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.


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.