Be Unmistakable – Gravity Youth 2017 Mission Trip Sunday

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Romans 12:9-21.

When I think of our Gravity Youth Students and all they accomplished on their Summer Mission Trip – the word that comes to my mind is courageous. Our students are incredibly courageous.

They trusted their parents and church leadership in selecting where they would serve this summer. They trusted us with their time – not only on the mission trip, but also in preparation for the mission trip on four training Saturdays and a slue of meetings. They trusted our driving through the greater Atlanta area!

Most importantly, they trusted God to be with them as they served in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. They served graciously and intentionally. They served without complaint or competition. They served with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strengths. They served after the example of Christ. And their service represented our church family with excellence.

During the week our worship speaker challenged us each night to Be Unmistakable. We become unmistakable by

  1. Being Set A Part
  2. Being A Servant
  3. Being Brave
  4. Being Humble, and
  5. Being A Disciple

On the evening we learned about Being Brave the Rev. Carolyn Poling reminded us of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus. What bravery – what courage! – it took him to get out of the boat to walk towards Jesus! And what greater bravery – what greater courage! – it took for him to call on Jesus’ name, to reach for Jesus’ hand as the person to rescue him when the waters rose.

Many look at this story of Peter as a loss of faith, but I believe it is a story of living real faith. We do not practice the life of faith in a bubble. We are not in a laboratory that is secure from outside influences. We live our faith in the real world that is full of situations and circumstances that are beyond our control yet impact us greatly. And when we begin to sink, we lit.er.a.ly. have a whole host of folks and deities we could call on for help. Whose name would be or is on the tip of your tongue? For whose hand would you reach for or are you reaching? What will you do when faced with moments that call for – that demand – courage?

Our students faced challenges and frustrations as they worked. They left creature comforts of home – beds, favorite foods, consistent air conditioning, and wifi – to step into the lives of homeowners that do not have much by society’s standards, but what they have is their world. They ached over the destituteness they witnesses, which fueled their desire to work all the more, to connect at deeper and deeper levels, and to complete the work placed before them so they would know upon returning to Casselberry, Winter Springs, Longwood, Fern Park, and Winter Park that the lives of their homeowners would be improved because of all the ways God worked through them that week.

My dear students, you completed your work – all of it. You accomplished your goals. You are so courageous; thank you for your trust and for being an example of courage to me and our church family.

I look forward to worshipping with our church family this weekend as we celebrate Youth Mission Trip Sunday. Our Gravity Youth will serve during the 11am Service and then share about their experiences at Dalton Area Project that evening at our Stockholders’ Dinner and Presentation. If you purchased stock in the mission trip this summer, please RSVP your attendance to the Stockholders’ Dinner by this Wednesday, August 9.

Prayer: “Let the King of my heart be the wind inside my sails, the anchor in my waves, oh he is my song. You are good, good. Oh. You are good, good. Oh. When the night is holding onto me, God is holding on. When the night is holding onto me, God is holding on.”* Amen.

*“King Of My Heart” by John Mark McMillan and Sarah McMillan. To listen to the full song, follow this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpqSbKYxd9Y

You Must Take Up Christ’s Cross and Follow Him

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 29:11 and Matthew 16:24, 25:40.

Dearest Members and Friends of Tuskawilla UMC,

I am so very humbled by all the expressions of appreciation I have received over the past few weeks – the cards, sweets, grill seasoning and apron, gift cards for date nights and coffee, contributions to my shoe fund (are you surprised!?), dinner out with the staff, and ELEVEN fruit trees for the parsonage! These gifts have truly warmed my heart and will continue to do so!

I also received one gift of appreciation that literally made me laugh out loud – an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (And I prefer mine with tabasco!) Elephants – figuratively – represent hurdles, obstacles, and big ole bumps in the road. And while I have encountered a number of elephants since arriving at Tuskawilla, I am not discouraged.

Confession: I may be initially discouraged, but because of the strength of this congregation’s leadership and the wonderful friendships that I have here, Onward! and Forward! have become my rally cries when I see another pachyderm appear.

In Matthew 16 Jesus makes the first prediction about his death and resurrection; “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day.” And Peter lost it! “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” And Jesus turned to his friend, his principle disciple and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts…All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them” (Mt 16:21-25).

Sometimes our thoughts, worries, desires, ambitions, projects, and motivations become stumbling blocks that manifest into elephants. Sometimes circumstances caused by others become stumbling blocks that manifest into elephants. These elephants have the potential to distract us from God’s work and God’s intentions. Jesus shows us in this encounter with Peter that when we encounter an elephant, which Jesus calls a cross, we are not to run the other way. We have to work our way Forward! and Onward! in pursuit of God’s plan and God’s desires.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes, writes the following on Matthew 16:24,

Crosses are so frequent, that whoever makes advantage of them, will soon be a great gainer. Great crosses are occasions of great improvement: and the little ones, which come daily, and even hourly, make up in number what they want in weight. We may in these daily and hourly crosses make effectual oblations (offerings) of our will to God; which oblations, so frequently repeated, will soon amount to a great sum.*

In Christ elephants – crosses – transform from obstacles to opportunities for offerings. When facing adversity – whatever adversity – we have a choice – to turn the other way or to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

After I unwrapped the elephant, Samantha said, “Looks like you are starting another collection in your office.” By the time Charge Conference concluded I had my second elephant! And bonus! Both elephants have upturned trunks. In Nepal, elephants that have their trunks turned up bring good fortune. They still require work, but they bring good fortune.

It is even better with the crosses we bear for and with our Christ – they require work, but they bring everlasting life.

Please join us in worship this week as Dean Paulus shares with us a very good word on these texts from Jeremiah and Matthew. I am looking forward to worshipping with you and learning from Dean.

Sweet Blessings,

Pastor Sarah

 Prayer: “We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord. And we pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.**

*http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/matthew/matthew-16.html 

**”They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” The Faith We Sing, 2223.

Seven Questions of Faith: Who Is Jesus?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-16

Over the past several years I have had the privilege to serve as a curriculum writer for our Annual Conference’s Camp and Retreats Ministries. It is a very humbling experience to be a member of these writing teams. I am always in awe of what the Holy Spirit brings about through opportunities for learning, fun, and fellowship for the campers as a result of these teams working together. And I am always in awe of the impact our God makes through the contributions of these writing teams.

Sometimes I can feel so small. Usually in those moments I dash to find a stellar pair of stilettos, but when that does not help, I think back on the experiences in my life when I have opened myself up to be used by God. I am one person, but where two or more are gathered, our God is present and our God is able to do infinitely more than we can ever imagine. Opening ourselves up to be part of our God’s imagining, that is the true stuff of miracles.

Last year one of the curriculum writer’s ideas was to open up space for campers to write down questions of faith that would be answered by their age-level worship leader before the end of the week. I had the sweet opportunity to be both a curriculum writer and a worship leader last summer so I knew what I was in for…but I was in no way prepared for the depth of the faith questions asked by my Week 8 rising 6th-8th graders.

Some of their questions were…

  • Where are the dinosaurs!? (One of my personal favorites.)
  • Do I have to believe everything in the Bible?
  • Do I have to read and understand the Bible the same way as my parents, youth leader, or pastor?
  • I’m not sure if I’m saved. I accepted Jesus, but then I sinned. Am I still saved? Does God still love me?
  • I’m not sure about God; I’m not sure I believe. Does that make me a bad person?
  • When Jesus says “Love your neighbor” does he really mean every neighbor?

These are only a few of their questions…and I had around 20 minutes to answer as many as I could, not to mention the follow-up questions that came up during our short time together!

These campers asked deep questions of faith that revealed deep longing for greater understanding of God and, I believe, greater belonging with God.

During the Season of Lent, which begins with our Service of Ashes on Wednesday evening at 7pm, we will ponder Seven Questions of Faith. I am hopeful that through this season we will grow in greater understanding of who our Lord is, who we are, and who and how we are in relationship together.

We begin this week with the question, “Who is Jesus?” This was a popular question in the First Century after Jesus started his public ministry. People could not believe that the miracles and ministry coming from Jesus could be the same person born of Mary in humble Bethlehem and run out of Nazareth by his neighbors. Others did not want to give Jesus credit for how he was declaring the glory of the Lord through his ministry; surely he had to be Moses, or Elijah, or another of the prophets. For so long God’s people waited and hoped for their Messiah, their anointed one, their Savior…and yet here (there) he was…and they could not believe.

Rather than defending himself or offering an apologetic for who he is, Jesus turns to his disciples to answer “Who am I?” Peter answers this deep question of faith boldly and, in so doing, reveals his greater understanding about who Jesus is and his greater belonging in relationship with Jesus.

I encourage you to take time this week to answer for yourself, “Who Is Jesus?” Write down your answer in a journal. Talk about your answer around the dinner table with your family or when you are out enjoying time with friends. Consider how your understanding of who Jesus is has changed over time and perhaps is still changing. What have you learned about who Jesus is? What have you learned about yourself in learning about who Jesus is?

Prayer: “His name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He is the mighty King, Master of everything; his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord. He’s the great Shepherd, the Rock of all ages, almighty God is he; bow down before him, love and adore him, his name is wonderful, Jesus, my Lord!”* Amen.

*”His Name Is Wonderful,” The United Methodist Hymnal 174.

God In A Box

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 9:2-9

This week the Tuskawilla Community welcomes back Rev. Melissa Cooper to share with our congregation. Melissa serves as the Program Coordinator for our Conference’s Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. She is the genius behind our Conference’s LECFamily Camps and Retreats Ministries and a visionary for cultivating intergenerational ministry cultures within churches across our Annual Conference. Melissa has recently started working with a team at Tuskawilla. She is helping us learn about and from our organic intergenerational nature as well as learn new ways to expand the intergenerational impact of our ministries.

Melissa is also one of my favorite people. Ever.

The friendship that Melissa and I share started out as a mountain top experience, plummeted into a valley, and then came back up to a middle ground where we continue to flourish in relationship, moving as life does between the mountain tops and the valleys.

We met at a conference retreat where I could talk and she could not! Melissa was training as a facilitator for this conference program and her task for that retreat was to be a silent observer – to look, to listen, to journal, and then when the conference was over, she and other trainees like her would dialogue about their experience during the training. I was a participant at this retreat, and I confess, I was not too keen on being there. And when I add “not too keen to being here” to several days of several hours of group work that is then reported back to the larger group and we do not receive a break until all the groups have reported in – oh I was all the more willing to share to move the whole conference along! So I talked quite a lot and Melissa did not…and somewhere in the midst of what I said, what she heard, and what God did in the midst of all of that, when the retreat ended Melissa made a beeline for me!

I think her first words were “Let’s be friends!” and I was like…”ummmm…okay?” We made plans to connect later that Fall. We hugged and said good bye.

Mountain top.

By the time Melissa and I got back together, I had received disappointing news about a project I had been working towards for over two years…and I was angry. I really did not feel like seeing anyone, but I keep commitments once I make them and I headed to meet Melissa for dinner. She walked in as her joyful, sassy glasses wearing self and oh, I hurricane’d all over her parade. I griped. I complained. I aimed anger at her – someone that, HELLO!, this is my first real opportunity to spend time with her! – and ate my dinner like a sullen, soaked house cat.

Poor Melissa. She was probably thinking “where’s the other girl!? I want to be her friend…get this one out of here…”

Valley. Deep, deep valley.

I remember sitting in my office a few days later wondering if I would ever hear from Melissa again when my phone buzzed. It was a text message from her. I think it said something blatantly obvious and wholly comforting, something like, “So that was a rough night, huh!?” I laughed. And texted back, “Yeah…that about sums it up.”

Out of the valley to the gift of middle ground where all people can grow. And I give thanks that our friendship continues to grow.

In the Scripture passage for this week we read about Peter’s mountain top experience with Jesus. Jesus’ transfiguration occurs. His clothes “became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” and Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus (Mk 9:3). The persons representative of the Law, the Prophets, and Eternal Salvation are all in one place!

This mountain top experience is the complete package!

And Peter wants to stay. He wants to build tents. He wants to set up camp. But after the cloud descends and he hears “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus leads Peter and the other two disciples back down the mountain (Mk 9:7). Moses and Elijah are gone. The moment is gone.

Valley. Deep, deep valley.

Jesus and his disciples return to a place of middle ground. They return to their work of continued growth in relationship with one another and service of their neighbors. They return to their ministry of healing, of teaching, and of preparing the people – preparing themselves – for Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

This middle ground is a place of growth. In a way mountain top and valley experiences are static. Not much happens there. It is in the place between where we move towards a mountain top or away from a valley or the other that we learn about ourselves, that we learn about our God, that we strengthen relationships, and that we strengthen our faith.

I give thanks for the gift of the middle ground I continue to receive in my life…and I especially give thanks that Melissa did not wash her hands of me after that awful, awful first date. She showed me grace and understanding. Jesus showed Peter grace and understanding. May these be the gifts that you share with yourself and someone else as you explore the middle ground this week.

Prayer: “Holy God, upon the mountain you revealed our Messiah, who by his death and resurrection would fulfill both the law and the prophets. By his transfiguration enlighten our path that we may dare to suffer with him in the service of humanity and so share in the everlasting glory of him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God for ever. Amen.”*

*”Transfiguration,” The United Methodist Hymnal 259.

Rock of Ages: Building On This Rock

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-20

In this week’s Rock of Ages text we hear Peter’s confession about the identity of Jesus – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – as well as Jesus’ declaration about Peter’s future – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:16, 18a).

My first appointment was to a new church that resulted from a merger of two existing congregations with two existing church campuses. The vision that drew the now one congregation together was that they could better serve their local communities as one church and one united body of God’s people than they could separately. At the beginning of my appointment we continued to worship, host events, and welcome folks on both campuses. As my appointment progressed we began looking forward to purchasing a new piece of land that would be the future home of New Horizon Church. We committed to working to sell the original church campuses so we could invest all our available stewardship, resources, and people into the new campus that was adjacent to a local high school and many developing neighborhoods.

We were able to purchase the new church property in early 2011 and so church leadership moved into the design phase of the project. I did not take the class on reading blueprints or completing permitting in seminary – I missed out! – so much of went on was new to me and very over my head. While many around me began to talk about what was going to go into and on top of the ground I wanted to give thanks for the ground as it already existed.

The Saturday following Easter in 2011 I invited the congregation to join me at the future site of the church to complete a prayer walk over the grounds. The church would make its home in an orange grove. The trees were still in bloom; the air was fragrant and sweet. The trees were so dense that not much grass grew on the ground so we walked through God’s wonderful gift known as Polk County sand. Corner to corner for 20 acres we walked and prayed, we gave thanks to God for the land that had been provided for us, we praised God for how God was blessing and continuing to bless the ties that bound us together as a congregation, and we asked God to continue leading us to be witnesses of his love, service, and justice in our community. Before there was any sort of finalization of blueprints or completion of environmental studies or selection of the fabric on the pew chairs or even a ground breaking we prayed over the ground as God had provided it to us. We prayed over each other. Even though there was no building, we prayed over the church.

I learned very early – through a beloved Sunday School song – that “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” People are made into the church by sharing in Peter’s confession about Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” When Jesus told Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” Jesus was referring to Peter’s confident confession. That confession is the bedrock of every believer and a shared foundation in every Christian community of faith. A building is not necessary to communicate this statement of faith.

We are the church. We are the people. This is our confession to make. This is our story to tell. And may we, like Peter, do so with great confidence.

Prayer: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together! The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places. Sometimes the church is marching, sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding, always it’s learning. And when the people gather, there’s singing and there’s praying, there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes, all of it saying: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!”* Amen.

*”We Are the Church,” The United Methodist Hymnal 558.

PictureLent ~ Reject

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Proverbs 31:8-9

This week’s #PictureLent theme is Reject. When we marinate on the word reject during the season of Lent, our minds might move to several characters in Jesus’ passion narrative:

  • The chief priests rejected Jesus as they opposed his interpretation of the Scripture and stirred the masses to rebel against him.
  • Judas rejected Jesus as he betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and temple guards for 30 pieces of silver.
  • Peter rejected Jesus as he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed.

Why did they reject Jesus? I think because of fear. Jesus represented a new world – of interpretation, of leadership, of Lordship. Perhaps the chief priests, Judas, and Peter rejected Jesus because Jesus was leading to a place where they might not have wanted to go or might have been afraid to go. Perhaps they rejected Jesus so they could stay where they were and remain with what was familiar.

We all have moments in our lives where we can identify how we have aligned ourselves with the behavior of the chief priests, Judas, and Peter rather than with Jesus. When we read a teaching of Jesus and it grates against what we wish Jesus had said but did not actually say. When we succumb to our greed for personal gain. When we wilt to fear in hopes to secure temporary safety.

One of the churches I served during seminary had this beautiful rotunda prayer chapel commissioned while I was on staff. At the center of the room was an altar surrounded by a railing that gave a nod to the crown of thorns. On the floor encircling the altar and leading into and out of the chapel was a meandering path of stones. Families from the church were invited to write their names on the stones to contribute to the path surrounding the altar.

I believe these stones are incredibly symbolic. They represent God’s people being drawn towards Christ and being led to places where we might be uncomfortable but will definitely meet Christ – at the table under the shadow of the cross. The stones’ meandering path represent when God’s people are drawn close to Christ as well as when we are farther away from Christ. We are still on the path, just perhaps not on the most direct course to Jesus, until we adjust to the leadings of God’s Spirit and curve back toward the Savior. The stones lead followers across the threshold into the world and then draw followers back towards the altar, which resembles the rhythm of the faithful – into the world – into the sanctuary – and the beat rolls on.

Like the chief priests, Judas, and Peter, there are times that we reject Christ. I believe that even in moments of rejection we stay on the path with Christ. We might not be in the center or drawing to the side closest to Christ. We may be farther away from Christ, but we are still on the path with Christ. Psalm 118:21-24 sings, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Those who reject the stone, the stone came to save. Those who reject Christ, Christ came to save. When we wind our paths back towards Christ, Jesus redeems our rejecting and we are saved.

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.

Heritage: Builders of Our Tradition

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 16:13-20

One of the first major milestones in any teenager’s life is driving.  I couldn’t wait to drive.  I remember my parents ordering the driver’s ed manual for me to study for my learner’s permit.  I remember my dad driving me to the bustling metropolis of Dade City to get my learner’s permit.  The DMV was on a hill way above the road and all I could think was…if I get my license, please don’t make me back down this crazy driveway!  I remember my parents insisting, impressing, requiring that my brother and I take driver’s ed in summer school or we would not step within 100 feet of the driver’s seat in the family vehicles.  But my most vivid memory was “the talk” my folks had with my brother and I after we turned in our learner’s permits and received our full licenses.

You know…”the talk”…

Keys in hand they said,

“You do not have to drive.  Driving is a privilege.  It requires responsibility and discipline and maturity.  And if you abuse this privilege, you will lose it.”

Then the keys were passed.

I think this is a pretty standard talk…wonder if you receive it in a script on a page of that elusive parenting handbook I keep hearing about…

In our Scripture lesson this week Peter receives keys from Jesus – keys to the Kingdom of heaven.  And much like receiving car keys, responsibility and discipline and maturity were required to receive these keys.  But in a little different twist, if the followers of Christ abused what they had been given, they wouldn’t lose the keys.  No.  How they treated what they received on earth would be reflected in heaven.

Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  We have been entrusted with these keys to open up God’s word and God’s forgiveness to all people.  What we do matters.  What we say matters.  How we say it matters.  And what we don’t say matters.

How we respond to this great responsibility matters.

It has eternal effects.

I am continually amazed as I serve among the Reeves’ community that truly all means all.  I am amazed that Reeves is a community where we have agreed to live into the United Methodist motto of open minds, open hearts, and open doors.  We do not serve free of scrutiny.  We do not serve free of judgment or trial.  But in our service we acknowledge that we have received the keys from Christ.  We acknowledge that abuse has been done with them and by them before.  And we acknowledge our responsibility to stand in the gaps, returning to God’s word and God’s forgiveness for ourselves that we may seek the forgiveness of others.

It is a powerful place to be.  It is a place where I truly believe I am engaging Kingdom work daily.

The keys we hold are a privilege.  A privilege received from Christ’s own hand.  With them we are binding great things for God’s present and coming Kingdom.  And Lord, if in some folly we bind things unfit for the Kingdom, in your grace and in your wisdom, release them.

Prayer: “Lead on, O King eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace.  For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”  Amen.*

*from “Lead On, O King Eternal” from The United Methodist Hymnal, 580.