This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 8.4-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35). Sara is the lead pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including beach things, political warnings, The Gap, identified hope, the faith we sing, evangelism, extending grace, the mandate of proclamation, and ecclesial hope. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Unlimited Power!
Pray then in this way: Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this say our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.
The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.
The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. The second week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives. And last week we were asked to take a look at our finances and imagine ways to be more faithful with our money.
Today we’re moving on to the subject of prayer.
The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.
There was a time before I was your pastor.
I spent a summer in Detroit Michigan helping a church and I was asked one Sunday to be the guest worship leader and preacher at a church downtown.
My answer was, “Yes! I’m 23 years old and I have no idea what I’m doing!”
I wrote a perfect 2,000 word sermon, and when the Sunday arrived I put on a suit and a bow tie.
The church was a gothic-like cathedral with massive stained glass windows made by Tiffanys. When I reached for the door it was locked and I had to wait for someone to show up and let me in.
No one spoke to me, there was no bulletin, so I just sat down by the altar.
I realized quickly that this church was no how I imagined it would be. Not only was I the most over-dressed person there, I was also the only white person.
A group of women joined me by the altar and they just started singing a hymn. And when they finished they started a second. And when they finished that one they started singing a third.
An older gentleman slowly made his way to me down the center aisle and shouted, “Son, if you don’t say something, they ain’t gonna stop singing.”
I had never been to a black church before and it was a very difficult experience. In the white church I grew up in, the expectation was silence while the preacher preached. But in the black church this is quite the opposite.
So I pulled out my sermon, and I tried to preach it the way I thought sermons were meant to be preached: “The Lord has gathered us here today for his most divine Word, that it might dwell in our soul.”
And a lady in the front row shouted, “Lord!”
And I thought, wow, I’m pretty good at this preaching thing – so I kept it up.
“The God above has been so good to us.”
“Lord!” She shouted again.
And I just kept preaching like a fool until she said, “Lord! Please help this young man!”
She was praying. For me! And I needed it.
So with her final and desperate prayerI took off my suit jacket, untied my bow tie, threw the sermon off the pulpit, walked down into the midst of the people and I said, “My name is Taylor, and I want to tell you about a story from the Bible that changed my life.” And then I did.
At the end, when I said “amen,” they all did too.
Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. It is something Jesus consistently did throughout the gospels, it is something we do here every single week, and I would venture to guess that most of us here, in a variety of ways, pray every day.
But prayer, with all of its prevalence in the church is something we don’t really talk about. Sure, we might do it, but what is the it we are doing?
Prayer is simply communication with God, though it can take place in a variety of ways – They can be spontaneous, or read entirely from a text, or it can just be silence. It is time apart from the regular movements of life to commune with the Lord is such a way that our needs, desires, and hopes are expressed while recognizing the immense wonder of God through whom we receive our blessings.
Prayer is the powerful means by which we discover who we are and whose we are.
For as long as I can remember I have been the de facto pray-er at all of my family functions, and this began long before I was a pastor. I’m not sure what granted me this responsibility, but it has surely been mine. And frankly, I don’t feel like I’m all that good at it.
Even though it is at the heart of so much of what I do, I still feel like being asked to pray is like being asked to be pious for just 30 seconds, and I can’t help but feel like sometimes it falls flat.
How would any of you feel right now if I asked you to stand and pray on behalf of the whole church? Where would you begin?
For many of us prayer feels like the burden of pretending to be more faithful than we really are. We supplement words in our prayers that we would never otherwise use, and when we’re done we can’t help but wonder where all of that actually came from.
Praying off the cuff is no easy thing because we’re often made to feel like it has to be a certain way, or at least sound a certain way, when the truth of prayer is that it is nothing more that learning to speak with, to, and about God.
God doesn’t need our protection, nor does God need our deception. God can take us and our prayers just as they are because God can handle us. We don’t need to curtail how we are feeling, or defer from the truth of our reality, we can be more honest with God than anyone else.
Just read some of the psalms, they don’t hold their punches.
God does not want us to come to the altar, or clasp our hands together, differently than from how we live the rest of our lives – the truest and holiest prayers are those that sound like we’re talking to a friend.
And yet, for some of us, this will still be a challenge. Confronted by the sheer and stark reality of being in a space all alone, talking to God who might feel far away or silent, we don’t quite no what to say.
And that’s okay.
Because even though prayer is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, that doesn’t mean we have to do it on our own, or off the cuff – some of the most important and life-giving prayers are those written long before we arrived.
We can pray like first disciples: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…
Or pray like St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving we receive, it is in pardoning we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are awake to eternal life.”
Or we can even pray like Jesus: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, now what I want, but what you want.” Or, to put it another way, “Let thy will be done.”
We, like countless Christians before us, can rely on the prayers of the saints to give voice to our feelings and needs that are difficult to articulate. We can lean on them, because they leaned on the Lord to pray the prayers they prayed.
But, of course, we can also pray our own prayers, and by we I really mean we. Notice, the Lord’s Prayer, the text read for us today and the prayer we pray in this room every week is not, “My Father who art in heaven.” It is, “Our Father.” The language of the prayer is decisively communal and met to be prayed as such.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.
In just a moment I’m going to break us up into small groups here in the sanctuary, and each group will be responsible for writing a prayer together, a simple prayer that could be prayed by anyone in the group. And once we’ve all had the time to work together and come up with something, each group will need to select a pray-er who will stand and pray the prayer on behalf of the group…
Amen. As I noted at the beginning the sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. And I know, that for many of you, what we just did was enough of a challenge, but we’re going to keep the theme going.
This week we are encouraging everyone to pray daily.
You may take the prayer that you just wrote with your group, or you may write your own, or you may use another prayer like the Lord’s Prayer or any other and we would like you to pray that prayer at least twice a day: when you wake up and before you fall asleep.
That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s the point. We want to consider how different our days would feel and become if we began and ended them in prayer, knowing that even if the words are not our own, they may at least convey some sense of who we are, and whose we are.
And so you can leave it right there, praying a simple prayer at least two times a day, or you can take it one step farther, and find at least one person this week, and ask how you might pray for them. Listen to their concerns or joys, and then rather than praying about it when you get home, take them by the hand and pray right then and there. Because the truth of prayer is that sometimes people need people like us who can pray on their behalf when they do not have the strength, nor the words, to do it on their own.
And, if you want serious extra credit, find at least one person this week, and ask them to pray for you. For many of us, the call to pray for someone else is good and fine, but the hardest thing of all is admitting that we need to be prayed for as well. So find someone who love and trust, and humbly ask them to pray for you.
And now, let us pray, Our Father…
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Ah, the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.
Easter is the one day when all of the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Today we are a church unlike many of the other Sundays in the year. On Easter our pews are filled with those deeply rooted in their faith, with those filled with questions, and with those filled with doubts. So, what does one say on a day like today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of truth and challenge and grace? What can I say today?
The truth: He is risen! Hallelujah!
Graveside funerals make me nervous.
If we have a funeral in the sanctuary, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and truly celebrate the many ways in which God moved in and through the person now dead.
But when you’re at the graveside, everything is out of control. You might be driving in the sunshine while in the funeral procession, but the minute you hit the cemetery the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. You might have your bible open to a particular passage but then the wind will blow and you’ve gone from 1 Corinthians to Exodus. Or, as has happened to me far too many times, you’ll stand over the casket with dirt in your hands and ask everyone for a few moments of silence only to hear the faint but nevertheless decisive moo of a cow from a nearby farm.
Cemeteries are often in the strangest places. I’ve buried people in perfectly manicured military compounds where you’ll never get lost because there is always a solider ready to lead you out. I’ve buried people in cemeteries stuck in the middle of residential neighborhoods, next to a playground, and across the streets from a cow farm. I’ve even buried someone’s ashes in the backyard of a beloved family member.
And because they are often in the strangest places, they can be difficult to find.
Years ago, a young pastor was asked to do a burial service for an older man from the community who had no friends, and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a decent funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrive he got in the car and headed out for an old country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.
He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself, he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his phone, and he eventually stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When he finally pulled up he was over an hour late.
As he drove across the open and barren landscape, the hearse was nowhere in sight, but the backhoe was next to the open hole, and there was a group of men resting under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked over to the open grave and embarrassingly discovered that the lid was already in place and dirt had been already been sprinkled across the top.
The guilt welled up within the young preacher and he opened up his bible and began preaching like he never had before. He cried out to the heavens with clenched fists, he proclaimed the promise of resurrection, and he did so with a conviction rarely found in his Sunday delivery.
After his final “amen” he returned to his car while still sweating from his passionately delivered sermon. And just before he opened the door, he overheard one of the men under the tree say to the others, “I ain’t never see nothing like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”
Today is Easter and it is also April Fools’ Day. This is the first time both days have fallen together in 62 years. And for months I’ve been reading articles, and listening to other pastors, expressing the importance of incorporating humor in today’s worship service. And, of course, Easter is a joke – the greatest joke God ever played on the devil. But to trivialize this day, of all days, does a disservice to the decisive change made possible by this day. It belittles the death of Jesus to graveyard jokes about septic tanks. It makes the resurrection optional instead of essential.
If God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, if the bodily resurrection isn’t real, then we are wasting our time. It’s as simple as that. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the vindication of all his teaching. It is what makes the sermons and the stories intelligible, it is the light in the darkness, it is the way we follow the way.
Without the resurrection, we have no business loving our neighbors, or enemies. Without the resurrection it would be absurd to teach our children the call to turn the other cheek. Without resurrection everything in the New Testament falls apart.
The world does not recommend doing any of this Christian stuff. It is strange and bizarre to give clothes to those who are naked, and to feed those who are hungry, and to befriend the friendless. We don’t do these things as Christians not simply because God tells us to, or because it’s the right thing to do. We do them because God raised Jesus from the dead!
The empty tomb is everything. It is funnier than any joke, it is more serious than any death, it is more majestic that any mountain, it is deeper that any valley. It is everything.
Without resurrection, I’ve got nothing to say. Without Easter, nothing that Christians do makes any sense.
“He is risen!” are the three precious words found at the heart of our identity. They changed, and continue to change, everything. They are the three words handed to Paul, and Paul to the Corinthians, and eventually to us.
Some of you know that I have an annual tradition of taking this cross out of the sanctuary on Good Friday, throwing it over my shoulder, and walking through town. I started this because years ago I was struck by often we keep our crosses tucked away in our sanctuaries, hidden among the altars and rafters. And so, for the last five years, I’ve marched around town with a cross on my back, beckoning all who encounter to remember that Christ died for them, and for the world.
On Friday I made my way across our parking lot with the cross thinking, somehow, it was heavier than last year, and eventually I made it to Route 1. I began by heading north, politely waving at cars and passers by, and I think it freaked some people out. There were many open mouths and puzzled expressions in regards to a bearded young man, all dressed in black, with a cross on his back.
But I kept walking.
After about twenty minutes there was a car to my left that slowed down as it came closer, and eventually pulled in front of me and into the closest parking lot. A man quickly exited his car and started walking toward me. After 20 minutes of walking I felt like God’s was giving me the opportunity to share the gospel story. In the man’s eyes I could sense a deep need and longing, and I was just the pastor to provide. So when he stood in front of me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I replied: “Of course, my son, ask away.” To which he asked, “Do you know where the post office is? I can’t find it.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Its back a few blocks on the left… right across the street from my church.”
Another 20 minutes of walking passed by as a few drivers kindly honked their horns in support. When all of the sudden I noticed a car full of teenagers on the other side of the road, in which they were pointing at me. The driver’s made a quick u-turn, and then they stopped in the middle of Route 1 so that half of the kids could lean out their windows to take even more pictures. As they began driving away I heard one of the girls say, “Imma put him on my Instagram!”
Eventually, after walking for more than an hour, I started heading back toward the church, wondering if carrying the cross had really made any difference. I thought about all of the people who saw the cross and whether or not it made them reflect on what Jesus did for them. I wondered about how many of them even knew what I was doing.
Shortly before I got back to the church property, I saw a young man running toward me in full workout gear. He had headphones on that were clearly pumping some serious music and he was bopping his head back and forth. I assumed that he would run right past me, but he stopped briefly on the sidewalk, gave me a double index finger point, winked, and then said, “He is risen!” and then he kept running.
He said, “He is risen!” like it was a joke.
When the event of the resurrection comes upon us, like it did Paul, when we are encountered by the living God, raised from the dead at Easter, our world is rocked and we are changed forever.
It’s no joke. The resurrection is a reminder that we can never go back the same way we came. Those three words are the beginning of God’s in-breaking in the world, they are the witness to God’s unending love, they are nothing short of grace.
Easter is world shattering. It is deeply disruptive. It changes everything, now. Easter is the totality of the Good News. The story of the empty tomb is what radically reshaped Paul’s life, and, hopefully, it’s what has reshaped ours as well.
On Easter we celebrate the great power and mercy of God. In Easter we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of life. On Easter God transformed the tomb the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb; God made a way where there was no way. On Easter God changed the world.
And all it took was three words.
So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and in the cup. Listen for the truth of salvation in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Witness the power of Easter in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear the three most important words you will ever hear: He is risen!
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”
The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.
Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.
On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.
In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).
So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.
In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!
That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.
Where’s the freedom in that?
And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.
Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.
And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.
This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.
Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.
The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.
The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”
Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.
Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.
For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.
All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.
And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.
We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.
Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.
No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.
And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.
As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.
Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.
We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.
And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.
Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Months ago, while I was planning all of our worship services for the year ahead, I read this text from Galatians for the last Sunday of May and I thought it was perfect. I knew that Lindsey was pregnant and that, if the timing worked out, this would be the first Sunday and opportunity to preach after the birth of our son. All of you would have listened to other preachers for four weeks, and then I would be standing up here proclaiming God’s faithful Word from Galatians.
The text is so fitting for today because Paul, having worked with the Galatian churches for some time, has been absent from the community and catches wind about their lack of faithfulness. Perhaps after the community listened to a group of different preachers for four Sundays in a row, Paul felt inclined to write to them about the true gospel.
Now, keep in mind, most of Paul’s letters are filled with elevated language complimenting the community from the conception. Galatians begins in a very different way. Far from kind and pastoral, Paul’s tone is irritated and cranky. Paul whips through the customary pleasantries and gets right to the point: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel!”
So, here we are. I’ve been gone for about a month. I tried to keep away from my phone and email, I even attempted to avoid driving near the church on Sunday mornings, but I’ve heard through the grapevine about what’s really taken place. Our District Superintendent had the nerve to break four of his ribs shortly before preaching and called upon Larry Kreamer to fill in as best he good. Chris Markham had the nerve to get up here in the pulpit and preach about Mary Magdalene, calling all of us to recognize how quickly we lift proverbial stones to cast at one another, in particular toward people of a different sexual identity. Rick Maryman had the nerve to boldly call the church to remember the role of the Holy Spirit and never lose sight of the importance of Pentecost. And then Eric Fitzgerald stood up here last week and talked about how God’s ways are not our ways, and that there really is a time for everything; whether we recognize it or not.
I can’t believe it! I’ve only been gone four weeks and you all have fallen away from the gospel. You’ve listened to those who would rather distort the gospel of Jesus Christ and who offered something contrary to what has been offered previously! I knew I needed to pray for you in my absence but I didn’t know I needed to pray that much!
Of course, I am only joking. I am grateful for the witness and willingness of our gifted laity who faithfully proclaimed the gospel over the last four Sundays. It brings me a sense of peace that words cannot describe to know that, unlike the Galatians, all of you have held fast to the Good News and have continued to be servants of Jesus Christ.
For the sermon today, I decided to write a letter in the vein of Paul. Though instead of writing it to a wayward church in Galatia, I wrote it to my son Elijah. This passage is one that is easy to avoid, after all we’re reading a letter meant for somebody else’s church. We can write it off as a personal matter between Paul and the Galatians – except for the fact that this is God’s Word for us. Similarly, it is my hope that in the words I have written for my son, you will hear God speaking to you as well.
You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. You mother and I eagerly awaited your arrival, we prepared by purchasing everything we thought we could possibly need, we read books on how to raise a child, we sought out advice from friends, family, and at times even strangers. You are the first grandson in the family, and in your short month of life, your grandparents have become completely obsessed with you.
And more than the family, there is an entire community who knows nothing about you other than your existence, and yet you are loved. Preschoolers from the church have bombarded me with questions about you, and what you look like, and how you’re sleeping, and a slew of other inquiries. Members from the church have flooded my email inbox wanting to know if we need anything to take care of you. And for as long as we’ve known that you were joining our family, the entire community has lifted you up in prayer.
You are loved beyond your ability to comprehend. But more than this church, and even more than your parents, God loves you with reckless abandon.
Over the years you will come to know more about God’s unending love through the stories of scripture that will be shared in worship. You will hear about God’s creative majesty in the foundation of the world, God’s calling of the people Israel to a new beginning, God’s persistence when the people fell away from the path, and even God’s grace made manifest in a manger.
In time you will experience the power and might of Jesus Christ. God in the flesh, born in a humble abode, who walked the roads of life with friends and strangers, healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, broke the law, fulfilled the scriptures, died on a cross, and rose from the grave.
Elijah, the church will strive to share with you the radical message of Jesus Christ in such a way that it transforms your life forever. The people in the pews will gather you in, proclaim God’s Word, respond to it, and send you forth week after week to be Christ’s body for the world. No small task.
And Elijah, you will live and move and have your being in a world that few of us can even imagine…
As you become the person God is calling you to be, you will live in a world where the church is no longer the status quo for everyone. Christianity as Christendom has fallen away. You will be judged for your strange faith, rather than commended as many of us once were.
You will live in a world where homosexuality is normative. You will encounter couples that have otherwise been called incompatible with Christian teaching, but for you they will be perfectly compatible with Christian teaching. You will interact with people from such a wide plethora of diversity that you will want the world to be the mosaic it is, rather than hoping for birds of a feather to flock together.
Sadly, you will never know what it means to live into the mystery of life and faith. There will always be an answer for every one of your questions at just the click of a button. You will have to work harder to experience the profound wonder of God’s presence because you will rarely have to struggle for clarity.
And, I’m sad to say, you will never know of a life prior to September 11th. You will grow up in a world cowering in fear to the seemingly endless threat of international and domestic terrorism. You will be raised with the words Jesus gave to his disciples about striving for peace, while countless men and women are called to give their lives for the freedoms we hold so dear. Son, the world we live in is broken; we often succumb to the power of sin that pushes us to believe that violence and power control our destinies, and that death carries a strong sting.
Elijah, in time you will struggle and wrestle between the call of competing narratives and gospels that vie for your allegiance. Even though your mother and I, and your friends, and the church will do everything we can to hold fast to the gospel that was shared with us, at some point you will fall away. Whether through doubt, disillusionment, or some other reason, there will come a time when you will grow frustrated with this thing called church.
Elijah, it might happen when you start to understand the pressure that is constantly placed on churches to increase attendance, to raise the budget, to fill the pews, to do whatever it takes to improve the market share. You will see how many of us care more about being nice, or funny, or unassuming, that we make the church more about us than about God.
And on the other side, you will meet people who subvert the gospel to mean whatever they want it to mean; people who will use scripture like a weapon to attack others for their way of life and it will leave you feeling frustrated.
But Elijah, I want you to try to remember one thing: Jesus is Lord, and everything else is secondary.
Wherever you are led throughout your life, wherever the Spirit calls you to go, you will encounter Christians at both ends of the spectrum. Christians who will do whatever it takes, even at the expense of watering down the gospel, to make it as appealing as possible. And Christians who will take up the bible like a sword to mow down their enemies.
But Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned seeking the approval of his fellow human beings. He did not belittle the immense and profound qualities of God’s love to being something easy and trite. Jesus pushed his followers into uncomfortable arenas of love and respect in order to transform the world.
And at the same time Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, was not concerned with attacking people for their differences and ostracizing them from the community. He did not use scripture to condemn the world. Instead, Jesus went out to the people that most of us would rather ignore and he told them that they deserved to be loved just as much as anyone else.
Elijah, God’s love in Jesus Christ is a mystery. Thanks be to God that there is not an easy and simple answer to that question of faith. Unlike almost everything else you will experience, it cannot be explained at the click of a button. Instead, you can only know the love of God through the table at which the church gathers, through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. Only when God invites you to the table will you begin to enter the light from the darkness. Only in the sharing of communion will the competing narratives and false gospels begin to fade away. Only when you experience this little bit of heaven on earth, will you begin to rejoice in the mystery that is the grace of Jesus Christ.
Elijah, I love you. Your family loves you. The church loves you. But more importantly, God loves you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Prayers for Holy Week:
O Lord, we confess that when we pray before meals, we do so out of habit rather than faith. We look out over out tables filled with food and we forget to remember those for whom such a meal is rare. We feel the presence of our friends and families in the seats next to us and we forget to remember people who are alone. We eat our fill and we are content. God of Life, afflict our comfort in our meals so that we will really remember that all of these gifts come from you. Work in our hearts to remember that whenever we eat, and whenever we drink, we are called to give thanks for the great gift of your Son so that we can be more like him between our meals. Use the bread and cups of our tables to make us appreciate the Bread and the Cup at your table. Amen.
Great God, why did Jesus have to die on a cross? Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people? What will happen to us when we die? Where are you in the midst of the suffering in our lives and in the world? We ask questions like this, O God, because we want explanations. We see our churches like courtrooms and we want to hear your justification. We believe that we are entitled to know the ‘why?’ to every question we could possibly ask. So Lord, replace our selfish desires for explanation with ears to hear proclamation. That instead of looking for the meaning behind every little thing, we might be content with giving thanks for what you have done whether we can understand it or not. After all, how could we possibly comprehend, with our finite minds, the infinite wonder of your grace? Amen.
God of Grace and God of Glory, we give thanks to you for you are good, and your steadfast love endures forever. We remember this day that you have not abandoned us to our own devices, you have not abandoned us in the midst of trials and tribulations, and you have not abandoned us in death. Through the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ, we see a glimpse of our future resurrection with you in the new kingdom. So Lord, as we gather with friends and strangers alike to celebrate your victory over death in Jesus, give us glad and generous hearts to rejoice in the knowledge that your love truly knows no bounds. Shake our sensibilities like you shook the earth when the tomb was opened. And resurrect us here and now to walk in the ways of Jesus and transform the world. Amen.
2 Corinthians 4.5
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.
Have you ever listened to someone discuss a topic only to realize that you learned more about the speaker than you did about the subject?
There were many times in college that I would leave a lecture knowing more about my professor’s interpretation of an event than I did the actual event. Similarly, there have been church services that taught me more about what the pastor was doing in his/her life than what I should be doing to live out God’s Word in mine. The temptation, for all of us, is to point at ourselves rather than the subject at hand.
Brian Williams, the anchor for NBC’s Nightly News, recently fell into controversy regarding comments he made about his experiences during the US invasion of Iraq. Williams stated that he was on an helicopter that was hit by an RPG and forced to land. However, reports have subsequently come to light that call his memory into question; a flight engineer who was on board one of three helicopters that were hit, reported that William’s helicopter arrived at the scene nearly an hour later to interview the crew members about the attack.
In the days that followed William’s false report, he has been scrutinized by a number of media outlets and veterans about his claims. He has taken a leave from his regular Nightly News broadcast, and executives from NBC have announced there would be an internal investigation into William’s reports on Iraq and other issues. Moreover, debates are taking place regarding whether or not he will be replaced in relation to his newscast.
When we share information with our friends and family about issues facing the world, there is a strong temptation to point at our relation to the subject rather than the subject itself. Instead of talking about the issue of poverty we talk about how we have interacted with people begging on the streets. Instead of talking about what we can do to help our education system, we share stories about what we experienced in school. Instead of talking about what Jesus did for us, we talk about the many ways we are living out our Christianity on a regular basis.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth as a reminder about who was truly at the center of the church: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” As Christians, we are called to the same proclamation.
When we feel the temptation to point to ourselves and what we have done, Paul helps us to remember to point to Jesus. We can certainly celebrate our accomplishments in our faith journeys, but we are called to serve one another as slaves for Jesus’ sake.
This week, let us point away from ourselves to Christ, and seek new ways to serve those around us.