Stuck In The Middle With You

Luke 3.1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!” 

“Repent, for the end is near!”

The words echoed across the campus. 

He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.

Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.

But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe? 

And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.

Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.

The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.

This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

maxresdefault-2

The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.

And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.

It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful. 

The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.

The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.

The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.

A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.

He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!

Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.

But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.

Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.

And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.

They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.

John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.

John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world. 

John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.

I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.

I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”

He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”

Xmas_lights_DC

Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom. 

In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.

Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear. 

But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?

The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:

We cannot save ourselves.

We cannot save anyone else. 

And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival. 

Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.

It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.

We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.

We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.

And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.

Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.

A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.

We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.

It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen. 

Metanoia

Devotional:

Psalm 111.10

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Reaching new Christians, finding a way to engage with the so-called “nones” (no religious affiliation), is all the rage these days. Countless books are published about growing church by reaching new people, there are symposiums offered on the subject, and there are even “3-step programs” online about how to knock on strangers doors with the hope of getting them to become Christians.

Since the days of the first disciples the church has grown and changed with the addition of new people. Though, for the majority of the church’s life, it was not done by what we might call evangelism today. Instead it was either a matter of public normativity to be involved in a church, or people were forced into the realities of the church by overextending powers like the nation-state.

Today, however, Christians might canvas certain public spaces in order to “grow the church” by asking people to repent of their sins. Repentance, after all, is what John the Baptist was calling for in the wilderness and it’s what Jesus called his followers to do. But using it as the beginning of faith, as the mechanism by which people are initiated into the church, often falls flat.

karl-barth-smoking

Many years ago the theologian Karl Barth met with a group of Swiss Methodists and they had a rather interesting exchange on the same subject:

Methodist: “Should the church, in its proclamation to modern people, follow the example of Jesus and quite decisively call them to metanoia (repentance) as the first conscious step that initiates discipleship to Christ?”

Barth: “Certainly, this question causes some upset. But to my knowledge Jesus called the pious people of his time to metanoia. These people were the theologians, the scribes, the Pharisees (the Pietists back then and maybe as well as the Methodists just a little bit), and then the Sadducees (these were the liberals). And so it makes me uncomfortable when this picture emerges: the church stands here, and over there are modern people – and now we, the Christians, call for metanoia. Is not metanoia something above all else that we must call ourselves to do, us and those like us? I would say this about our established church. It is precisely the church that actually has need of metanoia!

(Barth in Conversation, Volume 1 1959-1962)

Metanoia, the act of repenting for sins, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, but that doesn’t mean it should be the first entry point for exploring Christianity. Who wants to join a group where the first thing you are called to admit is your wrong being? Barth was right to call the church to repent first, because the church (today) often appears to be extremely judgmental and archaic. When the church leads the way with metanoia, when the church looks in on itself and admits its faults and failure, it then can encounter those outside with an open heart to the way God is moving in the world.

Metanoia, like fear, is the beginning of wisdom, because in (re)turning toward God we are struck by the profound truth that God chooses us in spite of our faults and failures. God still sends us Jesus knowing full and well that we will have to repent again and again. God makes a way where there was no way for us to enter into the kingdom on earth. But it begins with our metanoia.

Or, to put it another way, we have to get our house in order before we worry about anyone else.

Or, to put it yet another way, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

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?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

ashes

If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 58.1

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Weekly Devotional Image

If there’s one thing that most us have in common, it’s a dislike for hearing about our own sinfulness. Most of us are fine with raising the sins of other people, in fact some of us actually delight in bringing up the failures of others, but when we’re asked to take a good hard look in the mirror we’d rather turn away.

My suspicion is that we enjoy the sins of others because it makes us feel like we have our lives together. When we hear about that couple whose relationship is on the rocks, it makes us feel like the last argument we had with our spouse wasn’t really that bad. When we receive word that one of our children’s classmates is repeating a grade, it makes us feel like even though we know we could do more at least our kid is moving on. When we turn on the television and witness scenes of celebrities entering rehab facilities, it makes our addictions look manageable and therefore unnecessary to confront.

what-is-sin

But then the Word of the Lord beckons our attention through the sands of time: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

The challenge with this, of course, is that we are not necessarily the ones meant to do the shouting! The prophet Isaiah was given this unenviable task, and today we are the ones meant to receive this, and therefore the Lord’s, condemnation.

How often have we ignored our own sins while identifying the sins of others? How often have we continued down a path of pain and shame knowing full and well the results of our actions? How often have we heard a challenging word in Church only to think about who else it might apply to instead of ourselves?

The season of Lent, which we enter into on Ash Wednesday, is no easy thing. We embark on this journey through a strange season every year as a way to stand before the mirror of truth and see who we really are. It is a time of repentance for what we’ve done, and a time for listening about how God is calling us out of the pit of our sin. It is the liturgy (ie. work of the people) designed to give us the strength to hear about our rebellion, and do something about it.

Devotional – Psalm 32.5

Devotional:

Psalm 32.5

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Weekly Devotional Image

There is a shop in Alexandria, VA called “The Variety Store” that truly contains a variety of items. Some of my earliest memories are of walking up and down all the aisles with my mother struggling to take in all the strange things I was seeing. There was an aisle full of ribbons, an aisle of ceramic dinnerware, an aisle of candy, and much more. It was a treat to witness the enormity of “The Variety Store” as a child, though it feels a lot smaller now than it did then.

Once, when my mother brought me into the store for some light shopping, I made my way to the toy aisle and just stood in awe of everything. And, as was my custom, I picked up a yellow smiley-face bouncy ball and bounced it all around the store with my her while she collected her items for purchase. We went through all the necessary aisles, my mother waited in line to pay for everything she found, and then we got in the car to go home. All in all, it was a relatively uneventful journey to the store until I put my hand into my pocket and discovered the bouncy ball. I can remember my entire disposition changing in an instant when I realized that I (accidentally) stole the yellow smiley-face bouncy ball.

ar120274857936808

For the next few minutes, which felt like hours, it burned a whole in my pocket as I walked around my house. Were the police on their way to arrest me for shoplifting? How severely was my Mother going to punish me for stealing a plastic ball that cost a quarter? The fear I experienced was palpable and when I finally mustered up the courage to confess my transgressions to my mother I’m sure that I was in tears.

But the strangest thing happened: As I explained my predicament, and I confessed my wrongdoing, the fear and terror faded away. My mother’s calm demeanor and response comforted me as she forgave me for what happened. Even when we returned to the store and I handed the smiley-face bouncy ball back over to the cashier I experienced forgiveness in a way that I would never forget.

When we can muster up the courage to confront and acknowledge our sins, it relieves us from the burden that comes with the weight of sin. When we have those opportunities to express our shortcomings to one another and to God it allows us to start moving in the right direction in discipleship. This week, let us take time to properly and faithfully acknowledge our sins to God, let us repent our transgressions, and let us rejoice in the forgiveness of our sins.

Devotional: Mark 1.4

Devotional:

Mark 1.4

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

5a41c986c792a4cfdb6fa2be67b9c637

I had been waiting at the garage for longer than I had hoped. I had neglected to take the car in for an inspection during the month of November, and I was running the risk of receiving a ticket for my negligence. I was prepared to speak with my hypothetical police officer about the numerous demands on clergy during Advent, but every time I made the list of excuses in my head, the more pitiful they became. Only after Christmas was I willing to finally bite the bullet and wait for my car to be inspected.

I thought it would be a quick in-and-out appointment, but I continued to sit in the waiting room while my car was being checked out. After thirty minutes, I saw my car coming out of the garage and was re-parked right outside the window. However, when I approached the cashier, she informed me that I still needed to wait. The time passed idly by while I made small talk with the other customers about being a pastor in town and the recent arrival of the holidays, but the repair shop neglected to call my name even while my car was parked outside with a new inspection sticker clearly placed on the front window. I tried to be as patient as possible, but when I could no longer take it I went back to the cashier and explained the situation, to which she apologized for making me wait for nothing, and handed me my keys. She explained that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle and asked if there was anything she could do. I laughed to myself and then said, “It’s okay, I’m a pastor and I’m supposed practice what I preach, including patience.”

FamilyForgive

After church yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were enjoying lunch at a local pizza shop when she brought up the familiar topic of practicing what I preach. The sermon had been about forgiveness and the need to act on the words that we so faithfully pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week, and it was clear the Lindsey wanted to explore the topic further. She spoke in a way that halted and haunted me: “Taylor, you kept talking about our need to forgive. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Or better yet, do you think there’s anyone out there who might be wrestling with whether or not to forgive you?”

John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is too easy, particularly from my side of the pulpit, to neglect the need to repent for my faults, and forgive others around me. It is even harder to open my eyes to the fact that there might be people who have not forgiven me for something I have done. As we take our first steps into 2015, let it be the year we actually practice what we preach. Let us strive to be people of patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Let us be brave with our love, and seek to be truly reconciled with everyone around us.

Three Envelopes – Sermon on Luke 17.1-6

Luke 17.1-6

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Jesus says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”

photo-006

On his very first Sunday at his very first church, a young pastor was appropriately nervous. He tried to make sure all the elements of worship had been taken care of: enough ushers to take up the offertory, a volunteer to lead the children’s message, and a witty (but to the point) sermon that helps to convey the gospel. All things considered the service went very well and the congregation was remarkably kind in the comments immediately following worship. “Maybe this isn’t going to be so hard after all,” the young reverend thought.

And so, after ditching his robe in the office, he locked up the building and made his way into the parking lot. There standing beside an old pick up truck was an older man who seemed more worn and tired than his vehicle. “Great” the pastor thought, “I haven’t even been here for one Sunday and I’ve got people out in the parking lot waiting for something.”

The older man walked quickly across the lot with determination and stopped right in front of the novice preacher. “I know I’m not supposed to do this,” he grumbled, “but I’m the pastor that you’re replacing. I’m not here to tell you what to do, or to warn you about certain people, or even what to preach about. I just wanted you to know that in your office desk I have placed three envelopes numbered accordingly. You look like your fresh out of seminary, so you probably wont even need them. But, just in case: If things ever get really tough open the first envelope.” And with that he turned around, got in the truck, and drove off never to be seen again.

three-envelopes

The first nine months in the church went by like a breeze. This was the honeymoon period that the new pastor had heard about in seminary. The laity were quick to volunteer, and excited about the prospects of starting new programs and opportunities. Church attendance grew a little, but more importantly it did not decline. And the best of all, people were getting along with one another! There was no bickering, no gossip behind closed doors, no confrontations. The young man thought he had it made!

But then, as if it happened over night, everything fell apart. Disagreements about the nursery led to many volunteers no longer attending church, frustrations with the facilities led to disgruntled shufflings during the worship services, and the chair of the church council resigned because his chili did not win during the church chili cook-off. Try as he might, the new pastor could not change anything. He attempted to have meetings with individuals and groups to help create reconciliation, he added more communion services, and he prayed fervently for the church but nothing worked.

One day, while working in his office, he came across the three letters from the former pastor. Seeing as how he was quickly running out of ideas, he presently opened envelope number one and found these words from the former pastor: “I’m so sorry that its come to this. If you have opened the first envelope things have become fairly tumultuous. My advice: Blame it all on me. I’m long gone and most of those people will never see me again. Blame me from the pulpit, in conversations, wherever you see fit and I promise, things will get better.”

Though initially nervous, the young pastor was thrilled to discover that it actually worked. He got up in the pulpit the following Sunday and preached a condemning sermon about the former pastor. “All this fighting, all these disagreements… they’re his fault! He didn’t love you enough, he didn’t pray enough, and he didn’t proclaim the gospel well enough.”

And it worked! People started loving one another again. Attendance picked back up. And there was a positive buzz in the worship space every Sunday morning. However, within a few months, they were back to their same fights and disagreements. It seems that the plan had worked, but it was only a temporary fix for a much bigger problem.

The young pastor then decided it was time for envelope number two: “Blame it all on them! I know this sounds crazy but try it. Show them the error of their ways, that their sins have blinded them from the gospel, and they need to repent. Trust me, things will get better.”

The following Sunday the young pastor stood in the pulpit and preached the most fire and brimstone sermon the church had ever heard. People were quaking in the pews, afraid that the floors would open up, pulling them to the deep pit below. They were confronted with their sinfulness and everyone left in silence.

Again, for whatever reason it worked! The pastor was so thrilled with his ability to so quickly turn his congregation around and make them a people of love rather than hate.

But it was not to be. Before too long they were back to their familiar shenanigans, arguing about Christmas tree sales and Spaghetti dinners, ignorant of the needs of one another, and generally displeased with all things church.

Feeling nearly defeated, the young pastor held on to a smidgen of hope while cradling the third and final envelope. “This one has to work” he thought, “this is my last chance.” And so, upon opening the letter, these were the words he found: “start preparing three envelopes.”

______

Sadly, over the last century, this is how church has been played out in a lot of communities, particularly those of the United Methodist persuasion. Doing church often feels more like a roller coaster ride than a community sustained by love and forgiveness. Fights break about between congregants, arguments over scheduling and planning dominate most conversations, and old grudges are sustained throughout decades. Moreover, pastoral changes occur in an almost rhythmic fashion when things become particularly tough and a congregation is given the opportunity to start all over again.

Jesus-Picture-Last-Supper-With-Disciples-Painting

In our scripture this morning, Jesus paints a very different picture of what it means to be the body of Christ…

Jesus said to his disciples, “Arguments, disagreements, fights, they’re all bound to come, but don’t you dare be the ones to bring about these problems! It would be better for you if your feet were cemented in a bucket and you were thrown into the lake, than for you to be the cause of this frustration! Pay attention! If someone in the church sins, you must confront them, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. Even if that same person bothers you seven times a day, and turns back seven time to apologize, you must forgive.” Then the apostles responded to their Lord, “Please increase our faith!” But Christ responded, “If you even have a smidgen of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to all the trees in your yard, “be uprooted and thrown into the sea,” and they would obey you.”

Now, I think all of here can sympathize with the people who look at Jesus and see only a noble teacher, or only the bearer of ethics, or only a political revolutionary. After all, who Jesus was, what he was trying to accomplish, was far from self-evident. There were people who stood in Jesus’ midst and said, “Truly this is God’s son,” but there appear to be more people who said, “this guy is nuts!” (Willimon, Collected Sermons, 206)

Did you hear what Jesus said to his disciples? “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Really Jesus?

As I’ve remarked on another occasion, there are many passages in scripture that are never read aloud in church, and this is one of them. It makes sense to me why its not part of the lectionary: Jesus is pretty upfront about what it means to be in community, the ramifications of such, and how it gets played out.

Time and time again Jesus said things we wish he had not. I’m not sure of the full ramifications of “hate your mother” or “go and sell everything and give to the poor,” or “turn the other cheek”… Well, to be honest, I do know what he meant when he said those things, but I don’t like it! For most of us, it isn’t that we’ve listened to Jesus and found him perplexing; it’s that we’ve listened to him and found him to be too difficult. (Willimon, Collected Sermons, 207)

Contrary to the church in the story I started with, Jesus calls his community to enter into confrontation, when necessary, while being prepared to forgive. Jesus’ followers are not to stand at a distance from the sinner, observing from safety, but are instead called to actively seek the sinner’s restoration. Rather than being a community where everything is solved from the pulpit, the community of faith according to Christ is one that is lived out between the pews.

Far too often have churches relied on blaming someone or something to solve the surface level problems. Though it was an exaggeration, many churches do in fact function under new leadership by destroying the former pastor. Similarly, many pastors stand in the power of the pulpit casting a shadow across the entire congregation saying you are wrong and I am right. Neither of these practices accomplishes anything, other than a pastor having to start writing his or her own three letters.

One of the ways that we can live into the type of community Christ called us into, rather than one of our own devices, it to remember our Wesleyan roots. John Wesley, and his Methodist movement, always emphasized the responsibility of Christian believers to discipline one another. As the movement spread and Methodist societies/groups began to sprout up, Wesley implored them to begin their weekly meetings by asking each other: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” or “How is it with you soul?”

The Wesleyan movement was largely successful because of this type of practice. Rather than church simply being a thing to do, Wesley rediscovered the importance of living in a community that held one another accountable to the gospel of our Lord.

Now let me be clear, though Wesley had the right point, I’m not advocating for us to greet each other with “so Ken, what sins did you commit this week?” every Sunday. However, I believe we need to reclaim Christ’s call for us to love one another so deeply that we become genuinely concerned with the well being of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sometimes this type of faithfulness and forgiveness feels impossible. To continually love someone so deeply in spite of his or her shortcomings is not easy. Yet, with God all things are possible. God raised a man from the dead. Even our small faith cancels out the impossible; our faith lays hold of the God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship. All it takes is a smidgen, the tiniest amount, of faith to give rise to practices even more extraordinary than we can possibly imagine.

Therefore to do this, to follow Christ’s call from the scripture today is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the majesty and mercy of God.

We are NOT a church of three envelopes! Look around the sanctuary, no literally look around at those in worship, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the fellow disciples that Christ speaks to from the scripture today. Living the way that Christ has prepared for us will be difficult, but our faith, even at its weakest moments, is enough to sustain us as a whole. There might be people in this sanctuary who frustrate you, who get under your skin, and bother you tremendously. There might be people who are bringing down those around them and causing them to stumble. There might be people here that you have never said a word to. Our church is the place where we have the freedom to speak the truth toward one another out of love, the type of place where we forgive when repentance is present even if someone sins seven times against us a day.

communion_elements

In a few moments all of you will be invited to Christ’s table to receive his body and blood. This celebration encompasses for us the entirety of what it means to be Christ’s church. We all fall short of God’s glory and he still waits for us with open arms, beckoning us to join him at the table. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are privileged to nurture one another in faith, to respond with repentance when confronted with our shortcomings, and to be forgiven and continuously reconciled unto one another.

So as we prepare to feast together, remember that living in a community of faith and repentance was so important to Christ that, for him, it was worth dying for.

Amen.

(preached at St. John’s UMC on 10/6/13)