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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The Visible Christian: Revealing Christ to an Unbelieving World – Week 3: The Language of God

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Pentecost Sunday – June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21

Anyone who is a chemist (or anyone who has paid close attention to the television program Breaking Bad) is certainly familiar with the term chiral or chirality. In chemistry, chirality refers to a geometric property of some molecules and ions are asymmetric in a way such that the structure and its mirror image are not superimposable. Human hands are perhaps the most universally recognized example of chirality. In fact, the word chiral is derived from the Greek word for “hands.” It was a term first used my Lord Kelvin, who used it in a lecture at Oxford in 1893.[i]

Today is Pentecost, the Sunday fifty days after Easter when Christians celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire given to the eleven disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem. This Sunday that falls each year after Ascension Sunday is considered to be the birth of the Christian church. As such, Pentecost services often feature red paraments and stoles, yellow and orange flowers, images of wind (wind and spirit derive from the same word), and the chaotic sounds of people speaking many different languages at once, as the disciples did on that Pentecost day two thousand years ago.

Today I would like to discuss the chirality of Pentecost – how it is the mirror image of important events in the Hebrew Bible, and how these Jewish roots of Pentecost are so very important for how we understand what Pentecost means for how we understand what it means to be the church and its visible witnesses today.

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The Visible Christian: Learning to Walk

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Sixth Sunday in Easter — May 26, 2019 – John 5:1-18

The sermon series that begins today is titled “The Visible Christian: Revealing Jesus to an  Unbelieving World.” It begins with today’s text for this reason: Christians today can be a more potent, more powerful witness to the world to our foundational belief in the presence of God in the midst of the word today when we cease to fear what God is doing in our midst, when we trust that God is with us in the midst of sometimes terrifying change, and when our witness to the world is a witness that attests to God’s power manifest in God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love, and when that love is manifest in not only our relationships with one another, but in our proclamation to the world.

Before I read today’s text, I need to make something clear: one of the facets of John’s gospel is that he uses the term “the Jews” to describe the religious leaders who are in opposition to Jesus’ ministry on earth. John does not mean this as a blanket term for all Jewish people, in his day or ours. Jesus was Jewish. The man who he heals in today’s reading is Jewish. As such, today’s text is a critique of religious leadership, not a critique of Judaism.

I like to think of myself as a man who is somewhat unafraid of change, but years ago, just before Christmas, a man who was the relative of fifteen of the members of the church I was serving at the time died and was to be buried in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. When I learned the date and time of his funeral, I decided to go. I charted my course: route 460 west to Troutville, just outside of Roanoke. From there it was 81-south to Abingdon where I would turn north, and head to the little, snow-covered coal-mining town nestled in the mountains.

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What the Bible Does Not Say: Pray As Though Everything Depends Upon God. Live As Though Everything Depends Upon You

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Fifth Sunday After Easter – May 19, 2019

Jeremiah 1:1-10

“Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars… I will not forget thy word. Amen.”

On November 23, 1654, sometime between 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., a thirty-two-year-old Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian experienced an intense religious vision and immediately wrote those words. He carefully sewed them into his coat and transferred them whenever he changed his clothes, something accidentally discovered by a servant after his death.

In religious circles, Pascal is best known for an influential theological work published after his death at thirty-nine called the Pensées or “Thoughts” (he originally planned to title the work “Defense of the Christian Religion”). First published in 1670, Pensées is widely considered a masterpiece of French prose and is the work that gave us what is known as “Pascal’s wager,” which I would like to discuss this morning.[i]

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What the Bible Does Not Say: God Needed Another Angel

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Fourth Sunday in Easter – May 12, 2019

Luke 5:17-26

The original working title for this sermon series “What the Bible Does Not Say” was actually “Bad Theology.” I thought that, in many ways, it would be fun to promote, as in “Come back to worship at Reveille after Easter for some bad theology!”

I perhaps could have gotten away from it were it not for this morning’s sermon, which engages the saying “God needed another angel.” In considering this series as a whole, I realized that much of what I was only half-seriously labeling “bad theology” are actually sayings that have brought people measures of comfort during exceedingly difficult days. It may have helped someone frame a painful time in life to tell themselves “Everything happens for a reason.” The saying “The Lord helps those who help themselves” may have provided just the right motivation for someone to do something important, and imagining a dearly departed loved one as an angel among the angels of the heavenly host may have been all that enabled you to survive an inexpressibly painful loss.

So then, if God has used these extra-biblical sayings to bless you in some important way, then I say, “Glory to God.” However, given what each of these platitudes articulates, were they true, about the nature of who our God truly is, I would strongly warn against saying them to someone else, and this is no truer about any of them than the one I am addressing this morning.

When I was twenty-four and in my second year of seminary, I was the student associate pastor of a small congregation in rural western North Carolina. One night, a couple in the church invited me to their home for dinner, and afterward we sat in the living room and talked. I was aware that this couple had, in the not too distant past, tragically lost an infant. I knew this because they were very open about it. Yet as we sat in the front room, with its white walls, white carpet, and white furniture, the mother looked me in the eyes and said, “The reason I am a Christian is so that when I die, I can walk through those heavenly gates to the heavenly nursery and get my daughter back.”

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What the Bible Does Not Say: The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themseles

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Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019 – Mark 9:14-29

The Lord helps those who help themselves. According to the demographer and pollster George Barna, the statement “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves” had the following results in a February, 2000 poll:

  • 53% of Americans (in general) agree strongly
  • 22% agree somewhat
  • 7% disagree somewhat
  • 14% disagree strongly
  • 5% stated they don’t know.

Of (self-described) “born-again” Christians:

  • 68% agreed
  • 81% of non “born-again” Christians agreed with the statement.

Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.

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The Bridge: A Sermon For Easter

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John 20:1-18

When did death first invade your life?

When I was ten and in the fifth grade at Pinchbeck Elementary, our teacher Miss Gill used to read to us after the chaos that was lunch to calm us down and re-center our attention for afternoon lessons. One of the books she chose to read to us was the Katherine Paterson novel Bridge to Terabithia.

The novel is set in rural Virginia and tells the story of Jess Aarons, a fifth-grade boy with four sisters who trains all summer with the goal of becoming the class’ fastest runner, only to be surpassed by Leslie Burke, the new girl who has just moved to town. Jess and Leslie soon become dear friends, spending their free time swinging on a rope across a local creek to an imaginary kingdom where they reign as king and queen called Terabithia. One morning, Jess leaves town on a trip to the Smithsonian with the school’s art teacher, Miss Edmunds without first telling Leslie and only telling his mother while she was half-asleep and unaware of what he was saying.

We had just returned from the cafeteria to the classroom like every other day. We took our seats and Miss Gill sat atop a stool center-left of the dark green chalkboard at the front of the class and opened the book to read chapter ten of Terabithia to us, a chapter titled “The Perfect Day.” In it, Jess returns from a joyous day studying art at the Smithsonian, and he is dropped off at the end of the road by Miss Edmunds.

Miss Gill continued reading:

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Courage to Believe: The God Who Needs

 

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Palm Sunday – April 14, 2019 – Luke 19:28-40

For nine years, I served as the pastor of a United Methodist congregation in a small town that had a proud tradition known as the annual Fourth of July parade. Organized by the volunteer fire department, the parade welcomed anyone who wished to be a part, including fire trucks and ambulances with sirens blaring, tractors, simple floats made from flat-bed trailers pulled behind pickups, different community organizations marching while carrying signs indicating who they were, including churches advertising vacation bible schools, and the local chapter of the Lion’s Club in their yellow polos with the brooms they sold to raise money, sweeping the road and spinning their brooms in a carefully choreographed manner.

Of course, as though it were an unwritten rule, each group in the parade threw buckets of individually wrapped candy towards the crowds who lined the sidewalks along the roughly two-mile route, candy quickly grabbed and devoured by the local children before it melted on the hot asphalt. As adults have throughout history, we teach our children three cardinal rules: do not run into the street, do not eat things that have fallen on the ground, and do not take candy from strangers. Yet for one glorious day each year, children were permitted, if not encouraged, to do all three at the same time.

It was wonderful.

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Courage to Believe: The Cost of Discipleship

Fifth Sunday of Lent – April 7, 2019

Philippians 3:4b-14

Screen Shot 1.pngThe Screwtape Letters is a Christian apologetics novel written by C. S. Lewis, and first published in book form in 1942. The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as “the Patient.” The body of the letters that comprise the book has Screwtape giving Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in his Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine, and in doing so, the book provides a series of lessons in the importance of taking a deliberate role in living out Christian faith.

One of these letters depicts Screwtape, advising the apprentice devil Wormwood that moderation is one of the keys to avoiding the Christian faith: “Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things.’ If you can get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all, and more amusing.”

This morning’s text would make Screwtape shudder. This is not a text about moderation.

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