Given Everything

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:38-44.

When I think about “my pastor” I think about Riley Short. He was appointed to my home church – First UMC Lakeland – when I was in elementary school and retired the year I graduated from high school. I grew up with him as he grew up my church.

When I was in seventh grade I drew the “short straw” – as in I was not in Sunday School one day so I was “voluntold” the next week that I would be preaching all three services at our upcoming Youth Sunday. I was terrified. The sermon was on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. I used way too many “air-quotes” and talked way too fast. It was awful.

Riley asked me to stand with him in the greeting line after the 11 o’clock service that day. He had his arm around my shoulder the entire time, the look of great pride and pleasure across his face. When we concluded all our greetings, Riley squeezed me a little tighter to his side, looked me in the eye, and said, “You will be a great preacher one day.”

I do not know about the “great preacher” part – but those words that Riley spoke in my life and into my life have profoundly shaped me to this day. And they will continue to shape me beyond this day. Those words, which to some may have seemed so small, so minor, perhaps even flattery without any real grounding in reality, gave me everything.

They offered me life.

The offerings that we make throughout our lives – with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness – with our words, actions, and deeds – with our hugs and handshakes – with our taking the time rather than rushing the time – make all the difference in the world. What may seem like just a small drop in the bucket create ripples of change – and if we are aware – we see that the change impacts not only our neighbor, but us as well.

If we move too quickly in life, we will miss opportunities to give and therefore receive. If we think too highly of ourselves, much like the Scribes in our Scripture passage for this week, then our behavior is not only a detriment to our neighbors – it is also a detriment to ourselves. God asks that when we give, we give what is most valuable in that moment. Therefore, what we give may change from moment to moment – that we give is to remain constant…constant and dynamic.

Our offerings – be they our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness – our words, actions, and deeds – our hugs and handshakes – our taking the time rather than rushing the time – make all the difference in the world. Our offerings are opportunities for us to speak life and speak into the lives of one another and our neighbors. How awesome it is that our God gives us this privilege – this responsibility! Receive it with care. And share your offerings with great joy.

In the words of Riley, “And that’s the truth…Amen.”

Prayer: “Give thanks for tomorrow, full of surprises for knowing whatever tomorrow may bring, the Word is our promise always, forever; we rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love.”* Amen.

*”What Gift Can We Bring,” The United Methodist Hymnal 87.

 

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The Lord Builds This House

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 127:1.

When I was in sixth grade my parents decided to sell our house and build a new house across town. For six months our family of four lived in a two bedroom apartment. I slept on the couch and shared a closet with my brother.

Never.again.

(Not the sleeping on the couch – the sharing the closet with my brother.)

Every Monday through Saturday evening had the same routine:

  • Family came home – from work, school, errands, or activities
  • Family ate dinner together
  • Family loaded into the car to make the three mile drive to see the new house.

Every Monday through Saturday evening for six months.

Never.again.

(Sorry Dad.)

My father wanted daily visual confirmation of what work had been accomplished. He and my mother made quite an investment in that house; they wanted to see the fruit of their investment from dug footers to the shingled roof to everything in between.

(Like any sixth grader, my biggest concern was that I would have the bigger bedroom. After all…I slept on the couch for six months… I did get the bigger bedroom, but Charlie had the bigger closet. Can’t win ’em all.)

I found those daily pilgrimages to the new house very frustrating. I was not interested in how the house was built; I lacked the patience – or maybe it was the attention – to spot what was new each time we pulled up to the curb or crossed the threshold. My priority was that the house was built. Until then, the daily visits were daily reminders of how much longer I had to wait.

(And waiting is the worst…c’mon November.)

My predisposition remains towards that things are made or completed rather than how they are made or completed…which is probably why God continues to draw me into problem solving situations as well as circumstances where I have to move from A to B without knowing the way forward.

(While a straight line would be the quickest commute – the church world tends to prefer winding paths and loop-de-loops…)

Why the winding paths? Why the loop-de-loops? Why the detours or dead ends? There is one common denominator – people.

Whenever I encounter a roadblock in my yoga practice, I acknowledge that there is a person in my way…and that person is me. If I am afraid of a pose, if I fall out of a pose, if I “fake it till I make it” in a pose rather than applying myself to the process of learning the pose from the ground up – the person standing in the way is me.

Similarly, I believe when the church encounters roadblocks in our problem solving or in moving forward, it is usually because of people. Sometimes it is malicious in nature, but more often than not, we stand in our own way because of fear, uncertainty, and uncooperativeness – with God and with one another. God wants the church – the Body of Christ – to accomplish the work before us – to ensure that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. God also wants the church – each church – our church – to be faithful in figuring out how our work is done.

How the work is done and that the work is done is the responsibility of the whole body of Christ at Tuskawilla. Frustration enters in when this responsibility continually falls on the shoulders of a few.

For Tuskawilla UMC to continue in the way that God intends, we must apply ourselves to both the how and the that. And that we does not just refer to the Executive Council, Leadership Team, retired clergy, present small group and ministry leaders, or pastor – that we applies to all of us. Together God wants us to face our fears, to relinquish our uncertainties, and to cooperatively discern and determine our next steps as a congregation. God wants us to speak truth to one another in love so that we do not hinder or block the next steps God desires us to take. And God wants us to take those steps. One after another after another after another.

God has been about the business of building at Tuskawilla for over three and a half decades. God is not finished yet…and I am eager to see the how and that God will shepherd us to and through next.

Prayer: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”* Amen.

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

Where You Go, I’ll Go

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ruth 1:1-18.

Following the events in Las Vegas late Sunday evening and early Monday morning, I saw a number of people quoting phrases from Warsan Shire’s poem entitled, What They Did Yesterday Afternoon. Shire is a British poet, activist, writer, and teacher, born to Somali parents, and originally from Kenya. Her poems stem from the tension between suffering and belonging – and in that place – she, from writing, and others, from reading – experience healing.

what they did yesterday afternoon

by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Once again – maddeningly, frustratingly, horrifically, crushingly – we as a society, as a species – find ourselves trying to make sense of life after a senseless tragedy. Innocent blood spilled. Questions unanswered. Joy stripped away. Peace voided.

We know too well the environments Shire describes in her poem. We see our places of origin or the places that we spend most of our time “thirsty” and “on fire” – meaning that we see them – we engage them experiencing – great need and crying for help. People are hurting. And unfortunately, hurt people hurt people.

Following a tragedy like the mass shooting in Las Vegas it seems the the hurt compounds further as everyone from family members to neighbors to religious leaders to law makers argue over Second Amendment Rights, gun control, responses to gun violence, and access to quality mental health care. Tempers flare and arguments rage to a boiling point…and then the conversations start to cool…but the hurt remains.

“Where does it hurt?” “Everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

In our Scripture passage this week Ruth covenants to journey on with Naomi, her mother-in-law, though it would make more sense for Ruth to return home to seek better future opportunities. Naomi feels so poorly treated by God that she wishes to change her name to Mara to capture the experience that the Almighty has “dealt bitterly [and] harshly” with her (Ruth 1:20-21). Naomi looks at her life and as her heart bleeds over the losses in her family, she feels abandoned and wants to give up. But she is not alone. Ruth is with her. And I believe Ruth’s presence is the very embodiment of God’s presence – a present gift and promise – of which Naomi needed to be reminded.

In a hurting world we have the opportunity to be the very embodiments of God’s presence – God’s present gift and promise – of which our family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and elected officials need to be reminded. We bear with us the message of the cross – that life has the final word, not death – and that our God’s preferred future for us is one shaped by peace rather than violence.

We bear this message in our bodies and it is also our responsibility to communicate this message – to share and advocate this message – through our words, actions, and deeds. A mentor of mine once told me that hope is a beautiful gift, but hope is not a strategy. We cannot “hope away” conflict, no matter the subject of the conflict. We must come to the table, as hard as it may be, to have conversations, to hear points of view different from our own, to accept that all parties – all sides – must give and take to reach a life-giving solution. I believe these are vital, necessary, and immediate steps that must be taken as we journey in life together.

God calls us to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper; God calls us to be Ruth for whoever is experiencing a period of Naomi.

Wherever Naomi went, Ruth was with her. In the joy and in the hurt. Everywhere everywhere everywhere.

In our journeying together – in compassion, empathy, and advocacy – I believe we can change the answer of Shire’s atlas.

“Where does it hurt?” “Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.”

Prayer: “I can hear my Savior calling, I can hear my Savior calling, I can hear my Savior calling, ‘Take thy cross and follow, follow me.’ Where he leads me I will follow, where he leads me I will follow, where he leads me I will follow; I’ll go with him, with him all the way.”* Amen.

*”Where He Leads Me,” The United Methodist Hymnal 338.

 

 

The Joseph Saga: Final Act of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 50:15-21.

It is said that the Bible declares the message “Do not be afraid” 365 times – one declaration for each day of the year. In Genesis 50 these words draw the dialogue between Joseph and his brothers to a close. In fact, Joseph doubly shares this message of assurance – “Do not be afraid…have no fear” (Gen 50:19, 21).

Sometimes I catch myself living in a world where I am waiting for the other shoe to drop – and they are not always fabulous stilettos. (Life would be so much better if they were!) I feel like I am walking on eggshells around people, around relationships, around responsibilities. Rather than greet the day with anticipation, I greet the day with anxiety. And my friends, that is no way to go about this great life God gifts us. In fact, if the behavior I just described is our primary modus operandi, then I would argue that is not really living at all.

Regularly appointments take me away from the Church Office during office hours and when I leave I encourage the office volunteers to lock themselves in as an extra measure of precaution. And each time I offer this recommendation to one sweet office volunteer, the response is always the same, “Pastor Sarah, I have too much to live for to be afraid.” Some might hear these words and find them reckless, but from their speaker, they are words from a heart brimming with great assurance and peace.

Consider: If Joseph remained fearful of his brothers because of their troubled history, he would have never reunited with his family. If Joseph’s brothers had not bravely stepped into Egypt for help, they would have starved.

Both Joseph and his brothers took risks. Fear often accompanies risk. Risk necessarily involves change – sometimes subtle and other times radical. Often we do not know the result of our venture before we take a risk, before we face our fears. Reason and rationality only bring us so far – and when it comes to risk and fear – reason and rationality typically scream abort abort! The only way, then, for us to move forward, to change, to grow, to truly live as people invested in God’s assurance and the peace it gives, is to take the leap of faith.

What risk are you currently facing? What change? What decision? How are you navigating the fear associated with it? What is your discernment about your upcoming decisions and actions? Are you taking small steps? Are you ready to leap? Are you immobile? Our God says to us again and again, “Do not be afraid…have no fear.”

God is with us. God is bringing all things together for our good. God brings good out of horrific circumstances. I encourage you to take on the posture of our dedicated office volunteer – we have too much to live for to be afraid. May you know that assurance and feel that peace as you take on risks and face your fears this day.

Prayer: “Something beautiful, something good; all my confusion he understood; all I had to offer him was brokenness and strife, but he made something beautiful of my life.”* Amen.

*”Something Beautiful,” The United Methodist Hymnal 394.

 

 

The Joseph Saga: The Truth Comes Out

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 45:1-14.

This has been a trying week for me at Tuskawilla UMC. On Monday we experienced a large scale water leak in the Sanctuary. On Tuesday we had a pipe burst at the parsonage. A friend of mine texted me saying, “Sarah, this is not what you needed following a hurricane!”

Yeah…I am over water at this point. It is necessary and needful…and I like it a whole lot more when it stays where it is supposed to be – offshore away from land, secured by valves, and contained within pipes.

What a week…and we are only halfway!

These water emergencies have thrown off the groove of my typical week. So as I sat down this morning to begin my study on this week’s Scripture text, God brought order to the chaos with these words: “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5b).

Joseph speaks these words to his brothers, affirming that God sent him ahead of his family into Egypt so he would be in a position to help his family – even though they did him harm. I read these words and they resonated deeply in my heart this week in relationship to our church family. God sent our church family ahead of me to preserve life.

Now our water woes this week are certainly not a matter of life or death. Many of our brothers and sisters across Florida, Texas, and especially the Caribbean are facing matters of life and death because of water – they remain in our prayers and a focus of our mission efforts with the creation of hygiene kits and offerings through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Our water woes were a crisis. We did not want to waste anymore water than what was already leaked. We did not want any additional damage to be incurred on our buildings. And we – because of dedicated church family members showing up after a desperate appeal for help – dedicated church family members that God saw and sees fit to draw into relationship and community in this place – preserved life – for our safety, our assets, and our ministries.

I am so very grateful for the students, adults, and families that dropped what they were doing Monday afternoon to come clean up the church, to reorganize materials brought out of closets, and to help me make decisions. I am so very grateful to Wayne Wright and his work to continue cleaning our facility through the night so that hopefully all will be dry before worship gatherings this weekend. I am so very grateful for the resources of our church to rent equipment to clean the church campus and support the repairs at the parsonage. None of this would be possible without YOU, church family. “God sent me [you – each one of you!] before you [me] to preserve life.”

Thank you, my dear church family, for all the ways you have cared for me, my growing family, and your church family this week. Melissa Martin said it best on Sunday afternoon – it takes a village. I am thankful to be one member of yours. See you in worship on Sunday.

Prayer: “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside! Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”* Amen.

*”Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” The United Methodist Hymnal 140.

 

The True Scope of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ Matthew 18:21-35 and Genesis 42:1-16.

This Sunday Andrew and I will pulpit swap for our 11 o’clock worship services. I will lead our Morningsong Service at 8:30am and offer a message entitled “The True Scope of Forgiveness”. I will then travel to Azalea Park UMC to preach their 11 o’clock service. Andrew will join the TUMC family for our 11 o’clock service and continue our Joseph Saga series with a message entitled “More Brothers, More Problems.” He is very much looking forward to worshiping with you.

(I will return to Tuskawilla by 12:30pm…my sources tell me there is some kind of celebration happening…*wink*)

During my senior year at Florida Southern College I registered for a cross-listed philosophy and political science course entitled “The Politics of Terrorism and Insurgency.” Impressive, right? On the first day of class our professor – who also had my mother as a student – clarified the focus for the course. He said, “This semester we will study proposed methods and applications of conflict resolution from philosophers and political scientists through the ages beginning with the Ancient Greeks and culminating in the present day. The course has the name it does because I was doubtful anyone would register for a class dully named “Methods and Applications of Conflict Resolution.”

He was probably right.

The first topic on the syllabus was a review of Hammurabi’s Code – the ruling religious, political, and philosophical thought in the Ancient World (and, in some contexts. still today). “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Sound familiar?

Hammurabi’s Code focuses on fairness. Its use created a “tit for tat” society and normalized “tit for tat” behavior as part of the human condition. Jesus’ intent was to normalize radical role reversals and counter-cultural behaviors into the human condition. This was his method for fulfilling both the Law and the prophets.

The Torah contains impressions of Hammurabi’s Code and Jesus quotes a number of those passages in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Mt 5:38-42).

Jesus does not promote retaliation in these verses – a significant counter-cultural and radical role reversal move! These words of Jesus become the foundation for our text for today.

While Hammurabi’s main focus was on fairness, Jesus’ main focus is on forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness brings separated, estranged, and embattled community members back to one another – so that what once was broken may be fixed, may be healed. The act of repeated forgiveness – seventy-seven times – over and over – holds communities together.

Temptation can lead to sin. Sin leads to separation – from God and from one another. Like a shepherd that seeks out a sheep gone astray, so we are to seek out those we are separated from because of sin. Jesus affirms, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18:14). Through forgiveness we are found. Through forgiveness we make our way home.

When did you last experience forgiveness – either giving or receiving? How did you find that experience? Needful? Extraneous? Powerful? Casual? What lessons has forgiveness taught you? How has forgiveness changed you into more of  a Kingdom resident than a resident of the world?

Prayer: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art – thou my best thought, by day or by night; waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”* Amen. 

*”Be Thou My Vision,” The United Methodist Hymnal 451.

The Joseph Saga: Shawls and Shenanigans

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 37:1-4, 39:1-18.

Clothes are an essential in life. Beyond the beach and being under the age of two shirts, shorts, and shoes are required wherever we go.

We have clothes for different activities. I do not work in the yard in the same clothes in which I lead worship. I do not do yoga in skinny jeans…usually… We have work clothes, casual clothes, and work out clothes. We have date night, comfy night, and team night clothes. The changing of clothes signifies moving from one activity to another. The changing of clothes signifies moving from one life stage to another.

There is a lot of movement with clothes in my life presently. I have a whole closet of clothes (and *sniff* shoes *sniff*) that do not fit right now. I have a section of clothes that fit – and for that I am so grateful – because they represent the change happening in my family, the change happening in me. It seems like we receive new clothes or new-to-us clothes everyday for Baby Miller. He will be the most styling kid ever! These clothes represent our being taken under the wings of many, represent support and love for our growing family, and represent the beautiful breadth and depth of our family.

In our Scripture lessons for this week Joseph receives clothes, changes clothes, and flees without clothes! The coat he receives from his father represents his father’s love for him. His brothers strip that same coat from Joseph’s shoulders and sell him into slavery. Potiphar purchases Joseph from the Ishmaelites and gives him clothes to signify his belonging to Potiphar’s household. And Joseph leaves Potiphar’s clothes behind as he flees from his master’s chamber. Regardless of what he wears…or does not wear…Joseph remains a person of integrity. He is treated poorly by his family. He is misrepresented by his employer’s wife. Nevertheless, Joseph’s integrity does not waver. Who he is in God and because of God does not change…and if it does change…it is only to strengthen

Through all the changes we experience in life – changing clothes, changing life stages, changing life experiences, and more – it is my hope and I believe it is God’s hope – that who we are in God and because of God does not change – and if it does change – it is only to strengthen. As a community of faith we are charged to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper, to support and love our ever growing, ever expanding family. Change is constant. Change is inevitable. Change is how we grow and adapt. Change is how we not only survive but thrive. And change is eased, managed, and navigated well when we are surrounded by folks that love us when we are wearing our best clothes and when we wear clothes showing time in life’s trenches.

What change are you currently experiencing? How are you being supported? And how is God calling you to support a neighbor, a fellow family member in faith, during his or her time of change? This is the life to which God calls us. May we respond in ways that strengthen our individual integrities and strengthen the fellowship of believers.

Prayer: “Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow; let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through. Strong deliverer, strong deliverer, be thou still my strength and shield; be thou still my strength and shield.”* Amen.

*”Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” The United Methodist Hymnal 127.