They asked me back! Walland UMC Pastor, David Fugatt, asked me to come back again. God is good all the time, and all the time, God is GOOD! This, my second sermon, was delivered on January 3, 2016, the First Sunday of Epiphany and the first Sunday of a brand new year, at Walland United Methodist Church in Walland, TN. This one didn’t develop as easily as the first sermon. I had a message in mind, but God had a different one (as you’ll see in the message). God won. And that’s as it should be.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Call to Worship
L: Lord, this year, we will follow the Star of Bethlehem.
P: Too long we’ve gone the wrong way, followed the wrong stars!
L: We went South following movie stars, greed, and lust.
P: Star of Wonder…
L: We went East following stars of militarism, nationalism, and war.
P: Star of Light…
L: We even went North following our own visions, our own intuition, and our own way.
P: Star with Royal Beauty Bright…
L: Lord, this year, we will follow the Star of Bethlehem.
P: The Star of Hope.
L: The Star of Peace.
P: The Star of Joy.
L: The Star of Love.
A: The Star that is You.
Praises and Concerns:
Perfect Light of revelation, as you shone in the life of Jesus, whose epiphany we celebrate, so shine in us and through us, that we may become beacons of truth and compassion, enlightening all creation with deeds of justice and mercy.
Inspire all those who lead and serve in this church. May they know your guidance and direction. Help us, your Church, to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter. Show us how to serve others, and how to offer love, care and support.
Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world, may they carry love with them always. We lift up the leaders of our nation, our state, our county, and our community. Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations. Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.
Lord, no one is a stranger to you and no one is ever far from you loving care. In your kindness watch over refugees and exiles, those separated from their loved ones, young people who are lost, those who have left or run away from home, those who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.
Bring them back safely to the place where they long to be and help us always to show your kindness to strangers and those in need.
(For those lifted up by the congregation)
For those who have lost loved ones recently, comfort them in their grief and heal the broken-hearted.
Comfort those who live with on-going grief. Help them see the light of heaven. We lift up
Come embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel you close to them.
(For the community, nation and world)
Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable. Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money. Finally, we bring to you our unspoken prayers for any in our community that we know to be in need. May love and goodness fill their lives.
God of every land and nation, you have created all people and you dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Listen to the cries of those who pray to you, and grant that, as we proclaim the greatness of your name, all people will know the power of love at work in the world. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
And now, in the words your son, our Lord and Savior 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, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
Second Reading: Psalms 72:1-7, 10-14 International Standard Version
1 God, endow the king with ability to render[a] your justice, and the king’s son to render your right decisions.
2 May he rule your people with right decisions and your oppressed ones with justice.
3 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people and the hills bring righteousness.
4 May he defend the afflicted of the people and deliver the children of the poor, but crush the oppressor.
5 May they fear you as long as the sun and moon shine [b]—from generation to generation.
6 May he be like the rain that descends on mown grass, like showers sprinkling on the ground.
7 The righteous will flourish at the proper time and peace will prevail until the moon is no more.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring gifts, and may the kings of Sheba and Seba offer tribute.
11 May all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.
12 For he will deliver the needy when they cry out for help, and the poor when there is no deliverer.
13 He will have compassion on the poor and the needy, and he will save the lives of the needy.
14 He will redeem them[d] from oppression and violence, since their lives are[e] precious in his sight.
Third Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
2:8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
2:9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
2:10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
2:11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
2:12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Good morning, and thank you for allowing me to come back and speak with you again. I’m taking that as a sign of encouragement.
I have to tell you, this whole second sermon process has been vastly different from the first one. For starters, there were the readings. I just wasn’t able to pull them to a singular point as easily as the last time I was here. Then there was the fact that not only is today the first Sunday of the New Year, it’s also the First Sunday of Epiphany. And just to top it off, God didn’t opt to send me a fax via Rabbi Packouz (although He did arrange a late night trip back to the office to reconstruct this message after I either failed to save it properly or the computer glitched).
This time, God decided to whisper in my ear, creating what my mother, the Paralegal, calls cartwheeling and what I perceive as the most extreme form of Olympic level mental gymnastics I’ve encountered in a very, very long while. Every time I tried to go to the readings and Epiphany, His voice whispered “Resolution”. And the harder I tried to stay on task – at least I thought I was staying on task – the more frequently – and loudly – He whispered, “Resolution”. The gymnastics were mostly the result of me trying to marry my ideas with His. Bad idea. I’m lucky to have made it through with minimal injuries. When God speaks, one should listen. Lesson learned.
What that all boils down to is that, instead of telling you how an unknown number (typically told as three) of Magi (the Magi were probably priestly descendants of the people of Media which is area that we now refer to as Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and parts of Kermanshah in northwestern Iran) who were Gentiles (Gentiles meaning they were not Jewish) became aware through dreams or prophecies that something big was unfolding in the universe, and that there would be a sign to foretell the event.
I wanted to explain to you how these Magi felt so strongly about the importance of whatever was coming that they traveled somewhere around 830-1864 miles (depending on which route they took) by camel for somewhere between 43 and 98 days (again depending on which route they took) through foreign countries, across deserts, and causing them to meet with rulers like Herod who were known to be not so nice to deal with.
I planned to give you the definition of epiphany – my personal favorite was from the 17th Century English poet, John Milton who wrote: Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies – those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world – and then to explain to you that the Epiphany was when those Magi finally arrived at Bethlehem by following that glorious, glorious star and took one look at the infant Christ child they knew – they just simply knew – that, not only was He a King, but he was the King of Kings! And that they were so certain of who He was, that they defied Herod’s order to tell him where the Christ child was, and instead left the country by a different route to go home and share the news with their own people.
I even arranged for us to sing What Child is This and We Three Kings today, just to tie it all together. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and ministers.
Can I just stop and say that I am pretty sure I have now gold-medaled in every single possible category of the Olympic-scale gymnastics I went through to get to the point where I surrendered to God’s whispered “Resolution” and gave up on telling you about Epiphany?
Instead, I’m going to talk to you about Resolution. Your resolution. My resolution. Our resolution … the New Years kind of resolution for sure, but I’m hopeful you’ll agree when I’m done that it is also just about every other definition of resolution I could find.
By the way, did you know that only 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s resolutions, and only 8% of those making resolutions are successful in keeping them? And that’s the easy kinds of resolutions, folks: Losing weight, getting organized, spending less and saving more, enjoying life to the fullest, staying fit and healthy, learning something exciting and new, and spending more time with family. Personally, I’m lucky if I remember them the next day.
But today, I’m going to ask you to make only one resolution. And this one resolution will be much harder to keep than your usual resolutions; it will possibly be the hardest resolution you’ve ever tried to keep.
I’m going to ask you to make and keep this resolution as individuals, as families, and as the Church; to work hard and diligently to keep this resolution all year long and, no matter how many times you may find yourselves failing to keep it, to pick back up, shake it off, and try, try again. At face value, it’s going to sound simple. I assure you it is not.
I ask you today to make and commit to keep a specific commandment. Of all the 619 Old Testament laws and the commandments we know, this one is the hardest of all to keep and the easiest to break. It’s the one that I’m fairly certain – if I were audacious enough to ask whether you’d ever broken it – would cause every one of you in this room to raise a hand.
Before I tell you which one, though, I want you to think about something. In Matthew 4:17, when Christ was just beginning his preaching there in Galilee, He said to us, “You must change your hearts – for the kingdom of Heaven has arrived.”
Changing your heart, that’s not always an easy thing to do. Some of us are older and more set in our ways. We have … experience (that’s the excuse I use the most) in things that have led us to our … understanding (another word I use because it’s easier on my conscience than “opinion”). And some of you are younger and, due to lack of experience, still open to the possibility that us old folks might be wrong despite all “our” experience. Besides, you’ve seen it on the Internet, so you have your own “knowledge” to draw from.
But remember that, from the start, Christ warned us – You must change your hearts. And to make and keep the resolution I’m about to give you, trust me – we will all need to change our hearts.
We know from Matthew 22:37-38 that the greatest commandment is “ … YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND …” And that one is certainly the most important.
But loving God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind is not hard, and becomes easier every day as I learn more and more to let go, to trust Him, and to accept His plan for me. So no, it isn’t that one. The commandment I’m asking of you to make as your 2016 resolution is the one right after the greatest commandment.
In Matthew 22:39 Christ says, “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I’m going to ask you to make your 2016 New Year’s resolution to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Not the way you love your spouse or your kids or grandkids or your parents or your favorite fishing pole. Not even the way you love bacon or your favorite coon hound. Although, those last two might be close. Those are all things that are easy to love most of the time because we invariably like them.
No, I want you to love the way Christ intended when he gave us that second greatest commandment. Because, if we can love the way Christ intended, two things happen: We find it impossible to break any other commandments or laws, and we find peace and rest through the resolution of many issues or problems or stresses or anxieties in our own lives. Just by loving.
You know, I counted not less than nine scriptures where Christ commanded us to “LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” I counted several others where Paul, John the Apostle and Peter reminded us through their letters to churches that Christ had commanded us to love one another.
And here’s the thing I found most interesting, most amazing, and most difficult. Nowhere in those nine scriptures, nor the scriptures before and after them could I find where Christ said “LOVE ONE ANOTHER EXCEPT OR UNLESS OR IF …” Nowhere.
This is where it gets really hard for me, because … personally … this is where I am breaking the second greatest commandment there is not just now and then or daily, but multiple times a day! I repeatedly, frequently, willingly, consciously fail to love everyone …
Christ never said if or unless or except. He just said Love one another. Love one another even if the others are liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, richer than us, poorer than us, older, younger, heavier, skinnier, prettier, not as pretty, healthier, sicker, mentally ill, disabled.
Christ never said love one another except the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Bhuddist, Atheist, Agnostics, Apathetics, Fundamentalist, Dominionist, Reconcilers, Reformationists, Creationists, or Charismatics.
Christ never said love one another unless they’re gay, straight, bisexual, undocumented, illiterate, red, white, black, yellow, pink with purple polka dots, the worst drivers we’ve ever seen, aisle hogs at Krogers, in our way, always happy, always sad, perpetually ticked off, unreasonably cranky, or just plain mean.
We’re just supposed to love one another regardless of the ifs, regardless of the unlesses and regardless of the exceptions.
And Christ’s command to love one another gets even harder yet, because the next part comes not only from Christ in multiple passages reinforced yet again by Paul, John the Apostle and Peter, but straight from God, Himself, through Moses, when he told us in Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
In Matthew 5:44-45, Christ repeated that commandment with, “”But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.…
And in Luke 6:27-28, “But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
And in Matthew 5:38-42, Christ warns us not to practice an eye for an eye, but if someone slaps us, to turn the other cheek; if someone sues us and takes our shirt, to give them our coat as well; if someone forces us to go with them a mile, to go with them two; to give to the one that asks and not turn away from the one who wants to borrow. A hard thing in this day and age when so much of the world is talking about what they hate, labeling what they hate … when so much of the world around us and … sadly … often including us is just simply hating.
Not only are we to love one another as He has loved … as He loves us. We’re to love all those kinds of people we don’t love, don’t want to love, don’t think we should have to love, and … we’re supposed to love the people who don’t want to love us – our enemies. And if we do that, then all men will know that we are Christians … that we are His disciples … by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.
Equally important, loving each other is a debt we need to pay. If we love one another as we are supposed to, then it will be as Paul said in Romans 13:8 – “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another for whoever loves other has fulfilled the law. Or in Romans 13:10 – “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” And in Galatians 5:14 – “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love one another. It’s so hard to do! And so easy not to do. It’s so much easier to hate what you don’t like, what you disapprove of, what hurts you, what disgusts you.
To really love people who do those kinds of things or make us feel that way completely, thoroughly, the way Christ loved? It’s almost inconceivable.
But that, my friends, is the resolution I’m asking you to make and do your minute by minute utmost best to keep in this New Year – To really and truly love one another.
Remember what Christ said in Matthew 4:17 – “You must change your hearts – for the kingdom of Heaven has arrived.” Indeed we must, and the first and biggest step toward the change will be when we honestly, sincerely do our best to “love one another as He has loved us” so that “they will know we our Christians by our love.”
Before I wrap up, and thinking back on those mental gymnastics of mine over the Epiphany and Magi, I think I now know what the Magi recognized when they saw the Christ Child. I want to read to you a verse and chorus from a song by John Stoddart:
The world is full of sadness.
So much pain and tragedy.
Still there shines a star of hope
Inside of you and me.
If we could just be blinded
By what tears us all apart,
We could see beyond the outside
And look straight into the heart.
Oh, what Christmas means
Is more than just some tinsel on the tree,
Long ago on Christmas Eve,
Love was born for you and me.
You were in heaven.
I was on earth.
When I needed you here,
You sent a baby so dear,
In a manger,
On the hay,
You sent me love from a star
On Christmas day
Love from a star. Love. I believe that’s what those Magi saw – what they recognized – when they first saw the Christ child: They saw the purest, most unconditional love ever known positively glowing from that baby. Love from a star.
So, if you will indulge me, prepare to and change your hearts. Make a decision right now to make LOVING ONE ANOTHER your New Year’s resolution. And then work diligently to keep it. And remember 1 Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
And all God’s people said … Amen.
Father, we have heard your words and received your wisdom. Let us now give from our hearts what we can from what we do have.
Heavenly Father, You are the Creator and Source of all things good. You have showered us with greatness and love even on the days we turn against You. Look into our hearts and receive this heartfelt thanksgiving we offer to you. Thank You for all the gifts and blessings You have showered upon me and my family. You are the rock of our spirit and without You, we will be nothing.
Through this act of giving, O Father, we affirm that we love you and that we will strive to do better at loving our neighbor. We offer these gifts and the service of our lives, praying that they may be used to transform the lives of those in need. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Chalking The Door (for Ephiphany)
As you leave this morning, the ushers will be standing at the doors with a gift my home church and my family have prepared for each of your households to help you celebrate Epiphany on this coming Wednesday.
Inside the gift, you will find a piece of chalk and a half-sheet of paper that explains an old tradition called “chalking the door” and provides some suggested prayers for you to use. Chalking the Door is an act to place a blessing on your home for the coming year. The pieces of chalk were blessed by Pastor Mike Treadway and the congregation of Mountain View United Methodist Church this past Sunday. They have asked me to wish you a blessed New Year. It is my personal hope that you will use the chalk to bless not only your own homes and businesses, but those of your neighbors as well.
The Lord direct your way.
The Lord give you strength to love one another as He has loved you.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.