Vital Elements of Worship: Let Every Soul Be Jesus’ Guest

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Hosea 11:1-11 and Luke 15:1-2.

This past week I heard stories about the experiences of two of our Tuskawilla Family members.

One was a story of gratitude – that Tuskawilla is a place where we welcome people and value the service they offer. It was a story of being so glad to be apart of this fellowship, recognizing that not all church families are like ours.

The other story was a story of hurt feelings – that on our campus, that in our walls, that by our actions a member of our church did not feel welcomed and did not feel that the service they offered was valued.

In mere moments of one another – I was so proud of our church…and then saddened that one of our family is living with this hurt.

My dear TUMC family, I want our church – the place and the fellowship that we co-create in the name of God, the power of Christ, and the community of the Holy Spirit – to be an environment at all times and in all seasons where we welcome everyone and value the service offered, where we BelongGrow, and Serve together. It is bound to happen that we will not get it right from time to time; I know I do not get it right from time to time. When we mess up, let us not leave the mess. Let us not leave the relationship. Let us not walk away from one another.

God does not leave us in the messes we create. God does not, has not, and will not leave the relationship we share with God. Though we stray, God does not walk away. I believe there are times when God moves forward and invites us to follow, but God does not walk away.

Our Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. Our Jesus welcomes and eats with people that do not always get it right. Our Jesus welcomes us to seek out our kin – that we have wronged and those that have wronged us – not for vengeance, but for forgiveness – and then in the beauty of restored relationship, share a meal together (see Matthew 18). Whenever we eat together, we remember the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he gave himself up for us. We remember that Jesus ate with sinners. We remember that in that meal Jesus made tangible for us the grace that is available to us. This grace forgives, this grace reconciles, this grace welcomes, and this grace values. God’s grace truly is amazing.

My friends, I want us to be the church of the first story – not some of the time, but all of the time. And when we are not that church, I pray that God works swiftly in me, in you, in all of us, to be seekers of forgiveness and sharers of God’s grace so we are prepared to come to the table Jesus sets for us.

Prayer: “Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind. See him set forth before your eyes; behold the bleeding sacrifice; his offered love make haste to embrace, and freely now be saved by grace. Ye who believe his record true shall sup with him and he with you; come to the feast, be saved from sin, for Jesus waits to take you in.”* Amen.

“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” The United Methodist Hymnal 616.

A Special Treat

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 19:1-10 (Morningsong) and 1 Samuel 17 (11am Blended Worship)

On Monday Andrew and I took his brother, Josh, a pumpkin. Josh is interred at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell and Halloween was (is) his favorite holiday. Oh the mischief Andrew and Josh would cause on Halloween.

One Halloween they kept changing their costumes – full wardrobe changes at first and then only minor changes towards the end – as they revisited the same house again and again. Why that house? Four words: full.size.candy.bars.

Andrew and Josh did not start out as friends. They started out having a fist fight…and then they became friends. And once they were friends, the two were instantly brothers. If you were to ask my in-laws or Josh’s parents, I am sure they would say that a common phrase between Andrew and Josh was “I am coming to your house today!” To hang out, to sleep over, to build something in the garage, to scheme the next prank, to plot resistance against “the man” (whatever or whoever “the man” was that week), to laugh, to live. “I am coming to your house today.”

Wherever Josh was, there Andrew would be and vice versa.

My heart breaks because Andrew cannot have those experiences with Josh right now…but that will not be the case forever. We trust, we believe faithfully that God is bringing us all – bringing them – together again.

Jesus shocked the crowd when he announced that he was going to Zacchaeus’ house. Perhaps some hoped that Jesus was going there to “clean house” or spare Zacchaeus the public ridicule and shame of being rebuked by the Savior before his peers. But that was not Jesus’ intent. Jesus’ intent was to build community and include rather than further exclude the tax collector. Jesus wanted Zacchaeus, who had been so far from Jesus as evidenced by his behavior, to come near to him. Zacchaeus, this tax collector, this culturally despised man, this swindler, this con – Jesus had so many reasons to come to blows with this man. And yet Jesus does not throw a fist, but offers a hand. “I am coming to your house today.”

Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). Through his repentance and reconciliation – through admitting his wrong and repaying his neighbors – Zacchaeus turned his will towards the Father’s and embraced his kinship with Jesus.

We visit Josh to remember. We visit Josh so that Andrew and Josh can hang out. We visit Josh so Andrew can tell him what has been built in the garage, report on completed pranks, update resistance plans, and laugh. We visit Josh as an act of living and leave Josh’s side with a renewed sense of calling: Who will we invite to our house today? What homes will we ask to enter? What new and continuing relationships will we nurture? How will we see Christ in others and invite them to see Christ in us?

Remember this Sunday’s treat: Join me for the 8:30 Morningsong Service and then plan to stay for worship at 11am as Andrew preaches on David and Goliath from I Samuel. I am looking forward to my time at both Tusakwilla and Azalea Park UMCs this weekend! The Millers are excited to see you in worship on Sunday!

Prayer: “Called forth from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth; our charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name professing and at one table fed, to one hope always pressing, by Christ’s own Spirit led.” Amen.

*”The Church’s One Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal 546.

From Wreck to Restoration: God Invites Us Into The New Covenant

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 31:27-34.

We conclude our sermon series From Wreck to Restoration this Sunday with God Invites Us Into The New Covenant. I preached this Scripture passage for my ordination sermon; I vowed after studying this passage extensively and preparing this passage for preaching for over four months that I would never again preach this passage.

Never say “never,” right?

I selected this text for my ordination sermon because I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit guiding me towards it. I attempted to work on one of the other recommended texts and God continued to draw my heart back to this declaration of the new covenant. There is such grace in this text. There is such love and hope. We will know the Lord. God will forgive our wrongdoings and never again remember our sins.

We all have moments in our lives that we would rather not to remember – how we hurt someone we loved, how we walked away instead of standing up, how we said something we did not mean or remained silent when our words would have made all the difference, how we did harm in some way instead of doing good, how we experienced deep suffering and agony. I would like to permanently forget those moments and some days I think I have…until something happens that reminds me of my wrongdoings and the weight of my past actions comes crashing down all over again.

In those moments I feel truly wrecked, which leads me to question – am I able to be made whole, am I able to be forgiven, am I even worth it?

The answer to those questions is yes. What may be unexpected is that I did not have to come to that answer on my own. I received that answer from God through God’s invitational love and mercy. I believe we all receive that answer from God through God’s invitational love and mercy.

In full knowledge of our sin, God invites us into the new covenant. God forgives and remembers no more. God invites us to know God and to be fully known by God. When we answer God’s invitation and live into the new covenant, God’s Law will be written on our hearts. Rather than something learned, God’s instruction will be innate, as near to us as our breath, and that which guides the pulse of our lives.

This past week I had the privilege to hear two separate testimonies of restoration in the same setting. Two persons both shared their struggles with clinical depression, of feeling hopeless, and of desperately wanting to feel anything at all. They spoke of the loneliness and the shame. They spoke of considering every possible means of finding relief…

Those two people – two of my friends – have experienced and continue to experience God’s restoration. I am privileged to know them and to watch them offer their talents in the service of God and others. I am privileged to learn from them and to laugh with them. I consider it a great privilege to look at their lives – to look at them – and see the evidence of God saying yes

Yes, my child, you are forgiven.

Yes, my child, you are made whole.

Yes, my child, you are worth it. 

God says yes to us and welcomes us to life in the new covenant. However we are wrecked, God welcomes us to restoration in him. Our saying “yes” to God may happen in an instant. It may happen over a lifetime. It may be once and for all. It may be said again and again. I think of utmost importance is that we say “yes” to God’s invitation into the new covenant and that our lives are the proof of our saying “yes.”

Prayer:”I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean. He took my sins and my sorrows, he made them his very own; he bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered and died alone. How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be: How marvelous! How wonderful is my Savior’s love for me!”

*”I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” The United Methodist Hymnal 371.

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.

Remembering September 11

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 51:1-10, Micah 4:1-5, and Matthew 18:21-35.

I will never forget. I was sitting in my 11th grade AP Literature class when our principal all called over the intercom system, “Teachers, please turn on your class televisions. A plane has just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.”

My class sat in silent horror as we watched the smoke rise from the building. We could not take our eyes away from the screen – the North Tower, the South Tower, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania. Initially all students were kept in our third period classes; eventually the school board determined that the schools were secure and we could continue through our class schedule. But it really was not “continuing.” Students migrated silently between classes. From one room to the next we entered, sat in our desks, and watched the news.

I had so many questions. My fears mounted. As I reflect 15 years later, I continue to have many questions and in returning my thoughts to this day, my fears are stirred up afresh.

After 9/11 life seemed to come back to normal – whatever “normal” was – until my brother drove home from his Army base in Virginia one afternoon to hug me and my family. He was saying “goodbye.” He would deploy to Kuwait headed for Iraq in the next 36 hours. And all the 9/11 terror came crashing back down, but now it was not in New York or the Nation’s Capital or Pennsylvania. Those places were all very far away. Now the terror was too close to home…in fact it was in my home and taking my brother – that I would holler at because his music was too loud coming through the wall between our bedrooms and because he somehow managed to get water on every surface in the bathroom after showering – half way around the world into the very face of danger.

The house was too quiet without him. And although I prefer a dry bathroom, what I would have given to have slipped on water left on the floor.

Charlie served his country well. And Charlie came home. Many did not.

Brave men and women served our country – served our fellow country men and women well on 9/11 – people they knew and people they did not know. We were united. We were all Americans.

We are all Americans.

Some of those men and women that served on 9/11 came home. Many did not.

Countless lives were lost – unnecessarily lost. And to this day it is hard for me to recall what happened, to look at images from that day, to hear recordings of people calling for help and reporting the horrors they faced. I do not want to remember. I do not want those feelings to return.

But…

It is crucially important to remember that human beings are capable of this sort of behavior and activity. We remember by seeing these images, listening to the cries for help, and committing ourselves to behaviors that will not lead us to this sort of activity again.

Says the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).

Says the Prophet Micah, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2).

Says Peter to our Lord Jesus, “‘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).

May these verses guide our prayerful desire to craft behaviors that lead to peace rather than destruction, to unity rather than division, to love rather than fear our neighbors.

May we take time this week to remember 9/11, even if it makes us uncomfortable…dare I say especially if it makes us uncomfortable. God is communicating something to us in these moments. May we never forget and with God’s help we will not return to behaviors that led to activities that resulted in the terror of this day 15 years ago.

Prayer: “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich. Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places. And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.”*

*”For Courage to Do Justice,” The United Methodist Hymnal 456.

Wilderness Trials

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 4:1-13

SPOILER ALERT! This week’s Sunday Stiletto contains reference to a scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Hopefully I will not give away too much…but this scene is just too good.

Read on.

Rey finds herself in a storage closet in Maz Kanata’s Canteen and – after listening to the Force, that she would not identify as the Force at this time, nevertheless she responds to it intuitively – Rey uncovers a light saber. Rey takes hold of the saber and immediately experiences a number of flashbacks, her own and others. Frightened and overwhelmed, she returns the saber to its box and runs from the room. Maz finds Rey in the hallway of her Canteen’s basement. A dialogue ensues. Rey apologizes for being in that part of Maz’s Canteen; Maz is not concerned. In fact, Maz encourages Rey to take the saber and to see where the saber will take her. Rey ponders this proposal…and then declines. She has to get back to Jakku.

Rey is saddened by her decision to leave…and to leave the light saber. Like a mother, Maz comforts Rey. Looking deep into her eyes Maz says to Rey, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, but ahead.”

When I am in the midst of a personal wilderness experience – when I feel abandoned, afraid, alone, angry, lost, and out of control – I tend to dwell on what is behind me instead of ahead. I harp on my failures. I am quick to refuse help because I think I can figure it out on my own…and because of my actions I do not think I deserve help.

I wallow. I weep. I wander.

Guilt grows. Shame showers. And I think, what if I could just go back to before this happened? Can I call a mulligan on this conversation? This day? This experience in my life? Why did we get rid of rewind buttons? Like Cher, like many of us, I wish I could turn back time.

But we cannot turn back time. We do not have the benefit of a cosmic mulligan. And to some extent I am thankful, because if there were cosmic mulligans, there might also be a chance that the film Groundhog Day could be a reality…and I do not want that either!

Rey wanted to return to Jakku; she was convinced that her future was there in that desert, scavenging through Imperial and Resistance wreckage. When I falter in my faith, when I wreak havoc in relationships, I want to go back to where I think my future is…before the incident. But that is not where my future is. The belonging I seek – the belonging I have broken because of my selfish words or selfish desires – cannot be restored by going behind me. The belonging I seek can only be restored by going ahead purposefully, seeking forgiveness with acts and words of reconciliation.

For me this process looks this way:

  1. Name my wilderness – what am I experiencing?
  2. Identify how I got myself here – where did I fall from temptation into sin?
  3. Learn a lesson – this is critical! If a lesson is not learned, then it is only a matter of time before I make a repeat visit to this or another wilderness.
  4. Approach the person I harmed – a sibling in Christ and/or God, my Creator – and ask for forgiveness, share what I learned through this experience, and ask that person to help me in strengthening my belonging into the future.

My process does not have to be your process, but it can be a help as you process how you respond to your personal wilderness experiences and move towards the belonging that God desires for you.

Maz’s words were right for Rey…they are right for all of us, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, but ahead.”

Prayer: Sweet Jesus, “As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win, O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin. As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, so teach us gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” The United Methodist Hymnal 269.

Atonement: Out With The Goat and In With The New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Leviticus 16:5, 7-10, 15-22

Football season ended the first week of February. Then I watched the Olympics. And now it’s Award Season. Let’s face it folks…I’m counting down to mid-August…get me back to football season – and Go Packers!

Everyone has been talking about the Academy Awards – and I admit that the only movie I have seen that won an Academy Award – also the only movie I’ve seen that was nominated for an Academy Award (thanks to Andrew being a youth director…we need to get out more…) is Disney’s Frozen.

And thanks to the Academy Awards I now have a super long list of movies that I need to see! But, as Hagrid would say, “we’ll get to that later.”

If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, I highly recommend it. And I applaud Disney for the many beautiful expressions of family celebrated in this film. The primary protagonists are a pair of sisters – Anna and Elsa. Both are princesses. Both love one another deeply, but Elsa has a unique gift that if uncontrolled can be damaging. So she is raised to suppress it – “to conceal, not feel.” Well…what was to be concealed is revealed on just about the biggest stage imaginable and Elsa flees. As she flees she sings “Let It Go.”

These lyrics speak directly to me – and I believe to our Scripture passage for this week:

I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

I’m never going back, the past is in the past, let it go, let it go. In our Scripture passage for this week we learn about purification rituals enacted on the Day of Atonement – one of them being casting the sins of the community onto a goat and then releasing a goat into the wilderness. In this way the sins of the people literally ran away and were removed from their persons thereby making the people “at one” with God again. Once the sins were atoned for God’s people believed the act of sin, the blame of sin, and the shame of sin were all removed – were all forgiven. They “let it go” on the goat; they didn’t go back, the past is in the past. They looked forward. They moved on. They enjoyed the full measure of God’s forgiveness.

Sometimes I wish real life were as easy as a Disney movie – that every problem would be resolved in 90 minutes or less…and that there would be more singing…yeah…especially if I could sing like Idina Menzel! But then again, Disney movies aren’t always tied up in a nice little package. Elsa sings this song early on in the movie proclaiming that she has “let it go” – but she still has to work through her circumstances. She has to process what happened, integrate what she learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies in order to let it go, to let the past be in the past.

I believe the same holds for us. When we sin – when we abuse God’s good gift of free will and choose something other than God as the priority in our lives – we want to let it go. We want to experience God’s forgiveness. We want to be at one with God again…but if we fail to process the sin, integrate what we have learned from the experience, strategize so it does not happen again, and apply the learnings and strategies, then we may fall as a casualty to sin yet again. We cannot only hope to not fall into sin again because hope is not a strategy. We must work out our faith – work out our salvation – so that with God’s guidance we rise from sin, released from its blame and shame, and live in the peace of letting it go.

During the season of Lent we are invited to become more aware of our sins – to process, integrate, strategize, and apply as we seek to go and sin no more. During this season I believe God wants us to examine ourselves and let sins go.

What sins are you retaining? What sins, what pasts, are God calling you to let go?

Reflect. Confess. Let them go. Experience peace.

Prayer: “O God, just as we look into a mirror to see any soiled spots on our face, so let us look to you in order to understand the things that we have done amiss.  We are like a reed shaken in the wind; we are inexpressibly weak.  Leave us not to ourselves, but dwell in our hearts and guide our thoughts and actions.  Amen.”*

*”For Guidance,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 366.