Commanded to Love: With All Our Mind

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:30 and Philippians 4:4-9

I am a cradle United Methodist. I have grown up in this church and love it deeply for its hands have been extensions of God’s hands in crafting me into the servant leader God calls me to be. So many of my passions in life are in line with passions of The United Methodist Church: honoring and celebrating the ministry of all believers, creating and extending the beloved community, promoting and enacting social justice, solidly grounding our faith in Scripture and then interpreting Scripture through the lenses of church tradition, personal experience, and reason.

I understand our governing principles as United Methodists, our Book of Discipline, as a “living human document,” a concept introduced by Anton T. Boisen, the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education. I believe our governing principles are crafted by human hands as extensions of God’s hands and firmly rooted in our denominational history and doctrine. This polity governs our church as we seek to faithfully respond to the present concerns that face our church while celebrating and learning from the legacy of our denomination. United Methodist polity is not rigid; it is the product of dutiful holy conferencing – of people prayerfully and intentionally gathering around tables seeking God’s will and discernment for the future of this church in God’s world. The next opportunity for such conferencing will convene in April 2016. This holy conferencing shapes The United Methodist Church in our unique way of being Christ’s body for the transformation of the world.

A popular Christian slogan is “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This saying expresses an individual’s confidence in Scripture; there is no other reason for inquiry. What I appreciate about the United Methodist’s hermeneutic – or means of interpretation – of Scripture is that we believe Scripture is authoritative and true and we believe that by interpreting Scripture through the lenses of tradition, personal experience, and reason we can encounter the revelation God has prepared for us in this certain time and in this certain place. United Methodists call this hermeneutic The Quadrilateral. This means of interpreting Scripture invites persons to employ their minds – their reasoning faculty – to their study of God’s word, which informs their understanding of their relationship with God and shapes how they live as God’s people in the world.

I find moments in my life where I have a child-like faith. I read something in Scripture and I ascribe to “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And then there are other moments where I read something in Scripture and I become unsettled. I push back against what I read. I want to ask clarifying questions. At times I even want to object. It is in these moments that I find myself working my way through The Quadrilateral. What does church tradition – the church universal or my specific context of The United Methodist Church – have to say on the subject? What has been my personal experience with this subject? And then with those three in conversation – Scripture, tradition, and personal experience – I apply my reason to make sense of (or try to make sense) of it all.

At times I come to a definite resolution. At others I am left with more questions. Where I find peace is that God is with me in the process. God honors my questions. God respects the thoughtful engagement. God invites the dialogue. Working through The Quadrilateral is a form of holy conferencing – conferencing with the one who created me. I believe it is one way that I can love God with my whole mind. Through The Quadrilateral, through this holy conferencing, I enter humbly and openly into dialogue with God and create the space – invite the moment – for God to reveal something new.

What Scriptures do you accept with a child-like faith? What Scriptures do you push back against or what Scriptures spur questions inside you? How do you engage in dialogue with God about these questions? How do you love God with your mind?

Prayer: “Whether the Word be preached or read, no saving benefit I gain from empty sounds or letters dead; unprofitable all and vain, unless by faith thy word I hear and see its heavenly character. Unmixed with faith, the Scripture gives no comfort, life, or light to see, but me in darker darkness leaves, implunged in deeper misery, overwhelmed with nature’s sorest ills. The Spirit saves, the letter kills. If God enlighten through his Word, I shall my kind Enlightener bless; but void and naked of my Lord, what are all verbal promises? Nothing to me, till faith divine, inspire, inspeak, and make them mine. Jesus, the appropriating grace ’tis thine on sinners to bestow. Open mine eyes to see thy face, open my heart thyself to know. And then I through thy Word obtain sure present, and eternal gain.”* Amen.

*”Whether the Word Be Preached or Read,” The United Methodist Hymnal 595.

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Commanded to Love: With All Our Soul

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:30 and Hebrews 4:12-13

Our texts for this week explore the impact God’s Scripture has on the soul. The letter to the Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” (Heb 4:12).

That’s deep – and oh so punny!

As a pastor I read a fair amount of Scripture – and I will quickly add that I would like to read and study more than I do presently! There are days when I read Scripture with the posture of Sargeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – “just the facts, Lord, just the facts.” I want the highlights. I want the headlines. I want the facts and then I want to move on. I want to read, but not really marinate. I want to study, but not really emotionally connect to the text.

What pronoun did I consistently use throughout the five previous sentences? I. Reading Scripture is sometimes about what I want; yet, reading Scripture is an encounter that God always wants. Those encounters with God are not meant to be rushed. Those encounters are meant to and do catch me up in God’s presence. And they speak to my soul. They speak to God in me. They breathe into the breath that breathed into me. They teach. They form. They convict. Yes, they are facts that the Joe Friday in my desires – facts that become fodder for greater reflection and growth in my relationship with God.

A Scripture that continues to catch me up is tucked within the history of the Kings, “When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, ‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ Jehu said, ‘If it is, give me your hand'” (II Kings 10:15). The he in this text refers to Jehu, the tenth King of Israel, anointed by the prophet Elisha. As king Jehu’s mission was to exterminate the house of Ahab because of the sin that Ahab himself had committed as well as the sin that Ahab led and prompted God’s people to commit.

Jehu is faithful in his mission and it is a bloodbath. On his way to Samaria Jehu’s path crosses with Jehonadab son of Rechab. Jehonadab, though not a Jew himself, supports Jehu in his efforts to fulfill his mission from the Lord. Though they are not from the same people group, from the same heritage, or from the same faith, they choose to work together. They choose to form a partnership. They choose to be stronger together than weaker apart. “‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ … ‘It is.’ … ‘If it is, give me your hand.'”

John Wesley reflected on this passage of Scripture in his sermon Catholic Spirit as he considered the hindrances that lie in the way of brothers, sisters, neighbors loving one another just as Christ’s greatest commandment calls us to do! Wesley pens, “The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they cannot all think alike and, in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike; but in several smaller points their practice must differ in proportion to the difference of their sentiments. But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.” (Read the full text of John Wesley’s Sermon Catholic Spirit here)

My friends, there are so many hindrances in this world that seek to divide us. We can identify the root of some of these hindrances – sometimes we are the root! – and at other times we struggle to identify the root while we suffer the effects the hindrances cause. These hindrances can divide our thoughts, they can divide our hearts, they can divide us from our neighbors. Our God does not desire division. Our God desires one people – one beautifully united people that celebrate one another’s gifts and encourages one another to use our gifts in service of the Kingdom. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (I Cor 12:4-11).

Daily I am challenged to, encouraged to, delighted to extend my hand because I truly believe that is how I extend the Kingdom. This Scripture from II Kings strikes and resonates within my soul. This Scripture from II Kings has caught me up. What is that Scripture for you? Please, take my hand and share it with me.

Prayer: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul. Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control, that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed his own blood for my soul. My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord bass descend, even so, it is well with my soul. It is well [it is well] with my soul [with my soul], it is well, i is well with my soul.”* Amen.

*”It Is Well with My Soul,” The United Methodist Hymnal 377.

Commanded to Love: With All Our Heart

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:30 and Matthew 6:19-21

Andrew and I ventured out the day after Christmas to complete a few errands. We waited until after lunch as we did not want to be caught up in the rush of returns at local stores. We arrived at a retail store and where stunned to see all of the Christmas-related items had been slapped with clearance tags and heaped into a corner to make room for the pink-violet-velvet-lace of Valentine’s Day. I guess I should not be that surprised…retailers haul out Fall candy and decorations midday on the Fourth of July…

The commercialism and consumerism of our culture tells us that occasions like Valentine’s Day are how we best express the depths of our heart. Buy a sentimental card. Send flowers. Make reservations for dinner at a trendy restaurant. Smile. Laugh. And then on February 15 all of the feelings and sentiments garnered for the day previous are heaped into a corner donning clearance tags.

In the immortal words of Marcie from Peanuts, “Duck, sir; Easter is coming.”

When I think back on the most memorable heart days in my life, very few are associated with Valentine’s Day. They are associated with family, friends, and congregants that invested in my heart by sharing their kindness, gifts, humility, and humor. These persons poured into my heart and that nourishment is truly life-giving.

Confessions: I like material things. I like nice things. But I do not treasure material things. I treasure time. I treasure that sort of attention – giving and receiving – where all else falls away and two people or a small group of people are able to simply be and enjoy the gift that is each other. This is a gift we share because we are all God’s children.

I remember Bonnie, a member of the first congregation I served in the Florida. Her gentleness flowed like a mighty river and this woman was sharp as a tack to boot. Her body was failing due to metastasized cancer, but nothing could claim her spirit because God’s Spirit had claimed her long ago. I was called to the hospital in her final days and there we prayed and wept and dreamed of how she would continue serving the Kingdom in her eternal life. With joy she shared how she followed Jesus all her life and now she was about to look him in the face and serve with him side by side.

Bonnie then grasped my hand and ushered me closer to her face. She whispered her care for me and told me her final gift to me would be a gift card to buy more fabulous stilettos that she loved to see me wear. I am sorry to tell you, Bonnie, your shoes were not the final gift, but I did you proud by them! Your final gift is that your pouring into me – your witness of Christ – continues to sanctify me, continues to make me holy. You touched me. Your heart connected and remains connected with mine. Your legacy of care lives on in me and I hope I am a worthy tribute of your example and teaching.

This day in my life continues to be a powerful teaching about the holiness of heart and the source of true treasure. Where and when have you experienced these heart moments? What have they revealed to you about treasure?

Thank you, Bonnie. I cannot wait to see you again.

Prayer: “Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Here is the citadel of all my desiring, where my hopes are born and all the deep resolutions of my spirit take wings. In this center, my fears are nourished, and all my hates are nurtured. Here my loves are cherished, and all the deep hungers of my spirit are honored without quivering and without shock. In my heart, above all else, let love and integrity envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit. Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Amen.”*

*”For Holiness of Heart,” The United Methodist Hymnal 401.

Something Old to Something New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 1:9-11

Last January on a particularly blustery day at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park I interviewed for elder in full connection status in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. This interview would be my last in a long line of interviews, written essays, recorded sermons, discernment, and constant prayer in pursuit of my call to ordained ministry – though I have learned that ordination is not the end – it is a new beginning.

In the interview any question about the applicant’s understanding of theology, leadership, proclamation, and/or personal development is up for discussion. I studied. I prepared. I knew my answers backwards and forwards. I had even prepared extended answers to what I had submitted as evidence that I am still seeking, still discerning, still discovering what God will reveal next in my understandings in these areas.

The interview went well – especially after one of my interviewers told me to take a breath! – and then my friend Melissa asked me about baptism. I had been discussing my understanding of the sacraments; I said quite a lot about Eucharist, which probably prompted curiosity about my understanding of baptism. So she asked…and all my studying and preparation and knowing answers backwards and forwards and extended answers flew out of my head faster than students fly out of school at the end of the year.

I stumbled for a minute or so, remembered again to breathe, and started piecing my answer together. Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The water of baptism symbolizes God’s grace being poured out upon us to cleanse us from our sins and incorporate us into Christ’s Body the church. At some point I think I gave a brief history of the theological and biblical roots of baptism from the First Testament…what exactly was Melissa seeking in my answer? She raised her hand to stop me and said, “Sarah, remember the devotion I led in worship before the interviews started; it was on baptism. What stands out about baptism and Jesus?” And the answer dawned on me. The baptism of Jesus was by water and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus was something new and through the grace of baptism we are invited into this newness.

(Thanks, Melissa, for leading this nervous horse to water…what a drink!)

In the baptism of Jesus we experience something new. Baptism was a typical initiation rite for many religious and military sects throughout the Holy Land. It was an act through which a person would pledge their allegiance. The initiate would pass through water, or some other liquid, leaving the life before and starting the new life right now. John the Baptist called people forth for baptism as an outward and visible sign of repentance from sin, drawing, I believe, on the mikveh tradition from Judaism. This baptism rite drew the people away from the world so they would be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Why then would Jesus present himself for baptism since we believe that he was without sin? Why is Jesus in need of repentance? I think that Jesus presented himself for baptism to connect humanity to God. Remember that Jesus is one person with two natures – fully human and fully divine. As fully human Jesus stands in solidarity with us who are in the line for baptism because we have some repenting to do. As fully divine Jesus connects us to God’s life-giving grace that is received through our baptism by water and the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice proclaims, “This is my son.” Jesus is publicly recognized as God’s child and so we believe in our baptisms we are recognized before the community of faith as God’s children. A bond is formed between the person baptized, the community of faith, and God that we are all in this together. We are family. We are called to something new and we will do it together.

We take time this week to remember our baptism not so we can parade our recent sins through our minds, but so we can remember the blessing of community that surrounds, the abundance of God’s grace, and that our dying to sin leads to new of life marked by union with Christ, receipt of the Holy Spirit, and inclusion in Christ’s Holy Church.

It is still early in the new year. What a wonderful reminder that God through Christ Jesus calls us to new life through our baptism. May we relish in this call this week and be strengthened for discipleship this year.

Prayer: “Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”*

*”Baptism of the Lord,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 253.