This is the third of a three part series called “I Want to Know What Love Is” on agape love. This particular sermon was delivered on Sunday, March 3, 2019, the first Sunday following the United Methodist Called General Conference 2019. Other parts of the series include What’s Love Got to Do With It and You Give Love a Bad Name.
Love each other
9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love.10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
The Power of Love
Who needs hugs?
Now, I think because I have shared a couple of times that, while in Haiti I’ve had to adjust to that different culture’s concept for personal space (in that they have none), people have got the impression that I’m not a big hugger. To be fair, I am not one to be proactive about hugging, but we all need hugs.
What kind of hugger are you? (Here is where I demonstrate different hugs with a brave volunteer – a reluctant hug, awkward side hug, back pat, big I haven’t seen you in a while, this hug is lasting long enough that I feel uncomfortable hug, etc.)
Interesting “facts” – the average person craves a hug 13 times a day. The average hug lasts 3 seconds, and yet, the amount of seconds a hug needs to be to have medical healing properties is 20 seconds. We physically need hugs.
On Tuesday, Connor McMains (remember him? former organist on staff) asked me if New World UMC was doing anything in response to the General Conference vote. To be honest, that night my boys had soccer games and what I really needed was to regroup and be with my family.
On Wednesday, though, I was able to come up to the church in the evening since my daughter started confirmation class. I used this to focus on serving people when words just aren’t enough – I offered up free hugs to anybody here.
What I observed on Wednesday – some were ready for great big hugs. They needed them, they held on, we might have even cried together. Other hugs were frankly a little awkward. Some people were glad to give and receive hugs, they felt comfortable with them. With others – a quick little awkward side hug was stretching their comfort zone. I think at least one person didn’t want a hug at all…I didn’t take it personally and I won’t name names. (smile)
But there we were – a church family just trying our best to show love to one another, to share God’s love, but we each came to the space with our own spectrum of unwritten rules on what was okay and what wasn’t.
No one has ever confused legislative action with a hug, have they?
In case you were wondering, this was a really hard week to be a United Methodist Pastor. I was talking to my husband Dennis about it – and I pretty much came to the conclusion that this was the toughest week yet. I’ve wept, I’ve spent a lot of time exercising and trying to eat right, I’ve lost sleep and have had trouble concentrating…I’ve needed to care for my soul a lot this week.
In case you missed it – last weekend through Tuesday, a special meeting called General Conference met in St. Louis, Missouri with some 860 representatives from United Methodism around the world. Unlike other denominations, the United Methodist Church is a global church. It was started around the same time as the United States was founded, so its structure is kind of like our U.S. government. About every four years the General Conference meets to, among other things, decide what we are all going to agree our denomination is about.
This particular conference was called to make a decision about whether or not the rules should be changed on if people can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. With such a wide range of countries and cultures represented, it is challenging to agree on what is the right answer.
In the end, around 53% of this global gathering selected the traditionalist plan, effectively keeping the rules and language the same as it has been since 1972. It remains to be seen in April if the plan will be ruled as constitutional (by the UMC constitution, not the US one) and nothing changes until January 2020.
In the meantime, no one “won” the General Conference. With so much division and disunity, everyone walked away hurting. While some faithful United Methodists are pleased with the vote results, other faithful United Methodists are devastated. We have long been a denomination that is filled with different and deeply-rooted beliefs – like most families, we are a denomination filled with different opinions and diverse ideas. Unfortunately, we seem to have had a huge family feud with the whole world watching, and the future of our denomination seems unclear.
As a lifelong United Methodist – the niece of two United Methodist Pastors – I like many of you, deeply love the United Methodist Church. This week I hardly recognize her, and I can hardly articulate how painful this is.
But, as I said earlier this week: General Conference is NOT the church. We are the church.
When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he made reference to the church as the Body of Christ. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it…” Paul also said other things, and I don’t always agree with him.
As an ordained clergy woman, I can identify with how it feels to have Bible verses pointed out to tell me that I shouldn’t be in ordained ministry. I am thankful that men and women along the way evolved in their thinking and recognized that even I could be good enough to be ordained. I stand here before you, wearing a clergy collar as an outward symbol of my credentials, precariously perched on the shoulders of the advocates and trailblazers before me.
General Conference’s vote not only hurt the people present in the convention center, it caused further harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus). This isn’t a far off issue. I’m not asking anyone to raise their hands in here if you are affected: We are talking about people in this room, plus the literal brothers and sisters, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins of people in this room. People who have been baptized and confirmed in our midst, people who sat next to me in seminary classes, people who have heard God’s call on their lives and now hear from their church home “we think you’re sacred, but no, you are not good enough.”
Our future is uncertain – has it ever been certain? – but God’s faithfulness can be counted on. We are a resurrection people, and I’m hanging on to the truth that resurrection means the worst thing will never be the last thing. My prayer is that we can all stick things out together and can be the church to people who are hurting right now.
Where do these unwritten codes of behavior come from?
For me, I can think of so many different forces that have shaped my worldview:
my family of origin – I’m sure that my concept of personal space and how to express love primarily came from my family. I’m thankful they taught me that “anything boys can do, girls can do,” and I wonder where I would be today if it wasn’t for that encouragement.
my faith formation – raised in the particular United Methodist congregations I attended, influenced by attending a Southern Baptist University, and making my home church Church Under the Bridge in Waco shaped how I view who is okay to hug and who isn’t (hint: we all are worthy of hugs!)
my education – my family taught me to value education, and I know my thinking has been shaped and transformed through my education through seminary
my culture/language – how I learned to speak taught me what words were okay, which ones built people up and which tore people down
the country or nation-state we live in, politics, and media have shaped and formed my worldview
many of us have been shaped by trauma, fear, insecurity
just being the age I am has shaped me into becoming a pastor who thinks it is acceptable to have a sermon series based on 80s music because, well, it’s totally rad, like for sure! (smile)
Through all of these influences, different for each one of us, we all come to this place with a different worldview. We might sit here and wonder, how on earth could someone think differently than me on this issue? Can’t they see what is so clear?
The answer is probably no – we can’t see, we can’t automatically understand where the other is coming from. And our viewpoints are constantly evolving – my theology isn’t the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20…..
But I do know you each to be faithful people.
And just like last week, we are a diverse group of faithful people who are just doing our best to love God, love neighbor and make disciples of Jesus Christ. No matter how much we may disagree with one another on this, I have no doubt that, should a natural disaster strike or someone be in need, we would all pitch in together to help one another, serving side by side just like we always have.
Sometimes people will say, I see why you picked that verse this week…Which brings us to our scripture reading for today – one that was set up way before General Conference.
Today’s scripture reading includes a commandment to love each other, just as Christ has loved us. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
We are continuing to talk about agape love, the unconditional love that is honest, hopeful and humble.
Such agape love is first and foremost interested in the good of the other person. It never attempts to squelch the best out of another. In fact, so great is this love for others that it follows the very pattern Christ modeled for us – care and concern for others, even to the point that we will lay aside our very lives for our friends.
Now, it is rare in this day and age that we have to love all the way to death, Christians are not persecuted now the way they were in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection.But I do think there is an important message for us even today, and that is that we must be willing to set aside our agendas, our opinions, in order to work in unity as the body of Christ; that we love others enough that we are willing to lay down our own beliefs, have the courage to speak up, or even risk our credentials in order to love our friends.
In the body of Christ, if one part suffers, all suffer with it.
At a time when life seems to be scattering more and more, we know what it means to have friends. And here, as Christ is speaking to his disciples, he knows that he is about to leave them, so he is proclaiming to them a new relationship. At the very time when those disciples are feeling the least secure and will soon abandon him, Christ calls them his friends, bringing them to a new level of discipleship, and even community, as he calls us to emulate him, the pure embodiment of love.
So what does it mean for us today to be Christ’s friends? It means that we live as a community, united in Christ’s love. We show solidarity in suffering, we share our spiritual gifts for mutual up-building; we confront conflict not with hostility but with reconciliation. We don’t focus on our differences, but rather celebrate our unity as friends in the body of Christ.
We have within us the power of love, a love that can transform and make things new. A love that overcomes disagreements and shows mercy.
Choosing to love is not the easy path. We have a “love your enemy” faith, and it is perhaps the hardest and most difficult path.
And while we’re busy arguing, the world looks at us and wonders what’s so great about God because Christ’s church – the United Methodist Church in our case – is just as ineffective as every other institution in the world. And the truth of the matter is, that’s because you can’t legislate for love. But God, through Jesus, can command love, calling it out of his disciples, his followers, his friends.
My hope is that, when we disagree, we can take the time to listen and try to understand one another instead of making someone out to be our enemy. I struggle with this too.
We have an opportunity to be something far, far greater than any other human institution because we are not a human institution, we are the friends of Christ; his very body. So let’s do what Christ did; let’s demonstrate the power of love to help and heal one another.
And maybe even hug often.
I close today with a song that has been weighing in my heart all week. Last night I was able to see The Brilliance play this live at Kessler Theater. I invite you to reflect on the words of the song as we prepare our hearts and minds for communion, Christ’s ultimate demonstration of how the power of love can bring us all together.
Merry Christmas, friends. Here is my Christmas Eve message from the 6pm worship service at New World UMC Arlington:
Luke 2:1-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Word of God for the People of God.Thanks be to God!
Let us pray:God of Love,
Open our hearts and minds for the words you have for us to hear tonight. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Meditation –The Manger
“because there was no place for them in the inn”
Oh, how we know this Christmas story!It’s an honor tonight to be the one who shares the story of what Christmas is all about.The baby Jesus was born in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn, and tonight I want to reflect on a story of hospitality.
Have you ever had todepend onthe hospitality and kindness of strangers?
As I reflect on my life, I can recall a few key moments(three to be exact)when I counted on strangers making space for me– a few times I could relate to Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. While a college student, I spent my summers selling books door to doorfor The Southwestern Company. I usually describe the program as “like an exchange program,” because, like an exchange program, we would be assigned to work in different parts of the country that were unfamiliar to us.I think the strategy is that if we were away from all of the temptation of being around our friends and local hangouts, we’d be more focused. I went to Baylor in Texas, so three summers in a rowI was assigned to the Midwest – I lived inSt. Louis, Missouri, Battle Creek, Michigan,and Des Moines, Iowa.
Now, decidedly unlikean exchange program, we didn’t have host homes lined up ahead of time. The company does things differently now a days, but for us, our first assignment upon arriving in a new town was to find a place to live.
In order to save money and be safer, it was recommended we live with host families. So, the first thing we did was literally knock door to door, asking if anyone might have a spare room for 2-3 hardworking college students for the summer.We were able to pay a small amount of rent and worked long hours, so we just needed a safe place to sleep, shower and keep our things.
Of course, my parents taught me things growing up like “never go hitchhiking,” so I’m sure the prospect of her19 year olddaughter finding a place to live like that gave my poor mom a near heart attack. (sorry mom)JAmazingly, three summers in a row we found people who met us and let us sleep in their homes starting that same day.
When I read tonight’s Scripture, it strikes me as a story about making room for hospitality.
Have you ever had a chance to extend hospitality and kindness to strangers?
I shared this storyonce before soit may sound familiar: In Fall 2010 my mom was retiring and moving to Texas and, earlier that Spring, she had the opportunity to buy the house directly across the street from us when our friends were moving out. We jumped on the opportunity,but had not anticipated that our friends would move out months sooner than we expected. Weended upwith a vacant house across the street and an extra mortgage payment. Unlike the Scripture,you might saywe had too many rooms!
In July, when we learned that a night-shift working Kenyan man was staying at the Life Shelter with his two sons, and he just needed a place to sleep besides his hot car that summer, we knew what we needed to do. God placed an opportunity in our lives to offer that space to help a family in need,we were able to make room in our inn so to speak, andwe were so blessed to be able to set up a humble space.Our lives have been so much richer because we were able to offer hospitality and kindness to strangers.
It makes me wonder if the person in charge of the manger in Bethlehem felt the same way.
Hospitality, in its simplest terms, is about how we greet and welcome strangers or guests into our lives, into the places we live and work. It’s often about welcoming others without expecting a reward.
“because there was no place for them in the inn” reminds us that,Intothis world in which there is very little room for God to dwell, Christ comes uninvited.It was a birth in obscurity, quiet, on the margins of town. This is how God-with-us, the Emmanuel, chooses to begin on earth, on the margins and in obscurity, trusting that there will be space and hospitality.
As Jesus grows and matures, beginning in ministry, he reaches out time and again to the people on the margins. The tax collectors, the heathens, the sinners, the lame, the women, the mocked and the world’s most hated – these were the types of people Jesus reached out to with love and dignity, hope and healing.These are the people with whom Jesus stayed, counting on their hospitality to welcome them.
On Christmas Eve, may we remember the significance of the manger. God doesn’t require something fancy and elaborate, Goddoesn’t need our lives to be picture perfect or our homes to be just right. Godjust needs space in our lives.
May we all remember this Christmas that God reaches out to us – to all of us who are pushed to our margins by our own busyness, distraction and preoccupation. My deepest prayer is that God may find room in your heart thisChristmas.Be blessed.
Let us pray:
Most Loving God, thank you for this night and for all it represents. Thank you for the hope you give us, the peace you bring, the love you pour out and the deep, abiding joy that you alone can give. We praise you most of all for Jesus, your Word made flesh.May Christ light our way as the holy star lit the way to Bethlehem. May we open our hearts to receive you this holy night. Amen.
This sermon was originally shared on November 11, 2018 at New World United Methodist Church as part of a series. Here is a link to the audio recording.
Philippians 4:10-14 (source: Biblegateway.com)
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.b11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
Sermon: Being Content
I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I am not giving you each $100 today.
I do want to tell you the most exciting stewardship sermon I have ever heard about, but just to reiterate, I’m not handing out money.
The sermon was given at McKinney Church (now Doxology Bible Church) in Ft. Worth. Our family friend Jake was working as a deaf interpreter there, I was out of town, so Jake invited my husband Dennis to church.
When Dennis walked in the sanctuary, there was a giant, larger-than-life dollar sign covered in twenty-dollar bills hanging prominently over the stage where the cross is supposed to be
Dennis had never been there before, so we can imagine he was just wondering what on earth he got himself into.
The pastor gets up and points out the obvious – yep, this is a message about money, a stewardship campaign, there’s new construction, and so on.
But then the message shifts to the unexpected.
The pastor says, “God doesn’t need your money. God has all the money God needs. God needs your heart and God needs you to share your faith with others. So this morning we want to invest in your ministry.”
To prove that they believed this, the ushers came around and did a reverse offering. What’s a reverse offering? Basically, blank envelopes were stuffed with different amounts of money in them, some had $5, some $10 or $20, a few even had $100 or more, and then they passed the plate around for each person in the congregation to get an envelope. In all, they gave out something like $16,000 to the congregation that morning.
(SLIDE CHANGE: Woman thinking of money)
The pastor continues with instructions for this money.
Whatever dollar amount you received, whether it’s $5 or $100, it’s not money that is meant to be spent on yourself. It’s not money for nothing. You don’t take the $5 to the nearest Starbucks and buy yourself a grande Peppermint mocha. Instead, you pray about it & then perhaps you ask that friend or neighbor you’ve been meaning to reach out to to join you at Starbucks, and you buy that person’s drink and talk about faith over coffee.
The people of the congregation were instructed to use the money to be the church at work in the world, and then report back with stories of how God was at work through this.
I invite you to imagine with me what an entire congregation could do in ministry like this.
(Slide Change: Garbage Truck in neighborhood photo)
This morning I will share a few stories about giving that may feel like that:
On Monday, our youngest son, Lucas, turned three years old. It was an especially exciting day because it was a Monday and, in our neighborhood that means something very exciting to our now-three-year-old.
Monday is garbage day!
It’s hard to explain the excitement our little boy has about garbage trucks. He can be in his room asleep, in the bathtub, engrossed in a video, hard at play – but when he hears the distinctive rumble of the truck in our neighborhood, he stops what he’s doing, eyes wide open, “Oh the garbage truck!” and he takes off for the front door.
He jumps up and down, eagerly waiting for the truck to turn the corner and come into view.
This excitement has not gone unnoticed by the garbage men. First, they honked and waved, eventually we learned each other’s names.
Frank and Lawrence learned about a month ago that Lucas was having a birthday on November 5, a Monday…and they too were happy to figure out that they’d get to see this excited little guy on his birthday.
Lucas wanted to make sure Frank and Lawrence could celebrate his birthday. So, much to my surprise, I was making cupcakes the night before for our garbage men so we could include them in a tiny birthday party to go.
(Slide change – Lucas, Frank and Lawrence)
How cool is this? On a day that is usually reserved for receiving gifts and being the center of attention, the greatest joy Lucas had was in giving cupcakes to our garbage collectors. He was so happy to give. How beautiful would our world be if we could all just approach giving to others with such complete joy and without reservation? (pause)
I wish I could say that I always give with that kind of joy and without reservation.
(Slide change – donate computer)
I will share that I give 10% of my salary to the church – it is set up to give automatically so I don’t ever have to think about it. I never see it so I never miss it, and I don’t even have to think much about it.
I have to say, it doesn’t quite feel like having the same kind of joy I saw Lucas have on Monday, but I get to be generous, and I have to trust God will bless my giving. I’m working on the joy part.
So why am I talking about my giving?
I’ve been blessed by giving to others, when I’ve been able to get generosity right, filled with joy and without reservation.I have two examples for you:
(Slide change – Shoes)
The first story that comes to mind was with a high school student in my youth ministry about 10 years ago. She was a remarkable young woman. Surprising to most, she had the most challenging home life of any teens I knew – her parents and her siblings were a bit of a mess, so much so that at the age of 16, she was living on her own instead of at home.
Imagine – she was a full-time high school student, working to pay her rent, and still made time for youth group.
As you can guess, she also was short on cash, although too proud to ask for help. So, when she shared at youth group that she was freezing as her apartment’s gas heat had been turned off in winter, my husband and I knew we had to help somehow. We bought her an electric blanket, wrapped it with an anonymous gift tag, and had a friend of a friend deliver it to her apartment.
There was another time we sneakily worked to find out her shoe size so we could help her replace her worn out sneakers full of holes.
She didn’t ask us for help, but it was a total joy to give to her, to anonymously meet some of her needs. We probably would have found a way to let her live at our house if she ever asked.
Which brings me to the second example of when God gave us an opportunity to be generous with others.
In the spring of 2010, our neighbors across the street from us informed us that they were moving to Colorado – did we know anyone who might want a one-story house in our neighborhood?
We definitely did! My mom was retiring that coming Fall and planning to move to Texas a few months later. We jumped on the opportunity to have mom/grandma move across the street.
What we didn’t expect was that our neighbors would then move out as soon as possible right after the last day of school, leaving us with a vacant house and an extra house payment for a few months more than we anticipated. We tried unsuccessfully to find a college student or someone who might need a short-term place to stay…
So that summer, when I saw a Facebook post from a clergy friend, Sheila, “What would you do if you found out that a working dad of two was sleeping in his car during the day in 104-degree heat in July?” we knew what we would do.
It turned out that Peter, a Kenyan refugee, and his two sons were living in the Arlington Life Shelter that summer. The shelter by policy doesn’t allow its adult residents to be there asleep during the day, but Peter worked third shift at the airport and just needed a safe place to sleep between being at work all night.
Well, it’s not very often that people have spare houses, but that summer we did. There wasn’t a question in our mind – we got in touch with Sheila, met Peter and his two sons George and Allan, and opened up our mom’s vacant house as a safe and quiet place where Peter could sleep in air conditioning on an air mattress during the day and get a clean shower before heading to work. It wasn’t much to us, but I think we can all agree this would be way better than sleeping in a car in Texas during the summer.
In the weeks that followed, With the shelter and church’s help, we were able to help get furniture to help the small family set up in their simple two-bedroom apartment before the boys started school that year.
But the best part is that Peter, George and Allan became friends with our family. Our kids all played together, they ended up having their first American Thanksgiving at our house and we were their first houseguests for a dinner of the traditional Kenyan ugali (YOU gall ee). Years later, George graduated top of his class and is a student at UTA, and Allan has a full ride scholarship his first year at Notre Dame. They’ve even come to visit us here at New World. I’m so proud of our dear friends and grateful that God offered a way for our family to say yes to generosity.
I hope you know that I am telling you these stories not to impress you, but to impress upon you the importance of changing your heart about giving. God will open up opportunities for you to be generous.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are urged to be content with whatever we have, and to be grateful. Imagine with me if we all sought out ways to give to others with the deep joy and without reservation, like Lucas giving away cupcakes to our garbagemen on his birthday? I pray that God blesses you with openings to give to others.
I love the idea of the reverse offering that other church did – it’s a powerful reminder that the money we receive, whether it’s from an unmarked envelope or in the form of a paycheck, all of it is a gift from God we are called to steward and use for God’s work.
But what would you do if you were given $5 today to use in ministry? What about if it was $100? How could you use that money to be a blessing to another person? (pause)
While I don’t have money to hand out to you, I hope you consider using some of the money you already have in the way you just envisioned.
In conclusion, here are a few questions to consider in personal reflection:
What does it mean to you to be content whether you have a lot or a little?
Is something keeping you from giving with joy and without reservation?
If that wasn’t preventing you, what you do and how would that feel?
Please pray with me:
God, we thank you for all that you have given us. Please help us to be content with what we have, whether it seems like too little or too much. We pray that you will free us from worry, that you will open our hearts so that we can give to others with great joy and without reservation. In Jesus name we pray, Amen. Invitation
December 2-25, our church is participating in an Advent Photo Challenge. No matter who or where you are, you are invited to participate. Each day a different keyword is given for people to try to capture in an image.
Today’s word is “Hope.” To accompany the challenge, here is a short devotional to go along with the day’s word. Feel free to read this and share it with a friend. Be blessed! -Erin
From Psalm 46:1-3 ESV:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
The above mixed media artwork is one I created as part of the Mission and Art Nights at a local family shelter. Each week, volunteers from my church and residents in the shelter (primarily mothers temporarily without homes) met in creative community. We met together to create art, to share a devotional, to laugh and heal, and to share our lives together.
Whenever we go through difficult seasons of our lives, it is comforting to know that we have a God who is faithful to be our very present help. No matter what happens in this world, we can rely on God to carry us through. We do not need to be afraid.
As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, let us remember that God’s promises give us hope for the future.
God of hope, thank you for being a God who is always present, even if we struggle to see or feel your presence. Help us to trust in you. Remind us we can be hopeful about our future and to share that hope with others. Amen.
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. – Ephesians 2:4-10
(Followed Scripture reading with the above video “Grace” from Igniter Media)
I love that: “God has us right where God wants us – to shower us with God’s grace.”
As a mom, I can only imagine what fun it was for those boys to get the assignment to cover themselves in mud first thing in the morning! And how beautiful to go from that moment of knowing they are in big, big trouble, to realizing they were forgiven, loved, and baptized in grace.
You are saved by God’s grace.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is the gift of making hospital visits. As members of our congregation, friends and family are in the hospital, I get to visit with patients, listen for a while, and pray with them.
Sometimes I get called in to rooms of people who are not part of our church.
Several months ago was one of those occasions. I came to visit a patient named Steve before he faced a serious heart surgery. Steve had been in and out of the hospital several years with health issues, and this surgery was a final medical effort to help him. This particular surgery was risky, and Steve was given about a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. (pause)
While there are classes in Pastoral Care in seminary, nothing really prepares you for what to say in these moments. What would you say? I don’t know the “right answer,” but here is what I said.
As I met with Steve in this sacred, pre-surgery space, Steve was very quiet. I could sense that Steve had been spending a lot of time reflecting on his prognosis, on his life and on his choices. I asked him how he was doing, what he was thinking. What I learned was that Steve had made some questionable choices throughout his years and lived kind of a wild life. He struggled with various addictions and hurt a lot of people. Because of his choices, he was estranged from his fairly religious family. He had been rejected from his church and from his family for decades.
What I learned as Steve was possibly facing the end of his life, was that he was afraid he had done so many bad things in his life, was so far away from God, that he really believed there was no way he could be forgiven.
He believed he had just messed up too much to be saved. For Steve, this was a message that was reinforced by the church he grew up in, a church that labeled him a “sinner” and kicked him out of the faith. Maybe there have been times when you felt like that too.
As I sat with this man who had been suffering for so long, it struck me in our conversation how important the messages we teach as a church are, and the amount of emotional and spiritual damage we can do with a harmful, judgmental theology.
I have been United Methodist my entire life. I’m curious, are there any others in this room who would consider themselves lifelong United Methodists?
If my grandmother were still alive, she would tell you that I was “born Methodist.” I tell you this upfront because it’s probably fair for you to know that United Methodism runs deep for me. My aunt and uncle were United Methodist pastors. United Methodism is the lens through which I see the world. It is how I have always experienced and processed my faith.
And, maybe it sounds corny, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from a pastor, but I love being United Methodist.
I am telling you this first because, in the interest of transparency, you need to know that you are not about to get a three week sermon series on United Methodism from an unbiased source.
Just the same, as a pastor, some of the questions I hear often are: “What does it even mean to be United Methodist?” “How is it different than other types of churches?” “If we are all Christians, why does it matter?” Those are fair questions.
In the next three weeks I hope to share with you some of the most meaningful distinctive characteristics of United Methodism. I believe that our Wesleyan theology (called that because Methodism’s founder was John Wesley) is powerful and beautiful. I also have seen the pain and damage that even well-meaning churches can do to people labeled as sinners.
Today I will talk about our unique understanding of Wesleyan Grace – in particular the three-fold kind of grace that John Wesley called prevenient, justifying and sanctifying (Hang in there! I’ll explain those words as we go along).
My encounter with Steve made me appreciate the theology of grace I’ve always learned about – the knowledge that God’s grace is available for me no matter how messed up I might find myself. I tried my best to share this grace with Steve…and I am so thankful for that heritage of hope, and the blessed assurance that comes from experiencing God’s grace.
Like the kids in the video that opened this message, like Steve, sometimes we may feel like we have gotten ourselves in such a mess that we are beyond redemption. And that’s where grace steps in.
So what is Grace?
Grace is the love and mercy that God gives us because God wants us to have it, not because we have earned it.
It is an undeserved gift and loving action from God through the Holy Spirit. Because God loves us so much, God wants us to experience God’s grace.
John Wesley preached about different types of Grace.
The first type of Grace Wesley called Prevenient Grace, or literally, “the grace that comes before” we are even aware of it. It’s a term most people don’t know, but it just means all of the ways in which God comes into our lives before our conversion.
God is actively present in our entire lives, whether or not we even notice.
Imagine God has the gift of grace just sitting there, ready for us to notice it. We have the option of refusing to accept the gift, but it’s still there waiting for our discovery.
Prevenient grace has a way of preparing you to respond to God when the time is right. Before you even realize God’s grace for you, you may have a sense of how to choose good over evil. God is actively seeking you, wooing you to notice the gift.
Prevenient grace looks like a longing for God in our lives.
In my faith journey, I mentioned that I was “born Methodist.” This means I was baptized as a small child, I grew up going to church and Sunday school. Even though I was going through all of these practices to prepare me, I wasn’t fully aware of God’s grace, or of the importance of that Grace in my life.
We have a tradition in our church of baptizing infants, and this practice is a great illustration of prevenient grace. In infant baptism, we recognize the grace that God has for the baptized, even though the child may not yet understand. The grace is already there.
In the video, it’s the patient dad figure with the garden hose waiting to be noticed.
The second type of Wesleyan grace is “Justifying Grace.” With Justifying grace, or justification, we realize that our sins are forgiven and we can have a restored relationship with God. Everyone’s experience is different, you can think of this as the moment or moments when you realized that Christ’s love for you is real and, in response, you began to live differently.
This can be a grace experienced over a lifetime, or a grace that happens in a sudden moment. With justifying grace, we face a time of conversion or a new beginning in our relationship with God.
In my faith story, I point to a moment at a Christian rock concert when I was 14 years old as my key moment of justifying grace. Although I had the gift of learning about God’s grace my entire life, up until that point I was being prepared for a moment when I would have said “I accepted Christ.” It was a change of heart that was prompted by grace and guided by the Holy Spirit.
In John Wesley’s story, he was raised in a Christian family and had been around church his entire life. His moment of justification was on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed and sensed that he was saved through the Holy Spirit.
In the lives of many, justifying grace happens without all the fanfare – it’s a sense of assurance that God loves you, forgives you and leads you to transformation…to a sense of healing and wholeness.
In the video, it’s the precious moment when the kids realize they are not going to be punished for their mischief. They are forgiven and loved.
Have you experienced this kind of grace? When did you first know that Christ was real in your life?
Finally, the third type of Wesleyan grace is called sanctifying grace.
The word “sanctify” means to make something holy, set apart. It means to make something clean.
How it works is this:
Once we realize that God’s grace is a gift to us, once we accept that gift and are convinced to turn our ways toward Christ, we enter the lifelong process of sanctification. In simpler terms, once we know and experience God’s grace, we begin the process of learning to be more like Jesus. This is the ongoing experience of God’s graciousness transforming us into who God intends us to be.
There is so much good news in the theology of Grace. Grace means we are all welcome here. No matter what kind of messiness has taken you away from God, God’s grace is for you. We have the opportunity to grow together in our faith, learning together what it means to be Christ followers.
Today in our Back to Grace series, explored John Wesley’s view of Grace, including prevenient grace (the grace that comes before we realize it), justifying grace (the grace that happens when we are justified or converted), and sanctifying grace (the grace that we experience over a lifetime of growing in the faith.)
In the next two Sundays, we will take a closer look at personal and social holiness, the faith practices we can do in response to God’s grace in order to become more like Christ.
We all come in to this space on different parts of our faith journey. You may have always known about God’s love for you, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness for you. Or you may be in a place where you have been deeply wounded, you not only have felt rejected by the Church but you’re even rejecting yourself….keeping yourself from accepting God’s gift of grace.
There may be someone in here this morning who finds they are feeling lost and hurt like Steve I visited in the hospital. If you find yourself in a place of pain, needing to know God’s grace and forgiveness, I want you to really hear these words:
You are forgiven. You can find hope in knowing God’s grace is here for you. You are forgiven.
On the other hand, if you’re in this place and you really are feeling okay, blessed even, I would like to take this message in to a slightly different direction. This morning we have focused on God’s grace for us. Made in the image of God, we are called to accept God’s grace and then, in turn, extend grace to one another. I have a prayer and a challenge for you:
As we move forward as a community of grace, prayerfully seek out those who need to know God’s grace.
Who are your neighbors who desperately need to know about the hope and grace you have found?
Who do you need to invite to know God’s love for them?
My prayer is that each of us can be like the dad in the video. Get out the hose and shower others with God’s grace through your actions.
That is a relaunched vision I would love to see. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
God of grace,
We thank you for being a God who calls out to us, laying down the groundwork so we can discover the love and forgiveness, grace and acceptance you have always had for us. Open our hearts to realize who it is in our lives who needs to experience some of your grace. We pray for our friends and neighbors who are missing out on knowing the love you have for each of us. God, please forgive us when we neglect to show grace to one another, or refuse to even give our own self some grace. Soften our hearts toward all of your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Consider:
How have you experienced God’s grace in your own life?
Not too many years ago, I was struggling to find my sense of identity. Much to my surprise, I uncovered a wellspring of joy when I was given the opportunity to put a paintbrush in my hand. I fell in love again with painting and creating, and the process helped me to discover my way in ministry. There is something soothing, healing and empowering that can be found in the act of creation. For me, a path to lightness and health was uncovered through art. What a joy it is to be in a ministry that allows me a space to use my gifts and talents – I now have the privilege of guiding others on this journey through “Mission and Art Workshops.”
For the last few weeks, it has been a joy to lead weekly art workshops in our local Salvation Army shelter. The shelter is a haven for families, and many of the residents have also found themselves to be in dark places, struggling to find their own identities.
Each resident’s story is different, and I hope to get to learn the stories in time. Many of the women here are homeless because they have fled unhealthy relationships, domestic violence. The shelter creates a safe place to land temporarily as these parents begin to rediscover their individual senses of identity.
This is where the “Mission and Art” ministry steps in. As we gather together, we share small stories about our lives and get to know one another. We pray, read Scripture and create. We talk about really important things and we laugh about silly things. It is a sacred space for women to gather. So far we have played with mixed media art, acrylics, and watercolor painting.
The rules are simple here:
Accept that you are an artist. We were all created in the image of a creative God – we are each inherently creative!
Have fun and play.
Be kind to yourself and others. No criticizing words for your own artwork or for others allowed.
Do art for the process. Know that you will create whatever you were meant to create here – and that is enough. There are no mistakes, no mess-ups, no perfection allowed.
It is my prayer that through our times of creating art together, the women of this shelter will enjoy moments of celebrating their innate creativity and enjoying one another’s company. May the work be empowering, healing and stepping toward wholeness.
Here are a few examples of the beauty that is being created here:
If you have been inspired by this post and would like to learn more about the Mission and Art ministry, feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Be blessed today!
This week I retreated to a camp in Glen Rose, Texas, for three days of spiritual retreat. Going on a minimum 3 day spiritual retreat is a requirement for my ordination in the United Methodist Church. I had a lot of flexibility on how the retreat itself would go.
1. It is relatively easy to be silent when you’re by yourself, but it is a challenge to be around people without feeling pressured to say something. For most of my time away, I was on the camp by myself. I went for a long walks, I hiked through the forest, I spent time creating art and reading. I was quiet.
In the silence, I was able to rest. I was able to just be, just listen. I noticed things I might have overlooked – the smell of dew in the morning, the sound of deer as they scamper away, even the sound of a bird’s wings flapping. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired.
On the few occasions I walked in to town, people were friendly and I felt compelled to speak. The person I talked to the longest, an elderly man in an antique store, seemed lonely. While a vow of silence seems like a noble idea, sometimes small talk is a compassionate act.
2. Sometimes I have to consciously choose to feel safe. One of the hardest parts about being by myself, especially as a petite female, was getting over feeling anxious about possible dangers. I had to let that fear go in order to feel at peace. The fears of unknown dangers, especially while walking alone at night in the dark, cluttered up my thoughts.
Once I made the conscious choice that I was going to feel safe, I could enjoy nature fully. I was able to pray and sing like no one could hear me. It was only then that I could fully experience God’s presence.
I think it’s worth mentioning that living in a culture that feels dangerous even if the dangers are not real makes spirituality more difficult. When I walk alone at night, a part of my brain is constantly on the lookout for possible attacks, alert for sudden movements around the corner. I cannot be the only woman who feels this way. It’s a bit heartbreaking to have to choose to feel safe. My hope is that by mentioning it we can all work together for more peace, working to create a culture of safety. (Maybe you were expecting me to learn something more profound, and I did learn other things – I spent a lot of time reading, studying, writing and creating. There will be more blog posts to come.)
“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ” 2 Timothy 1:7