Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

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A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

I’m in my fifth year of full-time ministry and I just received my first piece of anonymous “hate” mail. I use the word “hate” loosely, because at no point in the letter am I threatened or made to feel afraid, but the person clearly hated a sermon of mine and took the time to write a full page with bolded words, underlined sentences, and even a section entirely in the color red.

On Sunday I preached a sermon about why Christians pray and in it I said: “…the missing demographic from the church, the so-called millennial generation, are missing because they (we) have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves people feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference. But that’s the thing: the church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and the valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God. And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down… I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has answered our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us until we have eyes to see what God has done.”

And today, Wednesday, I received an anonymous letter ripping apart my claim that the Church doesn’t exist to make a difference. Basically, he/she feels that the church is only one of the ways for an individual to experience God in the world, and the the church has failed to take care of people in need, and therefore it’s up to people like the writer to support the needs left unattended in the world through political means and civic organizations.

I wish the person had included their name, or at least a way to respond to their criticism, such that we could have a conversation about the subject. But without any way to do so, I decided to put it up here on the blog in hopes that it reaches him/her:

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The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

We have a book in the United Methodist Church called The Book of Discipline. In it, its paragraph 120 if you’re interested, we have the mission of the church written our plainly for all to read and understand: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Making disciples is at the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist. I mean, its what Jesus calls the disciples to do at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Go therefore and make disciples…). But making disciples is often confused with filling the pews; it results in having conversations about how to get more people in the building while neglecting to interact and connect with people already in the building, it results in infantile/surface level discipleship, and it results in working for the numbers instead of the kingdom.

And then we have this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Should that be our only focus? Does the church exist to make the world a better place?

The church is defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world.

Today we are so steeped in the allure and promises of our political ideologies that we often superimpose them onto the church. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But look at what makes the church the church: Jesus Christ. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through wandering Israelites, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the state.

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is the better place God has made in the world because many of us worship our government, or social programs, the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about local civic organizations as if they are going to bring us salvation that we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus already brought.

Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again or Make The World A Better Place. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of civic organizations that work to change the world, nor is it meant to be a critique of policies of the political right or left. Neither is it a denial of the importance of caring for the last, least, and lost in our communities. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that organizations and political parties determine our lives more than the living God.

Yes, everyone is free to use their money and their time and their talents as they see fit. In our country we worship this freedom to a frightening degree (However, we tend to only relish in our freedom to say and do what we want, and the moment we encounter the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.). We can try to do what we can to make the world a better and safer place.

But being a Christian is not about (political) freedom or being safe. After all, we Christians worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Following Jesus means believing the greatest freedom and power we’ve ever received did not come from the Declaration of Independence, or from giving money to a group like Kiwanis, but through Jesus Christ who died on a cross.

I do sincerely apologize for making a claim about the church not making a difference in the world. After all, I am a pastor because the church changed my life. But I also recognize that for as much as I want to attribute the difference I have experienced to the church, Jesus is the one who made all the difference.

We spend so much time thinking and living into a strange reality that assumes the church exists to serve the members of the church, or to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t have much to do with Jesus. Any political party and any civic organization can do lots of things to make their members happier and safer and better (at least in terms familiar to the world).

But the church, as the body of Christ, exists to be the better place God has already made in the world. God in Christ transformed the powers and principalities such that the world has been turned upside down. God in Christ captivates our hearts and souls by proclaim who we really are and whose we really are. God in Christ is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God in Christ has made all the difference.

Devotional – Matthew 16.13

Devotional:

Matthew 16.13

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Weekly Devotional Image

We were walking along the beach on Monday morning in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when a young teenage girl kept looking over at us. I had my son Elijah in my arms and my wife Lindsey was standing next to me and we were talking about nothing in particular when the girl shyly walked up to us. Before she opened her mouth I thought maybe she was going to ask us to take her picture, and then for a strange moment I thought she was going to ask to hold Elijah, but then she asked a question, “Excuse me, but do you know who Jesus is?”

In my mind I started to answer the question much like Peter answered: “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” I thought about scriptural situations to answer the question in as many ways as possible, I thought about famous images of Jesus that I could describe from memory, and I did all of this in my mind before I realized that she was trying to evangelize us.

So, all I said was: “Yeah, I know Jesus. I’m a United Methodist Pastor.” And at that moment I noticed the girl’s father standing off to the side as if to make sure she was doing it the right way. Upon hearing my answer, he walked up to introduce himself as a Nazarene preacher and we had a brief conversation about seminaries and church work.

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But as they walked away to find their next victim, all I could think about was what would have happened if I had answered the question differently; what would she have said if my answer was simply, “No”?

Beach evangelism, walking up to a stranger with a question about Jesus, is not a new thing. For decades Christians have used it and other forms as tools to get people “saved.” But simply asking about Jesus as a means to talk about Jesus often results in shallow connections whereas Jesus commanded the disciples to share the good news in such a way that it resulted in the formation of friendships and communities. Or to put it another way: asking about Jesus in order to make disciples is different than living like Jesus so that others will be formed into disciples.

Peter was only able to answer Jesus question after spending years with him ministering to the crowds. Sometimes sharing the good news with other people takes years of living alongside them without trying to insert our faith into their schedules. I know God can work miracles through Christians approaching strangers on the beach, I know that those questions can be the seed that changes someone’s life, but I know that intentionally spending time with others over the long term will do far more for the kingdom than approaching people on the beach that we will never see again.

The Christian Problem With (Nuclear) War

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen. And in response to President Trump’s words, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

Devotional – Psalm 145.9

Devotional:

Psalm 145.9

The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

 Weekly Devotional Image

I arrived at church this morning mentally prepared for Vacation Bible School. I had read over the “Bible Story Teller” section, I knew where I needed to be and at what time, and I even had the perfect costume picked out: Batman.

However, I had assumed, foolishly, that the other adults would also arrive in some form of superhero costume. So, instead of blending in among a crowd of heroes, I stuck out like a sore thumb. However, when the children arrived (some from the church and some from the community) they were all shocked that the Caped Crusader was making his way around the building.

After our initial assembly time we broke out into age groups and then began making the rounds through the different centers. I made my way to the storyteller room and started teaching all of the children and youth about Samuel anointing a young David. The groups listened to my rendition and appropriately laughed at my silly jokes, they left with a sense that to be a hero in God’s kingdom one needs to have a compassionate heart, and they learned about how God is our true hero.

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Toward the end of the day, in my last bible story session, one of the youth was not as engaged in the others. I tried to include her as much as possible, but there was clearly something distracting her. When we finished, the rest of the youth walked out of the room, but she stayed behind as if to ask a question. Without prompting she lifted up her head and said, “Did you really mean that?” I said, “What do you mean?” She replied, “That God really loves everyone? Even me? You said that God’s love for David is the same as God’s love for eveyrone, and I want to know if that’s true.” And I said the only thing I could say, “Of course it’s true.”

I don’t know what’s going in her life to warrant her isolated behavior, or even her stark wonder at the fact that God could love her, but I am grateful for the opportunity to tell her the truth. As the psalmist says, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” God’s love and grace and mercy know no bounds. They are for ALL. And all means all!

From the youth who arrived for Vacation Bible School while wrestling with something beyond herself, to the man panhandling on the street corner, to the family sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, God’s love is for ALL.

Sometimes we lose sight of the tremendous extent of God’s love when we encounter people that we cannot love. When we disagree with them, or are angry with them, they feel outside the realm of God’s grace.

And sometimes we lose sight of the tremendous extent of God’s love when we feel like we know longer deserve it. When we really think about how we have sinned, or how we could be better, we feel outside the realm of God’s grace.

Then let us all hear the good news, the best news: The Lord is good to ALL, and his compassion is over ALL that he has made.

Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.

I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.

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  1. Names Are Important

Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.

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  1. God Provides

After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

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

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

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

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

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

We are the stories we tell.

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

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

That is our story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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