This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 17.32-49, Psalm 9.9-20, 2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-41). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including articles of clothing, bad introductions, meta-narratives, Sunday School scriptures, Christological readings, true trust, Pauline suffering, textual juxtapositions, stilled storms, and open questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing
We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups 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.
We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions
Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the 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 whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together.
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 each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.
- Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
- 1 Corinthians 3.9
- “For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.”
- Ask everyone to share their names.
- Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we 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 we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.”
- Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
- What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
- What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
- What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
- If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
- If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
- When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
- If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
- If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
- Who is your hero and why?
- What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
- If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
- If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
- If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
- What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
- Wrapping Up
- Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. 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.
- Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.”
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.
But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.
A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.
The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.
We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.
But today it will be different.
This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.
To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.
What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.
Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.
And that’s okay.
After all, who can know the mind of God?
Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.
Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse.
One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.
And what do they share with one another?
Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.
The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.
A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.
A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.
I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.
And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster.
It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.
And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?
These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.
There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.
But, of course, we must speak.
We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening.
It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say.
Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.
There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.
There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.
There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.
Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.
These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.
And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.
For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.
And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.
Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.
Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most.
There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor.
But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments.
It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.
And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.
This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph.
God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.
Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.
Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.
I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.
Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Those words accomplish nothing.
Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.
If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.
God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.
Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.
Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable.
But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen.
But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
“There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.
But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:
“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”
“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?
“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”
However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.
We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.
And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing!
There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces.
Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be.
So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
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 and rejected their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writings and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his ability to comprehend, such that (for instance) I have an entire shelf in my office dedicated to his books.
But long before I heard about Barth, he toured the US in the early sixties, lecturing to both the young and old about the importance of God being God.
And for as much as I love Barth, he can be remarkably dense. During his tour he was approached by a young theologian who declared, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.” To which Barth responded, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I written.”
That particular tour had him stopping at the leading theological institutions like Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. And after one such lecture, not doubt filled with deep theological affirmations beyond reasonable comprehension, a young woman decided to bravely ask a question.
Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the US. Churches were pushing hard for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And every wanted to know when everybody got saved.
So, this young woman, with her hand shaking in the air, patiently waited to ask her question. Barth lectured on and on about who knows what and then he finally called on her.
She said, “Well, Professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”
After no doubt responding to questions about the immutability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the trinity, and the self-unveiling of God who cannot be discovered by humanity, Barth was finally asked a simple question with a simple answer.
And this is what he said, “Hmm, when was I saved? Of yes, that’s easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”
What must we do to be saved?
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 an item on a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to get into heaven. These moments of willed salvation often take place in the midst of an altar call, that time when the pastor calls for people like you to come to the throne to give your lives to Jesus. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and saved them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and cup of communion, nourishing someone’s faith to the point of everlasting reward.
In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a total rebirth, such that individuals will celebrate two birthdays each year. Their actual birth day, and their new-birth day. Some, believe it or not, will even bring out a birthday cake and presents, for BOTH of the days.
But is that what it takes to be saved? Is that part of God’s requirements to pass through the pearly gates?
This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something is not within our own power, it is exclusively God’s. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. But everyone can be saved – by virtue of what God can do.
Great are the works of God, and we delight in what God has done, is doing, and will do. God’s work is full of majesty and God’s righteousness endures forever. The psalmist covers all the bases, buttering God up with all of God’s attributes. We know of God from all of God’s wonderful deeds. The Lord is gracious and merciful. He offers and provides food to those who fear, and God is always mindful of the covenant.
But among these buttery and complimentary verses, there is one that shines bright and is somehow often overlooked: God sent redemption to God’s people.
Perhaps it’s a product of coming of age in a culture where we always hear about the need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that we assume salvation is up to us. We read these books about how to be the better me, thinking that if I only add this discipline, or get on this diet, that it will fix everything. We surround ourselves with people who often think like us, to embolden our own beliefs, rather than spending time with people who will challenge what we think we know.
But God sent redemption to us!
Can you think of a more profoundly beautiful sentence? God sent redemption to us. Not a five steps process to becoming the true you, not an outline of a daily schedule to practice piety, not a pill or product that can fix our problems. God sent redemption. To us.
We have been redeemed. But from what? In the beginning of scripture there is a story about a man and a woman who had a choice. They could have stayed within God’s loving and beautiful embrace, or they could taste the fruit, the forbidden fruit. All was theirs, and then all was lost, because they chose to govern themselves rather than obey God. They believed in the boot-strap model more than the grace-filled reality of God. They wanted power, and they received punishment.
But, God sent redemption to us.
In the United Methodist World, we call redemption grace. And it begins with prevenient grace. It is something offered to us without price or cost. It is free. And we can choose to respond to the grace, but we cannot do anything to earn it.
And then there’s God’s justifying grace, the act of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead that reconciled the divisions that took place in the Garden of Eden. Again, it is something God did for us, without our having earned it.
And finally there’s God’s sanctifying grace. It is the power of God’s grace working in us toward a better and more perfect understanding of who we are and whose we are. Sanctification is a life-long process where we grow daily in our Christlikeness.
We experience God’s grace through a number of means, like communion and baptism, reading scripture, daily prayer, and even sometimes through a sermon. They are the tools and mechanisms by which we are reminded what God has done, so that we might respond.
Our lives are made up of holy sanctified moments, those strange and powerful moments where the earthly and the divine come close together.
We are all in the process of sanctification. And, as someone once noted, sanctification is nothing more than getting used to our justification.
When I was in seminary learning about all the stuff pastor’s are supposed to learn, we took a class on the New Testament. Every time we gathered we looked at a different book in the New Testament and we unpacked the theology. We talked about who Jesus was, and where Jesus went, and what Jesus said. And one day, in the middle of the lecture, my professor projected an image on the board of the crucified Jesus. It looked like a painting from the Renaissance and Jesus was the perfect specimen of humanity, almost glowing while dangling without pain. But then my professor went to the next slide, and it was another crucifixion scene. This time it was more abstract with strange colors and shapes but it was still clearly Jesus on the cross. And again and again, the slides came and went with different portrayals of Jesus’ death.
And the longer it went on the more uncomfortable I felt.
Instead of looking at the images from the perspective of a student studying lines and meaning, I began looking at them like a Christian. And with each passing image I saw the immense suffering of the one we call Lord, dying on the cross. I noticed the fragility of the One born in the manger, I saw the struggle of the Savior, I experienced the labor of the Lord.
And it was too much.
Before I knew it I was walking out of the room as if I couldn’t breathe, and I sat down in the hallway by the door. One of my friends promptly followed me outside and picked me up, looked me in the eyes, and said, “What in the world is going on with you?”
I said, “I don’t deserve it. Seeing Jesus on the cross, for me, I just don’t deserve it.”
And with complete sincerity he said, “You idiot, that’s the whole point. You don’t deserve it. Neither do I. That’s why we call it grace.”
God sent redemption, to us. We did not receive God’s redemption, God’s grace, because we finally mastered the faithful life, and because we finally put all our ducks in a row, and because we finally paid off our credit card debt, and because we finally lost those ten pounds. God sent redemption to us. Period.
No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, or any less. You have been saved, and are being saved. As you get used to your justification, God is sanctifying you. There is nothing we can do to be saved because God is the one saving us.
That’s why the psalmist can say, “Praise the Lord!” Because God’s works are indeed great, God is full of majesty and righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful. Holy and awesome is the name of God. He has sent redemption to us.
However, lest we become “couch potato Christians”, we are not sitting around passively waiting for God to do something. God’s grace is such that it propels us to respond in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are always moving on to a greater understanding of what it means to love God and neighbor.
God’s grace, prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying is a gift. We can receive the gift and pack it away in the closet and it will never do a thing. Or we can receive the gift and use it each and every day in the ways we commune with God, the ways we interact with our fellow brothers and sisters, and the ways we experience God’s creation.
Additionally, grace is not a get out of jail free card, nor is it a protective talisman that saves us from ever suffering. The life of God in Christ, the redemption sent to us, is the penultimate reminder that you cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. That those who wish to gain their lives must lose them. And that if we want to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we have to take up our own crosses to follow him.
So we praise the Lord! We give thanks to Lord with our whole hearts, in the company of the congregation, because God sent redemption to us. Amen.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, you’re the tutor… what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.
“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google it and the young man rolled his eyes as he opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.
I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, no louder than a whisper, “That can’t be right.”
“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”
And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old…”
In the beginning there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. And in the midst of nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
I can think of few verses in scriptures that have created more problems with interpretation than those found at the very beginning of the book. These words have vexed and inspired, they have built up and they have destroyed, they have been the start of faith for some and the very end for others.
Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.
So how did this collection of sentences lead to one of the largest debates from the last few hundred years? Why are these descriptions about God’s creation at the heart of the debate between science and religion?
Centuries ago there was a man named James Ussher who set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies and life spans, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to the work of Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.
However, with the advent of modern science, and carbon dating, and evolutionary biology, scientists have determined that the earth is rough 4.5 billion years old.
There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.
For a long period of time, the Christian church established itself as the predominant distributer of information, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.
The war between Science and Religion has manifested itself in a great number of ways like the fight between Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.
And nowhere is the war more apparent than between the debate of creation and evolution.
“How old is the earth?” might sound like an innocuous question without too many ramifications, but how we answer the question comes with a lot of consequences.
A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.
It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.
I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.
I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?
However, around that same time a number of my Christian friends stopped attending church. While learning about evolution, their faith in church disappeared. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned the earth was older than what they heard from the pulpit, their faith was crushed.
I was fortunate to have pastors and mentors who helped me to see the bonds between science and faith, but my friends saw only the battle.
A lot of you wrote questions about the relationship between science and religion. And frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The so-called war between science and religion is one that has gone on for a very long time, and frankly it’s something we rarely address in church. It’s as if we let the world of science rule our lives Monday through Saturday, and the world of faith is reserved for Sundays, and never the two shall meet.
There is conflict between science and religion, and the conflict exists because of us. The fault is ours. We Christians who become defensive when scientists learn more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s strange and creative majesty; we Christians who are too quick to jump ship when we discover there is more to the world than what we can read about in the bible; we Christians who see scientific discoveries as works of the devil, and label them as such.
But the realms of science and religion are not as mutually exclusive as we think they are.
There are Christians out there called “Young-Earth Creationists” who believe, like Ussher, that God created the earth over six 24-hr days around 6,000 years ago. They dismiss discoveries like dinosaur bones as a way for God to test our faith.
However, there are ways of looking at the biblical account of creation such that it harmonizes with science, rather than creating yet another battle.
To start, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.
We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.
Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to become masters the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us the who and why of God’s creation.
Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the pinnacle of God’s creation, was us, humanity.
Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.
The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.
And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.
But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.
The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and whose we are. It is God’s Word for us. Amen.
1 Corinthians 9.19-23
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled a list of questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to our faith. Today we continue the series with, “How do we share the Good News?”
“When did you last speak to someone about your faith?” Throughout John Wesley’s ministry, this was a question to be answered by all people within the Methodist movement. And it’s a question most of us would rather avoid today.
It we’re honest, we don’t want to appear too evangelical (whatever that means). We don’t want to be confused with the kind of bible toting people who seek to win others for Jesus. We don’t want to leave church with tracts to pass out to people in public warning them about their imminent doom unless they accept Jesus as their Lord.
And yet, that question, the one we want to avoid, the one that makes us squirm in our pews, is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask.
When I was in college, I became the de facto cook for my house. There were five young men all living under the same roof, and I tried my best to make a home cooked meal once a week so that we could all sit down and break bread with one another. When we sat around the table for the first time, with our assortment of hand-me-down plates and silverware, I asked my friends to pray with me, and they just stared at me as I bowed my head and asked for God to bless the meal and us.
Week after week we sat around that table, and the longer I prayed for them, the more they adapted to it. Such that, one night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they stopped me from eating and said, “Aren’t you forgetting something?!”
Around that same time I was invited to guest preach at one of the local United Methodist Churches. I, of course, invited all of my roommates to attend and they all sat together in the furthest back pew.
The service was fairly typical, and the sermon was a definite B-, but then we moved to the communion table and the pastor prayed for the Holy Spirit to make the bread and cup into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And while the whole congregation began lining up in the center aisle, my roommates did as well with bewildered looks on their faces.
I realized, as they were walking closer to me, that none of them had received communion before, nor did they have any idea what they were doing.
When they made it to the front they all stood in front of me with wide eyes and nervous ticks. I quietly whispered, “take the bread, dip it in the cup, eat it, and I’ll explain everything at home.”
And so, they did.
There was a time in the life of the church, when we could expect new people to show up on Sunday mornings no matter what. When Christianity was Christendom, which is to say, when Christianity was normative, the majority of people in a community could be found in church on Sunday morning. This meant that for generations, great scores of people were born into, and raised through a church, such that things did not have to be explained or proclaimed, and the work of evangelism was nothing more than standing in front of one’s own church to share what God had done.
But that time is long gone.
And because churches can no longer expect that, “if you build it they will come,” the work of evangelism has increased sharply. Congregations are told that they are in the business of saving souls, and that they must do everything within their power to share the Good News. But more often than not the good news sounds like bad news.
Fear mongering tactics with threats of hell and eternal damnation are hung over individual heads with hope that it will scare them into church.
The bible is used as a weapon to attack people for the way they are living in order to shame them into coming to church.
People are treated as numbers and objects to be placed on a worksheet and empty promises about heavenly rewards are used to get people to come to church.
And people wonder why the church is shrinking…
When I asked for questions in November, a lot of people asked about ways to share the Good News. Behind those questions was the desire to grow the church. Growth is a good thing, I mean: Jesus sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations, but growth for the sake of growth is problematic.
If we want to fill the sanctuary up every Sunday we could do raffles, and giveaways, we could provide financial incentives to get people to invite more people to church, but it wouldn’t be faithful. The only way the church grows is when we believe the church has something so incredible to offer that we’re willing to invite others to discover it.
The point is this: we can no longer just wait for people to magically appear on Sunday morning.
In addition to the questions we received about sharing the good news, there were an equal number of questions about why I participate in a podcast. For the last year and a half I’ve been working with two other United Methodist pastors to produce weekly podcasts (a podcast is a downloadable audio file that you can listen to on your phone and computer). We started it as a way to have conversations about theology and scripture, and as we made the episodes public, they started reaching a lot of people. And by a lot, I mean A LOT. By the end of the month, we should hit our 200,000th download.
But we didn’t start the podcast to become popular. We started it to reach the people who no longer felt comfortable in church. We wanted to provide conversations with zero commitment on behalf of the people listening so that they could encounter the church from a new perspective. Because for as much as this thing we do called worship is what being the church is all about, for some people it’s not enough.
We were taking a break from a live podcast event back in December when an older man walked across the room and stood right in front of me. He stared at me with a curious look and said, “You sound different in person.” Unsure of whether or not he meant it as a compliment, I inquired as to how. He said, “You sound a little more confident on the podcast than you did tonight. But I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate your vulnerability.”
We talked for a little bit about the guests we had that night, and the challenges of doing a live recording, and then before returning to his seat he said, “I left the church years ago because I felt burned. Too many sermons about what I had done wrong, too many people suffering without anything changing; too many pastors abusing their privileges. But then I discovered the podcast, and I started listening. And the more I listened, the more I heard God, and the more I realized I needed to give the church another chance…”
We live in an ever-changing world where people consume information so quickly that the church can appear archaic and irrelevant. But I believe this is a sad misjudgment. Rather, I believe church has the most important thing to offer of all, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, like Paul, we do well to do whatever we can, by whatever means we can, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. For Paul that meant being a Jew to the Jews, and outside the law to those outside the law, and all things to all people.
For us today, that might take on different meaning, we might be tasked dropping our political identities in order to reach people across the political spectrum, or crucifying our prejudices in order to reach people who do not look like us, or repenting of our judgmental attitudes in order to reach people who frighten us.
As Christians, we are necessarily evangelical. Evangelism means, by definition, sharing the Good News. So much of what we do and who we are is wrapped up in the story of Jesus, recognizing how the story has changed our lives, and the hope that it can change the lives of those around us.
But, sadly, being evangelical these days often comes off like being a bad and annoying used car salesperson. When the tactics of fire insurance, and bombarding strangers is the best we have to offer others, when winning souls becomes more important than loving others, we cease to be evangelical, at least the way the word is meant to be used.
Last year, I drove up to Cokesbury on a Sunday afternoon to meet a handful of people from the church before it was announced that I would be your new pastor. We sat down in the conference room upstairs, exchanged pleasantries over fruit and cheese, and then we went around the table to introduce ourselves and describe how we are connected to the church. One by one I learned about some of you for the first time, how long you’ve been here, what you like, what you want to change, all of that stuff. And one of the last people to share was Emmett Wright, and all he said was, “I’m an evangelist.”
And, because being evangelical can be so misconstrued these days, all I could think was, “that’s just great [sarcasm].” So I asked him to elaborate and he said something memorable like, “just wait and see.”
On any given week Emmett will invite a score of people to come to experience God’s presence at our church. But he does not evangelize by attacking strangers with threats or empty promises. He meets people where they are and he gets to know them. He sees his evangelism first as a call to friendship, with all people, long before inviting them to church. And because he fosters friendship first, the people he invites to church always want to see what it’s all about.
Emmett is a lot like Paul in that he becomes all things to all people. He never presents the gospel in some stuffy forgotten way; it is always alive and exciting and friendly. Emmett meets people where they are, instead of sitting around waiting for them to show up.
Paul’s ministry was one of evangelism. Over and over again he won people for the sake of the gospel. Not to fill pews, not to frighten them, not to shame them, but because he believed the story of Jesus Christ was the most important story they would ever hear. He believed the message of salvation would change everything about the way they lived. He believed that following Jesus would make all the difference.
Paul became all things to all people because that’s precisely what God was willing to do for us. God became all things to all people in Jesus Christ. God humbled himself in the manger and took on flesh. Though God was free to as God pleased, God made himself a slave to all in Jesus in order to free us from slavery to sin and death.
Evangelism always begins in friendship, in the intimacy of two people sharing life together. Evangelism takes place in the trust when listening becomes more important than talking. Evangelism comes to fruition when saving and winning others is more about them than us. Amen.
1 Kings 3.5-12
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
This morning we conclude our sermon series on Questions. After polling most of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we have strived during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we finish with “How Can We Be Biblically Wise?”
Three men were trapped on a deserted island. During the months of their stranded captivity they learned to rely on one another for survival. Without entertainment, they told each other stories and grew very close together. Each day one of them was responsible for making minor repairs to their shelter, one was tasked with scavenging for food, and the last one had to comb the beaches for anything helpful that might’ve washed up.
One particularly beautiful morning, the third man was walking along the beach when he discovered a strangely colored bottle sticking up in the sand. He quickly procured it with his other discoveries and brought them all back to the shelter. Later that night, while they were looking through all the goodies from the beach, one of the men accidently rubbed the bottle and a genie popped right out!
Because there were three men present, the genie explained that he could grant each of them one wish, rather than giving each of them three wishes. The first man wasted no time and declared, “I miss my family and I wish that I could be back with them!” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.
The second man thought for a moment and said, “You know, I was engaged before I got trapped on this island, I wish I was back with my fiancé.” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.
The third man was now alone with the genie and he thought long and hard about his wish. After all, it’s not like you run into a genie everyday. So he stood there with the genie thinking about all of the things he could wish for when he causally said, “Geez, I wish my friends were back here to help me make my wish.”
Be careful what you wish for…
Solomon was young, inexperienced, and about to rule the kingdom when God showed up in one of his dreams. Almost like a genie, the Lord asks Solomon to make a wish. And, like a preacher in a bad sermon, Solomon over-explains his wish: “God, you were great and loving to my father David because he walked before you in faithfulness, righteousness, and in uprightness of heart. Throughout his years you kept your great and steadfast love for him, and now you have given him a son to sit on his throne; you gave him me. But God, I am only a little child, and I don’t know the first thing about taking care of others. I am in the midst of the people you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. So Lord, if I can ask for anything, give me an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between what is good and what is evil. Give me wisdom.”
It pleased the Lord to hear Solomon wish for wisdom. God then replied to Solomon in his dream: “Solomon, because you have asked for wisdom, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked to be able to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed, I will give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been for you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
Of all the things Solomon could’ve requested: wealth, prosperity, and military victory… He chose wisdom. As a young ruler of God’s chosen people he selflessly asked for the knowledge to lead God’s people in the ways that lead to life.
Godly wisdom, or biblical wisdom, pleases the Lord when it is not self-serving, but other serving. Solomon’s desire for wisdom, because it was for the betterment of others, is what inclined the Lord to dispense it generously. It is in our willingness to use wisdom for others that we begin to experience God’s grace in the world around us.
Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons and he captivated anyone with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some food. He found a no name diner in the middle of a town and made his way in for breakfast. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While he was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook turned around and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!”
The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”
The black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.
Craddock continued to finish his meal, paid, and left. But right before he was about to get back in his car, in that still and quiet morning moment, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.
Are any of you feeling chills? Some of us will immediately understand the significance of this moment: Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry mere feet away from him, realized that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion. But some of us did not catch the meaning; we did not have an emotional response to the conclusion of Craddock’s little narrative. If we missed the power of the rooster crowing in the distance, it is because we are unfamiliar with the ways God works in the world.
I had a number of you request, for this sermon series, that I preach about biblical wisdom. I can summarize the whole answer to the question in one sentence: “How can we be biblically wise?” “By reading our bibles!”
If Craddock was not as familiar with scripture as he was, he easily could’ve entered his car after hearing the rooster crow, and would have missed the power of what God was trying to communicate to him. God used a particular moments to speak large and powerful words to Craddock and God does the same thing in our lives. But if we are not familiar with the ways God has communicated in the past, then we will probably miss the ways God is trying to speak to us right now.
To be biblically wise implies a willingness to bring our souls into alignment with God’s ways. Yet we, as broken and flawed people, have a propensity to become out of alignment with God’s ways. To reorient ourselves, to turn back to the ways of God, we do so by reading scripture.
If we’re here in this sanctuary then we are already on the right path. It was only a few minutes ago that God’s Word was read to us in this place. By taking the time to listen to scripture in a sanctuary we are taking the first steps down the path that will bring us back to the kind of wisdom God desires for us.
But just coming to church is not enough.
We can do some incredible things in this space on Sunday morning, we can re-enter the strange new world of the bible, we can see ourselves in the biblical characters of the past, we can learn about how God uses things like roosters to shock us in the midst of our lives, but it is not enough.
One of the things that Christian people do, is read the bible. The bible is completely unlike any other book that we might read. Any of us can pick up a piece of literature and say, “This is a nice story.” However, the bible is not “a story’, it is “our story”. Our lives began with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Our history goes back to the very beginning. When we read these stories, whether in church or in our daily lives, these stories are about our family.
A strange thing happens when we start reading our bibles and to see them as the living Word of God. When we get to the point where we can let the Holy Spirit bring us inside scripture we begin to really recognize it as our story. Suddenly all of these bizarre and exciting figures from the past look us in the eyes and we recognize our own reflections. We begin to see that we are like them and they are like us.
God is speaking to us all the time. Though not necessarily as the big booming voice we often see portrayed in movies and stories. God uses things like people, scripture, and even roosters to speak the truth into our lives. We can listen all we want, but until we are willing to become a people of the book, then God’s words will fall on deaf ears.
If we want to be biblically wise, we have to read our bibles. Amen.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
This morning marks the beginning of our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive over the next few weeks to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we begin with “What Are Angels?”
Close your eyes. Seriously. Close your eyes. Picture, if you can, an angel. What do you see? Think about the movies you’ve watched, or the stories you’ve read about angels and try to picture one in your mind. What do you see? If you’re anything like the people I encountered this week, people who tried to picture an angel in their mind, you would describe the vision like so: “Angels are clothed in white and might be glowing.” “All angels have halos hovering above their heads.” “You can’t be an angel without wings.” “When we lose someone we love, they come back to us as angels.”
If we want to know what angels are, then we should begin with what they look like. And if we want to know what they look like, we should begin with scripture.
Angels are mentioned 273 times in the Bible. That’s a lot. They appear in both the Old and New Testaments. They appear to prophets and paupers. They minister to the wealthy and the weak.
I know many of us like the image of an angel with a halo, during our Preschool Pageant all of the angels had pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads, but halos are never mentioned in scripture. Angels, when they do appear, are oftentimes described as having a particular shine or brightness, but they don’t have floating discs above their heads.
Some passages describe angels having wings, but others just describe them as looking like human beings. Zechariah is in the temple when an angel, who looked like a man, appeared and told him about his son John the Baptist. After Jesus was born, an angel appeared in Joseph’s dream and warmed him to get the child out of Bethlehem. Even when the disciples went to the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion they saw two men in shining garments who told them about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Well then, what do angels do? They report to God, they observe God’s people (us), they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields, they help God’s people when they are in need, and they rejoice in God’s creation and offering of salvation.
The descriptions and stories of angels in scripture vary and are all over the place. They certainly exist and work for God’s purposes, but that doesn’t make them any easier to understand or grasp. However, there is one thing that connects most of the angels in the bible, and it’s the way people react to their presence: fear.
Before I came to St. John’s, I spent a year working as an on-call chaplain for Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. Every week I gathered with other chaplains to talk about grief, death, and suffering. We worked through our own issues with the brokenness in the world, and we were responsible for visiting people in need throughout the community.
I often met with people near the end of life who were tasked with making decisions about the way they wanted to die. Throughout my time in chaplaincy I became well versed in the topics of Do-Not-Resuscitate, Advanced Directives, and Power of Attorney. I was invited into some of the darkest moments of peoples lives and while everyone else would tell someone that they were going to be okay, that they would get better, I was one of the few people tasked with telling the truth: no one makes it out of this life alive.
During my year of chaplaincy, I had multiple 24-hour shifts at the hospital. I would put on my overly large white lab coat and respond to particular patients and their needs. More often that not I would be called to a room for someone who was lonely and just wanted another human being to be present with them. But every once in a while, I would be called to a room with a patient who needed something more.
It was 4 am, and I had been running around the hospital for my entire shift. Every time I thought I would have a moment to rest, a patient would die and I would have to meet with the grieving family. At 4am I received a page to a particular unit on the other side of the hospital with the words: We Need You.
Outside of the patient’s room I learned from the doctor and nurses that the patient was about to die; there was nothing else they could do to prolong her life and they wanted me to sit with her. Normally one of the nurses would stay in the room but they were so swamped with other patients that they could not spare another nurse. Of course, I asked about any family member that would want to be present and the staff just looked back at me with empty eyes and said, “She’s all alone.”
They left me standing there in the hallway, so I said a brief prayer and then walked right in.
Something about the hospital room was different. Whereas most are filled with machines making lots of noises, this room was quiet and peaceful. And strangely enough, I remember it being very warm; warm enough that I had to take off my lab coat and roll up my sleeves. The woman was lying in the hospital bed and was going in and out of consciousness. So I pulled up a chair and started to hold her hand.
For thirty minutes I sat there looking at the wrinkles on her skin wondering about her life, wondering about why no one else was there with her at the end, and if I should say anything. Instead, I just sat and held her hand at the minutes went by. I couldn’t even imagine the kind of pain and hurt I would’ve felt if I was in a room all by myself at the end of my life, and if I’m honest, the thought of it made me cry while I sat there holding her hand.
I don’t know how long I had been there when she started to move around a little bit more and opened her eyes to look right at me. We held one another in sight for some time when I felt like I needed to explain why I was there, so I said, “I’m the chaplain and I didn’t want you to be alone.”
In response, she smiled her so slightly and said, “I’m not alone.”
After that holy moment, we continued holding hands in silence until her breathing started to fade away, until her heart stopped beating, until she died.
That night at the hospital, when I was afraid of the power of loneliness, when that woman was facing her final earthly moments, I believe there was an angel in the room with us. I couldn’t see it, but as soon as she told me that she wasn’t alone, I knew it was true.
If and when God sends angels to us, we are either very afraid, or are about to be afraid by their presence. It is a humbling and powerful thing to be attended to by the likes of an angel and it really puts us in our place. I have asked countless people form our church if they have ever seen or experienced an angel and I was shocked, in a good way, by how many people said yes.
I heard things like: “My grandfather had just passed away and my brother and I were driving around Staunton when we saw a man who looked exactly like our grandfather walking down the street, wearing the same type of clothes, who took out a comb just like our grandfather did to comb his hair, and we knew that even though he died, he was still with us.”
“My sister was driving in her car when she felt asleep at the wheel and veered off the road. She woke up while the car was flipping over and she said she felt time slow down and arms wrap around her to protect her. While the car tumbled and tumbled she was held tight and only after the car stopped moving did she feel the protective arms let go and she was okay.”
Big and small, dramatic and simple, angels have showed up in our lives. The writer of Hebrews tells us to be faithful in our hospitality toward others because we never know when an angel will show up in our midst. Whether it’s in a hospital room, or driving through town, or even in church, angels show up.
When I first felt God calling me to ministry I was afraid. I was afraid of how my family would respond, and what my friends would think. I was afraid of whether or not I had what it would take to be a pastor. I was afraid of how much it would change my life.
And then at 16, while walking down Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, VA I felt pulled to my knees and I prayed and prayed. I didn’t see an angel near me, or hear an angel speak to me, but I felt an angel’s presence with me as I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life, and not my own.
I can only articulate that experience of an angel in my life and in that hospital room because the church has given me the vocabulary of divine intercession. I can only look back and say that an angel was with me, because the church taught me how to open my eyes to the ways that God actually works in the world. Others might talk about a bizarre feeling they had or a strange movement in their midst. The church taught me to understand those experiences as angelic and holy moments.
What are angels? Angels are God’s way of helping us to see and experience God’s will in our lives. Angels are God’s way of pushing and nudging us in the right direction. Angels are God’s way of bringing us peace when we feel the depth of fear. Angels are God’s way of reuniting the heavens and the earth in profound and holy moments. Angels are God’s way of rescuing us from ourselves. Angel’s are God’s way of reminding us that we are never alone.
I conclude with these words from the hymn that we will sing in a few moments. I offer these words so that they might help us to recognize and experience the angels in our midst. O Lord, Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth though hast for me. Open my ears that I may hear, voices of truth thou sendest clear. Open my mouth and let me bear, gladly the warm truth everywhere. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine. Amen.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
“What is the greatest challenge ahead for you?” This question is asked on a regular basis between myself and a number of clergy colleagues who live in the same community. Whether we are meeting for a cup of coffee, bumping into one another at a grocery store, or during an assigned clergy gathering, this question has helped us to grow as pastoral leaders and offer advice to our friends.
When I arrived at my current appointment, I assumed that other pastors would reach out and welcome me to the community. For the first few months I waited and waited and heard nothing. So one afternoon I pulled out a map and decided to visit all of the nearby churches and introduce myself as the new United Methodist pastor at St. John’s. I will never forget the look of shock on a number of pastors faces when I showed up at the door with my hand outstretched; for some of them I was the first pastor they met in our community even though many of them had been here for a number of years.
At the foundation of the United Methodist Church is our connectional system. By way of polity, and theology, we are (supposed to be) intimately connected with our brother and sister churches. We rely on one another for kingdom work and sharing resources to better live out God’s will on earth. However we also have a responsibility to connect with other churches outside of our denomination. After all, there is one true shepherd and we are all part of his one flock.
Over the last two years I have formed strong bonds with other clergy in Staunton and I believe that our willingness to grow in faith with one another has been a blessing to the greater community. Every church is different and faces unique challenges. Yet, when we spend time working with other leaders it allows us to learn and glean from one another, rather than trying to do it all on our own.
Jesus told the disciples there were other sheep that did not belong to that particular fold, but there would be one flock and one shepherd. Today, many communities are peppered with varying churches and denominations representing a number of traditions. If we cannot learn to work with, and appreciate, one another then we are preventing the Church from being led by the Good Shepherd. If churches continue to view others as competition, rather than brothers and sisters, then the Church will continue to decline and no longer bear fruit in the world.
We are in this great and cosmic thing called discipleship together. We can learn from other traditions and denominations because we are all part of God’s flock and Jesus, as the shepherd, will always be here for the sheep. This week, let us challenge ourselves to really see fellow Christians as Christians, instead of seeing them as Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, etc. Let us learn to ask good and important questions so that we might all grow in faithfulness together.