“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Acts 5:30 (Common English Bible)
A wise church member shared this thought with me on Sunday:
“It’s not all the gifts under the tree that matter, it’s the Gift that came on a tree.”
In case you haven’t heard, there are only 12 shopping days left between now and Christmas. Yep, the “doorbuster specials” are long gone and we’re in the “last minute shopping” territory!
It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of last minute shopping, isn’t it? Companies who sell us stuff are counting on this.
But I hope you’ll find time to remember the real reason for the season, the gift that came on a tree, Jesus Christ. It’s not about all the stuff.
Today I challenge you to take a moment to just look, really look, at a tree…or consider the birds of the air. Remember that God is the kind of God who is faithful to provide for all of our needs. We don’t need to be harried, and rushed. We have all the Gift we need.
John 14:272Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Yesterday the word for the Advent candle lighting was “Peace.” In a world that seems so full of everything that is decidedly not peaceful – busyness, frenzy, rushing, hurriedness, violence, division, and so much noise – peace is wild and countercultural.
So today, be wild and countercultural. Be an instrument of peace. Dare to catch your breath. Dare to breathe in deeply. Dare to rest. Dare to be quiet.
Model the deep love and peace of the Prince of Peace. Refuse to follow a culture that models everything else.
During Advent this year (Dec. 2-25) we are having an Advent Photo Challenge! You are invited to participate for any of the topics. Each day I will also send out an accompanying short devotional on the day’s topic. Feel free to share it. Be blessed, Erin
4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:4-9
The painting featured with this post is one I made while serving as a mentor for Texas Youth Academy a few years ago. To be honest, I didn’t love the art project. The instructions were to paint the realistic looking heart as a starting point, and then we went our own direction from there. The canvas itself was still useful, so I am pretty sure I’ve painted over this image and created something new.
That is one of the beautiful things about a life of faith. No matter our starting point, God is not finished with us yet. We have the opportunity to forever be made new, always growing and transforming. Your heart can be transformed.
May you have the peace of God today knowing that you are a work of art in the hands of the ultimate Creator God. Be made new today.
Thank you for being a God who constantly makes me anew. May I dwell on all the things that are lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy today, trusting that you are faithful to give me a clean heart. Amen.
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.
This photo was taken by a friend of mine, Scott Sigrist, and used for this sermon with his permission. You can see more of his work at www.sigristphotos.com. (thank you, Scott!)
This is the second day of our Advent Photo Challenge and the keyword is “Star.” Since I preached a sermon with that title yesterday, I thought I’d share the text of my sermon with you today.
Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 21. Adult Jesus is talking his disciples in the temple and this is the last chapter before the Last Supper and all that follows. It’s an odd way to start the Christmas season, but we will understand why before the morning is over.
Luke 21:25-36 CEB
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
A lesson from the fig tree
29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”
I love going to places where you can see all of the stars, even the stars in between the stars.
One of my favorite things about getting away from the city is being able to see the stars. I’ve even been known to pull my car over at night on an empty Texas state highway in order to make my entire family endure my making them all look at the stars. (I’m sure they appreciate it.)
So, I was really excited when, about five years ago, my family planned a weekend vacation at Canyon of the Eagles in the Texas Hill Country. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nature park west of Round Rock, in a part of the Hill Country that is an official “dark sky” area. There’s very little lighting in the park to cut down on light pollution. When you walk around the park at night, they give you special little flashlights to carry around. It is home to the “Eagle Eye Observatory” and one of the best places to see the stars at night, because, of course, they are big and bright, deep in the heart of…
Canyon of the Eagles is a migratory path for eagles, so we also hoped to catch a glimpse of one of those too. (pause)
Well, I wish I had a better star story to tell you. What ended up happening was that it was cloudy and rainy the entire weekend. The mosquitos ate us alive. And although we had a nice video tour from the resident astronomer of what we could have seen if there were no clouds, it just wasn’t the same as we had hoped. (side note: We didn’t see an eagle either – total bust.)
But isn’t this picture beautiful that my friend Scott Sigrist took at Dinosaur Valley State Park? We didn’t get to see the stars like that on our weekend, but we know they were still there.
Stars are a constant – throughout history, sailors and travelers have used stars to navigate and keep their sense of direction.
When was the last time you noticed the stars? Do you have a lucky star or a favorite constellation?
Today we begin the Christian season of Advent.
The word “Advent” comes from the latin word “adventus” which means “to come toward, to draw near, to approach.” It is a time of expectation, a time of waiting.
Waiting…How are you at waiting for things?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. Just so you know that I’ll go to extremes to prepare for a sermon (smile) I spent my Friday afternoon waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles so we could get my son’s driving permit. Oh the waiting! This time I paid attention to what people do while waiting – it’s no surprise that most people spent that time distracted by their phones or TV. A few people read books. Very few just sat there, waiting and watching.
Not all waiting is terrible – as we spend this season waiting, we can be on the lookout for what is to come. It’s the perfect time to look for signs as we wait.
Advent is an “in between” time of year. Obviously it’s in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it also marks the time between the “already” and the “not yet.” In fact, during Advent, we are waiting for three things at the same time. I’ll explain:
The first thing we are waiting for is the obvious one – the “already” – we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate this, we are celebrating something earth-shattering that has already happened.
Think of it this way: imagine that you ordered a package from Amazon (not too hard to imagine.) You are so excited that it’s on its way. Then you check the app and see that, much to your surprise, it’s already delivered. You check your front porch and, sure enough, all of the great stuff you’ve been waiting for has been there all along. It’s already arrived.
The second thing we are waiting for is the “not yet.”
Our Scripture passage today talks about all of these signs of that the end is near. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, it says. Throughout history, there have been times when doom and gloom preachers have pointed to naturally occurring events like eclipses, earthquakes, and meteor showers to declare the end of all civilization. “Repent! The End is Near!” they’ll shout.
This is a really odd way to start the Christmas season, isn’t it? Here we are ready to hear the good, predictable news that sweet little Jesus is going to be born in a manger…but then the scripture is all about the end of time. What’s going on?
With wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and natural disasters, coupled with human evils of wars, oppression, violence, intimidation and discrimination, dominating our news cycles, it may even be tempting to fall into “fear and foreboding,” to see what is going on and wonder, is this a sign of the end of the world? In the face of all that is going on in the world today, it is tempting to be overwhelmed by all of the brokenness we see around us.
But if we pay close attention to today’s scripture, our message is not about doom and gloom at all. It’s a message of hope!
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”
Notice that adult Jesus is talking here, pointing out the signs that something good is happening as we notice the leaves sprouting – summer is coming, not winter! As humans in an unpredictable world, we look for signs that will predict what’s coming. Yet, as people of faith, we know that there will come a time of final victory – this is the “not yet” that we wait for – a time when everything is restored and God’s reign is on earth as it is in heaven. So we wait for that day with hope.
We wait for the “already,” and the “not yet,” and the third thing we wait for during Advent is the “right now.” It’s the signs and symbols of God at work today.
It’s tempting to look at our world with fear and despair, isn’t it? But if we’re not careful, we will totally miss where God’s kingdom is breaking in to our world right now. When God’s people work for justice, for mercy, for wholeness and compassion – that is God’s kingdom on earth right now. The exciting thing is we get to be a part of that! Every time we – individually and as a community – work to restore the broken systems and people in our lives, the more we bring glimpses of God’s reign on earth, we bring the signs of hope in a world that desperately needs to be reminded.
Which brings us to the symbol of the star at Christmastime.
During Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, we often place a star on top of our trees. The star reminds us of the star that shone over Bethlehem, guiding the magi to the place where Jesus could be found. It is a symbol of something that guides us – a divine guide, a constant presence.
Especially times in uncertainty, it’s comforting to look for reliable signs to follow.
Funny thing – Do you know when it is hardest to notice the stars? During the brightness of day.
As it turns out, even during the brightness of day, they are there. It may be that the biggest challenge we face is finding God’s guidance when things are going well for us, when we are in our own bright days…when we are tempted to believe we can do all things on our own. (pause)
As we journey through advent together during the next few weeks, I challenge you to fight the pressure to rush to Christmas. Prepare for Christmas by praying, becoming aware of God’s guidance, and doing good work for God’s glory. Be the “right now.”
It is so fitting that we begin Advent with the sacrament of communion. I invite you to remember during communion today of all that God has already given you, to reflect on the promise of hope for the future, and to find ways to bring God’s restoration on earth today. Let us begin…
Where have you seen God at work recently?
What is something you are really looking forward to?
This sweet little jingle bell started as a preschool craft project for one of my big three kids. It was delightful to have our littlest one put it on the tree this year!
The jingling of bells reminds me of this passage from the book of Psalms:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! 2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Advent, the Christian season that leads up to Christmas, begins on Sunday, December 2 this year. (It also marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, so Happy New Year!)
It’s easy in all of the hustle and bustle of commercialized Christmas to get caught up in being stressed out, rushing from one thing to the next.
This season, I invite you to join me in participating in an Advent photo challenge.
How it works:
Each day has a topic/keyword assigned to it. As you go through your day, try to find something that captures the essence of the keyword for you. (Example – the first word is “bells” – this could mean jingle bells, doorbells, bell curves, alarms. Be creative!)
Then post the picture on social media, with or without any explanation, using the hashtag #NWUMCAdvent. By sharing with the hashtag, we can all look up each other’s pictures and share in the challenge together!
I hope you’ll find this to be an exercise that helps you to reflect on the real meaning of Christmas this season.
This morning we are talking about how even our little choices impact our wisdom, and how to become wiser through the practices I am calling the “3 P’s of Wisdom,” in order to make it easier to remember. The 3 P’s are Pausing, Praying and Paying Attention.
So first, what do we mean by wisdom?
For starters, it’s worth noting that wisdom is not the same as knowledge –
(image credit: shockinglydelicious.com)
To quote Miles Kington: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” (pause, hopefully for chuckles) (Side note: What I learned this week is that tomatoes in a fruit salad is a real thing people do!)
So, wisdom isn’t knowledge. Wisdom is having the ability to have insight about relationships and choices. It is a natural ability to understand things that most people cannot, and is a knowledge gained by having many experiences in life.
The opposite of wisdom is foolishness, silliness, stupidity. Nobody wants that!
Having wisdom makes your life easier…Where in your life is the lack of wisdom getting in the way?
I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, one of the areas of life I struggle most with being wise is in how I spend my money – although some might argue that my biggest struggle is how much time I spend time on my phone. 🙂
Don’t get me wrong, I want to be wise in how I spend my money. I want to give generously to the church and to good causes worth supporting. I want to set aside enough money to send our kids to college (all FOUR of them!) and I want to save wisely so someday, probably quite a ways away, I want to retire. I want to be a good role model to those little people who are watching.
But if I’m honest, there is a lot of pressure to use money in ways that probably aren’t the wisest.
I spend money on clothes and shoes that are cute but I don’t really need, I buy things from Amazon, I feel the pressure to upgrade my phone and get the latest and greatest gadgets. I may or may not have a problem with buying too many Sharpies and art supplies.
In fact, really large corporations are banking on my inability to make wise choices. It doesn’t help that credit card companies are more than happy to extend credit to me to make purchasing more things easier. Actually, I just read a stat recently that, as of 2017, the average American household’s consumer credit card debt was over $15000, so I’m apparently not alone on this.
My husband jokes that our problem is we have too many resources and not enough good things we are doing. Consumerism solves that problem for us. Bang! Problem with having too many resources is solved!
And it’s not just finances, there are choices to make all the time on how to spend my time, (yes that includes how much I’m on my phone), what to eat or drink, how to treat others, what to pay attention to… What about you? What are the areas you struggle with when it comes to making choices? (pause) While the areas we are working through probably vary widely, deep down we all want to walk in wisdom.
It’s like our faith says one thing, but all the other messages we are seeing say something different. A lot of the choices are probably no big deal, but there are still so many choices. The thing is, nobody sets out to get his or her self in a bad or unwise place, whether it’s about our finances, relationships, addictions, health, or whatever – it’s almost like we wake up surprised one day wondering how we got here.
In Science class, there is a concept called “tipping point” and an experiment where you make a boat out of aluminum and try to see how many pennies you can put in the boat before it sinks. How it usually works is you put the pennies in one by one, and eventually a penny drops in and the boat sinks quickly to the bottom. (Side note: We tried this during youth group recently & one of the groups figured out a way to make a nearly unsinkable boat…so maybe we have some wise students in our midst!) In the same way, we make choices that, individually, are insignificant. But, like the opening video illustrates as well, the accumulation of several choices brings us to a place we never expected to be.
Isn’t it great to know that even though we all face this issue, God’s word has something to say about it?
Remember at the opening of worship when I asked you to think of the wisest people you know?
For me, my friend Bill came to mind, but I also thought of all the times I would visit with John Cash on Sunday mornings before he moved to Florida – there was a lot of wisdom to learn from his 9 decades of life experience!
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” James 3:13
The book of James reminds us that people who are focused on gaining God’s wisdom are known as being pure, peace-loving, considerate, full of mercy, impartial & sincere. Think again about the wisest person you know – how do they measure up? (pause)
So, as we move forward from here, how do we become wise?
To become wise, you need to follow what I’m calling the 3 P’s on this path to wisdom. I’m calling them “Pause, Pray & Pay Attention,” but those who are Gen- Xer’s in the room might appreciate that Vanilla Ice’s word to “Stop, Collaborate, and Listen” also would work. 🙂
The first “P” is to PAUSE. (STOP)
In order to grow in wisdom and learn from experience, it is essential that we PAUSE for time to meditate/reflect/know yourself. We live in a culture that is constantly busy. We rush from one thought, one activity, one bit of information to the next.
The problem is, if we are so busy moving around all the time, we will absolutely miss out on opportunities to learn, miss out on opportunities to hear what God might be saying.
I love this movie quote from the classic Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” This is so true. (image credit: quotesgram.com)
Life is full of choices. Every day we can make a million choices without thinking, so the first “P” is that we need to PAUSE and consider the impact of our actions before we move forward.
What does “Pause” look like? I’m a big believer in the practice of taking a “Holy Pause” between activities – just a moment to catch your breath. (pause) You can even taking a weekly “Pause” in the form or Sabbath rest which will give you the space to move forward with wisdom.
A huge benefit of this is if we pause to reflect on our own lives, our own shortcomings, we grow more patience with others.
The second “P” is PRAYER. (COLLABORATE)
James 1:5 says we need to ask for wisdom – that anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.
In Scripture there are several examples of people who struggle with wisdom. King Solomon, the son of David, is the best-known Biblical character for wisdom. In the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles, Solomon had just become king when God appears and tells Solomon “Ask whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.”
Solomon thought about all of the things he could request & wisely said, “Give me wisdom and knowledge so I can lead this people, because no one can govern this great people of yours without your help.”
In response, God, delighted that Solomon didn’t ask for things like wealth or power, gives Solomon not only wisdom but also wealth, riches and fame beyond any kings before or since.
We begin the search for wisdom by pausing and praying, but we can also gain wisdom in two ways: personal experience and learning wisdom from others’ experiences – as long as we follow the final “P”
The final “P” is Paying Attention. (LISTEN)
You gain wisdom either through your personal experience or – the great shortcut to wisdom – through listening to the wisdom of others.
Think of it this way: I believe people can be divided into two main categories: Stove touchers and non-stove touchers. Which are you?
Here’s how it works: there are people you can tell “hey, don’t touch the stove, it’s hot and will burn you.” They will touch the stove anyway, get burnt & learn that stoves are hot.
Non-stove touchers will hear the good advice, follow it & still learn that stoves are hot.
Whether it’s to gain wisdom through personal experience or through the experience of others, you have to follow the final “P” and Pay Attention to the available wisdom.
We can learn from Scripture quite a lot of wisdom from others – some things never change. We can learn to follow instructions and put the words into action.
Having a lot of different experiences helps you gain wisdom – but only if you let it.
It’s not enough to just have experience, you have to PAY ATTENTION to life as it happens around you.
Like in the video, we are often distracted by the screens and other things vying for our attention. We miss life as it happens when we are so busy trying to get a video or an Instagram image of it!
To grow in wisdom, you have to be able to see what is right in front of you
And also see the deeper meaning of life
My friends, in conclusion, here is the hope in this message:
We constantly receive messages from our culture about what we should do and how we should spend our time and resources in order to measure up to the world’s standards of success or happiness.
As people of faith, we have a unique opportunity and challenge to live lives that are markedly different than the world’s standards. As we seek God’s wisdom instead, we seek to live lives of grace, mercy and love. You have the opportunity to live lives that exemplify God’s love and especially God’s love for all people.
No matter where you find yourself, you can move toward wisdom. By following the 3 P’s of Pausing, Praying and Paying Attention, we can make a million little choices that move us toward wisdom.
It is my prayer that you will walk thoughtfully through your millions of small decisions, perhaps even learning wisdom from others often (as opposed to touching the stove yourself!) and live a life that brings peace and hope to others.
As we close, I want to offer an opportunity for you each to practice the 3 P’s of wisdom. In a minute I will pray and the band will come forward to play a song. During their song I invite you to spend time perhaps with your worship guide and a pencil, and take a moment to PAUSE and reflect on your life, PRAY for God’s wisdom in decisions you need to make, and PAY ATTENTION to what God might be saying to you. You can write down a prayer, or ideas on what you might want to work on, or spend the time in prayer as we reflect on God’s word for you.
Let us pray:
Spirit of wisdom,
This morning we confess that all too often we make choices that pull us away from you, distract us from the path you have for us. Forgive us for the choices we make. We ask for your true wisdom to be a guide in our lives. Thank you for being a God who never leaves us nor forsakes us.
Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in
us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of [Gehenna.]
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
Has anyone ever said something to you that changed you?
I was a teenager on a joint Polish Catholic/United Methodist youth group retreat
when I heard a few words that completely changed my life. My friend, Bill
Kozlowski, was a couple of grades ahead of me. His mom was one of the youth
leaders at his church and every spring our two youth groups had a spring retreat
I remember Bill saying to me, “Erin, one of the things you need to realize is that
you’re not better than anyone else.”
Those words alone could have hurt my feelings, but the important part was that
Bill kept speaking.
He added, “You also need to know that no one is better than you either. God made
us all, and no one is better than anybody else.”
It was a simple truth. I doubt that 16 year old Bill had any idea that the words he
said then would so positively affect the rest of my teenage years and beyond.
I mean, imagine being an insecure, self-conscious adolescent, constantly
comparing yourself to others and feeling like you were coming up short…and
then you hear, really hear, and choose to believe, that you are genuinely okay,
that you are enough, just as you are. Believing those words as a teenager was a
game changer – I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was measuring up
or how I compared to others.
His words helped me to navigate a pretty challenging season of my life with quite
a lot more grace and confidence. His words changed me. His words may have
even been part of why I later felt called to youth ministry.
A few short years later, when Bill tragically died in a Coast Guard accident, I was
all the more grateful for the words we shared during his all-too-brief time with us.
Can you remember a person in your life that said something to you that changed
You see, our words are powerful.
In fact, let’s do a little survey:
Consider your closest relationships – perhaps you are married, or think of your
best friend, your parents. Or even consider the people sitting right around you.
How many of you think that you could say/text/tweet or do something in the next
30 seconds that could dramatically improveyour relationship? Go ahead and raise
your hand. (pause)
Okay, how about this – how many of you think of something that you could say
that could really hurt/destroy/cause harm to your relationship?
Whatever you just thought of – DON’T SAY THAT!
Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the good choices that we
make all of the time – there are plenty of times we don’t say something mean and
it keeps our relationships better.
We can know words are powerful if we consider we worship a God who spoke
the universe into being…we can look at the beginning of the Gospel of John and
see that in the beginning was the Word, the logos, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God…
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, the words you speak come from your heart.
Our words are rarely neutral – they give insights into the heart of the person
speaking. Whatever we say isn’t just random words – what comes out of our
mouth comes from the same place as our convictions, aspirations, dreams, hopes,
doubts and emotions. Since our words are rarely neutral, what we say always has some intended result even when we don’t think about it.
Most of our life is built around words. We’re a culture that is always talking one
way or the other – if we’re not literally speaking, we’re texting, typing, updating
our status, tweeting, emailing, or writing. We even sing words. Words are a part
of everything we do, they are a part of all of our relationships.
When I reflect on my life, on conversations I’ve had, conversations people have
overheard, I’m not always proud of the words I’ve spoken.
I imagine I am not alone in realizing there have been times in my life when I’ve
said unkind things, yelled out of frustration, complained and made people feel
bad. With my words, with my tone of voice, with my impatience…there have
been so many times when I’ve hurt others. I’m not proud of that – but I also
imagine that I’m not alone in feeling regret about things I’ve said.
You may have said things you’ve regretted too. There may have been times when
you talk too much.
Today’s passage in James is focused on the incredible importance of “taming our
tongue” – the importance of taking care with our words.
I believe that our words have unprecedented power today.
Consider this: When this letter was written, the audience was the twelve tribes of
Israel who were now living as refugees in foreign lands. The letter was written at
a time when communication was only as fast as the messengers could walk, run,
or perhaps take a horse. It was like an Oregon Trail type of journey – To get the
word out to the next village might take a few days or weeks.
Even when my husband Dennis and I started dating (way back in the last
century!), we lived in different states for a while and wrote letters to each other,
so we can remember that it would take 3 or 4 days to send our messages.
Times have changed since then – and especially the way we communicate. While
this passage focuses on taming our tongues, if it were written today it would
encompass all of the ways we use words.
Just how powerful are our words today?
Consider this example – if I were to sit down and have a conversation with
(church member) today at lunch or even over the phone, and things got a little bit
snarky or I said a few things that were kind of harsh, some damage will be done. I
have the ability, even in that conversation, to have a change of heart, to apologize
for my carelessness, and to try to make things right.
Now, if I were to stand up here at the pulpit and say the same careless thing – now
I’ve multiplied that impact times the 150-200 or so people in this room. We don’t
have a live feed, maybe I could get to the audio recording and edit things before
the sermon is posted online. The damage said here feels like it is pretty
In today’s culture, we have so many more ways to communicate our words than
Now let’s imagine that instead of just speaking, I decide to put my unkind
thoughts out on Facebook, Twitter, or to vent a little in an email or text message.
What I have learned is that typed words often can take on a life of their own.
(Especially words taken out of context, which is something our soundbite culture
loves to do.) In just a few keystrokes, an email can go from one person to
hundreds. Emails passed from one person to another, even what starts as more or
less well-meaning emails from good people, have broken relationships, caused
people to lose jobs, and caused great damage. Faith communities have suffered
from the words of its members.
Added to this is the tricky element that we don’t know which words will be contagious, which will go viral – a few years ago I wrote a blog post about St. Barnabas’ tornado damage that was widely shared, and we ended up with more people sending Easter eggs than we could have ever imagined. I had to do some damage control to stop the flood of responses.
In 2013, I posted this Instagram picture as part of a Youth Ministry photo blog
challenge with the topic “where would you like to be in 10 years.” I was very
surprised a few months later when I received messages from friends in California,
New York, Ohio and Texas letting me know that the same photo was picked up
by a Buzzfeed/clickbait type Facebook post full of pretty unfavorable 10 year
change illustrations of celebrities like Brittney Spears and Will Smith. I no longer had any control over the context around my original words.
Words are powerful…and words are contagious.
Emails get forwarded, posts get shared – unlike the days of James’ letter when
we’d have to carry it by horseback, in an instant we can spread images and
messages around the world.
I invite you to take a moment to focus on this part of our Scripture from today –
it’s also printed in your worship guide: “People can tame and already have tamed
every kind of animal, bird, reptile and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It
is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father
and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from
the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
What strikes me about this text is that we have the power in our words for both
blessing and cursing.
You may have expected to hear a message about not saying bad things, but…
This means we have the unprecedented power to do good work with our
There’s a Harvard Business Review article that investigated the impact of using
either positive feedback to constructive criticism to change team behavior.
They called the ratio the praise-to-criticism ratio, and monitored results in
companies and teams and different performance levels. The highest performing
teams used an overwhelmingly higher amount of praise to motivate behavior.
Interestingly, there is a similar study that shows effects of praise and criticism in
the success of marriage relationships and the results are similar. The research
varies, but the general consensus is that it takes about 5 or 6 positive comments to
beat out the negative messaging we hear.
If that’s accurate, let’s work out some math here in this room then.
Let’s say there are 150 people in the room to make the math easy.
If each of us made a commitment to have a positive impact with our words and
our witness once a day this week, that would be enough to overcome about 30
negative things a day. If we commit to each saying just 5 positive, life affirming
messages a day, that should work to even things out.
And yet, imagine what impact we could have if we all decided to be all in on this
project, if we all committed to doing our best to be positively impacting people
whenever/however we communicated this week – what kind of positive, life
giving force could we become?
What dreams and ministries and visions could we accomplish if we all vowed to
use our words to build one another up?
Our words are so powerful.
The tricky thing is, we never really know when we are saying words people are
hearing. My friend Bill probably had no earthly idea that he was saying something
to me that would be a sermon illustration a couple of decades later. He caught a
moment when I was ready to listen. We don’t know when we’ll have an impact or
who we are impacting, so let’s just commit to assuming each moment we have is
that moment of truth that can impact another life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to think about what could happen to us as
a faith community if we committed to treating one another with that kind of care,
if we committed to lifting one another up with encouragement and put a stop to
grumbling, gossiping and complaining to one another. And then if we extend this
power of words beyond our walls…
We have the power to be an absolutely transforming force in the world. Let it be.
This morning our Scripture passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. To give a little background: Paul is writing to a new Christian community that has a Gentile (or non-Jewish) background. As Christians, this faith community is being encouraged to stop their former pagan behavior, and to model kindness and compassion, imitating God’s forgiving and loving ways. Picking up at verse 20:
20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
I know that this is Back to School time, but, as we talk about being made new this morning, I want you to go back in time with me today to the beginning of the calendar year. There are a few things you can count on seeing every January:
Exercise clothes and running shoes are going to be featured in sale ads
The gyms are pretty crowded
There will be good coupons for foods like Special K cereal and Lean Cuisine meals
Shelving and organization tools will be on sale and in demand
If you’ve had trouble keeping resolutions, no worries, you are in good company. Even in today’s passage, Paul is writing to a church that started with great resolution to live differently, but then they slipped in to old habits.
We are talking about the distinctly Wesleyan emphasis on holiness this morning. What do we mean by “holiness?”
Holiness is “the state of being holy, of having total devotion to God” Interestingly, when you Google search “holiness,” the first term that comes up is that it’s a title used to address the Pope. The second reference is to the Holiness Movement started by John Wesley, “A Christian movement emphasizing the routines and faith practices that help us grow closer to God.”
To understand it, we first need to understand a little bit of Methodist history:
Methodism became its own denomination completely by accident. John Wesley, his brother Charles and a few other Oxford college students had grown up in the church but refused to be satisfied with the shallow, superficial faith they witnessed around them. They thought people were going through the motions but missing out on the deeper faith practices.
So, longing to grow in their faith and to grow closer to God, these young men began to live an ambitious schedule:
Fasted until 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays
Took Holy Communion once a week
Studied and discussed the Greek New Testament and theology each evening
Visited prisoners and the sick
Systematically reviewed their lives
Studied the Bible, prayed and worshipped together
Even in the 1700s, this was unusual behavior! What was even more remarkable was that this small group held each other accountable to stay on track. Their changes in behavior didn’t go unnoticed. They were teased about it, called names like “Bible Moths” “Holy Club” “Sacramentarians” and, the one that stuck, “Methodists”
Here’s what John Wesley said about it in his sermon “The Character of a Methodist”
“I say those who are called Methodists; for, let it be well observed, that this is not a name which they take to themselves, but one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent. It was first given to three or four young men at Oxford, by a student of Christ Church; either in allusion to the ancient sect of Physicians so called, from their teaching, that almost all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise, or from their observing a more regular method of study and behavior than was usual with those of their age and station.”
This group of young Christians did not set out to break away from the Church. What they wanted more than anything was to see renewal within the church.
As we go through renewal here, it’s also my prayer that as a community we will move to deeper relationship with God.
I don’t know about you, but I can see where the Wesleys were coming from. Having grown up in the church, I’ve sometimes felt like the Church was getting distracted and missing out on its main mission to develop Christ followers.
There are practices that I have done that have brought me closer to God. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, it’s beautiful.
When I take the time for silence, prayer, Bible study, quiet walks in nature, retreats…there is a sense of peace that’s hard to fully explain.
You know that holy feeling when we all sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve? Those special, sacred moments when you can sense that the Holy is happening?
That’s what it feels like to do the practices that bring personal holiness, the things that bring you closer to God.
So how do we get there?
To grow in our faith you can really look at our church’s mission statement. (Love God, Love Neighbor, Make Disciples)
There are several practices you can make part of your daily living that will draw you closer to “Love God.” You are in church & participating in regular worship is one of those practices (keep it up!) Bible study, fasting, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and deepening your knowledge for God are other faith practices.
Loving Neighbor is another way we grow closer to God. A very Methodist practice would be to find ways to respond to human needs and work for justice in our communities.
As we move along the path toward becoming perfect in our love for God, eventually our inner thoughts and motives line up with God’s.
So why aren’t we there yet?
I believe there is a temptation to look at this new faith beginning in the same way as we too often look at New Year’s resolutions. You know what I mean? We can start off with the best of intentions –
I’m going to church every Sunday
I’m joining a Bible study or Sunday School class
I’m volunteering at the Salvation Army, Arlington Life Shelter, Arlington Urban Ministries, Arlington Charities….or even better, I’m now going to volunteer to help out with the youth or the children’s ministry
I’ll pray every day…I’ll read my Bible every morning.
I’m even tithing.
And we may even start off strong.
Until we don’t. We somehow fall off the discipleship wagon – sleeping in preempts church and Bible reading, you miss a study, you forget to pray. You pick up or take back up habits and addictions and all of the things you swore to yourself you wouldn’t do now that you’re a better Christian person….
Before you know it, you might not even recognize how you got where you are, exactly how far away you fell from where you hoped to be as a Christ follower.
And at this point, you’re tempted to totally give up. Or you beat yourself up and tell yourself stories like “I’ll never be able to do it.” You tell yourself lies like “Oh well, I’ll just mess up again. Why bother trying?” or “I won’t ever have enough time.” Or “I’ll get back to that next week.”
Instead of these lies, you need to hear some truth here.
God has a better plan for you. And God loves you. But you don’t get to waste all the gifts God has given you because it’s more comfortable to believe all of these lies.
I’d like to draw your attention to the stained glass up to your left, the one with the butterfly.
That butterfly, like all butterflies, was once a caterpillar.
Caterpillars are pretty spectacular. I mean, few things creepily crawl along in a garden like a caterpillar. But if a caterpillar stops there, just comfortably creeping along…we all will miss out on what the caterpillar is meant to become.
Please, if you hear nothing else this morning, hear this:
You – and you alone – with the help of the Holy Spirit at work are responsible for who you become and how you grow in holiness.
To become the best you you can be, you have to really commit to the hard work of change. And like any change – think diet or exercise – it takes time and commitment to build up muscles and habits.
Imagine you have made the resolution to train for running a marathon. (stick with me, non runners!)
You make this great decision & you even begin to tell your friends and family about it.
They are genuinely excited for you & full of encouragement. Everyone knows it will be a lot of work to train for a marathon, but everyone believes you are capable.
In order to prepare for the big race, you join a marathon training club and go to a training session designed for potential marathon runners. There is an amazing motivational speaker. She’s really top notch and knows her stuff. The convention has an air of excitement about the marathon – you can practically feel it. They’ve hired a cover band that plays songs like “Born to Run,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and “We are the Champions” so well, you even picture yourself leading a few races. The training is great – you are really motivated.
At the end of the training, you are invited to come back next week to hear the training again.
At the end of the next week’s training, you’re invited to come back again…
All of this motivation and training is helpful, but you need much more than this in order to physically prepare for a marathon.
And, so it is with faith and this Wesleyan idea of “personal holiness.”
When it comes to growing spiritually, I can stand up here and list off all of the practices you could do to grow closer to God…you can mediate, alleviate, and try not to hate…but only you have control over your life.
So you try some of the practices. Maybe you will try 40 different things and 2 will be meaningful and the rest won’t resonate. You’ll have seasons where you fail or forget or avoid…that’s all part of how the journey works.
But like the caterpillar…like the marathoner…you keep on training in spite of the times you make mistakes.
And you can even choose to celebrate your small victories, knowing that sometimes you’ll leap forward and sometimes you’ll inch forward… but you can just celebrate that the movement is forward.
My challenge for you is that you will select 1 or 2 practices that you will resolve to try this week. Think of them now.
Picture who you will share them with, perhaps in the connection time after this service or during Sunday school, so you can hold one another accountable.
Which brings us back to our Scripture.
Paul was writing to a group that was excited about being Christ followers but still struggling with temptations to fall into behaviors they shouldn’t be doing. We’ve all been there.
Be encouraged in knowing you are not alone in the falling to temptations, but also know you are called to move forward, “to put away your former way of life, your old self… and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”