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.

Messiah: For Unto Us A Child Is Born

This Weekend’s Scripture ~ Luke 2:1-20.

Today – December 23 – Andrew and I celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary, the 12 year celebration of our engagement, and 15 1/2 years of togetherness.

My heart is so warm.

People often ask why our anniversary is so close to Christmas. Andrew proposed under the Japanese archway in Epcot on December 23, 2004 and said he wanted that day to be our anniversary – and so it is!

It is a bit overwhelming at times for a clergy couple to celebrate our anniversary so close to our leading celebrations of Christ’s Incarnation, but we would not trade it. In celebrating our anniversary we remember that the church brought us together – our first kiss as a couple and as spouses was at an altar!…a story for another time – and the church was brought together by and because of Christ.

I give thanks for the Child that is born unto us. I give thanks for my husband and for the opportunity to share the life we have together in service of this Child. I give thanks for the Merry Christmas and Happy New Year that awaits us all.

Join us for Christmas Eve Worship at 6pm on Saturday featuring Carols, Communion and Candlelight.

Join us Christmas Day for Morningsong at 8:30 featuring Prayers and Communion and at 10am for Carols and Blessing of the Toys.

Prayer: “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room. And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing!”*

*”Joy to the World,” The United Methodist Hymnal 246.

Hum For The Holidays

Scripture ~ Luke 1:46-55

I have heard this refrain and request from several in the Tuskawilla Family over the past couple of weeks:

Oh Pastor Sarah! I sure hope we get to sing Christmas Carols soon! They are my favorite part of the season!

Rest assured, Tuskawilla Family, we will begin singing Christmas Carols this week as our Sanctuary Choir leads us in our annual cantata entitled Ceremony of Candles. And we will sing a Christmas Carol on the 4th Sunday of Advent. And then we will sing all of the Christmas Carols you can imagine between Christmas Eve, the Sunday between Christmas and New Years, and Epiphany.

(We might even sing a Christmas Carol on Baptism of our Lord Sunday…who knows how festive I will be feeling in 2016!?)

There is a method to the madness (my madness) of waiting to begin singing Christmas Carols.

(1) It is a way for us to build up anticipation, to cultivate appetites, and to look forward to an activity that is long treasured and wholly enjoyed and when we receive it, we savor it.

(2) It is also a way for us to learn and learn from the carols of the Advent season that sing of anticipation, that sing of repentance, that sing of desires for a new world, a new you, and a new me, that is delivered to us as we sing our joy at the birth of the Savior.

Our Scripture passage this week sings Mary’s Song. She sings with gratitude for the ways that God has recognized her lowly state and affirmed “Yes, you are worthy; yes, you are treasured; and yes, you have a valuable place in my future.”

This affirmation for Mary rings true for us, too. In her song may we feel God’s affirmation, “Yes, you are worthy; yes, you are treasured; and yes, you have a valuable place in my future.”

Mary’s chorus of thanks continues as she foreshadows the coming Light that will be the Light of the nations, “He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised” (Lk 1:54-55a). Our God is so faithful. Our God’s promises will not fail. 

This Sunday through song and growing candlelight we will praise our God for all that God has done and is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our world as we move closer to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I would especially like to thank Tim, the Sanctuary Choir, and the Audio/Visual Team for their diligence and hard work in preparing this Advent worship experience for our congregation. 

(Also, Choir, thanks for inviting me to sing with you! That is such a treat!)

Please join us this Sunday at 11am for Ceremony of Candles. Invite a friend. And be ready to sing a carol or two!

Prayer: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”* Amen.

*”O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The United Methodist Hymnal 230.

Jobbbb: Battle

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Job 1:1, 2:1-10

While in seminary I was introduced to the concept of spiritual warfare. When a person engages in spiritual warfare he or she takes an active stand against devils, demons, and/or other supernatural (meaning unbound by the laws of physics) or preternatural (meaning they are sourced in unknown places) forces.

At first introduction, I did not think much of spiritual warfare. I did not feel that I had experienced it in my life. But as I grew in awareness of it and talked with friends that believed they experienced it, my paradigm shifted and expanded.

In my experience I have seen people – as well as myself! – blame the devil or demons as the cause of their (my) transgressions. The devil or demons became the scapegoat. “The devil made me do it.” No, the devil did not make me do it; I chose to do that. And there are consequences for this and every choice. This personal awareness – and taking responsibility – was a huge eye-opener for me. My personal awareness helped me grow in accountability for my actions to God, myself, and others.

In my experience I have also witnessed the horror of evil in this world – evil that causes immense suffering – gun violence, substance abuse, infidelity, debilitating diseases, and prejudice. I have witnessed moral evil, natural evil, and radical evil. Sometimes I am able to “put my finger” on the root of the pain; that provides comfort and at least a place to focus actions of compassion and correction. At other times I am unable to put my finger on the root of the pain…it just “is” and that it “is” breaks my heart.

When will it end? Why does it happen? Where are you, O God?

I confess that my faith is not as strong in these times. I become angry. I doubt. I fall to my own pride thinking I will just take matters into my own hands, when really the only thing I should be left to doing alone is taking myself to lunch – and somedays I am not even successful with that.

It is interesting to see how Job engages in spiritual warfare – how Job takes a stand against the evils inflicted upon him and the suffering that it causes. He does not “raise his dukes” or “dig in his heels” in order to steady himself to fight back. He sits in ashes. He questions but does not accuse. He wonders aloud – perhaps rhetorically – “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad” (Job 2:10b)? Scripture tells us Job did not sin with his lips (2:10c). I believe he sensed God’s presence with him. He knew that God was walking with him…and as long as God continued walking, so would Job.

A song that some of my beloved students taught me is You Fail Us Not by 1,000 Generations. When I think of the trials in my life, I give thanks for God’s continued presence with me.

I invite you to listen to this song. Give thanks. In life – and especially in the battles – God fails us not.

Prayer: Holy God, “You’re bigger than the battle, you are bigger than the battle, you are bigger than the battle has ever been. Whatever will come, we’ll rise above, you fail us not, you fail us not. No matter the war, our hope is secure, you fail us not, You fail us not. You fail us not.”* For this, and so much more, we give you thanks. Amen.

*”You Fail Us Not” from 1000 Generations.

Thrive: Boundaries

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ezekiel 47:15-20

Last December Andrew and I rescued Tala – then an 11-month old salt-n-pepper miniature Schnauzer. This is a photo from a few days after “Gotcha Day!”

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We are Tala’s fourth family, which is a lot in 11 months of life. Her first family gave her up because they did not want a mini Schnauzer with a natural tail. Most Schnauzers have their tails docked – our Samson does – but Tala has a full tail of glory. Sometimes I would forget that dogs have tails…now I have Tala who frequently smacks me with her tail as she perches around my shoulders on the back of the couch. She will not let me forget.

Tala’s second family gave her up because they did not have the energy to help train and raise a puppy. Tala’s third family gave her up because they did not have time for her. During this season she spent most of her time in her crate – not a lot of exercise or opportunities for interaction with humans or other dogs.

Tala joined our family and it was a long adjustment period. An addition to my apology for her making a mess or causing commotion was “She has no boundaries.” As a young pup she had not been taught what was to be done inside and what was to be done outside. She had not been taught how to play sweetly, how to walk on a leash, or how to relate to others. A little over nine months later we are still working on these skills. She has calmed down…a little…we think. She is learning and positive reinforcement sure does help. She is familiar with her boundaries and the consequences associated with them.

Boundaries help Tala feel safe and learn to thrive within stated expectations. Knowing her boundaries (our boundaries!) helps guide her behaviors so she makes good choices that lead to cookies and head-scratches and not bad choices that lead to solitary confinement in puppy-not-so-playland.

In our text for this week God’s messenger names the boundaries for the land of God’s people. The focal point of the land is God’s temple; all of the boundaries are defined in relation to the temple. These boundaries are an invitation for God’s people to root and thrive anywhere within this land. This is also an invitation to remember, above all else, that the people are here – we are here – because of God’s provision and our gratitude for God’s provision should continually lead us to offer praise in God’s sanctuary.

During her final semester of seminary theologian and homiletician Barbara Brown Taylor recalls praying fervently to God that God would answer her most dreaded question, “What do I do after graduation?” One late evening atop her favorite prayer space, an abandoned fire escape, God’s answer came to her, “Do anything that pleases you and belong to me.”* That is an incredible boundary. There is so much wideness and so much nearness within that boundary. God’s people engaging in behaviors that were not pleasing to God resulted in their exile and separation from not only God but also from the image in which they were made. Examining present and future behaviors and actions in relation to how they reflect our belonging to God draws us into a cooperative spirit with God as we thrive in relationship – created with Creator.

Thriving in this relationship draws us towards the image in which we were created – holy and whole.

Prayer: “Nothing between my soul and my Savior, naught of this world’s delusive dream; I have renounced all sinful pleasure; Jesus is mine, there’s nothing between. Nothing between, like worldly pleasure; habits of life, though harmless they seem, must not my heart from him ever sever; he is my all, there’s nothing between. Nothing between, like pride or station; self or friends shall not intervene; though it may cost me much tribulation, I am resolved, there’s nothing between. Nothing between, e’en many hard trials, though the whole world against me convene; watching with prayer and much self denial, I’ll triumph at last, there’s nothing between. Nothing between my soul and my Savior, so that his blessed face may be seen; nothing preventing the least of his favor; keep the way clear! let nothing between.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 110.

**”Nothing Between,” The United Methodist Hymnal 373.

Thrive: Steward

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ezekiel 47:13-14

Some years ago the Warren Willis United Methodist Summer Camp in Fruitland Park altered the way they serve daily meals. When I was a camper we would proceed through the food line cafeteria style. After a long day of running through the camp, skills, small groups, and free time, our eyes were usually bigger than our stomachs. Yes, we would eat, but we also wasted a considerable amount of food.

In efforts to be better stewards of the food that is purchased, prepared, and consumed, the camp switched to family style serving. Instead of waiting in a line – which took for-ev-er – the food was prepared and served on platters placed on each table. This decision is helping the camp achieve their goal of greater stewardship, cost savings, and less food waste.

During one meal at camp this summer I participated in a meal that was unlike the others. The counselor at the table serves the campers before him or herself. At all the other meals I served the campers and they immediately dove into their plates; some campers asked for seconds before I served their fellow campers or myself. Some took food and did not eat it; seeing food wasted always pains my heart.

But this meal was different. The campers waited patiently for their plates to be served. Each camper waited for everyone else at the table – even me – to have our plates prepared before they began to eat. We talked about our experiences that day as the plates were served. We all experienced the joy that was that glorious first bite of mac-n-cheese at the same time. We were grateful for what we received. We checked in to make sure everyone else was full before we proceeded to eat more than our prepared portion. We enjoyed the meal; we did not just consume it. There was no waste: no wasted food, no wasted time, no wasted opportunity to look into our neighbor’s eye, share an experience with them, and build community.

When I think about eternity I always picture a table. The table expands as it needs to so that there is room for everyone to sit together…and oh my goodness there is so much food. Everyone has enough. Everyone has the opportunity to share and connect. The people gathered around the table are patient and grateful. And since it is an experience that will last for eternity we enjoy it all; nothing is wasted.

In our Scripture text for this week Ezekiel is tasked with sharing or stewarding the plentiful blessings of the restored Promised Land to all God’s people. Everyone will have a portion. Everyone will share. Everyone will have enough. This is a vision of the Kingdom. This is a vision of true community. This is a vision I believe that God is leading us in fulfilling at Tuskawilla as we come around tables for meals, for leadership, for stewardship, and most especially for worship.

I am privileged to serve you. I am grateful to steward with you. And thanks be to God for being the source and guarantor for all our many blessings.

Prayer: “Father, we thank you, for you planted your holy name within our hearts. Knowledge and faith and life immortal Jesus your Son to us imparts. Lord, you have made all for your pleasure, and given us food for all our days, giving in Christ the bread eternal; yours is the power, be yours the praise. Watch o’er your church, O Lord, in mercy, save it from evil, guard it still; perfect it in your love, unite it, cleansed and comforted unto your will. As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in the broken bread made one, so from all lands your church be gathered into your kingdom by your Son.”* Amen.

*”Father, We Thank You,” The United Methodist Hymnal 563.

The Gospel According to Showtunes: Climb Every Mountain

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

This Sunday is my last Sunday with my Reeves UMC family.  On July 1st I begin serving as the senior pastor at Tuskawilla UMC and my first Sunday will be July 6th.  Below is my farewell letter to Reeves.  I invite you to be in prayer for both of these congregations and for me as I prepare to say “see you later” and “nice to meet you” in the next couple of weeks.

Dear Reeves UMC Family,
It has been my honor and pleasure to serve as your pastor for the past two years.  You have taught me so much about life, about being a pastor, about yourselves, about myself, and about the very real presence of God in our midst.
Thank you for putting up with my shenanigans, loving me despite my shortcomings, and embracing my “high taste” for shoes.  Thank you for opening your arms to Andrew and our four-legged children.  Thank you for allowing me to affirm and challenge you in my sermons and small group studies.  Thank you for your prayerful support of the mission and outreach of the church.  Thank you for your trust in my leadership and stewardship of your congregation.  Thank you for the hugs, handshakes, constructive criticism, affirmation, laughter and tears.
I felt called to come to Reeves and serve alongside you.  I am now called to continue in service in another local church.  My love and care for you will continue.  I will continue to hold you in prayer as you come under Rev. Tracy’s pastoral leadership and grow as disciples so you can transform your church and community.  As I leave you to begin serving as the pastor at Tuskawilla United Methodist Church I will remember you fondly and know that we will meet again someday.  So this is not good-bye; it is see you down the road.  It is because of God’s grace that we travel this road together and this road is leading us to glory.
Love,
Sarah
Philippians 1:3-6
Prayer: “Lord, whose love through humble service bore the weight of human need, who upon the cross, forsaken, offered mercy’s perfect deed: we, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart, consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.  Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show; hope and health, good will and comfort, counsel, aid, and peace we give, that your servants, Lord, in freedom may your mercy know and live.”* Amen.
*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 581.