The First Sunday in Advent

isaiah61

Isaiah 60:2-3

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

 Hebrews 11:1-3

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

We’re sticking with our tradition of starting Advent early, but the way the calendar falls this year, we’re just starting a week early.  So this is the first Sunday of Advent or Hope, the second Sunday of Advent or Christ the Way or Love will be next Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent or Peace will be on December 8th, and the fourth Sunday of Advent or Joy will be celebrated on December 15th.  We will celebrate Christmas Eve on Reading Day which is December 4th.  Is that confusing for anyone else?  We’re committed to celebrating the full season of Advent as we prepare our hearts for the coming of our Savior.

When I noticed the Christian radio stations starting to play Christmas music, I was indignant because I thought it was still mid-October.  I stopped and thought a minute before realizing it was the week before Thanksgiving.  So for some of you sticklers out there that don’t listen to any Christmas music pre-Thanksgiving, you would agree with my indignation.  But considering that the Charlotte and Columbia Christian radio stations would play Christmas music starting on Halloween, I’ll take the week before Thanksgiving any day.  Thank goodness that our Halloween decorations were Harvest-themed because we still haven’t taken them down.  Who knows when we’ll decorate for Advent/Christmas?  And the kids have already started asking.  We’re decorating here at Wesley during our leadership meeting next Sunday.  Better late than never.  We’re only going to be halfway through Advent at that point.

It’s hard to get into the spirit of Advent because we’re skipping over holidays and in the life of students this is definitely crunch time.   If I start running down my list of thing to do, buy, and parties to attend I’ll want to stay in bed and pull the covers up over my head and let this Advent/Christmas pass on by.  Speaking of getting prepared – tell me you haven’t heard of Brown Tuesday.  It ISN’T a thing.

(start at 1:24 and stop at 2:31)

Brown Thursday?  Where you get a jump on shopping for Christmas presents?  Or HDTV’s for yourself?  Note:  Four years ago, Mike and I decided to get up early on Black Friday for the specific purpose of buying a TV.  So I’m not hating or judging or pointing fingers.  Well, maybe I am, but I’m guilty too!

But what if we did things a little differently this year?  Give a goat for just $120 to Heifer International, dig a well for just $35 through Church World Service, or give to UMCOR for the typhoon in the Philippines or the communities recently hit by tornadoes in the Midwest, knowing that the money you give is going 100% to the victims of these natural disasters because United Methodist Churches all over the world give money to pay UMCOR’s administrative costs.  What if we do Advent differently?

Advent is one of my favorite times in the church calendar.  But this year, as I’ve spent all morning describing, I’m completely not ready for it.  It’s much more than just getting ready for Christmas and knowing how many shopping days you have left.  We have to pace ourselves.  Advent is the season that past and future collide in the present.  A time of already (as in Christ did come and is here) and not yet (Christ will come again).  The word Advent comes from the Latin verb advenire, which means “to come toward, to draw near, to approach.”  This is the time when we remember God’s drawing near to us in Jesus Christ in the past, in the present, and in the age to come.  Just like the Alpha and the Omega – the kingdom of God is the already and not yet – here amongst us, but also something that we long to come to completion.

I guess it’s that sense of expectation and hope that draws me in.  It’s a time of preparation, different from Lent, when there’s a sense of anticipated joy and hope not just from the ashes but at the end of a long journey.  Maybe those are similar in your minds but to me there’s a difference.  Take the Gators.  I know, I know.  In many ways it feels like you’re living a life of Lent.  From dust you came and to dust you will return and to witness the game yesterday was demoralizing.  But then there’s that sense of hope that comes with being a true fan.  The hope that we’ll have a better season next year.  Or maybe we’ll end the season on a high note?  Advent teaches us to expect the unexpected and nothing would be more unexpected than if the Gators beat the Noles next Saturday.  A brief commercial for the Gator Seminole Showdown….one way that we can beat the Seminoles on Saturday is if we win the pledge per point contest so go to www.gatorwesley.com/showdown.

No one expected the savior of the whole world to be born as a baby.  No one could foresee the Great God of the Universe coming in the form of the most vulnerable thing on earth – a baby.

Although we may be more comfortable with a “baby Jesus” because he’s cute and we can find some semblance of controlling him.  We may be more comfortable with Christmas Jesus versus Easter Jesus.  But if you’ve ever had children you know from the time that they enter the world they’re on their own schedule and you can expect the unexpected.

And no one knows “expectant waiting” like a pregnant woman.  I will never forget the first Sunday of Advent in 2008.  My mom, dad, grandmother, Josh, Caleb, and my sister-in-law Karen, and of course Enoch and Mike, had all come to our town house to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Because I was about to pop with Evy.  My due date was a month away, but Enoch had come a month early, so Thanksgiving happened at our house that year.  It was baby watch.  Have you ever heard the phrase, “a watched cake never bakes” or “a watched pot never boils.”  My grandmother, Ganny (I couldn’t say my r’s when I was little, so because I was the first grandchild they became Ganny and Gandaddy) kept asking me throughout the weekend if I was feeling anything.  If I was feeling anything like contractions.  I repeatedly told her I was not and could she leave me alone!

I was preaching that Sunday at St. John’s in Fort Mill, the next town over, where Mike did the music for the non-traditional service.  That was the first Sunday of Advent.  I have never forgotten how it felt to do the first Sunday of Advent as a pregnant person – the anticipation, the waiting , the expectancy, the perceived urgency…I don’t remember what exactly I said that day.  Who knows.  I blame it on pregnancy brain.  But as soon as I was done preaching and Mike and the band started playing the closing song, I began to have contractions.  I didn’t tell Mike or my Mom right away.  I needed some confirmation first.  As we got into the car a song I had never heard before was playing.

The song was “Jesus Born on This Day” by Avalon that was originally done by Mariah Carey.  It had just come out in November 2008.  That was just the confirmation I needed.  So we dropped Mom and a sleeping Enoch off back at our house with instructions to let the rest of the family know because they had been worshipping at Josh’s church.  And we drove back in the other direction for Charlotte calling the doctor on the way.  I’ll spare you the details, but as soon as the Carolina Panthers game was over, Mike and the doctor turned around and within two pushes Evangeline Grace Jeter made her way into the world at 4:30 in the afternoon.  Evangeline means “Good News or the bearer of Good News” and Grace is self-explanatory, but what a name to start the Advent season right, and we planned the name, before realizing how appropriate it would be.

Good news.  Good news of great joy.  Grace.  God with us.

This is Advent.  Not just a time of talking about dreams or what if’s or one day’s, but getting ready right now.  Putting yourself out there, right now.  Going for it, right now.  It’s easy in the consumerism and the narcissism and the pessimism to let the weight of the world fall heavy on our shoulders.  It’s hard in student land to get in the spirit of Advent as you feel the full weight of the semester with assignments, tests, papers, group projects, etc., with most of you exhausted, sick and ready to have a break and I’m not just talking about Thanksgiving when you’ll be doing school work in the midst, I’m talking about a nice, long Winter’s break.  It’s hard in the lives of teachers and parents trying to get through these last few weeks before Santa, Santa, Santa.  It’s hard for those who have lost loved ones, who have lost jobs, who have no idea where money is going to come for electricity much less gifts.  It is hard.

But Advent is so much more than just our personal worlds.  It’s the in-breaking of the kingdom of God as God Almighty, the Great God of the Universe, became One of us.  It’s the waiting not only for this child (the already) but for the Triumphant King (the not yet).  It’s the waiting for justice and righteousness and all of the beautiful words in Isaiah 9:6-7 “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

So in this season of Advent I’m doing my best to focus on the thanksgivings.  Which is ironic.  I’m doing my best to open my eyes and my heart to the unexpected all around me.  I’m trying to not let the to do lists or the gifts to still be gotten or the Christmas cards that probably won’t happen or the people that cut you off in traffic or the things that constantly go wrong in the midst throw me off track in centering my heart and being present to the journey towards the stable.

I am asking God to wipe away my cynicism and my weariness and to fill my heart with the joy and wonder and Christmas spirit that’s more than a cheesy Christmas song or tv movie, but that is life giving and life changing.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

As we enter into a season that often looks a lot more like Brown Thursday or Black Friday with the rush, bustle, mayhem, and angst than the arrival of our Savior into the world, may we remember, may we know, may we connect, may we take time to explore this Advent season anew and afresh.

May God open our eyes to some of our disconnect.  May we realize when we’re drawing from the Source or when we’re just running on fumes.  May we see and know and feel God’s rhythm in our bones as we go about our day to day resting in God’s love, strength, patience and wisdom and not our own will, arrogance, or seeming energy.

I am grateful for a God who loves me even when I’m spinning my wheels.  I am grateful for the Spirit who leads and guides and gives us the nudges and awakening when we need it.  I am grateful for the inspiration of Christ to show us how we are to live, bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

As we go forward with a different kind of Advent, may we hear the words anew and afresh from Matthew 5:16, “Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

I’ll leave you with Amy Grant’s “I Need a Silent Night.”  Reflect on how you want to start this Advent season.  Set some goals so as to not let the season pass you by.  May we do Advent a little bit differently this year.

– I Need a Silent Night by Amy Grant

The Invisible 12th

We’ve reached the end of our sermon series on Len Sweet’s 11 indispensable relationships that you can’t be without and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.  It’s certainly challenged me as I’ve prepared these sermons.  My prayer is that you can realize the profound impact your web of community has on your past, present and future and you can search out those relationships that will help you to grow stronger, speak truth over your life, or give you a good kick in the pants.  Nathan – your editor, Jonathan – your true friend, Jethro – your butt kicker, Barnabas – your encourager, and Deborah – your back coverer.  These relationships come in many different forms and it’s not supposed to be a checklist where you say, “Oh, I have a one of those – a Nathan, someone who both comforts and convicts me, so I don’t need another one.”  Although, I’m not sure you would want another Nathan.  Likewise, some of us seriously don’t have that many close friendships.  Introverts breathe a sigh of relief.  There’s nothing wrong with friends or colleagues or mentors playing multiple roles.  I’ve agreed with Sweet’s basic premise but I have to admit to taking some poetic license every once and a while.

So this chapter is called “The Invisible 12th:  You Need the Paraclete.”  Josh mentioned the paraclete in his sermon on Barnabas because part of its definition is encourager.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary simply defines paraclete as Holy Spirit.  Helpful, I know.  Paraclete comes from the Greek word that can signify “one who consoles or comforts, one who encourages or uplifts and/or who intercedes on our behalf as an advocate in court.”  In the Greek New Testament the word appears most prominently in the Gospel of John where it’s used as counselor, helper, encourager, advocate or comforter.  There are two examples I’ll use here, both in John 14.

JOHN 14:15-17 –

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be inyou.”

What words jump out at you?  Advocate, forever, Spirit of truth, abide, and the claim that the Holy Spirit is in us.

JOHN 14:25-27 –

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate,the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Sweet begins this chapter with these words, “Sometimes – Jethros fail.  Sometimes – Yodas are no-shows.  Sometimes – Jonathans turn into Judases.  Sometimes – Deborahs fall asleep.  Your VIP’s turn into duds.”  That’s when we have another promise, “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” [Ps 121:4]  God works the late shift.  God always has your back.  And every other part of your being as well.

Las Vegas statisticians set the spread of points between the winners and losers in football.  And all sports.  And they even had a bet when the royal baby would be due.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that big money flows in and out of Vegas for college football games.  This may be something you didn’t know, but they always give the home team a three point advantage just because they’re playing at home.  There’s nothing like the energy of the home crowd.  I had written this sermon prior to the game and what struck me was how many fans sat through to the bitter end.  “In all kinds of weather, we all stick together.”

Texas A&M might have first come up with the 12th man concept, but every team has EMBRACED it.  So I triple-checked with Mike before explaining this because I wanted to make sure I got it right.  The 12th man or 12th player is a term for the fans within a stadium during football games. As most football leagues allow a maximum of eleven players per team on the playing field at a time, referring to a team’s fans as the 12th man implies that they have a potentially helpful role in the game. The presence of fans can have a profound impact on how the teams perform and an element in the home advantage. Namely, the home team fans often create loud sounds or chants in hopes of distracting, demoralizing and confusing the opposing team while they have possession of the ball; or to persuade a referee to make a favorable decision. It’s like the commercial that says we’ll never know if somehow in some way we can affect the outcome of the game

 

or the Duke speedo guy that made North Carolina’s Jackie Manuel miss two free throws back in 2003

And little known fact, the speedo guy became a pastor.  We never know the affect the crowd, that 12th man on the field, will have.  That mysterious, invisible 12th is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit never fails to appear.

The Holy Spirit is more than a voice from the great beyond a la Obi Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker to trust in the force.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t get much fanfare or a theme song, unless you count the cacophony of voices that day on Pentecost.  “The Holy Spirit is our garment of protection, our armor of light, our spiritual bodyguard and our battle companion.”

My dad is bald.  There’s no other way to say it.  I have very few memories of him with hair.  He jokes, “They don’t put marble tops on cheap furniture,” but I’ve heard that joke tens of thousands of times.  So our family has an assortment of throw blankets or afgans or comforters, all throughout the house because my mom is hot-natured and my dad will be wrapped up in a blanket with a ski cap on top of his head and thick socks on his feet year round.  It’s ridiculous.  But now I do it too.  You’ll find me in the evenings with a blanket on year round.  I don’t know why I do it.  Maybe it’s the fact that I married someone warm blooded as well.  But there’s something comforting about it.

Do any of your churches back home knit prayer shawls?  I’ve gotten my fair share of them with both of my surgeries.  This is what Indian River City United Methodist Church in Titusville, Florida sent me.  With it was a card, and the card reads.  “Dear Lord, please bless this prayer shawl.  Please comfort the recipient and hold her close.  Let her know that the stitches of this shawl were made with loving hands to reach to her heart and bring her peace.  As this shawl lies close to her, let her feel the prayers and love that have been knit into it.  Let her know that, even in the middle of the darkest night, she is not alone.  Let her feel Your constant promise that, no matter what travail she must face, You are beside her.  Lord, may Your grace be upon this shawl, warming, comforting, enfolding, and embracing.  May this mantle be a safe haven…a sacred place of security and well-being, sustaining and embracing in good times, as well as difficult ones.  May the one receiving this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in Your love always.  In Jesus precious name, Amen.”

I think of the Holy Spirit in that way.  Wrapped around us tight, going with us into life’s conflicts protecting not only our backs, but also our sides, our fronts, our insides, our whole being!  Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.”  And these words from Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”  People on the front lines of battle, when you’re feeling attacked from all sides, and you’re fighting with your roommates, struggling in your classes, and don’t know what way is up or down – you need the Holy Spirit to intervene on your behalf.  In Romans 8:26-28 it says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”

The Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead.  God is 3 in 1 – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  God is our chief advocate, who makes a way when there’s none, who braces us for impact, who goes with us.  A group traveled to Anna’s dad’s and Kelly and Kenneth’s uncle’s funeral this past week.  His name was Scott Swygert and he lived life to the fullest, squeezing out every moment.  Countless stories were told by friends and family about his tremendous impact, so much so, it was clear that he exemplified all that it means to be a Christian.  Rev. David McEntire concluded the service by reading this passage of scripture.  Also from Romans, chapter 8:31-39, where it starts off with the question, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Not changes of majors, not knowing what we want to do when we grow up, not parent’s expectations, not a broken relationship, not a complete failure, not asking for a do over, not even Gator Wesley “drama.”  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  So if we truly believe that, how would we live our lives differently?   If we truly believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and in this ministry blowing where it will, igniting and enlivening, fanning the flame and equally putting out fires, how would we live our lives differently both as a community and individually?

We would take GRACE seriously.  Such a good Methodist answer.  And not just grace for ourselves, but for others.  In God’s prevenient grace, God draws us to God’s self.  God’s prevenient grace is available to all. And all means all.  In God’s justifying grace, we realize that this gift of Jesus sacrifice on the cross was for each of us.  It’s nothing we earned for good behavior.  It’s only through the grace of God.  In sanctifying grace, God does not leave us where we are, it’s a lifelong journey of growing and stretching and seeking to be more and more like Christ.  You may have noticed that I also mentioned grace for others.  Ie.  Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  If we always see ourselves as the exception to the rule or think that we have it all figured out, while we judge others’ commitments, looking down our noses at them in judgment – we DON’T take God’s grace seriously.  That’s not very grace-filled.  As Macklemore says, “Those words aren’t anointed.”

That’s the thing about the Holy Spirit, you can’t control, you can’t contain – because the Holy Spirit won’t be boxed in.  The Holy Spirit has the dual roles of being great sustainer and comforter, working to guide and lead us, as well as convicting us when we need it and often don’t want to hear it.

May the Spirit

Bless you with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and

Superficial relationships so that

You will live deep in your heart.

May the Spirit

Bless you with anger

At injustice and oppression,

And exploitation of people and the earth

So that you will work for Justice, equity and peace.

May the Spirit

Bless you with tears to shed

For those who suffer

So that you will

Reach out your hand

To comfort them.

And may the Spirit

Bless you with the foolishness

To think you can make a difference

In the world,

So you will do the things

Which others say cannot be done.

Amen.

Holy Spirit, please comfort us now, with your healing and perfect peace that transcends all understanding.  Holy Spirit, please work within our lives, giving us the tenacity to discern in our personal relationship with you.  Holy Spirit, we ask that you guide and lead us in all that we do, as individuals and as a community.  And you spread forth your love and grace, that all may see and know your truth, your power, your redeeming love.  We boldly pray all these things in your name and we join Christians all over the world with the prayer you taught us to pray saying,

Lydia and Lazarus – Are you a better giver or receiver???

We’re going to be looking at the Biblical characters of Lydia and Lazarus, but as we prepare our hearts and feet to be in action for National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, that Gator Wesley will be hosting, I thought I would begin with this video that shows the ever-widening divide between rich and poor.

These are some pretty eye-opening statistics.  But I invite you to not let the research/fact part of your brain take over urging you to gloss over the information downloaded.  As an African proverb says, “Statistics are numbers without tears.”  In other words, we can tune out or trick our brain into thinking that these are not real people.  Real struggle.  Real challenge.  Real hunger.

The actual title of this chapter is “Who Are Your VIPs?  You Need a Lydia and Lazarus, Rich and Poor.”  So the author of the book, Len Sweet, is setting up a dichotomy between Lydia, who represents the rich and Lazarus, who represents the poor.  I will read the passage where we meet Lydia for the first time.  It’s in the book of Acts, when the early church is first forming.

 

Acts 16:11-15

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Conversion of Lydia

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Lydia is found in the Bible only in two places both of which are in Acts.  When it says that she was a dealer in purple cloth that was a signal to readers that she was wealthy because purple cloth was expensive so it was a sign of nobility or royalty.  Her husband is not mentioned anywhere in the passage, but it says she and her household were baptized, which most likely would have included her children and servants.  She offered hospitality in her home to Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke.

Let’s flip to Lazarus.  First off, it’s not THAT Lazarus.  It’s the only parable that Jesus ever told where he gives the main character a name.  Lazarus is Hebrew for “God helps.”  He gives all of the characters names except for the rich man.

Luke 16:19-31

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

These texts have been playing in my head all week as I’ve prepared for this sermon and this is my main take away.  We often receive from people we would think or assume have nothing to offer us.  We often receive from people we would think or assume have nothing to offer us.  Is it easier for you to be the giver (like Lydia and her patronage providing for the ministry of the early church) or the receiver (like Lazarus who depended on the alms of passersby and who only had dogs to lick his wounds)?  We’ve all heard the saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  But, and I’m speaking for myself here, it is much more difficult for ME to receive.  I love giving gifts and being generous with my friends and family.  My default position is to be a giver and I rarely can wait for Christmas or a birthday to give gifts to those that I love.  Mike and the kids get Christmas or birthday presents all year long.  My love language is gift giving.  But something about receiving gifts makes me uncomfortable.  I know it sounds silly, but I care so much getting right the appropriate reaction to show my appreciation to the giver, that I often wait and open the gift or the card in private.  And that’s not fair to the giver.  I’m robbing them of the joy of giving by hiding out so they can’t see my actual receiving.  Have you ever noticed that when you take the love languages quiz that it only asks how you SHOW your love language?  But it doesn’t take into account how you want to BE loved?  Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, Physical Touch.  What’s your love language?  Is it easier for you to give than receive?

Jesus was a good receiver.  Have you noticed that he was never in the role of host and he was comfortable in that?  He was always the guest.  That convicts me.  Because it so hard to be placed on the side of invitee rather than the one doing the inviting.  It gives up a certain amount of control and makes you vulnerable.  In Atlanta this past week, we had the opportunity to hear Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most respected preachers of her generation, on the virtues that shape her preaching life.  She told us that research has shown the believability factor is central to you being considered a “good” preacher.  That was broken down to the visual factor, the vocal factor and the content.  The statistics may surprise you.  It did me.  The visual factor made up 55% of the votes, the vocal factor 38%, and the content of what you’re actually saying only made up 7%.  She posited that it had less to do with what the preacher says but how a preacher lives.  How the things match up, the authenticity, the integrity.  She gave us her three virtues:  reverence, courage, and self-forgetfulness.  She then challenged us to come up with our own virtues.  Mine was vulnerability.  And that surprised me.  That was the first thing that came to mind in this season of life.  I’m challenged to be vulnerable each Sunday and Wednesday as I preach, lead the communion liturgy, pray out loud, and give the benediction, because I don’t know if the words are going to come out or not and that has shaped who I am.  For those that don’t know I had brain surgery in May and I lost my ability to speak but it’s slowly coming back.  I’ve appreciated SO much the grace in which y’all’ve walked this journey with me.  I know if you asked me a year ago what my virtue would have been I would NOT have answered vulnerability.  Sometimes we need to be brought down low, to fully trust in and rely on God and the community around us.  Sometimes the “rich” need to get the fuller picture of what God has to offer them instead of relying on their own strength, their own wealth, or their own power.

We must remember the words of Mother Teresa in A Simple Path, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”  In many ways, the rich are spiritually more vulnerable than the poor because they’ve not HAD to rely on God.

Have you ever been on a mission trip where you thought you were going to serve “the poor people,” and you realized at the end of the trip that God had given you abundantly more through the people you were supposedly “serving” than you gave in return?  I’ve had countless experiences like that.  Through Salkehatchie, a work camp that we have back in South Caroling, on mission trips, in the summers I spent working at the Cooperative Ministry, a one-stop service center for the homeless that provided clothes, food, counseling, and cars to the needy.  I’m sure many of you can think of a similar time in your own faith journey.  If not, I would encourage you to go on our domestic spring break option or our international option.  It has the potential to be life changing.

But, the disparity in our world should not just be a thing that we do on a mission trip.  It’s building relationships that cross socio-economic barriers ALL THE TIME.  Sweet writes, “It’s one thing to have a heart for the poor.  It is another to use their bathroom.”  Let me repeat that.  “It’s one thing to have a heart for the poor.  It is another to use their bathroom.”   I couldn’t be blunter than that.   We should be in ministry WITH the poor.

We all come at the Communion table as one.  “In the early church, the agape feast followed by Communion (the Eucharist) was a “family reunion” where the rich and the poor shared food and fellowship together without regard to class distinctions and social status.”  And on this All Saints Sunday we remember those that have gone before, the communion of the saints, and gather with them at the table as well.  Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day – all are examples of saints who have gone on before but those whose lives we should emulate.  May we live out our faith in word and deed, may we be in ministry with not in ministry to, may we humble ourselves and in our vulnerability may God teach us and mold us and shape us to fully rely on God.