Rock of Ages: Rocks Cry Out!

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 19:28-40

Tuskawilla’s Youth Director – Shrell – and I grew up in the same youth group. We served on the youth council and shared leadership roles among our peers. We led our share of crazy skits and sang in the youth praise band together. One of the songs that we sang with regularity was Ain’t No Rock.

That word ain’t spoke directly to the heart of this Polk County girl.

The song sings,

Ain’t no rock gonna cry in my place. As long as I’m alive I’ll glorify God’s holy name!

Sing! Praise God’s holy name! As long as I’m alive I’ll glorify God’s holy name!

And then the song continues, Ain’t no tree gonna wave its branches and Ain’t no bird gonna flap its feathers.

(Shrell and I would be happy to show off our fantastic dance moves that accompany this song upon request.)

As I reflect on singing this song as a youth, I admit that I was “going through the motions” of those dance moves rather than paying attention to what I was singing. I sang the song but I do not think I fully let the meaning of the song resonate in my heart and then pour out of the actions in my life.

Psalm 148 captures all of creation singing God’s praise. The praises progress from creation following closely the order of God’s creative activity in Genesis 1. Praises ring from the heavens, the celestial bodies, the meterological phenomenons, and the animals that fly, swim, creep, and roam. All of creation praises our God before the psalmist acknowledges that humanity joins the choir. So rocks and trees and birds…they are indeed capable of glorifying God’s holy name if we – if humanity – remains silent. Rocks and all of creation praise God in our place.

The psalmist invites humanity to join the hymn singing, “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord” (Ps 148:11-14)! We join the praise and the hymn ends. I do not think humanity completes the hymn, but I do believe that God is pleased when we make our offering of praise with the totality of creation in worship of our God. It is our choice to join the song; God will not force us. And if we do not join the song, our God will still be praised.

Desiring a greater intention of praising God rather than just ” going through the motions” this week I commit to turning my attention to when and how I offer my praise to God. What are my current circumstances? Am I at peace with these circumstances or wanting a change? How am I feeling? How would prefer to feel? What is God offering me in this moment? How could I show appreciation for that gift? God hears creation’s praise; it is unending. I want God to hear mine, too. 

Prayer: “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; and when my voice is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures. Happy are they whose hopes rely on Israel’s God, who made the sky and earth and seas, with all their train; whose truth forever stands seure, who saves th’oppressed and feeds the poor, for none shall find God’s promise vain. The Lord pours eyesight on the blind; the Lord supports the fainting mind and sends the laboring conscience peace. God helps the stranger in distress, the widow and the fatherless, and grants the prisoner sweet release. I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; and when my voice is lost in death, praise shall employ my nobler powers. My days of praise shall ne’er be past, while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures.”* Amen.

*”I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath,” The United Methodist Hymnal 60.

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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.

Rock of Ages: Living Stones

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Peter 2:4-10

This week’s Rock of Ages passage names the people of God, the disciples of Christ, the sisters and brothers in the Spirit “living stones”. That’s a curious title or classification because I do not think we often conceive of stones as living. They are inanimate. They can be sturdy, precious, porous, or soft. They are instrumental in construction projects. They are a pain to dig out of the ground to prepare it for a garden. They have the ability to stub your toe like no other.

But living? Do stones live?

As I thought about an example of living stones, my mind went immediately to volcanos – mighty and powerful living stones capable of spewing acrid ash and lava with temperatures nearing 2192 degrees Fahrenheit. Our history books detail the destruction wrought by volcanos – names like Vesuvius and St. Helen live in infamy. And yet they also create new land and regenerate land that was once unsuitable for agriculture to be vibrant and capable of producing crops.

In 2002 I served on a mission team in Costa Rica. Towards the end of our trip we hiked a mountain that was home to a monastery and the largest illumined steel cross in the country. Across the horizon from the monastery-mountain was what I would call a “stirring volcano.” Our guides told us that it had not erupted in some time, but it was not classified as dormant because it would have fits of spewing ash and rumbling the near by ground. As a result, the families that called the volcano home – either living on its side or at its base – were very attuned to its activity and ready to respond at any given moment.

I think the image of a volcano is an appropriate image for the church – and more specifically – the image of a stirring and active volcano. Churches have wonderful “volcano” moments during certain seasons of the year – Christmas and Easter especially – and also for Tuskawilla when our little orange friends come to visit. But what about the other seasons in the year? What about the other 46 weeks?

Presently we are in the height of Ordinary Time – the season of the church year that spans the time between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. Many people hear the word ordinary and think “nothing special.” But this time of the Christian year is so special in that it grants us space to put into practice everything we have learned about the coming, birth, baptism, life, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and victorious return of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior because something between his coming and his victorious return stirred us so much that we committed our lives to him.

We remain in that commitment with him because his enduring presence – the Holy Spirit – continues to stir up  and reinvigorate that commitment. And then the months between Pentecost and Advent set in…and the “activity” in the Christian Year appears to slow down because we are not moving from season to season to season as we do from Advent to Christmas to Epiphany… Maybe our reactivity to God’s stirring becomes slower. Maybe we hit the snooze button on the stirring…and if we do that enough, we become dormant.

God gave us life and calls us to life. God made and makes us living stones. God’s Spirit within each of us is alive and well and wants to and does move us into activity. We are not being true to our identity as living stones if we are dormant. And if we are being true to our identity as living stones, then the effects would be felt not only by those who are connected together as this volcano of faith but also by those in our surrounding community. Our action should prompt, generate, lead, and sustain positive and affirming reactions in our community.

What is God stirring in you? What signs of God’s life and awaken-ness are you displaying to your and our neighbors? How will you make this week during Ordinary Time extraordinary?

Prayer: “Spirit of promise, Spirit of unity, we thank you that you are also the Spirit of renewal. Renew in the whole Church that passionate desire for the coming of your kingdom which will unite all Christians in one mission to the world. May we all grow up together into him who is our head, the Savior of the world. Amen.”*

*”For The Church,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 503.

Rock of Ages: Hannah’s Song

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Samuel 2:1-10

In my vocation I read (and subsequently write) a lot. Folks who are avid readers are well acquainted with the two types of literature – fiction and non-fiction – which are then categorized further into the genres of literature – autobiographies, biographies, romance, suspense, mystery, thriller, fantasy, self-help and more. In my experience there are additional genres of literature – the good, the superb, the bad, the excruciating, the humorous, the you-gotta-be-kidding-me-did-you-really-write-this, and, my personal favorite, the i-will-reward-myself-with-reading-something-else-for-every-one-paragraph-I-read-of-this.

I had a wonderful professor at Florida Southern College who always reminded (and reminds!) me to be a generous reader to the authors…sometimes generosity flows more freely than at others.

One book that completely captured my attention a few years ago, and I continue to return to it, is Dr. Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. Dr. Brown is a licensed master social worker and is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her research is in the areas of studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. The title of her book, Daring Greatly, comes from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that reads,

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

In this quote Roosevelt – and Dr. Brown – lift up the people that are present in living life. Their present living may be a moment of struggle or their present living may be a moment of triumph. Regardless, they are living. They are active. They are not on the sidelines or in the bleachers hollering out coulda woulda shouldas. They are at the plate. They are on the starting line. They are jumping for the tip ball. They are defending the end zone. They are in the arena. They are on the field. They are running on the court. And they are working cooperatively to alter their circumstance. Dr. Brown would say that folks on the sidelines or in the bleachers should be muted. Unless they are willing to enter the arena themselves, their comments should stay to themselves.

This week in Rock of Ages we turn our attention to a study of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. She, like many women in Scripture, was barren. Her inability to produce a child meant that she brought shame upon herself, her husband, and her family. There would be no heir to inherit their land, their goods, their history, or their faith. Bystanders and sideliners – Peninnah in particular – mocked and ridiculed Hannah, which compounded her grief and grated away even more of her self-worth.

Hannah had a choice. She could wallow in self-pity or she could enter the arena. Having grieved (and having accomplished nothing more than grieving) Hannah entered the arena, which in her context was the temple. Hannah was “deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant…” (I Sam 1:10-11). Her prayer brought her up to the starting line, she grounded her stance next to the plate, she centered herself in front of the net, and she engaged. She dared greatly in asking for what she wanted – a child, specifically a son – knowing full well that she may not have received. In making this plea before the Lord she honored herself by naming what she wanted, she made a public display of faith, and made a public affirmation that she is worthy, and able, and capable of coming before the Lord with the deepest concerns of her heart.

I know that when I pray I am quick to pray for others, for our leaders at every level and kind of administration, for the church, for the world. I am not so quick to pray for myself or to reveal the deepest concerns of my heart before God – which is silly because God already knows. And yet, I think it is an act of daring greatly and entering the arena to bear my heart before my God and share my concerns with God personally rather than God observing them from afar. I believe doing so places me in agreement with Hannah – that I am worthy, able, and capable of coming before God and that God is worthy, able, and capable of receiving what I share.

This exchange strengthens our relationship. This exchange honors God as God and guards me from thinking (and acting like) I need to be in control at all times. Stepping into this arena with God does not mean we are opponents; we are on the same team. Stepping into the arena means I am willing to take the risks of vulnerability, to face my fears, to share my heart, and be led by the greatest coach of all time who is wherever I am – on the sideline, on the field, and definitely in my heart.

Prayer: “Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Here is the citadel of all my desiring, where my hopes are born and all the deep resolutions of my spirit take wings. In this center, my fears are nourished, and all my hates are nurtured. Here my loves are cherished, and all the deep hungers of my spirit are honored without quivering and without shock. In my heart, above all else, let love envelop me until my love is perfected and the last vestige of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit. Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Amen.”*

*”For Holiness of Heart,” The United Methodist Hymnal 401.

Rock of Ages: Fire Up From A Rock

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Judges 6:11-24

This week our Rock of Ages sermon series continues with a study of Gideon. Gideon was selected by God as a judge for the people of Israel. The role of a judge in the Hebrew Bible differs from the role of a modern day judge. While modern day judges adjudicate trials and convene sentences, judges in the Hebrew Bible were tasked, above all, with restoring peace. Peace was disturbed because God’s people committed idolatry and chose to worship the gods native to the land they were now inhabiting rather than the God who delivered them to that land. If the Israelites would choose to do what was right in God’s eyes rather than their own, then they would not continually be in strife.

God calls Gideon to this role of judge and Gideon’s response – are you serious!?

(I have yet to find a biblical translation that conveys this sentiment, but I feel it in the text. I also envision Gideon with eyes as big as saucers.)

Gideon does not believe. Why would he be called to this task? And is it actually God doing the calling?

In our study of “Water from the Rock” we learned that we are not to test the Lord our God; we are not to make our faith contingent upon forced or coerced demonstration from God. But in reading our passage for this week we find that Gideon fleeces God. Perhaps this is an argument of semantics, specifically an argument of diction. Perhaps a fleece is not a test in Gideon’s mind. But his aim is the same. Whether a fleece or a test Gideon wants to know that it is God who cares for him, that it is God who will be with him, and it is God who will lead him in accomplishing the demolition of altars and the restoration of peace.

Our desire to know is linked with our capacity to wonder. To wonder means to curiously speculate. There is a definite air of hope in wondering as well. A person who wonders anticipates evidence that will reveal an outcome…and I would say in the case of hopeful wonderings, the person anticipates evidence that will reveal a consistent and positive outcome.

Last school year I had the opportunity to participate in the Bear Connections Program through Winter Springs High School. Bear Connections is a mentoring program for ninth grade students that have been identified by their middle school teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators as persons that would benefit from a mentoring relationship with a positive adult role model. Bear Connections mentors are not tutors; they are great listeners who are open to sharing their positive life experiences and willing to help a student navigate his or her way through the first year of high school. A mentor meets with his or her mentee for 30-45 minutes weekly, on campus during an elective class period.

When I first met my mentee he looked at me – and the Bear Connections program – in the spirit of Gideon – are you serious?! Are you seriously going to take time out of your week each week to meet with me, listen to my stories, answer my questions, help me find answers to my questions, occasionally help me with an assignment, and definitely play UNO in the courtyard? He wondered. And each week I showed up…and showed up…and showed up. Each time I showed up I answered his “Are you serious?!” with a definite yes yes yes! In fact, I was almost sent to detention one day for playing UNO with him in the courtyard; an administrator walked up behind us and said we had a lot of nerve to be playing UNO in the middle of the courtyard during class.

(I have never been to detention before in my life! Thankfully my mentee was quick to share I was his mentor. “Show him your badge, Mrs. Sarah!” And then the administrator said I looked like a student…and then I returned to our game of UNO.)

I am so thankful for the privilege of walking alongside my mentee throughout the 2014-2015 school year and of affirming in him that an adult in addition to his nuclear family, guidance counselor, dean, and teachers wanted him to succeed. I helped hold him accountable. I helped focus his attention away from sports and girls and onto science and geometry. I looked forward to our time together. My mentee anticipated evidence that would reveal a specific outcome. He anticipated my showing up and when I did, that affirmed him. He is important. He is valued. He has a friend that would help him succeed.

The Bear Connections program is currently looking for mentors to match to 95 freshman this fall. This mentoring opportunity is a great way to serve our community and to let our community know that we at Tuskawilla UMC care about the success of the students in the greater Casselberry, Ovideo, Sanford, and Winter Springs area. I will be serving as a mentor again this year and I invite you to think about serving in this program as well – 30 to 45 minutes for roughly 15 weeks in the Fall and 15 weeks in the Spring. Students have elective periods scattered throughout the day so you can be placed with a student who’s schedule works with your availability! This is an opportunity for you to serve and be served. This is an opportunity for you to be God’s agent in coming alongside the Gideon’s among us.

Please be in prayer about this opportunity and contact me directly if you would like information about the next steps in registering as a Bear Connections Mentor.

Prayer: “O Jesus, thou hast promised to all who follow thee that where thou art in glory there shall thy servant be. And Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end; O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.”* Amen.

*”O Jesus, I Have Promised,” The United Methodist Hymnal 396.

Rock of Ages: Water from the Rock

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Exodus 17:1-7

Our Scripture text this week speaks to a very raw and vulnerable portion of my life – worry. The text does not use the word worry, but it is worry defined. The Hebrews are in a unfamiliar place – reunited with the God who seems unfamiliar as they believed God had forgotten them in their suffering in Egypt – and led by a somewhat suspicious guy because he was once Team Pharaoh and is now Team Elohim. Their identity – all they have ever known of themselves, day to day living, and expectations in life – has shifted. No longer slave but free. No longer many gods but one God. No longer in Egypt but in the wilderness.

Egypt was not a cakewalk – not even a bread walk some days – but there were absolutes in Egypt. The Hebrews knew as long as they met their production quota they would eat, drink, and survive with minimal harm. Leaving Egypt and enjoying the fruits of freedom also meant that the wells in Egypt – wells that came at such high costs but were wells none the less – dried up. In the wilderness with Moses and God the Hebrews were removed from those absolutes. In their worry-ness and weariness the Hebrews doubted that the God who through Moses delivered them through the water might bring water to quench their thirst. They were so downcast they thought about returning to just survive in Egypt when God wanted them – and wants for us – to thrive.

Worrying gets in the way of thriving. Worrying thwarts thriving from the start. I worry because I like to be in control. I am most comfortable when I know what will happen, how I will feel while it is happening, and what the consequences will be after it happens. I do not like the feeling of my stomach in my throat or my stomach diving down towards my knees.

When walking through the wildernesses of my life I have to remember that I am not a trailblazer and I am not a lone ranger. I am not wholly and solely responsible for my path and how I will be sustained along that path. I am following after God – God blazes the trail. And I am travelling with company – much like our ancestors in the Sinai region. We are all making our way together.

The wilderness is a place full of potential. You have left what was and anticipate what will be. To simply be in that space is powerful. It is a struggle to be, but that is when I need to remember that I am not God. I am not blazing the trail. I am a creation. I am a beloved child of God. And in my creation God made a commitment to provide for me through God’s creation, through utilizing my God-given gifts and graces, and through my relationships with others. When I worry I feel that I create negativity in my life or that I am bracing myself for a negative impact that may never come. When I focus on the potential of the wilderness, the space that God is bringing me through, yes there are points of shadow and I might trip on a branch, but light is also breaking through the branches, I can hear a river running by, I can see an environment teeming with life, and I can notice that the trees are becoming less dense.

The Exodus did not end when God’s people crossed the Egypt Region Line. Our Exodus is a continuing saga; it continues every time God brings us through whatever it is we are facing. We do not need to worry. Sarah – I do not need to worry. God will provide. God does provide.

Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Amen.”*

*”The Serenity Prayer,” The United Methodist Hymnal 459.