Homecoming

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, Luke 4.21-30). Todd is the lead pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including flyover country, James Spader, prophetic calls, wordy words, faithful funerals, re-construction, seasons of refuge, Jurassic Park, wedding requests, unfamiliar preaching, and the condition of our condition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Homecoming

The Restorer of Life

Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that is may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “ A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

In the days when the judges were judging, there was a famine in the land. That’s how this book in the Bible begins. It was a time of political chaos, with the Philistines pressing in on the boundaries of Israel. Sure, the Lord raised up Judges to help guide, shape, and lead the people, but by the time Ruth’s story starts, “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

What a proposition!

And it’s here against the background of nation rising up against nation, leaders failing again and again, and a famine on a massive scale, that scripture tells of a small little domestic tale with three primary people – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. 

This is an ordinary story with ordinary people. It concerns the little hopes and dreams of a few people who easily could’ve been lost to the sands of time, and I think that’s why people gravitate to the story. 

This little book shows what Karl Barth called, “the simplicity and the comprehensiveness of grace.”

Or, to put it another way, Ruth’s story is prophetic.

It is prophetic because it tells the truth of who God is in relation to God’s people.

So here’s the story:

Naomi and her husband are Hebrews from the village of Bethlehem (ever heard of it?). But when the aforementioned famine hits the land, they are forced to leave in search of food. They go into foreign territory where the Moabites lived, and during their time in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. 

And things are good, until they aren’. In short order all of the men are dead. Naomi is left in one of the most vulnerable conditions possible at the time – she is a childless widow with no grandchildren. Naomi believes she has been abandoned by God because of her fate and she has no hope in the world.

Before we jump to the meat of the tale, it is important to rest in the knowledge that this story begins in the dark. That is, the threats of fear, hunger, death, loom large over our people. 

Naomi therefore urges her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab because she will be returning to her homeland. Orpah agrees, and decides to stay. But Ruth, inexplicably, refuses to leave her mother-in-law.

Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, and all that. 

To be clear, this doesn’t make any rational sense! Ruth chooses to align herself with hopelessness. She has every opportunity to seek out any opportunities, but instead she wills to be among those considered the last, the least, the lost, the little, and probably the dead.

The women, Naomi and Ruth, return to the land of Naomi’s people and the famine has ended, but their situation makes it such that they do no have access to the newfound abundance. And yet Ruth, living into her wild recklessness volunteers to enter the fields to glean barley. She takes on the mantel of a beggar with all of the humiliation and danger that it entails.

And then Boaz enters the story. Boaz owns the field from which Ruth seeks out sustenance. He catches her taking what has been left behind by the reapers of the harvest and he orders his men not to stop her and cast her into the darkness, instead he orders her to be protected by his men!

Why? If this were a Netflix series (which, for what’s its worth, this would be a great show), Ruth would be a beautiful young woman who catches Boaz’s wandering eye. But that’s not what scripture tells us. Boaz is not captured by her beauty, but instead by her fidelity, her faithfulness. Ruth wants to know why he is treating her so kindly and Boaz says, “I know what you have done for your mother-in-law, how you left everything you knew to become a stranger in a strange land – may the Lord bless you and keep you.”

Ruth returns to Naomi with her bountiful harvest, with tales of Boaz and when Naomi puts two and two together, she hatches a plan for the future.

“Get dressed up,” she tells Ruth, “and go down to the threshing floor where the men will be eating and drinking. Find out where Boaz lies down and go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down beside him.”

What reckless advice! Sending a young single woman into such an establishment with such instructions! And yet Ruth, as noted, is bold and daring enough on her own. So she agrees to the plan that will eventually shape an entire people.

Boaz, later, having enjoyed the fruit of the vine, lies down to sleep. Time passes and he wakes up to the young woman from the filed uncovering his feet (I’ll let you imagine what that means). The details of what transpire that night are unknown to us save for the fact that Boaz and Ruth get married, and they have a son whom they name Obed (which means worshipper). 

Naomi, now a grandmother, rejoices with the other grandmothers in town as they huddle together taking turns holding this little child. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has given you this gift! May he be to you a restorer of life!”

Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David. The end.

What a story!

And yet, why do we tell it again and again and again? Sure, it can entertain, and it is filled with all the markers of a powerful tale. It’s got intrigue, and mystery, and love, and hope. But why do we dare to proclaim this as God’s Good News for the world?

Well, in part, we tell this story because without it there is no David, the great king of Israel, the one who defeated Goliath and the one who united the people of God.

But we also tell this story because it is a story about us.

At every turn there are choices being made that run counter to the notions of the world. Ruth chooses to remain in a hopeless situation, Boaz chooses to become a redeemer to a foreign beggar, and Ruth and Boaz together become bearers of God’s grace in a world that is otherwise run on violence, selfishness, and greed.

Our world, then and now, is full of famine and death and dereliction and a host of other evils. Often, like for Naomi and Ruth at the beginning, it can feel as if God has abandoned us. But then this story which is our story, reminds us that God’s blessing often come through the simplest, and yet the most profound, means. 

When we reach out in love to help the other, it is the hand of God. 

When we forgive those who have trespassed against us, it is the mercy of God. 

When we are given hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, it is the power of God.

Today, there are still systems that actively reduce people to being among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. The great famines of scripture are made manifest by the powers and principalities that have no regard for our humanity.

And the church can break the mold of the world that continues to run on that devastation of destruction. The prophets, since the beginning, have been those who are willing to care for and reside among the most vulnerable. They did, and do, so because God is in solidarity with the “least of these.” The church has this blessed opportunity to provide a new image of a new community where there is space for everyone, where gifts are cherished, and where systems of oppression are called into question and rendered null and void. 

The church, at her best, is a storied enterprise – that is, she exists because of the story and lives by telling the story – the story of us.

Here’s our story:

Time and time again, we reject that which is offered and given freely by God.

Paradise, rejected for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from the tree. (Creation)

Unified Community, rejected for selfish desires of power. (Babel)

So God set out to make a new people in a new land through Abraham and covenant. It is God’s hope to draw all people into this new people.

But Israel, like us, will have none of it! She is just as rebellious and foolish as we are. She worships at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next. And yet, even in the midst of ruin, Israel receives the very greatest gift of all – God in the flesh. 

Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and full human, becomes all that God ever hoped for from God’s people – the obedient and faithful child, called out of Egypt, the new cornerstone of a new community made possible by peace, grace, and mercy, the Davidic king who exists to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

But we will have none of that either! On a tree in a place called The Skull, we nail God in the flesh, rejecting the elected One. He is buried dead and a tomb – utterly forsaken and abandoned. 

But then, three days later, God gives him back to us. Jesus raises victorious not only over death, but also over all of our prideful attempts to become the center of our own universes.

That is the story that is worth repeating because it is a story that repeats itself. We reject God and God is determined to elect us. We destroy ourselves and God is determined to bring about resurrection. We get all sorts of lost and God is determined to find us over and over again.

In the end, that’s what prophets do – they tell the story, they tell the truth. They open our eyes to who and whose we are. And Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, is, in himself, the story for a people who have no story. 

Therefore, when we read and encounter Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, we do so not as people to emulate literally. Leaving to go be a stranger in a strange land, getting dolled up for the threshing floor, is maybe not the best advice in the world.

And yet, we cannot help from identifying with these people. 

Perhaps you’re like Naomi insofar as you feel like you have been abandoned and that you have no hope in the world. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you would be encouraged to reach out for help, or at the very least, accept the help that might be offered to you by others.

Or perhaps you’re like Ruth insofar as you have a little boldness in you but don’t know where to direct it. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you will take that first step toward someone in your life, and become the hope for them that they so desperately need.

Or perhaps you’re like Boaz insofar as you have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you can open your eyes to the people in your life for whom you can be their restorer of life.

Or perhaps you don’t identify with any of them right now. But chances are, you will someday. That’s the beauty of story, we can return to the same story again and again and discover something new each time we do. 

In the end, we worship an odd God. Consider: God chooses to align things such that Ruth, a foreigner with no hope in the world, became the great-grandmother of the great King David. And, how odd, that in the fullness of time, God chose to take on flesh in that same little town of Bethlehem, through Jesus Christ, the greater restorer of life, the ancestor of Ruth.

All that we are rests on the story found in the strange new world of the Bible. It is a story we recount week after week, year after year, because through it we discover who we are and whose we are. We must tell this story in order to know and to receive the Good News.

Ours is a storied faith.

So, like the prophets before us, like the prophet that is Jesus Christ, let us tell the story. Let us tell the story when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. Let us tell the story when we are received and when we are nowhere believed. Let us tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Amen. 

The Beach Ball of Prophetic Preaching

Four years ago we (Crackers & Grape Juice) had an idea for a new lectionary podcast and we have published an episode every Monday since. Our first guest was Fleming Rutledge and she knocked our socks off (as usual). Today we are reposting that first episode because Fleming’s thoughts and comments are just as relevant today as they were four years ago. In it she talks about what she deems the “current preaching crisis,” the desire to appear prophetic, and the call to stand under the judgment of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Beach Ball of Prophetic Preaching

The Vocative God

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Stanley about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [B] (2 Kings 2.1-12, Psalm 50.1-6, 2 Corinthians 4.3-6, Mark 9.2-9). Jason serves as the co-ordinator for Church Revitalization for the Elizabeth River District of the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pandemic parenting, transfiguring the Transfiguration, Thor of Asgard, real peace, church revitalization, living in the light, the Law and the Prophets, and listening to the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Vocative God

Breaking The Rules

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chris Corbin about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Chris is the Missioner for Leadership Development for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church empowerment, Weird Anglican Twitter, call stories, being needed, prophetic vs. political preaching, wickedness, different translations, salvation history, rule followers, and Jesus as Torah. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Breaking The Rules

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Age Is Just A Number

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.6-7

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

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I was out in my front yard when the two young men wheeled up with their too tight helmets and their too long black skinny ties.

Mormons.

I had seen them around the neighborhood on a number of occasions but always in passing and they never seemed to notice me. But now here we were, standing on the sidewalk when the taller of the two introduced himself and immediately began with, “Excuse me, but do you know Jesus?”

Do I know Jesus?

For a moment I thought about lying, I thought about pretending I had never ever heard of the man, just to see what kind of lecture I was going to receive.

But I was tired, and in no mood to be evangelized. So I simply said, “I sure do, and I tell people about him every Sunday, I’m a pastor.”

The two monochromatically dressed missionaries stared at me in disbelief until the smaller one said, “Gee, I thought pastors had to be old.”

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It has amazed me how much my age in relation to my vocation is brought up on a regular basis. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even look very young. I’m losing my hair and I have a fairly sizable beard. 

And yet, there is this strange expectation that to be involved in the duties of pastoral ministry requires a look of weathering!

When called called Jeremiah to his vocation of being a prophet, Jeremiah promptly responded with doubts about his usefulness precisely because of his age. And God hears none of it: “This isn’t about you or your age or your experience; it’s about what I’m going to do through you!”

Throughout my varied experiences in varied churches there is this limiting belief that God can only call certain kinds of people to certain kinds of tasks. Churches want extraverted people leading worship, but they also wanted introverted people to visit them in the hospital. They want young ministers to help bring in young families, but they want old pastors who can work from experience.

In the church, almost more than anywhere else, age is nothing but a number. Time and time again throughout the Bible God calls upon people regardless of their age, or their experience, or even their talents simply because God is the one who will work through them. 

Do you feel unqualified for something that’s happening in church? Do you believe your abilities might be best suited elsewhere? Has God called you to something that you think is impossible?

These are important questions, but like Jeremiah, we do well to remember that it’s not really about us; it’s about what God can do through us. 

The Dead Faith Of The Living

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, Luke 4.21-30). Our conversation covers a range of topics including profanity from the pulpit, awesome responsibilities, building and destroying, the watching world, fidelity, wedding sermons, playing drums in church, wearing the jersey of the other team, and prophetic humility. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dead Faith Of The Living

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Silence Will Sustain Your Marriage – A Wedding Homily

1 Kings 19.9-13

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

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Let’s get a few things out of the way. You two, are without a doubt, the coolest couple I know. You’re hip, and fun, and just the right amount of edgy. You eat at really awesome restaurants, you spin the best vinyl, and you both often dress the way the rest of us will five years down the road.

I know this is especially true for you Parker. Because, though we’ve known each other since elementary school, when we played house league basketball and you ran around with your bowl haircut, it was in middle school that you began wearing girl jeans, white belts, and black skinny ties. That might sound a little ubiquitous now, but I promise you were the only one in our school who dressed like that.

Liz, I cannot speak to your sartorial habits from your youth, but I can affirm that you’re sense of wonder, in particular regarding the literary world, is cooler than a cucumber. Back after my own wedding, when you and Parker were visiting us, I was trying to brag about how well read we were as a couple, when you asked if I had read anything from Elena Ferrante. And, not only had I not read anything, I hadn’t even heard of her. And then when I expressed an interest in learning more, you simply left me a your own copy without even waiting to see my reaction.

You two are too cool.

And, in addition to being cool, you two have got to be the best gift-givers I’ve ever known. Parker, you sent me a framed business card from Elvin Jones when I got ordained. For those of you who are uninformed, Elvin Jones was the greatest American Jazz drummer of the post-bop era, and he played with Coltrane. When our son Elijah was born you two sent us his very first vinyl record, and a vintage copy of a recording of Elijah Rock. And you’ve never come to see us without bringing an assortment of toys for our dog Tennessee.

And that’s just a sampling of what you’ve showered me with! I am positive that if we took the time, most of the people here would be able to share similar stories of your gracious gift-giving abilities.

You two are cool, you care very deeply for the people in your lives, and just as you have given so much to all of us, now you come here to this place, at this time, to give yourselves to each other.

James Baldwin wrote about his discovery of love being the key to life while in the midst of starving.

This is no accident.

There is something about absence that draws us to existence. In our weakness we are bound together in ways we can scarcely imagine, both as individuals, and as entire communities. And it was through Baldwin’s hunger that he discovered the overwhelmingly transformative power of love.

Baldwin, of course, is most known for his writing on race and identity, his work “The Fire Next Time” still haunts me to this day, but the selection from Baldwin you chose for your wedding, I believe is indicative of his entire work. It was a profound love for humanity that compelled Baldwin to speak so candidly about her failures. It was in the recognition of our shackles to one another, and our freedom from one another, that he experienced the mystery of glory.

There are few things more glorious in this world than two people making the profound covenant that you two are about to make. In your words, in your prayers, in your promises you will enter into that mysterious state that both confounded and excited Baldwin, this paradox in which your bondage will mean your liberation.

It is just as Rilke says, if you learn to love the expanse between you, if you learn to accept and cherish the paradox we call marriage, then you will experience the impossible possibility of see each other as a whole AND before an immense sky.

Your relationship began over a shared love of books; both evidenced in the readings your chose for your wedding and your gift giving. Though, as many of us know, Parker you did everything in your power to learn as much about what Liz liked, including books, just so you could keep talking to her. And in case anyone here doesn’t know, Liz slept through the first date.

But you both kept trying; you took steps closer to one another with your intellectual curiosities and you took steps away with your own experiences. You ventured out to new and strange places together, and then back to places of comfort and familiarity. And that give and take, the binding and the liberating, is what eventually brought you right here.

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Parker, you are an extremely grounded person, almost to a fault, and I am grateful that Liz keeps you comfortably off the ground. She pushes you and challenges you in ways that would make Baldwin proud, and she loves how dedicated you are to others.

Liz, you bring a sense of wonder to your relationship that is truly wonderful. You seek out new adventures, embrace creative moments, and you excel at being in the moment. I am grateful that in Parker you found a partner who both affirms your beautiful brain and can make you laugh better than anyone else, except for maybe Lenny Bruce.

A few weeks ago, the three of us were talking and I asked both of you to consider what you think marriage actually is. I challenged you to create your own working definition of what marriage could be and this is what you said: Marriage is bringing new worlds to each other.

I like that. I like it a lot in fact. Because that’s precisely what God brings to us.

In the story of Elijah we discover the strange new world of God’s reign. Elijah is afraid, he is in fact running for his life when he comes to the cave, when he hears the probing question from the Lord, “What are you doing here?” God promises to be present for the prophet, and from the safety of the cave Elijah experiences the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and even the silence. But God is not in any of those things, not even in the silence.

However, it is only in the silence that Elijah is able to hear the question for the second time, and truly began to ponder his answer, “What are you doing here?”

When I asked you two if you wanted anything particular to happen during this wedding celebration, you said silence. How perfect! In a world hell bent of berating us with sounds and words and arguments, you wanted time to shut up and listen. You wanted the silence in order to appreciate the sacredness of this moment, so as to not give yourselves over to the ways of the world.

Silence is rare in God’s scripture, but silence is not absence. Silence is often the perquisite for the most profound discoveries we could ever hope to experience. It is in the silence before the first note of a song that we enter into the strange new world of anticipation, it is in the silence shared between two friends that sets them forth on a path to the strange new world of a relationship, and it is in the silence shared between all of us right now that God asks the most important question of the strange new world you two are about to embark upon, “What are you doing here?”

Shutting up might just be the thing that sustains you in your marriage.

But, it’s not just about being silent so that the other can speak and you can appropriately listen, it’s about shutting off all the noise under which we are suffocating. Silence is the beauty of self-reflection that allows us to see who we really are in order to give ourselves to the other. Without silence, we are just clanging cymbals making noise in the void.

In your marriage built on silence, you will find speckles of the divine in the other. Those speckles will shine forth in intimate moments shared in the silence of your apartment, in the rare silence of a subway ride, in the silence shared during a meal, and even in the silence as you prepare to fall asleep in your shared bed.

Silence might just sustain your marriage.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? That’s okay. In the backyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.

I don’t know if everyone knows this, but we are gathered in the middle of a labyrinth. Christians have been using abyrinths for at least 1,000 years as a way to experience the divine. The journey to the middle of the maze is one marked by contemplation, reflection, and silence. It is a journey to a new world, one in which you can’t imagine, one in which without silence becomes meaningless.

It is therefore perhaps the most appropriate place to have a wedding. You two are preparing to embark on a long journey to the center of the labyrinth we call marriage. It will be filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the silence of your journey you will find each other, and God will find you.

God always find us.

When Elijah stepped forth out of the cave, the stench of burning wood was still in the air, the boulders were crumbled into rocks, and the trees were split in two. The silence after the dramatic allowed him to really hear the question, “What are you doing here?”

And here we are, millennia later, and God is asking both of you the same question.

I’d like you both to look out at everyone gathered for just a moment. Their presence is an answer to God’s question. They are here because they believe in the impossible possibility of your marriage. They see in you what you have discovered in one another, and it will be through their hopes and dreams and prayers that your promise will be sustained in times of drama and in times of silence.

But at the end of the day, marriage is a mystery. It is like the paradox of being bound together and simultaneously being set free. It is like an empty tomb that stands a stark declaration about the defeated power of death. It is like the labyrinth in which we stand. It’s only something we can figure out while we figure it out.

Marriage is like the mystery of new worlds joining together.

So, my friends, it is my hope and prayer that you two recognize how profoundly mysterious your marriage will be, that you will cherish the moments of deep silence, and that you rejoice in the strange new worlds you are bringing to each other, and the strange new world that God has brought to you. Amen.

Devotional – Ezekiel 2.3

Ezekiel 2.3

He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.

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God loves to send people where they least expect. Moses was shepherding when God spoke to him through the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt in order to lead the people out of captivity. Jonah was minding his own business when the Lord told him to go to Nineveh. Paul was in the middle of his campaign against the early Christians when God told him to go see Ananias in Damascus.

In the United Methodist Church pastors are appointed (sent) to serve different churches. Rather than being interviewed and examined by every individual placement, a bishop (and cabinet) discern God’s will and send pastors accordingly. This style of appointments allows for churches to be challenged by their pastors (and pastors by their churches) because neither of them have a choice in the matter. Yet, I can’t help but imagine that some UM pastors feel like they are being sent to “a nation of rebels” whenever they are reappointed.

Yesterday marked the completion of my second year serving the needs of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, Virginia. I can still recall the first phone call I received detailing my appointment, and I will freely admit they I felt a little uncomfortable about where I was being sent. After all, I knew nothing about the town, the people, or the church.

I can also recall the feeling in the pit of my stomach two years ago when I approached the pulpit to preach for the first time (Between the nerves and the excitement we were lucky that I even made it through a sermon at all). I looked out from my vantage point and saw the people of God gathered together to hear the Word and respond accordingly. To this day I still thank God for blessing us with the Holy Spirit that morning who allowed us to listen, laugh, and love.

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In the beginning of my time at St. John’s I foolishly thought I was bringing something to the church that they previously lacked. I believed that I was the one who could turn the ship around. I expected that I would grow the church, have us start paying our apportionments (in full), and preach in the midst of the rebels. For a time I thought I could be the savior.

I quickly realized that my expectations were way off. Instead of being a prophet sent to the rebels, I myself was a rebel in the midst of rebels. To believe that I could save the church meant that I was putting faith in myself, rather than the Lord. To believe that I had the power to make the church start paying its apportionments meant that I did not trust God to provide. To believe that I could be the savior meant that I forgot that only Jesus is our savior.

If we have done anything to please the Lord over the last two years, it has only come because God gave us the power to do so, and only secondarily because of us (me).

We are all called to go and be Christ’s body for the world in different ways, but it is vitally important for us to remember that we have just as much to learn as we have to teach; that no matter where God’s sends us, we will be transformed just as much as we transform others; and that in the end Jesus is Lord, and we are not.

This week, let us reflect on the places the Lord has sent us to be Christ’s body, and on the people who have been sent to be Christ’s body for us.

Confronting Conflict – Sermon on Isaiah 6.1-8

Isaiah 6.1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Then seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

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Tell me about your last fight.” So began one of my recent premarital counseling sessions. The couple danced around the question for a few moments, claiming they couldn’t remember the last time they had a fight, but when I started to ask more specific questions the answers started pouring out. Their conflict could be boiled down to a lack of communication, and when I sat there with them I saw them begin to share things with one another for the very first time. Before we went on, I couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why haven’t you talked about this stuff before?”

The woman sat in my office with her head hung low. It took her a few minutes to muster the courage to begin telling her story, and when she started it came out like the floodgates were opening. She felt invisible to her husband, no matter what she did, he would brush it off and continue to focus on the task before him. She was afraid that she had done something wrong and didn’t know where else to turn so she came to me. We talked together about her situation, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “Why hasn’t she told her husband how he makes her feel?

We were sitting on the edge of a property in West Virginia after nearly a week on our mission trip. The young boy was from a different church, but I could tell something had sent him over the edge. His tears fell slowly and deliberately as he confided in me about his struggles. He could not longer stand being treated like an infant or a child. He had important ideas and things to share but everyone brushed him aside instead of treating him with worth. Rather than being supported in his discipled journey, he felt like he was all alone and he was worried. I listened, but I also knew that when the end of the trip arrived he would be going home to a different community and a different church so I asked, “Is there someone from home that you can share all of this with?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m afraid.

In each of your bulletins you will find a piece of paper about the size of an index card and I would like you to hold it in your hand. We’re going to have some time for silence, and during that time I want everyone to write down the name of one person that you are currently in conflict with.

Maybe your mother-in-law has been driving you crazy with her relentless need to tell you how to raise your family. Perhaps your boss continues to heed your advice, but then takes all the credit when things go right. Maybe your son has made some poor choices and you can’t remember the last time you had a decent conversation about anything. Perhaps one of your best friends is letting their backwards political opinions isolate them from what it means to be a decent human being. Maybe your pastor has been preaching all sorts of sermons that you definitely do not agree with.

So take a moment, and write down a name. No one will see it but you. When you’ve finished, I want you to hold the card in your hand for the rest of the sermon.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. God encountered the soon-to-be prophet in the midst of something important. Uzziah was an arrogant ruler, and his arrogance led to his death. Even though his reign brought economic prosperity, he neglected to respect the temple and the worship of God. It was at this particular time, in the wake of Uzziah’s death that Isaiah was called to speak.

The call is frightening. The Lord is high and lofty with the hem of his robe filling up the entirety of the temple. Seraphs, winged creatures, were flying above the Lord, each with six wings. One of them called out to another and declared, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Everything around Isaiah began to shake and tremble and the room filled with smoke. Only then does Isaiah muster up the courage to say anything at all, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Isaiah was confronted with the utter and radical holiness of the Lord. With wind spinning, floors shaking, and voices trembling, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. Have you ever felt unworthy when confronted by something greater than yourself?

When I saw my wife Lindsey walking down the aisle at my home church to meet me at the altar for the covenant of marriage, I felt completely unworthy. When I held Archer and Abram Pattie in my arms above the baptismal font and brought them into the fold of God’s kingdom, I felt completely unworthy. Every month when I serve communion here at the front of the church, I am met with eyes of Christians who have lived far more faithfully than I ever will, and I feel completely unworthy.

God’s majesty, whether through the beauty of creation, a call vision, or the people in our lives often leaves us feeling pretty feeble. When we discover the divine we can only feel that much more mortal. When we encounter the infinite, we are reminded of our finitude. When we meet the living God, we can’t help but wonder about the lives that he gave to us.

God’s call is frightening. God calls the young and old, men and women, to abandon their former and sinful ways to live fully in Christ. God called a young prophet to speak harsh truths to a community that had grown far too complacent. God continues to call all of his children to be prophetic with our words and our actions.

The call is frightening and scary enough. But when we respond, when we answer the call, the real trouble begins.

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Then one of the seraphs flying high above the Lord came down to Isaiah with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with the burning coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah was dramatically changed through his encounter. The flaming coal not only cleansed him, but it also gave the him the power to speak on behalf of the Lord. In a matter of moments he went from crying out, “Woe is me! I am lost” to “Here am I; send me!

This whole story about Isaiah’s call is a lot like what we do in worship. We come together to praise the almighty God, we pray and confess our unworthiness, and then seek forgiveness. We pray for God to give us the grace and strength to hear the Word with faith so that we can respond accordingly.

How we worship matters because it shapes us into the disciples we are called to be. Every Sunday is like Isaiah’s call. We meet the Lord in the words from scriptures, prayers, hymns, and our brothers and sisters. Through that encounter we are called to live out our faith as soon as we depart in a way that will make God’s kingdom reign. All of these things that we do on a weekly basis, they are done to attune us to the voice of God who speaks into our lives.

Isaiah’s call, this dramatic and overpowering moment in the temple, reminds us that when we encounter the living God, there is not way to know God without being changed. Like a coal coming from the altar to our lips, we are tasked with speaking words like fire. Like a frightened prophet we are given the power to cry out “Here am I; send me!

The prophet was called to speak during a particular time, to sinners in the midst of sin. If we hear something from God’s Word today it should be a similar call. We should not be afraid to names the sins of our time, just as Isaiah did when he confronted the people’s political arrogance, spiritual pride, and economic injustice.

Abraham had to confront the Lord who promised to make his descendants more numerous than the stars. Jacob had to confront his twin brother Esau who sought to kill him for stealing his blessing. David had to confront King Saul who was jealous of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah had to confront a people who neglected to thank God for being the source of all their blessings. Jesus had to confront a religious elite who no longer practiced what they preached. Peter had to confront the gentiles and welcome them into the fold of the church. Paul had to confront his own sinfulness and call others to do the same.

Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront the conflict in their lives. To be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love. To be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong. To follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

What situation are you in right now that God is calling you to confront? I believe the holy Lord of hosts is personally addressing each and every one of us in the scripture today. Who do we need to call out? Where are the conflicts in our lives?

In each of our hands we have a name that represents a conflict in our life. Some of them can be confronted with a phone call or a conversation. Some of them can be confronted with our willingness to forgive a wrong that was done toward us. Some of them can be confronted with the simplest of gestures.

It might not go well. If we take the first step to confront one of our conflicts, it might blow up in our faces. But the longer we let these names stay on paper, the longer the conflict will keep us from fully living out our identities as disciples. The longer we let the conflict simmer, the longer we will be people of unclean lips living amidst unclean lips. The longer the conflicts remain, the harder it will be to hear the living God speaking into our lives.

The voice of the Lord is saying to all of us, “Whom shall we send, who will go for us to confront the conflict?” Our answer should be the same as Isaiah’s, “Here am I, send me!” Amen.

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