Approaching Spiritual Doom

Psalm 19.14

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. 

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I’ve been doing some thinking, which is a dangerous thing these days…

Things are pretty messed up right now. People are lobbing destructive claims about other people in their communities simply because of the color of their skin or their political affiliation. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the violence they might experience. Great sums of people are making their way through life day after day without any hope of a better future.

We, as a people, are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. We worship our bank accounts. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We, as a people, spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on all of the programs of social uplift combined. This is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We, as a people, perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of ever 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

We, as a people, enable gross injustices each and every day: racial, economic, gendered, and social injustices. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something has to change.

How are you feeling right now having read those words? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are planning to go out and do something about them? Or are you clenching your fists in anger because you feel like I’ve criticized our country and culture?

Most of what I just wrote did not come from me, but from another preacher, one who was responsible for many of us not having to go to work yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say that like what I wrote that he was murdered.

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When we think about Dr. King or even when we learned about him in school, he is often white-washed and whittled down to the “I Have A Dream Speech.” But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote, or one speech, or even one issue. 

All of what we do as a church was handed down to us by those who came before us. The same was true for Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which gave him the confidence to say and believe that God could make the impossible possible.

He, more than most, prayed for his words and his meditations to be worthy of the One who hung on the hard wood of the cross for people like us.

When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us! 

Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered.

Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.

One of the hardest prayers to pray is one that’s even harder to live out. Because if we really want our words and meditations to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord they might lead us toward the valley of the shadow of death. But what is resurrection if not a promise that death is not the end?

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Devotional – John 11.35

 

Devotional:

John 11.35

Jesus began to weep.

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In Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor he recounts the death and funeral of his mother after having buried countless church members throughout his life. As he stood before the gathered people his emotions came to a precipice and he could no longer contain himself. He writes:

“While I was reading the scriptures, tears erupted. I tried to hold them back, then gave in. I remember thinking, ‘All these people get to grieve, now it’s my turn,’ and let it come, sobbing uncontrollably. After thirty seconds or so, I recovered my composure and finished what I was doing. After the benediction, I didn’t want to see anyone and slipped into a room just off the chancel. My daughter, Karen, came in and sat beside me, without words, putting her hand on my thigh. And then a man I didn’t know came in, put his arm across my shoulder, spoke for three of four minutes in preacher clichés, and prayed. After he left I said, ‘Oh Karen, I hope I have never done that to anyone.’” (Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 294)

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Across the great scope of Christianity, many churches will celebrate All Saints Day this Sunday. In the United Methodist Church we will use this particular opportunity in worship to remember the Saints of the church as well as all Christians both past and present. It is a time set apart to reflect on the many people who have shaped our lives, the grief we still feel regarding their deaths, and the hope of the promised resurrection.

All Saints is not a time for “preacher clichés.” It is not a time for churches to claim that God “just wanted another angel in heaven.” It is not a time for us to seek out those who are grieving and tell them how they are supposed to grieve (or worse: telling them they are supposed to be done grieving).

All Saints is a time for tears. Just like when Eugene Peterson’s wept over the death of his mother, and just like when Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, it is good for us to grieve those who have died. This Sunday is a moment in the life of the church where we do well to let our emotions get the best of us and offer up our losses and sadness. Because it is in our grief that we really begin to appreciate those who have died and the ways they continue to shape our lives.

This week, as we prepare for All Saints Day, let us take time to reflect and pray for the people who have died in our lives. Let us thank God for their witness to God’s grace. And let us strive to sit alongside those who are grieving and bless them with our presence more than our words.

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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.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 2.9

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 2.9

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

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All Saints’ Day is a strange celebration in the worship life of church. As United Methodists, we will gather together next Sunday to remember those who have gone on to glory; we will honor their lives, deaths, and promised resurrections. For a young pastor the celebration of All Saints is one that I look forward to in order to help the still grieving families mourn appropriately, but it is also a sacred day of privileged preaching that cannot be taken lightly.

I have been a pastor for 1 year and 4 months. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far, and I continually feel that I am exactly where God has called me to be, and doing what God has called me to do. Throughout the first year, no one died in our church community. (They tell you in seminary to prepare yourself for a funeral your first week in the church; but for me that did not happen) We celebrated some incredibly special moments together in worship: baptisms, professions of faith, weddings, confirmation, the Eucharist. But we did not gather together for a funeral. While so many of my clergy colleagues felt fatigued under the tidal wave of death that was striking their local churches, I felt guilty for making it through a year without having to do a funeral.

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Over the last few months, however, we have lost 6 church members in quick succession. While sitting with families in the deep and dark moments of planning a funeral after the loss of a loved one, I was also worried about someone that had just entered the hospital, or received a bleak diagnosis. Death, it seemed, had caught up with us.

Church is often made out to be a place of sacred happiness where people can discover an element of joy and grace that they might not otherwise find. Yet at the same time, the church is one of the last arenas of reality. It used to be that people feared having a quick death. They did so because they feared dying without having the time to be reconciled with their enemies, who were often members of their family, the church and God. Today we fear death. They feared God.

All Saints is a time for us to remember the great promise that God made with us when Jesus was resurrected from the dead: that we are not alone and that Christ has defeated death. This does not mean that we will not die, but it means that death is not the end.

As we prepare for All Saints’ Sunday, let us remember the “labor and toil” of those who have gone on to glory, those who “worked night and day, so that we might not be burdened while we learned about the gospel of God.” Let us remember our own finitude and give thanks to God for not abandoning us. And let us praise the Lord who defeated death so that we might have life.

Devotional – Psalm 25.7

Devotional:

Psalm 25.7

Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! 

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When I was in seminary Will Willimon used to talk a lot about how strange it was to serve communion to the parishioners of his church when he truly knew what was going on in their lives. He told a story once about how he was asked by the police to help settle a domestic dispute between some of his parishioners. Apparently the couple would have a big brawl and fight every spring and the police were used to the annual fight and debauchery. Will did his best to bring about a calm solution but he was shocked to discover the couple sitting in the pews the following morning, as if nothing happened.

Since the beginning of the church broken families, miserable relationships, and struggling sinners have gathered at the table and received the body and blood of Christ. What became important for Will was the understanding that he was not the one to judge their pasts, but that Christ “invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”

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Some of the most precious conversations I have on a regular basis are with people who have not been to church in a very long time, or they have never entered a church at all; everything is new, exciting, and mysterious. I remember in particular a Sunday evening during college when a number of my friends, including non-church goers, came to support me when I preached at a local church. They listened carefully to the sermon, struggled to sing along with the songs, but when it was time for communion they sat there stunned. I motioned for them to go up to the front, if they felt comfortable, but they looked at me as if they were unworthy. In their faces I could tell that even though they did not fully grasp the significance of the table, they held a respect for it and were worried that the sins of their youth negated their invitation to receive the body and blood. In my life there have been few moments as wonderful as when I was able to look at my friends and tell them that they were invited, that God loved them no matter what they had done, and that God goodness knows no bounds.

It is an incredible thing that God does not judge us by the sins of our youth or the transgressions of our pasts, but remembers us according to God’s steadfast love. As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us give thanks to the God whose love is beyond all things, to the God who remembers us for who we truly are, to the God whose table is always open.