The Big Ask

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Proverbs 3:1-12.

Last Sunday I was out in the patch with our Little Orange Friends when the first family of visitors arrived. They headed to the far end of the patch – the children’s eyes on a on a not so little Little Orange Friend. I grabbed the Patch Visitor Stickers and headed their way.

The first sticker I offered to a little boy; he looked to be about four. He seized that sticker and proudly donned it on his shirt. The second sticker I offered to his sister; she looked to be about two-and-a-half. “Would you like a sticker for visiting the pumpkin patch today?” Her eyes met mine…and then…she slowly…edged…behind…her father’s…leg.

Mom and Dad tried to coax her out, but I affirmed her choice. “You do not know me. I am new to you. You made a good choice in sticking close to Mom and Dad.” Mom took her daughter’s sticker from me. As they left the patch I spied the sticker on the little girl’s collar.

I was a new person to that little girl and the enormity of what I was asking her was clear on her face. I was not asking her if she wanted a sticker. I asked her if she would trust me; the sticker was simply the evidence of our trust exchange.

Trust comes with time. Trust builds through relationship. Trust is learned and strengthened through our faith.

I find that on the whole I trust people easily and quickly because I hope for the best in people. I seek the best in people. And I encourage the best in people. “God did not give [me] a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (II Tim 1:7). God’s spirit of power humbles my pride. God’s spirit of love drives out suspicion. God’s spirit of self-discipline reminds me that I was made for relationship and I was sent to make of all disciples. Together God’s spirit of power, love, and self-discipline draws me to acts and feelings of compassion towards all people. This is the work of the Kingdom – to fuel the trust that is foundational to our faith – and living out our faith! – rather than fuel anxiety and fear.

And my friends, the Kingdom has had to wait long enough.

I will be joined in worship leadership at both Morningsong and 11 o’clock Worship this week by Bob Spitzer, TUMC’s Finance Chairperson. Together we will share about the vision for Tuskawilla UMC’s stewardship in 2019. I am grateful for Bob’s leadership and for the faith-filled message he will share on Sunday.

Prayer: “Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring thy final harvest home; gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin, there, forever purified, in thy presence to abide; come, with all thine angels, come, raise the glorious harvest home.”* Amen.

*”Come, Ye Thankful People Come,” The United Methodist Hymnal 694.

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Mountain Meditation: Kingdom Blessings

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:1-12.

In times of great transition I find that it is not the best choice for me to consider the big picture. While the big picture is important, it is also quite overwhelming. Often I am energized by the abundance of tasks to be completed, but when I feel like my feet are on shifting sand, which usually follows the reminder that I am not actually in control, my energy drains faster than a white chocolate mocha out of my husband’s coffee cup.

And that, friends, is fast!

So rather than focus on the big picture and feel so daunted that I cannot accomplish anything, I choose to focus on the immediate next. What is the next immediate task for me to accomplish? And then once I do that, what follows? It could be a snack break; when I am stressed I forget to eat! It could be sending a quick message of encouragement or reading one sent to me. It could be – and maybe should be! – finding another two-by-two area of wood on my desk. Whatever my immediate next, this truth endures: small acts grow into tasks. Tasks grow into accomplishments. Accomplishments piece together the big picture.

And once the big picture is present, God invites us to look beyond that big picture and start the process all over again.

I have paused quite frequently this week to ask God to help me identify my immediate next. As I have studied the Beatitudes I feel my immediate next is peace. God is calling me to be peace as the prelude to any further activity, be it a conversation, compilation, or complication.

In an article he wrote for The Huffington Post, Eric Simpson says, “The Beatitudes teach us how to be peace not just be at peace, but to become peace so that peace can spread, and that peace can come from being rooted both in the life of God and in the physical world.” When I feel restless, anxious, worried, or out of control, being at peace is the furthest act from my mind. Being peace, however, helps calm my mind and my heart. Through peacefully approaching my immediate next – with a clear heart and mind; with encouragement from my God, family and friends; with the confidence that yes, there are trials in this life, but joy comes in the morning – I am able to accomplish whatever is before me as well as join God in nurturing peace in the world.

What is my immediate next? To trust that God knows what is coming. Right now I see glimpses of the big picture, but our God has the entire horizon in his view; God has the whole world in his hands. So with trust I walk forward to my immediate next – for myself and for our congregation.

Prayer: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”* Amen.

*”Blessed Assurance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 369.

Longing For Spring: Our Stories

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 11:27-12:4

In our text for this week we first hear of the covenant God makes with Abram. God promises Abram property and progeny – all the land he can see and more children than the stars he can count. God makes this promise and God delivers.

We like to see the delivery or fruit of promises. What we are told awaits us is even sweeter when it is in our grasp. The great fulfilled promise of the Easter season is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, there are times when the promises are standing right in front of us and we still doubt. Our belief still waivers. Consider Thomas. The Fourth Gospel writes,

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’” (Jn 20:24-29).

To trust God’s promises seems to require so much faith…and yet Jesus tells us that with the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains.

A most holy time offered in each of our healing services at TUMC is the time when folks are invited forward for prayers and anointing. I am so humbled by the persons that come forward for prayer. I so admire their courage to share their personal requests with me. There was a common theme through many of the requests I heard. I heard requests for relief from grief, sorrow, and pain, but what really caught my attention were the requests for the strengthening of faith.

“Help me to be the kind of Christian that would make my parent proud of me.”

“Help me to hand hardships over to God and not pick them back up again.”

“Help me to trust. Help me to believe.”

Help my faith so I may fully receive God’s promises and recognize the ones that are already in my life.

I grew up singing “Standing on the Promises” – a hymn about how God’s support never falters. And that’s the funny thing about support – about foundations – most of the time we do not see them, but we trust they are there. Just for a moment feel your body supported by your feet or the chair on which you are sitting. Now become aware of the floor supporting your feet or the chair. Now become aware of the earth supporting the floor. And finally become aware that it is our God who is supporting it all.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God created all that was, is, and ever will be. God supports it all. God supports us. From the beginning of time God made this promise. This promise is blooming everywhere we turn. We do not have to doubt, and God still loves us when we do. I believe as our trust and faith grow so does our recognition of God’s promises in our lives – promises we have been longing to receive for what seems like eons and other promises we did not know we needed but are so thankful to have.

Our God is so good. God’s promises are good. And because of our God and God’s promises, we are good.

Prayer: “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God. Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior; standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”* Amen.

*”Standing on the Promises,” The United Methodist Hymnal 374.

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.

The Gospel According to Showtunes: Freak Flag

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Jeremiah 1:4-10

This passage of Scripture shares the call of the prophet Jeremiah.  God calls Jeremiah to live a life set apart  and to lead God’s people through proclamation, guidance, and accountability.  Jeremiah resisted, but God convinced him, and Jeremiah lived his life in the service of his Lord.

As I read Jeremiah’s call story, I am drawn to the memory of my own.  I have known since the age of 11 that God called me – and calls me still – to live a life set apart and to lead God’s people through proclamation, guidance, and accountability.  I cannot recall any moments where I resisted in the manner of Jeremiah, but that does not mean that I have not faced my share of hardships…and it does not mean that I do not continue to face hardships.  I receive criticisms on my age and my gender.  My intellect and work ethic are questioned.  I am looked down upon and it is God who helps me keep on standing when my knees buckle.

Some folks think that only ministers, pastors, and priests are called by God.  Not true.  So not true.  We all participate in the ministry of all believers, which means we are all called and set apart by God to do a specific task or many specific tasks in the Kingdom.  Some flavors of set apartness lead persons into lives of ordained clergy and other flavors of set apartness lead persons into lives of awesome servant leadership without having a formal title in the church.

But wait…we all bear a formal title.  Actually we have several formal titles from God.

Child of God.  Disciple.  Beloved.

All of these calls – clergy / laity / children of God / disciples / beloved – are worthy and honorable and necessary in the Kingdom.

We can try to offer excuses to God as to why we are not fit to serve or worthy of God’s call, but if we gaze into our Scripture passage for this week we learn that God has an answer to each of our objections.  We could follow in the footsteps of Jonah and flee from God’s call with an excursion on our own, but I know I would rather follow God’s will – no matter how trying it may seem to me – smelling fresh and clean than smelling like l’eau de poisson.

How awesome it is that our mighty and powerful God, who could and is able to do all the work and service needed in this world, is so generous in inviting us to join the work?  When we call on God, we want an answer…and that’s a two way street, my friends.  When God calls on us we should not send God to voicemail or hit “ignore” or receive the message and never respond.  God calls and God wants an answer.  The unknown of that call – the where will I be sent, what will I be asked to do, how will I make this work, why did God pick me – will be answered in time.  Our initial and quick answer to God’s call should be in trust and in faith.

“I am with you to deliver you,” God said to Jeremiah.

God affirms those words to us as well.

And we should say, “Here I am, send me.”

Prayer: “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God.  Standing on the promises I cannot fall, listening every moment to the Spirit’s call, resting in my Savior as my all in all, standing on the promises of God.  Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior; standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”* Amen.

*”Standing on the Promises,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 374.

 

Marinate: Among the Thorns

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 13:7, 22

Yesterday I had the opportunity to gather with a small group of fellow clergy in the Orlando area to discern and brainstorm and craft liturgy for some of our Annual Conference worship services.

(For folks reading this that are not familiar with Annual Conference – it is the annual gathering of United Methodist clergy and lay persons across the Florida Conference, which spans from Key West to the time change line west of Tallahassee, to do the work of the church.  We have plenary business and voting sessions that are punctuated, enhanced, grounded, interpreted, and appreciated through the worship services that precede and follow them.)

Our over-arching desire yesterday was to have the liturgy truly be the work of the people.  Often in liturgy the leader or the one provides a bulk of the speaking and naming of what we are celebrating or offering petitions for while the people or the all have brief admissions.  We want to flip that as much as we can – so the people – the all – have a greater presence in leading the liturgy.

Once we established this structure our focus shifted to the subjects of the liturgy.  Quite simply, we ain’t finished yet.  (Pretty confident we will refrain from using the word ain’t in the liturgy, but I find it fitting presently.)  As Christians, as United Methodists, we are constantly becoming.  As John Wesley would say, we are going onto perfection.  We are not there yet.  We are unfinished.  We are imperfect.  But through God’s grace, leading, and provision each day we are working out our salvation to reclaim the image of God in which we were created.

We paused to draw images into our mind that illustrate our unfinished state:

  • Hunger
  • Poverty
  • Access to quality healthcare and education
  • Struggles with conflict resolution and peace making
  • Judgment, prejudice, and hate
  • Premeditated acts of evil instead of intentional acts of kindness

Our meeting dismissed with each of the team member’s receiving our writing assignments and setting dates of when we would regather.

Our meeting dismissed an hour before the bombs exploded at and near the Boston Marathon finish line.

I drove home to check on one of my four-legged-children that did not have a very good weekend – she ate something she should not have eaten! – and shortly thereafter received a call from a friend of mine asking if I had heard from another friend who was attending the Boston Marathon as the cheerleading section for a runner.  I said no…and immediately my heart sank.  What had happened?  Bombings, he said.

Like a moth to the flame I watched the news coverage from afternoon till late night.  I waited anxiously to hear from my friend Sarah.  She texted around 11pm that she was home and all in her party were safe.  She was shaken but okay.

I give God incredible thanks for her protection and cry out in raging anguish for those who were injured and lost their lives in this senseless act of violence.  I have the utmost respect for the first responders and runners that headed into rather than away from the smoke.  God bless you and keep you always.

It is sadly ironic that hours before the liturgy team was brainstorming specific examples of where we, as an unfinished people, are still in need of God’s grace…and this horrific example came barreling towards us…

My God, we are unfinished.  When will we as a species acknowledge the unfinished-ness and brokenness and instead of amplifying it act in such a way to heal it?  When will we say “NO!” to the bombings and massacres and violence and hate?  When will we truly come alongside the persons who think and scheme and enact these horrors so that they can be healed, we can be healed, and then these evils won’t happen again?  When will the systemic evil be transformed?

My God, I confess to you that I am in the thorns this week.  I am struggling to grow in faith and trust of your word alongside tragic events that seek to choke out my joy.  Lord I recognize that the thorns must grow up alongside healthy seeds because if we remove one we will surely damage the other.  I am unsatisfied with this reality because it appears that the thorns are winning.  With each act of violence and hate and apathy to change or heal the first two, it seems like the thorns are the victor.  In these dark and thorny spaces, God of goodness and God of light, assure me that though sorrow may last for the night joy comes in the morning.  Your joy is coming.  Your goodness will prevail.  Strengthen me to be an instrument of your will and a bringer of your peace.  Deliver me – deliver us – from the thorns.

Prayer: “Can you hear the voice of the children softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?  Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate, blood of the innocent on their hands. Crying Jesus, ‘Help me to feel the sun again upon my face? For when darkness clears, I know you’re near, bringing peace again.'”* Merciful God, hear this the prayer of the children and the agonizing confession that we have failed…as evidenced by our offering this prayer yet again. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Bring your peace. Amen.

*from The Prayer of the Children by Kurt Bestor

Marinate: On the Path

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 13:1-4, 18-19

At Reeves we begin a new sermon series this week entitled Marinate.  In this series we will dually marinate on the spiritual discipline of meditation through reflections offered by the great 20th Century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer as we marinate on the same passage of Scripture for four consecutive Sundays.

This is one item on my #sermonizerbucketlist – to preach four consecutive Sundays on the same text.  This round is with the Parable of the Sower.  The PotS lends itself to “four scenes” if you will – so we will marinate on a different scene each week.

The other variation of this item on my #sermonizerbucketlist is to preach four consecutive Sundays on the same text to show a variety of exegetical methodologies that can yield a variety of sermons without going the “scene” route.

I know I know…I’m a nerd…but I think I’m a pretty #awesomenerd.

Now…to the text.

As I marinate on this text I definitely resonate with the experience of having the evil one come in and mar God’s truth that is planted in my heart.  My greatest resonance is with doubt, which may sound surprising because of my vocation…

But doubt is present – not ever-present – but present.  And when that doubt takes hold, it snatches all the good growth of God’s truth in my heart.

There is blessing amid the snatching.  The blessing is that a remnant remains – a faithful remnant at that – a true testament to God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The growth may be gone, but I believe the seed remains.  

I do not believe that the evil one or temptation or sin is able to take away what God gives because the evil one, temptation, and sin are not of God.  They are derivative; they are a privation.  They cause darkness – but darkness cannot drive out light – most especially the light that God’s truth is for us.

There’s a story told about a conversation shared between John Wesley and his Moravian mentor, Peter Böhler.  Wesley continually struggled with having faith and then doubting – how would he manage?  And Böhler turned to him and said, “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it, preach faith.”

So what’s the answer to doubt?  I believe trusting.

And how do we cultivate trust?  I believe by growing in our faith.

And how do we grow in our faith?  I believe by immersing ourselves in the study of God’s word and the worship of our Savior.

In other words…we marinate.

Reflection: How have you experienced God’s truths being snatched from your heart?  Can you identify the snatcher(s).  How can you guard your heart from the snatcher(s) in the future?

Prayer: God says to us, “My child, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forwards, and your gaze be straight before you.  Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”*  Help us hear you, O God.  Guide us.  Guard us.  Amen.

*Proverbs 4:20-27