Woman in the Night: The Gospel in the Law

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 7:36-50.

Last week a member of the Worship Planning Team spied that Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance was part of our order of worship for Sunday. He messaged me, “Are we using green grape juice for Communion on Sunday?”

No. But I laughed at his question.

During the season of Lent I like to incorporate Prayers of Confession and Words of Assurance in our weekly worship. These are portions of the liturgy that we tend to only engage on Communion Sundays as they are a path for us to prepare to come before the table Christ prepares for us – for everyone.

I find these words particularly powerful during Lent – this season of self-examination and Savior-invitation – to look to the new life Christ is creating in us that we will celebrate with his resurrection on Easter morn!

In the act of confession we acknowledge our sin. We acknowledge the hurt and harm that we cause. We acknowledge that we do not have this life – this world – figured out! We acknowledge that we deserve judgment, but because of the Love that will not let us go, judgment is not our fate.

It is my experience that some people experience adverse reactions to the thought of confession. Perhaps they hear confession and believe they are expected to make a public display – a public rending of their heart – like the woman in our Scripture passage for this week. Or perhaps they hear confession and are resistant because they do not want to participate in an act that will make them feel bad about themselves.

I feel bad when I make a confession. I experience guilt and remorse – that weight of my committed sin. But there is a difference between saying “I feel bad; I made a bad choice” and “I am bad because I made this choice.” I am not bad. We are not bad. I and we make bad choices. I and we can alter our behaviors so as to not make those bad choices recurrent. Guilt and remorse can be powerful motivators for behavior modification – and the hope for followers of Christ – is that guilt and remorse will motivate us to accountably changing our behavior to be more like Christ. Feeling bad does not absolve us of sin. Seeking forgiveness and accountably changing our behavior acknowledges before God and neighbor that we are applying the grace in forgiveness we receive.

When I am feeling lost or astray in my relationship with God, I often return to the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15. The shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the 1, and Jesus concludes saying, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). For me, confession is one way to bring God joy. That homecoming is sweet and needful and holy. That homecoming is healing so that I may – every day – become more of the person and leader God desires.

Prayer: “Woman at the feast, let the righteous stare; come and go in peace; love him with your hair! 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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Jesus Said What!? ~ You Must Be Perfect

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:43-48.

Last week in Tuskawilla’s 11:00 Worship Service I referenced Wesley’s Historic Questions which are asked of those persons being ordained since the beginning of Methodism. There are 19 questions in all and they are all structured on a version of the verb form “to be” – Have you, Are you, Do you, and Will you? Questions structured on a version of the verb form “to be” have two possible answers – yes or no.

(And if your discernment and desire is to be ordained, your answer is yes – to all 19.)

The second of John Wesley’s Historic Questions shows he is batting for the fences. He wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter:

2. Are you going onto perfection?

Which is followed in the next breath:

3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

And given that the answers to 2. and 3. are both yes, he rounds out with:

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

I answered yes to these three questions (and the other 16 as well!) before the entire Annual Conference the day before my ordination. I answered sincerely and confidently. I do believe I am going onto perfection. I do expect to be made perfect in love in this life. And I am earnestly striving after it.

At the heart of these questions for John Wesley is the work of sanctification – the work of being made holy – the work of recovering and restoring the image in which we were created – which is the image of God – which is perfect.

Sanctification is not a matter of works righteousness. We cannot work ourselves to righteousness through the acts that we do, the words that we say, or the money that we give. Titus 3:4-7 says, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Because God acted on our behalf, we are able to act in response to God’s grace and with God’s help so recover and restore the image in which we were created. 

Through sanctification we go onto perfection – we are made perfect in love in this life. This perfection does not mean that we will not make mistakes or have weaknesses that cause us to backslide – meaning revert to behaviors before or early on in our relationship with Christ prior to our maturing in faith. Rather, Wesley understood this perfection to mean a continual process of perfecting our love for God and neighbor by reducing – and ultimately removing – our desire to sin. When sin does not have a hold on us, we are free to love as God intended – love God first and love neighbor second, and then all else in the world will fall into place by keeping these two at our forefront.

Are you going onto perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it? Share how you are earnestly striving after it with someone this week. I look forward to worshipping with you on Sunday!

Prayer: “Take time to be holy, let him be thy guide, and run not before him, whatever betide. In joy or in sorrow, still follow the Lord, and, looking to Jesus, still trust in his word.”* Amen.

*”Take Time to Be Holy,” The United Methodist Hymnal 395.

 

Thy Kingdom Come

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 16:1-8.

My home church’s sanctuary has a balcony, and in the lower right corner of the balcony sits a small antiphonal organ. This organ offers a quieter, more reflective tone. When the organ plays it sounds as if the music crosses a great distance in order to enter the ear.

When I was very young the choir director’s wife always sang during the Good Friday service. She sang the same piece every year. She sang The Lord’s Prayer.

She stood in the corner of the balcony nearest that antiphonal organ and sang the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray. Those are words that I know well; they are words that my mother taught me in my earliest years. And yet hearing them sung from her lips and cascade from on high made the prayer’s words take on a haunting quality. I listened to those words as I viewed artwork depicting Jesus’ passion. As I looked on depictions of his suffering and his mortality, I considered my sin, my loss. On Good Friday it seemed as if the entire world was coming apart … and yet … that coming apart was and is a part of God’s kingdom coming.

Good Friday, by no means, is a warm or particularly joyful holy day celebration in the Christian year. Yet Good Friday, like Ash Wednesday, is needful. It provides space for us to reflect. It provides space for us to draw so near to God‘s incredible grace and repent of our sin. It provides space for us to look death in the face and know – and proclaim – that Sunday is coming.

In his book Falling Upward Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “God adjusts to the vagaries and failures of the moment. This ability to adjust to human disorder and failure is named God’s providence or compassion” (56). God adjusts – not meaning that God bends to accept our bent to sinning – but meaning that God bends low to help us stand.

God meets us where we are – at the foot of the cross and high upon it. God meets us where we are, and through grace, draws us where God wants us to be.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayer: “Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered. For our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”* Amen.

*”Ah, Holy Jesus,” The United Methodist Hymnal 289.

The True Scope of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scriptures ~ Matthew 18:21-35 and Genesis 42:1-16.

This Sunday Andrew and I will pulpit swap for our 11 o’clock worship services. I will lead our Morningsong Service at 8:30am and offer a message entitled “The True Scope of Forgiveness”. I will then travel to Azalea Park UMC to preach their 11 o’clock service. Andrew will join the TUMC family for our 11 o’clock service and continue our Joseph Saga series with a message entitled “More Brothers, More Problems.” He is very much looking forward to worshiping with you.

(I will return to Tuskawilla by 12:30pm…my sources tell me there is some kind of celebration happening…*wink*)

During my senior year at Florida Southern College I registered for a cross-listed philosophy and political science course entitled “The Politics of Terrorism and Insurgency.” Impressive, right? On the first day of class our professor – who also had my mother as a student – clarified the focus for the course. He said, “This semester we will study proposed methods and applications of conflict resolution from philosophers and political scientists through the ages beginning with the Ancient Greeks and culminating in the present day. The course has the name it does because I was doubtful anyone would register for a class dully named “Methods and Applications of Conflict Resolution.”

He was probably right.

The first topic on the syllabus was a review of Hammurabi’s Code – the ruling religious, political, and philosophical thought in the Ancient World (and, in some contexts. still today). “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Sound familiar?

Hammurabi’s Code focuses on fairness. Its use created a “tit for tat” society and normalized “tit for tat” behavior as part of the human condition. Jesus’ intent was to normalize radical role reversals and counter-cultural behaviors into the human condition. This was his method for fulfilling both the Law and the prophets.

The Torah contains impressions of Hammurabi’s Code and Jesus quotes a number of those passages in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Mt 5:38-42).

Jesus does not promote retaliation in these verses – a significant counter-cultural and radical role reversal move! These words of Jesus become the foundation for our text for today.

While Hammurabi’s main focus was on fairness, Jesus’ main focus is on forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness brings separated, estranged, and embattled community members back to one another – so that what once was broken may be fixed, may be healed. The act of repeated forgiveness – seventy-seven times – over and over – holds communities together.

Temptation can lead to sin. Sin leads to separation – from God and from one another. Like a shepherd that seeks out a sheep gone astray, so we are to seek out those we are separated from because of sin. Jesus affirms, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt 18:14). Through forgiveness we are found. Through forgiveness we make our way home.

When did you last experience forgiveness – either giving or receiving? How did you find that experience? Needful? Extraneous? Powerful? Casual? What lessons has forgiveness taught you? How has forgiveness changed you into more of  a Kingdom resident than a resident of the world?

Prayer: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art – thou my best thought, by day or by night; waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”* Amen. 

*”Be Thou My Vision,” The United Methodist Hymnal 451.

Giving Up: Control

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11.

As I scrolled through social media this morning a fellow pastor and friend posted this as his status,

Lent is kind of annoying. Kind of like Jesus. 

At first I thought, “*name has been removed to protect the innocent*, did you really just write that!?” And then as the words washed over me, I realized…Lent is kind of annoying. Kind of like Jesus.

Lent is the season of the church year that is the antithesis of a spiritual warm fuzzy. Lent is not fuzzy; it is scratchy – scratchy like burlap, scratchy like sackcloth, scratchy like ash on my forehead.

If we choose to lean into Lent, then we choose to lean into our lack. We participate in the sort of self examination where the answer is always you have been found wanting. We look at our sin full on in the face, and in doing so, look deeply into our mortality.

“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me” (Ex 20:5) .

“For the wages of sin is death”(Rom 6:23a).

Ouch, Lent. Ouch.

I believe leaning into our lack presents us with two opportunities:

(A) We could become so consumed by our lack that it defeats us. We could throw our hands up in the air. We could roll our eyes at Jesus. We could question (could yell) “What is this life of faith even about? Why are you making me feel worse than I already am? See, I was right; you are just here to judge me!”

(How many of our friends that do not have a relationship with God or are hurting in their relationship with God share these words on a regular basis?)

OR

(B) We could see in our lack – and in recognizing our lack – that God is near. That God’s grace is abundant. That it is annoying to unlearn or change present behaviors so that we are transformed into God’s people who are on the path towards life rather than death.

God is not here to judge us. God is here to love us and to give to us – be for us – the example of holding one another accountable for our actions and behaviors so that we will be a people of life rather than a people of death.

If we continue reading in the two Scriptures quoted previously, see how grace is present in the next breath,

“For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:5-6).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). 

During the Season of Lent the Tuskawilla Family will study our way through a sermon series entitled Giving Up, which will encourage us to give up practices or learned behaviors not just for this season, but forever. Giving something up – a regular practice for some during Lent – can be annoying, but I encourage you, if you give something up, to see it as an opportunity to recognize the nearness of God and God’s grace to you in this time (and at all times!).

The life of a disciple is necessarily a life of change – of giving up and taking on, of leading and following, of serving where comfortable and serving beyond our comforts. In all of these environments, God perfects our faith, Jesus strengths our compassion, and the Holy Spirit feeds our appetites for further work in the Kingdom. Essential to this growth in the knowledge and love of our Triune God is recognizing the depth of our need for God’s incredible grace. The Season of Lent, then, is a unique opportunity for us to look into our lack – which can be oh so annoying – and find God’s grace – which is oh so abundant.

Prayer: “O God our deliverer, you led your people of old through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now the people of your church, that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.*”

*”Lent,” The United Methodist Hymnal 268.

On The Top Shelf

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 23:33-43.

This Sunday the Rev. Dr. Steve Harper will share a message entitled “On The Top Shelf” at both our Morningsong and 11am Worship Services.

I met Steve for the first time in my small group interview for membership as a provisional elder in the Florida Conference in January 2010. I was terrified walking into that small group room and Steve was a very kind face.

I remember him asking me about my definition of sin in my paperwork; I had defined sin as some kind of radical evil in the world. Steve wondered if I had an example of this kind of radical evil and so I shared a story about a conversation with the Senior Pastor I served with my last year of seminary. A person could stand on the front door step of the church, look across the field, and see the steeple of another United Methodist Church. I asked Jennie what our church’s relationship was with our neighbor church when a member walked up behind me and said, “We don’t have a relationship with them; that’s where the slaves worship.”

That was in the Fall of 2009.

2009.

I looked at Steve and said, “Sin is some kind of radical evil.” He nodded his head in agreement and my interview continued.

As Jesus hung on the cross, he looked into sin – some kind of radical evil – and gave his life so that we would live. Above him hung a cross that read “King of the Jews”. The Romans meant it as one more jab at our Savior, but Jesus’ friends and followers knew it to be true. Here, our humble King, is dying for you, for them, and for me.

Our King did not come as expected. Jesus did not have a grand entry into the world. He was born to an unwed mother and his earthly father was suspect of the whole situation. He was born in a borrowed cave surrounded by animals. He lived like a vagabond with no place to lay his head.

Jesus was encouraged by generous hospitality and lived not on bread alone but feasted on the word of God. He served, he sacrificed, and he saved.

Jesus revealed the presence of God’s Kingdom in the real world. The in-breaking of the Kingdom is not loud and overbearing; it was as soft as a baby’s cry and greets us like a kind face and an open hand. Our King did not and does not demand obedience; he invited and invites obedience. Jesus wants relationships not constituents under requirements.

Jesus is our King in a new Kingdom. Jesus is our King that looks in the face of sin and all radical evils and does not turn away. Jesus is our King that is leading us in ways where we will all be one – male and female, Jew and Gentile, black and white, slave and free.

It is true that Scripture speaks of a day where every knee will bow before Jesus and every tongue will confess his Lordship. And when I picture bowing before Jesus, I see him reaching for me with his arms, to raise me to my feet, and then embracing me to his chest. This is the King I know. This is the King I serve. This is the King that changed my life and I believe is changing the world. Because of his transformation in me, I offer myself to be used by him in the beautiful transformation of others.

I look forward to worshipping with you and learning from Steve this week. Thank you, Steve, for the gift of your leadership and sharing with the Tuskawilla Family. Thank you for the kind face and guiding presence you continue to be in my life.

Prayer: “Almighty God, who gave your Son Jesus Christ a realm where all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; make us loyal followers of our living Lord, that we may always hear his word, follow his teachings, and live in his Spirit; and hasten the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord; to your eternal glory. Amen.”*

*”For Reign of Christ,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 421.

From Wreck to Restoration: We Cry Out

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

Eustace is one of the main characters in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a sullen little boy that is critical of everything and landing on the Dawn Treader’s latest voyage was absolutely the last thing on his list of desires.

Actually, it was not on his list of desires at.all.

The longer the crew sailed, the more incorrigible Eustace became. His arrogance, self-centeredness, and anger worsened ten-fold.

One day the ship docked on an island and the crew set off to explore their surroundings. Eustace made his way into a cave and stumbled upon a great treasure! His greed was all consuming. He eagerly pulled valuables towards himself and stuffed whatever he could into his pockets. Finding a gold cuff he placed it on his arm, which initiated a chain reaction across his skin. His soft skin was transformed into scales, his bones lengthened and stretched, and horns replaced his hair.

Eustace transformed into a dragon.

At first he thought himself quite grand. People did not usually pay particular attention to Eustace unless he was causing an arrogant, self-centered, angry tantrum, but now everyone would pay attention to him! He would show them – all of the thems!

But the longer he sat, the more distraught Eustace became. Feelings of pride became feelings of panic and Eustace realized that he did not want to be a dragon. He was bound to the treasure he had taken that was not his. He had become the treasure’s captive and while everyone else could leave the island on the Dawn Treader, he would be left alone.

Try as he might Eustace could not change himself back into a boy. Eustace attempted to scape away his scales to only find layer after lay underneath. In hopelessness he cried out. In this, Eustace’s greatest moment of humility, Aslan appeared and peeled away Eustace’s dragon skin.

Remembering the encounter Eustace said,

I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…

He peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm.

And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…*

Only God could free Eustace from his scales, which were a visible prison built by his sin, and Aslan – Lewis’ God-figure, did just that. Eustace cried out to Aslan and Aslan saved him.

We are incapable of saving ourselves; only God can save. Try as we might to remove our sin on our own, we are incapable. We need God’s help.

When we cry out to God our God frees us and forgives us. When we cry out to God our sin is peeled away and our hearts are rendered tender. We might feel frail or weak, but in humbling ourselves before God to be forgiven and made new, what may look and feel like weakness is evidence of true strength.

At times we can feel captive to our sin in prisons of our own design. Find rest and receive comfort, dear friends, that our God is the God that has come, is coming, and will always come to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa 61:1 and Lk 4:18-19).

Thanks be to God.

Prayer: “Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness. Come, my Life, and revive me from death. Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds. Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins, kindling my heart with the flame of thy love. Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there. For thou alone art my King and my Lord. Amen.”**

*C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader 108-109.

**”An Invitation to Christ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 466.