We praise you for the many ways you fill our souls with what we need.
You are a God of love, a God of agape. When we feel alone, you are ever-present. When we feel unworthy, you wrap us in a deep love that knows no end. Forgive us for when we are in the habit of rejecting one another, of rejecting our own self even. You cherish each of us as your children, no matter how imperfect and fallen we may be. We pray for those who long to know your love, and we pray that you can use us to offer love to even our hard-to-love neighbor.
You are a God of peace, a God of shalom. When we feel torn apart and divided by the conflict of the world, you give us a peace that transcends all understanding. Our hope can be found in your calming Spirit. Forgive us for when we fall into the trap of believing we should look down upon or separate ourselves from one another. Although we cannot understand the big picture, although we cannot understand why some things happen, we can rest assured knowing that you have got it all within your grasp, your love will undeniably conquer our brokenness.
You are a God of joy, and with that we have hope. We pray that you, our God of hope, will fill us with all joy and peace as we learn to trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Allow us to become instruments of your joy and hope in a world that so desperately seeks the Good news you alone can offer.
We pray all of these things in the name of the one who modeled your sacrificial love on earth, the one who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father….”
Pastoral Prayer – originally delivered 11/11/2018 at New World UMC Traditional service
John 14:272Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Yesterday the word for the Advent candle lighting was “Peace.” In a world that seems so full of everything that is decidedly not peaceful – busyness, frenzy, rushing, hurriedness, violence, division, and so much noise – peace is wild and countercultural.
So today, be wild and countercultural. Be an instrument of peace. Dare to catch your breath. Dare to breathe in deeply. Dare to rest. Dare to be quiet.
Model the deep love and peace of the Prince of Peace. Refuse to follow a culture that models everything else.
3 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, 2 during the high
priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah
in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around
the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 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. 5 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; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
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?
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
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
(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
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
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
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.
During Advent this year (Dec. 2-25) we are having an Advent Photo Challenge! You are invited to participate for any of the topics. Each day I will also send out an accompanying short devotional on the day’s topic. Feel free to share it. Be blessed, Erin
This little art piece by my favorite artist, Kelly Rae Roberts, sits on a shelf in my office. It serves as a great little reminder that sometimes we just have to wait.
“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
– Isaiah 40:31 ESV
Do you believe in the power of prayers to change things? I do…but I have learned that I don’t always get to expect prayers to change things the way I want them to be changed.
That’s one of the tricky things about prayers. Sometimes we pray and God’s answer seems to be a clear “Yes” or “No.” But, way more often it seems the answer seems to be “maybe” or “not yet.”
It’s hard to wait. Like an expression I’ve heard, the problem seems to be “the same as it always is – I’m in a hurry and God’s not.”
Sometimes we wait a long time. Even when the answer to our deepest prayer seems to be silence, we can still trust.
I take comfort in knowing that while we wait, our strength can be renewed.
While we wait, may we be blessed with people who come into our lives offering comfort and peace. While we wait, may we grow in wisdom and faith. While we wait, may we continue to trust.
December 2-25, our church is participating in an Advent Photo Challenge. No matter who or where you are, you are invited to participate. Each day a different keyword is given for people to try to capture in an image.
Today’s word is “Hope.” To accompany the challenge, here is a short devotional to go along with the day’s word. Feel free to read this and share it with a friend. Be blessed! -Erin
From Psalm 46:1-3 ESV:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
The above mixed media artwork is one I created as part of the Mission and Art Nights at a local family shelter. Each week, volunteers from my church and residents in the shelter (primarily mothers temporarily without homes) met in creative community. We met together to create art, to share a devotional, to laugh and heal, and to share our lives together.
Whenever we go through difficult seasons of our lives, it is comforting to know that we have a God who is faithful to be our very present help. No matter what happens in this world, we can rely on God to carry us through. We do not need to be afraid.
As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, let us remember that God’s promises give us hope for the future.
God of hope, thank you for being a God who is always present, even if we struggle to see or feel your presence. Help us to trust in you. Remind us we can be hopeful about our future and to share that hope with others. Amen.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Last Monday I was driving Nate home from school, talking about his school day first, then about this upcoming sermon series on stewardship. I shared that I was hoping to bring something new to the table, some fresh take on stewardship.
“Like what? What do you mean by stewardship?” he asks.
“Well, you know, how we use our money. We’re talking about how the world teaches us that money buys happiness but that it really can’t…”
“Money can definitely buy happiness, Mom.”
Stopped me in my tracks. “WHAT?! No, it can’t.”
Maybe none of you have had the pleasure of having a debate with Nate. Nate is sharp as a tack, perhaps a lawyer in training. He is loophole finding, pedantic. He loves a literal, precise argument, and he will argue any side of any issue for fun. He has a bit of a stubborn streak too – I have no idea where he gets the stubborn streak. (smile)
Now, I’m a pastor. And there was no way this kid was going to take down his theologically trained, good-stewardship-minded pastor mom in this argument.
SO I tried talking about how money may buy you stuff that temporarily makes you feel happy, but that feeling goes away and it’s not the same as the deep abiding joy we find in faith.
“Yeah, but then I can just buy something else that makes me happy.” (pause)
Well, I am too stubborn to admit defeat, and I still know in the long run I’m right (smile). I have to admit though, this kid has been really well trained that money is the key to happiness, that money changes everything, and we may have our work cut out for us!
What do you all think? Can money buy happiness? (don’t answer!) Let’s look at this together.
This morning we are going to consider the role money plays in our faith lives as we look at the difference between a scarcity mentality and an abundance mentality.
What do we mean by a scarcity mentality? Scarcity mentality or scarcity mindset, is a term coined by Steven Covey, and is founded on the idea that, if someone else wins or is successful in a situation, it means you lose. It is based on a belief that there is a limited amount (a scarcity) of resources, so we have to constantly be on the lookout for ways to earn more, store up more, acquire more than others.
In short, the story we tell ourselves is that there’s only so much success/wealth/stuff to go around, it might run out. I don’t have enough so I want to make sure I get more, save up more, have more than others. In our American culture, you may feel this as the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. Deep down, it’s based on a fear that we don’t have enough.
In many ways, this mentality is synonymous with pursuit of the American dream. Our success is often measured by what we acquire, where we live, what we own. Scarcity mentality is why we have a never-ending desire as a culture to acquire more stuff, and why so many of us face the constant temptation for instant gratification, temptation to buy now, pay later… and it’s almost counter-intuitive – because this mindset is based on a fear that we don’t have enough, we often end up with a tendency to rack up stuff and debt…in the book this series is based on, Adam Hamilton refers to these American problems as “affluenza” and “credit-itis.”
In today’s Scripture reading, called the Parable of the Rich Fool, God challenges the fool, challenges us, to not put our trust in wealth, but that we should trust in God. The problem wasn’t that the man had wealth. There’s nothing wrong with having wealth, but the problem is when the desire for more and more drives our lives. The faith problem is when we are not trusting in God enough and we’re hoping the stuff we acquire will take care of us.
This passage creates a tension and makes us ask ourselves in whom or what we put our trust. Do we put our trust in possessions, or our ability to take care of our self, or do we put our trust in God?
One of the biggest challenges we have as Christians in our culture is really trusting that God will provide for us. In our culture of plenty, we are often tempted to believe that we can provide for ourselves. We often believe that it’s completely up to our own hard work and accomplishment to have a sense of security.
The opposite of a scarcity mentality is an abundance mentality.
With an abundance mentality, one believes that they already “have enough resources and successes to share with others.”
In other words, people with this mindset believe they have “More than Enough” (point to title slide) The story we tell ourselves when we have an abundance mentality is we are already so blessed, we have so much and know that God will take care of us. We don’t have to try to keep up with everybody else. We have more than enough, we even feel more blessed when we share and can celebrate the successes of others.
If we were to keep reading the verses that follow today’s passage, we are told that we are not to worry about our lives, what we eat, about our bodies, or what we will wear. We are instructed to consider how God takes care of the ravens of the air, the lilies of the field – we have a trustworthy God who will provide for us more than enough, who provides for us so abundantly that we have more than enough to share. If we live like we believe this, with trust in God and faith in having abundance, our hearts are changed.
What does this look like? I have seen this abundance mindset in the most unlikely of places.
One of the things I love most about when I went on mission trips to locations like Haiti, Appalachia, and rural Jamaica, places where people live in conditions that are almost unimaginable, is the amount of trusting in God’s provision I witness there. I have seen the deepest faith and the deepest joy in people who have dirt floors, homes without plumbing, leaking roofs, children playing in insect-infested puddles, or children joyfully playing with makeshift toys made from flattened bottlecaps and string. This boy was playing with a single beat up Hot Wheel car.
In the midst of this abject poverty, I was able to get to know and worship with people who truly trust that God will provide for them. These same people who have so little, go out of their way to share what they have with me. As guests, we are careful not to make an offhand comment like, “oh I really wish I had a Coca-Cola with this,” because it is likely that someone will go to great lengths, maybe spending all they have, in order to share.
It fills my soul when I am around people who deeply trust that God will care for them. Because these are places where people are less distracted by the pressures of competition and constantly buying new stuff, there is a bigger focus on paying attention to faith, paying attention to helping meet the needs of others. It strengthens my faith to be reminded of what matters most.
But you don’t have to go to a third world country to witness an abundance mindset. I listened to a really inspiring TED Talk this week about a woman who began a community garden project in her small, Northern England town of Todmorden. In this small town, people have planted fruit and vegetable gardens in their front yards, on city land, vacant lots, anywhere there was land available. Every plant is for sharing, no matter who planted it. It turns out everyone takes what they need and there’s still plenty for others. They are eating healthier, growing locally, sharing. This small town has inspired similar projects around the world – a great illustration of an abundance mentality. Abundance thinking begins when we practice sharing with one another.
Writer and blogger Seth Godin shared this thought recently:
“There’s one view of the world that says what all people want is as much stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. And that’s a world based on scarcity….”
“There’s a different view not based on scarcity but based on abundance that the thing we don’t have enough of is that we don’t have enough connection (we’re lonely), and we don’t have enough time.
And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves, yes, we will seek that out.”
What I take away from this quote is that we have a unique opportunity as a faith community once we change our mindsets from scarcity to abundance. When we quit worrying about having to compete with other churches to have the latest and greatest stuff, when we quit worrying about having enough, and recognize we already have more than enough, we can live out of our abundance. We can shift our focus from ourselves to meeting the needs of others.
Although this quote wasn’t meant about Christianity, I love that the quote points out that people long for a place where they can connect with one another and have meaning. That’s church! As people who trust in God’s abundance, we can offer that gift to one another, we can share that gift with a busy, over-consuming culture. We can live into our mission to love God and love neighbor.
So, As we shift toward truly trusting that God will provide for us, one of the toughest moves we could make is to learn to depend on something outside of our own self.
I have an interesting faith challenge for you this week inspired by my seminary friend Ryan Klinck and his work with the Neighboring Movement:
I challenge you to borrow something from a neighbor.
Why borrow something? Borrowing something from a neighbor is something that really flies in the face of American cultural norms, particularly that we are supposed to be self-reliant individuals who do not need other people’s help, because if we do, then we are perceived as “weak.”
Yet, something beautiful happens when we borrow something from a neighbor, we are:
relying on someone else’s resources and wisdom
giving neighbors the opportunity to share
growing our relationships with the people closest to us
This practice takes more time than just running to the store, so it’s an investment in our relationships instead.
Borrowing something can remind us that self-reliance is a myth that actually leads us towards isolation, which isn’t healthy. We need other people and relationships in our life, it is a healthy thing to ask for help from others.
On a faith level, it teaches us to honor the gifts other people have and giving them space to share them with us. It reminds us of the abundance God has to offer us all, it is reminiscent of the Acts community, where they had all things in common and shared all they had..
It is my prayer that we can be a community of faith who knows that money cannot buy happiness – that we can be people who can share generously because God so abundantly gives to us.
To God be the glory. Amen.
Giving Credit where it is due:
 Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
This photo was taken by a friend of mine, Scott Sigrist, and used for this sermon with his permission. You can see more of his work at www.sigristphotos.com. (thank you, Scott!)
This is the second day of our Advent Photo Challenge and the keyword is “Star.” Since I preached a sermon with that title yesterday, I thought I’d share the text of my sermon with you today.
Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 21. Adult Jesus is talking his disciples in the temple and this is the last chapter before the Last Supper and all that follows. It’s an odd way to start the Christmas season, but we will understand why before the morning is over.
Luke 21:25-36 CEB
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
A lesson from the fig tree
29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”
I love going to places where you can see all of the stars, even the stars in between the stars.
One of my favorite things about getting away from the city is being able to see the stars. I’ve even been known to pull my car over at night on an empty Texas state highway in order to make my entire family endure my making them all look at the stars. (I’m sure they appreciate it.)
So, I was really excited when, about five years ago, my family planned a weekend vacation at Canyon of the Eagles in the Texas Hill Country. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nature park west of Round Rock, in a part of the Hill Country that is an official “dark sky” area. There’s very little lighting in the park to cut down on light pollution. When you walk around the park at night, they give you special little flashlights to carry around. It is home to the “Eagle Eye Observatory” and one of the best places to see the stars at night, because, of course, they are big and bright, deep in the heart of…
Canyon of the Eagles is a migratory path for eagles, so we also hoped to catch a glimpse of one of those too. (pause)
Well, I wish I had a better star story to tell you. What ended up happening was that it was cloudy and rainy the entire weekend. The mosquitos ate us alive. And although we had a nice video tour from the resident astronomer of what we could have seen if there were no clouds, it just wasn’t the same as we had hoped. (side note: We didn’t see an eagle either – total bust.)
But isn’t this picture beautiful that my friend Scott Sigrist took at Dinosaur Valley State Park? We didn’t get to see the stars like that on our weekend, but we know they were still there.
Stars are a constant – throughout history, sailors and travelers have used stars to navigate and keep their sense of direction.
When was the last time you noticed the stars? Do you have a lucky star or a favorite constellation?
Today we begin the Christian season of Advent.
The word “Advent” comes from the latin word “adventus” which means “to come toward, to draw near, to approach.” It is a time of expectation, a time of waiting.
Waiting…How are you at waiting for things?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. Just so you know that I’ll go to extremes to prepare for a sermon (smile) I spent my Friday afternoon waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles so we could get my son’s driving permit. Oh the waiting! This time I paid attention to what people do while waiting – it’s no surprise that most people spent that time distracted by their phones or TV. A few people read books. Very few just sat there, waiting and watching.
Not all waiting is terrible – as we spend this season waiting, we can be on the lookout for what is to come. It’s the perfect time to look for signs as we wait.
Advent is an “in between” time of year. Obviously it’s in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it also marks the time between the “already” and the “not yet.” In fact, during Advent, we are waiting for three things at the same time. I’ll explain:
The first thing we are waiting for is the obvious one – the “already” – we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate this, we are celebrating something earth-shattering that has already happened.
Think of it this way: imagine that you ordered a package from Amazon (not too hard to imagine.) You are so excited that it’s on its way. Then you check the app and see that, much to your surprise, it’s already delivered. You check your front porch and, sure enough, all of the great stuff you’ve been waiting for has been there all along. It’s already arrived.
The second thing we are waiting for is the “not yet.”
Our Scripture passage today talks about all of these signs of that the end is near. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, it says. Throughout history, there have been times when doom and gloom preachers have pointed to naturally occurring events like eclipses, earthquakes, and meteor showers to declare the end of all civilization. “Repent! The End is Near!” they’ll shout.
This is a really odd way to start the Christmas season, isn’t it? Here we are ready to hear the good, predictable news that sweet little Jesus is going to be born in a manger…but then the scripture is all about the end of time. What’s going on?
With wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and natural disasters, coupled with human evils of wars, oppression, violence, intimidation and discrimination, dominating our news cycles, it may even be tempting to fall into “fear and foreboding,” to see what is going on and wonder, is this a sign of the end of the world? In the face of all that is going on in the world today, it is tempting to be overwhelmed by all of the brokenness we see around us.
But if we pay close attention to today’s scripture, our message is not about doom and gloom at all. It’s a message of hope!
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”
Notice that adult Jesus is talking here, pointing out the signs that something good is happening as we notice the leaves sprouting – summer is coming, not winter! As humans in an unpredictable world, we look for signs that will predict what’s coming. Yet, as people of faith, we know that there will come a time of final victory – this is the “not yet” that we wait for – a time when everything is restored and God’s reign is on earth as it is in heaven. So we wait for that day with hope.
We wait for the “already,” and the “not yet,” and the third thing we wait for during Advent is the “right now.” It’s the signs and symbols of God at work today.
It’s tempting to look at our world with fear and despair, isn’t it? But if we’re not careful, we will totally miss where God’s kingdom is breaking in to our world right now. When God’s people work for justice, for mercy, for wholeness and compassion – that is God’s kingdom on earth right now. The exciting thing is we get to be a part of that! Every time we – individually and as a community – work to restore the broken systems and people in our lives, the more we bring glimpses of God’s reign on earth, we bring the signs of hope in a world that desperately needs to be reminded.
Which brings us to the symbol of the star at Christmastime.
During Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, we often place a star on top of our trees. The star reminds us of the star that shone over Bethlehem, guiding the magi to the place where Jesus could be found. It is a symbol of something that guides us – a divine guide, a constant presence.
Especially times in uncertainty, it’s comforting to look for reliable signs to follow.
Funny thing – Do you know when it is hardest to notice the stars? During the brightness of day.
As it turns out, even during the brightness of day, they are there. It may be that the biggest challenge we face is finding God’s guidance when things are going well for us, when we are in our own bright days…when we are tempted to believe we can do all things on our own. (pause)
As we journey through advent together during the next few weeks, I challenge you to fight the pressure to rush to Christmas. Prepare for Christmas by praying, becoming aware of God’s guidance, and doing good work for God’s glory. Be the “right now.”
It is so fitting that we begin Advent with the sacrament of communion. I invite you to remember during communion today of all that God has already given you, to reflect on the promise of hope for the future, and to find ways to bring God’s restoration on earth today. Let us begin…
Where have you seen God at work recently?
What is something you are really looking forward to?
2 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.
Sermon: We Need Each Other – on Social Holiness
“Haiti has been devastated by an earthquake and people in and around Port au Prince are in desperate need of help. We have a plane full of supplies ready to leave Dallas Love Field at 2PM today. We are looking for any volunteers who can get to the airport with their passport on time. We can get anyone who is available to Haiti at no charge, the plane is ready to go, although we don’t have any information yet on how or when you will be able to return. Is there anyone here willing to go?”
The date I heard this announcement was January 13, 2010, the day after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. This was the lunch announcement made at the SMU Perkins School of Youth Ministry to a room full of United Methodist youth workers.
Would you have volunteered to go help?
I didn’t get on a plane to Haiti that day (although I did go in 2017 and will go again this year) but how remarkable is it that one of the few places they thought to announce this mission need was to the highest concentration of United Methodists gathered together in Dallas that day. It makes sense when you consider that the UMC has a rich heritage of responding quickly and working together to alleviate suffering, especially for the world’s poor.
This morning we are concluding our Back to Grace series on United Methodism. In week one we looked at the Wesleyan concepts of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace. Last week we talked about personal holiness & for those who heard my sermon, you were challenged to pick 1 or 2 personal faith practices and “just do it.” How’s that going so far?
Today we are learning about the Wesleyan concept of social holiness. Social holiness is the combination of acts we do as a faith community to grow closer to God, and is often found at the intersection of faith and good works, service and justice. This morning we will look at how we grow in social holiness both inside and outside of the church, including a look at the global United Methodist Church, and most importantly, we will look at why social holiness is critical.
First, we will look at the role the local church plays in nurturing our social holiness.
What is the purpose of a church?
A quote from the Book of Discipline:
“Finally, we emphasize the nurturing and serving function of Christian fellowship in the Church. The personal experience of faith is nourished by the worshiping community.”
If we look at today’s Scripture reading, we are told to “Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another…we were called in the one body. We are to teach one another in wisdom.” There is an emphasis on the one another and the working together as one body. As Christians, we believe that faith isn’t something you get to have all on your own. Wesley once said that no one can be a solitary Christian, we must be in community to grow in our faith. As the sermon title says – we need each other.
Consider the sacrament of baptism.
In our baptismal vows, here’s a question the faith community is asked:
Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
and include these persons now before you in your care?
And how do we respond?
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news
and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons
with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
We will pray for them,
that they may be true disciples
who walk in the way that leads to life.
When anyone is baptized, we promise as a faith community to nurture not only the baptized, but also one another. We need each other to grow in our faith.
We also nurture each other in the faith when we sing in worship.
Now, I don’t know about your typical week, but in my week, there are no other places besides during worship when I am being asked to sing. As we sing together, we connect with one another in praise and we also learn the basics of our faith. Like memorizing Scripture, the act of singing writes what we believe on our hearts. It lifts our spirits. We need each other to sing.
We need each other in small groups. As John Wesley was beginning the renewal movement we now know as Methodism, they began by forming small Methodist societies and class meetings. The purpose of these small groups was so they could encourage each other in holiness, and a distinct way they grew in their faith as a small group was to give to the poor, visit the imprisoned, and to work for justice and peace. Similarly, in our local church, we meet in small groups and grow in our faith. We spur one another on as we discuss our faith, even disagreeing from time to time. Ideally, if we have done the nurturing work right at the local church level, our natural response will be to find ways in our small groups to love and serve our neighbors.
A beautiful feature of United Methodism is that social holiness extends way beyond the local church – we are connected to other United Methodist churches around the globe.
Even this past week, we showed a bit of this connection in our city by participating in the Back to Grace multi-UMC event. Many from New World were there last Sunday night as The Way led worship and Rev. Felicia Hopkins of FUMC Abilene preached on grace. In fact, I’m excited to share that the churches represented raised over $1000 each for Arlington Urban Ministries and the UTA Wesley Foundation.
Consider the global impact of our Church. Unique to church denominations, all United Methodist Churches are connected. This culture of reaching out to the world is a rich part of Methodism’s DNA and makes us a witness and force for peace and justice around the world.
A beautiful example of how we as a connectional church model this sense of social holiness is UMCOR. A quick story: In 2013, a chemical fertilizer plant in West, Texas exploded – many of you may even have heard the explosion if you lived in South Arlington/Mansfield at the time. At this disaster, as with almost every disaster around the globe, many first responders were on the scene to assist people in need. Laraine Waughtal from the UM Central Texas Conference and members of our conference’s early response team were there early among the American Red Cross, United Way and FEMA’s first responders. Laraine reported that, as a trailer pulled up full of supplies with the United Methodist cross and flame symbol on the side, a trailer from UMCOR, she could hear the other first responders say, “Oh thank God! The Methodists are here! Now we can begin to get things done.” UMCOR is known throughout the world as the United Methodist Church at its finest – quick to respond to those in need and willing to stay until the long-term recovery is complete.
Beyond disaster relief and recovery, the worldwide United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Wesley and the early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal brokenness such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor. We are known as a denomination involved with people’s lives, with political and social struggles. As part of our global connection, we are still engaged in speaking out against injustice and working in social justice work today.
From The Book of Resolutions of The UMC: The United Methodist Church believes God’s love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective, not just responding to all the other ‘mind-makers-up’ that exist in our society.”
As we take a closer look at today’s passage (text is in bulletin), I want you to see the action words. We are to: teach, warn, sing and do. In fact, Verse 17 says “And whatever you DO, in word or deed, DO everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The life of Christ is a life of action. We are called to be in mission and service to the world.
Wesley said, “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness. You cannot be holy except as you are engaged in making the world a better place. You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world but by plunging into ministry on behalf of the world’s hurting ones.”
Why don’t we get it right?
John Wesley also struggled with the same question – why don’t we get it right?
At age 86, near the end of John Wesley’s life, most people would have considered him a resounding success. Around the age of 35 he had begun a movement that had spread throughout the British Empire and, by the end of his life it had grown to be the largest church in America. He was widely published and well respected.
But at 86, he was contemplating the significance of his life’s work. A question he asked himself was, “if the Methodist movement he had begun was so successful, as it was, why wasn’t the world a better place?” For John Wesley, the measure of the success of a minister, of a church, of a spiritual movement, of Methodism, wasn’t the number of members who joined the church or the size/number of buildings they had. The true measure of success was whether the world was a better place, a more just place, a more compassionate place.
We have work to do, my friends. We need to heal the world, make it a better place.
We can think of the church as a body.
As today’s scripture says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The Greek word for bind in this verse is the same word as “ligament,” like the part of the body that holds us together. Think like a human body – When we as a faith community are in great shape, bound together in love, when we are doing social holiness right and taking care of ourselves…
We as the Body of Christ can do amazing things.
When our body is out of whack, the binding of love is replaced by distrust or personal agendas, distracted by politics and division and trying to prove others wrong, we become immobilized, powerless.
(Perhaps worse – when we sit idly and don’t exercise the body at all – there’s no inspiration in that!)
It’s easy to be like John Wesley was – contemplating our progress and wondering why the world is not yet a better place. The work of justice and reconciliation, the work of transforming the world, the work of God….it’s slow work. It takes time, and we need everyone to work alongside each other in order to make an impact.
But please take a moment with me and imagine what our future could be like if we committed to getting social holiness right. If we, as the Body of Christ, work together to grow in discipleship and work together to be a force for change in the world, if we connect with one another and have the courage to stand up against the world’s injustices and brokenness – we have (with the help of God’s spirit working in us) the potential to be a force that brings God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. We have the potential to truly make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We need each other to make transformation happen.
Remember the Haiti announcement at the beginning of this sermon?
Raise your hand if you went on that trip (should be no hands). I didn’t go then either.
But raise your hand if you’ve been on an international mission trip? (keep your hands up)
An out of state mission trip? Any mission trip? (keep your hands raised)
Now raise your hand if you have been engaged in mission work locally – you’ve volunteered, handed out a manna bag, collected donations?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever contributed to the offering at church (hopefully all hands are raised)
This is social holiness – all of us working together to transform the world. God will call each of us in different ways to use our gifts and resources, time and talents for God’s service.
It is my deepest prayer that each of us will Listen to that call.
That we will Have the courage to respond. To get our hands dirty.
It is my prayer that transformation will happen and God’s reign will be on earth, and that we will move forward with passion and excitement as we trust in the slow work of God!
Things to consider:
Where is God calling you to be in service?
Are you giving your fullest to God? If not, why not?
Who do you need to connect with in order to be held accountable in your discipleship?
Giving credit where credit is due: The Scripture passage used was from the Common English Bible. Several quotes in this sermon were from umc.org. Quote from Laraine Waughtal found in Vance Morton’s post “UMCOR – the Methodist Connection at it’s Best” on ctcumc.org. Story about John Wesley at age 86 found in sermon “Social Holiness: Our Wesleyan DNA” by Rev. Dean Snyder.
This morning our Scripture passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. To give a little background: Paul is writing to a new Christian community that has a Gentile (or non-Jewish) background. As Christians, this faith community is being encouraged to stop their former pagan behavior, and to model kindness and compassion, imitating God’s forgiving and loving ways. Picking up at verse 20:
20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
I know that this is Back to School time, but, as we talk about being made new this morning, I want you to go back in time with me today to the beginning of the calendar year. There are a few things you can count on seeing every January:
Exercise clothes and running shoes are going to be featured in sale ads
The gyms are pretty crowded
There will be good coupons for foods like Special K cereal and Lean Cuisine meals
Shelving and organization tools will be on sale and in demand
If you’ve had trouble keeping resolutions, no worries, you are in good company. Even in today’s passage, Paul is writing to a church that started with great resolution to live differently, but then they slipped in to old habits.
We are talking about the distinctly Wesleyan emphasis on holiness this morning. What do we mean by “holiness?”
Holiness is “the state of being holy, of having total devotion to God” Interestingly, when you Google search “holiness,” the first term that comes up is that it’s a title used to address the Pope. The second reference is to the Holiness Movement started by John Wesley, “A Christian movement emphasizing the routines and faith practices that help us grow closer to God.”
To understand it, we first need to understand a little bit of Methodist history:
Methodism became its own denomination completely by accident. John Wesley, his brother Charles and a few other Oxford college students had grown up in the church but refused to be satisfied with the shallow, superficial faith they witnessed around them. They thought people were going through the motions but missing out on the deeper faith practices.
So, longing to grow in their faith and to grow closer to God, these young men began to live an ambitious schedule:
Fasted until 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays
Took Holy Communion once a week
Studied and discussed the Greek New Testament and theology each evening
Visited prisoners and the sick
Systematically reviewed their lives
Studied the Bible, prayed and worshipped together
Even in the 1700s, this was unusual behavior! What was even more remarkable was that this small group held each other accountable to stay on track. Their changes in behavior didn’t go unnoticed. They were teased about it, called names like “Bible Moths” “Holy Club” “Sacramentarians” and, the one that stuck, “Methodists”
Here’s what John Wesley said about it in his sermon “The Character of a Methodist”
“I say those who are called Methodists; for, let it be well observed, that this is not a name which they take to themselves, but one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent. It was first given to three or four young men at Oxford, by a student of Christ Church; either in allusion to the ancient sect of Physicians so called, from their teaching, that almost all diseases might be cured by a specific method of diet and exercise, or from their observing a more regular method of study and behavior than was usual with those of their age and station.”
This group of young Christians did not set out to break away from the Church. What they wanted more than anything was to see renewal within the church.
As we go through renewal here, it’s also my prayer that as a community we will move to deeper relationship with God.
I don’t know about you, but I can see where the Wesleys were coming from. Having grown up in the church, I’ve sometimes felt like the Church was getting distracted and missing out on its main mission to develop Christ followers.
There are practices that I have done that have brought me closer to God. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, it’s beautiful.
When I take the time for silence, prayer, Bible study, quiet walks in nature, retreats…there is a sense of peace that’s hard to fully explain.
You know that holy feeling when we all sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve? Those special, sacred moments when you can sense that the Holy is happening?
That’s what it feels like to do the practices that bring personal holiness, the things that bring you closer to God.
So how do we get there?
To grow in our faith you can really look at our church’s mission statement. (Love God, Love Neighbor, Make Disciples)
There are several practices you can make part of your daily living that will draw you closer to “Love God.” You are in church & participating in regular worship is one of those practices (keep it up!) Bible study, fasting, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and deepening your knowledge for God are other faith practices.
Loving Neighbor is another way we grow closer to God. A very Methodist practice would be to find ways to respond to human needs and work for justice in our communities.
As we move along the path toward becoming perfect in our love for God, eventually our inner thoughts and motives line up with God’s.
So why aren’t we there yet?
I believe there is a temptation to look at this new faith beginning in the same way as we too often look at New Year’s resolutions. You know what I mean? We can start off with the best of intentions –
I’m going to church every Sunday
I’m joining a Bible study or Sunday School class
I’m volunteering at the Salvation Army, Arlington Life Shelter, Arlington Urban Ministries, Arlington Charities….or even better, I’m now going to volunteer to help out with the youth or the children’s ministry
I’ll pray every day…I’ll read my Bible every morning.
I’m even tithing.
And we may even start off strong.
Until we don’t. We somehow fall off the discipleship wagon – sleeping in preempts church and Bible reading, you miss a study, you forget to pray. You pick up or take back up habits and addictions and all of the things you swore to yourself you wouldn’t do now that you’re a better Christian person….
Before you know it, you might not even recognize how you got where you are, exactly how far away you fell from where you hoped to be as a Christ follower.
And at this point, you’re tempted to totally give up. Or you beat yourself up and tell yourself stories like “I’ll never be able to do it.” You tell yourself lies like “Oh well, I’ll just mess up again. Why bother trying?” or “I won’t ever have enough time.” Or “I’ll get back to that next week.”
Instead of these lies, you need to hear some truth here.
God has a better plan for you. And God loves you. But you don’t get to waste all the gifts God has given you because it’s more comfortable to believe all of these lies.
I’d like to draw your attention to the stained glass up to your left, the one with the butterfly.
That butterfly, like all butterflies, was once a caterpillar.
Caterpillars are pretty spectacular. I mean, few things creepily crawl along in a garden like a caterpillar. But if a caterpillar stops there, just comfortably creeping along…we all will miss out on what the caterpillar is meant to become.
Please, if you hear nothing else this morning, hear this:
You – and you alone – with the help of the Holy Spirit at work are responsible for who you become and how you grow in holiness.
To become the best you you can be, you have to really commit to the hard work of change. And like any change – think diet or exercise – it takes time and commitment to build up muscles and habits.
Imagine you have made the resolution to train for running a marathon. (stick with me, non runners!)
You make this great decision & you even begin to tell your friends and family about it.
They are genuinely excited for you & full of encouragement. Everyone knows it will be a lot of work to train for a marathon, but everyone believes you are capable.
In order to prepare for the big race, you join a marathon training club and go to a training session designed for potential marathon runners. There is an amazing motivational speaker. She’s really top notch and knows her stuff. The convention has an air of excitement about the marathon – you can practically feel it. They’ve hired a cover band that plays songs like “Born to Run,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and “We are the Champions” so well, you even picture yourself leading a few races. The training is great – you are really motivated.
At the end of the training, you are invited to come back next week to hear the training again.
At the end of the next week’s training, you’re invited to come back again…
All of this motivation and training is helpful, but you need much more than this in order to physically prepare for a marathon.
And, so it is with faith and this Wesleyan idea of “personal holiness.”
When it comes to growing spiritually, I can stand up here and list off all of the practices you could do to grow closer to God…you can mediate, alleviate, and try not to hate…but only you have control over your life.
So you try some of the practices. Maybe you will try 40 different things and 2 will be meaningful and the rest won’t resonate. You’ll have seasons where you fail or forget or avoid…that’s all part of how the journey works.
But like the caterpillar…like the marathoner…you keep on training in spite of the times you make mistakes.
And you can even choose to celebrate your small victories, knowing that sometimes you’ll leap forward and sometimes you’ll inch forward… but you can just celebrate that the movement is forward.
My challenge for you is that you will select 1 or 2 practices that you will resolve to try this week. Think of them now.
Picture who you will share them with, perhaps in the connection time after this service or during Sunday school, so you can hold one another accountable.
Which brings us back to our Scripture.
Paul was writing to a group that was excited about being Christ followers but still struggling with temptations to fall into behaviors they shouldn’t be doing. We’ve all been there.
Be encouraged in knowing you are not alone in the falling to temptations, but also know you are called to move forward, “to put away your former way of life, your old self… and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. – Ephesians 2:4-10
(Followed Scripture reading with the above video “Grace” from Igniter Media)
I love that: “God has us right where God wants us – to shower us with God’s grace.”
As a mom, I can only imagine what fun it was for those boys to get the assignment to cover themselves in mud first thing in the morning! And how beautiful to go from that moment of knowing they are in big, big trouble, to realizing they were forgiven, loved, and baptized in grace.
You are saved by God’s grace.
One of the privileges of being a pastor is the gift of making hospital visits. As members of our congregation, friends and family are in the hospital, I get to visit with patients, listen for a while, and pray with them.
Sometimes I get called in to rooms of people who are not part of our church.
Several months ago was one of those occasions. I came to visit a patient named Steve before he faced a serious heart surgery. Steve had been in and out of the hospital several years with health issues, and this surgery was a final medical effort to help him. This particular surgery was risky, and Steve was given about a 50% chance of surviving the procedure. (pause)
While there are classes in Pastoral Care in seminary, nothing really prepares you for what to say in these moments. What would you say? I don’t know the “right answer,” but here is what I said.
As I met with Steve in this sacred, pre-surgery space, Steve was very quiet. I could sense that Steve had been spending a lot of time reflecting on his prognosis, on his life and on his choices. I asked him how he was doing, what he was thinking. What I learned was that Steve had made some questionable choices throughout his years and lived kind of a wild life. He struggled with various addictions and hurt a lot of people. Because of his choices, he was estranged from his fairly religious family. He had been rejected from his church and from his family for decades.
What I learned as Steve was possibly facing the end of his life, was that he was afraid he had done so many bad things in his life, was so far away from God, that he really believed there was no way he could be forgiven.
He believed he had just messed up too much to be saved. For Steve, this was a message that was reinforced by the church he grew up in, a church that labeled him a “sinner” and kicked him out of the faith. Maybe there have been times when you felt like that too.
As I sat with this man who had been suffering for so long, it struck me in our conversation how important the messages we teach as a church are, and the amount of emotional and spiritual damage we can do with a harmful, judgmental theology.
I have been United Methodist my entire life. I’m curious, are there any others in this room who would consider themselves lifelong United Methodists?
If my grandmother were still alive, she would tell you that I was “born Methodist.” I tell you this upfront because it’s probably fair for you to know that United Methodism runs deep for me. My aunt and uncle were United Methodist pastors. United Methodism is the lens through which I see the world. It is how I have always experienced and processed my faith.
And, maybe it sounds corny, or maybe it’s what you’d expect from a pastor, but I love being United Methodist.
I am telling you this first because, in the interest of transparency, you need to know that you are not about to get a three week sermon series on United Methodism from an unbiased source.
Just the same, as a pastor, some of the questions I hear often are: “What does it even mean to be United Methodist?” “How is it different than other types of churches?” “If we are all Christians, why does it matter?” Those are fair questions.
In the next three weeks I hope to share with you some of the most meaningful distinctive characteristics of United Methodism. I believe that our Wesleyan theology (called that because Methodism’s founder was John Wesley) is powerful and beautiful. I also have seen the pain and damage that even well-meaning churches can do to people labeled as sinners.
Today I will talk about our unique understanding of Wesleyan Grace – in particular the three-fold kind of grace that John Wesley called prevenient, justifying and sanctifying (Hang in there! I’ll explain those words as we go along).
My encounter with Steve made me appreciate the theology of grace I’ve always learned about – the knowledge that God’s grace is available for me no matter how messed up I might find myself. I tried my best to share this grace with Steve…and I am so thankful for that heritage of hope, and the blessed assurance that comes from experiencing God’s grace.
Like the kids in the video that opened this message, like Steve, sometimes we may feel like we have gotten ourselves in such a mess that we are beyond redemption. And that’s where grace steps in.
So what is Grace?
Grace is the love and mercy that God gives us because God wants us to have it, not because we have earned it.
It is an undeserved gift and loving action from God through the Holy Spirit. Because God loves us so much, God wants us to experience God’s grace.
John Wesley preached about different types of Grace.
The first type of Grace Wesley called Prevenient Grace, or literally, “the grace that comes before” we are even aware of it. It’s a term most people don’t know, but it just means all of the ways in which God comes into our lives before our conversion.
God is actively present in our entire lives, whether or not we even notice.
Imagine God has the gift of grace just sitting there, ready for us to notice it. We have the option of refusing to accept the gift, but it’s still there waiting for our discovery.
Prevenient grace has a way of preparing you to respond to God when the time is right. Before you even realize God’s grace for you, you may have a sense of how to choose good over evil. God is actively seeking you, wooing you to notice the gift.
Prevenient grace looks like a longing for God in our lives.
In my faith journey, I mentioned that I was “born Methodist.” This means I was baptized as a small child, I grew up going to church and Sunday school. Even though I was going through all of these practices to prepare me, I wasn’t fully aware of God’s grace, or of the importance of that Grace in my life.
We have a tradition in our church of baptizing infants, and this practice is a great illustration of prevenient grace. In infant baptism, we recognize the grace that God has for the baptized, even though the child may not yet understand. The grace is already there.
In the video, it’s the patient dad figure with the garden hose waiting to be noticed.
The second type of Wesleyan grace is “Justifying Grace.” With Justifying grace, or justification, we realize that our sins are forgiven and we can have a restored relationship with God. Everyone’s experience is different, you can think of this as the moment or moments when you realized that Christ’s love for you is real and, in response, you began to live differently.
This can be a grace experienced over a lifetime, or a grace that happens in a sudden moment. With justifying grace, we face a time of conversion or a new beginning in our relationship with God.
In my faith story, I point to a moment at a Christian rock concert when I was 14 years old as my key moment of justifying grace. Although I had the gift of learning about God’s grace my entire life, up until that point I was being prepared for a moment when I would have said “I accepted Christ.” It was a change of heart that was prompted by grace and guided by the Holy Spirit.
In John Wesley’s story, he was raised in a Christian family and had been around church his entire life. His moment of justification was on May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed and sensed that he was saved through the Holy Spirit.
In the lives of many, justifying grace happens without all the fanfare – it’s a sense of assurance that God loves you, forgives you and leads you to transformation…to a sense of healing and wholeness.
In the video, it’s the precious moment when the kids realize they are not going to be punished for their mischief. They are forgiven and loved.
Have you experienced this kind of grace? When did you first know that Christ was real in your life?
Finally, the third type of Wesleyan grace is called sanctifying grace.
The word “sanctify” means to make something holy, set apart. It means to make something clean.
How it works is this:
Once we realize that God’s grace is a gift to us, once we accept that gift and are convinced to turn our ways toward Christ, we enter the lifelong process of sanctification. In simpler terms, once we know and experience God’s grace, we begin the process of learning to be more like Jesus. This is the ongoing experience of God’s graciousness transforming us into who God intends us to be.
There is so much good news in the theology of Grace. Grace means we are all welcome here. No matter what kind of messiness has taken you away from God, God’s grace is for you. We have the opportunity to grow together in our faith, learning together what it means to be Christ followers.
Today in our Back to Grace series, explored John Wesley’s view of Grace, including prevenient grace (the grace that comes before we realize it), justifying grace (the grace that happens when we are justified or converted), and sanctifying grace (the grace that we experience over a lifetime of growing in the faith.)
In the next two Sundays, we will take a closer look at personal and social holiness, the faith practices we can do in response to God’s grace in order to become more like Christ.
We all come in to this space on different parts of our faith journey. You may have always known about God’s love for you, God’s gift of grace and forgiveness for you. Or you may be in a place where you have been deeply wounded, you not only have felt rejected by the Church but you’re even rejecting yourself….keeping yourself from accepting God’s gift of grace.
There may be someone in here this morning who finds they are feeling lost and hurt like Steve I visited in the hospital. If you find yourself in a place of pain, needing to know God’s grace and forgiveness, I want you to really hear these words:
You are forgiven. You can find hope in knowing God’s grace is here for you. You are forgiven.
On the other hand, if you’re in this place and you really are feeling okay, blessed even, I would like to take this message in to a slightly different direction. This morning we have focused on God’s grace for us. Made in the image of God, we are called to accept God’s grace and then, in turn, extend grace to one another. I have a prayer and a challenge for you:
As we move forward as a community of grace, prayerfully seek out those who need to know God’s grace.
Who are your neighbors who desperately need to know about the hope and grace you have found?
Who do you need to invite to know God’s love for them?
My prayer is that each of us can be like the dad in the video. Get out the hose and shower others with God’s grace through your actions.
That is a relaunched vision I would love to see. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
God of grace,
We thank you for being a God who calls out to us, laying down the groundwork so we can discover the love and forgiveness, grace and acceptance you have always had for us. Open our hearts to realize who it is in our lives who needs to experience some of your grace. We pray for our friends and neighbors who are missing out on knowing the love you have for each of us. God, please forgive us when we neglect to show grace to one another, or refuse to even give our own self some grace. Soften our hearts toward all of your children. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Questions to Consider:
How have you experienced God’s grace in your own life?