Home For The Holidays

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 1:68-79

I’ll Be Home For Christmas debuted in 1943 and has been favored tune for this time of year every year since.

This song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II. The soldier’s message to his family is brief and heartfelt, “I will be home for Christmas…prepare the holiday for me.” He requests snow, mistletoe, and presents under the tree.

Yet the song ends on a melancholy note, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”

The dream of home can evoke feelings of comfort and discomfort. At the holidays the dream of home can evoke both of those feelings at the same time. Perhaps we anticipate being in a familiar place surrounded by loved ones. Perhaps we breathe heavily and sigh too deep for words as we remember that home is not a familiar place and that the loved ones we want to see  will not be present. Perhaps we experience both feelings within a matter of seconds.

I find myself in an odd place as I continue walking forward to Christmas. I am excited for the holiday, but I will miss being able to gather with all of my family. I am anticipating the great joy of our Savior’s birth, but my heart is heavy knowing so many in my family, in our church family, in our community, and in our world are hurting. Medical prognoses worsen, new concerns are found, relationships strain, loved ones die, there is not enough money, there is not enough time, there is not enough energy, there is not enough.

There is loneliness. There is emptiness. There is darkness.

And there…in the darkness…the light of our Christ burns brightly. Zechariah sings, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).

Thanks be to God.

This coming Monday, December 21 at 7pm in the Sanctuary the Tuskawilla Family will celebrate a Service of Longest Night. The seasons of Advent and Christmas are often marked by expressions of joy, excitement, and happiness, but this time of joy and expectation can often overshadow the pain and hurt many experience during this season. The grief and sorrow we feel is real and during this time of worship, we are invited to  draw near to our grief and sorrow and find that our God is bringing healing in the midst of it.

I invite you to join us for this time of prayer, Scripture reading, reflection, and communion. Perhaps this is a threshold you would like to cross or feel you need to cross so that you can settle home for the holidays. You are welcome among us. You are welcome here. As a beloved community we will worship. As a beloved community we will experience God’s healing.

Prayer: O God, “we look for light, but find darkness, for brightness,  but walk in gloom. We grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in twilight. If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. Blessed be your name, O God for ever. You reveal deep and mysterious things; you are light and in you is no darkness. Our darkness is passing away and already the true light is shining.”* Amen.

*”Canticle of Light and Darkness,” The United Methodist Hymnal 205.

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Commanded to Love: With All Our Soul

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:30 and Hebrews 4:12-13

Our texts for this week explore the impact God’s Scripture has on the soul. The letter to the Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” (Heb 4:12).

That’s deep – and oh so punny!

As a pastor I read a fair amount of Scripture – and I will quickly add that I would like to read and study more than I do presently! There are days when I read Scripture with the posture of Sargeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – “just the facts, Lord, just the facts.” I want the highlights. I want the headlines. I want the facts and then I want to move on. I want to read, but not really marinate. I want to study, but not really emotionally connect to the text.

What pronoun did I consistently use throughout the five previous sentences? I. Reading Scripture is sometimes about what I want; yet, reading Scripture is an encounter that God always wants. Those encounters with God are not meant to be rushed. Those encounters are meant to and do catch me up in God’s presence. And they speak to my soul. They speak to God in me. They breathe into the breath that breathed into me. They teach. They form. They convict. Yes, they are facts that the Joe Friday in my desires – facts that become fodder for greater reflection and growth in my relationship with God.

A Scripture that continues to catch me up is tucked within the history of the Kings, “When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, ‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ Jehu said, ‘If it is, give me your hand'” (II Kings 10:15). The he in this text refers to Jehu, the tenth King of Israel, anointed by the prophet Elisha. As king Jehu’s mission was to exterminate the house of Ahab because of the sin that Ahab himself had committed as well as the sin that Ahab led and prompted God’s people to commit.

Jehu is faithful in his mission and it is a bloodbath. On his way to Samaria Jehu’s path crosses with Jehonadab son of Rechab. Jehonadab, though not a Jew himself, supports Jehu in his efforts to fulfill his mission from the Lord. Though they are not from the same people group, from the same heritage, or from the same faith, they choose to work together. They choose to form a partnership. They choose to be stronger together than weaker apart. “‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ … ‘It is.’ … ‘If it is, give me your hand.'”

John Wesley reflected on this passage of Scripture in his sermon Catholic Spirit as he considered the hindrances that lie in the way of brothers, sisters, neighbors loving one another just as Christ’s greatest commandment calls us to do! Wesley pens, “The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they cannot all think alike and, in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike; but in several smaller points their practice must differ in proportion to the difference of their sentiments. But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.” (Read the full text of John Wesley’s Sermon Catholic Spirit here)

My friends, there are so many hindrances in this world that seek to divide us. We can identify the root of some of these hindrances – sometimes we are the root! – and at other times we struggle to identify the root while we suffer the effects the hindrances cause. These hindrances can divide our thoughts, they can divide our hearts, they can divide us from our neighbors. Our God does not desire division. Our God desires one people – one beautifully united people that celebrate one another’s gifts and encourages one another to use our gifts in service of the Kingdom. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (I Cor 12:4-11).

Daily I am challenged to, encouraged to, delighted to extend my hand because I truly believe that is how I extend the Kingdom. This Scripture from II Kings strikes and resonates within my soul. This Scripture from II Kings has caught me up. What is that Scripture for you? Please, take my hand and share it with me.

Prayer: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul. Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control, that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed his own blood for my soul. My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord bass descend, even so, it is well with my soul. It is well [it is well] with my soul [with my soul], it is well, i is well with my soul.”* Amen.

*”It Is Well with My Soul,” The United Methodist Hymnal 377.

Barnyard Brawl

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 25:31-46

This past week I had the privilege to attend the Imprint Retreat that the Florida Annual Conference of The UMC hosts at one of our conference camp and retreat centers annually. This retreat experience is unique in that it focuses on social justice issues and engages middle schoolers and high schoolers in dialogue about these issues. This year’s theme was “Love is…” Together with 550+ students and adult leaders we learned that we accomplish more through conversation together than through tugging ourselves apart, that open mindedness helps foster community, and while physical, emotional, and mental borders scar our lands, God calls us to love and in so doing we tear down these borders, heal the scars, and build up people.

Following worship on Saturday evening each church (I was in attendance with Andrew’s youth group) was dismissed to our church meeting place to create an artistic reflection of the night’s message. Together our group constructed ribbon chandeliers. On one side of the ribbons we were invited to write a confession – a moment where we have failed at tearing down the borders, healing the scars, and building up people – and on the other side we were invited to write a hope or dream for the church.

The church I serve is in a suburban area. Weekly if not daily I drive through suburban and urban areas and the number of persons experiencing homelessness is on the rise. These persons ask for money on the corners of busy intersections, strolling through traffic, approaching people at gas stations or in parking lots. The need continues to grow.

I do not usually give money to these persons when I pass them because I do not have a practice of keeping cash on my person. I give to my church and I know that the money I give to my church is being stewarded to care for all of God’s people as God leads us. Knowing that I give to the church comforts me when I see these neighbors experiencing homelessness.

But…recently I have noticed that I am choosing not even to acknowledge these folks as I pass them. I look across the street. I gaze down at my lap. I close my eyes behind my sunglasses. I scroll through my phone. I do not acknowledge them. I choose not to acknowledge them. Is this because I am using my giving to the church as a crutch? “Oh I give to the church so I can just look at the church, which is comfortable for me and pleasant and known and not visibly in pain?” What in the world am I doing? Or more importantly and appropriately, what in the world am I not doing?

I made my confession. I confessed hiding behind the church and not looking into the sadness of the world. I confessed not seeing my Christ in the hurt of my neighbors. Gazing into the need gives the need a face – humanizes it – so that it is not so easily forgotten, not so easily overlooked. Forgive me, Lord.

I turned the ribbon over and wrote out my dream for the church…a dream that is wide enough to include all God’s people with positions to lead and serve and be seen and heard in the church. A way for this dream to come to fruition is by people looking into the eyes of others – all others – beholding Christ within them, and becoming a neighbor. This is the first step to tearing down borders, healing scars, and becoming the beloved community.

Jesus said, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:34-36). Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world for you looked at me. You looked at me in the faces of my sisters and brothers in need. You looked at me.

Send me, Lord. To see. To serve.

Prayer: “Lead us forward into freedom; from despair your world release, that redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace. Show us how through care and goodness fear will die and hope increase, fear will die and hope increase.  You, Creator God, have written your great name on humankind; for our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind, that by our response and service earth its destiny may find, earth its destiny may find.”* Amen.

*”For the Healing of the Nations,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 428.