Keep The Mystery

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [Year B] (1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6.12-20, John 1.43-51). Our conversation covers a range of topics including Wesley Theological Seminary, the need for repetition, submissive liturgical postures, the rarity of the Word, mystery, metafiction, baptism, communion, sex and fornication, and the challenge of preaching on difficult passages. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Mystery

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Devotional – Ephesians 5.14

Ephesians 5.14

Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

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On April 4th, 1742 Charles Wesley, the musically inclined younger brother of John Wesley, was invited to preach at St. Mary’s in Oxford. It was his first, and last, occasion for preaching there. His text was Ephesians 5.14 (“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”), and his message most likely caused a significant amount of resentment among those in attendance.

Throughout the sermon, Charles Wesley interprets the “sleep” from Ephesians as the natural state of humanity; it is the place where we are in light of Adam’s sin that has passed on to the world. But God calls each human to wake up from this dreadful sleep, repent, and live into the fullness of holiness made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a sense, it did what all sermons are supposed to do: it faithfully proclaimed God’s revealed word in a way that was applicable and approachable to all with ears to hear. However, Charles made plain the point that those in attendance, the religious elite of the day, had fallen asleep to God’s commands and that it was time for them to wake up.

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To paraphrase: “In what state is your soul? If God required you to die right now for the sake of the Gospel, would you be ready? Have you fought the good fight and kept the faith? Have you put off the old life and put on the new? Are you clothed with Christ? Do you have oil in your lamp and grace in your heart? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength? Do you believe that God is moving in a through you in all that you do? Are you really a Christian? If any of these questions offend you, be assured that you are not a Christian, nor do you desire to be one. The time has come to wake up!”

It’s no wonder he was never invited back to preach.

However, Charles’ questions still ring through the centuries and resonate in our hearts today. Are we alive to our faith? Are we clothed with Christ? Do we really love God and neighbor? Are we Christians at all?

Lent is the time to confront our true natures and ask if we have fallen asleep in our faith, or if we have been raised from the old life into the new. For Christ, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, is calling us to wake up. Christ compels us to leave the old life behind, the life defined by death and sin. Instead, Christ pushes us to clothe ourselves in our baptisms, live into the reality of resurrected life here and now, and wake up!

Devotional – Romans 12.9

Devotional:

Romans 12.9

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

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By 1743 the “Methodist” movement within the Church of England was taking off and growing considerably. John Wesley was suddenly responsible for checking in with the numerous societies he had helped to establish in order to continually encourage them in their faith and love. On one such occasion (in February of 1743) Wesley traveled to Newcastle to check on a particular society and was dismayed to discover a lax of discipline within the group.

Though harsh by our modern standards, Wesley examined every member of the society and found it necessary to expel 64 people from the group for the following offenses: “2 for cursing and swearing, 2 for habitual Sabbath-breaking, 17 for drunkenness, 2 for retailing spirituous liquors, 3 for quarreling and brawling, 1 for beating his wife, 3 for habitual and willful lying, 4 for railing and evil speaking, 1 for idleness and laziness, and 29 for lightness and carelessness” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 138). The offenses were so grave that Wesley believed it was detrimental for the whole if these offenders remained.

Within the week Wesley wrote what we now know as the General Rules. The terms of membership were simple: “a desire to flee the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” But in order to continue in the society, members were required to live out their faith by, “First, By doing no harm, … Second, By doing good, … Thirdly, By attending all the ordinances of God.” (ibid.) These General Rules became foundational for the Methodist movement that eventually led to the creation of the contemporary United Methodist Church.

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Paul wrote to the church in Rome a similarly simple list about what it means to be in Christ: “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” These principles of Christian discipleship are like the compass of our faith, guiding us to new and continual life in Christ. Wesley truly believed in renewing the Church of England by creating a standard by which the Christians could dedicate their lives. Faith, for him, was serious and worth working hard for. Today we are responsible for renewing our faith through discipleship and our commitment to love God and neighbor.

How do you live out your faith? Has following Jesus become boiled down to showing up for church once a week? Do you follow any guidelines or responsibilities for discipled-living on a daily basis?

Perhaps today we are all being called to a life of dedicated and disciplined faithfulness by simply letting our love be genuine, hating what is evil, and holding fast to what is good.

Devotional – Romans 6.8

Devotional:

Romans 6.8

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

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Starting Friday afternoon, I will gather with thousands of United Methodists from all over the Virginia Conference. This is our annual meeting to discuss current challenges facing the church, celebrate the ordination of new pastors, and grow in our faith and love of God. Holy Conferencing sits at the foundation of what it means to be part of the UMC and traces back to the time of John Wesley.

To be perfectly honest, Annual Conference has its ups and downs. There is nothing quite like the Service of Ordination that will take place on Saturday evening; ordinands will kneel before the Bishop and take the vows of serving our church will all that they have and we will sing those great and familiar hymns as we pray over these new ministers and their churches. The episcopal address, made by our Bishop, seeks to encourage the lay and clergy leaders of our conference while at the same time faithfully address the concerns and challenges of the future.

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But there will come a time when the Annual Conference will descend into petty arguments, oversimplified generalizations, and frustrated ramblings. We will be asked to vote on resolutions regarding a wide-variety of issues facing the church including the possibility of changing the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. The roller-coaster of Annual Conference will move up and down and many of us will have our faith restored in the church, only to have it completely erased after a few arguments break out.

As I reflect back on the previous Annual Conferences I have attended, and prepare for this coming weekend, I wonder if our Holy Conferencing is more about us, or more about Jesus. We need to ask ourselves why we gather in the first place: Are we here to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate one another on a productive year in ministry? Or are we here to learn more about God, nourish ourselves through worship, and find renewed energy to be Christ’s body for the world as we return to our churches?

Sometimes, things must be crucified in order for resurrection to take place. We have to be prepared to let something die and end so that we can find new life and discover new opportunities for our great church to be what God has called us to be. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Annual Conference is a perfect opportunity to remember that all of this (the church, ministry, serving the community) is not about me but its about God. If we let our old selves die and put on Christ we will be able to faithfully participate in a weekend dedicated to the renewal of our church. However, if we continue to talk and act as if Jesus isn’t in the room with us we will fail to grow and be fruitful for the world around us.

So, as you prepare to enter a new week I challenge you to confront the areas of your life where Christ is not at the forefront of your being. How are you still holding onto the old self? How can you let a part of your life be crucified so that something new and beautiful and wonderful can be resurrected?

Let God Speak – Sermon on Genesis 1.1-5

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In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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I was sitting in a room full of pastors and priests when I made a promise to myself: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1. Today is the day that I make good on that promise.

I had been helping a church in Bryson City, North Carolina when I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group. Every Monday morning the clergy people of Bryson City would get together to talk about the readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large local Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading the scriptures and share what we thought we would preach about.

Without a doubt, this was one of the most profoundly rewarding experiences of my life. Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

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It came to pass that one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by pastors as we read the texts out loud. The lectionary always has four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the text during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “Is anyone preaching on Genesis 1 this week?” The silence remained. I remember thinking “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was clear that some of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading but I felt compelled to ask another question, “Have any of you ever preached on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever delivered a sermon on the beginning of Genesis.

Now I know that they quickly propelled the conversation in another direction but I silently began calculating from my chair. In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever proclaimed the beauty of God’s creation from Genesis.

So I made a promise to myself that very morning: Before I finish my first year of ministry I will preach on Genesis 1.

Why do you think they chose to ignore Genesis 1? What makes this text so unappealing to proclaim in church?

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The main thrust of the text is contained within these first words: In the beginning God. Here we discover our faith in the foundation of all life, that God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This profoundly simple yet unimaginable claim is the bedrock for everything that follows throughout the rest of the Bible. God and his creation are connected powerfully together for all time.

How does God bind creation together? The text is clear: In the beginning the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Notice: with this description of creation we need to see that this text is NOT a scientific description, but instead a theological affirmation. It has been urged for centuries that Genesis 1 is a historically analytical account of what “actually happened.” But that kind of scientific, descriptive, and forever definitive reporting is foreign to the text and to the world of the Bible.

God’s Word is not a textbook. The bonding of creation cannot be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed.

Many who have struggled with their faith want to know the answer to “how?” But, when reading from Genesis, we discover that the convictions expressed in the scripture did not come from sight, recordings, and measurements. Whoever wrote about the creation in Genesis 1 was not standing by when God created. Our Lord is not an object to be perceived and measured like other objects in the world. It is by faith that we affirm this creation, not because we saw it and observed it and measured it, but that our lives and relationships with God affirm that goodness and interconnectedness of our lives with the God who created life.

Perhaps the pastors reluctance toward preaching this text was born out of the fear that comes with reconciling Genesis 1 with scientific claims about the beginning of the universe. Maybe they ignored this text because they were unsure how to explain the way God created. However, the job of preaching is not to explain, but to proclaim

At the heart of Genesis 1 is mystery, and sometimes mysteries cannot be explained. Yet, in proclaiming the mystery, in faithfully acknowledging the text, we can have our eyes and ears opened to the great question not of “how?”, but of “why did God create?”

The words ‘create’ and ‘make’ are used prevalently here in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth, God made the dome and separated the waters, God created the creatures in the water and the birds of every kind, God made the wild animals of earth, God created humankind in the image of God, etc. The actions are important but the dominant mode of creation takes place in speech. God spoke creation into existence. The way of God with his world is the way of language. God speaks something new that never was before. God is the author and orator of life.

God speaking life into existence cannot be explained by the ways of the world, yet we are all here because God spoke life into all of us. Genesis 1 makes the great and wonderful theological claim that a new word has been spoken that transforms reality. The word of the Lord that shaped creation is an action which alters reality forever.

God created all things through God’s word, and his creation did not stop with the creation of humankind. God continues to speak new words into existence every single moment. Every infant child is a word spoken by God, every new blooming flower, every river that flows, every sun rise and sunset are caught up in God’s continued commitment to speak to us, through us, and for us.

God is always speaking something new and fresh into the world, we need only stop and listen to let God speak.

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276 years ago yesterday, John Wesley’s life was changed forever. Wesley spent most of his young life believing that nothing could save him from God’s wrath other than strict obedience and keeping all of God’s commandments constantly. He read voraciously, served unconditionally, loved immeasurably, and somehow he never felt or experienced God’s love in his own life. He traveled to the British colony of Georgia to serve the needs of the Anglican church and wrote about his experience later saying that after two years of spreading Christianity he still was no closer to discovering the love of God. He wrote: “Why that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God?”

When Wesley returned to England he was no closer to finding what he had been searching for. He continued to fill his life to the brim with service and preaching to the point that he shut out any other influence.

However, on May 24th, 1738 Wesley unwillingly attend a Moravian society meeting in the evening when Martin Luther’s preface to the letter of Romans was being read. While the reader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. He experienced for the first time a trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. An assurance was given to Wesley that Christ had taken away his sins and saved him from death.

Wesley had a difficult time explaining exactly was happened to him that day; it was beyond his ability to describe in such a way that it could be measured and known. But to him, it was as real as life could get. From that moment everything changed in his life and his commitment to the love of God in the world was the seed that blossomed into what we now call the United Methodist Church.

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When I was in Boy Scouts I had the opportunity to hike throughout northern New Mexico at a place called Philmont. Toward the end of our 100 mile hiking adventure we gathered one evening in a white pine forrest near the top of Mount Phillips. We spread apart to spend time in silence to reflect on our time in the wilderness. As I sat there with the wind blowing the grass I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and wonder of God’s creation. I had already witnessed perfect sunsets and flowing rivers, but for whatever reason that night was the first time that I began to witness the depth of God’s love through his creation. 

Like Wesley, I believe that I was opened to the wonder of God because I had finally stopped trying to fill my life with so many other distractions. It was only when I stopped to let God speak, that I heard God’s calling of creation.

We can fill our lives with distractions and information. We can read all the magazines and books that explain how God created the world, whether in seven literal days or in seven ages of time. We can listen to pastors and preachers explain away the creation of life with simple metaphors and memorable one liners. But the truth of God’s creation can only be discovered in letting God speak.

Creation was not a one time, one moment, event. Creation continues to take place every moment of every day. God’s word is alive and filling all things with glory around us.

In the beginning, God. Can you think of anything more comforting than the fact that God has been at the beginning of all things? Not just the creation of life, but God was there when you came into being, God sits at the very beginning of each and every one of us. At the inception of every relationship, every idea, every belief, every smile, and every laugh God is there.

God is, and because God is, we are.

It took me a long time to learn to let God speak. And frankly, I’m still not very good at it. But until I began to try to quiet myself, to learn to listen, God’s Word was limited to words on paper. Creation came alive for me when I stopped long enough to realize that God’s love for us, in creation, is beyond my ability to fully grasp, comprehend, or explain. There is an immeasurable beauty in standing before something that you cannot fully know. There is wonder in letting God speak something new and fresh into your life. There is peace that comes in hearing the Word become incarnate in the way we live.

Genesis 1 is powerful and beautiful. It is strange and unknowable. It conveys the depth of God’s love in a way that we can never explain. It refuses to be compartmentalized, rationalized, and sterilized. Instead, its delightfully mysterious, curious, and glorious.

In the beginning God spoke life into creation, and God continues to do so every moment.

Amen.