he reached out and grabbed him by the collar, “You have got to love your father. Whether hes racist or not, loving him is the only thing you can do.” And with that he let go, closed his eyes, and promptly fell back asleep.

All of us, particularly those of us with a self-righteous leaning, are sinners in need of God’s grace. From the racists to those who abandon their racist family members.

One of the harshest realities this side of Easter is that most of us believe we are without sin, and we deceive ourselves.

Here at the table God invites us into fellowship. At this place the truth is laid bare; we are sinners in need of grace. But God does not just invite me, or you… God invites all into community with God and with one another. If we walk alone, then we walk in darkness, but if we walk together with God, then we walk in the light. Amen.

Witnessing By Listening

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Ward and Sarah Locke about the readings for the Easter 2B (Acts 4.32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1.1-2.2, John 20.19-31). Tim is the pastor of Restoration UMC in Reston, VA and Sarah is the pastor of Christ UMC in Staunton, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including red Christianity, the “perfect” church, God’s agency, unity vs. uniformity, witnessing by listening, the failure of statistics, BBT’s Learning To Walk In The Dark, reclaiming Eastertide, and hanging on to sins. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Witnessing By Listening

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