Why Do We Worship?

Philippians 2.1-13

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Gather – Sermon 1

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

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I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because so many of us having been going to church for such a long time that we know longer know, or maybe we never learned, what all of this stuff is all about. In the last three months I’ve heard some of you ponder about why the acolyte carries in the flame for worship, or why we spend time studying the bible, or what does it really mean to pray, or why in the world do we pass around an offering plate, or why do we give our time to serving others.

All of those are great questions, and they are questions we will attempt to answer together over the next month. Today we begin with “Why do we worship?”

Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship the living God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the contemporary gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs; getting together is what we do as Christians.

I’d like each of you to take out your bulletins for a moment and scan through the service. Some will call this an Order of Worship, other will call it the liturgy. Liturgy literally means “work of the people” and it is work that we do together to worship God. You will notice that our liturgy is broken into 4 parts: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth. These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specifically connected to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Throughout our service today we will have four sermons for the four parts of our worship as they connect with what happened in the Emmaus experience; Jesus gathered the two men on the road, later he proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, then they responded by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes were opened to Jesus’ presence they were sent to proclaim what they seen and heard.

The beginning of our worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? Does worship begin when the choir processes into the sanctuary? Does it start when I begin to speak? Actually, worship begins before we even walk into the building. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while driving to the church, God is with us in the parking lot when we wave and signal our greetings to our fellow church people, and God is with us through the conversations we have in the narthex and while we’re sitting in the pews.

God continues to gather our focus together as the choir enters the sanctuary singing the prelude all while following the light of Christ carried by an acolyte. The light is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, a light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and in our discipleship.

The work of gathering continues through the announcements, silent reflection, and our call to worship. All of these little movements have a purpose, and they allow us to practice our faith. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to do the work of the Lord.

After the liturgist leads us through the call to worship, we begin singing our first hymn. Picking the hymns for worship is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs will best fit with what we will do is such a privilege. This morning our first hymn will be “Come Christians, Join to Sing.” The lyrics and tune are designed to uniquely gather us together in heart, mind, soul, and body.

When the first hymn ends and all of you return to your pews, I then invite us to join in prayer together. The prayers we offer are a sign of our devotion to the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. But above all, our prayers are another means by which God gathers us for the work of the church.

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

 

Proclaim – Sermon 2

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

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After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. However, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our daily experiences.

We proclaim God’s Word together every week through The Children’s Moment, listening to the choir, offering a prayer for the reading of the Word, we hear scripture read to us, we sing a hymn, and then we listen to a sermon.

Our scriptures, more often than not, are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings over a three-year cycle designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture. We boldly proclaim these words from the bible with prayers and hopes that somehow or another God can and will speak through them to us about what following Jesus is all about.

The middle hymn in our liturgy is usually picked in reference to the specific text or a theme from the text. For instance: today we will sing, “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus opened the eyes of the two disciples from the Emmaus story when they broke bread together. And we’re also calling on God to open our eyes to see how the text is speaking into our lives right now.

The sermon, unlike everything else in the liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to make God’s Word incarnate (again) through the ways we respond to it and live it.

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So let’s hear what God has to say today…

 

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A one-sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples on the road and we experience God working in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

 

Respond – Sermon 3

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”

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Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While at the table he took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, that Christ became real for them.

The third part of our liturgy is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by affirming our faith with the Apostles’ Creed and then with the giving of our tithes and offerings. We make public confessions about whom we are and how we understand the world and we give freely from ourselves because God has given so much to us. However, the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.

We could break down all the parts of our communion liturgy, but they really deserve their own sermon series. What we can say right now is that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done, we confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor, we are forgiven, we share signs of Christ’s peace, and then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let’s see how God’s enables us to responding to God’s Word…

 

Sending – Sermon 4

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like; for every time we gather around the table, with every brilliant smile and grateful affirmation, I realize that I’m catching glimpses of Jesus.

The disciples were so moved by their experience of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the truth, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it felt like with other in our lives.

The fourth and final part of our liturgy is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymn are still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all that we have seen and heard in this place, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

I stand before you, the congregation, and offer a benediction tying the totality of worship together and then we all follow the acolyte and the light of Christ out of the sanctuary in order to shine God’s light in the world.

This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friend what happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world by the living God…

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Do Not Listen To Preachers (Including Me)

Jeremiah 23.23-29

Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Pastor Holding Bible ca. 2000

 

A young preacher stands in the pulpit after a long week of parish ministry. The visits have all been made. A new budget for the coming year is finished and ready for approval. Plans for the Community Cook-Out came to fruition as people from all over the community gathered together.

The young preacher stands in the pulpit and looks out at the congregation. He sees couples that he has counseled; children that he has baptized; families that are struggling; individuals whose husbands or wives he has buried; and he even sees people he has never seen before. He looks over the bulletin one last time just to make sure that everything is listed the way it is supposed to be, and then he begins by saying, “This morning the sermon will be short and sweet”

“Hallelujah!” Someone shouts out from a pew.

“Is that for the short, or for the sweet?” says the preacher.

The congregation laughs.

The preacher sighs.

The art of preaching is a strange thing, but an even stranger thing when we consider that what we want from a sermon is something short and sweet. Some of you have been quick to say that you want a sermon that leaves you feeling good on your way out from the sanctuary. Others have said that you want a sermon that gives you something to think about during the week, or one that helps to remind you that God is love, or that Jesus wants the world to be a better place, etc.

I would classify myself as a short and sweet preacher. I fundamentally believe that if you cannot say what you’re trying to say in 15 minutes then you’re never going to say it. Additionally, I love pleasing all of you. I live for those moments in the receiving line following worship when some of you offer praise for what you heard through the sermon. I know I’m supposed to be humble, but it feels pretty good to be congratulated and praised for preaching.

In the last few years we’ve had an abundance of sweet sermons; times when I wanted all of you to leave with just one thought: “God loves you.” I’ve done my best to make you laugh and smile when thinking about the abundant glory of God’s grace. I’ve tried to cheer you up during times of domestic and international strife. I’ve worked to make this place as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.

And that is why you should not listen to preachers, including me.

“Am I close to you?” says the Lord. “Or am I far away? Who thinks they can hide in secret places so I cannot see them? I am the Lord! Do I not fill up heaven and earth? I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy in my name saying ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed! How long will they continue like this?”

The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time filled with false prophets, people who would ascend to places like this in front of a gathered people and make claims on behalf of the Lord. They would spout off about their visions of what the Lord was doing, and the more they said, the further they moved away from God.

God warns us against listening to false prophets, about succumbing to their visions, and about what happens when we trust them more than the Word.

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It would be easy today to make this whole sermon about the false prophets of our contemporary experience. We’ve got plenty of false prophets who use their skill to sell us on what they believe the future should hold. In fact this whole sermon could just be a warning against listening to the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

What kind of dreams are they selling?

“I have dreamed of a future where everyone can, and should go to college for free. Where healthcare will be free for everyone. We need to remember what made us great and start taking from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It’s not about progress; it’s about fairness. We need to make America fair again.”

“I have dreamed of a wall unlike any other wall. This wall will fix all of our problems. It will bring wealth back to our country. We need to bomb the Middle East into oblivion to assert ourselves as the top of the world. We need to make America great again.”

Politicians have always been false prophets making promises that cannot be kept; selling a vision of the future that rarely comes to fruition. And we know this is true. That’s why we’ve grown so jaded by our political seasons and apathetic about whatever will happen.

But there are more false prophets out there than just politicians, and one of them is talking to you right now.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns us against listening to people like me, people who march up to the front of the gathered church and strive to proclaim God’s faithful word. For whenever we hear a preacher go on and on about the beauty and majesty of God’s Word, whenever the Lord is watered down to a spirit of love, whenever we hear more about the preacher’s dreams than God’s will, we need to be reminded that the Word of the Lord is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.

Since we’ve been together in this strange thing called church, I’ve preached over 150 sermons. I’ve preached from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve mentioned the patriarchs and the prophets. I’ve proclaimed the possibilities of the psalms. I’ve proudly preached on the power of parables. I’ve done different series on “Why We Do What We Do” and “The Basics” and “New Beginnings” and “Strange Stories from Scripture.” I’ve even dressed up and preached not one, but TWO sermons from the perspective of a donkey.

And for what?

Has the preaching in this place challenged you to be a better disciple? And maybe not just from me, but have you ever left this church really feeling convicted by what you heard and wanted to live differently? Or has your experience been like most, and you leave feeling pretty good on Sunday afternoon?

We preachers are tempted by the practices of false prophecy. We like to be liked. We want to fill pews with people to boost our egos. We need to hear praise from lay people on their way out the door. We yearn for success. We, after years of sermon preparation and proclamation, fall prey to hearing our own voice so deeply that we no longer hear others, nor do we hear the Lord.

For the last three years I’ve had a dream about the future of this church. I have dreamed of Sunday mornings where so many people fill the pews of this sanctuary that I cannot know everyone’s names. I have imagined crowds gathered around the baptismal font in anticipation of bringing a new person into the life of our church. I have pictured people having to park on the front lawn because there are not enough spaces left in our parking lot.

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And because I had this dream, I preached and worked toward things like our Community Cook-Out. I implored our Church Council to use enough money to give away the food and the games and the fellowship all for free. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of post-cards to all of our neighbors so that they might join us on the front lawn.

I have dreamed, and I want the dream to become real. So I work week after week on ideas and programs and sermons that will draw people into this sanctuary on Sunday mornings until that dream becomes reality.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in our narthex right before our opening hymn. Most of you were sitting in the pews; our liturgist had gone through the pertinent announcements and necessary welcome. Rick was playing something melodic on the organ as we prepared our hearts and minds for worship when I stepped onto the carpet with our acolyte.

Without thinking much about it, I started to count the back of all your heads. I started with the front left and made my way toward the back, then my eyes moved to the front right and all the way toward the back. My lips must have been moving because our acolyte looked at me and said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m counting…” I said while trying to not lose track of the number.

And then he asked, “Why?”

Why?

In his question, in the simple raise of an eyebrow at my action, my heart caught on fire, it burned like a blaze, and I felt it crumble into ashes.

For how long have I deceived my own heart? For how long have I been so consumed by the number of people in our pews that I have forgotten the call to share the Good News? For how long have I proclaimed a God of love who is so loving that he does not expect us to live changed and transformed lives? For how long have all of us listened to false prophets who preached their own dream instead of speaking the Word of the Lord faithfully?

In his question I heard the Lord convict my heart because I have been caught up in church growth not for the sake of the kingdom, but for my own affirmation. I have wanted the front lawn to be packed with people from the community not for the sake of the kingdom, but for the pews to be filled in worship. I have preached sermons to make us feel better not for the sake of the kingdom, but for all of you to come back the next Sunday.

Sermons are a good and strange thing. After all they are the means by which the Word of the Lord is interpreted for our lives on a weekly basis. But they cannot be blindly accepted without challenge. For to only ever hear about God’s grace does a disservice to the Lord who is always calling us to live more like Christ. And, on the other hand, to only ever hear about how sinful we are neglects to reveal the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.

God cares more about spreading the Good News than about filling up the pews.

And sometimes that Good News is that we need to be better than we were when we arrived, that we are called to a life of discipleship that pins us against the world, that the Lord expects great things from us. The Good News is that God has not abandoned us to our sinful desires and devices, that God believes we can be better even if we don’t, and that we can transform the world but we first must transform ourselves.

We need good preachers, men and women who are willing to lay down their egos at the altar and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. And we need good lay people who are willing to crucify their fears and speak the truth in love toward the preachers who have fallen into the trap of false prophecy.

So, may the Word of the Lord be like a hammer that breaks our lives into pieces! Let it shatter our false identities and insecurities, let it break down all our preconceived notions and assumptions, and let it burn and blaze forever and ever. Amen.

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.

The Healing Ministry

Luke 4.14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
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This morning we continue in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this time to repent of sins and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. We are exploring and examining Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. Today we are looking at Jesus’ healing ministry.

 

 

Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Jesus, after his baptism by John and his temptations in the wilderness, was filled with the power of the Spirit when he returned to Galilee. He began teaching in synagogues and people were praising him left and right.

When he came home to Nazareth, the place where he grew up, a town of no more than 200 people, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. The place was filled to the brim with people who had known him his entire life, filled with friends who were more like family, filled with people full of expectation.

He stood up to read, and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and started to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus then slowly rolled the scroll back up, and sat down to begin his lesson. Everyone was glued to Jesus. They sat around him and waited to hear what he had to say. When he opened his mouth, he said these words, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people could not believe their ears. Who in the world does this son of a carpenter think he is? The Messiah? They began to murmur among themselves regarding his audacity and some even wondered if he would perform miracles like they ones that were rumored.

Jesus, however, cut through the air, “I’m sure that some of you want a sign, you want me to do some quick healings. But the truth is, prophets are never accepted in their hometown. Prophets get rejected all the time. I am here for bigger things than Nazareth. Do you remember what happened during the time of Elijah? There was a severe famine across the whole land, but God only sent the prophet to one widow in Sidon. And do you remember what happened during the time of Elisha? There was lepers all across the land, but God only sent the prophet to cleanse Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard his words, they were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Jesus spent the majority of his ministry looking for the sick and the oppressed. Rather than showing up at the palaces of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus looked for the people living on the margins of life and made them whole.

Healing, at least the kind of healing Jesus did, was not limited to physical health. He cleansed the sick, and brought sight back to the blind, and helped the lame to walk, but he also did so much more.

He proclaimed that he came to bring good news to the poor. He did not give them money to reverse their socio-economic situations. Instead he pointed out how, in the kingdom of God, the last would be first and the first would be last. He gave meaning to their lives by giving them the time and attention they deserved.

He proclaimed that he came to bring release to the captives. He did not go around encouraging insurrections against prison guards and corrupt politicians. Instead he reunited broken families, forgave wrongdoers, and encouraged the downtrodden; all that were held captive by the power of sin.

He proclaimed that he came to recover the sight of the blind. He did not go around healing individual’s eyes and leave them to their own devices. He healed them and sent them back to the families that had disowned them, to the friends that had abandoned them, and to the towns that had forgotten them.

Jesus’ ministry of healing went beyond biology and into the realm of relationships. He brought newness to people’s lives and then expected the culture to change at the same time. Jesus came to heal the sick of body, and of spirit, all at the same time.

And while Jesus loved healing others, he also loved disrupting contentment. He showed up in his hometown, proclaimed an incredible and powerful message, and then basically told the people that they needed something more than cheap grace. The kinds of people who really needed Jesus’ physical healing were not in the synagogue that day. They were the ones forced out of town, abandoned by friends, and disowned by families. By withholding his physical healing ministry from their gathering, he implicitly told them to start healing their brokenness first.

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Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher?

Let me tell you, Jesus is a tough pill to swallow. You think the message in the synagogue that day was bad? Wait till you hear some of the other things Jesus told his followers.

Full disclosure: What I am about to say are not my own words. If, while you’re listening, you start noticing that your fists are clenched, and you start wondering about where the closest cliff might be to throw me off, just remember that these are Jesus’ words and not my own.

“Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you that are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6.24-25)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6.19)

“You have heard that it was said an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone want to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5.38)

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10.24-25)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate you enemies.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5.43-44)

Feeling angry yet?

Jesus loved disrupting people’s false contentment. He came to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Even today, Jesus loves gathering people in a place like this and then turning our heads around to the people we are supposed to be healing.

What we often fail to realize is that God uses people like us to accomplish his will on earth. We are the instruments of God’s peace to deliver healing to the people around us.

Healing for others and ourselves can only come when we are willing to get uncomfortable in church and start living like Jesus outside the church.

When we catch ourselves mocking the people begging for money on the streets, Jesus wants us to know that if we ignore them, we are ignoring him.

When we catch ourselves serving the master of money and losing sleep over how much we have in our bank accounts, Jesus wants us to know that we are supposed to be using our blessings to bless others.

When we catch ourselves cursing the people fleeing their countries out of fear, Jesus wants us to remember that he once had to abandon his home out of fear.

If we want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, if we want to be part of his kingdom on earth, then we need to start healing our broken understanding of reality and start healing others.

Have you ever listened to a sermon that made you so mad you wanted to kill the preacher? When it happened to Jesus in Nazareth, he was able to sneak back through the crowd and continue his ministry. But when it happened to Jesus in Jerusalem, they nailed him to a cross. Amen.

Why We Do What We Do: Worship – Sermon on Luke 24.13-35

Four homilies on why we worship the way we do…

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Gather

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

 

The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings. This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray.

For any of you that have left worship with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you. This morning we begin with “Why We Worship.

Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering on a regular basis to praise God. From the crowded upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the modern gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs, getting together is what we do as Christians.

I would now like to ask each of you to pull out your bulletin. You will notice that our worship is divided into four parts every week: GatheringProclaimingResponding – and Sending Forth. These four parts have connections with the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but it can be specifically drawn to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus gathers the two men on the road, later he proclaims the scriptures and interprets them, then they respond by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes are opened to Jesus’ presence they are sent to proclaim what they had seen and heard to the disciples. These four parts have their beginnings in scripture, and we relive them each and every week.

When does worship begin? Some would claim that it starts whenever someone stands behind the lectern and starts to speak, but worship actually begins long before the moment we are all sitting in the sanctuary. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we walk out our front door, to the thoughts we have while driving, to the quick and joyful conversations in the parking lot, to the greeting in the narthex and the ushers handing out the bulletins. All of these moments are part of God gathering us, and they all have an effect on the way we worship.

Once we arrive and are present in the sanctuary, God continues to gather us together in our announcements about upcoming activities in the church. It is a time of relating to one another and sharing opportunities about how we can grow in love of God and neighbor. Immediately following the announcements, we have what might be the most important piece of the gathering: preparing our hearts and minds for worship.

Rick will play on the organ for a brief period that we use to help center ourselves for the practice of worship. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to strengthen our spirits for the work of ministry in the world. Then the choir will rise to sing a call to worship, in effect calling us to worship the living God. We have a responsive reading as we center ourselves on the theme for the day, and we start singing our first hymn.

Picking hymns is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs best fit with what we will do. And as we sing that first hymn, the acolyte and I will walk into the sanctuary signifying how the light of Christ is here with us in worship, how the light guides us and gathers us together.

By the time I actually make it to the pulpit, God is still gathering us together as we humbly bow and begin to pray as a community. The prayers we offer are a sign of our respect for the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. Finally, we gather our gifts of tithes and offerings to present to God (but we will talk more about why we give next week).

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to change their lives forever. So let’s continue letting God gather us for worship…

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Proclaim

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

 

After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about the things they had seen and heard in Jerusalem, he proclaims the stories of scripture and reinterprets them through his gracious work. But notice, they still do not know who they are talking and walking with on the way.

I will be the first to admit that God’s holy scriptures can be confusing. There’s nothing like a seemingly random assortment of names through a genealogical proclamation that can leave us scratching out heads. But the more we read, the more we interpret how God is still speaking to us through the scriptures, the more it begins to start fitting together.

The second part of our worship is dedicated to proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this every week by reading from the bible, singing a hymn, and then listening to a sermon. The scriptures are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings through a three-year cycle that goes through most of the bible. However, occasionally the scriptures are picked to fit a specific theme (like us using Luke 24.13-35 to talk about worship during this sermon series). We boldly proclaim the words of scripture and pray that somehow or another God can speak through a preacher to interpret these words for our lives today.

The middle hymn of worship is usually picked in reference to the specific text and our connection with it. Today we will sing “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus’ opened the eyes of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, but we also call on God to open our eyes to how the text continues to speak into our lives right now.

The sermon is a little bit harder to explain, because every preacher (and therefore every sermon) is different. Some can be funny and light-hearted; others are specifically focused on the Good News, whereas others can be more convicting about how we are living as disciples. The point of preaching is to challenge us to make God’s Word incarnate by the way we live our lives; which is precisely why preaching can be so hard to hear, and so hard to do.

This is how we proclaim God’s Word every week, just like Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples. So let’s proclaim God’s Word in worship…

 

Sermon:

 

A one sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples and our eyes are opened to Jesus in our midst. Amen.

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Respond

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

 

Jesus made it look like he was going to keep walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While they sat at the table together, he took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road, in the bread and wine on the table, that Christ became real for them.

The third part of our worship is focused on responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by reaffirming our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, we make a public confession of who we are and what we believe. Other weeks we do something unique and special like last week when we broke off into pairs and prayed for each other. But the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.

Breaking down the multiple elements of responding with Communion demands its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and what we’ve done, we confess how we have fallen short of God’s expectations and are forgiven, we share signs of God’s love and peace, and then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table, just like Jesus did with those two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let us respond to God’s Word in worship…

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Send

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 

I’ve always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of those disciples discovering the truth about their encounter from the road. But then I remember that I have had similar experiences: when I see someone come up in line to receive communion with a brilliant smile on their face, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I witness one of our preschoolers reach out in concern toward one of their classmates, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I see you greeting one another in love before, during and after worship, I realize that I am catching glimpses of Jesus.

After their incredible and momentous discovery, the disciples ran back to Jerusalem to share all they seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, the only thing we can do is share what it felt like with others in our lives.

The final part of our worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymns are still resonating deep in our souls, as we continue to contemplate all we have seen and heard in this place, God sends us out into the world to share what we have experienced. I stand before the congregation and offer a benediction of blessing to go with us as we leave, and then the acolyte carries the light of Christ before us, encouraging us to take Christ’s light out into the world. Lastly, the choir sends us off with one final song, blessing us to be a blessing to others.

This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what had happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth to be God’s people for the world…

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Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

Ehud-and-Eglon (1)

Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

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When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

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Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.