5 Tips For A Fruitful Vacation Bible School

I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:

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  1. Learn The Names

There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.

 

  1. Ditch The Phone

Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.

  1. Get On Their Level

At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.

  1. Make Connections

VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.

 

  1. Invite, Invite, Invite

Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.

Devotional – Jeremiah 23.1

Devotional:

Jeremiah 23.1

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.

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The last week has been crazy. People on both sides of the political aisle are filled with anger, fear, and resentment. Those who voted for Donald Trump are being attacked for the political opinions and those who voted for Hillary Clinton are protesting the results of the election across the country. Many Republicans and Democrats are being led astray by false shepherds who seek to destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture through calls for violence and manipulation.

However, there are some who are seeking to lead God’s sheep in ways that lead to life. One of those shepherds is a former youth, and now college student, from St. John’s named Danielle Hammer. While others were flocking to Facebook in order to shout their political joy or disappointment into the fray of social media, Danielle wrote a post that makes me proud to call her my friend and my sister in Christ. This is what she said:

“This election has caused so much uproar among our American communities. We have heard of the hate crimes and violence that has occurred. It is genuinely terrifying, and I think we need to take a moment and sit down with God and pray. Lend God your anxieties and concerns, because God is listening to your cries and God holds the future. How comforting it is to know that no matter what happens here on earth, our Lord God knows our destiny. And yet, we need to make peace in this world. Compliment someone, pay for someone’s meal, help someone carry their groceries, or any other act of kindness that will show someone that there is still kindness and love in this world. Volunteer in your community. Stand up for your beliefs. Be a listening ear for those who need it. These small but significant acts add up, and they brighten the day of people who might be upset. Showing God’s love is timeless, and no matter who is in office, we need to radiate God’s love to others. So keep on radiating kindness in your life, and pray for those who are living in hatred or fear.”

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Oh that we could reject the false shepherds who lead us astray, and instead remain steadfast in our willingness to follow the Good Shepherd! For the Good Shepherd is the one who goes before us on the way that leads to life. In our discipleship, in our following, we radiate God’s kindness toward all people. We look for the ways that we can speak up for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the marginalized. We seek the peace that allows all of us to dwell together in unity. We pray for the Lord to give us the courage to show God’s love toward all people.

Lost

Luke 15.1-7

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

 

Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”

On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.

While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.

After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.

However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.

When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.

I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.

Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.

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Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.

“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”

After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.

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We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”

The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.

The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.

We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.

We Are The Church – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.43-47

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.

Acts 2.43-47

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Problem With Kids Today – Sermon on John 10.11-18

John 10.11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Happy Preschool Sunday! This morning we conclude our sermon series on our stained glass. These sermons were born out of a desire to recapture the importance of our windows and how the continue to speak into our lives. We began with The Methodists to my right: Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Last week we looked at The Johns: John the Evangelist, John the Presbyter, and John on Patmos. We now finish with the window behind me above the altar: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

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Why St. John’s?” I asked. We were sitting in the living room and going over our respective histories when I finally turned to one of my favorite questions: “Why St. John’s?” With the overwhelming abundance of churches in our community what made you choose this one?

Her answer was familiar and sounded similar to the other responses I had heard: It was where all our friends were going; it was the closest church to our neighborhood; it just made sense; it was a place our kids felt welcome. But then her answer took on a life of it’s own in a way I didn’t expect.

“But we haven’t always been here,” she said. “There was a time that we no longer wanted to come to St. John’s.” Of course my curiosity was caught and I wanted to know all the details behind their departure, but as if she was reading my mind she continued, “The ‘why’ is not important. What is important is how we came back.

“We were invited back for a particular Sunday, and though it hurt me to enter the doors of the sanctuary, I reluctantly sat down in one of the back pews. Before I knew it my mind was  flooded with all of the friendships that we cultivated in the sanctuary, all the children I had vowed to raise in the faith during their baptisms, all of the good sermons and all of the bad. But at the same time my mind was flooded with all the old arguments, the disagreements, and the frustrations.”

“But then something happened. I looked up and I saw the Good Shepherd window and everything felt right. It was like all of my worry started to slowly dissipate, and I knew that I had to come back. This was my home, because this is where I discover how the Good Shepherd watches over me.”

People and situations had driven her away. The old arguments were enough for her to leave the church behind. But miraculously enough it wasn’t people that brought her back, there were no justifications or rationalizations that would have changed her opinion. It was this window. It was Jesus as the Good Shepherd that brought her back, and it is the Good Shepherd who watches over all of us.

More often than not, the Good Shepherd stained glass window is the first thing that people notice when they enter our sanctuary. Its colors and vibrancy draw our attention and captivate us even when the sermons make us want to sleep.

It shows Jesus at his finest: leading, nurturing, and loving. The sheep are at peace knowing their shepherd is there to guide them through life. Even the abundance of blue helps to convey the deep sense of calm that comes with Jesus’s presence.

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we are called to remember how much the Good Shepherd loves us. It shows how comforting it is to know that the Lord will hold us, and protect us, when necessary. The window exemplifies the power of the one who gave all that he had for his friends and for strangers.

Yet, even for as much as this window conveys the faith, it also muddies the waters. During the time of Jesus’ life the role of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. Shepherds were often the outcasts of society and were ignored by the masses. Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” would have bewildered the religious elite and the powerful. It had a certain edge to it.

This week I gathered all of our preschoolers into the choir loft to teach them about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Like we all do, they noticed how beautiful Jesus looks in the image and how he cares for the sheep. “The sheep is like a baby” one of the kids yelled out. I remember thinking: “Yes yes, thats all good and true, but there is so much more to what it means to shepherd.”

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When describing himself as the good shepherd Jesus uses the hired hand as a comparison. The hired hand is someone who is only concerned with monetary gains, expends the minimum amount of work necessary, and will not risk life or limb for the sake of others. The hired hand is like the person who is so selfish that they ignore the needs of others.

Jesus, however, lays down his life for the sheep and promises to never let them, us, go. His voice will always draw us back because we belong to him. 

I love our preschoolers and this time of the year is always bittersweet for me. We are preparing for the end of year program, and our eldest class will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall. I spend enough time with them in the basement that I know the ins and outs of their little personalities, I know who to separate during chapel time for optimal focus, I know what jokes they will laugh at, and I know what to do and what to say to stop them from crying. I love them and I believe that I would be willing to lay my life down for them. I would do whatever it takes to protect them because each of them is a child of God.

But then I wonder if I would do the same thing for the adults in my life… I mean I love all of you too, but there’s just something about the desire to protect children that makes us stronger and braver than we normally are. For some reasons we value them as being more important than those who are older, and we prioritize their needs over others. We would do things for children that we would never do for others.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

After we looked at the window this week, I brought the preschoolers outside to demonstrate what it means to be a shepherd. I gathered a group in the middle of the yard, and I pulled four kids out to be the shepherds. I explained that I would be a wolf trying to get at the sheep in the middle, and the shepherds had to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

It worked brilliantly. Every time I rushed forward the shepherds converged on me and pushed me back, and when I tried to run around and juke them they rearranged and protected their friends; no matter what I did, the little shepherds were going to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

But that’s when I noticed something remarkable: The group of sheep in the middle had been holding hands the entire time. Now let me be clear, I did not instruct them to hold hands or to watch out for each other, but they did it on their own. Even more remarkable is the fact that the older kids placed the younger ones in the middle to protect them even more while they held hands. It was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

In our little preschool rooms, and in our community, kids are the ones who are acting more like Jesus than the adults. While we complain and groan about those who are different than us, people who do not look, think, and talk like us, kids are going out to meet them where they are. Jesus sought out the lost, the ones who needed to be rescued, the ones who are forgotten in our society. In our preschool rooms the children do whatever they can to involve everyone and show them they are loved.

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If you want to know what Jesus was really like, spend just 5 minutes with one of our preschoolers. During snack time they are willing to give up their food for the person who mentions they are still hungry. When they are playing with different objects in different stations they will include everyone in the activity no matter what. When they work on art projects they pay one another the nicest compliments regardless of how well the finger painting actually turns out. And when we were outside this week, the shepherds took care of the sheep while the sheep took care of one another.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us. 

We should start looking to them more often about what it means to be faithful, than expecting them to learn everything from us.

We all hunger to know and be known. Many of us (adults) create virtual communities on the internet because forming real and authentic connections is hard work. It requires face to face intimacy, a willingness to listen, and vulnerability all at the same time in a way that a phone and computer screen can never allow. Kids don’t have the benefit of social networking to create friendships, they have to do it the old fashioned way, and they’re better at it than we are.

God’s community is open and inclusive. Jesus not only cares for the sheep but gathers them into the flock. Those who are curious about what it means to be a disciple are invited into Jesus’ community no matter what: the door is always wide open to the outcasts: You know, the people whose lives are messy, whose families are not the perfect “husband-wife-2.5-children” scenario, who live in fear between paychecks, and who wonder if anyone knows how they really feel.

Today Jesus is still welcoming and inviting people who are often excluded based on the standards of our time. Kids don’t have the benefit of immediately recognizing someone’s socio-economic status, they aren’t concerned with where their parents went to college or even if they didn’t, they aren’t worried about the color of their skin or the shape of their bodies: they just want to love and be loved. 

So how can we create an authentic and life-giving community? We begin by following the example of our kids…

Imagine, if you can, what it would look like if we stopped excluding people based on our warped standards: wealth, status, race, sexual orientation, and physical condition. What if we started treating people with respects regardless of who they were and what they had done? What do you think would happen if we really started to take care of one another without judgment or expectation of reciprocation?

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be more like the kingdom than the way we are living right now. Amen.

Believing > Understanding – Sermon on Isaiah 40.21-31

Isaiah 40.21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem take root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

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I have witnessed, read, and heard lots of sermons. From as far back as I can remember I was in church on a regular basis listening to people like me stand at the front of church and talk all about the bible. During seminary, I learned about the importance of attending different churches to hear from a variety of preachers. Listening to different pastors helped to cultivate my own sermonic style, and show me what not to do.

I once heard someone preaching about the wonderful story of David and Goliath. He read the corresponding scripture, prayed for God to be with him in his preaching, and then began the sermon with these words: “The stench of war hung in the air like a pungent fart…

There was a time where I heard a young woman preach on the sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis. As a sweet and endearing theologian, she frightened everyone in the room by continuing to beat on the pulpit in rhythm; first the rhythm of Abraham’s heart as he pondered the fact that God called him to sacrifice his son, second the rhythm of Abraham’s axe falling on the wood to prepare for the fire, and then latter the frightening sound of the blade falling in Abraham’s imagination. It shook everyone to their cores.

Right before I was appointed here at St. John’s I heard a pastor from the Eastern Shore preach a sermon on one of the psalms. He stood up before the gathered body and explained that he had felt convicted by the Spirit that week to rewrite the psalm as if he was one of those slam poets, and then proceeded to perform his new rendition for all of us. I can’t remember precisely what he said, but it sounded like this: “My heart beats beats beats, O God my heart beats beats beats. I will sing along to the beat, and make the beat my melody. Awake to the rhythm of my heart beat beat beat. Give thanks for the beating heating sleeting of my heart. For his steadfast love, is like a perfect dove, in the heavens so high, up in the air where the birds fly. Listen to the beat beat beat…” He went on like that for twenty minutes.

Sermons, at their best, make the Word incarnate again so that we can live it out in the world. There are as many styles as there are preachers, but hopefully we all ground what we say in God’s Holy Word. A common rule of thumb for preaching is that the text from scripture should determine the style of sermon. For instance: If the scripture lesson is a letter from Paul to one of the early churches, the sermons should function in a similar way to the church that is listening. If the scripture is a narrative, then a story should be used to help reveal the Good News from the text. If the passage is a parable, then the sermon should leave the people scratching their heads in the same way that the first Christians probably did when Jesus said something like the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

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Our scripture today, though from a prophet, is a poem.  The Babylonians had scattered the Israelites throughout the region and they feared for their existence. They continued to grumble about their situations and constantly blamed God for their misfortunes. Like Jesus praying before his crucifixion, the exile was their Garden of Gethsemane, in which they would pray for the cup to pass from them.

Instead of telling a harrowing tale from Israel’s past, instead of offering a parable about their situation, Isaiah speaks into their situation as a poet. It is now my challenge to do the same.

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Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

God is the one who sits above all things, He is the one who reigns over us. All of us, the people and inhabitants of the earth, we are like insects who come and go.

God is the author of salvation, he has opened up creation for us, dwells besides us, and hopes with us. God is the one who tears governments down, and makes the rulers of the earth fall away like leaves in autumn.

Like flowers in a field they are rarely planted, their roots descend but to not take hold, and when God blows upon them they float away. Crops come and go like the seasons, new plants reach up to the heavens only to disappear, flowers bloom only to wither, but God remains everlasting.

To what, then, shall we compare the Holy One? What kind of associations, experimentations, delineations shall we use to understand the one on high? What kind of metaphor will bring God to light? What kind of story points to his glory?

Lift up your eyes and see!

Look around you at the people in your life, at the blessings of food, function, and faith, at the wonders of God’s creation. God is the author of salvation, the teller of your tale, the sower of your seeds. He brings about life for all creatures then and now. It is only because of God’s great strength and glory that not one thing is missing from your story. 

So, people of God, why do we say and believe that “God does not care about my life!” How can we even utter such an abominable accusation about the author of salvation?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord. Our God reigns forever, our hope, our strong deliverer. He will not faint. He will not grow weary. His understanding is unknowable.

The Lord is the everlasting God. He gives strength to those who are weak, he empowers the powerless, and loves the unlovable. When we look out and see destruction, God sees incarnation. When we experience death, God sees life. When we believe God is missing, He is the one carrying us through our shadow of darkness.

Even the young people, with their strength and vision for the future, they will fall and be weary. The people in church and society that we so admire will crumble. They believe that life is a sprint instead of a marathon. But those who wait for the Lord, those who believe in the power of patience, shall have their strength renewed. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall soar from the highest of heights, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. If you can’t crawl then pray and pray and pray. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

The Lord is the everlasting God.

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Believing is greater than understanding. I’m not talking about the simple belief that God exists, I’m not talking about believing in God. I’m talking about believing God. Believing that He is everlasting, that he creates and commands that stars in the sky, and hopes for us when all things feel hopeless.

The captives were afraid that what they held so dear would disappear to the sands of time. Many of us fear the same thing about what we believe is precious: values, morality, ethics, the church, society, love, hope, patience. But why should we be frightened? God the everlasting remains when all others things are swept away. Kings will reign, politicians will run for office, we will live, grow, and die, but God is the one who remains.

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We are so tempted to get caught up in the here and now that we are unable to see things from God’s perspective. Our humanity prevents us from seeing God’s divinity. We look around and see all the failures of life around us and we fling our “why?” at God; but we should first challenge ourselves. What can I do to make this world better? How can I serve the needs of my brothers and sisters? What can I do to help show people a little glimpse of heaven on earth?

To wait for the Lord requires patience. We will all spend so much of our lives in vain trying to understand all that God has done when all we are called to do is believe.

“What is the text saying?” My professor asked of our class. We had our bibles open to the corresponding verses and began to argue about what it meant.

Some people, who desperately liked hearing the sound of their own voices, waxed lyrical about the historicity of the text and mentioned elements like fragments of papyrus and the corresponding dates of discovery.

Some people, who were more evangelical than others, went on and on about the infallibility of God’s Word and declared that we must take every single word literally and live them out.

Some people, who clearly were not paying attention, skirted around the issues in the text and talked about broad subjects so as to make it appear as if they had done their reading, when in fact everyone could tell they had not.

My professor practiced his patience and let us all argue it out for a while before he raised his hand to indicate silence. “You’re all wrong,” he began, “because you are operating from a false assumption. All of you believe the bible is about you.” He then said something that I will never forget: “The bible is always primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

This poem from Isaiah is a humbling reminder that we are not nearly as important as we think we are. We are not the center of the universe. We can strive to work as hard as we can for our church and our community, but ultimately God is the one who brings about true transformation here on earth. What we pray for and work toward is worthy of our time, we just have to learn to trust that God will bring it about according to his will. Only an everlasting God could have the patience necessary to see the world turned upside down.

We are people of faith. We are people of belief. Let us not give in to the temptations of the world’s expectations of immediate gratification, and instead believe that God is the everlasting perfecter of patience, now and forever. Amen.

Hairs, Prayers, and Bears (Oh My!) – Sermon on 2 Kings 2.23-25

Strange Stories from Scripture Part 2

2 Kings 2.23-25

He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

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This morning we continue with the second part of our sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As I mentioned last week, the drive for our sermon series comes from the wealth of scriptural treasure begging to be preached, in addition to my desire to not fall into a rut of preaching the same, favorite, and familiar texts over and over. Last week we talked about the fate of a young man named Eutychus who fell asleep during church. Today we are exploring the story of Elisha and the she-bears.

 

And while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!”

In my opinion, this is one of the most troubling passages in all of scripture. I can look into both the Old and New Testaments and find scriptures that challenge my faith, passages that require me to pray for understanding and discernment, there are even passages that I would rather ignore than affirm from a place such as this, but there are few stories as dramatic and frightening as the one we have read this morning.

While Elisha was on his way to Bethel, sweating under the heat of the sun, some young boys came out from the city ahead of him and began to make fun of him. “Get outta here baldy! We don’t want you and your shiny head around us!” Perhaps he tried to ignore them at first, but when the taunting became so distracting and loud, Elisha turned around to face the crowd of young boys and cursed them in the name of the Lord. As if on cue, two mama bears came barreling out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys. From there Elisha continued on his journey to Mount Carmel, and then he returned to Samaria.

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Before we can even begin to address what happened on the road we need to go back, we need to get a larger picture of the story.

Elisha followed the reign of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is remembered for bringing a widow’s son back to life, for finding God in the sheer silence, and for confronting idol worshippers. Elijah was a favorite prophet for the New Testament writers who often drew the connection between the prophetic life of Elijah and the messianic life of Christ.

At the end of Elijah’s time Elisha followed him to the Jordan and watched him ascend on a whirlwind into heaven after having received a share of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha took up Elijah’s ministry, he literally took Elijah’s mantle with him, and continued to be a messenger and example of God’s Word for the people.

The story of Elisha and the she bears is one of the first things that took place during Elisha’s time as a prophet. As a young and novice messenger, he is making his way to Bethel and other parts of the land to bring the people back to their Lord.

What do you make of this passage? Is it one that you, like me, would rather ignore and pass over? Does it challenge your understanding of God and the role of the prophets? 

For centuries theologians, scholars, pastors, and Christian-disciples have attempted to make sense of this story; they have worked hard to explain what is really going on.

I could begin by telling you that there is more at work in this story than appears on the surface. In Hebrew, the designation for the “small boys” is more akin to “young men” and more particularly young men who do not want the prophet coming to their town to tell them what they have done wrong.

I could continue by showing you that, though Elisha was bald, he was in fact probably only 25 or 26 when this transpired; he was my age when he was taunted for being bald and cursed the young men!

Similarly the point can be made that the harmless teasing was in fact very troubling. They were not merely making fun of his shiny head but were denying his prophetic ability. After taking up his former prophet’s mantle, Elisha was being accosted; in so doing the crowd of young men was not only attacking a young prophet but denouncing the Lord as well.

Moreover I could share with you the simple fact that Elisha did not call out the she bears, he just pronounced judgment on the demonstrators and God decided the form of response. And even when the bears came out of the woods they did not kill 42 of the young men, they simply mauled them. Perhaps God was using the bears in a way that none of the young men would perish, but so that they would all be punished.

Yet, even with all these new details, the story still troubles me.

As I prepared for the sermon this week I consulted numerous commentaries on 2 Kings and I was shocked to discover some of the reflections regarding this passage.

One commentary claimed that Elisha was not the kind of man to summon bears from the woods. The “irreverence, lawlessness, and hoodlumism of youth are sure to result in moral disaster.” The bears function as symbols of the punishment that overtakes vicious behavior. It went on to state that the boys in the story are the prototype for thousands of youth today. Only if they are educated at home, in school, and in church will they be able to avoid the punishment of the Lord that will surely come in one form or another. (The Interpreters Bible, vol. 3)

Another commentary made the same point, but in a shorter and more direct way: Rich and poor, high and low, young and old, ALL must be punished for their transgressions… (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 12)

I went on to consult numerous sermons on the passage and was frightened to discover that most of them, few that they are, articulate a theology that the kids got what they deserved. They might have all ended by saying, “our children, your children, will wind up like those boys because we have failed to train them as polite young people. We need to bring our children to church, and encourage them to bring their friends, so that we can shape their future to avoid the bears of God’s wrath.”

Breathe.

I am now going to do what many of my professors warned me about in seminary, I am going to preach against this text.

Whereas many scholars, pastors, and Christians believe that the children are at fault, (I agree, they are) I believe that Elisha is just as at fault for his quick curse of the bullying boys.

In 2007 Duke University did a study and found that 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% flee before retirement. Many of these pastors that run away from the ministry never return to church. (Read more here: Keeping Your Pastor)

With the rise in expectations of pastoral ministry, coupled with dying churches and lowered pay, its no wonder that many pastors abandon their flock. When many churches are running on financial fumes, while also expecting their pastors to continually go above and beyond their call, the result is a collection of pastors who are burned out and have lost sight of the Lord and their calling.

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I imagine the Elisha felt a lot like ministers in the first few years of their appointments. After all, Elisha found himself following in the steps of the renown and powerful prophet Elijah who no doubt cast a great shadow for the young prophet. Most of the people would be evaluating this young man based on the actions of his predecessors.

This wasn’t something that Elisha inherited but was called into. He could have remained a farmer, tending to the plows with the oxen, but instead he was called out of his life into something new, strange, and at times, terrible.

As a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prophet, Elisha had everything to prove. And here in 2 Kings 2 Elisha find himself at the beginning of his ministry filled with passion for the Lord when a crowd of youngsters attack him for that very call.

I think that Elisha’s pride got the better of him when he was walking to Bethel. Unlike the Son of Man who would one day tell his disciples to turn the other cheek and love those who persecute you, Elisha immediately cursed the youngsters and they were mauled.

If this story is about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the Word of the Lord, then I would argue that the biggest take away is that we must be very careful with our prayers. God listens to our prayers and He answers them, sometimes in ways that we do not want and sometimes in ways that we do not expect. Be careful what you pray for.

When I arrived at this church I felt very much like what I imagine Elisha felt like at the beginning of his prophetic ministry. I was following in the footsteps of countless pastors who have shaped and nurtured this congregation into what it is today. I recognize that I will always live in the shadow of the likes of Fletcher Swink, Zig Volskis, and Patricia Meadows.

I sat in my office the week before my first sermon and thought about everything I had to live up to. I stewed over what my reputation would be at this place. I over-analyzed every word and sentence for that sermon, fearing how I might be received. 

I stood in this pulpit over a year ago, afraid of how all of you would respond. And, if I’m being honest, I stand here this morning still consumed by thoughts of what you think about these words, my delivery, and the connections with scripture.

Being a pastor is, at times, terrifying. Many weeks pass when I feel like I did not get enough done. There have been a number of Saturday nights that I lay awake in bed rehearsing in my head what I will be saying on Sunday. I have had many tough conversations with families, couples, and individuals about the sins in their lives. There have been countless visits when I wonder if I have actually helped at all.

And its when I reflect on all of these elements of ministry, that I realize how difficult it must have been to be Elisha. I begin to understand why he was so quick to curse those young men who spoke against his calling.

And the more I think about it, the more I see connections not only between Elisha and pastors, but also between Elisha and all of us.

How quick are we to curse those who speak against us? How inclined are we to forget our discipleship the minute our calling is called into question?

I know of an older gentleman who had not exchanged a word with one of his sons in years because of a foolish argument they had in the past. I know a woman who refuses to shop at certain stores in our town because of the color of some of the employees. I know neighbors that never wave or acknowledge one another because one of them went to Virginia Tech and the other went to UVA.

In today’s world it is too easy to put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves to shine brightly in the darkness. We set goals for ourselves that are lofty and unreachable. We expect greatness from our lives and the lives around us on a daily basis.

When we get caught up in the expectations of the world that we place on ourselves, we fall into the trap of quickly cursing others around us. When we fail, we jump to blame someone else. When we miss the mark we can come up with a list of excuses faster than we can come up with better solutions.

Being a pastor is hard, but being a disciple is harder. We are called to walk in the world as prophets, seeing this created place through God’s eyes. We have the unenviable task of reaching out to the last and the least and the lost. We have been baptized into a new order where the world has been turned upside down.

When we are accosted for out faith, when we are judged for our Christian allegiance, it will manifest itself in different forms. 

Elisha was made fun of for being bald.

You might be attacked for praying in public, for wearing a cross around your neck. You might be made fun of for offering up your gifts and tithes to a place like the church. You might be judged for praying to a God who often responds in silence.

But nevertheless, we are not called to respond to these threats by cursing on enemies. We have been commanded to love them.

What a crazy and wonderful thing it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Amen.