Presenting: Survivor Babylon

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Daniel 3:1-30

This week the Tuskawilla Community will be led in worship by our Children’s Theatre Group, which is part of the ever-growing TUMC Fine Arts Ministry. These pre-school, elementary, and middle school age students have met every Wednesday over the summer to study the scripts, scores, and Scriptures on which their musical – Survivor Babylon – is based. Many thanks to Tim, Hope, Diane, Samantha and all of the parents of our students that have worked together as a team to make this musical offering possible.

This Sunday we will see and hear a telling of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s time in the fiery furnace. These three faithful Jews would not bow down in prayer and worship to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image and were sentenced to die in a blazing furnace heated seven times hotter than its regular temperature. Three men were thrown into the fiery furnace, but four persons were seen in walking around in the fire. The fire did not harm Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego because of God’s security and provision. This was a miracle! And Nebuchadnezzer praised God for protecting these three men saying, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his messenger and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (Dan 3:28).

In 2011 I completed a 20-week chaplaincy internship in a Central Florida hospital. At one of the campuses I walked past a three-story tall painting depicting an operating room complete with medical personnel, equipment, and a patient. What stood out about this painting was that nestled between the doctor and nurse leaning over the patient was Jesus. Jesus was present in the operating room, not hugging a wall, but in the middle of the unfolding drama and life-saving work.

I always thought this painting was curious. It was one thing to think about Jesus’ presence in an operating room and it was another thing to see his presence physically depicted. It was astonishing. It stopped me in my tracks. I think my feelings were akin to those experienced by Nebuchadnezzer when he observed God’s presence protecting Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace.

The reality is that God is with us everywhere. Jesus is with us everywhere. We may not physically see our God with us, but this does not mean that God is not there. How would our outlooks change if we fixed our eyes on God in our midst rather than questioning where God is when we feel disconnected or alone? How would our actions change if we recognized God in our midst when our behaviors are not becoming of the gospel we claim as truth?

As I walked the corridors of the hospital I would see this and other paintings of Jesus “staring” at me at all times and in all attitudes – when I was happy to be there, when I would be happy to be anywhere but there, when I was tired, angry, broken, struggling, and weary. Looking at Jesus looking at me usually altered my outlook and attitude. Seeing Jesus filled me with hope. Seeing Jesus renewed my courage. Seeing Jesus reminded me that our God is Lord of all and is present in every circumstance.

God is always present. God is always protecting. God is always providing. God is so good. Let us join in praise with Nebuchadnezzer, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent – and sends – his messengers and delivered his servants who trusted in him.”

Prayer: “Be not dismayed whater’er betide, God will take care of you; beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you. Through days of toil when heart doth fail, God will take care of you; when dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you. All you may need he will provide, God will take care of you; nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you. No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you; lean, weary one, upon his breast, God will take care of you. God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way, he will take care of you, God will take care of you.”* Amen.

*”God Will Take Care of You,” The United Methodist Hymnal 130.

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Rock of Ages: Rocks Cry Out!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 19:28-40

Tuskawilla’s Youth Director – Shrell – and I grew up in the same youth group. We served on the youth council and shared leadership roles among our peers. We led our share of crazy skits and sang in the youth praise band together. One of the songs that we sang with regularity was Ain’t No Rock.

That word ain’t spoke directly to the heart of this Polk County girl.

The song sings,

Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place. As long as I’m alive I’ll glorify God’s holy name!

Sing! Praise God’s holy name! As long as I’m alive I’ll glorify God’s holy name!

And then the song continues, Ain’t no tree gonna wave its branches and Ain’t no bird gonna flap its feathers.

(Shrell and I would be happy to show off our fantastic dance moves that accompany this song upon request.)

As I reflect on singing this song as a youth, I admit that I was “going through the motions” of those dance moves rather than paying attention to what I was singing. I sang the song but I do not think I fully let the meaning of the song resonate in my heart and then pour out of the actions in my life.

Psalm 148 captures all of creation singing God’s praise. The praises progress from creation following closely the order of God’s creative activity in Genesis 1. Praises ring from the heavens, the celestial bodies, the meterological phenomenons, and the animals that fly, swim, creep, and roam. All of creation praises our God before the psalmist acknowledges that humanity joins the choir. So rocks and trees and birds…they are indeed capable of glorifying God’s holy name if we – if humanity – remains silent. Rocks and all of creation praise God in our place.

The psalmist invites humanity to join the hymn singing, “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord” (Ps 148:11-14)! We join the praise and the hymn ends. I do not think humanity completes the hymn, but I do believe that God is pleased when we make our offering of praise with the totality of creation in worship of our God. It is our choice to join the song; God will not force us. And if we do not join the song, our God will still be praised.

Desiring a greater intention of praising God rather than just ” going through the motions” this week I commit to turning my attention to when and how I offer my praise to God. What are my current circumstances? Am I at peace with these circumstances or wanting a change? How am I feeling? How would prefer to feel? What is God offering me in this moment? How could I show appreciation for that gift? God hears creation’s praise; it is unending. I want God to hear mine, too. 

Prayer: “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; and when my voice is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures. Happy are they whose hopes rely on Israel’s God, who made the sky and earth and seas, with all their train; whose truth forever stands seure, who saves th’oppressed and feeds the poor, for none shall find God’s promise vain. The Lord pours eyesight on the blind; the Lord supports the fainting mind and sends the laboring conscience peace. God helps the stranger in distress, the widow and the fatherless, and grants the prisoner sweet release. I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; and when my voice is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures.”* Amen.

*”I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath,” The United Methodist Hymnal 60.

Rock of Ages: Building On This Rock

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-20

In this week’s Rock of Ages text we hear Peter’s confession about the identity of Jesus – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – as well as Jesus’ declaration about Peter’s future – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:16, 18a).

My first appointment was to a new church that resulted from a merger of two existing congregations with two existing church campuses. The vision that drew the now one congregation together was that they could better serve their local communities as one church and one united body of God’s people than they could separately. At the beginning of my appointment we continued to worship, host events, and welcome folks on both campuses. As my appointment progressed we began looking forward to purchasing a new piece of land that would be the future home of New Horizon Church. We committed to working to sell the original church campuses so we could invest all our available stewardship, resources, and people into the new campus that was adjacent to a local high school and many developing neighborhoods.

We were able to purchase the new church property in early 2011 and so church leadership moved into the design phase of the project. I did not take the class on reading blueprints or completing permitting in seminary – I missed out! – so much of went on was new to me and very over my head. While many around me began to talk about what was going to go into and on top of the ground I wanted to give thanks for the ground as it already existed.

The Saturday following Easter in 2011 I invited the congregation to join me at the future site of the church to complete a prayer walk over the grounds. The church would make its home in an orange grove. The trees were still in bloom; the air was fragrant and sweet. The trees were so dense that not much grass grew on the ground so we walked through God’s wonderful gift known as Polk County sand. Corner to corner for 20 acres we walked and prayed, we gave thanks to God for the land that had been provided for us, we praised God for how God was blessing and continuing to bless the ties that bound us together as a congregation, and we asked God to continue leading us to be witnesses of his love, service, and justice in our community. Before there was any sort of finalization of blueprints or completion of environmental studies or selection of the fabric on the pew chairs or even a ground breaking we prayed over the ground as God had provided it to us. We prayed over each other. Even though there was no building, we prayed over the church.

I learned very early – through a beloved Sunday School song – that “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” People are made into the church by sharing in Peter’s confession about Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” When Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” Jesus was referring to Peter’s confident confession. That confession is the bedrock of every believer and a shared foundation in every Christian community of faith. A building is not necessary to communicate this statement of faith.

We are the church. We are the people. This is our confession to make. This is our story to tell. And may we, like Peter, do so with great confidence.

Prayer: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together! The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places. Sometimes the church is marching, sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding, always it’s learning. And when the people gather, there’s singing and there’s praying, there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes, all of it saying: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!”* Amen.

*”We Are the Church,” The United Methodist Hymnal 558.

Rock of Ages: Living Stones

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Peter 2:4-10

This week’s Rock of Ages passage names the people of God, the disciples of Christ, the sisters and brothers in the Spirit “living stones”. That’s a curious title or classification because I do not think we often conceive of stones as living. They are inanimate. They can be sturdy, precious, porous, or soft. They are instrumental in construction projects. They are a pain to dig out of the ground to prepare it for a garden. They have the ability to stub your toe like no other.

But living? Do stones live?

As I thought about an example of living stones, my mind went immediately to volcanos – mighty and powerful living stones capable of spewing acrid ash and lava with temperatures nearing 2192 degrees Fahrenheit. Our history books detail the destruction wrought by volcanos – names like Vesuvius and St. Helen live in infamy. And yet they also create new land and regenerate land that was once unsuitable for agriculture to be vibrant and capable of producing crops.

In 2002 I served on a mission team in Costa Rica. Towards the end of our trip we hiked a mountain that was home to a monastery and the largest illumined steel cross in the country. Across the horizon from the monastery-mountain was what I would call a “stirring volcano.” Our guides told us that it had not erupted in some time, but it was not classified as dormant because it would have fits of spewing ash and rumbling the near by ground. As a result, the families that called the volcano home – either living on its side or at its base – were very attuned to its activity and ready to respond at any given moment.

I think the image of a volcano is an appropriate image for the church – and more specifically – the image of a stirring and active volcano. Churches have wonderful “volcano” moments during certain seasons of the year – Christmas and Easter especially – and also for Tuskawilla when our little orange friends come to visit. But what about the other seasons in the year? What about the other 46 weeks?

Presently we are in the height of Ordinary Time – the season of the church year that spans the time between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. Many people hear the word ordinary and think “nothing special.” But this time of the Christian year is so special in that it grants us space to put into practice everything we have learned about the coming, birth, baptism, life, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and victorious return of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior because something between his coming and his victorious return stirred us so much that we committed our lives to him.

We remain in that commitment with him because his enduring presence – the Holy Spirit – continues to stir up  and reinvigorate that commitment. And then the months between Pentecost and Advent set in…and the “activity” in the Christian Year appears to slow down because we are not moving from season to season to season as we do from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany… Maybe our reactivity to God’s stirring becomes slower. Maybe we hit the snooze button on the stirring…and if we do that enough, we become dormant.

God gave us life and calls us to life. God made and makes us living stones. God’s Spirit within each of us is alive and well and wants to and does move us into activity. We are not being true to our identity as living stones if we are dormant. And if we are being true to our identity as living stones, then the effects would be felt not only by those who are connected together as this volcano of faith but also by those in our surrounding community. Our action should prompt, generate, lead, and sustain positive and affirming reactions in our community.

What is God stirring in you? What signs of God’s life and awaken-ness are you displaying to your and our neighbors? How will you make this week during Ordinary Time extraordinary?

Prayer: “Spirit of promise, Spirit of unity, we thank you that you are also the Spirit of renewal. Renew in the whole Church that passionate desire for the coming of your kingdom which will unite all Christians in one mission to the world. May we all grow up together into him who is our head, the Savior of the world. Amen.”*

*”For The Church,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 503.