Devotional – Psalm 23

Devotional:

Psalm 23.1

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
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I’ve done a lot of funerals. In my short time as a pastor I have presided over more services of death and resurrection than baptisms and weddings combined. And every funeral, much like every baptism and wedding, is contextual and different. Some families come in with a service already planned out in their minds with specific hymns and scriptural texts, and some families come in with their eyes glossed over and have no idea what they want the funeral to look like. I’ve read scripture from the recently deceased’s bible, I’ve been handed a tear stained eulogy to read aloud because the emotional strain was too high, and I’ve even been asked to sing a solo during a service. But one thing that has united every single funeral I’ve participated in has been the reading of Psalm 23.

Unlike other readings during funeral services, we print out the entirety of the 23rd Psalm in bold in the bulletins. When the time comes, I ask everyone gathered together to read the beloved words out loud and as we take a collective breath we begin, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” An amazing thing happens when this psalm is read out loud in the context of grief and loss. You can audibly hear the anxiety in the air as the first words are read aloud; people read at different tempos and take breaths at different moments. But as the psalm progresses, so do the voices. It is as if the entire congregation, through the psalm, is able to take a collective breath of fresh air and release a profound sigh of comfort. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful reminder of the powerful presence of the Lord in the midst of death, and encourages those of us who remain to live as faithfully as the person we have gathered to remember.

This week, no matter what we have going on, let us take a moment to faithfully proclaim the words to the 23rd Psalm with the knowledge that even after we’re gone, people will use these words to mark our Services of Death and Resurrection:

 

Psalm 23

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

 

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Devotional – Psalm 30.4

Devotional:

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

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How often are we really thankful for the people God has placed in our lives? Sadly, it usually takes a profound moment of loss or grief before we are able to recognize how fortunate we were to spend time with them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat with a family while planning a funeral when someone breaks down in tears as they begin to wrestle with how shaped they were by the person now dead. It is a frightening moment when we recognize how blessed we were to have them, and their loss leaves a gaping hole.

On Saturday night I received an email from my home church containing the news that a man by the name of Bud Walker had passed away. As my eyes read over the lines in the email it was impossible to not let my emotions get the better of me as I realized that one of the greatest men I’ve ever been privileged to call my friend is now gone.

I met Bud Walker on a Sunday morning when I was 13 years old. I was responding to a volunteer opportunity from the church bulletin about learning how to run the sound system for Sunday services and Bud was going to teach me how it worked. For a month he stood behind me and looked over my shoulder as I twisted nobs and raised levels so that the whole congregation could hear the choir and the pastors, and for that whole month I was terrified of messing up. And yet, even after I passed my training month, Bud continued to stand with me at the back of the church before and after worship just to talk. I learned about his life and his family, I heard stories from his youth, and I saw what it meant to be faithful. During those incredibly formative years of my youth, I learned about God from the sermons, but I learned what it meant to follow Jesus from Bud Walker.

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At the time, my experience of church was that the adults got to do their thing and the youth got to do their thing. We might all sit in the same sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but there was a clear divide between our activities. Bud never saw that divide. He was one of the first people who pushed me to pursue a calling to the ministry, and he always made me feel like I mattered. And now he’s gone.

Today I sing praises to our Lord for having placed Bud Walker in my life; I am a better person for having spent time with him. As we continue to take steps on the path that leads to following Jesus, let us not take for granted the people God has given to us. Let us find the time this week to reach out to the people who helped to shape us and, if they are no longer living on earth, let us sing praises for the time we had with them.

Why Remember? – Maundy Thursday Homily

Mark 14.22-25

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

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Why is this night different from all other nights?; A worthy question for any of us who took the time to gather in this place to remember Jesus’ final night. But the question is also asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God brought forth all forms of life, which culminated in the creation of humankind. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham eventually fathered Isaac who grew to father Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was renamed Israel, which means: “you have struggled with God and prevailed.” Israel fathered Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers. But during his time in Egypt he became prosperous and eventually brought the gathering of Abraham descendants to live in the new and strange place.

At first everything was great in Egypt, the Hebrews lived comfortably, they had food to eat, homes to live in, and opportunities abounded. But over time, as it happens, the Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them. They were forced into labor, and eventually every male child born to a Hebrew woman was killed for fear that they would grow to rebel against the Egyptians.

Moses was born during this time and was saved by his mother by placing him in a basket to float down the Nile River. Moses grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.

God commanded Moses to have the people to slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors; this was to be a sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborn males of Egypt. While waiting in the night, God implored the people to gird their loins and prepare to depart because their time of delivery had come near.

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to remember the sacred and holy moment when God delivered God’s people out of slavery.

Jesus had gathered in the upper room with his friends to celebrate Passover. They sat around the table to remember what God had done long ago and be thankful. While they were eating Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

While they were remembering God’s actions from the past, Jesus said, “I am doing a new thing. I am delivering my body and my blood for you and the world.”

He took the Passover celebration, and assigned it to the great sacrifice he was about to make. Not only would the meal be a remembrance of God’s mighty acts, but also a testimony to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. The disciples would remember God delivering the people out of bondage in Egypt, and would now remember Jesus delivering the people out of bondage to sin and death. Whereas God brought the people into the holy land through the waters, God was now about to bring the people into resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice.

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This is Good News for us, but it is also heavy news. Many of us buckle under the weight of knowing that Christ would give his life for us, but then we remember that Peter and Judas were at the table that night as well. We remember that in short time, the disciples who received the bread and cup would abandon Jesus to his cross and death. But he gave his life for them and us anyway.

So here we are, millennia later, remembering Jesus’ give of body and blood in the bread and cup. We remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance for the Hebrew people. But God’s power is not limited to the distant past. It is made available to each of us here and now.

At our tables, we are going to remember what God has done for us before we feast. With the people next to you I want you to discuss the following questions: What has God done for you? How have you seen God at work in your life recently? And what has God delivered you from?

 

I have seen God at work with our youth. Each week the youth of our church gather for an hour to share communion, fellowship, and bible study. We have examined some of the great moments from both the Old and New Testaments, we have learned about one another’s lives, and we always take time to remember Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Over the last year I have seen the youth transformed by the grace of God. Whereas they began meeting sheepishly and nervous to share about their lives, we now know each other well enough to check in on everyone without have to be prompted. Whereas they might have giggled during the first time we celebrated communion, they now respectfully and faithfully outstretch their hands to receive the bread and the cup.

Through the work of this church, God has delivered our youth from lives of selfishness to lives of appreciation. They have been delivered out of isolation into a community that genuinely cares about their well-being. They have experienced God’s love and it will stay with them forever.

Whenever we gather at God’s table, and particularly on Maundy Thursday, it is a time for us to confess where we have fallen short, recognize our forgiveness, share peace with one another, and give thanks to God for our deliverance. We remember where God has showed up in our lives, and the lives of others, because it retunes us into God’s frequency. We remember Jesus sharing the bread and the cup because he has shared it with the world. We remember in order to transform the world. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
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The topic of “blessings” occurs regularly in our Bible studies at St. John’s. We can be reading from the Old or the New Testament, we can be reading a Psalm or an Epistle, we can be reading a genealogy or one of the miracles of Jesus, and the conversation almost always turns to how we take out blessings for granted. There is something inherent in scripture that works like a mirror, forcing us to confront ourselves in the text.

Yesterday morning, while we were reading about the episode of Jesus with the woman at the well, we started off by praying over the text, and before long one of our group members started to reflect on her blessings: “I am so blessed. I’ve got a great family and home. I have a church that cares about me. But I am even more blessed than that. I wish I could realize that every single day, every single breath, is a gift. And I wish I could stop taking these gifts for granted.”

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For many of us, life feels like a train that keeps moving in one direction and we barely have time to admire the scenery passing out windows. Time rolls like a blur and we neglect to be thankful for the present because we are always looking toward the future. The psalmist’s words then confront us in our fast-paced lifestyles: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I use these words to mark the beginning of worship at St. John’s because gathering in our sanctuary is a gift that God has given. It is not something we should take for granted. But can you imagine how differently we would live if we started every morning with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of your life every morning rather than just once in a while?

This week, let us use the words of Psalm 118 to mark our mornings. Instead of waking up and rushing to catch up with the train of life, let us take a slow breath and say: “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do this, we will begin to stop taking our lives for granted, and we can give God thanks for all of our many blessings.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

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This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

Bryson City UMC

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

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But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Return to the Lord – Ash Wednesday Homily

Joel 2.12-17

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

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While I was growing up, I remember being jealous off all the Christians with ashes on their foreheads every year. I grew up in a church that did not celebrate Ash Wednesday and so it always came as sort of a shock when I would get to school on a Wednesday morning and a whole bunch of people were walking around with smudges on their skin. Part of my jealously stemmed from the fact that they were excused from being on time in the morning and got to miss part of a class. But the depth of my envy came from the fact that they stood out for what they believed.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the crosses stood for or why they used ashes, I just thought they looked cool. I can vividly recall the feeling of spiritual inadequacy I experienced because I felt like, even though I went to church every week, I would never compare with the Ash Wednesday Christians. For years I witnessed their piety and was jealous.

When I finally got to an age and a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday, and I sat down in front of a pastor like all of you are doing right now, I was shocked by the words I heard: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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For centuries Christians like you and I have gathered to mark the beginning of Lent with this solemn and holy service. Lent is a season set apart for renewal and repentance. Lent is a time for us to confront our brokenness. Lent is a time to give thanks for our blessings and stop taking them for granted.

These ashes convey our willingness to confront mortality. We hear, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a reminder that the bell will toll for us all. This moment is a public witness to our need to return to the Lord.

The prophet Joel describes our need for repentance and renewal through the voice of the Lord: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Return to me, for I am gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

We know not when our days will end, and because of this we need to embrace each and every day for the gift that it is. I’m not saying we should spend the next 40 days contemplating death every single moment, but instead this season should be a time filled with gratitude for all of our blessings.

Ashes are a reminder for all of us, young and old alike, that life is precious. Because when we hear the words, and when we feel ashes crossed against our foreheads, we confront our limited time on earth. These ashes should prevent us from moving through each day without reflection, they should caution us against rehashing the old arguments and frustrations, they should shock us into giving thanks right here and right now.

God encourages us to use this season, a time that begins right now, as an opportunity to return to the Lord with our hearts, with outwards signs like fasting, praying, and reading. Take this time and embrace the gift that it is by doing things like reconcile with people that you have been arguing with, open up your bibles and discover the richness of God’s Word, and resist the temptation to believe that you are invincible.

I’ve been a pastor long enough now to have placed ashes on individual’s foreheads and then eventually place dirt on their coffins as they are lowered into the ground. I have stood in this sanctuary and made the sign of the cross with ashes on people who have returned to the dust from whence they came. So take this sign, take these ashes, and make good with the life you’ve been given. Stop taking your blessings for granted. Love one another. Give thanks for what you have. And return to the Lord. Amen.

 

Softly and Tenderly

Revelation 21.1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

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Revelation is full of some of the most bizarre imagery in all of Christianity. Pick up the bible; flip all the way to the end, and what you find sounds like the stuff that some people will scream out from the street corners of life. In Revelation we read about beasts and dragons and lambs, we catch a glimpse of the bowls of God’s wrath, and the destruction of the world.

It is an often-ignored book of the bible, and for good reason. Revelation has been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries, as zealous Christians believed they were seeing the images of the book before their eyes and acted accordingly. It rests at the foundation for some of the strangest modern Christian literature. And it accounts for the never-ending amount of fundamentalist preachers who claim to know the exact day of calamity that will bring about the end of the existence.

Growing up in the church, I can barely remember ever hearing about Revelation. On Sunday mornings we were more inclined to hear about the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, or the great narratives of Genesis, than we were to hear about visions of God’s power and destruction. Even today as a pastor, I am ashamed to admit that after leading worship for two and a half years, I have only preached on Revelation once, and frankly it was to talk about the writer of Revelation more than the text itself.

Yet, if regular worship ignores the power of Revelation, funerals are the place where it is most needed.

It is no accident that the text we read this morning has been used and associated with Christian burials for nearly as long as the church has existed. When faithful disciples gather for services of death and resurrection, Revelation 21.1-6 needs to be read precisely because of what it proclaims. This handful of verses offers evocative and moving images of comfort to those of us who live past our friends and family who die, and for those of us who live in troubled times.

John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, saw a map of the future; a description of what God will do in time. From his vantage point John witnessed a new heaven and a new earth. All that we have come to know had passed away from recognition, and even the sea was no more. But there in the sky John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride for her husband. Like the wonderful moment of a bride walking down the aisle in church, with all of the joy and expectation of a new and beautiful future, God’s city came to rest with God’s creation.

And then John heard a loud and booming voice declare, “See God’s home is now with mortals. God will live with them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will cease to exist; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things have passed away and God’s divine reality will reign forever.

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And the one seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new! Write this down because it is trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

John’s words are a consolation, a vision of hope for a people in distress. These words have brought comfort to countless Christians throughout the centuries, from the earliest disciples persecuted for their faith to those who still live in fear because of what they believe. And at funerals, they help to remind each of us about God’s love in the past, present, and future.

It was freezing outside as we all gathered around the grave. We had gone through the funeral service in the sanctuary, we had praised God in spite of loss, we had remembered the saint’s life that were now about to bury in the ground, and we had somberly marched into the cemetery with our heads hung low.

There is a strange thing that happens between the sanctuary service and the graveside. The finality of death takes on an entirely new and deeper meaning as you witness a casket or urn prepared to be lowered into the earth. Gone are the familiar smells and sights of the sanctuary only to be replaced with the sounds of nature and the smell of dirt.

We stood there and patiently waited for the family to gather as close as possible, and then every eye turned to me. When we mourn the dead, we become helpless and rely on someone to guide us through the right words and actions, hoping that the pastor will be true to the life and death of our beloved while declaring the hope of the resurrection.

Every person shivered in the wind. I offered prayers and scriptures reflective of the person’s life, I made time for silence so that we could all properly reflect on what we were doing, and then I walked over the casket. I reached down to the ground, and like I had countless times before, I grabbed the loose soil and dropped it onto the wood. And then with my hands resting on the casket I began to sing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O Sinner come home. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.

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The beauty of Revelation 21 is in the discovery that God will dwell with us, and the home of God will be with us. The hope of the text is the fact that God will call for all of us to come home at one point or another. The bell will toll for us all, but death has lost its sting because of the gift and grace of Jesus Christ.

Since becoming a pastor, I have had to bury a lot of saints, those faithful servants of God’s kingdom who witnessed in their lives to the love of God. While I have sat with numerous friends and families as we mourned the dead I have been brought back to this passage in Revelation that describes the beautiful future in store for us. And though we weep here and now on earth, we wait for that glorious day when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and we live and with the One who reigns forever.

Today we honor the saints who have come before us, whose examples we wish to follow. God has gathered us in this place to remember what the saints did with their lives, and give thanks for their witness. The saints of faith are our brothers and sisters who risked in all for the sake of Christ.

Today we remember those from this church who have died in the last year, and we join in mourning with all of their friends and families. We remember George Harris, Howard Cassidy, Ray Lancaster, John Taylor, Sam Folkes, Jerry Pangburn, Jo Anne Berg, Dick Dickerson, Lucy Wisely, Frances Pack, Frank Rankin, and Steve Wisely. Some of us have the privilege to recall the life lessons they shared with us, we can remember admiring them for their faith, and we can even picture where they used to worship in this sanctuary.

To hear their names while hearing the words of God from Revelation is to join in solidarity with the saints of our lives and be strengthened by their witness; we too can be saints if our lives become examples of God’s love and compassion toward others.

Being a saint is not something that just happens when we die, but is a worthy goal in the here and now. Instead of lazily watching the days of life pass by, we can embrace God’s call on our lives to start bringing about glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. This vision of the new heaven is available to us because God continues to make all things new, even us.

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So where do we begin? We begin by looking to the place where God dwells with mortals: worship. We start our saintly lives by mirroring the saints who have come before us. We give thanks for their witness remembering that they modeled their lives after Christ and we start doing the same.

We look for the living saints in the pews next to us. We ask for their prayers to give us the grace to be better Christians, we seek them out for advice, and we rely on their teachings. We begin seeing the pews not as walls of division, but instead as avenues of connection.

And then we come to the table and feast from the bread and the cup being strengthened for the work of ministry in the world. We start seeing this table as the connection between past, present, and future, as we remember all who have feasted before us and that this is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.

We can start living like saints because we belong to a communion of saints. We can start living like saints because Jesus gave his life to destroy the powers of death. We can start living like saints because God makes all things new. Amen.

Devotional – James 3.5

 

Devotional:

James 3.5

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

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On Sunday morning, during the Sunday school hour, I asked the group if they could remember a mean comment someone had made in the past. I was trying to prepare us for a discussion on the fact that in Mark 7 Jesus basically calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog and what it means to wrestle with the text. I myself can remember of number of negative comments from my childhood, moments when I was made fun of by fellow students, or a harsh criticism from a former Scout Master. But one of the women from the Sunday school class shared that, out of all the experiences she had as a teacher, she will never forget the one boy who waited till the end of the year to tell her that she was mean.

What is it about words that make them so powerful? How strange is it that one of the greatest tools of humanity can both give life and destroy life? The expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a worthy thing to teach young children so as to not let comments destroy us, but the expression isn’t really true; names can hurt, and they can stay with us for years and years.

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Just ask a preacher about the power a comment can make right before or after a worship service. Just ask a teacher about the power a comment can make on an end of the year evaluation. Just ask a student about the power a comment can make during the first few weeks of a new school year. Just reflect on your own life and soon enough you will surely remember a time when the power of words was almost unbearable.

The tongue is a small thing, yet it has great power. James reminds us that even the greatest fires were started with a tiny spark. In all of our actions as Christians, the many ways we demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, the way we use our words might be the most powerful.

This week, let us reflect on the times that we have experienced the harsh reality of the power of words. How have we continued to carry those comments around, and how have we let them reshape our lives? Similarly, let us pray for God to give us the strength to use our words wisely toward others so that we might build people up, rather than break them down.

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Who Are You? – Sermon on James 1.17-27

James 1.17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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The small town sheriff was frustrated when he received a phone-call from the station that interrupted his Sunday supper. A report had come in that a group of young boys were throwing water balloons at strangers walking along Main Street. Reluctantly, the sheriff changed out of his Sunday best into his uniform and went to find the hooligans.

Just as the report noted, a group of young boys were standing on a street corner with a bucket of water balloons and were striking anyone within distance. As he approached in his patrol car, he expected to hear the boys laughing and hollering, but they were rather silent as he inched his way forward. He recognized all the boys from his local church, and dreaded the phone calls he would be making to all of their parents, but he knew their behavior had to stop.

The boys were smart enough not to throw a balloon at the police car, but the sheriff was still nervous to roll down his window in case a wayward throw made it inside. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled to the boys. In unison they all solemnly replied, “we’re working for the Lord.” He was mystified by their response, after all how could throwing water balloons at strangers be equated with the almighty? So the sheriff sat in his car with one eyebrow raised and motioned for them to explain.

The ringleader then stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you hear the preacher this morning sheriff? He told us to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve got Holy Water Balloons and we’ve done already made 45 Christians.”

Every good thing in our lives, every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, every blessing, every compliment, is from above.

Throughout our days, the Lord nurtures, guides, and provides all that we need. More often than not, God uses the people around us to do so, but nevertheless God supplies the goodness in our lives.

The letter of James is beautiful, and it begins with a quick assessment of the discipled life and what it means to live into this identity.

James knew how to notice the small things, because the small acts of life are the nuts and bolts of existence. It is the little things, the small actions and the tiny compliments, that hold together the fabric of our lives and give us the power to build and shape community. What we say and how we act are more important than we can possibly imagine.

The Lord has given us new life by the Word of truth and the power of scripture so that we would become a kind of first fruits. We have been given the great blessings of God’s presence, scripture, and Jesus Christ and now we have the responsibility to let those blessings bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives around us.

We must understand this, children of God, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. How many times have we jumped to a conclusion, or said something without thinking it through and immediately regretted it? How valuable is James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

Our contemporary conversations are filled with “uhhs” “buts” “likes” and other verbal bridges because we are afraid of silence. Rather than actually listening to others, or at least giving them the chance to speak, we fill up every ditch between our words out of fear that someone else will jump in with something else to say. Imagine how much our relationships would change if we only heeded James’ words in our conversations? Can you picture how different our identities would be if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

If we have the strength to change the way we converse, then we will begin to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to change the world. Instead of relying on our own words at all times and places, with patience we can remember the great Word of God in Jesus Christ and put all our trust in him. Instead of believing that we are alone in the world and in our situations, we will come to see that God is with us, and has carried God’s people through this before and will again.

But it’s not just about the words we use and speak, as Christians we are invited to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Have you ever departed from church on a Sunday morning, after hearing a particularly convicting message, only to believe that it had nothing to do with you? Have you ever picked up the bible and started reading only to think about the other people the scripture should apply to instead of you?

For if we are hearers of the word and not doers, then we are like those who look at a mirror and as soon as we walk away immediately forget who we are. Our identities are rooted in the scriptures we read, and in the water of our baptism. But too often, we leave from church, or we put down the bible, or the water dries from our hair, and we immediately forget who we are and whose we are.

If church is supposed to accomplish anything on a regular basis, it is to act like a giant mirror so that we catch a glimpse of who God is calling us to be, and then never forget what we have seen.

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It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and Javier was afraid. For months news pundits and writers speculated about the “end of the world” coming with the year 2000. In addition to some strange and warped biblical prophecies, technologically proficient workers warned about the change that might come with the digits 99 changing to 00 and the blackouts that could ensue. For weeks people throughout the world prepared for the worst, and the rhetoric about the end times increased.

So Javier found himself getting ready to attend a worship service with his family and friends in El Salvador on the eve of the new millennium and he was afraid. The service itself was fine; it proclaimed the word of God’s faithfulness in spite the warnings about the new millennium, yet Javier could not rid himself of the fear that was shaking him to his core. Before the service came to a close, Javier stood up, walked to the front and asked to be baptized. He did not know what the New Year would bring, he did not know what would happen to the world, but he figured that a little water on his head couldn’t hurt.

Except, that simple affirmation that God was bigger than himself, that simple humbled moment of reverence to God’s power to save was enough to change Javier’s life forever. Of course, the year 2000 did not bring about the end of the world, but it did bring about Javier’s new identity in Jesus Christ. From that night forward he saw himself as a disciple and has lived into that ever sense.

My own baptism took place when I was 19 days old. Other than some strange blurry photographs of my mother and father standing at the front of the church, I have no idea what it was like or what happened. But it came to shape my very identity. The people who were present in worship that day 27 year ago took seriously the commitment to raise me in faith, and helped me hold on to my identity in Jesus.

The Sunday before I became the pastor at St. John’s I stood before my home congregation and thanked them for nurturing me in the faith all these years and said goodbye. But while I stood in the narthex shaking hands after the service, a much older woman came up with a very worn bible in her hands. Without saying much she turned to the back inside cover and showed me my name and the date of my baptism. For decades she had written down the name and date of every person baptized in her presence and made a point to pray for every single one of them, every single day. Her prayers shaped me into who I am.

Those of us to look in the mirror and remember who we are when we walk away, those of us who are doers of the word will be blessed in our actions. Our religion is pure when we, like the disciples from long ago, actually live into the Word of God and start caring about the people in our midst. Our religion is pure when we clasp our hands together and pray for the world. Our religion is pure when we remember our baptisms and are thankful.

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Who are you?

What defines your identity?

Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are. Instead of seeing disciples of Jesus Christ in the mirror, we only see fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Instead of holding on the image of God in our hearts, we turn away from the mirror of church and we immediately forget what God is speaking into our lives.

Do you remember your baptism? Can you recall the details of what eventually led you to yearn for the water of a new identity? Were you, like Javier, led to baptism out of fear? Were you, like me, led to baptism before you even had a chance to know what was happening?

Baptism is not about quantity; we’re not interested in throwing Holy Water Balloons at everyone within distance. Baptism is instead about discovering our fullest identity in Christ through a covenant by water and the Spirit.

Today, we are all invited to remember our baptisms and be thankful. In a few moments I will pray over our baptismal font, and everyone may come forward to remember and give thanks. The mirror behind the water is there for us to take a good look, so that when we turn around we will not forget who we are.

Disciples of Jesus Christ: Remember that every good thing is from above, that God has given us the word of truth so that we may bear fruit in our lives. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. Amen.

The Shadow of the Cross – Good Friday Homily on Luke 23.32-46

Luke 23.32-46

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one of his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

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Religious people aren’t supposed to fail, or suffer, or get arrested. They’re not supposed to hang out with vagrants, and criminals, and failures. Religious people are supposed to live good lives, surrounded by good people, doing good things. They’re supposed to have life all figured out, to be content, and to be filled with joy.

Jesus was beaten, dirtied, and was marched to his death with two criminals. While they walked along the way, the few disciples who had yet to abandon him must’ve lost all their hope; their Messiah was carrying a cross to the place called The Skull where he was to be crucified. Yet while the crowds screamed and threw their complaints into the air, Jesus calmly forged ahead with his eyes on the ground and the cross digging into his shoulder.

When they arrived on the hill, the guards nailed Jesus and the two thieves to their crosses and hung them in the air. The crowds must have grown larger the closer they came to the place and they hurled insults at the man in the air, ridiculing him for all that he had said and done. With the chaos erupting around him, Jesus bowed his head to speak with his Father: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” 

In the entirety of the Christian year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the least attended services. Christmas Eve and Easter are big days in the life of the church because we celebrate the incarnation and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are all about death; “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

We don’t want to talk about death, we don’t want to talk about our own suffering, we don’t want to “bring other people down.

One of the things that surprises me most about funerals is our inability to confront death. When I preside over services of death and resurrection I am tasked with talking about, and affirming, the one thing that most people are afraid of: death being real. The juxtaposition between a funeral and the reception afterwards is sometimes nauseating.

Here in the sanctuary we speak the truth about death, we begin the process of grieving, we talk about what the person did with their lives and we acknowledge the void we now feel. But then I go to a reception and everyone wants to talk about everything else: March Madness brackets, the latest movies, new restaurants, and children’s activities. I’m not saying that we need to wallow in the sadness of death, but it is clear that we want to avoid death because it stinks.

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By the time Jesus made it to the cross, the disciples had all cleared out. They had abandoned him for the same reasons that we avoid death today, it is too frightening, too heavy, and too sad.

The people began to mock the messiah in the tree: “he saved others; let him save himself if he really is the Messiah!” The soldiers taunted him with sour wine and scream out: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And above his head they hung a sign containing his conviction: “This is the King of the Jews.”

Verbal attacks kept pouring in from the ground, but the scene now moves to the air. One of the criminals rebuked Jesus: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!” But the other criminal spoke up, “we are getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus please remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

For the next three hours darkness came over the whole land and the temple curtain was town in two. Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.And he died.

For a long time I always inserted myself into the story as the forgiven criminal. I believed that even at the end I would’ve understood what Jesus was doing. As I grew older I started seeing myself as one of the disciples who abandoned the Lord and was nowhere to be found. I recognized that my faith isn’t as strong as I would like it to be, and that I would’ve been more concerned with my safety than with Jesus on the cross. But now, now I see myself as one of the bystanders who was there on Palm Sunday screaming “Hosanna” and then quickly began to scream “crucify!” a few days laters.

We sinners are lousy and fall short of God’s glory. We avoid people who are not like us, we want to shy away from common criminals, we want our lives to be perfect, and organized, and clean, and comfortable. And more often than not we enjoy witnessing the suffering of others.

But there is no shade in the shadow of the cross.

It is vitally important for us to remember that Jesus Christ was executed as a criminal among criminals! His death was made real on a cross because it warned the people about crimes agains the state and it added shame, pain, and public ridicule.

From the cross Jesus had no anger, only peace. He did not save himself, instead he saved a criminal. He did not thrash about with frustration, instead he was filled with serenity. He did not doubt God’s presence, he only trusted and kept faith.

Death is messy and ugly. I have been in enough hospitals, and stood over enough caskets to know how frightening death can be. Jesus’ death was likewise ugly. It was filled with shame and embarrassment. How did this prophetic Messiah go from the crowds cheering his name to being killed on a cross? How did he go from having faithful disciples to spending his finals moments with two criminals?

Jesus’ crucifixion was dirty and shameful. Yet, the hardest thing to comprehend is his willingness to forgive. More than the physical suffering and his literal death, his forgiving spirit is what stops us in our tracks when we read these words from so long ago.

From the cross Jesus announces forgiveness – this is the heart of the Gospel, it is the crux of the story, and it is what we are called to do if we are to follow him.

Last year I asked us to look at the cross and live. I implored us to give thanks to God for dying in Christ on our behalf to save us. I handed out crosses so that we might ponder the kind of divine love that was made real for us. I asked us to look at the cross and live.

This year I want to ask us to look at the cross and forgive. If Jesus was willing to use some of his final breaths to forgive the crowds for betraying him and bringing him to the cross, why are we so unwilling to forgive? If Jesus was so filled with love, shouldn’t we do the same?

Being a Christian is messy, ugly, and frightening if we are willing to follow Jesus. If we really want to be like him, then we have to start by forgiving others, and forgiving ourselves.

Amen.

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