Posted in calling, Choices, Jesus, Spirit

The Decision (Sermon on January 24th)

I hate making decisions about what restaurants to go to or what show or movie to watch.  How much time is wasted by debating over where to eat lunch or what to do today?  We have to make some decisions.  Decisions are especially layered in the pandemic.  When it comes to the simple things, I just don’t want to make another decision.

Mark 1-14

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Maybe they were bored.  Blahsday – every day the same – maybe Simon and Andrew or James and John were tired of just going through the motions…the text doesn’t say they asked any questions or offer any clues. They made a choice to follow Jesus.

Remember Luke Skywalker in New Hope making the decision whether to stay where it was familiar or go on the big adventure. The hero always looks back to what was. Anyone that stands on the precipice of change has that gut check moment.  That first step of the adventure is always hesitant and wistful because you’re leaving the safety of the known and stepping into the unknown of the future.  They dropped their nets and followed.  They made the decision not to be “rearview mirror” people, but “windshield” people.  They’re not constantly looking back, they are fully present on the journey to where Jesus would lead them.

There must have been a million little choices along the way – opportunities to say yes – these eventual twelve men – looking at Jesus, learning to listen, and following what he was teaching them.

We all have a choice – whether to follow Jesus or not?

Amy Grant back in the day in 1982 on her Age to Age album wrote this song that came back to me with the clarity of a child.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

There’s a wealth of things that I profess,

I said that I believed,

But deep inside I never changed;

I guess I’d been deceived.

’cause a voice inside kept telling me,

That I’d change by and by,

But the spirit made it clear to me,

That kind of life’s a lie.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

So forget the game of being good,

And your self-righteous pain.

’cause the only good inside your heart

Is the good that Jesus brings.

And when the world begins to see you change,

Don’t expect them to applaud.

Just keep your eyes on him and tell yourself,

I’ve become the work of God.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

We leave it to the Lord.

If we make the choice to follow Jesus, we have to leave it to the Lord.

  • The Pharisees forgot Who they were following the rules for.  Who were they really honoring?  The Lord?  Or did they want to impress their fellow Pharisees or Saducees with their dedication to the law?
  • The disciples were regular Joe’s.  They were working, going about their day, when Jesus shows up and asks them a question.  They probably knew the stringent practices of Pharisees and the Saduccees, but they were the “regular” people.  The overlooked, working stiffs.
  • So their came to be a great divide between the pious religious folk and Jane Doe’s.

Jesus seeks to ask all of us, will you come follow?

We all have things to give up or to gain, when we follow Jesus

Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Of course, we say, we would choose light over darkness…but the little things, the little choices add up.  The choices we make every second of every day are cumulative. 

We all have a decision to make….to saddle up our horses or keep living in complacency and apathy on the one hand, or thinking that we’re better than everyone on the other.

I’ll tell you a story, that may be an extreme example, but it points to our choices and the effects of those choices.

About 150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales, England. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England and Germany to North-East India to spread the Gospel.  At the time, north-east India was not divided into many states as it is today. The region was known as Assam and comprised hundreds of tribes…Naturally, they were not welcomed. One Welsh missionary succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. He and his family choose to follow Jesus.  This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity. Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man instantly composed a song which became famous down the years. He said:

“I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”

But the man replied:

“Though no one joins me, still I will follow.”

The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be arrowed down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”  In the face of death the man said the final memorable lines:

“The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.”

He was shot dead like the rest of his family. But with their deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. He wondered, “Why should this man, his wife and two children die for a Man who lived in a far-away land on another continent some 2,000 years ago? There must be some remarkable power behind the family’s faith, and I too want to taste that faith.”

In a spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

The song is based on the last words of Nokseng, a man from Garo tribe of Assam (now Meghalaya and some in Assam), India. It is today the song of the Garo people.

(Dr. P.P. Job and Indian preacher in his book “Why God Why”)

The Welsh missionaries had a choice, the man and his family had a choice, and the chief had a choice.  We all have a choice.  “Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  So what’s your choice?

 “I Have Decided” (The Faith We Sing, #2129)

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus –

no turning back, no turning back.

Posted in Breath Prayer, Hymn, Jesus, Prayer, Surrounded, together

Surrounded by a Mighty Fortress (Friday Devotion January 22)

We recorded Michael W. Smith’s “Waymaker” on May 22, 2020.  The pandemic had gone past Easter and the kids had mostly finished up with online school, we had no idea that it would last this long.  We were frankly flipping through the channels on a Friday night and stumbled upon it.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Smitty with his singing and piano playing, and I’ll never forget hearing “I’ll Lead You Home” from Disney’s Magic Kingdom at a Night of Joy concert.  That song was crucial to bringing me back to a relationship with Jesus.  The Waymaker special featured a song called “Surrounded” that he covered in 2018.  Originally a spontaneous moment of declaration and praise, “Surrounded” is written by Elyssa Smith of Upper Room Music.

Smith wrote at the time, “The thought of doing another live worship project has been something I have processed for a while now. The question I have asked myself most is not so much what do I want to do, but what do I need to do. What do WE need to do as God’s church and as God’s children? What expression of worship does God desire from us… have we missed something? The reality is, it is not the style of our expression God is concerned with, it is the heart. God wants our honesty. God wants our vulnerability. God wants us to come to God as we are, not as we want to be. I feel God moving through God’s church and God is calling us TOGETHER…. to be one voice and one heart. One bride. Every nation, every tribe, and every tongue. Every social class. Every denomination. Let’s get together and rejoice! In what God has done, what God is doing, and what God has yet to do.”

The lyrics are really simple, like a breath prayer.  

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

And, most importantly, WE are not doing the FIGHTING.  The Triune God is the one.  God is the one who beats our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.  

Our Psalter for this Sunday’s lectionary is from Psalm 62:5-8.  It reads, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.  Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by Martin Luther between 1527 and 1529 and has been translated into English at least 77 times.  He wrote the words as a paraphrase of Psalm 46.

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood

of mortal ills prevailing.

For still our ancient foe

doth seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great,

and armed with cruel hate,

on earth is not his equal.

That word above all earthly powers,

no thanks to them, abideth;

the Spirit and the gifts are ours,

thru him who with us sideth.

Let goods and kindred go,

this mortal life also;

the body they may kill;

God’s truth abideth still;

his kingdom is forever.

We remain secure in the truth we know God with Us, our Emmanuel is WHO we go to, when we feel betrayed, burdened and battered.  When we feel helpless or hopeless, we trust in the strong name of the Lord.

 Hear now this prayer of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Posted in Authority, Autopilot, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Mark, Sermons, sin, worry

What have you to do with us?

In our text today, we see Jesus preaching in the temple with authority.  He doesn’t have authority because he outranks the people like in the military, nor does he have authority because he’s the boss of people.  Jesus was a carpenter. He had no positional authority in the community. His authority came from his wisdom and knowledge and his competence at interpreting God’s Word. Even as a boy Jesus wowed people with his wisdom and his grasp of scripture.  The people in Capernaum could not possibly have known that his authority came from God.   All they knew is that they had never heard an individual teach like Jesus taught.

I’ve always imagined Jesus as one of those people whom you might not see enter the room.  He doesn’t seem like one who would ever make a grand entrance. But before long you would feel His presence. You might not even be aware of it at first because it was something subtle. But pretty soon you’d find yourself drawn to Him, like everyone else. Why? Because His words rang true. His words sprang from the heart and they resonated with power and authenticity. It was as if He had a direct line to God. And that’s what amazed His listeners.  There were no gimmicky tricks or false promises to get folks to open up their wallets to support His ministry. There was no phony manipulation. Jesus was truly concerned about everyone who came to hear Him. Jesus wanted them to understand, to know, to learn about God’s love and forgiveness and this is why this passage is so important.  Jesus has authority over everything and if we give Jesus authority over our lives then he will make us clean.

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

We’ve all faced the challenges of 2020 and its dragging into 2021.  How are we to respond in the face of so much mess?  So much in this world we can’t control.  From the tensions of our politics to loneliness and isolation.  We turn to Jesus.  He has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  He has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easily fall into.  And most of all Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.  The demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  And we confidently and boldly answer EVERYTHING. 

We give authority to Jesus, the Lord of our lives.

First, Jesus has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  I don’t know about you but I’m generally a positive, glass half full person.  I seek joy.  It’s been hard, y’all.  It’s like we’re horses that used to be free to roam all over the hills and the meadows, and now we’re in downtown Charleston carrying tourists on our backs with the eye guards that block our vision.  I’ve started recording the Today Show.  I watch the little bit of news at the beginning of the broadcast and fast forward to Hoda’s Morning Boost.

https://www.today.com/video/-who-can-be-quiet-the-longest-not-these-4-year-old-twins-99255365842

We are called to bring joy.  We are called to shine our light.  We are called to fix our eyes on Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  The sin that so easily entangles us.  I appreciate the word entangle as it gives us this image. 

Our sin ensnares us but if we fix our eyes of Jesus and rest in His authority and love we’re standing on solid ground, we won’t slip or fall. 

We don’t want to be arrogant, and think of ourselves better than what we are, because that also is not of God.  The elder brother was just as sinful in the prodigal son passage.  He may not have cashed in his inheritance, but he was resentful to the point of bitterness.  Hebrews 12 goes on to say in verse 15, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  We can’t let the negativity of the world, the gloomy days, the circumstances creep in and make us see with shrouded eyes.  Jesus is the mighty One, our Savior, and He lives within us who claim Him as Lord. Don’t ever forget: “Greater is He that is in you, than He that is in the world.”

Second, Jesus has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easy to fall into.

I’ve always loved Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s based in the South and one of the main characters is a lawyer, Atticus Finch.  Atticus Finch is defending a black man in a system in which he doesn’t have a chance of winning. But he defends him anyway, because he knows that the system is unfair and evil and he feels as if he has a moral obligation to take the case. In the end he lost the case, the innocent man is convicted, and the innocent man is later shot and killed.

The lawyer’s daughter, Scout, is in the courtroom at the conclusion of the trial. She is sitting in the balcony that is segregated for blacks. There is no room on the main floor. The courtroom is packed. The verdict is given. The judge leaves. The white people downstairs all leave the courtroom. The people in the balcony remain.

He was defeated. But he was on the side of truth and righteousness and peace. So he won.  He didn’t let complacency with the status quo, nor did he let the excuse of apathy of the racial situation in the South get him down.  He stood up in truth and empathy and stepped into another person’s shoes.  We have to act with humility and live out God’s grace especially during these times of challenge. 

Jesus didn’t ignore the unclean Spirit or act like he wasn’t aware of it.  He called it to the front and rebuked it.  He wasn’t apathetic or complacent, he did something about it.  We have a responsibility to not be lulled into bobbing along on the log.  We have to STAND UP.

Mark doesn’t tell us word for word what Jesus taught, but he emphasizes the result of that teaching.  He does that throughout his Gospel.  He shows us the results that Jesus’ teaching had on others. It should be evident in our lives that we are under the authority of Jesus Christ.

Third, Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.

Matthew West has a song out now called “Truth be told” that says:

Lie number one you’re supposed to have it all together

And when they ask how you’re doing

Just smile and tell them, “Never better”

Lie number 2 everybody’s life is perfect except yours

So keep your messes and your wounds

And your secrets safe with you behind closed doors

Truth be told

The truth is rarely told, now

I say I’m fine, yeah I’m fine oh I’m fine, hey I’m fine but I’m not

I’m broken

And when it’s out of control I say it’s under control but it’s not

And you know it

I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it

When being honest is the only way to fix it

There’s no failure, no fall

There’s no sin you don’t already know

So let the truth be told

There’s a sign on the door, says, “Come as you are” but I doubt it

‘Cause if we lived like it was true, every Sunday morning pew would be crowded

But didn’t you say the church should look more like a hospital

A safe place for the sick, the sinner and the scarred and the prodigals

Like me

Like us. We’re so afraid to let our doubts and fears show.  We’re so afraid to set aside our masks and be honest.  Under the authority of Jesus Christ, under the Lordship of Jesus, he wants us to bring our true, honest and authentic selves to the table.  He wants our mess, not our curated lives on Instagram.  He wants the church to be the hospital the Great Physician is working through.

Singer and songwriter Gloria Gaither put it this way: “Jesus. The mere mention of His name can calm the storm, heal the broken, raise the dead . . . I’ve heard a mother softly breathe His name at the bedside of a child delirious with fever, and I’ve watched that little body grow quiet and the fevered brow cool. I’ve sat beside a dying saint, her body racked with pain, who in those final fleeting seconds summoned her last ounce of ebbing strength to whisper earth’s sweetest name Jesus, Jesus . . . Emperors have tried to destroy it; philosophers have tried to stamp it out. Tyrants have tried to wash it from the face of the earth with the very blood of those who claim it. Yet still it stands . . . Jesus . . .” Friends, that’s authority.  And we have access to that authority.

Every Sunday morning during the first block of songs, I pray that the Holy Spirit reign in this place and us gathered here and at home.  I pray that we would be renewed and refreshed in the service.  I pray that hearts will be awakened and moved.  I pray that whatever needs to be extinguished in our lives, be extinguished.  I pray that whatever needs to be lifted up, awakened, and urged forward will be.  I pray to Jesus cast anything not of You from this place and this people and bind it at the foot of your cross, covered in your precious blood in Jesus’ name.  I pray this prayer each week knowing and trusting in the authority of Jesus that he can make a way even through all of the distractions in our hearts and our heads.  All the technical difficulties.  The Holy Spirit can intercede even with my stumbling speech.  The Holy Spirit can even reach through those screens and grab you in the name of Jesus.

Jesus has an intimate interest in our lives and if we invite him, if we abide, or make a home with him as he has made with us then our lives are going to be more.   Jesus won’t take away the problems or the challenges, but Jesus will be with us to help carry the load.  As it says in Matthew 6:25-26, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Trust that if you’re seeking him first, you are seeking his authority over your life, then he will be faithful and good. 

Back before this pandemic when I would travel for meetings or even going on vacation, I rarely used cruise control.  I’m too much of a control freak.  It’s hard for me to sit on autopilot.  Releasing that control to the One who holds the future, the One who knows each step that is part of the Master plan, is scary for me, but freeing.  I’m not talking about an autopilot that relinquishes our free will, I’m talking about one that frees us from the bitterness, complacency, and the fear.  Jesus setting our course.  The Enemy wants to twist us up inside and Jesus offers the vaccine to that jumbled mess of our lives, that sweet, precious relief that only He can give.  As John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”   So when the demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  We with a bold confidence can answer EVERYTHING. 

Posted in Arise, calling, Devotion, God, sin, strength

Rise Up – January 6th

I made a note in my notes on my iPhone when I heard this song on November 2nd.  It’s called “Rise Up (Lazarus)” by the group Cain.

In the dark and all alone, growing comfortable

Are you too scared to move and walk out of this tomb?

Buried underneath, the lies that you believed

Safe and sound, stuck in the ground

Too lost to be found

You’re just asleep and it’s time to leave

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up, rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

When He said your name, the thing that filled your veins

Was more than blood, it’s the kind of love that washes sin away

Now the door is open wide and the stones been rolled aside

The old is gone, the Light has come, so

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (like Lazarus) rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts, 

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts,

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (He’s calling you out) rise up

Get me up from the grave like Lazarus

The lead singer, Logan explains the meaning behind the song:

“It’s this triumphant song about come on and rise up. My story is one of secret. As I felt myself feeling separated from God in cycles of destructive behavior & sin, the last thing I wanted to do was rise up. The last thing on earth that I wanted to do was to stand up and do what was right. When I feel defeated it’s easy for me to recluse, to become comfortable in that place but I know that the voice of Jesus is always gonna call me to rise up. If you hold onto that truth, that voice will get loud and it will eventually get louder than the voice that’s telling you to not rise up. There is no greater feeling of being alive than when you decide that I’m gonna take the power that’s given to me by the blood that was shed on the cross and I’m going to stand on top of this thing that has held me down. When you rise up anything that felt like life before that pales in comparison.” 

Scripture tells us that God is going to go with us when we rise up.

In Micah 7:8, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”  When we fall, God will give us not only the strength to rise, but the Lord will be a light to me.

In Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.”  The Lord is going to be our strength and shield, an ever present help in times of trouble.  Our response is to trust him and give thanks and praise.

In Ezra 10:4,Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” If those are not marching words, I don’t know what is.  Rise Up, Narcie and do the tasks I’ve laid out for you.  It has a tinge of buck up, buttercup.  “Be strong and do it.”  

We can offer all kinds of excuses and reasons and justifications to why we do some things and not do others, but when God places that sin on your heart or that calling on your life, we must act.  Do I need to recount the story of Jonah to you or for that matter the Israelites of the Old Testament?  God has the uncanny way of giving us a whisper, then a nudge, then signs a la Bruce Almighty, where God gave Bruce literal billboards and flashing road signs – God makes God’s presence known and we can run away as long as we want, God’s going to still love us and draw us toward God’s relational self – the extravagant, unconditional love and truly amazing and boundless grace.  

May God show where we need to rise up out of the sins that cling so tightly and may God give us the courage and fortitude to bring love, hope, peace, and joy to a hurting world and a radically divided country. May the Holy Spirit fall afresh on each of us as we rest in God’s mercy, love and grace.

Posted in Advent, God, Joy

Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,

    they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

    the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

I will faithfully give them their recompense,

    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,

    and their offspring among the peoples;

all who see them shall acknowledge

    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

    my whole being shall exult in my God;

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,

    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise 

to spring up before all the nations.

Evy doesn’t like us to decorate before her birthday, November 30th, but we talked her into decorating early because we and the world need so much joy right now.  We’ve cleaned up our mess, now we get to enjoy our decked out halls.

Why do we decorate our homes, our sanctuaries, our offices or cubicles, even our notebooks, we want the world to know who we are.  We want to invite them in.  We want to celebrate with them.  We want to put our best foot forward with a complete, clean picture.  At first glance, this Isaiah passage does that.  It’s all happy, happy, rah, rah, renewal, bridegroom decks himself with garland and the bride adorns herself with jewels, but is the whole book of Isaiah like that.  No!

Isaiah answers when he heard God say, “Whom shall I send?”  “Hear I am; send me!”  He’s what they call a major prophet.  Not just for the size of his book, but for his words and importance in the life of Israel.  He was a prophet that defended the people of Israel more than anyone and the people of Israel were in the midst of their spin cycle of sin.  You know how it is.  God is faithful, a covenant making God.  The covenant with Noah to not flood the Earth again and the covenant with Abraham to make his descendants like the dust of the earth by day and the stars of the sky by night.  The Israelites will be God’s people and Yahweh will be their God.  Hadn’t he delivered them from Egypt?  Hadn’t he provided manna and quail for them to eat?  Hadn’t Moses struck the rock and water streamed forth when they complained of being thirsty?  They follow God for what seems like a second and then turn away and disobey.  Then God sends a prophet to speak to Kings and to the people.  Sometimes the prophets break through and repentance happens but more often than not, they don’t.  Most of the book of Isaiah he’s warning them and despair and destruction are happening.  He mixes messages of hope of things to come with messages of anguish.  Like Isaiah 9:2-3, “The people who walked in darkness

    have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—

    on them light has shined.

 You have multiplied the nation,

    you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

    as with joy at the harvest.”

And later on in the same chapter:

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.

God gives them hope, about One to come.  But they, like we, are easily discouraged.  Even during this pandemic, I wish I could snap my fingers and everything would be back to normal.  It’s hard crafting a new normal, a new rhythm, a new way of being.  It’s hard when all that’s around you is changed.  I watch movies now and wonder why they’re not social distancing or wearing masks, but the tv show Monk was ahead of its time.  It’s hard to not get down in the dumps or in a funk during these strange times.

It’s hard going back to a ghost town.  I used to take the scenic routes to South Carolina when I lived in Florida.  I would see these once thriving, bustling communities on the railroad route or these textile plants which have long since shut down and wonder what it was like 100 years ago.

This is nothing compared to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was deserted. The strong walls, which had held back invading armies for years, had been pulled down. The HolyTemple, the house of God, had been desecrated and was now only a shell. The Babylonians had destroyed the city and scattered the people to a distant land.

After years in exile, the people were returning home to a land that was devastated. They were resolved to begin the task of rebuilding, but they were getting discouraged, and TIRED, just as we are.  They want to snap their fingers and go back to their normal lives.  They’ve been in exile, now they’re back.

The story is told about Betty Hutton, a former movie star and box office attraction of the late ’40s and ’50s. Hutton fell on hard times and battled alcoholism and depression. A few years ago she encountered God and invited him into her life. God turned her life around and headed her in a different direction. She started on the trail to a comeback. Hutton joined the cast of the Broadway musical Annie, playing the role of Mrs. Hannigan. Those who were in attendance at the first performance noted the extensive biographical sketches of the members of the cast. However, under the picture of Betty Hutton there was no elaborate sketch. Instead, there appeared five words which Hutton had written herself. Those words were: “I’m back. Thanks to God.”

God has Isaiah sprinkles these promises in because God doesn’t ever want us to ever want us to be discouraged and despondent; God wants us to cling to God’s promises in the dark days, in the days when doubt and despair overwhelm us.  God promises joy in our mourning.  Isaiah says,

“God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

    and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;

    to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

    to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

It echoes Psalm 30:11, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;

You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.”

God didn’t abandon God’s people and God doesn’t abandon us.  God loved us enough to send God’s own son, Jesus to make our joy complete.  Joy is not happiness, it’s rooted in something much deeper.  It’s roots go all the way to our hearts and it is rooted to our very beings.  Sometimes its hard to imagine how we are going to feel any joy again. 

In the darkest days of my second brain surgery, my mother recounts the first time I laughed. We were sitting in the den all together and he said something, as he is want to do, and I laughed. That’s a simple thing. Even babies do it. But that was SUCH A BIG DEAL. In those dark days, when I couldn’t speak, when I had to read a paragraph at Speech Therapy in tell him what it said, and I lost my right arm and hand movement, so I couldn’t even shave my legs…things that we all take for granted, my laughter gave my mom some much-needed hope.

We have to let ourselves feel the peace, love, hope, and joy of this Advent season.  We have to start living. We have to live into the new reality of NOW. The Israelites came back to a new reality, but with God’s help they got through it and decked their halls and with God’s help we will get through whatever we’re wading through and deck our halls.  My prayer for you this season, is whenever joy comes into your life, you will cling to it, you will grasp it with both hands.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;”  Joy in Jesus is just foretaste to Heaven. 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let Earth receive her King!

Posted in Emmanuel, God's love, Jesus, Just Because, Love

Love Came Down – Wednesday Night Advent Service

1 John 4:7-12

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

Love Came Down

I would listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums as I decorated my Ganny’s tree and decorated her house for Christmas from my freshman year at Winthrop 1998, when she broke her back, through Evy’s first Christmas in 2008 when she was weeks old until Ganny died in September 2009.  We celebrated at her house that one last Christmas.  Ganny and I had a special relationship from our love of books and tv shows to the latest snack food.  We were kindred spirits.  We were both oldest daughters with two younger brothers and had similar tastes in everything, even our love of knick knacks.  I grew closer to my grandparents during these times of decorating and on the trips I took in college to stay with them.  They showed me their great and unconditional love.  

This scripture passage tells us much about God’s love.  God is love.  God sent God’s own son Jesus, not because of anything we did or did not do, just because.  Have you ever had a “just because” love?  No matter what, no matter what you did or you didn’t do, no matter what you were loved.  Just because….you were YOU.  You were fearfully made for God’s purpose.  God knit you together in your mother’s womb and knows every hair on your head.  My Ganny and Gandaddy loved us grandkids enough to count every hair on our heads, to kiss away our boo boos, and to show us that “just because” kind of love.  Just because we were their’s, just because we are God’s, God’s love for us knows no bounds.  Even when we frustrated the heck out of them or they were disappointed in us, we still had their unconditional love, just because.  It was never a question.  Ganny said at my Gandaddy’s visitation, “Walk around and let the people see y’all.  He talked about y’all all the time.  People talk about someone being the “apple of my eye,” well, y’all were his very eyeballs.” 

In verse 12 of our passage it says, “12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  I saw God and God’s love, I felt God’s love, I KNEW God’s unconditional love in my Ganny and Gandaddy.  And you know what, I can see them again, because of God’s great love for us.  God sent Jesus to atone for our sins on the cross so we can live with Him for eternity.  That shows and proves God’s great love for us.  On her first Christmas album, Amy Grant wrote “Love Has Come” with Shane Keister and Michael W. Smith.  They get more and more excited as the song goes on and by the end they’re blaring out, 

“Love has come
For the world to know
As the wise men knew
Such a long time ago
And I believe that angels sang
That hope had begun
When the God of glory
Who is full of mercy
Yes, the God of glory
Sent his Son

And they throw in, “Don’t you know?”  and “I believe that!”  It was the 80’s.  It fit.

But isn’t that the point – that we show God’s love to others and they turn and show it to others and so on and so on.  It’s the biggest show and tell in history and we GET to be a part of the story.  We get to be ACTIVE participants in the Greatest Story Ever Told.  Sharing God’s love all over the place – love is baked into the desserts we make for Katie’s Krops, love inspires us to write a note of encouragement to a friend in need, love leads us to pray for the sick, the hurting, and the broken, LOVE HAS COME to DWELL AMONG US.

Our Advent verse today is from Psalm 26 verses 2-3, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.”  Your steadfast love is before my eyes and I walk in faithfulness to you.  The Triune God’s steadfast love is before our eyes, how can we not walk in faithfulness?  If we don’t show the world God’s great love for them, who will?  If we don’t tell them about Jesus, our Emmanuel, who came down to Earth, the Great God of the Universe, a helpless baby, Jesus came and dwelt among us, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  He transforms everything and makes us new creations if we but put our hope and faith in him.  My grandparent’s “just because” love is just a taste of our Savior’s love.  The depth of God’s love is unfathomable and we rejoice in that when we take part in this Holy meal.  “For God so loved the world…”

Posted in Darkness, Flashlight, God's love, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joy, Light, Love, Prepare

Clean Up Crew

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way;

3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark read this passage at the Advent service last Wednesday.  It’s a very familiar passage this time of year.  Mary and Elizabeth her cousin were pregnant at the same time.  Luke 1:13-17, “13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  Further down in Luke, Gabriel was talking to Mary and said, “36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And even further down in the 1st Chapter of Luke, “39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

The child leaped for joy!  John leaped for joy after hearing Mary’s voice?  Do you think women nested back then?  Tidying up, organizing, preparing….John comes to prepare us for Jesus.  As we make preparations to Welcome Jesus and Welcome one and all this Christmas!  We prepare our hearts to Welcome the One who knows us intimately and still loves us with an abundant and steadfast love. We need a clean up crew to prepare a place in our hearts for Jesus and to prepare to show the world the love that Jesus has for them.

We put up the tree after church last Sunday.  We may have bitten off more than we can chew.  It’s taken us all week to put up the Christmas decorations.  We first have to unpack the Christmas decorations to store the “regular” stuff we have away.  Enoch and Mike tackled the outside and discovered the lights in a whole section were blown.  Evy and I tackled the tree and we discovered the lights had different plugs so Evy decorated the banister with those lights.  Stuff was piled up everywhere…all week…they had virtual school…it never seems like we have another hour in the day.  We’ll have no parties at the house this year, we have no family coming in, we’re preparing for ourselves and most importantly for Jesus.

The first lines of Joy to the World – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room.”  Let every heart prepare Him room.  

How do we prepare our hearts?

Focus – It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, even this year, we can fill our to-do list up to the top and not leave Him, Jesus room.  I always love any Amy Grant Christmas song, particularly her “I Need a Silent Night.”

I need a silent night, a holy night

To hear an angel voice through the chaos and the noise

I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here

To end this crazy day with a silent night

We need to intentionally, carve time out time to be with Jesus – our wonderful counselor, everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.  Our Old Testament reading for today is

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,

    says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and cry to her

that she has served her term,

    that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

    and the rough places a plain.

5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all people shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out!”

    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass,

    their constancy is like the flower of the field.

7 The grass withers, the flower fades,

    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

    surely the people are grass.

8 The grass withers, the flower fades;

    but the word of our God will stand forever.

9 Get you up to a high mountain,

    O Zion, herald of good tidings;

lift up your voice with strength,

    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,

    lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

    “Here is your God!”

10 See, the Lord God comes with might,

    and his arm rules for him;

his reward is with him,

    and his recompense before him.

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

    he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

    and gently lead the mother sheep.

God comforts us.  God if our good shepherd.  God carries us in God’s arms.  Maybe this Christmas it’s hard to feel any kind of Christmas Spirit – the hope, the love, the joy, the peace.  Maybe you’re experiencing grief of a loved one, a job loss, a change in health status, maybe you’re feeling bbllllaaahhhhhhh, maybe you’re feeling discouraged, maybe you’re feeling frustrated, maybe you’re holding all the fear and worry wrapped up under a facade, Jesus knows.  Jesus is our Emmanuel.  God with us.  Do y’all know how important that is?  The Great God of the Universe  came down to dwell with us.  Love came down at Christmas.  Love all lovely, Love Divine, Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave the sign.  We can lay our burdens down Jesus’ feet.  We can cry out to Jesus because he knows our pain intimately.  We can even question God, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He knows.  He knows the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. Jesus has a purpose and a calling; he embodied God’s love and wants us to do that too.  

Father Gregory Boyle tells the story of a young man named Pedro. Caught in the gang life on the streets of Los Angeles, Pedro was filled with rage and resentment that he covered up with addiction to crack cocaine. Whenever Father Boyle would offer to take Pedro to rehab, he would decline.

Until one day, Pedro changed his answer and began the long, hard journey of returning to himself. Thirty days into Pedro’s rehab, his younger brother, caught up in similar demons, took his own life. When Father Boyle called with the news, Pedro was devastated.

Father Boyle later was driving Pedro to the funeral when Pedro began to tell Boyle about a dream he had the night before. In the dream, Pedro and Father Boyle are in a large empty room, alone. There are no lights, no windows. It is complete, total darkness. In the dark silence, Father Boyle takes a flashlight from his pocket and turns it on. Slowly, deliberately, he shines the flashlight around the room until its narrow beam illuminates a light switch on the wall. No words are spoken, no explanation offered, just a beam of light revealing a switch on the wall. In the dream, Pedro stands up slowly, with some trepidation he makes his way to the switch, takes a deep breath, he flips it on. The room is flooded with light.

At this point in the retelling of his dream, Pedro is sobbing. With a voice of astonishing discovery, he said, “And the light is better than the darkness.” As if he did not know this before. Then he said, “I guess my brother just never found the switch.”

Boyle writes, “Possessing flashlights and occasionally knowing where to aim them has to be enough for us. We all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, I’ll do it the next.”

We do not have to do it on our own.  The Holy Spirit prepares the way and intercedes for us when we are in the darkness with sighs too deep for words and also gives us a community to lean on and to depend on.

Richard Rohr writes, “But after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole. Life is not about you; you are about life. You are an instance of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in you. It is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart, a Copernican revolution of the mind, and a monumental shift in consciousness. Frankly, most do not seem interested.

Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe, including ourselves, are operative parts of the One Life that most of us call God. After such a discovery, I am grateful to be a part — and only a part! I do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out, or even do it perfectly by myself. I do not have to be God.

It is an enormous weight off my back. All I have to do is participate! My holiness is first of all and really only God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure — and always holy. It is a participation, a mutual indwelling, not an achievement or performance on my part.

After this epiphany, things like praise, gratitude, and compassion come naturally — like breath and air. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth, our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is just immense gratitude — for already having it!”

Love lived out is showing compassion, empathy, kindness, bravery, patience, and humility.  Just as John paved the way for Jesus 2,000 years ago, we have the direct calling to pave the way for Jesus today!  We each need to pick up our brooms and sweep away our doubts and fears.  We need to pick up our shovels and shovel out love to the world.  We need to vacuum complacency and apathy and use windex to wipe away our tears so we can see clearly that we have a story to tell.  It’s not a picture perfect Stepford story, but it’s real, with all the twists and turns of life.  We’ll show the world love in active, practical ways – as we worship, as we pray, as we serve – whether it be helping with Living Christmas Story, or the Angel Tree or baking cookies for Katie’s Krops, or bringing food to the Blessing Box.  We WILL prepare the way for Jesus by a GREAT Big Show and Tell.  We will Show our love with our actions and we will Tell it by sharing God’s great love.

Rachel Held Evans writes this prayer that pretty much sums up our calling. “God, go with us. Help us to be an honor to the church. Give us the grace to follow Christ’s word, to be clear in our task and careful in our speech. Give us open hands and joyful hearts. Let Christ be on our lips. May our lives reflect a love of truth and compassion. Let no one come to us and go away sad. May we offer hope to the poor, and solace to the disheartened. Let us so walk before God’s people, that those who follow us might come into God’s kingdom. Let us sow living seeds, words that are quick with life, that faith may be the harvest in people’s hearts. Amen.”

We need to prepare the way for love.  It’s like we walk down a dark, windy, steep path leaving bread crumbs along the way so our fellow travelers know which way to go.  We know the way, because love came down at Christmas, and showed us the way, the way that leads to love, peace, joy, and hope.  The way that leads us home.

Posted in Abound, Hope, Jesus

Abound in Hope – Advent Devotion

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” – Romans 15:13

Abound in hope.

Abound is a verb.  It’s ACTIVE.  It’s meaning in Middle English and Latin is overflowing.  Abundant, overflowing HOPE.

It’s hard to feel that hope, when the Covid numbers are creeping up, some of us are experiencing loss of job or sickness, and some of us are walking through the valley of the shadow of death and are absorbed with grief.  

There are three things in this verse that point to what we need if we are going to abound in hope.  It says 1. God is the one who fills us with all joy.  2.  God is the one who fills us with all peace.  3. And this may be the most important one – we have hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A woman, who was seen on video, arrived at the Holy Jesus Child Church in Richmond Hill, Queens, on Monday with a newborn, who was left behind in an empty manger scene.

For a few moments, the sight could have been confused for a miraculous arrival ahead of the Christmas season: A newborn baby, hours old and full term, appeared within a nativity scene at a Queens church on Monday.

But the story of how the baby got onto the stage inside the Holy Jesus Child Church in the Richmond Hill neighborhood was much more earthly, the police said: A woman, seen on video, had arrived with the boy wrapped in a towel, his umbilical cord still attached, and departed without him.

On Tuesday afternoon, detectives were seeking to speak with the woman, who was believed to be the child’s mother. …

The parish priest, the Rev. Christopher Ryan Heanue, 28, said he could think of no better place to leave a baby. He said that rather than seeing the mother’s actions as sad, he found them inspirational. “I think it’s beautiful,” Father Heanue said. “A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable — a place where Jesus will find his home — a home for her child.”

We find our hope in Jesus.  The One who came to set the captives free and those captives are each of us.  We are captive to the sin and fear that shackles us but Jesus in his perfect love and sacrifice gives us the grace and mercy to set us free.  Even when our belief falters, the Holy Spirit intercedes and gives us the Holy Spirit power to give us the joy, peace, and most importantly the hope, that even when it may seem like the darkness has taken over, hope springs forth from sometimes unlikely places – like 2 teenagers and a baby born in a stable…HOPE is born…and his name is Jesus.

Posted in Faith, Healing, Jesus, Mustard Seeds, Prayer, Thankful, thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Sermon

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Two men were walking through a field one day when they spotted an enraged bull. Instantly, they ran for the nearest fence. The raging bull followed in hot pursuit, and it was soon apparent they wouldn’t make the fence. Terrified, the one shouted to the other, “Put up a prayer, John. We’re in for it!” John answered, “I can’t. I’ve never made a public prayer in my life.” “But you must!” implored his companion, “the bull is catching up to us.” “All right,” screamed John, “I’ll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.’ ”  Ha!  Lord have mercy!

Our passage comes to us from Luke 17 where Jesus is instructing his disciples as he heads towards Jerusalem.  It opens with Jesus teaching the disciples about the way to live of Christ and them asking him to increase their faith.  What follows is the story of the mustard seed.  If they had such a minute amount of faith the size of a mustard seed, they could uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea. The mulberry tree is a deeply rooted sycamore. It is not easily transplanted anywhere.  Jesus is trying to tell them they just have to do it.  They have to believe.  They have to not only talk the talk, but put their money where their mouth is, walking the walk.

Luke ends the section of the story by Jesus coming across the 10 lepers.  They were yelling at him because under Levitical law they had to be 50 yards, half a football field away from him because they had leprosy.  Also under Levitical law they had to report to the priests.  Leviticus 13:1-2, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests.’ ” Jesus, in instructing these ten lepers to appear before the priests, does so with the UNDERSTANDING that they will be healed before they reach the priests.  

These men and by extension their families had lived isolated lives.  All 10 of these men had to announce their sickness and they had to do so loud enough so that no one would accidentally rub up against them or touch them in any way.  Again in Leviticus 13:45, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’.” It truly would have changed their lives and the lives of their families and their families families.  It would have transformed them into full members of society.  For such a transformation, why did only 1 go back?

We may think to ourselves, I would have gone back.  The other nine were so ungrateful.  Jesus had given them their lives back, how dare they not go back to thank Jesus?  How dare they be so ungrateful?  

But would we?  Or do we take for granted God’s blessings.  Do we somehow forget to say thank you because of our busyness, our ambivalence, or our nonchalance about Who truly brings the great good to our lives?

We are much like the little boy who was given an orange by a man. The boy’s mother asked, “What do you say to the nice man?” The little boy thought about it and handed the orange back and said, “Peel it.”

We forget to say “thank you” to God quite a bit.  We think that we’ve earned our blessings or we somehow deserve them, don’t we?  Just like we’ve earned that piece of pie after a hard run?  Just like we think we deserve that glass of wine after a hard day of work and parenting?

Hate to break it to us, what we have, everything we are, all of it is because of the Triune God – God, the creator, Jesus, our redeemer, the Holy Spirit, our comforter.  And the Samaritan knew that.  “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”  And what did Jesus say to him,  “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  He exemplified what the psalmist wrote and we read earlier tonight in Psalm 138, “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart.”  He knew for sure and for certain that nothing he could ever do and nothing he could ever pay, could earn him or buy him Jesus’ transforming healing and power.

Robert C. Morgan in his book, “Lift High the Cross,” tells about a woman who has a gift shop on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Her name is Frieda Hannah. Frieda is a Palestinian Christian. She makes beautiful embroidery and cross-stitch work. Her specialties are altar paraments, clergy stoles, and Bible markers. She is a very frail woman. She has been in business at the same spot, the sixth station of the cross, for more than thirty years. Her eyes are beginning to fail her. She must wear thick glasses. If you go by Frieda’s shop you will see her smiling and greeting the tourists. She has made friends with thousands.

A teacher tells about being in her shop one day with a group of students. Another large group of pilgrims from America were in the shop, too. All of the members of this second group had their Bibles under their arms and crosses hanging from their necks. They were pushing and shoving, demanding to be waited on. A group of little Palestinian beggars had followed the group into the shop asking for money. These “Christian” tourists were indignant. The teacher said they made comments like, “Get these dirty kids out of here.” Or, “Why don’t they stay in Jordan where they belong?”

Frieda overheard these remarks. The teacher was embarrassed and apologized for his fellow Americans, even though he did not even know them. Frieda’s response was, “Oh, that is all right. I learned a long time ago that many of those who [take] the Bible literally don’t take it seriously.”

Frieda certainly takes the Bible seriously. During the last thirty years, using the earnings from her little shop, she has given over 1,000 Palestinian youth a higher education in North America or Europe. She has built and supported the operation of three medical clinics in the West Bank. She has built and operates two orphanages. There is no way of determining the good that this Christian woman has done over the years.

Frieda Hannah is a modest person. She is always embarrassed to talk about what she does. When asked on one occasion where she gets the energy and determination, she responded, “God did not place me in this world just to take up space. It is not enough just to go along. God wants me to make a difference where I can.” 

All of our blessings were given us by God.  God entrusts us to be good stewards of God’s gifts just like Frieda.  Let the blessings flow through your outstretched hands and let the Holy Spirit to guide them to the right place.  Let the blessings flow and be thankful.  

I couldn’t help but have the song “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw come to mind as I was writing this Thanksgiving Eve sermon.  It was written by Lori McKenna for her husband and their five kids as her list of all the things she wanted to make sure she’d told them.  

You know there’s a light that glows by the front door

Don’t forget the keys under the mat

Childhood star shine, always stay humble and kind

Go to church ’cause your momma says to

Visit grandpa every chance that you can

It won’t be a waste of time

Always stay humble and kind

Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you

When you get where you’re goin’

Don’t forget turn back around

Help the next one in line

Always stay humble and kind

Hold the door say please say thank you

Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie

I know you got mountains to climb but

Always stay humble and kind

When those dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you

When the work you put in is realized

Let yourself feel the pride but

Always stay humble and kind

We, as Christians, get to not only be humble and kind, but to spread the joy, praise, and thanksgiving that the leper proclaimed!  We GET to do that.  We have the BLESSING of doing that!  A sour attitude spreads like spilled sour milk getting into the nooks and crannies and infects us, but if we believe in the faith of a mustard seed and a faith that the Great Physician, can even make us sinners, WELL, and we’ll be on the path to not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.

Posted in Abundance, Courage, Fear, Fears, Gifts, Holy Spirit, Jesus, parable, Sermons, Spiritual Gifts, Talent

The Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable has so many interpretations.  Some look at it as a prosperity Gospel text – if you earn more, then God will bless you with even more.  A get rich scheme.  Some see God as the harsh master, punishing the slave that buried the coin.  But Jesus never actually says it represents God.  I’m choosing to look at the text this way.  God wants us to take courage and use our gifts, knowing that we have something to offer, and living up to our potential.  God wants us to use our gifts for the greater good, for God’s glory!

Y’all know me, I don’t like being still.  I don’t like feeling lazy.  I’ve created an indention on my bed that doesn’t match the other side – my baby tooth cracked in August and it had to be removed, COVID, fractured ankle, and tomorrow I get the implant.  Lord have mercy.  I have a definite fear of missing out and in more ways than I’d like to admit, my sense of worth is tied to my work.  I feel like if I’m not producing anything or cleaning something or washing or folding clothes, then I’m lazy or people think I’m slacking off.  Those are my own negative tapes and fears of not measuring up.  I think it was fear that made the slave bury the master’s coin in the ground.  Fear is a dangerous thing.  It can put these ideas in your head, these tapes – you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy, you’re not…and it can twist your pictures of people.  Maybe he was not a harsh master, maybe he didn’t do what the servant says he did.  Maybe the servant’s own insecurity had colored his vision.  Fear does that.  It clouds things and twists things, so we don’t see clearly.

I’ve used this before, but I need to hear it every now and then.  Marianne Williamson writes in Manifesting the Glory of God, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant and talented?  Actually, who are you not to be.  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Sometimes we’re afraid to let go of our fear.  It’s like stepping out of our most worn, comfy pajamas into “real clothes.”  2 Timothy 1:7, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  We need to take courage, to take heart, Jesus overcame this world.  Jesus overcame every single one of our fears and he’s ready to answer if and when we choose to listen.

 Getting over your fear is hard.  Its  journey and daily choices along the way.  It’s retraining your brain and relishing in the love of God.  As Dorothy Day writes in On Pilgrimage, “Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife which may, at any moment, become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself: “What else is the world interested in?” What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is Love. Love casts out fear.”  God is love.  In 1 John it says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  Perfect love casts out fear.  And there’s no more perfect love than Jesus’ love.

Perfect love, Jesus’ love leaves no room for the enemy to weasel in.  When we’re feeling down and discouraged, Jesus helps us say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”    If we profess that Jesus is Lord of our lives. We should mean it. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If he’s Lord of our lives, Jesus can give us the strength to let go of our big and small fears, insecurities, shame – we can let go of all of the “stuff.” Once Jesus helps you let go of the fear, you can grab hold of all the gifts he’s given you!  We all have something to give.

1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-7 1 “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 

For the common good.

I heard Quaker theologian Parker Palmer tell a story about abundance once. The way I remember it is that Palmer was a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a remote corner of the field and stopped. You know the feeling: The plane stops and you look out the window and see that you’re not on the runway and the engines wind down and your heart sinks. The pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some really bad news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the West, Denver is socked in and shut down. We’ve looked at the alternatives and there are none. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The really bad news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time.” Everybody groaned. Some passengers started to complain, some became angry. But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something amazing.

She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry, folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. Some of you may not care one way or the other and some of you need to skip lunch. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along — something to tide you over — just in case something like this happened, some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he/she needs.

“Well,” Palmer said, “what happened next was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”

After the flight, which eventually did proceed, Parker Palmer stopped on his way off the plane — deplaning, that is — and said to her, “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”

She was living out of the “abundance of Jesus.”  Being the hands and feet, walking and talking the talk.  She made ready what it says in 2 Timothy 1:14, “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”  You see we all have a good treasure entrusted to us and we are able to use it with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

We all have something to give.  If we use our gifts to God’s glory, God will give us far beyond what we ask and imagine.  It talks about “abundance” in this parable and if we all give what we have, what we are able to, that’s what it’s like to live in abundance.  To give what you can out of the blessings that God has given you.

Luke 21:1-4, “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”  See, this is not a parable of prosperity Gospel.  Jesus recognizes when we’re withholding our treasures and when we are giving out of our “abundant living” all that we have.  Jesus sees potential in everyone and everything.  He sees us as we could be without the fears and the baggage.  When we let the Holy Spirit work and live within us, we don’t worry about hoarding our gifts.  We give them freely.  If we know nothing is ours, then we let our gifts freely flow through our fingers to where the Spirit needs and where the Spirit leads.   

The story is told of a team of engineers who worked for Thomas Edison in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. For many months, they pursued a line of research that ultimately led them nowhere. What had started out so promising turned out to be a blind alley. In fear and trembling, they went in to see the boss, to tell him of their failure.

Edison surprised them all by congratulating them. True, they had come up with no useful invention, but they had increased the scope of human knowledge. They had eliminated certain possibilities that would, in the future, allow others to direct their own efforts more effectively. Most of all, they had fulfilled their assignment. They had not buried their talent in the ground. They had risked much in a quest for great reward.

The problem with playing it safe is that, all too often, it means not playing at all. The call goes out, in the church, for people to pitch in and help in some way, either financially or by exercising other spiritual gifts. Too often the voice of fear in our heads wins out. “Not me,” it says. “I couldn’t do that.” Or there’s “Not now. Now is not the right time.”

Always, the immediate follow up questions should be: “If not me, who?” and “If not now, when?”  Who are you to play small?  You’re a child of the Most High King.  Who are we to play small? We are the body of Christ? Jesus’ ambassadors on Earth, We have been entrusted with a treasure, our gifts and graces and the Holy Spirit here to activate them “for such a time as this.” What are we waiting for? Are we going to let our fear, the enemy’s whispers, stop us? Are we going to bury our talents in the dirt? No, with Jesus’ help, we are going to stand up and be who God created us to be, as the new creations that the Potter wants us to be and knows that we are.

To view the actual worship service, click here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/bethanyumcworship