Declare

This Weekend’s Scripture ~ Luke 2:15-20.

A couple years ago I had the privilege to attend the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Concert with Andrew and six very dear friends. What an experience! Lights – sounds – huge screen projections – incredible musicianship – and indoor pyrotechnics. Incredible!

Their show began with their story called The Ghosts of Christmas Eve. It tells the tale of a young girl that finds sanctuary on Christmas Eve in an old theater. The ghosts draw her into their past experiences as their way of meeting her where she is, offering her comfort, and preparing to send her on her way home for Christmas.

(And then later on a dragon appeared…)

The Ghosts of Christmas Eve included suspenseful and delightful moments. Through an amazing cacophony of sound – and so much sensory engagement one could easily slip into overload – clear voices sang through with hope.

Hope for reunification. Hope for forgiveness. Hope for coming home.

Songs of hope that began with these words so long ago…”Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Lk 2:14)!

Christ’s nativity was suspenseful and delightful. Christ’s nativity is our gateway to reunification, forgiveness, and coming home – with God and neighbor.

That is my wish for you this Christmas. Admire and enjoy the spectacle, but do not miss the true meaning and purpose of Christmas in the sights and sounds. God meets us in the world – in the flesh – and offers us sanctuary. Christ came into a world that did not want him and equally ached for him. That environment of 2000 years ago describes us still today.

We need this Jesus. We need our Christ to forgive and to teach us to forgive. Jesus brings us together. Jesus journeys with us home to God.

This Sunday our choir will lead us in worship as they declare our Savior’s birth as they offer Jesus! The Advent of the Messiah at our 11am Worship Service. Join us for this special time of worship and song.

Prayer: “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born. Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born, and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn. Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”* Amen.

*“Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” The United Methodist Hymnal 251.

 

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‘Check’ None

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Romans 1:16-17 and Luke 10:29-37.

A week ago while out running errands I stopped at a local alterations place to pick up a blouse that needed mending. On the way out of the store, I saw a young woman – maybe high school or early college – sitting at an outdoor table with her face in her hands. Her shoulders were up by her ears. She was quiet or perhaps striving to stifle cries.

And what did I do?

I walked right on by…

I know well the story of the Good Samaritan. And I like to think that I am the Samaritan…but in this moment I was the Levite. This young woman was in need and I did not stop. The rest of my errands took precedence.

Friends, I got it wrong. And so, I ask for forgiveness.

It is a challenge to put feet to our faith. It is a challenge to live the words of Scripture that we read in our daily study and hear proclaimed in worship. It is a challenge, but it is not a challenge that we cannot fulfill. It takes practice. And the more that we put feet to our faith, the more consistent our behavior becomes.

The invitation to put feet to our faith is not a one and done. It is an invitation before us each moment of each day. It is a challenge, but it is not a challenge that we cannot fulfill. It takes practice. And the more that we put feet to our faith, the more invitations we will receive to do it again.

Last Sunday before Morningsong I had to privilege to share with a guest to that service what United Methodists believe about Holy Communion – specifically the transformation we believe occurs through praying that the bread and the cup be for us the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood. By receiving the grace of the sacrament we believe we are transformed by that grace so much so that we – because of and with God’s grace – will transform the world to God’s glory. Our transformation will be noticed by others – it will witness to them – and through God’s Holy Spirit working through us – our witness may stir up a curiosity in them to seek what is different about us…that it might become what is different for them.

I am confident of humanity’s deep need for God’s grace. I am confident that humanity’s transformation by grace is what caused the Samaritan to stop on that Jericho road. I am confident and hopeful God’s grace will hold me accountable and remind me to stop when the next invitation comes my way.

Be sure to join Rev. Kate Ling and members of the Quest Sunday School Class as they lead worship on these Scripture texts this week. Thank you, friends, for your leadership in worship and service to the TUMC Family!

Prayer: “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.”* Amen.

*“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, The Faith We Sing 2129.

Jesus Said What!? ~ Whoever Divorces and Marries Another Commits Adultery

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 10:1-12.

Our Scripture text for this Sunday mentions adultery – the act of engaging in a relationship with someone that is not your spouse. In biblical times adultery concerned physical actions. I believe in our present time adultery concerns physical actions as well as emotional and psychological actions. Technology was not on the “biblical times relationship radar;” however, in the present day, some people cannot conceive of their “relationship radar” without technology. Some people would not have their relationships without technology! Technology can help or hinder relationships; technology can bring couples together or it can tear them apart.

In John 8 the Pharisees bring a woman before Jesus who had been caught in adultery. According to the Law of Moses the woman should be stoned and so the teachers of the Law wait with baited breath to see what Jesus will do. Curiously Jesus decides to draw in the sand as the Pharisees continue their questioning. When Jesus speaks he astounds them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” and then he returns to his scripting in the sand (Jn 8:7).

(I can’t wait to ask Jesus what he wrote…)

The Pharisees left Jesus. When Jesus looked up again only the woman remained. None were there to condemn her and neither would Jesus. With great freedom and forgiveness Jesus says, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (Jn 8:11).

Once again Jesus shows incredible grace. The Pharisees expect Jesus to take a bite out of her – to apply retributive justice by taking a stone in his grasp…and Jesus surprises them by restoring her.

Perhaps Jesus surprises us, too.

Jesus recognizes her humanity. He acknowledges her sin but affirms that sin is not what defines her. She is made in the image of God. Her worth is sealed in the image of God. Forgiveness makes her new and so Jesus sends her forth to not sin again.

I pray that this witness of Scripture leads us to loosening our grips and laying down our stones. I pray that God redeems our proclivity to condemn so we would be people of greater compassion that join Jesus in affirming the worth of all our sisters and brothers. God’s intention is that we build up and draw together – that we create and nurture, not destroy.

When we are caught in sin – however we are caught in sin! – Jesus forgives us. He does not take up stones against us. This is good news. And in his name he sends us on our way to tell of his good news and sin no more.

Prayer: “Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature, O thou of God and man the Son, thee will I cherish, thee will I honor, thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.”* Amen.

*”Fairest Lord Jesus,” The United Methodist Hymnal 189.

New Beginnings: Forget It!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 3:12-13.

The summer I turned six was a big deal. Why? Because that summer included a huge rite of passage – leaving my training wheels behind, my bike would become a two-wheeler.

One day that summer I was out practicing riding my newly two-wheeled bike; if someone gave me a push, I could ride a little way down the street on my own before I had to put a foot down. And putting a foot down was a common occurrence as the landscape of the dirt road changed daily depending on passing vehicles and road conditions.

I remember preparing – picking a place that I am sure six-year-old Sarah thought was well on the horizon but in reality was maybe twenty feet down the street as my goal. I gripped my handlebars. I steadied one foot on the pedal and left just the tip of the other on the ground. I nodded for my push and off I went.

*pedal pedal pedal BIG SAND MOGUL* and CRASH!

Right into a barbwire fence of the pasture that bordered our dirt road.

To this day I have a trio of scars on my left leg from where my flesh met the fence. They have grown as I have grown, stretching and widening. The upper two cuts healed fairly easily, but the largest of the three scars seemed to be an open wound the remainder of that summer…and it fascinated me! My parents enrolled me in summer day camp and the only thing I remember from that summer is my counselors telling me to leave my scab alone or my leg would not heal.

Sometimes that cut reopened itself through regular movements. Other times I reopened it. (Hey! I was six!) And if it was open, I was out – out of activities, out of participation. I was not allowed to play with an open cut.

When we reopen hurtful experiences in our lives – experiences that cut us very deeply – we, too find ourselves out. Reliving those experiences draws us out from relationships, out from our regular routines and engagements, out from participating in life with others. We cannot heal from those wounds if we continue to reopen them.

And we need to heal.

I have found that forgiveness is the most active agent for healing in my life. Forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others allows me to heal. Forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others allows me to choose wholeness over wounds. Forgiveness sets me on the path of reintegration – into activities, participation, and most importantly, relationships.

Forgiveness takes me away from being out by drawing me back in.

When faced with open wounds from hurtful experiences, what allows you to heal? How do your day-to-day experiences and interactions change when you are hurting? What would you need to do in order for your old wounds to stay closed?

Prayer: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? Died he for me? who caused his pain! For me? who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God should die for me? Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God should die for me?”* Amen.

*“And Can It Be that I Should Gain,” The United Methodist Hymnal 363

 

The Choice Is Yours

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 1:4-11.

I am thrilled to return to my regular posting on The Sunday Stiletto! My eleven week hiatus was due in part to this sweet face.

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Meet Joshua everyone! Andrew and I are completely in love and grateful each day to be this little guy’s parents.

Last Sunday Pastor Kate shared a challenging sermon based on one of her favorite Scripture texts – Micah 6:1-8. This is a text that Pastor Kate returns to again and again. The thought of her returning to this text stirred my heart to consider a Scripture text I return to again and again. Immediately I thought of The Greatest Commandment:

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, Which commandment is the first of all? Jesus answered, The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The secondhand is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:38-31).

In the words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “let me sum up – Love God; Love Others.

In my words and in my actions, in my work and in my play, in public and private spheres, today and always I want to love God and love others. That is my choice and my prayer as I begin each day, especially since Joshua arrived. I want him to see in me what it looks like and what it means to embody Jesus’ Greatest Commandment.

I need God’s help to accomplish this embodiment. I need God to lead me. I confess that I do not always get it right. I roll my eyes, I think hurtful thoughts, I put myself ahead of others. I am grateful that God’s grace is abundant in those moments and is faithfully shaping me so that I am able to love more completely the next time.

What Scripture text do you return to again and again? How does that Scripture text inspire or guide the choices you make? Share your thoughts with someone and take care to embody that Scripture text this week.

Prayer: “Wash, O God, our sons and daughters, where your cleansing waters flow. Number them among your people; bless as Christ blessed long ago. Weave them garments bright and sparkling; compass them with love and light. Fill, anoint them; send your Spirit, holy dove and heart’s delight.”* Amen.

*“Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters,” The United Methodist Hymnal 605.

The True Scope of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ Matthew 18:21-35 and Genesis 42:1-16.

This Sunday Andrew and I will pulpit swap for our 11 o’clock worship services. I will lead our Morningsong Service at 8:30am and offer a message entitled “The True Scope of Forgiveness”. I will then travel to Azalea Park UMC to preach their 11 o’clock service. Andrew will join the TUMC family for our 11 o’clock service and continue our Joseph Saga series with a message entitled “More Brothers, More Problems.” He is very much looking forward to worshiping with you.

(I will return to Tuskawilla by 12:30pm…my sources tell me there is some kind of celebration happening…*wink*)

During my senior year at Florida Southern College I registered for a cross-listed philosophy and political science course entitled “The Politics of Terrorism and Insurgency.” Impressive, right? On the first day of class our professor – who also had my mother as a student – clarified the focus for the course. He said, “This semester we will study proposed methods and applications of conflict resolution from philosophers and political scientists through the ages beginning with the Ancient Greeks and culminating in the present day. The course has the name it does because I was doubtful anyone would register for a class dully named “Methods and Applications of Conflict Resolution.”

He was probably right.

The first topic on the syllabus was a review of Hammurabi’s Code – the ruling religious, political, and philosophical thought in the Ancient World (and, in some contexts. still today). “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Sound familiar?

Hammurabi’s Code focuses on fairness. Its use created a “tit for tat” society and normalized “tit for tat” behavior as part of the human condition. Jesus’ intent was to normalize radical role reversals and counter-cultural behaviors into the human condition. This was his method for fulfilling both the Law and the prophets.

The Torah contains impressions of Hammurabi’s Code and Jesus quotes a number of those passages in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Mt 5:38-42).

Jesus does not promote retaliation in these verses – a significant counter-cultural and radical role reversal move! These words of Jesus become the foundation for our text for today.

While Hammurabi’s main focus was on fairness, Jesus’ main focus is on forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness brings separated, estranged, and embattled community members back to one another – so that what once was broken may be fixed, may be healed. The act of repeated forgiveness – seventy-seven times – over and over – holds communities together.

Temptation can lead to sin. Sin leads to separation – from God and from one another. Like a shepherd that seeks out a sheep gone astray, so we are to seek out those we are separated from because of sin. Jesus affirms, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18:14). Through forgiveness we are found. Through forgiveness we make our way home.

When did you last experience forgiveness – either giving or receiving? How did you find that experience? Needful? Extraneous? Powerful? Casual? What lessons has forgiveness taught you? How has forgiveness changed you into more of  a Kingdom resident than a resident of the world?

Prayer: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art – thou my best thought, by day or by night; waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”* Amen. 

*”Be Thou My Vision,” The United Methodist Hymnal 451.

Heroes and Villains: Stephen

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Acts 7:51-60.

When I watch a movie or read a book, I always give great care and attention to the final words. Sometimes they are funny. Sometimes they are solemn. Sometimes there are no words, just sighs too big for words. Sometimes the words are an appropriate summary for all that has transpired. Sometimes the words are a red-herring, a thought completely disparate and from whatever is beyond left field.

Words are powerful. Words matter. They shape those that read them, hear them, and live  in response to or in effect of them.

This week in our Heroes and Villains sermon series we turn our focus to Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Luke – the writer of both the gospel by that name and Acts of the Apostles takes great care in having Stephen’s final words resonate with the final words of our Lord for whom he dies.

As Jesus hangs on the cross – battered, broken, bleeding – he cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

As stones are hurled at Stephen – stones intent not to maim but to ultimately silence – he cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

In their last moments both Jesus and Stephen have their final words on the theme of forgiveness. And they bring these words on the theme of forgiveness not out of bitterness or spite for the persons ending their lives, but out of love – out of God’s victorious love.

God’s love tells us that life has the last word, not death. God’s love tells us that pain, suffering, and sickness will be no more. God’s love tells us that sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

One of the many ways that we can be stewards of God’s love is through the act of forgiveness. It is a challenge to practice forgiveness because (1) it is not always easy to forgive and (2) it is something we are called to do again…and again…and again.

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:21-22).

Practicing forgiveness is at times heroic, but if practicing forgiveness makes us or made us heroes, then we would misplace the focus and importance of forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness invites us to participate in a mighty act of God. Practicing forgiveness should not point to us; rather, it should point to the one who taught us – who gifted us – this practice.

When I think about my last words – which I truthfully hope will be shared sometime from now! – I hope they will be words that communicate God’s love. I hope they will be words that acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else. I hope they will be words that build up someone rather than tear down someone. And because of this hope, I make it a practice to not miss opportunities to communicate God’s love, to acknowledge my seeing Christ in someone else, to build up someone.

If you consider your final words, what would you hope them to be? What would you hope that you say? And how can you begin to say those words today?

Prayer: “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”* Amen.

*”Lead On, O King Eternal,” The United Methodist Hymnal 580.