This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Fleming Rutledge, figuration, bad news, righteous justice, creative imagery, true laughter, upending Advent, praying online, homiletical grammar, and bearing witness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Repeat The Sounding Joy
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I’ve been doing some thinking, which is a dangerous thing these days…
Things are pretty messed up right now. People are lobbing destructive claims about other people in their communities simply because of the color of their skin or their political affiliation. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the violence they might experience. Great sums of people are making their way through life day after day without any hope of a better future.
We, as a people, are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. We worship our bank accounts. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.
We, as a people, spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on all of the programs of social uplift combined. This is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.
We, as a people, perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of ever 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.
We, as a people, enable gross injustices each and every day: racial, economic, gendered, and social injustices. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
Something has to change.
How are you feeling right now having read those words? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are planning to go out and do something about them? Or are you clenching your fists in anger because you feel like I’ve criticized our country and culture?
Most of what I just wrote did not come from me, but from another preacher, one who was responsible for many of us not having to go to work yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say that like what I wrote that he was murdered.
When we think about Dr. King or even when we learned about him in school, he is often white-washed and whittled down to the “I Have A Dream Speech.” But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote, or one speech, or even one issue.
All of what we do as a church was handed down to us by those who came before us. The same was true for Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which gave him the confidence to say and believe that God could make the impossible possible.
He, more than most, prayed for his words and his meditations to be worthy of the One who hung on the hard wood of the cross for people like us.
When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us!
Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered.
Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.
One of the hardest prayers to pray is one that’s even harder to live out. Because if we really want our words and meditations to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord they might lead us toward the valley of the shadow of death. But what is resurrection if not a promise that death is not the end?
1 John 5.9-13
If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
We all sat uncomfortably in the sanctuary on a Sunday evening listening to our youth director wax lyrical about the importance of witnessing. I can remember shifting around in the wooden pew while struggling to figure out what in the world she was talking about.
Witnessing? When I heard the word my mind immediately jumped to the “DUM DUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM” found at the beginning of every Law & Order episode. Witnessing, to me, sounded like what you did when you saw something terrible happen.
So we listened and listened until she announced that it was time for us to share our testimonies. And testimony was another word that, to me, sounded more relevant in a courtroom than in a sanctuary. But she slowly pulled out a microphone plugged into the sound system, backed away, and waited for one of us to testify.
In many churches, testimony occupies a powerful place in worship. Preachers and lay people will tell others about how God has changed their lives.
But for a privileged group of young high school students, our time of testimony sounded a little more like this:
“A few weeks ago, I was really worried about passing a test that I didn’t study for, so I asked for God to help, and like, I actually passed.”
“I remember really wanting a new baseball bat when I was younger, and I guess God had something to do with it when I opened one on Christmas morning.”
One by one we listened to these rather trite and cliché renditions of all that God had done for us. And after each person finished, the microphone stood there before us waiting for the next witness.
The last person to go was a girl in my grade who usually remained totally silent during youth group. She participated with the minimal amount of effort, and kept coming back every week even though it looked like she hated it. She slowly made her way forward and then very quietly said into the microphone: “I don’t really know what to say, except that I don’t really have any friends. But being here, with you, talking about God, it makes me feel like maybe I could have friends.”
To this day, I can remember seeing the solitary tear running down her cheek, and I can remember the silence in the sanctuary after having actually experienced a testimony.
Testimonies, at least as they are experienced in church, are those times when we are given the opportunity to name and claim what God has done for us. And, of course, some will always experience God through a good grade, or a wonderful sunny afternoon, or a perfect Christmas present. But real testimonies, the whole truth that points to God’s wonder in the world, are based on the location and experience of marginality. Proclaiming the truth as we see it functions as a catharsis and healing for those sharing, and those receiving. In testimony we share our burdens together.
I knew relatively nothing about that girl in my youth group prior to that night. We had gone to elementary school, and middle school, and even high school together, but it was only on the other side of her three-sentence witness that I actually took the time to get to know her.
I learned about her struggles at school and the bullying she experienced. I learned about medical problems, and high anxiety. I learned all sorts of things because she took the first step in proclaiming the whole truth of her life.
In greek, the word for witness is MARTYRIA, its where we get the word for martyr. Christians bearing witness to their faith have often suffered for doing so. Because they are willing to point toward God as the source of their being, they have been punished and even killed. And so, today, we say things like “There’s a war on Christianity!” In other places in the world this is undoubtedly true, but here in America it is not. So much of what Christianity has become is made to feel normative for the rest of our culture. Few of us, if any of us, will ever be persecuted for our faith.
That’s not the kind of witness, the kind of testimony, that John talks about. The witness John talks about is the kind that could change everything about everything.
It requires a vulnerability that leaves most of us frightened.
Today is Mother’s Day, which to be honest, is one of my least favorite Sundays in the year. Don’t get me wrong though, I love mothers. I love my mom, I love my mother in law, I love my wife who is the mother of our son. But many of us forget that motherhood is not normative for all women. Just as Christianity is not normative for everybody in Woodbridge.
I can’t tell you the number of women who have told me about the pain they’ve experienced in churches on Mother’s Day. Women without husbands or children are implicitly, and even sometimes explicitly, made to feel less than whole because of not being a mother… in church! And, because it can be so uncomfortable, they usually don’t tell anyone about how it makes them feel. Instead, this is just a Sunday they avoid church.
It is difficult for them to bear witness to how they have been made to feel, it is hard to testify to the truth of their experience, because it is often disregarded. In a world and culture ruled by heterosexual white males, anything other than that paradigm is often made to feel less than worthy.
That is why testimony, true testimony, comes from the margins of life, from those often made to feel less than. That is where the true power of God’s grace is made manifest. It is good and right for us to listen to those from the periphery of life (basically to people unlike me!), because they are connected with God in a way that is closer to the incarnation than we often realize.
The testimony of God is Jesus Christ. In order for God to bear witness, in order for the divine to speak the whole truth about reality, God became flesh in Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation that is the testimony of God.
God bears witness; God tells the whole truth. In the people Israel God spoke toward the wonder of a people banding together for a different way of life. From the covenant with Abraham to the declarations of Moses to the anointing of David – God witnessed to the whole truth of divine power.
And the history of God’s witness culminates in the testimony of and to the Son – Jesus the Christ. All along the way God places the divine witness alongside human witness, it is why we still stand and share our stories of God even today. This is only possible because of God’s willingness to be humbled and made low.
Sometimes we drop the word “incarnation” without confronting its stark and bewildering truth – God is humbled to the point of joining humanity – the Son journeys to us from the far country and becomes one of us. There is nothing quite so profound and disturbing as knowing that God, all mighty and all powerful, saw fit to take on flesh and dwell among us.
The whole truth of the incarnation, the testimony of God, is made manifest in Jesus who drank the same dirty water, and walked the same dusty roads, and slept in the same fragile places as human witnesses. God came to the margins of reality, and lived among the margins in order to draw attention to the truth of the cosmos.
This is no message about being a better person, or tapping yourself on the shoulder for any number of good deeds. No, John beckons us through the sands of time to ponder the difficult truth of Jesus – Our God joined the condition of his creations – God became a creature.
And like all testimonies – all truths that encourage us to reconsider the world around us – it can be accepted or rejected. But God will not hold back, God does not withhold God’s self from dwelling among us, God does not withhold difficult and challenging words about the nature of reality, God does not refuse to speak to us.
God testifies! We know the story of God, we know God, because we know Jesus. Jesus is God’s witness in the flesh. Jesus, in fact, is the greatest witness in the midst of all other witnesses. And yet, in Jesus’ greatness we also discover the lowliness and the humiliation of God. We discover the great divine paradox that strength is found in weakness.
Jesus, the incarnation, the divine testimony, chose to drink our dirty water, and walk our dusty roads, and sleep in the same fragile places as us. Jesus chose to live and minister at the margins of life. The Son of God entered the far country of our existence – faced our greatest fears and experienced our greatest losses.
Jesus suffered and died.
And the Son of God brought to us eternal life.
The whole truth of God’s testimony is that God gives us eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is that simple, yet truly profound witness that gives us the power and the courage to speak our whole truth regardless of the consequences. It is what empowers a teenage girl to enter into the truth of her own suffering and express a yearning for friendship. It is what gives voice to too many women who are made to feel voiceless. It is present in all who speak from the margins of life, because in Jesus we discover that this life is not the end!
And it is this, the whole truth, which might be the most important thing you will ever hear; more important than any earthly human testimony. All of scripture, all of John’s words, all of Jesus’ life are offered to us so that we might know we have eternal life.
Because when we know, deep in our bones, that we have eternal life, we can begin to speak the whole truth into this world here and now, and everything can change.
When the young mother met the new preacher, she was skeptical, but she was a good Christian so she kept going to church every week. However, after a couple weeks of pretty terrible sermons, she decided to assemble her children on the porch on Sunday afternoons for their own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, and then she would come up with a sermon that connected with the text, and they would conclude with another psalm.
Word about the services began to spread through the local community and people started asking if they could attend. This went on for weeks until over two hundred were regularly gathering in her side yard, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.
The woman’s name was Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, and this happened in the early 1700s.
At the time women we largely forbidden from speaking in churches, or leading services, or even from reading. And nevertheless, she persisted. It was because of her rigorous commitment to education, and theology, that our church exists today.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ disciples made a great deal of trouble when they redefined what it meant to be a community of faith by including women – it upset the tradition of the time and it’s what got them persecuted. In fact, the first churches recorded in the New Testament met in homes, often overseen by women.
And so, it is in the great irony of this world, that women are often treated as less than whole, whether in the 1700s or today, and yet without them none of us, and none of this, would be here.
The whole truth of God’s grace is that power will always be found at the margins of life: God choses the low to bring down the mighty. God chooses the ordinary to make manifest the extraordinary. God came to us in Jesus, and everything about everything changed forever. Amen.
Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
During the Super Bowl on Sunday, there was a commercial for Dodge Ram trucks. The advertisement began in darkness, and then text appeared on the screen announcing that the following words were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. exactly fifty years ago to the day. The audio playback started, while the viewers witnessed a collage of pure Americana: construction workers, a student studying, a man doing push ups, and a cattle rancher all interposed with quick shots of a Dodge truck driving through mud. All the while you could hear Dr. King in the background saying these words:
“If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great … by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know [Einstein’s] theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
The recording was taken from one of Dr. King’s final sermons prior to his assassination. And, inexplicably, the advertisers failed to recognize, that part of King’s sermon [not quoted in the ad] was about the evils of advertising. Dr. King said:
“The presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers… you know those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. They have a way of saying things that get you in a bind: ‘In order to be a man of distinction you must drink this whisky’ ‘in order to make your neighbors envious you must drive this type of car’ ‘in order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume’ and before you know it your just buying this stuff… And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit.”
Even from beyond the grave, Dr. King will not remain silent about the injustices and tragedies of the world. His words are still a rallying cry for those who wish to see God’s vision made into a reality. But some, with untold power, continue to manipulate his words for their own gain.
The Psalmist says, “Our God comes and does not keep silence.” The Word from the Lord blasts forth from the pages of our bibles, like the words of Dr. King’s sermon, and they beckon us to open our eyes to the truth. We live in a world that is still terribly broken and in need of divine healing. The marginalized are being pushed even further into the margins while the powers and principalities rule with an iron fist.
God will not keep silence, and neither should we.
You can read more about the Dodge Ram Commercial controversy here: MLK Jr. Sermon Used In A Ram Trucks Super Bowl Commercial Draws Backlash.
1 Corinthians 8.9
But take care that this liberty of your does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
When I graduated from High School, my family put together a big party in the backyard and invited a ton of people. All of the usual suspects were in attendance: relatives, neighbors, and family friends. But my parents also extended a handful of invitations to my favorite teachers. And of all the teachers I had, my very favorite was my band director.
Mr. Rice was everything you could have wanted in a teacher. He was intelligent, funny, and easy to talk to. He made studying, and performing music, an absolute joy. Because of his commitment to his discipline, and his ability to lead and engage his students, some of my fondest memories from high school are of sitting in the band room playing music.
So I was in my parents’ backyard, celebrating my graduation from High School, when Mr. Rice walked around the corner. I remember the immense pride I felt in that moment, and not just for graduating, but also for the fact that he took the time to come celebrate with us.
As the afternoon wore on, people came and went, and Mr. Rice continued to mingle among the crowd, always keeping his right hand down by his side. He was someone who always spoke with both arms flying about (as if he were conducting) so it stood out that one arm remained unmoved. Finally, I had a chance to ask him about it and I noticed that he was holding a beer bottle, wrapped in five napkins, hidden down by his side. At first I thought he was hiding the drink because he was embarrassed, or worried it wasn’t allowed, and then I just decided to ask what the deal was. And I’ll never forget what he said: “I don’t want to become a stumbling block to others. Particularly my students.”
Mr. Rice was there to rejoice with us, but he was also cognizant of the role he was still playing regardless of the location and occasion. There were plenty of high school students in the backyard and he didn’t not want them to make some assumption that because he was drinking, that it would be okay for them to do so as well. Mr. Rice, even in the midst of a party, remembered who he was, and the impact he had on us.
To this day I give thanks to God for placing Mr. Rice into my life. I learned a lot from him, and not just about music. From his witness I learned about the virtues of kindness, hope, and patience. Through his leadership I learned what it means to listen and to guide. And above all, he taught me what it means to carry myself in such a way that I won’t become a stumbling block to others.
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.
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?
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)
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.
This Pentecost we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by handing over our worship service to the youth. The following sermon was proclaimed by Clinton Fitzgerald & Danielle Hammer.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Clinton: Would you please pray with us?
Danielle: May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Clinton: Honestly, preaching a sermon on Youth Sunday, on Pentecost, is really intimidating. For years, I have sat in this sanctuary and listened to countless people describe what it means to be faithful in the world, and now I am one of those people. What does it even mean to preach in the first place? Why do we gather in a place such as this week after week? We spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, that we rarely talk about what the church is in the first place.
Danielle: Yet here we are. For one reason or another God has called us to be here in this place on this day. We have faith that regardless of what we say, the Lord will use our words in spite of ourselves to share something life-giving with everyone in worship. Which makes preaching all the more strange: Clinton and I are here to tell you what God is saying to us this day. We are both far more used to being the ones sitting in the pews, than being the ones standing in the pulpit, but we’re going to preach anyway.
Clinton: When Taylor asked us to preach, we suspected that he had something up his sleeve, but if you want to know the truth… he’s just lazy and wanted to spend this Sunday listening from the pews.
Danielle: We’re not even really sure if he’s cut-out for this whole “being a pastor thing.” We’ve heard him preach a lot of sermons and offer a lot of prayers… we keep praying for him to get better, but he kinda just does the same thing every week. The poor guy always looks so nervous while he rocks back and forth from one foot to the other while he’s preaching.
Clinton: And have you noticed that he never really knows what to do with his hands? They kind of wander all over the pulpit, and sometimes it looks like the pulpit is the only thing holding him up at all. But hopefully, with enough prayer, we can make him into a good pastor one day.
Danielle: Emphasis on “hopefully”
Clinton: Anyway, we’re not here to bash Taylor. Even if it is fun to make fun of him.
Danielle: We are here to proclaim what it means to be the church, what it means to celebrate Pentecost, and explore how we can be better disciples in the world. In preparation for this sermon, Taylor began polling certain people within the church about why they come to church.
Clinton: Many of the adults had wonderful responses to his question. They described how much they love coming to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings that has such beautiful stained glass windows. Others said that the minute they saw the exposed wood in the sanctuary they knew they would worship here for the rest of their lives.
Danielle: Some of the adults went on and on about how much they loved knowing that we sing traditional hymns in a traditional service. They described how the words of the old hymns reconnect them with the Lord and so long as the church used the hymnal, it would be the church for them. Others shared reflections about how St. John’s has always put an emphasis on prayer in worship. They attend and support this church because they believe in the importance of communing with the Lord.
Clinton: Pretty good responses. But did you notice something missing? Taylor didn’t even notice until he started asking the youth what we love about St. John’s. The adults all described physical and worshipful aspects of our church whereas the youth focused primarily on the people. Now, don’t get us wrong, we like the way this church looks, and we like the things we do in worship. But we love this church because of you.
Danielle: In Sunday School last week, this is how some of us described our love for St. John’s: I love coming to this place because it is God’s house. Sometimes we don’t take the time to pray in our own lives, but the people here encourage me to be a better Christian during the week when we’re apart. I love the fellowship with others. When we read the bible on our own we often have questions that we can’t answer on our own, but here, in this community, I know I have people that can help me.
Clinton: I love this church because the people give me strength. I have a hard time standing up for what is right, but when I’m here I learn that God gives me all the strength I need to be faithful. All of the people here are so nice, how could I not love it? They notice me, they care about me, they ask me questions about what’s going on in my life, they make me feel important and significant. I love the people and how they care about me.
Danielle: What is the church? The church is the body of Christ for the world, which means we are the church! We could have the most beautiful building in the world, we could have the best music in the world every Sunday, but without people, this church would be nothing. Shepherds are nothing without their sheep, and churches are nothing without their people.
Clinton: Personally speaking, St. John’s has played a pivotal role in my life, from the moment I was baptized till right now. I have seen how we support each other through trials and tribulations. Our church is one that, rather than raising our voices or becoming defensive, sits back and listens in the midst of questions and challenges. We leave room for God’s light to shine through us so that we may be more compassionate Christians.
Danielle: While the world continues to spin with competing narratives and organizations vying for our attention, this church with it’s love, support, and community continues to amaze us. In Acts chapter 2, when we learn about the birth of the church, there are no descriptions about the size of sanctuaries, they don’t talk about the order of worship for Sunday mornings, they don’t list out what hymns should be used at what time. It’s all about the people, God’s people, spending time together.
Clinton: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Every Sunday we confront the same kind of wonders and signs the first apostles’ witnessed. We see friends and family who have carried us through the hard moments. We see people who have left their failures of the past to discover new lives in Christ.
Danielle: All who believed were together and had all things in common. We share our life experiences at St. John’s. Whether talking in the narthex or on the front lawn or during the passing of the peace, we share what we can with one another. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. When we pass the plates for the offering, we are redistributing our goods so that those who are in need will receive.
Clinton: Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Throughout our lives we have seen this church change with new people coming, and old friends going on to be with the Lord. When we spend our time together, when we break bread and feast during communion, we are living into the reality of what it means to be the church today.
Danielle: And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. You might not know it, or even believe it, but each of you have contributed to our mission to be God’s church. Whether this is the first time you’ve entered our doors, or you’ve been coming here your whole life, when we are together, we are the church. Through our relationships with the people in the pews next to us, we become Christ’s body for the world.
Clinton: Danielle and I are who we are because of the tremendous witness this church has been to Christ’s love. We love this building and we love Sunday mornings, but what we really love are the people. We give God thanks for putting you in our lives, and putting us in yours.
Danielle: It is truly a blessing to be standing here before all of you proclaiming God’s Word this day. But it is an even greater privilege to know that we are the church together. We offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
I recently celebrated the completion of my first year of ministry for St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the body and blood with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry.
1. Every Church Is Different
I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.
2. Being New Can Go A Long Way
When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.
3. It Can Be Lonely
Jason Micheli has previously written about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. In a similar way my wife and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.
4. Committee Meetings Are Hard
Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.
5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community
When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (performing continuously since 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.
6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision
I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.
7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away
Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.
8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles
I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.
9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching
Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.
10. I Have The Best Job In The World
A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.
(Originally written for the Tamed Cynic blog)
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
This is a day unlike any other. In the entire history of the world there has been nothing quite like what we remember today, and there will never be anything quite like it in the future. Millions upon millions of people have been killed unjustly and prematurely; but only this death has to do with the salvation of the world.
Look around at those who have gathered together with you tonight. Most people, of course, are not here. They are out doing what they do on any ordinary Friday night – dancing, drinking, eating, driving, laughing, loving. It has always been like this…
When Jesus was marched up to the place called Golgotha, which means the skull, most people did not even notice. Crucifixion was such a common activity that people were conditioned to avert their gaze from the bodies hanging on crosses. Many people were preoccupied with their own problems, which might help to explain why Jesus was so abandoned by his closest friends.
So, on this strange night, a night unlike any other, we gather together to remember the death of a man who was, and is, God in the flesh.
All week long I have been wearing my clerical collar. I know this might seem like a fairly Catholic thing to do, but it is traditional for all clergy to wear such things. For years I have been warned by other pastors about the dangers of wearing this collar: “No matter wear you go, people will assume that they can talk to you about all their problems.” “You can never prepare yourself for all the glares you will receive.” “It is a relic of the past, if you want to connect to people of today, ditch the collar and find something contemporary.” For me, I simply wanted to wear it this week to mark the occasion of Holy Week, and on another level I wanted to wear something that would force me to act like a Christian in public. You can’t get away with cutting in line at the grocery store when you’re dressed like this.
So I initially chose to wear it this week to honor this special time in the life of the church, but it slowly became an experiment here in Staunton. After hearing all of the stories about what this collar can bring in terms of interactions in the community, I was excited to see what might happen. I had plenty to do this week, but whenever I had the chance, I would go somewhere publicly; I worked on a sermon at a coffee shop, played drums for the Stonewall Brigade band, went to Walmart, the Staunton mall, Food Lion, I walked up and down Beverley street. I went everywhere that I could think of.
I was anxious about all the conversations and judgments people might make of my appearance, but I went out anyway. And you’ll never believe what happened… nothing.
I walked around this whole town and I received absolutely no response about my appearance. No one asked me about it, no one pointed and whispered, no one even looked at it. Now I know I’m not the best looking guy, but I’m used to people tat least taking a glance my way occasionally; its something we all do out of habit. But for the last few days I have felt largely invisible.
So I decided to take it one step forward… Today, at noon, I arrived at church to begin carrying our cross all around Staunton. The cross that the confirmands so diligently decorated and created dug into my shoulders as I departed from the church and walked toward downtown. I walked from the church to Beverley Street, went up both hills on either side, and eventually made my way back toward the north end of town. I walked for two hours, and you know what happened? Nothing.
Now, of course, walking with a 8 ft long cross will gather attention, I noticed a handful of people driving and walking who began to stare at the object on my back, but the moment I smiled, made eye contact, or waved, they diverted their attention to something else. Two couples actually switched what side of the road they were walking down in order to avoid my trajectory. For two hours I walked in silence and contemplation, every greeting I uttered was met with a blank stare, and just like with the clergy collar, I felt invisible this afternoon.
That was until I was standing next to a man waiting at the light by the library. I noticed that he kept looking at my cross, back to the ground, back to the cross, and back to the ground. Finally I heard him mutter, but loud enough for me to hear, “Jesus H. Christ.” To which I replied, “Actually its Taylor C. Mertins, but thanks for the compliment.” He did not think it was as funny as I did.
While walking across the lawn to put the cross back in the sanctuary I began to wonder if this is what Jesus felt like when he carried his cross. I wonder if what was most tragic was not the fact that he died, but that he died without anyone really caring or noticing. How strange that God chose to save us in this way, in the death of his Son abandoned by his friends on a cross.
Today, as it was in the time that Jesus died, many of us believe that we need not look at the cross at all. Here in our sanctuary all we have is this tiny cross on the altar. Many of us are far more familiar with the idea that, “God so loved the world, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” In that verse we are told not to look, but merely to believe.
We so desperately want to skip over the suffering of Friday and jump straight to the glory of Sunday. Thats why more people attend church on Mother’s Day than Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined. The cross is a harsh message. We want to divert our attention away from it. We want to hear good news. We want to laugh in church. We want to walk out feeling better about ourselves and the world.
Yet, to ignore Christ’s death on the cross is to be tempted to believe that we are no longer in danger. But my friends, even Christ’s death does not mean we get to escape death, but only that even in death we will not be abandoned by God.
Looking on the cross and believing God are inseparable. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to seeing the Christian cross that we now largely ignore it. Or we really know what the cross means so when we see it we, like the contemporaries of Christ, avert our gaze. But, Christ died on the cross. He hung up there for hours. He cried out to God. He suffered. He died.
This good Friday we are called to open our eyes to what Christ did, to look on the cross and live, to realize that believing is seeing.
How very strange of God to save us in this way, and how much stranger that we are to look on Jesus’ death if we are to have life.