Finders, Keepers

The following message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on August 4, 2019 (8th Sunday after Pentecost). Lectionary readings were: Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43 (UMH 830); Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21.

Reading of the Word: Luke 12:13-21 (NIV)

Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
Luke 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
12:14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
12:15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
12:16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.
12:17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’
12:18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.
12:19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’
12:20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’
12:21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
One: The word of God for the people of God.
Many: Thanks be to God.

Luke 12:13-21 (NIV)

Message – Finders, Keepers

Lord, speak through me and, if necessary, in spite of me that your word may be heard this day. Amen.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve worked our way through part of the Gospel of Luke and learned about our calling to become channels of love for God and neighbor. We’ve learned about what it is to show mercy to a neighbor and that we, too, are the man in the ditch who is rescued by God’s mercy and grace. We’ve learned the importance of listening for God to speak through others and in those quiet moments by being still. We’ve learned how to pray directly from Jesus who is God incarnate, and that praying is a primary means through which God expresses His love to us. In essence, we’ve learned tools for building our relationship with God by building our relationships with others.

Today our journey through Learning to Love God and Neighbor concludes and today is all about what we do with what we have found in this journey and in our lives here on earth.

At the beginning of our passage today, a person in the crowd says to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to split the family inheritance with me.” Jesus’ response to that person is a word of caution: “Friend, who set me to be judge or arbitrator over you? Be on your guard against greed of any kind … there is no life in an abundance of possessions.”

Jesus goes on then to tell the story of the Rich Fool. The Rich Fool has a really good harvest which creates a problem and his solution to the problem is to build a bigger barn so that he has a place to keep that really good harvest and all his other goods or possessions. He thinks if he does this, he’ll be able to eat, drink, be merry, and relax.

At some point in our lives, we each learned about finder-keepers versus loser-weepers. It probably started when we were young … a sibling … a favored toy or another item… the teasing and the chanted “finders, keepers, losers, weepers” … As adults, we probably still use the saying on occasion … when we’re cleaning our closets going through pockets before putting something in the Goodwill pile and find a few folded bills we’d tucked away, or when we’re walking toward some store and spot some money laying on the ground, we probably think “lucky me, finders, keepers.”

The thing is, we’ve all had those finder-keeper moments where we are the finder-keeper, and we’ve all had those moments when we discover we are the loser-weeper. It’s something we can each relate to.

This mindset of finding and keeping follows us from childhood into adulthood and becomes ingrained in how we function in the world. As students, we acquire knowledge and start to develop a goal-based work ethic. Pay attention, study hard, do well, don’t just pass the test, ace the test. Strive to be the best you can be. The very best are rewarded with more opportunities going out the door than the not so very best.

We carry this mindset on throughout our lives. Learn your trade, perfect your skills, work hard, get that raise, get that promotion then do it all again to get to the next raise or the next promotion. Even those of us who are entrepreneurs or whose livelihood is self-determined … business owners, farmers, professional artists, and musicians … share this mindset of learning and perfecting, working hard, earning more in order to expand and begin the cycle again.

To “find” is to obtain or acquire. What we choose to “keep” is based on the worth or value of what we find. We keep what we value, and we keep most securely that which we value the most. This need to find … to obtain and acquire … and to keep is a never-ending habit we carry through life.
We measure our success by the things we obtain and acquire in material terms … a bigger house in a better neighborhood with a larger TV and a sheshier she-shed.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote a hymn about today’s scripture. The first verse and a half go like this:

“Bigger barns are what I need!” So, a rich man said one day.
“From my worries, I’ll be free when my wealth is stored away.”
“Fool!” God said, “Today you’ll die! Will your wealth mean anything?
All life’s blessings really lie in my life that wealth can’t bring.”

“Bigger barns are what we need for our money, gadgets, more!”
Lord, we’re tempted to believe having wealth, we’ll be secure!

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? We work and strive for more and more and more. We’re so accustomed to the pattern of finding and keeping and finding more and keeping more that we don’t even realize we’re caught in it and we rarely name it …

But it does have a name. Its name is pleonexia … the hunger or desire for more … in short … it’s greed. It consumes us without our realizing. It causes us to covet what we find and keep and to protect it from anything or anyone we feel … or fear … might find a way to get some of what we’ve found and kept … We even begin to covet things that are no longer ours like taxes collected and how they are spent, or the freedoms and opportunities we’ve enjoyed that others seek by coming here.

In today’s passage, God calls the Rich fool out: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

And Gillette’s hymn goes on …

Somewhere children cry for food or to have a doctor’s care.
Can our bigger barns be good when poor neighbors know despair?

Many speaking on this passage today will say that God is telling the man he will die that very night. I don’t doubt the man will die, but I don’t believe God’s warning in the passage is referring to physical death. There is more than one way to “die”. There is actual loss of life. There’s death to self so that we can be resurrected in Christ. And then there’s the kind of death where you die spiritually. It seems more probable to me that Jesus was talking about spiritual death in this parable, and it seems to me that spiritual death is the absolute worst kind of death because it means we’ve disconnected from God.

I believe disconnection from God is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

When we get all caught up in that cycle of finding more, then finding ways to keep the more we’ve found while we find yet more ways to acquire even more, we put ourselves at risk of placing that abundance of possessions ahead of God. Each time we make something more important than God, we are creating for ourselves a new idol, a new golden calf and the more emphasis we put on that new golden calf, the more we fall into worshipping it instead of God. The more we worship it instead of God, the closer we come to spiritual death.

I believe what God was saying to that rich fool who wanted a bigger barn was that the fool was teetering on the edge of spiritual death. He was about to choose his abundance of possessions over God.

We know in our heart of hearts that God loves us no matter what. We know there is nothing we can do that God won’t forgive. He loves us so much that He’s told us that whatever wrongs we’ve done He has taken and cast as far away as the East is from the West. That’s some very serious unconditional endless love. An abundance of grace and mercy.

And all God asks of us in return is to love Him back … with all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength, all our soul.

I’m pretty sure everyone here can say, “Of course, I love God! Duh! I wouldn’t be here giving up an entire morning if I didn’t love God!” And we’d all be right. In our hearts and even in our minds, we do love God and in our hearts and minds, we know God loves us. The question then becomes, when others see or interact with us, do they see how much we love God and, more importantly, how much God loves them?

This is what our journey through these passages from Luke has been all about: Learning ways to demonstrate how much we love God by extending that love to others through our own actions … to show mercy, listen, and pray for those who are neighbors and especially those we don’t see or those we wouldn’t necessarily desire as neighbors.

None of this is to say that you can’t have nice things, or you should all go home and feel guilty about the things you have or sell everything and live in the tent in the woods. What Jesus is telling us in this passage is that we can’t allow ourselves to put the abundance of possessions or what it takes to find and keep that abundance ahead of God. Jesus is telling us that instead of building bigger barns we should share our wealth with others to build a bigger community … a community that is God’s kingdom here on earth. He’s telling us that we should trust God to provide for us because God loves us, and God will provide if we just trust Him to.

In my first message to you, I spoke to you about trust; about trusting one another and trusting God; about how trust is love and love is trust. If we read past today’s passage in verses 22 through 34, Jesus reminds us of how much God loves us:

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[b]? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wildflowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Luke 12:22-34 (NIV)

Diana Hayes wrote, “This is our calling as Christian faithful: to recognize the Christ in everyone. And to reach out a hand of hope, to speak a word of love, to sing a song of happiness, to share a tear of joy or pain, to speak a word of praise, to murmur a prayer, to stand together against those forces that would divide us, isolate us, and block our flow toward home.”

To recognize the Christ in everyone, we have to extend God’s love to everyone.

The Right Reverend Steven Charleston wrote, “Love is as close to magic as anything we will ever know. It conjures hope where none was seen before. It makes anger and hurt disappear. It pulls healing out of a hat. Love challenges us to understand how it all seems to work so easily and amazes us with the simple surprise of its appearance in places we never expected. We work in love, through love, and for love, but we never control love, we never own what has been given to us. It is a mystery we inhabit, a power in which we dwell. And it knows our name. May this magic surround you. May it dazzle you and enchant you and delight you until it changes you. May it work its wonder in your heart, a child watching life unfold like paper flowers pulled from a pocket.”

Nathan Hamm wrote, “If you want to heal the world, don’t just love your own group. Love all the other groups as if they were your own. Because in the end, they are.”

Isn’t that what Jesus commanded us to do? Love all the other groups as we love ourselves and as he loves us?

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We are rich toward God when we share God’s love and, in doing so, store up treasure in heaven.

My closing prayer today is the last verse of Gillette’s hymn. Let’s pray …

God of love, we long to know what will make us truly blest.
Jesus taught us long ago wealth won’t give us peace or rest.
You are our security! Safe in you, we serve, O Lord.
May we find we’re rich indeed when we’re sharing with the poor.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Note from Rev. Ohle

This message was delivered the morning after the mass killings at El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, and in the same week as Gilroy, CA. While it isn’t reflected in the written version of today’s message, I did speak to this because it does relate to today’s message. A recording of the actual message will be posted to this page later.

Teach us how to pray …

The following message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on July 28, 2019 (7th Sunday after Pentecost). Lectionary readings were: Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85 (UMH 806), Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19), Luke 11:1-13

Reading of the word: Luke 11:1-13 (NIV)

11:1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.
11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
11:5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;
11:6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’
11:7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’
11:8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
11:9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
11:10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?
11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?
11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Note from Rev. Ohle to the People of Bethel

I won’t ever claim that my messages are perfectly constructed powerhouses of inspiration and motivation, but I will always admit when they not only fall short, but flat. This morning’s message was not only short and flat, but I’m also pretty sure it was somewhere near the bottom of a pit, and for that, I am truly sorry.

I struggled all week with this passage, and it was evident this morning. I think it’s because I struggle with prayer in general. Not praying, which as I said I do constantly, but in both how I pray and what I pray for.

I tend to pray privately – that constant running monologue to God, only spoken out loud when I’m alone in my car or alone at home. I tend to ask far more frequently for what I want than what He knows I need, and I challenge Him if His will is not what I thought it should be. I tend to be uncomfortable praying publicly on short notice. The prayers I bring each Sunday or normally written in advance of the service. That’s just the way I pray. And most likely why I struggled so hard with today’s passage.

There is so much I could have and should have told you about prayer today. The story of the grandfather who hears his little granddaughter reciting the ABCs reverently like a prayer and when he asks her what she’s doing, she tells him she’s praying but doesn’t know the words, so she’s praying all the letters because she knows God will sort them out for her. To have the faith of that little girl … knowing God loves us so much and that He knows our hearts when we lack the words to express it.

I could have told you about Tonsung Kido, the Korean tradition where everyone in the church prays individual prayers out loud at the same time, sometimes for several minutes. We could have reminisced about the beginning of the Jimmy Stewart movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and how the beginning of that movie was multiple voices of the townspeople all praying for “George.”

I should have more clearly reminded you that, when you pray, talk to God like you would talk to your parents. He’s your Father and loves you no matter what you bring to Him. You’re already forgiven, He’s already working for your good, and He already knew why you were coming and that, in time, you would come. He is faithful.

One of these Sundays, we’ll return to this passage. Until then, I’m like that little girl and God knows my heart for all of you and for Bethel. Please trust that. Meanwhile, the text of the message I wrote is below.

Rev. Ohle

Message – Teach us how to pray …

We’re taught throughout the gospel that Jesus is often in prayer. In Lk. 3.21 telling about his baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened.

As he made his way throughout Galilee “he went to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God, and when the morning came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles (Lk. 6.12-13).

Before Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus had been praying alone, with only the disciples near him (Lk. 9.18).

Jesus, Peter, John, and James were heading up the mountain to pray and was praying when the transfiguration took place (Lk. 9.28-29).

The importance of prayer in the life of Jesus Christ was visible enough that even his disciples, who were with him constantly, wanted to learn more about prayer. “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus’ response is to lay out a simple format for all prayer …
• Identify who it is we’re going to with our prayer – Father … not great and almighty giver of life and creator of the world who was and is and ever shall be … just Father …
• Acknowledge the Father’s authority to hear and act on our prayer, our petition – His name is hallowed, sacred, holy above all.
• Acknowledge His authority and His decisions – – Your kingdom come – let Him know that we understand He knows what is best for us.
• Ask for what we need – Give us each day our daily bread – ask for that which sustains us from day to day – what we need for our bodies and for our souls. Also, this prayer is written for the community to pray together. Using words that translate to him, her, our, ourselves indicates the prayer is for a group of people. Not just individuals.
• Confess, ask forgiveness – Forgive us our debts – and sincerely repent – For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
• Ask for God’s mercy – And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Then Jesus goes on to tell a story … the Parable of the Closed Door.

The Message (a Bible translation written by Eugene Peterson) translates it this way: “Imagine what would happen if you went to a friend in the middle of the night and said, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread. An old friend traveling through just showed up, and I don’t have a thing on hand.’

“The friend answers from his bed, ‘Don’t bother me. The door’s locked; my children are all down for the night; I can’t get up to give you anything.’

“But let me tell you, even if he won’t get up because he’s a friend, if you stand your ground, knocking and waking all the neighbors, he’ll finally get up and get you whatever you need.”

Jesus is telling us to be persistent with our prayers; to not just pray one time and give up. If it’s really important, continue praying for it. He literally tells us, “Ask and you’ll get; Seek and you’ll find; Knock and the door will open.”

(Again, from The Message) “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This is not a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing—you’re at least decent to your own children. And don’t you think the Father who conceived you in love will give the Holy Spirit when you ask him?”

Sometimes we pray and we get frustrated or discouraged or even angry with God because we feel like He doesn’t answer our prayers but I think if we’d look hard at those times, we’d find out that we were basing our prayers more on what we desire than what we need.

When is the last time you prayed that God would fill you with the Holy Spirit? How quick are we to pray for something we probably don’t really need as much as just want?

In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the door.” The parable of the closed door implies that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has opened the door forever and there is nothing that separates us from the Love of God.

A simple prayer to a loving father … I’m thankful for the disciple that asked Jesus to “teach us how to pray.”

A Tale of Two Sisters

This message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on Sunday, July 21, 2019, 6th Sunday after Pentecost. Lectionary readings were Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42.

Reading of the word (Luke 10:38-42)

Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

10:39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.

10:40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

10:41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

10:42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Lord, speak through me and, if necessary, in spite of me that your word may be heard this day. Amen.

When we’ve heard this story in the past, the tendency has been to limit the work Martha is upset about to the domestic chores involved in hosting Jesus and his companions for dinner, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. She owned her own home with no mention of a husband or any other men in her life or household. That would require having the resources to maintain the home and anyone who shared it with her, and in order to have resources, she probably had some type of income such as producing something that could be sold, so she must have had some level of business acumen.

It’s also doubtful that she would have invited strangers to dinner. She didn’t hesitate to ask Jesus to admonish Mary for not helping her, and he called her by her first name, so it’s likely that she knew Jesus personally. While not one of the twelve, she could have been one of the many other disciples and the things as Jesus called them would have included her ministry, managing the source of her income, and the immediate tasks needed to show hospitality to her guests.

For those of us who are Marthas … and there are probably more Marthas here than we’d like to admit … that includes you gentlemen in the room as well … we also need to be careful not to see Mary as irresponsible or not helpful. I have a sister and when I’ve taken on a project that she had a shared interest in because it related somehow to our kids or our family, she’s always been right there by my side.

We’ve all had at least one time in our lives where, between home, work, church, and other social organizations, our to-do list was more than one page, but we’re intelligent, organized folks, so we warned our loved ones and co-workers and fellow committee members it was going to require all hands on deck and maybe even delegated jobs to certain people … only when crunch time hit, you suddenly found yourself on the deck all alone with no clue about the status of those all critical parts you delegated out?

I can relate to Martha’s frustration. That’s how the world works right now. It’s totally a “Martha” world out there. Productivity, getting things done, being on the move and available 24/7, the “never sleeps” economy— this is how you “get ahead in the world,” right?

Throw in “expectations” like traditional roles of men and women, feeling obligated because of relationships or a sense of duty, those activities and events you’ve committed to going on longer than they’re supposed to causing your whole schedule to go out the window, and the frustration level goes right off the charts. Before you know it, you’re mad at the world and telling it so.

So, show of hands, how many Marthas are here this morning? Do we have any Marys here this morning? Are you sure?

When you came here this morning, what were you thinking about? Were you focused on God or on whether you remembered to turn the crockpot on, the coffee pot off, and lock the door on your way out? As you came in and sat down, were you thinking about what the Spirit might deliver this morning or were you making a mental list of all the things you need to do on the way home so you can do all those other things you’re thinking about once you get home?

When we recited the Lord’s prayer or sang the Doxology, did you really think about what you were saying or singing, or did the words come out instinctively with almost no thought at all?

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

While Martha was running around like the mother of the bride at a wedding without a wedding planner, Mary stopped whatever she’d been doing, set aside her own distractions and worries and … listened. She got down, as close as she could … right there at his feet … and listened to the message he was delivering that day.

The root of Martha’s problem Jesus tells her is not that she is busy. The verb used in the original text, thorubazein, comes from the noun, thorubos, which refers to the noise of a stirred-up crowd … Jesus is telling her she’s in an uproar. She’s overwhelmed, distracted from what matters, and lashing out at everyone else … her sister and even her guest.

Even though Martha was overwhelmed with trying to serve her guest, a basic and expected act of hospitality, she blows that hospitality, when she tries to use her guest to do what she is convinced, in her uproar, must be done, right now. And Jesus tells her the only thing needed right now is to listen as Mary had chosen to do.

This is where we tend to mess up. If we want to serve each other, our guests, our community, or anyone else, we need to listen first. Really listen. Do nothing else. Let go all other distractions. Turn off the live stream in our heads that is trying to juggle and manage all those other things, and just listen.

To love your neighbor as yourself, and to love God—both require this, first of all. Turn off the uproar. Stop. Listen.

To reach out into our community, to find out what it is we can do for our community, to be able to tell our community the Good News, we first have to listen, to really hear them. To know how to reach them, we need to pray for guidance so that we can hear them and then we need to listen for that still small voice that will lead us to do whatever it is God wants us to do for them.

And I’m going to confess to you, that’s a hard thing to do.

Even while I was writing this message about the importance of focusing and listening to God, I was thinking about whether the hymns I’d picked would reinforce the message, what I was going to try to say in the remaining two messages in this series, what series if any would follow this one, the fact that I still haven’t received the guidelines for presentation I’m scheduled to give for the upcoming Chrysalis flight, the pre-course homework I have to get done before I begin the required Course of Study, how I needed to get all my messages written, hymns chosen, various prayers and responsive readings and things done, and all the bulletins designed for between now and September 8 because I would be at the Course of Study classes the 6th and 7th, whether I could get the discovery finished in time on the cases waiting on my desk at work after missing Monday and Tuesday due to a bout with the flu, and whether I’d messed up buying the old used truck I bought to haul hay and trash and what not because I discovered driving it home that the oil gauge doesn’t work and the check engine light came on.

It’s so very hard to tune out the uproar and just focus on God long enough to write a cohesive message that actually makes a point … I totally get where Martha’s head was and I so desperately need to have more Mary moments.

We don’t know from the passages after the verses today what Martha did next, but if we were to read further, we do know what Luke reports Jesus doing next.

He prayed. (Luke 11:1).

Nowhere in this story are we told to stop working, stop producing, stop managing and do nothing but meditate on the word of God 24/7. At no time in this story are we told to give up or disengage from the duties we have toward one another or to our neighbors.

What Jesus is telling us is to not let things … work … tasks … duties … obligations … thing … overwhelm us; to focus on what matters most and to do that the first thing we have to do is listen. The only way we can love and learn to love better is to listen … to God, to our neighbors, to our guests, to all we serve and all with whom we seek to serve.

We ask God to listen to us when we pray, don’t we? It’s time to learn to listen back.

Let’s pray …

Father, we confess we let too much of the world interfere with our focus, clogging our heads and plugging our ears. Help us, Abba. Still our minds and focus our attention on your will for us and for our community. Make us good listeners. In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.

Mercy Sees, Mercy Does

The following message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on July 14, 2019 (5th Sunday after Pentecost). Lectionary readings were: Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

Reading of the word (Luke 10:25-37):

Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

10:25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

10:27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

10:28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

10:29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

10:30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

10:31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

10:32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

10:33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

10:34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

10:35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

10:36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

10:37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Mercy Sees, Mercy Does*

Lord, speak through me and, if necessary, in spite of me that your word may be heard this day. Amen.

This story appears to start with a pesky lawyer asking seemingly impertinent questions in an attempt to one-up Jesus. Only he wasn’t a lawyer … he was a Torah scholar. He may have been today’s equivalent of a graduate student seeking a doctorate at a seminary or university, or even a professor of such. In any case, his entire focus would have been on studying, discerning, and interpreting the laws of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) … the religious laws of the Jews at that time. And his questions weren’t impertinent. They were actually really good questions!

The first question was “what do I need to do to inherit eternal life,” which Jesus answered with a counter-question: ‘What does the law say you should do? What’s your interpretation of that law?’ And our scholar answers correctly and Jesus acknowledges that with a ‘Correct, do this and you shall live.’

Jesus’ answer to the first question, though, creates a problem for the scholar. If he has to love his neighbor as himself, then who exactly is his neighbor because, let’s face it, there are some folks we’re going to struggle with identifying as neighbors. So his real question isn’t “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, “Who is not my neighbor?”  At this point, he’s asking Jesus to tell him where he can safely draw the line between “gotta love” and “don’t gotta love” and still qualify for eternal life.

This time, Jesus doesn’t answer him with a question, though. Jesus tells him a story and it is in that story that the scholar finds an answer he may not want to hear.

We all know this story, right? We learned it in Sunday School and have known it by heart for years.  A man gets robbed and left for dead, a priest and a Levite pass him by, but the Samaritan doesn’t pass by. He stops to help him. The Samaritan, showing mercy toward the man, becomes the example of what it means to “be neighborly”. We should all do likewise. End of story.

For generations, people have read and understood this story exactly that way. After all, we’re supposed to be out here imitating Christ, assisting people, showing concern, offering compassionate care to those in need and this story is a perfect model for doing just that. We may be missing some important aspects of this story, though.

Two of the characters in the story share the same religious beliefs but with different roles in their religion: The priest and the Levite were both what today we would consider clergy of the temple. The priest’s duties were primarily outside the temple itself, ministering to the people coming to Temple, making sure everyone who tried to enter the temple had done what they were supposed to do before entering – things like making the proper sacrifices, being clean, and so forth. The Levite, on the other hand, was one of the clergies that served inside the temple. His role did not require him to deal with anyone from outside who was unworthy of being inside.

Both the priest and the Levite would have been strict adherents to the laws of the Torah. They would have done nothing that could put them in jeopardy of violating those laws according to their interpretation of those laws. This may explain why they didn’t help the man in the ditch. They may have worried that the man was in some way unclean and to touch him in any way would have created problems for each of them. They may have gone to the other side and purposefully avoided him to protect their own positions as clergy of the Temple.

Jesus’ use of the Samaritan as the one person who did stop and help the man in the ditch, the commonly held hero of the story, would have shocked his listeners at that time. The Samaritans were a group of people who lived in Samaria – an area north of Jerusalem. Their race, a half and half mix of Jewish and Gentile, came about through the intermarriage of Assyrians to Jewish people left behind after Assyria was captured in 721 BC. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own copy of the Torah, and their own religious system. The disagreement between the Jews and Samaritans as to where the proper place of worship combined with the Hebrews’ position that the Samaritans weren’t fully Jewish and therefore somehow unworthy, put the Samaritans on the Hebrews list of “untouchable others.”

Now the Samaritan could have just patched the guy up enough to get him to that inn, told the innkeeper, “Here you go. It’s on you now,” and then walked away, but he didn’t. He paid the innkeeper to continue caring for the man while the Samaritan went on with his business and indicated he would return to make sure the man was on the path to recovery and pay anything more that might be owed on the man’s bill. In other words, he patched the man up, got him to help, created a community to care for him by including the innkeeper in the man’s care and arranged to support the whole thing by returning to pay any bill that might be due.

Remember Jesus’ question to the scholar when he’d finished telling the story: Which of these three was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?

Remember also, the scholar’s answer: The one who showed him mercy.

And remember Jesus’ instructions to the scholar when he answered correctly: Go and do likewise. Do this and you will live.

Back to the original good old moral of the story: Do this.  Draw close enough to see where mercy is needed and then show mercy, extend kindness to those who are broken and battered and beaten and bloody by life.  Live out your theology – your beliefs and your faith – in real time with hands-on caring for others.  Don’t just think love.  Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just post “thoughts and prayers” when you see it. Do something.

But what if there’s something more here that Jesus is showing us, trying to tell us. To know that, we have to put ourselves into the story.

We’ve probably all been the priest and the Levite at some point. We felt bad, but it wasn’t our problem, or it would have been a risk to our reputation or even our job or other relationships to actually act, or to help would have made it appear we supported something we don’t agree with, so we quietly looked or stepped the other way. We were tired, we were overwhelmed with so many other things, we were afraid.  Those are our “thoughts and prayers” days when, if we’re being honest about it, we most likely tend to think and pray about as long as it takes us to type “thoughts and prayers”.

Still, we continued to make our best attempts to be the Good Samaritan. We made that donation even though it meant skipping lunch for a week, we not only bought the homeless guy outside a meal before we left the restaurant, we made eye contact with him when we delivered it and even shook his hand. We stopped and helped the elderly woman with a flat tire. We mowed the neighbor’s lawn without being asked when their mower broke because we knew they were struggling financially. We let a friend who was down on her luck stay with us, essentially squatting on our living room couch for months, even though it made things tense and she wasn’t easy to live with.

But what if that wasn’t the goal? What if just doing mercy alone wasn’t what Jesus was after … or at least not the entire goal of Jesus’ story? What if there was something more there? What if the story is a reversal of every single thing we think we know?

Who is the last person on earth you would ever want to call a hero? Who’s the last person you’d ask to save your life?  Who do you secretly believe needs to be converted, fixed, impressed, controlled, or saved — but you would never, ever need them no matter what?

Or, think about it this way. An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life.  A conservative Republican is robbed, and a Good liberal Democrat saves her life.  A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life.  An anti-LGBTQ activist is robbed, and a Good transgender woman saves her life. A Christian fundamentalist is robbed, and a Good atheist saves his life.

Those are the same kinds of stark contrasts between the Jews of Jesus time and the Samaritans … significant differences that divide us, so significant they have serious consequences in the real world; in each of those situations just like the Jews and the Samaritans, each side is so fully convinced it is right and the other is wrong, there is no room for any negotiation or compromise of any kind. 

That’s what made Jesus’ use of the Samaritan as the hero of his story so radical, why it would have so thoroughly shocked his Jewish listeners. Jesus wanted them to imagine a different kingdom.  By using someone they saw as totally opposite themselves, he was showing them that people can be more than the sum of their political, racial, cultural, religious, political, and economic identities.  He was asking them to forget the history they knew and the prejudices they held and to leave room for God and the divine surprises that only God can produce.

I also think we miss the point of the story when we fail to put ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch. He has no identity at all. We don’t know his profession, his social class, or his religion. His only identity is his desperate need. He doesn’t care who’s on the other end of that extended, nursing, nurturing hand or what beliefs the owner of that hand has, what buttons that hand pushed in the voting booth, who’s hand it held when it said “I do” or what kind of church it was raised in when it’s owner said Amen.  He only cares that it’s reaching out to him. Everything that would divide him from the owner of that hand disappears into the cosmos because the only thing that matters is whether the hand is extended in mercy.

At some point, we will each have been that man if we haven’t already. If we can’t extend mercy as guilelessly, as swiftly, as without prejudice, and as fully as the Good Samaritan, how then can we expect mercy to be extended to us?

And yet we did and do receive mercy and we receive it every minute of every day. Just as the Samaritan extended his hand in mercy to the man in the ditch, Christ extended his mercy to all of us and to all those not like us, to all those we consider neighbors and to all those we prefer not to be neighbors with.  He did so with his last breaths when he asked his father to forgive us and gave his life for us on that cross.

“Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer. And Jesus told him a story that turned everything he thought he knew upside down by showing him that his neighbor was the one who was willing to ignore the division between “us” and “them” in order to show mercy.  Be that neighbor.

Let’s pray …

Closing Prayer

Father, we ask that you walk with us now more than ever. When we would take the path of the priest and Levite walking away from those who need mercy, remind us of what your mercy has done for us, Lord. Lead us to those in our community who are in the ditch. Let mercy see through our eyes and our hands show mercy to all.  In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

*While numerous commentaries were used in researching this message, special thanks to Debie Thomas for her 7/3/2016 message, “Go and Do Likewise” posted at “Journey to Jesus”.

May I Have This Dance?

The following message was delivered to Bethel UMC – Seymour on July 7, 2019 (4th Sunday after Pentecost). Lectionary readings were: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16

Lord, speak through me and, if necessary, in spite of me that your word may be heard this day. Amen.

A brave, powerful and highly respected general who has an incurable problem finds an uncommon advocate in one of his slaves, a young girl from Israel who, although she could have been bitter toward her captor, chooses instead to demonstrate a Godly character and confidently, almost enthusiastically provides a solution in the form of a prophet, a man of God, back in her home country.  The general takes that information to his king who arrogantly writes a letter to another nation’s king, commanding the second king to fix the general’s incurable problem.

The second king reacts far more like a drama queen than a king, assumes the worst, has a fit and accuses the first king of trying to pick a fight.

The prophet the girl had recommended to the general hears about all this, tells the second king he’s acting a bit silly and has the general sent to him instead. The general arrives at the prophet’s house in a flashy show complete with a chariot, horses, and a contingent of servants and, most likely, a few guards.

When the prophet doesn’t appear in person but, instead, sends a messenger down to tell the general, “go wash seven times in the Jordan,” the general gets instantly offended, loses his temper and starts to stomp away mad. His servants calm him down, suggest he would have probably embraced the prophet’s message had it involved doing something more heroic and convince him to go ahead and wash seven times in that muddy old river, what could it hurt?

The general does so and is healed.

So, what do we take away from this passage? What is the point?

Trust. Not trust of people one would naturally trust, but trust in those who fall into the category of the stranger, of the foreigner, of lesser status, of “the other”.

THREE TIMES in this narrative, Naaman has to consciously decide to trust someone who is, to him, lesser, a foreigner, the “other”. The first time is when he trusts the advice of the slave girl, a foreigner and someone who has every reason to betray him or wish him harm, a girl who is enslaved because she is an “other.” The second time comes when he trusts that this “prophet” person, another foreigner or “other” who is purportedly empowered by some god Naaman doesn’t know or believe in can actually heal him. And the third time is when he trusts the advice of his own servants, “others” just by being from a significantly lower social status than Naaman.

And, in trusting those three “others”, Naaman also has to consciously decide to trust God.

The “others” in this story also have to trust. They do so when they put their trust and faith in God completely and without second thoughts or doubts. In those days had the healing failed, the girl, Elisha, and Naaman’s servants could all have been severely punished, possibly even put to death. Their trust in God was greater than their fear of any consequences.

When God made us the caretakers of everything in the world – every single living and natural thing that He created including each other – He did so because He trusts us. He trusts us to build and maintain relationships with each other that mirror His relationship with us, and by “each other” He includes anyone we might label as “other.” In exchange for His trust in us, God expects us to trust Him and to show that trust through both our words and our deeds.

God’s trust in us is unwavering. However, for us, trust is a whole other story. It can come naturally, can be earned, can be lost, and can be withheld. We naturally trust our spouses, kids, parents, and siblings. We learn to trust and to earn the trust of our friends, employers, coworkers, and neighbors. But strangers, foreigners, anyone we place in that category of “the other”? Not so much …

Ask yourself … and be honest … how easily … and quickly … and often do you trust those you place in that category of “other”?

What about that guy you see around town covered in tattoos with a shaved head? What about the lady in the burka or the man sleeping under the bridge or that family in line at the grocery store speaking some foreign language or those kids that show up at all the high school ball games with the Kool-aid colored hair and nose rings and giant holes in their ears or … I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.

Right now in our culture, in our society, trust is rare occurence. We don’t know which news source to trust. A growing preference for communicating by text or email rather than face-to-face is creating a lack of trust in the message, therefore the messenger, because the lack of sound and image removes two key elements in determining the intent of the message – inflection and body language.

Our country is so divided about policies and laws right now that family members holding differing opinions on those topics are beginning to distrust one another entirely.

And trust in churches is extremely low. According to an article from Religion News Service in March of this year, “Nones” … those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever … are now a larger portion of the population than either Catholics and Evangelicals.

Trust is a key element in relationships. To love one must trust. To love is to trust. We struggle to trust and it’s vital to being able to love – you can’t have one without the other, and yet we are commanded to love. We are specifically called to trust Jesus who ministered to the “other” and, in doing so, tells us, “you love them, too,” that the world may be healed.

As a matter of fact, Jesus commands us to “love one another” five times! John 13:34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. John 13:35 “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 15:12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:17 “These things I command you, that you love one another.”

And then seven more times in the New Testament Paul, Peter and John remind us again to love one another … Romans 13:8, 1Thessalonians 4:9, 1Peter 1:22, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:7, 1 John 4:11, 1 John 4:12, 2 John 1:5, Ephesians 4:2, and 1 Thessalonians 3:12 all tell us to love one another.

In his Commentary on Galatians, the ancient theologian, Jerome, tells a story about John the Evangelist. According to Jerome, John lived to be quite old and became so feeble he had to be carried to the various churches. It became difficult for him to speak, and he would usually just say, ‘Little children, love one another’. The disciples and brothers attending him got tired of that over and over and finally asked him, ‘Teacher, why do you always say this?’ John told them, ‘Because it is the Lord’s commandment and, if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.’

Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love neighbor is one of the simplest instructions we have from the Bible! We would probably all struggle to remember all ten Old Testament Commandments, but who can forget Matthew 22:36-40 when Christ says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So simple, right? Keep just those two commandments and we’ve got this thing licked! And yet, we can’t even get that right because we struggle to love one another. Why? Because we don’t trust one another, especially when that other is the other.

We like to think that we trust, we may even tell ourselves we trust, but far too often we make excuses about why it isn’t safe or prudent to trust. If we look at the racial and economic bias in our criminal justice system, the crisis at the US-Mexico border, the current state of the United Methodist Church as a denomination, our local churches, our school systems, and our families, it’s not so hard to see that we don’t really trust much at all.

When something becomes scarce, it becomes a highly valued commodity and a really big, really important thing, especially to God who trusts us with so very much. And one would think that our trust in God should lead us to trust in one another including the “other.”

We struggle to trust and often fail, and yet scripture tells us that Naaman was healed because he trusted the other.

So what does trust have to do with dancing? I’ll tell you …

When Jason told me about this church, he said you were looking for three things, two of which involve trust: reaching out into and doing more out in your community, and growing this congregation.

My first reaction was my own happy dance, followed by hands raised in praise and an exclaimed, “You have delivered me to my people, thank you, Jesus!”

Then the gravity of it all sunk in. Here I am … this 61-year-old woman in her first appointment, and I’m about to ask this congregation to trust me. Trust that I can keep all of you interested enough to come back each week. Trust that together we can come up with plans that carry us out into the community, and trust that we do so in a way that carries the community back here. I’m asking you to trust me and I’m asking you to trust “the others” that we’ll most assuredly meet when we venture out into the community. And, through all of this, I’m asking you to trust that God’s hand is and will be on us, Christ is and will be walking with us, and the Spirit is and will be guiding us and making our way clear.

It occurred to me that this was kind of like moving to a new town and school the week before the homecoming dance and your parents telling you to trust them, everything will be fine and you’ll have a good time … Will I have to go to the dance alone? What if I go and nobody dances with me? What if someone asks me to dance and I mess up?

Then I heard a story told by Taylor Christian Mertins. He told about a class he’d taken in seminary, about how the professor had spoken on a scripture at the beginning of class, how none of them remembered what the professor talked about in that message and how, at the end of the class, the professor told them that everyone remembers the last thing you said so they should take out a piece of paper and write this down, “It’s about God, stupid.”

That’s the thing. This isn’t about me, isn’t about you, isn’t about Bethel UMC or Smoky Mountain District or Holston Conference or the Southeastern Jurisdiction or the UMC as a whole. This is 100% about God. About loving God, worshipping God, praising God, serving God, trusting God because He’s the one asking us to dance with Him.

By putting His trust in us, God has invited us to the dance. He’s here, He’s waiting, and it’s up to us to accept His invitation.

I want us to accept His invitation and to dance, Bethel. I want us to dance our way out into the community and invite strangers to the dance, too. I want us to keep dancing when our feet ache and when no one can hear the music but us, and when they can’t hear that music, I want us to sing that music to them and sing it loud.

Psalm 149:3-4 says, “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp. For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.”

Psalm 30:11-12 says, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. LORD my God, I will praise you forever.”

And finally, Psalm 150 says, “Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.”

I want us to dance and to sing joyful songs whether our souls are soaring or weary and I want us to teach the songs to all we meet. I want us to raise our hands and shout praises when things go right, and I want us to shout louder praises when they go wrong. I want us to remember that we serve a mighty and loving God who expects and deserves that we trust Him.

God is asking us to dance … standing here on His great dance floor, His hand outstretched, waiting for us to choose. What say you, Bethel? Shall we dance?

What Are You Doing Here?

This message was delivered to Mountain View UMC (South Knoxville) on Sunday, June 23, 2019.

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

1 Kings 19:1-15a

There are so many ways to look at this morning’s passage …

For instance, Elijah … this man … this prophet of God … this man who has been doing everything right up until now … and he’s done some mighty big things … he’s prayed up a 3-and-a-half-year drought and then he’s prayed an end to it. He’s looked King Ahab in the eye and told him Israel was falling and it was his fault, that he was the “troubler of Israel”. He’s lived off only what the ravens could feed him, healed, performed miracles, and even raised someone from the dead. He’s called fire down from heaven not once, but twice, and he personally … eliminated by way of the sword 450 priests of the false god, Baal, that Israel has been worshipping. All for God. All in an effort to try to impress upon the people of Israel that they need to give up their evil ways, their idol worship, and turn back to the one true God.

And then all of the sudden purportedly because Jezebel swears to exact revenge on him for the incident with the 450 priests, he seems to lose his faith and runs away in fear. He’s afraid for his life … so afraid, he goes out into the desert alone, apparently without any provisions, and asks God to just end it all … “just kill me now” … What could cause a man like Elijah to lose or at least forget his faith and trust in God?

Perhaps you’ve had moments like Elijah is at. I know I have. First, it took me 57 years to let myself actually hear God and once I did hear him it would be another nearly three years of work and study and prayer and testing before I would finally become approved for licensing. That was the fall of 2017 and I was so excited. So certain I was on the right track and everything would fall into place. I started organizing myself and my life and even my family’s life in anticipation. I resigned from committees here, began building up a personal library of reference books, planning out and for a year’s worth of sermons …

And then, the following spring, the District Committee on Ordained Ministry interviews came around and one of the first questions they asked me was, “How would you feel if you didn’t get an appointment this year?”
I’m telling you; I have never had a better poker face than the one I did at that moment in time. And I don’t think I’ve had a longer, harder, more emotional talk with God than the one I had on the way home from that meeting or second guessed myself and even my faith more than I did for the next several months.

I’d been doing everything right and ended up going nowhere and, where Elijah was scared for his life, I was afraid for my faith and in all honesty, embarrassed. There must be something wrong with me, with my faith, with my hearing when it comes to hearing God.

Where Elijah muttered, “God, just end my life now,” and laid down and took a nap, I simply threw my hands in the air, said, “Whatever, God, your will be done,” and took a kind of sabbatical. Elijah was reacting out of frustration and, to some degree, probably exhaustion. I was also frustrated and, to a large degree, disappointed. Neither of us saw any tangible fruit from our plans. I would hazard a guess that at least a few of you here today have had similar experiences.

Two times, angels woke Elijah up and gave him nourishment, strength for the journey. I received morsels of nourishment as time went on, too. Sometimes it was just encouragement from friends here at Mountain View or abroad, family members who knew and understood my faith journey, sometimes it was a book, sometimes a song or a video or an audio recording. All of them were well timed and heaven sent. If you were to think back on your “Elijah in the desert” moments, you’d probably be able to identify the bits and morsels of those cakes baked on hot stones and sweet cool water you received, too.

Elijah’s moment doesn’t end with those two angelic visits, though. After his second meal, he gets up and starts a 40-day, 40-night journey to Mount Horeb where he found a cave, goes inside, and once again … takes a nap.

Our passage tells us that the word of the Lord came to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah’s immediate response was to tell the word of the Lord why he was there: “I’ve been doing everything for the Lord; no one listened to me; they broke all Your rules; they tore down all Your alters; they killed all your prophets but me and now they want to kill me.”

The word of the Lord told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain and wait for the Lord because the Lord was going to pass by. Elijah waits in the cave through a wind so strong it causes the rocks to explode and mountains to split, through an earthquake, through a fire, and then … when there is nothing but absolute sheer silence … then Elijah covers his face with his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave. He sensed that God wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but he knew God was in that silence … that stillness …

A voice comes out of that silence and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And, again, Elijah says why he’s there, “I’ve been doing everything for the Lord; no one listened to me; they broke all Your rules; they tore down all Your alters; they killed all your prophets but me and now they want to kill me.” At that point, the Lord tells Elijah to go back to the wilderness of Damascus, followed (if you read past today’s last verse) by some pretty explicit instructions Elijah is to carry out.

When I read that last verse from today’s passage, I got this image of God shaking his head and sighing, and a feeling that He may have had a resigned tone in his voice when he told Elijah, “Go back to the wilderness of Damascus.” Not that I might have answered differently than Elijah because we all tend to do that … to say why something isn’t working rather than say what we are doing about what isn’t working … but seeing the passage in writing, the semantics of God’s question versus Elijah’s answer becomes important, at least to me. God kept asking Elijah what he was doing and Elijah never really answered God.

How many times do we do that? How many times do we get these nudges and whispers in the stillness about what we should be doing and start making excuses for or justifying why we can’t or just ignoring the nudge altogether? “God, I’ve been doing everything right, doing it all for you, and no one gets it but me!”

In a podcast called Strangely Warmed, Taylor Mertins and Josh Retter discussed this passage and suggested that Elijah’s problem was he had been going along thinking he was the plan. We’ve each been there, right? That big thing we took on, we were on top of it, we had it all worked out, we knew just what to do and when to do it and how to do it and who to do it with …

The thing is, Elijah never was the plan and we are not … any of us … individually … The Plan. Even collectively, we are not the plan. The UMC is not the plan any more than the Baptists are the Plan or the Episcopalians are the Plan or the Jewish or Muslim or any other faith is “the Plan”. We are all only pieces of the plan, and too often we forget that.

And there is a danger for us in forgetting that. We get too comfortable in the “alikeness” of our groups. We seek out people like us instead of filling the empty seats with people not like us. Pretty soon, we’ve strayed from God’s plan and started making our own plan. It’s because of that kind of thinking, that we often end up under the broom tree with Elijah, frustrated, frightened for the future, and exhausted.

If suddenly there was a wind so strong the rocks exploded, an earthquake and a fire, after which there was a sheer and utter silence … If a voice came out of that silence and asked you today, “What are you doing here?” what would you answer be?

Let’s pray …

God of earthquake, wind and fire,
You reveal yourself through the ordinary and extraordinary,
In the day to day of busy lives
And in signs and wonders
That shake us to the core.

The glory of your majesty can be heard
In the gentle whisper of a Springtime breeze,
And in an earthquake’s dark and frightening roar.

Let our ears and minds be ever open to the possibility that you are speaking to us, and our hearts attentive to your call. Amen.
(By John Birch)

Benediction:

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever He may send you;
May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm,
May he bring you home rejoicing at wonders he has shown you,
May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.

The message above was delivered to Mountain View UMC on Sunday, June 23, 2019.

A Home – A Home – A Home!

Show your pride in your ancestors and clan with this 100% cotton screen-printed t-shirt and our new Clan Home license plate!

The shirts are matched to the “Borderer Blue” in the ancient tartan, and to the blue or red in the modern tartan and should blend nicely with your kilts, sashes, and shawls.

Available in Adult sizes S-4X and children/youth sizes S-XL, and in three color choices: Border Blue (for Ancient Tartan wearers), and Navy or Red (for Modern Tartan wearers). We are working on toddlers and on additional shirt styles. 

$20 per t-shirt plus shipping per order.*

The license plates are aluminum, are 6″ x 12″, and are $20.00 per plate plus shipping per order.*

Shipping is charged per order as follows (we may combine two or more packages for orders over 18 shirts; all orders will be shipped through USPS within the US and FedEx for international):

  • $  8.00 – 1-2 Shirts or 1-3 license plates
  • $14.35 – 3-12 Shirts or 4 or more license plates
  • $19.95 – 13-18 Shirts
  • $18.45 – To an APO/FPO/DPO (shirts, license plates, regardless of quantity)
  • International: Shipping fees will be calculated per order. (Custom/Duty fees may apply depending on rules of the destination country.)

Payments accepted through PayPal, Facebook Messenger, or you can send payment by regular mail. Once you place your order (below), we will send you a confirmation email with links to the payment options.

*Orders are filled on a first come first serve basis.  We must have a minimum of 12 shirts to place an order with our vendor. If we cannot fill your entire order and unless you tell us otherwise, we will backorder that portion we do not have on hand and ship as soon as they come in (no additional shipping charge for partial backorders).

If you are hosting a booth in another area and need shirts for your crew or to sell at the festival/games, please contact us through the form below and we’ll try to help you out as much as possible!

Proceeds from the sale of these shirts and license plates are used by the “Smoky Mountain Humes” to cover Clan Home booth expenses at area festivals and games including but not limited to booth registration fees, entry & parking passes (when required) for booth volunteers, and booth related equipment and supplies. Any “abundance” of proceeds may be distributed as grants to local organizers in other areas/states and/or contributed to one of the Clan Home Association projects.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Service for Vonore UMC, Sunday, October 21, 2018

Prelude
Bringing in the Light of Christ
Greetings & Announcements
Introit Great is the Lord, TFWS 2022

Call to Worship Responsive Reading

One: Praise God in the sanctuary!
All: Bless the Lord, O my soul.
One: Look at God!
One: Robed in majesty.
One: Clothed with honor.
One: Dressed in glory.
One: Garments of wonderful light.
All: Bless the Lord, O my soul.
One: Look at God!
One: Flung heaven across the sky.
One: Walks on the clouds.
One: Rides on the wind.
One: Speaks through fire.
One: No one is greater than our God!
All: Bless the Lord.
One: For God is Great!
All: Bless the Lord.
One: For God is Wonderful!
All: Bless the Lord.
One: The whole earth declares your glory.
All: Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Opening Prayer

God, we come today with more preconceived notions and beliefs than we have unanswered questions, and we have so … many … unanswered … questions. We come to you with more self-righteousness than repentance, and more need to control what happens in our lives than trust in giving it all to you because you do have control. Forgive us, God, and let your Spirit fill us today. Let her open our hearts and our minds and our ears and our eyes. May our praise and worship this morning please you and remind us that You are God and we are not. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Opening Hymn Bless His Holy Name, TFWS 2015
Passing the Peace
Children’s Time
Sharing Joys & Concerns

Pastoral Prayer

God, You are so very great! Your mercies are new every morning, and your faithfulness never fails. We thank you for the many blessings we have received and give special thanks for the blessings we failed to recognize. Please forgive us for not recognizing them when they were received or even now as we stand before you.

Receive our petitions and hear also the unspoken prayers that your Spirit groans to you on our behalf, God, and, if it be your will, grant healing, comfort, peace, and grace wherever they are needed. There are so many in the world, God, that are hurting, hungry, scared, or grieving, so many that are ravaged by war or devastated by natural disasters, and too few who intercede on their behalf. We ask that they, too, regardless of who they are, how they live, or in what manner they worship, receive your abundant blessing and grace.

We pray for your protection and blessing upon first responders and others who are able to intercede. We especially pray that you will make your will known to the leaders of this world and remind them that it is not their kingdoms they build and lead, but yours. We pray this to you now in the way that Christ your son taught us:

The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Anthem He Is Exalted

Scripture Reading Job 38:1-7, (34-41)

(1-7) Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements … surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

(34-41) “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?

Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God and wander about for lack of food?

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our heart be pleasing unto you, O Lord, our rock and redeemer.

Message: Who Do You Think You Are?

Just a quick summary of Job’s story:

Job is blameless and upright. When his story starts, he’s one blessed fella. He has kids, a wife, land, and a bunch of sheep.  Unbeknownst to Job, Satan comes along and issues God a challenge: Satan declares the only reason Job’s such a good guy is because Job has been so well blessed by God, and that if those earthly blessings were taken away, Job would dump God in a New York minute. God accepts Satan’s challenge, and Satan unleashes a force that kills all of Job’s family except his wife, kills his servants, and reduces his homes to dust.

Through all that death and destruction and loss, though, Job remains loyal to God. He refuses to denounce God. Satan isn’t satisfied, though, goes back and challenges God again. God says do whatever, but do not kill Job, and this time Satan gives Job a nasty rash, boils, and blisters all over his body.

It’s at this point that Job starts to get a little bit testy about all of this. After all, he was loyal to God, and look what happened – his earthly possessions, his children were all wiped out. Literally. He still stayed loyal to God and now look at him! He’s covered in a rash and boils and blisters! Job still doesn’t renounce God, but he does start insisting that he deserves some kind of explanation—wouldn’t you want one? All he’s getting from God, though, is silence. Job’s wife is so tired of Job’s problems, she finally says, “Just curse God and die!”

Not long after this, Job’s buddies Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar decide to pay him a visit. They find Job in such a sorry mess that, for seven days, they simply sit and grieve with and for him, but after that seventh day is over, they decide to give him some advice. They declare they know the reason this is all happening to Job: Job has done something to make God angry. He’s committed some kind of sin against God, and everything that has happened to Job is all Job’s fault. He need only repent and all will be good again.

Job is not, however, satisfied with their explanation. He’s done nothing. He’s been a perfect example of how to keep God’s laws. He’s prayed, he’s worshipped, he’s made every sacrifice, he’s observed the Sabbath. Nope. He’s totally blameless and by golly, God owes him an answer.
About that time, a young man named Elihu (Ella-hue) shows up. Elihu is known for being a truth-teller. Elihu tells Job that, while Job may not have sinned, Job still has no right to question his fate. After all, God’s universe is still endowed with immortal power.

And still Job frets and fusses and cries out to God, demanding an answer until we arrive at that point in his story as was told in our scripture passage today: God shows up in a whirlwind and basically says to Job, “Just who in the heck do you think you are?!?”

Now, I don’t want to leave Job hanging there in mid-ending so let me wrap the Book of Job up for you real quick: God’s questions to Job in Chapters 38-41 leave Job feeling more than a little humbled, in fact near speechless, which is saying a lot considering 21 of the 41 chapters of the Book of Job are just Job praying, defending God and his own actions to his friends, or crying out to God.

Finally in chapter 42, Job acknowledges that, as a mere mortal, he can’t possibly understand everything in an immortally ruled universe. He repents and goes back to doing what he had always done before his hard times began and even during … minus the demands to God, eventually God gives Job double what he had at before the challenges, and Job lives to a ripe old age.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read the book of Job. This time, though, what struck me the hardest was what God said to Job … that “Who do you think you are?” passage in Chapters 38-41.

Raise your hand if you’re a parent who has ever looked at a child and said, “just who do you think you are?” Or, “who do you think you’re talking to?” How many of you remember hearing that same rebuke by your parents? Me, too, and I brought one with me today just to keep me honest about it.

It got me to thinking about the question. Just who do I think I am? Am I blameless and upright like Job? The answer to that would be mostly no, but sometimes things do go wrong for no apparent reason and still, I cry out to God and ask what I’ve done to deserve all the bad stuff going on in my life, in essence blaming God for my afflictions.

And here’s the thing. God gives Job a lesson, alright, but that lesson isn’t all those afflictions Job suffered. God didn’t put those afflictions on Job and he didn’t put all the “bad” in my life on me.

God didn’t make my roof leak, put the French drain in wrong, and cloud the minds of the builders so they would forget to seal the foundation walls causing the basement to leak and mold to set in. That was the stinginess of the builders and the previous owner who decided to skip the roofing felt step when he put a new roof on. That was the neglect of my husband and I when we first started noticing shingle damage after storms.

God didn’t give my husband severe COPD that put him in the hospital four times since this past June. And it was that neglect on my husband and my part that has made it so he’s now staying a state away with my oldest daughter and her family until I can figure out how to fix the problems created by those builders and the previous owner and exacerbated by my husband and my neglect.

Who in the heck do I think I am that I can lay all that on God? That I can assume, arrogantly, it’s just God’s plan for my life? Do I not remember Jeremiah 29:11 that says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope”?

God doesn’t cause financial failure or job loss or give people terminal illnesses or take children home to heaven before their time in order to teach someone a lesson for some unrecognized sin! God doesn’t visit tornados and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis on places because of some kind of societal or cultural sin!

To think that, to blame God for that, to even suggest that is so very wrong, and to sit back in silence and let anyone suggest such a thing or believe such a thing is even more wrong! When our friends and family and people we interact with suggest to us “it’s God’s plan” or “God must have needed an angel” or “God’s punishing this or that city or country because of this or that law or action”, we need to say “NO, you’re wrong, that’s not God’s way.”

And we know it’s not God’s way if we really think about it. We know because, if such afflictions were God’s plan, there would have been no reason, no need for Christ – God Incarnate, the Word made Flesh – to come here, to take human form, and to die for us, taking on all sins past, present, and future. Blaming God for any kind of affliction whether personal or collectively is to say Christ died that horrific death on the cross for nothing.

No, afflictions of any kind are, nearly invariably, man-made through neglect, through carelessness, through irrational, baseless fears that get fed by others with an agenda of power and control, and sometimes they are simply the result of nature.

What is true is that, no matter what comes, God is right there with us, sometimes holding back the storm and more times letting the storm rage on and simply holding His child. Too often, we miss the parts where he’s holding us, though, and I think I know why.
You see, the other thing that struck me when I read it this time was the silence of God.

Job didn’t know why all these bad things were happening to him! No one on earth knew. Not his wife, not his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, not even Elihu. The afflictions that came upon Job were known only within the heavenly body. So up until God arrived in that whirlwind, what Job was getting from God … at least in my perception … was silence.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song about “The Silence of God.” The lyrics say:

It’s enough to drive a man crazy; it’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder if he’s ever been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heaven’s only answer is the silence of God

It’ll shake a man’s timbers when he loses his heart
When he has to remember what broke him apart
This yoke may be easy, but this burden is not
When the crying fields are frozen by the silence of God

I wonder, though, if God is really being silent or if we’re just, like Job, making so much noise through our lamenting and carrying on about who’s right and who’s wrong and crying out to God for relief, that we often don’t let ourselves hear God, or that we blind or harden ourselves to the blessings He gives us along the way to show us He’s right there with us, holding us in whatever storm we find ourselves.

Which leads me back to the original question that came out of my reading of Job this time: Who in do you think you are?
It seems it’s easier to put the burden of our afflictions on God’s shoulders rather than lay them at his feet.

It seems easier to be angry and offended, to believe entire populations or areas or countries are being punished by God because of something done there or by them that we find offensive rather than to follow Christ’s instructions to love one another even your enemies and to remember what he tells us in Mark 10:43-45: “… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

It seems easier to make so much noise through our lamenting this or that or carrying on about them or those others or crying out to God to hear our prayers laden with how we want things to be and life to go and the world to work rather than just “be still and know that He is God” or remember that He is, “doing a new thing”, especially if that “new thing” might be something that we can’t seem to wrap our brains around.

Fortunately, I know some of “who we are” because the Bible tells me so. We are each, every single one of us here and every single person out there, created in the Image of God. Even the ones who don’t look like us, think like us, love like us, speak like us, pray like us, vote like us.

We are each, every single one of us here and every single person out there, a child of God. Even the ones who don’t look like us, think like us, love like us, speak like us, pray like us, vote like us.

We are each, every single one of us here and every single person out there, an heir to the Kingdom of God. Even the ones who don’t look like us, think like us, love like us, speak like us, pray like us, vote like us.

We are each, every single one of us here and every single person out there, loved by God and forgiven by God through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. Even the ones who don’t look like us, think like us, love like us, speak like us, pray like us, vote like us.

And those of us who hear Christ’s teachings, every single one of us here and every single person out there who have heard Christ’s teachings, are called to be servants to everyone else.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we confess that too often we blame you for our afflictions, that in our lamenting and carrying on and crying out, we silence you and then blame you for that silence.

Forgive us, Lord. Too often we forget who we really are. Cause us to be still and trust you. Teach us to stop blaming others for our smallness and that true greatness comes from humble service. Show us how to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and lend a hand, even when no one else will. Preoccupy us with humility, then greatness can come when we least expect it. Give us the grace to live as humble servants. Give us strength to rise up and speak when we see others making these same mistakes. Amen.

Offertory

God of great blessing, but even greater lessons, remind us again who gives life and who receives it. Sometimes, like Job, we need to have our questioning answered with a lesson –we need to learn that we are not the ones in charge in the universe, we are not always right about what your plan is, and we are seldom right in our judgment of others. The gifts we bring this morning are not a down payment toward future favor, but a token of a debt we will never be able to repay. May we gain wisdom in the giving, and may these gifts be blessed for your glory, not ours. In Christ, we pray. Amen.

Doxology
Closing Hymn Make Me a Servant, TFWS 2176

Benediction

May the Lord Jesus Christ, who ransomed himself for your salvation, bless you and keep you. May the Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve, bless you with humility. Go now, seeking neither glory nor fame for self-righteousness. Go to seek greatness by serving others to the glory of God. Go now as humble children of God, ready and willing to serve. Amen.

Urban Farm vs Farm: The Difference

We recently received a suggestion through our Facebook page that we change our category from “farm” to “urban farm.” While I respect and appreciate the suggestion, I would like to explain why we are going to reject it.

First of all, we are not located in an urban, suburban, or even rural “housing development” setting. The valley we live in always has been and continues to be zoned “agricultural” (one of the reasons we were attracted to this part of town). That zoning is something we will fight to keep for the rest of our lives. It should interest those of you reading this that in 2001, Tennessee was in the top 10 states losing agricultural land to development. Once agricultural lands are developed, it is nearly impossible to restore them to anywhere near its original state. In other words, once farmlands are lost, they’re nearly forever gone.

Second, one of the first things we did after we bought the place was to register our property as a farm with the Soil Conservation office here in Knox County. We did so intentionally in an effort to protect its zoning and future use. We bought this property just ahead of the 2008 market crashes when developers were snapping up “undeveloped” (in actuality, fallow or unused agricultural land) and throwing up housing developments at light speed. We wanted to avoid that happening here.

For the reader making the suggestion, it may have been the size of our property that motivated the suggestion. We are a small acreage located between single family residences also on small acreages, all of which were parceled off of what was once a larger farm (most of the parcels originally going to family members of the original farmer; we are indirectly related to that farmer through marriage). Would we like to obtain the other parcels and restore the original farm? You bet. We just haven’t found the right combination of lottery numbers yet!

It may be because you don’t drive past our place and see tractors and plowed fields. When we were actively producing crops for market (we are fallow right now due to family health issues which prevent our being able to put in and maintain crop gardens), we were doing so by hand via market “gardens”, raised beds and containers rather than plowed fields. This eliminated the need for expensive equipment and allowed us to increase yield by using “square foot” gardening methods in a larger than average area. The “methods” a farmer uses do not determine “urban farm” vs. “farm”.

This is not intended in any way whatsoever meant to diminish urban farms or urban farmers. Urban farms and their farmers are just as critical to feeding the world as traditional farmers! In fact, with the growing economic inequality and increasing number of food deserts in urban and suburban areas, they are possibly even more important. The methods, techniques, etc., used to create and maintain urban farms are different and somewhat specialized (in our opinion), and we have a significant respect for urban farms. We wish there were more of them (like one at every public school in the country, for starters!). But we’re not going to call ourselves one when we’re not (which, if we did, would in our opinion diminish the importance of real urban farms).

Again, I believe the suggestion was well-intentioned and I appreciate and respect the suggestion. But we will continue to stand by our decision to call ourselves a “farm”, a farm located in a rural area (per Knox County’s MPC designation), and not in an “urban” or even “suburban” setting.

As an aside, to those individuals who are considering leaving “urban” and “suburban” settings to buy a “house in the country”, a warning: Don’t do so and then begin the process of trying to change the country to the city. The livestock, hayfields, crop fields, etc, were more than likely all there when you looked at your “dream house in the country”. The country is not the city or suburbs (praise God!). We’re already living our dream, and it involves chickens, horses, mules, peacocks, guineas, geese, pigs, gardens, fields, and more. If you’re not prepared for the noise, smell, or “activities” of livestock and farmers, your “country dream house” is going to become a nightmare and your neighbors your worst enemies.

My Season of Pause

Going through the process of certifying as a Candidate and then Local Pastor Licensing School took me out of my regular routine at my home church. Where I had once been fairly regular in attending worship services and active on various committees and teams, I now found myself holding back. I entered a period of “pause”.

Lent is a time of reflection, introspection, repentance, contemplation, and preparation. I’ve been doing all those things since before Lent began. I’m still on pause, but at I think I’m beginning to understand it better.

My pause has been because I’m struggling with some personal demons (some of my own making).

  • Admitting my own shortcomings and weaknesses as a disciple of Christ in the face of being appointed to lead a congregation of the Church Universal
  • A growing feeling of failure about the youth/young adult ministries I’d worked on at my home church
  • Sensing a distinct change in the atmosphere of my home church
  • A changed perspective on some relationship issues
  • Fear of not being able to replace my private sector job with anything financially or otherwise equivalent
  • No longer being able to deny that my husband’s health has declined significantly in the last year

Those are the things giving me pause that I’ve been able to identify so far. I realize these may not be all the issues, but as I figured them out, I had a starting point.

God, grant me the serenity …

There is one issue I can take off my plate immediately: my husband’s health. I can’t change the outcome and neither can he. COPD just works that way.  He and I can make adjustments, revise plans, and carry on. But his condition is out of our control.

Losing the job I have is out of my control. My boss is retiring and he’s earned it. He’s kept me on far longer than he needed to and I both know and am grateful for that. I can adjust financially to some degree, and I will eventually find another private sector job, but I can’t save the one I have.

… to accept the things I cannot change.

God, grant me the courage …

Working on becoming a better disciple fell in line with the commitments I’d made for Lent: develop better spiritual discipline habits, spend time reading and studying the Word and relevant books, work out a worship plan of at least 6 months for my anticipated appointment, avoid Twitter and Facebook.

Sometimes the things we can change … change us.

The devotional I’d picked to start February 1 (The Wesley Challenge; Chris Folmsbee) not only walked me through some much-needed soul-searching as it took me through 21 of Wesley’s questions asked in Methodist class meetings, it inspired a sermon series that was the kick-starter I needed to begin working on the worship plan. It also led to more questions about what it was to be a Methodist and inspired a second series based on a book I’d already read (Community of God: Theology of the Church by a Reluctant Pastor) that seemed to build on the first book’s lessons.

I still had those questions raised by the devotional, though, so I ordered a third book (The United Methodist Way: Living Our Beliefs; Kenneth L. Carder). It was a good choice. Almost every question was answered, and I gained a third sermon series in the process. My worship plan now had an over-arching theme of “Walking With Wesley”, and I had a much keener understanding of my denomination and, more importantly, what it is to be a disciple.

And more questions. And subsequent book orders that resulted in even more questions. And some revelations.

… to change the things I can.

God, grant me the wisdom …

Sometimes the things you think you can change, you can’t.

You can’t have a relationship by yourself and, unless you were the party who wronged the other, you can’t fix one by yourself no matter how hard you try or how much effort you put into it. Sometimes your apology goes unacknowledged and theirs never comes. Sometimes they demand a concession you cannot in good conscience make. And sometimes a compromise it would take to repair the breach would only enable them to continue the behavior that caused the problem in the first place. Sometimes the best you can do is put it in God’s hands, and move on.

Something happened during the year I spent certifying for candidacy and going to Local Pastor Licensing School that changed my perspective of my home church. Perhaps it was becoming more aware of doctrine, discipline, Methodism. Perhaps it was hearing about what other churches were doing. Perhaps it was a realization that some things never change is more than an excuse and every bit of a comfort zone that people don’t want to leave. Perhaps its something to do with church politics or dynamics or perhaps its all in my mind.

Whatever it is, my “home” church has begun to feel less like home and that’s perplexing. I’ve been a member of that church for thirty-one years, raised three kids in it, and received my calling in it. One would think it would be my Aldersgate. The questions I have as a result of the studying I’ve been doing this Lenten season have only added to the feelings I’m having. I’m still working my way through it. Perhaps it will pass as I move through the first year of my pending appointment. For the time being, it’s something I can’t seem to change.

As for the youth and young adult ministries, for some things their season is brief and their ending is not a failure, but simply an end.

… to know the difference.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (NRSV) says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

… and, for me, a time to pause.

This is my time to pause, to reflect, to look inside myself, to make changes where I need to and can make them, to give myself time to consider things, and to prepare. There is no guilt in failing; only in not trying at all. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I sin. God loves me anyway. I’m working on what I can identify. I’m praying for the rest.

When Love Meets Dust: Reflections on Parkland FL and More

Yesterday, I was sitting at home, nursing the tail end of a bout with the flu when I got an e-mail from Alana Levandoski via Patreon about a new song she’d released in honor of the day. It was the first thing I’d seen/heard/read that did a nearly perfect job of combining two very disparate days –  Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14, 2018).

You couldn’t, in my opinion, get much more perfect than this song yesterday of all days, and I sat there reveling in it, broke my fast from social media to share it to my Twitter and Facebook friends and followers, and listened to it repeatedly. It was everything I was feeling, everything I’d been reading in the first 68 pages of Bishop Kenneth L. Carder’s “Living Our Beliefs”, everything I was studying in three devotionals (The Wesley Challenge by Chris Folmsbee, and two plans on youversion.com’s Bible App, Lysa TerKeurst’s Made to Crave and Our Daily Bread’s This Far By Faith). Affirmation after affirmation that when we let God’s love meet the dust that we are, we are better for it.

I knew there would be an Ash Wednesday service in my home church that evening that I couldn’t risk attending. The still not feeling 100% part of me breathed an audible sigh of relief, but the main part of my heart hurt.  As I explained in a previous post, this Lenten season is special for me … more one of a kind than ever before.  I longed to hear and participate in the service that would be taking place, to go forward with the rest of my church to receive the ash cross on my forehead, a tangible symbol that I was awake, aware, and actively participating in the journey.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence,
so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift
are we given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

As Alana’s song played on my laptop, I went back to my reading and resting.

My daughter got home from school and running errands with my husband around 4:30, and it was about that same time that I noticed yet another school shooting in my newsfeed.  Since we don’t have cable TV at home, we had to wait for the regular news to find out what was going on.  It was during that broadcast that I first saw this image …

Undying sorrow.(AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

Undying sorrow. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

Phil George, a friend of mine from Illinois, wrote this about the photo today on Facebook:

“I started to cry when I saw this picture. When this mom got the ashes put on her head at church, she was reminded of her mortality- she shouldn’t have had to face the possible mortality of her kids or their friends.”

I think it was after reading his post that the anger reached a boiling point for me.  If it hadn’t been for the chapters I’d read just last night in Bishop Carder’s book, I’m not sure I would be able to see my way through this.

In Chapter 3 – The God Whose Life We Share, Bishop Carder had referenced a section of Elie Wiesel’s book, Night. He told of the prisoners in the camp being forced to march past the gallows where two men and an eight-year-old child were being hung. He explained that the child’s death was taking longer because his body was so small. As the prisoner’s stood there, forced to watch as the three were slowly dying, one of the prisoners asked, “Where is God?” and Wiesel thought to himself, “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows…”

While it wouldn’t seem so and some may never accept it, I have no doubt that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit were right there with every single child that was killed or injured, every parent and sibling and schoolmate that was left behind or left in terror, every first responder, every officer, every teacher, every nurse, doctor and orderly at every hospital.

My faith and what I’ve learned from it is that God was and is probably somewhere inside the nineteen-year-old shooter, too. The boy just wasn’t hearing Him.

But, as Bishop Carder points out later in Chapter 4 – Made In God’s Image, Wiesel or the other prisoner could as easily have added a second question and, to me, a far more important one, “Where is humanity?”

Another songwriter, Mark A. Miller, penned a song after the shooting.

This … is … not … NORMAL.  This cannot under any circumstances ever be allowed to become normal, nor to continue.

I know where God has not been during any of these school shootings.  Not God that I know.

God that I know is not in the heart or soul of Congress, of state legislatures, of county commissions or city councils that consistently refuse to do any more than send insincere prayers,  shallow thoughts, and unwanted flowers and whose gods are power, politics, and campaign donations. These men and women are where lust meets dust.

Don’t want your prayers,
Don’t need your thoughts,
You can keep your flowers,

Just answer me
Is it gonna be
Your “freedom lovin’ rights”, or my child’s life
Your gonna choose this day?
Your gonna choose this day.

God that I know is not in the heart or soul a single member of the NRA whose gods are guns and money. These men and women are where lust meets dust.

Eighteen school shootings this year,
And it’s only February.
How many promising lives cut short
Are you willing to bury?

Just answer me
Is it gonna be
Your “freedom lovin’ rights”, or my child’s life
Your gonna choose this day?
Your gonna choose this day.

God that I know is not in the heart or soul of those Christian leaders, celebrity or otherwise, who would rather advocate for packing a pistol to church, school, or work to protect yourselves from some fictitious demon hoard than to stand up and advocate AS CHRIST DID for turning swords into plowshares. These men and women are where lust meets dust.

So many broken hearts,
So many ended lives,
So many guns in our hands,
When will we realize?

So many broken hearts,
So many ended lives,
So much blood on our hands,
When will we realize?

Just answer me
Is it gonna be
Your “freedom lovin’ rights”, or our childs lives?
Your gotta choose this day.
Your gotta choose this day.

It is that last group with which I find the greatest fault. They have forsaken God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and worship at the feet of any politician who can give them whatever it is they think they want. They have given up the God of all creation who made all of us in His image to pursue a false creation and a false image that they can manipulate and control.

Today and always, God that I know is with the families of the boys and girls who will never wear a cap and gown, never play another game of ball, never sing another solo, never wear a prom dress or tuxedo, never walk down an aisle. God is, as Bishop Carder points out, in the suffering.

But where is humanity?

I can only speak for one human.  This human is going to stand up. This human is going to rise up.

This human is going to advocate for gun safety through organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety, through how I vote and for whom I vote.

This human is going to be pro- lives that are already here breathing, doing their best to survive, first and foremost.

This human is going to make sure that she is a living example of when love meets dust.

What are you going to do?

Full credit to Alana Levandoski for inspiring this message and its title, and to Mark A. Miller for the lyrics to Choose This Day. God bless them both.

Rise Up! It’s Time! God Is Speaking!

The sixth and final lesson in this series is to take what we’ve learned over the past five weeks, to put our faith, hope, and full trust into God, to give Him control, and to heed His call to “Rise Up”.  Rise up, church. Rise up, disciples. Rise up, Child of God. It’s time!

This is the final liturgy in UMC Discipleship Ministries’ Rise Up! worship series for the Season After Epiphany, written for Transfiguration Sunday by UMC Discipleship Ministries. Except for the Reflection and video selection for the hymns they recommended, all work is theirs.

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

Entrance

The following would be read between stanzas of “Jacob’s Ladder”. 

Unseen Voice 1: Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart,
by themselves. (Mark 9:2b NSRV)

Unseen Voice 2: And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2c-9:3 NRSV, alt)

Unseen Voice 3: Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, (Mark 9:7-8 NSRV)

Unseen Voice 4: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Unseen Voice 3: Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

 

Prayer for Illumination (UMH 6)

The Prayer for Illumination would be read by the congregation midway through “Shine”.

Lord, open our hearts and minds
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that, as the Scriptures are read
and your Word proclaimed,
we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

Word and Response

2 Kings 2:1-12 CEB

Now the Lord was going to take Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, and Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

The group of prophets from Bethel came out to Elisha. These prophets said to Elisha, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”

Elisha said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”

Elijah said, “Elisha, stay here, because the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

The group of prophets from Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master away from you today?”

He said, “Yes, I know. Don’t talk about it!”

Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, because the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”

But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives and as you live, I won’t leave you.” So both of them went on together. Fifty members from the group of prophets also went along, but they stood at a distance. Both Elijah and Elisha stood beside the Jordan River. Elijah then took his coat, rolled it up, and hit the water. Then the water was divided in two! Both of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “What do you want me to do for you before I’m taken away from you?”

Elisha said, “Let me have twice your spirit.”

Elijah said, “You’ve made a difficult request. If you can see me when I’m taken from you, then it will be yours. If you don’t see me, it won’t happen.”

They were walking along, talking when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.

Elisha was watching, and he cried out, “Oh, my father, my father! Israel’s chariots and its riders!” When he could no longer see him, Elisha took hold of his clothes and ripped them in two.

The word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

Reflection for Sunday, February 11, 2018 (Transfiguration Sunday) – Rise Up! It’s Time.

This reflection is late … it’s actually Ash Wednesday, and I have been battling the flu in my home for the better part of 10 days. Rising up has become as much a physical goal as a spiritual goal. I find it hard to sit up, let alone rise up. I have a constant and consistent headache, dizziness that won’t quit, heavy sinus pressure around my eyes that makes reading or even looking anywhere but straight ahead difficult and painful.

That’s not a complaint or plea for pity. It’s an analogy for the feeling many of us may be having relevant to the chaotic upheaval that is the modern world and the difficulty we have rising up both to face it and to do something about it. When fight requires more than we can comprehend or muster, when there are more battles than there are soldiers, flight seems a natural response. Live to fight another day and all that.

It’s times like these, though, that turning to God, seeking His voice, trusting in Him to guide us becomes critically important. We are promised that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. That promise doesn’t apply to winning 10Ks or phenomenal success in business. It means that when we face difficult situations, Christ is with us, God is speaking to us, and the Holy Spirit is guiding us.

In the scripture, Elisha had ample opportunity to hang back, to not face what was coming – Elijah’s impending “death” – and to play it safe. Instead, Elisha kept rising to the next occasion and, in the end, took up Elijah’s mantle as his own. Granted, he went through a grieving process (tore his clothes) over the loss of his mentor, Elijah, but … ultimately … he rose up with Elijah’s mantle in hand.

Over the past weeks, we have learned about listening for God’s voice, about both listening for answers and being an answer. We’ve learned to accept when He speaks and tells us it’s time to move. We’ve learned to focus on what He is saying instead of what the world is telling us.

Now we must rise up and put what we’ve learned to work. God sent light to the world in the form of His son, Jesus Christ. When Christ ascended into heaven to sit again with God, Christ left the mantle of his light with us to carry to the world.

The time is now. Rise up, church. God is speaking.

Affirmation of Faith Apostles’ Creed (UMH 882)

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Prayers of the People

Let us pray, offering our intercessions with the church and the world in the words of the
Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.”
Lord Jesus Christ, you reveal yourself to your disciples, and to us, in all your glory. We
are left speechless. Send us the Holy Spirit to pray in and through us for the church and
the world with sighs too deep for words:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For the leaders and members of your church throughout the world, that we may not
seek to build shrines, but listen to you in simple obedience:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For the leaders of nations, corporations, states, cities, and other seats of influence and
power, that their hearts and actions may be turned toward justice, peace, and the
common good of all people:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For the earth– the land, the rivers, the seas, the skies– and for all that live with us upon
it, that we may sustain it and one another in this life:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For all who are sick, hurting, or dying, and for all who accompany them on journeys
toward healing or release, especially (names of persons known to your local
community):
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For all who are abused or oppressed, and all who suffer because of war, or famine, or
disaster, or imprisonment, that justice and deliverance may come:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

For ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sin, and for the courage of Elisha to dare to ask
for a double portion of your Spirit that we may boldly follow where Jesus leads:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, sinners in your sight.

Pastor:  In the name of Christ, you are forgiven.
People: In the name of Christ, you are forgiven.
All: Glory to God. Amen.

Pastor: The peace of Christ be always with you.
People: And also with you.

Pastor: Live in love, and Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering
and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2, NRSV)

Offertory and Thanksgiving

During this time in a live service, the congregation would take time to pass the peace and give an offering. I encourage you to take a moment and reach out to a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, a neighbor you don’t normally speak with, a co-worker that doesn’t seem to “fit in” with the group, and to consider giving a small contribution to an organization that rises up for righting social injustice. Listen for God’s voice and direction, His answer in who to reach out to and where to make your offering, move as He directs, focus on His voice and rise to His occasion, not your own. Become a carrier of His light in this world. Give Him the glory.

Spoken Word

Taylor Burton-Edwards

You’re speaking, God,
but am I ready for this,
to lis… to go where Jesus leads?

That’s a cross, all loss,
the dross of the earth,
no worth, go there. And that’s
where Jesus leads?

Where he bleeds,
you need me to go?

Whoa!

Just get me ready, Lord.
I want to be ready.

Dismissal with Blessing

Jesus shines with glory.
We are his body.

God speaks the sober truth.
We must listen to Jesus, and follow where he leads.

You who shine now with Christ’s glory,
go now from the mountain into the valley,
from rejoicing to suffering,
from fellowship to persecution,
from a vision of eternal life to the realities of mortality,
from Transfiguration to Lent.
God has work for us to do.
Let’s start getting ourselves
and the seekers in our midst
ready to do it:
in the name of God,
Holy Three, Holy One. Amen.

NOTES AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Many thanks to the team at UMC Discipleship Ministries for providing the prayers, poem, scripture interpretation and song lists for this series. (©Discipleship Ministries 2018).

Into the Wilderness

The season of Lent begins in just two days. To quote the United Methodist Church:

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry.

Lent is a time of repentance, fasting, and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection …

This year more than any I can remember in the past, I find more weight in the importance of personally observing Lent.

  • This year, I am literally preparing for ministry as I look forward to a pastoral appointment by July 1.
  • This will (hopefully) be the last year I can fully withdraw to observe Lent for a long time (again, hopefully).
  • This year, with the volatility and vitriol of its politics and issues, I have much for which I need to repent.

Retreating to an actual wilderness isn’t an option and, honestly, would possibly seem more like a vacation from the hustle, bustle, worries, and world. When you have a family, a home, a fulltime job, and all the responsibilities that go with those, though, it’s an option few can exercise.

The “wilderness” I’m heading to is more virtual.  I will be retreating from the world I know best and in which I spend too much time – Social Media – and into a world with which I need to reacquaint myself – the real, in your face, this is reality folks world.

Beyond posts for my church that I’d already obligated myself to (mostly graphic reminders of upcoming services and activities) and posts from any articles or pieces I add here on my blog (actually posted via the sharing buttons on the article; I don’t have to physically visit the social media sites to do that), I won’t be reading or otherwise engaging in conversations, opinions or other information posted on social media.

My goal is to reclaim my time with God; to find and give up the “things” that prevent me from making Him first and foremost in my life; to spend the next forty-six days praying, studying the Word, reading the works of others who studied the Word, reflecting on things I need to do or change to be useful to God, and to, with God’s help, learn better ways to engage others when my fast ends.

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll spend some time between now and Ash Wednesday thinking about ways that you can reclaim your time with God. In the meanwhile …

Peace be with you during this coming season. May you find a wilderness of your own, may you journey into it with hope and joy that, in spending this season there, you will become better prepared to accept, celebrate and embrace the gift of grace that we were all given through the life, ministry, sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. You are in my prayers this season and always.

Focus! God Is Speaking!

Introduction

God is speaking. He’s called us to rise up and we are rising. He’s called us to listen and we are beginning to hear. He’s called us to move and we are standing up to injustice and hate.  He’s spoken answers to our prayers and has called us to answer the prayers of others, and we are answering.  Now, we must FOCUS.

This is the liturgy for the fifth Sunday in UMC Discipleship Ministries’ Rise Up! worship series for the Season After Epiphany.

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

We Gather Together

All singing together …

Prayer for Illumination

The Speaker:
How we long for that day
when all creation will join the song,
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
We thank you and praise you
for your presence with us, here, now,
to strengthen us for our walk
and our work with you and one another.

But we are so easily distracted
from your goodness,
the greatness of your power,
and the depth of your love.

So speak to us now through your word
proclaimed among us,
and focus our hearts
on you.

We Proclaim

Word and Response
Spoken Word © Rev. B. Kevin Smalls 2018

The Speaker:
Somewhere in my past
the locust have destroyed
so much of what I know
it’s hard to FOCUS
on just us as we travel
throughout these barren lands.

It’s easier to focus on poverty
you see it is real, deep
and depressing no need
in suppressing the grief
that goes with it …

I get it. Focus.
On not just us …
but on our longing
for days gone by
when life was on a high
when peace and politics
were best friends
and every conflict found
an amends …

Being in an oppressive cave
for so long it’s hard to trust
freedom … and then some.

It’s hard to trust new beginnings …
that may turn sour.

It’s hard to trust new opportunities
they could collapse in an hour.

Scripture – Isaiah 40:21-31 (NRSV, alt.)

The Prophet:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is the one who sits above the circle of the earth,
and it’s inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them,
and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off
like stubble.

The Holy One says to you …

The Lord:
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal?

The Prophet:
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
It is the Holy One who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
for our God is great in strength, mighty in power,
not one missing.

So why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,

All the People:
“My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

The Speaker:
Then, the Voice emerges again.
We have been delivered …
how we quiver with the good news.
We have been rescued
no miscued message this time.

We have been heard …
our walk will no longer be disturbed
with fear … our running will no longer
be short-circuited due to poor gear …

The Prophet:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth,
who does not faint or grow weary;
whose understanding is unsearchable.

The Holy One gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

The Speaker:
It’s time to FOCUS … NOT on any POTUS
Not on past locust damage …
but FOCUS on Jesus’ FOCUS …
GOD God self … the one and only
Liberator of the broken community.

Come now, we’ve been heard,
come out of exile now …

FOCUS … FOLKS God loves US.
FOCUS … God SPOKE us into being
FOCUS … God woke us up into dreaming
FOCUS … will you … can you … GO THUS
and know … this race is designed FOR US!

LET’S GO!

Reflection for Sunday, February 4, 2018 – Focus!

Peter walked on water for a brief second while fixing his eyes on Jesus. Imagine what our lives would look like if we FOCUSed.

Matthew 14:22-33 is the story of Jesus walking on water. In the story (beginning at verse 28), Peter asks Jesus to order Peter to walk out to him on the water. Jesus says, “Come!”, and Peter starts walking on the water, too. Peter’s doing just fine at walking on the water until he sees a big wind, becomes frightened, and starts to sink.

Peter took his focus off Jesus, became distracted by the wind which frightened him, and began to sink.

How often do we take our focus off Jesus, off God, and let the world distract us with things that either frighten us or that feed the fears we already carry?

Each morning in the waking moment right before our eyes fully open and the world begins to creep its way into our minds, we all breathe a subconscious prayer of praise and thanksgiving. We have survived the night to see another day. We breathe it in, we hold that breath for as long as we can, and then our eyes open, that breath rushes out of our lungs to carry that unspoken prayer of our subconscious to God, we step out onto the water of the new day, and then …

We turn on the TV to catch the morning news and the world-wind begins to ruffle our hair like a fetid breeze.  We reach for our phones to check messages, Twitter and Facebook, and the world-wind begins to blow at a more steady pace.  We open the pile of bills waiting there on the kitchen counter as we silently sip our morning coffee, and the world-wind gains enough strength to beat branches against our soul.

By mid-morning, mid-day at the latest, we find ourselves trying to stay upright in gale-force world-winds of overly sensationalized headlines, misinformation, false or exaggerated statistics, gossip, speculation, and opinion. Those winds blow us into states of confusion, frustration, dissatisfaction, aggravation, and outrage.  They kick up sandstorms of false worries and baseless fears that feed and nurture each other and, for some of us at least, they develop into a full-fledged hurricane of hate, outrage, condemnation, suspicion, oppression, distrust, depression, and objectification.

Our focus is now entirely on the world-wind storms around us and, near as we can tell, both Jesus and God have “left the building”.

That’s what we cry out, isn’t it? That’s why we put on our best impression of Jacob and Israel, and say, “God, how could you lose track of me? Why don’t you care about me? Look at all this world-wind storm damage! I can’t fix this!”

If God makes “mom-faces”, this is probably the moment when He makes the “exasperated, eye-rolling, I’ve-been-trying-to-tell-you” face, and Jesus is sitting next to God doing a face-palm and muttering, “I told you they know not what they do.”

FOCUS!

Rise up, pay attention, listen. We’ve heard these stories all our lives and yet we are forgetting who and what God is, what God has done. We’re letting the locusts we’ve conjured up in the form of those fears and worries eat away at the harvest of wisdom and knowledge and faith that’s been cultivated in us since birth, distracting us away from focusing on GOD.

God that created all there is. God that stretched the sky over our heads like the canvas of a tent for us to live under. God that sees the rulers and princes and powers and principalities and presidents and prime ministers and premiers of this world and ignores them because He knows they amount to little and count for nothing. He knows that, with one breath from Him, they will shrivel and blow away in His God-wind like so many bits of chaff, and their world-wind will be nothing more than a weak gasp.

No one compares to God! There is no one on earth who could hold a candle to God. No prince. No ruler. No power. No principality. No president. No preacher. No prime minister. No premier. No force on earth can stand against God or rise as an equal to God or to Christ.

FOCUS!

Look up.  Look up at the night sky and remember that God hung every single one of those stars and God knows and calls them – each and every one of them – by name without ever forgetting even one of them.

God never loses track of us, never doesn’t care about us! God doesn’t come and go.  God never tires or pauses to catch His breath.

God lasts.

God has lasted since the beginning of time. God will last through eternity. God lasts and God is.

FOCUS!

“Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met thee. Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”

We need to keep our attention, our FOCUS on God and on Christ. We need to learn to trust them, to listen to God. To move in the direction His Spirit guides us.

They are with us in the valley and on the mountain. They see us always. They hear us always. They have promised us time and time and time again that they will provide for us, strengthen us, protect us, and 365 different times in the Bible we are told to not be afraid. Fear can’t take a foothold, can’t distract us, if we just maintain our FOCUS on God and on Christ.

FOCUS!

God will give to us the power and the strength we need to face whatever lies before us. Without God, even those who are young and healthy grow faint and become exhausted, but those who wait on God, those who trust God, will have their strength renewed.

FOCUS!

Not on the world-winds of fear and worry, not on the news or Twitter or Facebook.  Keep your FOCUS on God.

God spoke us each into being, created in His image, for a purpose.

God is speaking to us even now, reminding us that we have been made to stay the course, to run the race.

God the Great Liberator has called us out of exile and is speaking.

FOCUS!

Sung Affirmation of Faith

All singing together … 

Thanksgiving and Communion

If we were in a live service, we would begin the liturgy for the Great Thanksgiving. The communion service written for this particular liturgy is different from the traditional service normally used (located in our hymnals) and is beautiful in its honesty and emotion. I have not shared it here because communion is not something one can do alone in our denomination.  It requires a second person at a minimum, and that person must be a pastor for blessing the elements (bread and wine or, in the case of the UMC, grape juice).

If you are missing communion or wanting to receive communion, I encourage you to visit your local church. Since this offering is also received during this portion, please consider offering your time or a monetary gift to a local charity or church in your area.

I am including the music that would be played during this particular service and hope you take time to reflect on the messages of the songs below.

We Go Forth

All the People:
Thank you, God, for uniting us with Jesus in this holy mystery.

We are no longer our own, but yours.
So send us, and put us
to leading and serving in your mission
wherever we go. Amen.

The Speaker:
Come now, we’ve been heard,
come out of exile now…
FOCUS…FOLKS God loves US.
FOCUS…God SPOKE us into being
FOCUS…God woke us up into dreaming
FOCUS…you can…we will…GO THUS
and know…this race is designed FOR US!
LET’S GO!

All singing together …

 

NOTES AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

*Many thanks to the team at UMC Discipleship Ministries for providing the prayers, poem, scripture interpretation and song lists for this series. (©Discipleship Ministries 2018).

Refreshing the Dream

You may have noticed the logo for Spirit Dog Farm has a new look that we feel is a better reflection of who we are and of our priorities. There’s a reason for that.  Sometimes you have to take a few steps back, reassess your options, and reboot in order to refresh and revive your dreams.

Many things have changed in the eleven years since Butch and I bought our place and established Spirit Dog Farm. Two of our kids have grown and gone on to their own lives.  The third is fast approaching the day when she, too, will leave our nest, leaving only Butch and me to carry on.

To add to the changes, Butch was forced into early retirement a few years after we bought the place for medical reasons. His condition has caused his physical strength and stamina to decline significantly over the last couple years.

About five years ago, I took a “temporary” position at a local law office that was supposed to last about six weeks.  I’m forever grateful it lasted much longer than that (I’m still there), but between it and Butch’s health, we had to stop growing our market crops and give up our flock of chickens we kept for eggs. I wasn’t home enough to take care of gardens that size and his health prevents him from doing so. As the hens began to die off, we simply decided not to replace them in order to reduce the burden on him for their daily care.

All of this is about to change yet again.

The attorney I’m working for is retiring as of July 1 of this year and on that same date, hopefully, I should begin my appointment in pastoral ministry. While I’m excited about my pending appointment, I am (happy for my employer, but) saddened to lose the position I have here at the law office. My employer has gone above and beyond to support me in my studies and preparation for ministry and, I’m sure, would be just as supportive once I was appointed. While I’m actively looking for a replacement job, I have some trepidation that the majority of employers out there will be as generous about time off for “church things”.

I’m also still trying to reconcile what will be my “two” jobs. The private sector job will be the primary income replacement for my current job, and most people would say, “then that’s your main job,” but, as someone who has answered a call into God’s service, appointment to a church will always be (for me) “Job One”. Further and although the appointments I’m likely to receive will be part-pay, I’m having a difficult time seeing any pastoral position as anything but full-time.

Needless to say, this has created a conundrum as I search for replacement positions, so Butch and I have been discussing the possibility of bringing Spirit Dog Farm back into production and of my possibly supplementing that income with a remote position as a virtual assistant.

The good news is we still have our Spirit Dogs (our horses) who are still more than adequately producing our … main soil supplement (grin), so our farm-fresh produce will continue to be naturally grown according to the organic standards required for certification. And, after we’ve been able to build a new and easier to maintain coop and more predator safe coop and enclosure for them, we will once again be supplying farm-fresh eggs.

Rethinking, reassessing, and rebooting are things we all need to do from time to time as we move through the seasons of our lives.  I have a good feeling about this, and I know that I am not going to be alone. My life verse continues to hold true:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. – Romans 8:28

Answer! God Is Speaking!

Introduction

We know how to go to God with our prayers about our frustrations, our needs … O, Lord, hear my prayer. O, Lord, hear my prayer. When I call, answer me … we sang along to that just last week. We call on God all the time with requests for His help and attention. What happens when He answers? What happens when He asks us to answer Him?

This is the liturgy for the fourth Sunday in UMC Discipleship Ministries’ Rise Up! worship series for the Season After Epiphany.

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

Praise Hymns

Prayer for Illumination

Spoken Word by Taylor Burton-Edwards

Sometimes you’re just too much for me,
you’re light, too bright,
eyes burn to see your face,
your grace consumes my soul like fire.

Don’t blaze, these days darkness is a friend to me,
shadows shelter,
make a home for me,
God, your gaze is more than I can stand.

So turn away, don’t look at me,
yet draw near in holy mystery,
come Lord, and release me from this strife.

I want to follow where you lead,
your prophet’s voice I’ll surely heed,
Spirit, speak, disturb my soul to life.

Word and Response

Moses:  The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said:

People:  “If we hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, we will die.”

Moses:  Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.”

The word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

Reflection for Sunday, January 28, 2018 – Answer!

Moses had led the Hebrew people to the edge of the promised land, but he wasn’t going to be able to cross with them. When they had assembled at the base of Mount Horeb, they had asked Moses to petition God to give them someone who would take his place as their intercessor and, because they acknowledged their lack of worthiness to communicate with God directly, God judged their intentions good and promised them He would send them a prophet. Over the course of the next fourteen hundred years, God sent many prophets.

God is speaking, but God truly sees us and is also listening to us when we call on Him and God is answering.

His answers may not come in a crystal clear voice ringing out from the heavens, but His answers come.

His answers may not be the answer we wanted to hear, but His answers come.

His answers may not be easy for us, but He knows we can accept them and do what’s required of us because He better than anyone knows our strengths and our limitations.

Sometimes His answers come directly to us, and sometimes they come through us to others who are also waiting to hear His answers. Like He called the Prophets, He calls us to be His hands and feet.

Sometimes His using us to answer someone else’s prayers becomes the answer to our own prayers.

Knowing that … knowing that He answers our prayers and that He may need us to carry His answer to the others, we must also be willing to answer Him.

Answering His call may not be easy. It may require sacrifice. It may require changing our lives or way of thinking. It may be one of the scariest things we’ve ever done, but what is important is that we find within ourselves the courage to answer and trust God will give us the strength to do what He’s calling us to do … and get us through the part where it isn’t easy.

We can be confident in accepting His answers and His calling on us, though, because God is faithful. We can trust His answer and His call because, just as He told the Hebrew people through Moses, He sent us the most perfect answer He could have possibly given us … His son, Jesus, who, in turn, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as our helper.

God is speaking to us, giving us the answers to our prayers and calling us to be the answer to the prayers of others.

This particular anthem is not on the list of songs for today’s Rise Up! liturgy, but it’s something I feel is vital to remember as we rise up, listen, move, hear God’s answer, and answer Him. Christ was the intermediary God promised to send and that Moses told us about in Deuteronomy, and Christ made us a promise.

Prayers of the People

Note: If this were being done in a live service, it would be done in the form of Tongsung Kido*, a Christian practice used in Korea and much of Asia in which everyone prays out loud at the same time, but not in unison or praying a single corporate prayer. 

Leader: God we thank you, right now,
for the written witness of our ancestors in the Scriptures,
and the living witness we have just heard
that you are the God who answers.
You hear us,
but more than that, you see us,
you truly listen,
you understand our situation,
our strengths and our limitations,
and you give your answer
in a way we can receive it.

So it is with confidence we offer our prayers before you,
knowing you will answer,
and your answer will meet us and all with whom we pray
right where we are:

And so we pray, lifting up our voices before you all at once,
praying first of all, as you have taught us through the apostle Paul,

for leaders and all in authority in our countries, companies, and other institutions
(People praying as in Tongsung Kido)

with our congregation, our denomination, our deacons, pastors, bishops, and other
ministers, and every congregation, community, denomination, and ministry around the
world that bears the name of Jesus …
(People praying as in Tongsung Kido)

for the earth, with everything that lives and moves, and supports life upon it, and for all
who work to sustain it …
(People praying as in Tongsung Kido)

with our families, you friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, and our enemies …
(People praying as in Tongsung Kido)

for all who need your healing, delivering, and saving power in their lives …
(People praying as in Tongsung Kido)

in the name of your greatest Answer, Jesus Christ, who taught us all to pray aloud together:

Our father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.

Time of Thanksgiving

Leader: God has heard us, and is answering us even now.
We are forgiven and at peace with God through Jesus Christ.
The peace of Christ be always with you.
People: And also with you.

Leader: So let us share the peace of Christ with those around us,
and our gifts with the church and all the world.

Note: If this were a live service, this would be a time when we both passed the peace and gave our offering to the Lord. I encourage you to find a way to do both wherever you are by passing the peace to your neighbors and making a donation to a local charity or church.

Hymns of Thanksgiving

 

Sending Forth

God has heard us, each one of us,
and is answering us today, right now.
But God doesn’t answer us to please us.
God answers us to help us answer others better,
until we love God and neighbor as ourselves.

So go from here,
in the name of Jesus,
answered by God,
to become God’s answer
wherever you go.
Amen.

NOTES AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

*Many thanks to the team at UMC Discipleship Ministries for providing the prayers, poem, scripture interpretation and song lists for this series. (©Discipleship Ministries 2018).

*Video clip of Tongsung Kido:

 

A Matter of Perception

One week ago after reading/participating in some intra-denominational discussions by clergy about whether worldly politics should be addressed from the pulpit, I was pretty sure I was seeing a pattern developing based on the comments.  Rather than try to point it out in that forum that was already … lively … I decided to test my theory in the most accessible “blind study” I could think of: Twitter.

Using a series of four threaded polls, I asked questions to reveal the perception of the issue from those who voted in the poll. I have no background information on those voting. They could have been expressing their perceptions or could have been voting based on their personal experiences in one or more church communities.

Final results in bold; link to the actual thread is at the bottom of this article:

  • Question 1: “Avoiding politics in the pulpit” is more likely to occur in which type of congregation/membership?
    • 93% Mostly white/white led
    •   2% Mostly ethnic/ethnic led
    •   3% Mostly ethnic/white led
    •   2% Mostly white/ethnic led

      122 votes total

  • Question 2: “Avoiding politics in the pulpit” is more likely to occur in which type of church?
    (Mainline includes both Protestant & Catholic. Non-Denominational includes any organization not affiliated with a known denomination such as SBA, UMC, etc.)

    • 43% Mainline
    • 53% Non-Denominational
    •   4% Other

      68 votes total

  • Question 3: Which issue is most likely to be the cause of “avoiding politics in the pulpit”?
    • 17% Fear of job loss
    • 53% Fear of revenue loss
    • 16% Organizational policies
    • 14% Other

      64 votes total

  • Question 4: What one political issue, if any, do you personally believe is the most important issue that SHOULD be addressed from the pulpit?
    • 96% Social justice issues
    •   1% Candidate choice/morality
    •   0% No politics at all
    •   3% Other

      67 votes total

https://twitter.com/SheSeesFar/status/952632664820977664

As you can see, the four questions measure perceptions. Questions 1, 3 and 4 came out about the way I expected them to, but Question 2 was somewhat surprising. I expected to see mainline finish significantly higher than non-denominational and other due to the number of celebrity Evangelicals, most of whom are not affiliated with any specific denomination, that have taken very public, very vocal political positions.

This information isn’t scientific and the sampling pool is small, but it does have a point.  This is how a group of people see the Church’s role in politics and where they’re least likely to find guidance regarding how we, as Christians should deal with it. If we dismiss even this tiny pool of data as inconsequential or unimportant, we are effectively ignoring people who may be seeking that guidance; people who sincerely want to know and understand what God would have them do, what Jesus did in these situations.

That 93% of those voting found mostly white congregations with white pastors were the least likely to address politics in the pulpit is also revealing, at least to me. If the pool of voters is correct in their perception, white pastors may be failing to adequately educate their congregations on the issues people of color face both here in the US and globally, and that there is at least a perception that white congregations don’t care enough to seek that guidance from their white pastors. In a worst case scenario, both the white pastors and their white congregations may be perfectly comfortable with the status quo.

It is notable, however, that there is an honest perception that pastors and the congregations that hire them may be avoiding discussing hard topics from the pulpit for fear of loss of revenue (offerings/tithes) if membership drops or, in the case of pastors, loss of their job. I was disappointed to see that “organizational policies” came in such a close third. If such policies do exist then, in my opinion, they go against the very Bible itself which is riddled with stories about how God and Christ both feel and have dealt with social justice issues.

I think Question 4’s results are, however, my favorite – a nearly unanimous interest in hearing God’s word on issues of social justice. And, really, aren’t those that issues that are currently creating the greatest division around the world? What did Jesus have to say about those? People clearly want to know.

In the end, your perception of this information will determine how you use it. If, for some reason, you choose to dismiss it as inconsequential, too small a pool, not scientific enough, or “that’s their opinion; I have my own”, so be it. I hope, however, that you’ll choose to consider the possible reasons the results came in as they did, and possibly change your own perception so that you can change that of those outside your church.

Move! God Is Speaking

Introduction

God spoke to Jonah and told him to go to Nineveh and tell them that they had gone against God. Nineveh! The home of the enemies of his people! He couldn’t possibly do what God was asking. Why would God care about the very people he hated because they were his enemy? He tried to go the opposite way to Tarshish and Joppa, he begged to be released from this responsibility, but God had said, “Move!”

This is the third in UMC Discipleship Ministries’ Rise Up! worship series, modified for online ministry.

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

Prelude & Opening Hymn

 

Word and Response

(Jonah 3:1-3a, 10, 4-9 NRSV; paraphrase by Taylor Burton-Edwards, UMC Discipleship Ministries)

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

The Lord:  Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.

All: (sung response)
You may run, can’t be caught
You may hide, can’t be found
Brother when God get ready
You got to move

Jonah spent the day going into the heart of the city, crying out as he walked …

Jonah: Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!

All: (sung response)
You got to move, you got to move
You got to move, oh move
When my God get ready, You got to move

The people believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small, from the king to the animals of the field, put on sackcloth, turned from their evil ways, and cried out to God.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God repented from the calamity God had planned to bring upon them; and did not do it.

The word of God for the people of God; thanks be to God.

Spoken Word Reflection – Brothers

Reflection for Sunday, January 21, 2018 – Move!

We don’t hear this in the scripture reading above, but when God first spoke to Jonah, Jonah didn’t want to do what God told him, so he tried his best to run away from God.

When it comes to why we resent something (or someone), it’s not without cause, right?

Jonah’s reasons for feeling the way he did about the Ninevites were simple and commonly held among the Hebrew. The Ninevites were literally the arch-enemies of his people. They were ruthless, warlike, cruel, and didn’t worship God but multiple “gods”. Jonah could easily justify their destruction by God. Jonah would have, at least, been momentarily excited that God was finally going to give the Ninevites what Jonah believed they deserved for their treatment of the Hebrews – annihilation. But, instead, he did his best to run away from it. Why?

He could have feared for his own life if he traveled to and in Nineveh. It was commonly known those people were a threat just because they were those people.

He could have avoided God’s call because he wanted God to destroy the Ninevites and knew God was full of mercy and might spare them if they repented. After all, in Jonah and the Hebrew peoples’ minds, the Ninevites deserved destruction – not forgiveness. They were unforgivable. He might not have wanted to be responsible for any part of what some might consider “saving” the Ninevites.

Finally, He could have tried to avoid God’s call simply because he could not set aside his personal hatred of the Ninevites and the very idea of being anywhere near the Ninevites was unacceptable to him.

There’s more to Jonah’s story than just today’s scripture. There’s the trip on the boat from Joppa to Tarshish when Jonah first flee’s God’s call, God sends a storm, the sailors call on their own gods who fail them, then turn to Jonah who says, “Just throw me overboard (kill me now) and the seas will calm.”

An important part is when the sailors have finally thrown Jonah overboard, the seas calm, and then God sends the great big fish to swallow Jonah up. After three days, Jonah admits (to himself and God) that God could redeem anyone including someone who’d run as close to Sheol (hell) as Jonah had and agrees to go to Nineveh if God will just save him.

If we were to read the rest of Jonah’s story, we’d find out that, after finally doing what God called him to do causing the Ninevites to sincerely repent for which God forgave them, Jonah forgot everything he’d said in the belly of that fish and angrily complained to God.

Poor Jonah! God did what Jonah knew God would do because Jonah understood who God was. God spared the Ninevites. And it flat ticked Jonah off. He was like, “Geez, God, just kill me now! The Ninevites? Really?”

God just said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” So Jonah stomped off to the desert outside the city, laid out his blanket, sat there, and waited “to see what would become of the city.”

Can you imagine what Jonah was thinking? “I know they’ll mess up. They’re godless Ninevites. This won’t last. They don’t deserve to live.”

God caused a bush to grow up overnight that shaded Jonah the next day, killed the bush with a worm the following night, then sent a hot east wind and clear sky so that the sun beat down on Jonah all the day after that.

Jonah would have been fit to be tied at this point, on top of suffering from heat exhaustion and possibly sun poisoning, so Jonah once against asked God to just let him die. God asked again if it was right for Jonah to be angry about the bush, and Jonah said: “Yes, angry enough to die. (Just kill me now.)”

And then, in the last two verses of the Book of Jonah, God spoke to Jonah one more time: “You are concerned about the bush that you didn’t work to nurture, didn’t grow because it came into being and then perished. You think I shouldn’t be concerned about Nineveh where there are more than 120,000 souls who do not know their right hand from their left, or that I should care about the animals in their care.”

There are a lot of lessons in the very short Book of Jonah: God uses disobedient believers to reach the unchurched, God gives second chances, God’s plans are greater than our own plans, God is God of all creation, not just those who believe and follow Him, but those who don’t know him at all and to all Earth’s creatures. Throughout the story, Jonah seems to fear God, but not to respect Him. And, throughout the story, Jonah puts Jonah ahead of God and God’s will.

God was speaking and told Jonah to move, to go and do. And even when Jonah disobeyed God and went in the opposite direction, God used Jonah’s disobedience, not just to move Jonah, but to move others.

The storm at sea caused a Gentile captain and crew of sailors to witness firsthand the power and forgiving nature of God as well as the failure of their own gods.

God spoke to the Ninevites (also Gentiles) through Jonah and they were moved to save themselves from destruction. They humbled themselves before God and turned to Him – an entire nation (group/tribe) of people.

God is speaking to us all the time, compelling us to move, whether it’s geographically or spiritually. It’s what we do when He speaks that matters.  Will we, like Jonah, go the opposite direction, clinging to our own plans, our own ideology, our own judgment of those that He moves us to help or forgive or love or include, putting ourselves first? Will we only move if the move benefits us directly?

How many days will we spend in the belly of the fish before we face our Nineveh, whatever or whoever that may be?

God is speaking, and He says, “Move…”. Will you?

Prayers of the People

With all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our strength, let us pray to our Lord.
All: Lord, have mercy.

With all who are forced to move by circumstances beyond their control,
by weather, war, violence, employment, or need for specialized healthcare …
All: Lord, have mercy.

With all whom you call to move,
from places of comfort to places of greater challenge,
from one form of service to another,
or from employment to being laid aside for a time …
All: Lord, have mercy.

With leaders in the church and leaders in the nations and corporations of the world
who constantly call those they lead and serve to move
from injustice to greater justice,
from poverty toward sustainability,
from isolation to interdependence,
from wastefulness toward stewardship of the earth,
from conflict toward reconciliation,
from fear toward hope …
All: Lord, have mercy.

And for ourselves,
for your Spirit to keep striving with us,

to turn from our evil ways,
to strengthen our resistance to temptation,
to increase our resolve to grow in doing good,
and to overcome our immaturity
until we are perfected in love …

In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

Anthem


In the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray:

Our father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.

Thanksgiving

God has heard our cries. We are forgiven and at peace with God through Jesus Christ.

The peace of Christ be always with you.

All: And also with you.

So let us share the peace of Christ with those around us, and our gifts with the church and all the world.

(Since we don’t do an offering here online, consider paying a kindness forward today, instead: pay the tab for the guy behind you at the drive-through, deliver hot cocoa to the homeless, visit an elderly neighbor.)

Sending Forth

When the Lord gets ready, we’ve all got to move.
High or low, rich or poor, we’ve got to move.
One or two, me or you, we’ve got to move.
So move, church.
And keep moving forward as the Spirit Leads.

Notes and Additional Resources:

*Many thanks to the team at UMC Discipleship Ministries for providing the prayers, poem, scripture interpretation and song lists for this series. (©Discipleship Ministries 2018; Spoken word reflection ©Rev. B. Kevin Smalls 2018)

Additional Reflections on Jonah

Listen! God Is Speaking!

Introduction

“Listen!”, second in the series from UMC Discipleship Ministries’ “Rise Up!”, takes us through listening even when God seems silent and the Word of the Lord is rare. The liturgy (worship service) starts out in quiet, somber tones, asking us to think about the roles of mentor and student, the challenge of giving up one’s role to a younger generation, and the struggles that younger generation faces as it learns to listen for God’s voice. As you’ll see, music plays a more significant role in this week’s liturgy. I encourage you to take time to listen to each of the videos, either as you’re reading the section associated with them or as you finish a section.

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

Speak, O Lord (Introit)

Prayer of Illumination

Once again, Rev. B. Kevin Smalls provides us with prayer in the form of a spoken word poem. Shhhhh, listen, Y’all …

Scripture Reading*

Today’s scripture reading is 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (NSRV)

Now the boy, Samuel, was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time, Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called,

The Lord: Samuel! Samuel!

Samuel: Here I am!

Samuel ran to Eli.

Samuel: Here I am, for you called me.

Eli: I did not call; lie down again.

So he went and lay down.  The Lord called again.

The Lord: Samuel!

Samuel got up and went to Eli.

Samuel: Here I am, for you called me.

Eli: I did not call, my son; lie down again.

Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli.

Eli: Here I am, for you called me.

Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

Eli: Go, lie down; and if the voice calls you again, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before.

The Lord: Samuel! Samuel!

Samuel: Speak, for your servant is listening.

A moment of silence.

The Lord: Behold, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.

A moment of silence.

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel.

Eli: Samuel, my son.

Samuel: Here I am.

Eli: What did God say to you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.

Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.

Eli: It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to Him.

A moment of silence.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Reflection for Sunday, January 14, 2018

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”

“Nothing more frightening than heightening the expectation that God will speak. Hearing these days is rare. I don’t have any more risks to spare.”

Sometimes it’s like that.  No matter how much we pray, hope, pray some more, ask others to pray for us, all we hear is crickets, and we begin to doubt His existence or our faith. We become hesitant to invest our hope in that silence, unwilling to take a risk that the answer is not the answer we want. Not hearing God, especially when you really need to hear Him, can be maddening, confusing, even defeating.

I imagine Eli, who had been accustomed to hearing God speak, must have felt frustrated near the end of his time when “the word of the Lord was rare” and “visions were not widespread.” I expect Eli felt both angry and defeated when it finally occurred to him that God was speaking to Samuel, the 12-year-old boy Eli had raised since the child was a toddler, instead of talking to Eli; that God was, in essence, taking the job Eli had done for years and giving it to a mere kid.

“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the world of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

“If God is quiet … certainly, others aren’t. Buy here, pay here, sale here, try it here, go there, sit, stand … When the word is rare no one could dare suggest I just wait. No one would care if I pick my own blessings or if I seek my own dressings to my own arrangements … I’d rather do that … than trust …”

Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes we may not know how to listen for God’s voice. Sometimes other “voices” we know and trust or that are prominent in some way, seem to be the mouth through which God is speaking. Some of them may even insist they and they alone are that voice. And sometimes we believe them … because we want to believe them … because we so desperately need to hear God speak to us … because the silence makes us impatient.

“Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘What was it that He told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you. So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then Eli said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to Him.”

“Trusting leaves the possibility for disappointment. Acting on my own will help me to clone my own similar to the one in my mind … Except, it never works. Listening is the best way.”

Sometimes, even when we hear God speaking, we try to ignore what God says to us or avoid acting on it because we’re afraid.

“As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”

“Listening. Listening to, ‘yes.’ Listening to ‘no more distress’ but also listening to ‘no’, listening to ‘follow me … trust me … hope in me … shhhhh, everyone, hush, I’m listening this time …  I’d rather hear a ‘no’ from God than a shallow ‘yes’ from the mess of this world.”

In a message (link below) about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and “listening” at Duke University Chapel, Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery said …

“Listening anticipates a sound and what we hear is hopefully not only our own voice. The first lesson on listening is that God speaks … If we don’t know God’s voice, we may run to the wrong people for advice and guidance, sometimes even making them god of our lives. If we don’t know the voice of God, we may only hear our own voice and then confuse our voice with God’s. Or, maybe we can’t hear God because of all of the noise, “the jangling echoes of [the] turbulence”(Howard Thurman) in the world or in our lives. Or, maybe we just listen to the distorted voices that tell us that it isn’t worth it, we can’t do it, it’ll never change. “

God is speaking to each of us and we are called, like Samuel, to listen … but, do we hear Him? Really hear Him? Do we hear all that He is saying to us, or do we hear only those parts we want to hear? How do we know it’s Him?

As Rev. Powery points out, the first lesson on listening is accepting that God does and will speak.

The second lesson is learning to recognize His voice among all the other voices; among your friends and neighbors, among celebrities and leaders, even from your own.

It’s not always easy, especially when you first consciously start trying to hear Him. God’s voice can be hard to discern even for those like Eli who know God well and especially for those who are still learning about Him (like Samuel) and those who don’t know Him at all. There are, though, ways we can learn to hear Him more clearly, to be more in tune with His voice than all the others.

For those who don’t yet know Him and those who are still learning about Him, one of the best avenues is through a faith community where you can partner with or at least identify people who can answer your questions, point you toward resources, or even just covenant with you to be your moral support.

Prayer is another way for those who know God better as well as those who are just learning about Him to begin to call on Him and learn to hear His answers. For example, there is a simple “body prayer” for petitioning God’s help that lends itself well to learning to listen for God’s voice found in Paths to Prayer (Patricia D. Brown; Jossey-Bass, publishers) called Palms Down, Palms Up (included below in Additional Resources).

Prayer can be done anywhere, anytime, even when you can’t find the words to tell God what you need or what you’re seeking. (God knows your heart. He doesn’t need your words.)

The most critical part of this second lesson, though, is knowing how to discern whether what you’re hearing is really God speaking. The best way to know that is to know that God is love. God will never ask you to do something out of hate, fear, spite, vengeance, or through condemnation. If the voice you’re hearing says to exclude, condemn, judge, or otherwise look down upon someone else … that’s not God. Keep listening.

The third lesson is harder – waiting to hear God speak. His answers aren’t always immediate and aren’t always what we want to hear. Patience is important and we humans are not a patient lot. Nor are we creatures of good habit. Praying regularly will help you learn to hear when God is speaking and, because it is done alone, will help you to learn to hear God’s voice above others, even your own … especially your own.

The fourth and final lesson is the absolute hardest – accepting what God says. All too often, we want the “no” to be “yes”, we don’t want to give up our power or position to someone else, or we don’t want to make the sacrifice we’re being asked to make.

Again, God is love, and God is not going to ask you to do anything that would harm you or harm someone else. Nor is any “bad” you may be suffering part of God’s plan for you. He will, however, bring you through it and use the bad to make something better if you let Him. That’s the “trust me” part … letting Him. When we listen for God to speak to us, when we are patient, and when we accept what He tells us to do, hope is reborn and change happens whether in us or in others or both.

Hope, right now, is almost as rare as God’s word. The world is a mess, but God is speaking. We just need to listen, to accept, and then to act. He will guide us to heal our neighbor, our nation, our world, to build His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven if we let Him.

Shhhhh, everyone, hush … listen this time … take the bold leap, sit in suspense and listen … even at the expense of your disappointment.

Speak, O Lord, your servants are listening.

Prayers of the People*

Shhhhh, O my soul. Shhhhh.
Listen.
God will speak and guide our prayers.
God’s got us.
God will show us the way.

In this confidence we pray:

For the people of this congregation …
For those who suffer and those in trouble …
O Lord, hear my prayer …
for the concerns of this local community …
for the world, its peoples, and its leaders …
O Lord, hear my prayer …
for the earth you have given to our care …
for the Church universal – its leaders, its members, and its mission …
in communion with the saints …
O Lord, hear my prayer.

In the words our Lord Jesus has taught us:

Our father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen.

O Lord, Hear My Prayer

Praise and Thanksgiving

God gives us so much that we don’t even acknowledge and, like any parent, I’m sure He doesn’t like it when He has to tell us no. Still, though, I have ultimately been thankful for each and every “no” He ever gave me. I know many of those “no” answers were the greatest blessings I’ve received. I’m pretty sure, if you spend some time thinking about it, the “no” answers you received were blessings, too, and for them, we give praise and thanks.

 

 

 

Song of Sending

Sending Forth

I appreciate your time spent in the word with me, and I give thanks for you, the reader. Remember …

*The word of the Lord may be rare in these days,
and visions may not be widespread,
But our God is never without a witness.
God is still speaking.
Go, and listen.
Listen, and speak all that the Lord reveals. Amen.

Notes and Additional Resources

*Many thanks to the team at UMC Discipleship Ministries for providing the prayers, poem, scripture interpretation and song lists for this series. (©Discipleship Ministries 2018; Spoken word prayer ©Rev. B. Kevin Smalls 2018)

  • Lessons on Listening 1 Samuel 3:1-10 A Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel on January 18, 2015 by the Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery
  • Palms Down, Palms Up Body Prayer

    “Sit in a comfortable position. Put aside anything in your hands and lap. Sit cross-legged on the floor, or if you are in a chair, place both feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes. Begin by placing your palms face down on your lap or in front of you, as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. Whatever it is that weighs you down, release it. Pause one or two minutes as you release your cares to God.

    Now turn your palms face up on your lap or in front of you, as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Ask for what you need. Pause one or two minutes as you await the Holy Spirit, who performs the work of prayer and knows our needs, the condition of your heart, and how properly to express it. This is our invitation to the Spirit to come and express our needs in a way that is beyond our ability to put them into words.

    Next, bring your hands together and intertwine your fingers into a prayer position. Spend time in silence. Do not relinquish anything or ask anything. Be still in your heart, and sit in God’s presence, allowing the Lord to speak to you. Pause again, for another one or two minutes.

    When you are ready, return your awareness to the room and open your eyes.”

Rise Up! God Is Speaking!

Welcome to the first in my series of mini-messages based on UMC Discipleship Ministries’ Rise Up! worship series for the Season After Epiphany. I’m going to be adding in the hymns and some of the other parts of the liturgy for each Sunday in the series, so hopefully this will feel like a form of visual, audio and written worship for you. No matter how you perceive it, welcome! God is speaking! Amen!

Note: For best understanding and flow, listen to each video where it is placed in the page before moving on to the next portion of text as placement is based on where the music/audio would take place during a live service.

Arise, Shine, For Your Light Has Come

The Third Song of Isaiah 60:1-19
from Canticles, released December 5, 2013
(c) 2013 Jered McKenna
jmckenna.webs.com/churchmusic.htm

Lyrics:

Arise shine for your light has come and the glory of God is on you
Arise see when the earth grows dark that the Lord will arise upon you
The Lord will arise upon you

Nations will come to your light lift up your eyes and see
We’ll gather together and come to you
And your love will be all that we know
Your love will be all that we know
The sun will not shine cause you’ll be all the light that we need
and violence will end all the wars that we wage will cease

We will glorify your name
We will glorify your name.

Arise come to the open gates for the Father is welcoming you
Fear not for the Lord brings peace and redemption to all who believe
Redemption to all who believe

Nations will come to your light lift up your eyes and see
We’ll gather together and come to you
And your love will be all that we know
Your love will be all that we know
The sun will not shine cause you’ll be all the light that we need
and violence will end all the wars that we wage will cease

We will glorify your name
We will glorify your name.

Spoken Word

I so wish I knew more about how to recite poems like this. Sadly, it’s a skill I don’t seem to possess. This is beautiful, eloquent, profound.

Scripture Reading

The scripture reading for this service is a beautifully rendered translation by UMC Discipleship Ministries team member, Taylor Burton-Edwards. In regular worship, it would be read by two-three readers/voices with the congregation joining in at the end. Obviously, that’s not possible here, so I’ve done my best to compensate visually in the following slideshow.

Child of God

This worship series has introduced me to the wonderful music of Rev. Mark A. Miller, and Child of God has become one of my favorites. We are so conditioned to see what the world sees in people, that we too often fail to see others for through the eyes of Christ, and of God. Let this song serve as a reminder that each of us and each person we encounter is a Child of God.

Lyrics:

No matter what people say,
Say or think about me,
I am a child, I am a child of God.

No matter what people say,
Say or think about you,
You are a child, you are a child of God,

No matter what the world says,
Says or thinks about me,
I am a child, I am a child of God.

No matter what the Church says,
Decisions, pronouncements on you,
You are a child, you are a child of God.

And there is nothing and no one
who can separate, they can’t separate
you from the truth that you’re someone.
You are family.
You are meant to be a child, a child of God.

You are a child, a child of God.

Reflection for Sunday, January 7, 2018

If we were to compare the current events of the times for our scriptures this morning, we’d find that Isaiah and Mark were writing about similar situations.

In Isaiah’s case, the southern kingdom and Jerusalem with it had experienced a fairly long period of good leadership, prosperity, ally building, and infrastructure development, but income inequality and objections to how the distribution of that prosperity was done combined with an incompetent new leader were bringing the kingdom to the brink of revolt. Chapter after chapter finds God, speaking through Isaiah, warning His people of the error of their ways and the consequences they’ll suffer. Finally and once again through Isaiah, God speaks hope to His most faithful. “Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you.” (Isaiah 60:1, The Message)

Eight hundred years later, the period Mark writes about, God’s people are once again under the leadership, both jurisdictional and religious, of men who are more concerned about retaining as much of their own wealth, power and control under Roman occupation than anything else – incompetent leaders who care little about their people beyond demanding their obedience. As Mark reminds us, Isaiah’s prophecies have been fulfilled.  This time, God speaks through John the Baptist who comes through the wilderness once again warning His people to change their ways and to witness to the coming of the Light.

And here we are today … 1,980 or so years later, finding ourselves in circumstances not all that different … not just here in the US, but around the globe. The leaders of most nations are focused on maintaining power, control and wealth at any cost, income inequality is rampant, and people are struggling with what seems a nearly impenetrable darkness.

There are so many voices claiming to speak light into that dark, but only speaking more darkness …

Who can we trust?

Dare we trust?

Instead, we withdraw … as the poet said, retreat … clinging desperately to the hope that the Light will come again, doubting whether God is speaking still.

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1, 3-5 CEB). 

The darkness doesn’t extinguish the Light. Death could not overcome the Light. The grave could not hold the Light.

Yes, it’s been dark and, yes, we’ve been struggling, possibly losing hope, feeling lost, but it’s time to rise up! Each one of us is a Child of God and God is speaking to His children, just as He always has! When we choose to listen … to hush … to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10), we will hear Him.

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word is with me, and the Word is in me … I came into being through the Word, and without the Word, I cannot be. The Word brought life into my being and light for all people.  For all people. An inextinguishable light that I must now carry, for the Word has no body now, but mine … no hands, no feet but mine … And yours …

For the majority of 57 years, I chose not to hear God speaking to me, calling me to His service. I wandered along, in and out of the darkness, parched and lost for fifty … seven … years. And then, one day, the Spirit said, “Hush … be still and hear God …”

God is speaking to you just as He spoke to me. Will you choose to hush and hear Him? Will you choose to rise up and let Him speak through you? Will you choose to be his body, his hands, his feet?

God is speaking. Rise up!

Song of Sending

 

Sending Forth

Thank you for spending time with me here, today. Please accept this prayer and benediction.

“So you shall see, and stand in awe … at the salvation of the Lord.  And immediately, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the barren places.”

On this day our God has acted.
Rise up! Head out to the barren places!
Look around and see the glory of God
in the face of Jesus Christ
shining in your hearts
for all the world to see.

Amen

Small Group/Family/Self Study Opportunities:

Continue the discussions about how God speaks to you, and about finding ways to let God speak through you as well.

  • GCORR’s Lenten Biblical Reflection, Roll Down, Justice!, written by Faye Wilson and featuring the music and reflections of Mark A. Miller (From Lent 2017)

Waiting and Trusting; Not My Strong Suits

One of the hardest things I’m doing right now is waiting and trusting. UMC Discipleship Ministries released two new Worship series, Rise Up! for the Season After Epiphany and Rehab for Lent, that are outstanding. If I were at an appointment, we’d definitely be using them. Alas, I’m … waiting and trusting … and indulging myself in worshiping here on my website, because God is speaking, both to me and (hopefully) through me, and God is speaking to you, too! We both just need to learn to listen better.

More to come soon! In the meanwhile, a girl can dream …

 

It’s In the Details

This message was delivered to the congregation at Vonore United Methodist Church on Sunday, December 31, 2017. The service also included Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service

Message: It’s In the Details

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing unto you, oh Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

Before we begin, I want to talk a moment about Christmas.

You all know the one: We just rushed into and through it. We just uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for having survived it. Some of us – no names mentioned – are possibly still going to be paying for it next Christmas.

But that’s not the Christmas I’m referring to, although I’d hazard a guess that’s the one we pay the most attention to and are the most likely to think about.

No, I mean the real Christmas. Not the short form we share on Christmas Eve, either.  I mean the long story of Christmas, all those details we tend to skip over because pastors only have 20 minutes to deliver their message or the kids won’t sit still for longer than a few verses from Luke or Matthew, especially with all those presents waiting for them under that tree.

I worry that we may be failing to see important parts of God’s plan in all this that are hidden in those details. So much of it’s in the details.  Let me explain.

Alana Levandoski wrote a song sung through the eyes of the innkeeper that turned Mary and Joseph away. In it, she sings, “What am I to say? What have I to prove now that I missed it? It was right in front of me and I told it to move on. There was no room. I saw the silence of the poor. I saw what they were after … we all do. I had a business to run. I had a plan I was to master. We all do.”

I worry that we are too often guilty of becoming like the innkeeper Levandoski describes. That our busy-ness and our “plans” stop us from seeing the details in God’s amazing plan He laid out 2,000 years ago, a plan that continued to repeat throughout Christ’s life and ministry, a plan Christ called us to carry out on his behalf throughout our lives, a plan and a path hidden in the details of Christmas.

God … all-powerful, almighty, Creator of the earth, sky and universe God who could have … with a mere thought … manifested Himself on earth in any way or manner or under any circumstances He wanted … that God … intentionally chose to arrive as a tiny, fragile, vulnerable infant that, for at least a few years, would be 100% reliant on a woman … a very young woman … a teenaged girl … who, had Joseph turned God down, would most likely have been stoned to death for being pregnant and unwed.

God intentionally chose to come into the world through a bloodline that had been reduced over time to little more than a religious minority living under the rule and at the mercy of an empire that oppressed them for their refusal to follow the religious beliefs the empire declared were the law of the land.

God knew then just as He knows now everything that was going to happen, yet God intentionally chose to enter our world from within a family that was, by order of the empire, forced to leave the home they knew, Joseph’s job, Mary’s family, and return to the place where Joseph was born.

God intentionally chose a family that God knew would soon be forced to flee for their lives, to become refugees, because the leader of the empire feared the Christ-child so much, he ordered all children two and younger to be killed.

God intentionally chose to notify only a handful of poor farm workers tending sheep in the hills and a few foreigners hundreds of miles away about the birth of the King of kings, Lord of Lord, Prince of Peace … no one else, not the masses, not the powers and principalities, not the world.

God intentionally chose to enter humanity in the lowliest of circumstances … in a stable, a room meant for keeping animals with only his mother and Joseph present for his birth, and to be laid in a manger normally used for holding hay and grain for livestock.

Think, for a moment, about God’s very intentional choices in modern-day terms – that he came into the world through a family being deported back to the father’s birthplace, a family that was now homeless and that would soon become refugees fleeing for their lives from a vindictive, power-hungry government leader, a family that was oppressed for following a religion the government didn’t like or approve of or condone, and that no one knew of his arrival but low-wage workers and what were, at that time, foreign scientists.

Remember what Simeon foretold to Mary and Joseph that day in the temple:

“This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

When Simeon spoke of Israel, he wasn’t referring to the modern-day nation-state fighting over Jerusalem. He was talking about a group of people that all believed in and worshiped God, only God.

Ladies and gentlemen, Sisters and Brothers, we are a part of what has grown into the modern “Israel” Simeon spoke of and, as such, we must think about whether we will be counted among those that fall or those that rise. We must critically examine our innermost thoughts as well as our words, deeds, and actions. While we are, indeed, saved by grace and although grace is a freely given gift from God delivered through our faith, our belief in God, while we are redeemed by God’s sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, that isn’t the end of our story or Christ’s.  It’s just the beginning, we have this one life, this one chance to get it right, and we need to pay attention to those details.

Christ called those that believe in him to follow him, to be his hands, his feet, to carry on his work and his ministry, a ministry that was definitely not limited to the seven days of Holy Week and dying for us on the cross!

This morning as we join together in the Covenant Renewal, think on these things. As Howard Thurman, an African-American author, philosopher, theologian, and educator, wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are gone home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then the work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Christ’s life, his ministry, established the work of Christmas that needs to be done and set out the manner in which we are to do that work.

Lord, I pray, that if we are doing that work, we continue, and if we are not doing that work, if we, like the innkeeper, have missed the details, that we acknowledge our mistake and work to do better from now on, for there is still much work to be done.

And all God’s children said, Amen.

Benediction:

Rather than close with a benediction today, I’d like to close with a tribute to the passing of 2017, to bless the new year and, in doing so, bless all of you. This poem, titled Ring Out, Wild Bells, was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the 1800s (and has been set to music by Alana Levandoski). I imagine the year he was bidding goodbye was probably much like this one has been.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Credit for the inspiration behind this message goes to Alana Levandoski, Rachel Held-Evans, and Rev. Roger Cary.

The Narrow Way

Caveat: This message was written to deliver to the candidates and deans at the closing vesper service for the 2017 Local Pastor Licensing School of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. The first time you preach to a room full of preachers is a bit unnerving, and I was terrified.  Although the message was fully delivered (totally the Spirit’s doing), it was not delivered in the order it was written. My apologies to my classmates reading this after the fact.

Scripture:

Matthew 7:13-14 – The Voice – 13 There are two paths before you; you may take only one path. One doorway is narrow. And one door is wide. Go through the narrow door. For the wide door leads to a wide path, and the wide path is broad; the wide, broad path is easy, and the wide, broad, easy path has many, many people on it; but the wide, broad, easy, crowded path leads to death. 14 Now then that narrow door leads to a narrow road that in turn leads to life. It is hard to find that road. Not many people manage it.

The Word of God for the people of God. (response)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing unto you, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

I was so excited that the last vesper service we would have together slot was open when the paper came around. I wanted the slot. I envisioned a message that would send us off in the spirit of #2279 in The Faith We Sing, “Trees of the Field” also known as “You Shall Go Out with Joy” or UMH 667, Shalom Chaverim (Farewell, Dear Friends). Upbeat and joyful, congratulatory and triumphal. After all, we survived licensing school! Yay, us!

I feel it’s only fair that I tell you all the Spirit is A) usually pushing me to talk about anything but what I planned to talk about and B) a technophile who often feeds me inspiration through social media posts, user profiles, faxes from Jewish Rabbis living in Florida, and by taking possession of my car stereo and/or music apps on my phone.

Spirit, God love her, gave me a “tweet” for this evening’s message. For those not familiar with tweets, you tweet on Twitter and, while rare, some tweets are “profound, noteworthy, thought provoking, or otherwise powerful statements made in 140 characters or less.” The tweet that she put under my nose said this:

Want to be like Jesus?
1. Learn to love everyone w/out condition.
2. Yes, your enemies too.

This is the narrow way.
This is the hard part.

 

That was it. No additional explanation by the author(s), no discussion, no “unpacking” of the scripture. Just that simple little 140 character message.

I was confused by why Spirit would bring me back to this when she and I had just done a message on October 1 about Eiréné, peace … God’s gift of wholeness, passing the peace, our role as peacemakers, what I needed to do to find and rest in God’s peace, about how the main obstacle to my own peace was failing to really, genuinely, sincerely love others … any others … even myself … as he loves me, and my need to pray for and receive Sola Sancta Caritas (only holy love) so that I could better love others.

And, of course I want to be like Jesus. I don’t just want to be like him, I need to be like him. I mean, it would be kind of weird to (hopefully) become a pastor and not “be like Jesus” as much as humanly possible, amen?

I was figuratively scratching my head and questioning whether this was really the Spirit talking to me when, about that time, the Hillsong tune, Oceans, popped into my head. You know the one:

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, Let me walk upon the waters Wherever You would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger In the presence of my Savior.”

I groaned. Audibly. If you’ve listened to K-Love or Air-One over the last 3-4 years, you know that Oceans is a bit overplayed. It was clearly time for Spirit and me to have a little talk.

Me: “Why are you bringing me back here, and will you puh-leeeeze not play that song in my head anymore?”

Spirit: “Because you aren’t practicing what you preached, and I like that song. So, consider not getting it out of your head penance for not practicing what you preached.”

Me: “Not practicing what I preached? I’m so committed to peace and loving everyone and I mean everyone, I actually had Eiréné and Sola Sancta Caritas tattooed on my arm! See?!”

Spirit: “That’s not good enough. Just talking about doing it isn’t the same as doing it. Just writing it permanently on your arm is a nice reminder, but it’s you that has to walk that talk. It’s you that has to make peace happen, it’s you that has to show love for all without condition.”

Me: “I’m trying to do that!”

Spirit: “Oh, really.”

I could hear her eyes rolling. She went on,

Spirit:“What did you call the guy that cut you off in traffic as you left church that day? How about your *koff* favorite politicians every day since? And what do you always call Jay Leno? Where was the unconditional love in any of that?”

You would think I would learn not to argue with her. I never win.

It’s that without condition part that trips us up, isn’t it? We’re about to go out from here, some of us back to our appointments, others of us waiting to hear if we’ll be appointed, all of us back into the world, and we have to be walking, talking, living role models of loving others without condition, of actual peacemakers in a world that is anything but peaceful.

Last session, we all failed the peacemaker test right here in this group. We all failed to be peacemakers to one another: Some of us – especially myself – openly, verbally, and some of us through our silence. Now, this is purely speculative, but I’m guessing that, based on the last session, we may be failing that test more often than we’re passing it. I know that I have been. One thing I’m betting we all did subconsciously that day was firmly affix labels on each other. And if we’re doing that here, we’re doing it everywhere to everyone.

The Number One step to being like Jesus according to that tweet, however, was, “Learn to love everyone without condition.”

What if one of those “without condition” conditions was the very labels we make for each other? Labels like conservative, liberal, progressive, literalist, democrat, republican, racist, fascist, socialist, woman, feminist, hawk, pacifist, gay, straight, trans, colored, white, believer, non-believer … I’ll skip the more derogatory labels, but we all – at minimum – occasionally think them about someone we know or encounter, amen?

And we apply them, silently, to one another based on a whole bevy of observations we make about each other, such as attitudes, ideologies, beliefs, yard signs, flags hanging from front porches, lifestyle choices, tattoos, hobbies, membership in organizations, bumper stickers, living conditions, race, culture … a host of labels to choose from and hand out.

Think about those labels for a moment. You do realize that a label is far more than just a word on a sticky “Hello, my name is” square, don’t you? The word “label” is really just an abbreviation of all the things we attach to those labels. When we label someone, we judge them, we form a silent opinion of them, we categorize them into friend or foe, we drag up every stereotype the label carries … You need a suitcase to carry all the stuff that goes with each label. Heck, some labels might even need steamer trunks.

Sometimes, we give more than one label to a person. You might be carrying 1-10 suitcases per person, dependent on the number of labels you’ve assigned them. That’s a lot of baggage to tote just for the labels we place on others.

If we’re toting all that baggage, how are we ever going to navigate the difficult narrow way and go through that Narrow Gate?

But navigating the difficult narrow way is what we’ve been specifically called to do.  In fact, not just to travel the narrow way and enter through the narrow gate ourselves, but to lead those we shepherd through it as well.

Labels, to me, are the greatest sin I can commit. They lack integrity because I can assign a label to someone without that person ever knowing I labeled them. They’re silent killers of relationships, connection, hopes and dreams. They’re divisive and damaging when spoken out loud. They’re hurtful. They’re harmful. They’re horrible.

Learn to love everyone without condition. That’s the narrow way. That’s the hard part.

Remember that John wrote in 1 John 4:8,

“God is love.”

Remember also that Paul defined love for us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8,

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Since God is love, it’s safe to assume God is all those things in Paul’s definition of love.

Shouldn’t we be all those things as well? Shouldn’t we be patient, kind, without envy or boast, humble? Aren’t we called to not dishonor others, to not be self-seeking, easily angered, to keep no record of wrongs?  And, yet, we continue to label …

And I know that it’s hard.  I’m living testimony to both the difficulty in it and the fact that we can learn to love unconditionally …

I grew up with a father that was a closet racist simply out of lack of knowledge and understanding of the people he was denigrating, and because his daddy was a racist.  I grew up a racist who resented American Indian kids in college because I believed they were getting a free ride and who’d been taught to believe that a messy yard meant “it looks like a bunch of Mexicans live here.”  God used my grandfather to send my mother a box of family papers and old letters and, well, guess who found out she was, in part, the very label she hated … Indian.  God gave me red ancestors. I spent the next roughly 20 years learning not only about them, but to love and embrace that part of me. It was a Muskogee Creek elder that taught me how to read the scripture in a way that I could understand, and my longhouse elders that taught me what “connection” really means.

But God wasn’t done with me. God went on to give me red and brown and black grandchildren and all that comes with them to love, to learn with, to embrace.

I was a small town girl for the first half of my life from very rural parts of the country, living almost exclusively in towns with populations of 900 or less. I didn’t know anyone who was gay.  It wasn’t something anyone talked about … except for calling each other a certain name when one was angry or being a bully.  I was homophobic and God gave me a gay child to love. It took some time and I’m the one that had to learn to understand and to accept her, but eventually I did.

I resented addiction and alcoholism.  I watched those two behaviors tear my family apart more than once. I didn’t understand why people I loved kept letting their alcoholic spouses cause them so much grief, or their addicted kids steal from them again and again and again. Why couldn’t they just stand up for themselves and say, “Enough! Be gone! I deserve better!”

Then God gave me a child who self-medicates with alcohol so I would understand that, no matter what he’d done, no matter what he said, he’s always my child that I love, that forgiveness isn’t a one shot deal, and that unconditional love doesn’t come with an on-off switch.

God gave me firsthand experience in loving all these people in spite of the labels I had given them. If I can love these children and grandchildren of mine, how much greater is God the Father’s love for all of us? If God can love everyone, surely we can, too. Real love. Genuine love. Label-free love.

Remember when we leave here this afternoon and return to our appointments, our home churches, our neighborhoods, our communities … remember to drop the baggage of labels – silent or spoken – and see people through the lens of God’s eyes, not our own.

Remember to love everyone without condition and, yes, your enemies, too, because that is the narrow way. That is the hardest part.

Let’s pray:

Father God, Creator of heaven and earth, sea and sky, and all that flows, grows, crawls, walks, swims and flies upon it, You have created each of us – called and yet to be called, saint and sinner alike – in Your image, and we thank You, God, for loving us when we are clearly undeserving.

Today, God, we stand before You and ask Your mercy and forgiveness. Please, Lord, help us empty ourselves of the ways, the labels, the opinions, and the anger of the world, and fill us so full instead with Your blessed holy love that we glow like candles in the darkness to all others who desperately need to see You, to know You, and to know Your love.

As we prepare to leave here tonight, hold us to the Narrow Way, Lord, and teach us Your ways. Strengthen us for Your work. Lead us where You would have us follow.

Fill us with holy love, God, and bless us with eiréné – with Your gift of wholeness, Your peace. Guide us to become the peacemakers for this, our time, in Your Kingdom on earth.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Benediction (Samuel A. Trumbore, UUA; modified by V. Ohle):

Christ said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”

From Sunday to Sunday, we gather in spaces made sacred by His presence in order to find peace. Each time, our words and music offer and celebrate peace with the hope of instilling it in others and ourselves.
Renewed in our faith and inspired to act, let us be the peacemakers the world aches for; and, by being peacemakers, let us find the peace we long for. As we leave this sacred space a final time tonight, take the peace you have found here back out into the world with you. As the Father sent Him, He is sending you.

Go in peace. Make peace. Be at peace. Peace be with you.

Feature Image Credit: “The Cross, The Narrow Way” by David Hayward, The Naked Pastor, patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor

David was baptized Anglican as a baby, came to faith in a Baptist church when he was a teenager, changed to Pentecostal in his late teens, married another Pentecostal named Lisa, was ordained Presbyterian, pastored a Vineyard church, and planted others.  He has a Masters in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as well as a Diploma in Religious Studies and Ministry from McGill University in Montreal. In 2010 David left the professional paid clergy. He is still passionate about how people can find and follow their own spiritual path with courage and joy, as well as in how people can freely gather and form community in healthy ways. David started a blog called nakedpastor in 2006, and initiated his public analysis of religion, religious community and spirituality through his writings, art and cartoons. Thousands of people are challenged and entertained by nakedpastor every day. In 2012, David launched The Lasting Supper, an online resource site and community for the spiritually independent. His art, cartoons, writings and book have found their way all around the world. David lives with his wife Lisa on the beautiful Kennebecasis River near Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. They have 3 grown children close by.

Bulletin for Oct. 15 Evening Vespers – The Narrow Way

Peace Be With You

This message was delivered at Mountain View UMC on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. 

My message this morning is inspired by a few brief passages of scripture, and a personal need.  These are very short passages, so don’t feel obligated to keep up in your own bibles today.

Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Luke 10:5-6 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.”

Matthew 10:12-13 “As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”

John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 16:33 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 20:19-23: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

The Word of God for the people of God. (response: Thanks be to God.)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing unto you, O Lord, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

Many pastors who follow the lectionary are preaching on Philippians 2:1-13 today because it lets them discuss a rather controversial and volatile racial justice issue involving knees and nationalism. You can thank me for this later, but I chose not to go there for a reason: I need to find some peace, and I think maybe we all do by now.  Amen?

Remember when we would take time at the beginning of each Sunday service to greet one another? The activity of “greeting” one another comes from an older tradition called “Passing the Peace”.  “Peace be with you” is the traditional greeting among Christians, and normally elicits the response, “And also with you.”  Passing the peace started with Jesus, has hung around for most of the last two thousand years and, although it’s becoming used less and less often, has an important role in building our faith.

There is a distinct purpose in this traditional activity.  Passing the peace reminds us of our role as peacemakers. When we do this on a regular basis, it’s like teaching little children to say please and thank you. It feels clumsy and awkward and kind of weird at first, but the more often we say it to one another and the more often we respond in kind when someone says it to us, the more comfortable we become with it, the more natural it is, and the more we tend to do it automatically. That repetition of saying “Peace be with you,” and of giving and receiving the response “and also with you” trains our heads, our hands, our hearts and even our tongues in the way of peace.

John F. Kennedy said,

“Peace is a daily process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”

Spiritual Author Eckhart Tolle says,

“Peace is one of the most important of human experiences. If you don’t have peace, then you’re not able to appreciate whatever else you do have. You may not even be able to recognize the good in your life because you have not recognized the good in yourself.”

Tolle’s right about the importance of peace, although I’m not sure what his definition of peace is the same as the peace Christ promises to leave with us in John 14.

Shalom, the Hebrew word translated to peace in English language Bibles, appears 237 times in the Old Testament. There are 92 occurrences of eiréné, the Greek word translated into peace, in the New Testament, 25 of which are in the Gospels, so eiréné is our focus this morning.

Eiréné has a number of meanings, depending on which lexicon you use.  Strong’s Greek Concordance defines it as peace or peace of mind, and their Exhaustive Concordance defines it as one, peace, quietness, and rest.  Thayer’s Greek Lexicon has several definitions: a state of national tranquility (we could definitely use some of that, couldn’t we?); exemption from the rage and havoc of war (I can think of millions of people that want that definition of peace); peace between individuals, harmony, concord; in the spirit of the Hebrew word, shalom, security, safety, prosperity, and felicity; the Messiah’s peace that the angels told us about in Luke 2 when they came to tell us about his coming; a distinctly peculiar Christian definition of “the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and content with its earthly lot, of … whatsoever sort that is”;  and, lastly, the blessed state of devout and upright men after death. I’m not sure I’m patient enough to wait for that one.

But my favorite definition comes from HELPS Word-studies. It says that eiréné comes from the word eiro, meaning “to join, to tie together into a whole”, so eiréné properly means wholeness, i.e. when all essential parts are joined together. In their words … “peace is God’s gift of wholeness.”

Let that sink in for just a minute … Eiréné, peace … is God’s gift of wholeness.

I don’t know about all of you, but I am seriously craving that gift of wholeness, of true, … inextinguishable … peace.  The world seems to be crashing around me, around those I love, even around itself, more and more each day to the point that I find myself becoming exhausted from trying – usually unsuccessfully – to fend off the ways of the world – the anger, the hate, the turmoil, the stress, the constant threats of war, the insistence that we fear this or that or them or other to the degree that it’s a struggle to love myself, let alone my neighbors as myself. And I don’t even want to talk about loving enemies right now.

But … if I don’t love my neighbors and my enemies as Christ loves me, then those things I do for them … any good works(?) … become empty … they’re done in vain.  Likewise, if I don’t fully and completely love my neighbors and my enemies, all of whom – saint and sinner alike – are created in the image of God just as I am, do I sincerely and fully and completely love … God?

So, the question spoken in my prayer for guidance for this morning’s message then was, “What do I need to do, to fix about myself, in order to be able to love – honestly, genuinely, sincerely love – my neighbors and my enemies and myself, so that I am able to accept your gift of wholeness and to use that gift as a peacemaker?”

The answer came, believe it or not, through a Twitter profile that led me to a transcript of an address given by Dr. Joseph Dongell. Dongell is a Holiness Movement Wesleyan, professor of biblical studies and Director of Greek studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. The address, titled Sola Sancta Caritas, is based on Dongell’s personal study of the 14-volume Jackson set of John Wesley’s works; in other words, a whole lot of Wesley’s journals, all 150 sermons, numerous treatises of various sorts, and countless letters Wesley had written to other people.

Dongell, who’s religious upbringing was focused on spiritual cleansing and empowerment, found to his surprise an over-arching theme in Wesley’s works, that theme being … Love.  Writing about his discoveries, Dongell says, “love rushed through all fourteen volumes like a tsunami” and, “It seemed that Wesley was standing on his head and shouting to draw attention to love.”  Dongell noted that all Christians agree love is important, but Dongell felt Wesley was saying something more; that Wesley has a specific understanding of how love works across the whole Christian life, and how love becomes the center of operation for all things.

Dongell went on to layout five proposals on how he perceives the way Wesley understood love:

1) The love Wesley is leading us to is deep. It cannot be defined by general human intuition, cultural sensibilities or supposed ethical overlap of all the World’s religions. Jesus put forward his whole life as the defining pattern for the love he commands when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

2) Love isn’t an action; it is something prior to and beneath the action it sponsors. “Love is a matter of the heart, a disposition that is deeper and longer lasting than the specific actions we undertake.” God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only son. God already loved us when He sent Christ to us.

3) Love, true, sincere, genuine love’s origin is God Himself. John wrote in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” Therefore, we cannot love our enemies simply by deciding to do so; we cannot become people of love through and through simply by determining to be such.  If we are not filled with God, we cannot sincerely love.

4) If love is a gift from God, then we need to ask Him to fill us with it! The fact that one is a Christian, even a spiritually gifted and effective Christian, is not yet proof that one has undergone the deeper reception of God’s love. Love is something we must seek and must seek with the expectation that God will actually satisfy our quest and give it to us.

5) If love does fill our hearts, then our hearts will be so filled with love there will be no room left in them for any evil intention, desire and design; no room for malice, for judgment, for hate. A heart filled with God’s love cannot lie to you, steal from you, damage your reputation, hurt you in any physical or mental way, fear you, or hate you.

According to Dongell, John Wesley makes “frequent, precise, programmatic” declarations throughout his writing, asserting, in fact insisting that we need to be filled with the love of God, with love from God – with, in Dongell’s words, Sola Sancta Caritas – Only … Holy … Love.  No other kind.

Dongell’s entire address is very interesting, so much so, that I’m leaving a printed copy of it in the church library and I encourage you to read it for yourself, but I want to get to why it was key in my personal search for peace.

All Christians are called to be peacemakers, but I think pastors are especially called to that role. I know if God were to judge me today, He would find my soul wanting when it comes to peacemaking.

Rev. Robert Wright Lee, IV, is a direct descendant of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  Rev. Lee gained national attention several weeks ago when appeared on MTV’s VMA awards program, and spoke out against not only the racial violence in Charlottesville, but the efforts to “protect” monuments to his own ancestor.  He’s been catching flack for that ever since, so much so that he had to resign his pastorate just to give his church some peace. Rev. Lee wrote something the other day, and I asked his permission to share it with you this morning:

“Mother Alexander once told me that I carry with me the ancestor of Robert E. Lee whether I like it or not… I’ve made peace with my ancestor by engaging the legacy I so ardently disagree with.”

Steven Furtick, a mega-church pastor in Florida says, “What is not healed is handed down.” In other words, we pass beliefs, biases, and hate from generation to generation unless – finally – someone says, “No! I will not teach this to my children!”

As I mentioned earlier, all of the things happening in my own world and in the larger world – especially those that would or could have direct impact on me or my loved ones – have been weighing so heavily on me, that I was struggling to love anyone, even myself, and especially my enemies.  On the other hand, I was having absolutely no trouble not loving.  Every single bit of warrior DNA from 1200 years of my own ancestors in 7 countries on 2 continents and the British Isles has been in full-on fight mode for at least 8 months, more like going on 20 years.  In other words, I’m not making peace with the legacy of my ancestors. I’m giving it free-reign. Worse, I’m teaching it to my kids. I’m handing it down.

When I let all the negative stuff – the frustration, hurt, anger, outrage, indignation, injustice, fear and worse – when I let all that stuff fill me, then there is no room for Sola Sancta Caritas – for only holy love. The repercussion of that is that I begin to feel unworthy of receiving both God’s love and God’s gift of wholeness, of peace, and I subconsciously don’t accept it because I know I’m a broken and unclean vessel.

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, wrote just last night,

“Be careful with your energy, yielding none of it to hate. Hate does no good and helps those who are vessels for injustice meet their goals.” I don’t want to be a vessel filled with hate and anger and stress and turmoil, a vessel for injustice.

Philosopher Dallas Willard said,

“The power to bless someone who offends us comes from God’s strength, love and peace flowing in our soul.”

I need both His holy love and his peace, his gift of wholeness.  Don’t you?

Peace be with you, my friends.  Let’s pray.

Father God, Creator of heaven and earth, sea and sky, and all that flows, grows, crawls, walks, swims and flies upon it, you have created each of us – saint and sinner alike – in your image, and we thank you, God, for loving us when we are clearly undeserving.

Today, God, we stand before you and ask your mercy and forgiveness. Please, Lord, help us empty ourselves of the ways of the world and fill us so full instead with your blessed holy love that we glow like candles in the darkness to all others who desperately need to see, know you, and to know your love.

Fill us with holy love, God, and bless us with eiréné – with your gift of wholeness, your peace. Guide us to become the peacemakers for this, our time, in your Kingdom on earth. Teach us your ways. Strengthen us for your work. Lead us where you would have us follow.

In Jesus name we pray. Amen.