Billboards In The Kingdom

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and the sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

I have a love-hate relationship with church signs and billboards.

Every once in a while I’ll pass by a church with a sign that just knocks me back with laugher. I’ll never forget the time I was driving, soon after receiving my driver’s license, and I passed a local Presbyterian church with a sign that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites… there’s always room for more!”

And then there are the witty signs that are biblically accurate and memorable. For instance: I was lost driving through the middle of nowhere Virginia and I saw a handwritten sign in the front yard of a very small chapel that said, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming!”

Or there are those that just hit a little too close to home: “Having trouble sleeping? We have sermons. Come hear one!” or the equally pastoral: “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our pastor.”

And then there’s those signs where you can’t help but wonder what led someone to put that up for everyone in the world to see. Like: “Don’t let worries kill you, let the church help” and “God answers our kneemail” and “Can’t take the heat outside? This church is prayer conditioned.”

But there is one church sign that takes the cake, one sign that was so poignant that it has stuck with me over the years. In big blocky letters it said, “To whomever stole our AC unit. Keep it. You’ll need it where you’re going…”

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And for every funny, and witty, and strange church sign, there are an equal number of terrible, shameful, and problematic church signs.

I can remember driving with my family years and years ago when I saw a church with a sign that said, “No gay marriage: it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”

There was quite a controversy a few years ago in a small southern community where a few teenagers died in a car accident and a local church put up a sign the next day that said: “Honk if you love Jesus! Text while driving if you want to meet him!”

And last weekend, while I was driving down to Durham, NC, we passed a huge billboard in Richmond that said, “The End is near! Accept Jesus or go to Hell.”

These billboards and church signs shout at passing cars and pedestrians about the brokenness of the world and the desperate need to change here and now. They play into our fears and frustrations, they tap into our emotions, and they make it all about us.

Notice, the signs I described, they’re almost all about our experience, and our need to change, and our sin. Very few church signs are actually about God.

How strange.

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And, because we take our lessons from the world around us rather than from God’s Word, we’ve let this slip off the billboards and into the church. So much of what we do on Sunday mornings has become primarily focused on our experience.

We ask questions like, “What did you get out of church today?” when it’s actually about what God gets out of us.

We preach and hear sermons that end with “let us now go and do likewise” instead of reflecting on how God is the one moving in and through us.

We make church all about us, instead of about God.

Our text from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is apocalyptic. Apocalyptism is one of the frightening words we tend to avoid at all costs. When we hear the word our minds immediately flock to frightening movie scenes, and fire raining from the sky, death and destruction all around. We think about the people wearing signs on street corners or the not-so-subtle church billboards near the highway.

But apocalyptic writing is nothing more than the revelation of God. It is an experience of the presence of the divine that breaks down every barrier for humans in the universe.

These kind of writings and reflections rise to the surface whenever Christians feel pressured by the world; when oppressive regimes like Rome, or slavery, or the system itself rises to power, they put all of life’s choices into the binary of God or the devil. And hope for God’s in breaking, God’s revelation, may be all that keeps us going when everything feels like it’s falling apart.

It should come as no surprise that considering what has taken place across the American landscape over the last year, many people, Christians in particular, believe we are in the end times.

Evangelicals feel attacked and belittled by the federal government for just about everything under the sun.

Pastors lament from the pulpit about the so-called war on Christianity or the war on Advent and they strive to frighten their people into recognizing the apocalypse at hand.

Even Roy Moore, the current Alabaman Republican candidate for a Senate seat, in light of all the accusations coming in for sexual harassment and misconduct, he has denied them vehemently and labeled them an attack on his Christian identity and virtue.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Manipulation always takes place when individual fears are tapped into.

That’s why political races are won by showing what’s wrong with the other candidate rather than addressing what a particular candidate wants to see happen.

It’s also why children are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety in modern history because they feel pressured to perform well, rather than being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.

And it’s why churches put up big billboards with slogans like “Accept Jesus or Suffer The Consequences” rather than “Jesus loves you.”

Today, there is so much going on that there is plenty of pressure for us to forget that we are citizens of the age yet to come.

Fear is powerful.

And even here in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonicans, he appeals to their fear:

You all of all people know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The world might seem nice and good, but that’s exactly when the sudden destruction will arrive, like labor pains in a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

            But unlike the billboards that speckle our American landscape, unlike the 24-hour news cycle that is almost entirely devoted to political fears, Paul raises the issue of revelation not for fear mongering, but for encouragement.

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The world might be falling apart, but we are not in darkness. We are children of the light and children of the day. We cannot become blind to who we are and whose we are, we must remember our truest identities and what has been done for us. So, let us clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet we shall wear the hope of salvation. For God has destined us for greater things; not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, do the good and right work of encouraging one another, and build up each other.

Paul, throughout the centuries, fills our ears with the very words we need to hear: Stay the course, remember we belong to the light, trust God and trust God’s promises, build the kingdom, love one another.

All of those things would be far better on a church billboard than most of the stuff we see on a regular basis.

On Sunday afternoon, shortly after most of us left the church, I received a phone call from our Secretary, Louise. Now, to be clear, Sunday afternoons are holy times for clergy people as they struggle to keep awake after struggling to keep people like you awake during church. So when I receive a phone call on a Sunday afternoon, right after being in this space with all of you, I know it’s important.

I answered my phone and Louise quickly filled me in one what had taken place right after I left… A drunk driver had crashed into our church sign.

When he came down the road he was traveling at such a high speed that when he smashed into the brick and mortar sign, it flipped the vehicle and it flew another 30 feet before it finally came to stop.

Police officers were on the scene and the driver had already been rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. He thankfully only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but when I got on the phone with the first officer he kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s lucky to be alive.”

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Thankfully, our sign that now stands broken and cracked on the corner of our property is not filled with any of the hateful rhetoric found on some other billboards. I say that with gratitude because the guy who crashed last Sunday easily could’ve died. He was going fast enough to end his life. And as I thought about what happened this week, as I read through Paul’s letter, I kept thinking about how terrible it would’ve been if those kinds of words were the last he ever saw.

Friends, life is far too short to be filled with negativity and fear and belittling attacks meant to manipulate. There is enough anxiety already in the world today. And when we think that all of this church stuff is up to us, and to us alone, we only increase the pessimism that so controls the world.

Paul writes to the church, and to us, and boldly declares that we have received a great gift in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been awakened to God’s movements in the world, we have the privilege of living as God’s people in the light, and we get to experience the profound and wonderful mystery of resurrection here and now in and through one another.

We can, like others, spend our days worried about what will happen to us when we die. We can fall prey to the fearful signs that fill the horizons. But Christ died so that we may live.

Therefore, instead of breaking one another down, we build one another up. Instead of using fear to manipulate others, we give thanks for the love of God that has no end. And instead of cowering in the shadow of the cross, we rejoice in the light of the resurrection. Amen.

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The Johns – Sermon on John 15.9-11, 1 John 2.15-17, and Revelation 21.1-5

John 15.9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

Revelation 21.1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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“Taylor, the bishop is appointing you to St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. We believe the church fits with your gifts and graces and we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit can do through you there.” Those were the words used to let me know where I would be spending the next few years of my life. I remember how I felt with the phone next to my ear and Lindsey by my side when I found out that I would be coming here to serve this church.

Obviously, for the next few days all I could think about was the church and the community. What would you all be like? Would we enjoy living here? What would we do for fun? How would you respond to me as your pastor?

Of course I Googled the church, searched the church name in the local newspaper databases, and even looked up the address of the parsonage. And for as many things as I could discover, more questions began to develop to the point where I had to just stop and accept that this is where I was going.

However, one question remained in the back of my mind during the months leading up to my first Sunday. I was fine letting everything else go, I was content with the unknown, except for one thing: Why St. John’s?

Now I don’t mean why this church out of all the churches in the Virginia conference, though I have wondered about that at times. What I mean is this: Why is the church named St. John’s?

Do any of you know? Church naming often carries an interesting history. Like when a group of people from a Baptist church grow frustrated with another group and decide to leave and start a new church with the ironic name of Harmony Baptist.

Or like what we have here in town with 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian, 3rd Presbyterian, etc. I would love to know the story behind that.

Anyway, why are we called St. John’s?

The story goes that a long time ago there was a particularly advantageous District Superintendent who dreamed of 4 new churches in the Staunton District. The population was booming in the valley and he believed it was time for the Methodist Church to start breaking ground and forming church homes for new people. He wanted 4 new churches and he wanted them to be named after the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though only two of them ever came to fruition: Mark and John.

Now, is that really how we got our name? I have no idea, but thats the story everyone seems to tell.

I want to know if thats the story we want to tell. That the name of this blessed house of the Lord got its name from some guy in the past who wanted to leave his mark in Staunton. Or do we want to take ownership of our name, and live into the reality of what it means to be St. John’s?

Our name is part of who we are, it is a part of our very identity, for better or worse. If we were First UMC I would expect that we were the first to break ground in Staunton, that we would be leading the community in what it means to love one another. If we were Harmony UMC I would expect a church full of people who agreed on everything all the time, no matter what. If we were Wesley UMC I would expect that John Wesley would be fundamental to our mission and work in the kingdom.

But if we call ourselves St. John’s, then who are we?

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On the right side of our sanctuary we have three stained glass windows that I call The Johns. We have John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter. Do they represent three different and distinct men? Are they in fact all the same person, just being shown throughout the different decades?

Early Christian tradition held that John was one of the original 12 disciples who actually lived a long life and was not killed for his faith like the others. It is believed that he was responsible for writing the gospel according to John, the letters 1-3 John, and the final book of the New Testament Revelation. Of course modern scholars debate as to the particular authorship and whether or not one man was responsible for all of these different writings.

What is important for us is the fact that we affirm all of the writing as canon and life-giving, that Christians for centuries have come to discover the living God in the words attributed to John, and that we will continue to live into our discipleship through them.

Our first window displays the young John as the Evangelist. Today when we hear the word evangelism we tend to picture people converting others to follow Christ, but in its most simple meaning, an evangelist is someone who shares the Good News, and in this case, it came through a written account of Jesus life and ministry.

We see a young John holding a chalice and the image of an eagle. The chalice serves to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, and the pouring out of Jesus blood for us. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is a particular focus and theme. Reflecting on Jesus life later, John could remember everything through the lens of the resurrection, and we see the importance of Jesus’ life here in the chalice.

The other detail, the eagle, is very interesting. In Revelation, a book we will talk about shortly, there is a brief section where John describes four winged creatures from his dream. Each of them have come to represent a specific gospel and it’s respective author: Matthew is a man with wings, or an angel; Mark is a lion; Luke is an ox; and John is the eagle.

Whenever our eyes fall to this window we are called to remember the Father’s love in Christ Jesus. Like the winged eagle flying high in the sky we look up to the kind of love that Jesus exemplified and strive to live accordingly. The great sacrifice was made so that our joy could be complete in and with one another as we look on eternity without flinching as we journey toward the goal of communing with the Lord.

John the Evangelist wrote what he did to remember for us what his master taught him: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

Our second window, the one to the right, contains John as the Presbyter. Presbyter comes from the greek word presbuteros which means “elder.” As John grew older and continued to play an integral role in the formation of the early church, it became necessary for him to write letters concerning the faith.

In the window we see a mature John with a quill and parchment. Like we still do today, whenever we encounter the struggles of fellow disciples, we strive to help them through their trials and tribulations. For John, having lived with Christ and experienced the true power of the resurrection, he devoted himself to the early Christians and helped them to understand the importance of love.

He wrote things like: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Only a man speaking from a life of wisdom could make such a statement. The desires of flesh and the prides in riches only serve to destroy us because they wither away. All of the false things that we put our faith and hope in are passing away, but the love of God endures forever and ever.

Whenever we glance to this window of John as the Presbyter, we are called to remember the value of wisdom and what it means to grow together. Being Christian is not something that can be done in isolation, but instead can only be fruitful and life-giving if we disciple as a community. John wrote letters to encourage and remind the faithful what it means to be faithful. As disciples we have the responsibility to build one another up for kingdom work.

John the Presbyter wrote to Christian communities about what faithful living was all about: those who do the will of God live forever.

The third window, in the middle, contains John on Patmos. After a life of faith, John was exiled away to Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea where he wrote about his visions. The book of Revelation contains fantastic imagery of the way God has, is, and will move  in the world. Our final John is older with a fiery city at his feet, and the new Jerusalem above his head with the lamb.

The Lord gave John certain visions and told him to write them down because they were trustworthy and true. Our window displays the height of the revelation when God will make all things new. A holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven. This is where God will dwell with the people, God will wipe away all of our tears. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things will pass away because God will make all things new.

In our window we see the former things, the earthly passions of the world at the bottom passing away. But God has not, and will not, abandon us to our own devices. The new city at the top will reign and the kingdom will be forever. 

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that the Lord is with us now and forever. That even in our death we will come closer to the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord has promised. In the midst of our grief and suffering now we can still give thanks to the Lord for that day when he will make all things new. This window calls us to trust the Lord just like John did throughout his life.

John on Patmos wrote down the visions the Lord had provided so that others would come to know what the future holds: The Lord will dwell with us and make all things new. 

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Who are we? A group of Christians who get together week after week to rediscover what it means to follow Christ? A ragtag collection of disciples who need to find a little more light in our lives?

If we want to live into our name, then we need a better story than being named by a District Superintendent. If we want to be the St. John’s that God is calling us to be, then we need to reclaim what that name means for us.

We are St. John’s. That very name carries with it the history of what our church has done for this community. Wherever I go in Staunton I love to tell people that I serve as the pastor here at St. John’s because our name is immediately met with recognition; “My children went to Preschool there!” “My wife and I were married in that sanctuary.” “We buy our Christmas tree from your church every year.”

But we are also more than what we do. Our identity is firmly rooted in the name of John and we should be proud of it. We were named after a man who was called to follow Jesus, remembered the Messiah’s life for other communities, wrote to churches about faithful wisdom, and caught glimpses of future glory. 

Likewise, we are a community of faith that believes in following the Lord, in sharing God’s story with other people, in teaching those younger in the faith about what it means to love, in celebrating the coming day when God will make all things new.

St. John’s; what a perfect name. Amen.