Woman In The Night: The First Witnesses

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 24:1-12.

My extended family is in the process of cleaning out my grandparents’ home as they have now transitioned to assisted living. I am honored to have brought home a chair that my Nonnie read to me in whenever I stayed with her as a child as well as a crown of thorns that was planted in her back yard under a big oak tree.

Y’all…

I have never prayed for a plant so much in my life as I have prayed for this plant over the last month.

Channeling the plea of the late Chris Farley, “Be strong, little roots!”

We brought home the crown of thorns attempting to root it in a pot with fresh and nutrient rich soil. For weeks it dropped leaf after leaf after leaf. This plant cannot die! It was (is!) going to be the plant we move with us wherever we go to remind me of my grandmother – a legacy of the travelling plants I carry on after my mother, who moves a rose bush from her grandmother’s house to every new home she and my father share.

I see this plant and I hope.

I hope and hope and hope.

Y’all…

There’s new growth on my Nonnie’s crown of thorns. And it is beautiful.

Just in time for Easter.

I hope you will join us this Sunday as we celebrate the new life in resurrection. We gather for Sunrise Morningsong Worship in the Courtyard at 7am. Join us for Easter Family Breakfast in the Fellowship Hall at 9:30am. Traditional Worship will conclude our Easter Celebration at 11am in the Sanctuary. Bring flowers for our Courtyard Easter Cross and have your picture taken.

Our God is making all things new. There is new growth in each of us. And it is beautiful.

Just in time for Easter.

Prayer: “Woman in the dawn, care and spices bring; earliest to mourn; earliest to sing! Come and join the song, women, children, men; Jesus makes us free to live again!”* Amen.

*“Woman In The Night,” The United Methodist Hymnal 274.

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Lord of the Dance: Killing The Dance

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 15:33-41.

Memorial Services are holy moments in my life. They are opportunities for me to practice my faith, to share my belief in the resurrection, and to walk with the Good Shepherd alongside his followers that are burdened by grief and loss. In Memorial Services we have the opportunity to sing, read, and hear our faith. Doing so enables me to affirm it is well with my soul.

Recently I served at two graveside services and each service included a change from which I am accustomed. Early on mentors in ministry told me to – in this order – complete the graveside benediction, shake the hands of the family seated in the first row,  move to the side for the funeral director to formally end the gathering, and leave.

Leave.

The graveside staff would not move the casket until the entire family left, which was signaled (and encouraged) by the departure of the clergy person .

But these last two services were different. The service ended and I moved to the side (with the intentions of greeting the family after the funeral director spoke) only to hear an invitation for the family to move close to the graveside as their loved one’s casket was lowered into the earth. At one service, family members were among the people lowering their father in place.

Even then – even in death – their family was at their side.

On a hill, far away, stood an old rugged cross. On a hill, far away, stood Jesus’ family as Mary’s son, James’ brother, Mary Magdalena’s friend, our Savior died.

Memorial Services affirm me of the courage and strength God gifts us. They also teach me about the resiliency of God’s people. Accompanying someone to, through, and from death is difficult. People experience a whole gamut of emotions in a matter of minutes, and those minutes tend to repeat themselves again and again. There is hurt…and there is hope. It is hard to draw near – and perhaps even harder to stay near – in these moments. But proximity is so important. Proximity ultimately provides healing.

In John 16:33 Jesus says, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” In conquering the world, Jesus conquered death. And in conquering death, Jesus showed us the path to the Father by our belief in him.

As I continue my journey to Calvary this year, I hope I am found at the foot of the cross – just as these devoted families gathered with hope around their loved one’s graves – rather than on a hill far away. Why? Because proximity increases intimacy – it increases our connection to the depth of love displayed on the cross.

When I look at the cross, I understand the vertical beam reconciling me to God through Christ and I understand the horizontal beam as Christ’s commission that I reach out in his love – from his heart through my hands – for reconciliation, for upbuilding, for the sake of the Kingdom. I have this understanding as a result of drawing near to Christ’s crucifixion. I have this understanding because I have accompanied and will accompany him to and through death so that he can lead me in the paths I should go from his death.

I do not believe I could accomplish this from a distance – from a hill far away.

So I choose to draw near. Christ’s death has and will continue to overcome the grave.

It is well with my soul.

Prayer: “I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black; it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back; they buried my body and they thought I’d gone, but I am the dance and I still go on. Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

 

*”Lord of the Dance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 261.

 

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.

Woah.

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:

YOU MIGHT BE A CHRISTIAN IF…

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.”

(Exhale!)

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 – (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-39-catholic-spirit/)

Seven Questions of Faith: Is There Hope?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 24:1-12

I spent time with my niece last week. Addison helped me prepare a side dish that our family would share at dinner – sliced squash and zucchini on the grill. She was in charge of seasoning; in complete honesty it was her idea to add the red pepper flakes, Anna and Gramps (Mom and Dad)!

(Okay, maybe not complete honesty…Addison had an accomplice!)

After dinner Addison wanted to show me her latest achievement. At the age of almost nine months, Addison is starting to walk. She has a variety of “push toys” that she can position herself behind and then totter all over the house. She pulls herself up and stands next to furniture. She will take steps while holding onto the hands of loved ones. And she loves to dance to the hot dog song, a popular tune on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

At times Addison takes steps without fear. At other times she is a bit more timid. What does not change is that she steps. Addison moves forward.

Mixed with fear and timidity, Mary Magdalena and the other women approached the garden tomb. The shadows that lingered since the Sabbath began are finally starting to fade.

Deep blue becomes gray. Gray becomes pale blue. Pale blue gives way to light.

And the women step forward.

They come to the tomb; yet, their intent on being there is not looking ahead but behind. They come to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial and to their astonishment, Jesus is not there! He suffered and died and left his grave clothes behind.

He is risen, just as he said!

Confident of their next steps, the women leave the garden and hurry to the disciples. They witness to what they have seen, and yet many of the disciples, who had physically moved forward but were still looking behind, did not believe.

Peter is the first to wonder…

He left the safety of the disciples’ hiding place to venture to the tomb. He stepped forward, clinging to his faith.

Could it be?

It is.

We that journey with Jesus this week will take many steps – to the upper room, to the garden, to the governor’s house, to the cross, to the tomb. As we journey may we look forward rather than behind. Looking forward will draw our attention to the present moment.

Gone are the shouts of praises and waving of palm branches.

Prepare for the Last Supper.

Then prepare for death.

And once that death has occurred, my friends, do not look back at it.

Honor the steps that you take, be they fearful or timid or heavy or tearful or have some other character. Whatever their character, take steps. Be present.

And prepare for resurrection.

Prayer: *Merciful and everliving God, Creator of heaven and earth, the crucified body of our Son was laid in the tomb and rested. Grant that we may await with him the dawning of the third day and rise in newness of life, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.”*

*”Holy Saturday,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 367.

 

Seven Questions of Faith: What About Suffering?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 27:27-31.

Some smells never leave you.

Growing up in Polk County I was introduced early on to the smell of burning leaves. In the late 80s and early 90s citrus canker was a huge ordeal. Once the canker set in the only solution was to burn the trees. Burn the trees. Defeat the canker. Protect the living.

No matter where I am, if that smell is in the air, I know exactly what is happening. Somewhere near something is burning. Something is being defeated. A measure is being taken to protect the living.

On Friday, January 29, 2016 I stood on the side of highway in the region of the Golan Heights in Northeastern Israel. Behind me was Israel and down the hillside below my feet, beyond the fence of the demilitarized zone, was Syria.

Syria

The smell of burning was in the air.

It was not trees burning this time. Smoke rose from homes, buildings, and ground cover due to the burnout of explosions. And the burning smell was not on its own; it was accompanied by the popping of gunshots. Due to the distance the popping sounded like a woodpecker drumming against a tree.

This scene broke my heart. It is burned into my memory as the flames burned the ground. I stood on that hillside and listened. I inhaled. I exhaled. I wept. I raised my left hand to my heart and extended my right hand towards the broken land. I joined in prayer with my friends gathered there.

We prayed for the people that decided that land should burn. We prayed for the people that believe more in violent defeat than in justice and peace. We prayed for the people who chose these methods as the means to protect only some of the living. We prayed for those who suffered. We prayed for their suffering to end.

Inhaling. Exhaling. Weeping. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

As we left side of the highway our bus fell silent, which for a group of 35 made up of pastors and spouses is quite a feat, indeed! Though the bus was silent my mind reeled, heart ached, and spirit wondered, “What about suffering? What about the innocents? Why?”

I was reminded of these questions for the remainder of the day as the smell of smoke lingered in my hair and on my clothes. My neighbors are in harm’s way. They are afraid and feel alone.

Does anyone see? Does anyone care?

Jesus sees. Jesus cares. Jesus suffered. Jesus suffers still.

Jesus suffers when we suffer. Jesus cried over the venom in the hearts of the people as he looked down upon Jerusalem before he finished his pilgrimage to his grave. Jesus cries over the venom that spews and spreads evil that breaks apart families, turns friends into enemies, fortifies walls instead of bridges, and leads some to untimely deaths in unmarked graves.

But unlike our suffering, Jesus’ suffering culminates in transformation. Though battered, mocked, and spat upon, Jesus’ suffering is the gateway to resurrection.

For him. For us all. In this world and beyond this world. In ways we can see fully now and in ways that we will only see fully once the veil of mortality is completely repealed.

I pray for the day that all suffering will end. I pray for the day that burning smells and their kindred memories will be replaced with peace.

Prayer: “Almighty God , you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to suffer death on the cross. Grant that we may share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and ever. Amen.”*

*”Palm/Passion Sunday,” The United Methodist Hymnal 281.

All Saints Sunday: Seeing The Glory of God

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 11:28-44

In third grade I received my first Bible – a red leather red letter NIV Bible. Shortly after receiving it I attended a Third Grade Bible Retreat to learn all about this library I had just been gifted by my home church. At that retreat I learned about the history, compiling, and composition of the Bible; biblical languages; how to look up Scripture addresses; and some very useful trivia. Did you know that King Solomon had a muster of peacocks delivered every three years!?

At the end of the retreat each student was given some additional sheets of Bible Trivia we could look up on our own. Well, little third grade Sarah, being the assignment completer she was (is) completed the packet in a week.

Not much has changed…except my hair is a little longer, my heels are definitely higher, and my mother does not have to beg me to wear a dress.

I remember that one of the trivia challenges was to identify the shortest verse in the Bible. I found it in John’s Gospel, “Jesus wept.” The knowledge that Jesus cried affected me deeply. I knew that Jesus was born of a woman like me. I knew that Jesus walked the earth like me. I knew that Jesus ate with his family and friends like me. But to know that Jesus cried…like me? Jesus became all the more real, all the more human in that moment.

Jesus wept because he missed his friend Lazarus who he loved dearly; he wept over the loss of his friend and disciple. Throughout my years in ministry I have joined Jesus in weeping at the bedside and graveside of ones that are nearing the end or have completed their journey in faith. I have held hands, received teachings, and made commitments to look after the family and friends left at this time.

Once I was even made to promise I would have my prostate examined yearly! I hope my congregant forgives me for not following through with that…

I have cried the precious tears that say, “I love you today; I love you always.” I have cried the precious tears that say, “I miss you today, I will miss you tomorrow, I will see you again.” And it is because of the precious tears that Jesus cried and his authority to call Lazarus forth from the grave that I am assured I will see – that we will see – our loved ones again. Jesus cried as a response to present pain and suffering, but in his completed Kingdom, every tear will be wiped away. There will be no mourning, no crying, no suffering, no pain. All will be whole. All will be well. And death will be no more.

There is definitely more time passing between my weeping and being reunited with loved ones than in Jesus’ weeping and calling Lazarus to life. But the power and gift of the resurrection is already at work. We will be reunited in the fulfillment of the resurrection, all that was loss will be gain, and the glory of God that we have seen just a glimpse of will be on full display.

Prayer: “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. Grant us grace so to follow your holy saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which you have prepared for those who sincerely love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”*

*”All Saints,” The United Methodist Hymnal 713.

Remember to Fall Back one hour this Saturday Night/Early Sunday Morning!! 

Longing for Spring: Spring

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Acts 5:12-16

If you were raised in Florida – or have spent a significant amount of time here – you know that our state is a wee bit confused about the seasons. Some would argue that we only have two seasons: hot and more hot, but that is not so! We experience all four seasons in Florida…three are just very brief in light of the main season of Summer.

Our seasons are also out of order. In my experience we have Summer – Winter – Fall – Spring and sometimes Summer charges in before we even have the benefit of experiencing all of Spring. I thought that would be the case this year. The last bit of Fall concluded a few days before Holy Week began. We made our way towards the cross as the last few dry leaves made their way to the ground. New growth pushed forth. The vibrancy of green was amazing. I sat at the picnic table on the TUMC Bean and wondered at the beauty of the green on this sweet gum tree shading our parking lot. What a vision of Spring.

And then someone cranked up the heat. Spring felt like only a brief memory. Summer arrived and when Summer arrives so early we know it will be a sweltering one. That’s what has made these last few days a true gift. We received a break from the heat and retreated back to the coolness and refreshment of Spring. It is not so much a break that it feels like Winter again; we are not retreating for hibernation. We are retreating for refreshment, growth, and strengthening so when the temperatures indicate Summer has arrived in full force (and will stay so till around December 2…) we will be able to handle the heat. We will be able to stay in the proverbial kitchen. We will be conditioned. And we will continue.

In our Scripture text for this week we read “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). This was a time of Spring for the Early Church. The first bud of the resurrection is Jesus and numerous others followed his leading. In Jesus and through his disciples the people experienced profound healing and teaching that changed their lives. These experiences anchored their faith. These experiences drew them one to another and as a community to their Lord. There was great excitement – excitement they could not contain. So they told others. They brought others from their homes to experience it for themselves. They believed in what was happening. They believed it would change the world. And they wanted to be apart of it.

In the Wellspring Class this week we discussed the nature and mission of the church – church universal and church United Methodist specific. United Methodists believe that the church is first and foremost a worshipping community and the church is the greatest arena for disciple-making to occur. The church is where disciples are made so that we then will go into the world and make disciples. And friends, we have to believe that this is what God wants for us – for Tuskawilla – for Christ’s Body – for Christ’s bride, the Church.

In his letter to the Romans Paul boldly questioned, “If God is for us, who is against us” (Rom 8:31)? The answer is “no one and no thing.” God is for us. And God wants us to experience this Spring, this renewal, this great addition of believers in the Lord to the present believers in the Lord, and together that they would experience a deepening of their faith in the Lord. Belief that God has this desire for us unites us one to another and unites us in the Lord. And this belief sustains us when the heat gets turned up – and I am not just talking about the temperature outside. This belief sustains us when we face temptation, trial, suffering, grief, addiction, loss, and death. This belief helps us spring or bounce back in response to the pressures and burdens of this life. This belief shelters us as we experience the winters in our faith.

God is for us. I cannot say it enough. God is for us! And God was us to experience this Spring.

Holy God, lead us in being your church, in serving our neighbors, and welcoming great numbers of the faithful to your family. Help us believe and through us bring about your mercy, grace and peace.

Prayer: “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be. Summer and winter and spring-time and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love. Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”* Amen.

*”Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” The United Methodist Hymnal 140.