Joy to the World: Sing the Glory

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 66:1-4.

I adore the sights of the season in Advent and Christmas. There is something truly transcendent about twinkling lights, heirloom ornaments, and yes, even a yard inflatable that makes you smile.

We spent five wonderful years living next door to two great boys – Owen and Wyatt. Like Joshua – they love dragons! So leave it to Owen and Wyatt to finagle a dragon inflatable in their front yard from October 1st through New Years!

(With each passing month, they changed the dragon’s accessories to match the season. Brilliant boys! … I also wouldn’t put it past them to wangle a Spring Dragon arrival!)

Each week in December I will share the significance of popular sights of the season. Learning (or being reminded of!) their significance will help deepen our understanding of these sights and our faith as we celebrate the season.

I thank my dear friend and shoe commentator, Rev. Jennie Andone, for sharing research with me for these forthcoming posts.

The most striking and the most universal feature of Christmas is the use of evergreens in churches and homes. Among ancient Romans, evergreens were an emblem of peace, joy and victory. The early Christians placed them in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home. Holly and ivy, along with pine and fir are called evergreens because they never change color. They are ever-green, ever-alive, even in the midst of winter. They symbolize the unchanging nature of our God, and they remind us of the everlasting life that is ours through Christ Jesus.

Today, the Christmas tree is the center of our festivities. Glittering with lights and ornaments is a part of the beauty and meaning of Christmas. There are several legends and stories about the Christmas tree.

The first use of the Christmas tree was in the medieval German Paradise Plays, held outdoors and portraying the celebration of humankind. The Tree of Life was a fir tree decorated with apples. Later other ornaments were hung upon them, such as paper flowers and gilded nuts. In England branches or whole trees were forced to bloom indoors for Christmas. From these beginnings the use of a tree at Christmas was established. Martin Luther was perhaps the first to use a lighted tree.

The story is told that on one Christmas Eve Martin Luther wandered outdoors and became enraptured with the beauty of the starry sky. Its brilliance and loveliness led him to reflect on the glory of the first Christmas Eve as seen in Bethlehem’s radiant skies. Wishing to share with his wife and children the enchantment he had felt, he cut from the forest an evergreen, glistening with snow, and took it home. He placed upon it candles to represent the glorious heavens he had seen. The use of a candle-lighted tree spread to all Europe, then America came to regard it as the central ornament of Christmas.

O Christmas tree, indeed!

Join us for worship this Sunday – 8:30am Traditional and 11:00am Contemporary – as we begin our December Sermon Series – Joy to the World! We will explore the well-loved carol, which this Christmas, celebrates its 300th year, through the lens of Psalm 66. I look forward to worshipping with you.

Prayer: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”* Amen.

*”O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal 211.

Scripture – Story – Song

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 4:1-18.

Jack Vinson was martyred in the Kiangsu Province of Mainland China in 1932. A bandit told the missionary, I’m going to kill you. Aren’t you afraid?

Kill me if you wish, Vinson replied. I will go straight to God.

Vinson’s courage inspired this poem, authored by his friend EH Hamilton:

Afraid?  Of what?

To feel the spirit’s glad release?

To pass from pain to perfect peace, the strife and strain of life to cease?

Afraid – of that?

Afraid? Of what?

Afraid to see the Savior’s face

To hear his welcome, and to trace the glory gleam from wounds of grace?

Afraid – of that?

Afraid? Of what?

A flash, a crash, a pierced heart;

Darkness, light, O Heaven’s art!  A wound of his a counterpart!

Afraid – of that?

Afraid? Of what?

To do by death what life could not –

Baptize with blood a stony blot till souls shall blossom from the spot?

Afraid – of that?*

The words of Tertullian, The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, continue to resonate as we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians: We are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. In biblical times martyrs gave up their lives in order to give life – to sustain life – whereas our present reality connects martyrs with acts of terror, violence, and harm.

I think it is time we write a new story, by returning to the old, old story.

The idea of martyrdom in the faith is no longer associated with the Christian’s religious identity, but I believe it should be. Writes Martha Sterne, “Our religious identity is usually associated with stability, prestige, comfort, satisfaction, and happiness. We get up on Sunday morning and go to the church that strikes our fancy…we are not harassed by civil authorities, and in our communities of faith we are almost never asked to sacrifice. Christian life and discipleship are frequently confused with good citizenship, appropriate decorum, and following socially acceptable norms and lifestyle”…but that is not what Christian life and discipleship are.** Christian life and discipleship are displayed in the witnesses of the martyrs – women and men who boldly, with great conscience – meaning the ability to determine right from wrong – sacrificed their words, acts, and lives to give life to the church that we enjoy today.

The testimonies of Christian martyrs challenge us to move beyond our comfort zones and as uncomfortable as their witnesses may make us – we must realize that we are their blossoms. Their testimonies should encourage and embolden us to articulate and share  what effect this precious treasure in clay jars has had and is having in our lives. While I do not advise looking for martyrdom opportunities, I also do not advise avoiding the to speak up, explain, or defend our faith.

The testimonies of Christian martyrs encourage us to trust – as they did – that if they gave it all, put their life on the line, God is faithful. Our culture says we live in a world of those who lose their life lose it. Our assurance from our God is that those who lose their life will find it and it will be everlasting.

This Sunday in both services our congregation will experience Scripture-Story-Song: an opportunity to reflect in gratitude and offer songs of praise to our God for all our many blessings. These worship services will be a wonderful way to prepare our hearts and center our spirits for Thanksgiving celebrations next week. I look forward to this time of worship with you and encourage you to invite a friend that could benefit from encouragement and affirmation to join us! See you in worship, friends!

Prayer: “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”*** Amen.

*Jesus Freaks 74-75.

**Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1 424.

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

We Honor Forever

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15.

Earlier this year I was preparing to take my youth on the Confirmation Retreat. But there was a problem. I had a seventh grade young man that wanted to attend…and no male chaperone. My youth director and I decided to make an appeal to the congregation. We did not want Liam to miss out on this experience. And we refused to believe that a gentleman from the church family would not step up to answer this call.

Two days later I learned that a man in the congregation responded to the call. It was learning his identity that blew me away. He was a man I had offended with one of my sermons the summer previous. He stopped attending worship for a while yet remained in relationship with his small group and volunteer area with the church. Slowly he reintegrated into worship. He would stay for the music and depart before the sermon. At the time I made this appeal for Liam he had only been back in worship perhaps a few weeks. And it was him. He answered the call.

And y’all, Dan was fabulous. He was sixty years senior to the youth in Confirmation and he was the one that set the pace for the retreat. He slept on a bunk bed, ate food cooked en masse, romped around a camp, had early mornings on the coattails of late nights. He was a champ! I credit Dan for the youth showing up on time, thoughtfully engaging our shared work, and cracking the best dry humor I have heard in a long while. We even had the opportunity, in a round about way on the retreat, to touch on the subject that, for a time, drove a division between us.

The subject was gun reform and responsible gun ownership. Dan opened my eyes to a wider perspective. He spoke with intelligence, humility, honesty, and grace. He spoke as a veteran and as the father of two sons active in service to their country.

After the retreat I asked Dan why he volunteered. He said it was the right thing to do. He said he felt responsible for supporting Liam and the other students in and on their faith journey. He said God stirred his heart and it was a call that would not let him go.

I am grateful for Dan answering the call. His presence made way for Liam’s presence. I am also grateful for the privilege to learn from Dan, and more importantly, to reconcile with him. He reminded me that what I say as a fellow follower of Christ and as a pastor will not be agreeable with everyone. What I say will not “be well” with everyone’s soul. He took the space that he needed to sort out his feelings without removing himself entirely from relationship with me or the church. And when the time was right, God led him in the next level – the next avenue – of service.

Thanks be to God.

I cherished the many months of greeting times I witnessed after that retreat. The youth that attended the trip took special care to cross the sanctuary to speak to Dan, even if they had already seen him that morning. His service left an imprint on their hearts. Dan will always be a friend in faith to those young men and women.

This week I remember, celebrate, and honor Dan and all our veterans. Our veterans know well the call to serve, know well the perseverance needed in difficult circumstances, and know well that doing the right thing may draw them out of their comfort zones and into the unknown. I am in awe of their bravery. Their commitment is an example to me. To all of us.

Join us this week in worship as we honor veterans through special music, slideshow, and sermon. I look forward to this time with our church family.

Prayer: “To God be the glory, great things he hath done! So loved he the world that he gave us his Son, who yielded his life an atonement for sin, and opened the life-gate that all may go in. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear his voice! Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice! O come to the Father thru Jesus the Son, and give him the glory, great things he hath done!”* Amen.

*”To God Be the Glory,” The United Methodist Hymnal 98.

Moana: Restoring The Heart

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 24:36-49.

Stewardship Focus ~ I Chronicles 29:14b-18.

This week in worship at South Shore United Methodist Church we will consecrate our commitments to God for the 2020 ministry year. We will offer God our pledges for how we will support God’s work within our shores and towards new shores through our presence, prayers, gifts, service, and witness.

We give because God gave first. We love because God loved first.

We give because God loves us.

Our study of I Chronicles 28 and 29 ends with King David praising God through prayer in and with the assembly. I believe these words of Scripture beautifully summarize our learnings during this season of stewardship. May they guide us as we complete our giving discernment in preparation for the 2020 ministry year. I look forward to offering my family’s commitment alongside yours this Sunday.

For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. I know, my God, that you search the heart, and take pleasure in uprightness; in the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep for ever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts towards you.

Prayer: “Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. Take my heart, it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne. Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure-store. Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.”* Amen.

*“Take My Life and Let It Be,” The United Methodist Hymnal 399.