Mountain Meditation: Kingdom Living

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:38-48.

This week I had the privilege to travel to Fruitland Park to spend a day in prayer for dear friends that interviewed with the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I remember my interview day…nervous and knotted. So much led me to that interview moment: my call, my service in the local church, my education, my paper writing. And when I arrived at my interview I remember thinking “Okay, time to be perfect!”

Jesus concludes our Scripture passage for this week speaking of perfection, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). 

What is perfection? It is defined as the state of being perfect, of being free or nearly free of any flaw or defect.

Our God is indeed perfect. And I believe through our God’s grace we are going onto perfection, that we will be made perfect in this life. 

There is, however, a difference between being perfect and perfectionism. Being perfect is undertaking the heart work and hard work of facing one’s flaws – caused by sin – and being present in the process. Presence in the process looks like reflecting on what has happened, honoring the feelings in those reflective moments, and then discerning and acting upon decisions that will be life-giving rather than decisions that will further give into sin. This presence leads individuals in knowing him or herself and in knowing who God desires her or him to be. 

Perfectionism, on the other, is hard work without the heart work. It is an attitude rooted in performance and production rather than presence. People that act in and out of a spirit of perfectionism may look pristine on the outside, but the emptiness and achy-ness that results from perfectionism bores deep into one’s heart and soul.    

As I walked into my interview I heard Jesus’ words – be perfect. And in that perfection – seen in our Heavenly Father and seen in his Son – I was present. I shared my story – my struggles and my salvation. I shared of my transition from perfectionism practices to seeking perfection. I showed me and how God used and continues to use me. I testified to the truth that God has a plan and intent to include all people in God’s work.

God’s plan and intent looks different from the world’s. It is hard work to make our lives – to live our lives – in God’s plan and intent – but it is so fulfilling. 

In that spirit of fulfillment, I prayed my friends into their interviews. I prayed that they would be perfect and present, that they would show the evidence of their heart and hard work. 

And indeed, they did!

This is also my prayer for you this week. That you would take time to sit and reflect. That you would take time to be present in reflection of your struggles and your salvation. That you would take time to continue your attention to the heart and hard work before you. And in all of this, friends, we will be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

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.

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Faithful Living

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16.

When I read the words “Let mutual love continue” I immediately think of Mr. Bill Gill. Bill is a member of Gray Memorial UMC in Tallahassee and I had the privilege of meeting Bill during my interview for membership as a provisional elder in the Florida Annual Conference in January 2010.

It was one of those damp, cold January days. I flew in from Atlanta the day before, ventured to Polk County for a quick siesta, and then after receiving thorough instructions about driving my mother’s brand new car to my interview, I drove to the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. I was invited to come for lunch; my interview would start at 1pm. I remember being too nervous to eat and standing awkwardly at the back of the dining hall, quaking in my stilettos, seeking a friendly face. Bill’s gaze caught mine and his wise, kind eyes assured me that everything, in fact, was going to be okay.

Bill looked in on me throughout the afternoon. He was caring and comforting. And as a prelude to the news that I would be commissioned that year at Annual Conference, he smiled and said, “We have much to expect from you. God is doing great things in you and I am going to enjoy watching it all unfold.”

When it came time for my ordination interviews Bill sought me out again – this time a friendly and familiar face. Bill and I always seem to find one another at Annual Conference without planning it – God keeps seeing fit to draw us together. He asks about my appointment. He asks about my family. And he shares the great things going on at his church, which one of my friends happens to serve.

(Sometimes Bill says that Jack is up to something…and that is when I assure Bill that pastors are always up to something…)

Whenever we are together Bill humbles me with his encouragement. “We have much to expect from you. God is doing great things in you and I enjoy watching it all unfold.” And now his encouragement includes this phrase followed by a hug, “I am so proud of you.”

I feel, know, and treasure Bill’s love in my life. He showed me hospitality as a stranger and in him I have found such a generous friend. The relationship I have with him and the care I continue to receive from him has shaped and continues to shape the relationships I have with others. As I said in my sermon last week, “small acts have expansive consequences.”* Bill’s small act of sharing love in my life continues to live beyond both of us from that moment we shared on a Tuesday afternoon that last week of January in 2010. That love, which is Christ’s beautiful love, is living on in me and I know it is living on in him.

Thank you, Bill. Thanks be to God for you. May Christ’s mutual love always continue in you and through you. May Christ’s mutual love continue in and through all of us.

Prayer: “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you. Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are near and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love, all these are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”** Amen.

*Craddock, F. B. (1990). Interpretation–Luke. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 171.

**”Jesu, Jesu,” The United Methodist Hymnal 432.

 

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.