Let’s Talk About Heaven

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
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The couple had recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary when they tragically died in a car crash. They were in relatively good health at the time, mainly due to the wife’s dedication to their diet and forcing them to both get exercise, but when the crash occurred they were immediately brought before St. Peter and the pearly gates.

After a quick check-in, much like the first minutes at a tropical resort, St. Peter volunteered to give them a tore of their heavenly abode. The mansion they would be calling home for eternity was filled with more rooms than they could count with a beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, and movie theater in the basement. As the wife squealed in delight with every passing accommodation, the husband grew skeptical and finally leaned over to Peter and asked, “So how much is this going to cost?”

Peter, flabbergasted, replied, “It’s free, this is Heaven.”

Later, they toured the endless golf course that started in their backyard. With perfect rolling hills that they could only have imagined on earth, they took in the beauty that was available whenever they wanted. The old man, again, asked Peter, “So what are the green fees?

Peter replied, “This is Heaven and you play for free.”

Finally Peter brought the couple to the clubhouse that was filled with people from their lives that they had loved and lost. The joyful reunions went on for some time until Peter motioned for the couple to go through the lavish buffet that had been prepared. The old man, still skeptical, quietly asked Peter how much the food would cost.

Peter, now growing frustrated, said, “Don’t you understand yet? This is Heaven, it’s all free!

The old man stood still and then asked, “Well where are the fat free and low cholesterol tables?”

Peter then began to lecture, “That’s the best part. You can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven!

Immediately the old man went off with a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping out of the clubhouse.

Peter and the wife both tried to calm down the old man and asked what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it wasn’t for your diet and exercise, I could have been here ten years ago!

What’s heaven like? I get asked this question on a pretty regular basis. I might be in my office with a grieving family who just lost someone they loved and someone will ask what the person is now “doing” in heaven. Or I’ll be here in the sanctuary teaching a lesson to the preschoolers when the subject of heaven comes up and one of them will say something like: My mommy told me that heaven is full of your favorite candy, and you can have as much of it as you want!

What’s heaven like? There are a decent number of times when scripture is descriptive about the beyond, but it is a far stretch from the jokes and movies many of have experienced on the subject. John caught a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God’s presence in a vision and described it like the grandest worship service to have ever occurred. Countless beings that have made it through the great tribulation surround the throne of the Lord where the Lamb is in the center. They sing with full voices and praise the Lord unceasingly for his majesty is beyond comprehension.

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The problem with talking about heaven is that whatever we say, it is speculative at best. We can point to scripture where it is described, but the descriptions are made in such a way that heaven is beyond our comprehension. The whole point of heaven after all, is that it is totally other from earthly life. It is beyond life. It is glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might in a way that is impossible for us to understand during our earthly lives.

And even though we can only hint at what heaven might be like, it has become the pinnacle concern for many churches and Christians. What do I have to do to make it to heaven? Or what do we have to do in order to get other people to heaven? These questions dominate our thoughts and we grow anxious about whether or not we, and the people we love, will go on to our heavenly reward.

When talking about heaven, there is a strong temptation to make it so appealing with comparisons to earthly beauty that we neglect to think about the fact that we are called to exist here on earth until our deaths. But this text, this worshipful understanding of heaven, lets us know that God never promised we would not suffer. In fact the opposite is true. Suffering has always been part of our story, and even we here in the blessed region of Western civilization are not immune.

Only in death can we receive the gift of resurrection. It was only through Christ’s crucifixion that he could one day be raised again. The same holds true for us. Only when the bell tolls for us will we share in Christ’s victory over death.

And yet we still talk about it all the time. It is good and right for us to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but when daydreams about our everlasting reward later prevent us from serving the needs of others right now it becomes cheap grace.

In many churches, like the ones most concerned about whether others are going to heaven or hell after they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now. Here in scripture John is confronted with the suffering of the great multitude before they arrive at the throne. They are granted a peace they did not have on earth: they will not hunger, nor thirst, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat because the Lamb of God has shepherded them to the springs of life where God wipes away all tears. But before we can rejoice with the Lord in his divine kingdom, we will endure tribulations in our earthly lives.

Imagining that our lives will be free from suffering is what often leads people to leave the church when something goes wrong. I know too many people my age who were forbidden from attending funerals as children, and then when they finally attended a funeral for the first time when they were older they fell away from the church. I also know too many people who lived such perfect and sheltered lives that when they encountered true poverty for the first time they were overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and have been unable to return to church.

The church is supposed to be the alternative to this overly rosy view of the world. We have the church to help us remember exactly what God has promised, and what God has not. The church is the place where we confront the hardships of life and rely on the people in the pews next to us to help us through the great tribulations we experience. We are not here to prance around pretending that we have perfect lives without suffering, but instead to proclaim that in trusting the Lord we will find the strength and courage to sustain us until that time when we will join Jesus in the victory over death.

The church is the means by which we combat the hells we experience on earth by attempting to give people hope and faith in something greater than earthly life can offer.

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In this church, at St. John’s, we strive to help guide and nurture one another through a variety of means. We have bible studies for the young and the old to help us wrestle with how scripture can speak into our everyday experiences. We collect food and clothing and money for others who are desperately in need. We send people on mission trips to build and plant new foundations and relationships for people who really feel like they are living in hell right now.

But we also have a woman here in the church who has made it her calling to help nurture people in the midst of suffering in the best way she knows how. I believe that Dianne Wright is keeping Hallmark in business through the countless cards she sends out to the community. If you’ve been coming to this church for any regular period of time, and have had so much as a cold, you’ve probably received a card from Dianne Wright. They are always thoughtful, they are always written with purposeful words, and they are always filled with love.

I have the added benefit of not just receiving cards when I need them, but I visit enough of you and our shut-ins to know how prized these letters have become. I was visiting someone at King’s Daughters recently when I saw the familiar script sticking out of the cards adorned in a row on the window sill. The woman I visited described them as the most precious gift she had received since she went in to rehab.

Time and time again I will find myself visiting someone and the subject of Dianne’s cards will come up. They might appear to be a simple and casual gesture, but they speak volumes in the realm of how we are sustained by God’s grace through our neighbor Dianne.

As Christians, we are called to combat the countless hells on earth that plague people through our love and presence. For Dianne Wright, this has meant a ceaseless commitment to communicating through cards the love, depth, and peace of God.

Each of us, in some way shape or form, has gifts that we use to share God’s love with others. Perhaps we have the freedom to visit with people who can no longer visit us. Maybe we, like Dianne, have a penchant for penning letters. Perhaps we have been blessed with lucrative careers that allow us to give charitably to help others. Maybe God has molded us with a spirit of prayer and we can lift up the world through our clasped hands. Perhaps we have become familiar with a particular need in the world and all we need is a little nudge to start serving God by serving others. Maybe we have toyed with the idea of a calling to the ministry and we just need to take a step in faith that God can use us to spread the gospel. Perhaps we have the gift of carpentry like Jesus only we’ve been too nervous to ask someone we know if they need any repairs. Whatever our gift might be, God is calling us to use them to draw people into moments of heaven on earth.

When our time comes God will do with us what God wants. In God’s infinite wisdom and glory we will surround the throne and join in one voice with the saints who came before us, and with the saints who will come after us. We will be washed with the blood of the lamb and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

We know not when we will gather with the great multitude, but each day God gives us is a gift. A gift we should celebrate by being a gift for others. Amen.

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Beware of the Church

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 worth 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.”

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The story of the Widow’s gift of the two small copper coins is a favorite among pastors for their stewardship sermons. All of the perfect details are there to entice, and guilt, a congregation into giving more money as they follow the example of the widow. It does not matter how much you make, but what you do with what you make! Pastors will be clear about thanking the rich for making their offering, but they will emphasize how even the poor have money to give.

But the story is much more complicated than that.

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 the marketplaces? You know those ministers and preachers who love to get the seats of honor at banquets? They are the type of people who prey on the widows and for the sake of appearance will fill their prayers with big and long words. They are not praying out of faithfulness but out of expectation and perception. Watch out for them.”

Then he immediately gathered around the treasury and watched as people filed in line to drop off their donations. Many rich people lined up, proud of the donation they were about to make publicly, but then a poor widow came up and put in two small copper coins, coins that amounted to a penny. Jesus pulled the disciples close and said, “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: her whole life.”

Is the widow an example of profound faith? Of course she is. She embodies the call to witness to God’s faithfulness by returning her gifts to the Lord, recognizing that the Lord will truly provide. She sacrifices deeply and stands as a worthy saint to be modeled after.

But does Jesus point her out to the disciples because of her worthy example of sacrifice, or does he point her out as a tragic example of how religious institutions can fail the people they are supposed to protect?

St. Mary’s Cathedral is a beautiful church in San Francisco that stands as a beacon of beauty and power to the people of the local community. For years its steeple has cut across the horizon as a worthy witness to God’s power. It is the kind of church that is filled with wealthy and put together people who want to hear about God’s love and grace. The parking lot is filled with expensive cars Sunday after Sunday. And they rarely worry about the future of the church because they believe God has a plan for them.

The church is also known for its beautiful and gothic architecture. The alcoves have been carved with deliberate care and focus and you can’t help but marvel when you see the structure. However, the beautiful alcoves create a problem for the church because homeless men, women, and children like to sleep in them to stay out of the rain. For some time the church attempted to turn a blind eye to the homeless who would gather on the property every night, but it got to the point where the lingering smell was so strong on Sunday mornings that the leaders of the church were worried about losing some of their strongest financial givers.

The church decided to install a sprinkler system in the ceilings of the three major alcoves in order to deter the homeless population from staying in them. Every night, from the time the Sun goes down until the early morning, the sprinklers will turn on for 75 seconds every 30 minutes for the pure and simple purpose of removing the people from where they gather. This church, in a state suffering from a tremendous drought, believed that installing the sprinkler system was the right thing to do.

Is that church an example of faithfulness? Or is it a tragic example of how the church has failed the people its supposed to protect?

Can you imagine how strange it would be to hear about this story from the gospel of Mark on a Sunday when the preacher asks for you to give more? I wrestle with how difficult it is to encourage generosity, particularly from those who are already sacrificing so much to the church. To be perfectly frank, the poor and vulnerable are often the strongest givers to the church and if the church fails to be good stewards of their gift, then we are failing our purpose.

Throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testaments, most of God’s anger is kindled against people who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. God commands the Israelites to not pick up the crops they drop in the fields so that the sojourner has something to eat. Just about every prophet addresses how the wealthy leaders neglected their responsibility to the poor and underprivileged. Even in the gospels, Jesus specifically references money and the care of it in regard to the last, least, and lost, more than almost any other ethical claim.

What we do with our money is incredibly important, particularly because we are supposed to use our blessings to bless others.

The church can only be a faithful place for the giving of gifts when we heed Jesus’ call to care for the outcast. If we were the kind of church that installed a sprinkler system to remove homeless people from sleeping under our bell tower, then we would have no right to ask for people to give generously because we would have failed to be the church.

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The church has little use for hypocrites; the world already has enough. For far too long we have missed the value of this story from scripture and have perpetuated a system whereby the pretentious and powerful show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate.

I know it sounds strange to hear someone, particularly a pastor who wears a long robe, talk about hypocrisy in the church, when I am standing in this high pulpit for everyone to see. I know that it sounds strange to hear a sermon entitled “Beware of the Church,” while you are sitting in a church. But if we aren’t willing to be generous for the sake of God and others (more than ourselves), then we have no business calling ourselves “the church” in the first place.

There was once another church in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. They gathered in one of the Sunday school rooms and bickered back and forth about who they could hit up for more money this year. They debated about how much money they would need to bring in in order to buy new brass flower holders next to the altar. They argued about whether the pastor should know who gave what and how much.

The meeting got to such a boiling point that they never came to any conclusions about what to do, and the argument spilled into the parking lot as they prepared to leave. However, sitting on the front steps of the church was a homeless man holding out a cup 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 in the parking lot.

After some time had passed he stood up from the steps, walked over to one of the older women, grabbed her by the hand, dumped the few dollars and spare change he had received and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

In the story from scripture, the widow’s gift is great because of her sacrifice. She is worthy of our attention and focus, but her sacrifice would not have been as much of a struggle if the wealthy and religious elite had done what they could to comfort the afflicted. The whole religious system had become perverted during the time of Jesus. It did not protect the widows, the poor, and the vulnerable. Instead, it lived off of them.

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Giving money and sacrificing to the church is a good and righteous thing to do, but only when the church uses the gifts as Jesus commands us. Feeding the hungry and providing clothing to the poor is an important thing to do, but we have to see that not as just a program or opportunity, but see it as the very life that flows from our worship.

This church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. But we strive for transparency in our finances and a commitment to serving those in need. We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. We believe that God can use us to change this community and the world.

Because the truth is, we can’t take our money with us to heaven. But we can use it here and now to make people feel a little bit of heaven on earth. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 146.1

Psalm 146.1

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

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On Thursday afternoon I made my way over to the parking lot at Gypsy Hill Park to prepare for the UMC Trunk or Treat. The pastors and lay leaders from the Staunton area United Methodist churches had been planning the event for a number of months and it was my responsibility to set up the parking lot and organize the first wave of volunteers. For months we had collected candy and advertised in the local community and I was anxious to see how it would turn out.

In our earliest conversations we thought we would be lucky to receive a few hundred children and their parents for our Trunk or Treat. We continued to organize, plan, and pray for the event and when it was time to start trunk or treating a long line had already started to form; All of our hard work was about to come to fruition.

Over the next two hours the line of people never dwindled. Volunteers were running around in order to maintain the safety of the young children while also replenishing the candy supplies that had run low in some of the trunks. Children were dressed in some of the wittiest and most delightful costumes as they came forward with grateful hands to receive a peace of candy. And every trunk was attended by a faithful Christian eager and willing to share God’s love through the tiniest of gifts.

At about 7pm I left Lindsey with the candy at our trunk and made my way to the top of a hill for a better vantage point; I wanted to see how well the line was moving and if people were still enjoying themselves. I resisted the temptation to turn and look until I got to the very top and when I did I was stunned. From where I stood I could see no end to the numbers of children and families that had gathered in the park. I tried taking a picture and I could not even come close to capturing everyone in it. By the time the Trunk or Treat came to a conclusion over 3,500 people had come through.

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When I stood on top of the hill and looked out at what the United Methodist Church could do in connection I wanted to praise God. Only an almighty and powerful God could call us to work in community with one another instead of in competition. Only a faithful and loving God could stir our hearts to give generously to this wonderful community. Only a redemptive and sustaining God could accomplish something in us as powerful as our Trunk or Treat.

We truly serve an almighty God who is worthy of our praise!

 

The Upside-Down Kingdom – Sermon on Mark 6.30-34

Mark 6.30-34

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

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Last Sunday our mission team gathered in the parking lot after worship, prayed together, and then set out for the beautiful bounty of West Virginia. I don’t know how the rest of the team felt as we made our way west, but I was excited; we were committing ourselves to a community, we were going to be Christ’s hands and feet, and we were going to experience God’s upside-down kingdom.

McDowell County, West Virginia is nothing short of beautiful. While the roads twist back and forth and the topography ebbs and flows, you are constantly bombarded by the beauty of God’s creation. Sitting behind the wheel, the scenery flies past the window and all evidence of humanity’s presence is gone except for the occasional roadside house and the road beneath the wheels.

By the time we finally made it to Welsh, WV we were ready to work, and we were ready to get out of the cars. But the scenery had drastically changed from the journey; when we arrived in Welsh it felt as if time had stopped. At one time Welch was one of the ten most populated places in the United States. More coal has been found and produced in McDowell County than nearly every other coal mining venture in the rest of the country. The community grew rapidly as the industry boomed, but now it is a ghost town.

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The final moments as we drove up to where we would be staying for the week were met with silence as we absorbed our surroundings. Countless empty buildings littered the streets, handwritten signs adorned the windows begging people and businesses to consider renting the space, and for the longest time we drove without seeing another human being.

The apostles, those first ragtag disciples, had gathered all around their teacher to share with him all they had done and taught. They went on and on about the lives they had changed, the miracles they were able to perform, and moments they had experienced God’s presence. But then Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Our mission team had arrived in our deserted place, but we would find little rest. Our church team was divided into two different work groups; the first would be working in a local food pantry, helping them to organize different donations before the weekly distribution on Saturday, the other would be working on painting the floors of house in the small town of War. The time before and after working would be spent in prayer, bible study, fellowship building, and learning about the local community.

From the Food Pantry group we learned that 100% of the children in McDowell County are on Free/Reduced lunch and that more than 50% of the children are considered homeless. From a former coal miner we learned that for a long time McDowell County was one of the wealthiest in the nation thanks to their coal mining, but that now the mines are being shut-down, and more and more people are without work and purpose.

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It would have been easy to show up in McDowell, roll up our sleeves, work hard, and leave feeling good about the work we had done. It would have been easy to make a few friendships, pray for the people we met, and return to our lives in Staunton. It would have been easy to return to the pace of life here without being affected by what we had seen and experienced, but Jesus calls us to live in the Upside-Down Kingdom where our lives are flipped around.

When the crowds were gathering to see this special man named Jesus, many were coming and going and the had no leisure even to eat; what a perfect description of the lives that many people are living today. Far too many of us rush through the mundane aspects of daily living without taking the time to reflect on what we are actually doing.

Kids grab Pop-tarts on their way out the door in the morning, young professionals order the same cup of coffee with urgency before their daily commute, families sit down at a communal table to eat but each member has their nose down in a smart phone in order to connect with others, while actually disconnecting from the people in their midst.

Many of us Christians spend our faith lives just like the crowds so long ago. We treat church not like the precious gift that it is, but like any other commodity in our lives. Instead of seeing it as a vital and life-giving space, we see it as another item on the never-ending check-list of existence. Some of us have so much to do, that church has become an occasional venture, rather than a regular necessity. So many of us are coming and going at such a tremendous speed that we no longer have the time to feast on God’s Word in prayer and in worship.

The mission team, however, abandoned the fast pace regularity of life, and were forced to adjust to God’s schedule. Every morning we woke up to eat and begin our devotions; How were we experiencing God’s Upside-Down Kingdom? Where had we seen brokenness in the community? What is God trying to do through us this week? We began and ended every single activity with prayer, and we devoted ourselves to the people we were serving.

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Now many saw the disciples and Jesus, so they hurried there on foot from all the nearby towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were wandering like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus loved to teach people about the kingdom of God, and he did so with parables. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; though tiny and small, it grows into one of the greatest plants providing shade and offering life. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding-feast where the least of society are invited to eat at the head table. The Kingdom of God is like a sower who goes out to sow, he knows not how the seeds grow but provides rich soil for the seeds to settle in.

While we settled into the rhythms of mission work in McDowell County, we started to  experience what God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is really like.

The Kingdom of God is like a group of privileged folk from Staunton, Virginia who gave up a week of their lives to serve a community of people they had never met. Time and time again they were questioned by the people about their work. No one could understand why a group such as ours would give up their precious time, give up their vacation, to get down on their hands and knees to change a person’s life. We did not go in order to earn our own salvation, we did not go to make ourselves feel better about our faith, we went because God’s Kingdom is one that has been flipped upside-down by the work of Christ, one that compels us to go and love when the world stands bewildered at our actions.

The Kingdom of God is like a house with plywood floors. Rough around the edges, with splintered pieces jutting out all over the place, in need of a few good coats of paint. The pieces of plywood met in different angles and sizes with the grain of the wood running in different directions, requiring dedicated attention while painting. God invites all to participate in this Kingdom, and we are not meant to be all alike. In fact God calls us to celebrate the things that separate us, so that we can learn to live in harmony with one another in the midst of differing grains.

The Kingdom of God is like a child laughing while running around a tiny yard in the middle of West Virginia with a 6 week old puppy. While adults slaved away in the house painting the floors, young children were laughing in a way that helped us to remember why God called us here in the first place; not to just help someone with their material needs, but share in the joy that comes with recognizing God’s grace in something as simple as a puppy, or as profound as a young family moved to tears because of our sacrifice.

The Kingdom of God is like a foot-washing the night before Jesus died, and the last night of a mission trip. Each of us took a turn in the chair and were prayed over by the rest of the church group. Every person was lifted up to God and we gave thanks for all that they had given, praised God for the witness they were discovering in their life, and asked God to be with them as they were sent forth into new places. Each person was valued, appreciated, and celebrated. In God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, even the smallest of servants, even the tiniest bits of effort, are embraced and lifted up for the true value they contain.

The Kingdom of God is like leaving a mission field, to return home only to realize that everywhere we go is a mission field. That whether we are serving the needs of a community in West Virginia, or living into a new reality of love right here in Staunton, God’s Upside-Down Kingdom is everywhere.

The people we served in West Virginia we hungry for something greater than themselves. Though desperately in need of things like food, clothing, and shelter, they actually hungered for something much more precious: value and worth.

The challenge of the story of Jesus with the crowds, is that we read about a people who were hungry while so many of us are full. We are not like the people who gathered to discover Jesus, we are not like the desperate crowds rushing to meet the Lord ahead of the disciples. Nobody here is so eager to find God that they beat me to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

For many of us, church is just one of the many activities that fills our modern lives, rather than the one place where we discover lives worth living.

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Like many mission trips, I think we got more out of it than the people we served. We thought we were going to help them in the midst of suffering, only to discover that we needed to be healed just as much. We needed to stop viewing ourselves as better than the people we were serving, we needed to learn to love them in spite of their behavior and past experiences, we needed to start looking at them the ways God looks at the world: with love.

We went all the way to West Virginia to learn about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom only to realize that we are part of it as well.

When the crowds gathered at the feet of Jesus, when he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he taught them about things like the Kingdom of God. When we get together every week for worship, we are just like those crowds resting at the feet of the Lord eager and ready to learn. It is through our prayers and hymns, through the people in the pews next to us, and through the words of scripture and a sermon that we discover ourselves in the midst of God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, and we begin living accordingly.

What a blessing to know then, that every day is an opportunity to serve God’s kingdom from the beauty of McDowell, West Virginia to the beauty of Staunton, Virginia. We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world, so let’s get out there and do it. Amen.

10 Things I Learned From My Second Year Of Ministry

Last year my friend, peer, colleague, and theological-hero Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) asked me to write a post on ten things I learned my first year of ministry. Next week marks the beginning of my third year as a United Methodist pastor so I decided to write another post on ten things I learned during year two.

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1.       The Church Is Huge

How do you measure the size of a church? Is the church as large as the Sunday worship attendance? The membership role? Throughout the last two years I have realized that the church is almost always larger than I think it is. I’ll be out somewhere with my wife when a stranger will ask if I am the pastor of St. John’s. Between our preschool and missional involvement, the community of faith (also known as the church) has connections with people all over the place. It is always important for me to remember that I have been called to serve the needs of the community, which is usually larger than I think it is.

2.       Praying Is As Important As Breathing

The Bishop for the Virginia Annual Conference, Young Jin Cho, is known for saying “No spiritual vitality, no vital congregations.” And he’s right. Prayer, and other spiritual disciples, are immensely important for the work of ministry and the local church. I strive to begin every morning in the sanctuary with time dedicated to prayer. If I neglect this discipline it has a negative impact on the rest of my day. Like feeling short of breath, I am not as active nor am I as attuned to the Spirit’s work in my midst. Regular prayer is as important to discipleship as breathing is to living.

3.       Collaboration > Competition

There are a lot of churches in the community I serve (I can see four different steeples from my front yard). I have heard on a number of occasions that there are more churches in Staunton per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no way to confirm whether or not this is true, but just driving around town leads me to believe that it could be true. Over the last two years I have had the privilege of working with other pastors to help live into the kingdom of God here on earth. When we work in collaboration, and stop seeing each other as competition, we participate in Jesus final prayer: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17.23) If the church wants to thrive, then we need to realize that we are all in this together, regardless of our denominational affiliations.

4.       Weddings Are Hard

Compared to some of my colleagues I have done a high number of weddings during my short time in ministry. At the age of 27 I meet a lot of people who are nearing their wedding and I am often asked to officiate. I love celebrating the covenant of marriage, but it can be very hard. What an average person experiences during a wedding is a beautiful thing, but it requires a tremendous amount of planning and work to go well. Not only do I have to take the time to meet with the couple ahead of time for premarital counseling, but I want to make sure that I give them all that I can to make their day worthy of God’s blessing. The metaphor of a shepherd with sheep finds its fullest meaning during weddings when I feel like I am primarily a people-mover. Weddings are great, but they can be hard.

5.       Funerals Are Harder

I once heard a pastor say, “I would take a funeral over a wedding any day.” That comment confused me when I heard it for the first time, and still confuses me to this day. During my first year of ministry no one passed away within the community of faith, and I therefore was not required to preside over a funeral. During my second year of ministry I had 14 funerals. Most of the people had lived long and full lives, but that does not diminish the amount of grief that our community has experienced over the last year. It is such a privilege to be invited into the midst of such uncertainty in people’s lives, but it is also incredibly difficult. I spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for every funeral because I believe in the incredible importance of celebrating every life, death, and resurrection.

6.       Trust Happens

Over the last two years I have lost track of how many times I have heard someone say, “You’re the first person I’ve ever shared that with.” It happens on a regular basis that an individual will come to my office, share a vulnerable story, and then slowly realize that they had never shared that with anyone. Regardless of what I say of Sunday mornings, or even how I pray, people trust the office of pastor. There is an acceptance of confidentiality and a comfort of confession that takes place in my office that I am rarely prepared for. Trust happens all the time and it is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others.

7.       Change Happens

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Just because something worked the first year, it doesn’t mean that it will work the second. And just because something failed the first year, it doesn’t mean that it won’t succeed during the second. For example: During my first Good Friday I carried a cross on my shoulder through the greater Staunton community and received almost no response. People avoided me on the streets, averted their eyes, and acted as if I was invisible. This year I did the same thing on Good Friday and people would not stop talking to me! People wanted to know what I was doing, offered to pray with me, and I even shared the story of Jesus with a woman who started crying when she saw me on the street. Change happens in ministry and that is a good thing! If doing church was just about maintaining the status quo year after year, we would cease to be fruitful for God’s kingdom.

8.       I Am My Own Worst Enemy

I know of few vocations where someone has to produce something on such a regular basis and is met with immediate feedback. In two years I have written and preached more than 104 sermons. Every Sunday, within 30 minutes of preaching, everyone lines up to shake my hand and tell me what they thought. I have discovered that the sermons I worried about the most are the ones that were the most life-giving to the congregation, and the sermons I was most confident about meant very little to the gathered body. I am my own harshest critic when it comes to ministerial responsibilities and I have to constantly remind myself of who I am, and whose I am. If I put too much weight on my inner-monologue, I neglect to remember that I am working for the kingdom, and not for myself.

9.       Numbers Are Important [And Dangerous]

Every week churches in United Methodism are required to log their statistical data and send it along to the conference. Though I actively worry about how the measuring of statistical data is negatively affecting God’s church, it is important because numbers represent people. Whether we like to admit it or not, Jesus commanded his disciples to “go and make disciples.” If we are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones to welcome people into our church and help to grow the kingdom. However, even though numbers are important, they are also dangerous. I have caught myself, on a number of Sunday mornings, counting the number of heads in worship before the opening hymn. And sometimes I let that number have too much of an impact of what takes place after the opening hymn (both positively and negatively). Doing ministry is about living in the tension between growing the vineyard, and nurturing the vines. Numbers are important, but they are also dangerous.

10.   I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Stanley Hauerwas once said that “doing ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” There are days in ministry that affirm his comment, but most of the time it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word? 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.

Devotional – 2 Corinthians 4.5

Devotional:

2 Corinthians 4.5

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Have you ever listened to someone discuss a topic only to realize that you learned more about the speaker than you did about the subject?

There were many times in college that I would leave a lecture knowing more about my professor’s interpretation of an event than I did the actual event. Similarly, there have been church services that taught me more about what the pastor was doing in his/her life than what I should be doing to live out God’s Word in mine. The temptation, for all of us, is to point at ourselves rather than the subject at hand.

Brian Williams, the anchor for NBC’s Nightly News, recently fell into controversy regarding comments he made about his experiences during the US invasion of Iraq. Williams stated that he was on an helicopter that was hit by an RPG and forced to land. However, reports have subsequently come to light that call his memory into question; a flight engineer who was on board one of three helicopters that were hit, reported that William’s helicopter arrived at the scene nearly an hour later to interview the crew members about the attack.

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In the days that followed William’s false report, he has been scrutinized by a number of media outlets and veterans about his claims. He has taken a leave from his regular Nightly News  broadcast, and executives from NBC have announced there would be an internal investigation into William’s reports on Iraq and other issues. Moreover, debates are taking place regarding whether or not he will be replaced in relation to his newscast.

When we share information with our friends and family about issues facing the world, there is a strong temptation to point at our relation to the subject rather than the subject itself. Instead of talking about the issue of poverty we talk about how we have interacted with people begging on the streets. Instead of talking about what we can do to help our education system, we share stories about what we experienced in school. Instead of talking about what Jesus did for us, we talk about the many ways we are living out our Christianity on a regular basis.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth as a reminder about who was truly at the center of the church: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” As Christians, we are called to the same proclamation.

When we feel the temptation to point to ourselves and what we have done, Paul helps us to remember to point to Jesus. We can certainly celebrate our accomplishments in our faith journeys, but we are called to serve one another as slaves for Jesus’ sake.

This week, let us point away from ourselves to Christ, and seek new ways to serve those around us.

Stuck With God’s Love – Sermon on Romans 8.31-39

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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I sat in the back of a room filled with sweaty and smelly teenagers. Between the superabundance of Axe Body Spray, the overly-exaggerated expressions of trying to outshine everyone else, and the constant hum of giggling, sighing, and hair flipping, I finally realized what I had gotten myself into: A middle school mission trip to Raleigh County, West Virginia.

We left immediately following worship last Sunday; after talking about Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat I changed out of my robe, rushed home to grab my bags and eat lunch, to return to our parking lot to disembark for West Virginia. Standing by my car I was less than thrilled to discover that our youth were limited in their enthusiasm for our week of service and prayer. Then again, who could blame them? We were about to leave the comforts of Staunton, our families and friends, to sleep on the floors of an old elementary school, preparing all of our own meals, leaving for the bulk of the day to serve the needs of the community, and then to gather every evening in a room full of hormone wrestling middle schoolers.

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Jesus is our demonstration” was the theme for our week. The first night we read about Jesus’ final evening with his disciples when he knelt on the floor and washed their feet. While our youth were nervously creating new friendships with the 60 other youth in attendance, we discussed what it meant for Jesus to do something like that for his friends.  As we learned about the conditions of the first century, how dirty the disciples’ feet must have been, I scanned the room to see how the information was being received. Honestly, most of them weren’t paying attention. It was our first night, many of us had been traveling all day to get there, and the idea of washing someone else’s feet can be terrifying to a middle schooler.

The evening concluded with individual church time as we further elaborated on the ideas we had discussed that evening. When it became clear that the evening’s theological reflections were not completely cemented in our minds, I decided to change the subject and ask a question of everyone from our group: What are you most excited about and what are you most nervous about this week… Our kids were all excited about serving God and neighbor, but almost every person in that room expressed reservations about mixing together with the other churches; our group was much smaller than the others and our kids were mostly introverted. In their responses I heard, beneath their words, a fear that even with their desire to help, God might not be with them. So, before heading to bed we prayed together for the coming week and for our ability to be in ministry with others.

If God is for us, who is against us? 

That first night, it really felt as if God was not with us. In the boys’ room the smells and sounds were already becoming nauseously palpable when I finally had to shout, with vigor and volume, that it was now time for bed. I learned in the morning that the girls’ room was just as bad if not worse; between the gossiping and giggling our females were unable to sleep through most of the night.

However, throughout the first real day of work that question of God’s presence quickly moved from our limited perspective, to the reality of the people we were serving. Where was God in all of this? As the boys helped organize a Salvation Army Thrift Store and the girls sat with underprivileged children attempting to help them read, we all experienced moments of wondering about the goodness of God. I saw youth stand in silent and frightening awe before a warehouse filled with trash unlike they had ever seen before, I saw youth watching the people who filled the Thrift Store the moment it opened to examine the new items that had come in during the weekend. Were these people really blessed by the grace of God?

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Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As the week continued and we spent more time with people in the local community it became harder and harder to see God’s love in their lives. My group, ironically named Mountain Mamas after a line the John Denver song about West Virginia, served a man named Robert whose house was situated in an abandoned neighborhood surrounded by houses that were being taken over by the local vegetation. The first two days we were unable to spend time with him as he had many errands to run but he nevertheless trusted our youth to paint his interior walls and ceiling. Would any of you trust a group of 12, 13, and 14 year olds to paint the inside of your house?

Robert had fallen on both hardship and distress. After years of a seemingly decent marriage his wife had abandoned him to live a life of solitude in a house paradoxically filled with pictures of his entire family. When we finished the ceiling in his kitchen, and began to paint the walls of his living room, Robert was finally able to spend some time with our group as we worked in his house. He often quietly observed from the corner letting the kids do their own thing, but at certain moments he would remove himself from the work space and retreat to his yard.

On one such occasion, toward the end of the week when I felt that I could leave the youth with the paint cans unsupervised, an act of immense trust, I followed Robert outside. I discovered him standing in the front yard looking at the patchy grass between his feet unaware of my presence. “Robert, is everything okay?” I asked. He slowly looked up from the ground and I saw tears welling up in his eyes as his lip began to quiver. “You all don’t know how much this means to me,” he began, “I feel like I’ve been given another chance. It hasn’t always made sense to me, but it seems like I had to fall to the very deepest pit before I could see the light again. You all have given me hope, a new claim on life, and I am so thankful.

When he felt abandoned, when the hardship and distress had brought him to the lowest time of his life, God sent us to serve Robert. God sent a bunch of crazy young Christians to Raleigh County, West Virginia so that we, like Paul, could triumphantly declare a resounding NO. In all these things, in the tremendous valleys of life, when we feel abandoned and alone, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For a few brief moments, we got to be Christ’s body for Robert reminding him of his worth, his value, and his importance.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome to remind them that God is for us. Whatever happens to us that we might imagine as God’s rejection – trials or tribulation, persecution or hunger, hardship or distress – have lost their power to mean that, because God is for us.

nothing can seperate you from His love

Suffering and destitution are not God’s last Word. God raised Christ from the dead reminding us forever and ever that death is not the end, we are not abandoned by the God who breathed life into us. God’s care for people like us is shown in the power he gives, through his love and grace, to overcome all dangers, all feelings of loss, and all loneliness.

It was our privilege to be Christ’s body for Robert this week. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to serve his needs, to serve the needs of the children in the reading program, and remind all of them of their worth.

However, a strange thing happened during our trip. Even in the midst of helping love on the last, the least, and the lost, I discovered that some from our group were wrestling with some of these things in their own lives. Every evening while we gathered as a church group I was given glimpses of the struggles and valleys in the lives of our people. They might not have the same physical struggles as the people we served, but it was clear that they were unsure of God’s love in their lives.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On our last evening together our church group gathered in a small conference room, sitting in a circle on the floor with the lights dimmed while contemporary Christian music lightly played in the background. A chair was placed in the middle of the circle with a basin of water waiting near the legs. One at a time I invited every member of our group to sit in the chair and we took turns washing one another’s feet. Truly I tell you, there are few things in life as humbling and life-giving as washing, and having your feet washed, by a brother or sister in faith. One by one every member in our group sat in the chair and after their feet were washed we surrounded them and placed our hands on them and prayed for them.

Almighty God, thank you for the gift of Chris in our lives. It has been a tremendous joy to see the way you have moved through him this week as he lead and guided us. For the many ways that he serves you as a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend with give you thanks.

Great God thank you for your wonderful disciple Luke. We praise your name for this young man that you have shaped. His faith is so real and tangible that it gives me hope for your kingdom. He is a blessing to my life and I give you thanks for sending him here this week.

Father of mercy, thank you for your loving servant Tucker. He has so selflessly served the needs of others this week from scrubbing the floor of Robert’s house to befriending some of the outcasts from other churches. He lives out his faith in wonderful and amazing ways. This week could not have been as incredible without him and we are so thankful for all that you are doing through him.

God of grace thank you for Courtney. As she has served the needs of this community we have seen you at work through her. We are blessed by her honesty and willingness to address the truth of our lives. She works hard for the needs of others and so faithfully lives out the call to love you and her neighbor. What a blessing she is to me and my life, thank you for calling her to lead the life that she has faithfully followed.

Most merciful God thank you for the gift of Willow. As a young woman she has so captivated our hearts this week through her commitment to your kingdom. She is so full of light and vibrancy that she changes every life she touches. Our lives would be so dim and lifeless without her and it has been a joy to watch you work through her this week. Thank you for sending Willow into our lives.

Great God thank you for Grace. She is so clearly not a weed but a wheat of faith. Firmly rooted in your love and mercy she has been your Son’s body this week for others and for us. She is a constant reminder of the way you love us, because she places other people’s needs in front of her own. What a joy it is to call her my friend. We are so thankful for all that you have done and will continue to do through her.

It was through tears, through the water of foot washing, and through the faith of prayer that we told everyone in our group what Paul was trying to tell the people in Rome: You are magnificent and God loves you.

Do you know how magnificent you are? Have you ever been able to see yourself the way God sees you? Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not our doubts, not our failures, not our shortcomings, not our sins, not our disappointments; we are stuck with God’s love. 

You are wonderful and unique, full of grace and glory. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do marvelous things through you. My friends I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You are loved, you are wonderful, and you are magnificent.

Amen.