Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

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

Weekly Devotional Image

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

“What’s heaven like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A guy was walking down a street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and he began crying out for help. A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment, wrote a prescription, threw it down into the hole and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Reverend, I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me up?” The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church came up and the man yelled, “Please help me. I’m stuck down here and I can’t get out.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “Hey! It’s me down here! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumped right into the hole. The first guy said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” The friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

A relatively recent poll found that better than eight in ten Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. In fact, more than half the people who responded to the poll were strongly convinced that it is one of the major messages of scripture.

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Guess what? It’s not in the bible!

Do you know where it actually comes from? There are hints of the phrase in ancient Greek mythology, but it became popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1736.

And yet, a majority of people in this country believe it is a major aspect of Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus.

Of course, there is some, very small, truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around our dinner tables praying for God to miraculously provide us with food, we’re going to be disappointed. We can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and through things like employment we can afford to provide food for our tables. God helps us because we work to help ourselves.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening to our spouses, nurturing our children, these things result in our lives being better because we have worked for them to be better.

But that pales in comparison to how “God helps those who help themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligation to help others.

Like the woman walking passed the man in the hole, it blinds us from our responsibility toward others and frees us from feeling guilty for how broken the world is outside of our respective bubbles.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves. Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves. Some people, in fact many people, are in holes so deep, with walls so steep, that they can’t climb out without help.

About a year ago, some of the pastors in Staunton got together to talk about ways we could minister to the homeless population in our community. We asked ourselves how our respective churches could work together to help the people that cannot help themselves.

At first we debated the pros and cons of establishing something like a computer lab to help individuals apply for jobs. The thought being that if they found work, they could have an income, and no longer be homeless. We discussed offering weekly classes in reading, mathematics, and financial management at the Valley Mission to teach important skills necessary for breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. But in the end, only after we finally connected with homeless community members in Staunton, we discovered what they really needed were showers and a place to do their laundry.

What we failed to realize was that all the best training and teaching would be meaningless if the individuals arrived to a job interview wearing the same clothes they had been sleeping in for months.

We, the pastors, had walked passed the hole many times and decided how to fix the problem from our vantage point, rather than jumping into the hole in the first place.

The Church, and I mean big “C” Church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to help others with the use of another trite and cliché sentence because God, over and over again, commands his people to take special care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

A cursory scan through the prominent stories of the Old and New testaments leads us to the biblical truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

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In Leviticus, God commands the farmers to not harvest all the way to the edge of the fields. Certain amounts of the produce were supposed to be left for the poor and the immigrant. Instead of consuming it themselves, or selling it for a profit, a portion was to be left for those who were not able to make ends meet or for the strangers in the land.

In another part of the Old Testament, God says that compassion for others is itself a form of worship. There are times when the priest and the religious leaders heaped up sacrifice after sacrifice, they had the perfect worship services with all the right prayers and all the right songs, and God tells them their worship has become lifeless.

            What difference does it make if we show up at a place like this for an hour a week if we ignore the people God tells us to care about the rest of the week?

In the New Testament, Jesus is forever going from town to town and seeks out the last, the least, and the lost. And when he finds them, the sick and the needy, does he say, “God will help you if you help yourself?” When the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, did he command the disciples to tell the hungry 5,000 that God will give them food if they go collect it for themselves?

No. Jesus helps them. He connects with their brokenness and brings healing. He sends the abandoned back to the villages that disowned them, he feeds the hungry out of the abundant grace of God, and he helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been the one down in the pit? Have you ever encountered a moment in your life that felt so suffocating and oppressive that you knew you couldn’t get out of it on your own? Have you lost a job, or a spouse, or a child? Have you received a frightening medical diagnosis, or a horrible tip for the stock market, or a habit that you couldn’t kick?

We can claw all we want, we can plead on our knees with our hands clasped in the air, but sometimes the only way out of the pit is if someone jumps in to help us find the way out.

From where will out help come? We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we see that our help comes from the Lord. The Lord who sends us a friend willing to jump down into the depths of our despair, the Lord who never abandons us even when we feel alone, the Lord who was willing to jump down into the pit of humanity and be born into this fractured world of ours.

That, my friends, is the whole point. We help others who cannot help themselves because God helps us when we cannot help ourselves. God came into the world as a baby in the deep pit of fear and suffering of a couple all alone in the world. God went to the margins of society in Jesus Christ to sink low into the stink of the world and offer hope. God went to the broken families and the battered spouses and the abandoned children and showed the way out. God went to the very depth of death just so that all of us could find the way to salvation.

Tomorrow, some of us who work will not have to because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day set apart to remember the man who led this country through a particularly horrible period of racial injustice. His life, his teachings, his marches, and his protests all bear witness to his willingness to jump into the pit of his people’s suffering, in order to find a way out.

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

If we are serious about following Jesus, it’s going to cost us. It might cause embarrassment, or ridicule, or shame. It might cost us money, or time, or status. But jumping into the pit comes with a cost. Thanks be to God.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 80.3

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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On Sunday mornings I drive to church hours before worship so that I can properly prepare. I always begin in the sanctuary by praying by the altar and then I pray over every single pew. After I feel like have spent enough time with the Lord I will make sure the doors are unlocked and the heat is working before I step up into the pulpit to preach my sermon to an empty sanctuary. I will go through the sermon line by line and make any changes necessary before printing off the final version.

Yesterday morning I was standing in the pulpit and preaching to an empty sanctuary when I heard a soft voice say, “Hello?” My first instinct was to look up in case God was telling me to make a change to the sermon, but it was actually someone who walked into the church through the main office door. When I went to shake his hand in the hallway it was clear that he had been outside for a long time because he had very red cheeks and he kept bringing his hands up to his mouth to blow on his fingers. He explained that he was homeless and was walking down the street when he felt the need to walk into the church. He told me about various life situations that led him to where he currently is and then I invited him in the sanctuary so that we could sit down and talk some more.

I motioned for him to join me in one of the front pews and asked him to continue. But he didn’t. Instead, his eyes rapidly filled with tears and he wept. I sat stunned and unsure if I had said something wrong, and then asked him if everything was okay. He said, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a Christmas tree.”

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What I had neglected to think about was the overwhelming sense of joy that was radiating through our seemingly countless poinsettias and our perfectly adorned and lit Christmas trees; a sense of joy that was in sharp dissonance with what the man has experienced recently.

We talked some more and I learned all about his life, and when it felt like the conversation was coming to an end I asked how I could help him, or how the church could help him. To which he responded, “Honestly, I was just cold and lonely. All I wanted was to warm up and have some company. Thank you.” After that, we prayed together, shook hands, and he left.

This strange season of Advent is one that often leaves us filled with joy, but it can also be a time of deep sorrow. Instead of fondly remembering presents under the tree, we might remember our parents fighting and yelling at one another. Instead of recalling the smells of a delicious Christmas dinner, we might feel suffocated by the sadness of another Christmas without someone we love. Instead of humming the familiar hymns with a twinkle in our eyes, we might not even remember the last time we saw a Christmas tree.

The psalmist cries out: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” O that the Lord would make his face to shine upon all of us through the lights of a Christmas tree, and give us the hope and the joy and the peace we so desperately need this time of year.

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.