Know Thy Vocation

Proverbs 10.4

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 

When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.

They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.

I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”

The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.

After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices: 

1. Public Speaker

2. High School English Teacher

3. Politician

We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter. 

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I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.

Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.

When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect. 

When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?

During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised. 

All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.

It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.

Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.

Everything about the story is wrong. 

We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.

Talk about being surprised.

But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.

Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.

And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”

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Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can. 

That’s not what they expected him to say. 

Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”

Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things. 

But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.

When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.

The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.

Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God. 

God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.

When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives. 

  His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…

Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.

Do not sleep or yawn over your work.

Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.

Spare no pains.

Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.

Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.

Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus. 

And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.

There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.

Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.

The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.

Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.

In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself. 

Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom. 

Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift. 

And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.

We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us. 

And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around. 

Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross. 

God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen. 

The One Thing Needful

Proverbs 3.13-14

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 

This is not a sermon I wanted to write, nor is it one I wanted to preach. 

I’ve been doing this pastor thing for a good while now and, full disclosure, I’ve only preached from Proverbs once and it wasn’t very good. Proverbs is one of those overlooked and forgotten books in the Bible filled with nothing but short and brief aphorisms that sound like something your great-uncle muttered under his breath while getting his third helping of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

“Listen to your father’s instruction; don’t neglect your mother’s teaching.”

“Listen to me and do not deviate from the words of my mouth.”

“Happy are those who keep to my ways!”

“If you stop listening to discipline, you will wander away from words of wisdom.”

That’s all in Proverbs.

And they’re good and fine. There are plenty of times that I’d like to just look someone in the eye and say, “If you would just do what I’m telling you to do, you’d be fine.” But that’s not really the way it works.

And then we lift up this collection of sayings from the middle of the Bible and assume they can speak something new and fresh into our lives about what it means to be followers of Jesus.

I was heard someone describe Proverbs like this: “Reading from the Book of Proverbs is like being stuck on a long road trip with no one but your mother-in-law.”

The Word of God for the People of God all right.

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.

Years ago, when I was in my first month of ministry, hot off the heels of receiving my degree, soon after arriving at my first church, I reached out to a number of other clergy people in my community. I figured, at the time, I was only 25 years old and I could use all the advice and wisdom and help I could get, and why not receive some of it from those who had been doing it as long as I had been alive.

So I drove around town and started knocking on the doors of the churches. I spoke with pastor after pastor and invited them to join me for breakfast the following week. Nothing more, less, or else. And sure enough, the next week I found myself sitting around a table with 7 other pastors, representing a variety of denominations.

At first we exchanged pleasantries, we talked about seminaries and recent sermons, I learned about different ordination procedures and different clergy robes. And eventually I got to ask the question resting most on my heart: “I am about to embark upon a lifetime of ministry and I want to know what advice you would offered to yourselves when you were my age if you could go back in time. If you could go back, what would you say?”

For a while none of them said anything. They scratched beards, and twirled hair, they furrowed brows and considered the ceiling. And then one of them said, “If I could go back and tell myself anything it would be this: start saving money.”

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And immediately the entire table erupted in affirmation exclaiming they all agreed with that pastor’s advice.

Maybe it was my naiveté in the moment but I assumed they would have offered me wisdom about what book from the Bible to avoid, or how to properly pray for those who were sick, or even what kind of hymns to sing at particular moments. But I was wrong. This ragtag group of pastors had only one piece of sage-like wisdom they wanted to offer: Start saving money.

I’m fairly certain that if any of us here were to encounter a genie in this life, one (if not all) of our wishes would be for more money, for gold or silver. And there’s good reason for that – economic prosperity is at the heart of the American Dream, it’s what motivates us to wake up early every morning to go to jobs we don’t really care about, it’s what keeps us awake at night as we worry about having enough of it. 

It is so dominating in fact, that I read an article recently that claimed a significant portion of younger people in this country associate George Washington first with being on the one dollar bill and only secondarily with being the first President of the United States.

I mean, for crying out loud, my three year old has a piggy bank in our house and he LOVES to put coins in it. What in the world is he going to do with 78 cents?

Money is at the heart of just about everything we do. 

On any given week we will receive upwards of 40 calls here at the church from people in our local community who are looking for only one thing: money.

I’ve counseled couples who brought unfathomable amounts of debt into the marriage without telling the other person and now they are fighting about one thing: money.

I’ve prayed with more people than I can count who have racked up so much credit card debt that they have to start making decisions about what pills and doctors they can afford all because of one thing: money. 

And then scripture has the gall to tell us that wisdom and knowledge are far greater than any measurement of wealth in this life.

Now, that’s not to say that money or wealth are inherently bad. However, the love of money really is at the root of evil and those to whom much is given, much will be expected. So, you know, be careful what you wish for. 

Which makes the Biblical witness all the more interesting because Jesus has a whole lot to say about money and its almost always bad. Which is not at all how we talk about it today. Money and Finances and Economics are all things that dominate our daily living and they are, at the same time, all but absent in church. Sure, I might stand up here week after week asking for you to consider offering more of your wealth to church, but other than that, it’s almost like we pretend money doesn’t exist when we’re in this place.

This might sounds like we’re in an unprecedented place, but we’re not really. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that eventually led to a church like this, was deeply concerned with the theology of money and what it meant for Christians to consider economic gains. 

The 18th century was a time of major economic and social change in England. The economic inequality between the comfortably wealthy and the poverty-stricken lower classes was growing larger and more tenuous. The well to do had nothing to worry about the poor had nothing but worries. The political class was dictating all of the rules and all of the power dynamics while the rest of the people were just worried about how they were going to make it to next week.

Sound familiar?

And then the very first Methodists started popping up with this crazy proclamation about God’s grace being sufficient to upend and reorient one’s life. John Wesley himself practiced a number of methodical disciplines (which is where the name Methodist came from) and he taught those who were economically desperate about what it would look like to become more responsible, better educated, and eventually prosperous. 

And it worked, so much so that John Wesley inevitably had to preach a sermon specifically about money in order to help the people called Methodist figure out what it would mean to be a people who lived under the rule of God in a world ruled by money.

He said that the right use of money is an excellent branch of Christian wisdom. It grieved him that money was a subject talked about in the world all the time, but not discussed by those whom God had called. 

And yet there are times we discuss money in church, but when we do it is almost under the auspices of another fundraiser, or helping the church meet her budget. However, for Wesley, this was not the case. His concern was not to raise more money for Methodists, but to equip the people called Methodists to manage and use their money in fruitful and effective ways. 

Wesley broke it down as simply as a Proverb: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. 

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If, Wesley said, if we can adopt a three-fold approach to money by gaining, saving, and giving we then will approach a Godly and faithful way of handling our finances. 

Which is an ominous and precarious place to be in the middle of a sermon. I mean, when was the last time you heard a preacher talk about money by first saying that you, the people, need to gain all you can? Doesn’t that go against the parable of the man who gained and gained so much that he had to build extra store houses for all his grain only to have it all taken away from him in the middle of the night?

This is a three-fold call but you cannot have one without the others. Earning all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not saved. And saving all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not given. And giving it all will mean nothing if you haven’t earned anything to give in the first place.

In order to approach and adopt this kind of theological discipline, we need wisdom more than anything else.

And where does wisdom come from?

Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but Wisdom will, more often than not, show up when we least expect it in our daily lives. Wisdom appears in the busy streets, in the public squares, and in the bustling intersections. Wisdom arrives in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance. And, very rarely, wisdom can even come in a sermon.

As I look back on that moment in the earliest days of my ministry, when those pastors told me the greatest piece of advice was to save money, I am grateful for their witness as I started saving from my very first paycheck, but I’ve also thought a lot about what wisdom in the church really looks like. Sure, a good piece of Wesleyan wisdom is to earn all you can, and save all you can, and give all you can. But wisdom is about more than just what we do with our money!

Wisdom is knowing what really matters in this life. Wisdom is someone thirty years ago looking out on our community and saying, “I think we need to start a weekly Flea Market.”

Wisdom is taking stock of our own life and our own gifts and starting to consider how we might use those things to better the lives of other people.

Wisdom is knowing that despite what the cultural narrative tells us, we cannot lift ourselves by our bootstraps because we have all been blessed because someone else chose to help lift us up.

Wisdom is being able to look at the situations of our life and knowing when to stay and when to leave.

Wisdom is believing that no matter how many mistakes we make and how many sins we commit that God will never ever abandon us.

Wisdom, ultimately, is not something we arrive at on our own. Wisdom is a gift from God. Much like the gift of God’s Son. It comes to a people undeserving, in strange ways both seen and unseen. It can completely upend our lives in ways we care scarily imagine. But in the end, its the only thing that really makes a difference. 

Wisdom, much like Jesus, is the only thing we really need. Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Weekly Devotional Image

I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

Devotional – Romans 13.10

Devotional:

Romans 13.10

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Saturday evening I will stand in front of Alex Chatfield and Brianna Gays in order to join them together in what we call “holy matrimony.” Months of planning will come to fruition in their wedding vows as they stare lovingly and longingly into one another’s eyes in front of friends, family, and the Lord. And I will have the best seat in the house (though I won’t be sitting and it won’t be inside) because I have the privilege of asking for God’s help to bless and sustain their marriage.

I have known Brianna longer than just about anyone else in my life. Her father and my father went to high school together and Brianna and I were basically raised as siblings. When she was on the homecoming court at a different High School (my school’s rival), I went to support her. When I was ordained, her family was there to worship with the entire Annual Conference. Countless birthday parties, and gatherings, and family vacations have solidified a friendship that really makes us feel like brother and sister.

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And on Saturday I get to challenge and charge her with a task far greater than anything she has experienced up to this point in her life; I will require and charge her (and Alex) to love one another knowing full and well that they are each marrying the wrong person.

Now to be clear: they are not marrying the wrong person because there’s something wrong with their relationship. They are each marrying the wrong person because they (and we) never really know another person in such a way that we can call a marriage “right.” They will promise to love and to cherish one another without knowing what their lives will look like in five years, or even what they will look like in five years. And they will do all of this under the auspices of “love.”

But what is love? Or, at the very least, what is the kind of love that sustains something like a marriage? Is love about attraction and aesthetics? Is love about commitment and loyalty? What is love?

Love, like marriage, is a mystery.

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Paul writes a lot about love, and more often than not the “love” Paul talks about has nothing to do with the Hallmark version of love that most of us are familiar with. Love, according to Paul, does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, according to Paul, is the fulfilling of the law.

What Alex and Brianna will promise to one another on Saturday night is really no different than what all Christians promise one another. As Christians we make covenants (through baptism) to love one another knowing full and well that we don’t really know one another.

And I believe that Alex and Brianna can, and will, do so faithfully, just as Christians can, not because of any power on their own part, but because God empowers them and us to do some wonderful and strange and remarkable things in this life; like getting married, like having lasting friendship, and like doing no wrong to our neighbors.

On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

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.

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

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In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 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.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

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The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.

How Can We Be Biblically Wise?

1 Kings 3.5-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

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This morning we conclude our sermon series on Questions. After polling most of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we have strived during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we finish with “How Can We Be Biblically Wise?”

 

 

Three men were trapped on a deserted island. During the months of their stranded captivity they learned to rely on one another for survival. Without entertainment, they told each other stories and grew very close together. Each day one of them was responsible for making minor repairs to their shelter, one was tasked with scavenging for food, and the last one had to comb the beaches for anything helpful that might’ve washed up.

One particularly beautiful morning, the third man was walking along the beach when he discovered a strangely colored bottle sticking up in the sand. He quickly procured it with his other discoveries and brought them all back to the shelter. Later that night, while they were looking through all the goodies from the beach, one of the men accidently rubbed the bottle and a genie popped right out!

Because there were three men present, the genie explained that he could grant each of them one wish, rather than giving each of them three wishes. The first man wasted no time and declared, “I miss my family and I wish that I could be back with them!” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The second man thought for a moment and said, “You know, I was engaged before I got trapped on this island, I wish I was back with my fiancé.” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The third man was now alone with the genie and he thought long and hard about his wish. After all, it’s not like you run into a genie everyday. So he stood there with the genie thinking about all of the things he could wish for when he causally said, “Geez, I wish my friends were back here to help me make my wish.”

Be careful what you wish for…

Solomon was young, inexperienced, and about to rule the kingdom when God showed up in one of his dreams. Almost like a genie, the Lord asks Solomon to make a wish. And, like a preacher in a bad sermon, Solomon over-explains his wish: “God, you were great and loving to my father David because he walked before you in faithfulness, righteousness, and in uprightness of heart. Throughout his years you kept your great and steadfast love for him, and now you have given him a son to sit on his throne; you gave him me. But God, I am only a little child, and I don’t know the first thing about taking care of others. I am in the midst of the people you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. So Lord, if I can ask for anything, give me an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between what is good and what is evil. Give me wisdom.

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It pleased the Lord to hear Solomon wish for wisdom. God then replied to Solomon in his dream: “Solomon, because you have asked for wisdom, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked to be able to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed, I will give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been for you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Of all the things Solomon could’ve requested: wealth, prosperity, and military victory… He chose wisdom. As a young ruler of God’s chosen people he selflessly asked for the knowledge to lead God’s people in the ways that lead to life.

Godly wisdom, or biblical wisdom, pleases the Lord when it is not self-serving, but other serving. Solomon’s desire for wisdom, because it was for the betterment of others, is what inclined the Lord to dispense it generously. It is in our willingness to use wisdom for others that we begin to experience God’s grace in the world around us.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons and he captivated anyone with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some food. He found a no name diner in the middle of a town and made his way in for breakfast. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While he was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook turned around and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

The black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, paid, and left. But right before he was about to get back in his car, in that still and quiet morning moment, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

Are any of you feeling chills? Some of us will immediately understand the significance of this moment: Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry mere feet away from him, realized that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion. But some of us did not catch the meaning; we did not have an emotional response to the conclusion of Craddock’s little narrative. If we missed the power of the rooster crowing in the distance, it is because we are unfamiliar with the ways God works in the world.

I had a number of you request, for this sermon series, that I preach about biblical wisdom. I can summarize the whole answer to the question in one sentence: “How can we be biblically wise?” “By reading our bibles!”

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If Craddock was not as familiar with scripture as he was, he easily could’ve entered his car after hearing the rooster crow, and would have missed the power of what God was trying to communicate to him. God used a particular moments to speak large and powerful words to Craddock and God does the same thing in our lives. But if we are not familiar with the ways God has communicated in the past, then we will probably miss the ways God is trying to speak to us right now.

To be biblically wise implies a willingness to bring our souls into alignment with God’s ways. Yet we, as broken and flawed people, have a propensity to become out of alignment with God’s ways. To reorient ourselves, to turn back to the ways of God, we do so by reading scripture.

If we’re here in this sanctuary then we are already on the right path. It was only a few minutes ago that God’s Word was read to us in this place. By taking the time to listen to scripture in a sanctuary we are taking the first steps down the path that will bring us back to the kind of wisdom God desires for us.

But just coming to church is not enough.

We can do some incredible things in this space on Sunday morning, we can re-enter the strange new world of the bible, we can see ourselves in the biblical characters of the past, we can learn about how God uses things like roosters to shock us in the midst of our lives, but it is not enough.

One of the things that Christian people do, is read the bible. The bible is completely unlike any other book that we might read. Any of us can pick up a piece of literature and say, “This is a nice story.” However, the bible is not “a story’, it is “our story”. Our lives began with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Our history goes back to the very beginning. When we read these stories, whether in church or in our daily lives, these stories are about our family.

A strange thing happens when we start reading our bibles and to see them as the living Word of God. When we get to the point where we can let the Holy Spirit bring us inside scripture we begin to really recognize it as our story. Suddenly all of these bizarre and exciting figures from the past look us in the eyes and we recognize our own reflections. We begin to see that we are like them and they are like us.

God is speaking to us all the time. Though not necessarily as the big booming voice we often see portrayed in movies and stories. God uses things like people, scripture, and even roosters to speak the truth into our lives. We can listen all we want, but until we are willing to become a people of the book, then God’s words will fall on deaf ears.

If we want to be biblically wise, we have to read our bibles. Amen.

 

O To Be Wise – Sermon on Proverbs 1.20-33

Proverbs 1.20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity come like a whirlwind, when distress and anger come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, there they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

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Wisdom is standing on the street corner shouting at anyone within distance. In all the town squares she is that preacher standing on a box yelling at the crowds to repent from their ways. At the entrance of the largest cities she is the one holding up the signs about our idiocy and the power of God’s wrath. She is all the preachers, prophets, and teachers that weep in sadness that their words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is frightening and demanding.

How long, all you simple minded people in this congregation, how long will you love to remain being so simple in your thoughts and reflections? How long will you enjoy scoffing at the events in your life and hate the knowledge that is given to you in scripture and in church?

Listen to Wisdom right now, because she is pouring out all her thoughts to you and making all of her words known in this place.

Yet, she has called and called, she has screamed and screamed, and none of us have listened. We ignored her words and demands, and now she laughs at our suffering and at us. She will relish in the calamities that come like a whirlwind, she will delight in our frustration and anger. She knows that when we are at the end of our ropes, when we have nowhere else to turn, that we will turn back to her, but it will be too late.

Because we have so consistently hated knowledge and did not fear the Lord, we will eat the fruit of our way, and be sated with our own devices.

Wisdom cries out from the streets, yells at us in our cars and in our pews: “Waywardness kills the simple, and our complacency as fools will be our undoing. But whoever listens to Wisdom will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? When you heard me rambling up here about Wisdom’s disposition, did you squirm in your pews? This is one tough scripture precisely because Wisdom does not mince her words and comes with a clear and stern warning. We can continue in our stupidity that leads to suffering, or we can listen to Wisdom and live in peace.

For a long time, the book of Proverbs has been marginalized and forgotten in contemporary American Christianity. Similarly the church might confess that our wisdom has suffered a similar fate in culture. Many of us no longer read our bibles, we no longer know what it means to pray, and we live in fear rather than in hope.

But are we really at fault? The church has not done the best job of equipping Christians for the work of discipleship, and the world is full of other options for Wisdom. We are constantly overwhelmed with choices and advice. For instance: The front of our church right now is filled with most of the books that I was assigned to read in seminary. You can read about what it means to do church, you can read books about preaching and teaching, you can read about suffering and temptation, but none of those books taught me the true wisdom of what it means to be a pastor.

Any of us can read about the importance of praying for our enemies in scripture, but the words cannot possibly prepare us for the moment when someone grabs us by the hands and actually asks us to pray for them.

Any of us can turn on the news, or search online to hear about the refugee/migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, but all we hear and learn means very little unless we ourselves are forced to flee our home in hopes that someone else will welcome us in.

So it’s not so much that we have not been given the chance to learn and become wise, but because there are so many options out there, we run the risk of feeling like we just walked into at an all-you-can-eat-buffet prepared for people who ate before they arrived.

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Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but lady Wisdom will more often show up in the places where we live our lives. She shows up in the busy streets, in the public squares, and at the bustling intersections. Wisdom appears in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance, and in the quick responses of our children.

On Wednesday night St. John’s hosted the first meeting of “The Circle.” It was designed as a space where the youth of the church can feel comfortable sharing reflections on their own discipleship and partake in communion with one another. Our first meeting went pretty well, the conversation flowed naturally, and I was incredibly impressed by the youth’s ability to convey how Jesus is real for them.

But toward the end of the meeting, I saw the youth really come alive. We were sitting around the table with our bibles opened to Proverbs 1.20-33. We read together about Wisdom yelling out from the streets and then I asked them to share pieces of advice they wished they could tell their parents without fear of getting in trouble.

Up to that point I thought all the youth were really enjoying The Circle, but with one question about advice for their parents, they all became animated and had more advice than I could possibly write down. We went back and forth for at least fifteen minutes before we were able to agree on a solid list that everyone agreed on and, in the true spirit of Wisdom, I am now going to share the list with all of you.

Disclaimer: Parents, your children were vulnerably honest about their responses and they knew I would be sharing them in church. I will not tell you who said what, but listen carefully, because the advice might be for you…

I wish my parents knew that nobody is perfect.

            I wish my parents knew that is not worth it to takes things so seriously all the time.

            I wish my parents knew that they could trust me; after all, I trust them.

           I wish my parents knew how much it hurts when they interrupt me.

            I wish my parents knew that patience is still a virtue, even when you’re old.

            I wish my parents knew that I am smarter than they think I am.

            I wish my parents knew that if they tell me “not to have an attitude,” I am DEFINITELY going to have an attitude.

            I wish my parents knew that I love them, but sometimes I don’t love their cooking.

Wisdom is a tough pill to swallow. But even as difficult as it is to hear Wisdom speak to us this way, whether it be the dreadful warnings in scripture or the advice from our children, it is difficult to argue with her warnings. The advice the youth offered was so profound that it not only applies to parents but to all people. We could read about how we are supposed to behave as rational human beings, but having a youth tells us that patience is a virtue, and to remember that nobody is perfect actually affects us in all the right ways.

It shocks us to hear something so right from someone we least expect. It bewilders us to hear Wisdom crying out in the streets when we would otherwise like to ignore her.

To walk in the way of Wisdom is incredibly demanding. We cannot claim to be wise by reading a lot of books and watching a lot of television, true wisdom requires us to act and move in the world.

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When Wisdom cries out, when we hear about what our children wish they could say to us, it hurts (or at least cuts deep), but it makes sense. When we forget about who we are and whose we are, when we forget about the ways of God built on love, we often get ourselves in terrible predicaments. We say things without thinking, we act without conscience, and we believe we are smarter than the people around us.

I regularly discover wisdom in the people from this church who listen for the still small voice of God while the world is screaming and spinning. I will be in my office after a difficult phone call, or standing outside shaking hands following worship, or walking through the grocery store, when one of you will come up to me and say something that just reorients my entire being. Something like: “Remember God loves you too

Wisdom is all around us, particularly in the people in the pews next to us, calling to us to start behaving like God wants us to. Because Wisdom is finally approachable and possible as we participate in the practices of God, who is Wisdom. We start to see and hear the Wisdom around us as we search for ways to love like God, listen like God, and even laugh like God, in the complicated and ordinary places of life.

I experienced the depth of Wisdom this week when our youth spoke far beyond their ages and dropped some important knowledge on me. In them I experienced a power greater than my own, and realized that if I gave up my false assumption that I was greater than, or wiser than, those youth, I would start to recognize the true wisdom around me and actually listen.

Where do you hear Wisdom? Do you hear her in the scriptures you read? Do you find her in the worship services at St. John’s? Have you seen her shouting through a parent or a spouse or a child? Does she make you uncomfortable when she shows up?

Wisdom speaks to us all the time; we only need the patience to hear her, and the strength to respond. Amen.