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

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Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories 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 even 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 was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

Ehud-and-Eglon (1)

Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

ehud2

When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

1945-08-07-New-York-Times-headline

Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 24.45

Devotional:

Luke 24.45

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.

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Seminary required a lot of reading and writing. Every week our professors would assign readings from book and articles that we would never complete in time in addition to reflective papers on a variety of subjects. At the beginning of each semester you could almost hear the collective groan from the student body with every new syllabus that detailed the amount of work that would be taking place over the coming months.

During my second year I took a class entitled “Greek Exegesis of Mark.” Throughout the semester we would be translating Mark from it’s original language into English and explore the nuances of the grammar. I remember reading the syllabus on the first day and thinking that I was in way over my head. Yet there was one particular requirement on the syllabus that I was really excited about; every week we would be required to read through the gospel of Mark in English.

At the time I realized that I was spending so much time studying God’s Word that I was no longer enjoying and absorbing God’s Word. So each week two of my fellow students and I sat on the steps of Duke Chapel and read the gospel of Mark aloud. Depending on the week we would trade off chapters and until each of us had the chance to read every chapter multiple times.

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I read more grammar and theological works on the gospel according to Mark that semester than I care to remember, but none of them compared to the importance of just reading Mark over and over again. There were insights from theologians that I never would have discovered on my own, but spending time in scripture alone every week truly opened up God’s Word in a way I had yet to experience.

After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he appeared to the disciples and opened their minds to understand the scriptures. For the first time they were able to begin seeing faithful discipleship through the lens of the resurrection (which makes all the difference). Today we can purchase commentaries and books about the bible to help us understand what’s going on in the verses but nothing can compare to spending faithful time with God’s Word alone. It is important to remember that every time we read a book about the bible we are actually reading someone’s opinion and interpretation; we can only create our own understanding and interpretation from the source itself.

This week let us challenge ourselves to read one of the gospels out loud. Mark is the shortest so it can be finished quickly, but they are all worth exploring on their own. The point is this: the more time we spend in the Word the more we will begin to understand.