Near the Cross: Partnership, Community, and the Cross

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 1:1-30.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins with three of my favorite verses of Scripture. The Apostle prays,

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:3-6).

In these and following verses Paul expresses gratitude to God and thanks to the Philippians for partnering with him through supporting his work. Paul repeats the word all in these verses, taking care to emphasize the communal effort that made flesh – made real – made known what God was doing among them.

The result of their partnership? Joy.

And that is a gift of God that will neither tarnish nor fade.

Last Sunday we concluded our Vision 20/20 Series. This Sunday we begin our Lenten Sermon Series based on reflections from Bishop Ken Carter’s book Near the Cross. Today (Wednesday, February 26) we will gather at 7pm in the worship center for a Service of Ashes. I believe it is fitting for the South Shore UMC Family to seal our Vision Study and cross the threshold to the Season of Lent with a litany – meaning a series of prayer petitions – affirming our covenant of service as United Methodists to the world, for the world, and with the world through the power and grace of Jesus Christ our Lord so that the world – so that we! – will indeed experience transformation. Our partnering together in the Lord’s work is how we live into – declare relevant! – and make present the legacy of the foremothers and forefathers of our faith. We are each not called to do all the parts. God calls us in faith – stirs us in our hearts – to do our part. And when we each do our part, together, all the parts are fulfilled – and nothing and no one is in need.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

In covenant with God and each other, we affirm our unity in Christ. We will take faithful steps to live as a worldwide church in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In covenant with God and each other, we commit ourselves to be in ministry with all people. In faithfulness to the gospel, we will cross boundaries of language, culture, social or economic status as we grow in mutual love and trust.

In covenant with God and each other, we participate in God’s mission as partners in ministry. We share our God-given gifts, experiences, and resources recognizing that they are of equal value, whether spiritual, financial, or missional.

In covenant with God and each other, we commit ourselves to full equality. We uphold equity and accountability in our relationships, structures, and responsibilities for the denomination.

In covenant with God and each other, we enter afresh into a relationship of mutuality. With God’s grace, we joyfully live out our world-wide connection in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.*


*¶125 BOD 2016.

Vision 20/20 Church: Philadelphia

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Revelation 3:7-13.

Devotion Focus ~ I Corinthians 12:12-26.

The Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12 acknowledges that each member of the Body of Christ receives gifts or skills from God in order to serve the Body and to equip the Body to serve beyond itself. Each one of us has something to offer – not just the clergy! For some their gift is more readily identifiable. For others their gift may be more nuanced and greater care and attention may have to be applied to articulate it. This work can be daunting and intimidating. So let us hear again these words of assurance,

“Do not be afraid.”

Gifts differ. And that is okay. In fact that is great! As Paul asks in confidence – and rhetorically –, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”

A regular and recurrent invitation as I serve is to keep my serving in check. What I mean by that is to not allow my service to keep others from serving or to take away opportunities for others to serve. I think this boundary applies to both laity and clergy. We serve an invitational God that desires all of us to be involved and engaged. My natural inclination is to “do it all myself;” that inclination is not only to my detriment but also to the detriment of the Body. If all the individual parts of the body do not live into our roles and live out our gifts, we stagnate.

And nature tells us that which stagnates dies.

The UMC celebrates the gifting and service of the laity – of the people that faithfully gather as the church and accomplish work for God both in and beyond the Sanctuary. The UMC rejoices over the ministry of all believers and encourages the servant leadership of all people. “The ministry of the laity flows from a commitment to Christ’s outreaching love. Lay members of The United Methodist Church are, by history and calling, active advocates of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission; every layperson is called to be missional. The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission” (¶127 BOD 2016).

The church – the whole Body of Christ – has a responsibility to serve. We have the ability to respond because of God’s grace present in our lives. No individual has to do everything. Every individual is invited, wanted, and valued in doing something.

The Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor recalls a time of discernment about what she should and would do for God as she anticipated completing her education. Climbing to the top of a rusty fire escape she met God in prayer. She left that conversation with this word from on high, “Do whatever pleases you and belong to me.”

The hope is that what pleases us can and will be pleasing to God as it draws us closer in relationship to God and others.

What pleases you? And how does that support your belonging to God? Share your answers with someone you trust this week. See you in worship on Sunday!

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. 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.

Defying Gravity and Loving Your Enemies

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ II Chronicles 15:1-12 and Jonah 4:1-11.

This week Andrew and I will ‘swap pulpits’ for our 11 o’clock worship services. Andrew will preach at Tuskawilla UMC and I will preach at Azalea Park following TUMC’s 8:30am Morningsong Service.

It has always been important to Andrew and me for our congregations to know both of us. Our congregations do not see both of us together regularly and we want you to know that both of us care for you, pray for you, and are grateful that you smile at our shenanigans…

Well, that you smile at our shenanigans…most of the time…

This week I am in awe of watching God’s people at work. Both of our churches hosted Trunk or Treats last week. It is an incredible sight to watch the church rally together around an event to serve our community. Smiles donned faces. Laughter filled the air. New connections were made. A broad sense of welcome was shared. Thank you, Church, for all your incredible service and hospitality.

This past Wednesday a college student made his way to the church, seeking counsel and direction. I was engaged in Bible Study when he arrived – and you know what – all was well. Again, the church – the Body of Christ present – rallied around this young man. Prayers were offered. Hands were held. Contact information was exchanged. And I imagine a young man who walked in the Sanctuary with his face downcast left with his head a little higher, his back a little straighter. This folks! This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is what it means to take on the posture of the Good Samaritan – to stop and serve a neighbor in need along any and every road in life.

And! even more telling – I was not the one to initiate or facilitate either of these encounters – neither Trunk or Treat or holding the space of grace for this college student. The Body of Christ – you – the church – stepped up and stepped into these valuable leadership roles.

I am so so proud of you. I am so so grateful for you. Well done, good and faithful servants.

I look forward to worship on Sunday – to serve with the TUMC Family at Morningsong, to join the Azalea Park Family at 11am, and to hear about the fun you will have with Andrew at 11 o’clock at TUMC. Thank you for welcoming him in worship leadership on Sunday. See you soon, church family!

Prayer: “God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name. I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name. And in Jesus’ name I come to you to share his love as he told me to. He said, ‘Freely, freely, you have received. Freely, freely give. Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.'”* Amen.

*”Freely, Freely,” The United Methodist Hymnal 389.


God Never Said That: It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 119:65-72 and Romans 3:21-22.

A couple years ago my dear friend Kelsey asked me to guest lecture in her AP Human Geography class. Her students were working their way through a unit on the five major world religions and Kelsey asked me to come in to represent Christianity.


And by the way, the class is 50 minutes long and please leave at least 15 minutes for questions and answers.

Double woah.

Knowing my audience (and time sensitivities!) I decided to make a Top Ten List to share with the students – a sort of cross between a countdown on a late night television show and “you might be a Christian if…” With the help of my friend Magrey, this is what I shared with the students:


10. YOU HAVE A THING FOR TABLES – We are a table fellowship people. The table is a place of brokenness, connection, and blessing. We bring our brokenness caused by sin to the altar table, we seek connection with Christ, and we receive the blessings of forgiveness and grace.

9. YOU’RE RELATED TO MORE PEOPLE THAN KEVIN BACON – Our participation at the table connects us to Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, through the ages as we all share a common lineage in Abraham. This connection also reveals a number of ways to practice the Christian faith. Perhaps a more accurate description is Christianitiesrather than Christianity.

8. YOU HAVE A THING FOR THE GAME SHOW “FAMILY FEUD” – Why are there Christianities? Because people – through the ages and in the present – that practice Christianity quarrel about interpretation of Scripture, application of Scripture, teachers of Scripture, and more. They fight and think they are more right…it is not that they leave the table, more like they declare their own section at the table. This kind of quarrel is at the root of the Catholic-Protestant split, and to some degree, is the root of why we have so many denominations.

7. YOU’RE THEOLOGICAL VOCABULARY INCLUDES THE WORD, “WHOOPSIE.”– Our Christian history is not full of warm and fuzzy events.

  • The Crusades – the Spanish Inquisition – many Nazis claimed Christianity – to just name a few. It is not just other faith traditions that invoke the right to land and secure their access of it through mass genocide…Christians do it, too.
  • We struggle with Sin and sins. Sin refers to the Fall – when humanity abused God’s good gift of free will – and sins refers to the act, word, or thought – whether of omission or commission – for which we will be held accountable before God.
  • Our bondage to sin ruptures our relationship with God, with one another, and with the rest of creation. We are incapable of breaking the power that sin holds over us. This is why Christ’s atoning death is so needful – his immeasurable gift of love through his atoning death frees us from sin’s bondage, which allows us to live in renewed relationship with God, with one another, and with creation.

6. YOU’RE KIND OF WEIRD AT MATH, PART I: 1+1=1 – Jesus is one person with two natures. He is fully human and fully divine. As fully human, he lived as we live and endured what we endured; as fully human Jesus is able to stand in humanity’s place and take the punishment for sin. As fully divine, Jesus as God incarnate is able to save humanity from our condemned state and break the power sin has over us.

5. YOU’RE KIND OF WEIRD AT BIOLOGY, TOO – We believe in the resurrection of Christ, not the resuscitation of Christ. On the third day when the stone was rolled away, our Jesus did not come back to life; he was not resuscitated. Jesus was given new life. He was resurrected and his resurrection assures the eternal defeat of sin – the eternal defeat of death – for all that receive the gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

4. YOU’RE KIND OF WEIRD AT MATH, PART II: 1+1+1=1 – We believe our God is Triune – that our God is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in every moment God is all three of these persons; God does not cease being one person in the Trinity in order to be another.

3. YOU THINK THERE’S A GUY IN YOUR FOOD – Sacraments are the means by which Christians encounter the mystery of Christ. At the communion table Christians believe they encounter the mystery of Christ, but in different ways. Some Christians believe that once the communion elements – the bread and wine/juice – are blessed that they physically transform into the body and blood of Christ. Other Christians believe the real presence of Christ becomes present in the bread and wine/juice. Either way, there is a guy in the communion meal, and we are redeemed of our sin and equipped for service in the Kingdom through this encounter with the mystery of Christ.

2. YOU HAVE A WEIRD THING FOR CALLING PEOPLE “MINISTERS” – What is theology? The study of God. Who does theology? Everyone! We believe in the Ministry of All Believers. It is not just the clergy that attend to the work and service of God’s people. This is the work of all people! All people have gifts for ministry to use in the Kingdom. And our using our gifts – this work – our ministry – we share it together.

1. LOVE, BABY.  IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE – Like all faith practices – it is what you make of it. Some Christian traditions offer detailed prescriptions of what practitioners do and do not do to make of their faith while others are less rigorous. As for me and my making of faith I start here:

  • “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (Jn 13:34-35).
  • I live out this verse in conversation and accountability John Wesley’s General Rules: (1) Do no harm, (2) Do good, and (3) Attend upon the ordinances of God – or as Bishop Reuben Job said – “Stay in love with God.”


If you were to add anything to this list, what would it be? Take time this week to consider what it means to be a Christian to you. What are your foundational Christian beliefs? How do your beliefs draw you in closer relationship with Christ and those that are faithful to him?

Prayer: Holy God, “Although a difference in opinions may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works…Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”* Help us, O God, to offer and receive one another’s hands. Amen.

*John Wesley’s Catholic Spirit – (

FAMILY ~ Ministry of All Believers

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ephesians 4:1-16.

My friend Dan Dixon has the keenest ability to send me cards that 100% describe how I am feeling at the present moment. My most recent installment looks like…




I think it should be titled, “Sarah Miller: This Moment In Time.”

The inside of the card reads, “Ever have one of those days?” And underneath those words Dan kindly wrote, “Yes, we do! Yes, we all have!”

How wonderful it is to be reminded that I am not alone in this life and that I have a great friend that will send me a picture of a soaked cat to lift my spirits.

In the card Dan thanked me for all the ways we stay connected as colleagues as well as friends. We share resources, we ask advice, we laugh, we vent, we sit in silence, we complain about all the things we should have been taught at Candler, and through talk, text, and/or email, we offer “towels” to one another on the days we are utterly soaked.

Dan has the incredible gift of speaking truth in love – “Sarah, you are doing a little too much right now.” “Sarah, listen to your committee members on this.” “Sarah, let that go.” “Sarah, forgive yourself.”

In her book Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”*

Through the relationship we share, Dan and I are able to be brought out of ourselves – and most importantly, brought out of the stories that we tell ourselves that are not a true reflection of our actual selves – so we can love and nurture, so we can struggle with growth and grapple with fear, and so we can try on the rawness of vulnerability and realize that we can live with that rawness for just a few moments longer than we did the last time.

Barbara Brown Taylor observes that we are all born with “instinctive care” – that innate knowledge to do whatever we need to do to care for ourselves. To love the neighbor as the self requires that we apply that same sort of instinctive care to someone else, that we do whatever is needed to care for another. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “to become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.”*

When we apply instinctive care to one another in community we experience unity. We share our joys and sorrows in community. We do not walk alone; we walk with others. We share one another’s burdens and we work together to lighten those loads. We offer affirmation, we ask questions, we seek and share forgiveness. This is what it means to be in relationship with one another. This is at the core of our ministry to one another as believers – caring for one another, which leads us to caring for all, as Christ cares for us.

Is there someone in your life presently that relates to or resembles my above “moment in time?” How might you reach out to them, and in so doing, instinctively care for them as you would for yourself? Consider how your actions will draw the two of you closer together. And imagine what our world would be like if we all genuinely and diligently answered our calls to to this sort of care.

Prayer: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”** Amen.

*Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 93.

**”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” The United Methodist Hymnal 557.


The Gospel According to Showtunes: Freak Flag

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 1:4-10

This passage of Scripture shares the call of the prophet Jeremiah.  God calls Jeremiah to live a life set apart  and to lead God’s people through proclamation, guidance, and accountability.  Jeremiah resisted, but God convinced him, and Jeremiah lived his life in the service of his Lord.

As I read Jeremiah’s call story, I am drawn to the memory of my own.  I have known since the age of 11 that God called me – and calls me still – to live a life set apart and to lead God’s people through proclamation, guidance, and accountability.  I cannot recall any moments where I resisted in the manner of Jeremiah, but that does not mean that I have not faced my share of hardships…and it does not mean that I do not continue to face hardships.  I receive criticisms on my age and my gender.  My intellect and work ethic are questioned.  I am looked down upon and it is God who helps me keep on standing when my knees buckle.

Some folks think that only ministers, pastors, and priests are called by God.  Not true.  So not true.  We all participate in the ministry of all believers, which means we are all called and set apart by God to do a specific task or many specific tasks in the Kingdom.  Some flavors of set apartness lead persons into lives of ordained clergy and other flavors of set apartness lead persons into lives of awesome servant leadership without having a formal title in the church.

But wait…we all bear a formal title.  Actually we have several formal titles from God.

Child of God.  Disciple.  Beloved.

All of these calls – clergy / laity / children of God / disciples / beloved – are worthy and honorable and necessary in the Kingdom.

We can try to offer excuses to God as to why we are not fit to serve or worthy of God’s call, but if we gaze into our Scripture passage for this week we learn that God has an answer to each of our objections.  We could follow in the footsteps of Jonah and flee from God’s call with an excursion on our own, but I know I would rather follow God’s will – no matter how trying it may seem to me – smelling fresh and clean than smelling like l’eau de poisson.

How awesome it is that our mighty and powerful God, who could and is able to do all the work and service needed in this world, is so generous in inviting us to join the work?  When we call on God, we want an answer…and that’s a two way street, my friends.  When God calls on us we should not send God to voicemail or hit “ignore” or receive the message and never respond.  God calls and God wants an answer.  The unknown of that call – the where will I be sent, what will I be asked to do, how will I make this work, why did God pick me – will be answered in time.  Our initial and quick answer to God’s call should be in trust and in faith.

“I am with you to deliver you,” God said to Jeremiah.

God affirms those words to us as well.

And we should say, “Here I am, send me.”

Prayer: “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God.  Standing on the promises I cannot fall, listening every moment to the Spirit’s call, resting in my Savior as my all in all, standing on the promises of God.  Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior; standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”* Amen.

*”Standing on the Promises,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 374.


Faith and Works: Taming the Tongue

Sunday’s Scripture ~ James 3:1-12

A cherished time for pastors – The Sabbath.

A cherished time for pastors with ice cream and sprinkles and hot fudge and caramel and a cherry on top (which I give to Andrew because I don’t do cherries) – The Extended Sabbath!

I begin my vacation this coming Sunday and I am able to rest easy as the service at Reeves will be under the wise leadership of my worship arts director and lay speaker.  I think at times in the church – even The United Methodist Church – we forget we are the people’s church.  We – all of us – are called to the ministry – the priesthood of all believers.  Sometimes we slip into a mode of thinking that the work (the service, the administration, the scheduling, the dishwashing, the plumbing, the candlestick making) is only for the person at the church bearing the title “pastor”.  That’s an ecclesiastical myth!

(Ecclesiastical meaning Church!)

We all have the title of pastor.  The work of the church is for all of us to share.  And on Sundays when the pastor is away, the parishioners stay (and probably play a little!) and offer their talents and passions in leading worship.


In continuing our series on the book of James we turn to the beginning of Chapter 3.  Whenever I think about taming the tongue I immediately have an image in my head of a cartoon cat.  I can’t remember if it’s Tom from Tom and Jerry or Sylvester from Sylvester and Tweetie.  The point is Tom is in search for Jerry or Sylvester is after Tweetie and his tongue is leading the way…and it becomes completely tied up!  The tongue is wrapped around furniture, slammed in doors, drug through garbage – and as it should in cartoon land – ends up being tied in a neat little bow at the end.  Obviously the cat can no longer talk – or move for that matter – and his compatriot just sits alongside laughing until his sides ache.


Our tongues can get us into trouble.  I’m pretty positive that we won’t end up with our tongues wrapped around objects beyond the reaches of our mouths or the ends tied up with a bow…

But then again, Scripture says “with God all things are possible…”



Purity of self and body have always been a huge concern for God’s people.  In the early days God’s people whole-heartedly believed that their purity, cleanliness, or holiness was determined by what they physically encountered through touch or taste.  Commandments directed what God’s people could and couldn’t eat and what they could and couldn’t touch, as well as the process for ritual cleansing.  If a person wasn’t clean, then they were not permitted in community life – within their families, within their trade, or within the temple.

This understanding was the standard.  And then Jesus showed up and tweaked it.  In Matthew 15:11 Jesus says, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (emphasis my own).  What most readily spills forth from our mouths is words.  And our words flow from our tongues.

Have you ever sat with a toddler that is learning how to speak?  Essentially he or she is learning to tame or control his or her tongue – to curve it the right way, to place it with intention against the back of the teeth, to raise or lower it in relation to the palette.  Over and over and over again the child will practice to gain one word to his or her vocabulary.

There are words of judgment, ignorance, cruelty, and hate flying around like bullets these days – ricocheting off of everything and claiming God’s precious children as casualties.  I cannot believe that these words are innate – God would not and does not place these words in our hearts; they are a learned behavior practiced over and over and over again, which leads to cursing rather than blessing.

My friends, it is time for us to unlearn these words.  It is time for our tongues to be tamed.  It has long been time for us to be about the business of building up people and tearing down walls.  It will take time.  And in that time, God will make us holy – from the inside out.

Prayer: “As we worship, grant us vision, till your love’s revealing light in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight, making known the needs and burdens your compassion bids us bear, stirring us to tireless striving your abundant life to share.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 581.