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.

st-peter-pearly-gates

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?”

Advertisements

Devotional – 1 Kings 3.5

Devotional:

1 Kings 3.5

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

When I go on mission trips, I love asking youth a familiar set of questions. For instance: After a few days of cold-cut sandwiches for lunch at our work sites, I always ask them to share what would be their ideal meal. In a matter on minutes, strangers become best friends over their intense bonds with the likes of Gummi Bears, Big Macs, Snickers Ice Cream Bars, etc.

Occasionally I will ask them to share their favorite movie or book, and I always wind up asking about their favorite story from the bible. The questions are a mechanism by which conversations will begin to flow, but it also helps to create friendships over shared interests with people that never imagined they could be friends.

A few weeks ago while I was serving with a mission team in McDowell County, WV I asked the group one of my go-to questions: “If a Genie offered to grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” Some of the answers were hysterical: “I would ask for a swimming pool full of chocolate syrup” “Definitely a basketball court as my bedroom” and “french fries; lots and lots of french fries.” The question got the conversation flowing and we all began to debate the merits of our particular wishes compared with the wishes of our peers.

genie

Later on that afternoon, while we were cleaning up our tools before heading back to our main site, one of the younger boys from my crew approached me with a strange look on his face. He stood next to me for what felt like a long time before he finally spoke. “I’ve been thinking about your question, you know the one about the Genie, and I finally got my answer: I would wish to be more patient.” In all the quick responses to the initial Genie question, I neglected to ask this young man what he would wish for, and when he finally shared his answer, it hit me deep in my soul.

After his father David died, Solomon was approached by the Lord and was offered anything he wanted. Solomon, though given the opportunity to request anything in the world, asked for wisdom. That young boy on the mission trip, rather than being led by selfish desires for wealth and power, told me that what he really wanted was patience.

When we go to God in prayer, what do we ask for? Are we treating God like a Genie who will give us our greatest wishes? Or are we seeking the Lord’s power to help shape us into the disciples God knows we can be?

Living in Harmony – Sermon on Romans 12.9-18

We tried something different in church this week. Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

get_to_know_your_audience

Living in Harmony

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversation during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
  2. Ask everyone to share their name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions to ask of the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask them to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen. 

Screen-shot-2012-09-28-at-12.39.31-PM1

Homily:

I have wanted to do this activity since I arrived at St. John’s. We do such a good job at welcoming and connecting with one another on Sunday mornings, and during other church activities, but I’m not sure how well we really know one another.

I once knew a man who said the loneliest times in his life occurred at 11am every Sunday morning when he was sitting in our packed sanctuary. For years he was a regular worshipper, and for year no one bothered to reach out; no one knew his name, where he was from, or what was going on in his life. Ever since I was appointed here I thought about breaking us into groups to combat the exact type of loneliness that man described.

I waited and waited and then last week something happened that made me realize how desperately we needed to do what we just did.

Our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man began to cry. He said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future. These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.

I don’t want to be part of a church that does not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I don’t want our sanctuary to be the loneliest place on Sunday mornings. We did not ask and answer the questions today to just learn superficial facts about one another; we did so with the hope that these facts would spark new and lasting relationships. This church should be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness. Amen.

 

Actions > Words – Sermon on Mark 1.14-20

Mark 1.14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fisherman. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

montana-fly-fishing-3

When did I last share my faith with someone?” The paper with the question stretched across my lap in the parlor. I had been meeting with a discipleship circle once a month for a year. Our typical routine is to gather, celebrate communion together, engage in a short devotional, and then ask some of the traditional Wesleyan questions as a group. For instance one of the questions is: “Do I pray about the money I spend?” We would then take turns going around in a circle and answering the question honestly, and practice being vulnerable as we seek to grow in love of God and neighbor.

The evening began with a simpler question: “Did the bible live in me today?” Some of the answers were beautiful, some were simple, and others stretched the definition of living out God’s Word. But then it was my turn to draw one of the random questions from the bag, and I read the words out slowly and deliberately: “When did I last share my faith with someone?” All eyes in the room fell on me to answer the question.

To be honest: I hate that question. I hate how Christians have overemphasized the importance of evangelism to the point of events such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. I hate how sharing faith has been boiled down into trying to make other people into Christians. I hate the flyers I find in public bathrooms, and the desperate pleas for people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior or face eternal damnation. Yet, there I sat and it was my turn to respond.

I began: “I last shared my faith on Sunday when I was speaking from the pulpit. We had a number of people here in worship and as I preached, I shared my faith.” The room was silent, and it was clear my answer did not satisfy the group. “That doesn’t count” one of them muttered, “answer it truthfully.

I shivered and felt ashamed because I realized that I could not remember the last time I shared my faith outside the context of serving as a pastor.

Following Jesus means sacrifice and bringing others to him. Simon and Andrew were in the middle of fishing, participating in their careers, when Jesus called them to fish for people. They left their nets, which is to say they left their ways of life, to follow this strange and compelling man. So too, James and John were mending their nets when Jesus called them to follow and they left it all behind. The life of discipleship for them, and for us, is not easy; it requires a commitment unlike anything else, and it will cost us our very lives. 

As I sat before my friends and peers with the question weighing heavily upon me, I began to wonder: If I believe Jesus is the light of the world, that God is the author of salvation, that the Holy Spirit gives me life, then why am I so afraid to share that with others?

I left the meeting that night with a heavy heart. The conversation had moved to a new direction but I kept replaying the question in my head over and over again. Had I grown content with just assuming that people will keep showing up to church on Sunday mornings? Or am I willing to be a fisher for people?

I made a promise to myself in the car that night: For the next two weeks I was going to take nothing for granted and I was going to explore fishing for people; I was going to share my faith with others.

Mcdonalds-90s-logo.svg

Two days later I was sitting in a McDonalds in Orange, VA. I had wandered around in the cold while Lindsey was busy with a visit and decided to warm myself up under the glow of the golden arches. The place was packed. Friends and families took up the majority of the seating, and though I wanted to just grab my soda and sit alone with a book, I remembered the promise I made and began searching the joint. Near a television that was showing reports on CNN I discovered a middle aged man sitting all alone with a Big Mac, fries, and an extra large Coke. I sat down beside him, and though I felt the Holy Spirit pushing me to speak with him, I couldn’t figure out where to start. A few awkward moments passed until I blurted out, “How’s your dinner?” The man slowly looked up from his food and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s McDonalds” he said, as if returning my question with a question. Again, I was at a loss for what to do next, but he decided to pick up the conversation. He motioned toward the television:

“What do you make of all these terrorist attacks in Europe?”

“I think it’s terrible, and I will never understand how people believe that death can accomplish what they want.”

“If we catch them, how do you think they should be punished?”

“I guess they should be charged, and put in prison if found guilty. Maybe they’ll even turn their lives around.”

“If I had it my way, I’d string ‘em up in the center of town for everyone to see while they suffer and are killed for what they’ve done.”

At this point I should have just stopped talking and gone back to my book, but I couldn’t help myself. I should have at least thought about what I was about to say, before I said it:

“You know, a group of people once hung a man on a tree to die for a crime that he did not commit, just so everyone could witness his suffering.”

“Oh really? Who was that?”

His name was Jesus.

The rest of our time together at McDonalds was filled with silence. Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

This is the view from an airplane.

Later that night I was in line to board an airplane with Lindsey as we were preparing to make our way to visit her parents in Florida. Due to an oversight with the airline, they overbooked our flight and bumped one of us to first class. I pleaded with my wife to take the ticket, to enjoy the flight from the comfort of high society, but (like the true disciple she is) she insisted that I take the upgrade and stretch out my legs.

I had never been in first class before and was excited and nervous about the experience. When I found my seat I discovered that I would be sitting next to a man who was already watching an episode of South Park on the screen in front of him, jovially chuckling to himself. I got comfortable, and while the rest of the common people were entering the plane, a stewardess came by to take our drink order. I said that I was fine and went back to my book when my seat-mate looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Son, getting a drink is the best part of flying first class!” and proceeded to order a Jack-and-Coke.

Four Jack-and-Cokes later we were in the air and I had my laptop open and my bible in my lap when the man leaned over to talk. I thought, “this time the person is coming to me” and I quickly prayed that God might give me something to say.

“What are you working on?”

“It’s a sermon for Sunday; I’m a pastor.”

“Well then, what are you reading?”

“It’s the Bible?”

“What do you think of it? Any good?” (Like he was asking about a John Grisham novel)

It’s the living Word of God for the people of God.

He paused and looked as if he was trying to figure out if I was serious or not, and slowly brought his headphones back to his ear, and drink to his mouth.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes people aren’t in a place to hear it and respond.

monkimage.php

Lindsey wasn’t feeling well when we returned from Florida so we decided to hit the Minute-Clinic at Walmart to find out if she needed a prescription or not. Remembering that she so graciously volunteered for me to ride in First Class, I thought it only appropriate that I drive and stay with her during the appointment. The waiting area was rather crowded, so I saw Lindsey to her seat and decided to sit on a bench outside of the room. I had a book with me and was looking forward to some light reading when I noticed a very disheveled man sitting on the bench all alone.

His mullet was knotted and unkempt. His smell was palpable from a few paces away. His clothes were stained and ill-fitting. His skin was blotchy and unhealthy. And I knew that I needed to share my faith with him. 

Unlike the previous two attempts I did not feel the pressure of the Spirit nagging me to do something, and I did not have a bible with me to spark a conversation, so instead I just decided to be myself, rather than someone else.

I introduced myself and sat down. He kept staring off into the distance, clearly focused on other things and remained unfazed by my presence.

Do you mind if I ask you a question?

He shrugged as if to say “I don’t care”

How are you doing?

He slowly turned his head to look at the stranger sitting next to him and he began to answer the question. I learned about how he and his wife had fallen on hard times and could no longer purchase anything other than food. He shared with me his own personal frustrations with not being able to provide for his family. He talked about how people are so blind to the needs of others in our community because they just assume that everyone is fine. He vented about employment opportunities and the lack of fairness in the hiring process because businesses are only looking to hire people who think and look just like themselves. And he told me that he was at Walmart so that his wife could walk around the store and feel like she was shopping even though they would be going home empty handed.

The conversation went on and on and I let the man speak, I let him go wherever he needed, and I just sat there and listened. When the time came his wife found us sitting on the bench and he told me that it was time to go. I could tell that he was in a better place than he was before the conversation, perhaps because he was finally able to get some of his worries off his chest, and before he left he turned around to shake my hand and said, “Thanks for listening -nobody else does.

Did I share my faith with him? I think so, but sometimes our actions speak louder than our words.

I don’t know for sure what compelled the first four disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus, but I imagine it had a lot to do with his actions. Jesus loved to eat among the poor and the outcast, he loved to seek out the last and the lost, and he was known for listening to people in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

Sharing our faith is a difficult task because it requires us to be vulnerable and step into situations that might blow up in our faces. It implies a willingness to believe that faith is something so important and life-giving that it is worth sharing no matter what. Sharing our faith means we have to start acting like Jesus outside the walls of church to meet people where they are and listen.

When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Amen

Devotional – Matthew 14.28-31

Devotional:

Matthew 14.28-31

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Weekly Devotional Image

I love asking questions. Whether I’m sitting around the dining room table with family and friends or I am holding a ladder so that a middle-school student can paint a ceiling in West Virginia; asking questions is something that brings me joy. Of course there are the standard and typical “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What was the last good book that you read?” and even “If you could go on vacation anywhere, where would you go?” I love asking these types of questions because they afford an opportunity for everyone to respond and it often sparks a much longer and deeper conversation.

For as much as I love to ask questions, there is one in particular that I enjoy asking more than any other: “Who from the Bible do you most identify with?” I last asked this question of a handful of middle school students on our recent mission trip and it was so exciting to see them ponder over the question and eventually offer their response. However, when some of them were unable to answer the question I made it my mission to learn enough about each of them to tell them who I thought they reminded me of from the Bible by the end of the week.

walkingonwater9eh

In my life I identify most with the apostle Peter. I was not called out of a simple career to leave everything and follow Christ, I have not had a defining moment where I denied Christ three times, but when it comes to Peter’s personality I line up completely. Like Peter, I always have an answer to every question, I often volunteer for leadership positions, and I regularly speak on behalf of many others. Moreover I see the connections between myself and Peter most vibrantly in the story of Peter getting off the boat to walk with his Lord. When I feel that God is asking me to do something I usually do whatever it takes to jump right in, yet sometimes when I have already left the boat I notice the strong winds of life that make me doubt what I have done. I, like Peter, need to hear Jesus’ question over and over: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?

As we prepare to take steps into a new week I encourage you to reflect on who you identify with from the Bible. Do you feel like David, small but able to accomplish great things? Do you feel like Martha, always busy and working hard to take care of all the chores? Or do you feel like me, which is to say, do you feel like Peter, ready and willing to rush into anything for God? Who from the Bible do you most identify with?

Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

xlba-00052

Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.