Devotional – Psalm 86.10

Devotional:

Psalm 86.10

For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

Weekly Devotional Image

Yesterday, while the United Methodist Churches in the Virginia Conference gathered for worship, clergy and lay representatives were at the Hampton Convention Center to hear Bishop Sharma Lewis lead worship. In her sermon she brought together many of the ideas from the weekend of Annual Conference particularly regarding the fact that God is in the business of doing new things. And she concluded with our new ministry focus: “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners, who influence others to serve.”

But there was another line from her sermon that has been playing over and over in my mind more than any other: “Laity, do not say to your Clergy who bring fresh ideas, ‘But we’ve never done it that way before.’”

I count myself blessed that over the last four years St. John’s has largely responded positively to new ideas. Working together with the leadership of the church has resulted in new ministries and ways to serve the community that have allowed us to accomplish God’s will. But just as we embarked into new territory during my time as the pastor, you (and I really mean you) need to continue to have open eyes and open hearts to the new ideas from your new pastor.

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Just because we did something a certain way while I was here does not mean that’s the way you have to do it forever. Frankly, you should probably change almost everything because that would be a better way of allowing the Spirit to move in new and bold ways. And that is what is at the heart of what Bishop Lewis said and at the heart of churches that are currently fruitful; a recognition that new ideas should be embraced because they ultimately come from God.

The psalmist boldly proclaims that God is the one who is great and does wondrous things. Pastors can do good things for their churches, they can help to point to what God is doing in the world, but God is the one doing the things in the world! God is God alone and a church can only be fruitful when it knows and believes that God is the one from whom all blessings flow.

So when you hear about a new idea, whether it comes from your new pastor or even from yourself, know and believe that God is the source of the idea, and prepare yourselves to be surprised by the wondrous majesty of our God who is in the business of doing new things.

I will miss all of you and all of the remarkable things we’ve done together over the last four years, but I am grateful that God will continue to do even more for you in this new chapter of the church’s life.

A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Psalm 100.3

Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

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In a few days United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might have worship and parliamentary deliberations in order to discern the will of God. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, our new(ish) Bishop will address the conference as a whole for the first time, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across the conference. However, there will come a time when we descend into the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sound of their own voice, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

And as I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year by reading through the Book of Reports and praying for our denomination, I felt compelled to write the following reminder for anyone attending conference this year (and frankly for any Christian):

On one of my first Sundays at St. John’s 4 years ago, I sat with the Church Council in the Social Hall for the very first time. We gathered that afternoon in hopes of communing with one another such that we could discern what God was calling us to do together. And I started the meeting with this story…

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this reminder, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your hotel room, fasten it to the front of your book of reports, put it on your name tag, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words while attending Annual Conference. The UMC does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exist to do whatever it takes to keep doors open on Sunday mornings; The UMC exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.

And so, no matter what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling this year for Annual Conference, remember it’s all about God.

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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.

Weekly Devotional Image

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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