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
I cry out to you from the depths, Lord— my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy! If you kept track of sins, Lord— my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you— that’s why you are honored.
I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord— more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!
Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin.
Psalm 130 – Common English Bible
What or who do you keep watch for?
I took the above picture along the shoreline at Donaghadee in Northern Ireland last summer. My oldest son and I were blessed to spend several days near Belfast last summer and this was one of our stops.
A lighthouse keeps watch over the sea, silently making ships aware of the presence of the shore. Keeping watch and keeping ships from danger.
This sight reminds me of how I feel as a parent of a 17 year old, watching from the sidelines as this growing child learns to navigate life. It’s tough sometimes, watching him struggle to figure things out, but I trust that ultimately he must learn to do things on his own.
I pray that there will be lighthouses throughout his lifetime, helping him and guiding him through life’s journey.
To consider this Advent: Who has served as a guiding light in your life? How can you thank them this Christmas?
God of light, we put our hope and trust in you. Thank you for your Spirit that guides us, and for the people who walk alongside us in our lives offering love and guidance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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
This little art piece by my favorite artist, Kelly Rae Roberts, sits on a shelf in my office. It serves as a great little reminder that sometimes we just have to wait.
“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
– Isaiah 40:31 ESV
Do you believe in the power of prayers to change things? I do…but I have learned that I don’t always get to expect prayers to change things the way I want them to be changed.
That’s one of the tricky things about prayers. Sometimes we pray and God’s answer seems to be a clear “Yes” or “No.” But, way more often it seems the answer seems to be “maybe” or “not yet.”
It’s hard to wait. Like an expression I’ve heard, the problem seems to be “the same as it always is – I’m in a hurry and God’s not.”
Sometimes we wait a long time. Even when the answer to our deepest prayer seems to be silence, we can still trust.
I take comfort in knowing that while we wait, our strength can be renewed.
While we wait, may we be blessed with people who come into our lives offering comfort and peace. While we wait, may we grow in wisdom and faith. While we wait, may we continue to trust.
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
Today’s word: Light.
Photo of downtown Grapevine, Texas, the “Christmas Capital of Texas”
From John 1:1-5 ESV:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.“
Throughout Scripture, light is used as a symbol for God, faith and holiness. We are reminded in Psalm 119 that God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
In the northern hemisphere, Advent takes place during winter. The hours of daylight are limited. At my house it means the dinner dishes are barely put away and already it is dark outside.
What a perfect time of year for Christmas lights to remind us of the light of the world. No matter what kind of darkness we face – whether it’s natural disasters, financial stress, physical ailments, loneliness – there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by light.
Even the smallest glimmer of light can be a source of hope and faith.
This Advent, I invite you to look at Christmas lights anew. As they twinkle, they are beautiful. As reminders of God’s ever-present hope and faithfulness, they are breathtaking. May you pause this year to remember that.
Prayer: God of light, in you there is no darkness at all. We pray that, whatever we may face, we can remember that you are faithful to bring us hope. Allow us to be a light to others who may need to know your love. 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.
2 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.
Sermon: We Need Each Other – on Social Holiness
“Haiti has been devastated by an earthquake and people in and around Port au Prince are in desperate need of help. We have a plane full of supplies ready to leave Dallas Love Field at 2PM today. We are looking for any volunteers who can get to the airport with their passport on time. We can get anyone who is available to Haiti at no charge, the plane is ready to go, although we don’t have any information yet on how or when you will be able to return. Is there anyone here willing to go?”
The date I heard this announcement was January 13, 2010, the day after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. This was the lunch announcement made at the SMU Perkins School of Youth Ministry to a room full of United Methodist youth workers.
Would you have volunteered to go help?
I didn’t get on a plane to Haiti that day (although I did go in 2017 and will go again this year) but how remarkable is it that one of the few places they thought to announce this mission need was to the highest concentration of United Methodists gathered together in Dallas that day. It makes sense when you consider that the UMC has a rich heritage of responding quickly and working together to alleviate suffering, especially for the world’s poor.
This morning we are concluding our Back to Grace series on United Methodism. In week one we looked at the Wesleyan concepts of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. Last week we talked about personal holiness & for those who heard my sermon, you were challenged to pick 1 or 2 personal faith practices and “just do it.” How’s that going so far?
Today we are learning about the Wesleyan concept of social holiness. Social holiness is the combination of acts we do as a faith community to grow closer to God, and is often found at the intersection of faith and good works, service and justice. This morning we will look at how we grow in social holiness both inside and outside of the church, including a look at the global United Methodist Church, and most importantly, we will look at why social holiness is critical.
First, we will look at the role the local church plays in nurturing our social holiness.
What is the purpose of a church?
A quote from the Book of Discipline:
“Finally, we emphasize the nurturing and serving function of Christian fellowship in the Church. The personal experience of faith is nourished by the worshiping community.”
If we look at today’s Scripture reading, we are told to “Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another…we were called in the one body. We are to teach one another in wisdom.” There is an emphasis on the one another and the working together as one body. As Christians, we believe that faith isn’t something you get to have all on your own. Wesley once said that no one can be a solitary Christian, we must be in community to grow in our faith. As the sermon title says – we need each other.
Consider the sacrament of baptism.
In our baptismal vows, here’s a question the faith community is asked:
Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
and include these persons now before you in your care?
And how do we respond?
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news
and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons
with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
We will pray for them,
that they may be true disciples
who walk in the way that leads to life.
When anyone is baptized, we promise as a faith community to nurture not only the baptized, but also one another. We need each other to grow in our faith.
We also nurture each other in the faith when we sing in worship.
Now, I don’t know about your typical week, but in my week, there are no other places besides during worship when I am being asked to sing. As we sing together, we connect with one another in praise and we also learn the basics of our faith. Like memorizing Scripture, the act of singing writes what we believe on our hearts. It lifts our spirits. We need each other to sing.
We need each other in small groups. As John Wesley was beginning the renewal movement we now know as Methodism, they began by forming small Methodist societies and class meetings. The purpose of these small groups was so they could encourage each other in holiness, and a distinct way they grew in their faith as a small group was to give to the poor, visit the imprisoned, and to work for justice and peace. Similarly, in our local church, we meet in small groups and grow in our faith. We spur one another on as we discuss our faith, even disagreeing from time to time. Ideally, if we have done the nurturing work right at the local church level, our natural response will be to find ways in our small groups to love and serve our neighbors.
A beautiful feature of United Methodism is that social holiness extends way beyond the local church – we are connected to other United Methodist churches around the globe.
Even this past week, we showed a bit of this connection in our city by participating in the Back to Grace multi-UMC event. Many from New World were there last Sunday night as The Way led worship and Rev. Felicia Hopkins of FUMC Abilene preached on grace. In fact, I’m excited to share that the churches represented raised over $1000 each for Arlington Urban Ministries and the UTA Wesley Foundation.
Consider the global impact of our Church. Unique to church denominations, all United Methodist Churches are connected. This culture of reaching out to the world is a rich part of Methodism’s DNA and makes us a witness and force for peace and justice around the world.
A beautiful example of how we as a connectional church model this sense of social holiness is UMCOR. A quick story: In 2013, a chemical fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded – many of you may even have heard the explosion if you lived in South Arlington/Mansfield at the time. At this disaster, as with almost every disaster around the globe, many first responders were on the scene to assist people in need. Laraine Waughtal from the UM Central Texas Conference and members of our conference’s early response team were there early among the American Red Cross, United Way and FEMA’s first responders. Laraine reported that, as a trailer pulled up full of supplies with the United Methodist cross and flame symbol on the side, a trailer from UMCOR, she could hear the other first responders say, “Oh thank God! The Methodists are here! Now we can begin to get things done.” UMCOR is known throughout the world as the United Methodist Church at its finest – quick to respond to those in need and willing to stay until the long-term recovery is complete.
Beyond disaster relief and recovery, the worldwide United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Wesley and the early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal brokenness such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor. We are known as a denomination involved with people’s lives, with political and social struggles. As part of our global connection, we are still engaged in speaking out against injustice and working in social justice work today.
From The Book of Resolutions of The UMC: The United Methodist Church believes God’s love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective, not just responding to all the other ‘mind-makers-up’ that exist in our society.”
As we take a closer look at today’s passage (text is in bulletin), I want you to see the action words. We are to: teach, warn, sing and do. In fact, Verse 17 says “And whatever you DO, in word or deed, DO everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The life of Christ is a life of action. We are called to be in mission and service to the world.
Wesley said, “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness. You cannot be holy except as you are engaged in making the world a better place. You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world but by plunging into ministry on behalf of the world’s hurting ones.”
Why don’t we get it right?
John Wesley also struggled with the same question – why don’t we get it right?
At age 86, near the end of John Wesley’s life, most people would have considered him a resounding success. Around the age of 35 he had begun a movement that had spread throughout the British Empire and, by the end of his life it had grown to be the largest church in America. He was widely published and well respected.
But at 86, he was contemplating the significance of his life’s work. A question he asked himself was, “if the Methodist movement he had begun was so successful, as it was, why wasn’t the world a better place?” For John Wesley, the measure of the success of a minister, of a church, of a spiritual movement, of Methodism, wasn’t the number of members who joined the church or the size/number of buildings they had. The true measure of success was whether the world was a better place, a more just place, a more compassionate place.
We have work to do, my friends. We need to heal the world, make it a better place.
We can think of the church as a body.
As today’s scripture says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The Greek word for bind in this verse is the same word as “ligament,” like the part of the body that holds us together. Think like a human body – When we as a faith community are in great shape, bound together in love, when we are doing social holiness right and taking care of ourselves…
We as the Body of Christ can do amazing things.
When our body is out of whack, the binding of love is replaced by distrust or personal agendas, distracted by politics and division and trying to prove others wrong, we become immobilized, powerless.
(Perhaps worse – when we sit idly and don’t exercise the body at all – there’s no inspiration in that!)
It’s easy to be like John Wesley was – contemplating our progress and wondering why the world is not yet a better place. The work of justice and reconciliation, the work of transforming the world, the work of God….it’s slow work. It takes time, and we need everyone to work alongside each other in order to make an impact.
But please take a moment with me and imagine what our future could be like if we committed to getting social holiness right. If we, as the Body of Christ, work together to grow in discipleship and work together to be a force for change in the world, if we connect with one another and have the courage to stand up against the world’s injustices and brokenness – we have (with the help of God’s spirit working in us) the potential to be a force that brings God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. We have the potential to truly make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We need each other to make transformation happen.
Remember the Haiti announcement at the beginning of this sermon?
Raise your hand if you went on that trip (should be no hands). I didn’t go then either.
But raise your hand if you’ve been on an international mission trip? (keep your hands up)
An out of state mission trip? Any mission trip? (keep your hands raised)
Now raise your hand if you have been engaged in mission work locally – you’ve volunteered, handed out a manna bag, collected donations?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever contributed to the offering at church (hopefully all hands are raised)
This is social holiness – all of us working together to transform the world. God will call each of us in different ways to use our gifts and resources, time and talents for God’s service.
It is my deepest prayer that each of us will Listen to that call.
That we will Have the courage to respond. To get our hands dirty.
It is my prayer that transformation will happen and God’s reign will be on earth, and that we will move forward with passion and excitement as we trust in the slow work of God!
Things to consider:
Where is God calling you to be in service?
Are you giving your fullest to God? If not, why not?
Who do you need to connect with in order to be held accountable in your discipleship?
Giving credit where credit is due: The Scripture passage used was from the Common English Bible. Several quotes in this sermon were from umc.org. Quote from Laraine Waughtal found in Vance Morton’s post “UMCOR – the Methodist Connection at it’s Best” on ctcumc.org. Story about John Wesley at age 86 found in sermon “Social Holiness: Our Wesleyan DNA” by Rev. Dean Snyder.
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.”
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. – Ephesians 2:4-10
(Followed Scripture reading with the above video “Grace” from Igniter Media)
I love that: “God has us right where God wants us – to shower us with God’s grace.”
As a mom, I can only imagine what fun it was for those boys to get the assignment to cover themselves in mud first thing in the morning! And how beautiful to go from that moment of knowing they are in big, big trouble, to realizing they were forgiven, loved, and baptized in grace.
You are saved by God’s grace.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is the gift of making hospital visits. As members of our congregation, friends and family are in the hospital, I get to visit with patients, listen for a while, and pray with them.
Sometimes I get called in to rooms of people who are not part of our church.
Several months ago was one of those occasions. I came to visit a patient named Steve before he faced a serious heart surgery. Steve had been in and out of the hospital several years with health issues, and this surgery was a final medical effort to help him. This particular surgery was risky, and Steve was given about a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. (pause)
While there are classes in Pastoral Care in seminary, nothing really prepares you for what to say in these moments. What would you say? I don’t know the “right answer,” but here is what I said.
As I met with Steve in this sacred, pre-surgery space, Steve was very quiet. I could sense that Steve had been spending a lot of time reflecting on his prognosis, on his life and on his choices. I asked him how he was doing, what he was thinking. What I learned was that Steve had made some questionable choices throughout his years and lived kind of a wild life. He struggled with various addictions and hurt a lot of people. Because of his choices, he was estranged from his fairly religious family. He had been rejected from his church and from his family for decades.
What I learned as Steve was possibly facing the end of his life, was that he was afraid he had done so many bad things in his life, was so far away from God, that he really believed there was no way he could be forgiven.
He believed he had just messed up too much to be saved. For Steve, this was a message that was reinforced by the church he grew up in, a church that labeled him a “sinner” and kicked him out of the faith. Maybe there have been times when you felt like that too.
As I sat with this man who had been suffering for so long, it struck me in our conversation how important the messages we teach as a church are, and the amount of emotional and spiritual damage we can do with a harmful, judgmental theology.
I have been United Methodist my entire life. I’m curious, are there any others in this room who would consider themselves lifelong United Methodists?
If my grandmother were still alive, she would tell you that I was “born Methodist.” I tell you this upfront because it’s probably fair for you to know that United Methodism runs deep for me. My aunt and uncle were United Methodist pastors. United Methodism is the lens through which I see the world. It is how I have always experienced and processed my faith.
And, maybe it sounds corny, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from a pastor, but I love being United Methodist.
I am telling you this first because, in the interest of transparency, you need to know that you are not about to get a three week sermon series on United Methodism from an unbiased source.
Just the same, as a pastor, some of the questions I hear often are: “What does it even mean to be United Methodist?” “How is it different than other types of churches?” “If we are all Christians, why does it matter?” Those are fair questions.
In the next three weeks I hope to share with you some of the most meaningful distinctive characteristics of United Methodism. I believe that our Wesleyan theology (called that because Methodism’s founder was John Wesley) is powerful and beautiful. I also have seen the pain and damage that even well-meaning churches can do to people labeled as sinners.
Today I will talk about our unique understanding of Wesleyan Grace – in particular the three-fold kind of grace that John Wesley called prevenient, justifying and sanctifying (Hang in there! I’ll explain those words as we go along).
My encounter with Steve made me appreciate the theology of grace I’ve always learned about – the knowledge that God’s grace is available for me no matter how messed up I might find myself. I tried my best to share this grace with Steve…and I am so thankful for that heritage of hope, and the blessed assurance that comes from experiencing God’s grace.
Like the kids in the video that opened this message, like Steve, sometimes we may feel like we have gotten ourselves in such a mess that we are beyond redemption. And that’s where grace steps in.
So what is Grace?
Grace is the love and mercy that God gives us because God wants us to have it, not because we have earned it.
It is an undeserved gift and loving action from God through the Holy Spirit. Because God loves us so much, God wants us to experience God’s grace.
John Wesley preached about different types of Grace.
The first type of Grace Wesley called Prevenient Grace, or literally, “the grace that comes before” we are even aware of it. It’s a term most people don’t know, but it just means all of the ways in which God comes into our lives before our conversion.
God is actively present in our entire lives, whether or not we even notice.
Imagine God has the gift of grace just sitting there, ready for us to notice it. We have the option of refusing to accept the gift, but it’s still there waiting for our discovery.
Prevenient grace has a way of preparing you to respond to God when the time is right. Before you even realize God’s grace for you, you may have a sense of how to choose good over evil. God is actively seeking you, wooing you to notice the gift.
Prevenient grace looks like a longing for God in our lives.
In my faith journey, I mentioned that I was “born Methodist.” This means I was baptized as a small child, I grew up going to church and Sunday school. Even though I was going through all of these practices to prepare me, I wasn’t fully aware of God’s grace, or of the importance of that Grace in my life.
We have a tradition in our church of baptizing infants, and this practice is a great illustration of prevenient grace. In infant baptism, we recognize the grace that God has for the baptized, even though the child may not yet understand. The grace is already there.
In the video, it’s the patient dad figure with the garden hose waiting to be noticed.
The second type of Wesleyan grace is “Justifying Grace.” With Justifying grace, or justification, we realize that our sins are forgiven and we can have a restored relationship with God. Everyone’s experience is different, you can think of this as the moment or moments when you realized that Christ’s love for you is real and, in response, you began to live differently.
This can be a grace experienced over a lifetime, or a grace that happens in a sudden moment. With justifying grace, we face a time of conversion or a new beginning in our relationship with God.
In my faith story, I point to a moment at a Christian rock concert when I was 14 years old as my key moment of justifying grace. Although I had the gift of learning about God’s grace my entire life, up until that point I was being prepared for a moment when I would have said “I accepted Christ.” It was a change of heart that was prompted by grace and guided by the Holy Spirit.
In John Wesley’s story, he was raised in a Christian family and had been around church his entire life. His moment of justification was on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed and sensed that he was saved through the Holy Spirit.
In the lives of many, justifying grace happens without all the fanfare – it’s a sense of assurance that God loves you, forgives you and leads you to transformation…to a sense of healing and wholeness.
In the video, it’s the precious moment when the kids realize they are not going to be punished for their mischief. They are forgiven and loved.
Have you experienced this kind of grace? When did you first know that Christ was real in your life?
Finally, the third type of Wesleyan grace is called sanctifying grace.
The word “sanctify” means to make something holy, set apart. It means to make something clean.
How it works is this:
Once we realize that God’s grace is a gift to us, once we accept that gift and are convinced to turn our ways toward Christ, we enter the lifelong process of sanctification. In simpler terms, once we know and experience God’s grace, we begin the process of learning to be more like Jesus. This is the ongoing experience of God’s graciousness transforming us into who God intends us to be.
There is so much good news in the theology of Grace. Grace means we are all welcome here. No matter what kind of messiness has taken you away from God, God’s grace is for you. We have the opportunity to grow together in our faith, learning together what it means to be Christ followers.
Today in our Back to Grace series, explored John Wesley’s view of Grace, including prevenient grace (the grace that comes before we realize it), justifying grace (the grace that happens when we are justified or converted), and sanctifying grace (the grace that we experience over a lifetime of growing in the faith.)
In the next two Sundays, we will take a closer look at personal and social holiness, the faith practices we can do in response to God’s grace in order to become more like Christ.
We all come in to this space on different parts of our faith journey. You may have always known about God’s love for you, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness for you. Or you may be in a place where you have been deeply wounded, you not only have felt rejected by the Church but you’re even rejecting yourself….keeping yourself from accepting God’s gift of grace.
There may be someone in here this morning who finds they are feeling lost and hurt like Steve I visited in the hospital. If you find yourself in a place of pain, needing to know God’s grace and forgiveness, I want you to really hear these words:
You are forgiven. You can find hope in knowing God’s grace is here for you. You are forgiven.
On the other hand, if you’re in this place and you really are feeling okay, blessed even, I would like to take this message in to a slightly different direction. This morning we have focused on God’s grace for us. Made in the image of God, we are called to accept God’s grace and then, in turn, extend grace to one another. I have a prayer and a challenge for you:
As we move forward as a community of grace, prayerfully seek out those who need to know God’s grace.
Who are your neighbors who desperately need to know about the hope and grace you have found?
Who do you need to invite to know God’s love for them?
My prayer is that each of us can be like the dad in the video. Get out the hose and shower others with God’s grace through your actions.
That is a relaunched vision I would love to see. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
God of grace,
We thank you for being a God who calls out to us, laying down the groundwork so we can discover the love and forgiveness, grace and acceptance you have always had for us. Open our hearts to realize who it is in our lives who needs to experience some of your grace. We pray for our friends and neighbors who are missing out on knowing the love you have for each of us. God, please forgive us when we neglect to show grace to one another, or refuse to even give our own self some grace. Soften our hearts toward all of your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Consider:
How have you experienced God’s grace in your own life?