Prophet, or Profit? Mark 8:31-38

This sermon was delivered on February 25, 2018, the second week of Lent. It’s a personal favorite of mine, so I hope you enjoy it.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One[b] will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

 

 

What will it profit you to gain the whole world, but forfeit your whole life?

These words have haunted me this week. They’ve haunted me for the past few weeks, honestly. I think frequently about the state of the church, the history of the church, and most importantly, the future of the church. Where are we headed? And is where we are headed look anything like the future Jesus had in mind for us, the Kingdom of Heaven?

Quite frankly, I dwell often on language because language defines thought. As such, this passage haunts me particularly, because of that one word, that one, simply little homonym for which I have named my sermon. Profit, with an F.

We don’t see that word often at all in scripture. Prophet with a “ph”? Everywhere. But not with an F.  It sticks out like a sore thumb, and for good reasons.

I have some bad news for everyone today: Scripture does not think highly of profit with an F. In fact, it is quite vocally against it. Just a brief look at a word search for “profit” in the bible is very telling.

How-To-Get-Rich-in-MLM1 Timothy 6:17-19: As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Proverbs 11:4: Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.

Ezekiel 22:12-14: “In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD. 

That’s just 3 of them. There are hundreds of them. More often than not, as well, translators equate “profit” with “dishonest gain.” And what is dishonest gain, but cheating other people out of their money through devious or cunning means? Surely there are those who make money honestly, of course, but more often than not, humanity seeks to gain the most wealth through the least effort, and often the least effort is through dishonesty.

Proverbs even calls out this dynamic: the best and most righteous gains, monetary or otherwise, are earned through hard work, not idleness, talk, or cheating. But these odes to honest profit are vastly outweighed by talk of dishonest gain.

On the other hand, Jesus here calls us to not seek self gain, but self-denial.

Jesus came as a prophet (ph) out of a long line of prophets. He spoke more like and Old Testament preacher, like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. He was the direct successor of John the Baptist, who called people to pay fair wages, not cheat each other, to share resources. It shouldn’t surprise anyone then that he wants us to follow the words of a Prophet (ph) rather than follow Profit (f).

This passage confronts us with an important question: do you have your mind set on God’s things, or on human things? Are you interested in earthly gain, or heavenly glory? Is what we have here and now more important than what we will experience in the hereafter? Is there any risk in your religion? Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?

An Honest Look at the History of the Profits of the Church

bible-and-money.jpgNow, a subject I love almost as much as I love language is history. As I said earlier, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the church, and its history. The thing with history, though, is that with a subtle shift of perspective, the whole thing can look completely different.

358985794.jpgThink for a moment on one of the most famous pieces of art ever made, Michelangelo’s David. The perspective from which most people see it portrays a young man, cocksure, ready to take on a giant with only the swagger that a young teen could ever muster. But if you don’t look up at the statue, but rather stare into David’s eyes at eye level, head on… his look has a different quality to it. Sure, there’s ferocity in the gaze, some would even call it a sneer, but there’s also an intangible sense of dread, or even doubt, that perhaps he’s taken on too much. It’s a masterful piece of work, to evoke that kind of emotion out of stone, but it illustrates the idea well: from a different perspective, what we take as the authorized version of things can sometimes appear differently.

So, allow me to take you through the history of the church, and along with it, the central question: Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?

In its earliest iteration, the church was a small but powerful–and growing entity. It attracted rich and poor alike, gentile and Jew–up until a point, of course, when the gentiles outnumbered the Jewish population of the church. They operated, largely, as the book of acts describes: small house congregations, care for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the widow and the orphan alike. Christianity was also a non-governmentally recognized religion–which by itself means little, but one of the key aspects of Christian faith is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, meaning that Caesar, the Emperor is not. There was a high risk that you would undertake being a Christian. You might actually die because of your faith.

After around the turn of the 2nd century, controversies arose, and internal conflict became public debates about philosophy. The focus of Christianity, and the church, became a thinking-person’s exercise, and moved away from public action and into the academies. Faith became a philosophy. Still, it was relatively small, and on the ground level, not much had changed. The goal had not shifted–sharing the gospel remained central. Risk still existed.

Then, in 313, something remarkable happened: the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, declared that this small sect of Christianity was no longer just some rogue cult, but an officially recognized religion. Loving Jesus became legal. That shift is critical, because it began the church’s slow turn away from the PH Prophet angle, and toward something different. The church became an institution, and could live in the open. More people with more money began flooding the church. It then became the only church of Rome. And thus, the face of Christianity was altered. The goal was now state Power, for a good deal of the leadership. People were no longer killed for being Christian. Quite the opposite, actually. Over time, if you weren’t Christian, you were killed. Quite a shift in priorities. The F started overtaking the PH.

Fast forward about 1200 years.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli and his cohort, began a Reformation. Now there was no monolithic church, but several smaller denominations. The key thing to remember at this point though was that these denominations were still allied with the State, and so each State–like France, Germany, England, etc.–had their own religious affiliation. Wars broke out over variances in doctrine. Now, it was Christian killing Christian. At this point, the F and the PH were nowhere in sight.  However, you could reasonably be killed because of your faith. The twist here is that your killer could also be a Christian. Christianity was a tool of the state completely.

When the early American colonists began our iteration of Christianity, they did so with these religious wars fresh in their minds.

The religious separatists, the Puritans, wanted a place to live their faith out free of persecution from the state religious authorities–what a noble pursuit! From there, the founding fathers remembered that noble thought and enshrined it in the first amendment–that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  The state will have no official religion, nor will it infringe on your practice of religion, or lack thereof. But already, there was a growing change in the way we performed religion, one that would not be felt until the 20th century. This is what I like to call the “religious industrial complex.”

Religion ceased to be like a state institution, or a bureaucracy, or even a wing of the military. Instead, it resembled something much looser, and much more American in flavor: Business. The denominations ceased to be like warring nations, and much more like competitive businesses in a marketplace. Each religion was given the space to either sink or swim on its own, without state help–which in turn, led to some interesting evolutions.

Soon, we began to see the rise of denominational bodies adopting decentralized structures, not too unlike that of a franchise. Advertising became the primary means of evangelism for a great many denominations as well. All the way up into today, the church has positioned itself is much more like a business than anything else, because why not? If business is successful, why not emulate the practices of business so that the church can be successful as well?

And that, brothers and sisters is where it all breaks down.

Through each iteration, the church loses just a bit more of the plot, the purpose, the reason Jesus himself came down, and saving action he took on the cross. See, there was a reason I wanted to spend so much on the history of the church from this angle–to show you how easy it is to lose sight of the word of God. The church kept changing with the times, sometimes for the better, but often times, for the worst. Each iteration may have had good ideals–be it the desire to not die, the desire to spread salvation to everyone on the continent, or to be successful in their mission. But the definition of success is different for each iteration. Success for a university looks different than success for a nation. Success for a nation looks different than success for a business. And each iteration gains something that isn’t what Christ told us to gain. Each version seeks a profit, often through unholy means. But Christ told us of this very danger–what profit is it to gain the world, but lose yourself? Your very soul?

A Call to Repentance

Brothers and sisters, this is not an easy word to deliver, but it is one that it is on my heart to ask you as an individual–do you care more about profit with an F, or THE prophet, the one with a PH?

Dimes-1170x780.jpgIt is my belief that the church has lost the plot. We have forgotten what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. We’ve gotten too caught up in the struggle for power, for prestige, for success, and yes, for profit, to remember that none of that matters when compared to what Christ accomplished on the cross. We’ve been caught up in talk of competition, or fear of irrelevance, or the loss of our public place in the world. All of it shrinks before the reality of death, and the power of the resurrection. All of it means less than nothing when compared to the reality of the Messiah, and the good news he bears for your soul.

Jesus gave up everything so that we may have salvation. He calls us to give up everything for the glory of that salvation. Success for the church should not look like worldly success. We need to stop thinking like humans, and start thinking like God does. That means we need to think sacrificially. That means we need to think benevolently. We need to be loving. We need to be truthful. We need to be peaceable in the face of violence, and not be afraid of death, of risking everything. We must, or we will go to the throne one day, and Christ himself will ask us once again–what did it profit you to gain the whole world and to lose your soul?

So do you care more about Profit, with an F? Or do you care about the Prophet, with a PH? May you find your answer, and may it be wise. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

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Alive in the Spirit, 1 Peter 3:13-22

This sermon was delivered February 18, 2018, the first Sunday of Lent. It was also delivered only 4 days after the Parkland High School Massacre.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.

 

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city’s hospitals.

tutoring-3.jpgOne day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child’s name and room number and talked briefly with the child’s regular class teacher. “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now,” the regular teacher said, “and I’d be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn’t fall too far behind.”

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, “I’ve been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs.” When she left she felt she hadn’t accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. “No, no,” said the nurse. “You don’t know what I mean. We’ve been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
(source: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/h/hope.htm)

lent_6316c.jpgBrothers and sisters, welcome to Lent.

There are no flowers on the altar. There are no alleluias in the music. The season is often cold, damp, and grey. The world seems dead, and we are fasting in repentance and humility. For all appearances, we might imagine that things were grim, like the boy in the hospital.

And yet…we are alive. And because we are alive, we have hope.

This Lent, I’m going to focus on a lot of different idea, different scriptures from different places, because there is a wide diversity of emotions, concepts, and conflicts that emerge in times of repentance and reflection.

Today, I want to focus on hope. Specifically, hope in hopeless situations. Using the example of Christ, we have hope that springs eternal, because even as he was put to death, death could not constrain him. The Spirit gave him life, and so we through him and the Spirit, we are alive as well.

newsEngin.21372775_20180215-gsl-Shooting-_014.jpgA World of Persecution and Darkness

We are given hope, despite the world seeming to be a place of darkness.

Especially after this week, the world seems very bleak. The murder of 17 children in a public school should be evidence enough of that. Words can’t express the pain or heartache that has been given witness by the families and classmates of those who lost loved ones this week.

But that isn’t the only darkness that exists. You know, one thing that has stuck with me is a word that a mentor of mine, Pastor Billy Watson, once gave me: Sin and evil are the most provable parts of Christian belief, because you only need to look outside your window to see it. Our world has been broken by sin, sin that we humans brought on ourselves in the beginning. Hatred, Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Apathy, and worst of all Pride, have corrupted this world, and we only have ourselves to blame.

What’s worse than that is when good folks are persecuted because of the good things they do.

I might have used his story before, but it illustrates the point well. In 2014, Arnold Abbot, a 90 year old Florida man, alongside two pastors and a host of volunteers, began feeding the homeless from their neighborhood. That is, until, they were arrested. A city ordnance was enacted to ban public sharing of food in  Fort Lauderdale, and Abbot along with the clergy were arrested for 60 days, and fined $500 each. For feeding the homeless. It boggles the mind how these ordnances came to pass. The only reason I have is the one Abbot himself gave: “Man’s inhumanity to man.” (source: https://www.local10.com/news/local/fort-lauderdale/police-charge-90-year-old-man-2-pastors-with-feeding-homeless-)

Now I know what you’re thinking: obviously it’s Florida that’s the problem. All joking aside, it really isn’t. There are ordnances in many more major cities like that, that instead of helping the poor, criminalize both the poor, and those who would help them.

It goes beyond the homelessness problem, too. I know many a pastor arrested because they simply joined a protest they believed in, and wanted to help out, whether it be for women’s rights, against corruption in the government, or whatever honest, good causes they believed in. They suffered because of their righteousness.

Sadly, that is what happens to good in this world. Evil naturally wants to eliminate it, because darkness cannot stand the light. The forces of wickedness will always oppose light, in every way it can, both subtly, and overtly. It will even use the tools of good, such as law and order, to enact evil. That is how evil attempts to win: to make it look like defeat is inevitable, and there is no hope.

pink-and-purple-dawn-brian-wright.jpgHope Springs Eternal From the Spirit

But of course, there is always hope, because the Spirit is always with us.

Christ was the most righteous of us all. Christ did everything so that we might see the light, understand it, and share it with the world. He healed on the Sabbath–doing good, despite those who would use the law against him so that the light would not shine.

Christ shared the light with the fishermen, the sick, the lame, the possessed and the dispossessed alike. He shared his hope with the disabled, and gave healing to the desperate. He offered forgiveness even to the most sinful among us, to the chagrin of the righteous. He turned over the tables in the temple to send a message about the corruption of his religion, an act of civil disobedience if I ever saw one. And for these good deeds, he was persecuted. More than that, he was executed.

First, he was killed by the court of public opinion. Those in power turned the people that clamored for him, supported him, and shouted hosannas to him, against him. They made him into a villain worse than an accused murderer. And then they had him hanged to death on a cross, an ignoble and shameful means of death.

And yet, despite all of that, he persevered. Three days later, he was raised from the dead, and offered to us all new life in the spirit.

Not even the worst that the evil of the world could do would keep him down. And so for us, we have that same Spirit. Nothing can keep God out. Those who do evil in the world, and seem to have extinguished all hope, can never extinguish the fire of the Spirit. Which is why you must bear the light, even in the darkness of Lent.

Resurrection is coming. Flowers will bloom. Day will dawn. The clouds will disappear. And we, through the waters of baptism will be made clean, not just from dirt and grime, but clean in the Spirit. We will be given new life. We are not doomed. They wouldn’t teach verbs and nouns to a dying boy, and Jesus would not die for a hopeless creation. We are alive in the Spirit, on fire with hope. It’s on you, now, to share that hope everywhere. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Humility: A sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2018

This sermon was delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Though we are in a very different season of the church right now (the middle of summer is quite a ways off from when this was given), it’s still beneficial to think on the subject of repentance, because it’s never the wrong time to admit fault, and be transformed by grace. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation.[a] Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!

We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love,telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, 10 as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.

(2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10)

 

Ash-Wednesday-400x400Today is a most peculiar holiday.

As the world around us celebrates St. Valentine’s day, giving gifts and celebrating romantic love, you have chosen to come to church to embrace a ritual, an observance that St. Valentine would very much have approved of, much more than giving chocolate or flowers. Today, we celebrate Ash Wednesday, and undergo a season of prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving.

The practice of wearing ashes is a very old one, older than the church itself. Wearing ashes is a traditional Jewish practice, one used as a way of signifying to the rest of the world that you are in a state of repentance, fasting and sacrifice. We carry on the tradition, not out of blind obligation or because we always do it, but because this practice is important. The reasoning for it is in 2 Corinthians.

Ambassadors of Christ

Scripture can often feel like it is sending mixed signals when we come to the topic of public displays of faith.

The psalms tell us that God does not desire a sacrifice of a goat or a bull, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Joel tells us to rend not our garments, to not tear up our clothes in public as a show of faith, but be heartbroken instead. Jesus even makes a point of the showy religion of the Pharisees, and tells us instead to pray in secret, to give without thinking about it or saying anything, and to fast without telling anyone.

So to have ashes on our heads seems to fly in the face of those scriptures. Jesus says to fast in secret, but we put something on our heads to show the world that we’re fasting. Why do we do it then?

gettyimages-134366858-c2455e22f5d36ca774dc265f179327a33d22dd1b-s900-c85We do it because, as Paul says, we are ambassadors of Christ.

With ash on our faces, we have an opportunity to share our faith with the world in a way that is not self-aggrandizing, self-important, or self-centered in any way. Ashes represent the dust of the earth, the dust that we are all destined to return to when we die. Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we have a limited time in this life to repent and turn towards God. Our life is finite–God is infinite. Living in the glory of God gives us salvation, a way to live after death, and be resurrected. In the meantime, though, we are reminded of our limitations, and in the face of the fully glory of God, we are compelled to honor him.

Lent is a season of praise, believe it or not. It’s praise through action. In giving up something important to us, in refraining from luxury, in giving of our gifts both monetary and otherwise, we praise God. We give him the sacrifice of thanksgiving that God truly desires, and truly deserves.

1200px-Crossofashes.jpgSo as an ambassador of Christ, we are a witness to the world on Ash Wednesday.

We witness to the world that we are not holier than them, but that we are in need of holiness. We do not lord our fasting over anyone, but instead confess that we have been given much, and that we have been ungrateful, and need to reflect upon the blessings God has given to us.

Our witness will not go unnoticed. If someone sees the ashes on your head, that means that you have been marked for accountability, by all of us. We must bear each other up, every burden and every sin. We all bear the weight of our own crosses, as we walk towards Easter and the resurrection. As we wander in our wilderness in Lent, we walk not alone, but together. When we bear Christ on our heads, it is not a show of self-importance, but a cry for help. God, we need you, and we need you now. All of us. I need God. You need God. It’s a mark of humility. It’s a mark of thankfulness. It’s a mark of repentance.

Repentant, and Humble

And that’s the kicker. Lent is a time of repentance. And we are called to humility.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about you. None of this is. That’s the whole point. Faith, religion, devotion–this is not about us. It’s about God. It’s about becoming more like God, and centering our lives around God. Lent is a preparation for God’s full glory revealed in the resurrection. We must remove ourselves from the center of our world, because our lives are temporary. God is eternal.

So this day, remember that we are to live as ambassadors for Christ. We must be devoted to the Gospel. Today, this day, repent, and believe in the Gospel. Amen.

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The Terror and the Beauty, Mark 9:2-9

This sermon was delivered on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018. Enjoy!

–The Nerdcore Theologian

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them,and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One[a] had risen from the dead.

 

CatLionMirror.jpgTransfigurations are big business today.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want one, including me. That’s how advertising works: want a change? We can sell you a change! We can make you into a new you, for the low low price of…whatever, you get the idea. But  Sometimes the change is not just in looks but in our whole image — including our name.

Issur Danielovitch Densky didn’t like the image his name projected, so he changed it to Kirk Douglas. In the same way, Frances Gum transfigured herself and her image into Judy Garland. Archibald Leach became Cary Grant. And would you have paid money to see Marion Morrison in the movies? Maybe, but Marion didn’t take that chance, he became John Wayne.

Remember that in Holy Scriptures many people got new names to go with a new life and a new image. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Saul became Paul. Simon became Peter, “The Rock.”

What I mean to say is that Transfigurations are not the exception. They are the rule.

We are all being altered in the appearance of our face, our countenance. We are all changing. To live is to be continually transfigured. So who are you becoming? (Source: https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-bobby-scobey-stories-change-transfiguration-72630)

Are you being changed into someone that reflects the glory of God? Or are you changing to become someone different, something fearful, someone unwilling to embrace change in the world? Is your heart more loving, or is it hardening, becoming more like a stone?

Jesus went on the mountain with his disciples to show them something miraculous. It was beautiful, but also terrifying–as is the nature of change. Change can scare us. But we must not be afraid. We must be bold enough to embrace the changes that God is making to us, and walk forward to carry out the mission God has for all of us.

3761.jpgThe Terror of it All

I’m quite fond of the story of the transfiguration for many reasons. One of them, is that it’s the topic of my first public sermon.

As such, it’s a topic that I have probably preached on the most, and each year I look forward to reliving the scripture. At the same time, there is fear in my heart regarding it: have I said before all that can be said about it? Is there anything left? Invariably, I do find new things to say about it, but still, fear is there.

It’s such a strange event after all. Jesus, taking three disciples up a mountain, and suddenly revealing himself in all of his godly glory to a chosen few, dancing with the two other biggest prophets in Jewish history. The voice of God the Father booming above them, commanding them to listen. Just describing the event in its stark detail is strange. It feels like encountering something from another world–which it is! And because of that, there’s the fear in the eyes of the disciples.

Peter of course is the one to speak up, and so it’s Peter we are meant to identify with.

It’s easy to identify with Peter, as he frequently inserts himself in the narrative. Mark has no problem with doing that with Peter, either: Peter is the exact person he’s modeled the narrative of Jesus and his disciples around. Peter constantly means well, but makes the wrong choice. He recognizes Jesus as the son of God, but fails to realize the grand purpose of the resurrection. He’ll be called the rock upon which the church will be built, and that rock, though well meaning, is flawed.

He sets the tone for the future of the church, and Mark uses that as a commentary. Peter witnesses this amazing event, this life-changing mystery, and he’s spellbound by it. The first idea he can come up with is an old one, one that given precedent by the Torah–let’s build some monuments. The word differs between translations–the CEB says “shrines”, but others will say “churches” or “dwelling places”–but the meaning remains the same: Let’s do what our ancestors did when something like this happened!  It makes sense, after all. This is history in the making! Why not make a monument?

But Jesus tells him no. This is a moment of change. And change requires us to respond differently.

Let’s not be afraid to do something new. Let’s not be afraid to move forward. WE can’t live on the mountain. We have to take this experience with us. We need to become a living monument to the transformational power of God. We can be overwhelmed, yes, but we can’t stay in a state of terror, petrified by God’s glory. We must move forward.

I like the quotation by Henry Drummond, the Scottish theologian when he said,

“God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.” The streams start in the mountaintops, but they come down to gladden the valleys below.

https://thedisciplers.com/illustrations-about-transfiguration/

things-to-do-in-napa-other-than-wine

I moved to this valley, Napa valley, to start something new. Where are you being led to start anew?

The Beauty of Moving Forward

The fear the disciples felt was real. God’s glory can be overwhelming. But the other half of the coin is the beauty of this moment, and the beauty we carry with us.

Think of the prophets that Jesus meets on the mountain. Moses was transformed when he saw God, so much so that his face shone like a star when he came down from the mountain, so bright that people had to shield their eyes. When Elijah encountered God in the small still silence on the mountain, it forever changed his ministry, and propelled him onward to choose a disciple, Elisha, to carry on his legacy. He didn’t stay on the mountain, he came down to keep going forward. The beauty changed him, and he used that beauty to change the world.

So we see these examples of people who didn’t fall back on the old way of doing things when faced with a life changing event. We see people who, when given the opportunity, embrace change.

In our church right now, we are faced with a mountaintop decision. Going forward, things are going to have to change. WE can’t rely on the old way of doing things in order to thrive. We’ve made strides in the past, but we can’t be complacent.

We’ve been praying over our pews, so that they would be filled. Now is the time to move forward and actively seek it in the world. We’ve been praying for our hearts to be kindled by deeper discipleship. Well guess what? Lent starts this week. What better time to make the change, embrace the glory of God, and move forward with that desire for a deeper relationship. We’ve been praying for ways to make an impact in our community. We can’t simply build up what we have–we must seek out new opportunities outside these church walls.

I could come up with ideas, but my time here is temporary. Such is the nature of the United Methodist itineracy, for good or for ill. We pastors are charged with caring over the ministry of word, service to the church, the sacraments of worship, and the order of church business so that we might make more disciples. It’s up to you all, then, to carry the torch. You are here to be transformed. You are here to take up a new name, and go into the world to share it.

So this day is the turning point. Change is upon you. You can be terrified by it, or awed by it, but don’t be petrified by it. Move. And God will move with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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God Shed His Grace: A meditation for Independence Day, 2018

I have a troubled relationship with patriotic “hymns.” More often than not, they are hymns to a mythic, imagined country, a history glossed over by a mirror shine of nostalgia and blind, unthinking devotion. That we would sing them on Sunday mornings in a worship service is something that has always made me uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an American, a citizen of these United States. I love this country, and I take my citizenship here very seriously. I try to stay up on current events. I  vote. I do what I can to be a part of this great experiment. But that being said, I make no secret my discomfort with rabid devotion and unthinking, uncritical patriotism. This is probably because I grew up in the 90’s, and saw how my country changed after 9/11/2001.

I’ve said this many times before, but I’ll share it again. I learned the news in my 9th grade geography class. I walked in, and for an hour, we watched the news as it unfolded. When I saw the towers fall, the first words that fell out of my shocked, numbed lips were “I hate war.” Because in my young mind, I was terrified that I would be drafted. The draft never happened, thank God, but still that day signaled a shift in the country that I love.

I witnessed the birth of two different kinds of patriotism.

Later that day, I saw a gas station sign that said “Nuke The Middle East.” It didn’t take even a day for the rage and hate machine to get started. Living in East Texas, that isn’t so surprising. Far away from the centers of power, war was a distant, favorable thought for many, one that proved our national character as one of strength and power. Harassment of the (admittedly few) students of Middle-Eastern descent began in force in the school. All over, things were rapidly changing. Color coded terrorist threat-level meters became commonplace images on the news. Vicious attacks on our Muslim neighbors increased dramatically, and though beforehand they had lived lives of quiet obscurity, now their faith had been so publicly warped by extremists, they felt the backlash simply for being from a different place and worshipping a different way. A new wave of nationalism had arisen.

But I heard stories of a different kind of patriotism, mostly from the news. Nothing I saw first hand mind you, but it did filter down. I heard stories of how New York was quiet for a week after the attack, and how everyone was reminded that they were neighbors. I saw protests emerge, defending neighbors and denouncing needless war. I saw new kinds of activism, community engagement that resembled what I had imagined to be the utopian vision of America that was promised to me in my history books. Not the guts-and -glory nationalism of “nuke ’em all, let God sort ’em out” attitudes. Not “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” This kind of patriotism was but a seed for me, though. it took many years for this version of love for the nation to emerge.

So I look back on it now, and I think of how this patriotism has grown in my heart. It looks like a sapling, not a mighty tree. It is fragile, but it grows. Though it has weathered some harsh conditions in the past two years, it still reaches for the sun. It’s beginning to flower, as I fumble awkwardly for words to express my own political opinions. But it does beckon me to think about the patriotic hymns of my youth. Specifically, America the Beautiful.

Of all the patriotic songs I know, I think it’s my favorite. Not the first verse, mind you, but the second one. Admittedly, it still bears a glossy sheen of problematic nostalgia, but it has grown on me.

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
And while I still grimace at the unmentioned fact that those explorers beat a thoroughfare through inhabited indigenous lands that to this day no longer belong to the people who first lived here, the second half is unique in all of our hymnody to our country.
It bears humility.
That Christian virtue most at odds with national pride, humility is a rare trait for even the most devout churchgoer in America when it comes to our country. This song asks God to mend our flaws. In essence, it’s a tacit confession, asking for forgiveness and healing. It begs God to reform us, to give us some self-control, to not give into the excesses of nationalism but to be willing to listen to criticism, and grow stronger from it.
The United States is my home. I know none other. I’m strong enough in my love for it to criticize it, because I know we can be better.
We can rise above grotesque nationalism. We can discard our gut distrust and hatred of immigrants and refugees. We are a many colored quilt, of different homes, different nationalities, different faiths, different circumstances. We can come together to embrace each other as neighbors. In humility, I believe America will find its way. Not in bravado. Not in power. Not in defense. But in honest, clear-thinking love of our neighbors.
May God give us this grace.
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
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Always Looking Forward, Mark 1:29-39

This sermon was delivered on February 4th, 2018. Enjoy!

–Grant, The Nerdcore Theologian

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. 31 He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

32 That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered near the door. 34 He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

35 Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. 36 Simon and those with him tracked him down. 37 When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

38 He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” 39 He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

 

VeniceBeach_JenJudge_1280x642Imagine one day you’re on vacation, and you’re out on a boardwalk near the ocean.

Close your eyes and join me there. The sky is crystal blue. The sun may be warm, but not hot. The wind is cool, salty. All around you are people milling about, dipping in and out of shops and restaurants. To your right, you see the beach; to your left, businesses and boardwalk venders. The landscape is dotted with people from all over. You hear conversations weave in and out of each other as you walk by. Some children are laughing as they splash in the water. A seagull swoops down 5 feet in front of you as you walk near a fish and chip stand.

As you walk, your eyes skip from vender to vender: this one is selling seashell jewelry, that one selling tacky tee shirts, and every other store seems to be selling the same tourist-centered souvenirs as the next, but only slightly varying.

Eventually you come to an art vender; an older man is standing at an easel, and a woman is behind a counter attending to customers.

You see that the man  is almost done with the prep work, and is ready to begin painting. You’ve never seen a professional do this before, so you figure you will watch for a while.

As he begins to paint, unrecognizable shapes begin appearing on the canvas. The man makes quick, small movements with a brush, in a way that seems deliberate, but what he produces doesn’t look much like anything. After a few minutes of watching, he moves to another part of the canvas, and makes a few more different-colored shapes, again, unrecognizable. Soon, you get bored; what he’s painting looks nothing like the rest of the things at the vender table where the woman is. This must be simply his hobby, and they outsource all the actual art at the table from other local artists, because right now it looks like garbage. You decide to go into the burger shop a few feet away and get something to eat.

After a delicious mushroom Swiss burger, you come out of the shop and see the man still painting, except now what he’s painting looks radically different.

You blink in disbelief. You examine his work–this looks nothing like what he was painting twenty minutes ago! This is a beautiful landscape whereas before, it was just a series of unrelated blobs!

But then you squint a bit more and see that, no, this is the same painting. You recognize what was once an indistinct blob as a rock, and over there, a line that seemed completely alone was now a tree. A forest emerged as if from nowhere, and a lake, and a mountain–all where blobs were before, now fully realized.

You begin to understand now that where you only saw a blank canvas with blobs and lines, the artist saw the true ending. He knew where he was going, and what he wanted to bring to life, and he knew that to begin, he needed to mark out the idea before he could fill in the details. The broad strokes were needed before the fine work could begin. What’s more, he didn’t need any reference point in front of him to do it, because the painting was all in his head beforehand. He had his eye forward to the end, and all you had was what he hadn’t done yet.

It’s been something of a long held belief of mine that God is very much like an artist, with a design all his own.

What we see is perhaps zoomed in too close to see the bigger picture; perhaps to us, it seems like a series of randomized shapes, blobs and lines. But everything from the grandest mountain, to the smallest phytoplankton, is a part of God’s design. The same goes for Jesus’s ministry. We may not quite understand it all, but that isn’t important. What is important is our faith that God has something in mind, something that will may seem far larger and grander than what God may be doing now.

Bogged Down By Details

When we read scripture, it’s easy to get bogged down by the details, and pretend we know what the plan looks like better than God does.

7926426-3x2-700x467This scripture is a great example of how that can be accomplished. Taking place immediately after Jesus casts out a demon in the middle of a synagogue, already an auspicious start, he then follows Simon to his mother-in-law’s house. From there, he continues his miraculous works, this time on a woman, to balance out the narrative–Jesus doesn’t just cast out demons, or work with men. Jesus can heal people’s sicknesses, and will take on women as well.

Already we begin to see a certain pattern occurring with Jesus’s healings. Jesus heals, sometimes without warning or expectation. Jesus heals almost anyone who asks for it, or comes to him for help. And, most importantly, Jesus does it free of charge. He was far from the only faith healer in that day and age, and almost every one of the healed for a fee. Jesus did it with no expectation of financial compensation. What he did expect, though, was faith, and belief. More than that, he expected devotion, and reciprocation of love.

When word got out that there was a healer in town, Jesus was immediately surrounded.

People came from all around Capernaum to receive healing and blessing, or exorcism. All the rest of that day, into the evening and the night, Jesus healed. No word is given if he taught at all other than what he did at the synagogue that day. No word is needed. It was almost like a modern day flash mob. Word of mouth acts fast in small towns. Everyone knew where to find him, and everyone knew what he did earlier that day in public. Jesus got swamped.

If Jesus wanted to set up in Capernaum, I don’t think any of his disciples would have blamed him.

In fact, they probably expected it. Why? Because why go far and wide around the country, when everyone can come to you! If the whole town came on day 1, then it is reasonable to expect even more from around Galilee, all throughout Judea and perhaps even further would come to see this miraculous teacher and healer. They could have a good, stable life in Capernaum, if that’s what Jesus wanted. But Jesus didn’t want that.

Instead, Jesus wanted to move on. Go to the next town, preach there, heal there. Why though? There’s already a crowd where he was!  Why not do all they could while in town and not worry about elsewhere until things calmed down here?

The truth is, the disciples were short-sighted.

artist-painting-at-easel-flowers-palette-pretty.jpegWhat they saw was a blob on a canvas. It wasn’t the full painting, but the beginning of one. And it was only one small part of an infinitely vast painting at that. Jesus was beginning to reveal the kingdom of God, and that is much grander, much more beautiful, and yes, much more different than what they could expect.

For the disciples, it looked like Jesus was painting a building. It was a nice building. It had sturdy foundations on healing, exorcism, and solid teaching. If it were that, the disciples were happy! But it wasn’t simply that. Jesus was starting with one small portion, and setting a foundation, and then moving on to another part of the painting. Maybe instead of a building, then, he would make a garden. Or a vineyard. Or perhaps even a city! But Jesus wasn’t making any of those, or at least, not only those. The disciples were thinking too small, eyes fixed on the details, and the here-and-now. Jesus had his eyes set forward, on tomorrow, and ultimately, a whole kingdom.

A kingdom is not built on a single building, no matter how fine it might be. A kingdom does not have one garden or vineyard, but many. And this kingdom would be unlike any other, so different that nobody could predict what it looked like.

Forward into Tomorrow

It’s hard to train your eyes to see like an artist. It’s even harder to see the whole picture of what God is trying to make.

Jesus was starting the only way it’s possible: not all at once, but piece by piece. He started disciple by disciple, Sabbath by Sabbath, healing by healing, town by town. He didn’t start by tearing down the walls and storming the gates of hell itself. He started with a handful of people. He didn’t get drowned by today. He always had his eyes forward.

images-10.jpegKeeping our eyes forward takes practice, and it takes patience. God’s kingdom is near, but it’s not yet. Jesus got the ball rolling, and we’re keeping the ball rolling, but we are far from our destination. But don’t get overwhelmed by the ball. Don’t get worn down by the distance. Don’t miss the forest for the trees, or the kingdom for the building. God’s kingdom is everywhere. Perhaps this bit is more developed than that bit over there, but in the end of it all, it will look as if it was always there, just waiting to be discovered.

God’s not done with us yet. In fact, God may just be getting started with you. But to understand that, you can’t be dragged down by the past. We must always be looking forward, forward into that bright tomorrow, that beautiful kingdom of God.

Sure, it’ll take work. Sometimes it won’t make sense. And sometimes we’ll get frustrated, and tired, and we won’t want to go any further. But God has a plan. And God’s got it sketched out in God’s own head. We have to have faith that God is going to finish it, and finish us in the process.

We’re all works in progress. Nobody is completely perfect, not just yet. But we have to trust that God is always working with us. Nothing is hopeless, nobody is ever truly lost. God has your life in his loving hands, and will never let you go.

The present may be incomprehensible. But in keeping our eyes forward, always on what God is doing, perhaps we’ll begin to see the whole painting. We just have to have faith. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Vocal Opposition, Mark 1:21-28

This sermon was delivered on January 28th, 2018. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

21 Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum. Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. 22 The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.23 Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit screamed,24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God.”

25 “Silence!” Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. “Come out of him!” 26 The unclean spirit shook him and screamed, then it came out.

27 Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!”28 Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.

 

images-6If you’re going to stand for something, inevitably you will find opposition.

It’s practically a law of nature: any object in motion with any force will be met with an equal and opposite force. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a large or important something either.

Ages ago, when I was a mere youth director in Crosby, TX, I was present in the office when the trustees were gathered around the floor, staring at carpet samples. They were looking to remodel the sanctuary after a major flood had basically demolished the sanctuary, so this was a fairly important decision, but certainly not a life-or-death decision. Well, so I thought, because let me tell you, I had no idea people could get so worked up over deciding what color carpet we wanted. It took hours of comparing, talking, reminiscing, and most of all arguing. Arguing over the texture. Arguing over the color.

Won’t this be too dark?

No no no, this is too light.

I don’t like this maroon-ish color!

Well should we go with teal?

No, it doesn’t match anything else!

Round and round they went. It was my first introduction to trustees meetings, and I am thankful that our trustees are not nearly as confrontational or time-wasting.  But it was illuminating, because it was I think the first time I had truly witnessed a fight in the church.

Church, in my mind up to that point, had been a place to get together, worship, and be a family together.

I suppose in the abstract I knew fights happened in the church. I knew that my dad would sometimes get home and look defeated, or exhausted, because of a long meeting and the confrontations that went on there. But hearing about it, and seeing one firsthand, over something so trivial,  opened  my eyes.

Church, we can do some really silly stuff. And sometimes, we can be bullheaded, and stubborn, and yes, even mean. Part of it is because the church isn’t a building, it’s a people, and people are flawed, sinful, and wounded creatures. Yes, we are justified, and loved by God, and transformed by his love, but we’re all works in progress. That means that sometimes, we’re going to fight. But getting through it is the mark of true faith.

images-7A Rocky Start to Ministry

As we’ve gone through the gospel of Mark, we see the beginnings of Jesus’s ministry.

He starts off  boldly, being baptized by John and proclaiming as his central message repentance, as the kingdom of God is near. But now, after he’s gained his followers and started his ministry fully, his inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum was , to say the least, a rocky start.

He began to preach immediately–because everything happens “immediately” in Mark– and people were at first caught off-guard because of the way he preached. He preached like someone unlike they had ever heard. He didn’t preach like most other priests or scribes.

Rabbinical tradition is that of a conversation with scripture. You don’t command to others what the scripture says, but rather, interpret it, pose questions to it and to other scholars, and on the whole it’s a much more contemplation-based tradition. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact it’s the tradition I feel most comfortable preaching in. We are always in conversation with scripture, learning from it and asking questions about it with others.

Jesus, however, didn’t do that.  He preached, not from a stance of humility or questioning, but from authority. He preached as if he himself had breathed the scripture into being. He preached like the words in the Torah and the words out of his mouth were one and the same. I mean, I’ll give you one guess as to why, but for us this is 20/20 hindsight.

Imagine being in that room.

Imagine being there on a Friday night Shabbat service, just like every week. Imagine having to wrangle the kids together, put on your temple clothes, walk down to the synagogue, and be ready for another week of services. Imagine thinking it would be just another service, where you sing the songs, say the prayers, and maybe hear something mildly interesting by the local rabbi, and then be ready to go home for the post-Shabbat feast. And then imagine instead of the local rabbi, this yahoo from Nazareth shows up,  and out from his mouth comes teachings that reverberate inside your very soul. Imagine then what happens next.

As Jesus teaches, a scream comes from out of the back of the church.

Up jumps a man onto the pew, fire in his eyes and venom in his mouth, as an unearthly voice erupts from within him, hurling accusations at Jesus. What’s weird though, is that he first complains with something that might have been said by anyone:

What have you to do with us, Jesus? What do you think was going to happen here? Do you think that just by being here, things are going to change? Do you think you’re going to destroy us here, and replace it with something better? Do you think you’re really going to bring about the kingdom of God?

Think about that. That really cuts to the bone, doesn’t it? Though a demon said it, I’ve been in enough churches to know that’s a real fear. Fear of change. Fear of what  Jesus actually means. Fear that Jesus will change everything, and fear that we’re going to have to change with everything. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s Jesus giving the good news or an apostle of his, a regular old preacher. A holy one of God will always threaten the demon of complacency. And that demon will always speak.

But here’s the good news: Jesus is really good at throwing demons out.

With but a word, he drove out demon that spoke through that church goer, and the people were amazed, thoroughly and completely. They were amazed at the teachings he said, and the manner in which he gave them. And they were amazed at the power to drive out demons from among them. Maybe…maybe this Jesus is the real deal.

conflictcalvinh.jpgConflicts and Resolution

So hear me now: churches are going to have conflicts.

This is an inevitability. I learned this that day when we were arguing over carpet squares. I have only seen further proof as I have grown into the role as pastor. Conflict can plague us, and make us feel as if we are tormented by demons. But the Good news is, Jesus is really good at casting out demons.

With Jesus, we can tell that demon among us to go away. You know, the demon that tells us that we can’t change, that we shouldn’t change. The demon that shackles us, constrains us, and holds us back from the full potential that God has promised to us in the Kingdom of God. Jesus can unleash us from this demon complacency, this demon fear, this demon of “no.” Jesus can free us, and make us bold, courageous, inventive, intuitive, and powerful.

In the mean time, there are some things that we as followers of Jesus can do to overcome the demons that sow conflict among us.

First, we can be reminded that we are all children of God. We are all grace-filled creations, each beloved by the Spirit, and bound together by the blood of Christ. Remembering that we are brothers, we are sisters, we are siblings in Christ, can take us a long way to not seeing each others as adversaries but as family.

Second, we pray. I like starting off every meeting at this church with an invocation of the Holy Spirit, and praying that we can be inspired with the wisdom of the Spirit to make the right decisions, to bring forth the Kingdom of God. Prayer can heal a lot of wounds. Prayer puts us in the right mindset to make good decisions. Prayer can draw us closer together as the family of God. Prayer works.

Finally, we can be bold, imaginative, inventive. We have every blessing of the Holy Spirit at our disposal if we but ask. Perhaps an idea might seem outlandish, but so was Jesus. Perhaps a way forward may seem thorny and filled with peril, but none can stand against us if we have but Christ in our hearts. Perhaps we may feel hopeless, but nothing is too hopeless for Christ. We must simply be open to the influence of the Spirit, however strange or intimidating that might seem.

Wherever we go in ministry, whatever we do, we will run into opposition. Sometimes it’s supernatural, but more often than not, those demons that plague us only use the words, thoughts, and feelings, that exist within us already. We will have conflict, and we may have our demons. But Jesus is really good at casting out demons. May Jesus then cast out whatever demons that plague you, plague us, and lead us in boldness into the Kingdom of God. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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