Heroes and Villains: Herodias

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 6:14-29.

In my second appointment I preached an October sermon series called Fright Nights where the congregation studied four texts of terror contained in Scripture. These stories – all contained in the First Testament – are accounts of abuse, exploitation, and violence against women…and sadly each of these four stories conclude without any just or comforting resolution, which is quite upsetting.

I remember when I finished the sermon series that one of my congregants approached me after worship, “Oh pastor…I am so glad these ‘nightmares’ are finally over! What will we begin next week?” “A stewardship series!” … “The nightmare continues…”

(We are not starting a stewardship series…yet…)

I consider our Scripture passage for this week a text of terror; it recounts the gruesome death of John the Baptist. Disregarding his humanity, his personhood, his contributions to the developing world and the world of faith – even his relationship with Herod! – John the Baptist’s life ends on the whim of Herod’s daughter. It is jarring that such an evil request would come from a teenage girl. The request might be a bit more palatable if it were to come from a warlord…but from a girl…dancing at her father’s birthday party? The very thought knocks the wind out of me.

That is the way of evil. It can surprise us. It can crop up in unexpected places. And if we are not prepared for it, it can execute its plans while we are numb with inactivity.

I think evil has the opportunity to take control of us when our center – when what anchors us – becomes dislodged or warped. God desires to be the center of our lives, to anchor and guide our decision-making capacities…but at times other forces come on the scene and skew God’s intended scheme. Sex, money, addiction, power, jealousy, greed, envy, fear – any of these left unchecked can become lords over us and unleash evil in our lives as well as the lives of others that we did not intend.

Texts like this one are not easy to read. We may be tempted to skip over them entirely or skip to the end in order to find the moral and then (gratefully) turn to the next page. Taking care to read these texts is one way for us to evaluate not only what we are capable of – both good and evil – but also to evaluate how (if) God is the guiding and anchoring center in our lives. If we find ourselves in a situation similar to Herod’s – and we will if we have not already – how will we respond? What will we do? The answer to these two questions will vary greatly depending on how or if God is the guiding and anchoring center in our lives.

I encourage you to take time in reflection this week to consider who or what is your guiding and anchoring center. What, if anything, needs to change? What, if anything, needs to be strengthened?

Prayer: “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain; leave to your God to order and provide; in every change God faithful will remain. Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”* Amen.

*”Be Still, My Soul,” The United Methodist Hymnal 534.

Advertisements

Heroes and Villains: Stephen

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Acts 7:51-60.

When I watch a movie or read a book, I always give great care and attention to the final words. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are solemn. Sometimes there are no words, just sighs too big for words. Sometimes the words are an appropriate summary for all that has transpired. Sometimes the words are a red-herring, a thought completely disparate and from whatever is beyond left field.

Words are powerful. Words matter. They shape those that read them, hear them, and live  in response to or in effect of them.

This week in our Heroes and Villains sermon series we turn our focus to Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Luke – the writer of both the gospel by that name and Acts of the Apostles takes great care in having Stephen’s final words resonate with the final words of our Lord for whom he dies.

As Jesus hangs on the cross – battered, broken, bleeding – he cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

As stones are hurled at Stephen – stones intent not to maim but to ultimately silence – he cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

In their last moments both Jesus and Stephen have their final words on the theme of forgiveness. And they bring these words on the theme of forgiveness not out of bitterness or spite for the persons ending their lives, but out of love – out of God’s victorious love.

God’s love tells us that life has the last word, not death. God’s love tells us that pain, suffering, and sickness will be no more. God’s love tells us that sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

One of the many ways that we can be stewards of God’s love is through the act of forgiveness. It is a challenge to practice forgiveness because (1) it is not always easy to forgive and (2) it is something we are called to do again…and again…and again.

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21-22).

Practicing forgiveness is at times heroic, but if practicing forgiveness makes us or made us heroes, then we would misplace the focus and importance of forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness invites us to participate in a mighty act of God. Practicing forgiveness should not point to us; rather, it should point to the one who taught us – who gifted us – this practice.

When I think about my last words – which I truthfully hope will be shared sometime from now! – I hope they will be words that communicate God’s love. I hope they will be words that acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else. I hope they will be words that build up someone rather than tear down someone. And because of this hope, I make it a practice to not miss opportunities to communicate God’s love, to acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else, to build up someone.

If you consider your final words, what would you hope them to be? What would you hope that you say? And how can you begin to say those words today?

Prayer: “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”* Amen.

*”Lead On, O King Eternal,” The United Methodist Hymnal 580.

Heroes and Villains: Delilah

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Judges 16:4-22.

Four-legged children have been members of our family since the very beginning. Andrew moved to Atlanta ahead of me in 2007 because his job was set to start before mine…and I am pretty sure that it was only after 96 hours in the city that he sent me a picture of a little Schnauzer face that was now ours.

Normally I would not recommend surprising a family member with a four-legged child, but when that four-legged child is as wonderful as our Samson, I would recommend it every time!

A year and a half later our sweet Delilah joined our family. Samson picked her out from a rescue in Middleton, Georgia. Samson and Delilah were not from the same litter, but that did not stop them from acting like brother and sister – two pups that had been together all their lives.

Now something about Schnauzers…they are pups…they are also silent ninjas. We have a rule in our house called The Little Mermaid Rule when it comes to the puppadoos. Ariel wanted to be “where the people are” – and our pups need to be where the people are…because if they are not…who knows what will ensue!

Consider one Thanksgiving Dinner at my parents’ house. The family was busily eating in the dining room and we all figured that our four-legged children were under the table hoping someone might share some holiday cheer with them. How quiet and patient they were being! As the meal concluded I rose to take my plate into the kitchen to start the clean up process and saw a mess of turkey juice all on the floor! What in the world!? As I rounded the corner of the countertop, there knelt Samson and Delilah, astride the trashcan, chowing down on the remainders of the turkey carcass my mother had already put in the trashcan!

Samson was the r-u-n-t of his litter; no way he was reaching into a 13-gallon trashcan to fish out a turkey carcass…but Delilah…if the carcass was near the top, could definitely reach it.

Little furry co-conspirators! It is a good thing they are cute…otherwise my mother would have had an outright fit!

Just like our four-legged children, the stars of our Scripture passage this week find themselves in a mess of their own creation – a mess fed and intensified by temptation for more. Temptation is a slippery slope. It causes us to lose our center, to lose sight of what anchors us, to forget or skew the core principles – the covenant – that we share with God that guides the actions of our hearts, heads, and hands. Temptation causes us to lose sight of humanity – our own humanity and the humanity of others. People become objects, the means to ends, useful only in the ways that they accomplish what we want or fulfill our needs. And that is not how our God created us to be.

A inescapable litany throughout the book of Judges is “the people did what was right in their own eyes.” This is the cause of temptation. The effect of temptation is separation – estrangement – from God and others. Resisting temptation – repenting from temptation – brings our lives back into focus by doing what is right in God’s eyes. Doing what is right in God’s eyes is an invitation to sacrifice, to put others before ourselves, to follow the ways of the Spirit rather than pursuing the ways of the flesh.

Our God is good and our God provides. When we fall to temptation we challenge the belief that our God will provide. Waiting for God’s provision is, at times, a struggle. But I believe God purposefully uses those times of waiting to teach us if what we desire is truly important and if what we desire is appropriate for that time in our lives.

Personally, I would rather wait to eat turkey that is nicely sliced on a plate than fish bones out of a trash can and gnaw on a carcass. What about you?

Prayer: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”* Amen.

*“How Firm A Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal 529.

Be Unmistakable – Gravity Youth 2017 Mission Trip Sunday

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Romans 12:9-21.

When I think of our Gravity Youth Students and all they accomplished on their Summer Mission Trip – the word that comes to my mind is courageous. Our students are incredibly courageous.

They trusted their parents and church leadership in selecting where they would serve this summer. They trusted us with their time – not only on the mission trip, but also in preparation for the mission trip on four training Saturdays and a slue of meetings. They trusted our driving through the greater Atlanta area!

Most importantly, they trusted God to be with them as they served in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. They served graciously and intentionally. They served without complaint or competition. They served with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strengths. They served after the example of Christ. And their service represented our church family with excellence.

During the week our worship speaker challenged us each night to Be Unmistakable. We become unmistakable by

  1. Being Set A Part
  2. Being A Servant
  3. Being Brave
  4. Being Humble, and
  5. Being A Disciple

On the evening we learned about Being Brave the Rev. Carolyn Poling reminded us of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus. What bravery – what courage! – it took him to get out of the boat to walk towards Jesus! And what greater bravery – what greater courage! – it took for him to call on Jesus’ name, to reach for Jesus’ hand as the person to rescue him when the waters rose.

Many look at this story of Peter as a loss of faith, but I believe it is a story of living real faith. We do not practice the life of faith in a bubble. We are not in a laboratory that is secure from outside influences. We live our faith in the real world that is full of situations and circumstances that are beyond our control yet impact us greatly. And when we begin to sink, we lit.er.a.ly. have a whole host of folks and deities we could call on for help. Whose name would be or is on the tip of your tongue? For whose hand would you reach for or are you reaching? What will you do when faced with moments that call for – that demand – courage?

Our students faced challenges and frustrations as they worked. They left creature comforts of home – beds, favorite foods, consistent air conditioning, and wifi – to step into the lives of homeowners that do not have much by society’s standards, but what they have is their world. They ached over the destituteness they witnesses, which fueled their desire to work all the more, to connect at deeper and deeper levels, and to complete the work placed before them so they would know upon returning to Casselberry, Winter Springs, Longwood, Fern Park, and Winter Park that the lives of their homeowners would be improved because of all the ways God worked through them that week.

My dear students, you completed your work – all of it. You accomplished your goals. You are so courageous; thank you for your trust and for being an example of courage to me and our church family.

I look forward to worshipping with our church family this weekend as we celebrate Youth Mission Trip Sunday. Our Gravity Youth will serve during the 11am Service and then share about their experiences at Dalton Area Project that evening at our Stockholders’ Dinner and Presentation. If you purchased stock in the mission trip this summer, please RSVP your attendance to the Stockholders’ Dinner by this Wednesday, August 9.

Prayer: “Let the King of my heart be the wind inside my sails, the anchor in my waves, oh he is my song. You are good, good. Oh. You are good, good. Oh. When the night is holding onto me, God is holding on. When the night is holding onto me, God is holding on.”* Amen.

*“King Of My Heart” by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan. To listen to the full song, follow this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpqSbKYxd9Y

Heroes and Villains: Rahab

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Joshua 2:1-14

During my trip to Israel we spent one afternoon in the City of Jericho. We ate lunch in a restaurant attached to a shop called The Temptation Center. Alarming title…so much beautiful pottery! Outside The Temptation Center was a small staircase that pilgrims could climb to see a surviving portion of the Wall of Jericho. I remember climbing the staircase and hearing the Bible stories my mother told me as a child – of the people of Israel marching around the wall, of loud trumpet blasts and shouting, and of Rahab welcoming the spies into the safety of her home.

Some might consider the relationship between Rahab and the Israelite spies purely transactional. “I protected you; you protect me” akin to “I will scratch your back; you will scratch mine.” But I believe the relationship was deeper than that. Rahab knew the stories of the Israelite God. She feared God in awe and wonder not worry and dismay. She feared and revered God; she revered and believed. Welcoming the spies into her home was a sign of not only Rahab’s belief in the stories of the Israelite people and their God, but also of her personal acceptance of those stories and the person (deity) that sent the spies.

Recently a dear friend welcomed me into her home for dinner and fellowship. I knocked and the door was immediately opened. As always, I took off my shoes and walked around her house like I lived there. “Help yourself to whatever you need in the kitchen; open cabinets or drawers till you find it!” (whatever it may be). My friend made sure I was comfortable before she made herself comfortable. I did not have the feeling I had as a child sitting in my grandmother’s formal living room where I am convinced everyone hovered over the couches rather than sitting on them for fear of harming them. My friend heartily and joyously welcomed me. I was at peace. I was safe. I was at home.

Hospitality is a truly beautiful gift.

I learned the manner of hospitality that I practice – in the place I live, in the relationships I share, in the churches I serve – from my study of Scripture. Luke 6:38 reads “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” I hope that my expressions of hospitality tell the story of the one who sent and sends me – that our God is a welcoming God that provides, nurtures, loves, and forgives. Sometimes my hospitality takes a visible form – I am able to provide a service or fulfill a need. At other times my hospitality takes an invisible form – I listen, I hold space while someone weeps, I pray, I hope.

Of most importance is our understanding that God calls us to practice hospitality – not just for the people we like or the people like us – but for all people. From a 30,000ft view Rahab have nothing in common with the Israelite spies that entered the land of Canaan, but from a heart-view, Rahab and the spies share the common heritage of being created in the image of God. I believe from that common heritage she welcomed the spies and provided them sanctuary, and in turn, the Israelites remembered she and her family when they came into possession of the land.

…The measure you give will be the measure you get back…

Take some time this week to consider the hospitality you offer. Where did you learn your hospitality practices? What guides your practice of hospitality? What message or whose message do you send through your practice of hospitality?

Prayer: “As Christ breaks bread, and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends. And thus with joy we meet our Lord. His presence, always near, is in such friendship better known; we see and praise him here, we see and praise him here.”* Amen.

*“I Come With Joy,” The United Methodist Hymnal 617.