Worthless

Jeremiah 2.4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and puts, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

ReflectionsJeremiah_2_plain-680x300

No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 43.1

Devotional

Isaiah 43:1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Weekly Devotional Image

Names are important. Ever since my wife became pregnant we have discussed possible names for the baby arriving this spring. We have experimented with family names as well as biblical names. We have searched online for popular baby names (in order to avoid them). We’ve even gone so far as too imagine how possible names could be used to make fun of the child in the future.

Names are intimate and help to demonstrate how connected we are with one another. For instance, most of us can remember a time and the feeling of guilt that comes when we cannot remember the name of someone we supposed to know. When we call one another by name we are entering in a privileged moment of connectivity with another human being.

This morning, while the preschoolers were entering the school for the first time since breaking for the holidays, I stood by the door and welcomed each of them. I got down on my knees to look at most of them on a level plane and asked about their Christmas presents and celebrations. It was a joyful time as we all reconnected.

shutterstock_97916309

One of the last children to arrive was a new student about to begin his first day. Unlike the other kids, this was a completely new and strange experience. All around him were the friendships that have started this year and he stood all by himself. Because I had the chance to meet his parents before this morning, I knew who he was and bent down to greet him by name. The shy young boy looked up at me and started to beam as he declared, “You know me?!”

Within minutes he was in his new classroom playing with new friends. All of the nerves were gone and were replaced with the joy of playing with blocks at 9 o’clock in the morning. Such is the power of being called by our names.

Many of us wrestle with our own identities. We wonder about who we are and what we are being called to do. Yet, God knows who we are and calls us by name. The kind of joy that our new preschool student felt this morning is available to us when we recognize how God has called us and knows us. Sometimes it happens in the words of a hymn we sing in church, sometimes it happens in a devotional we read to start our day, and sometimes it happens in the still small silence of our prayers. God knows us. God loves us. God calls us by name.

This week, let us look for the moments when God calls us, let us rejoice in the knowledge of whom we belong to, and let us give thanks for all of the blessings that God has given us.

Devotional – Psalm 118.22

Devotional:

Psalm 118.22

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 

Weekly Devotional Image

We were in the middle of the woods during a Boy Scout camping trip. Our leaders were known for coming up with activities that would help us to grow our wilderness skills, but this particular challenge was driving me crazy. Scattered throughout the clearing were areas with dry wood, tinder, and two stakes connected by a string holding up a water balloon. The challenge was to create a fire under the dangling water balloon using the natural elements until the balloon would pop and put out the fire.

The leaders separated us into groups of four and sent us to our different areas. I don’t remember everyone from my group but there was one boy who was known more for his love of books than his love of the great outdoors. Without intending to I basically ignored his presence while trying to organize the other two boys to begin working on our fire. We collected the tinder in a pile and tried rubbing sticks together. We went searching for some rocks that would hopefully create a spark when we slammed them together. Throughout the wooded area audible frustrations could be heard from each group as they struggled in vain to pop their balloon.

We must have worked for thirty minutes before I noticed the book-boy offering me a piece of advice. He was remarkably shy and I could barely make our what he was trying to say, though I could tell that he was serious. He quickly took off one of his hiking boots, removed a shoe-lace, curved a long stick, and created a make-shift bow. He then demonstrated that if we wrapped another stick around the string, we could move the bow like a saw and it would spin the stick for us with an incredible amount of friction. We quickly went to work and within 10 minutes we were the only group with a fire at all, and a few moments later the balloon popped and put out the fire that we had struggled to ignite. After congratulating ourselves I made a point to thank the boy for his idea and asked where it came from. He said, “I read about it in the Wilderness book that we were all supposed to read before this weekend.”

startafirewithabowdrill

The palmist writes about a stone that builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. Those who are familiar with the New Testament will quickly identify Jesus as someone rejected by the elders who then became the foundation for the church. Yet, this is not something that can be applied to Jesus alone. I quickly rejected the help from a boy in the woods because I made a ridiculous assumption about his inability to help. In him I saw little value worth assessing. However, without his help we would probably still be in the woods trying to pop our balloon. God can, and does, use some of the least likely people to change the world. Everyone has value and worth, we need only a new perspective to realize it.

In the remaining days of Lent let us open our eyes to value in people around us. Instead of making quick and unjustified assumptions, let us take a moment to reflect and remember that those who we reject are often the ones who are here to save us.

Stuck With God’s Love – Sermon on Romans 8.31-39

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

10556522_260783347449301_8976828776060006461_n

I sat in the back of a room filled with sweaty and smelly teenagers. Between the superabundance of Axe Body Spray, the overly-exaggerated expressions of trying to outshine everyone else, and the constant hum of giggling, sighing, and hair flipping, I finally realized what I had gotten myself into: A middle school mission trip to Raleigh County, West Virginia.

We left immediately following worship last Sunday; after talking about Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat I changed out of my robe, rushed home to grab my bags and eat lunch, to return to our parking lot to disembark for West Virginia. Standing by my car I was less than thrilled to discover that our youth were limited in their enthusiasm for our week of service and prayer. Then again, who could blame them? We were about to leave the comforts of Staunton, our families and friends, to sleep on the floors of an old elementary school, preparing all of our own meals, leaving for the bulk of the day to serve the needs of the community, and then to gather every evening in a room full of hormone wrestling middle schoolers.

Untitled

Jesus is our demonstration” was the theme for our week. The first night we read about Jesus’ final evening with his disciples when he knelt on the floor and washed their feet. While our youth were nervously creating new friendships with the 60 other youth in attendance, we discussed what it meant for Jesus to do something like that for his friends.  As we learned about the conditions of the first century, how dirty the disciples’ feet must have been, I scanned the room to see how the information was being received. Honestly, most of them weren’t paying attention. It was our first night, many of us had been traveling all day to get there, and the idea of washing someone else’s feet can be terrifying to a middle schooler.

The evening concluded with individual church time as we further elaborated on the ideas we had discussed that evening. When it became clear that the evening’s theological reflections were not completely cemented in our minds, I decided to change the subject and ask a question of everyone from our group: What are you most excited about and what are you most nervous about this week… Our kids were all excited about serving God and neighbor, but almost every person in that room expressed reservations about mixing together with the other churches; our group was much smaller than the others and our kids were mostly introverted. In their responses I heard, beneath their words, a fear that even with their desire to help, God might not be with them. So, before heading to bed we prayed together for the coming week and for our ability to be in ministry with others.

If God is for us, who is against us? 

That first night, it really felt as if God was not with us. In the boys’ room the smells and sounds were already becoming nauseously palpable when I finally had to shout, with vigor and volume, that it was now time for bed. I learned in the morning that the girls’ room was just as bad if not worse; between the gossiping and giggling our females were unable to sleep through most of the night.

However, throughout the first real day of work that question of God’s presence quickly moved from our limited perspective, to the reality of the people we were serving. Where was God in all of this? As the boys helped organize a Salvation Army Thrift Store and the girls sat with underprivileged children attempting to help them read, we all experienced moments of wondering about the goodness of God. I saw youth stand in silent and frightening awe before a warehouse filled with trash unlike they had ever seen before, I saw youth watching the people who filled the Thrift Store the moment it opened to examine the new items that had come in during the weekend. Were these people really blessed by the grace of God?

10498465_260247174169585_6070330076264503799_o

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As the week continued and we spent more time with people in the local community it became harder and harder to see God’s love in their lives. My group, ironically named Mountain Mamas after a line the John Denver song about West Virginia, served a man named Robert whose house was situated in an abandoned neighborhood surrounded by houses that were being taken over by the local vegetation. The first two days we were unable to spend time with him as he had many errands to run but he nevertheless trusted our youth to paint his interior walls and ceiling. Would any of you trust a group of 12, 13, and 14 year olds to paint the inside of your house?

Robert had fallen on both hardship and distress. After years of a seemingly decent marriage his wife had abandoned him to live a life of solitude in a house paradoxically filled with pictures of his entire family. When we finished the ceiling in his kitchen, and began to paint the walls of his living room, Robert was finally able to spend some time with our group as we worked in his house. He often quietly observed from the corner letting the kids do their own thing, but at certain moments he would remove himself from the work space and retreat to his yard.

On one such occasion, toward the end of the week when I felt that I could leave the youth with the paint cans unsupervised, an act of immense trust, I followed Robert outside. I discovered him standing in the front yard looking at the patchy grass between his feet unaware of my presence. “Robert, is everything okay?” I asked. He slowly looked up from the ground and I saw tears welling up in his eyes as his lip began to quiver. “You all don’t know how much this means to me,” he began, “I feel like I’ve been given another chance. It hasn’t always made sense to me, but it seems like I had to fall to the very deepest pit before I could see the light again. You all have given me hope, a new claim on life, and I am so thankful.

When he felt abandoned, when the hardship and distress had brought him to the lowest time of his life, God sent us to serve Robert. God sent a bunch of crazy young Christians to Raleigh County, West Virginia so that we, like Paul, could triumphantly declare a resounding NO. In all these things, in the tremendous valleys of life, when we feel abandoned and alone, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For a few brief moments, we got to be Christ’s body for Robert reminding him of his worth, his value, and his importance.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome to remind them that God is for us. Whatever happens to us that we might imagine as God’s rejection – trials or tribulation, persecution or hunger, hardship or distress – have lost their power to mean that, because God is for us.

nothing can seperate you from His love

Suffering and destitution are not God’s last Word. God raised Christ from the dead reminding us forever and ever that death is not the end, we are not abandoned by the God who breathed life into us. God’s care for people like us is shown in the power he gives, through his love and grace, to overcome all dangers, all feelings of loss, and all loneliness.

It was our privilege to be Christ’s body for Robert this week. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity we had to serve his needs, to serve the needs of the children in the reading program, and remind all of them of their worth.

However, a strange thing happened during our trip. Even in the midst of helping love on the last, the least, and the lost, I discovered that some from our group were wrestling with some of these things in their own lives. Every evening while we gathered as a church group I was given glimpses of the struggles and valleys in the lives of our people. They might not have the same physical struggles as the people we served, but it was clear that they were unsure of God’s love in their lives.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On our last evening together our church group gathered in a small conference room, sitting in a circle on the floor with the lights dimmed while contemporary Christian music lightly played in the background. A chair was placed in the middle of the circle with a basin of water waiting near the legs. One at a time I invited every member of our group to sit in the chair and we took turns washing one another’s feet. Truly I tell you, there are few things in life as humbling and life-giving as washing, and having your feet washed, by a brother or sister in faith. One by one every member in our group sat in the chair and after their feet were washed we surrounded them and placed our hands on them and prayed for them.

Almighty God, thank you for the gift of Chris in our lives. It has been a tremendous joy to see the way you have moved through him this week as he lead and guided us. For the many ways that he serves you as a father, a husband, a teacher, and a friend with give you thanks.

Great God thank you for your wonderful disciple Luke. We praise your name for this young man that you have shaped. His faith is so real and tangible that it gives me hope for your kingdom. He is a blessing to my life and I give you thanks for sending him here this week.

Father of mercy, thank you for your loving servant Tucker. He has so selflessly served the needs of others this week from scrubbing the floor of Robert’s house to befriending some of the outcasts from other churches. He lives out his faith in wonderful and amazing ways. This week could not have been as incredible without him and we are so thankful for all that you are doing through him.

God of grace thank you for Courtney. As she has served the needs of this community we have seen you at work through her. We are blessed by her honesty and willingness to address the truth of our lives. She works hard for the needs of others and so faithfully lives out the call to love you and her neighbor. What a blessing she is to me and my life, thank you for calling her to lead the life that she has faithfully followed.

Most merciful God thank you for the gift of Willow. As a young woman she has so captivated our hearts this week through her commitment to your kingdom. She is so full of light and vibrancy that she changes every life she touches. Our lives would be so dim and lifeless without her and it has been a joy to watch you work through her this week. Thank you for sending Willow into our lives.

Great God thank you for Grace. She is so clearly not a weed but a wheat of faith. Firmly rooted in your love and mercy she has been your Son’s body this week for others and for us. She is a constant reminder of the way you love us, because she places other people’s needs in front of her own. What a joy it is to call her my friend. We are so thankful for all that you have done and will continue to do through her.

It was through tears, through the water of foot washing, and through the faith of prayer that we told everyone in our group what Paul was trying to tell the people in Rome: You are magnificent and God loves you.

Do you know how magnificent you are? Have you ever been able to see yourself the way God sees you? Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not our doubts, not our failures, not our shortcomings, not our sins, not our disappointments; we are stuck with God’s love. 

You are wonderful and unique, full of grace and glory. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do marvelous things through you. My friends I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You are loved, you are wonderful, and you are magnificent.

Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 2/17/14

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 3.16

Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

 

While preaching yesterday morning I mentioned, anecdotally, a practice regarding ship building. During the time of Jesus (and even today in some places) a gold coin would be placed underneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. Some claim that this practice began with the Romans as they used the coin to appease the gods. Others believe that the Romans placed the coin to help purchase a spot in the afterlife for the sailors who were lost at sea. Regardless of the true beginning of the tradition, it helped to show other sailors that even a wreck had value.

16-god-is-with-us-gods-promises.jpg?w=584&h=584

Years ago, while approaching the end of a mission trip in Costa Rica, I helped lead a group of young people through a foot-washing service. A basin and chair was set up in the middle of the room and, after reading the appropriate scripture from the gospel according to John, I encouraged those present to find someone that had made a particular impact on them that week (positively or negatively) and then ask to wash their feet. With soft music playing in the background I witnessed God’s grace manifest in the tears that poured on the ground from those washing, and from those who were being washed. It is a remarkably humbling thing to kneel and take someone’s feet into your hands, but perhaps even more humbling is to have someone wash your feet.

As the service continued I noticed that one of the older boys was dutifully making his way through the entire room asking to wash everyone’s feet. Every time someone sat in the chair before him he would focus intently on what he was doing, demonstrating God’s love through his fingers and the water.

When I finally had a chance, I stood up, walked over to him, and asked to wash his feet. “I’m not worth it,” he replied, “no one should be washing my feet.” I responded: “Yes you are my friend. The whole point is to wash and be washed. You are worth it.”

While writing to the church in Corinth, Paul asks, “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” This is a question that I want to ask whenever I see someone feeling down or blue. I want to shout out, “You have value! You are uniquely beautiful, made in the image of God, worthy of being loved! God’s Spirit is in you!”

So, as we begin a new week I ask: Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Do you know that you have worth, that you are special, that you are wonderful? Do you know that God loves you for who you are no matter what?

I hope you do.