PictureLent ~ Reveal

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Colossians 1:15-17

This week we celebrate Ash Wednesday and cross the liturgical threshold into Lent. During this 40 day season we remember the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness. There he was tempted. There he defended his faith. “No, I will not test the Lord my God. No, I will not bow down and worship any other.”

Jesus fasted while in the wilderness. Surely hungry, the tempter suggests Jesus turn stones into loaves of bread. But Jesus resists. He does not want to break his spiritual focus. He does not want to give into the appetites of the flesh at the expense of the appetites of his faith – to seek God and only God, and to trust God to provide for his needs.

Many folks join Jesus in the wilderness during Lent by choosing to “give something up” so that one of their resources – be it time, energy, money, or others – might be channelled into either their relationship with God or into strengthening their service to others, which brings glory to God. Similarly other folks “add something on” during the Lenten season with the hopes that they will accomplish the same goal.

I have done both – given something up and added something on. It’s hard work for me to make sure these Lenten disciplines do not follow suit of my New Year’s Resolutions, which are usually a vague memory by the time Ash Wednesday comes to pass.

This year, for the second time, I am giving up wheat and flour and all related substances, as an extended mediation on Jesus’ defense to the tempter, “humans do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

I am adding on the disciplines of several daily readings and prayers:

(1) Conference Social Justice devotions – these devotions will subject social justice passions and concerns throughout our annual conference. The purpose of these devotions is to raise awareness about these passions and concerns and to begin to create space for dialogue as to how Florida United Methodists can go about responding to them. You may access these devotions by visiting www.willtheyknow.com.

(2) Imagine No Malaria witnesses – these witnesses will lift up testimonies from the global neighborhood about the struggle with malaria. Remember that TUMC is seeking 100 giving units to give $65 between the seasons of Advent and Lent ($1/day) for a total of $6500 to benefit the annual conference’s support of the Imagine No Malaria Campaign. If your family is committed to being one of these giving units, please write your name on a mosquito and place it in the mosquito net in the Narthex gathering area beginning this Sunday. These devotions will be posted to the TUMC Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/TuskawillaUMC.

(3) #Picturelent devotions – these devotions and family activities have been written by clergy throughout the Florida Conference for the purpose of engaging families in creatively picturing their way through Lent. Each week of Lent will have a focus word that we are invited to focus into our camera lenses – phone, digital, or film! – to capture what Lent looks like to each of us. You may register to receive these devotions by visiting www.picturelent.com

(4) Continuing participation in our Church Family Prayer Focus. We will strengthen the ties that bind our congregation together by praying for one another, by praying for the folks we meet in our daily lives, and by praying for the folks God is sending our way. These names can be found printed weekly in your Sunday bulletin. If you do not receive a bulletin, you may call the church office to receive the list of families for the week.

That sounds like (and looks like!) quite an undertaking, but I am hopeful for this experience. To fulfill these “additions to” I will have to create time by cutting out some other activities, which I will draw me towards greater holiness.

During this season I am anxious to see how Jesus will be revealed as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). How will you experience Lent? What do you plan to give up? What do you plan to add on? Prepare yourself for this journey. It will be long. It will lead us to some uncomfortable places. But ultimately, this journey is leading us to life eternal and the first step is the one across the threshold of Ash Wednesday.

Rev. Melissa Cooper will lead the Tuskawilla Community in worship this week. I hope you will enjoy your time with her and share the warmth of our hospitality with her.

Prayer: “O God our deliverer, you led your people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.”*

*”Lent,” The United Methodist Hymnal 268.

Something Old to Something New

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 1:9-11

Last January on a particularly blustery day at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park I interviewed for elder in full connection status in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. This interview would be my last in a long line of interviews, written essays, recorded sermons, discernment, and constant prayer in pursuit of my call to ordained ministry – though I have learned that ordination is not the end – it is a new beginning.

In the interview any question about the applicant’s understanding of theology, leadership, proclamation, and/or personal development is up for discussion. I studied. I prepared. I knew my answers backwards and forwards. I had even prepared extended answers to what I had submitted as evidence that I am still seeking, still discerning, still discovering what God will reveal next in my understandings in these areas.

The interview went well – especially after one of my interviewers told me to take a breath! – and then my friend Melissa asked me about baptism. I had been discussing my understanding of the sacraments; I said quite a lot about Eucharist, which probably prompted curiosity about my understanding of baptism. So she asked…and all my studying and preparation and knowing answers backwards and forwards and extended answers flew out of my head faster than students fly out of school at the end of the year.

I stumbled for a minute or so, remembered again to breathe, and started piecing my answer together. Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The water of baptism symbolizes God’s grace being poured out upon us to cleanse us from our sins and incorporate us into Christ’s Body the church. At some point I think I gave a brief history of the theological and biblical roots of baptism from the First Testament…what exactly was Melissa seeking in my answer? She raised her hand to stop me and said, “Sarah, remember the devotion I led in worship before the interviews started; it was on baptism. What stands out about baptism and Jesus?” And the answer dawned on me. The baptism of Jesus was by water and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus was something new and through the grace of baptism we are invited into this newness.

(Thanks, Melissa, for leading this nervous horse to water…what a drink!)

In the baptism of Jesus we experience something new. Baptism was a typical initiation rite for many religious and military sects throughout the Holy Land. It was an act through which a person would pledge their allegiance. The initiate would pass through water, or some other liquid, leaving the life before and starting the new life right now. John the Baptist called people forth for baptism as an outward and visible sign of repentance from sin, drawing, I believe, on the mikveh tradition from Judaism. This baptism rite drew the people away from the world so they would be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Why then would Jesus present himself for baptism since we believe that he was without sin? Why is Jesus in need of repentance? I think that Jesus presented himself for baptism to connect humanity to God. Remember that Jesus is one person with two natures – fully human and fully divine. As fully human Jesus stands in solidarity with us who are in the line for baptism because we have some repenting to do. As fully divine Jesus connects us to God’s life-giving grace that is received through our baptism by water and the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice proclaims, “This is my son.” Jesus is publicly recognized as God’s child and so we believe in our baptisms we are recognized before the community of faith as God’s children. A bond is formed between the person baptized, the community of faith, and God that we are all in this together. We are family. We are called to something new and we will do it together.

We take time this week to remember our baptism not so we can parade our recent sins through our minds, but so we can remember the blessing of community that surrounds, the abundance of God’s grace, and that our dying to sin leads to new of life marked by union with Christ, receipt of the Holy Spirit, and inclusion in Christ’s Holy Church.

It is still early in the new year. What a wonderful reminder that God through Christ Jesus calls us to new life through our baptism. May we relish in this call this week and be strengthened for discipleship this year.

Prayer: “Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”*

*”Baptism of the Lord,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 253.

Help! I Need Somebody!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 86:1-10, 15-17

“Help!  I need somebody!” – words thought by pastors when they decide to be on vacation over a weekend.  I am thrilled that my dear friend, Rev. Corey Jones, is my somebody this week!  He will be leading the Tuskawilla Community in worship and offering a sermon on Psalm 86.  Thanks Corey!

This Psalm is a prayer of David.  David – the beloved King of Israel.  David – a person the Lord called righteous.  David – a leader.  David – a conqueror.  David – a susceptible human to all of the temptations of the world.

In this Psalm we hear David pleading before the Lord, “Listen closely…save your servant…have mercy…make your servant happy…come back to me…show me a sign of your goodness” – words that would come because some action has happened where David needs saving, needs God’s attention, needs God’s companionship, needs God’s justice.  What was the event?  Well the Psalm does not tell us directly…but if we think back through David’s life we can recall moments where David would be in need of God’s reckoning righteousness.

David was a leader and David was by no means perfect.  God used David.  God redeemed David.  God led David.  God accompanied David.  God responded to David’s, “Help!  I need somebody!”

But the somebody was not just anybody.  The somebody was God. Here in lies deep theological truth.  Humans are incapable of saving themselves – ourselves.  The 4th Century theologian Pelagius was deemed a heretic because he denied the need of divine help in performing good works.  Pelagius believed that humans could secure their own salvation through good works.  Not so, my friend.  Not so.  We cannot do it – and David was well aware of this.

David also knew that it would not be worth his time or energy to cry out to another god as some of his neighbors did in the Ancient Near East.  David affirms, “My Lord! There is no one like you among the gods!  There is nothing that can compare to your works!”  So David will not waste breath calling out to a god like, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Those who pour out gold from a bag and weigh silver with a balance hire a metalworker; then he makes a god. They bow down; they worship; they carry the idol on their shoulders and support it; they set it down, and it stands still, unable to move from its place. If one cries out to it, it doesn’t answer. It can’t save people from their distress” (Isa 46:6-7).  David calls out to the God who will answer and answer swiftly.  This is the God who saves.  This is the God who reckons righteousness that is corrective and life-giving.  This is the God to be praised.  

What gods do we seek to save us, but they remain silent and life-draining?  Money?  Gambling?  Substance abuse?  Reckless activities and relationships?  Over-eating?  Sloth?  Gossip?  Lying?  Theft?  Self-hate?  And possibly more?  These gods do not respond.  These gods do not save.  And we may not be able to turn away from these gods on our own.  Those are the moments when we need God’s help, when we add our voices to the cry of David, “Help!  I need you, God!”

God listens.  God responds.  God is there.  And God brings us to one another when we are in need.

Prayer: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!  O what a foretaste of glory divine!  Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.  Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.  This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”* Amen.

*”Blessed Assurance,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 369.

Stewardship Is Room in the Chariot

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ Genesis 41:37-44 and I Samuel 18:1-16

Emails.  I read a lot of emails.  I send a lot of emails.  I take great joy in deleting emails once tasks are completed.

I have a friend who regularly sends me emails and while they subject current tasks they typically end with a question not about what I am doing, but how I am.

Earlier this week the question was, “You doing ok?”  And I said no.  Because I did not think I was doing ok.  It was late in my work week and I felt like little had been accomplished.  I was tired.  I was sore.  I felt like I was standing at the base of Kilimanjaro and being asked to get up to the summit barefoot, through the snow, without a guide, without any rigging, and without a nap.  Did I feel okay?  No.  I felt defeated.  There was so much to do…how on earth would it get done?

It was one of those moments where the weight of responsibility was so great that I was stunned into inactivity.  I did not know where to begin.

I sent my response to my friend and turned in for the night.

The next day I received another email from my friend.  “How are you feeling today?  Can we meet up to check in?”  And so we did.  And my dear friend helped me refocus my gaze.  Yes, there is still a lot to be done, but I am not standing at the base of Kilimanjaro.  I am somewhere up the mountain…and I am wearing the most fabulous pair of mountain hiking stilettos!  And most importantly – yes, even more important than the shoes – I am not alone for my friend is with me.

I am not alone.  Thanks be to God.

I was in need and my friend came alongside.  This friend, other friends, Andrew, my family, my colleagues, and the congregation I serve have all come alongside.  When I have felt defeated they have been my strength.  When I have been a wanderer they have led be home.  It is not always easy for me to ask for help.  I am not the quickest to admit that I need help.    It is in these moments that I am most grateful for the friends and family that become leaders and come alongside.  They become my guides.  They light my way.  They show me love.  They affirm that I am many things, but alone is not one of them.

Who has checked in with you this week?  Who has come alongside?  Who have you checked in with this week?  Who have you come alongside?  There is still time.  There is always time.  When we make time for one another, we affirm that we as God’s children may be many things, but alone is not one of them.

Thanks be to God.

Prayer: “Draw us in the Spirit’s tether, for when humbly in thy name, two or three are met together, thou art in the midst of them.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Touch we now thy garment’s hem.  As disciples used to gather in the name of Christ to sup, then with thanks to God the Father break the bread and bless the cup: Alleluia!  Alleluia!  So now bind our friendship up.  All our meals and all our living make us sacraments of thee, that by caring, helping, giving, we may true disciples be.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  We will serve thee faithfully.”*  Amen.

*”Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,” The United Methodist Church, 632.

Carry The Message With You

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Romans 10:5-15

A not-so little known secret about me – I do not like feet. Nope. Not at all.

Shoes – yes.

Feet – no. No no no.

Why don’t I like feet? Well I am pretty sure it originated from my feet being very ticklish as a child…but then it evolved. I’m a good Polk County girl. I grew up on a dirt road. There was wooded acreage behind my house and a creek down the street. Who needed shoes when you had all of that to explore? I wanted to feel the earth between my toes…the earth and anything and everything else. So I’m okay with dirty feet…as long as the only encounter I have with dirty feet are with my own during the cleansing process.

Encountering someone else’s dirty feet…I’m going to have to do some praying about that.

It’s a big joke in my family about me not wanting anyone to touch my feet. From time to time my father-in-law will try to sneak a jab at my feet…but I’m usually one step ahead. Poor Andrew…one time he touched my feet…and I accidently had a true “knee jerk reaction” and broke his nose. For years this had been the reason I never had a pedicure…for fear I would end up with a fine for causing bodily harm to an unsuspecting pedicurist.

I will say that my friend Melissa coached me through my first pedicure for my birthday this year. My permanent record remains unblemished.

My friend Sara shares my disdain for feet…and as we were reminiscing this week about our lack of love for feet, Sara said, “I don’t like feet, but I love the beautiful things my feet can do.” What are those beautiful things? For Sara, those beautiful things include caring for her newborn and toddler sons as well as her husband. Those beautiful things include shepherding two United Methodist flocks in the Memphis Annual Conference. Those beautiful things include consistent service and advocacy for the rights of others – the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – in whatever form they present themselves. Why does she show this kind of care? Because that is who Sara is. She lives into the meaning of her name – servant. How beautiful are your feet, dear Sara. How beautiful, indeed.

The band Gungor sings a song entitled, “Beautiful Things.” This song choruses how God makes beautiful things out of ashes and dust. God makes beautiful things out of us so that we can do beautiful things in a world so full of shame, and pain, and fear. Paul’s letter to the Romans shares the good news of God making beautiful things – “No one who believes in [Christ] will be put to shame…for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Rom 10:11, 13).

Those who call on the name of the Lord will be made new and beautiful creations. We will be saved. Our feet will be set soundly on the cornerstone that is Christ and then we will join him in service. Our feet may get dirty along the way – who knows what we will step in or pass through? What we do know is that Christ is and will always be our faithful companion – and united with him, our feet will lead us to do beautiful things.

Prayer: “All this pain / I wonder if I’ll ever find my way /I wonder if my life could really change at all.  All this earth / Could all that is lost ever be found / Could a garden come up from this ground at all.  All around / Hope is springing up from this old ground / Out of chaos life is being found in You.  You make beautiful things, You make beautiful things out of the dust.  You make beautiful things.  You make beautiful things out of us.  You make me new.  You are making me new.  You make me new.  You are making me new.”* Amen.

*”Beautiful Things” by The Michael Gungor Band, 2010.

New Creation: Servants of God

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 6:1-13

This Sunday I have the privilege to be joined in worship leadership by one of my dearest friends, The Rev. Dan Dixon.  Dan is the pastor serving Mt. Gilead UMC in Sharpsburg, GA.  Brenda – Dan’s beautiful wife – will also be a guest at Reeves UMC on Sunday.  I am so excited that they will be in town and that we will get to spend some much needed time together.  They make my heart so happy!!

Throughout this week’s Scripture passage Paul uses the first person plural pronoun we – As we work together with him; we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain; we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.  But who is this we?  

Remember – although Paul is the writer – or attributed writer – of most of the New Testament passages, he was not working alone.  He had associates.  He had partners in ministry – together he and they were the helpmates of Christ in the Kingdom.  His partners were men, women, Jews that became Christian, Gentiles that became Christian, folks that had similar walks and upbringing as him, and folks whose walks were as unknown to Paul’s as Adam’s house cat.

They worked near one another – as near as one another’s breath – and then they also worked with great distances between them.  Whatever the circumstance, they served with joy.  They embraced their commission as servants of God and servants in the Kingdom as Paul says, “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger (II Cor 6:4b-5).  Whatever came their way they knew they had one another and they knew they had Christ.

As we continue serving in the Kingdom today I believe that we continue the legacy and live into the example of Paul and his friends, of Christ and the disciples.  A life of ministry can be very isolating – in a vocation where you are surrounded by people, pastors can feel so alone.  It is in these days that I am most thankful for my colleagues in ministry – both near and far – that I can call on for support.  Dan is one of those colleagues.  We met the first day of seminary – two nervous students that found themselves in an Old Testament Lecture wondering what the heck we had gotten ourselves into – but no matter what we got into – then and now – we have each other.  We have Christ.  We have incredibly supportive spouses and partners in ministry in Brenda and Andrew.  We have mutual friends – like The Sara(h)s.  We have friends known only to one of us and not the other and then we have friends that were only known to one of us that have become mutual.  All of these friends, colleagues, beloved ones – they constitute my we – our we.  And it is beautiful.

One of my favorite affirmations of faith is The Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada.*  It affirms, “We are not alone; we live in God’s world; we believe in God; we trust in God; we are called to be the church; we are not alone.”

That first person plural pronoun – it is intentional.

We are the servants of God.  We are in this together.  And it is beautiful.

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 are winning; thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine.  We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant, and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.  Let thy congregation escape tribulation; thy name be every praised!  O Lord, make us free!”**  Amen.

*”The Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 883.

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

New Creation: New Bodies

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 5:1-10

My friend Hugh Hollowell is the pastor of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina.  You may have heard of Hugh as he and his church received national media coverage towards the end of last year due to what was affectionately (?) called “Biscuit-Gate 2013”.  You see, Love Wins’ is a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population in Raleigh.  During Biscuit-Gate the city of Raleigh tried to arrest the staff and volunteers and Love Wins Ministries for distributing food to their homeless and at-risk brothers and sisters.  The city of Raleigh is now working with Love Wins in providing space for and fostering dignity among the persons that are fed – physically, spiritually, and relationally.  It’s truly beautiful and an example of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.

Thank you, Hugh, for all the ways you and your staff serve these our neighbors.  And thank you, friends and members of Love Wins, for your patience with the rest of us as we slowly and continually learn what it means to actually be church.

As I read the Scripture passage for this week my mind quickly moved to Hugh and the friends he serves.  I wondered how someone who experiences homelessness on a daily basis would read and interpret a text that talks about leaving an earthly home for a heavenly home…when they are without an earthly home all together.  No physical structure exists for them and if one does it is on a temporary basis until another roof can be secured.  Is this passage even relevant?

So I asked Hugh.  And his answer is powerful.

He said initially this community would interpret this passage as “other-worldly” – as in “things will be better when I die.”  Hugh’s challenge – and I would wager his delight – is to transform this interpretation.  I would call the initial interpretation as “escapist theology” – I have to get away from here to get to there because there is better than here and I will be happier there.  Hugh wants to craft this interpretation into something new.  Hugh wants to expose the community he serves to a liberation theology – that God has a preferential and special compassion for the poor (which clashes harshly with the message his folks consistently hear)  and that liberation is essential to salvation as salvation applies to the whole person, not just his or her spiritual needs.

From what are the folk that Love Wins Ministries serves being liberated?  The idea that they are less than.  The idea that they have to accomplish X Y Z ad infinitum to have worth.  The idea that they have to endure only hardships in this life and once they get to the resurrection, life will be better.

No, my friends, no.  You are more.  You are worthy.  You can experience the goodness of the resurrection, of the house built with eternal hands and not human ones, right now.

How many times will Hugh – will I – will you – have to say these words?  Affirm this reality for those in our lives who continue to doubt?  Continue to question?  Perhaps until the time that we all enter into that heavenly dwelling place.  But that is our task.  To teach one another, to be present with one another until these lessons are written entirely, wholly, completely on all of our hearts.  Then the time of teaching will have ended because we all will know.

We do not have to flee this place or wait an undetermined about of time for things to get better.  What we have to do is tune our eyes, tune our behaviors, tune our hands in rhythm with the movement of our God to reveal the construction of our heavenly home within our midst.

It is hard to do.  It is necessary to do.

And it is our joy to do.

Prayer: “O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand; where hate and fear divide us, and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us, and heal our strife worn world.  Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease, when hatred and division give way to love and peace, till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign, and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.”*  Amen.

*”O God of Every Nation,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 435.