Sleep In Heavenly Peace: Advent 1 2018

The following is the first sermon of Advent 2018 at McFarland United Methodist Church in Rossville, Georgia. The series is “Calm and Bright: 200 Years of Silent Night” from Worship Design Studio.

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.

Happy New Year, McFarland!

No, I haven’t been raiding the spiked eggnog and getting confused. Today is the First Sunday of Advent and it marks the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar, a cycle rhythm of our life together that celebrates the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Advent means preparation, preparation for a coming King. In our case, as followers of Jesus, we prepare in this cycle not only for the remembrance of the birth of the Christ, but also for his coming again to rule a kingdom that is here and yet to be fulfilled.

It is a time when we are called to slow down and prepare to receive the gift of Emmanuel, God with us, contrary to the popular belief being perpetrated by our favorite merchants who urge us to rush into the maddening crowd to the sound of what would be ringing cash register bells… if cash registers, or point of sale devices as we know them today had bells. Now we hear the annoying sound of the card reader telling us that it is ok to remove our credit or debit card from the machine.

Advent calls us to be counter-cultural as we prepare to receive the one who came to spend his life among us, teaching us how to live and how to love. The one who gave his life for us so that we may have life. The one whose resurrection ensures us the hope of our own transformation as we allow ourselves to be molded by his grace so that the image of the One who created us shines forth in us and through us to a world desperate for that light.

In this Advent season, we will celebrate the 200th Anniversary of one of the best loved Christmas Carols of all time: Silent Night. The song “Silent Night” came to be during an era when the entirety of Europe was in a state of dramatic transition. Political upheavals, wars and economic hardships bled and traumatized the peoples of the Salzburg and Bavaria for decades. Napoleon had disempowered, looted and set fire to entire stretches of land through a series of wars and military campaigns. Additionally, a natural catastrophe with dire consequences came to haunt Europe in the year 1816. The eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia in 1815 was the largest single volcanic event in nearly 2000 years.  The magnitude of the eruption particulates blown into the atmosphere caused the temperature across the earth to drop 1 degree Fahrenheit on average. Crop failures, debts and a “Year Without a Summer” led to hunger and even more hardship. Against this backdrop, Joseph Mohr composed his poem “Silent Night” in 1816. On Christmas Eve 1818, he passed the lyrics to Franz Xaver Gruber, who added a melody. The result was a Christmas message filled with hope and comfort.

During this series, each of the four weeks of Advent will be themed around each of the four verses of the carol. This week, we focus on Peace.

How appropriate it is for this first week of Advent to be about peace. It is something that we desperately need in our world, in our nation, in our church, in our lives. Divisions among us threaten to tear apart the very fabric of community and identity; divisions that are based primarily in fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of loss of power and influence, and mostly fear of “the other,” the outsider who isn’t like us… or so we are led to believe.

It is in this frame of mind that we engage with our Scripture this morning. In Isaiah 2, we are invited “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” It is in this place that the Lord will judge between the nations and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Instruments of war shall be repurposed to instruments that can benefit all of humanity as the world, under the direction of the God of all nations enforces the dictum that “nation shall not lift up sword agains nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is not some Shangi-La pipe dream that the prophet is speaking of, this is the way it will be when the kingdom of God is fulfilled and fully established in the here and now.  Each one of us has the ability to bring peace. I’ll admit that it’s not so easy to do, but if each of us individually decides that the conflicts are not worth it, that the tensions are not worth it, that the animosity is not worth it, then we can make a difference. As the song says, “let peace begin with me,” and with God’s help it can.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, along the Western Front in France in the early months of World War I, British soldiers heard the familiar sound of their German counterparts singing Silent Night from only about 100 yards away across “No man’s land”, <Stille Nacht, Heileger Nacht> and they started to join in, each in their own language. First one, then another soldier from both sides ventured out into “no man’s land” and between soldiers, a temporary truce was called through the end of Christmas Day. Even though the soldiers on both sides were ordered to remain in their trenches and not fraternize with the enemy, the orders were ignored. Gifts of cigarettes and candy were exchanged, impromptu games of soccer were held and for one day in the early days of the war, humanity won the upper hand as soldiers on both side discovered that the things that they shared in common with one another were greater than the differences among them. Primarily that among the common soldier, none of them wanted to be there and that they were forced to be there by conscription. The average British, French, and German soldier had no beef with their counterpart, yet the war trudged on because the leaders had issues and, by God, they were going to fight for control. It was known as the Christmas Truce, and it appeared again, in a diminished form, in 1915, but disappeared in 1916 & 17 as the “War to End all Wars” dragged on and troops on both sides were eager for an end to the madness.

In Isaiah 9, we hear that “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.” As we approach Christmas in this season of Advent, we experience the diminishing of the natural light here in the Northern Hemisphere as we approach the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, at 5:23 pm on December 21 and we celebrate the fact that:

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counsellor, 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 onwards and for evermore.

Our exploration of the hymn “Silent Night” for this Advent/Christmas season is a way of “shining a light” on the power of reaching out across divides and getting silent enough to listen to the “hopes and fears of all the years” of those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another. As we connect face to face, we each have the agency to reach out across divides and connect because we are humans with common human needs and, deep down, we all have the desire for peace for ourselves and our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day. 

For unto us a child is born… a child who brings light into the darkness. As followers of the light, let us allow that light to shine in us and through us to illuminate a darkened world. Thanks be to God.

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.