Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the present of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus.Acts 3:19-20
Yesterday, I did two things I have not done in over a year. I went inside a nursing home and the home of someone who is not a close relative. Both of these activities had been off-limits on account of the pandemic, and now, seemingly out of the blue, they are permissible (though I did have to sign a lengthy document at the nursing home agreeing not to hold them liable if I contracted Covid). Of course, neither of these activities were as much of a shock to my system as what I did this past weekend, attended a mask-less semi-outdoor wedding reception, and a mask-less crowded indoor graduation party. Again, both of these were within the bounds of the most recent guidance from the CDC (assuming the attendees were vaccinated), but even so, I was not completely ready.
Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the changes and the progress in our fight against this virus that they represent. On account of my personality I have probably not been missing social gatherings as much as others, but I know they are important. I also understand that doing my job well, and the fullest expression of our faith, both require face-to-face interaction. I think my struggle is the rapid pace at which these changes are occurring. I would have much preferred to slowly ease into them. It is as if somebody flipped a switch and our society did a complete 180 (as in 180 degrees) in regard to all the changes we had embraced to navigate this pandemic. One day we couldn’t imagine leaving the house without a mask in one hand a bottle of sanitizer in the other, and not expecting or wanting to be around a whole lot of people. The very next day we left the masks and sanitizer at home and were giving hugs, shaking hands, tolerating close-talkers, and mingling in crowded indoor spaces, all with reckless abandon.
This whole experience has reminded me of another 180 degree change we will experience if we follow Jesus faithfully, and not one time, but many times throughout our journey. I’m talking about the 180 degree change that true and sincere repentance demands of us. Repentance is a word we talk about often in Christian circles, but we sometimes fail to grasp its full implications. More than simply feeling sorry for our sins it requires a complete turnaround to head in a totally different direction. Our initial act of repentance, signified by our baptism and/or conversion, can be understood as a turning away from our own way of living and a turning toward God and the life he has for us. It can rightly be thought of as a 180 because those two directions are polar opposites, with one leading to death and the other to life eternal. Then, as we follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes us aware of certain behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that are not pleasing to God, that also require repentance. These occasions also call for a complete 180 in regards to whatever it is we have been convicted of.
I’ll be the first to admit that changes of this magnitude are not easy. We would much prefer to slowly turn our lives toward God, to gradually cease those behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that we know are not pleasing to him. While our transformation into the image of Jesus is a gradual one, there are times when sudden, drastic change is needed. God will help us in these moments of transition as we yield ourselves fully to him.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.John 13:35
This past Sunday we concluded a five-week Easter sermon series on the letter of 1 John. In the process of preparing for and delivering the sermons I often wondered if I might be accused of recycling; a good thing when it comes to plastic bottles, but not so much when it comes to preaching. I say this because the central theme of the entire letter, and subsequently every sermon on said letter, seemed to be the absolute necessity of love for one another. John clearly believed this was of the utmost importance. Even without 1 John we could reach the same conclusion, given the amount of time John talks about the subject in his gospel. As the verse quoted above makes plain, John believed our love for one another is the evidence that we are followers of Jesus. Creation provides the evidence of God. Jesus provides the evidence of God’s love for us. When we love as Jesus loves we provide the evidence that we are his disciples.
Reading through a letter like 1 John probably feels like an affirming experience for many Christians and Churches. Loving one another is something they think they are doing quite well. They are probably curious as to what in the world was wrong with the communities of believers that John was writing to, wondering how it was possible that they didn’t understand something so fundamental to their faith. Unfortunately, my experience with many churches over the years has taught me that the struggle of John’s audience to love one another was not really that exceptional. In truth, it’s a struggle for many churches and sadly, that truth is something most churches are not even aware of.
As a pastor, I have personally experienced an absence of love within the congregations I have served. I have had people talk about me behind my back, spread false rumors, or misrepresent me, because I preached a sermon they found offensive or because I challenged long-standing practices. Many pastors I know have had similar experiences, especially in this season of division when a person’s threshold to tolerate conviction is so diminished. Beyond my own personal experience I have encountered people who have attended the same church for decades, and still feel left out, overlooked, and ignored. I know of several others who don’t attend church anywhere, and perhaps never will, because of the way they were treated by their fellow believers.
I don’t say all this to suggest that I have never experienced the love of Christ through my relationships with my fellow believers, or in the churches I have served, because I have. My point is that no community of believers should exempt themselves from John’s challenging words, and not give consideration to ways they could love better. Loving those who agree with us, who look like us, who talk like us, who love us back, and who give us some reason to love them…that doesn’t make us Christian. That doesn’t provide the evidence that we are disciples of Jesus. There are plenty of people who make no claim to follow Jesus who love in this manner. It’s only when we love those with whom we disagree, those who are different from us, those that frustrate us, those that anger us, even those that hurt us, that we begin to look like Jesus; that’s when we begin to prove we are his disciples. It’s only by his grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit that can do this.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us...1 John 3:16, NRSV
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.1 John 4:9, NRSV
Last week, in my Word for Wednesday post, I encouraged you all to spend some time observing God’s creation, receiving it as evidence of his wisdom and power. Going on the assumption that everyone who reads these posts is a follower of Jesus, I was confident this would be a positive experience. But what if someone looked to creation as evidence of God apart from any knowledge of Jesus? Would they come away with a similar impression? By itself, how comforting is the knowledge about God we obtain from his creation?
In the field of theology there is a distinction drawn between natural theology, or the knowledge about God we can acquire through our observation of the world around us, and revealed theology, which is the knowledge about God we only possess on account of him communicating it to us directly. Creation can tell us that God is powerful, wise, and intelligent, but it cannot tell us he is loving and good. In fact, for people who have experienced natural disasters, like drought, famine, and earthquakes, it may suggest the exact opposite. It’s easy to understand why early peoples lived in fear of their gods, and why they were willing to go to such lengths as human sacrifice to appease them. We only know that God is good and loves us because of Jesus. Jesus is the evidence that proves these things to us, evidence we accept through faith, believing Jesus was who he said he was.
All New Testament authors would agree with this sentiment, but John, perhaps more than all the others, stressed the importance of God’s revelation in Jesus. As we have discussed in our Easter sermon series on 1 John, there were some early believers who were challenging the mystery of the incarnation, the belief that in Jesus, God “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John understood how essential this doctrine was in communicating God’s love for us. Apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we would not know how much God loves us, or even what love is, at least as God defines it. Seeing the world through the lens of Jesus makes the beauty of creation so much greater.
Word for Wednesday… Evidence (Part 1)
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.Psalm 19:1
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…Romans 1:20
While sitting on the front porch of one of our homebound members yesterday, I learned a few things about God’s creation. First, he directed my attention to the Robins who nest in a nearby tree, pointing out their amazing eyesight demonstrated in their ability to locate worms, and the way they work as a team to raise and care for their young. Then he invited me to consider some yet-to-bloom flowers in one of his flowerbeds, and how their bulbs are coated with a sticky sugary substance that attracts ants. It is the removal of this substance by the ants that allows the bulbs to open and the beautiful blooms to spring forth. As we reflected together on these natural wonders we agreed they were evidence of an even more wonderful creator.
The two Scripture passages quoted above express the idea that God’s creation points us toward him, revealing his glory, handiwork, power and wisdom. The author of the apocryphal book, Wisdom, conveys a similar message. He writes, in reference to the things God has made, “And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them” (Wisdom 13:4). All these things were meant to make us mindful of God and worship him. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen. We human beings have a tendency to worship the things that are made, instead of worshiping the God that made them. We may not worship the sun, moon and stars like our ancestors, but we do often worship other human beings, or even ourselves, and we too are created things who owe our existence to our Creator.
Like my friend I mentioned earlier, take a break from the busyness of life and spend some time paying attention to God’s creation, marveling at the things he has made. Walk around your yard in the cool of the evening, making note of the new growth on the trees, shrubs and flowers. Listen to the birds sing. Stare deeply at the intricacies and inner workings of the world around you. May your awe and amazement translate into the worship of the God who brought it all into being.
When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’.Luke 7:13
Several years ago, when being faced with a very difficult decision, I sought counsel from a trusted family friend. He was a successful business man, someone I considered wise, intelligent and rational; so I was completely shocked and extremely disappointed when his advice to was to simply “follow my heart.” I remember thinking, “that is the dumbest thing anyone has ever said to me.” I was in only in my early twenties at the time and I had already learned that emotions are not to be trusted. Given the fickleness of our feelings it makes far more sense to make decisions with our heads, not our hearts. I would hesitate to tell someone to “follow their heart,” but what about their stomach?
I was recently reminded that the Greek word that is usually translated “compassion” in English Bibles literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels.” This is why you will sometimes see the phrase, “moved with compassion.” Ancient peoples believed the bowels were thought a source for feelings like love and pity. While we have a very different understanding of the human anatomy than they do, we can understand how they would have reached this conclusion. We have all had the experience of seeing somebody in great need and feeling so much pity for them that we actually experienced a level of physical discomfort in our tummies. The phrase, “it made me sick in my stomach,” can be meant both metaphorically and literally. When we feel this way about someone in need, and we are in a position to help them, maybe we should do something about it?
The verse quoted above describes one of many times Jesus had compassion for someone and responded accordingly. In this instance it was a woman who had just lost her only son. Since she was a widow, not only was she dealing with the profound sense of loss that any parent would experience with the death of a child, she had also lost her provider. Jesus was so moved by her situation he restored the life of her son. Such an act is clearly beyond the scope of our abilities, but there are plenty of things we can do to help those in need. And there is no lack of people in need in our communities, in our country, and in our world. Don’t dismiss that painful feeling you experience in the pit of your stomach the next time you see somebody hurting. By God’s grace, be like Jesus, and do something about it.
Jesus said to her, "Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away".John 20:15
Easter feels different this year. Easter is different this year. Of course, Easter was different last year too. Last year was probably the first time in the 272 year history of Brick Church that people did not gather here on these grounds to celebrate Easter. Instead, we were gathered at home around our televisions, tablets, phones and computer screens, watching a video featuring yours truly. That meant we also didn’t have our Easter Sunrise Service, and the amazing breakfast that usually follows. This year is a little better. We are here, after all, holding an in-person Sunrise Service. And in four hours or so we will be in our main sanctuary, celebrating Easter together with even more of us in attendance. And you will have a lot of people to look at besides yours truly. But still… no breakfast.
Even so, some things about Easter have not changed, and they never will. It will always be about the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope and the joy it brings us. And we will always be reminded of this truth through the retelling of the same stories, stories like the one we read a few moments ago from John’s gospel, stories that communicate the meaning and significance of the resurrection with every little detail. One detail that John makes a big deal out of is the setting. John wants us to know that this story takes place in a garden, and he goes out of his way to tell us that. We should already know, from John’s account of Jesus’ passion, that Jesus’ tomb was in a garden, but in case we forgot, John reminds us by telling us that Mary suspected Jesus to be the gardener, when he attempted to comfort her.
When you and I hear the word garden our first thought is probably of a small area in someone’s yard set aside in which to grow vegetables. So we picture a few rows of tilled soil, with tiny green sprouts emerging, maybe a small sign at the end of each row indicating what’s been planted there, and a string tied up, running the length of the row, if it’s something like green beans, or some of those cage-looking things, if it’s tomatoes. If the owner of the garden does not have a dog, we fully expect to also see around the perimeter a six-foot tall barbed wire fence coursing with thousands of volts of electricity in order to keep the deer out.
That’s not what John meant by a garden. In Jesus’ day, a garden was meant to describe something more like what we would consider a park, a reclaimed natural space where people could enjoy God’s creation without the encroachment of all the things that tend to make natural spaces unenjoyable, things like briars, weeds, and poison ivy. As John tells the story of Jesus’ life, he explains that Jesus and his disciples would frequent gardens often, to pray and meditate, and find rest and renewal. In fact, you may remember from John’s account of Jesus’ passion, that Jesus was in a garden when he was arrested.
But it takes work to maintain a garden, hence the need for a gardener. It doesn’t take long for natural spaces that were once wild and uninhabitable to become wild and uninhabitable once more. Just imagine what your front yard would look like if you moved away for a year and didn’t hire someone to look after it. Now imagine what it would look like in five years, or ten years. Your whole house would probably be covered in vines. Your crawlspace would be teeming with all kinds of creatures. You would have small trees growing in your gutters. Yes, gardens take a lot of work to keep them as places of beauty, relaxation and tranquility. It hasn’t always been this way.
The story of God and his people begins in a garden, the Garden of Eden. It was a beautiful place, with rivers running through it, and all kinds of trees and vegetation that provided shade and nourishment. It did require some amount of work to maintain it, but the work was not burdensome, but fulfilling, the kind of work that brings joy, a sense of purpose, a sense of accomplishment. The Garden of Eden offered everything that human beings could ever want or need, but not all their sinful hearts could desire. They wanted to be gods themselves, so they disobeyed the one rule that God had established, and as a result they were banished from the garden.
Humanity’s relationship with the created world changed that day. They now had to fight to receive any benefit from it. Listen to these words from Genesis,
And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.Genesis 3:17-19
Along with this changed relationship we see the introduction of mortality. A life of seemingly fruitless hard work would end with death, and a return to the dust from which we came. When we hear the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, John wants us to remember the Garden of Eden and what this world and the human experience were like before we ruined it. He also wants us to understand that through his death and resurrection, Jesus is redeeming, restoring and recreating those things to what God has always intended. From one garden to another. The story of God and his people comes full circle. Just look at where we are standing. We are in a cemetery, a place that serves as a stark reminder of the most painful part of our existence, the sting of death. But because of what happened on the first Easter morning, we can stand here in this place and have hearts full of joy, hope and peace. Just as the sun is rising above this tree line and beginning to warm these cold, hard tombstones, the Son of God is rising in our hearts, bathing them in the warmth of his grace, awakening them to a new way of living in this world, and inviting us to experience eternity in the world that is to come, and in some respects is already here among us. Amen.
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Hebrews 12:11
Yesterday afternoon, I narrowly escaped a collision with a black swallowtail butterfly. I was sitting in the car with my window down. I had pulled off the road to answer a phone call. I saw him (or her) coming from a long way off. It was a seemingly harmless, tiny black speck at first, but as it got closer and closer, and got bigger and bigger, I became more and more convinced it was heading straight for my face. Then, at the last second, it veered upward, disappearing from sight, crisis averted.
With the exception of these few fearful seconds, I normally consider butterflies a thing of beauty, a marvel of God’s creation. Not only in terms of their physical appearance, but the way they seem to effortlessly ride invisible currents of air, floating delicately from flower to flower. For all of us who grow tired of the dark, cold days of winter, they are a welcome harbinger of spring, a reminder that the longer, brighter, and warmer days of summer are coming.
Recently someone brought to my attention something the well-known poet, Maya Angelou, said about butterflies. She observed that, “we delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” I think the same thing could be said of the way we appreciate the beauty of the most sincere followers of Jesus. We can all think of saintly people we know, people who are so selfless, humble, gracious, compassionate, and forgiving that we think we are looking at Jesus when we are looking at them. While we admire them, and even say we want to be like them, we forget their transformation was not painless or easy.
It’s hard work to become the beautiful creatures God intends for us to be. To be sure, any transformation we experience is a gift of God’s grace, but in order for it to take place we must cooperate with him. We must accept the necessary discipline God wants to lovingly administer if we are to be changed into the likeness of Jesus. And we must allow him to redeem every trial we experience, even those for which we are responsible, if we want to know the fullness of his salvation. If butterflies could talk, I’m sure they would tell you everything they had to go through to become what God created them to be was worth it.
This is my last word-for-Wednesday before I officially resign. So, instead of doing a more traditional devotional I would like to share my heart with all of you by writing a short letter that encourages your faith.
As I sat down to think about my last week here at Brick I had all sorts of things pass through my mind. The first of which was my duties—the things that I needed to accomplish for the week. The next thing I found myself thinking about was, “how will I be remembered?” Unfortunately, the short time that I have spent at Brick has primarily been defined by the interruption of Covid-19. Because of that, our family ministry hasn’t soared to the heights that I am positive it is capable of reaching. In my first few months our family ministry was growing and doing some pretty awesome things. But, that same growth and development that had taken off so quickly was halted in its tracks by a world wide pandemic.
While I continued to think more and more about all of these things, God reminded me that being successful isn’t about the charismatic sermons, busy schedules, or even the legacy that is left behind. With that being said, I would like to use this as an opportunity to say some parting words.
I want to start by saying, “thank you” to the families of Brick Church. It has been great serving alongside all of you. Every youth event that we were able to do had more engagement than I could have ever imagined. I couldn’t have done anything without the support and willingness of our church family. I am also grateful of the encouragement I have been given each time that I had the privilege of speaking to all of you on Sunday mornings. So, thanks for supporting my wife and I through everything that 2020 threw at us! Being at Brick has given us lots of great memories and relationships that I trust will last a life time.
The truth is that if I had spent 10 years at Brick or 1 year at Brick, my parting words would stay the same. I would, and I will, keep them simple. “Let all that you do be defined by the Love that Christ has for you and for the world in which we live. Let every event written on the calendar and every gathering that you have be all for one purpose. Let it express God’s love to the world in a powerful way.”
While thinking about what to write, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul’s writings to the church in Corinth. In Paul’s attempt to keep the Corinthians zeroed in on God’s mission he said this, “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Similarly when Jesus was asked about the most important commandments of God, This is how He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
We could spend hours unpacking the context of both passages, but at the core of their words, both Paul and Jesus are saying the same thing. They are saying that our focus should always be on loving God and loving others. Our vision and direction should flow out of those two things. If we are guided by anything other than love then we have completely missed the mark.
As Brick Church presses forward, allow each and every decision to be funneled through love. But, most importantly allow your individual decisions to be made with love! This principal of love is not just some ecclesiastical requirement, but also the reflection of someone who walks closely with the Lord in their own personal life. So walk close with the Lord and let all that you do be done in love. The true success to everything that we do hinges on the love of God—which comes to life through our savior, Jesus Christ.
Every day this Holy Week I will be sending out a prayer and suggested Scripture readings to help you focus on Christ's suffering. The prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer and the Scripture readings are adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Monday of Holy Week... Almighty God, whose dear Son went up not to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer for Tuesday of Holy Week (BCP) O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer for Wednesday of Holy Week (BCP) Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Prayer for Good Friday (BCP) Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As the history of God’s chosen people is recorded in the Old Testament, the Hebrews were once enslaved by the Egyptians. A great famine in the Holy Land a great rescue by Joseph, Son of Israel, moved the clan of Abraham from Egypt. This is where God’s people flourished and called home for many years. For quite some time the Hebrew people were revered and honored in this new land because of the legacy that Joseph left in Egypt. Eventually things started to change. A new Pharaoh came to power and they were no longer honored, but made slaves. After generations of toiling in misery and danger for the Pharaohs of Egypt, God initiated a plan to free His people.
An infant was placed by his family in the Nile River. This infant was quickly spotted and drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter along with her servants. This infant was cared for and raised as an Egyptian Nobleman. We know this infant as Moses. Moses was the man that God chose to lead His people to freedom. This man would come to find out about his true heritage. He was a Hebrew. Just like those who were enslaved by the very family that took him in and raised him as their own. After thinking things over Moses demanded that Pharaoh release God’s people. Pharaoh would not budge. Pharaoh seen himself as the lord to the Hebrews.
God sent ten disastrous plagues to sweep through the land. This was meant to demonstrate who the true Lord was. Pharaoh had no power over the true God. After this supernatural destruction, Pharaoh gave Moses permission to lead the Hebrews to freedom. As they fled, following Moses, the prideful Pharaoh became enraged and changed his mind. He sent a massive army after the Hebrews. God’s people would find themselves coming face to face with the most chaotic moment that any of them had ever experienced. They had fled as far as they could and the Egyptian chariots were at their back while a wide sea sat in front of them. No where to run or hide. They had arrived at the Red Sea. Many thought that this would be their final stop before they died. It seemed like the only options were their inevitable demise by drowning or battle. What followed is one of the most talked-about miracles ever recorded.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept back a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
When it all seemed utterly hopeless, the Lord made a way. Our lives are full of messy and hopeless situations. But when the Lord promises to free us and we begin walking with Him, we must trust that God is who He says He is. If we find ourselves in chains that bind us, just like the Hebrews who were enslaved, remember that God desires to free us. Walk with the Lord and watch and He turns the mess that we find entrenched in, into something incredible!
— Pastor Phil