Woman in the Night: The Gospel in the Law

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 7:36-50.

Last week a member of the Worship Planning Team spied that Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance was part of our order of worship for Sunday. He messaged me, “Are we using green grape juice for Communion on Sunday?”

No. But I laughed at his question.

During the season of Lent I like to incorporate Prayers of Confession and Words of Assurance in our weekly worship. These are portions of the liturgy that we tend to only engage on Communion Sundays as they are a path for us to prepare to come before the table Christ prepares for us – for everyone.

I find these words particularly powerful during Lent – this season of self-examination and Savior-invitation – to look to the new life Christ is creating in us that we will celebrate with his resurrection on Easter morn!

In the act of confession we acknowledge our sin. We acknowledge the hurt and harm that we cause. We acknowledge that we do not have this life – this world – figured out! We acknowledge that we deserve judgment, but because of the Love that will not let us go, judgment is not our fate.

It is my experience that some people experience adverse reactions to the thought of confession. Perhaps they hear confession and believe they are expected to make a public display – a public rending of their heart – like the woman in our Scripture passage for this week. Or perhaps they hear confession and are resistant because they do not want to participate in an act that will make them feel bad about themselves.

I feel bad when I make a confession. I experience guilt and remorse – that weight of my committed sin. But there is a difference between saying “I feel bad; I made a bad choice” and “I am bad because I made this choice.” I am not bad. We are not bad. I and we make bad choices. I and we can alter our behaviors so as to not make those bad choices recurrent. Guilt and remorse can be powerful motivators for behavior modification – and the hope for followers of Christ – is that guilt and remorse will motivate us to accountably changing our behavior to be more like Christ. Feeling bad does not absolve us of sin. Seeking forgiveness and accountably changing our behavior acknowledges before God and neighbor that we are applying the grace in forgiveness we receive.

When I am feeling lost or astray in my relationship with God, I often return to the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. The shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the 1, and Jesus concludes saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). For me, confession is one way to bring God joy. That homecoming is sweet and needful and holy. That homecoming is healing so that I may – every day – become more of the person and leader God desires.

Prayer: “Woman at the feast, let the righteous stare; come and go in peace; love him with your hair! Come and join the song, women, children, men; Jesus makes us free to live again!”* Amen.

*”Woman in the Night,” The United Methodist Hymnal 274.

 

From Wreck to Restoration: We Cry Out

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

Eustace is one of the main characters in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a sullen little boy that is critical of everything and landing on the Dawn Treader’s latest voyage was absolutely the last thing on his list of desires.

Actually, it was not on his list of desires at.all.

The longer the crew sailed, the more incorrigible Eustace became. His arrogance, self-centeredness, and anger worsened ten-fold.

One day the ship docked on an island and the crew set off to explore their surroundings. Eustace made his way into a cave and stumbled upon a great treasure! His greed was all consuming. He eagerly pulled valuables towards himself and stuffed whatever he could into his pockets. Finding a gold cuff he placed it on his arm, which initiated a chain reaction across his skin. His soft skin was transformed into scales, his bones lengthened and stretched, and horns replaced his hair.

Eustace transformed into a dragon.

At first he thought himself quite grand. People did not usually pay particular attention to Eustace unless he was causing an arrogant, self-centered, angry tantrum, but now everyone would pay attention to him! He would show them – all of the thems!

But the longer he sat, the more distraught Eustace became. Feelings of pride became feelings of panic and Eustace realized that he did not want to be a dragon. He was bound to the treasure he had taken that was not his. He had become the treasure’s captive and while everyone else could leave the island on the Dawn Treader, he would be left alone.

Try as he might Eustace could not change himself back into a boy. Eustace attempted to scape away his scales to only find layer after lay underneath. In hopelessness he cried out. In this, Eustace’s greatest moment of humility, Aslan appeared and peeled away Eustace’s dragon skin.

Remembering the encounter Eustace said,

I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…

He peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.

And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…*

Only God could free Eustace from his scales, which were a visible prison built by his sin, and Aslan – Lewis’ God-figure, did just that. Eustace cried out to Aslan and Aslan saved him.

We are incapable of saving ourselves; only God can save. Try as we might to remove our sin on our own, we are incapable. We need God’s help.

When we cry out to God our God frees us and forgives us. When we cry out to God our sin is peeled away and our hearts are rendered tender. We might feel frail or weak, but in humbling ourselves before God to be forgiven and made new, what may look and feel like weakness is evidence of true strength.

At times we can feel captive to our sin in prisons of our own design. Find rest and receive comfort, dear friends, that our God is the God that has come, is coming, and will always come to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa 61:1 and Lk 4:18-19).

Thanks be to God.

Prayer: “Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness. Come, my Life, and revive me from death. Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds. Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins, kindling my heart with the flame of thy love. Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there. For thou alone art my King and my Lord. Amen.”**

*C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader 108-109.

**”An Invitation to Christ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 466.

Rock of Ages: Building On This Rock

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-20

In this week’s Rock of Ages text we hear Peter’s confession about the identity of Jesus – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – as well as Jesus’ declaration about Peter’s future – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:16, 18a).

My first appointment was to a new church that resulted from a merger of two existing congregations with two existing church campuses. The vision that drew the now one congregation together was that they could better serve their local communities as one church and one united body of God’s people than they could separately. At the beginning of my appointment we continued to worship, host events, and welcome folks on both campuses. As my appointment progressed we began looking forward to purchasing a new piece of land that would be the future home of New Horizon Church. We committed to working to sell the original church campuses so we could invest all our available stewardship, resources, and people into the new campus that was adjacent to a local high school and many developing neighborhoods.

We were able to purchase the new church property in early 2011 and so church leadership moved into the design phase of the project. I did not take the class on reading blueprints or completing permitting in seminary – I missed out! – so much of went on was new to me and very over my head. While many around me began to talk about what was going to go into and on top of the ground I wanted to give thanks for the ground as it already existed.

The Saturday following Easter in 2011 I invited the congregation to join me at the future site of the church to complete a prayer walk over the grounds. The church would make its home in an orange grove. The trees were still in bloom; the air was fragrant and sweet. The trees were so dense that not much grass grew on the ground so we walked through God’s wonderful gift known as Polk County sand. Corner to corner for 20 acres we walked and prayed, we gave thanks to God for the land that had been provided for us, we praised God for how God was blessing and continuing to bless the ties that bound us together as a congregation, and we asked God to continue leading us to be witnesses of his love, service, and justice in our community. Before there was any sort of finalization of blueprints or completion of environmental studies or selection of the fabric on the pew chairs or even a ground breaking we prayed over the ground as God had provided it to us. We prayed over each other. Even though there was no building, we prayed over the church.

I learned very early – through a beloved Sunday School song – that “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” People are made into the church by sharing in Peter’s confession about Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” When Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” Jesus was referring to Peter’s confident confession. That confession is the bedrock of every believer and a shared foundation in every Christian community of faith. A building is not necessary to communicate this statement of faith.

We are the church. We are the people. This is our confession to make. This is our story to tell. And may we, like Peter, do so with great confidence.

Prayer: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together! The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places. Sometimes the church is marching, sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding, always it’s learning. And when the people gather, there’s singing and there’s praying, there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes, all of it saying: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!”* Amen.

*”We Are the Church,” The United Methodist Hymnal 558.

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.