Devotional – Luke 17.5

Devotional:

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.

St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.

While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.

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

And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.

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

I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.

This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.

In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.

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The Tyranny of Titles – A Christmas Pageant Homily

Matthew 18.1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make the connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2016 has been a rough year with the political rhetoric and partisanship at its worst, and all the culturally significant individuals we lost (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Gene Wilder, John Glenn, etc.), and with the migration of refugees from the Middle East to Europe at the highest levels since the Second World War… our preschoolers have had a tremendous year.

Today, we adults live under the tyranny of titles. We want to label individuals based on a crazy assortment of criterion. He’s a Republican, she’s a Democrat, that family is poor, that family is rich, that woman is black, that man is Hispanic, that couple is gay, that couple is straight.

But the Preschoolers who gather in our basement don’t see the world and one another the way we see the world and one another.

Instead they see each other as Cruz, and Hadley, and Charlie, and Ellie Rose, and Owen, and Maddie, and Graham, and Henry. They, unlike us, do not view the world through the cynical lens that so many of us have adopted over the years. They, unlike us, see the world like Jesus.

Like that little girl with her father, they understand the cost of discipleship in a way that few us can.

I’ve been here long enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Preschool should be teaching the children. I’ve had consultations with the teachers about curricula and paradigms. I’ve even met with some of you to discuss the growth and transformation of your children in response to the nurture and education they receive in the basement.

I’m guilty of the same cynicism that treats young people like objects to be molded in a factory to come out prepared for the world. When Jesus is the one who calls us not to make children into adults, but to change adults into children.

This Christmas, I have a challenge for you. Instead of being consumed by the desire to transform your little ones to fit into one of the labels of society, try to let them transform you. Try to look at the world the way they do. Try to love one another the way they do.

For it is on Christmas that we celebrate the birth of God in the flesh, born as a baby in a manger to a young couple all alone in the world. God did not come to change the world through political power or through economic wealth or through militaristic might. God changed the world through a baby, not unlike the ones we are celebrating with tonight. Amen.

Not To Boast, But…

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of this call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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“I’d like to come by and shoot a story about St. John’s.”

The producer from WHSV had called the church and when I heard his request through the phone I was both nervous and excited. A story. About St. John’s. On Television. But then I realized I needed to ask a question.

“About what exactly?”

We do a fair amount for our local community, but I had a feeling this request was for something else. And in the pit of my stomach I was worried that he wanted to do a story about the controversy series we recently finished. After two months of standing up in the pulpit and belaboring different points of friction, I was looking forward to leaving the controversies aside for a little while, and did not want to speak on behalf of a church where we are clearly divided over a number of issues.

But then he said, “I saw on your website that your church is hosting a communion service on Election Day, and I thought that was something more people should know about.”

He arrived about 30 minutes later with a bag full of camera equipment and a spiral bound notebook full of questions. He set everything up in the office and ran a microphone cable under the desk and into my lap to pick up on all of the dialogue. We tested for light and volume levels for a couple minutes, made sure I was in the frame, went over the specifics about looking at him and not directly into the camera, and then he pressed the record button.

“Tell me a little about the church…”

“Well,” I began, “Not to boast, but, this is the best church in the entire Shenandoah Valley. We’ve got a Preschool that has been in existence for about 30 years and has the greatest reputation for its education. The children are nurtured by our beloved teachers, they receive the necessarily information to excel when they leave for Kindergarten, and we strive to teach them about the virtues of love, grace, and mercy.

We have a solid youth group that meets on Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm for communion, discipleship formation, and bible study. The group contains the best and brightest kids from Staunton and they regularly out disciple me, their pastor. They have a hunger for the Word and are willing to vulnerably encounter one another in questions about their faith. To be honest, they give me hope for the future of the church because they believe in what we are doing almost more than most of the adults.

We have a lectionary bible study of which more than half of the attendees are not members of our church. Every week they gather in the room next door to read four scripture texts and prayerfully discern what God is saying to them through the text. They bring their experience and love of the bible to that group and all of us have grown in our faith because of that bible study.

On Sunday mornings we have some of the best worship that any church in Staunton has to offer. Our order of worship is streamlined for maximum impact, our hymns directly relate to the greater theme and narrative of worship, most of the time the sermons aren’t half bad, and we’ve got an organist who can really make our organ move and groove. The kind of hospitality that our church members extend to strangers and longtime members is worthy of imitation by all churches and they are truly the reason people come back week after week.

On any given week our building is used by a number of local civic organizations including girl scouts, cub scouts, and boy scouts. We have a quilt-for-a-cause team that regularly works on quilts that are then given away to local children in need. We’ve got a group of volunteers called the Cheer Team who take time to visit with those who are lonely or afraid in the community. We’ve got others who go to the Trinity Soup kitchen to cook and serve food to the homeless. We send a mission team of youth every summer to help different communities in need. We’ve got…”

“Just a little bit” he said. “Now,” he went on, “tell me about this Election Day communion service.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know more about St. John’s? I really could go on, I was only really getting started.”

“No, let’s try to stay on task.”

So for the next 45 minutes he recorded as we went back and forth about the current state of politics in our country, we waxed lyrical about pamphlets and fliers we’ve received here at the church about who we should vote for as Christians, we explored the theological implications of a communion service in the midst of such political division, and we even discussed the practical matters of how much bread to purchase and how many people we should expect to attend.

All in all, we examined just about every aspect of the Election Day Communion service and when we had gone through all his questions, we shook hands and he left to get some exterior shots of the building. The last thing he said was, “It should be on the evening news in the next day or two.”

We don’t have cable at the parsonage, but you better believe I kept checking the WHSV website for the story about our church. With every click to reload the page I dreamt about how many people would see the wonderful descriptions of the church, I imagined how many people would hear all the things I boasted about, and I began picturing our pews filled to the brim on Sunday morning.

Two days later, the story finally appeared on in the news cycle. The opening shot was an image of our altar, the one right behind me, and as the news anchor began introducing the story my teeth chattered with excitement.

The anchor said, “St. John’s Pastor Taylor Mertins has this to say….”

Then the shot cuts to me in the office, with Star Wars figurines and works of theology on my shelves. Here was the big moment. And then I watched myself say, “We are going to pray for our political leaders whether it’s the person we voted for or not. That would be the most Christian thing we could do.”

And then it ended. 10 seconds. The vast majority of our conversation was left on the cutting room floor, and 45 minutes of bragging was reduced to a 10 second sound bite.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that WHSV came to do a story about our Election Communion Service, it will be a profound moment of unity in the midst of chaos and division, I only wish that everyone watching got to hear and experience all the things that make our church what it is.

And then I reread our scripture text for this morning.

2 Thessalonians is one of the earliest Christian documents that the church has. It is the second letter written by Paul to the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, the Thessalonians have their act together. Not only does Paul mention the fact that he gives thanks and prays for their little community, but also Paul boasts about their church to all the other churches. They are the city on the hill to which all the others churches should aspire to, they are the standard by which other churches should measure themselves, and they are worth bragging about.

But why did Paul choose to brag about them?

Was it the number of people they had in the pews on Sunday morning? Perhaps they had a remarkable preschool that was helping to shape the future? Maybe they had a youth group that met once a week for communion, fellowship, and bible study? Or perhaps they had streamlined their worship services to connect all of the hymns with the scripture, and the sermon, and the offering, and the prayers?

No.

Paul boasted about the Thessalonians because they remained steadfast in their faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. Paul boasted about their church because they grasped and lived into the mission of the church: to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We, the church, are a different people. We, the church, are an alternative form of community. Rather than being labeled and defined by the marks of culture that surround us – consumption, power, greed, political parties, nationalities, sexual identities, economics – we are like strangers living in a strange land.

What we value and desire is not what the world values and desires.

            What we proclaim and believe is not what the world proclaims and believes.

            What we worship and affirm is not what the world worships and affirms.

            We are a different people, we Christians.

Though the world may change, though new presidents may reside in the oval office, though new pastors can be sent to different churches, we grow in love of God and love of neighbor. That is our mission, and if anyone can say we love God and others, if that’s what they boast about, well that’s good enough.

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So perhaps, the ten-second sound bite about the Election Day Communion service is precisely what the community should know about our church. They don’t need to know about our different activities and ministerial programs, they don’t need to know the specifics of our Sunday liturgy, they don’t need to hear a forty-five minute speech about all the best things we’ve got going on at St. John’s.

All they need to know is that we are growing in love of God and neighbor by putting aside things like all of our political differences and joining together to feast at God’s table. Instead of being captivated by the world as the results pour in on Novembers 8th, we will be here loving one another and remembering that we worship the living God.

Therefore, maybe it is our sense of challenge, our willingness to return to this place Sunday after Sunday that connects us with the church in Thessalonica from so long ago. They suffered under persecution and affliction and were able to keep the faith. We wrestle with the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance and we keep the faith. Rather than falling prey to the whims of the world, instead of being consumed by the popularity of politics, we remember that we are God’s people. This land is going through a time of great division and schism, but because of God’s grace, we have not lost sight of who we are and whose we are.

To this end we pray, asking that God will continue to make us worthy of the call and that God will fulfill by His power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace and mercy of God.

The mission of the church, and the mission of all Christians, is to love God and love others. That’s it. Amen.

 

Yes!

Psalm 16

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

Romans 12.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Diapers to Diplomas

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

graduation-sunday

 

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that true terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country. It’s a great quote, and one often used this time of year during graduation speeches. In fact, ten years ago, it was used by one of my friends at the beginning of her address during my graduation from High School: True terror is waking up one day and realizing your High School senior class is running the country.

Time can be terrifying. We, as human beings, are deeply rooted in time and when it feels like its going too fast, it leaves us shaking. It shakes us because we can wake up and wonder where it all went. I feel like I just graduated from High School; I can still remember the uncomfortable polyester graduation gown that created a frightening amount of static electricity. I can still picture the girls wearing too high high heels and attempting to walk across the stage without toppling over, and I can still remember the beginning of the speech and how true those words are.

We change all the time. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. We’re born, we grow in size and knowledge, we move, we develop, we transform, we graduate from preschool to kindergarten, and then all the sudden we graduate from high school, and then with the blink of an eye our generation is running the country.

Things change, our lives change, our situations change, and when they do, it feels like the earth shakes under our feet.

Upon graduating from preschool we move on to Kindergarten. After a number of years with the same classmates and the familiarity of one school and one program, we have to move on to a new location, with longer hours, with a whole new set of expectations. I can still faintly remember my first day in kindergarten and wondering where to sit, and if anyone was going to sit with me. And the change that takes place for the parents is even more severe!

During the final months of Preschool here at St. John’s, we ask the parents to wait in the parking lot so that the children can get used to walking to their own classroom by themselves. This is one way of preparing them for Kindergarten. And honestly, on that first day, the children bound up and down the hallway without a care in the world, and it is the parents in the parking lot who are undergoing an existential crisis.

I’ve seen tears well up in the eyes of fathers, and mothers nervously pacing back and forth while their children enter into a new realm of being. I imagine they felt like the world was shaking under their feet and they needed something solid to hold on to.

After graduating from high school we go off to college and enter a whole new strange world. We often pack our belongings and start living with a stranger and won’t be home until the first break at Thanksgiving. For the student it is a time of great excitement and opportunity, whereas for the parents it can be downright terrifying. Will they be okay? Will they get enough food to eat? Are they going to be able to make new friends? Who is going to wake them up for class in the morning? Who is going to do their laundry? It shakes the parents to their core to watch their beloved child go from diapers to diploma in a blink of an eye.

Every graduation leads to a time of change and fear; Preschool to Elementary School, High School to College, Singleness to Marriage, Health to Death. We enter these periods of unknown, and that’s what makes us really afraid.

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When these changes occurs, when we graduate from one thing to another, we often respond in one of two ways; they either push us closer to God, or farther away.

A young couple has a baby and once the new domestic rhythm is established they realize they have no idea what it means to raise a child to be a decent human being so they start going to church it hopes of answers and direction. Or a recent graduate enters a university and is invited to a worship service filled with people who genuinely care about her well-being and she discovers who she is and whose she is. Or a recent widower listens while the church proclaims his deceased wife’s promised resurrection during the funeral and it gives him the strength to discover God’s love in church.

But change can also push us away. We convince ourselves that we can raise a child without the help of a larger community, we believe there is no place for the church in our lives while we are in college, or we grow cynical toward the words proclaimed when someone we love dies.

The church is bold to proclaim the words of the psalmist, the enduring truth, that even though the earth should change, even though the mountains shake and the seas tremble, even though kindergarten can be overwhelming (for children and parents), though the unknown of college stands like an undefined horizon, even though people die and we grieve till the end of our days, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. This city cannot be moved, because God dwells in the city forever.

God is the solid rock upon which we can stand when the world shakes underneath our feet. When we are filled with sorrow and doubt, God is the source of joy and light. While people push us to and fro with differing opinions, God speaks the truth in love. As we receive our identities in the hurtful comments of friends and foes, God tells us that we are beloved.

There is a great comfort that comes in knowledge that even though our lives will change, God will stay the same. That is the great story of scripture; God remains steadfast even when we fall away. In the wilderness journey of Exodus, while the people chose to worship idols and other gods, the Lord remained with them. After David fell into the clutches of sin, God was with him. After the exile, God called the people back to their homes and back to lives of faithfulness. Even after delivering Jesus Christ to the cross to die, God’s arms remained open to all of God’s children.

God stays the same.

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A few months ago I asked one of our youth who just graduated from high school to share what kind of difference St. John’s has made in her life. Danielle was baptized in this sanctuary, was enrolled in our preschool, and has been in worship nearly every Sunday for 18 years. That kind of commitment to the church shaped her into the remarkably wonderful young woman she is today, and it gives me hope for the role of the church in all of our lives.

This is what she had to say:

“Since I was born, I have been coming to St. John’s UMC. It has always been there for me. Even when I was a small child, and unable to truly comprehend the grace of God, I still had a strong and living faith because of the church. As I grew up, I made many friendships at St. John’s that mean a great deal to me. And honestly, “friendship” doesn’t even do justice to what it has really been like. I grew up with these people, and they took the time to raise me in the faith. Without this church I never would have found God and the power of God’s word. I am blessed because I have a church that loved me the way God calls us to love. Moreover, this church has helped me not only find God, but find myself as well. No matter where I might end up in the future, I will always cherish the memories, family, spiritual growth, and prosperity that I experienced at St. John’s.”

I believe Danielle was able to craft those words because of God working through you. Danielle feels blessed because this church loves her the same way God calls all of us to love: without judgment or assumption, without malice or prejudice. From diapers to diploma, you and the other great saints of this church have nurtured her. You have shown her what it means for God to be our strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble.

When someone from the church died she could have fallen to the temptation of fear and trembling. But you showed up for the funerals, you rejoiced in the promise of salvation, you embodied the hope we have in the Lord who is with us.

When she moved from school to school, while life changed around her each and every day, this place was like the river whose streams mad glad the city of God. Here in this church she learned about the God of creation who brought forth order out of chaos, who called Abraham into a covenanted relationship, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, who delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, who called prophets and priests to bring the people back, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us, who died on a cross, who was raised three days later.

Throughout Danielle’s life this church has said every Sunday, “Come, behold the works of the Lord!” Her eyes have been opened to the way God moves in the world, she found her identity as a child of God; she experienced God’s magnificent power and might.

Change can be a terrifying thing. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is our refuge and strength. Because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, therefore we will not fear even though our lives change. This church’s work propels a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Through our worship and our work, through our prayers and our presence, through our faith and our fellowship, we remember that God is in the midst of our lives. God will help when a new day dawns. The nation might be in an uproar, kingdoms will totter, but the Lord of hosts is with us.

So come, behold the works of the Lord. God makes wars cease, and peace reign. God makes the weak mighty, and brings down the principalities. God breaks the bonds of slavery, and opens up the doors to freedom. God brings hope to the poor and calls upon the wealthy to serve. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Be still and know that God is with us. From diapers to diplomas and even to death, God is with us. Amen.

Softly and Tenderly

Revelation 21.1-6

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 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.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

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Revelation is full of some of the most bizarre imagery in all of Christianity. Pick up the bible; flip all the way to the end, and what you find sounds like the stuff that some people will scream out from the street corners of life. In Revelation we read about beasts and dragons and lambs, we catch a glimpse of the bowls of God’s wrath, and the destruction of the world.

It is an often-ignored book of the bible, and for good reason. Revelation has been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries, as zealous Christians believed they were seeing the images of the book before their eyes and acted accordingly. It rests at the foundation for some of the strangest modern Christian literature. And it accounts for the never-ending amount of fundamentalist preachers who claim to know the exact day of calamity that will bring about the end of the existence.

Growing up in the church, I can barely remember ever hearing about Revelation. On Sunday mornings we were more inclined to hear about the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, or the great narratives of Genesis, than we were to hear about visions of God’s power and destruction. Even today as a pastor, I am ashamed to admit that after leading worship for two and a half years, I have only preached on Revelation once, and frankly it was to talk about the writer of Revelation more than the text itself.

Yet, if regular worship ignores the power of Revelation, funerals are the place where it is most needed.

It is no accident that the text we read this morning has been used and associated with Christian burials for nearly as long as the church has existed. When faithful disciples gather for services of death and resurrection, Revelation 21.1-6 needs to be read precisely because of what it proclaims. This handful of verses offers evocative and moving images of comfort to those of us who live past our friends and family who die, and for those of us who live in troubled times.

John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, saw a map of the future; a description of what God will do in time. From his vantage point John witnessed a new heaven and a new earth. All that we have come to know had passed away from recognition, and even the sea was no more. But there in the sky John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride for her husband. Like the wonderful moment of a bride walking down the aisle in church, with all of the joy and expectation of a new and beautiful future, God’s city came to rest with God’s creation.

And then John heard a loud and booming voice declare, “See God’s home is now with mortals. God will live with them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will cease to exist; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things have passed away and God’s divine reality will reign forever.

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And the one seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new! Write this down because it is trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

John’s words are a consolation, a vision of hope for a people in distress. These words have brought comfort to countless Christians throughout the centuries, from the earliest disciples persecuted for their faith to those who still live in fear because of what they believe. And at funerals, they help to remind each of us about God’s love in the past, present, and future.

It was freezing outside as we all gathered around the grave. We had gone through the funeral service in the sanctuary, we had praised God in spite of loss, we had remembered the saint’s life that were now about to bury in the ground, and we had somberly marched into the cemetery with our heads hung low.

There is a strange thing that happens between the sanctuary service and the graveside. The finality of death takes on an entirely new and deeper meaning as you witness a casket or urn prepared to be lowered into the earth. Gone are the familiar smells and sights of the sanctuary only to be replaced with the sounds of nature and the smell of dirt.

We stood there and patiently waited for the family to gather as close as possible, and then every eye turned to me. When we mourn the dead, we become helpless and rely on someone to guide us through the right words and actions, hoping that the pastor will be true to the life and death of our beloved while declaring the hope of the resurrection.

Every person shivered in the wind. I offered prayers and scriptures reflective of the person’s life, I made time for silence so that we could all properly reflect on what we were doing, and then I walked over the casket. I reached down to the ground, and like I had countless times before, I grabbed the loose soil and dropped it onto the wood. And then with my hands resting on the casket I began to sing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O Sinner come home. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.

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The beauty of Revelation 21 is in the discovery that God will dwell with us, and the home of God will be with us. The hope of the text is the fact that God will call for all of us to come home at one point or another. The bell will toll for us all, but death has lost its sting because of the gift and grace of Jesus Christ.

Since becoming a pastor, I have had to bury a lot of saints, those faithful servants of God’s kingdom who witnessed in their lives to the love of God. While I have sat with numerous friends and families as we mourned the dead I have been brought back to this passage in Revelation that describes the beautiful future in store for us. And though we weep here and now on earth, we wait for that glorious day when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and we live and with the One who reigns forever.

Today we honor the saints who have come before us, whose examples we wish to follow. God has gathered us in this place to remember what the saints did with their lives, and give thanks for their witness. The saints of faith are our brothers and sisters who risked in all for the sake of Christ.

Today we remember those from this church who have died in the last year, and we join in mourning with all of their friends and families. We remember George Harris, Howard Cassidy, Ray Lancaster, John Taylor, Sam Folkes, Jerry Pangburn, Jo Anne Berg, Dick Dickerson, Lucy Wisely, Frances Pack, Frank Rankin, and Steve Wisely. Some of us have the privilege to recall the life lessons they shared with us, we can remember admiring them for their faith, and we can even picture where they used to worship in this sanctuary.

To hear their names while hearing the words of God from Revelation is to join in solidarity with the saints of our lives and be strengthened by their witness; we too can be saints if our lives become examples of God’s love and compassion toward others.

Being a saint is not something that just happens when we die, but is a worthy goal in the here and now. Instead of lazily watching the days of life pass by, we can embrace God’s call on our lives to start bringing about glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. This vision of the new heaven is available to us because God continues to make all things new, even us.

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So where do we begin? We begin by looking to the place where God dwells with mortals: worship. We start our saintly lives by mirroring the saints who have come before us. We give thanks for their witness remembering that they modeled their lives after Christ and we start doing the same.

We look for the living saints in the pews next to us. We ask for their prayers to give us the grace to be better Christians, we seek them out for advice, and we rely on their teachings. We begin seeing the pews not as walls of division, but instead as avenues of connection.

And then we come to the table and feast from the bread and the cup being strengthened for the work of ministry in the world. We start seeing this table as the connection between past, present, and future, as we remember all who have feasted before us and that this is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.

We can start living like saints because we belong to a communion of saints. We can start living like saints because Jesus gave his life to destroy the powers of death. We can start living like saints because God makes all things new. Amen.

The Story (Chapter 2) – Sermon on Romans 12.1-8

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.

He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.

Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.

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

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.

Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.

We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.

Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.

The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.

We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.

A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.

According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.

At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:

The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.

I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

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For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.

It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.

But we can do more.

We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.

When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.

When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.

When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?

When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?

The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.

As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.

We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!

The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.