Give Thanks 2018

My sermon on November 18, 2018 at McFarland United Methodist Church:

Let us pray:

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom and open our hearts and minds that we may know the cry of those brothers and sisters who are hurting and hungry and dying without the knowledge of your love for them.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

In 1965, a new movie was in the theatres.  The movie was entitled Shenandoah.  It starred Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson, the patriarch of a farm family living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during the Civil War.  Charlie was a widower.  His wife Martha died giving birth to the youngest Anderson boy who was about 16.  Now Charlie was an independent man.  He didn’t have much use for church or religion in general and he didn’t have much use for the war that was taking place literally on his doorstep.  The only thing that Charlie Anderson wanted to do was run his farm and be left alone.

Charlie would spend time at Martha’s grave having a conversation, mostly with himself.  But he would talk to her and tell her all about the things that were happening in the family and in the world.  When he had some situation that was particularly troubling, he would usually say that he wished she could be there to give him advice on what he needed to do.   It was usually at those times that the church bell would ring and Charlie would remember his promise to Martha, that he would keep the family in church…whether he wanted to be there or not.

So, with the sounding of the bell, Charlie would gather the family and off they would go…arriving late to church to the consternation of the pastor and the amusement of the congregation.  The Andersons would carry out the obligations of worship; but you have to wonder if their hearts were really in it…at least you wondered that in Charlie’s case.  There’s a moment in the movie when the pastor asks Charlie why he even bothers coming to church.  Charlie answers that it was Martha’s last request.

A memorable moment in this movie for me is the grace that Charlie says over every meal.  It goes like this:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, Amen.

Throughout the first part of the movie, Charlie Anderson is just consumed with keeping his family together as the war is getting closer.  His sons, like so many in the border states are wanting to get involved, on both sides of the conflict.  We tend to forget that the American Civil War pitted brother against brother in so many families.  But Charlie would have none of it.  The war had nothing to do with him or his family…and it was going to stay that way.

And it did stay that way…all the way up to the day that the youngest son, the one that they called “the boy” was captured by Yankee soldiers and taken prisoner.  You see, he was wearing a Rebel cap that he had found down by the creek and the Yankees mistakenly thought that he was a Rebel soldier.  Word gets back to Charlie and he and his sons set out to get the boy back.  They experience the horrors of war in ways that you cannot imagine.  Despair leads to even greater tragedy until Charlie returns home thinking that he will never see the boy again…and mourning the tragic deaths of two sons and a daughter in law in the process.

Charlie is devastated.  He doesn’t know what to think.  He doesn’t know what to do…and he certainly sees no need to give thanks to a God that, if he was even there in the first place, would have taken so much from him…and had now taken the very connection that he had to his beloved Martha.

Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever wondered why you needed to give thanks to God for something that, as far as you could tell, God didn’t have a hand in it at all?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had those moments.

Usually, they are those moments that have been referred to as a “dark night of the soul.”  Moments when you wonder not only what God had to do with them, but moments when you may have even wondered if there even was a God.  And if there was a God,  what was he doing while your world was going to hell in a hand basket and everything was falling apart all around you.

It is in those moments that you feel so lost…so alone.  You have an emptiness deep in your soul that cannot be filled.  Your heart aches and nothing can fill this void that you are experiencing.

So what do you do?

Well, for too many of us, we turn to worrying.

Now, I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that I come from a long line of worriers.  In fact, if my mom and grandmothers didn’t have something to worry about, they found something to worry about.  So excessive worrying is something that I have to combat in my own life.  Especially in times of transition for me or my family.  And the past 13 years have marked a time of major transition for us.  I worried about making the move from  corporate life into ministry.  And now, as I edge closer to retirement, I have worries about money and whether I’ve saved enough to get by on only a portion of what I am accustomed to making.  As our daughter Monica is making her way in the highly mobile world of theatre,  I worry what her future will be like.  As a United Methodist minister, I have concerns about the upcoming Special General Conference in February and how the actions, or possibly lack of action, there will affect my ministry and the church that has nurtured me for my entire 59 years on this earth.

The events in our world have provided major fuel for worry with the terrorist attacks from ISIS and the fear and uncertainty that is generated by that terrorism.  And it doesn’t help when fear of others is being peddled like beverages in a sports stadium by politicians who are master manipulators. When we are threatened, the defenses go up, the adrenaline starts pumping and we tend to forget who we are.

We forget that throughout the Gospels and the New Testament we are reminded that the key attribute that Jesus wants others to see in his disciples is love… love for others.  We forget that a key concern of God is for his people to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  We forget these things because we are so worried about what may happen that we forget whose we are… and that the one that we belong to is the one who holds the future in His hands.

We have to face the fact that worrying can do more harm than good; and excessive worrying can be just plain destructive.  So, why do we do it?  Why do we spend so much energy dwelling on the negatives when we could be focusing on the positive?

I think that we worry because we are the ones who want to be in control.  We want what we want when we want it …and we don’t like it when things don’t go our way.  I think that we worry because we have an over-inflated ego that demands that our needs be met; our wants and our desires take precedence over everything and everyone else.  We want our will to be done… not God’s will.

One of the best exercises that I can do when I’m feeling down, or when I’m feeling too much of myself is to head off into the woods to find a quiet spot in nature where I can think…where I can allow myself to contemplate the rest of God’s creation and where I can experience the awesomeness that is our God as I see the works of God’s hand in nature.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi tells us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guide your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.  How do we gain this peace?  Through prayer.  Turn your worries into prayers and God’s peace will be yours.  A real peace that comes from knowing that God is in control, our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is sure, our destiny is set, and our victory over sin is certain.  If we only take that extra step to trust God with all of our life then we can let God’s peace defend our hearts against worry.

During my time in ministry, I have seen some great examples of ministries that have practiced the tenets of Philippians 4.  Shepherd’s Arms Rescue Ministry for battered women and children in St. Elmo is a prime example.  Founded by Jim and Maryanne Sanders in 1995,  they pledged to perform their ministry without going into debt, believing that God will provide for their needs.  It means that things haven’t gone on the timeline that Jim and Maryanne would prefer for instance, the outer shell of their service building was in place when I first became aware of their ministry in 2006, but it wasn’t completed and dedicated until January of this year, but the ministry is doing great work as they help women transition out of a cycle of poverty and abuse.  Statistically, since their founding, Shepherd’s Arms has housed over 792 homeless women and children and has placed 62%  into permanent housing,  3,469 decisions for Christ have been made, 898,815 meals served on site, 17,241 food boxes provided, 730 families adopted for Christmas, 5,030 received clothing, 1,500 received blankets, 17,960 visits to widows.  All of this being done with the help of  8,152 volunteers, giving 37,443 volunteer hours. to make a difference in the lives of others as a result of a desire to live as disciples of the living Christ. They have “held fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” as this morning’s scripture from Hebrews reminds us.

The Thanksgiving holiday that we will celebrate this week has become nothing more than a day off to over eat and watch football for far too many of us.  Between the preparations for the dinner and the planning to watch the ballgames or how to tackle the crowds at the mall on Friday –or sadly, in too many cases, on Thursday night, we forget the real meaning of this national holiday.

We all have lots of things for which we should be thankful.

For one, we live in a country where even the poorest among us are much better off than the vast majority of people in the world.  For another, we live in a land where we can worship God openly and without fear of persecution… unlike many Christian brothers and sisters across the globe.

We can give thanks for the ministries of McFarland… the Free Store, the Simple Supper Bible Study, our Helping Hands ministry to name a few.

These are things that we can all be thankful for.  We each have other things for which we can give thanks.

For me, I’m thankful for a family that loves me in spite of myself and supports me in what I do. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve as your pastor,  even though I am still getting to know you in many ways.  I am thankful for the ways that you provoke each other to love and good deeds as you encourage one another to discipleship.

There are many other things that I’m thankful for and I won’t bore you with them (and I’m sure that you’re thankful for that).

The movie Shenandoah concludes at Thanksgiving.  The boy is still lost and they don’t know if he’ll even be found.  Charlie Anderson is grieving those who were killed as they looked for the boy.  The family is gathered around the table for dinner.  Charlie starts the prayer that I shared with you earlier, but he can’t finish saying the words.  As the tears begin to come, he hears the church bell ringing and he remembers his promise to his dear Martha.  The family rushes off to church.  As they are singing a hymn, the boy enters the church. He is reunited with his family and Charlie finally realizes what he is thankful for.

When we realize that God is in control, we can give thanks with a grateful heart for all that the Lord has given us.  Through Jesus Christ, we have freedom from sin and death and through the Holy Spirit, we have a comforter waiting to guide and comfort us in times of trouble.

Thanks be to God in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

On Peace

My sermon for Homecoming at McFarland UMC on August 26, 2018.

Primary scripture: John 14:27

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, and open our hearts and minds that we might know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry, and hurting, and sometimes even dying without the knowledge of your love for them. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Peace.

What a concept.

Our world today is full of turmoil and angst. We are filled with fear… fear of the unknown, fear of those that are unlike us, fear of those who mean to cause us harm… or at least that’s what THEY tell us… whoever THEY are.

In the midst of all the things that cause us anxiety, peace is hard to find.

In fact, peace is a precious commodity to us in a world that has been anxious for the past 17 years following the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Since that day, our world has pretty much been turned upside down.

We can’t travel with the relative freedom that we were accustomed to.

Air travel has become a tremendous inconvenience while we are all treated like potential terrorists.

We have been conditioned to fear… everything.

And the consequences of this Fear Everything All the Time 24/7/365  mentality has turned us into the most paranoid, most skittish bunch of folks in the history of our nation.

As a consequence, we are the most divided that we have been in my lifetime. We are suspicious of folks that are unlike us and we are contemptuous toward those who don’t share our beliefs.

We live in a world where peace is illusive and seemingly out of our reach.

And it is in this world that we currently inhabit that we desperately need to hear the message of peace that Jesus is sharing with his disciples in our passage from John this morning.:

“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.” (John 14:27, NRSV)

Jesus is speaking to his Disciples and the others who were “hangers on” to the inner circle as they were gathered together for the meal that we celebrate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. He is trying to prepare them for the events that will begin to take place in just a few hours… events that will lead to his arrest, crucifixion, death and burial within the next 24 hours.

He knows what is about to happen to him… and he knows what is about to happen to them as well. Their Leader, their Rabbi, their friend, the one that held such an attraction to them that they would leave their former lives behind to follow an itinerant Rabbi into an unknown future is about to be tried as an enemy of the people, sentenced to death, and killed by the leaders of the very people that he was trying to save. In 24 hours, their lives would be placed in jeopardy as well and everything that they have known for the past 3 years would be placed into doubt as they tried to make sense of what had happened.

There had to be questions as Jesus shared what theologians refer to as “the farewell discourse” with them. He was assuring them that he was the way, the truth, and the life. He told them that he would be leaving them and returning to the Father… and in his place, there would be another, The Sprit of Truth, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who would guide and direct them in the mission that would be set before them… a mission to spread the Gospel, the Good News, that the God of all creation loves unconditionally and invites his creation to love unconditionally as well. “Be known by how you love one another,” he said.

“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.” (John 14:27, NRSV)

The events of that night transpired and the disciples reacted just as Jesus had thought they would. They scattered for a time and worked their way back to the room where they had last spent time with their master. Only this time the doors and windows were barred and locked and the disciples trembled in fear for their lives and their safety, not at all sure of what to make of what had happened. That’s where they were when the women went to tend to the body of Jesus on Easter morning. That’s where they were when the women returned to tell them of the stone being rolled away from the tomb. And that’s where they were, trembling in fear, not sure what to make of all of the events of the past few days when Jesus appeared to them saying “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 

His last words to them before his arrest were words of peace. His first words to them following the resurrection were words of peace.

The peace that Jesus is speaking of is not peace as in the cessation of hostilities in a war, but the inner peace that comes through trusting in and leaning on God’s promises for us. This is the peace that Paul speaks of in his letter to the church at Philippi, the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7, NRSV). It is a stillness and calming quietness that we experience in the very depth of our souls that allows us to “be still and know” that God is God, that we are not, and that informs us that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

As followers of Christ, we are called to be people of peace… people in peace with others, seeking to bring peace and spiritual blessing to ourselves and others with the help of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who is present with us in the absence of Jesus, who has ascended to the Father. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is a spirit of peace and tranquility in our lives that we can share with others, as the Spirit gives us strength and power to do so.

As followers of Christ, we must allow the Holy Spirit to inhabit our lives, granting us peace so that we may be bearers of God’s grace and peace to all humanity and to all of creation. We cannot let the uncertainties and the discordant nature of society infect us and tear us away from our calling to bear witness to God’s love and grace. We must instead, look to God to per fect’ us in his love so that we may be molded and made into the people that God calls us to be… beacons of hope, ambassadors of grace and joy to this community here in Rossville.

The only problem is that peace is counterintuitive. Chaos is part of our human nature, not that we love it, but that we become so accustomed to it that the peace of God seems foreign to us. And it IS foreign, because it is so radically different to us. But Jesus reminded us in the Beatitudes that “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (and daughters) of God” (Matt 5:9, NRSV).

My friends, we are called to seek the peace of God, a peace that we cannot find on our own – we must trust in God, a peace that brings a calm, serene spirit to our souls in the midst of chaos. Once we have that peace, we are to share it with all of creation… without prejudice and without reservation.

The God of all creation. The first person of the Trinity of God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit has given us the ability to live out this contentment, this peace, this stillness in our souls as an alternative to the chaos that surrounds us. It is God’s gift to us… if we just accept it, fully place our trust in God and turn away from the attitude that we are in control.

“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.” (John 14:27, NRSV)

It is God’s gift to us for the taking.

Do we trust in God?

Or do we love, and loathe the familiar chaos?

The choice is ours.

Which do you choose?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The McFarland Free Store

This morning, I had the opportunity to experience my first Free Store at McFarland UMC. Now, you need to understand that the Free Store collects donated clothing and personal care items for those in need. I understand from Vicki Riddle, the co-ordinator and driving force behind the free store, that folks start arriving around 7:30 a.m. to be first in line to shop at the free store which opens at 9:15 or so.

We gathered in the Sanctuary at 9:00. After instructions from Vicki about the process (everyone registering is given a number and a few groups at a time are allowed to shop based on a first-come first-served basis), I gave a devotion based upon the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a devotion that was designed to reassure folks that they are a beloved child of God, no matter what they might have been told by others. Once we prayed, folks moved from the Sanctuary to the Hospitality space and the hallway to wait for their turn to shop. Coffee, cookies, and snacks were available while folks waited their turn. It was a pleasure to talk and pray with some of the clients. It was also a pleasure to talk with some of the volunteers that make this ministry happen.

The Free Store clientele reminds me of the clientele that we saw at the Tri-State Food Pantry during my time at Sand Mountain, people who just needed a hand-up and not a hand-out. There were folks who got the limit of what they could get and there were folks who just got what little they needed. Everyone who came had a chance to get something that they needed.

As I watched the morning unfold, I got to see the church be the church. People of different backgrounds reached out to their neighbors in need to provide a bit of comfort and a bit of respect for them as children containing the image of the living God within them. And, as I watched the church be the church, my heart was strangely warmed to see that my folks “get it.” Once again, I am so blessed to be their pastor.

Settling In

My first Sunday in this new appointment to McFarland UMC (101 E Gordon Ave., Rossville, GA) was July 1. I started moving into the office on June 20, but then Charlene and I took a leisurely trip to/from Saratoga Springs, NY to visit our daughter, Monica. After a couple of weeks of introduction, I will be starting a new sermon series following the Revised Common Lectionary readings in Ephesians that I’m calling “No Longer Strangers.” The texts and rough topics for this series are:

July 15        Ephesians 1:3-14     All in the Family
July 22        Ephesians 2:11-22   Aliens No More
July 29        Ephesians 3:14-21   God’s Powerful Love
August 5     Ephesians 4:1-16     Bound Together
August 12   Ephesians 4:25-5:2  Making Peace
August 19   Ephesians 5:15-20   Overflow

Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus is an interesting, and controversial, text.  However,  it is an important text dealing with how we, as the church, relate to each other and to the community in which we serve.  As we approach this first series together, I would invite you to read the entire letter to the Ephesians in one sitting.  It won’t take you more than a half hour.  Read to get a feeling of the gist of this letter.  If you have a copy of The Message by Eugene Peterson, read that since it will provide you with an overview of the letter.  Then set it aside for time.  Next, take your study Bible and read the text for this week. Note what you find that resonates with you.  Read it again.  Set it aside for a bit, then read it a third time, paying attention to the things that call to you in the text.  Once you do all of this preparation, you will be ready to engage the text in worship on Sunday morning.

As we enter into this 3rd week together, I look forward to engaging further with you.  Visitation with the shut-ins begins this week and I look forward to meeting all of you, hearing your stories, and establishing a vision for McFarland for the years to come.

I’m so thankful to be your pastor.  I am so thankful for the reception that you have given to me as we get to know each other.  My prayer is that we will seek and conform to God’s will for this community and our place in it.  Please pray for me as I pray for each one of you.

Blessings,
Wayne

Stranger in a Strange Land

First Sermon at McFarland UMC
July 1, 2018
1 Peter 2:1-12

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, and open our hearts and minds that we might know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry, and hurting, and sometimes even dying without the knowledge of your love for them. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This past week, my wife, Charlene, and I traveled to upper New York state to visit our daughter in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is the Assistant Stage Manager for Opera Saratoga. It was a 970 mile one-way trip and it took us 2 days to get there from here. We left last Thursday and arrived in Saratoga Springs on Friday evening. We spent a couple of days there in Saratoga Springs and then meandered back home via Hyde Park, the home and presidential library of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we then traveled west from there to Binghamton, NY on a scenic route that took us across the southern end of the Catskill Mountains; we travelled from there to Gettysburg where we visited the site of that great Civil War battle (which unfolded 155 years ago this week) – a battle that pitted brother against brother in a nation that was severely divided; from there we spent the night in Staunton, VA before making the final trek home on Wednesday. While we were making this journey, we also took advantage of visiting quilt shops along the way so that Charlene could participate in the “Row by Row” experience – I’ll let Charlene fill you in on those details after church, I was just along for the ride. 🙂 As we traveled, especially above the Mason Dixon Line, we had the feeling of being strangers in a strange land. The voices we heard had a different resonance and speed and people thought we talked funny, the sweet tea at Cracker Barrel restaurants in Pennsylvania and New York just wasn’t quite right, and things were just… different. But, especially in the quilt shops, we found that there were common bonds and common experiences as Charlene and the shop owners shared their love of the craft of quilting. And through that sharing, we found that we really weren’t strangers after all, that the things that we held in common were far stronger than the things that separated us.

Today, I stand before you as a stranger in a strange land. I say that because today I come before you as your newly appointed pastor as you continue to miss Ginger who is doing the same thing in a new location herself. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But that will change as we get to know one another in the weeks and months to come. The reception from you has been wonderful. The folks that I have met have been gracious and welcoming in every way. Just like we found commonality as we traveled last week, I am certain that we will find commonality here at McFarland UMC. But, I must admit that I’m a little nervous about this morning. This Sunday marks the first time in 10 years that I haven’t had my relationships at Sand Mountain UMC to lean on. Yes, we had been paired with Rising Fawn for 5 years and then with Wildwood for the last 2 years, but Sand Mountain has provided part of the foundation that I needed to be successful… and I will miss them. If for no other reason that they already know and appreciate my strengths, they know and forgive my weaknesses, they know and have come to appreciate my quirky sense of humor, and they know what a genuinely humble person that I am. (And the folks at Sand Mountain told me that you wouldn’t laugh at that, too). But I am looking forward to getting to know you, to hear your stories, to see your passions at work and then sharing this journey that we are all on together to spread the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ to a world that is in desperate need of Good News, in desperate need of the light of Christ, and in desperate need of the love and grace of God expressed through the church, and that is all of us together as the body of Christ.
Today’s lesson from 1 Peter is part of a letter that is generally thought now to be written by a follower of the apostle Peter around the year 90 CE. It is written from Rome to the churches in the five provinces of Asia Minor: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. In this letter, the author is writing to churches that are under stress in a hostile environment. He is writing to remind them of who they are and, more importantly, whose they are. He reminds them that they are called to grow in their faith and in their discipleship – to seek the “pure, spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2) that will lead to growth toward salvation when we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
The author reminds us that Jesus is the cornerstone of who we are as people of faith and that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:7b). He reminds us that, as followers of the resurrected Christ, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation – as the church, the body of Christ, not as any sovereign, worldly nation. The author reminds us that, in Christ, we are more than what our citizenship gains us in a particular country, we are citizens of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that transcends an earthly allegiance and exemplifies the very principles that Jesus Christ himself extolled as being bound up in love of God and love of neighbor.
As the church, we are called to live into an existence that is not an easy one for us to live without the constant strength and power given to us from God. We are called to carry the light of Christ, the love of God for all of humanity and the grace of God into a world that is shaped by fear and haunted by darkness. We are called to care for the widow, the orphan, and yes, the immigrant in ways that reflect God’s love for us, a love that was extended to us when God “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” in the person of Jesus, the Christ, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message transliteration of John 1:14.
The fear and the darkness of this world are real. But the light that is Jesus Christ, the light that we, as followers of Christ, carry with us burns bright and can lead us and others out of the darkness and into life… and to freedom as the chains that bind us are broken so that the hungry are fed, the thirsty receive drink, the tired and the weary receive rest, and this broken world receives healing from the very source of creation itself.
Each and every person walking the face of this earth is created in the very image of God; the life giving breath of God breathed into the first human being is carried by each and every one of us. Our task is to grow in our faith in order to let that image shine forth in us, so that as others look at us, they will see the image of Jesus himself.
It’s not an easy task. It’s not a task that we can accomplish on our own. But it is a task that we can accomplish when we lean on God and serve God through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. It is a task that we can accomplish with the help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Pentecost to be our helper and our guide into the presence of the living God.
Our task is before us. It is a task that each of us, individually, must seek out and it is a task that can only be accomplished when we work together as the church, the Body of Christ, to bring the kingdom of God to earth. It starts with prayer and it ends in us taking action, whatever the Spirit determines that action may be, to see that all of God’s children are loved and embraced, and empowered to live in and through the very Christ who came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. It is a task that is not conditioned by age or gender for God gives us the strength to do what we can to be the people that God calls us to be.
We are all strangers in a foreign land. A foreign land where we are tasked with sharing the love of God with every person that we meet. Over the weeks and months ahead, it will be my privilege to be your servant leader in this time and place. There will be challenges, there will be struggles, but if we walk with the Holy Spirit as our Guide, the challenges, the struggles, and the difficulties won’t matter because God is with us.
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Fresh Start

I can’t believe that it has been a few years (yes, years) since I shared thoughts on this blog. A blog that is the third iteration of my attempt at blogging. The first, “TnRambler’s Ramblings” was probably the most successful, starting at blogspot and then moving to WordPress a few years later. For some reason, I chose to delete it and the second attempt before reconsidering to start this blog with its fits and starts. I guess that I came to the conclusion that I either had nothing to say, or that no one wanted to hear what I had to say. I’ll let you make your own determination.

I provide this brief history to tell you that I have decided to resume blogging. Some things are changing in my life as I head into a fresh start, of sorts. After serving ten years at Sand Mountain United Methodist Church (along with various stints of serving a second church on the charge – the current one being Wildwood UMC), I am projected to be appointed  to McFarland United Methodist Church in Rossville, Georgia when Bishop Taylor fixes the appointments next week at the Holston Annual Conference.  It is a time of fresh settings, fresh ideas, and fresh opportunities… and perhaps, a time for a fresh look at sharing my thoughts via this blog.

I cannot say anything about fresh starts without sharing my thanks to the people of Sand Mountain/Wildwood who have nurtured me and formed me as a pastor during my time with them. We have shared laughter and tears as we have shared in the task of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” They have tolerated me and, more importantly, loved me into being the pastor that God has called me to be in this time and place. While I will no longer be their pastor after June 19, I will continue to be their friend. They will always be in my prayers.

I am excited and a bit nervous about what lies ahead. Change is hard, yet I know that God is going with me to this new appointment. I look forward to ministry in Rossville with the people of McFarland UMC. I look forward to meeting and getting to know them and their stories. I look forward to exploring new and fresh ways of sharing “the old, old story” with them and the Rossville community.  And, I look forward to the fresh start and the opportunities that it will bring.

Stay tuned.

To Be the Church

Last Sunday, in the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, we found Jesus making his last appearance with the disciples.  They were gathered on the mountaintop at Olivet and Jesus final words to them are reported with minor variances in the four Gospels, but there is a common theme.  In his final words, Christ commissions the disciples to go and preach repentance in Jesus’ name to all the nations.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear:

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Parallel texts can be found in all of the Gospels and in the opening of the book of Acts.

In John, we hear “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation.”

At the opening of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But the description of the final words of Christ that we know best are found in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This Great Commission, as it has come to be known, along with the other scriptures, call all of us to a life of action.  Hear again the action words in the Great Commission.

We are to go.

We are to make.

We are to teach.

And, we are to remember.

When Jesus ascended to the Father as we heard it described in Acts 1, we hear these words: “While he was going and they (the disciples) were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  The angels were telling them to get off their duffs, to stop looking and start living; living the life that Jesus had called them to live and living the commission that he had given to them.

The disciples returned to Jerusalem, to the same upper room that they have occupied since the time of the crucification and they wait.  Well, the waiting is over.  It’s the day of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has arrived and the Spirit has arrived with a vengeance.

We’re told that like a mighty rush of wind, the Spirit swooshes in upon them, descending upon them like tongues of fire.  In that moment, they are seized with a power to speak in other languages… not some gibberish “spirit language,” but languages that are the native languages of the folks passing by in the streets below… and the disciples are all telling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ fluently in these foreign languages and the people who hear them are amazed.  Everyone wonders what this is all about… some of the more cynical among them speculate that the disciples are drunk.

When Peter addresses the crowd, he reminds them of the words of the prophet Joel…

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams…
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:17,21 CEB).

Peter continued the sermon, encouraging those who were listening to give their hearts and their lives to Jesus, to change their lives and at the end of the day, nearly 3,000 were baptized and they became a community of faith.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

This was the day that the church was born.

Recently, we’ve heard the news from the Pew Study of Religious Life that Christianity is losing ground in America.  Almost across the board, the percentages of people in America who identify as Christian are dropping.  The number of persons identifying as having no religious preference, the “nones” are increasing…these folks aren’t necessarily atheist (people who believe that there is no god) or agnostic (folks who really aren’t sure if there is a god or not), they are typically folks who really don’t care either way.  There is another number that is increasing as well, and these are the “dones” the folks who have just dropped out of the church because they are tired of the infighting, the hypocrisy, and the close alignment between some factions of evangelical Christianity and a social conservatism that is shrill, hateful, and so far removed from the concept of loving neighbor…the 2nd part of the Great Commandment, if you can remember.

Now, I’m not worried about the Church.  The holy, apostolic, and universal (or catholic) church.  I’m not worried about it because Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:18 “upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But I am concerned that we in North America just don’t get it  Not long ago, Dr Marsha McFee, a leader in worship design and practice presented this thought, “It’s ok if people hate you because you are a Christian.  It’s not ok if people hate Christianity because of you.”  This quote came from her atheist neighbor who heard it from who knows where.

In so many cases we have forgotten that the church is the people, broken people who have been empowered in their baptism and in the baptism of the Holy Spirit with gifts that are to be used to build the kingdom of God here on earth.  In too many cases, the focus of the church has become the building; in too many cases, that building has either become an albatross or an idol or both and it causes us to lose sight of our mission.

Paragraph 120 in the Book of Discipline tells us what our mission is: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is the mission of every one of us in this room today.  The mission might sound vaguely familiar.  Matthew 28:19 anyone?  “Go and make disciples of all nations…”  I told the folks at our Wednesday night dinner and devotional that the Greek could also be translated this way, “As you go, disciple” which changes the word disciple from a noun… an object to be acted upon to a verb which connotes action.

With the idea that mission informs vision which in turn generates missions into the world, I want to share the vision statement of the Holston Annual Conference with you… it’s something that we should be hearing often… and believe me, you will:

God envisions
bold, passionate, and joyful communities of faith
where the spiritual hunger to worship God and to serve Christ
sets disciples on fire with Spirit-filled, risk-taking love for all God’s children
until Holston Conference reflects the saving grace
and redeeming justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Where is our boldness?

Where is our passion?

Where is our joy?

Several years ago, Bishop Swanson asked us to consider the question, “If you church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice?  Would anyone care?”  It’s a question that has been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

First, let me salute the ministries that are being done through the UMW, through the Food Pantry, through individuals working with Relay for Life , the Quilts of Valor program and others.  We do a pretty good job of caring for each other and, when we see a need we try to help.  This not only plays out in the local community, but elsewhere as well.  For example, when the Sand Mountain choir had its Valentine Dinner last year, a portion of the proceeds from that night went to Heiffer International to purchase a water buffalo for a family… a gift that will be a long term benefit to that family.

These ministries are great things, but I think we can do better.  I’m not suggesting that we should re-invent the wheel, but that we can find ways to work together with our other United Methodist churches in the area to make an even bigger difference in the lives of people that we touch.

Once again, this year’s Annual Conference mission offering is staying right here in the Holston Conference to fund block grants to churches and ministries within the conference that impact children in poverty.  These block grants will be divided among the 12 districts in Holston and they will be administered at the local level.  Bishop Taylor has challenged us to a minimum of $10 per regular attendee, not only that, but she has challenged each of us to give 10 hours of service to a ministry that benefits children in poverty… to my mind, the Tri-State Food Pantry fits that definition.

To put this into perspective, for this church:

Rising Fawn: $300 Sand Mountain: $310

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if all of the churches in the Holston Conference, some 887 congregations, met the goal of $10 per average attendee, we would raise $685,000 to help children in poverty right here in our own back yard.  We proved that we could accomplish big goals 3 years ago with our $1 million dollar goal for Imagine No Malaria. We raised $1.2 million… pretty impressive considering the most that we had ever raised in a conference offering before was $175,000.

Finding ways to work together with Trenton, New Salem, Morganville, Slygo, Whiteside, Wildwood, and Payne’s Chapel and, of course, with (Rising Fawn/Sand Mountain), we can make a greater impact on Dade County than we could ever do on our own.  Finding ways to work in tandem with the Upper Sand Mountain Parish in the North Alabama Conference could help us to have an impact upon an entire region.

I’m not asking us to work harder, although that wouldn’t hurt, but by breaking down the barriers, whether they be jealousy, pride, or any number of things that provide stumbling blocks to our mission of making disciples and caring for the least of these, I believe that we can work smarter and reach more people who need to see the church in action, but more than that, they need to see Jesus reflected in all that we say, all that we do, and in all that we are.

And it doesn’t matter how old or how young we are, this calling is for all of us.  As we hear from the prophet Joel, your young will see visions, your elders will dream dreams.”  You’ve heard me talk about Peg Butler, telling you that at age 97 she considered her ministry to be driving the old folks to the store.  She died two years ago at age 104 and 6 months.  One of the stories told about her at her memorial service was from when she was in her mid 80’s and serving on a visitation team at Brainerd UMC. She would stop by to greet visitors to the church, leave them a basket of home made cookies and invite them to come again.  On one visit, as the story goes, as Peg issued the invitation, the person receiving it said, “I don’t know.  I’m 73 years old and find it difficult to get out.”  Peg’s response was “Well, I’m 86 and I’m there every week.”

On the opposite end of the scale, 7 years ago, a 10 year old boy named Jack Skowronnek, read a book about a 4 year old boy with cancer and his teenaged brother who shaved his head in solidarity with his baby brother when the 4 year old lost his hair from chemotherapy.  Jack started what is now known as Jack’s Chattanoggins and on July 17,  the 17 year old Jack will be at the Chattanooga Market where folks will be shaving their heads to raise money for Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.  So far, over $130,000 has been raised.

Your young will see visions, your elders will dream dreams…

As the body of Christ, we should be in the vision and dream business as we go about seeking God’s vision and God’s dreams for us and our communities and then making those dreams happen.

We are not alone.

We can make a difference.

Together, we can transform the world in Jesus’ name.

So, what are we waiting for?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.