Invited: The Hospitality of God

invited master.001

Week 1: “So Loved”

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 8, 2019

John 3:13-17

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“What you need to do,” said my wife Tracy last Sunday afternoon, “is to go and help your daughter learn to drive. You need to let her drive for thirty minutes. Write it down.” Then, she suggested her favorite large parking lots. This would be the first such adventure for Ellen and me.

The thought of driving in circles around a parking lot for a half-hour was more than I could handle, yet I wished for somewhere safe, away from other cars and pedestrians, so we decided for Ellen to practice driving on the paved, rolling pathways of the Westhampton Cemetery. The cemetery backs up to the neighborhood of my childhood, and my brother and I used to ride our bikes there, never dreaming that one of us would travel those same roads with a teenage daughter taking those first frightening steps towards adulthood, freedom, and a life without dependence upon me.

So as that afternoon, as the shadows lengthened, for the first time, I sat in passenger seat while my child, my firstborn, drove. Again and again, we circled the cemetery, the living among the dead, the living among the resurrected.

I was so proud of Ellen and the job she did, yet to my surprise, I was almost equally proud of myself, specifically, the remarkable calm I was able to project, almost like some cool, hipster, smooth-jazz DJ: That’s right baby, just turn to the left. Very nice. Careful now, turn a little more—we don’t want to drive on that grass. Not too fast, not too slow. Wait, that’s the parking brake not the regular brake, baby. We are going to turn just a bit so we don’t hit that parked car ahead of us. That’s an intersection, so we are going to stop.

Soft like butter, smooth like silk. Everything is going to be alright.

All of which is utterly amazing because on the inside, I was freaking out, surprised Ellen could not hear all the screaming inside my head.

As I think about it, the screaming does not simply come from the fact that I am belted and locked inside a two-and-a-half ton minivan with someone only beginning to learn to drive it. Instead, it comes from what it all symbolizes, what it all means. It comes from the dawning realization that the new freedom my daughter is newly discovering is freedom from, well, me.

There was a time in my life since I have been at Reveille where I could speak at a baccalaureate service and make light-hearted comments about what a milestone high school graduation is for not only the students but their parents as well. However, as I did so this year at the service in our sanctuary for the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, it hit me all at once: next year man, next year. Next year, Tracy and I get to be the parents at Freeman’s graduation, and it is all getting so very real.

I have seen this from a certain distance in the lives of so many of you, especially lately, as I have heard stories and seen Facebook posts where young people are dropped off at college. And not only that, but first days of kindergarten, first days of middle school, even those first days of preschool when you take that last look as you leave the room, and you feel that hard, hollow feeling you get when your baby gives you that confused look, wondering why you are leaving, wondering if you realize that you have forgotten something, someone.

From the moment children learn to roll over, they begin that process of moving away from us. Throughout their lives, we hope to release them into the best, safest, most wholesome of environments. We bring them home for the first time into safe houses. We do our best to raise them in safe neighborhoods. We trust that we have dropped them off at the best and safest of all schools. We encourage them to choose the best careers and best life partners, all of it because we ache with love for them we pray for them the wisdom, the strength, all of the equipping they could ever need because as we learn to give them to the world, we wish for only the best of all worlds for them, for the rest of their hopefully long, long lives.

John writes in today’s text “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In these short verses, words which Martin Luther referred to as “the gospel in miniature,” we encounter such a stark contrast to the ways in which we raise and release our own children. It is difficult enough to watch them move into the best of all circumstances. And yet, God’s child comes to us, comes to our circumstances, comes to our world.

Heralded by angels at his birth and showered with gifts in his infancy, yet still born into a world that will ultimately reject him, a world that will question his family of origin, a world that will question his motives at every turn, a world that will witness his signs and wonders and see in them only fearful threats to personal power and the status quo, a world that will ultimately reject his vision of a world of peace and justice, that will ultimately reject even physical healing and the forgiveness of sins, a world that would nail him to a cross to just make him stop once and for all.

All because our God regarded and regards us in all of our depravity, brokenness, injustice and sin and somehow sees a world worth loving, not because of who we are, but because of who this God is. 

The remarkable thing about this morning’s text is not merely how generous it reveals God’s love to be, but how expansive God’s love is. It is pure grace, all of it unearned. I wonder if sometimes we unconsciously believe that God gave us Jesus hoping against hope that we would somehow rise to the occasion and become perfect saints instead of the sinners we are, as if God was somehow surprised by the cross and how it all turned out, as if God did not know what God was getting into when God gave us Jesus.

Yet that is not the God we have.

In a few moments, we will celebrate Holy Communion and in our hymnal, there are words of pardon that come after the prayer of confession, words penned by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, words for Christians in the city where he would lose his life, words that say “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, proving God’s love for us” As such, we know that God’s love for the world was not and is not predicated upon what we can someday be. Instead, God’s love embraces us where it finds us, as we are.

The problem with the expansive nature of God’s love is that by loving the entire world, God has somehow found a way to love all of the wrong people. Sometimes, if I am honest, I find myself wanting to believe that God works like a fisherman, scooping up a gigantic harvest from the sea, the nets nearly bursting from the immense load of diverse aquatic life, knowing that there are creatures in that net that God will certainly throw back, opting for only the finest catch— the slimy eels, the stinging jellyfish, the ugly sugar toads, and of course, those deadly sharks—all to be returned to the sea. Still, God throws back nothing, nothing at all, for God wants all of it, every last one.

This is who God is: the God who, by deciding that God indeed loves the entire world enough to release God’s only child into it, that this God will settle for nothing less than gaining the whole world, will settle for nothing less than everyone.

How different, how much easier would it be if God’s love was as exclusive, or at least as conditional as yours and mine? How much easier it would be to embrace an exclusionary gospel, one that could be instead miniaturized into a verse that read “For God so loved the world except…” or “For God so loved the world except for those who won’t toe my line,” or “except for those who fail to meet the strict qualifications that I will helpfully provide to God. We humans have been trying to make God into our own image, with our own likes and dislikes since before the ink on the scriptures was dry, and it never, ever works. There is a story demonstrating this in the Gospel of Mark, chapter ten. It tells of a blind man named Bartimaeus who the disciples thought was not worthy of God’s attention.

It didn’t work for them, either.  

  Anne Lamott writes of this kind of love saying “This drives me crazy. That God seems to have no taste, and no standards. Of course, by the same token, on most days, this is what gives some of us hope.”

I was driving home from worship one Sunday several months ago and listening to a radio program featuring social scientists who study religious practices and trends in America, and they were sharing how their research shows that the congregations that tend to be growing right now are ones who do not preach and teach of a God of grace and mercy. Instead, these congregations preach and teach of a fearsome, judging, punitive, damming god. These researchers gave no indication that they saw any change on the way to this reality.

And yet, in the verses just before the ones I just read, Jesus tells a leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus that the world was already condemned before Jesus, God’s only son, God’s child got involved. There was already plenty of judgement to go around and no way out, so God acted, for you, for me, and for this world, a world loved when it was, and is, completely undeserving of that love.

The sermon series we begin today is called “Invited: The Hospitality of God.” It seemed like a good theme for a new program year. I began this series with this beloved text because the challenge for the church throughout the ages, today, and into the future is for the people of God to fully offer hospitality that reveals the kind of love we hear in today’s reading. But not only that, for us, for you and I together to covenant to be the kind of church, both when we are together and when we are apart, who reveals the kind of sacrificial, generous, expansive love we have read about today so that we can offer this community nothing less than the hospitality of God.

What would that kind of church look like, feel like, speak like, pray like, and act like, and do we together have the courage to birth it into being, for the sake of a people, a city, a world that our God gave God’s own and only son to save? What then?

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

What is Faith? A Sacrifice of Praise

Hillman12th Sunday After Pentecost – September 1, 2019

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

A group of us sat there in the freshman dormitory one night in the autumn of 1989 when the conversation unexpectedly turned to religion. We were all still getting to know one another, and this was the first time this particular topic came up. After some sharing of our respective religious histories (or lack thereof), my new friend Clint asked this question: “Why would God create humans just to worship him?”

Without realizing it, Clint was in good company in asking that question. It turns out that when C.S. Lewis returned to the Christian faith of his youth sometime around 1929 or 1930, when he was thirty-one or thirty-two, this was his primary objection, one brought into stark relief as he perused the psalms.

In his 1958 book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes about how he came upon God’s commandment to praise God. If none of us cares to be in the company of a person who demands congratulations praise, how can we stand this behavior from God? He says, “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand… Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.” (1)

In this morning’s text, the author of Hebrews writes “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.” In these two sentences, this epistle asserts the faith in Christ and the worship of God are inextricably linked; the “sacrifice of praise” comes from the lips of those who believe in him, who “confess his name.” Worship, therefore, is the natural posture, the ordinary means of communicating to God for all Christian people.

There is a very old fable that tells the story of a scorpion and a frog that goes like this: “A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too. The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “I am a scorpion. It’s my nature.” (2)

And this is how it goes for those of us who believe as to why we worship. We are Christians. It is our nature. And yet, as Lewis did, we to find this answer facile and unsatisfactory. We, too, find ourselves like the frog, asking “Why?”

Why do we worship, anyway?

Like just about every other person in my field, I find myself observing the modern decline in worship attendance and wondering what, if anything can be done? At Reveille, our clergy and program staff are our worship’s fiercest critics. Each Monday, we dismantle each of the week’s worship services to see what could have been improved. How was the sermon? How was its interplay with the lyrics of the hymns, as well as the rest of the liturgy? Were there problems with the sound? How was the flow of the service itself? Were the transitions good? Was the worship immersive? Did it communicate the central thrust of the biblical text? Did the service go more than an hour? What could we have done wrong to cause this (a question the pastors of our partner churches in Swansboro find hilarious).

As tedious as this process of review can be, it is important that we do it in this disciplined fashion week after week after week as we plan again and again the worship life of this congregation, yet not for the reason that may first come to mind. At first glance, it may seem like we put so much thought into planning and evaluating worship because we want the worship to be good so people will attend. However, the problem with this thinking is that it is reductive, turning worship into a transaction, wherein your worship leaders are purveyors of a religious product that we hope and pray people like you will continually select, as your increasingly precious worship attendance is sold to the highest bidder, that is to the church with the most appealing product.

It is an awful way to think, one that quickly steals the joy from the rare privilege of crafting and leading Christian worship. In this scenario, the clergy feel like some kind of hybrid of Dale Carnegie and P.T. Barnum, half-persuader, half-showman.

And it is obscene.

We do not plan worship, we do not participate in worship, and we certainly do not pick it apart simply because we wish to give you what we think you want. We do it for the same reason you got up on a holiday weekend and came here this morning to participate in this strange and wonderful thing that we do: because God deserves it, and as such, we can do no other.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes “let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” In this short phrase are two critically important truths that we ignore at our peril. The first is that we do not merely worship God when we are together. We worship God continually. The second is that our worship of God is a “sacrifice,” a “sacrifice of praise.” Let’s consider these in order.

The Episcopalian priest Gray Temple writes of how “Souls that emerge from a worship service in which people actively admire and praise our Lord are in a somewhat fluid, molten state. The issue then is, how will my molten soul “set up”? Will I rush back into my normal routine, to be shaped once again by the world’s mold? Will I sit docilely in some class where a teacher or pastor tells me exactly what to believe and practice and exactly how to do it? That would be like pouring my molten soul into somebody else’s ice tray—and calling it ‘growth!’ Far better to gaze around the coffee hour for eyes equally ablaze and forge relationships with them, letting my self-in-transformation be shaped in our mutual discovery of Jesus’ high adventure.” (3)

Worship, then, is not merely something we do when we are together in the sanctuary. It is also something we do when we are apart as we scatter into the world. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote about Christian vocation, about a calling shared by clergy and laity alike, and how each thing we do throughout the day can be a little act of worship, if we do it for God’s glory. In such a world, worship is everywhere; in each changing leaf, in each brushstroke on a canvass, in each honest transaction, even in each changed diaper, each kind word spoken, in each act of compassion throughout our customary round.

Now, I can already hear the wise objection: if everything is worship, then nothing is. Not so! The worship we do out in the world as daily we live lives glorifying God are in indeed worship. However, they are all worship that compliments what we do here yet does not supplant it. The author of Hebrews opens today’s text with an entreaty to “Let mutual love continue” and goes on to list numerous ways in which our togetherness matters, and as such, worship is not merely an individual endeavor, just as Christian discipleship is not a purely individual way of life. To be a Christian is to live in community, and the natural posture of authentic Christian community is worship.

C.S. Lewis writes the following about his return to worship as a young adult: “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target.”

He continues, “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” “But as I went on,” he says, “I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” (4)

Which brings me to the cryptic phrase above: “a sacrifice of praise to God.” If worship is the natural fruit of the confession of our faith, it seems that worship should naturally flow from us. Our faith should inspire us to worship, and as such, worship should be easy, pleasurable even, but certainly not a sacrifice. To understand this, we have to return to where we just were, with this notion of worship being a “product,” and an entertaining product at that. There is a saying that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I am not so sure. I believe the devil’s greatest trick may have been convincing the church that worship is all about us, and as such, should be directed to our likes, our desires, our proclivities, our tastes.

If you spend enough time working in a church, the parlance of it becomes second nature. The paper you are handed as you enter worship is a bulletin, not a program. The area where the worship leaders stand is called the chancel and not the stage.

Our music director Daniel Banke recently taught me another bit of the parlance of Christian worship as we picked apart a worship service at one of our Monday staff meetings: he reminded us that the people in the pews are not the audience. They are the congregation, for God, and only God, is in the audience.

This is not pedantry. It is true and remembering it can help us to reorient how we think about what it means for the nature of the Christian to worship. An entertainment-obsessed culture has taught us that it is the duty of nearly everything, from our work, to our leisure, to even our education and our worship to entertain us. Frankly, our worship spaces tend to be set up so much like the theatre that in many ways, it reinforces this notion; we stand up here and do stuff. You sit out there and take it in.

Yet what if: what if we understood things differently. What if it were our belief that it is not just the people up in the chancel leading worship, but instead, worship was all of us and all we did together? What if the quality of the preaching or the beauty of the solo musician were but fragments of a much larger mosaic, a mosaic incomplete without the beauty of all of our voices weaving together, as we journey through the liturgy, as we sing, as we pray, as we speak, and as we are silent? And what if all of this, all of it, was directed away from us and towards a holy and living God?

It is why our being here matters. Like an orchestra missing instruments, our worship is lacking when we, the family of faith God has established in this place, are missing essential parts as we direct our praise to our audience of One.

It is like the old preacher joke which tells about a young man who became a priest and decided one day, early in his ministry, to call in sick to one Sunday morning so he could sneak away and play golf.  So he told the senior pastor that he was feeling sick and convinced him to say preach for him that day. As soon as the Associate Pastor left the room, the new young priest headed out of town to a golf course about forty miles away. This way he knew he wouldn’t accidentally meet anyone he knew from his church. Setting up on the first tee, he was alone.

At about this time, Saint Peter leaned over to the Lord while looking down from the heavens and exclaimed, “You’re not going to let him get away with this, are you?” God sighed, and said, “No, I guess not.” Just then the priest hit the ball and it shot straight towards the pin, dropping just short of it, rolled up and fell into the hole, a 500 yard hole-in-one! St. Peter was astonished. He looked at the Lord and asked, “Why did you let him do that?” The Lord smiled and replied, “Who is he going to tell?”

Which brings me back to where we began: why would God create people just to worship him? C.S. Lewis writes “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with . . . “ (5)

The Shorter Westminster Catechism describes the chief end of life as simply “To know God and enjoy him forever.” For Lewis, as for us, our joy in God is incomplete without praise.. He writes “Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” (6)

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be glad for all he has done for us, all of the grace, all of the love, all of the beauty and joy so generously heaped upon us, in times good and bad. As the psalmist writes, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

It is why we worship. We are Christians, the redeemed, the someday-to-be-sanctified. It is what we do. It is our nature.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (1st ed., 1958; reprint, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986), p. 80, 91.
[1] http://www.aesopfables.com/cgi/aesop1.cgi?4&TheScorpionandtheFrog (Despite the name of the website, this is not an Aesop fable).
[1] Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 722-727). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[1] C.S. Lewis God in the Dock.
[1] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 97.
[1] Ibid p. 97.

What is Faith? Hope For A Better World

FireEleventh Sunday After Pentecost – August 25, 2019

Hebrews 12:18-29

I have recently found myself thinking quite a bit about fire. It started a few weeks ago when all the smoke detectors in my house went off one morning soon after I arrived at work, necessitating a visit from the fire department who informed us that while our house was safe, this was the detectors’ way of informing us that they needed to be replaced, a last hurrah, if you will.

The second reason I have been thinking about fire lately is out of concern for the Amazon rainforest, which is burning at an alarming rate. There are currently nearly 40,000 fires burning across the Amazon, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the most rapid rate of burning in the last six years, since record-keeping began. The toxic smoke from the fires is so thick that the sky grows dark hours before the sun sets in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. The Amazon is the Earth’s largest tract of rainforest, featuring millions of species and billions of trees, and storing vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide while producing 6 percent of the planet’s oxygen.[i]

All of this thinking about fire led me to learn about what are called pyrophytic plants. Pyrophytes are plants that have adapted over long periods of time to tolerate fire. They fall into three major categories: passive pyrophytes, active pyrophytes, and pyrophile plants.

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What is Faith? A Sermon by Rev. Stephen Coleman

We did not capture the audio of this sermon by our associate pastor, the Rev. Stephen Coleman, so I am including his sermon on Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 here.

Screen ShotOur sermon series this month is entitled “What is Faith, wisdom from the Book of Hebrews.”  A little background before we get to our scripture this morning. The book of Hebrews is a bit of a mystery.  We do not know who wrote this book or when.  The book is more like a sermon than a letter.  The congregation that received this sermon is a bit of mess.  The preacher Thomas Long describes the congregation as “tired – tired of serving the world, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayers going.  Tired of walking the walk, many of them are thinking about taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from their faith.”  So much of the book of Hebrews is an attempt to encourage, revive, renew, rejuvenate this tired congregation. We come this morning to chapter 11 – perhaps the most well-known chapter in this book.  It is a chapter that defines faith and then lists the cloud of witnesses, the people who exemplified faith in their life.  To those of us who are tired, discouraged about life, the world, the church – we hope today and the next few weeks will rejuvenate, renew, inspire you as we move toward the end of summer to a new school year.  Join with me now as we read together and listen together to Hebrews 11, verses 1-3, 8 to 16.

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What is Faith? The Assurance of God’s Forgiveness

photoEighth Sunday After Pentecost – August 4, 2019

Hebrews 10:11-25

Before I share today’s epistle reading, and before I preach, I need to acknowledge something that permeates the room in which we find ourselves today, and that is the wonton, senseless violence by which our great nation is destroying itself. Since I became your lead pastor on July 1, 2014, if one only counts incidents with three or more deaths, mass shootings have claimed the lives of 505 people in this land. That number is more than the total number of people who will worship at our church on any Sunday that is not Easter. Applying the same criteria of only counting mass shootings with three or more deaths, the number of injured is 748, which is almost the capacity of our sanctuary.

Each year, Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School celebrates their baccalaureate service in our sanctuary, and each year since 2015, they have asked me to be one of the local faith leaders who speaks at this occasion. I would like to share with you this morning a bit of what I said to them:

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Joseph: Vice, Virtue, and the Technicolor Dreamcoat – Reconciliation

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothersSixth Sunday After Pentecost – July 21, 2019 – Genesis 45:1-15

One of the great gifts of this “summer of Joseph,” this sermon series and especially our youth production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been the ways in which they have brought this story from the book of Genesis to life for me. It has been such a gift. Until this summer, when I would study this text, the characters were generally faceless persons from a long, long time ago. Yet now, this is no longer true.

I realized while writing this sermon that for the rest of my life, even if I see other performances of this musical, as I read Genesis, Joseph will always look like Michael Schweiker does today. Pharaoh will always sound like Elvis, and he will always look like Connor McCluskey in a bedazzled white jumpsuit. Potiphar will always be a teenage Adam Smith, and Potiphar’s wife will always look and sound like Paige Mudd. Jacob will always resemble Andrew Bullock wearing a thick, grey beard. In my mind’s eye. Joseph’s brothers will always look and sound like our young people who played them, and their voices will always carry Virginia accents, with a little Cowboy, a little French, and some Calypso thrown in for good measure.

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Joseph: Vice, Virtue, and the Technicolor Dreamcoat – Betrayal

Picture1Fourth Sunday After Pentecost – July 7, 2019

Audio will be here.

Today is week two in our sermon series titled “Joseph: Vice, Virtue, and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Last Sunday, we explored the topic of jealousy. Today, we examine the story of the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers.

To recap: the story of Joseph begins in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph is the son of Jacob (also called Israel), and he has eleven brothers. Earlier in this chapter,  Jacob has made it clear that, of all his sons, he loves the seventeen-year-old Joseph the most, evidenced by a beautiful coat of many colors that he gifts Joseph and none of his brothers. After receiving the coat, Joseph has two dreams that apparently signify that one day, all of his brothers and even his parents will bow down before him. Joseph shares his dreams of superiority, infuriating everyone – especially his eleven brothers. To see just how infuriated these brothers are, I give you this morning’s text from Genesis 37:17-28:

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Joseph: Vice, Virtue, and the Technicolor Dreamcoat – Jealousy

Screen Shot 8Third Sunday After Pentecost – June 30, 2019

Genesis 37:1-11  – Audio will be here.

The story of Joseph begins in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Genesis. Joseph was the son of Jacob (also known as Israel) and Rachel, and he lived in Canaan with his large family – with his ten half-brothers, six of whom were born to Jacob’s wife Leah, one full brother born to Jacob’s wife Rachel, and at least one half-sister. Jacob’s twelve sons, born to a total of four women, became the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

It may have been because he was the firstborn of Rachel, Jacob’s true love, that Joseph was favored by his father Jacob, who provided him (and not any of his brothers) with a long coat of many colors. When Joseph was seventeen years old, he dreamed two dreams that angered his brothers and led to their plotting his demise. First, Joseph dreamed that, along with his brothers, he gathered bundles of grain. However, the brother’s bundles bowed to Joseph’s bundles.

In the second dream, the sun, which represented his father, and the moon, which represented his mother, along with eleven stars representing his brothers, bowed before Joseph. These dreams together served to signify that Joseph was somehow superior to the rest of his family. The coat of many colors was bad enough, but the dreams crossed the line, and Joseph’s brothers sought to do him in, something I will discuss next Sunday.

In today’s reading, we focus upon the “dreamcoat” and these dreams of Joseph’s supremacy, and the jealousy they caused. I have to say that when, months ago, I planned this sermon, it seemed as though it would be rather easy to preach a sermon on the topic of jealousy. However, when I actually sat down on Wednesday to write it, I quickly realized this was going to be a more difficult task than I first anticipated.

This is not a text where the preacher can simply point to paragons of faithful morality in the biblical narrative and proclaim to the congregation to go and do likewise. No one in this text is a paragon of virtue. Jacob does clearly favor one of his sons, and what is worse, he makes this unfortunate fact visible with the gift of the coat of many colors. Furthermore, Joseph is unquestionably (at least in this part of the story) completely full of himself. One would expect that the reaction he received to sharing his first dream of supremacy would have dissuaded him from sharing the second one, but no.

Thus, we cannot look to this text for an easy cure to favoritism, to the sins of pride and jealousy. Yet, I posit this is a good thing, good because easy answers to complex emotional problems always tend to be wrong, and as such, it may be that this text reminds us that the partner sins of pride and jealousy are inevitable, things we all wrestle with, matters as old as the human condition. The author of Ecclesiastes writes of there being “nothing new under the sun,” and this text show that when it comes to the problems of pride and envy, that Ecclesiastes is certainly correct.

Twelve years ago, I was selected to be part of a small group of Virginia Conference clergy to pilot a new program called Calling 21 which would provide internships in our churches to undergraduate students interested in pastoral ministry as a potential vocation. In this capacity, I was blessed to host four such interns, and then for about four more years, I led this program for the Conference.

My first intern was a nineteen-year-old student at James Madison University named Matt, and towards the end of his summer internship, Matt made a point of convincing me that, as a pastor, I had a responsibility to create an account with a relatively new social media service called Facebook. “Facebook is for college students, not people like me,” I protested.

“Facebook is about making connections,” he responded, “How can you as a pastor be against that?”

The first thing I ever saved money to buy was a Kodak camera that used what was called 110 film. The camera cost $15 dollars and each roll of film took about a dozen pictures, which you could not see until they were developed a week later by the photo-mat, which was when I would inevitably learn that in at least one photo, my finger was blocking the lens. One day, I thought it would be funny to take a picture while pointing the camera at my face. My mother saw me doing this and quickly reprimanded me: “Don’t do that, Doug. You are wasting film.”

I only tell you that story so that you know I took a selfie sometime around 1980, well before it was a thing.

So, at my intern’s prompting, I signed up for Facebook, the first in my entire family to do so. Initially, it was fun: I was able to reconnect with former parishioners and keep up with my current church members, celebrating their joys and, in some cases, learning of their pain. However, I have to admit that my main use for Facebook was searching for the names of people with whom I had gone to high school and college, not necessarily to reconnect, but so I could see how much they had aged compared to me.

If you are thinking to yourself, “Well, I certainly never did this,” I will remind you that you are in church and God can read your mind.

The next to join was my brother and years later my mother, who does not trust Facebook but who did not want to miss out either and who created an account in my father’s name for her to use, you know, just in case.

Aside from some of the obvious problems with the platform, hiding or “defriending” people with viewpoints found distasteful, the echo chamber nature of it, the way it enables you to be with people other than the people you are actually physically present with, over the years I began to have an uneasy relationship with all social medial and especially Facebook. Before I realized it, I was making a habit of comparing my everyday life with everyone else’s greatest hits album, which is what everyone posts. It began to seem like Facebook was all about oneupsmanship where everyone had to be more successful, happier, and having more fun than everyone else. It was as if everyone I knew was trying to share their dreams of everyone else’s bundles of grain, everyone else’s sun, moon, and stars bowing before their own.

Before I realized it, this was starting to affect me. I began to engage in the practice that I do not believe has ever ended well for anyone: comparing the struggles, the seeming banality of my life with the high-water marks of everyone else’s, and it made me question things. Why did my family go Sunset Beach instead of the Caribbean? Why didn’t I have such a wonderful weekend? Why didn’t one of my children win an award? Why did my colleague’s church have a larger Vacation Bible School than mine? Why don’t I look like that in a swimsuit? Look at all those pictures! And so on. For United Methodist clergy, this used to all happen on one day each year, the last day of Annual Conference when all of the pastoral appointments were released. Now it was happening throughout the day.

And all of the humblebragging: you can get away with sharing your wheat/sun/moon/stars/bowing-down dreams with the world, just as long as you preface it with the phrase “I am just so honored to…”

One Thanksgiving night, I was gathered with Tracy’s family when I pulled out my phone to do the one thing Facebook allows you to do, which is to see what everyone else is doing, when I saw a post by a colleague who shared how honored he was to be celebrating Thanksgiving at the Bishop’s house.

This really surprised me. I don’t even know where the bishop’s parsonage is, and I found it strange that, of all the clergy in the Virginia Conference, Bishop Cho was inviting people over for Thanksgiving. Well la-de-da, I thought, before wondering if anyone else was invited over to the bishop’s house for dinner, and how one managed to be included on such an exclusive guest list.

It was then that I remembered that my colleague’s wife’s maiden name is Bishop, and that his family was with her family, and it was then that I remembered that he pulls this gag on Facebook every year.

It is a more serious issue than I am making it sound, especially for our young people. Studies are being published linking social media to mental health issues, like a blasting cap set to detonate a mid-life crisis regardless of how old you actually are. According to the American Psychological Association, research is showing sharp spikes in the number of young adults and adolescents reporting negative psychological symptoms, especially for those born in 1995 or later. Perhaps coincidentally or not, the greatest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011, which coincides with the time when social media exploded on the scene.[i]

“’We found a substantial increase in major depression or suicidal thoughts, psychological distress, and more attempted suicides after 2010, versus the mid-2000s, and that increase was by far the largest in adolescents and young adults,’” said Jean Twenge, lead author of the book iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University”…[Furthermore] the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased a staggering 47 percent from 2008 to 2017.” There are also correlations between the rise of social media and the amount of sleep young people are getting, and there are proven relationships between sleep and mental health. [ii]

Granted, correlation is not causation. It may be that young people who have symptoms of anxiety or depression simply spend more time on social media. However, the bottom line is that studying how this constant comparing of ourselves to others, this ability to quickly quantify our worth by the endorphin rush of favorites and “likes” is an emerging field, one we ignore at our peril.

I have attempted to delete my Facebook account, but always came back because I missed hearing from people. I tried to at least delete it from my phone, only to reinstall it in a few days for the same reason. I even once installed a web browser extension that blocked everyone’s posts but mine so I could post sermons online without getting drawn into everyone else’s story but immediately uninstalled it because in principle, it seemed to only bring out the worst in me.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the longest and truly best stories of the Bible, as we will see in the weeks to come. It is tremendous storytelling, even for those who do not believe in God. In it, we encounter the foibles of human nature, betrayal, grief, struggle, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Today’s text, where no one is or seems to be capable of being the hero, begins a story that can only be redeemed by God’s grace, and it is redeemed in a most beautiful way, as we will see as this sermon series unfolds, as well as when our youth perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat next month.

I believe that this story has endured for so long both because it holds a mirror before us and forces us to see ourselves as we are while also giving us hope for all we can be with God’s help and grace. Yes, in today’s text we find in Joseph an obnoxious seventeen-year-old braggart and yes, next Sunday, his brothers seriously overreact to Joseph being so full of himself, and yes, Jacob is by no means a model parent.

And yet, that may be the true essence of the beauty of this story. Joseph’s family is just as messed up as families can be, including yours and mine. Still, they work it out because in the end, they do love each other, and love carries the day because in the end, God really is with us, working in and through us and all of our imperfect situations, including all of the stuff we would never post, like, subscribe, or favorite.

In recent weeks, I have tried to change how I relate to social media. Instead of calculating my self-worth by regularly regarding how I stack up to everyone else, I have tried to turn the tools of social media which, used properly can do so much good, into tools of encouragement. I began this experiment at Annual Conference. When my colleague preached a fantastic sermon at the memorial service for the lay and clergy members who have died in the last year, I used Twitter to praise him for it. When my colleague did a magnificent job maintaining the strictures of the Rules Committee, I made sure to thank him by name. When another colleague presided over what was, by far, the smoothest delegate voting I have ever witnessed, I made sure to tell her. When Bishop Weaver came out of retirement to preside in Virginia for six months while Bishop Lewis is on medical leave and did a truly wonderful, pastoral, loving job, I posted that, too. When I got home, I was able to post thanks and congratulations to the team who planned our beautiful Conference worship.

As I did this, something amazing happened inside of me. Instead of wondering why I was not on the stage, I praised the work of those who were. Instead of wondering why I was not one of the preachers, I celebrated those who were. Instead of comparing myself and my thoughts to those who spoke, I listened carefully and responded with kindness to those who did.

The more I did this, the more I built others up and the less time I spent questioning the motives and positions of others, the less I found myself questioning, doubting even, my own. I even found myself celebrating what others were celebrating and trying to find ways to bless those who shared stories of struggle. I have begun to try to be truly mindful in my use of social media, to make it less about how I feel and more about how I can make others feel. I have tried making Facebook less about my face and more about what I can see, both the joy and the pain, in the faces of others.

And it has made all the difference.

There is a saying that I love that I have said from this pulpit before, that “you should only look into your neighbor’s bowl to make sure she has enough.” I am not perfect, and I have a long, long way left to go, but I have found that if I remind myself that people I love are on the other side of those pixels, it makes me think and act differently towards them, and by learning to be a blessing, I have learned what it means to be blessed.

So then, perhaps the way to address envy is to prevent it from gaining a toehold to begin with, as I see myself in the story of Joseph and all of those brothers. Perhaps Joseph may want to consider logging in and deleting a few posts, or at least those posts about the wheat, and the sun, moon, and the stars. And perhaps the hope for all of us comes from the fact that each of us, as well as the people we love, are more than the sum of our experiences, both the good and the bad. Each of us is a beloved child of God, each of us “fearfully and wonderfully made,” each of us, bearing the image and the mark of the divine. The challenge, therefore, is to seek that divine image in others, always and everywhere, waiting for us, if only we are willing to look.

 

Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

[i] https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/social-media-linked-rise-mental-health-disorders-teens-survey-finds-n982526
[ii] Ibid.

The Visible Christian: Boasting in Our Hope

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Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019

Romans 5:1-8

Eighteen years ago this month, I was attending Annual Conference in Virginia Beach and excited about reaching my final level of ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Yet at dinner on the first night, I began to have severe abdominal pain that, as I lay alone in my hotel room, became unbearable. I would later describe it as “like being sawed in half.” I called the hotel’s front desk to ask the location of the nearest emergency room, only to be told by the person on the other end of the line that he “was not from here and had no idea.”

I was somehow able to drive myself to Virginia Beach General Hospital where I was admitted to the emergency room, where doctors would mistakenly diagnose me with a kidney stone. I remember writhing on the gurney, waiting for the Demerol to kick in, waiting for Tracy to arrive from Newport News, trying to make sense of what was happening to me.

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For the Baccalaureate Service of Maggie Walker L. Governor’s School, 2019

maggie-l-walker-governors-school-logo-smJune 13, 2019

A hearty congratulations to the Maggie Walker Governor’s School Class of 2019. I pray God’s richest blessings upon each of you as you reach this tremendous milestone in your lives. All of the work, the late nights, the tests, quizzes, exams, homework, projects, classes, and lectures are finally and gloriously done. No more pencils, no more books, etc., etc., etc.,

I would like to begin my remarks this evening by acknowledging that our gathering is smaller in number that we hoped and prayed it would be with the passing of your classmate Eli Greer two years ago. In his honor, I would like to share a poem with you. I had already planned to read one stanza and discuss it, but tonight it seems fitting to read it in its entirety. The poem is one of my favorites, a poem titled “To an Athlete Dying Young,” composed by the English poet A.E. Housman.

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