Devotional – 2 Samuel 6.14a

Devotional:

2 Samuel 6.14a

David danced before the Lord with all his might.

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I love to play the drums. And in particular, I love to play the drums during worship. It all began when I was in high school and was asked to begin playing for my home church’s contemporary worship service, and from the that point until I was appointed to a church after seminary, I played drums in worship nearly every Sunday.

I love playing drums while worshiping because it requires just enough thought to block out everything else, but I am also able to let myself go and really experience the profound nature of worship. Whether I’m playing simple rhythms on a djembe while a choir sways back or forth, or I’m laying down a solid two and four to encourage people to clap during a hymn, it is something I cherish.

When I was in college I played regularly for a contemporary service and every once in a while we were asked to play at a different location based on need. And on one such occasion, I set up the drum-kit in a dimly lit auditorium and we waited for a group of high-schoolers to enter the space. The energy was palpable that night and we played longer and harder than we usually did such that by the end of our set, I closed my eyes for the final song and really let myself go. And when I finally hit the last cymbal crash to end the song, I opened my eyes, and saw blood all over my drum-kit.

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Now, lest you think this is the beginning of a horror story, during the final song I accidentally opened up a blister on my hand and it went everywhere. However, because I was playing with all of my might, I had no idea what had happened until it was too late.

There are times in our lives when we, like David before the Ark or like myself behind a drum-kit, commit ourselves to the Lord with all of our might. Sometimes it happens when we’re singing a particular hymn, or when we hear a powerful refrain during a sermon, or when we get to experience the sound of sheer silence, and when it happens its unlike anything else.

David was able to dance before the Lord with all of his might because God had been present in totality with David from shepherding in the fields, to defeating Goliath, to being anointed king over Israel. God’s presence with us is what enables us to be fully committed to the divine in such a way that we lose sight of who we are, and begin to realize our fullest identities in Christ.

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Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

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Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

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If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”

Devotional – Psalm 19.1

Devotional:

Psalm 19.1

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

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“Where do you feel God’s presence?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever I gather with fellow Christians, and one that I will be asking the youth on our mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina this week. “In your daily life, where do you feel the presence of the Lord?”

The good and faithful members of St. John’s are usually quick to say they feel God’s presence in the sanctuary whenever they gather for worship. Whether it be a particular hymn, a stained glass window, or even the rare good sermon, they feel like God is with them when they’re sitting in the pews.

Others will tell me that they experience God’s presence in the silence of the morning right after they wake up, or the moment right before they fall asleep. They can describe feeling comforted by the Lord’s presence in that moment when they are otherwise totally alone.

And still yet others tell me they regularly experience God’s presence in nature. There is something about the sounds of the woods, or the view of a sunset, that is indicative of God’s great majesty and power.

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In the psalms we read about the earth proclaiming the handiwork of the Lord. From the smallest cell in a leaf to the great horizons of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the world around us declares the work of the Lord.

The challenge of discovering the Lord in nature is in not taking nature for granted. How often do we get in the car to drive along I-81 without taking a glance at he mountains in the distance? How often do we sit in our backyards without giving thanks for the light and subtle breeze? How often do we curse the bees flying around our heads without giving thanks for their pollinating practices?

This week, as we continue to take steps in faith, let us look for the presence of the Lord in the pines and the poplars, the plateaus and the prairies, the ponds and the puddles, the wind and the wake, the stars and the sky, the breeze and the bulbs, the fungi and the fireflies.

Devotional – Galatians 6.2

Devotional:

Galatians 6.2

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Weekly Devotional Image

One of my friends has incurable cancer. He’s in his 30’s, married, has two kids, serves as a pastor, and his cancer will never go away. When he shared the news of his diagnosis, I was speechless; as far as I could tell he was in perfect health and it felt like I was smacked in the face. And then I did something that I’m ashamed of: I avoided him.

The days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and every time I picked up the phone to call him just to check in, I couldn’t muster the courage to dial the number. As a pastor, I spend time in hospitals and rehab centers almost every week with people from the church community who are suffering through cancer, or a major surgery, or depression. But when it came to Jason, I just couldn’t do it.

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Maybe it was my own selfish need to believe that nothing was wrong with him; I wanted to keep the image I had of him in my head, instead of seeing his bald head and weakening body. Or perhaps his cancer hit too close to home and made me fear for my own health. Or maybe his cancer was just another frightening reminder of the fragility of life.

While I was ignoring him, my little sister was doing the opposite. When Jason needed to go for chemotherapy treatments, Laura-Paige volunteered to drive him and sit with him through the whole procedure. She told me that she never felt pressured to talk or console him, because the only thing he really needed was for someone else to be there.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia and called for them to “bear one another’s burdens.” For by bearing the burdens of the people around us we can fulfill the law of Christ. It took me a long time to finally pick up the phone to call Jason and apologize for my lack of presence during his treatments and I still feel guilty for abandoning him in the midst of his pain. But I give thanks for my little sister and the countless others who bore his burdens during his fight against cancer.

In church we like to pretend that we’ve got everything together in our lives. So long as we can get on the right outfit, sit in the right pew, and offer the rights prayers we can appear however we want toward the people around us. The truth however, is that we are all broken and suffering through something. This week, let us take the time to reach out to just one person in our lives and start bearing their burden. Maybe we can attend an AA meeting with a friend who suffers from alcoholism, or we can sit with a neighbor going through chemotherapy, or maybe we can just ask how we can be present for someone in the midst of their life right now. And in so doing, we will fulfill the law of Christ.

From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

graduation-sunday

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.

Transfigured Moments

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they say two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” – not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

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On Monday morning, before I departed for my ordination interviews, I came by the church to print off my papers and spend some time in prayer. Full disclosure: I was very anxious. Months of effort and focus had led to up to this week. Many of you have been here throughout this whole ordination process: you have endured sermons that went into my papers and some of you were here when we had to record an entire worship service. A number of you participated in the bible study I wrote on the book of James and offered feedback about what went well and where it could’ve been better.

The sanctuary was nice and quiet when I first entered to pray for God’s will to be done over the following days, but the longer I prayed, the louder the preschoolers were down in the basement. I continued to lift up my concerns to God until I felt that I had fully expressed myself, and then I went downstairs to say “hello” to the kids.

Like most of you, they were also aware of the interviews I would have this week. Yet, even knowing this, I was not prepared for what happened when I entered the first classroom. The teacher quickly motioned to the kids and while I was trying to kneel to speak with one of them they promptly surrounded me in a circle, grasped hands, and started to sing: “Thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, thank you God for giving us Pastor Taylor, right where are. Amen.

The Transfiguration is an important moment in the life of Christ, and it really bears witness to the identity of the Messiah. Up to this point in scripture, Jesus has performed lots of miracles; he has healed the unwell, embraced the outcasts, preached in the synagogues, and started a revolutionary movement. But all of these particular moments were a crescendo to the brilliance on the mountaintop.

Jesus took with the inner circle of disciples up to the peak to pray. And while Jesus was in the depth of his prayers his face began to change and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, the disciples saw two men standing on either side of Jesus, one of them was Elijah, and the other was Moses. The disciples listened intently as the three shining men talked about Jesus’ departure that would soon take place in Jerusalem.

After they had discussed this for some time, and the two men started to depart from Jesus, Peter interrupted and begged Jesus to let them build three dwellings for this holy moment. He wanted to establish a degree of permanence in this brilliantly shining experience. But he, as scripture tells us, had no idea what he was talking about.

Then a cloud came and overshadowed all of them on the mountain and they were utterly terrified. But a voice cried out from the cloud saying, “This is my Son; my chosen. Listen to him!” When the voice finished, the disciples noticed that they were alone with Jesus, and they did not speak about this moment for a long time.

Shortly before this passage in scripture Peter was able to confess Jesus as the Christ; he understood that Jesus was the Messiah that the Hebrew people had heard about for centuries. Yet, this story of the Transfiguration is a reminder that even those disciples in the inner circle had gaps in their understanding. Professing deep and true faith requires something more than just knowing the stories from the past and connecting the dots. Professing deep and true faith requires transfigured moments that change everything.

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While the preschoolers sang their prayer around me, I felt like I was up on the mountaintop of Transfiguration. In their tiny voices and clasped hands I experienced the profound power of prayer in their willingness to lift me up in a holy moment. And like Peter, I didn’t want to the moment to end. Like Peter, I thought about setting up a dwelling place in that space to stay happy and comfortable.

When the kids finally shouted “Amen!” to conclude the prayer they immediately sprinted into the middle of the circle and started hugging me to the point that I fell over on the floor. It was a transfigured moment while I collapsed to the ground under the weight of laughing preschoolers, but I knew that I would have to eventually leave the mountaintop and make my way down to the valley of ordination interviews.

The next 24 hours were a blur. I made it to Blackstone, I spent the night, I woke up and interviewed all morning, and before I knew it I was back in my car heading west toward Staunton. The entire car ride was filled with more anxiety than before the interviews because now all I could do was wait. I spent far too much time rehashing questions in my mind and coming up with better answers than the ones I offered. But now the only thing I could do was pray patiently.

By the time our youth meeting rolled around on Wednesday evening, I had spent most of the day checking my phone every 5 minutes waiting for the call about whether I had been approved or not. I tried to be as present for the youth at the Circle but I know that my thoughts were elsewhere. With every minute that passed it felt like my heart rhythm was increasing one beat per minute. But still the call did not come.

I eventually brought the youth into the social hall and had them sit by the fireplace. I got a fire going and handed each of them a palm branch from our last Palm Sunday service and I explained our activity.

I said, “Every year churches take their used and dried-out palm branches and burn them. We do this in order to collect the ashes and use them for Ash Wednesday. Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday, is a time to reflect on ways we could be better. It is a whole season for us to confront the mistakes we’ve made and start living like disciples of Jesus. I want each of you to take a couple minutes to think about one mistake you made in the past year, a moment you wish you could take back. I want you to imagine that failure as you throw your palm branch into the fire. And while you watch it burn, I want to you to remember that God can take our mistakes and make them into something holy. These palm branches will become the ashes that mark our foreheads next week. We will walk around with ashes signifying for everyone to see that we are broken people in need of grace. These ashes are a reminder that even though we mess up, God still loves us.

One by one we each took a turn throwing our palms into the fire and we watched them burn. We took our mistakes and watched them become ashes. We concluded by praying for God to make things new in our lives, to use the season of Lent to transfigure us into better disciples of his Son. When we said the final “Amen” I looked up and saw our District Superintendent standing in the room with a giant smile across his face and he told me that I passed my interviews.

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The Transfiguration is such a powerful moment because it is about transformation. Yes Jesus is changed into a glowing figure in dazzling white clothes, yes the appearance of Moses and Elijah reshaped the narrative of Jesus’ journey toward the cross, but when the disciples had to walk back down from the mountain their lives were forever changed.

Whereas they might’ve understood their friend to be a powerful speaker and leader, they were now confronted with the fact that he really was divine. Whereas they might’ve believed he was special, they were now confronted with the fact that he had real power. Whereas they might’ve believed he was capable of great things, they were now confronted with the fact that he was the Son of God. Jesus’ transfiguration transfigured their lives.

Standing by the fire on Wednesday night, as I let the knowledge that I will be ordained sink into my soul, and the youth started to jump around and yelp in celebration, I was reminded of how powerful those transfigured moments in life can be. I thought about how blessed we are to have a God who is so merciful and forgiving of our mistakes. I thought about how blessed we are to be surrounded by people in this church who pray for us and care about us. That moment by the fire reshaped my understanding of ministry and the church. In that transfigured moment I felt God’s love moving in this church through all of the connections we have made.

Transfigured moments always remind us how dependent we are on one another and the divine. When we encounter the true glory of the Lord it leaves us staggering in comparison. But God did not abandon the disciples on that mountaintop, and God has not abandoned us here and now. Instead God spoke through the cloud, and speaks to us today: “Jesus is the Son of God, listen to him!”

So what does it mean for us to listen to God’s Son here at St. John’s?

Do you feel loved? In your daily lives do you experience moments of joy that you can only equate with feeling loved? Do you have friends and family that care about who you are and what you’re experiencing? Are you connected with individuals you make you laugh and thankful for the gift of life?

This week, for me, has been an experience of love. Love of God and neighbor through all of you in this church.

In this church we have listened to Jesus speak to us, and we have responded to his command: “Love one another.” We have covenanted through baptism to love and support all those around us in the pews. We have gathered together to mourn during funerals and reach out to remind individuals of their worth. We have met here at God’s table to partake in the bread and the cup as a reminder that God’s love knows no bounds. We have opened our eyes and ears to the great witness of scripture that points toward God’s unfailing love for people like us.

So hear this from Jesus, and embrace it in your lives: “You are loved.”

No matter what you are currently experiencing, no matter how far you feel divided from the people around you, no matter how afraid you might be, you are loved. God has gathered all of us here in this place to build a new community of love.

When we lift up our hymnals to sing our faith we do so as a complete community in harmony with our relationship and our voices.

When we pray from our pews we do so as a new family who can faithfully say God is OUR Father.

When we are invited to this table to receive the bread and the cup we are invited as a community to a feast. There is a spot for us at God’s table where we can grow closer to the people in church next to us while growing closer with the Lord.

This is the place of transfigured moments that cut through the monotony of life. This is the place where we encounter the revealed Lord. This is the place where we hear Jesus saying to us, “You are loved.” Amen.

What Are Angels?

Hebrews 13.1-3

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

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

Close your eyes. Seriously. Close your eyes. Picture, if you can, an angel. What do you see? Think about the movies you’ve watched, or the stories you’ve read about angels and try to picture one in your mind. What do you see? If you’re anything like the people I encountered this week, people who tried to picture an angel in their mind, you would describe the vision like so: “Angels are clothed in white and might be glowing.” “All angels have halos hovering above their heads.” “You can’t be an angel without wings.” “When we lose someone we love, they come back to us as angels.”

If we want to know what angels are, then we should begin with what they look like. And if we want to know what they look like, we should begin with scripture.

Angels are mentioned 273 times in the Bible. That’s a lot. They appear in both the Old and New Testaments. They appear to prophets and paupers. They minister to the wealthy and the weak.

I know many of us like the image of an angel with a halo, during our Preschool Pageant all of the angels had pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads, but halos are never mentioned in scripture. Angels, when they do appear, are oftentimes described as having a particular shine or brightness, but they don’t have floating discs above their heads.

Some passages describe angels having wings, but others just describe them as looking like human beings. Zechariah is in the temple when an angel, who looked like a man, appeared and told him about his son John the Baptist. After Jesus was born, an angel appeared in Joseph’s dream and warmed him to get the child out of Bethlehem. Even when the disciples went to the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion they saw two men in shining garments who told them about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Well then, what do angels do? They report to God, they observe God’s people (us), they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields, they help God’s people when they are in need, and they rejoice in God’s creation and offering of salvation.

The descriptions and stories of angels in scripture vary and are all over the place. They certainly exist and work for God’s purposes, but that doesn’t make them any easier to understand or grasp. However, there is one thing that connects most of the angels in the bible, and it’s the way people react to their presence: fear.

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Before I came to St. John’s, I spent a year working as an on-call chaplain for Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Every week I gathered with other chaplains to talk about grief, death, and suffering. We worked through our own issues with the brokenness in the world, and we were responsible for visiting people in need throughout the community.

I often met with people near the end of life who were tasked with making decisions about the way they wanted to die. Throughout my time in chaplaincy I became well versed in the topics of Do-Not-Resuscitate, Advanced Directives, and Power of Attorney. I was invited into some of the darkest moments of peoples lives and while everyone else would tell someone that they were going to be okay, that they would get better, I was one of the few people tasked with telling the truth: no one makes it out of this life alive.

During my year of chaplaincy, I had multiple 24-hour shifts at the hospital. I would put on my overly large white lab coat and respond to particular patients and their needs. More often that not I would be called to a room for someone who was lonely and just wanted another human being to be present with them. But every once in a while, I would be called to a room with a patient who needed something more.

It was 4 am, and I had been running around the hospital for my entire shift. Every time I thought I would have a moment to rest, a patient would die and I would have to meet with the grieving family. At 4am I received a page to a particular unit on the other side of the hospital with the words: We Need You.

Outside of the patient’s room I learned from the doctor and nurses that the patient was about to die; there was nothing else they could do to prolong her life and they wanted me to sit with her. Normally one of the nurses would stay in the room but they were so swamped with other patients that they could not spare another nurse. Of course, I asked about any family member that would want to be present and the staff just looked back at me with empty eyes and said, “She’s all alone.”

They left me standing there in the hallway, so I said a brief prayer and then walked right in.

Something about the hospital room was different. Whereas most are filled with machines making lots of noises, this room was quiet and peaceful. And strangely enough, I remember it being very warm; warm enough that I had to take off my lab coat and roll up my sleeves. The woman was lying in the hospital bed and was going in and out of consciousness. So I pulled up a chair and started to hold her hand.

For thirty minutes I sat there looking at the wrinkles on her skin wondering about her life, wondering about why no one else was there with her at the end, and if I should say anything. Instead, I just sat and held her hand at the minutes went by. I couldn’t even imagine the kind of pain and hurt I would’ve felt if I was in a room all by myself at the end of my life, and if I’m honest, the thought of it made me cry while I sat there holding her hand.

I don’t know how long I had been there when she started to move around a little bit more and opened her eyes to look right at me. We held one another in sight for some time when I felt like I needed to explain why I was there, so I said, “I’m the chaplain and I didn’t want you to be alone.”

            In response, she smiled her so slightly and said, “I’m not alone.”

After that holy moment, we continued holding hands in silence until her breathing started to fade away, until her heart stopped beating, until she died.

That night at the hospital, when I was afraid of the power of loneliness, when that woman was facing her final earthly moments, I believe there was an angel in the room with us. I couldn’t see it, but as soon as she told me that she wasn’t alone, I knew it was true.

If and when God sends angels to us, we are either very afraid, or are about to be afraid by their presence. It is a humbling and powerful thing to be attended to by the likes of an angel and it really puts us in our place. I have asked countless people form our church if they have ever seen or experienced an angel and I was shocked, in a good way, by how many people said yes.

I heard things like: “My grandfather had just passed away and my brother and I were driving around Staunton when we saw a man who looked exactly like our grandfather walking down the street, wearing the same type of clothes, who took out a comb just like our grandfather did to comb his hair, and we knew that even though he died, he was still with us.”

“My sister was driving in her car when she felt asleep at the wheel and veered off the road. She woke up while the car was flipping over and she said she felt time slow down and arms wrap around her to protect her. While the car tumbled and tumbled she was held tight and only after the car stopped moving did she feel the protective arms let go and she was okay.”

Big and small, dramatic and simple, angels have showed up in our lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us to be faithful in our hospitality toward others because we never know when an angel will show up in our midst. Whether it’s in a hospital room, or driving through town, or even in church, angels show up.

When I first felt God calling me to ministry I was afraid. I was afraid of how my family would respond, and what my friends would think. I was afraid of whether or not I had what it would take to be a pastor. I was afraid of how much it would change my life.

And then at 16, while walking down Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, VA I felt pulled to my knees and I prayed and prayed. I didn’t see an angel near me, or hear an angel speak to me, but I felt an angel’s presence with me as I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life, and not my own.

I can only articulate that experience of an angel in my life and in that hospital room because the church has given me the vocabulary of divine intercession. I can only look back and say that an angel was with me, because the church taught me how to open my eyes to the ways that God actually works in the world. Others might talk about a bizarre feeling they had or a strange movement in their midst. The church taught me to understand those experiences as angelic and holy moments.

What are angels? Angels are God’s way of helping us to see and experience God’s will in our lives. Angels are God’s way of pushing and nudging us in the right direction. Angels are God’s way of bringing us peace when we feel the depth of fear. Angels are God’s way of reuniting the heavens and the earth in profound and holy moments. Angels are God’s way of rescuing us from ourselves. Angel’s are God’s way of reminding us that we are never alone.

I conclude with these words from the hymn that we will sing in a few moments. I offer these words so that they might help us to recognize and experience the angels in our midst. O Lord, Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth though hast for me. Open my ears that I may hear, voices of truth thou sendest clear. Open my mouth and let me bear, gladly the warm truth everywhere. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine. Amen.