Giving Up: Enemies

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 19:37-44.

Sometime last week Andrew and I stumbled upon a showing of “Miss Congeniality” on network television. I am a big fan of Sandra Bullock; so, of course, we watched the movie. The film occurs at a national scholarship program *cough* beauty pageant *cough* that includes evening wear, swim wear, talent, and interview competitions. The irony of the interview competition is that no matter the question – no matter the respondent – the correct answer is “world peace.”

Reminds me of when I taught Children’s Sunday School and no matter the question – no matter the respondent the correct answer was “Jesus, God, prayer, church, share!”

(You know it’s true…)

Whenever my 10th grade History Teacher – Mr. Hinthorne – would introduce a new (past) global skirmish in his lectures he would name the groups involved and then ask, “Why can’t we all just get along?” It took my class quite sometime to realize his question was rhetorical…and oh so profound.

Getting along is a part of peace; it is a building block in the peace process. Jesus accuses Jerusalem of disregarding this building block. We heard it – we can imagine it – peoples from different places and circumstances uniting their voices in praise of the Messiah. But the praise is quickly muted by the grumbling of the Pharisees telling Jesus to subdue his followers into silence. This grumbling on Palm Sunday will end in Jesus’ groaning in his Passion. He will bear on his body how the people that surrounded him on Palm Sunday chose a way other than peace.

When we get along, when we participate in peacemaking – not just with those that we already get along with, but with folks that we are different from – we participate in creating unity, harmony, safety, and prosperity. When we participate in peacemaking we continue following the path the Prince of Peace lays before us and we bear the fruit – we show the evidence – of our salvation in Christ.

Getting along is an act I practice by

  1. Talking less and listening more.
  2. Truly listening rather than listening to prepare a response.
  3. Finding ways to walk alongside folks from a variety of life experiences through conversation, non-fiction reading, documentaries, and more.
  4. Making the first move to seek forgiveness and reconcile.

We are a people meant for peace. We are disciples of the Prince of Peace. And I think, on the whole, people would like there to be – we hope for there to be – peace. But do we think that peace is achievable? Is peace just a wish or can peace be our reality?

Peace can be our reality if we apply ourselves to acts of peacemaking. Mr. Hinthorne was right – it all starts with getting along. It is a big task, but we are more than capable. God calls us to this work and provides us with the strength and courage to complete it.

Prayer: “For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation. Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee, think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.”* Amen.

*”Ah, Holy Jesus,” The United Methodist Hymnal 289.

Giving Up: Superiority

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 4:5-26.

One of our earliest lessons as children is learning opposites, and in learning opposites, we learn to identify differences.

The opposite of up is down. The opposite of left is right. The opposite of yes is no. The opposite of stop is go.

Opposites are not bad. Identifying differences is not bad. What has the potential to be bad is if or when we allow opposites and identifying differences to seed and fertilize feelings of superiority – that one side, opinion, or belief is better and therefore superior to another.

How fascinated we are in drawing artificial lines between us. These lines can be used to set ourselves apart – to identify ourselves from what we are and what we are not, to recognize a given position of leadership or achievement. But when these identifications or recognitions feed into a system where “never the twain shall meet” – meaning there is no opportunity for these two people or two groups of people (or more) to unite – this is indeed a problem.

Jesus was set apart. As Messiah, as God’s Son, he was different from his family, colleagues, and friends he met and served in his ministry. He was different, but he did not operate in the world of opposites and identified differences.

The opposite of Savior is sinnerThe opposite of King is commoner.

No. This is not our Jesus.

Jesus, full of grace and peace, met people where they were. He met them in their doubt, questioning, and uncertainty. Jesus crossed perceived lines that would keep unlikely people apart. He did not consider himself superior, even though he was and is God. Rather,   Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8).

Jesus as God’s Son could have picked up his crown and not bothered with women, Samaritans, lepers, the blind, the lame, or outcasts of any sort. But our Jesus picked up a towel instead, wrapped it around his waist, and served. He served all people. He saved all people.

Jesus serves and saves still.

As Jesus crossed perceived lines of opposites and difference, so should we. He poured himself out and was never without; he was immediately filled again so he could continue in his service. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and will be replenished by that same Spirit whenever we share its power and graces with others. But to be with others – to meet them where they are – first means getting beyond ourselves. Beyond our own comfort zones. Beyond our own opinions. Beyond our own perceived ideas of superiority.

We must lay down any crowns we have fashioned so that we, too, can pick up a towel as is exampled for us by our Lord.

Prayer: “Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!  Thou our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine. Mortals, join the mighty chorus which the morning stars began; love divine is reigning o’er us, binding all within its span. Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife; joyful music leads us sunward, in the triumph song of life.”* Amen.

*”Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” The United Methodist Hymnal 89.

 

 

Giving Up: Expectations

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 3:1-17.

When I think about my life, I realize I live between high expectations and contentment. I have high expectations for myself; I desire excellence and therefore seek to serve excellently in all tasks. I also seek to practice contentment, which is a grounding skill. Practicing contentment returns me to the knowledge that I am because God loves; I am not by what I do or do not produce.

The thought of giving up expectations makes me quite nervous (1) because of my desire to be in control (still working on that!) and (2) because I feel that expectations provide me with direction. But giving up expectations also creates space for God to do one of the things God does best, which is surprise me – surprise us!

Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, does something surprising; he seeks Jesus out at night to ask him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born” (Jn 3:4)? Having grown up in Jewish systems of thought and expectations all his life – and serving as a teacher in these systems and with those expectations – Nicodemus courageously ventures to think a new thought and consider a new paradigm. Nicodemus was familiar with the practice of repentance and seeking forgiveness of sins. Nicodemus was familiar with baptism – participating in a ritual that declared a person’s devotion to a particular group or belief. And in his encounter with Jesus, he is surprised to learn that to receive eternal life, he must be born again by water and the Spirit.

If Nicodemus remains so committed to the systems of thought and expectations he knows and teaches, he may miss out on the surprise of what lies beyond them – the surprise and blessing of resurrection.

In giving up expectations we receive (and hopefully accept!) the invitation to trust God. And in trusting God, we live into contentment. We are because God loves; we are not by what we do or do not produce.

Join the Rev. Kate Ling and the Quest Sunday School Class this Sunday as they offer their leadership during Tuskawilla’s worship services. I will be serving with TUMC’s youth on the Confirmation Retreat Friday evening through Sunday afternoon and then at Gator Wesley Sunday evening. Thank you, Pastor Kate and Quest Members, for your preparation and service, dear friends!

Prayer: “God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name, I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name, and in Jesus’ name I come to you, to share his love as he told me to. He said, ‘Freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give. Go in my name, and because you believe, others will know that I live.'”* Amen.

“Freely, Freely,” The United Methodist Hymnal 389.

Giving Up: Control

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11.

As I scrolled through social media this morning a fellow pastor and friend posted this as his status,

Lent is kind of annoying. Kind of like Jesus. 

At first I thought, “*name has been removed to protect the innocent*, did you really just write that!?” And then as the words washed over me, I realized…Lent is kind of annoying. Kind of like Jesus.

Lent is the season of the church year that is the antithesis of a spiritual warm fuzzy. Lent is not fuzzy; it is scratchy – scratchy like burlap, scratchy like sackcloth, scratchy like ash on my forehead.

If we choose to lean into Lent, then we choose to lean into our lack. We participate in the sort of self examination where the answer is always you have been found wanting. We look at our sin full on in the face, and in doing so, look deeply into our mortality.

“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Ex 20:5) .

“For the wages of sin is death”(Rom 6:23a).

Ouch, Lent. Ouch.

I believe leaning into our lack presents us with two opportunities:

(A) We could become so consumed by our lack that it defeats us. We could throw our hands up in the air. We could roll our eyes at Jesus. We could question (could yell) “What is this life of faith even about? Why are you making me feel worse than I already am? See, I was right; you are just here to judge me!”

(How many of our friends that do not have a relationship with God or are hurting in their relationship with God share these words on a regular basis?)

OR

(B) We could see in our lack – and in recognizing our lack – that God is near. That God’s grace is abundant. That it is annoying to unlearn or change present behaviors so that we are transformed into God’s people who are on the path towards life rather than death.

God is not here to judge us. God is here to love us and to give to us – be for us – the example of holding one another accountable for our actions and behaviors so that we will be a people of life rather than a people of death.

If we continue reading in the two Scriptures quoted previously, see how grace is present in the next breath,

“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:5-6).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). 

During the Season of Lent the Tuskawilla Family will study our way through a sermon series entitled Giving Up, which will encourage us to give up practices or learned behaviors not just for this season, but forever. Giving something up – a regular practice for some during Lent – can be annoying, but I encourage you, if you give something up, to see it as an opportunity to recognize the nearness of God and God’s grace to you in this time (and at all times!).

The life of a disciple is necessarily a life of change – of giving up and taking on, of leading and following, of serving where comfortable and serving beyond our comforts. In all of these environments, God perfects our faith, Jesus strengths our compassion, and the Holy Spirit feeds our appetites for further work in the Kingdom. Essential to this growth in the knowledge and love of our Triune God is recognizing the depth of our need for God’s incredible grace. The Season of Lent, then, is a unique opportunity for us to look into our lack – which can be oh so annoying – and find God’s grace – which is oh so abundant.

Prayer: “O God our deliverer, you led your people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.*”

*”Lent,” The United Methodist Hymnal 268.

Mountain Meditation: Sure Foundations

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 7:21-29.

This week I have the privilege of gathering with 30 pastors from around the Florida Annual Conference to participate in the third retreat for the 2016-2017 Generative Church Leadership Academy. This retreat – ironically? with greatest timeliness? both? – subjects seeing, knowing, and serving our neighbors.

As Mordecai said to Esther, “For such a time as this…” (Es 4:14).

Recently I attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting at Winter Springs High School with the one, the only, Ashley Lilly. The student offering the lesson that day posed the following questions to his classmates – “What does it mean to be a Christian” – and invited those present to respond. I was struck by how many of the responses were epistemically based – episteme meaning belief.

“Believe in God.” “Believe in the holy Bible.” “Trust in Jesus.” And more.

As Ashley and I left FCA that day I asked her what she thought about the responses, and immediately she replied, “Being a Christian is about the believing and the doing. It’s not just something you think or say. It’s something that you live.”

That response earned a fist bump…my heart was and is so warm.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ashley. When I think about our sure foundation, the bedrock of Christianity, it is believing and doing. It is faith and works. It is showing we are Christians by our love. It is seeing, knowing, and serving our neighbors.

The Apostle James asked, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas 2:14-18). This is the ongoing work of sanctification (right, Gravity Youth!). This is the ongoing work of being made holy in this life.

Many, if not all, of us in the Tuskawilla Faith Family will agree that recently this has been a very hard season for our church. We have experienced the deaths of very dear friends and loved ones, we have watched folks we love navigate broken health and relationships, we have experienced the ebb of transition across all our ministries. I believe there are two stances we can take on what we are in the midst of: (1) we can be angry (and trust me – I have had many angry days) or (2) we can take this opportunity to return to the firm foundation of our faith, to our bedrock, to seeing, knowing, and serving our neighbors.

I don’t know about you – but I would rather serve than seethe. So that is what I will do. And I hope you, Tuskawilla Family, will continue serving with me.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate with my colleagues at GCLA this week. And I am hopeful for how what is learned will further equip our ministry and mission and TUMC.

Prayer: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her lord; she is his new creation by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died. Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”* Amen.

*”The Church’s One Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal 545.

 

Mountain Meditation: The Narrow Gate

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 7:13-14.

Early on in my undergraduate studies my professors taught me that every one is a theologian; each individual person is engaged in the work and study of God. Theologians like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were known to recommend doing the work of theology with a Bible before you, a pint in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. With this recommendation came the understanding that theology was – and is – meant to be lived. We do not practice theology or grow in our study and understanding of God in isolated laboratories. We enter a certain space week after week for concentrated exposure to theology and as we leave, it is not as if we place our work on hold to be picked up again the next week. We are meant to carry what we have learned, what we have seen, what we have felt in worship into the world with us to see how it carries, how it sustains, to determine whether or not what we have ahold of is the wheat or the chaff.

A question of theology that comes up with regularity is the question of pre-destination – does God predestine some people for exaltation and others for condemnation? A person could read any number of texts from Scripture – including our passage for this week – and answer the question of pre-destination in the affirmative. But does God really?

“Pastor Sarah, what do you think?”

The doctrine of pre-destination states that God has selected some for exaltation in glory and others for condemnation in eternity. The doctrine states that God has this decision made from the outset of time, that our works can neither argue our case for the better or deteriorate our position for the worst. If this doctrine holds, it smacks up against the understanding that we (humanity) have free will; are our choices really our own – really free – if God has pre-destined everything?

United Methodist Theology – based upon the sermons, journals, and speeches of John Wesley – does not ascribe to the belief of pre-destination. Now, John Wesley was a theologian and a cracking preacher, but he was not a systemitician – a person that constructs a rational or coherent system of thought. While some theologians spent a bulk of their work articulating their understandings of the foundations of the earth, which then connected to their understandings of the foundation of faith, Wesley accepted work from fellow theologians as his starting place and continued the dialogue in agreement with or resistance to that theological thought.

Wesley strongly believed that humanity has free will – that we are free to choose or refuse the gift of God’s grace – and that God’s grace would not be forced upon us because then it would not be a gift. Wesley also strongly believed in the benevolence of God; therefore, in his thought, there was no way that God would choose some for exaltation and others for condemnation. Wesley believed all humanity would be held accountable for our actions before God and that because of God’s grace we would be able – and strengthened – to stand on the day of judgment.

Theologians after Wesley’s day continued the quest to offer a response (resistance) to the doctrine of pre-destination. The response that settled in my heart is this one – that God chooses all people for exaltation and chooses sin of condemnation. “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). The Ecumenical Apostles’ Creed includes that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” When Jesus descended to the dead, he descended to conquer sin, and to conquer the consequence of sin, which is death. His rising on the third day shows his triumph over what humanity thought was our ultimate defeat, and in rising, Jesus secures hope of resurrection for all that died before and will die after him.

I believe we have free will. I believe it is our choice to follow Jesus through the narrow gate and up the path that is beyond it. I believe God holds us accountable for our words, signs, and deeds. I believe God’s grace emboldens and redeems. I have seen and continue to see evidence of this in my life – my Bible before me, a news source in one hand, and a pint of coffee in the other.

How have you experienced your faith intersecting with your daily life? How do you consider yourself a theologian and apply yourself to the work and study of God?

Prayer: “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”* Amen.

*”Come, Thou Fount,” The United Methodist Hymnal 400.

Mountain Meditation: Don’t Worry; Be Mindful

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 6:24-34.

If there were a prize for worrying…I would be worried that I would not receive the prize.

Can you relate?

In the right doses worrying can help us. Worrying can alert  us to dangers. Worrying may contribute to (prod…instigate…motivate) our decision making practices. Worrying can move us from inactivity to activity.

On the other hand, worrying can become obsessive and incapacitating. Worrying can crescendo the feeling of being overwhelmed to the feeling of being completely paralyzed.

In his book What is the Opposite of Worry Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen names three powerful antidotes to worry:

  1. Being held in loving arms,
  2. Cultivating a soothing inner voice, and
  3. Befriending all of your emotions.

When I was in high school I spent many Sundays serving in the church nursery with many of First Lakeland’s youngest worshippers. One boy I remember in particular, his name is Zachary, would cry unconsolably when his mother brought him to the nursery – new place, new people, no Mama. We would try every trick in the book to engage (distract) Zachary with a toy, stuffed animal, or book. Not interested. And so the caregivers would take turns holding him close to our chests. With time his accelerated heart beat would slow as he listened to and felt the caregiver’s heartbeat. He would cry into the crook of the caregiver’s neck until he felt safe enough to peek out into the room. And then we would watch his progression from peeking out his gaze, to lifting his head, to wanting to be turned around to face the room, to leaving the caregiver’s lap to play on the floor. Zachary had every right to worry, but his time spent in loving arms assured him that Mama would be back soon, that he was safe, and that it was, in fact, okay for him to have a little fun without her.

From being held in loving arms and hearing soothing voices I believe we develop soothing inner voices. We learn how to self-comfort. We learn how to have a moment of being out of control and then safely coming back into control. But to find and raise up our personal voices, it is vital that we hear soothing voices. That we hear we are beloved. That we hear we are cherished. That we hear we are made in the image of God and that makes us worthy and special. That we hear that nothing can take away God’s love from us. I believe one of the best pieces of advice given to John Wesley was this, “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it, preach faith.” The same principal applies here, “Say the words of a soothing inner voice – for yourself and others – until you have it, and because you have it, say these words.”

Having a soothing and rational inner voice (I know – I know…it may take a while to hear the rational side, but it is important, too) creates a platform for us to draw near to all of our emotions. We are complex beings. We feel and experience along a huge spectrum! I do not think it is helpful to call some feelings and emotions good and others bad because all of them sum up who we are. Rather, if we are able to connect with each of our feelings – to understand them as well as our responses and reactions to them – we learn endurance. We gain perspective. We learn from the past moments as we look forward to the future.

These combined antidotes – being held in loving arms, cultivating a soothing inner voice, and befriending all your emotions – leads to what Cohen calls practicing mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness, argues Cohen, is the opposite of worry. Sort of like Tai Chi where the flow of energy is received and immediately redirected somewhere else rather than internalized, so we should approach worry: recognize the circumstance, feel what is felt, name it, respond to it, if appropriate, and then let it go so you are prepared for what may be coming next.

I believe Cohen rightly calls mindfulness a practice. It takes time to develop. It takes intentional behavior and commitment. And I believe it yields great peace – the kind of peace that passes all understanding.

Join us this Sunday as Samantha Aupperlee shares a message with us on this Scripture passage and topic! Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your leadership in worship!

Prayer: “O come and sing this song with gladness as your hearts are filled with joy. Lift your hands in sweet surrender to his name. O give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.”* Amen.

*”Spirit Song ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 347.