You Might Be A Christian If…You Have A Weird Thing For Calling People ‘Ministers’

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Peter 2:1-10.

This is my tenth year under pastoral appointment. This means – to date – I have written somewhere in the realm of 520 Sunday sermons.

Woah!? That does not seem possible.

But it is.

While I continue to find Scripture passages I have yet to explore for preaching, I am also now to a place in my preaching where I have already preached particular texts on one or more occasions. I like to return to these sermons as a way to reflect and remember…and to also rejoice because some of my earlier sermons…

Woah…

And not “Woah! That was great.” More “Woah…that was a nice effort…?”

My congregation’s were (are!) super gracious.

The last time I preached this text from I Peter I was appointed to a congregation in downtown Orlando. With this text I encouraged and exhorted. I impressed upon them the significance of their presence in and participation with the Body of Christ.

I affirmed them as living stones!!!

And two years later – almost to the day – the church closed.

Learning of that closing caused me to experience a scattering silence.

Luke 19 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The faithful and hopeful surround him; joyfully they “praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the LordPeace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Lk 19:37b-38). Some of the Pharisees admonished the crowds’ praise of Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “‘I tell you,’ [Jesus] replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’” (Lk 19:39-40).

Jesus said the stones would cry out – in hope and praise and assurance – of him as King and Messiah. In I Peter the Apostle also called the church – God’s holy nation and royal priesthood – stones. The same Greek word – lithos – is used in both places. While Jesus anthropomorphizes stones by giving them human qualities in praising and crying, Peter likens humans to stones hewn together for strength and stability as God’s kingdom is built with us and before our eyes.

With Reeves Memorial UMC closing…I felt the stones had been scattered and silenced. I experienced a scattering silence. And the effect was sobering.

I went into a time of mourning and grief. I questioned what I had done. I questioned what I left undone. I hoped the good I offered far outweighed any harm I committed.

Ultimately, I felt like I let them down.

In time God met me in the scattered silence and reminded me that the church did not close. The building closed but not the church. Yes, indeed, the stones were scattered from that locale…and they were still speaking testimonies of God’s goodness and grace.

I know there were also words of grief and grimace peppered among the words of goodness and grace. In fact, I heard some of them personally! And that is okay. They are human. We are human. That behavior is human. Telling that story – of goodness and grace alongside, speaking louder, and/or resulting from grief and grimace – is one way God does what God does in transforming scattered stones into seeds.

Seeds that root and sprout.

Spouts that rise and bloom.

Blooms that bring beauty and joy.

The timing of this transforming is something God alone can see. The testimony of that transformation is a gift for all the world to see.

I do not think I will ever read this text from I Peter and not think of my time with the Reeves congregation. I am grateful for the opportunity to have shepherded them and to have been shepherded by them. I am hopeful for the ways God continues to use the faithful stones of that congregation to cry out in prayer and praise. I pray those stones have found their way into new congregations so that their faith is strengthened through proximity relationship to Christ and neighbor.

I trust God is making seeds of those stones – that with God’s help they are rooting and sprouting, rising and blooming, bringing beauty and joy as they testify to God’s enduring faithfulness.

God knows the timing of their transformation. God gifts these transformations to us as testimonies of lives lived in faith.

Prayer: “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there’s a dawn in every darkness bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”* Amen.

*“Hymn of Promise,” The United Methodist Hymnal 707.

 

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You Might Be A Christian If…You Are Kind of Weird At Biology

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Corinthians 15:12-23.

Aslan has died. He sacrificed himself on the stone table in place of the traitor, Edmund. Bound and shaved, the great King of Narnia lays disgraced without breath in his body. Lucy and Susan, much like the women at the foot of the cross, weep uncontrollably. Their beloved friend is gone, along with their hope.

Then, CS Lewis “breaks” the “fourth wall” – a characteristic of his writing. He pauses the activity of the narrative and turns to speak directly to the reader:

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.*

That chasm of quiet swept over Jerusalem after Jesus’ body was taken from the cross, swaddled in cloth, and laid in a borrowed grave. That chasm of quiet sweeps over any person and any house where the voice of a loved one used to be heard, but now is heard no more.

Sometimes the quiet is a welcomed relief. There is so much activity following a death that there is comfort to be experienced in the silence.

That silence…is also pregnant. Expectant. Full of energy as it anticipates being broken. What will be the first word? What will transform the silence into song?

The Rev. Jan Richardson is a writer and an artist; her chosen mediums are collaging, oils, and words. She is also a friend. I often turn to Jan’s art when I find myself in expectant silence. Below is a poem she wrote, I am sure, as she imagined the dew settling in the garden as day broke on the Third Day.

For Jan – the first word after the quiet that follows a night of mourning is blessing. Blessing accompanies the dawn.

Risen by Rev. Jan Richardson**

If you are looking for a blessing, do not linger here.

Here is only emptiness, a hollow, a husk where a blessing used to be.

This blessing was not content in its confinement.

It could not abide its isolation, the unrelenting silence, the pressing stench of death.

So if it is a blessing you seek, open your own mouth.

Fill your lungs with the air this new morning brings

And then release it with a cry.

Hear how the blessing breaks forth in your own voice,

How your own lips form every word you never dreamed to say.

See how the blessings circle back again, wanting you to repeat it, but louder,

How it draws you, pulls you, sends you to proclaim its only word:

Risen. Risen. Risen.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

*The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 158.

**Circle of Grace 151-153; explore also janrichardson.com.

You Might Be A Christian If…You Think There Is A Guy In Your Food

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Corinthians 11:23-27.

Andrew and I love to eat. We especially love to eat when we travel because eating is a way to truly get to know a people and culture. When given the option, we like to eat “off the beaten path…” and I would not be surprised if some of our eating “off the beaten path” was actually eating “from the beaten path.”

As my father-in-law says, “It is all protein, after all…”

That.it.is.

One night while on our trip to Nepal our hosts cooked us dinner. Kyle decided to make spaghetti with his special ingredient. Being that we were in a country that marked every meal with curry, Andrew and I anticipated some curry-spaghetti mash-up.

Oh how wrong we were.

The noodles arrived on the table. Next to the noodles sat the pot full of deep, dark sauce. I was accustomed to spaghetti sauce being “fire engine” red; this sauce was much more mahogany in color.

We fixed our plates, adding liberal portions of the sauce to our noodles. Andrew and I twirled our noodles around our forks. “Get ready!” Kyle prepared us! “Guess my secret ingredient!”

*chomp…chew…ch…ew…c…hew*

I looked at Andrew. And he looked at me. His eyes started to water. And I started to giggle, mouth full of mahogany-sauce covered noodles.

Y’all…it was cinnamon!

Cinnamon!

Cinnamon spaghetti sauce!

That was definitely a first. (and only!)

We were certainly surprised at that meal. And we ate the portion on our plates much as we had at other occasions of interesting meals. Because our hosts prepared with us in mind. And I believe they prepared their best because they had us in mind.

I believe that when Jesus prepares his Table for us that he prepares his best because he has us in mind. And because he wants the best for us he hopes that we come to the table prepared. He hopes that we come to the table having made confession of our sin and having reconciled with any sister or brother we wronged. He hopes that we come to the table wanting and expecting to be changed. He hopes that long after the taste of the bread and juice have faded that we act and advocate and sing and serve as if we have just received the gift of the sacrament.

Jesus hopes we are surprised by what we experience at the table. Jesus hopes we are surprised by where the table leads us.

I look forward to gathering with you at Christ’s Table this week. I pray that you come to the table encouraged and expectant – encouraged by the love of our Savior and expectant for what his love will invite you to do.

Prayer: “Lord, you make the common holy: “This my body, this my blood.” Let us all, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward, asking that the world around us share your children’s liberty. With the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry.”* Amen.

*”Lord, You Give The Great Commission,” The United Methodist Hymnal 584.

You Might Be A Christian If…You Are Kind of Weird At Math

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 1:1-5, 10-18 and 16:4b-15.

To quote the redoubtable Samantha Aupperlee, “Math is hard.”

True words, dear Samantha. True words.

I have had the privilege of knowing Samantha for six years. We met one another through the Young Adult Missional Movement, a ministry of the Florida Annual Conference. She was appointed to Tuskawilla UMC to serve as the church’s intern. And saying she (we) faced some hard circumstances in that first year together is an understatement.

What we really faced? Shenanigans.

Samantha never shied away from a difficult circumstance – from math or any other ‘opportunity’ where we did not see an obvious solution. Where others (where I!) saw broken bridges, Samantha always saw a chance to rebuild or to forage a new way. Samantha is calm and confident. Though she was not always eager to go along with my crazy schemes – like the day I seatbelted her into the front seat of my car with Easter Lilies when she can.not.stand. the smell of said Easter Lilies – she was and remains a faithful partner in ministry.

Recently I attended a leadership conference and one of the speakers – a former FBI hostage negotiator – who said church leadership conferences were not interesting!? –  said that humans are disposed to one of three responses when we encounter conflict: fight, flight, or make friends. I am quite familiar with the first two: Fight – take on the conflict with the hope of being victorious. Sometimes the victory is winning; other times the victory is achieving a mutual resolution. Flight – avoiding the conflict all together, a “do not pass go, do not collect $200” scenario. But the third was new to me. Make friends – curious. Very curious indeed.

Curiosity about a conflict is the first step in making friends with it. Investigate it. Get to know it. Ask questions of it. Seek to understand it. And then seek to understand yourself in association or relationship with it. Making friends with a conflict or hardship resonates on a different level with me than fighting a conflict because making friends necessarily begins from a place of peace – of hoping for the best in a person/situation, for a person/situation, for the duration of our cooperation together.

When I think back on Samantha, making friends is truly at her heart. Even when something is hard, Samantha, you seek to make friends.

You are brilliant, you know that?

When you encounter hardship or conflict or even a shenanigan – what is your response? Do you fight, flight, or make friends? How can curiosity become a tool for you to alter how you respond to future hardships, conflicts, and shenanigans? Share your answers with a friend this week. I look forward to worshipping with you on Sunday!

Prayer: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. All hail, Redeemer, hail! For thou hast died for me; thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.”* Amen.

*“Crown Him With Many Crowns,” The United Methodist Hymnal 327.

You Might Be A Christian If…Your Theological Vocabulary Includes Whoopsie

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 15:11-23.

I recently finished reading Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. In this book she explores twelve words and phrases she believes 1) are the hardest and most potent words to say and 2) every adult needs – and therefore, should learn – to incorporate into their/our vocabulary.

It is one of the more brutally real and honest books I have read in quite sometime. Some moments I literally laughed.out.loud. Other moments I quietly welcomed tears as they streamed down my face.

Thank you, Kelly, for your gift of words about these twelve words and phrases.

Her last chapter is a beautifully written letter to her friend, Liz, sometime after Liz’s death. Kelly assures Liz that her family is not forgotten. Kelly reports that she, her husband, and their girls make regular contact with Liz’s Andy and their three children, Gwen, Margo, and Dru. Kelly recalls a recent ski trip. After a morning on the slopes she is laying on the couch in her thermals by the fire trying to get warm. Music is playing in the background. Seeing Margo, Kelly extends her arm towards her best friend’s daughter. Time seems to still as Margo and Kelly’s heartbeats sync to the music. “I held her for you,” Kelly wrote to Liz, “for as long as she would let me. Two songs at least. Then Margo announced it was time to make brownies and she was gone. It was sublime” (Tell Me More 200-202).

The phrase I held her for you lingers with me. In it there is aching and longing both for everything more and everything lost. That statement is so bitterly sweet – bitter because Kelly held her friend’s daughter because cancer prematurely moved Liz from this side of eternity to the next – sweet because even in the messiness that is grief and death and unanswered whys Kelly was not shy. She faced the loss, heartbreak, anger, and grief head on. And Kelly held on…she held on to such a degree that she and Margo’s hearts beat as one.

Recall a time that someone held you. Then recall a time you held someone. What were the circumstances? What aching or longing did that holding help relieve and (hopefully) heal? What did you have to face – what did you have to overcome – to hold or be held in that moment? Find time this week to share your answers with someone you trust. Find time this week to be trusted with someone’s answers.

Hold someone. Be held by someone. Fearlessly enter the troubled messy waters of this life. Get so near to someone that your heartbeats sync. Behold the image of Christ in them. And may that experience linger with you – with us! – that we may be more compassionate, more vulnerable, and more generous in both our listening with and responding in grace.

Prayer: “Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast! Let us all in thee inherit; let us find that second rest. Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be; end of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.”* Amen.

*”Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” The United Methodist Hymnal 384.

 

You Might Be A Christian If…You Are Related To More People Than Kevin Bacon

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Hebrews 12:1-2.

Jean Arthur is a hero of the faith to me. She entered into glory on July 25, 2019. Her family lovingly walked with her to the threshold on this side of eternity and – I am certain – her beloved Corky met her – arms open wide – to guide her across to the other.

I can only imagine that sweet reunion. That sort of reunion awaits us all because of Christ’s gift in resurrection.

Jean – I called her Miss Jean – was the matriarch of a five-generation family at Tuskawilla UMC, where I served before coming to South Shore. Jean and many of her family – children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren! – would join her on the second row of the left center section near the main aisle of the Sanctuary each week for worship. Jean always sat nearest the aisle. It may have been for ease of access to her walker on Communion Sundays. It may have been because she wanted an unobstructed path to excuse herself during the service.

Sometimes she whispered her excuses…other times she thought she whispered her excuses…

I think Miss Jean sat on the aisle so she would have a front row seat to the Children’s Moment. The children of the church sat with me on the steps of the chancel as we shared a moment together each Sunday. In time, Joshua joined us. He is known as Hue to Miss Jean’s family. And Hue would usually be snug in Ashley’s arms – one of Miss Jean’s great granddaughters.

One of her babies was the earliest caregiver for my baby…that is a bond our families will always share.

Miss Jean often told tell me stories about growing up. I am known for some pretty outlandish footwear and Miss Jean’s father owned a department store with quite a shoe selection in the Midwest. She often told me about her husband, Corky, coming to Florida ahead of the rest of the family. She warned him and their daughter, Louise, about finding a church without her… “And you know what!? They did! I got here and they had made the decision…good thing I liked this place…” talking about Tuskawilla UMC. Miss Jean often told me stories about how Corky followed his heart, and how following his heart always affirmed his faith in God and answered a need in the community. Miss Jean’s family is committed to ending childhood hunger through partnering with local schools to send weekend food bags home throughout the school year. A vision that was first seen by Corky and Jean is now a reality for students at nine elementary and high schools across Seminole County.

Miss Jean was humble and astute. You never had to guess her opinion. She loved fiercely and was a model encourager. She trusted God.

She exampled for me what it means to live the assurance “it is well with my soul.”

Miss Jean, I am grateful you liked the place known as Tuskawilla UMC. I am grateful to have been appointed there and to have had the privilege of serving as your pastor for five years. I am grateful that my family is considered part of your family, even when Harry calls me Molly, and especially when I have the privilege to mentor your sweet Ashley.

I feel like an honorary lucky ducker.

I miss you. I celebrate that you are no longer in pain and that you are once again holding hands with Corky. I trust God will continue to put your faithful hands to work as you serve alongside the great cloud of witnesses.

Well done, good and faithful servant. I love you, Miss Jean. Always.

Prayer: “The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”* Amen.

*”Amazing Grace,” The United Methodist Hymnal 378.

You Might Be A Christian If…You Have A Weird Thing For Tables

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 5:27-32.

This week the South Shore UMC Family begins an eight-week sermon series entitled You Might Be A Christian If… I am grateful to the Rev. Magrey deVega, serving Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, for helping capture the themes for this series in a Jeff Foxworthy style and for Dr. Kelsey Evans-Amalu for inviting me to test-drive these themes in a lecture on Christianity in her Human Geography course a few years ago.

Also a shout-out to the first Spring Confirmation Retreat 2019 that heard these in each of our times of worship together…I’m still working on determining this generation’s Kevin Bacon…

As Hagrid would say, “more on that later…”

One of the things my Nonnie was known for was elaborate tablescapes. For the grown-up table – Lenox and Waterford Crystal as far as the eye could see. Napkin rings snuggled fine cloth napkins. The chandelier just bright enough to enhance conversation, but not blinding in reflections off the glassware. The kids’ table had its own flare – plastic ev.ery.thing. – but fun plastic! Usually flamingoes. Or pineapples. Or flamingoes enjoying pineapples (thanks, Burdines!). The kids would sit on the porch or in the breakfast nook while the adults escaped to the dining room.

Or so they thought…

Being hangry is a real thing – being angry because you are hungry – and knowing that, even before the word was a thing – meant the adults always let the kids fix their plates first so they – the adults – could eat in peace.

Or so they thought…

Kids eat fast. And we sure did. So when the grandchildren were done we would one-by-one find a way into the dining room. “Mom, I need help with this…” “Gramps, take a look at what I just did…” “Nonnie, may I have…” And a dining room table that comfortably had eight adults around it swelled to fifteen.

And there was always room. Always.

I used to think Nonnie’s dining room table was magic in the way there was always room. But it was not magic. It was magnanimity – learned from her love of God, which taught her great love for her family.

I desire that same spirit of magnanimity when I think of preparing the tables in my life for all God’s people to come. That there will always be room. That there will always be enough and more beside. That at the table we will be and find generous friends.

It’s true. I have a weird thing for tables…because of my faith…my faith that leads my family and leads me in welcoming every single person as a member of Christ’s family.

Prayer: “Sent forth by God’s blessing, our true faith confessing, the people of God from this dwelling take leave. The service is ended, O now be extended the fruits of our worship in all who believe. The seed of the teaching, receptive souls reaching, shall blossom in action for God and for all. God’s grace did invite us, and love shall unite us to work for God’s kingdom and answer the call.”* Amen.

*“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing,” The United Methodist Hymnal 664.