Charm Is Deceitful

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Layman about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Alan serves as the pastor of Grace UMC in Parksley, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral titles, staying connected in a global movement, senior superlatives, wicked advice, true prosperity, faithful habits, visions of the kingdom, the absence of the devil, and hot dogs with popsicles. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Charm Is Deceitful 

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In God We Trust

Mark 12.38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. Last week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives.

Today we’re moving on to the subject of money. 

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

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The church was in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. Every Sunday they bickered in the hallways and in the narthex fighting about who they could hit up for more money this year, about how much they would need to raise in order to buy new candlestick holders for the altar, and about whether the pastor should know who gives and how much.

Finally they called for a formal meeting on a Sunday evening and after 3 hours of more shouting, disagreeing, and even some belittling, they ended only to have the frustrations spill out into the parking lot as everyone was preparing to leave.

However, sitting outside the front doors of the church was a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup hoping for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing inside and out the parking lot.

After some time has passed, the man stood up from his spot and he meandered over to one of the older women with her hand placed perfectly on her hips, he reached out for her hand, dumped the few dollars and space change he had received, and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

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Money! Everyone’s favorite subject in church! In ranks up their with politics and sexuality! I can tell that you all have just been on the edge of your pews all morning waiting to hear what I have to say like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning.

Money! The American Dream! So many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us this dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deeper bank accounts. We hope to pursue more than we have, to gain more than we have, and to save more than we have.

And, importantly, most of us tend to measure our success based on the number in our bank accounts.

But, and this is a big but, for a lot of us the American Dream feels like the American Nightmare.

For as much hope as we might have for a day in the future when all of our finances will be taken care of, there’s plenty in the present to worry us. There was a study recently that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances – more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are worried about job security, and 52% report lying away at night thinking about their bank accounts.

That might not sound all that surprising to any of us here, because honestly, who among us hasn’t worried about money?

How about this then – in 1990 the average credit card debt in America was $3,000 and today it is well over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, student loans, or medical debt.

For many of us The American Dream has become The American Nightmare when it comes to money and finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few us us save money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Over and over again.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. 

“Watch out for those scribes and priests – you know, the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in public, the preachers who like to gets the seats of privilege. They are the type of people who prey on the widows and the poor and for the sake of appearances will fill their prayers with big and long words. Watch out for them.”

Then Jesus immediately gathered the crowd around the treasury and they watched as people filed in line to drop of their donations. Many rich people proudly walked ahead to make the donation as public as possible, but then a poor widow shuffled over and put two small coins in the treasury, two coins that amounted to a penny. 

Jesus pulled his disciples close and said, “That poor widow put in more than all the rest who are contributing to the treasury. The rest of them gave out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”

In life, few of us have any use for hypocrites. Those people who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate – like politicians making great sums of money while complaining that it’s not enough to live on – like pastors urging their congregations to make financial commitments while they themselves offer nothing.

Today we’re obviously talking about money, and the text makes it quite difficult to make a case for giving it to church. 

Because we can take the story of the widow at face value – she truly sacrifices. She is the example upon which Jesus makes a theological claim. But let us not forget that her gift is considered far greater than greater sums of money not because of the amount but because of her generosity.

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And that’s why we have to sit with something rather uncomfortable before we jump to the simplicity of money, which of course is no simple thing. It is good and right for us to rest in the tension of the text read for us today because this is about more than just encouraging extravagant generosity – it is an indictment, plain and simple, against any institution (including our own) that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the leaders can continue to live lives of wealth, comfort, and power.

We might leave church today feeling guilty about the money we give (or don’t give), we might feel apathetic about what our contributions can really do for our church or for our community. But perhaps the most appropriate feeling might be outrage; outrage toward any system that appropriates the property of the poor and near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.

Ask any pastor and they’ll tell you the best givers in the church are almost always the poorest. It’s those on limited and fixed incomes who are usually the first to tithe, but the wealthy and elite, those with gifts to share, have a harder time with it.

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear, or maybe you won’t, that there are more than 950 billionaires in the world and yet the percentage of giving among the majority of the billionaires does not rise above the single digits.

By the time Jesus encountered this scene by the treasury, the whole religious apparatus was perverted. The operators lived privileged lives, and the poor, widowed, orphaned, and marginalized were no longer protected.

And today, sadly, some things haven’t changed.

I was out of the office for two days this week between clergy meetings and hospital visits, and when I checked the church voicemail on Thursday morning we had over twenty messages, twenty messages in two days, from people in our immediate community who needed financial help – a rent payment, a overdue electricity bill, grocery money.

And I wish, I wish, that we could give money to every single person who called. I wish that my days were primarily filled with making sure that people could stay in their homes, that those homes could keep the lights on, and that the refrigerators were well stocked. 

But we can only use what we are given.

And so, from this story of Jesus and the widow, from the reflections on the church’s, and any institution’s, temptations to prey on the weak, it’s quite difficult and problematic for someone like me, part of the religious elite, standing in my long robe, to build a case for why the church is worthy of the gifts of its givers.

The church is only worthy when we use the gifts as Jesus commands.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship.

This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.

For a long time there’s been an 80-10-10 focus on finances in which you spend 80% of your money on what you need to live, you save 10% for the future and unanticipated emergencies, and 10% is given away. So the challenge is to sit down with your finances and start thinking about what it would take to break it all down into something close to the 80-10-10 model.

But, of course, tithing is really hard. It simply may not be possible for you to give 10% away. However, it is helpful to think about your generosity in terms of a total value instead of an occasional offering. As in, what does 2% look like for you? Or even 5%?

And you can leave it right there, a relatively simple thought experiment, or you can take it one step farther and take a good look at whatever debt you might have and make a plan to repay it. If you are anywhere near the average $9,000 in credit card debt, and you only make the minimum payment every month, it will take something like 200 years before it will all go away. So look at what is owed, and make a budgetary plan to star chipping away at it so than it no longer grips your around your soul like a shackle, so that you never wander over to the offering plate and have to give away your entire life at the value of a penny. 

And, if you want serious extra credit, you can bring back a commitment card next week (found in your bulletin). It is something to prayerfully consider and fill out, a commitment of giving to the church so that no widow in our community will be forced to give away her very life at the expense of her life being ignored.

A lot of us have a warped understanding of what faithful giving looks like. We think that if we give, then God will give more back to us. But that is not how it works. We do not give to God in order to get something in return. 

Do you think the widow at the treasury believed that if she just kept giving everything that she would one day wake up with an overflowing bank account? 

We give to God simply because God has given to us. We believe that when we give it blesses not us, but others. And then, of course, it is in the blessing of others that we are blessed.

The church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. 

But we believe in having transparency in our finances and we are committed to serving those in need. 

We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. 

And we believe that by returning to God what belongs to God, we take steps toward making the kingdom incarnate on earth. Amen. 

Equity and Equality

Psalm 45.6

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity. 

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There are some images that stay with us long after we see them for the first time. For instance, someone only needs to mention the man and the tank and we might immediately conjure in our minds the defiant Chinese man who stood solitarily in front of a column of tanks immediately after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Or someone might mention something about a solider in love and we’ll see the black and white photo of the sailor kissing a woman in the middle of Time’s Square after the end of World War II. Or still yet we might overhear a conversation about the Great Depression and we’ll remember the young woman staring off into the distance with her children crying into her shoulder.

There are just some images that remain fixed in our minds.

For me, one of those memorable images is a cartoon depicting the differences between equality and equity. In the first panel there are three figures attempting to watch a baseball game over a fence. One is tall, one is of average height, and the last is small. The panel is labeled “EQUALITY” and all of the figures have been given the same size box on which they can stand to watch the game. However, because their heights are so varied, only the tallest and average size figures can see anything.

The second panel contains the same three figures, only in this one we see the label “EQUITY” and each figure has been given a box appropriately sized so that all the figures can watch the game.

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I can’t remember when I came across the image for the first time, but it has been stuck in my head ever since. It highlights the often ignored side of equality that still leaves some people forgotten, while also addressing the difficult truth of equity that some require more than others for true equality to be present.

One of the most prevailing motifs in scripture is that God is a God of leveling. God will bring the mountain down and raise the valley up; God will make the last first and the first last. And part of God’s desire for equity is one in which the kingdom God rules provides ways and means for all to participate in this new reality. 

That can be hard to swallow for those of us who already have so much, but it truly is Good News for those who cannot “watch the game.” It means that some of us will be called to forfeit our privileges so that others can stand shoulder to shoulder with us. It means that God is working in and through people like you and me to make leveling realities. And it means that one day all of us will stand before the Lord with the same equity. 

The Dude Abides

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including movie quotes, reminding God of God’s promises, dwelling places, mundane worship, unhappy people, dressing up for Jesus, passive Christianity, and offensive grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dude Abides

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ordination papers, getting outside the church, dreams of patience, God in music, tinkering with prayer, Breaking Bad, literal funeral arrangements, mercy, prodigal years, and being stuck in the kitchen. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Take What Ya Got And Go With It

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

The Anger Will Set You Free

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk comes out of your mouths, but only what it useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of the church. While Christians are gearing up for the joy of Easter morning, pastors like me try to slow everything down so that we can take stock of everything that happened the final week before jumping to the empty tomb.

Some churches embody this patience with dramatic performances. They’ll get actors to play all of the characters including Roman centurions guarding the tomb. And some are crazy enough to even bring a donkey into the sanctuary as a way of remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

Other churches will slow down the week with special music and scriptures. Every night there will be time for reflection and prayer as a choir leads the gathered people through a few songs, and specific individuals will read the stories aloud from Jesus’ final week.

I got the great idea years ago to preach the entirety of Holy Week in a 15-minute sermon.

This meant that I committed the important details between Palm Sunday and Good Friday to memory as I attempted to guide the congregation through a time of encounter and contemplation. I was as passionate as possible, marching up and down the center aisle frantically waving a palm branch like the crowds who gathered outside of Jerusalem. I set up tables by the altar only to flip them over with as much force as possible to frighten the congregation just like Jesus did at the temple. And even at the end, I got out a hammer and knocked on the pulpit to really bring home Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross.

After the service ended, while I was saying goodbye to the community of faith, more than a few people said the same thing to me. “You sure sounded angry today Pastor, is everything okay?”

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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

There is little truth in advertising. In fact, most of advertising is built on selling us a lie. If you buy this car you will finally find the fulfillment you’ve been looking for. If you go on this vacation, your children will actually love you and respect you. If you take this pill you will shed the extra weight you’ve been carrying around.

But Paul, Paul is a terrible advertiser for the church. While we are quick to make sure people know we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, Paul tells the truth. The church in Ephesus is filled with all sorts of bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. So much so that Paul has to tell them to get rid of it all!

Who in their right mind would like to go to a church like that? Who wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Yeah, I want to try that community of selfishness, and greed, and anger!”

Paul doesn’t mince words. The church of Ephesus is messed up. They’ve got tons of problems with no easy solutions. They’ve got to drop a lot before they can pick up their crosses. The Ephesians would have to give up themselves, their need to always be right, their need to feel superior, their grudges and bitterness. They’d have to sacrifice it all if they wanted to be God’s church.

They’d have to start looking like us! Because we’re perfect aren’t we? From where I stand I see a room of beautiful people, filled with nothing but love and joy and hope. I see people with perfect families, and overflowing bank accounts. I see people without fear and loss. I see perfection!

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

What is the truth?

Let us at least admit that we are far from perfect here. We, like the Ephesians, are filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. They might not bubble to the surface often, or even in church, but deep down we know its there. We know the people we’ve maligned, we know the bitterness we feel toward other, we know the wrath that can show up when we least want it to.

But the anger, what are we do to about the anger? Paul, in this passage alone, tells the Ephesians to be angry, and then later to put away their anger. But anger isn’t always, or necessarily, a bad thing.

Jesus was angry all the time in the gospels. As fully God and fully human Jesus could not not be angry. When he encountered the Pharisees looking on those at the margins of life, Jesus got angry. When he saw what was happening inside the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus got angry. When Peter raised a sword in the garden, Jesus got angry.

And whereas other might caution us against adding fuel to the fire of others’ anger, Jesus’ anger is a lens into the divine desire for a different reality.

Paul cautions the people of Ephesus to avoid conflict, which is a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. But he also knows that conflict is at the very heart of who we are. And, in particular, when we are bold enough to speak the truth.

Because the truth, the hard and unavoidable truth, is that we’ve got plenty to be angry about.

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We’re angry that it’s been a year since the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and it feels like nothing has really changed. We’re angry that people in our community don’t have food to eat, or clothes to wear, or beds to sleep in. We’re angry that people are treated as less than whole because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their country of origin.

And we should be angry!

            Being angry isn’t a problem; it’s what we do with it that is.

We can be angry about what happened in Charlottesville, but the people marching and chanting about death to Jews and death to blacks are angry too. They’ve let their anger manifest itself in the violence and degradations of entire populations.

We can be angry about those who are suffering in our community, but there are people who are angry at those who are suffering for no reason other than the fact that they are suffering! They’ve let their anger manifest in selfish ways that belittle people for choices made on their behalf by communities who abandoned them.

We can be angry at all the people who are xenophobic, and sexist, and racist, and homophobic, but those people are angry too. They just let their anger out in horrific ways against people without caring about who they really are.

The line between anger and wrath is slim and mysterious. There is good anger that propels us closer to the divine will, anger that gives us the courage to speak out against injustice in our midst, and anger that provides the strength necessary to imagine a different way of being.

            But there is also anger that propels us closer to violence, anger that encourages us to see the other as other instead of as brother, and anger that justifies a hatred and violent way of being.

There’s a hymn that’s been around since the sixties and is filled with all of the cliché charm made possible by a Christian people in the sixties. It’s called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. And for as much as the hymn paints this hopeful image of the church, a church where people walk hand in hand, and work side by side, it’s a far cry from what the church actually looks like.

            The hymn sounds a lot like the terrible advertisements we see that promise us an impossible world.

And I really wonder how many people outside the church know Christians like us for our love… Because, sometimes, we Christians appear to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around. There are times where Christians like us relish in any opportunity to stir up and perpetuate conflicts rather than resolve them.

            I think, if we asked people outside the church, what they know us for isn’t our love, but for our anger.

So then, who in the world would want to join us? Who in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Gee, you know what, I think I’m going to join those angry Christians at Cokesbury. Maybe that’s just what I need”?

            Why do you keep coming here?

We are an angry people, we Christians, and that’s okay. We worship a Messiah who spent most of his earthly ministry being angry. But our anger, like Christ’s, should not send us into despair or violence. Our anger, like Jesus’, sends us to an even stranger place: telling the truth.

And while Paul might call upon us to tell the truth to our neighbors, no doubt a worthy venture, maybe we should start a little closer to home. Perhaps the person who needs to hear the truth is… me and you.

It is so easy to hear this text from Ephesians, and imagine the other people in our lives that it seems to describe. We can immediately conjure up someone in our minds who is too bitter, too wrathful, and too angry. But the text is also about us. It’s definitely about us. There is no one for whom these words to not represent a profound challenge and a holy opportunity.

The time has come for the truth, for us to take a good hard look in the mirror and accept who we are. We can even be angry about it if we so choose. But then the anger, that raw energy, can be focused into better places, while Jesus starts working on us from the inside out.

You see, that’s why people keep coming to church even when they know it’s filled with angry people. It’s because they’re angry too, and on some level they know that the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, they are like seeds within us sprouting into new life. They know, whether they can articulate it or not, that the church is the place where they can bring their anger, where they can be angry, and the anger will set them free.

People don’t join churches because they are open hearted or open minded, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. People commit their lives to the work of the church, Christ body in the world, because Christ is revealed in this place! Jesus is what makes our anger intelligible and applicable. Jesus takes our pent up frustrations with the world and with ourselves, and he flips them over like the tables in the temple to say, “Follow me!”

            God in Christ doesn’t make our anger disappear, church is not the salve that fixes our ailments. But it is the place where we discover how anger is the beginning of a revolution of the heart, anger is the catalyst that reshapes the possibilities we believe about the world, anger is what Jesus felt as he made his way to the cross.

            So, it’s fine if those outside the church will know we are Christians by our love. But maybe it would be better if they knew us by our anger. Amen.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.