Commitment and Conviction: Sanctification

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Thessalonians 2:13-15.

This past week I had the opportunity to gather for prayer with a group of the South Shore youth before they left for their summer camp experience. They were fully equipped for camp – pillows, donuts, energy drinks, and portable chargers for all.the.devices.

(Let us pray…for their leaders!)

Before leaving the youth leader, Toni, invited the students to sit to review their covenant for their trip together one final time so that everyone was on the same page as far as behavior expectations and accountability.

I submit to you – some of the language and expectations in that document strengthened – a.lot. – from previous iterations.

Why? Because of me.

I could tell some of the students had their feathers ruffled…and so I quickly identified myself as the source of the updated behavior expectations and accountability. In fact, I congratulated the students on being the first group at South Shore to live into new behavior expectations and accountability in our shared ministry together!

They thanked me…? Kinda?

At the end of my conversation with the students I referenced a grout line on the floor of the hospitality area, saying that once they crossed that threshold they would be “going onto perfection” within the boundaries of their new behavior expectations and accountability. One of the adult leaders was already on the other side of that grout line – I affirmed that Jeremy was already before them a shining example of going onto perfection!

They laughed. Heartily!

(I feel like they know something I don’t…!?)

“Going onto perfection” is the work of Sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we are made holy. We are made holy through our relationship with and experiences of God.

John Wesley uses beautiful imagery of the breath in describing how our souls act and react with God as we are made holy. He writes, “God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and re-action of the soul upon God; an unceasing presence of God, the loving, pardoning God, manifested in the heart, and perceived by faith; and an unceasing return of love, praise, and prayer, offering up all the thoughts of our hearts, all the words of our tongues, all the works of our hands, all our body, soul, and spirit, to be [a] holy sacrifice, acceptable to God in Christ Jesus. And hence we [may infer] the absolute necessity of this re-action of the soul (whatsoever it be called) in order to the continuance of the divine life therein. For it plainly appears God does not continue to act upon the soul unless the soul re-acts upon God” (The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God III. 2 and 3).

As we grow in our relationships with God and experience God we are continually introduced to greater depths of our covenant with God. This necessarily means that we are also held to higher behavioral expectations and accountabilities as God’s Spirit wholy and holy transforms us into the people that God desires us to be. As I mentioned last Sunday, sometimes this gets under my skin…ruffles my feathers. It is in those moments I am called to meet God in the quiet to share my heart…and ultimately receive God’s heart for that moment and season in my life.

Wesley believed that when we achieved perfection – achieved entire Sanctification – that we would inhale God’s love and exhale God’s praise – in all times in all places with all peoples. That is a goal of mine. Sanctification has the trajectory of my life and my life of faith coursed in that direction.

I am so grateful. I am going onto perfection.

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.

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From Wreck to Restoration: We Commit Sin

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 2:4-13.

A congregant once said to me, “Pastor, I’ve never heard a preacher talk about sin as much as you do!”

I remember laughing as he said this…and then I was quite struck as his words washed over me. If pastors are not talking about sin, then how will people in our congregations know how to talk about sin? How will people in the world know how to talk about sin?

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite authors, advises that we need language about sin as much as we need language about salvation. In her book, Speaking of Sin, she writes,

Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart form the full impact of what has been forgiven.*

It is not easy to talk about sin. Why dwell on the bad stuff, especially when God has promised to forgive the bad stuff and absolve us of it? I believe we need to talk about our sin, not so we carry the guilt and shame of it with us always, but so that we know the weight of our sin, and therefore the magnanimity of God’s amazing grace.

An essential component of John Wesley’s Class and Band structure was to have members of the bands sit before one another and answer the question, “How is it with your soul?” In responding to this question the band members would share where they excelled, struggled, and out right failed in their lives – personal, professional, and of faith – since the last band gathering. (Wesley would say the life of faith pervades all spheres of life.) It was not enough for band members to say that they sinned; they would have to name the sin specifically and articulate how that sin had harmed God, their neighbors, and themselves. Some might consider this method a severe form of behavior modification, but it worked for the Early Methodists and it continues to work for many today that participate in a covenant or accountability group.

Developing a language to discuss sin draws us into intentional thinking about our sinful acts as well as their consequences and repercussions. From this sort of reflection I am led to

  1. Repent of my sin and seek forgiveness and reconciliation and
  2. Make note of the circumstances, my actions, and my reactions, so that my behavior will be different the next time I encounter the same or similar circumstances.

I talk about sin and I talk about my sin as a way of letting people around me know that I am  a safe place to talk about sin. And maybe one day, if they would like, we could talk about their sin together. And when that conversation begins it will most surely end with the affirmation that our God forgives our sin, that Jesus removes the guilt of sin, that the Holy Spirit breaks the power sin has over us, so that we will indeed live as the forgiven and the redeemed.

Prayer: “In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin 4.

**”The Old Rugged Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal 504.

FAMILY ~ Ministry of All Believers

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ephesians 4:1-16.

My friend Dan Dixon has the keenest ability to send me cards that 100% describe how I am feeling at the present moment. My most recent installment looks like…

 

IMG_0107

This.

I think it should be titled, “Sarah Miller: This Moment In Time.”

The inside of the card reads, “Ever have one of those days?” And underneath those words Dan kindly wrote, “Yes, we do! Yes, we all have!”

How wonderful it is to be reminded that I am not alone in this life and that I have a great friend that will send me a picture of a soaked cat to lift my spirits.

In the card Dan thanked me for all the ways we stay connected as colleagues as well as friends. We share resources, we ask advice, we laugh, we vent, we sit in silence, we complain about all the things we should have been taught at Candler, and through talk, text, and/or email, we offer “towels” to one another on the days we are utterly soaked.

Dan has the incredible gift of speaking truth in love – “Sarah, you are doing a little too much right now.” “Sarah, listen to your committee members on this.” “Sarah, let that go.” “Sarah, forgive yourself.”

In her book Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”*

Through the relationship we share, Dan and I are able to be brought out of ourselves – and most importantly, brought out of the stories that we tell ourselves that are not a true reflection of our actual selves – so we can love and nurture, so we can struggle with growth and grapple with fear, and so we can try on the rawness of vulnerability and realize that we can live with that rawness for just a few moments longer than we did the last time.

Barbara Brown Taylor observes that we are all born with “instinctive care” – that innate knowledge to do whatever we need to do to care for ourselves. To love the neighbor as the self requires that we apply that same sort of instinctive care to someone else, that we do whatever is needed to care for another. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “to become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.”*

When we apply instinctive care to one another in community we experience unity. We share our joys and sorrows in community. We do not walk alone; we walk with others. We share one another’s burdens and we work together to lighten those loads. We offer affirmation, we ask questions, we seek and share forgiveness. This is what it means to be in relationship with one another. This is at the core of our ministry to one another as believers – caring for one another, which leads us to caring for all, as Christ cares for us.

Is there someone in your life presently that relates to or resembles my above “moment in time?” How might you reach out to them, and in so doing, instinctively care for them as you would for yourself? Consider how your actions will draw the two of you closer together. And imagine what our world would be like if we all genuinely and diligently answered our calls to to this sort of care.

Prayer: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 93.

**”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” The United Methodist Hymnal 557.

 

Good News to the Poor

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 4:14-21

The summer after tenth grade I travelled to a rural area of Tennessee with my youth group to serve on a mission trip. My team’s project was to assess and repair the roof of a mobile home that was caving in on the resident, who was a very kind man and a decorated Veteran that became a paraplegic as a result of his years of service.

After arriving and meeting our resident our team climbed onto the roof to begin removing the worn shingles and felt paper so we could expose the decking. Upon completing our task our surprised group leader, Mr. Nixon, said, “This decking is fine…so something else is causing the problem.” We got off the roof and a few from our team went into the home to identify other potential sources of the roof problem. A few moments later the small group returned with their discovery. The home we were repairing was in fact two single mobile home units that had been joined together to create one larger home with a unified roof; however, the structure did not have a proper load-bearing wall to support the weight of the roof. Someone asked, “What’s wrong with the load-bearing wall?” Mr. Nixon replied, “The wall is not plumb.”

For a wall to be plumb means that it is perfectly vertical. The loadbearing in the center of this house, which connected the two single units into one unit and was intended to support the center seam of the roof, was out of plumb just enough that the weight of the roof was not equally distributed on the rafters or other supporting walls. This was the source and cause of the caving roof. Our team spent the next three days reconstructing that load-bearing wall to stabilize and redistribute the weight of the roof. The final day and a half we re-shingled the roof.

When we said our final goodbyes to our homeowner I remember him looking upon his roof with great pride. Though he was in a wheelchair, he stood so strong and tall as he admired his level and supported roof; everything that was out of plumb was finally in proper alignment.

In our Scripture for this week we read the plumb line of Jesus’ teaching. In quoting the Isaiah scroll Jesus reveals the ways in which he and others that are faithful to God will complete God’s work in the world. We, after the example of Jesus, are called to

  • Bring good news to the poor
  • Proclaim release to the captives
  • Proclaim recovery of sight to the blind
  • Let the oppressed go free, and
  • Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19).

New Testament scholar Carol Lakey Hess says that in this passage “we learn what Jesus came to do” and “insofar as we measure our lives against this, we are following Jesus’ ministry.”* If our service and contributions towards God’s work in the world are measured by, guided by, and in accordance with this Scriptural plumb line, then we do not risk our efforts becoming skewed or out of sync with God’s desires for God’s children and the Kingdom.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, articulated the plumb line for God’s service in the world in three simple rules:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Do good.
  3. Attend upon the ordinances of God.

Do no harm and Do good are wonderfully self-explanatory. Before proceeding with an act – in word or in deed – ask yourself, “Does this cause harm? Does this communicate bad news or good news? Does this reveal God’s kingdom or keep it hidden from view? Does this release someone from a burden or add a new one?” Before proceeding with an act, name the good that the act will do. “This action will give someone hope; this act will provide comfort; this act will promote forgiveness, which will strengthen a relationship.”

Attend upon the ordinances of God is not as self-explanatory. What Wesley prescribes here is to stay connected with God through prayer, praise, Sacraments, and service. When we stay connected with God – individually through personal devotion and communally as the Body of Christ – we are strengthened in our spirits and continually reminded of the plumb line for our service. When we neglect our relationship with God, we are more likely to fall out of alignment, which can cause our relationships with God and others to cave, much like the roof over that home in rural Tennessee.

God is our strong foundation. The plumb line provided in our Scripture passage for this week is what helps us build upon God’s foundation in the Kingdom. We should revisit this plumb line often so that we can celebrate God’s accomplishments and continue refining our service in alignment with God’s will. This is a combination of head, heart, and hand work. Sometimes it is hard work and at other times it is easy. This work is always fulfilling and by applying ourselves to it, we will stand strong and proud, admiring what God has accomplished through us and looking with joy towards whatever task God has next.

Prayer: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing; he chastens and hastens his will to make known. The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing. Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own. Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine; so from the beginning the fight we were winning; thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine.”** Amen.

*Feasting on the Word Year C Vol I 286.

** “We Gather Together,” The United Methodist Hymnal 131.

Stewardship Is More Than Money

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 9:6-15

This Sunday the Tuskawilla community begins our Stewardship series in preparation for and anticipation of the 2015 ministry year. It will be a partnered series including (1) a collection of sermons on “Stewardship Is” that will explore the many facets of stewardship and (2) a collection of letters entitled “Known” that will connect what we know of our personal experiences with growing understandings and experiences of stewardship. I am very excited to begin this series because stewardship is so incredibly vital to our participation in the Body of Christ and helping build God’s kingdom on earth.

“God loves a cheerful giver” our Scripture text says this week. A person who gives is a person who has received.  I have vivid memories as a child and youth of my father saying, “You take care of what belongs (is given) to you more than what belongs to someone else.” I am sure this statement was made in reference to me tearing something up that was not mine. Regardless of the context, there is great truth in these words – I take care of what belongs to me because it is mine.

As I have engaged in this practice of care a greater truth has been revealed.  I take care of what belongs to me.  And now that degree of care influences the care I give to what has been entrusted to me for a season and influences the care I give in giving to others.

As a pastor I am entrusted with the spiritual nurturing and challenging of Christ’s body in a specific context. I am entrusted to care for a home in which the church invites my family to live. I am entrusted with the call to live faithfully and lead ethically.  All of this is for a season as I am in an itinerant appointive clergy system and my dedication of care will continue throughout all the years of my vocation. I believe that I have to lead by example. I cannot speak with integrity about others ascribing to this level and sensitivity of care if I do not live it in my own life.

As I live it in my own life I experience great joy. Yes, I am joyful every week when I clean my parsonage because it is a gift from the congregation to me. Yes, I am joyful to steward the church I serve – from baptizing babies to plunging toilets. Both involve water in different ways and both are important in their own ways!  Yes, I am joyful to be held accountable to how I lead and how I learn. And yes, I am joyful – and so incredibly thankful – how the lesson from my father continues to teach me and influence my care for entities that belong to others and my care for others.

“God loves a cheerful giver.”  I have cheerfully received – from God, from others, from God through others.  It is my pleasure to give and care in response and extension of how I have cared for what I have received. In giving as I have received I believe I incarnate the obedience our God desires to see. I do not always succeed in this obedience, which serves as another opportunity for growth in spiritual maturity in my relationship with God and greater accountability with my peers as we walk the journey of faith together.

That we travel together – that is one of the greatest gifts God has given and continues to give.

How do you care for what you have received?  What connection exists between how you care for your belongings and how you care for others?  If there is not a connection, how could you begin establishing a connection?

I invite you to prayerfully consider these questions and, as God leads you, live out your response.

Prayer: “But we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay; for the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey. Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at his feet or we’ll walk by his side in the way; what he says we will do, where he sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”* Amen.

*”Trust and Obey,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 467.

Plot From The Plain: Unobstructed

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 6:37-42

While in seminary I was selected as a candidate for a special scholarship for one year of my studies that covered my full tuition AND gave me a stipend.

For books.

And when you’re in my vocation – you have great love for ANYONE who gives you money to purchase books or gifts you books.

Books books books – big love.

Books books books – also a big weight when it’s moving season (over 30 BOXES of books!) – but that’s not the point here.

I love when I turn to my bookshelf for a sermon resource and I can remember how it was gifted to me – much like when I come across most of the things in my house and I remember who gave them to Andrew and me as wedding presents.  The text I sought today came from my seminary book stipend – CS Lewis’ bestseller Mere Christianity.

In the text he offers this thought in his chapter on forgiveness:

For a long time I used to think this is a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself.*

Is it true that we can love the sinner and hate the sin?

We are a people – we are individuals – constantly in conflict.  The Apostle Paul describes it this way, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:15,19).

What causes us to do what we hate?  The sin that occupies our human condition. Sin breeds only brokenness and suffering.  The grace of God seeks to heal and make us whole.  I believe God’s grace manifests within our hearts as self-worth – that which enables us to love ourselves because God first loved us.  That self-worth, which is rooted in God’s love, alerts us to the problem of sin and sets us on the path of the redeemed.

Lewis continues:

However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself.  There had never been the slightest difficulty about it.  In fact, the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man.  Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.  

Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery.  We ought to hate them.  Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid.  But [Christianity] does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again.**

He can – she can – we can be cured and made human again.

I am convinced that this cure we seek comes through a life of faith.  It begins with the grace of God that we receive before we are even aware of it.  It continues as we actively receive and are claimed by God’s forgiveness in the moment of our conversion and redemption.  And it continues throughout our lives as God’s grace makes us more holy, as we grow in Christian maturity, as we are perfected in the faith.  The cure is realized as we are beautifully restored to the image in which we were made – the creation that God called very good.

I believe when we “love the sinner and hate the sin” we claim the hope of this cure – this ultimate redemption and restoration.  This doesn’t mean we fail to hold our neighbors accountable – or be held accountable ourselves.  We can hold one another accountable without casting judgment and in doing so we become companions for one another as God sanctifies.

I claim this hope for my family, my friends, my neighbors.  I know – I feel – their claim of this hope for me.

I will love the sinner and hate the sin.  Because you and me – we are equal and walking together.

Prayer: “Where shall my wondering soul begin? How shall I all to heaven aspire? A slave redeemed from death and sin, a brand plucked from eternal fire, how shall I equal triumphs raise, or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?

O how shall I the goodness tell, Father, which Thou to me hast showed? That I, a child of wrath and hell, I should be called a child of God, should know, should feel my sins forgiven, blessed with this antepast of Heaven!

And shall I slight my Father’s love? Or basely fear His gifts to own? Unmindful of His favors prove? Shall I, the hallowed cross to shun, refuse His righteousness to impart, by hiding it within my heart?

Outcasts of men, to you I call, harlots, and publicans, and thieves! He spreads His arms to embrace you all; sinners alone His grace receives; no need of Him the righteous have; He came the lost to seek and save.

Come, O my guilty brethren, come, groaning beneath your load of sin, His bleeding heart shall make you room, His open side shall take you in; He calls you now, invites you home; come, O my guilty brethren, come!

For you the purple current flowed in pardons from His wounded side, languished for you the eternal God, for you the Prince of glory died. Believe, and all your sin’s forgiven; only believe, and yours is Heaven!”***

Amen.

*CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1950) 117.

**Ibid.  

***”Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin,” The United Methodist Hmynal, 342.