Christmas Cantata: Once Upon A Night

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 1:76-79. 

This Sunday Tuskawilla UMC’s Sanctuary Choir will share their Christmas Cantata Once Upon A Night. Thank you, Tim, Linda, and choir members for your hours of preparation and spirits of dedication to share this offering of song with us. 

(Thanks for inviting me to sing with you, too!)

My “once upon a night” Christmas Eve story is not nearly as picturesque as that first Christmas night. It was December 24, 2006. Andrew and I arrived to the cabin in the North Georgia Mountains where we would spend our honeymoon just as the sun was setting. We checked in at the lodge to receive our key and to eat dinner…only to get the key and be told that the lodge was closed for the next three days even though we called multiple times to ensure we would be able to eat there over Christmas. 

We had no food with us…save the few remaining cheddar biscuits from Red Lobster in the back seat of the car. And so began our pursuit – on Christmas Eve at 5pm – for a grocery store still open in rural North Georgia. 

Lord have mercy. 

We eventually navigated our way to a Walmart 45 minutes away. Andrew pleaded with the security guard at the front door behind the already closed security gate to let us in to buy some food for the next few days. 

Our Christmas wish was answered; “You have 10 minutes” was all he said. 

Andrew and I split up – I got in line at a register and he took off for frozen foods. When I saw him next he had waffles, frozen pizza, frozen chicken wings, and orange juice. 

Can you guess what we eat every Christmas Eve once we get home from worship!?

It was not glamorous, but it was our first Christmas Eve together. We laugh about it now, but I was so troubled in the moment. I start thinking about what I will eat next while I am currently eating; so, the thought of no access to food for a day or two caused me a great deal of distress. 

I am sure the Holy Family experienced a great deal of distress as they travelled to Bethlehem – Mary, great with child and Joseph, great with lingering concern about his betrothed and her child. And in the dark of night they found sanctuary in a stable-cave. In the dark of night they watched the Light of the world enter this world – our world – and through his life Jesus ushered them – ushers us – out of darkness into marvelous light. 

All once upon a night. 

I hope you will join us as the choir sings the nativity story in a fresh and wonderful light on Sunday morning at our 11am service. Morningsong will gather at 8:30am for prayer, Scripture reading, a meditation, and Holy Communion. Looking forward to worshipping with you on the Third Sunday of Advent. 

Prayer: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”* Amen. 

*”O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The United Methodist Hymnal 230.

Messiah: And He Shall Purify

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Malachi 3:1-3.

It is said that Martin Luther would offer a doctoral robe from the University of Wittenberg to anyone who could successfully reconcile the Apostle Paul’s salvation by faith alone with faith without works is dead from the Apostle James. From my studies of John Wesley I believe he deserves this robe! While he constantly preached salvation by faith alone, Wesley equally advised the need for works that signify an individual pursuing and maturing in the Christian lifestyle.

Wesley learned from a young age that works were needed alongside faith. His mother, Susanna, wrote about the faith development of John and his siblings in a letter she sent to her son:

The children of this family were taught, as soon as they could speak, the Lord’s Prayer…as they grew bigger, were added a short prayer for their parents, and some Collects; a short Catechism, and some portion of Scripture, as their memories could bear.*

Wesley continued his practice of Scripture study, prayer, and faithful conversation in small group and the assembly throughout his adult life. His devotive work – personal and communal – led him to regularly visiting prisons and hospitals and establishing literacy programs. Later Wesley impressed this lifestyle of faith – the combination of private devotion and active participation – upon the Early Methodists involved in classes and bands. Wesley defines these groups as communities “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”** We receive salvation from God and we work out our salvation with God. Wesley understood this to be the nature of salvation and how the people called Methodists mature in our faith.

The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord and one way to prepare for Christ’s coming is to consider our place at the intersection of faith and works. How are you engaging in private devotion? How are you engaging in active participation? What do you receive from these works? How have these works matured your faith? Recalculating to the course of this intersection and/or continuing through this intersection leads us in the ways of holy living – in the ways of holiness. In working out the salvation we have received, we are made well; we are forgiven of our sins and purified in this life.

How will you prepare for Christ’s coming through your faith and works this week? How will you meet, love, and grow with your Savior at your intersection of faith and works?

Prayer: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand. Rank on rank the host of heaven spread its vanguard on the way, as the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day, that the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.”*** Amen.

*Letter from Susanna Wesley to John Wesley, July 24, 1732.

**Albert Outler, John Wesley 178.

***”Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” The United Methodist Church 626.

Messiah: Comfort Ye My People

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Isaiah 40:1-5.

I cannot sleep in hospitals. I had 27 opportunities to sleep in a hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education unit, but I was never successful. So rather than restlessly turn over in a broken recliner in the chaplain’s office wishing for sleep that would not come, I walked the halls.

One night as I walked I heard soft sobs coming from a room. I gently knocked on the door, said who I was, and asked if I could enter. The sobs stifled and a weak “yes” answered from the far bed. I walked in and found a woman, not much older than me, curled in the fetal position on her bed. She apologized if her sobs had disturbed me from my work, to which I assured her they had not. She went onto explain that she has Addison’s disease and was in the hospital due to her present disease crisis. Her whole body ached in unrelenting pain. She was greatly fatigued, but could not sleep. She was hungry, but could not keep food in her stomach. And so she wept.

I remember looking at her…wanting to fix the situation…wanting to fix her…and then realizing that I could do neither. I was not a medical professional. And I was not (am not) God. There was nothing about her or her condition that I could fix.

What then could I do? And God answered me – “Be Sarah. Be.”

So I be’d with her.

She cried and I held her hand. She spoke and I answered. She was silent and I chose to listen to her evening breath rather than fill the room with my words.

My shift ended just before breakfast. I thanked her for the invitation to be in her room. She thanked me for comforting her. Our mutual gratitude was the benediction we shared.

As I reflect on God’s command to “Comfort my people,” I am again reminded that to comfort is first to be and not to fix. Some things cannot be fixed – in the present moment or at all. Other things can be fixed – but it is not always me (you/us) that can (or should) fix them.

Be-ing is a gift and ability that God gives each of us. We are created for relationship – with God and with one another. We are created for community and care. We are created to give and receive comfort.

We can do/fix for others without truly knowing them or taking time to know them. Comfort, however, cannot be done at a distance. We have to get close to people; we have to invite people to be close to us. And in getting close to people, we may have to step into a place of powerlessness, realizing there are things we cannot do and receive God’s invitation to beautifully be.

Prayer: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears. O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”*

*”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal 211.

On The Top Shelf

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 23:33-43.

This Sunday the Rev. Dr. Steve Harper will share a message entitled “On The Top Shelf” at both our Morningsong and 11am Worship Services.

I met Steve for the first time in my small group interview for membership as a provisional elder in the Florida Conference in January 2010. I was terrified walking into that small group room and Steve was a very kind face.

I remember him asking me about my definition of sin in my paperwork; I had defined sin as some kind of radical evil in the world. Steve wondered if I had an example of this kind of radical evil and so I shared a story about a conversation with the Senior Pastor I served with my last year of seminary. A person could stand on the front door step of the church, look across the field, and see the steeple of another United Methodist Church. I asked Jennie what our church’s relationship was with our neighbor church when a member walked up behind me and said, “We don’t have a relationship with them; that’s where the slaves worship.”

That was in the Fall of 2009.

2009.

I looked at Steve and said, “Sin is some kind of radical evil.” He nodded his head in agreement and my interview continued.

As Jesus hung on the cross, he looked into sin – some kind of radical evil – and gave his life so that we would live. Above him hung a cross that read “King of the Jews”. The Romans meant it as one more jab at our Savior, but Jesus’ friends and followers knew it to be true. Here, our humble King, is dying for you, for them, and for me.

Our King did not come as expected. Jesus did not have a grand entry into the world. He was born to an unwed mother and his earthly father was suspect of the whole situation. He was born in a borrowed cave surrounded by animals. He lived like a vagabond with no place to lay his head.

Jesus was encouraged by generous hospitality and lived not on bread alone but feasted on the word of God. He served, he sacrificed, and he saved.

Jesus revealed the presence of God’s Kingdom in the real world. The in-breaking of the Kingdom is not loud and overbearing; it was as soft as a baby’s cry and greets us like a kind face and an open hand. Our King did not and does not demand obedience; he invited and invites obedience. Jesus wants relationships not constituents under requirements.

Jesus is our King in a new Kingdom. Jesus is our King that looks in the face of sin and all radical evils and does not turn away. Jesus is our King that is leading us in ways where we will all be one – male and female, Jew and Gentile, black and white, slave and free.

It is true that Scripture speaks of a day where every knee will bow before Jesus and every tongue will confess his Lordship. And when I picture bowing before Jesus, I see him reaching for me with his arms, to raise me to my feet, and then embracing me to his chest. This is the King I know. This is the King I serve. This is the King that changed my life and I believe is changing the world. Because of his transformation in me, I offer myself to be used by him in the beautiful transformation of others.

I look forward to worshipping with you and learning from Steve this week. Thank you, Steve, for the gift of your leadership and sharing with the Tuskawilla Family. Thank you for the kind face and guiding presence you continue to be in my life.

Prayer: “Almighty God, who gave your Son Jesus Christ a realm where all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; make us loyal followers of our living Lord, that we may always hear his word, follow his teachings, and live in his Spirit; and hasten the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord; to your eternal glory. Amen.”*

*”For Reign of Christ,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 421.

You Must Take Up Christ’s Cross and Follow Him

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 29:11 and Matthew 16:24, 25:40.

Dearest Members and Friends of Tuskawilla UMC,

I am so very humbled by all the expressions of appreciation I have received over the past few weeks – the cards, sweets, grill seasoning and apron, gift cards for date nights and coffee, contributions to my shoe fund (are you surprised!?), dinner out with the staff, and ELEVEN fruit trees for the parsonage! These gifts have truly warmed my heart and will continue to do so!

I also received one gift of appreciation that literally made me laugh out loud – an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (And I prefer mine with tabasco!) Elephants – figuratively – represent hurdles, obstacles, and big ole bumps in the road. And while I have encountered a number of elephants since arriving at Tuskawilla, I am not discouraged.

Confession: I may be initially discouraged, but because of the strength of this congregation’s leadership and the wonderful friendships that I have here, Onward! and Forward! have become my rally cries when I see another pachyderm appear.

In Matthew 16 Jesus makes the first prediction about his death and resurrection; “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day.” And Peter lost it! “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” And Jesus turned to his friend, his principle disciple and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts…All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them” (Mt 16:21-25).

Sometimes our thoughts, worries, desires, ambitions, projects, and motivations become stumbling blocks that manifest into elephants. Sometimes circumstances caused by others become stumbling blocks that manifest into elephants. These elephants have the potential to distract us from God’s work and God’s intentions. Jesus shows us in this encounter with Peter that when we encounter an elephant, which Jesus calls a cross, we are not to run the other way. We have to work our way Forward! and Onward! in pursuit of God’s plan and God’s desires.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes, writes the following on Matthew 16:24,

Crosses are so frequent, that whoever makes advantage of them, will soon be a great gainer. Great crosses are occasions of great improvement: and the little ones, which come daily, and even hourly, make up in number what they want in weight. We may in these daily and hourly crosses make effectual oblations (offerings) of our will to God; which oblations, so frequently repeated, will soon amount to a great sum.*

In Christ elephants – crosses – transform from obstacles to opportunities for offerings. When facing adversity – whatever adversity – we have a choice – to turn the other way or to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

After I unwrapped the elephant, Samantha said, “Looks like you are starting another collection in your office.” By the time Charge Conference concluded I had my second elephant! And bonus! Both elephants have upturned trunks. In Nepal, elephants that have their trunks turned up bring good fortune. They still require work, but they bring good fortune.

It is even better with the crosses we bear for and with our Christ – they require work, but they bring everlasting life.

Please join us in worship this week as Dean Paulus shares with us a very good word on these texts from Jeremiah and Matthew. I am looking forward to worshipping with you and learning from Dean.

Sweet Blessings,

Pastor Sarah

 Prayer: “We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord. And we pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.**

*http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/matthew/matthew-16.html 

**”They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” The Faith We Sing, 2223.

Take Courage

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Haggai 2:1-9.

“Take courage,” says the prophet. But what does that mean?

For me to “take courage” means to show up, to take responsibility, to persevere, to speak truth in love, to work, and to repeat.

There are many days where I hear Prissy’s famous line in the back (or front) of my head, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” except I replace “birthin’ babies!” with some other obstacle I am facing that day.

(Though truly, I also do not know anything about birthing babies!)

What I do know is this – that when I am afraid, when I feel low, when I face adversity, when I am met with the unknown I have two choices – take courage or take a hike. “Take courage,” says the Lord, “for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4).

Our God calls us to a full an abundant life and it is a life for which we must work. Early in the garden after The Fall, God said to Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17-19). Some may read this and think that God is telling Adam – telling humanity – to take a hike, but I hear these words in a different light. Yes, after The Fall our relationship with God and God’s plan for humanity was dramatically transformed, but that does not mean that our God does not want and does not intend good things for us.

Yes, we will toil – and we will eat. Yes, in the fields we will endure thorns and thistles and the fields will also produce our food. Yes, we will sweat and we will have bread. And yes, we will return to the ground from whence we were taken – we are from God, we return to God, and in the in-between time God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

So in the hard days – and it seems like there are many especially in this season – take courage, my friends. Show up, take responsibility, persevere, speak truth in love, work, and then repeat all of that again and again and again.

Our God is with us – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Prayer: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life. Say to the Lord, “My refuge, my rock in whom I trust!” … The snare of the fowler will never capture you and famine will bring you no fear. Under his wings your refuge, his faithfulness your shield … You need not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. Though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come … For to his angels he’s given a command to guard you in all of your ways. Upon their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone … And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.”* Amen.

*”On Eagle’s Wings,” The United Methodist Hymnal 143.

A Special Treat

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 19:1-10 (Morningsong) and 1 Samuel 17 (11am Blended Worship)

On Monday Andrew and I took his brother, Josh, a pumpkin. Josh is interred at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell and Halloween was (is) his favorite holiday. Oh the mischief Andrew and Josh would cause on Halloween.

One Halloween they kept changing their costumes – full wardrobe changes at first and then only minor changes towards the end – as they revisited the same house again and again. Why that house? Four words: full.size.candy.bars.

Andrew and Josh did not start out as friends. They started out having a fist fight…and then they became friends. And once they were friends, the two were instantly brothers. If you were to ask my in-laws or Josh’s parents, I am sure they would say that a common phrase between Andrew and Josh was “I am coming to your house today!” To hang out, to sleep over, to build something in the garage, to scheme the next prank, to plot resistance against “the man” (whatever or whoever “the man” was that week), to laugh, to live. “I am coming to your house today.”

Wherever Josh was, there Andrew would be and vice versa.

My heart breaks because Andrew cannot have those experiences with Josh right now…but that will not be the case forever. We trust, we believe faithfully that God is bringing us all – bringing them – together again.

Jesus shocked the crowd when he announced that he was going to Zacchaeus’ house. Perhaps some hoped that Jesus was going there to “clean house” or spare Zacchaeus the public ridicule and shame of being rebuked by the Savior before his peers. But that was not Jesus’ intent. Jesus’ intent was to build community and include rather than further exclude the tax collector. Jesus wanted Zacchaeus, who had been so far from Jesus as evidenced by his behavior, to come near to him. Zacchaeus, this tax collector, this culturally despised man, this swindler, this con – Jesus had so many reasons to come to blows with this man. And yet Jesus does not throw a fist, but offers a hand. “I am coming to your house today.”

Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). Through his repentance and reconciliation – through admitting his wrong and repaying his neighbors – Zacchaeus turned his will towards the Father’s and embraced his kinship with Jesus.

We visit Josh to remember. We visit Josh so that Andrew and Josh can hang out. We visit Josh so Andrew can tell him what has been built in the garage, report on completed pranks, update resistance plans, and laugh. We visit Josh as an act of living and leave Josh’s side with a renewed sense of calling: Who will we invite to our house today? What homes will we ask to enter? What new and continuing relationships will we nurture? How will we see Christ in others and invite them to see Christ in us?

Remember this Sunday’s treat: Join me for the 8:30 Morningsong Service and then plan to stay for worship at 11am as Andrew preaches on David and Goliath from I Samuel. I am looking forward to my time at both Tusakwilla and Azalea Park UMCs this weekend! The Millers are excited to see you in worship on Sunday!

Prayer: “Called forth from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth; our charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name professing and at one table fed, to one hope always pressing, by Christ’s own Spirit led.” Amen.

*”The Church’s One Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal 546.