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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Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

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A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.

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.

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.