Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.

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Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.

I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.

Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.

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No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.

For instance:

The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?

There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.

Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.

Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.

I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word. 

Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.

What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.

Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.

On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?

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Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.

God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.

The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:

When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.

But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.

So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.

Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.

And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.

Amen.

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This Is NOT Appropriate For Church – Sermon on Joshua 2.1-14

Joshua 2.1-14

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a good sign of faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Today we begin our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Last Advent I asked all of you to submit questions or topics for preaching that you have always wanted to hear about from the pulpit. I received so many questions and comments that I was unable to address all of them during our January series on Questions, so I decided to save this particular series for later. It was incredible for me to discover how many of you wanted to hear about the women from scripture. I remember one card said, “I hear there are these great women from the Bible, but no one ever preaches on them.” So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore dynamic and feminine faith.

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Sometimes we read stories from the bible that are not appropriate for church. A few weeks ago we did just that as we remembered Elisha and the she-bears, and Isaiah getting naked for three years. Every once and a while we come across that passage that is so daring and vulgar that we would rather ignore it, and most of all, we would not read it aloud in church.

Rahab the harlot. A woman of ill-repute. From the Red Light district becomes the savior for a few spies.

Why in the world would God use her to save his people? Rahab the harlot? I mean I would understand if God chose Rahab the UMW president, or Rahab the Sunday School teacher, but Rahab the prostitute? This is not appropriate for church.

Moses has died. He led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, and handed over God’s people to Joshua. Joshua in turn takes care of the nomadic nation and sends spies ahead of them to survey the land and, in particular, Jericho.

Two men, hand-picked by their leader, sneak their way into the city, and as it sometimes happens to young men close to the edge of death, they arrive at Rahab’s place in the bad part of town.

The king catches wind that some spies had entered the city and he sent his own men to capture them. When the foot-soldiers arrive at Rahab’s place, she listens to their questions, and she lies! Perhaps as only women of the night can do, she peaked from behind the door, offered that dynamite smile, and said with confidence, “Sure, there were two Jewish guys here earlier, but they paid for everything, and went on their way. I’m sure if you start after them right now, you’ll be able to catch them.

While the king’s men traveled down the road, sure their bounty was just ahead of them, Rahab returned to the roof where she had hidden the Hebrews. She explains that she had heard of the mighty acts of their God, how they were delivered from Egypt, and defeated their enemies. In return for saving their lives, she asks for them to repay the favor when they return to Jericho to destroy the city.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking right now: Seriously Taylor? You told us you were going to preach on women of faith and this is who you picked for us? Rahab? She’s a conniving and lying harlot! 

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However, the Old and New Testaments are filled with saintly characters who have both enviable and regrettable characteristics. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked after landing the Ark, King David lusts after Bathsheba and plots to have her husband killed, Peter denies Christ three times after his arrest. What becomes important, what sets them apart, is that God wants them to do something holy, not that they were holy to begin with.

Rahab, full of faith, heard about how the Lord delivered his people, and Rahab believes and embraces God as supreme. Her declaration and acts of salvation towards the spies are more than actions and words; she is worshipping the Almighty. Even with her scandalous background, something not appropriate for church, Rahab experienced the greatest wonder of all – God’s limitless love and power to use and save the least likely of people. 

After church last week Lindsey and I left Staunton and we traveled to Alexandria to be with my family. Not only were we planning to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, but we were going to surprise one of my grandmothers for her 81st birthday.

I love my grandmother tremendously. Ever since I was a child she has referred to me as “precious lamb of Jesus Christ,” she has been there for every major moment of my life, and still shouts out with great joy every time I call her or visit her.

On Monday evening, after surprising her, we sat around my parents’ dining room table to enjoy a home cooked meal and celebrate my Gran. One of the more wonderful qualities that I inherited from her is the ability to ask questions that lead to conversation. I began with: “I want everyone to go around the table and share a story about Gran that brings you joy or made you laugh.

My mother told the story about how when she was a child, my grandmother would dress up like a waitress, sit my mother and her friends down at the table, and would take their order for lunch. The options were obviously limited, but it made the girls feel special, and I can just imagine them giggling as my grandmother scribbled away the orders for Grilled Cheese sandwiches.

I told the story about how my grandmother was always trying to teach us something new. When I was quite young, she used to require my sisters and I to learn a new word from the dictionary whenever we stayed the night at her house. The only word I can remember learning was “Taxidermy.” But not only were we required to learn a new word, but we had to use it in a sentence when our parents returned! I can only imagine the kind of sentence I came up with when I was 8 years old with the word taxidermy in it!

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But my favorite story is the one that Lindsey told. Gran had come over for dinner one night while we were all together, and when the evening came to a close she could not find her keys anywhere. We searched all over that house; taking off the couch cushions, crawling on the carpets while sweeping our hands, we even emptied out the trashcan just in case. But as it would happen, the keys were nowhere to be found. I eventually drove her home in my own car and used the spare key to let her into her house, with the hope of finding her car key sometime soon. Thirty minutes later my grandmother called. “I was just getting ready for bed,” she said, “and wouldn’t you know it, but I found my keys in my bosom!

Some things are not appropriate for church.

While I sat there listening to the hilarious stories from my grandmother’s life I was struck with the sensation of awe and love. My grandmother has embodied, for me, a life of faith and dedication, one that I try to emulate daily. But I also realized, that I know nothing negative about her. In my experience, coupled with all the stories I have heard, everything about her life is positive. Yet I know that she could not have lived a perfect life. That, like me, she has sinned, she has fallen short of God’s glory, she has made mistakes, she has regrets.

Everyone has something from their past that they are not proud of. What I believe Rahab, and my grandmother, have to teach us this morning is that we are not defined by the mistakes and shortcomings and judgements from the past.

By the time the New Testament was written, Rahab is remembered among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.5), regarded as an example of living faith (Hebrews 11.31), and justified by her works (James 2.25). By the time I was born my Grandmother had become the sweet woman full of life and laughter that I have always experienced. Whatever they did in the past matters little to the Lord. He did not judge them for their lives, but called them to respond to the grace poured out on their lives.

Can you imagine how strong Rahab’s belief and faith must have been? To sell her body the way she did, to be powerless and insignificant, and then she grabbed hold of her own destiny and lived faithfully. Two strangers had appeared that night, just like everyone else that walked through her doors, but her fear and faith propelled her into hiding them. She saw an opportunity to change her life, to save the lives of her family, and she did so.

Rahab, thinking of all that she had heard about the Lord, lied to the king’s men and came to terms with the spies. She refused to let her status and place in life limit her power for saving others. She was convinced that the city would fall at the hands of the Hebrews, but she was not simply motivated by fear; she was profoundly impressed with the news and strength of the God of Israel. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Her profession might not be appropriate for church, but her faithfulness is something we can all admire.

If you take a moment to look around the sanctuary, what do you see? Do you see perfect couples sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand? Do you see loving families with children all sitting neatly in their pews? Do you see men and women who are full of faith and grace, capable of love and mercy? Do you see grandparents who adore their grandchildren?

I see a church full of Rahabs. I see people sitting in the pews with pasts they would prefer to remain hidden and untouched. I see families that are broken and full of disappointment. I see careers that have floundered, former decisions that have derailed lives, and regrets about choices that changed everything.

The beauty of the church is that it is full of Rahabs, people like you and me, that have been brought together to be the body of Christ for the world. The immense wonder and joy of the church is that in spite of our dark pasts we have been called to a brilliant present. That like Rahab we can become saintly by responding to the tasks and call that God places on our lives.

If we kept out everything that was not appropriate for church, then we would have an empty building. All of us, with our brokenness and disappointments, with our sins and temptations, have moments from our lives that are not appropriate for this place. However, that is precisely why we are here.

God’s sees us, knows us, calls us by name, and recognizes our potential in spite of our faults. God looks on all the Rahabs of the world, people like us, and beckons us to the Table, to the feast that we do not deserve simply because he loves us.

Look around at one another my friends, do not cast the first stone in judgement, do not sit high and look down on your brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, rejoice; give thanks to the Lord of heaven and earth who loves you, the God who calls on harlots to be helpers, sinners to be saints, and Christians to act like Christ.

Amen.

Devotional – Romans 7.15

Devotional:

Romans 7.15

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. 

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While I was in seminary I became fascinated with the way particular theologians lived their lives. I would read the great treatises and reflections from the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Barth and have my mind opened to the great wonders of God’s interaction with creation. Their words became life-giving for me as I found myself persuaded by how they understood the world and their critiques of human behavior. However, for as much as I loved their writing I became frustrated with the ways they lived out their faith. With every wonderful theologian I discovered a dark and dangerous life of sin that appeared incompatible with what they were writing about.

Church Dogmatics

Church Dogmatics

For example: Karl Barth, my theological mentor, wrote the massive collection of Church Dogmatics which have slowly become earmarked and absorbed throughout my brief career in ministry. Barth engaged a new theological perspective focused on the paradoxical nature of divinity while at the same time opposing the rise of the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Barth’s thoughts have greatly shaped my understanding of God and church and I am thankful for his witness to the divine in the realm of theology. But like all Christians, Barth was both a saint and a sinner.

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In 1924 Karl Barth met the young and gifted Charlotte von Kirschbaum after he had been married for 12 years. They quickly hit it off and became enamored with one another to the degree that she was invited to live with the Barths beginning in 1929; a relationship that would last for 35 years. They worked together on Barth’s work and were indispensable to one another while creating the Church Dogmatics. While Barth’s wife, Nelly, took care of the children, he and Charlotte would take semester break vacations together. The relationship caused incredible offense among many of Barth’s friends and colleagues and Barth’s children suffered from the stress of the relationship.

After I learned about Barth’s academic and perhaps physical affair, it was hard for me to respect his writings. The dialectic theology that had been so compelling quickly collected dust on my shelf. It took a long time for me to return to Barth’s work, only after I reflected about the sins in my own life.

Sin is unavoidable. Paul reflected on his journey of faith and the temptation of sin in his letter to the church in Rome: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” What an incredible reflection on sin. We know, those of us who have been raised in the faith, what not to do. We have been taught how to recognize the sinful temptations in our lives. We want to be good and make the right choices. But sin is unavoidable. We choose they very thing we hate and sin continues to creep into our lives with disastrous consequences.

I wonder how often we reflect on our sinfulness. We might hear about what to avoid from the pulpit or from scripture but do we admit our sins to ourselves? I will freely admit that for me it is far easier to reflect on the good things of my life than to admit my short-comings. Perhaps today is the day that we should join Paul and begin to wrestle with our sins. We can begin by admitting the inner conflict within us and then recognize that, like with Barth, God has come in the form of Christ to redeem even our greatest sins so that we can live into a new life of faith and forgiveness.