A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Psalm 100.3

Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

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In a few days United Methodists from all over the state of Virginia will gather in Hampton for Annual Conference. It is the conference wide meeting for clergy and lay representatives so that we might have worship and parliamentary deliberations in order to discern the will of God. Highlights will include the Service of Ordering Ministry when new candidates will be blessed for ministry, our new(ish) Bishop will address the conference as a whole for the first time, and we will hear from all of the vibrant ministries taking place across the conference. However, there will come a time when we descend into the depths of Roberts Rules of Order, individuals will speak into the PA system just to hear the sound of their own voice, and it will feel a whole lot more like a shareholders meeting than the gathering of God’s people.

And as I have been preparing for Annual Conference this year by reading through the Book of Reports and praying for our denomination, I felt compelled to write the following reminder for anyone attending conference this year (and frankly for any Christian):

On one of my first Sundays at St. John’s 4 years ago, I sat with the Church Council in the Social Hall for the very first time. We gathered that afternoon in hopes of communing with one another such that we could discern what God was calling us to do together. And I started the meeting with this story…

On my first day of seminary the dean stood up in front of the entire incoming class and gave a 45-minute lecture on the ethics of the New Testament. It was interesting for the first ten minutes and then most of us lost track of where he was going. We struggled to listen but everything was so brand new that most of us were more captivated by the architecture in the sanctuary than what was being said from the pulpit. But he ended with these words, words I will never forget, and words I hope you will never forget.

He said, “Why are you here? Some of you think you’re here because you want to teach in college one day, some of you are here because you believe you can save the church, and some of you are here simply because you love the bible. But why are you here? Now, I want you all to pull out a small piece of paper. You might, and probably will, forget most of what I’ve said today, but this is the most important lesson you will ever learn as Christians. I want you to take your piece of paper and tape it somewhere you will see every single day. You can put in on the mirror in your bathroom, or on your computer, or even on your bible, I don’t care where it is just make sure you see it every single day. And on your piece of paper I want you to write the following words: ‘It’s about God, stupid.’”

Wherever you are when you read this reminder, I encourage you to find a piece of paper and write down those same words: It’s about God, stupid. Tape it up in your hotel room, fasten it to the front of your book of reports, put it on your name tag, just do whatever it takes to encounter those words while attending Annual Conference. The UMC does not exist to serve the needs of those already in it, it does not exist to further perpetuate the bureaucracy in which it finds too much meaning, it does not exist to do whatever it takes to keep doors open on Sunday mornings; The UMC exists because it’s all about God!

God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.

And so, no matter what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling this year for Annual Conference, remember it’s all about God.

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Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I get a witness?

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

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

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

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

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

Can I get a witness?

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

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

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

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

So, can I get a witness?

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

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

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The Cole Family

Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

Devotional – Luke 17.5

Devotional:

Luke 17.5

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.

St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.

While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into the promise when I received the phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came to St. John’s not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.

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But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been praying for God’s will to be done and we have discerned that the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to serve as the Pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA at the end of June.

I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.

This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.

In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.

Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

Romans 4.1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

 

There are many many many versions of Christianity. And not just denominations like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists; even within something like the United Methodist Church there is a great myriad of ideas about what it means to be the church. For instance: There are 7 UMCs in Staunton, and we could all use the same text on Sunday morning, and just about everything else would be completely different from one another.

But the one thing that might unite all churches, almost more than baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or bulletin, or marquee and you can find a self-made description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. Or just try asking someone about their church and you’re likely to hear: “we love everybody!”

In the United Methodist Church, we like to say we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

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What a righteous slogan.

Inclusivity, being open, they’re quite the buzzwords these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know that they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want to the world to know that we care about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is, there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive (including our own).

A couple weeks ago I preached a sermon on the mission of the church. I made the claim that instead of being consumed by a desire to fill the pews, instead of trying to make the world a better place, the church is called to be the better place that God has already made in the world. And as the better place, church should be the one place where no one is ever lonely. I must’ve said that last part no less than three times from the pulpit.

And when we finished worship, most of us walked up the stairs to the Social Hall for a time of food and fellowship. Like we usually do, a long line was formed and one by one we filled our plates and sat down.

The time difference between proclaiming the sermon and sitting down to eat could not have been more than 30 minutes. And yet there was a young family who were here with us in worship for the very first time, who sat alone in our social hall the entire time. And there was an older gentleman, who has served the needs of this church longer than I’ve been alive, who sat by himself for nearly the entire time.

It is not possible for any church, even St. John’s, to be “inclusive” of everyone. And not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We might not judge others for the stereotypical ways often publicized about the church like being homophobic, or racist, or elitist (though there is plenty of that). No, we also reject others for mental illness, politically different or incorrect views, or for poor social skills and status.

We reject people for all sorts of reasons.

Years ago, when I first entered seminary, I went on a bike ride with some friends to another house full of seminarians. We represented the great mosaic of mainline protestant Christianity and we quickly began addressing why each of us was attracted to the particular church we would serve in the future. The Episcopalian talked about her love of the Book of Common Prayer and being united with Christians all over the world who say the exact same words whenever they get together. The Baptist talked about the beauty of believer’s baptism and getting to bring adults into God’s flock.

One of the Methodists, me, talked about the wonder of God’s prevenient grace, a love that is offered to all without cost or judgment. But then I went on to express my chief disappointment: Our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors. I joked about how many Methodist churches regularly lock their doors, how many of them are filled with people whose minds are already made up about God and others, and how many of them have people with hearts that have no desire to be open to the strange new reality of God’s kingdom.

To be honest, I got pretty fired up about it. After all, it was the beginning of seminary and I was trying to show off.

But I meant what I said. Our slogan is something we can strive for, but it is not a fair description of who we are. There will always be a newcomer who sits in a pew by herself without anyone coming over to say hello. There will always be a family that risks being ostracized by coming to church only to being judged from afar. There will always be sermon series that make people feel like they are not welcome into the fold of God’s grace.

So I went on and on about this until I looked at the other Methodist whose face had turned bright red. “Is everything okay?” I asked. He paused and then said, “My Dad was on the committee at General Conference that created our slogan. I think it’s the best thing about the United Methodist Church.”

We have a slogan, a nice and pretty slogan that we should strive for, but oftentimes we fall short. When we fall short, we do so because of sin. Sin captivates us in a way that makes it virtually impossible for any church to “unconditionally accept” everyone who comes through the door.

We judge others based on physical and outward appearance. We make assumptions about families for a myriad of reasons. We shake our heads in disgust about couples that do not fit the normative mold that society has established.

And we should be cautious about advertising or describing ourselves as such. We might think we’re righteous enough to live by the slogan, we can even hope for it, but we are far from it.

Only Jesus, the one in whom we live and move, is capable of a truly open heart, open mind, open door ministry because Jesus was God in the flesh. Jesus was righteous.

But what about Abraham? Paul uses this part of his letter to the Romans to use Abraham as an example of righteousness. Abraham was the one who was called to leave the land of his ancestors and family to go where God called him. Abraham was the one in whom the covenant between God and God’s people was made. Abraham was the one who was promised to become the father of many nations. Abraham was the one who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Should we follow Abraham’s example? Would that make us more inclusive and righteous? Could we keep our slogan of open hearts, open minds, open doors?

Here’s the thing: Abraham did nothing to earn this honor and distinction from God. As Paul puts it, Abraham has no ground for boasting.

Whenever we read about the story of Abraham, whether in worship or in a bible study, he is often lauded for his journey into the unknown, for his faith and steadfast commitment to the Lord, and for his perseverance through suffering and tribulation. But his relationship with God, his faith being reckoned as righteousness, is only possible because of God’s faith in him. Abraham is righteous because God called him and empowered him to go into a strange new world.

Abraham, rather than being the perfect model for inclusivity and righteousness and faithfulness, is an example of a justified sinner. Abraham is one of many unlikely individuals whom God reshapes for God’s purposes. Abraham is chosen not because of anything he has done, but because of God who can do anything.

God is the one who worked in and through Abraham’s life, and not the other way around. Abraham does not justify himself, or transform himself, or redeem himself. That’s what God does.

And the same holds true for us today.

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We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.

This passage, this beautiful piece of theology from Romans, is about more than the example of Abraham and why we need to have faith. Paul’s emphasis is on the fact that God made Abraham righteous. That God has freely poured out grace on the ungodly, people like us. And that God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us and to the world is grossly unmerited and undeserved, and yet it is given to us.

She came to church pretty regularly but she kept to herself. She’d sit off at the end of a pew and keep her head down so as not to attract too much attention. Whenever it was time to sing, she would stand up with everyone else but her voice never made it higher than a whisper. When it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer she would properly bow her head and mouth the words. But whenever the congregation was invited to the front to receive communion, she never left her seat.

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Most of the church was preoccupied with thoughts about their own sins or about where they would eat lunch after the service to notice the woman who remained in her pew while they were feasting on the body and the blood. But the pastor noticed.

After a couple months he caught her after church, and wanted to know why she participated in almost every part of worship, but not in communion. She said, “I don’t feel like I deserve it.”

That, my friends, is the whole point. We don’t deserve it. You don’t, and I don’t. None of us have earned God’s salvation, there’s no list of things we can check off in order to get into heaven. This bread and this cup, the cross and the empty tomb, they are unmerited and undeserved gifts from God to us.

We cannot have a church that is open hearts, open minds, and open doors because we are already in it. Our presence, our sinfulness, makes it impossible to be a totally inclusive community.

Only Christ, only God, only the Spirit have open hearts, open minds, open doors. Only the triune God opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. Only the triune God opens up our eyes to view others without judgment or wrath or fear or anger. Only the triune God opens the doors of the church to the faithful community, to feast at the table that gives us a foretaste of heaven on earth.

Only the triune God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. To God be the glory. Amen.

 

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Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?