Gentle As A Lamb

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.

Thanks for the advice Paul.

But, have you seen the world recently?

It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.

So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.

They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?

Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in! 

Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.

So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.

Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.

Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.

Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?

And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.

Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”

Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.

And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!

If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?

The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?

The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?

That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.

Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.

In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.

After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”

To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”

Again, there was silence. 

He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”

A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.

“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”

Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left. 

The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.

A few months later the school integrated without incident. 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.

To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought. 

And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus. 

Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends. 

But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.

To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.

Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. 

That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.

Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.

Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.

Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.

Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.

And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.

In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.

As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.

Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity. 

Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.

Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.

Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.

We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.

God Helps

Psalm 121

I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber not sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when all of the sudden the ground fell out beneath her and she fell into a giant sinkhole. After she brushed herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep to climb out by herself so she began crying out for help.

A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the woman yelled up, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted up, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!” 

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge and the woman in the pit shouted, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older lady replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here,” she shouted, “Can you please get me out of here?” And the friend jumped straight down into the pit. The woman said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!”

And that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” 

A few years ago the results of a national poll were published and it was discovered that more than 8 out of every 10 Americans think, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is in the Bible. Even more troubling is the fact that more than half of the people who were part of the poll were strongly convinced that is is one of the core messages of scripture!

And it’s not in the Bible!

The expression itself is thought to be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1736.

And yet a super majority of Americans (even American Christians) believe it’s straight from the lips of Jesus!

Now, of course, there is a small smidgen of truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around at our dinner tables praying for manna from heaven, we’re probably going to be left empty handed. However, we can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and the means by which we can procure food for our tables whether its gardens in our yard or employment in order to purchase food.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening and responding to our spouses, nurturing our children, all of these things result in the betterment of our lives because we have worked for them to be better.

However, all of that pales in comparison to how “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligations to help others.

The expression in question has far more to do with capitalism than it does with Christianity. In fact, it’s rather antithetical to the message of scripture as a whole for God is the God of deliverance for a people undeserving.

People like us.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves.

Period. Full stop.

Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, natural disasters, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves.

Some people, in fact most people, are in holes so deep with walls so steep, that there’s no way they’ll ever climb out without help.

Food scarcity is a major problem in our area here in Woodbridge. As long as I’ve been the pastor here we’ve participated in a food distribution program once a month where huge crowds of people show up just to receive food. They will often stand in line in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter for hours at times just for a chance to bring home a grocery store bag’s worth of food.

Our local elementary school, right across the street, has a majority of students who, when schools are actually open, have free or reduced price lunches. And for many of those students its the only reliable food source they have in any given week.

And I lost track a long time ago how many people have stopped by our doors on any given day asking simply for food. Not for money, not for gas, not for anything else but food.

Now, can you imagine what it would be like if, every time someone asked the church for food we responded with, “Um, don’t you know you’re supposed to work on yourself before God will do something for you? How about you come back next week with at least three examples of how you’ve turned your life around before we give you some food? Ok bye!”

And, just for the sake of clarity, food really is everything. A few years ago a national study was published in which countless researchers looked into what were the best things to do in order to increase the education of students across the country. They looked at smaller class sizes, access to newer textbooks, different educational models, and on and on and on. And do you know what they found to be the best indication of increasing education?

Food.

In the end, they discovered, it doesn’t matter whether students have computers, or better textbooks, or smaller class sizes. If they don’t have access to food, none of those things make a difference.

The Church, and I mean the whole big “C” church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to care for the other with the use of yet another trite and cliche non-biblical sentence because God, more often than not, actually commands the people called church to specifically do for the last, least, lost, and little what they can’t for themselves.

Just pick up a Bible sometime, scan through any number of prominent stories from both the Old and New Testaments – it will become quickly clear how the actual biblical truth is that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves.

Leviticus 23.22 – God says, ‘When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think these fields belong to you, but they actually belong to me. So quit hoarding up all your food because there are others who need it more than you. My kingdom is bigger than your field.”

Hosea 6:6 – The prophet writes on behalf of God, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think you’ve got this whole worship thing figured out. That, as long as you do enough good things for your faith, you’re covered. But do you know what I love more than all your singing and all your praising? When you actually put your faith into action and care for the people I care for most.”

James 1.27 – James implores the early church that, “true devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulty.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, remember how I delivered you out of slavery in Egypt, remember how I delivered you out of the bondage to sin and death in Jesus Christ? The kingdom is all about delivering people from a worldly reality into a kingdom reality. The kingdom is all about doing things for people who can’t do them on their own. Get it?”

I could go on and on.

And, you what? I think I will…

Consider Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. He’s been out teaching and preaching and healing all day in the heat of the sun, and as the day comes to a close the disciples realize that these people need something to eat so maybe it would be better for them to return home.

And what does Jesus say?

“Hey, listen up, uh you all need to start pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps. There are no handouts in the kingdom of God. Thanks for coming out today. Bye.”

Or: “Look, I know you’re hungry, but if I give you fish to eat it will only help you for today. So instead we’re going down to the water and I’m going to teach you how to fish for yourselves.”

No.

Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

And when they can only rustle up a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus miraculously makes it into a meal for 5,000, with leftovers.

Jesus did for the crowds that day what the disciples and the crowds themselves could no do on their own.

Again and again in the New Testament Jesus connects with the brokenness within every community and brings healing.

He sends the abandoned and forgotten back to the villages that disowned them.

He feeds and heals and teaches out of the abundant mercy of God.

Jesus helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life right now, I can’t even see you to know, on your faces, whether this is sinking in at all. 

But maybe, just maybe, you feel like you’re down in a pit – life just won’t let up and you feel overwhelmed and suffocated by worry, fear, and anxiety.

Or perhaps you’ve lost someone you love and every single day is a biting and ringing reminder that you will never get them back.

Or maybe you’re struggling with an addiction that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t kick it.

We can claw at the walls all we want. We can fashion ladders of self-improvement. We can even make promises to ourselves that tomorrow we will finally become the best versions of ourselves.

But sometimes, the only way out of the hole comes when someone else is willing to jump in and show us the way out.

The psalmist puts it this way: “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we discover, bewilderingly enough, that our help comes from God.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the friend who recklessly jumps into the depths of our despair, who never abandons us even we go off assuming we can do it all on our own (thank you very much), who humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to be born into this broken world of ours.

That’s who comes to help us.

And that’s the whole point.

God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so too we do the same because that’s exactly what God did, and does, for us.

God was born into the world as a fragile child into the deepest pit of fear and terror for a couple all alone in the world.

God went to the margins of society in Christ Jesus sinking lower and lower just to be with the abandoned, neglected, and forgotten.

God chose the broken and the battered to dwell among in order that, in the end, they would be delivered from the miserable estate.

God even went the depth of death just to bring each and every one of us to the other side of salvation. 

And God did and does all of this without cost. 

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – We cannot help ourselves into grace.

Grace is something done for us and to us.

It jumps into the hole right next to us, and it shows us the way out. Amen.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Psalm 90.1-12

Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 

For the month of September we’re going to keep things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, money, possessions, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today. 

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I walked into the oil change waiting room and discovered a great mosaic of people who littered the chairs and walls with their waiting bodies. There, in that tiny dimly lit room, was a microcosm of Woodbridge in which just about every person and culture and community was represented. And in the midst of this great variety of differences, there was one thing that bound all of us together: impatience.

From the time it took to walk through the door to the only open seat, I took in the surroundings like a detective looking for clues… 

There was the mom fiddling with her cellphone while using her other hand to gently rock her infant back and forth in a stroller while her toddler was laughing manically in the corner as he ripped pages out of magazines one at a time.

There was a youngish businessman who looked like he was going to wear straight through the bottom of his $900 shoes as he paced back and forth muttering profanities under his breath.

There was the teenager who, I kid you not, was using a cellphone in each hand while his eyes were dashing back and forth as he no doubt kept his friends updated through every form of social media about the buzzkill of waiting for his car to be ready.

And there was me, the inconspicuous pastor who sat down and promptly opened up my laptop to start working on this very sermon. I got all of one line written when a much older gentleman caned his way into the room and decisively frowned as he saw not a single open chair.

Friends, I have to admit that my first reaction was to sink a little lower in my chair and tell myself not to make eye contact, because if I made eye contact I knew I would offer my spot, and the hoped for hour of good work would be lost, and he would probably try to have a conversation with me.

But with every passing second, and every ignored glance, the man just kept standing there as if the only thing holding him up was the tennis balled walker that shook ever so slightly under his hands.

So, of course, I begrudgingly packed up the computer, and motioned for the man to take my seat.

And he beamed.

If I were to ask you to describe your life, not here in front of everyone but say we were having lunch, what would you say? Where does your mind travel first?

Do you think your life is simple, or does it feel complicated? 

Time is something all of us think about and mull over more than just about anything else. I could go on and on with stories of people feeling overwhelmed by the concerns and constrains of time. We are fascinated by the fictitious accounts of time travel because they drive deep into the heart of our fears regarding time. We listen to songs about how time keeps on slipping slipping slipping. 

Even in our hymns! Time is now fleeting the moments are passing…

We all experience time differently – those of us chasing our kids around feel very different about time than the empty nesters next door, and very different than the teenagers just hoping to breeze through high school. 

Time is a harsh mistress.

Infinity time spiral 15267876

And even though we all experience it differently, our general attitude toward it is largely the same: we don’t have enough of it.

Last week, I stood here before all of you at the beginning of our worship service, and I made a joke about how even though I was on vacation for a week at the beach, I spent most of it chasing my son from the dunes to the ocean over and over again. I told you that it was exhausting. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that off the cuff comment in worship. Because I went on vacation! And then came back to all of this, only to complain about my vacation!

The fact that we live in a world in which some of us believe we need vacation from vacation should be enough to give us pause about our struggles with time.

And so of course, we wrestle with the day to day, we complain about not having enough time, we lament all the things we have been unable to complete, we stress about future endeavors, and our time becomes incredibly complex.

I stood just off to the side leaning against the wall as the older gentleman eased into my former seat. I motioned to grab a book out of my bag but before I had a chance to open it up the man said, “Don’t you just love getting your oil changed?” Thinking he was maybe addressing the room, I waited for anyone to respond until it was clear he was speaking to me. And then, as I thought about the question, I wondered, “Who in the world likes getting their oil changed?!?!” So I just muttered some sort of inaudible affirmation and the man said, “When else do you get such a great opportunity to make a stranger into a friend?” 

And then he did.

For an hour and a half, that honestly only felt like fifteen minutes, we started the bonds of friendship. I learned about his life and wife, his favorite television program (his words), and I even discovered that he has a pretty consistent record of ruining meatloaf.

And the more we talked, the more I found myself relaxing, the more I forgot why I was standing around in a room full of strangers, and when the service writer called out my name, I thought about ignoring it just so I could stick around a little longer.

When I went to shake his hand and say goodbye the last thing he said to me was, “Thanks for sharing your time with me.”

Our time has been changed in Jesus Christ because Jesus is God’s time for us. While we continue to stumble around in a world in which we feel like we never have enough time, God triumphantly declares, “I have time for you!” That, in its deepest and simplest way, its what the incarnation is. God made God’s self available to us in the person of Christ that we might truly know what the gift of time really is.

Because here, on this side of Easter, we live in a new created time. God is free for us, and God is with us and among us, God has become us. And that Good News is all the stranger when we encounter the words read for us this morning. According to the psalmist… God is anything but us! For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, you sweep them away. We fly away but you are God forever. 

The psalmist creates for us a vision of the divine as the unmovable and unshakable presence of eternity in which all of us are like the sands of time swept away almost without notice. Reading this psalm, at face value, makes us dread the passage of time even more! But it is the light of Christ, in the glorious news of God’s incarnation, we discover the passion of the Good News that God gave us time in Jesus.

To have time for someone else might not seem like much. Most of us here encounter a great number of people every day or every week, we exchange news and maintain conversations without having to give it much thought. But in reality, having time for someone else is to make manifest all the blessings one person can show another.

When we give anyone our time, we give them the last and most personal thing we have to give at all, namely ourselves.

Time, with its finite and fleeting nature, is the one thing all of us have, though none of us know how much of it we have. That’s what makes it so confounding. We imagine it to be so much of a precious commodity that we worry ourselves into oblivion about wasting any of it.

But time, at least Godly time – biblical time, is much more simple than that. 

So teach us, O Lord, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart – When we spend as much time as we do worrying about time, we neglect to do the good and important work of being appreciative for the time we have been given. Or, to put it another way, we spend so much time worrying about time, that we aren’t grateful for time at all.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, each Sunday this month we will encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. This week, each of us will be challenged to reimagine our calendars (and these instructions will be handed out after the service). We are asking that every night, until next Sunday, you take the time to write down in a journal at least one thing that happened to you during that day for which you are grateful. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the myriad of ways we are fast-forwarding through the frantic and frantic pace of life, far too many of us are not taking the time to be mindful of our time. 

So you can keep it as simple as writing down one thing that happened for which you are grateful. Time set apart to reflect on your time. 

Or you can take it a step farther and write about how much time you spent on things that give you life, and things that don’t. 

Or you can take it even one step farther and write about ways in which you will try to spend more more time the following day on connecting with God, and with other people. 

When we take the time, to be grateful for our time, that’s when the time around us begins to change. Because instead of resenting our lack of time we begin to appreciate what time we do have. Instead of belittling others for taking up our time, we begin to see them as timely people who have given their time to us. And instead of continuing to meander and miss the beauty of the time we have been given, we begin to see that God is the one who gave it to us. Amen.

God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 

 

On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.

I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.

And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.

And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.

And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.

And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

God won’t give you more than you can handle.

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I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.

Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.

Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.

Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.

The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.

Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.

Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.

I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?

But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.

When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.

If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.

So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

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This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.

When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.

God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.

For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.

For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.

Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.

Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.

There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.

We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.

 

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Why We Do What We Do – Pray

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary quickly, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we pray.

We’ve all been there before. We’re driving through the parking lot, maybe running a little bit late, and we cannot find a parking spot to save our lives. We search and search, we circle and circle, but nothing opens up and the more we look at the clock the more nervous and frustrated we become.

The man was driving through the grocery store parking lot with a list of items to purchase in his pocket and not a parking spot in sight. To complicate matters, the man’s wife is pregnant at home and he knows that the only thing that will make her happy is a jar of pickles, ice cream, and a bag of Doritos (all on his list). He had rushed out of the house with the hope of returning home with the necessary items as soon as possible, but the lot is full and he’s running out of time.

He decides its time to resort to the guy in the sky. Not the normal praying type, he’s not sure how to start. “Um… God, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but it’s me calling. I need your help. I don’t know how long I’ve been circling this lot, but I need a parking space. Maybe you don’t realize how getting this stuff for my wife will earn me some major brownie points. And I need those brownie points.”

He keeps driving around with no spots opening up, so he decides its time to step up his game: “God, I’ve been a good guy. I give to charity. I listen to others. I try not to swear. Can’t you just help me out this one time?”

Nothing. If the man was desperate before, now he’s starting to panic. He decides it’s time to make a deal. “Okay God, if you give me a parking space I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I will start tithing money to the church. I’ll even volunteer in the nursery…” When all of the sudden he rounds a corner to see a perfect spot open up just within his reach and decides to finish his prayer: “Forget it God, I found a spot on my own.”

In the story immediately preceding our scripture today James and John (the sons of Zebedee) want something from Jesus. To which Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “We want to sit on your right and left in your glory!” They want power and prestige, and they want Jesus to give it to them. And what does Jesus say? “You do not know what you are asking for.”

Why-Pray

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples were walking with a large crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth walking by, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” However, the crowds were so large that Jesus was unable to hear Bartimaeus, and those closest to the blind man ordered him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus was no ordinary man so he continued to yell out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus immediately stood still and called the man forward.

The crowds who have just moments ago ordered the blind man to be quiet now begin to shower him with praise: “Take heart! Get up, he is calling you!” Bartimaeus jumped up from the road and threw off his cloak, his one possession of value, and makes his way to the Lord. Then Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked the sons of Zebedee: “What do you want me to do for you.” But Bartimaeus’ prayer is completely different from the disciples and we can almost picture him kneeling before Jesus and saying, “My Lord, let me see again.

Why do we pray?

One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We need something from God so we ask for it through prayer.

Another reason to pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.

Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of a need. Sadly, prayer is often our last resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos in life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.

How do we pray?

For centuries faithful disciples have experimented with ways to pray. Silence is always a good place to start. Finding a quiet space and time in our lives and just letting the worries of the world float away. Like Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak, we look for the ways we can rid ourselves of the baggage that clogs our ears and prevents us from listening.

Another form of prayer comes through the reading of small bits of scripture over and over. Like taking one of the psalms and slowly reading the words as our own prayers to God, letting the words of the past make manifest our needs in the present. We dive into the depth of God’s great Word and slowly begin to realize that God is still using scripture to shape us even today.

If all else fails, we can rely on the helpful acronym of PRAY for Prayer.

P – Praise

God, I praise you for all of your marvelous works in the world, and in particular the gift of you Son Jesus Christ.

R – Repent

Lord, I confess that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

A – Ask

Father, give me the strength to be a better disciple and patience to accept the things I cannot change.

Y – Yield

God, even with my needs and wants, let your will be done in my life and here on earth. Amen.

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There are such a great number of ways to pray, that so long as we are doing what we do with intention, it can be a form of prayer. The greater question is not how do we pray, but are we praying for the right things?

On Wednesday night the youth gathered for The Circle. We went through the words of communion and feasted together, we checked in with each other and caught up about the comings and goings of the last week, and then we started to go through a few accountability questions. Someone pulled out the question “Who do I need to be praying for and why?” and the table responded in silence as we began to think about our responses. We listened as each person shared a particular need for someone else and it was obvious that our Adult volunteer was astounded by their maturity, and could not help himself from asking a new question: “Have any of you ever had your prayers answered? I’m not talking about praying for the Redskins to win, or to pass a test but a real and true prayer.”

It was truly a beautiful and holy moment as each of them shared a particular time when God had answered one of their prayers, a true prayer. Not prayers for a sports team, parking space, or academic grade, but for healing, patience, and purpose.

Bartimaeus is a model for discipleship. Instead of waiting for Jesus to just show up in his life, he calls out from the depth of his being for mercy. Instead of assuming that God will give him everything he needs without sacrifice, he quickly throws off the cloak of the past in order to embrace a new future. Instead of expecting a divine healing and a return the normalcy of life, he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, he fervently prays for mercy, and the crowds catch a glimpse of God’s grace. This event is a miracle. Miracles are those things that bring people from the darkness into the light, not just for the blind man, but everyone gathered around Jesus. Miracles turn our attention to what really matters in this life.

The true power of the miracle rests with Bartimaeus’ prayer. He calls out to Jesus. He comes to Jesus. He prays his true prayer. He sees Jesus better than the disciples, and he was blind.

What are we praying for?

In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will be encouraging each of us to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Bartimaeus.

Cash-Envelopes

So we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the paper in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. But we will mail them back to you in a number of months.

God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened, just like Bartimaeus, to the ways the God is moving in our lives. Amen.