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.

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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.

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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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Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

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In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

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Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

John 20.11-18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, what are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

I love learning about different Easter traditions. Some families will insist on purchasing matching outfits for the family so they can get that perfect picture for the mantel. Others will spend weeks crafting the perfect Easter menu for the family following church. And still yet others will take time to dye Easter Eggs with the kids, and scatter them throughout the house.

In my family, we always had our Easter baskets to rummage through before church. I can vividly recall waking up as a child and experiencing the profound wonder and joy that the Easter bunny had come to my house, and left a basket full of goodies just for me.

But as I got older and wiser, apparently the Easter bunny did as well.

One year, probably toward the end of Elementary school, I came downstairs on Easter and there was no basket with my name on it. I know that I looked straight toward my mother with a look that said, “What happened?!”

She smiled and said, “Taylor I came downstairs early this morning and I discovered something new and something strange. The Easter bunny knows you’re getting older and decided to hide your Easter Basket.”

And thus began a wonderful and bewildering tradition in the Mertins household. Year after year the bunny became craftier with hiding spots. Once, after searching for a good fifteen minutes, I found my Easter basket in one of my sister’s closets, another time it was hidden outside on the picnic table, and still yet another time (after a very frustrating search) I found it in the attic.

But one year, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. I went out to the shed. I climbed up the magnolia tree. I even looked in the refrigerator. No Easter basket.

My mother, being the great mother she is, had already searched through the house and found it, but refused to participate. The only hint she gave me was this: “It’s in a place you never go to.”

I searched that house top-to-bottom, bathrooms, closets, hallways… I went over the same places with a fine-toothed comb multiple times, but I couldn’t find it. I was at the point where I was convinced the Easter bunny had forgotten about me. But my mother, being the great mother she is, saw me in agony, walked over to the laundry machine, opened the lid, and pulled out my Easter basket.

I had been looking in all the wrong places.

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Jesus was killed on a cross and then buried in a tomb. After three days Mary went to the tomb and was shocked to discover that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. So she ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John in turn ran back out to the tomb with Mary and found the linens that had covered Jesus’ body neatly folded in the corner. The gospel tells us that they saw this and believed, and then returned to their homes.

But not Mary… No, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. And while weeping, she leaned into the tomb and saw two angels who asked her what in the world was she doing. She turned from the tomb and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “What are you doing? Who are you looking for?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “If you took him away please tell me where he is!”

And Jesus said, “Mary” and her eyes were opened to the resurrection.

Mary was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. How many times had she heard him proclaim his death and resurrection? How many times had he told her what was to happen? What did she think he meant when he said “I will rise up again”?

The resurrection of the dead, Easter, it upsets and upends all expectations. Mary, this follower of Jesus, someone whose life was forever altered and transformed by the Lord, cannot even come close to it without hearing Jesus call her by name. She cannot fathom what it is she is looking for and even confuses Jesus for the gardener.

Mary gets a pretty bad rap in the church for confusing her Lord for the maintenance man. I mean, hadn’t she spent nearly every day with him since he saved her from the crowd ready to stone her? Wasn’t he the most important person in her life? And she supposes him the gardener?

But maybe Mary sees more than she knows, and more than we give her credit for. Maybe she really saw the Gardener. After all, God had given life to Adam in the Garden long ago and called him to take care of it. Perhaps in the resurrection Jesus has become all that God intended: He is the Gardener of God’s creation; He is new Adam. Maybe the bible has come full circle from the Garden of Eden to Jesus as the gardener through Mary.

            She sees and believes.

Many of you know that I have a Good Friday tradition of carrying the cross through Staunton. If you’ve ever been here with us on Easter you’ve heard stories about my experiences of carrying that large cross over my shoulder. You’ve heard about the countless people who have said, “God bless you.” I’ve shared with you my sadness about the people who shouted curse words as I walked passed.

I carry the cross through our town because I want the death of Christ to rattle them out of their complacency. I want them to know and remember what God was willing to do for them. I want them to see the cross and believe.

So on Friday, like I’ve done the last three years, I got to the sanctuary a little before noon, grabbed the cross, and started walking. Before I even made it to the Post Office, 5 cars had pulled over to thank me for what I was doing. From St. John’s to downtown I was blessed by a great number of people with honks, waves, and the occasional “Amen brother!”

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But when I got to Beverley Street, something changed. I walked up toward the Valley Mission and then back toward Mary Baldwin, and no one so much as even looked at me. When I carried the cross for the first time people avoided me by jaywalking to the other side of the street and averting their gazes, as I got close. But this was different; it was like I wasn’t even there.

Now, to be clear, I’m not looking for attention or praise while walking around this town, but I was dressed in all black with rather large cross over my shoulder; I’m hard to miss. And this year, this Good Friday, people could not have cared less.

They kept talking with their friends. They walked hand in hand with their children. They continued to type on their phones. And the cross seemingly meant nothing to them.

We live in a strange new world; one in which the cross can be ignored and the message of resurrection can be limited to a basket, or a bunny, or some eggs.

So I kept walking, feeling a little hopeless about the power of the cross and the Good News. I got to the top of Beverley Street and walked passed Mary Baldwin and the Food Lion. I just wanted to get back to church and rest.

But then the Lee High bell rang and all the kids started leaving. “That’s just great,” I thought. “It’s one thing to be ignored by families downtown, but a one bunch of teenagers? C’mon God.”

I kept walking up the hill, and a great line of High School students were walking down right toward me. And when the first one got close, she stood right in front of me, coughed to get my attention, and then said, “That’s so cool!”

For the next 30 minutes I had conversations with just about every kid on that sloped section of Coulter Street. We talked about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.

And, unlike many of us, their response was joyful. Many of them thanked me for doing what I was doing; a good number of them asked me more questions, and most of them walked away smiling.

Those high school students weren’t burdened with questions about how this could happen, or the theological ramifications of such an act, or who gets to be part of the resurrection from the dead. They heard the Good News, and that was enough.

How often do we go looking for Jesus in all the wrong places?

We purchase the latest self-help book assuming that it will fill the emptiness we feel. We look for him in the bottom of a bottle when we lose someone we love. We search for him in finite and material experiences in attempts to deny the inevitability of our lives.

When the truth is that Jesus is near us all the time and we regularly fail to recognize him: in the face of the hungry stranger standing in the median by the stop light; in the hopeful Word of a timely sermon; in the bread and the cup at this table, in the strange encounter with teenagers who are perhaps hearing the Easter story for the first time.

Sometimes we treat this story as if it’s the ending, like the whole Christian year leads up to this and we’re done, like the faithful life concludes with an empty tomb. I’m not sure why we do that, because the apostles and earliest Christians understood Easter not as the dramatic conclusion to the story. For them, as it should be for us, Easter is the beginning.

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It is the beginning of God making all things new. It is the beginning of the end for the powers and principalities that struggled to captivate the world. It is the beginning of a new time not under the dominion of death, but one that stands in the light of the glory of God.

It is the beginning of a new relationship between God and his people where, instead of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, Jesus comes looking for us. Jesus meets us in the midst of life when we least expect it, on a hill outside of a high school, in the wave of a neighbor, in the words of a hymn, in a phone call from an old friend.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the epitome of God’s power and grace. Through it we see how God took something like a cross, a means of death, and turned it into the joy of life-everlasting. On Easter God transformed the tomb in the same way that He did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb. God made a way where there was no way. On Easter, Jesus opened up a strange new world for people like you and me.

For some of us we might be hearing the story for the first time. For some of the high school students it was definitely the first time. Or maybe you’ve been to church every single Easter of your life and you’ve heard the story over and over. Perhaps it doesn’t strike you like it once did. Maybe this Easter you’re filled with more doubt than hope. Perhaps this Easter you can’t believe you even went to church. But that’s not a bad thing; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a new beginning; a new beginning for those of us who have never been to church, haven’t been in awhile, or have always been here. This gift we call Easter is for all of us.

So open your eyes and look for Jesus. Discover him in the bread and in the cup, listen for him calling your name in the songs we sing. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news: He lives! And so do we!

Hallelujah! Amen.