Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

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I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

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In or Out? – Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Election

Election is a dirty word in the United Methodist Church. In this particularly problematic political season we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and elections. We want people to think for themselves and pray for the Spirit to guide them in such matters. Otherwise we leave the topic at arms length. However, even more divisive than American Politics has been the church’s response to the Doctrine of Election.

The topic of God’s divine election is one that we often get hung up on in our weekly Bible studies at church. We can be talking about any number of things from scripture when all of the sudden the conversation moves to whether or not God ordained a specific tragedy to occur, or why would a loving God elect some for salvation and some for damnation. Then we tend to travel down the deep rabbit hole in arguments about free will and God’s sovereignty.

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions, we like things to be neat and orderly, and God often gives us the opposite. Only God, in God’s infinite knowledge and power, could elect certain individuals and only humanity, in our sinfulness and selfishness, could spend centuries arguing about what it means to be part of the elect.

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Even on the UMC’s denominational website there is a long essay about whether or not United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation.” And in the essay, a good amount of space is spent address Calvin’s so called “TULIP” theological principles (Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints). For Calvin, God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before anyone was born. Moreover, Jesus’ act of “atonement” from the cross is efficacious only for those whom God has elected for salvation.

John Wesley however, influenced by Jacobus Arminius, believed that only God can save and God does so unconditionally for all. There is no pre-selected list in the mind of God about who will be rewarded with salvation and who will be punished with damnation. Instead God’s grace is offered preveniently to all, and humanity has the capacity to respond to this grace. We have the ability (through free will) to reject God’s grace and in so doing we remove ourselves from the equation of salvation.

These types of distinctions about divine election or rejection have been debated throughout the history of the church and have played a primary role in the propagation of the seemingly endless amount of Christian denominations. We disagree about what we believe God is up to with election and therefore we create schisms in the church that result in the mosaic of churches rather than dwelling together in unity.

Karl Barth saw the Doctrine of Election differently.

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In Church Dogmatics II.2 Barth sets out to confront what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer that those who are elect are elect without reference to their person or in recognition of any special attributes or achievements. There is nothing that one can do to earn their elect status. To be elect is to enter into a way of being that corresponds with election; those who are elect are what they are.

Barth then, in a profound and wonderful excursus, compares the elect and the rejected throughout the Old Testament as a means by which to point at what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. He begins with the dualism of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision of God’s concerning them. However, even though one is clearly favored and the other is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain in the way we so commonly assume. It is true that God does not accept Cain and his family for the murder of his brother, but he is not abandoned by God because of this. Instead he receives the promise that God will protect his life.

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Thus begins a great trajectory throughout the Old Testament of mutually intersecting differences between people. Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the younger brother) who receives the birthright and the true blessing. Yet, God does not abandon him. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. And yet Rachel does not remain barren and eventually gives birth to Joseph. And Joseph, though rejected by his older brothers and sold into slavery is intimately connected with the future of God’s people and the brothers (though treacherous) are not abandoned to the famine but are instead forgiven and brought into the land of Egypt.

The same holds true for the dynamic between Saul and David (Saul is actually blessed far more than David even through the Lord moves the blessing from the former to the latter), and other figures from the Old Testament scriptures. Barth demonstrates again and again that though they appear rejected by the Lord, they are in fact blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus Christ.

And it is here where Barth shines a light on the darkness of our understanding of election. For it is precisely in the person of Jesus Christ that we discover not only the elect but also the reject. “According to His divine nature, Jesus Christ is the (elect) eternal Son who reposed in the bosom of the eternal Father, and who coming thence took our flesh upon Him to be and to offer this sacrifice, for the glory of God and for our salvation, and by taking our place to accomplish our reconciliation to God. But as such and in the accomplishment of this reconciliation He is, necessarily, the Rejected. Like the (scapegoat) He must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon Him, in order that He may bear it away… out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came to which it alone belongs.”[1] In the humiliation of the cross, Christ was also exalted. In the rejection of the Son on the cross (who cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ was also the elect who shares the beauty of reconciliation.

In Christ we discover one who is reject and elect. In the incarnation of God in the flesh we encounter the mystery of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to respond to that call.

In the one man on the one cross (as reject and elect) we see all of the dualisms of the Old Testament, all of the people who were either elected or rejected. But through the resurrection, all who are either elect or rejected remain in Him, and in Him the Word of God conquered death which shall be proclaimed through eternity.

For Barth, it is not so much that God began the mysterious work of creation with a list of all who will be elected for salvation and all who will be rejected for damnation. Instead, God remains steadfast even with those who move away (by their choice or the Lords – only God knows), God offers the grace forever even if it is rejected over and over again, and God provides the means by which all can be saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 365.

The Final Week

Mark 11.7-10

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross. This is what happened during the final week.

The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

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While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

  And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

  And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation. Amen.

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When Should We Pray? – Sermon on James 5.13-20

James 5.13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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Sunday morning: 11am. The gathered community of faith was sitting patiently in the pews waiting for the worship service to begin. Week after week the people sat in the same pews with the same expressions on their faces. Year after year they listened to preachers come and go telling the same stories about Jesus from different perspectives.

It was just like every other Sunday morning. Mr. Smith sat all the way up on the right hand side in the front pew with his notebook and pen in hand ready to take notes on whatever he heard. Jimmy, John, and Josh were midway back on the left quietly giggling while drawing stick figure battles all over the bulletin. And Miss Ethel, old and frail, was still slowly making her way up the center aisle while the first hymn was being played.

Worship is repetitive; for nearly two millennia Christians have gathered once a week to say the same prayers, hear the same stories, and sing the same songs. Worship is just like any good habit, and the longer you have it, the more fruitful it will become.

The congregation sat attentively while the pastor preached on the power of prayer. The seasoned Christians had heard sermons like this one before; they could almost imagine how the preacher would tie it together before he even spoke the words. The newer Christians were getting a little tired of hearing about prayer week after week, they wondered about when the pastor would call for them to lead a revolution to turn the world upside-down, they wanted to hear about power, not about prayer. And the youth, bless their hearts, if you had called their names from the pulpit in the middle of the service they would have looked up with bug-eyed expressions as if their teacher had singled them out in the middle of class.

The preacher was getting to what he imagined was the pinnacle of his proclamation, the words were flowing accordingly, and he no longer needed to look at his notes to drive the point home. As he stood up in the pulpit, gazing out over his gathered flock, he lifted up his fist for the final paragraph and froze in mid-sentence when he saw Miss Ethel slowly slump over in her pew having taken her final breath on earth.

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When are we supposed to pray? James would have us pray all the time. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

No matter what is going on in life, whether we’re on a mountaintop of joy, or in the bottom of a valley of sorrow, we should pray. We pray in celebration and in defeat, we pray during the mundane, and we pray during the extraordinary.

The end of James’ letter is a favorite among preachers because it explains itself. There’s no need to go digging through the grammar to exegete a strange or divergent meaning. James means what he says:

We should pray all the time.

            Prayers of deep faith will bring about salvation on earth.

The Lord will raise us up.

            Through prayer, any sin can be forgiven.

            We should confess our sins to other people, and pray for others to be healed.

            Righteous prayers are powerful and effective.

            Elijah was just like us, and he prayed for a drought for three years and it did not rain, and as soon as he prayed for the rain to fall, it did.

            If anyone begins to wander away from faithful life, we do well to reach out and bring them back out of love.

            That’s it.

So, then why is prayer such a last resort for many of us?

James clearly outlines that if Christians do anything, they should pray. As individuals and as a community we are defined by the fact that we believe in relying on something bigger than ourselves being active in the world. Yet, more often than not, Christianity has been compartmentalized into just having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (something you can do without the church). But having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, though wonderful, is not what Jesus wants from us. Instead, we are called to be people of prayer who live like Jesus in community with our brothers and sisters in faith.

James clearly outlines what prayer can accomplish: it keeps us humble when life is full of success, and it keeps us hopeful when life is full of disappointment; it encourages us to open our eyes to the ways God is moving in the world, and it encourages us to be active participants in God’s kingdom here on earth.

Prayer is about relationship; it’s about connecting with God through the people around us.

The pastor stood in the pulpit and did not know what to do. He was trying desperately to string the final thoughts of his sermon together when Ms. Ethel fell over in her pew and died. He could feel all the eyes in the sanctuary look from her pew, to him in the pulpit, expecting him to do something. But he panicked and froze.

This was not something they covered in seminary, there was no class on ministering to the dead in the middle of a worship service, so the pastor stood in the pulpit and stared back at the church.

One of the ushers immediately called the rescue squad, but the rest of the church slowly stood up from their pews and began to gather around Ms. Ethel’s pew. No directions were offered, no specific pages of the hymnal were referenced, but as if God’s was orchestrating the entire thing, the congregation gathered around her lifeless body and began to pray and sing.

The words of faith came pouring from their mouths, thanksgivings were uttered, and intercessions were demanded. The great songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art were sung and hummed by the church. And by the time the ambulance had taken Ms. Ethel away, the pastor and the entire church were holding each other in tears of pain and joy, recognizing the loss of life while acknowledging the hope of the resurrection.

When asked later about the moment of prayer, the parishioners simply explained that in the midst of something so profound, the only thing they could do was pray.

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Prayer can be beautiful, but it can also be uncomfortable. We don’t like having to wrestle with our finitude, we don’t like having to admit that one day we will die, that’s why weddings are much more crowded than funerals. But prayer, done rightly, is the most faithful thing we can ever do as Christians.

If James had it his way, we would spend more of our time confessing our sins to our fellow Christians. Talk about uncomfortable. When I encouraged all of you to take time to walk up to the pulpit and proclaim your sins, I did so in jest, but it would make us a more faithful community.

Look around the room: you all are beautiful. On the surface you’ve got the right outfits and dispositions. But on the inside, everyone is facing a battle that they rarely share with anyone else. It is a mistake to assume that we are eager to surrender our privacy to the church, but imagine (if you can) what it would be like if we trusted each other enough to do so.

If we could find just one person to confess to, we would make ourselves vulnerable and ready for healing. Confession is the beginning of transformation.

How are we, as a church, shaped by prayer?

Worship is structured around prayer. We pray for God’s presence to be made known to us in this place on Sunday mornings. We pray collectively for the world toward the beginning of the service. We pray silently from our pews lifting up our own joys and concerns. We pray for the offering that is collected by the ushers. We pray through the hymns we sing and the creeds we confess. The best sermons we hear are the ones less about our lives and more like prayers offered to and about God. And we end worship with a prayer.

In addition to worship we pray before our bible studies and youth meetings. We pray before every committee and before the church council. We are a people of prayer… but are we being shaped by prayer?

We are now going to try something that will probably make us uncomfortable.

In a few moments I will ask us to find someone else in church and ask for their prayers. We tried this on Wednesday night at The Circle meeting and it was a challenge. I asked for the youth to give me just one thing that I could pray for regarding their lives. Immediately I heard about friends or family members that needed prayer, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I asked, “How can I pray for you right now?” and I want each of us to ask that same question right now.

So, as your able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not in your immediate family. Once we’ve paired up, I want both people to take an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. This doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your children, perhaps you feel confused about decision and you could use some discernment, or maybe you’re unsure about what God is doing in your life.

Whatever that thing is I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words. The point is, I want everyone in this church to have the opportunity to share a need they have, and have someone in this church pray for them right away.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let’s give it a try….

In the words of James: Are any of us suffering? We should pray. Are any of us filled with joy? We should sing songs of praise. Are any of us sick? We should call for our brothers and sisters in Christ to come and pray over us. We should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed and transformed. Amen.

Ready To Die – Sermon on 2 Samuel 1.17-27

2 Samuel 1.17-27

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that the Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon you high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, the weapons of war perished!

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Funerals are strange, difficult, and at times, beautiful. I usually receive the phone call from someone in the family, or from a funeral home, that someone has died and they were hoping that I would preside over the service. No matter who the person is, I am immediately filled with sadness knowing that someone, anyone, is now gone. Regardless of my personal connection to the individual, there is a sense of loss that comes with death and not even I can avoid it.

But then I have to get to work. I have to take that grief and hold it for a moment while I help others properly grieve their loss. I have to balance the proper amount of mourning with hope, sadness with peace, and death with resurrection.

When I receive that first phone call I have to start taking care of the logistics: Where will the funeral take place and when? Do they want someone to play the organ? Are they hoping for a particular soloist? Does anyone from the family want to speak on behalf of the dead? And only after the plans are made can we begin talking about the person, making sure that I know everything I can in order to properly proclaim their life, death, and resurrection.

Most of the time funerals take place in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Friends and family have to take time off from work, or take their children out of school, in order to attend the service. Yet, funerals are not meant for immediate friends and family alone. The entire community of faith is called to witness to the life of those who have died so that we can continue to live out their witness regardless of how well we knew them, or not.

So, this morning, as I mentioned before, we are doing something a little different. A few weeks ago one of our church members named Dick Dickerson passed away. He had only been coming for a few years, but he was a staple in worship. He always sat in the back of the church on the right side, he flirted with every female that crossed his path, and he was incredibly sweet.

When I found out that his family would be having a private service in Kentucky at a later date I knew that we still needed to do something here in order to say goodbye. I knew that we needed to praise God for putting Dick in our lives. And I knew that we were going to have our own little funeral for him on a Sunday morning.

Dick Dickerson

Dick Dickerson

Dick Dickerson called me “honey.” I know that this might’ve bothered other young pastors, but to me it was endearing and precious. I would walk over to visit Dick next door at Brightview/Baldwin Park and the moment I entered his room he would always say something like “Come on honey and sit down with me.” For months I cherished this identification, it made me feel special that Dick felt so connected to me. It was only later that I learned he called most of the people in his life “honey”!

My wife Lindsey would stop by to say hello before a church service started and he would hug her while calling her “honey,” Grace Daughtrey would smile and politely nod her head as he greeted her with a “good morning honey,” and even Marshall Kirby would start to blush when Dick would refer to his Sunday driver as “honey.”

Dick Dickerson was a man of profound love, who deeply appreciated all that God had given him from the very beginning till the very end.

Dick grew up in Kentucky with a family in the midst of financial struggles. Living through the depression was, as he put it, one of the hardest things to witness. But at some point there was a family in the community who saw Dick’s potential, and they brought him under their wing and helped to provide for his education. He always maintained a connection with his biological family, but in his quasi-adoptive family he saw the Christian commitment to loving others, something that would affect the rest of his life.

Dick was a man of stories, stories that shaped his life and the lives of others. When he served as a quartermaster in Patton’s army during World War II he used to offer whisky to his fellow soldiers so long as they affirmed the beliefs of the Republican party. He told me that at the beginning of the war most of his friends were Democrats, but by the time they got home (and enjoyed the whisky) they had become staunch conservatives!

He, unlike others who served in World War 2, was ready and willing to share reflections on his experiences precisely because he did not want anyone to have to experience what he did. He often told a story about an evening that took place in the middle of the war on Christmas Eve when he found himself resting for the night in a bombed out church building. He could remember the wax dripping from the candles, the hole in the roof letting in the tiniest of snowflakes, and all the soldiers huddling together for warmth.

He asked a question of the men that night that he only later attributed to the Holy Spirit. He asked if the men wanted to pray for anything. One soldier prayed for his family back home, another prayed for warmer weather, but one of the youngest said something that would stay with Dick the rest of his life: “I seem to remember Jesus saying something about praying for our enemies, so tonight I would like to pray for the men we’re fighting against. I pray that God would be with them as He is with us.” Dick said that while other men might have grown angry or dismissed the prayer, all of the men joined together in that tiny church on Christmas eve, and prayed for their enemies.

Prayer was at the heart of Dick Dickerson’ life. He spent most of his free time going through a list of people that he lifted up to the Lord and regularly invited me to join him in his prayers. He once told me that prayer was the only thing that got him through the war, and that prayer was the only thing that kept him together once he returned home.

Dick lived a wonderful and blessed life. He married his sweetheart Mildred, had two children, and eventually began working for Madison College in Harrisonburg. Dr. Dickerson, as he was known to his students, made himself available to everyone all all times because he saw the value in other people. Whether in the classroom or at home, you knew that he would make time for you no matter what.

I spent a lot of time with Dick over the last two years, we talked about a great number of things, but the one thing we talked about the most was death. In fact during our very first and our very last conversations he said the same thing to me: “Honey, I’m ready to die.

In the beginning of 2 Samuel we have a song that David wrote in memory of Saul and Jonathan. After giving their lives for the Lord and the people, David called the nation to weep for their loss: “O how the mighty have fallen.” In life David and Saul were seemingly opposed, but in the experience their death David wept and mourned.

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Many of us take the people in our lives for granted. We grow so accustom to their presence and persistence, that we rarely think about what life would be like without them. It is only when someone is truly gone that we can really appreciate what they always meant to us. It happened to David after Saul died. It happened to the disciples during those three days before Jesus rose again. And it has happened to me with nearly every person that I have buried while I have served this church.

But friends, resurrection comes into its fullest meaning when we lose someone we love.

Can you imagine the exultation the disciples experienced when they saw their Lord again after he broke free from the chains of death? Can you picture the joy on their faces when they were able to sit again with their teacher and friend? Can you imagine how David would have felt if he knew that one day someone from his family tree would eventually hang in a tree for the sins of the world so that we could all rise again in the resurrection?

Dick Dickerson was ready to die because he trusted the Lord. His trust was evident in our many conversations, and in is interactions with others, but it was most present while he prayed at this altar.

Dick rarely missed a communion Sunday. Even while his bone cancer was spreading throughout his body, he would make the long and slow journey to the front of this sanctuary to pray on his knees to the Lord. After feasting on the body and the blood, Dick would lay all the worries of his life out for the Lord, he would pray for God’s forgiveness over his sins, and he would thank the Almighty for surrounding him at every moment throughout his blessed life.

Are we ready to die? Every death in this church community is a constant reminder that the bell will toll for us all, and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Are we ready to die? What kind of faith would it take to be ready to give our lives over to the Lord?

Dick Dickerson certainly had that kind of faith, a faith born out of prayer, presence, and praise, a kind of faith shaped by World War 2, and a kind of faith made real through the witness of Christ’s church.

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As we prepare to take steps toward this altar, to feast at Christ’s table, we do well to remember all who have gone before us to eat and pray. We remember Dick Dickerson and his willingness to lift us up. We remember the saints before us, in our midst, and those who will come after and discover God’s grace in a moment like this. And we remember that Jesus came to die so that we would all live, so that death would be defeated, so that the resurrection would be offered to us all.

So, thanks be to God for the great gift at this table and for the life of Dick Dickerson, a man who lived by faith, prayed with every fiber of his being, and was ready to die. Amen.

Reality Check – Sermon on Psalm 4

Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

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He was resting in the bed when I entered the room. Like many people suffering from a terminal illness, the living room had been reimagined as a bedroom with medical equipment spread throughout the space. The older man’s son stood next to me, trying not to cry while he watched his dad sleeping in the bed. The son gently nudged his father to wake up and introduced me as the young seminary intern. He then left us alone.

After his son left the room, the older man sat up from his bed with a smile that left me feeling disoriented. I could see his physical discomfort, but there was a sense of joy and peace that emanated from his whole person to anyone around. Unsure how to begin our conversation, I just sat there trying to come up with something, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.

Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had spent the majority of his life serving as a United Methodist Pastor in the North Georgia Conference. He had pastored 10 different churches during his 40-year career, but now he was stuck in his living room talking to a young seminarian about his life and ministry. Though simple movements sent lightning bolts of pain throughout his body, and he was nearing the end of his life, he claimed that his suffering had been a blessing.

Psalm 4 is often overlooked in the life of faithfulness, but it conveys the depth of what it means to rely on the Lord and have the right perspective. Upon first inspection we might label it as an evening psalm, something to be prayed before our heads hit the pillows: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. It sounds like a prayer that we hope the leaders of our community would utter up to God recognizing they have endured shame for the betterment of the people. It is selfless, hopeful, and faithful. 

Yet, this psalm is not just for a particular set of people with a specific set of problems, but it is a psalm for all of us, worthy to be prayed throughout our lives.

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Psalm 4 begins by addressing the Lord:

God, when I start praying, please listen and answer me. I know that you are the Lord of my life, and you are with me in all things, but I need you presence now.

In the past you provided for me when I was in need. You placed words on my tongue when I was speaking, you sent the right people into my life when I was lonely, and you provided food from the earth when I was hungry. So Lord, be gracious yet again and listen to me as I pray.

The psalmist then moves to address the people who no longer trust God:

How long will all you people fall short of you potential? Why do you continue to love words that puff up, that make you sound better than you are, that inflate your ego and self-perception? How long will you believe all the lies that surround you? Why are you so transfixed by the rumors and drama? Remember this: the Lord has set us apart to be a holy people who pursue holiness. The Lord listens when we call to him. 

When life is full of disappointment and regret, when you feel like nothing is going your way and the floor is crumbling underneath, when you experience loneliness and fear, do not sin. Instead of venting and taking out your frustrations on other people, ponder your circumstances and be silent. Give up the things that are tearing you down, and put your trust in the Lord. 

Too many people only believe and keep faith when everything is going right in their lives. They only praise the Lord when they are successful, and the minute something becomes derailed they blame the Lord first before looking at themselves. Too many prayers are based upon: “Lord, if you do this for me, I will turn my life around, or I’ll start going to church.”

We are at the peak of our faithfulness when we recognize the gladness the Lord has placed in our hearts more than when all the material things of life abounded. We do well to recognize the Lord’s blessing in all things and trust that God is with us. Because it is only with a deep trust and confidence in the Lord that we can sleep in peace, for the Lord is the one who brings us comfort in our rest.

Why are all of us here this morning? I count it as nothing short of a miracle that God continues to gather people together every week for worship. But the fact that people choose to spend their time doing something like this will always surprise me. With all the competing narratives in our world, we decided to come here to participate in an ancient practice of letting the Lord reorient our lives.

Why are we here? Perhaps the best answer to that question is this: we want to hear something true. All of us are constantly bombarded by the facts of the life, and the subsequent denial of those facts. We wake up feeling sore and then we watch a commercial about a cream that can make all of our pain go away. We struggle through relationship after relationship and then we get invited to an online dating service that promises to find us a companion for life. We wrestle with children who neglect to pay attention at home and school, and a friend tells us about the magic pill that will calm our children, and make them into who they are supposed to be.

And then we come to church and we hear the truth. We learn about our sinfulness and how we need to be better. But through the church there are no cheap fixes, there’s no pill or simple prayer that can turn everything around. Discovering our sinfulness and seeking holiness requires a lifetime of work.

Yet, here we are. I have to believe that even though the life of discipleship is remarkably difficult, we are here because we believe it is worth it. We are here because we hear the words of Psalm 4 and we know that it is speaking something new and truthful into our very lives on this very day.

Church, at its best, is the arena of reality checks. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the time when we face the truth: The unrighteous often flourish, and the faithful are usually ridiculed and ignored. In fact, godliness tends to make suffering inevitable. Psalm 4 speaks to the deep truth of what it means to follow Christ: if we really act like the Christians we claim to be, we will be persecuted for our discipleship.

So here is the deep reality check of Psalm 4: True happiness and faithfulness is often found in the least likely of places. We imagine that the wealthy and powerful are joyful but what they have cannot make them happy and sleep in peace. It never ceases to amaze me, but I regularly discover happiness in places I would never imagine: hospitals and funerals. The people who are in the midst of pain and suffering are somehow renewing their own lives. They are the ones who are proving that they can face life’s harshness and still stand fast. There is an inner glow in the heart of a disciple who can show such faith in the midst of something so tragic.

Taylor” he said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. For decades I served as a pastor and was surrounded by people, but since I retired I have never been so lonely in my life. Yet now, my sons and daughter, who used to just call once in awhile, have been driving to see me on a regular basis. I’ve had old confirmands and church members from past seek me out since my diagnosis. Friends from long ago have reached out through letters, phone calls, and even visits. I am ashamed that, for the first time in my life, I am thankful for living at all.

Mac’s faith was not grounded in simple and straightforward theological claims, but was instead rekindled by the recognition of how blessed his life really was. It is so sad that it often takes a profound loss or an unwavering diagnosis to make us appreciate what we have, but for Mac it made all the difference. He recognized the true gladness in his heart, even in the midst of suffering, because God’s love was being poured down upon him during the final days of his life. He could only claim his cancer as the best thing to happen, because he understood that death is not the end, and that God will take care of us when we die.

This room is full of sinners and maybe that’s exactly why we are here. While the world tells us to forget our mistakes and press forward, the church calls us to look upon our short-comings and repent. While we seek to find fulfillment in relationships and passions, the church challenges us to remember that only the Lord can provide wholeness. While we strive to ignore that annoying co-worker, and push off our children’s problems onto someone else, the church tells us to love one another and take responsibility.

This is one of the only places left that actually challenges us with the truth. 

I stand at the front door every Sunday and I see all the sinners gather for worship. I see the broken relationships, the arguments between friends, the bad blood that continues to boil over, the resentments and frustrations, the prejudices and failures. And we stand and sit, we praise and pray, and then the chief sinner of us all gets to stand at the front and talk about what God is still doing in our lives.

My friends, we can’t wait for something bad to happen before we begin to appreciate what we have. If we base our happiness around material success, then we will never feel truly fulfilled. If Psalm 4 is speaking something to us today, it’s to start giving thanks for what we have, and seeking out those whom God has placed in our lives.

But if we’re not at that point, then we can at least begin with prayer. Maybe like the psalmist we can commune with the Lord before we go to sleep, or perhaps we can go to God the moment we awake in the morning. It does not matter how we pray, but that we pray in the first place because prayer leads to trust, a trust in the Lord that even when we die, it will not be the end. Amen.

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Lost and Found – Easter Sermon on Luke 24.13-35

Luke 24.13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes kept them from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to the, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and return to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember.

I was baptized at 19 days old and church has been there for me my entire life. As a child I loved hearing the incredible stories from scripture: Jesus walking on water, David defeating Goliath, Moses moving through the Red Sea. Church was an exciting place that was unlike anything else I did. In worship I learned how to listen, I learned what it meant to sing my faith, and I found tremendous joy in receiving communion.

Of course, as I grew older, the perfect glow of church began to fade away. We would learn about the importance of love and forgiveness during church, and then I would see a man screaming at his wife in the parking lot after worship. We learned about God’s kingdom as a rich and diverse new reality, but I only saw privileged white people in church. We heard about how important it was to keep the faith, but I started to have doubts about what scripture revealed.

Like most Christians, I have had my doubts. I have been kept awake late at night wondering about the divine, praying for God’s presence to be made known in my life and in the lives of others, and hoping for something to cleanse my unease.

Yet, it is almost always in the midst of a question, at the precise moment that I feel most lost, that God shows up and finds me.

The two disciples on the road were filled with doubt. We don’t know anything about the two who were walking to Emmaus; they weren’t famous, and they weren’t part of the 12 – they were just common, ordinary disciples like you and me.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like to be walking on that road on that day so long ago. They had followed Jesus throughout Galilee and heard him proclaim the Good News, they had seen him heal the sick and feed the hungry, but just days previous they saw him betrayed, arrested, and murdered.

They might have known where they we walking, but I bet they felt lost. They had put all their hope and faith in a man who was buried in a tomb and now his body was missing. They thought the world was going to change, but the dirt under their feet felt even worse than before.

Suddenly, Jesus found them on the road and he went with them. Yet, they did not recognize the Lord in their midst. “What are you two talking about?” he asked. To which one of them replied, “Have you been living under a rock? How could you not have heard about the things that have taken place in Jerusalem?”

Jesus asked, “What things?

Immediately they began to explain all that they had seen and heard. “Jesus of Nazareth, a mighty prophet, was betrayed and sent to his death. We had hoped that he was the one who would save us. And now three days have passed and some of the women from our group went to his tomb and they say his body was missing and angels appeared, but no one has seen him.”

Jesus then began interpreting the scriptures to the men on the road, from Moses through the prophets, he showed how what had come to pass was part of God’s great cosmic plan. And yet, they still did not recognize him.

Later, as they came near Emmaus, Jesus kept walking on but the men invited him to stay. When they sat down at a table to eat, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. With the bread in their hands their eyes were opened and they finally understood who had been with them the whole time and he vanished.

All of the sudden everything started to make sense, the encounter on the road, the strange question, the interpretation of scripture, and even the holy meal. “Were not our hearts burning within us while we were together with the Lord?” Immediately they went back to Jerusalem to declare the good news: “The Lord has risen indeed!

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On Friday at noon I took the cross from our sanctuary, placed it on my shoulders and started walking around Staunton. When I did the same thing last year and I was largely ignored. For hours I walked through our community and most people averted their gaze, they tried to pretend that there was no cross for them to see.

This year, the opposite happened. People would honk their horns as they passed, they would roll their windows down and give me a thumbs-up. I saw familiar faces throughout my journey and felt glad for the sense of community that I experienced.

I carried the cross around because I want to bring the Lord to people outside of church. If we continue to falsely assume that we can only experience God’s grace in a place such as this, it will never grow and give life to other people.

Anyway, I was bearing my cross through Staunton and I was walking along the sidewalk on Beverly Street when I was stopped. In front of me stood an older woman with a large shawl draped around her shoulders and she kept staring at the cross. For a period of time that felt uncomfortably long we just stared at one another without saying anything until I saw her lip quiver and she asked a question that I was not expecting: “What will happen to me when I die?

I stood there with the cross digging into my shoulder and I felt the spirit of God fall upon us in that holy moment. Instead of giving some densely theological answer, and instead of evading the depth of her question I told her what I believed: “When we die God will take care of us. I don’t know what it will feel like or what we’ll experience, but the God that has been revealed to me will take care of us.

What kind of faith do you have?” she asked.

I explained that I am a pastor in the United Methodist Church, but above all I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Tell me about him,” she said.

So I did. I started with Christmas and the story of God coming in the form of flesh as a baby to be in the world with us. Jesus grew and called people to know that they were loved regardless of their life circumstances. This Messiah went out and found the people who were ignored by the rest of the world and he gave them value. He preached, healed, and he loved. And then Jesus was betrayed, arrested and killed on a cross for everyone to see, and three days later he was raised from the dead. The beauty of what Jesus did is that he died so that we might live. Jesus died for you, and for me, so that we might live.

Tears began to well up in her eyes, she reached forward to hug me, thank me, and before I knew it she was gone.

I can’t tell you anything about her other than our brief interaction, but to me it felt like she was lost and then Jesus found her in the cross and in the story. Whatever she had going on in her life suddenly fell away and she felt valued and loved by the one who came to live and die for us.

Jesus came to the disciples on the road, and not the other way around. They were lost in their thoughts and doubts and were incapable of recognizing Jesus in their midst. Only through the scriptures, and through the bread and wine did Jesus reveal himself to them, he demonstrated what his life had been all about: his resurrection means our resurrection.

Those of us here in church on Easter Sunday are in the same position as those two disciples on the road. Jesus has come to us here in this place through the reading of scripture, and in a few moments we will encounter the risen Christ through the bread and cup at the table.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life. Most of us are pretty good about shielding away and hiding our doubts and insufficiencies. We turn on the smiles when we need to, and we know what we have to do to keep afloat. I don’t know what you might be wrestling with right now, or even if you’re wrestling with anything at all. But I do know this: If you took the time to come to a church on Easter, you believe in something more than yourself, even if its very faint.

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My faith is not perfect, and there are days that I struggle. I’ll be driving in my car on the way home from the hospital after praying with a family before a desperate surgery, or I’ll be standing above a casket with dirt still clinging to my fingers after saying goodbye to a faithful friend, or I’ll be reading the news online and be bombarded with never-ending negativity. There are many days that feel as if I’m walking to Emmaus all on my own with questions in my head just like those two disciples so long ago. But that’s when Jesus shows up.

Jesus isn’t looking for people with perfect faith and blind trust. God does not want puppets that he can string along. If Jesus is looking for anyone, it’s the people who are walking toward their own Emmaus. He’s looking for people like you and me who have questions.

Faith is an exciting thing not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. 

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not something that can be explained from a pulpit or from a book, it defies all logic and rationality, it exceeds our expectations, and often leaves us scratching our heads. But that’s the point. It is beyond anything we could ever imagine. Only the Lord who gives us life could have come up with something so incredible to change the world.

The resurrection is real, Christ appeared to the two on the road and revealed himself through the wonders of God’s word and holy table. God died in Christ on a cross and defeated death so that we might live with him in the kingdom; Christ died so that we might live.

The Lord is risen. God is on the move in the world seeking out those who are lost. God loves showing up in the words of scripture, in the bread and wine of communion, in chance encounters on the road, and in a variety of places to help find those of us who are lost.

Do we feel our hearts burning within us while we praise the living God? Do we feel the blessed holiness that comes with receiving this meal broken and shed for us? Are we ready to be found by the living God while we make our way to Emmaus?

The good news of Easter is that Christ’s resurrection has made our resurrection possible. But until that day when we feast with him at his heavenly banquet, I think the good news can be found when we feel lost on the old roads of life and Jesus finds us. Amen.