The Power of Love

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.

power of love

Scripture reading:

John 15:9-17

Love each other

“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

hugging people

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.)

hug needs

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? 

love cubesIn 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.

stained glass eye

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.

chalk heart

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.

(See https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8416-brother for music video)

Amen.

images used with permission from istockphoto and igniter media, scripture from biblegateway.com 

You Give Love a Bad Name

This is part two of a three part message series called I Want to Know What Love Is. It was preached originally on the same weekend as United Methodist Special General Conference 2019. See What’s Love Got to Do With It and The Power of Love for the rest of the series.

Our scripture reading:

Ephesians 4:1-16 CEB

Unity of the body of Christ

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ. That’s why scripture says, When he climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people.

What does the phrase “he climbed up” mean if it doesn’t mean that he had first gone down into the lower regions, the earth? 10 The one who went down is the same one who climbed up above all the heavens so that he might fill everything.

11 He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. 15 Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, 16 who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.

May God add a blessing to the hearing, understanding and living of this Holy word. Amen.

you give love a bad name.jpg

Sermon: You Give Love a Bad Name

 

ROADTRIP STORY:

Have you ever been on a family road trip? How did that go?

Many of you know that I am a mom of 4 children – at one point it was just the three children. In the summer of 2011, my oldest children were 10, 8 and 5, and I had an unexpectedly open summer schedule.

It seemed like the perfect time to create a road trip that would knock a few things off of my bucket list like seeing The Grand Canyon.

The perfect 2 week road trip was mapped out.  We mapped out the perfect route – first west through New Mexico & Arizona, then up through Nevada & Utah, to Washington State….We came back swinging by Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful… and the Rockies in Colorado.

Small hiccup in the plan, my husband Dennis had a mandatory graduate school orientation, meaning it would just be my mom, three kids and myself for the adventure. (We brought “flat daddy” along). We also had to switch to a smaller car without the three rows of separation…

Well (sigh) sometimes road trips look great on paper…but reality might be a different experience!

A few things I learned while having 5 people on the road for two weeks, with three of the people being kids:

  • Not every hotel has a swimming pool, but they all should.
  • There are only so many kid appropriate Redbox rentals in the American West.
  • Traveling with small children – you need more snacks than you think you need & nobody is at their best when they’re hungry.
  • Driving with a car full of whining, fighting, and crankiness is no fun at all.
  • Those little dots on the maps in the American West are not really towns, they might just be a couple of houses. There are no places to use the restroom or buy snacks there. I think they just put them there so you’re not scared of being so far between rest stops.
  • Over two weeks is a LONG time to be in close quarters with anybody at all – even the people you love the very most.

Somehow, we survived the adventure and we still love each other. I’m not proud of this, but there may have been moments along that route when I gave the empty threats like “do I need to pull this car over?” and “do I need to leave you all out here by the road if you can’t all stop fighting?!”

Almost 10 years later, I still get flashbacks to that trip if the kids start to argue in the car…But we’re family, so we know we’re going to stick together, right? For the record, I was never going to really leave them there – but I bet I did pull the car over a few times.

Which brings me to this great quote I heard in a podcast recently:

claudia rankine.png

CLAUDIA RANKINE QUOTE: Poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine said, “I spend a lot of time thinking about, how can I say this so that we can stay in this car together, and yet explore the things I want to explore with you?”[1]

I love this metaphor! Rankine was referring to hard conversations about race relations, but it’s a question that speaks to all sorts of conflicts and division between people.

We live steeped in a culture that constantly tries to put people in one camp or the other, dividing us into our own little factions and groups. We are divided politically and socially, but we even disagree about things like Little League games or whether toilet paper is supposed to go over or under the roll.

While we disagree about many things, it doesn’t have to become an ugly fight.

“How can I say this so that we can stay in this car together, and yet explore the things I want to explore with you?”

As the Body of Christ, this is a question worth pondering before we speak to each other and especially before we speak about each other. As we may have vastly different life experiences and vastly different understandings, how can we speak to one another in a way that creates unity, in a manner that increases understanding, one that keeps us together?

Every community of people has disagreements, every church has disagreements. Change is hard, especially within the walls of a community we hold so closely in our heart. I can’t tell you how many complaints I hear if we make a change from the “way things always have been.” What are some from year’s past that you can remember having here at New World? (carpet color? Worship times?)

I confess, it might not be 100% coincidental that this sermon title was assigned to this week of the series…

This weekend, 864 representatives from the global UMC are having a called general conference to decide the denomination’s official stance on whether a church building or a clergyperson can perform same sex marriages, and on the full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings’ ordination as clergy. This is a conference that may end up with a fight. While we do not yet know the outcome, the decision is one that will impact our global denomination in ways we cannot yet see.

As you might guess, I am connected to a LOT of United Methodists through social media. I estimate that 70% or so of my FB connections are tied to The United Methodist Church in some way. It has been a tough few weeks for me to even look at what people are love and respect deeply are posting and commenting. I’ve hidden my FB icon on my phone so I don’t easily click on it.

Our culture loves a good fight, doesn’t it?

The problem is, when Christians fight, all the world sees is the fight. It doesn’t usually happen on a big, global denominational level, we fight among ourselves about all sorts of things. We all probably know people who have left because of something or someone, perhaps a change that upset them.

No matter the final vote, there will be people who will decide they cannot take anymore, they will make the decision to exit the denominational car, so to speak. It’s hard to watch.

At the local level, here in our local church, there is no requirement that we fight too. We can choose the long road of unity, we can choose to “stay in the car.”

As Christians, we are called to be people of love. When the disagreements happen, especially in very public ways, we “give love a bad name.” We miss out on the opportunity to share the witness of a God who loves all.

This all brings us to our scripture reading for this message. This is a letter to a church that was having disagreements too, the young Christian church at Ephesus (churches have been disagreeing about theology for as long as there have been churches.)

In this short passage from Ephesians, the theme is unity and oneness. I’m going to repeat the first few verses & invite you to count with me the number of times Paul uses the word “one” : Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

“One” is used seven times. In the chapters right before this, the writer is talking about our identity in Christ, like last week’s reminder that we are all made in the image of God, we all matter to God.

This is an important lesson for any Body of Christians. In the church, even if we know we should connect to one another, we selfishly pursue our own agendas. Whether it’s politics, religion, whether toilet paper goes over or under…We make other Christians (ones who disagree with our positions) the “bad guys.” When we do this, we are participating in the tearing apart of Christ’s body.

It’s worth pointing out that we are not required to all have the same opinions on things. We are however, called to watch how we conduct ourselves and accept each other with love.

Now, more than ever, an important question to consider: how can we witness to the world that we can be one, that we can give “Love” a good name?

This is where we come back to the idea of agape love. Remember, God’s agape love is freely given, offered without condition. Do you remember the 3 H’s about agape we covered last Sunday – It is a love that is honest, hopeful & humble. It is a love that is looking for the good in other people.

In the Gospel of John, Christ paints a beautiful picture of what it looks like to abide in his presence in love. He says, “I am the true fine, and my Father is the gardener…Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…”

Jesus explains to his followers in this beautiful image of love and charity, friendship and community, that just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, his disciples cannot love one another, much less bring others to faith, apart from the abiding love of Christ.

 For some reason, we seem to live as if we were sent in this world to compete with one another, to quarrel and fight. Jesus did not choose us to live a life reflective of the world; Christ did not call us to bring the division of the world into our churches. Rather we are to represent Christ in the world. Jesus chose us, first to come to him and then go out to the world. And that must be the daily pattern and rhythm to our lives.

As friends of Christ, Christians, we are called to a commitment of solidarity toward unity as we witness in a broken and divided world. We are to live in such a way that we show what is meant by loving one another. We are not sent out to argue people into Christianity, nor to threaten them into it, but to attract them into it through our love; so to live that its fruits may be so wonderful others will desire them for themselves.

We have to figure out ways to have difficult conversations but work through our differences. We have to set aside our own pride and personal agendas in order to work hand-in-hand to reach out to the world.

When Christians focus more on the differences than what unites us, we are not reflecting the love of Christ, we are not bearing fruit. While we are busy arguing, the world looks at us and wonders, what’s so great about God because Christ’s church seems just as ineffective as every other institution in the world.

When we are divided over differences of opinions, love must prevail.

Christ has come so that we will bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision we had to make or tasks we had to perform, through which the world became a different and better place.

Love makes both the lover and the beloved more like Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I want to be more like Jesus. I think we all do. I want to love like Christ loved.

I want to affirm that you are worthy of receiving that love too. You are a worthy, precious child of God. When I say that, I am saying that to each and every one of you.

You are a worthy, precious child of God.

I am tired of the fighting and the division. I’m tired of having to try and defend a church that looks less and less like the body of Christ and more and more like the divided world around us.

New World, it is my deepest prayer that we can be countercultural in the best ways imaginable. That we can be a community of faith who loves God and loves neighbors unconditionally. That we can give love a good name by how we love one another.

CLOSE IN PRAYER/CUE FOR BAND

Let us pray:

God of deep and abiding love, God of all people,

We confess that there are moments when we fail to love you with our whole hearts, and when we fail to show grace to one another as your children of God. Forgive us for failing to see the harm we inflict when we use the excuse of “speaking the truth in love” to really mean “telling others what they are doing wrong.” Instead, lead us to treat one another with grace and love, especially those with whom we disagree.

This weekend, we pray for our global church, the delegates at General Conference, and for the decisions being made. We recognize and lament that decisions made have the potential to cause deep harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray that your Holy Spirit fills the conversations and decision making, and we trust that you are still God.

No matter the outcome, we pray to be a community that loves you with our whole hearts, people who share your love with all of our neighbors, and to “give love a good name” as your representatives.

We pray to be worthy of the name “Christ follower.”

In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, amen.

[1] https://onbeing.org/programs/claudia-rankine-how-can-i-say-this-so-we-can-stay-in-this-car-together-jan2019/?utm_source=The+Upper+Room+%E2%80%94+Engage+With+Us&utm_campaign=a796217e55-AcademyBulletin_2.12.19&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0542d9a4cf-a796217e55-204260781

Haiti Mission – Day 3

Our morning started with a Methodist worship service – 2 beautiful hours of singing, praying and listening in French and Creole. Our sermon was on the body of Christ – what a beautiful setting to be reminded that ALL of God’s children are valued in the Body of Christ.

About 200 people filled the pews today. A surprise before worship was the chirping of of a baby chick inside the church:

After a lunch of Mamba peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we headed out in a “tap tap” (a Haitian style taxi) to see a little more of Haiti:

I’ll post videos of Haitians driving when I get to a space with more internet capabilities.

It’s evening now – time for bucket showers and nighttime devotional time. Tomorrow we begin our water filter program with VBS-type time in the afternoon.

God is alive and at work – so evident in the deeply moving worship, infectious laughter and community of hospitality. We thank you for your continued prayers and support!

If you are reading this and want to support the ministry of bringing clean water to Haiti, please consider donating to through this link.

Haiti Mission: Day 0

In about 20 hours, our mission team meets at the DFW Airport. We meet at 3:25am to give plenty of time to divide up team supplies and get checked in. We fly to Miami first, the Port Au Prince.

Between now and then, my to do list is long:

  • Pack my own luggage
  • Pack team supplies
  • Make sure Lucas gets to wave at the garbage men (it’s Thursday and he’s 3)
  • Remember to take anti-malarial medicine
  • Pick up about 8 things from a store – tarps, clothesline, markers, hand sanitizer, a big bag of candy (“bon bons”) to pass out to the kids in Mellier…
  • Fill out trip insurance information
  • Check in for flight
  • Send team email with gate information and remind them to remember their passports
  • Go to bank to get cash to pay our Haitian team
  • Work up a plan to complete our fundraising
  • Greet kids when they get home from school
  • Hopefully have a family dinner
  • Spend time with Dennis
  • Spend time wondering what I may have forgot (might as well add this to list since I’m doing it anyway)

It’s a lot. I’m excited and a little daunted.

So, in the quiet of my home this morning, I start with the most important task I have to do today, I pray (feel free to join in from wherever you are):

Holy and gracious God, we thank you and praise you for this opportunity to travel to Haiti. We know that you are already there. We ask for your safety as we travel, we ask to be made aware of your presence. As we rush to get all of the details completed, calm our spirits and remind us that you have got this all in your hands. We commend this trip to you, we ask for your blessing. May we as your servants share your love with others, and may we receive your love through the hospitality of strangers. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.

Click here to contribute to the Haiti mission

Manger – A Christmas Message

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

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 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 to depend on the 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 door for 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 row I was assigned to the Midwest – I lived in St. Louis, Missouri, Battle Creek, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Now, decidedly unlike an 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 her 19 year olddaughter finding a place to live like that gave my poor mom a near heart attack. (sorry mom) J Amazingly, 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 story once before so it 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. We ended up with a vacant house across the street and an extra mortgage payment. Unlike the Scripture, you might say we 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, and we 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, Into this 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, God doesn’t need our lives to be picture perfect or our homes to be just right. God just 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 this Christmas. 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.

 

Gift – A Christmas Thought

I’m writing this just after midnight, technically Christmas Day. The house is peaceful, kids asleep while Dennis, my mom and I quietly visit. Probably because I had so much to prepare for preaching two days in a row, all of the presents have been wrapped and ready a while now. I can’t remember a Christmas Eve wrapped up so early before (pun intended).

The real gift is that we kept the holiday relatively simple. Our kids are pretty wonderful, so I’m looking forward to a fun morning of Lucas’s excitement and the rest of us keeping the magic alive. It is such a joy to be the parents of our kids.

Another gift was the chance to help lead Christmas Eve worship earlier tonight. I’m honored to be part of the staff at New World UMC.

And perhaps the biggest gift of all was seeing our family friend Allan in worship. He is part of the Kenyan family I mentioned in my sermon & I’m deeply grateful God placed his family in our lives.

My prayer for each of you is the gift of knowing that God is real, God loves you & you, dear reader, are worthy of love. May you find space in your heart and home for the holy.

Merry Christmas to all….and to all a good night!

Love – A Christmas Eve Reflection

We love because he first loved us.
“Love” and “because” showed up in bold because those were the search terms I used on Biblegateway. I think that pretty much sums up the call of Christianity – Love because.
Merry Christmas love from our family to yours!

Many thanks and much love to my friend Allison from Seven Arches Photography for these photos. Not only does she consistently make us look like we came straight from an Old Navy ad, she’s also one of my favorite friends.

Angel – An Advent Devotional (Guest Post!)

My girls dressed as angels

Today’s devotional was written by special guest contributor, Rev. Gena Anderson. Be blessed today! ESJ

“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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Luke 2:10-14 ESV

Angels, play a very important role in the Christmas story. An angel announced to the virgin Mary that she was going to bear the Son of God, then appeared to Joseph, telling him the very same thing. Finally, we see a group of them announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem. You might just get the idea that the main role of angels was to make announcements for God, and you would be right! The word for angel literally means “messenger” and they played a similar role as human beings who bore that title: acting as a king’s herald who made royal announcements.

Angels always point away from themselves and to God. During this Advent season, how are you being an angel for God?  How are you pointing others to Christ through the words that you say but more importantly through your actions?

Prayer: Jesus, we worship you as our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord. Help us to be like your angels, announcing the good news of your birth this Christmas. Amen.

Pastor Gena

Worship – Thoughts from Guest Kate Baird

kate baird pic from Levitt

My concept of worship has evolved over time.  For so long, as a musician, I thought it was about how we expressed ourselves through song—hymns and modern music.  I participated on praise teams who appeared to take 100% responsibility for every congregation member’s worship.  Are we trying to contrive a feeling of elation through music for everyone?  I don’t believe so.  Though, I love when I have that ‘feeling’.  This seemed too narrow a definition.

After much contemplation, it seems to me it’s about wanting to live our lives out of delight for what has been done for us.  Our daily work is worship and ministry.  You don’t choose between being a missionary or a teacher or a business person.  We are all on mission, we are all teachers by the example of our lives and we are all in business by how we steward resources.  Doing something for someone else out of gratitude and abundance is worship.  I give thanks to my dear friend, Dave Stone (founder and Chief Worship officer of First Rate), credit for expanding my thinking about that.  “Work is Worship!”  I will one-up him and say “Life is Worship!”

Also, I questioned, as C.S. Lewis did why we need to worship an all-powerful God.  Google his responses if that has puzzled you.  But, here was the personal revolution for me from C.S.’s book ‘Reflections on the Psalms’.

“The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. 

It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.”

“The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.”  Selah.  The worship is FOR OUR DELIGHT!!  SMH!  Then, Lewis goes on to say, that Heaven will be a place where this resounding expression of delight will be with the fullness of worshiping God in spirit and in truth.  Glorifying the (triune) God by enjoying Him forever.   Sign me up for some ‘forever enjoyment!’

I wish for you a presence of mind & spirit this holiday season.  This is so that you can enjoy to the fullest your daily walk and those you share it with.  When you share that enjoyment, it becomes complete and is worship.  

I’ve included a picture ‘Paul Thorn with the Blind Boys of Alabama’ who were at the Levitt this summer.  Hearing live music is the where my husband and I find ourselves ‘expressing delight’ and making the enjoyment complete.

Heaven – An original by Kate Baird

Today’s Advent devotional was written by a special guest contributor and New World church member, Kate Baird.




Images of heaven, as we can only imagine, are everywhere:

·        White shores, and beyond a far green country under a swift sunrise. 
Gandalf to Pippin in  J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”

·        “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. … And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, :and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” 
C.S. Lewis

·        A large banquet table with a place set for every individual. 
The Gospels

·        For me personally, it is a piano where my Aunt is sitting at the keys, her sister is sitting next to her turning the pages, and all my aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles and cousins are singing whatever the next page is in the hymnal…after a hearty dinner at the banquet table and naps in the hammocks that hang between the clouds.
 
I need to pause throughout my busy days and busy life and reflect on heaven periodically.  I could spend an hour on C.S. Lewis’s quote alone with its mysteries that resonate as truth. Just considering Heaven for this blog has raised my HOPE, increased the LIGHTness of my heart, soothed my anxiousness with PEACE, while I WAIT for that day.  I’m not in a hurry, but I’m not afraid at all.  How sweet it will be to walk with the one who loves me more than anyone – and I am very well-loved now!  You are well-loved now too!  That’s how I know heaven will be amazing.  My limited abilities can’t register the fullness of it. 
 
Think of it:
Suffering replaced with wholeness and joy. 
Sorrow replaced with dancing and smiles. 
Fear replaced with perfect love for others because we can’t mess up anymore!
 
What is the advantage of not accepting Heaven as a possibility?  If you believe you can impact others with the weather you take with you into a room, into a meeting, into a restaurant, into a hospital, into our social media posts, onto an airplane.  Wouldn’t it be best to take the weather influenced by a heavenly hope and light?  Imagine the positive storm system we could create.  Heaven on earth.