Vision 20/20 Church: Ephesus

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Revelation 2:1-7.

Devotion Focus ~ Matthew 16:17-19.

South Shore’s opening sermon series for the New Year is “Vision 20/20 Church.” For the next seven weeks we will study The Seven Letters to Seven Churches found in Revelation. We will learn from their experiences and practices of church as we attend to the work of reframing and refining our experiences and practices of church.

Through this sermon series, the invitation before us – which is both important and timely! – is to

  1. Look at our practices of church through the eyes of Christ
  2. Process what we observe through the mind of Christ, so that
  3. We will see the vision God is revealing for our church.

Each week of our “Vision 20/20 Church” Series, I will share a devotion focus that lifts up both a Scripture text and a learning from The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which is our book of church governance and order. This book organizes and guides the service we provide as the people called Methodist in the Body of Christ.

In these verses from Matthew 16, Jesus tells Peter that on his shoulders, his name, his legacy, Christ’s church will be built. Wow! What a tall order. And Jesus shares this news with Peter at Caesarea Philippi, which still stands today, as one of the most monolithic sites of pagan worship in the world. Before this towering rock face – complete with idols and statues to foreign gods and even what those in Biblical Israel considered the very mouth of the underworld – Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ – not any of the present idols, but Jesus! – and Jesus confesses Peter as the bedrock of the church – the church which continues in and through us today.

This is one of Peter’s shining moments…but we know that not all his moments were shining. Peter walked with Jesus; he also walked away from Jesus. Peter defended Jesus; he also denied Jesus. Peter pledged his love and fidelity to Jesus and his mission; still, there were moments where his heart, spirit, and faithfulness waivered. Even so, on him and others like him, the church was and is built.

I take courage from the witness of Peter. The church is not made up of perfect people. Neither does the church demand perfection. The church welcomes people that share a desire to be a new creation, to be students and followers of Jesus – which is the definition of a disciple! By being a new creation, by following the teachings of Jesus, by pursuing the heart of his mission in the world, we are transformed. And when we are transformed, we believe that the world is transformed.

God told the Apostle Paul that God’s power is made perfect through weakness (II Cor 12:9a). Our imperfections could definitely be understood as weakness; they can also be understood as a way for God’s power to be displayed through us. When we overcome a weakness, surpass a shortcoming, and especially celebrate forgiveness of sin, let us first and foremost point to and give glory to God for the work God has done and is doing in us, through us, and because of us. This is why Paul said, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (II Cor 12:9b-10). Paul shares this good word in the context of the church at Corinth, which Scripture tells us was made up of a people far from perfect. And yet they gathered together in order to learn and to become more Christ-like. From this and other New Testament witnesses The United Methodist Church draws our learning that the “local church [and extension ministries of the local church] are the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs” (¶120 BOD 2016). It is in the local church that strength is made perfect in weakness and the imperfect is drawn towards perfection through the power of God in Jesus Christ.

At South Shore UMC we worship. We fellowship. We disciple. And I truly believe that each of these, our practices, will be further strengthened in their presence and witness when we align them in response to fulfilling a need in the Kingdom:

  • When we align them in response to bridging a gap in our community
  • When we align them in response to something that breaks God’s heart breaking our own hearts.

I am hopeful for this work of visioning for South Shore UMC in 2020. It will be the result of our church family praying, listening, serving, and seeing together. And we can do this work. Everything we need to do this work we already have. And best of all, friends, God is with us.

God is with us. Emmanuel.

 Prayer: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu, alleluia!”* Amen.

*“Seek Ye First,” The United Methodist Hymnal 405.

Commanded to Love: With All Our Strength

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 12:30 and I Peter 4:11

Andrew knows a thing or two about strength. For more than half his life Andrew has been invested in competitive weightlifting. He was a high school state champion weightlifter. He lifted in college and again in seminary, competing frequently with athletes across the southeastern United States. He continues training and weightlifting at a local crossfit box with the hopes of one day competing at the Olympics. I believe that Andrew can do it. If I know anything about my partner of 14 years and spouse of 8 years it is that if he puts his mind to something, he can make the thought reality.

Through experiencing life with Andrew I have learned a thing or two about strength as well. The most striking lesson seems a bit counterintuitive: a person builds strength by tearing muscle. The intent is not to rip the muscle sinew from sinew, but to create space within the muscle for further development and further endurance. By stretching, training, testing, and stabilizing, muscles are strengthened, which allows them to perform at a higher level of efficiency for a greater period of time for an increased return on what they seek to accomplish.

I believe our spiritual strength is built up through a similar process. We may not submit ourselves to bench presses or back squats to build up our spiritual muscles, but there are days where it feels like life’s crushing loads are on our chests or that the weight of the world rests on our shoulders. We struggle to stand up. We struggle to move forward. We are strained and pulled and under duress. We tear, but we do not break.

In the midst of these struggles, space is created – spaces of doubt, spaces of fear, spaces of loss, spaces of regret. In that space our faith wavers and wanders. In that space God meets us in love and assurance. In that space God invites us to trust where we have not seen so that we will grow to be people “who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). In that space God turns our mourning into dancing, removes our sackcloths and clothes us with joy so that our souls will praise our God and not be silent (Ps 30:11-12). In that space we are stretched, trained, tested, and stabilized. In that space God strengthens us so that we that in everything we do – including how we persevere in times of trial – God may be glorified.

It is hard work to build up strength. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes a willing and humble spirit to first admit that you have the capacity to grow and that there is more work to be done. Then you have to submit yourself to the work, which some days will be easy as a summer’s breeze and other days as grueling as swimming through concrete. Building up this strength helps us endure and overcome life’s struggles, not to our own glory, but to be evidence of God’s glory. Like the Corinthians, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” because God is the source of our strength (II Cor 4:8-9).

God’s strength is in our muscles, our beings, our bones. God furnishes strength in trials so that in triumphs we know who to praise. To the God of perfect strength be all the glory now and forevermore.

Prayer: “Out of the depths I cry to you; O Lord, now hear me calling. Incline your ear to my distress in spite of my rebelling. Do not regard my sinful deeds. Send me the grace my spirit needs; without it I am nothing. All things you send are full of grace; you crown our lives with favor. All our good works are done in vain without our Lord and Savior. We praise the God who gives us faith and saves us from the grip of death; our lives are in God’s keeping.”* Amen.

*”Out of the Depths I Cry to You,” The United Methodist Church, 515.

God’s Balance Sheet: Lessons in Stewardship ~ Cultivating a Life of Contentment

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Philippians 4:10-13

(tangent…the spelling of Philippians always catches me…I think it should have more l’s.  Alas, it does not.)

When pondering contentment I am reminded of a scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It is after Christmas and Harry is wandering and wondering about the Hogwarts Castle under the shield of his invisibility cloak.  One night he is fleeing from Filch and Snape (that’s Professor Snape, Sarah) and he ducks into a room that is home to the Mirror of Erised.

The Mirror of Erised bears magical powers.  It shows the viewer the very desires of his or her heart – and if the desires are of pure intentions – the mirror will reveal what will lead the viewer to ultimate contentment.

Harry gazes in and sees his parents – parents he has never known.

Ron gazes in and sees that he is head boy and Quidditch captain, too!

Professor Dumbledore told Harry if he were to look into the mirror he would see a very warm pair of wool socks.

(I never quite understood this…been looking for connections in the book…any HP experts care to help a sister out?!)

Maybe what Dumbledore was trying to convey by saying he would see himself with a warm pair of wool socks was that he didn’t need very much – or very material things – in order to be content.  He didn’t need stuff upon stuff upon more stuff.  He didn’t need wealth, power, or influence.  Perhaps this is a nod to how close to contentment the wise old professor already was…
If you had access to such a mirror and stood before it, what would it reveal on your path to contentment?
  • Lots of stuff?
  • A person?
  • An ideology?
  • Faith?

And when you stand before that mirror to see the desires of your heart, are they pure desires?  Desires becoming of the teachings of the gospel?  Or desires of the world that are clouding your heart and mind?

In this week’s Scripture passage Paul encourages the Philippians (and us!) to find and secure our contentment in our faith in Christ.  In our faith in Christ we will discover a strength that will not falter and will guard us from the temptations of materialism and over-consumption.  In our faith in Christ we find strength and found our identity, not in worldly things that will break or tarnish or pass away or fail, but in he who is perfect and eternal.

When I look in that mirror…I want to see Christ.  When you look in the mirror what do you want to see?

Reflection: What have you seen in your mirror?  Did it fill you or fail you?  What has led you towards contentment?  What has led you towards what you thought was contentment but did not truly fill your emptiness?  How will strengthening yourself in Christ strengthen your contentment?

Prayer: Most gracious God, I want to find contentment in you.  I want to look into the mirror and see you.  I want my identity to be in Christ, not in stuff.  Forgive me, Lord, when stuff has kept me from you – whether it be the physical stuff or the pursuit of it.  Strengthen me to pursue you and only you.  I want to see you.  Amen.