Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. Amen. 

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We Are Not David

1 Samuel 17.32-49

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried to walk in vain, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give into our hand.” When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.”

This story, right smack dab in the middle of 1 Samuel, might be the most well-known and retold story in the bible. It is simple, direct, playful, and full of enough action to please any audience.

While all the armies of Israel tremble before the giant Goliath, a little boy named David takes runs quickly, slings a stone, and strikes Goliath in the forehead.

Goliath is dead.

            Israel triumphs.

            Then end.

But the writer, the teller of the tale, fills it with far more details than that.

The Philistines gathered their armies for battle, a terrible sight to imagine for the fledgling Hebrew people. And there came from the camp a champion named Goliath, who was about ten feet tall, with a helmet of bronze, and his armor weighed 150 pounds.

Goliath is huge. It is abundantly clear that there is no one else like him. And he demands the Israelites send out a champion to fight, the winner will bring the great victory to their entire people.

And up pops David. Goliath demanded a worthy warrior, and he got a little shepherd boy. David was only at the battlefield bringing his older brothers something to eat. The king, Saul, is paralyzed with fear, and David offers to fight the giant Goliath.

Saul is incredulous, “You are you to fight this Goliath? You’re nothing but a little boy!” And thus God pops into the story for the first time when David responds: “The Lord who saved me from the lion and the bear will save me from the Philistine.”

David has nothing but a sling, a few rocks, and hope in the Lord. Saul tries to give him armor and weapons, but they only hold him back, so David rejects the tools of the trade and places his trust in the Lord.

With God’s help, David took the shepherd’s sling and one smooth stone and brought Goliath to the point of death.

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This little story is, I am convinced, the beloved story of all middle school age boys. I have yet to encounter a 13-year-old boy who did not believe this was the most important story in the bible. Perhaps middle school boys love this story because it is the beginning of bullying and they feel like they have to stand up against their own Goliaths every day. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that girls often hit puberty faster and therefore tower over their male counterparts to the point that they appear like mighty Goliaths.

But, if we’re honest, it’s not just a story for boys with BO and zits and cracking voices. This is the paradigm for so many beloved stories. It is THE underdog story.

            David defeating Goliath.

            Rocky. Remember the Titans. Rudy. The Karate Kid. Hoosiers. The Mighty Ducks. Slumbog Millionaire. Tin Cup. Cool Runnings. Revenge of the Nerds. I could go on and on and on. And those are just the movies!

We are beyond fascinated with underdog stories, with the Davids who defeat their Goliaths. We love rooting for the hero who appears to have no chance of winning. Maybe there is something in our humanity that bends toward the least likely victor who triumphs over evil.

And when this story is preached, when someone like me ascends to the promenade of the pulpit, the sermon is almost always about encountering our own giants. Preachers like me will look out at people like you and say things like: “We all face our own Goliaths. For some of us it’s depression, or debt, or directionlessness. And, like David, we just have to have faith that God will be with us, and that we will win.”

There are so many sermons exactly like that… So many, in fact, that when I went looking for a sermon with a different angle, I couldn’t find one. And then I grabbed the texts books from seminary and the countless commentaries I have organized around my office, and all of them had the same thing to say: When we face our Goliaths, God will give us the strength to persevere.

But here’s the thing: We are not David.

Most of us here today are not even like the Israelites cowering on the corner of the battlefield wondering about their future. Most of us have never experienced a moment of fragility such that everything would be decided in a single stroke, by the least likely of people. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to put our whole trust and faith into something we don’t know.

If we’re anyone in this story, we’re Goliath.

Now, I know, this isn’t good news. We don’t go to the movies to root for the bad guy! We don’t like coming to church and hearing about how bad we are! But, and this is hard, when we encounter the strangeness of this story, when we start identifying ourselves with particular characters, we have to be honest with ourselves.

            We are not David.

A foreign country full of might and power is about to change the stage for the entire world. The Philistines have the army, they’re got the right weapons and armor, they even have a Goliath.

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The Israelites have nothing. They are a ragtag group of would-be followers of Yahweh with a king who can’t even must the courage to walk out onto the battlefield, with no hope except for the hopeless shepherd boy David.

We are like the Philistines. Most people in the world either fear us, or want to be like us. We hold all the cards, we’ve got the greatest military, and we hold a promise for anyone of a better life. We not only stand like a beacon on a hill for everyone else to see, we WANT to be the beacon that everyone else can see!

It’s been a strange week in our country. While I was spending time last weekend at Annual Conference with all of the other Methodist pastors and lay leaders in Virginia, the first images, videos, and sounds were released from the detention centers near the border with Mexico. Hundreds of children could be seen in cages made of metal with scattered bottles of water, bags of chips, and metallic blankets thrown randomly about.

But the audio clips somehow made it worse.

Recordings came to the surface of children screaming for their parents, some of whom were forcibly taken away while breast feeding, others were told that they were going to get a nice warm bath and never returned.

As more and more reporting came out, and more and more churches spoke out, the administration eventually ended their policy of separating families as a deterrent for illegal immigration.

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            And we still think we’re David.

But we are not David. We are Goliath. We look down at those who flee from absolute terror and say, “Come to us, and we will break your families into oblivion, we will treat you like the animals we think you are.”

And just as every Goliath does, we need our David. We need our defeater. We need to be struck dead in the forehead about our frivolity and foolishness. We need to be taken down a peg or two. We need the mirror that shows us who we truly are. For as much as we like to think we are not like the politicians who pursued a policy of family separation, this is very much who we are.

And, to be clear, this isn’t about who sits in the oval office, or what political animal is ruling the country; it’s about recognizing who we really are in the story, and not passing responsibility on to somebody else.

So we need a David. But we don’t need THE David, we don’t need the handsome shepherd boy of Jesse. No, we need the new David. We need Jesus.

            We need Jesus to smack us across the head not with smooth stones from the wadi but with the hard wood of the cross. We need to be brought low to the ground before we can be raised high. We need to be defeated in order to be redeemed.

The story of David and Goliath is so beloved because we inherently love seeing good win-out. We love it when the tables are unexpectedly turned. We love believing in impossible possibilities.

And there are times when we will feel like David. We will experience things like depression, and debt, and directionlessness, and they will feel like mighty Goliaths blocking out the sun. And, at those moments, we do need to keep hope in the Lord that we will prevail, not because of our own doing, but because God is with us.

But one of the things we never talk about, at least anymore, is how much we are actually like Goliath – the ways we Lord ourselves over others whether it’s a different race, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or socio-economic status – the ways we dismiss those at the border, or in another country, or in another community – the ways we demean those we deem unworthy.

So, for as much as the story of David and Goliath is a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our Goliaths, it is also a story about what happens to Goliath, what happens to us! God will not leave us to break down the oppressed and reject the weak. God delivers to us a little shepherd boy, born among the animals, to bring us down from the towers of power we have constructed for ourselves.

Jesus, thanks be to God, runs out to the battlefield of our lives and says, “No more!” Jesus grabs us by the collar and delivers the truth, the hard truth, “You are Goliath! But you don’t have to be.”

There is a way, a better way, the way.

The Lord does not save by sword and spear, the Lord does not redeem the world with giants and Goliaths.

The Lord sustains with water and Word, the Lord redeems us through a shepherd named Jesus.

And in God’s kingdom, even Goliaths get saved. Amen.

The Strange New World

Psalm 78.1-7

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.

A father was with his five 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 this “Jesus” so the father bought a kid’s bible and began reading to her every night.

She loved it.

They read the stories about Jesus’ birth, the miracles he produced, and teachings he offered. And the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and “blessed are those who mourn” and “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” They read and the read and at some point the daughter said, “Daddy, I really like Jesus.”

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

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

And the daughter was silent the rest of the ride.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the father took his daughter out to lunch on Martin Luther King Jr. day because her school was closed for the holiday. While they were sitting at the table waiting for their food, the daughter saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. She quickly point to toward 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?!”

“Yeah,” he said, “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 love you neighbor as yourself.”

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

And the young girl was silent for a minute or two, starring down at the table, but when she looked up at her dad she had tears in her eyes and she said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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It doesn’t happen often, but I love when a passage from scripture is straightforward. With the daunting amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain frustratingly ambiguous, it is refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.

Listen up! Open your ears to what I am about to say regarding the mighty acts of God! I will declare the stories from the past, and we will not hide them from the children. They must hear about all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so they would teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Listen! We cannot fall back into the problematic rhythms of those who came before us, a stubborn and rebellious generation. We have to tell the story.

What follows in the psalm for today is a record of Israel’s history in song. The psalmist sets up a challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for future generations, and then the psalmist declares the story of God with God’s creation. The narrative is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it. The old old story has become so important to the psalmist that sharing it with others is the most important thing in the cosmos.

We have a member here at our church named Glenn who has dedicated himself over the last few years to rebooting our Children’s ministry. But he never really wanted to do it. It’s not a passion he’s had his entire life.

It actually all started when he volunteered to be the bible storyteller at Vacation Bible School a few years ago. Every morning he got the right costumes and ushered the kids into the strange new world of the bible through his stories. And one day, without really thinking about it, he simply asked, “Who is Jesus?”

The room was silent except for one girl who was brave enough to raise her hand with any semblance of an answer.

That was enough for Glenn to be jolted toward the importance of telling the story. That was enough for Glenn to commit himself to sharing Jesus with as many children as possible. That was enough for Glenn to hear the words of the psalmist echo through the sands of time: we will tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord.

There was a time when asking children about Jesus would’ve been unnecessary. There was a time when most families in a community went to church on a Sunday morning simply out of habit. There was a time when preachers could preach on a text without providing context.

But that time is gone.

Instead of embracing God’s story as our story, we’ve embraced other narratives. We don’t tell our children about Jesus, we expect the church to take care of that for us, much like we assume that schools will make them into perfect little citizens.

On Tuesday morning Lindsey and I brought Elijah to our local polling location to vote for Virginia’s next governor. I held him in my arms while Lindsey went to sit down and scan over her ballot, and while I was standing off to the side one of the poll workers gave me a little wave and said, “It’s so precious that you’re teaching your son about the value of voting!”

Is that what I want to instill in the coming generation represented by my son? Am I pleased to know that he will inherit a political structure that celebrates divisiveness while degrading cooperation? Am I more inclined to teach him about a political race than about God’s grace?

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The psalmist, long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, remembering who they are and whose they are, the people would always find the living God. When we tell the story that is our story, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ body in the world today.

But what is the story?

When we open the scriptures we are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who is love. And then Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing on the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what will come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the earthy ground after the flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water still being sucked into the ground. We hear the promise of God to never abandon creation again. We believe in Noah there is a new creation, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we hope for something better in the days ahead.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord commanding him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear the promise, “I will make of you’re a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story continues lurching forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a burning bush. We heard the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We participate in the beginning of a call that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know the story, and we think it might be about us, but it’s about God.

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him wisdom.

We are with Isaiah when the coal is placed on his lips.

And then we are there when everything changes; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word becomes flesh. When a man and a woman flee to save a child’s life. When that baby grows to be a man who was like no other man. When His words are cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: “Follow me!

And they do.

Through him the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the hungry eat, the powerful are humbled, the poor are made rich.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear His final words and we feel a faint echo of those first words from so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We witness the Spirit fill their mouths with words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We feel the water of baptism and new birth. We smell the bread being broken and we taste the wine at the table.

And we know it is for us.

We tell this story because it is our story. And, of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the story. It’s about all of us, whether we’re eight or eighty. We come together in this place, all of us, to remember over and over the great acts of God in the world. We vacillate between creation and redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God has done for us, and what God continues to do through us.

Telling the story pushes us further through the narrative that has no end. In it we find people and places that boggle our minds. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of what is real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. And we find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

So, tell the story. Tell the story when you are up and when you are down, when all is well and when all is hell, tell the story when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Tell the story. Amen.

Why Do We Study?

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers of recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons, and he regularly captivated those with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no-name town and decided to pop in. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While Craddock was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook promptly turned around, looked at the man in the face and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing over at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

And with that the black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, he paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Do any of you feel chills? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the story for its timely reminder about problematic race relations in this country, but for some of you this story hits even harder. Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes powerful particularly in its connection to scripture. For, if Craddock was unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance, drove off, and never think about the experience at all.

But Craddock knew his bible; he had studied it well enough to know the ways God works in the world. Such that when he heard the rooster, it changed his life forever.

Bible Hands STOCK PAID

This whole month we’re diving deep into why we do what we do as Christians. Last week we talked about why we worship, and today we’re looking at why we study. To put it rather simply: we study God’s Word because this story is our story. It’s like opening up the pages to discover our family history, our quirks and idiosyncrasies, our triumphs and our failures.

Whenever we open the scriptures and study we are entering into the strange new world of the bible, one that shines a light on what our lives really look like even today.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he got really personal. We preachers are taught to do the opposite. Rather than standing before a group of people like you and share how we are trying to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to point away from ourselves to Jesus. And I believe that’s wise counsel; there is far too much temptation for preachers to make ourselves into the Jesus figure of our congregations and instead of saying, “follow Jesus” we say, “follow me.”

But Paul got personal. He laid it all out for this small and budding church. I have every reason to boast in the world: I was the Jew of all Jews, I followed the law, I was blameless in everything I did. I even persecuted the church. Yet whatever I gained in the world, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul’s story is a powerful one, but it’s only powerful when we know the whole story. We can read the letters he wrote to different communities, we can reflect on his theology and declarations, but when we study the bible, when we know who Paul was before he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything he writes comes into a new light.

Paul was so zealous in his Jewishness, he was so righteous, that he murdered Christians in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest disciples feared him. And, in God’s strange wisdom, the greatest persecutor of the church became her greatest missionary.

We study God’s Word because this story is our story.

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Years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon while wearing a clergy collar. And, most days, people ignore the pastor sitting in the corner supping on coffee and scratching his head. But not that day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar, and before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started kissing my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak with me outside.

We sat down on a nearby bench and he began telling me about all his troubles. He was down on his luck with no job and no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but he recently heard that he could get some actual help in Richmond.

As he went on and on I caught myself preparing a response in my head rather than actually listening to him. And, as I often do, I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he seek out some organizations in town to help support his needs.

He stared at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Richmond.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I’m sure that I made some excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listening off my justifications, he stood up while I was talking and he just left me there sitting on the bench. My voice tailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner I heard him say, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

That moment has haunted me in the years since. Because, as soon as he said those words, I felt my heart burning within me because I had failed to live into my baptismal identity. He, in a few choice words, had initiated the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was the priest who failed to help the man on the side of the road.

If I hadn’t known Jesus’ parable that the man quoted, I might’ve let it roll off my back like any number of other interactions, but because I knew the story, that moment has haunted me.

On Monday morning I was sitting my office here at the church when a man walked in covered in sweat and asking to talk to the preacher. I invited him into the office and I watched and listened to him share his story. Down on his luck, no job, no home. And immediately, I started sensing a gulf developing between us as I began rehearsing my response in my mind. We get calls here every day from people in the community looking for help; late on rent, overdue on an electric bill, no food in the refrigerator. And we try to help as many as we can, or at least direct them in such a way that they can be helped, but it’s hard not to be suspicious. It’s hard to prevent that sinful side of myself from bubbling to the surface and ignoring the person in need.

Anyway, the man was sharing his story, and before I was able to respond with the same sorts words I’ve used hundreds of times he said, “I just need a ride to Charlotte, NC. I want to start over and my daughter lives there and she’s going to put me up for awhile.”

I apologized and said that I would be unable to drive him myself, but the church would be more than happy to buy him a bus ticket.

He beamed.

I ordered him a ticket for a Megabus leaving that afternoon and then we got in my car and I drove him to a nearby VRE station so that he could get into the city to catch the bus. We talked during the car ride about the change in weather and about Virginian hospitality and a number of other subjects. And when we got to the station I got out of the car to open his door and wish him well, and then he asked to pray for me. Let me say that again, he asked to pray for me, not the other way around. So he wrapped his arms around me and prayed.

After the “amen” he looked at me in the eyes and said, “As you have done onto the least of these, so you have done unto me.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

When I came into work on Tuesday morning there was a message on our answering machine. He had made it to his daughter’s house and wanted to thank the church for its generosity.

I’m not proud of what I did. Sure, I’m happy he made it, and I’m glad that we could offer him some grace, but I’m not proud of what I did; because I didn’t want to do it. I only did it because I knew the story of scripture, and then that man turned it around and left those words resonating in my ears as he walked away.

We study God’s Word because God is always talking to us, only if we have ears to hear. When we know the story that is our story, we become attuned to God’s frequency in the world, we hear the rooster, we see the man in need, and it changes our lives just as God changed the lives of the people we read about in the bible.

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like Paul, you want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We catch a glimpse of that power and experience it here and now when we study the Word and encounter it in our daily living. We need to study the Word because all of us, sinners and saints, preachers and laypeople, we’re all works in progress. We press on to make Christ’s resurrection our own, because Christ has made us his own.

Beloveds of Cokesbury, I have not made it to perfection, in fact I am far from it, but there is one thing I know for sure: when we know the story that is our story, when we study God’s Word, we can hear God calling to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

October

5 Tips For A Fruitful Vacation Bible School

I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:

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  1. Learn The Names

There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.

 

  1. Ditch The Phone

Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.

  1. Get On Their Level

At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.

  1. Make Connections

VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.

 

  1. Invite, Invite, Invite

Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.

Devotional – Psalm 105.1

Devotional:

Psalm 105.1

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.

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I love Star Wars. When I was a boy I watched our VHS copies of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi so many times that they became unwatchable and we had to purchase new copies. I would read and reread the VHS cover so frequently that I began memorizing all of the inconsequential details. I still know almost every line in all three movies all from the time of my childhood.

I still love Star Wars as an adult. I’ve dressed up as characters from the universe for far too many Halloween celebrations, I definitely have too many Lego sets from the movies (that stay prominently displayed out of my son Elijah’s reach), and I even have a replica of Luke Skywalker’s green light saber from Episode VI.

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When new details about the upcoming films come out I become an evangelist for the films. I will turn just about any conversation in such a way that I can mention rumors about casting, or new hopes for screen writing, or even connections within the expanded universe. I become my nerdiest when I’m talking about Star Wars.

And I rarely talk about church the same way.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the church. I love the church’s liturgy, I love the call to preach, I love offering the sacraments, I love being with people in some of the most holy moments we can ever experience. But I rarely recommend the church to others in the same way that I recommend watching a Star Wars movie. And even with how much of my life has been blessed by Star Wars, God has done, and will continue to do, more than any film ever can.

The psalmist calls for the people of God to “make known [God’s] deeds among the peoples.” We tend to recommend things to people all the time like restaurants to try, books to read, and movies to watch, but when it comes to the church we often remain silent. Or, perhaps more importantly, when it comes to what God has done for us, we remain silent.

Part of this tendency is due to our belief that faith is a “personal and private” matter, which leads us to leave our faith to ourselves. Part of it also stems from the fact that we so often take our blessings for granted, or we don’t recognize where the blessings came from in the first place.

But God is the author of our salvation. God is the one working in and through our lives to bring about the kingdom on earth. God is the one who has transformed us.

How much better would it be then, to share with others what God has done for us?

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

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.

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Years ago there was a young man who was about to embark on his second appointment in the United Methodist Church. He had gone to the right seminary and learned from the best professors. He had served his first church faithfully, but the time had come for him to follow his call at a new church.

However, he didn’t know much about where he was being sent. All he knew was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

For four years the young man had worked hard for his first church, he had made just enough mistakes to know what was right and what was wrong, and when he drove into town with the moving van full of his belongings, he went to the church before he went to the parsonage. Filled with excitement and hope he drove out on the old country road but when he arrived at the right address there was no church. So he doubled back and went down the empty road until he found a very disheveled looking building with the biggest and the most hideous tree he had ever seen blocking the sign and most of the church.

The place needed some work: a new roof, new paint, new everything really. But above all things, it needed to have that tree uprooted. The young pastor stood on the front lawn of the property and the wheels started clicking in his mind… How many people had driven past the building without evening knowing it was a church? How could they let such an ugly tree blemish God’s house? And then he knew what he needed to do.

He got in his car and went back to the parsonage, but instead of unpacking all his belongings and getting settled, he was on a mission for one particular box, the one labeled: chainsaw.

Hours later, with sweat dripping from his brow, the pastor stood proudly on the front lawn with the church now being completely visible from the road. The marquee shined with a new brilliance, the side of the building was available for all to see, and the old gnarled tree was perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor continued to day dream about how many more people would be there for his first service simply because the tree was gone. And he was working on his first sermon when the telephone rang; it was the District Superintendent. For a fleeting moment the young pastor thought that maybe the DS was calling to congratulate him for taking the initiative to beautify the church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s, John Wesley himself had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all the Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love of the scriptures, and its shade was enjoyed like the mustard bush from the time of our Lord.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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I haven’t been here long, but I love how we have these open windows in the sanctuary, windows through which we can see the church property. And I want to be clear: no trees have been chopped down since I arrived in town!

Stories are remarkably important. They contain 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 understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

We are the stories we tell. And today we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps even more frighteningly, who we are to be.

We only need to think back to the recent presidential election to see how much it further divided us as a country, we only need to turn on the television to see how violence and anger and fear are separating us as a people, we only need to get online for a brief moment to see how broken this world really is.

Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us how to think, speak, and act through stories.

But God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationships with those who are different from you.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty of scripture such that it speaks new and good and true words into your lives. Let the story of God with God’s people wash over your like the waters of baptism such that you can take steps into a new life. Feast on the bread and the cup at this table such that it will bring you to the upper room from long ago and you can hear Jesus speak into your ear: “You are mine and I am thine.”

We are the stories we tell.

When the stories of the world become the only stories we tell then we fail to be the church that God is calling us to be. If who we voted for, or what team we celebrate, or what show we love is more important than the living God, we are no longer the church at all.

Paul proclaims that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our truest story. The story of God in the flesh, of a baby born in a manger, a child who sat at the feet of the teachers, a man who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, a savior who turned the world upside-down, a Messiah who died on a cross, a Hope that broke forth from the tomb three days later.

That is our story.

Two weeks ago I sat down at a Chili’s in Hampton with four people from Cokesbury Church. We introduced ourselves and got to know one another. I asked questions in order to find out what the church was like, and they asked questions to find out whether or not the church would like me.

It was a hope filled conversation as we casted visions about what the church can be. But if you had been with us an hour earlier in the midst of Annual Conference with all of the other United Methodists from Virginia, you would’ve felt the whiplash.

According to the ways of the world, Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, worship attendance is plummeting, and churches are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are absent from the reality of church. At Conference we went over all the statistics, we learned about how the average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. We learned that most churches have attendance that has stayed the same or dropped even when the communities surrounding the churches are growing. And we learned that most people who claim to be part of a United Methodist Church invite another person to worship once every 33 years.

By the standards of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place.

Well then thanks be to God that Jesus is the solid rock upon which the church stands! Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Thanks be to God that the Lord is not in the business of statistics and analytics, God, our God, is in the business of making all things new!

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The story of Cokesbury Church is entering a new chapter. God is breathing new life into this church, and not through a new pastor, but through our willingness to know and believe that God will provide. We can name and claim this because our church story is part of God’s great story.

And at the heart of what it means to be the church is a willingness to learn one another’s stories. We learn one another stories by gathering here for worship, by meeting together to study God’s Word, and by going out to serve the community. We learn one another’s stories so that we can cherish the trees of our foundation while at the same time look to the future with hope because God is doing a new thing.

In time I will come to learn your story. I will discover who you are, what you believe, how you think, and how you act. And in time you will come to learn my story, how I felt called to the ministry, what I believe, how I think, how I act. But in learning one another’s stories we will be doing so much more. In fact, in telling our stories we will discover how we are caught up in God’s great story.

Friends, we are more than the stories of the world. We are more than the statistics and the estimates and the analytics. We are God’s people and this is God’s church!

And this is why we read from the story that is our story. The story of scripture speaks greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. In it we learn about who we are and whose we are.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world; my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand.

We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about God’s story. The ways of the world, the stories competing for our allegiance, will falter and crack and fissure, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Tell the story that is our story! Remember your truest identity in Christ Jesus. Listen for who you are and whose you are in the Word of God. Remember your baptisms and be thankful. Come to the table and see that the Lord is good. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Amen.

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