Devotional – Psalm 85.8

Devotional:

Psalm 85.8

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

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In 1968 there was a man whose job was to record nature sounds for films and television. He would pack up his recording equipment, hike out into the wilderness, drop his gear, and then return later for the undisturbed natural sound. In order to achieve 1 hour of unaffected sound, no planes or sirens or human presence, it would take 15 hours of recording time.

Today, the same man continues to record and when he wants to get 1 hour of unaffected nature sounds, it takes 2000 hours of recording time.

We live in loud world.

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Most cars now come with separate audio systems for the front and back so that passengers can listen to different music. You can buy clothing with wires stitched into the fabric so that you can have music in your ears wherever you go. I even saw a commercial last week of a couple out in the wilderness camping and they were unable to sleep because it was too quiet and they then started playing “soothing city noises” of traffic and horns honking on their phones in order to fall asleep.

What does it say about us when we now have apps to help us sleep with the sounds of pedestrians and road rage?

What does it say about us when we need to have sound and music playing whenever we’re in the car, whenever we’re sitting in the backyard, or whenever we’re walking down the street?

What does it say about us when most of squirm and uncomfortably cough when we’re asked to pray silently in church on Sunday for all of 15 seconds?

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Many of us want the same things as the psalmist; we want to hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people. But how can we ever expect to hear God speak when our ears are filled with the sounds of life that bang and clash and hum over and over?

When was the last time you were intentionally quiet for ten minutes? What is it about silence that makes it so difficult? Why is it so much easier to be surrounded by noise than to stop and listen?

There are times when God will speak to us through loud and cacophonous means, but there are other times when God shows up in the silence, if we are willing to listen.

Devotional – Ephesians 4.29

Devotional:

Ephesians 4.29

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

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A few weeks ago Gwen Hammer, a wonderful member of St. John’s, came into my office with a gift. She and her family had been on vacation and she said they found something I “just had to have.” So with eager anticipation and excitement I opened up the package to discover one of the funniest signs I’ve ever read, a sign that is now hanging in my office for everyone to see: “Live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”

Whenever I meet with families and friends to prepare for a funeral, I hear wonderful stories about the person who has died. Without having to ask questions, I quickly learn about what it was like to grow up with the person, how they met their spouse, what it meant to them to be a parent, and a slew of other details. I hear the funny stories that have been told and retold countless times at family gatherings. I start to see how God’s grace developed in the person’s life and led them to live the way they did.

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But at some point, stories pop up that I would not want to share from the pulpit; disappointments regarding a grudge that was never settled, failures to communicate what was really happening, and frustrations over choices with larger implications. I always do my best to sit and listen patiently, knowing that it is important for the friends and family to experience their grief in different ways. But when it comes time to craft the words that will be shared at the funeral, I do my best to include the truth about the person’s life, while emphasizing the details that help to build up the community of faith.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about what it means to live in community: “Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” As human beings we tend to emphasize and remember our problems, but as Christians we are called to speak in a way that benefits the people around us. In our everyday lives we have opportunities to share kind words toward others such as complimenting their work or affirming their character. Whatever we can do to live in such a way that we build others up, rather than breaking them down, will allow us to fully live into God’s kingdom.

This week, let us speak in such a way that our words may give grace to those who hear, and live in such a way so that the preacher won’t have to lie at our funeral.

Devotional – Acts 10.44

Devotional

Acts 10.44

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 

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It happens all the time. I’ll be preaching from the pulpit, or leading a bible study, or praying for a family when someone responds later by quoting back something I said, only I never said it. The sermon will be about the importance of loving our neighbors, and someone will bring  up our “obviously similar” political persuasions while we shake hands after the service. The bible study will move through the book of James and the challenge of being wealthy and Christian, and someone will later thank me for my comments about “sinful multi-national corporations.” I’ll be in a hospital room praying with a family for God’s will to be done, when someone will later attribute the cure to my wishing for a miracle.

In ministry, and in life, something happens between our lips and another person’s ears that we can never prepare for or predict. For as much time as pastors put into their sermons/bible studies/prayers it is a remarkable thing that we often lose control over what we say. The exact moment the words leave our lips they wrench themselves free from our dominion and take on a life of their own. The consequences of this lack of control can be both destructive and life-giving.

Occasionally someone will hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it leads to a divisive and frightening argument. The narthex conversations following worship can be nerve-racking because you never know what to expect. But, more often than not, people hear something in the sermon/lesson/prayer (that was never said) and it gives greater glory to God than I could ever do with my own words. People will open up and confess they believed the words were meant for them alone and they experienced God’s abundant presence speaking into their lives.

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Preaching is meant to be a conversation. The pastor stands at the front speaking words about the reality of God and they pick up subtle clues regarding responses: the occasional head nod and the rare audible “amen.” But they also deeply rely on the comments made after the service regarding the proclamation. Just as the Spirit fell upon all who heard the word from Peter, the Spirit shows up in worship, in bible studies, and in hospital rooms reigniting words, rearranging them, and helping them to sink deeply into people’s lives.

It is hard to relinquish control over something as precious as a sermon, but then again the sermon never belongs to me in the first place; it belongs to God.

This week let us take time to really listen to the people in our lives and engage in conversation with them. Let us give thanks to God for providing the power of the Holy Spirit to actually make something out of our words in spite of us. And let us have the courage to be honest with all the pastors in our lives about what they say and what it means to us.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.

Let God Speak – Sermon on Genesis 1.1-5

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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I was sitting in a room full of pastors and priests when I made a promise to myself: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1. Today is the day that I make good on that promise.

I had been helping a church in Bryson City, North Carolina when I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group. Every Monday morning the clergy people of Bryson City would get together to talk about the readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large local Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading the scriptures and share what we thought we would preach about.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

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It came to pass that one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by pastors as we read the texts out loud. The lectionary always has four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the text during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “Is anyone preaching on Genesis 1 this week?” The silence remained. I remember thinking “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was clear that some of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading but I felt compelled to ask another question, “Have any of you ever preached on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever delivered a sermon on the beginning of Genesis.

Now I know that they quickly propelled the conversation in another direction but I silently began calculating from my chair. In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever proclaimed the beauty of God’s creation from Genesis.

So I made a promise to myself that very morning: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1.

Why do you think they chose to ignore Genesis 1? What makes this text so unappealing to proclaim in church?

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The main thrust of the text is contained within these first words: In the beginning God. Here we discover our faith in the foundation of all life, that God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This profoundly simple yet unimaginable claim is the bedrock for everything that follows throughout the rest of the Bible. God and his creation are connected powerfully together for all time.

How does God bind creation together? The text is clear: In the beginning the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Notice: with this description of creation we need to see that this text is NOT a scientific description, but instead a theological affirmation. It has been urged for centuries that Genesis 1 is a historically analytical account of what “actually happened.” But that kind of scientific, descriptive, and forever definitive reporting is foreign to the text and to the world of the Bible.

God’s Word is not a textbook. The bonding of creation cannot be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed.

Many who have struggled with their faith want to know the answer to “how?” But, when reading from Genesis, we discover that the convictions expressed in the scripture did not come from sight, recordings, and measurements. Whoever wrote about the creation in Genesis 1 was not standing by when God created. Our Lord is not an object to be perceived and measured like other objects in the world. It is by faith that we affirm this creation, not because we saw it and observed it and measured it, but that our lives and relationships with God affirm that goodness and interconnectedness of our lives with the God who created life.

Perhaps the pastors reluctance toward preaching this text was born out of the fear that comes with reconciling Genesis 1 with scientific claims about the beginning of the universe. Maybe they ignored this text because they were unsure how to explain the way God created. However, the job of preaching is not to explain, but to proclaim

At the heart of Genesis 1 is mystery, and sometimes mysteries cannot be explained. Yet, in proclaiming the mystery, in faithfully acknowledging the text, we can have our eyes and ears opened to the great question not of “how?”, but of “why did God create?”

The words ‘create’ and ‘make’ are used prevalently here in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth, God made the dome and separated the waters, God created the creatures in the water and the birds of every kind, God made the wild animals of earth, God created humankind in the image of God, etc. The actions are important but the dominant mode of creation takes place in speech. God spoke creation into existence. The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before. God is the author and orator of life.

God speaking life into existence cannot be explained by the ways of the world, yet we are all here because God spoke life into all of us. Genesis 1 makes the great and wonderful theological claim that a new word has been spoken that transforms reality. The word of the Lord that shaped creation is an action which alters reality forever.

God created all things through God’s word, and his creation did not stop with the creation of humankind. God continues to speak new words into existence every single moment. Every infant child is a word spoken by God, every new blooming flower, every river that flows, every sun rise and sunset are caught up in God’s continued commitment to speak to us, through us, and for us.

God is always speaking something new and fresh into the world, we need only stop and listen to let God speak.

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276 years ago yesterday, John Wesley’s life was changed forever. Wesley spent most of his young life believing that nothing could save him from God’s wrath other than strict obedience and keeping all of God’s commandments constantly. He read voraciously, served unconditionally, loved immeasurably, and somehow he never felt or experienced God’s love in his own life. He traveled to the British colony of Georgia to serve the needs of the Anglican church and wrote about his experience later saying that after two years of spreading Christianity he still was no closer to discovering the love of God. He wrote: “Why that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”

When Wesley returned to England he was no closer to finding what he had been searching for. He continued to fill his life to the brim with service and preaching to the point that he shut out any other influence.

However, on May 24th, 1738 Wesley unwillingly attend a Moravian society meeting in the evening when Martin Luther’s preface to the letter of Romans was being read. While the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He experienced for the first time a trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. An assurance was given to Wesley that Christ had taken away his sins and saved him from death.

Wesley had a difficult time explaining exactly was happened to him that day; it was beyond his ability to describe in such a way that it could be measured and known. But to him, it was as real as life could get. From that moment everything changed in his life and his commitment to the love of God in the world was the seed that blossomed into what we now call the United Methodist Church.

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When I was in Boy Scouts I had the opportunity to hike throughout northern New Mexico at a place called Philmont. Toward the end of our 100 mile hiking adventure we gathered one evening in a white pine forrest near the top of Mount Phillips. We spread apart to spend time in silence to reflect on our time in the wilderness. As I sat there with the wind blowing the grass I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I had already witnessed perfect sunsets and flowing rivers, but for whatever reason that night was the first time that I began to witness the depth of God’s love through his creation. 

Like Wesley, I believe that I was opened to the wonder of God because I had finally stopped trying to fill my life with so many other distractions. It was only when I stopped to let God speak, that I heard God’s calling of creation.

We can fill our lives with distractions and information. We can read all the magazines and books that explain how God created the world, whether in seven literal days or in seven ages of time. We can listen to pastors and preachers explain away the creation of life with simple metaphors and memorable one liners. But the truth of God’s creation can only be discovered in letting God speak.

Creation was not a one time, one moment, event. Creation continues to take place every moment of every day. God’s word is alive and filling all things with glory around us.

In the beginning, God. Can you think of anything more comforting than the fact that God has been at the beginning of all things? Not just the creation of life, but God was there when you came into being, God sits at the very beginning of each and every one of us. At the inception of every relationship, every idea, every belief, every smile, and every laugh God is there.

God is, and because God is, we are.

It took me a long time to learn to let God speak. And frankly, I’m still not very good at it. But until I began to try to quiet myself, to learn to listen, God’s Word was limited to words on paper. Creation came alive for me when I stopped long enough to realize that God’s love for us, in creation, is beyond my ability to fully grasp, comprehend, or explain. There is an immeasurable beauty in standing before something that you cannot fully know. There is wonder in letting God speak something new and fresh into your life. There is peace that comes in hearing the Word become incarnate in the way we live.

Genesis 1 is powerful and beautiful. It is strange and unknowable. It conveys the depth of God’s love in a way that we can never explain. It refuses to be compartmentalized, rationalized, and sterilized. Instead, its delightfully mysterious, curious, and glorious.

In the beginning God spoke life into creation, and God continues to do so every moment.

Amen.