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.

Transfiguration Sunday 2013 Sermon

 

The following sermon was preached at Rising Fawn and Sand Mountain United Methodist Churches on February 10, 2013.

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, open our hearts and minds that we may know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry and hurting and 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.

 

 

We’ve been to the mountaintop, we’ve seen the glory of our God, He is here, in the valley low, he’s here, I feel it in my bones, our God, He is here, we are the body of our God…

So goes the chorus of Mountaintop, one of the songs introduced to our youth this year by the worship band at Resurrection 2013, The City Harmonic.

Many of us have had them, those mountaintop experiences, those times when we felt like we were on top of the world, really happy, confident that we knew all the answers, could solve any problem that came up. Or we felt that we were really close to God, really in tune with God’s plan for us. In those moments we were excited and alive, and everything seemed new.

The moment might have come at some exciting event in your life: graduation, baptism, your first kiss, your first day on your first job, your wedding, the birth of a child, even catching your very first fish. It might have been something really spiritual, like a week at church camp or a church retreat. Or it might have been something of a smaller, quieter nature, like a very intimate conversation with your father or mother when you felt that they honestly understood what you were saying and why you felt the way you did.

As I prepared my sermon for today, I looked back on a mountaintop experience for me, it occurred in the spring of 2006 at the Holston Conference licensing school at Buffalo Mountain Camp.  Here’s what I wrote on a blog that I used to keep about that experience.

The first weekend of the Holston Conference Local Pastor’s Licensing School has come and gone…and all I can say is WOW!

From the time that we arrived on Thursday until we left on Sunday afternoon, we were in the presence of the Holy Spirit as we shared laughter, tears, prayer and worship together. Our instructors, facilitators and leaders were great.

The educational sessions were inspiring and full of information for us to process. The worship was spirit filled and spirit led. The fellowship and camaraderie was beyond anything that I would have imagined. We formed bonds that will help to sustain us not only through the school, but through our ministry as well.

Saturday night closed with a very emotional worship service where many of us shared testimony, joys and concerns. But most of all, we shared community. Following the service, we stayed up for several hours of late night conversation and fellowship. We were experiencing a high that we didn’t want to end.

On Sunday morning, we gathered together to de-construct and evaluate the weekend, get our assignments for the next weekend and worship. We opened and closed the weekend with communion. We came as strangers with a common calling and we left as a community in the truest sense of the word.

We call these “mountaintop experiences,” and oh how we hate to come down off that mountain! We want to hang on to that moment for as long as we can. “Let’s just stay right here and let the rest of the world go by for a while,” we say. But to freeze that one moment in time shuts off the possibility of the next moment.

In the Gospel reading for today we hear the writer of Luke give his version of the event which we call “The Transfiguration of Jesus.” Matthew and Mark also contain an account of this strange occurrence, with some minor variations in the telling. It’s one of those rare moments we were just talking about, one of those mountaintop experiences of life, which somehow defy adequate description and challenge us to stretch our concept of reality to the point that we usually wind up asking the question, “Did this really happen?” Events such as the Transfiguration somehow connect us with the mystery of creation and eternity.

For Jesus it was a time of confirmation and affirmation of his ministry. For Peter, James, and John it was a brief glimpse of the transcendent, a peek at the reality that lies just beyond everyday life.

But notice that Jesus quickly led the disciples back down off that mountaintop – in spite of Peter’s desire to pitch a tent and camp there for a long while. Jesus led them back into the daily routine of teaching and preaching and caring for the broken and hurting people of the world they lived in, back to the reality of life in the valley.

And here’s the thing, the same Jesus who leads us to those spiritual high places also leads us to care for the hurting, broken-hearted children; to minister to the homeless; to bind up the wounds of a broken world, or simply to tend to the needs of a brother or sister. When you experience the mountaintop, don’t forget the valley below. Jesus is there in the valley in that foul-smelling nursing home; Jesus is there in the valley of fears and the tears of everyday life; Jesus is there in the valley of the joy of the birth of a child; Jesus is there in the valley of the aching loneliness of the shut-in. Jesus is there at the repeated failures of his followers.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the preacher who moved to his new Church. This particular church didn’t have a lawn mower so he was looking for someone to either mow the lawn or sell him a used lawnmower. One day he saw a young man going by pushing a lawnmower. So the preacher asked him, “Hey, looking for a job?” The young man said, “Sure.” It turned out that he was mowing yards and trying to earn enough money to buy a bicycle. This preacher was kind of young and didn’t mind mowing the yard so he told the young man, “Look, I’ve got a 10 speed bicycle that I never ride any more. What do you say we trade the bicycle for the lawnmower.”

Well, the young man was ecstatic. They swapped and the young man took off on the bicycle. He rode around the block and came back to see the preacher standing in the same place wiping sweat off his brow. The preacher waved the boy over and said, “Hey, I’ve pulled on the rope a half a dozen times and this lawn mower just won’t start.”

The young man said, “Preacher, I hate to tell you this but it’s a special kind of lawnmower. You have to cuss it to get it to start.”

The preacher looked at him and said, “Well, I’ve been in the ministry so long I don’t think I can remember how to cuss.”

The young man grinned and said, “Pull on the rope some more and it’ll come back to you.”

The point is this, we ought not stay on the mountaintop so long that we forget what it is like to be in the crowd, we shouldn’t forget what it is like to pull on a stubborn lawn mower. I know from personal experience, that mowing a lawn is a sure way to keep your feet firmly in the valley.

But Peter needed the mountaintop. We all do. It’s there that he learned he needed to listen to Jesus. God himself helped Peter understand this. We all have had those moments or we wouldn’t be here, moments when we learned we needed to listen to Jesus. But let me tell you a wonderful little secret. Peter did not go up the mountain to find God. God brought Peter up that mountain. God revealed himself to Peter. We don’t find God up on mountains. God finds us.

In the book, Unconditional Love, Father John Powell tells of a young man, Tommy, a student in his college class, The Theology of Faith. Tommy turns out to be the “atheist in residence” in the course. He constantly objected to, smirked at, or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Father-God.

At the end of the course he asked in a slightly cynical tone: “Do you think I’ll ever find God?” Powell decided on a little shock therapy. “No!” he said. “Oh,” Tommy responded, “I thought that was the product you were pushing.” I let him get five steps from the door and then called out: “Tommy! I don’t think you’ll ever find him but I’m absolutely certain he will find you!” He shrugged a little and left my class and my life.

Later, I heard a report that Tom had graduated, and I was duly grateful. Then a sad report, Tommy had a terminal illness. Before I could search him out, he came to see me.

“Tommy, I’ve thought about you so often. I hear you are sick.”

“O yes, very sick.”… “Can you talk about it?”

“Sure. What would you like to know?”

“What’s it like to be only 24 and dying?”

“Well, it could be worse.” “Like what?”

“Well, like being 50 and having no values or ideals, like being 50 and thinking that booze, and making money are the real ‘biggies’ in life.”

“But what I really came to see you about,” Tom said, “is something you said to me on the last day of class. I asked you if you thought I would ever find God and you said, ‘No!’ which surprised me. Then you said, ‘But he will find you.’ I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was not at all intense at that time.

“One day I woke up, and decided to spend what time I had doing something more profitable. I thought about you and your class, and remembered something else you said: ‘The essential sadness is to go through life without living. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without ever telling those you loved that you had loved them.’ So I began with the hardest one, my dad.

“He was reading the newspaper when I approached him. ‘Dad?’ ‘Yes, what?’ he asked without lowering the newspaper. ‘Dad, I would like to talk with you.’ ‘Well, talk.’ ‘I mean, it’s really important.’ The newspaper came down three slow inches. ‘What is it?’ ‘Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that. ’ The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then my father did two things I could not remember him ever doing before. He cried, and he hugged me. It felt so good to be close to my father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved me.

“It was easier with my mother and little brother. We shared things we had been keeping secret for so many years.

“Then one day I turned around, and God was there. Apparently, God does things in his own way and at his own hour.

“But the important thing is that he was there. He found me. You were right. He found me even after I stopped looking for him.”

On the mountain of Transfiguration God reveals himself to us. He finds us. Reveals to us his plan. It’s found in Jesus. We are to listen to him. Have you come to a place in your life where you have listened? Listened to his parables, learned from his teachings, watched his miracles, felt his sacrificial love? If you haven’t you need to go up. Experience the mountaintop.

If you have already listened to his parables, learned from his teachings, watched his miracles, felt his sacrificial love, then you have been there. You’ve been to the mountaintop, you’ve seen the glory of our God, and you’ve experienced that glory for yourself.  For many of you it may have been a long time ago that these things happened. But if you have experienced the mountaintop…don’t forget the valley below.

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