Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

WEIRD

If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

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Devotional – Genesis 12.1

Devotional:

Genesis 12.1

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

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And that’s how it all began. The Lord said to Abram, “Go.” In the entirety of the Old Testament, there are few passages as important and theologically profound as God’s calling of Abram to go to a strange new place. We can talk about Jacob wrestling with the emissary from God by the banks of the Jabbok river, we can talk about Joseph saving the Egyptian people from certain starvation, we can even talk about Moses’ trials and tribulations with the Hebrew people in the wilderness, but this moment with Abram, this call, sets in motion the great narrative of God with God’s people.

The sheer magnitude of such a call cannot be overlooked. During the time of Abram’s life, almost everything was dependent on staying in one’s country and with one’s family. Most people spent their entire lives, from birth to death, within a handful of miles and rarely explored anything outside the normal and comfortable dwelling of “home.” And yet God had the audacity, the boldness, and the faithfulness to call Abram to do the unthinkable: go to a strange new place and leave it all behind.

This, in a sense, is akin to the call of all Christians. We might not be asked to leave our home country, we might not be asked to leave our families, but we are certainly compelled to enter into strange relationships and moments around us. It is easy to stay within a certain bubble throughout our lives and never stretch too far into the unknown. We can develop rhythms and habits that actively prevent us from encountering anything out of the ordinary. But God is extraordinary.

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Lent is a time for us to reflect and repent. We reflect on the many ways God’s has so graced us, and we repent for the many ways we have failed to positively respond to that grace. Lent is a time for us to all recognize the Abram within us, and wonder where God is calling us to go. What place are we avoiding because it makes us uncomfortable? What relationship have we let fall apart because it just felt like too much work? What frustrating behavior in a friend or a spouse or a child have we let percolate for far too long?

In some way, shape, or form God is calling each and every one of us to “go.” God calls us to “go” because our God is a God on the move. God cannot be relegated to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings at 11am, God is not absent until we pray for God’s presence, God is not sitting on a throne up in heaven watching us through a telescope. God moves, and so should we.

Devotional – Exodus 24.15

Devotional:

Exodus 24.15

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

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I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.

When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.

When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.

When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.

I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.

Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.

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When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.

Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.

Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.

Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.

Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”

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Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.

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In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.

 

But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…

 

The Strange New World Within The Bible

We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

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 loves us. And 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 at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, 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 know that there is something behind all of this.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling 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 that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.

We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.

We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.

We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?

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 the gift of wisdom.

We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.

We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.

Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we 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 begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words 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 watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.

And then it ends and The Bible is finished.

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What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?

These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.

It is not merely a history or a genealogy.

It is neither a myth nor a fable.

What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.

We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.

But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.

Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.

The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?

The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.

The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.

The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!

 

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Strange Stories from Scripture: An Idiot And His Donkey – Sermon on Numbers 22.22-30

Numbers 22.22-30

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now.” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”

This morning starts the beginning of our three-part sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. For the next three Sundays we will be looking at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about in Sunday school. These are the passages that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives. Our first story is from the book of Numbers regarding the prophet Balaam and his donkey.

Bible Stories 1

(Put on the prophet costume) My name is Balaam and have I got a story for you. All these preachers try to explain what happened and make sense of my life, but they never get it right. Even some of the writers from the bible got real nasty and used me as an example:

Peter said “They have left the straight road and gone astray, following the road of Balaam, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (2 Peter 2.15)

Jude wrote “Woe to the people who are wrong, for they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain.” (Jude 1:11)

And even the guy your church is named after had something to say: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam and eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (Revelation 2.14)

Harsh.

The truth is, I had a good gig, and I made the best out of it. I was a prophet of prophets, blessed with the powers of divination. I got lucky at the beginning, made a few good choices, used my words the right way, and stories about my powers began to spread.

Going through a dry-spell? For an affordable rate I would come out to your field and pray for the heavens to open up and the rain to pour forth: half due up front, and the other half on delivery.

Frustrated with your in-laws? With a reasonable down-payment I would travel to your relatives house and pray over their domicile for clear-heads and harmonious perspectives. Satisfaction NOT guaranteed.

Unsure of your future? With an easy set of monthly installments I would read your palms and tell you what was coming. I see an argument that remains unsettled… I predict days of joy and days of sorrow… You will be very cold in the winter and very warm in the summer… You will not get what you want for your birthday… Your wife will insist that you help with housework… Your husband will forget your anniversary…

I had a good gig and word spread quickly. Frankly, back in those days, people were willing to pay whatever I asked if they thought it could work. They were looking for cheap miracles at a high price, and I was the man to get the job done.

That’s when the King of Moab, a guy named Balak, entered my life. He had heard about this nation that had escaped Egypt, they called themselves the Israelites, and he wanted me to curse them. Now I wasn’t much for curses, but for the right price I would do anything.

We struck up a contract but before I signed the dotted line, the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me not to curse God’s people, so I called the whole thing off.

But the king’s men came back and they offered me even more money, houses full of silver and gold. The Lord appeared again in a dream, telling me to go, but only to do and speak as he told me to.

When it came time to go, the money was speaking louder than the Lord so I set off on my trusted donkey, with dreams of swimming pools filled with gold and rooms covered in silver. Ready to say and do whatever it took to get my reward.

Time-out. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)

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What an idiot! Can you believe he called himself a prophet of prophets? More like a prophet of profit. I loved Balaam, I carried him everywhere he needed to go, but he was an idiot. Do you know how many times his false promises got us in trouble? I never knew anyone that could smile with such confidence knowing that he was selling hypocrisy. He was like all those televangelists wrapped up in one, and the people couldn’t get enough of it. It never made any sense to me.

What an idiot! The Lord finally gave him permission to go, but Balaam was far more concerned with what he wanted, than what the Lord wanted. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume).

With the donkey carrying me steadily along toward the king of Moab, I started preparing my plan of attack. For a curse of locusts and famine was a fixed rate, but I could throw in a flood for an extra 15%. I mean, when the king asks you to curse, he surely would have the means to pay for the big stuff.

But as I started tallying up the totals, the dumb donkey turned off the road and started walking into a field! So I picked up my switch and I let him have it.

Later on the journey, when I had finally got the curse prepared with all sorts of big and made-up words, the donkey scraped my foot against a wall! That fool really felt it when I hit him that time.

And finally, when we were close to our destination, the donkey laid down in the middle of the road and just sat there! I was furious, I was Balaam the prophet, so I picked up my switch and hit him for a third time. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)

What an idiot. God was so angry with Balaam that he sent an angel of the Lord to kill him on the path, but he was so blinded by his love of money that he saw nothing. I knew that if I did not go into the field, or run us into the wall, or fall down in the path, that the angel of the Lord would surely kill my master.

But after Balaam hit me for the third time, something incredible happened. The Lord opened my mouth and I said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times? Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden your whole life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”

Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, ready to kill him. Oh I wish you could’ve been there to see him fall straight to the ground, shaking and quaking in fear. That self-centered prophet of profit saw the error of his ways, and prayed for forgiveness from the Lord. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume.)

And would you believe it? The Lord told me to get up and say what he told me to say, and do what he told me to do. I met with King Balak, he showed me all the riches I was about to receive, and then he led me out to the Israelites. He told me to curse them, but when I went out to open my arms for the prayer, the Lord told me to bless them. So I did. (remove costume)

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Balaam was supposed to be a prophet, someone who sees more than most, someone attuned to the will of God, and yet his donkey saw more than he did. Without that persistent reminder from the donkey carrying him on the road, Balaam would have been killed by his love of money and would have missed the opportunity for transformation.

I know a man who made a lot of money doing what he did, and spent more hours than most glued to his phone for work. One afternoon he came home and his son asked if they could play catch in the backyard. “No, no, no,” he said, “I’ve got too much work to do.” About a month later the son asked if his dad would pick him up from baseball practice to meet some of his friends, but the father had a business commitment so he said no. At the end of the season the son asked his father to come to his final baseball game to see him play, but a emergency happened at work, so the son played without his father in the stands.

Sometime later the family was getting ready to go on vacation and the father was fretting about whether or not his business would be alright without him and he spent the evening frantically packing whatever he could grab. When he turned around from the closet he saw his son stand in the door way holding an envelope. The young boy walked up to his father, and with the slightest quiver in his lip he handed him the envelope and said, “Dad, I’ve saved all my allowance from the last few months all the money I got for my birthday and I want to give it to you.” The father stood there in stunned silence as the boy finished: “but only if you promise to leave your phone at home when we leave for vacation.

There are many donkeys in our lives, hoping to redirect our attention to the path in front of us. Be it a son vying for our attention, a sermon that strikes at our hearts, or a simple remark from a friend, the donkeys are there.

The good news is the fact that we get these little reminders at all! That rather than leaving us to our own devices, the Lord is active and alive in our midst. In our prayers we remember the world is much bigger than just ourselves. In the words of scripture we see faint reflections of ourselves and we are transformed by God’s grace. And in the bread and wine at this table we experience the one who gave his life for us, so that we might give our lives for others. Amen.

Stranger In A Strange Land – Sermon on Ezekiel 17.22-24

Ezekiel 17.22-24

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

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During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in a family that believed in sitting together for dinner every night. I was raised in a church that took the baptismal vows seriously and helped me pursue my vision of ministry. I had friends that supported my belief systems, and wanted me to be happy. I was strongly rooted in my home, and when I left I felt like I was wandering around without a map.

In the beginning, college was completely unlike home. Instead of eating with my family, I was lucky to eat a meal in the dining hall with anyone. Instead of a supportive church, I tried out a number of campus ministries that made it clear that if I wasn’t converting my heathen classmates I had no business being a part of their group. Instead of friends that loved me, I had surface level connections that were based on a system of consumerism more than genuine friendship.

The things I had grown to love (the comforts, the familiarity, and the rhythms) were gone and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Imagine, if you can, the prophet Ezekiel sitting by the river among the exiles. They had been taken from their homeland, uprooted, and planted in a new place. Families were separated, homes were lost, and they no longer knew how to worship their Lord. But the Lord continued to call prophets to proclaim the truth, even in the midst of the unknown.

Ezekiel, a prophet to the exiles, declared what the Lord had said. The Lord will take a branch from the full top of a cedar tree and will set it apart. Then the Lord will break off one of the most tender pieces of the young twigs and plant in on a high and grand mountain. The Lord will plant this piece so that it would produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble tree unlike any other. Under it, in the protection of its shade, every kind of bird will live and find comfort.

All the rest of the trees will know what the Lord has done. Because the Lord brings low the high tree, and makes the low tree grow. The Lord dries up the green tree, and helps the dry tree flourish. The Lord has spoken, and he will do it.

The message is beautiful and hopeful. The poetic language of God’s creation helps us to imagine a mighty cedar giving life and shade to all who are in need. We can almost smell the scent of the cedar wafting through the air as we hear the words. We are reminded of God’s great power in upsetting normal expectations.

But when we remember who the words were for, when we remember the exiles in captivity, the passage becomes all the more powerful.

The remaining faithful had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. Their suffering was great and their questions were many. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” “When will we return to the great city of Jerusalem?” “Where is the Lord in the midst of our suffering?”

The foundations of their religion were laid waste by a rampaging army. Those who survived would have witnessed the destruction of the temple, they would have smelled the burnt scrolls in the air, they would have heard the screams of fear and suffering.

The new home of Babylon brought subjection, and powerlessness. The people were small in number, weak in strength, and limited in faith.

They were strangers in a strange land.

Yet, in all of the great stories from scripture, a small people, of little account and worth, are the ones chosen by God to do something incredible. Though insignificant by the world’s standards, they were extraordinary in the eyes of God.

In the midst of the unknown, while their fear was real and palpable, Ezekiel shared this tender message from the Lord. I, the Lord your God, am the one who turns things upside down. I will have the final say about what it going on in your lives. You see the powers around you and you believe they have prevailed, but I will make things new, I will plant the seed that gives shade to the tired, strength to the weak, and life to the dead.

Today we are celebrating our graduates, those who have mastered their present set of educational expectations and are moving on to new horizons.

We have graduates from high school that will be entering the new area of the university. We have graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that will be entering the new area of the so-called “working world.”

In a few minutes they will stand before the congregation and we will pray for God’s blessing on them in all that they do. But before we send them off, we need to help open their eyes to the truth.

Soon, and very soon, you will feel like strangers in a strange land. No matter how confident you feel taking the next steps in your life, there will be things that happen that shake the very foundation of what you know and believe. You will encounter new and strange ideas. You will miss your friends, and your family, and hopefully your church.

Moments will come that you will ask the same kinds of questions that the exiles did in Babylon: “Why has the Lord abandoned me?” “When will things get back to normal?” “Where is God in the midst of all this?

So, this message from the Lord through Ezekiel is meant for you as much as it was meant for them. God’s message of love and presence and growth is directed to you in a time of new beginnings and uncertainty. Whether you are about to start at a new school or a new job, let these words be comforting and full of life.

The Lord God almighty took a sprig, a tiny and powerless little thing, and planted him in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up as the son of a carpenter and was ignored by most people until he started to give shade to all the birds of the air, when he started inviting the multitudes into the kingdom of God. Through his words and actions Jesus Christ gave hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. Through him the people began to know and experience the love of God and the world was turned upside down.

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Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The Lord will plant a new tree… just like the sower who goes into the field… just like a tiny mustard seed become the greatest of all the plants. The Lord will make high the low tree and make low the high tree… just like the first shall be last and the last shall be first… just like the poor being welcomed into the kingdom of God and the religious elite were left scratching their heads.

This kind of inversion has been part of God’s great cosmic plan all along and we are still being swept up in it. The Lord calls on the strangers in a strange land to give hope for the world. The Lord uses the weak and least of these to show how the great tree of life in Jesus Christ gives shade and comfort to all of God’s children.

To those who are about to embark on something new: take heart and know that the Lord is with you. Even when you feel lost and alone, you are not. We, the gathered people, are praying for you and will continue to so long as we have life. But more importantly the Lord has faith in you to do incredible things, to help continually turn the world upside down.

To those who remain: look upon these graduates with hope. Because just as the Lord planted Jesus Christ to be a source of hope, the Lord is about to do the same thing with all of them. He will scatter them like seeds in the earth, he will nurture them through the power of his Spirit, and they will stretch out their arms to the world and will be a source of light in the darkness. Wherever they are planted, they will bear fruit for the world.

During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to cry out to the Lord like one of the lost exiles in Babylon. I felt abandoned, I felt alone, and I felt afraid. Weeks passed and nothing changed, my relationships started to suffer, and I started putting in the minimal amount of effort necessary in my classes. But it was also when I really learned how to pray.

I didn’t read about it in some book about faith, but I read about it in the book of faith. I looked for the times that Jesus prayed. It helped put things in perspective about what I was going through. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it changed me.

Because true prayer is not about asking God to fix something. True prayer is the gutsy willingness to let God be God in your life. So I gave it over, I prayed less like myself and more like Jesus, I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life instead of for my life to get better. But it did.

When we really pray, its not important what we say, but that we let God have time to speak. Prayer is far more about listening than it is about speaking. Prayer is not listing what we want, but a risk of being exposed to what God wants.

Prayer really changes things, and sometimes what prayer changes is us.

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So, whether we are about to embark on a new experience in a new place or we are still spreading our roots here in Staunton; whether we are confident in our faith, or filled to the brim with doubt; whether we feel surrounded by discipled witnesses, or feel completely alone. We are all strangers in a strange land.

As Christians we are called to see the world through the resurrection which means we will never feel comfortable where we are. We love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We offer a tenth of our income and pray for the weak. We listen for the Lord and lift up the meek. Being Christian is about living in the tension between what the world explains and what the Lord proclaims.

But with prayer, by taking time to be holy, we start to see the world turned upside down, we experience the beauty of God’s kingdom, and we find rest in the shade of God’s great cedar tree: Jesus Christ. So let us pray:

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Amen.

Back to the Basics – Sermon on Mark 8.22-26

Mark 8.22-26

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on is eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

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I was shivering at the front of our sanctuary with ashes all over my fingers. Whether at 7 am or 7 pm the services were virtually the same: it was cold and dark outside, those who came huddled together for warmth, I preached the same homily, used the same ashes, and said the same words as I marked each person: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is one of those profound moments in the regular rhythms of church life where we admit something the world tries to claim the contrary: nobody makes it out of life alive.

I began both services with a brief introduction about the importance of Ash Wednesday, and the history behind it. We all prayed together. I read a selection from Psalm 51 about God creating in us clean hearts. I preached about living out our faith in the world as marked and cleansed people, and challenged each of us to act like the cross was still on our foreheads, even when the ashes faded away. I then prayed and blessed the ashes and invited everyone to come forward. There is something profoundly frightening and intimate about having people coming up to have ashes placed on their skin. We participate in an ancient ritual that is so contrary to the ways of the world. It is a privilege to come so close to the holy presence of God with each person who stood before me; looking them in the eye, holding their shoulder, touching their skin.

Before I offered a benediction for the services I invited everyone into a time of silence. While I prayed I was struck by the Spirit in a way that I had previously not encountered. I started thinking and praying for the people who were not in the sanctuary for the service. And I don’t mean for those of you who enjoyed Ash Wednesday from the warmth of your homes. I prayed for the people who came to our last Ash Wednesday service, but not this one. Because some of the people I held in my hands one year ago, I have buried in the months since. The words: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” take on a truly deeper meaning when the people go from worshiping in the pews, to resting in a casket at the front.

They brought the blind man to Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to see a public demonstration of his power and so they found someone for him to cure. Or they knew the struggles and sufferings of a friend and believed that Christ was the one to heal him. Whatever the case, the crowds begged Jesus to touch the blind man.

Jesus then took the man by the hand, and led him away from the crowds and out of the village. He spit into the man’s eyes, and laid his hands upon him. “What do you see?” Jesus asked. The man looked up and said to the Messiah, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man a second time. Suddenly, the man’s vision broke through and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him back to his home, commanding him to not even stop in the village.

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Is it strange that it takes Jesus two tries to get the healing right? Throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is the main man when it comes to healing and he gets it done right away. Paralyzed? Jesus says “take up your mat and walk!” Tied up with chains outside of the village because you’re possessed by demons? Jesus commands the demons out and sends you home. Your son is epileptic? Jesus says “all things are possible for the one who believes” and makes it so. But here in Mark 8 we have a strange story, a story that can only be found here in this gospel. Jesus is asked to heal a blind man, he uses his own spit for the first part, but it doesn’t work all the way, so he has to touch the blind man a second time.

I don’t know about you, but I love this story. I love how grounded it is in the material and physical world. I love the way that Jesus ignores the crowd and brings the man outside of the village. I actually love that it takes Jesus two tries to get it right because it says so much about our relationships with God. In fact, I love this passage so much, that I used it as the New Testament reading for Lindsey’s and my wedding. If I remember the wedding sermon correctly Jason, our pastor, said this about the choice: “The walking trees do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man is a text that only a pastor would use at his wedding.

Yet, even with its strangeness and bizarre imagery, I love this passage. I think it works well for weddings; You only really see the person you’re marrying, after you marry them. Dating and being engaged is like seeing the other as a blurred image, but in the vows and covenant of marriage the other comes into focus, and we see what our lives truly become together.

Moreover, I think this text works well for the beginning of Lent, as it reminds us that sometimes it takes two tries to get this whole discipleship-thing figured out. In fact, it often takes more than two tries to get it right.

The story with Jesus and the unnamed blind man is a reminder about what our relationship with God is like. Before we become Christians, we see and experience the world with extremely limited vision. We believe that we are the center of the universe, that our primary purpose is to love ourselves and serve our needs no matter the cost. But then a strange thing happens. Maybe it occurred when you were invited to worship for the first time, or maybe it happened on a mission trip, or maybe it happened in the middle of the night after awaking from a strange dream; whatever the experience was, God became real for you for the first time.

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Some might say that as soon as that event takes place, you begin to understand God and see the world with clear vision. This story however, would claim the contrary. When we initially experience God’s wonder its like seeing people as trees walking. We are given a glimpse of what the world looks like turned upside down, we begin to grasp and understand what loving God and neighbor is all about. But our vision of discipleship is still dim and incomplete.

Frankly, this distorted and obscure vision of faith is where most Christians are located, myself included. We think we understand everything that God is doing and we think we are seeing things clearly, but its not the case. How many of us can rattle off all the words to the creeds and to the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have the hymns memorized and can sing without looking down, how many of us really know and read our bibles, yet our vision is still dim?

Lent is the time for us to turn back toward God and see things clearly. We need to see God as God is. Not just the God of our liturgical creeds and hymnals, but the Lord of our hearts and homes, of our hopes, our prayers, and our needs. We desperately need a real picture of what faith looks like. Because faith cannot just be showing up to church once a week for an hour of worship. Faith is about giving your entire life over toward loving God and others 24/7, 365.

While I was praying after our Ash Wednesday services I realized that I don’t really know any of you. At least not to the degree that we are called to know and love God in our lives. While applying the ashes to some of your foreheads I saw what you allow me to see, I saw some of your celebrations, some of your failures, some of your hopes, some of your sins. I can strive to know you as deeply and as fully as I can, but I will only see you as a blurry tree depending on what you open up.

Yet, while preparing for funerals, I start to see a clearer picture of the person. It’s like God has touched me a second time and I finally begin to understand the kind of life that someone lived. Part of it comes from the vulnerability and honesty that families and friends are willing to share, but part of it comes from my willingness to finally ask questions that I never felt brave enough to ask while they were alive.

For all of us, our discipleship and relationship with God is often perpetually caught in this state of blurred trees. We show up to church, we pray, we read our bibles, but without a sure foundation of the basics of faith, our vision will always be limited. 

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That’s why, throughout the season of lent, we will take time each Sunday to return to some of the basics of faith. We might come to the table once a month to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, but do we really believe and know what we are doing? We might talk about being saved and affirming Jesus Christ as Lord, but what does salvation really look like, and why do we call Jesus our Lord? We might see the other people in our pews as brothers and sisters in Christ, but why is our relationship with them limited to Sundays mornings or church activities?

It is my hope that over the next few weeks all of us will receive that second touch from the Lord; by returning back to the basics we will begin to see faithful things and then to see all things clearly: God, ourselves, and others.

But that’s where we’re going. For today I was to focus on this: Our lives are gifts. We are privileged to be surrounded by such beautiful and unique people in our lives. From our co-workers, to fellow students, to friends, and family, and even strangers, we are blessed people. Yet, do we really know any of them? Do we really see them as they truly are? I promise that for all the perfect exteriors you might encounter, there are at least a few who, on the inside, are looking for someone like you to see the real them.

If we take this two part healing seriously than it’s up to us to initiate the second touch for the people around us. We could wait for them to show up and open up, but most of the time it will never happen. Instead we are given the chance to ask deep and important questions of the people in our lives. Questions like: How is it with your soul? What are you doing right now that is saving your life? Do you feel loved?

When you find someone and bravely ask them questions, you are like the crowds bringing the blind man to Jesus; you go into the world as Christ’s body, and by learning more about the other, you discover what it means to see things clearly. 

We begin our challenge here at the Lord’s Table. After we are invited to feast and confess our sins, we will exchange signs of Christ’s peace with one another. This is the chance for us to begin opening our eyes to the truth around us; We are a church of broken people, and when we love on each other and gather at God’s table, we start putting all the pieces back together. Amen.