Why Do We Serve?

Matthew 22.34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Love loves to love love. Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and (therefore) underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affections unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. We spend way too much money in February every year in attempts to declare our love through chocolate, cards, and other frivolous items.

Love.

In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined that we have become numb to it, or we view it superficially. When we hear something like how we are called to love God and neighbor, we worry more about who are neighbors are, than we actually spend time thinking about loving God in such a way that it spills out to our neighbors.

In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection or hallmark cars, but service.

To love is to serve.

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When I was 14 years old I was sitting in church on a typical Sunday morning and I was flipping through the bulletin rather than listening to whatever was coming from the pulpit. We were an almost every Sunday family and I don’t have many memories of my life without church in it, but that doesn’t mean that I always loved the church.

I used to get so bored that I would doodle all over the bulletin with images of planes, robots, and destruction. I even got to the point where I was so bored that I would pick up the bible out of the pew rack and would flip to a random passage and start reading.

            But that Sunday, when I was 14, I read something in the bulletin that truly changed my life forever: “Soundboard operator needed. Training begins next Sunday.”

The next Sunday I showed up early for worship and stood awkwardly by the sound system until Bud Walker arrived. For the next month he stood behind me every Sunday, looking over my shoulder, and whispered directions into my ear about what to do… this knob controls this… you have to press both buttons to record the service… make sure to hit mute before the hymn begins.

And after my month of training, the responsibility was mine.

My faithfulness today is largely a result of learning to serve the church as the soundboard operator as a teenager. Up until then my understanding of church was limited to the place we went to for an hour a week, but serving the church opened my eyes to so much more.

And, of course, it wasn’t without its strange moments… There were plenty of Sundays when I forgot to mute the microphones in time and everyone got to hear one of our preachers sing something that I would hesitate to even call a melody. There were the many Saturdays that I was needed to run the board for a wedding service and I got to witness the stumbling and hung-over groomsmen struggling to keep up with the perfectly coordinated bridesmaids. And there were the dozens of funerals for both young and old Christians, funerals for people I knew and for people I never met, funerals that taught me what being a Christian is really about.

Running the soundboard was one of the most important decisions of my life because it taught me to listen to worship carefully. Instead of doodling in the bulletin I had to focus on the sermons and the hymns and they took on a whole new meaning for me.

My service to God through the church resulted in my loving the church.

But why do we serve? We could just say something like the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and end the sermon right there. But service, at least Christian service, is about more than simply copying Jesus.

Or we could talk about how Jesus says to the crowds, “Just as you have done unto the least of these so you have done unto me.” But even then, service is about more than serving the hidden Jesus in our midst.

We serve, because in serving we learn what it means to love.

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The Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, but what they really wanted was to trap him. A lawyer came forward and said, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus answers by first quoting the Shema, the centerpiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus reinterprets the greatest commandment in scripture to include, from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments, according to Jesus, are what the entirety of the law and the prophets hang on.

            Or, to put it another way, the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.

            Or, still yet another way to put it, you can’t love God without loving your neighbor, and you can’t love your neighbor without loving God.

This little bit of wisdom from Jesus came on the Monday of Holy Week. Between the tension of the palms waving frantically on Sunday and the hardwood of the cross waiting on Friday, this is what Jesus chose to share with the people of God.

            The greatest thing we can do in this life is love.

And there can be no love without service.

For some reason, in the church, we read this passage and all we ever really emphasize is the call to love our neighbors. We produce programs designed to break down the walls between us and them, we host events and gatherings designed to bridge the gaps between us and them, and then whenever we feel like we “love” our neighbors we check off the box and move on to the next item.

And for sure, we would do well to have some more love for our neighbors. I asked our Sunday School class last week about what sounds annoy them the most, and just about every person in the room complained about a noise that comes from their literal neighbors. Whether it’s the loud music shaking the windows, or the backyard dogs that won’t stop barking, or the cars that rev their engines as the peel out of the neighborhood.

And I wonder if our neighbors would annoy us if we ever offered to serve them dinner. Imagine, if you can, walking up to the neighbor you know the least, the one who frustrates you the most, and asking if they’d like to come over for dinner some time.

Serving someone in that intimate of a setting is the equivalent of the scales falling from Paul’s eyes so that he could see clearly again. Serving a neighbor something as simple as a meal is the beginning of a journey that leads them away from being a neighbor, into the realm of being a friend.

But we’ve all heard sermons like that before. We’ve all left church at some point with the challenge to be a little more friendly or kind to the people around us. For some reason we whittle this passage down in such a way that all we think about is loving our neighbor, and we’ve almost done so at the expense of loving God.

            Do we love God?

I mean, we talk a lot about how much God loves us, but do we feel love for God? There was a Christian many centuries ago who said that he wanted to love God in such a way that he would be so completely seized by that love that all the desires of his heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts, and decisions which flow from them would be directed toward God. Is that what we feel?

Instead of thinking about and exploring ways that we might love God, we’re stuck in realm of thinking and exploring ways on how to handle the person who lives next door.

But, at the core of what it means to follow Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor cannot be separated from one another.

Loving God results in loving our neighbors, and loving our neighbors results in loving God. Or, maybe, serving God allows us to serve our neighbors, and serving our neighbors allows us to serve God.

So instead of asking, “Do we love God?” perhaps the real question is, “How are we serving God?”

In each of your bulletin you will find an insert with details about ways to serve God here at Cokesbury. By no means is this list totally comprehensive, but it presents a sampling of any number of ways we can love God by serving God in this place (and frankly, outside of this place).

My life changed because I read about a need in a bulletin 15 years ago. It was through the work of serving the church at the soundboard that I fell in love with the God who was revealed to me in worship. The soundboard became a launch pad toward other areas of the church where I spent even more time in service of God and neighbor. I spent nights sleeping at Rising Hope in their hypothermia shelter, I joined a praise band that led worship, I went on mission trips all over Virginia and all over the world. And I can honestly say that all of it happened because I saw the request in the bulletin.

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So here’s your list. From joining our missions committee, to reading scripture in worship on Sunday, to helping with our monthly food distribution, there is a place for everyone in this room to plug in and serve God. And maybe as you skim over the list you feel like there isn’t something for you, perhaps you have a new idea about how we can serve God together as a church. If so, tell somebody about it, tell me, and let’s make it a reality.

For friends, it is in the service of God that we learn what it means to love God. And when we learn what it means to love God we begin the work of loving our neighbors. And then we live into the greatest commandment made manifest in Jesus.

Because, after all, that’s really why we serve. We serve because we have been served.

In all of God’s majesty and mystery, God chose to descend into the world of our brokenness and shame to take on our flesh as a baby born in a manger. God served us in Christ through words, and acts, and miracles. God served us by mounting the hard wood of the cross to die and rise again three days later.

We worship a God of service and action, One who does not remain high and far away, One who is not absent from the perils of this world, but One who believes in moving in and through our being as we take steps in this life.

We worship a God who serves, and that’s why we serve.

Or, better yet, we worship a God who loves, and that’s why we love. Amen.

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Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

Lost

Luke 15.1-7

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”

On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.

While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.

After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.

However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.

When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.

I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.

Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.

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Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”

After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.

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We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.

The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.

We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

Apart

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 55.1-2

Devotional:

Isaiah 55.1-2

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 

Weekly Devotional Image

I stood behind a table filled with enough food for a feast. We had completed our service and work in Beckley, West Virginia and now we were hosting a community meal for the many families that we had worked with during the week. The room was full of exhausted middle-schoolers sitting next to the children they had been reading with all week in addition to the parents and relatives that were invited as well. The meal was free for all in attendance and there was a steady line for 45 minutes as we served and ate together.

Offering food and drink without a cost is a remarkable gift that the church has to offer to our communities. In two weeks our church will be hosting a Community Cook-Out for the people in our neighborhood for free. Like the prophet Isaiah we are inviting everyone who thirsts to come to drink from our waters, to eat what is good, and delight themselves in rich food.

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However, we recognize that (as Paul said) “food will not bring us close to God” (1 Corinthians 8.8). Without a willingness to build relationships with the people we serve and dine with, food will remain an ordinary element of life. When we served the food to the people in Beckley, West Virginia it would have remained a simple and nice gesture unless we were willing to sit side by side with our brothers and sisters and foster new relationships. Even with all the greatest and most delicious food it would have meant very little without our youth sitting down and laughing with their new friends. It is my hope and prayer that everyone in attendance that night will remember the joy of conversation rather than the food that we provided.

Offering food and drink is a wonderful thing to do as Christians. Hosting a meal at our homes for neighbors and friends reflects the goodness and abundance that God has provided in our lives. Yet, if we are not willing to offer our friendship with our food than we have neglected to take the necessary step to live out God’s Word in the world.

This week I challenge you to think about someone in your life who could benefit from receiving a free and delicious meal. Perhaps you have someone that you could take out to lunch, or invite over for dinner. But more than that I encourage you to think of how your willingness to love them and offer your sincere friendship will have a greater impact than any food or drink you could ever offer.