The Power of Love

This is the third of a three part series called “I Want to Know What Love Is” on agape love. This particular sermon was delivered on Sunday, March 3, 2019, the first Sunday following the United Methodist Called General Conference 2019. Other parts of the series include What’s Love Got to Do With It and You Give Love a Bad Name.

power of love

Scripture reading:

John 15:9-17

Love each other

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.

The Power of Love

hugging people

Who needs hugs?

Now, I think because I have shared a couple of times that, while in Haiti I’ve had to adjust to that different culture’s concept for personal space (in that they have none), people have got the impression that I’m not a big hugger. To be fair, I am not one to be proactive about hugging, but we all need hugs.

What kind of hugger are you? (Here is where I demonstrate different hugs with a brave volunteer – a reluctant hug, awkward side hug, back pat, big I haven’t seen you in a while, this hug is lasting long enough that I feel uncomfortable hug, etc.)

hug needs

Interesting “facts” – the average person craves a hug 13 times a day. The average hug lasts 3 seconds, and yet, the amount of seconds a hug needs to be to have medical healing properties is 20 seconds. We physically need hugs.

On Tuesday, Connor McMains (remember him? former organist on staff) asked me if New World UMC was doing anything in response to the General Conference vote. To be honest, that night my boys had soccer games and what I really needed was to regroup and be with my family.

On Wednesday, though, I was able to come up to the church in the evening since my daughter started confirmation class. I used this to focus on serving people when words just aren’t enough – I offered up free hugs to anybody here.

What I observed on Wednesday – some were ready for great big hugs. They needed them, they held on, we might have even cried together. Other hugs were frankly a little awkward. Some people were glad to give and receive hugs, they felt comfortable with them. With others – a quick little awkward side hug was stretching their comfort zone. I think at least one person didn’t want a hug at all…I didn’t take it personally and I won’t name names. (smile)

But there we were – a church family just trying our best to show love to one another, to share God’s love, but we each came to the space with our own spectrum of unwritten rules on what was okay and what wasn’t. 

No one has ever confused legislative action with a hug, have they? 

love cubesIn case you were wondering, this was a really hard week to be a United Methodist Pastor. I was talking to my husband Dennis about it – and I pretty much came to the conclusion that this was the toughest week yet. I’ve wept, I’ve spent a lot of time exercising and trying to eat right, I’ve lost sleep and have had trouble concentrating…I’ve needed to care for my soul a lot this week.

In case you missed it – last weekend through Tuesday, a special meeting called General Conference met in St. Louis, Missouri with some 860 representatives from United Methodism around the world. Unlike other denominations, the United Methodist Church is a global church. It was started around the same time as the United States was founded, so its structure is kind of like our U.S. government. About every four years the General Conference meets to, among other things, decide what we are all going to agree our denomination is about.

This particular conference was called to make a decision about whether or not the rules should be changed on if people can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. With such a wide range of countries and cultures represented, it is challenging to agree on what is the right answer.

In the end, around 53% of this global gathering selected the traditionalist plan, effectively keeping the rules and language the same as it has been since 1972. It remains to be seen in April if the plan will be ruled as constitutional (by the UMC constitution, not the US one) and nothing changes until January 2020.

In the meantime, no one “won” the General Conference. With so much division and disunity, everyone walked away hurting. While some faithful United Methodists are pleased with the vote results, other faithful United Methodists are devastated. We have long been a denomination that is filled with different and deeply-rooted beliefs – like most families, we are a denomination filled with different opinions and diverse ideas. Unfortunately, we seem to have had a huge family feud with the whole world watching, and the future of our denomination seems unclear.

As a lifelong United Methodist – the niece of two United Methodist Pastors – I like many of you, deeply love the United Methodist Church. This week I hardly recognize her, and I can hardly articulate how painful this is.

But, as I said earlier this week: General Conference is NOT the church. We are the church.

When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he made reference to the church as the Body of Christ. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it…” Paul also said other things, and I don’t always agree with him.

As an ordained clergy woman, I can identify with how it feels to have Bible verses pointed out to tell me that I shouldn’t be in ordained ministry. I am thankful that men and women along the way evolved in their thinking and recognized that even I could be good enough to be ordained.  I stand here before you, wearing a clergy collar as an outward symbol of my credentials, precariously perched on the shoulders of the advocates and trailblazers before me.

General Conference’s vote not only hurt the people present in the convention center, it caused further harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, plus). This isn’t a far off issue. I’m not asking anyone to raise their hands in here if you are affected: We are talking about people in this room, plus the literal brothers and sisters, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins of people in this room. People who have been baptized and confirmed in our midst, people who sat next to me in seminary classes, people who have heard God’s call on their lives and now hear from their church home “we think you’re sacred, but no, you are not good enough.”

Our future is uncertain – has it ever been certain? –  but God’s faithfulness can be counted on. We are a resurrection people, and I’m hanging on to the truth that resurrection means the worst thing will never be the last thing. My prayer is that we can all stick things out together and can be the church to people who are hurting right now.

stained glass eye

Where do these unwritten codes of behavior come from?

For me, I can think of so many different forces that have shaped my worldview:

  •  my family of origin – I’m sure that my concept of personal space and how to express love primarily came from my family.  I’m thankful they taught me that “anything boys can do, girls can do,” and I wonder where I would be today if it wasn’t for that encouragement.
  •  my faith formation – raised in the particular United Methodist congregations I attended, influenced by attending a Southern Baptist University, and making my home church Church Under the Bridge in Waco shaped how I view who is okay to hug and who isn’t (hint: we all are worthy of hugs!)
  •  my education – my family taught me to value education, and I know my thinking has been shaped and transformed through my education through seminary
  •  my culture/language – how I learned to speak taught me what words were okay, which ones built people up and which tore people down
  •  the country or nation-state we live in, politics, and media have shaped and formed my worldview
  •  many of us have been shaped by trauma, fear, insecurity
  •  just being the age I am has shaped me into becoming a pastor who thinks it is acceptable to have a sermon series based on 80s music because, well, it’s totally rad, like for sure! (smile)

Through all of these influences, different for each one of us, we all come to this place with a different worldview. We might sit here and wonder, how on earth could someone think differently than me on this issue? Can’t they see what is so clear?

The answer is probably no – we can’t see, we can’t automatically understand where the other is coming from. And our viewpoints are constantly evolving – my theology isn’t the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20…..

But I do know you each to be faithful people.

And just like last week, we are a diverse group of faithful people who are just doing our best to love God, love neighbor and make disciples of Jesus Christ. No matter how much we may disagree with one another on this, I have no doubt that, should a natural disaster strike or someone be in need, we would all pitch in together to help one another, serving side by side just like we always have.

Sometimes people will say, I see why you picked that verse this week…Which brings us to our scripture reading for today – one that was set up way before General Conference.

chalk heart

Today’s scripture reading includes a commandment to love each other, just as Christ has loved us. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.

We are continuing to talk about agape love, the unconditional love that is honest, hopeful and humble.

Such agape love is first and foremost interested in the good of the other person. It never attempts to squelch the best out of another. In fact, so great is this love for others that it follows the very pattern Christ modeled for us – care and concern for others, even to the point that we will lay aside our very lives for our friends.

Now, it is rare in this day and age that we have to love all the way to death, Christians are not persecuted now the way they were in the years immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I do think there is an important message for us even today, and that is that we must be willing to set aside our agendas, our opinions, in order to work in unity as the body of Christ; that we love others enough that we are willing to lay down our own beliefs, have the courage to speak up, or even risk our credentials in order to love our friends.

In the body of Christ, if one part suffers, all suffer with it.

At a time when life seems to be scattering more and more, we know what it means to have friends. And here, as Christ is speaking to his disciples, he knows that he is about to leave them, so he is proclaiming to them a new relationship. At the very time when those disciples are feeling the least secure and will soon abandon him, Christ calls them his friends, bringing them to a new level of discipleship, and even community, as he calls us to emulate him, the pure embodiment of love.

So what does it mean for us today to be Christ’s friends? It means that we live as a community, united in Christ’s love. We show solidarity in suffering, we share our spiritual gifts for mutual up-building; we confront conflict not with hostility but with reconciliation. We don’t focus on our differences, but rather celebrate our unity as friends in the body of Christ.

We have within us the power of love, a love that can transform and make things new. A love that overcomes disagreements and shows mercy.

Choosing to love is not the easy path. We have a “love your enemy” faith, and it is perhaps the hardest and most difficult path.

And while we’re busy arguing, the world looks at us and wonders what’s so great about God because Christ’s church – the United Methodist Church in our case – is just as ineffective as every other institution in the world. And the truth of the matter is, that’s because you can’t legislate for love. But God, through Jesus, can command love, calling it out of his disciples, his followers, his friends.

My hope is that, when we disagree, we can take the time to listen and try to understand one another instead of making someone out to be our enemy. I struggle with this too.

We have an opportunity to be something far, far greater than any other human institution because we are not a human institution, we are the friends of Christ; his very body. So let’s do what Christ did; let’s demonstrate the power of love to help and heal one another.

And maybe even hug often.

I close today with a song that has been weighing in my heart all week. Last night I was able to see The Brilliance play this live at Kessler Theater. I invite you to reflect on the words of the song as we prepare our hearts and minds for communion, Christ’s ultimate demonstration of how the power of love can bring us all together.

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

Amen.

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

Wreath – A Message on Luke 1:39-45

Scripture Reading – CEB – Luke 1:39-45 

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

The Wreath DRAFT sermon slides

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

wreath

Video Clip – Linus’ Speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas

Oh, how I love A Charlie Brown Christmas! You know this scene from the classic Peanuts “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The now 53-year-old television special tells the story of a depressed Charlie Brown trying to find holiday cheer during an over commercialized season. His best efforts are mocked by the other children when the movie plot is coming to a climax, and Charlie Brown shouts out in exasperation: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” Have you ever felt that way? It’s funny how little things have changed.

What is Christmas all about?

It’s a question we still pursue today in this busy season as we wade through the familiar waters of shopping trips and busy calendars, Christmas parties and holiday traffic. We rush from one thing to the next, rushing as fast as traffic will let us anyway, all the while we long in our souls to catch even just a glimpse of what it’s all really about anyway.

I don’t think I’m alone here. For me, there is always this tension about what we’re supposed to do at Christmastime. On one hand, we have the church part – special worship services, service projects, and celebrating the story of Jesus’ humble beginnings in Bethlehem. On the other hand, we have mile long to-do lists of packages to ship, photos to take, gift exchanges to participate in, teacher gifts, baking and all sorts of Pinterest-inspired ideas. It’s easy to miss the answer to Charlie Brown’s question in the holiday madness, isn’t it?

Why is that? Why do we often miss the real meaning of Christmas?

My friend Kevin put it this way – it’s like we are celebrating two holidays. There’s one holiday that’s all about shopping, presents and the latest toys. It’s a holiday full of stockings and elves – ugly sweaters and never-ending doorbuster specials.

There’s another holiday about Jesus, the Emmanuel, God With Us, being born in Bethlehem. That’s the holiday with the manger and the sweet baby.

Then my friend Kevin adds: The confusing thing is both of these holidays are celebrated on December 25th and we call them both “Christmas.” No wonder we’re confused! (His theory has really helped me to have some patience and understanding when the some of the young people in my life have sent me long wish lists!)

I have come to peace with the commercialized version of Christmas – I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas – because of all of the jingle bells, reindeer, Christmas lights and excitement, eventually people will ask Charlie Brown’s big question – What is Christmas all about?

This morning, with Kevin’s theory in mind, we are going to focus on the second of the two “Christmases,” starting with today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Our passage today tells of a short encounter between two relatives, Elizabeth and Mary. In the midst of the bigger Christmas story, we might miss this key story’s significance.

To set the scene: In the verses right before today’s reading, Mary had just had a conversation with an angel of the Lord. The angel announced that Mary was going to conceive and give birth to a son called Jesus, the Son of the Most High. Awestruck, young Mary agrees to her role, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” She sings a song to the Lord we call the Magnificat, the band sang a version a few minutes ago.

It’s right after this angel encounter that Mary travels to a city in the highlands and enters Zechariah’s house. Zechariah’s wife, a very pregnant and older Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, greets Mary. A little background on Elizabeth – she is miraculously pregnant in her old age with the child we later know as John the Baptist. But more significant than her being John the Baptist’s mom is the fact that here, in this short little passage, she is the first to publicly declare that Jesus is Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she says, “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth is the first one to announce Jesus’ role to the world – he will be Lord. (pause)

Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Elizabeth knows. Christmas is about the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we honor his birth.

To declare that Jesus is Lord (Greek: kyrios lesous (KEY ree ohs  LEE soos)) means a few things – “Lord” at the time meant your ultimate ruler – it was a title reserved for kings and emperors. To declare Jesus as Lord meant causing political and social upheaval. Jesus is Lord – It’s a bold statement of faith that today remains one of the first and shortest Christian creeds, it honors our belief that Jesus was both fully man and fully God.

What is Christmas all about? For the Christmas we are talking about here, it means we celebrate and declare that Jesus is Lord of our lives, that God lives and reigns among us. With the Christ as our leader, we are called to live full of reckless love for our neighbors. With God among us, we are called to live differently, called to live not out of fear but from a place of hope, peace, joy and love. Fear Not – that’s what Christmas is all about.

This brings us back to our symbols of Christmas and their deeper meanings.

The star leads us to this place. With the candle, we remember that we need to prepare our hearts and homes, we need to do our own “nesting” to prepare for the arrival. We need to make room. The candle also reminds us we have a light unto our path.

In the Christmas story, Mary and Elizabeth are preparing the way for Christ’s arrival. Even the little town of Bethlehem with its humble manger are “nesting,” getting everything ready for the arrival.

Which brings us to today’s symbol of the wreath at the door. There are two kinds of wreaths we could talk about. We have over here (point) an Advent Wreath – usually it’s on a table or horizontal, filled with candles to mark the countdown to Christmas. (We’re getting close!)

We also have Christmas wreaths (point) – traditionally hung on doors vertically.

Either way, the wreath is in the shape of a circle, reminding us that in God there is no beginning, there is no ending.

The wreath is a circle, and with Jesus, Scripture comes full circle. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” comes full circle with Jesus.

The prophetic declarations come full circle in Christ. Isaiah 7:14 declares “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” and the Gospel of Luke fulfills this with an angel speaking to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Micah places the birth in Bethlehem; the predictions of Daniel, Zechariah, Jonah, Malachi and others come full circle in Jesus.

The wreath is traditionally made from an evergreen – significantly symbolizing strength and the everlasting life we find with Jesus Christ as Lord.

Finally, the Christmas wreath today is a symbol of welcome and hospitality. We are being greeted this morning at Christmas’s doorstep. As we’ve traveled along on this Advent journey together, starting far away with the star, moving in with the candle, we are here prepared for company to arrive. Are you ready for company? Do you have room?

This is where the tension between the two Christmases seems to peak. As we feel the pressure to rush around, buying, wrapping and even more rushing, it gets so difficult to make room for the holy to arrive. How can we intentionally make the space in our lives?

The wreath is an everlasting symbol of God’s grace and hospitality greeting us. In our Scripture today, we can visualize the greeting between relatives Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth, further along in her pregnancy, is so excited to see Mary. The baby within her leaps for joy. Who are you in this story? Are you Mary who is being welcomed in by family? Are you the child within Elizabeth’s womb, leaping for joy, excited to be in the presence of Christ?

It’s comforting to be reminded when we see the wreath that God offers hospitality and grace to all of us. Even if we feel unworthy, if we feel like there is no way God could accept us, we can remember that God’s grace is available to all people. God wants to be in relationship with humanity – so much so that God dwelt on earth among us. God wants us to be in relationships with one another – especially acknowledging that there are people around us who are hurting and mourning this time of year. God cares deeply for the poor and the marginalized, and God cares deeply for those of us who feel marginalized because we are so busy rushing around.

In the same way, may we remember as Advent and Christmas people that we are challenged to extend God’s grace and hospitality to all who come to our own doorsteps. We are called to live differently, to make room for our neighbors, and, like Elizabeth, to forever acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Let us pray:

Lord,

In all the excitement and anticipation that comes with this season, remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Forgive us when we get sidetracked by all that glitters and jingles. Remind us that we are people who declare that Jesus is Lord because we want to live differently, we long to be people who share God’s gift of grace and love to all of our neighbors. We thank you for the ultimate Christmas gift, the gift of our savior Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray, Amen.

As we close our message this morning, I want to return to the message of Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

Times have not changed all that much since this television special was created. We still live within this tension between the pressures to buy just the right presents for our loved ones, to decorate and celebrate just right, and to sit in stillness and worship as we watch for our Savior’s arrival. May our hearts be transformed this Christmas as we remember what Christmas is all about. Let’s revisit the clip:

(Video clip through “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”)

Manger – A Christmas Message

Merry Christmas, friends. Here is my Christmas Eve message from the 6pm worship service at New World UMC Arlington:

Luke 2:1-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Birth of Jesus

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray: God of Love,

Open our hearts and minds for the words you have for us to hear tonight. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Meditation – The Manger

“because there was no place for them in the inn”

Oh, how we know this Christmas story! It’s an honor tonight to be the one who shares the story of what Christmas is all about. The baby Jesus was born in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn, and tonight I want to reflect on a story of hospitality.

 

Have you ever had to depend on the hospitality and kindness of strangers? 

 

As I reflect on my life, I can recall a few key moments (three to be exact) when I counted on strangers making space for me – a few times I could relate to Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. While a college student, I spent my summers selling books door to door for The Southwestern Company. I usually describe the program as “like an exchange program,” because, like an exchange program, we would be assigned to work in different parts of the country that were unfamiliar to us. I think the strategy is that if we were away from all of the temptation of being around our friends and local hangouts, we’d be more focused. I went to Baylor in Texas, so three summers in a row I was assigned to the Midwest – I lived in St. Louis, Missouri, Battle Creek, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Now, decidedly unlike an exchange program, we didn’t have host homes lined up ahead of time. The company does things differently now a days, but for us, our first assignment upon arriving in a new town was to find a place to live.

 

In order to save money and be safer, it was recommended we live with host families. So, the first thing we did was literally knock door to door, asking if anyone might have a spare room for 2-3 hardworking college students for the summer. We were able to pay a small amount of rent and worked long hours, so we just needed a safe place to sleep, shower and keep our things.

 

Of course, my parents taught me things growing up like “never go hitchhiking,” so I’m sure the prospect of her 19 year olddaughter finding a place to live like that gave my poor mom a near heart attack. (sorry mom) J Amazingly, three summers in a row we found people who met us and let us sleep in their homes starting that same day.

 

When I read tonight’s Scripture, it strikes me as a story about making room for hospitality.

 

Have you ever had a chance to extend hospitality and kindness to strangers?

 

I shared this story once before so it may sound familiar: In Fall 2010 my mom was retiring and moving to Texas and, earlier that Spring, she had the opportunity to buy the house directly across the street from us when our friends were moving out. We jumped on the opportunity, but had not anticipated that our friends would move out months sooner than we expected. We ended up with a vacant house across the street and an extra mortgage payment. Unlike the Scripture, you might say we had too many rooms!

 

In July, when we learned that a night-shift working Kenyan man was staying at the Life Shelter with his two sons, and he just needed a place to sleep besides his hot car that summer, we knew what we needed to do.  God placed an opportunity in our lives to offer that space to help a family in need, we were able to make room in our inn so to speak, and we were so blessed to be able to set up a humble space. Our lives have been so much richer because we were able to offer hospitality and kindness to strangers. 

 

It makes me wonder if the person in charge of the manger in Bethlehem felt the same way.

 

Hospitality, in its simplest terms, is about how we greet and welcome strangers or guests into our lives, into the places we live and work. It’s often about welcoming others without expecting a reward.

 

“because there was no place for them in the inn” reminds us that, Into this world in which there is very little room for God to dwell, Christ comes uninvited. It was a birth in obscurity, quiet, on the margins of town. This is how God-with-us, the Emmanuel, chooses to begin on earth, on the margins and in obscurity, trusting that there will be space and hospitality.


As Jesus grows and matures, beginning in ministry, he reaches out time and again to the people on the margins. The tax collectors, the heathens, the sinners, the lame, the women, the mocked and the world’s most hated – these were the types of people Jesus reached out to with love and dignity, hope and healing. These are the people with whom Jesus stayed, counting on their hospitality to welcome them.

 

On Christmas Eve, may we remember the significance of the manger. God doesn’t require something fancy and elaborate, God doesn’t need our lives to be picture perfect or our homes to be just right. God just needs space in our lives. 

 

May we all remember this Christmas that God reaches out to us – to all of us who are pushed to our margins by our own busyness, distraction and preoccupation. My deepest prayer is that God may find room in your heart this Christmas. Be blessed.

 

Let us pray:

Most Loving God, thank you for this night and for all it represents. Thank you for the hope you give us, the peace you bring, the love you pour out and the deep, abiding joy that you alone can give. We praise you most of all for Jesus, your Word made flesh. May Christ light our way as the holy star lit the way to Bethlehem. May we open our hearts to receive you this holy night. Amen.

 

Open – A thought from the “cutting room floor”

Last Sunday I preached a sermon called “The Candle” that included a sermon illustration about getting ready for when company is coming. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus ministry in Luke 3:1-6, we too can use Advent to prepare our hearts and minds for an arrival. There’s only so much a person can fit in a sermon. (Well, I imagine I could make my sermons longer and fit in as much as I can, but nobody wants that!) Today’s Advent devotional is from my “cutting room floor,” a part of the sermon that I didn’t quite get to fit in last Sunday’s message.

Today’s Advent word is “Open” as part of our Advent Photo Challenge. I am interpreting the word as an Open Door, a place of welcome.

As people filed out the sanctuary door last Sunday, shaking my hands as they do, at least one person said, “now I feel like I need to get home and clean the house!” Giving folks stress wasn’t the sermon goal.

I want to share today about my “messy house friends.”

See, my sermon was about getting the house clean, and I mentioned that if I know you’re coming, my house will be clean for you. But my closest and dearest friends fall into a special category – they’re my “messy house friends.”

By that I mean that we’ve agreed we’re going to love each other no matter the condition of our homes. We are going to have the kind of friendship that values relationship over a sparkling clean house (think of the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42 to get the idea.)

In the same way, Jesus loves us no matter where or how we are. Jesus can be like a messy house friend, full of grace for you and accepting you with all of your imperfection. The door is always open.

Even better, Jesus is not only a messy house friend, Jesus will not leave you drowning and suffering in the mess. You are accepted, loved and welcome how you are and you are loved enough that you’ve got company who’ll help you and love you through the messiness of life. That is grace.

Prayer:

God, help me to get past the temptation to get caught up in making my life seem perfect. Instead, God, help me to open my door and my heart to offer hospitality and love to all God’s children. Thank you for the grace you offer me. Amen.

Being Content – A Sermon on Philippians 4:10-14

This sermon was originally shared on November 11, 2018 at New World United Methodist Church as part of a series. Here is a link to the audio recording.

Philippians 4:10-14 (source: Biblegateway.com)

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.b11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. 

Sermon: Being Content 

I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I am not giving you each $100 today. 

I do want to tell you the most exciting stewardship sermon I have ever heard about, but just to reiterate, I’m not handing out money. 

The sermon was given at McKinney Church (now Doxology Bible Church) in Ft. Worth. Our family friend Jake was working as a deaf interpreter there, I was out of town, so Jake invited my husband Dennis to church.  

When Dennis walked in the sanctuary, there was a giant, larger-than-life dollar sign covered in twenty-dollar bills hanging prominently over the stage where the cross is supposed to be 

Dennis had never been there before, so we can imagine he was just wondering what on earth he got himself into.   

The pastor gets up and points out the obvious – yep, this is a message about money, a stewardship campaign, there’s new construction, and so on. 

But then the message shifts to the unexpected. 

The pastor says, “God doesn’t need your money. God has all the money God needs. God needs your heart and God needs you to share your faith with others. So this morning we want to invest in your ministry.” 

To prove that they believed this, the ushers came around and did a reverse offering. What’s a reverse offering? Basically, blank envelopes were stuffed with different amounts of money in them, some had $5, some $10 or $20, a few even had $100 or more, and then they passed the plate around for each person in the congregation to get an envelope. In all, they gave out something like $16,000 to the congregation that morning. 

(SLIDE CHANGE: Woman thinking of money) 

The pastor continues with instructions for this money. 

Whatever dollar amount you received, whether it’s $5 or $100, it’s not money that is meant to be spent on yourself. It’s not money for nothing. You don’t take the $5 to the nearest Starbucks and buy yourself a grande Peppermint mocha. Instead, you pray about it & then perhaps you ask that friend or neighbor you’ve been meaning to reach out to to join you at Starbucks, and you buy that person’s drink and talk about faith over coffee.  

The people of the congregation were instructed to use the money to be the church at work in the world, and then report back with stories of how God was at work through this.  

I invite you to imagine with me what an entire congregation could do in ministry like this. 

 (Slide Change: Garbage Truck in neighborhood photo)

This morning I will share a few stories about giving that may feel like that: 

On Monday, our youngest son, Lucas, turned three years old. It was an especially exciting day because it was a Monday and, in our neighborhood that means something very exciting to our now-three-year-old.   

Monday is garbage day! 

It’s hard to explain the excitement our little boy has about garbage trucks. He can be in his room asleep, in the bathtub, engrossed in a video, hard at play – but when he hears the distinctive rumble of the truck in our neighborhood, he stops what he’s doing, eyes wide open, “Oh the garbage truck!” and he takes off for the front door.  

He jumps up and down, eagerly waiting for the truck to turn the corner and come into view. 

This excitement has not gone unnoticed by the garbage men. First, they honked and waved, eventually we learned each other’s names.  

Frank and Lawrence learned about a month ago that Lucas was having a birthday on November 5, a Monday…and they too were happy to figure out that they’d get to see this excited little guy on his birthday. 

Lucas wanted to make sure Frank and Lawrence could celebrate his birthday. So, much to my surprise, I was making cupcakes the night before for our garbage men so we could include them in a tiny birthday party to go. 

(Slide change – Lucas, Frank and Lawrence) 

How cool is this? On a day that is usually reserved for receiving gifts and being the center of attention, the greatest joy Lucas had was in giving cupcakes to our garbage collectors. He was so happy to give. How beautiful would our world be if we could all just approach giving to others with such complete joy and without reservation? (pause) 

I wish I could say that I always give with that kind of joy and without reservation. 

(Slide change – donate computer) 

I will share that I give 10% of my salary to the church – it is set up to give automatically so I don’t ever have to think about it. I never see it so I never miss it, and I don’t even have to think much about it. 

I have to say, it doesn’t quite feel like having the same kind of joy I saw Lucas have on Monday, but I get to be generous, and I have to trust God will bless my giving. I’m working on the joy part. 

So why am I talking about my giving? 

I’ve been blessed by giving to others, when I’ve been able to get generosity right, filled with joy and without reservation. I have two examples for you: 

(Slide change – Shoes)  

The first story that comes to mind was with a high school student in my youth ministry about 10 years ago. She was a remarkable young woman. Surprising to most, she had the most challenging home life of any teens I knew – her parents and her siblings were a bit of a mess, so much so that at the age of 16, she was living on her own instead of at home. 

Imagine – she was a full-time high school student, working to pay her rent, and still made time for youth group. 

As you can guess, she also was short on cash, although too proud to ask for help. So, when she shared at youth group that she was freezing as her apartment’s gas heat had been turned off in winter, my husband and I knew we had to help somehow. We bought her an electric blanket, wrapped it with an anonymous gift tag, and had a friend of a friend deliver it to her apartment. 

There was another time we sneakily worked to find out her shoe size so we could help her replace her worn out sneakers full of holes. 

She didn’t ask us for help, but it was a total joy to give to her, to anonymously meet some of her needs. We probably would have found a way to let her live at our house if she ever asked. 

Which brings me to the second example of when God gave us an opportunity to be generous with others. 

In the spring of 2010, our neighbors across the street from us informed us that they were moving to Colorado – did we know anyone who might want a one-story house in our neighborhood? 

We definitely did! My mom was retiring that coming Fall and planning to move to Texas a few months later. We jumped on the opportunity to have mom/grandma move across the street.  

What we didn’t expect was that our neighbors would then move out as soon as possible right after the last day of school, leaving us with a vacant house and an extra house payment for a few months more than we anticipated. We tried unsuccessfully to find a college student or someone who might need a short-term place to stay… 

So that summer, when I saw a Facebook post from a clergy friend, Sheila, “What would you do if you found out that a working dad of two was sleeping in his car during the day in 104-degree heat in July?” we knew what we would do. 

It turned out that Peter, a Kenyan refugee, and his two sons were living in the Arlington Life Shelter that summer. The shelter by policy doesn’t allow its adult residents to be there asleep during the day, but Peter worked third shift at the airport and just needed a safe place to sleep between being at work all night. 

Well, it’s not very often that people have spare houses, but that summer we did. There wasn’t a question in our mind – we got in touch with Sheila, met Peter and his two sons George and Allan, and opened up our mom’s vacant house as a safe and quiet place where Peter could sleep in air conditioning on an air mattress during the day and get a clean shower before heading to work. It wasn’t much to us, but I think we can all agree this would be way better than sleeping in a car in Texas during the summer.  

In the weeks that followed, With the shelter and church’s help, we were able to help get furniture to help the small family set up in their simple two-bedroom apartment before the boys started school that year. 

But the best part is that Peter, George and Allan became friends with our family. Our kids all played together, they ended up having their first American Thanksgiving at our house and we were their first houseguests for a dinner of the traditional Kenyan ugali (YOU gall ee). Years later, George graduated top of his class and is a student at UTA, and Allan has a full ride scholarship his first year at Notre Dame. They’ve even come to visit us here at New World. I’m so proud of our dear friends and grateful that God offered a way for our family to say yes to generosity. 

I hope you know that I am telling you these stories not to impress you, but to impress upon you the importance of changing your heart about giving. God will open up opportunities for you to be generous.  

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are urged to be content with whatever we have, and to be grateful. Imagine with me if we all sought out ways to give to others with the deep joy and without reservation, like Lucas giving away cupcakes to our garbagemen on his birthday? I pray that God blesses you with openings to give to others. 

I love the idea of the reverse offering that other church did – it’s a powerful reminder that the money we receive, whether it’s from an unmarked envelope or in the form of a paycheck, all of it is a gift from God we are called to steward and use for God’s work.    

But what would you do if you were given $5 today to use in ministry? What about if it was $100? How could you use that money to be a blessing to another person? (pause) 

While I don’t have money to hand out to you, I hope you consider using some of the money you already have in the way you just envisioned. 

In conclusion, here are a few questions to consider in personal reflection: 

 

  • What does it mean to you to be content whether you have a lot or a little? 
  • Is something keeping you from giving with joy and without reservation? 
  • If that wasn’t preventing you, what you do and how would that feel? 

Please pray with me: 

God, we thank you for all that you have given us. Please help us to be content with what we have, whether it seems like too little or too much. We pray that you will free us from worry, that you will open our hearts so that we can give to others with great joy and without reservation. In Jesus name we pray, Amen. Invitation 

 

The Candle – A sermon on Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was rulerof Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias rulerof Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Video:

https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8569-out-of-the-darkness(

Sermon: The Candle

Key Point: Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival.

Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. Do you have company coming in the next few weeks? Or are you the company that other people will be hosting? The holidays are upon us, and for many people, this means getting ready for the arrival of company.

And what do we do when we know that company is coming? (pause)

We clean the house! On top of all of the other things we try to accomplish between now and Christmas, if we have company coming, it’s time to get the house ready. Now, I know some of you may have a house that is sparkling clean all of the time…If you’ve come to visit, and my house was sparkling clean, you can safely guess that was only because I knew were coming and I made sure the house was clean before you got there.

From time to time, I get a question that usually goes something like, “With both parents working full time and having four kids, especially with three involved in sports, how do you do it? How do you keep up with everything?” And so I debated about putting this extra secret information out here. But, here’s the answer to the question I get asked all of the time,

In spite of the image I try to put out there, the answer isn’t that I put on my superhero cape and whisk through it all without breaking a sweat…I don’t do it alone, we sometimes hire help. A couple times a month we have a cleaning crew come in and help us get everything really clean.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up with having this kind of pampering, so I feel a little self-conscious sharing about it. Because I didn’t grow up with this, there was something I didn’t know about having a cleaning service. My kids can probably tell you because they are heavily involved in this part.

When Irene and the rest of the cleaning crew is coming, the day before it’s all hands on deck to have everything picked up so that the crew can do their jobs of scrubbing and cleaning.

We clean up the house just to prepare the way for the cleaning crew. I never expected I’d ever use this as a sermon illustration!

(Slide Change: Picture of John the Baptist circa 1600)

You see, strangely enough, this brings us to our scripture for the day about another person getting ready for company, although not in the same way we were thinking.

John the Baptist, sometimes called John the Baptizer – now he’s quite a character, isn’t he?

The various gospels describe him as a man who is shouting out in the wilderness, he lives alone. I like this painting because he’s pointing to Jesus – that’s a big part of John’s role. He is found wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey – he’s wild and eccentric.

He’s a relative of Jesus, possibly a cousin, and I imagine him like a pretty out there hippie cousin. Maybe you have a relative like this too.

(Slide Change: Jen Norton John the Baptist -used with permission from artist)

I imagine him with crazy hair, a bit of an oddball who maybe smells like the wild and nature. You can smell him coming. “A smellative” Do you have one of those? Know what I’m talking about? You don’t – is it you? J

He’s a prophet, not afraid to say what needs to be said. Maybe you have relatives like him who apparently are unafraid to speak passionately about whatever is on their mind? No? Maybe you’re that relative? (Smile)

So in this story, John is preparing the way for Jesus to start his ministry. We tell this story at Christmas time because Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s like he’s getting the house ready so Jesus can come in and do the real, deep spiritual work.

So let’s set the scene: In this story, God’s people have become pretty comfortable and complacent…If we kept reading in today’s chapter, we’d see that John calls the crowds “children of snakes,” and warns them to repent, be baptized and have their lives changed. It seems he is a bit of a wet blanket.

Now I imagine few people ever want a sermon on repentance – it’s like being scolded for all the bad things you’ve been doing and being told to knock it off.

(SLIDE CHANGE- Repent & be baptized meme)

John’s message to “Repent & Be Baptized” includes two parts – a “no,” and a “yes.”

Repentance is the “no.” Repentance isn’t a word we use in everyday language, so I’ll explain it. To repent is to turn the other way. We all make mistakes and have regrets, when we repent we turn from sin and move toward making things right. You can think of repentance as a big “U-Turn” sign on your life.

It’s worth pointing out that the people in the crowd John was talking to weren’t caught up in big sins, causing trouble. Their biggest problem was that they were beginning to be settled in their faith, just resting on the fact that they were “born” into the faith & just going through the motions of faith. For me, this description hits a little too close to home. It’s tempting to sometimes claim the identity of “Christian” and then not think much about it.

The problem is that being a Christian isn’t always supposed to be comfortable, feel-good stuff. We are not called to a comfortable, lukewarm, safe faith.

John knows that when Jesus starts his ministry, people will have to have a deep faith. Jesus is going to start a new world order. So John’s call here to repent is designed to make us uncomfortable when we want comfort. We need to turn from ways that keep us from God.

We talked last week about how Advent is the in-between time – it’s a time for reflection on things that have already happened, and preparation for things yet to come. Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s a time for cleaning up our spiritual house, so to speak. We can use this time to consider the condition of the world, even consider our own wrongdoing and regrets. We can reflect on what we’ve said and done (or perhaps what we have not said, not done) to make the world a better place. John the Baptist makes the way for Jesus’ ministry – this morning we will consider how we can prepare the way for Jesus’ arrival too.

Repentance means asking ourselves tough questions like “How deep is my faith? (pause) Are my actions in line with my beliefs? (pause) Is my faith expectant, alert, growing, and serving? (pause) Or is my faith small, tired and lukewarm? (pause)

John is preparing the house, getting ready for company. When Jesus arrives, we can’t have legos and dirty socks on the floor – we need to be ready.

But we’re not left in the dark feeling sorry for ourselves –there is a second part to John’s message that’s really important.

The Be Baptized part – the life as a follower of Jesus – it’s a “Yes!” It’s not that John is trying to bring us down by telling people to repent, he’s trying to direct us to a new life that is richer, fuller and more meaningful.

To have a life of richer faith, it begins with discerning what actions you need to take.

What gifts/resources do you have? What is on your heart to do for God? Do you know you are forgiven? What are you passionate about? Inlight of your gifts and resources, what is your mission?

Once you have come up with answers to these questions, you are preparing the way for a life of following Christ.

Advent is more than just a time to make sure all of the toys and presents are bought and delivered on time – it’s so much deeper than that! Advent, as the beginning of the Christian new year, is a perfect time to make a fresh start and prepare for what God has in store.

Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. Advent reminds us – we have an adventure ahead. We need a light to our path on this adventure.

(Slide Change: luminarias)

Which brings us back to the symbol of the Candle at Christmastime.  

It’s important that we turn to the right sources of light as we go on this faith journey. When we light a match in a dark room, it provides a temporary light. If we try to be the match for too long, our fingers get burnt. We also don’t want to turn to the wrong sources of light – if we put our trust in the wrong things, they will eventually disappoint us.

The candle is a symbol that reminds us of Christ.

Christ is a light that will overcome any darkness.

The candle can also symbolize God’s word found in the Bible, is “a light unto the path,” a guide that helps us to see on the journey of faith. It’s not a candle in the wind about to get extinguished.

When I was a small kid living in San Antonio atChristmastime, I remember seeing much of the city sidewalks, especially around churches, lined with luminarias –simple brown paper bags, each filled with a little sand and a small candle.

Paths lined with candlelight, a tradition started in the AmericanSouthwest, is a beautiful practice reminding us of the fabled journey of Joseph, a very pregnant Mary, and a simple donkey taken long ago. The light of the luminaria shows us the prepared path.The decoration is simple in the face of all that glitters, flashes, inflates and twinkles to music today, just as the simplicity of their journey toBethlehem is a stark contrast to the decadent and powerful Rome that ruled the day.

As we prepare the way for company, as we prepare the way for the coming Jesus Christ, we can take heart in knowing that

John 1:4 “Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. The light shines through the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

Let us pray –


God of Light,

Thank you for being a God who is faithful to show us the way of life. As we prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ in our hearts and in our lives, be a light unto our paths this Advent. Help us to share the light of the love of Jesus Christ with people who need it. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

Star – a sermon on Luke 21:25-36

scott sigrist night skyThis 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.

Scripture Reading

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.”

(scripture from Biblegateway.com)

Video: What is Advent? From SermonCentral

Sermon: The Star

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.)

scott sigrist night sky

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…

Be blessed,

Erin

Reflection Questions:
Where have you seen God at work recently?

What is something you are really looking forward to?

Faith that Works: A Million Little Choices (The Vanilla Ice Sermon)

Here’s the audio of my “Vanilla Ice” sermon:

(Note: This sermon followed the video clip with the same name:  https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8665-a-million-little-choices)

Slide01This 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 –

Slide02

(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.

Consider this:

Slide03In 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.

Slide06I 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.

In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

 

 

Faith That Works: Contagious – A sermon on James 3:1-12

Contagious sermon slides

Slide01

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!
-James 3:4-10
Has anyone ever said something to you that changed you?
Slide02
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
together.
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?
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…
Slide04
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
containable.
In today’s culture, we have so many more ways to communicate our words than
just speaking.
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.

Slide06
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
words, too.
There’s a Harvard Business Review article that investigated the impact of using
either positive feedback to constructive criticism to change team behavior.
Slide09
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.
Amen.

We Need Each Other – a sermon on Social Holiness

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!

Amen.


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.