Charm Is Deceitful

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Layman about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Alan serves as the pastor of Grace UMC in Parksley, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral titles, staying connected in a global movement, senior superlatives, wicked advice, true prosperity, faithful habits, visions of the kingdom, the absence of the devil, and hot dogs with popsicles. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Charm Is Deceitful 

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In God We Trust

Mark 12.38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

For the month of September we’re keeping 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 first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. Last week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives.

Today we’re moving on to the subject of money. 

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, 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.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

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The church was in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. Every Sunday they bickered in the hallways and in the narthex fighting about who they could hit up for more money this year, about how much they would need to raise in order to buy new candlestick holders for the altar, and about whether the pastor should know who gives and how much.

Finally they called for a formal meeting on a Sunday evening and after 3 hours of more shouting, disagreeing, and even some belittling, they ended only to have the frustrations spill out into the parking lot as everyone was preparing to leave.

However, sitting outside the front doors of the church was a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup hoping for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing inside and out the parking lot.

After some time has passed, the man stood up from his spot and he meandered over to one of the older women with her hand placed perfectly on her hips, he reached out for her hand, dumped the few dollars and space change he had received, and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

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Money! Everyone’s favorite subject in church! In ranks up their with politics and sexuality! I can tell that you all have just been on the edge of your pews all morning waiting to hear what I have to say like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning.

Money! The American Dream! So many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us this dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deeper bank accounts. We hope to pursue more than we have, to gain more than we have, and to save more than we have.

And, importantly, most of us tend to measure our success based on the number in our bank accounts.

But, and this is a big but, for a lot of us the American Dream feels like the American Nightmare.

For as much hope as we might have for a day in the future when all of our finances will be taken care of, there’s plenty in the present to worry us. There was a study recently that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances – more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are worried about job security, and 52% report lying away at night thinking about their bank accounts.

That might not sound all that surprising to any of us here, because honestly, who among us hasn’t worried about money?

How about this then – in 1990 the average credit card debt in America was $3,000 and today it is well over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, student loans, or medical debt.

For many of us The American Dream has become The American Nightmare when it comes to money and finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few us us save money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Over and over again.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. 

“Watch out for those scribes and priests – you know, the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in public, the preachers who like to gets the seats of privilege. They are the type of people who prey on the widows and the poor and for the sake of appearances will fill their prayers with big and long words. Watch out for them.”

Then Jesus immediately gathered the crowd around the treasury and they watched as people filed in line to drop of their donations. Many rich people proudly walked ahead to make the donation as public as possible, but then a poor widow shuffled over and put two small coins in the treasury, two coins that amounted to a penny. 

Jesus pulled his disciples close and said, “That poor widow put in more than all the rest who are contributing to the treasury. The rest of them gave out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”

In life, few of us have any use for hypocrites. Those people who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate – like politicians making great sums of money while complaining that it’s not enough to live on – like pastors urging their congregations to make financial commitments while they themselves offer nothing.

Today we’re obviously talking about money, and the text makes it quite difficult to make a case for giving it to church. 

Because we can take the story of the widow at face value – she truly sacrifices. She is the example upon which Jesus makes a theological claim. But let us not forget that her gift is considered far greater than greater sums of money not because of the amount but because of her generosity.

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And that’s why we have to sit with something rather uncomfortable before we jump to the simplicity of money, which of course is no simple thing. It is good and right for us to rest in the tension of the text read for us today because this is about more than just encouraging extravagant generosity – it is an indictment, plain and simple, against any institution (including our own) that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the leaders can continue to live lives of wealth, comfort, and power.

We might leave church today feeling guilty about the money we give (or don’t give), we might feel apathetic about what our contributions can really do for our church or for our community. But perhaps the most appropriate feeling might be outrage; outrage toward any system that appropriates the property of the poor and near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.

Ask any pastor and they’ll tell you the best givers in the church are almost always the poorest. It’s those on limited and fixed incomes who are usually the first to tithe, but the wealthy and elite, those with gifts to share, have a harder time with it.

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear, or maybe you won’t, that there are more than 950 billionaires in the world and yet the percentage of giving among the majority of the billionaires does not rise above the single digits.

By the time Jesus encountered this scene by the treasury, the whole religious apparatus was perverted. The operators lived privileged lives, and the poor, widowed, orphaned, and marginalized were no longer protected.

And today, sadly, some things haven’t changed.

I was out of the office for two days this week between clergy meetings and hospital visits, and when I checked the church voicemail on Thursday morning we had over twenty messages, twenty messages in two days, from people in our immediate community who needed financial help – a rent payment, a overdue electricity bill, grocery money.

And I wish, I wish, that we could give money to every single person who called. I wish that my days were primarily filled with making sure that people could stay in their homes, that those homes could keep the lights on, and that the refrigerators were well stocked. 

But we can only use what we are given.

And so, from this story of Jesus and the widow, from the reflections on the church’s, and any institution’s, temptations to prey on the weak, it’s quite difficult and problematic for someone like me, part of the religious elite, standing in my long robe, to build a case for why the church is worthy of the gifts of its givers.

The church is only worthy when we use the gifts as Jesus commands.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship.

This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.

For a long time there’s been an 80-10-10 focus on finances in which you spend 80% of your money on what you need to live, you save 10% for the future and unanticipated emergencies, and 10% is given away. So the challenge is to sit down with your finances and start thinking about what it would take to break it all down into something close to the 80-10-10 model.

But, of course, tithing is really hard. It simply may not be possible for you to give 10% away. However, it is helpful to think about your generosity in terms of a total value instead of an occasional offering. As in, what does 2% look like for you? Or even 5%?

And you can leave it right there, a relatively simple thought experiment, or you can take it one step farther and take a good look at whatever debt you might have and make a plan to repay it. If you are anywhere near the average $9,000 in credit card debt, and you only make the minimum payment every month, it will take something like 200 years before it will all go away. So look at what is owed, and make a budgetary plan to star chipping away at it so than it no longer grips your around your soul like a shackle, so that you never wander over to the offering plate and have to give away your entire life at the value of a penny. 

And, if you want serious extra credit, you can bring back a commitment card next week (found in your bulletin). It is something to prayerfully consider and fill out, a commitment of giving to the church so that no widow in our community will be forced to give away her very life at the expense of her life being ignored.

A lot of us have a warped understanding of what faithful giving looks like. We think that if we give, then God will give more back to us. But that is not how it works. We do not give to God in order to get something in return. 

Do you think the widow at the treasury believed that if she just kept giving everything that she would one day wake up with an overflowing bank account? 

We give to God simply because God has given to us. We believe that when we give it blesses not us, but others. And then, of course, it is in the blessing of others that we are blessed.

The church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. 

But we believe in having transparency in our finances and we are committed to serving those in need. 

We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. 

And we believe that by returning to God what belongs to God, we take steps toward making the kingdom incarnate on earth. Amen. 

Enough Already!

Matthew 6.19-21

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For the month of September we’re keeping 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, possessions, money, 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.

The man lived a good and faithful life. He had a loving family, a lucrative career, and he was in church nearly every single Sunday.

As he got closer to the end of his life, he heard God speak to him one day. “You have been good and faithful” boomed the voice from beyond, “and though I don’t usually do this, I’m going to grant you a special dispensation. When you die you may bring a briefcase full of whatever you want to heaven.

The man was overwhelmed by the generous act of God, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an incredibly difficult decision to make. Most night he laid awake staring at the ceiling running through his possessions in his mind until, after months of deliberation, he came to a decision.

When his days came to an end, he found himself standing in line outside the pearly gates with a great assortment of people. Though, unlike anyone else, he held a briefcase in his hand. The whispers and stares followed him all the way through the line until he stood right before St. Peter.

The first disciple asked, “What’s that in your hand?”

The man proudly retorted that he and God had come to an agreement and that he was able to bring a briefcase to heaven.

Peter jumped up off his cloud, and clasped his hands to his mouth. “So you’re the one! The angels and I have been talking about you for a long time, and we’ve got a pretty good pool going about what’s inside. So, do you mind? Can I take a peak?”

The man beamed with bride as he laid the briefcase on the ground and opened it up.

Gold bars.

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Of all the things the man could’ve picked, among all his possessions, he decided to bring a few gold bars.

He looked up at Peter excited to see the look on his face, but Peter just raised an eyebrow and said, “Asphalt?”

Because, you know, in heaven the streets are paved with gold…

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth! Friends, Jesus is speaking to us throughout the centuries and the time has come for all of us to close our bank accounts, empty out all of our garages and attics, and start saving in heaven!

Right?

We’re going to spend more time talking specifically about money next week, but today we are talking about possessions, and specifically how possessed we are by our possessions. 

Check this out: Did you know that here in the United States there are more self-storage facilities than Starbucks and McDonalds combined!?!?

Think about that for just a moment, think about how you can’t go anywhere around here without the coffee seller or the golden arches, and yet there are more self-storage facilities!

The amount of space in our self-storage facilities is so ridiculously large in fact, that we could fit every man, woman, and child inside of them with room to spare.

And of the people who own a storage unit, the majority of them have both attic space and garage space at home.

Possessions

I joked months ago that this church has a storage problem because we simply had too much stuff. And so we decided to take a day to go through most of the items we had stored just to start clearing things out – Friends we had more ziplock bags full of dried out markers than I could count – we had Vacation Bible School materials from 20 years ago – we have copies of every bulletin this church has ever used. EVER.

The church is not immune to the problem of possessions.

Jesus’ little vignette in which he lays out the dilemma is one that I’m sure most of us are familiar with – but there’s some subtle wordplay that we miss. Because, in English, we translate Jesus’ words as, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” But in Greek it reads more like, “Do not treasure up your treasures.”

But why not? What’s so wrong with working hard to accumulate possessions? What’s the problem with running out of space to store all of our stuff? 

Well, Jesus would have us remember that treasuring up all of that treasure ultimately leads to its demise. Moths, rust, and thieves will consume all that we save is we treasure it away. 

And we’ve got to hand it to Jesus on this one – he’s right. The more we accumulate, the more we store, the more we possess, the more the dust accumulates, the more we run out of space, the more we can’t even really remember what’s in the bottom of that box on the far side of the garage.

But Jesus is also pushing us to a different understanding as well. He’s not just gathering the disciples around for a little advice on how to be mindful of the fragility of our possessions, but its also a lesson in the theological ramifications of treasuring up our treasures.

It, the struggle with possessions, runs throughout the scriptures. Abraham desperately wants a son, someone to pass his possessions on to. The Hebrews are delivered from slavery in Egypt only to think back on all the stuff they left back in Egypt. After entering the Promised Land, the people of God habitually lament losing the thing they care about most over and over again – not their relationship with God, but all of their stuff back in Jerusalem.

Even in the New Testament, the rich young ruler, James and John, Ananias and Sapphira, they all experience the loss (or potential loss) of worldly goods and it just about undoes them. 

Having stuff, accumulating possessions, isn’t a sin. Our things can be used for both good and evil. It’s when the love of our stuff, when we feel an intense desire to lock it up and away, that we become blind from other things in our lives. And, God forbid, we start encroaching on a slippery slope that seems to never end.

First we possess something we truly desire – but then when we see what other people have and we start doing whatever it takes to get it. It’s why the line for new iPhones every fall stretches far beyond every Apple Store.

Then, whenever we acquire the item that was pulling at our heart strings, we intensely desire something else or more of the original item and we are less inclined to share what we have. It’s why we find ourselves trading in a car for the updated model when nothing is really wrong with out current mode of transportation.

And finally we just keep consuming one thing after another, even when we are beyond full. It’s why the self-storage business is a multi-billion dollar industry and we wind up buying space just to have room for all of our stuff.

But don’t we have enough already? Are we so discontented by our stuff that the only remedy is more of it? Do we possess our possessions, or are we possessed by our possessions?

Here’s a dose of some hard truth – at the end of our days, everything goes into a box. A box that’s about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. And we can’t take anything else with us.

Do not treasure up your treasures on earth, but treasure up your treasures in heaven. Some will say that Jesus is pleading with his followers across the sands of time to treasure up our treasures in heaven by giving money to the church. And, though you can take it that way, I think Jesus is being a little more subtle. As the King of the Kingdom, as the one inaugurating the new way, Jesus knows that when we treasure up our treasures on earth, they no longer make a difference, and they start to weigh us down.

But by treasuring up our treasures in heaven, by knowing what really matters and what really doesn’t, we are freed from the tyranny of sinful accumulation and we start to see and know that we are God’s treasure.

Because, God’s heart is with us.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. Last week we were tasked with taking time everyday to be grateful by our time. This week we have a clean out challenge.

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We are asking that everyone set aside some time this week to get rid of some stuff. In my house we have a drawer that has a little bit of everything in it, and maybe you have one like that, and perhaps thats the project you want to tackle. Take out the drawer, go through every item, and really ask yourself whether you need it or not. If the items you discard can be used by someone else, then take them to a local goodwill or salvation army, if they can be recycled then recycle them.

Pick one drawer, one box, one closet – it doesn’t matter what it is, but go through it and get ride of some of your possessions. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the crazy and ridiculous ways that we are accumulating far more items than we could ever possibility need, too many us us are are focusing on earthly things instead of heavenly things.

So you can keep it as simple as cleaning out one place, one depository of items. Or you can take it a step farther and clean out an entire room – going through every drawer, every box, every shelf while asking what of all the items are actually giving you life, and which are holding you back.

Or you can even take it one step farther and pick out individuals whom you know would be blessed by some of your possessions. Instead of taking it to a local donation place, bring them to someone you know would love it and let them experience something that used to bring you life and joy. 

As we hear about the perennial struggle with possessions, as we begin to imagine that space in our homes that is overrun with stuff, we might become so bogged down in our worry and fear and attachment that we forget how God was willing to part with God’s greatest possession.

Because, strangely enough, God’s greatest possession, God’s beloved, is Jesus Christ. And, in God’s great and perplexing wisdom, God chose not to treasure up God’s greatest treasure but instead decided to give it away on our behalf. 

We know where God’s heart is because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We know how much of a challenge this will be because we find ourselves surrounded by mountains of stuff that shackle us to limited visions of reality. 

We know the frightening dimension of giving away our possessions because as Christians we regularly encounter the knowledge of God’s profound generosity in the gift of his only begotten Son.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen. 

Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. 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.

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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.

On The Perils Of Going With The Flow

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and have done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrow of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly as I must speak. 

A few weeks ago a young pastor got on the radio to address the nation. He offered a speech entitled, “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though most of the talk was highly philosophical and kind of dense, it also constructively argued against the type of leadership all too common these days. It boldly claimed that unless something changes, and changes soon, our nation will be lead in a nightmare of violence and misery.

The pastor said a true leader must know the limits of his or her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. The leader puts the values of other first, like a good parent does with a child, wishing that child to someday be a worthy parent. 

The young preacher then said this type of leadership is better known as discipleship. Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, then real leadership has been reached.

The pastor said, “All leaders are responsible before God.”

And right then, at that exact moment, the speech was cut off and the line held dead.

Authorities representing those in leadership found the words to be too controversial, and too critical, to allow it to continue. And so, the young pastor’s message on leadership was suppressed all under the auspices of control. 

Can you believe it? Someone was so afraid of that pastor’s words they yanked the power to the radio station just so the words would not hit more ears than they already did. Can you imagine the fear required to stop an address like that? Can you fathom the trouble the preacher got in for saying what was said?

Perhaps you can’t believe it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Surely in today’s world, no one would be so foolish to speak out against the governing authorities and the powers and principalities!” 

Or maybe you’re thinking that the freedom of speech we hold so dear in this country would prevent anyone from being cut off even if he or she was being hyper-critical of those in power.

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re right. It didn’t happen. At least, in didn’t happen the way I described it…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, and thus began what we call the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for his ruthless uses of power for destructive purposes, his love of overwhelming propaganda, and his fear-mongering through scape-goating.

Not many of us today can remember what it was like when he ascended to power simply because we weren’t alive, but the world shuddered when his reign began.

Two days after he was elected by the people of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to the entire nation spelling out the dangers of worshipping a leader the way Christians were meant to worship the living God in Jesus Christ. He critiqued a people who were blind to the injustices around them already, and those surely to be committed, and called for Christians to stand firm against an idolatrous nation that would be marched to its doom.

And they pulled him off the radio before he could even finish.

Paul is quite clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus the the role of the Christian is the opposite of going with the flow. He calls for the church to stand, in faith, with all of the armor of God against the evils and injustices of the world made manifest in the powers and principalities. Stand your ground against enemies, rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and all spiritual forces of evil.

This is a call, here at the end of the letter, to be courageous with every fiber of our being regardless of the circumstances. Because standing up in our faith, not necessary for our faith but in our faith, for the vision of the kingdom of God made possible in Jesus Christ will make us unpopular, at least according to the terms and values of the world and culture around us. 

Going against the flow runs the risk of ridicule, if not worse, as we strive to be faithful people living in the community of faith.

Paul’s vision of a church that stands firm in its convictions about the first being last and last being first implies a willingness to debate, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to call into question the powers that be when their values stand in opposition to God’s. In this proclamation, God’s kingdom is the goal, while maintaining the basic principles of discipled living offered to us throughout the centuries.

Sadly, Christians like us are told all too often to just go with the flow, or to chill out, or to relax about everything under the sun. But Paul’s words beg us to reconsider our posture of passivity. 

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We are not merely sitting along for the ride while the world falls apart around us. 

We are bound to the created world around us even if we are no longer able to harmonize with it. 

We have a responsibility of standing up for those who can no longer stand, speaking up for those who no longer have a voice, and empowering those who have been disenfranchised.

And friends, this is not a popular thing to do! We would rather hear from St. Paul about how much easier our lives would be if we could just go with the flow, we’d like to read a passage about how much our lives are going to get better if we stick together, we want God to tell us that every little thing’s gonna be alright. 

Being a Christian isn’t popular, and it certainly isn’t easy.

Paul calls for us to put on the armor of God because we’re going to need it!

Some Christians, since the time of Jesus, have been willing to name the powers and principalities for what they were. They’ve stood firm, without fear, bearing the repercussions of their actions knowing full and well that God was with them regardless of the outcome. They knew the kingdom of God was more important than whatever their lives might be.

Things became quite difficult for young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany descended into Fuhrer-worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor. 

With each passing day he saw the injustices and evil being perpetrated in the name of his beloved country to such a frightening degree that when he was once asked about his prayer life, he responded by saying, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation, for I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world.”

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in any public forum and he was required to regularly report his whereabouts and activities to the police. The next year he was forbidden to print or publish any of his thoughts. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his speech on the radio, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks. 

He went to prison for two years and was thankfully able to smuggle out letters filled with theological reflections to friends and family. And though he remained hopeful that the second World War would come to an end, and that he would be released, he was condemned to death just weeks before the camp where he was held was liberated.

Right before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed to preside over one final worship service and his last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Now, there is a strong temptation for any of us here to hear a story like the one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and regard him as an exceptional example of what it means to be a disciple. We encounter the story of his firm standing with his faith and because it is such an extreme example we can appreciate it, but we cannot resonate with it.

And this makes sense considering the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any of us here will ever be silenced, or imprisoned, or murdered for our Christian commitment to going against the flow. And yet, Paul is bold enough to conclude this letter with a call to be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.

We might not encounter a sweeping governmental and idolatrous disaster like the one in Nazi Germany, but we all know the slippery slope that begins when we worship those in power the way we are meant to worship God.

We might not have the opportunity, nor the desire, to speak to the entire nation about the evil in our midst, but we all know of particular ways that our voices can draw attention to injustices that are happening here in our community.

We might not be punished with jail time or threatened with death for calling the powers and principalities into question, but we can all imagine the stress and anxiety that would begin if we did so in small and tangible ways here and now.

Pain and suffering will always come when one prepares to engage with the things that really matter. That’s why we need the church community surrounding us, we need the armor of the Lord protecting us, and we need the voice of the Lord empowering us.

It can be a hard word to any of us who believe that we are a Christian nation, or that Christian values are normative here, but following Jesus actually implies a willingness to be counter-cultural. It means that what we stand firm in and for are not necessarily the same things that the culture around us stands in or for. 

I often joke that Jesus could use some better PR because the stuff the church has to offer doesn’t sell very well. We don’t have simple fixes and salves that make your life go back to normal, we don’t shuffle everyone in here just to pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. It should come as no surprise (the more we hear what Jesus had to say) that the once large crowds all but disappeared by the time Jesus was hanging on the cross.

All of this going against the flow isn’t something we’re naturally disposed to. It is so dissonant with much of what we’ve been taught about the ways the world works.

But the kingdom is not the same thing as the world. 

We do this difficult and challenging work not because it is easy or fun but simply because it is what God did for us! If God went with the flow, or just chilled out, we would still be left to our own devices, twiddling away the good gift of creation, still suffering under the reign of sin and death.

But God, in Christ, stood firm for something different. Wearing the armor of God Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross with the divine declaration that the power of sin, and the empire of the powers and principalities, had come to an end. With a sure and firm foundation the Lord of lords inaugurated the beginning of a new time, one in which real power would be felt in weakness, where standing firm is worth the pain, and where life could be found in death. Amen.

The Dude Abides

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including movie quotes, reminding God of God’s promises, dwelling places, mundane worship, unhappy people, dressing up for Jesus, passive Christianity, and offensive grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dude Abides

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).