Why Do We Study?

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers of recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons, and he regularly captivated those 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 breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no-name town and decided to pop in. 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 Craddock was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook promptly turned around, looked at the man in the face 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 over 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!

And with that the black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, he paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Do any of you feel chills? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the story for its timely reminder about problematic race relations in this country, but for some of you this story hits even harder. Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes powerful particularly in its connection to scripture. For, if Craddock was unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance, drove off, and never think about the experience at all.

But Craddock knew his bible; he had studied it well enough to know the ways God works in the world. Such that when he heard the rooster, it changed his life forever.

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This whole month we’re diving deep into why we do what we do as Christians. Last week we talked about why we worship, and today we’re looking at why we study. To put it rather simply: we study God’s Word because this story is our story. It’s like opening up the pages to discover our family history, our quirks and idiosyncrasies, our triumphs and our failures.

Whenever we open the scriptures and study we are entering into the strange new world of the bible, one that shines a light on what our lives really look like even today.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he got really personal. We preachers are taught to do the opposite. Rather than standing before a group of people like you and share how we are trying to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to point away from ourselves to Jesus. And I believe that’s wise counsel; there is far too much temptation for preachers to make ourselves into the Jesus figure of our congregations and instead of saying, “follow Jesus” we say, “follow me.”

But Paul got personal. He laid it all out for this small and budding church. I have every reason to boast in the world: I was the Jew of all Jews, I followed the law, I was blameless in everything I did. I even persecuted the church. Yet whatever I gained in the world, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul’s story is a powerful one, but it’s only powerful when we know the whole story. We can read the letters he wrote to different communities, we can reflect on his theology and declarations, but when we study the bible, when we know who Paul was before he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything he writes comes into a new light.

Paul was so zealous in his Jewishness, he was so righteous, that he murdered Christians in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest disciples feared him. And, in God’s strange wisdom, the greatest persecutor of the church became her greatest missionary.

We study God’s Word because this story is our story.

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Years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon while wearing a clergy collar. And, most days, people ignore the pastor sitting in the corner supping on coffee and scratching his head. But not that day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar, and before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started kissing my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak with me outside.

We sat down on a nearby bench and he began telling me about all his troubles. He was down on his luck with no job and no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but he recently heard that he could get some actual help in Richmond.

As he went on and on I caught myself preparing a response in my head rather than actually listening to him. And, as I often do, I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he seek out some organizations in town to help support his needs.

He stared at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Richmond.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I’m sure that I made some excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listening off my justifications, he stood up while I was talking and he just left me there sitting on the bench. My voice tailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner I heard him say, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

That moment has haunted me in the years since. Because, as soon as he said those words, I felt my heart burning within me because I had failed to live into my baptismal identity. He, in a few choice words, had initiated the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was the priest who failed to help the man on the side of the road.

If I hadn’t known Jesus’ parable that the man quoted, I might’ve let it roll off my back like any number of other interactions, but because I knew the story, that moment has haunted me.

On Monday morning I was sitting my office here at the church when a man walked in covered in sweat and asking to talk to the preacher. I invited him into the office and I watched and listened to him share his story. Down on his luck, no job, no home. And immediately, I started sensing a gulf developing between us as I began rehearsing my response in my mind. We get calls here every day from people in the community looking for help; late on rent, overdue on an electric bill, no food in the refrigerator. And we try to help as many as we can, or at least direct them in such a way that they can be helped, but it’s hard not to be suspicious. It’s hard to prevent that sinful side of myself from bubbling to the surface and ignoring the person in need.

Anyway, the man was sharing his story, and before I was able to respond with the same sorts words I’ve used hundreds of times he said, “I just need a ride to Charlotte, NC. I want to start over and my daughter lives there and she’s going to put me up for awhile.”

I apologized and said that I would be unable to drive him myself, but the church would be more than happy to buy him a bus ticket.

He beamed.

I ordered him a ticket for a Megabus leaving that afternoon and then we got in my car and I drove him to a nearby VRE station so that he could get into the city to catch the bus. We talked during the car ride about the change in weather and about Virginian hospitality and a number of other subjects. And when we got to the station I got out of the car to open his door and wish him well, and then he asked to pray for me. Let me say that again, he asked to pray for me, not the other way around. So he wrapped his arms around me and prayed.

After the “amen” he looked at me in the eyes and said, “As you have done onto the least of these, so you have done unto me.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

When I came into work on Tuesday morning there was a message on our answering machine. He had made it to his daughter’s house and wanted to thank the church for its generosity.

I’m not proud of what I did. Sure, I’m happy he made it, and I’m glad that we could offer him some grace, but I’m not proud of what I did; because I didn’t want to do it. I only did it because I knew the story of scripture, and then that man turned it around and left those words resonating in my ears as he walked away.

We study God’s Word because God is always talking to us, only if we have ears to hear. When we know the story that is our story, we become attuned to God’s frequency in the world, we hear the rooster, we see the man in need, and it changes our lives just as God changed the lives of the people we read about in the bible.

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like Paul, you want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We catch a glimpse of that power and experience it here and now when we study the Word and encounter it in our daily living. We need to study the Word because all of us, sinners and saints, preachers and laypeople, we’re all works in progress. We press on to make Christ’s resurrection our own, because Christ has made us his own.

Beloveds of Cokesbury, I have not made it to perfection, in fact I am far from it, but there is one thing I know for sure: when we know the story that is our story, when we study God’s Word, we can hear God calling to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

October

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Devotional – Luke 10.39

Devotional:

Luke 10.39

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

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The last week has been filled with tragedy and senseless violence. A black man was shot and killed by a police officer after selling CDs in front of a convenience store and a black man was shot and killed after a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight. In response to their deaths, 5 law enforcement officers were murdered in Dallas during a peaceful protest and another 7 more were injured. As we talked about all that had taken place over the last week during church yesterday, all anyone could talk about was their inability to get away from the suffering; every time they got online, or turned on their television, they were bombarded with the images of terror and destruction that had taken place across the American landscape.

And honestly, right now, we need to open our eyes to these tragedies. For too long those of us who are too comfortable with our white privilege have neglected to do the Christ-like work of becoming uncomfortable and standing with our black brothers and sisters. For too long those of us who are too comfortable with our white privilege have made the false assumption that this is not our problem. It is.

But to step into this situation, as a Christian, without first sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus will only further the kinds of vitriolic violence that we’ve seen this last week.

As the events transpired in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas countless people jumped to social media to vent their frustrations and quickly condemn those who they believed were responsible. Without taking the time to listen and be still, many of us put up our walls to the people and opinions around us and did everything we could to make sure our voice and our opinion was heard (or read). From the comfort and safety of our computers and cell phones we engaged in social media warfare.

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To sit and listen to Jesus is a bold and daring thing to do. It requires us to wrestle with differing opinions and perspectives. It challenges us to seek out those who we often miss and stand with them shoulder to shoulder. It implores us to seek unity in the midst of chaos, hope in the midst of terror, and resurrection in the midst of crucifixion.

So today, we pray for the Lord to crucify our prejudices that we might be resurrected into new life in Christ. That instead of rushing to make our opinion heard we might listen, learn, and love. That instead of furthering the fear and hatred, we might respond with grace. That instead of remaining comfortable with our Christianity, we might take uncomfortable steps toward making the kingdom of God manifest here on earth.

The Kingdom of Chaos

Mark 4.30-32

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

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Today marks the second part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

 

The stories that Jesus tells about the kingdom of God are down to earth, literally. The kingdom is not some esoteric arena in the great by-and-by, but as close as a wedding feast, or a fishing net, or even a mustard bush.

A mustard bush is a strange thing. It develops from the smallest of seeds and grows like a weed choking out everything else. It is the kind of plant that farmers fear. The seeds are so tiny that if they get caught up in a group of others being sowed in a field, it can destroy the planned crop and replace it with mustard bushes.

One of the main points of Jesus’ parables is the fact that they are common stories that nearly everyone can appreciate or picture. But are we, today, familiar with a mustard seed or a mustard bush? I went out on Wednesday to a couple local plant nurseries, and I went to a couple hardware stores, and I found nothing. Not one bag of mustard seeds. Not one single mustard plant.

For the first century Jews and Gentiles this parable was as familiar as could be. Jewish law made it illegal to plant a mustard seed in a garden because they knew it would grow and grow and eventually take over the entire space. But for us today, we only know the mustard we buy in grocery stories. So, perhaps we need a new parable. Maybe we need a new comparison to what the kingdom of God is like. One that still holds true to the reality of a mustard seed but also resonates with our understanding of the world.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like one of those computer viruses that we receive in an email attachment from our grandmother. At first it seems harmless “Click here to learn the secret to weight-loss” or “Click here to see a video of a monkey playing a piano” and then before we know what hit us it spreads and spreads through our entire computer corrupting every file before sending the same email out to everyone in our address book.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like the flu, we try to stop it from spreading by receiving flu shots and preventing people from visiting others in the hospital, but once it takes hold it spreads through everything we touch until it reaches the next person and the next person and the next person.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a video posted on the Internet of a black man being shot by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. At first we try to scroll past because we know it is too graphic, too awful, too real, but we can’t help ourselves from watching. The longer we watch the more people we think about that need to see the video, we start to think about how the whole world needs to see this injustice so that justice might rain down like water. So we send it out for everyone to see until something changes.

If Jesus showed up in church today and shared any of those parables with us, how would we respond? I’d tell him that he is crazy, that he has no idea how no idea how the church is supposed to work, and that his vision of the kingdom does not match with mine.

Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed is one that confuses and creates frustration precisely because our version of the kingdom is different than the kingdom inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

ST. PAUL, MN - JULY 07: A couple hold a sign protesting the killing of Philando Castile outside the Governor's Mansion on July 7, 2016 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile was shot and killed the previous night by a police officer in Falcon Heights, MN. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The kingdom of God strikes in ways that we almost cannot see, and certainly not in ways that we can expect. Like an idea popping up in the mind, it refuses to be stifled and it begins to spread out through our conversations and our writing. Ideas like “war is wrong” or “homophobia is wrong” or “the indiscriminate killing of black men and women” is wrong. Those ideas spread like wildfire and at some point they cease to be ideas and instead transform into revolutions. The original thought tangles in the mind and heart of the revolution and people become so moved that they are willing to die so long as that original idea will continue to spread.

More often than not, we know what we want the kingdom of God to look like and we know what we want the church to look like. We want clear lines to be drawn so that we know who is in and who is out, what is allowed and what is forbidden, what is black and what is white.

But then Jesus gives us this two-verse parable with the mustard seed – the tiniest symbol of how God is forever invading our ordinary and orderly sense of things. The mustard seed is there in plain sight but hidden by our ignorance. We overlook it in the fields, in the church, in our lives, and then it sprouts into the greatest of all the shrubs.

Since January of this year at least 123 black Americans have been shot and killed by police. This week saw a black man gunned down outside of a convenience store for selling CDs and a black man gunned down during a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight. The saddest part of these stories is that they have become part of our common vernacular and experience of black culture. For a time we can remember the names of the individuals killed, names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, but now the list has grown so long that the names begin to bleed together.

And how do we feel? Are we outraged? Or are we apathetic? Are we disgusted? Or are we disinterested? Are we on fire for change? Or do we want things to stay the same?

And the death of black men and women is a small fraction, or perhaps the mustard seed, of the larger picture of racial inequality in our country.

People of color make up about 30% of the total population in the U.S. but they account for 60% of those who are imprisoned. 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than white offenders for the same crime.

In preschools across the country black students account for 18% of the total number enrolled but make up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. Preschoolers! In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, black students are expelled at 3 times the rate of white students.

And 11am on Sunday morning is still, without a doubt, the most segregated hour in the United States.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is planted it grows into the grandest and largest of all the shrubs and puts forth branches so that all the birds of the air can find rest in its shade.

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of America where people are still persecuted because of the pigmentation of their skin, where immigrants are treated as second-class citizens, where members of the LGBTQ community are murdered because of their identity; where police are attacked in retaliation for events in other parts of the country.

On Thursday evening, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, five law enforcement officers were killed and six others were injured. Snipers were set up in strategic elevated areas and sent the downtown area into chaos as bullets continued to fly back and forth. It is unclear what the exact motives of the attack might be, though it is clear that it is somehow connected with the recent shootings of black men in other parts of the country.

Black men and women are shot and killed by the police. Black communities respond in rage and protest. Police are shot and killed by individuals whose anger manifested itself into violence and destruction.

What are we to do? Turn off the television because of the unending violence? Shrug off the waves of death because at least its not happening in Staunton? Fall to our knees in prayer that we might be transformed into a people of peace?

Today we grieve and mourn all the lives lost at the hands of the destructive power of death. We lift up our fists and rail against the prejudices that result in black persecution and police assassination. We demand answers from the Lord for why things like this continue to happen.

People take part in a rally on April 29, 2015 at Union Square in New York, held in solidarity with demonstrators in Baltimore, Maryland demanding justice for an African-American man who died of severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody. AFP PHOTO/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (Photo credit should read EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s the power of a parable like the mustard seed; it strikes us as something true whenever we hear it. A detail will emerge that we’ve never thought about and we realize that Jesus is still speaking to us through the story. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus in the midst of our lives today. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

The kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, like a viral video, like a revolution, invades the cultivated soil of our certainties and creates something new. Hidden in plain sight, like words of a prayer, the seeds of faith grow in unexpected ways until what we thought we knew is transformed by our invasive and surprising God.

Our lives should transformed by the mustard seed quality of the kingdom of God when it stretches and reaches into every part of our existence and challenges us to be better. Not to pass the buck on to someone else, not to become apathetic to the tragedies of our time, but to be caught up in a revolution of the heart.

The power of the parable of the mustard seed is in the tiniest of seeds leading to a radical change. The mustard seed germinates and stretches out to grab hold of everything in its path. Oh that today the Lord would plant that mustard seed in our hearts, that the kingdom of God might grow and dwell among us, reaching out to everyone in our midst, that we might all believe that black lives matter, that we might believe that violence will only ever beget more violence.

We need that mustard seed. We need it planted deep into the soil of our souls, we need it to be cultivated, and we need it to grow with reckless abandon. We need a revolution of the heart, here and everywhere. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 4.15

 

Devotional:

Luke 4.15

He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

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Having the favor of the people can turn on a dime. I have known too many beloved leaders in the community who took one step too far and then lost the popularity and support they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim of the people they serve. Jesus was widely respected and praised by everyone when he first initiated his ministry, but was then run out of town when he claimed that the scripture was being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but it ultimately led to his assassination.

A few days ago, I was asked to speak at the community Martin Luther King Jr. service. At first I felt honored by the request, but then I felt terrified. How in the world can I possibly do justice to the man whom I have admired most of my adult life? How can I find the right words to pray in memory of a preacher who I strive to emulate on a weekly basis? How can I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

But then I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. once said; words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to seek God’s will in our lives. Rather than sugarcoat messages of hope, we should continually be pushed to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters.

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I end this devotional with a prayer from Martin Luther King Jr. Let us use these words this week to faithfully pray for God to move among us and transform the world.

“Thou Eternal God, our of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the who universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not love our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”