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Reveal, Part 2: Vibrant Family

January 14, 2018

Colossians 3:12-17

This past New Year’s Eve, I decided to pass on a Miller family tradition.  For years I’ve waited for the kids to become old enough.  And finally, this year I decided they were ready for me to teach them how to have a good old fashion bottle rocket war.  As a boy, I participated in a number of epic battles –  the route of ’79 and the basement skirmish of ’82 in particular, come to mind.  And I wanted Erin, Noah and Cole to have that experience.  So, I went out and got some goggles – you could shoot your eye out you know.  And I took some PVC pipe and fashioned into bottle rocket holders.  That way we wouldn’t burn our arms.  Even so, I was pretty aware that Robyn wouldn’t agree with what I was doing.  So, I tried to hedge a little by getting her to agree to shooting off fireworks.  I just didn’t tell her that we would be shooting them at each other.

When all was ready, I quietly motioned the kids outside and had them put on their safety glasses and gave them their bottle rocket launchers and explained to them what we were going to do. My youngest looked at me like I had three noses.  So, I thought I would communicate with them in the most direct, most clearest fashion that I could think of and I shot a bottle rocket off at his head.  Which was enough to send him inside.  It was when I nearly lit the bushes on fire, that I knew I had to explain it to Robyn.  She gave me one of those looks and said – you are always doing stupid things like that. And she made me promise not to do it again.  Which I intend to honor until I forget.  Or New Year’s comes again.  Whichever comes first.

In our family, Robyn is known as the parent that keeps the kids alive.  Which I appreciate.  I recognize that we both play an important role.  I teach them what not to do.  And Robyn ensures that they will live to see their high school graduation.  That’s what happens when you are family.  You take different traditions and different expectations and different opinions and different dreams and you mix them all together and you make it work.  You don’t always agree.  And you don’t always see eye to eye. You may think the others are crazy. But you honor the other and you hammer it out.  That’s what it is to be a family.

I share that with you because today I want to talk about family.  Not our biological family and not our legal family.  But our church family.  The gathering of disciples at FUMCWP.  Especially I want you to think about where we’re going as a family.  As you just heard in the video we are launching a new vision.  For the past 12 years, we have been on the move to make a difference.  And that vision has served our family well.  It has inspired us to dig wells in Costa Rica and work with orphans in Naivasha, Kenya.  It has prompted us to feed the hungry in Orlando and repair homes in Georgia.  But now the time has come to move into a new era in our church’s history.  As Jesus said, you don’t put new wine into old wine skins.  Lest they burst.  It’s time for a new vision.

So, take your Bible and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3.  We will be reading verses 12 – 17.  Last week we began our new series by looking at our church’s mission.  And we said that the purpose of First United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ – which we described as life-long learners of all that God says and does.  In fact, we said that anything else – whether it be a service, a class, a trip or a sale, as fine as they are – is not the mission or ultimate purpose of the church.  They may help us accomplish our mission.  But they are not the mission.  Making disciples is our mission.  It’s our “why”.

This morning we are going to start looking at the “how”.  I understand vision to be a picture of what we will be as we fulfill our mission. It’s that image of who we want to become as we make disciples.  As you heard, there are four movements.  Today we begin with vibrant family. With that in mind, let’s read Colossians 3:12-17.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

So, it turns out, I have been living in the dark ages.  I’m usually pretty good about keeping up with recent trends.  But I clearly missed this one.  Now I know.  Matching Christmas pajamas are a must (pic 01)!  Evidently, coordinating holiday sleepwear has become the new ugly sweater.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, sales of matching holiday pajamas have grown every year since 2013.  Target offered 22 different pajama patterns this past Christmas – some with options for your dog and some with options for your doll.  The big sellers?  Patterns depicting skiing polar bears and Santa riding a unicorn.  The trend has gotten so popular celebrities are joining in (pic 03).  (www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/move-over-ugly-christmas-sweaters-famjams-are-here/2017/11/17).  There are even rumors that one of the pastors on staff buys matching Christmas pajamas for his family each year.  I’m not telling you who.  But I am told his wife and daughters LOVE it!  Who knew?  According to Debbie Horton, senior sleepwear buyer for Walmart. “People aren’t just wearing matching pajamas to bed anymore. They’re actually putting them on to go out and have fun.”  No offense, but there is no way I am showing up in public looking like this (pic 04). 

So, where am I going with this?  As disciples, we have matching family outfits.  Thankfully they are not fleece onesies.  Don’t come to church in your pajamas.  They are just as noticeable. 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, CLOTHE yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.   Paul says as followers and disciples of Jesus, we are to wear five different items.  Compassion means “a heart of pity.” It’s a tender caring for each other that overflows into how we treat each other in private and in public.  Kindness includes not only saying nice things, but doing nice things.  It is going above and beyond the call of duty.  Humility recognizes that we don’t always have to be right and the need to be center.  It helps us recognizes that each has needs and dreams that are equally valid.  Gentleness is the opposite of road rage. It is the opposite of expressing irritation or a tone of being inconvenience.  Patience in the Greek conveys the idea of being patient in unpleasant circumstances.

Notice, that none of these things are feelings.  Rather, Paul says, they are intentional choices.  We don’t always feel humble.  But we can choose to be humble, to recognize that others have needs and dreams.  We don’t always feel patient – particularly in unpleasant circumstances.  But we can choose to be patient.  Paul says it something you choose to put on.  You literally wear compassion and kindness like you would a jacket or a coat.  You literally put on patience and gentleness like you would a shirt or a blouse.  We have matching family outfits.

Second, it is supposed to look like Jesus.  13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

In the Gospel of John chapter 13, it says that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus got up from the dinner table, took a basin of water and a towel, and washed his disciple’s feet.  Normally, this would be the job of the servant.  In those days of foot transportation and unpaved paths, your feet could get pretty nasty.  Think – combination of sweaty running shoes that you have to keep in the garage because they just reek and the ring of dirt that is left around your ankle after digging in the garden.  Clearly, washing feet was way beneath Jesus’ place as their Rabbi.  In that time and setting, dust was to travel from Rabbi to the student.  Not the other way around.

But Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  He wants to make a point.  He says – do you know what I have done for you?  I have set an example for you.  You call me teacher and Lord and that is right.  I am.  If I as your teacher and Lord have washed your feet, you should also wash the feet of each other.  For no servant is greater than his or her master.  And of course, what makes the story so powerful is that Jesus is well aware that in a matter of hours, he will be betrayed, arrested, beaten and executed.  And still he washes Judas’ feet.  To wash the feet of those who love you, supports you, agrees with you, and serves you is one thing.  But to wash the feet of the one who would betray you, stab you in the back, hurt you for their own agenda is quite another.   Who does that?

But Jesus says his disciples do.  Jesus says it isn’t an option.  After the meal, he says in John 13:34; A new COMMANDMENT I give to you – that you love one another.  It isn’t a request.  It’s not a suggestion.  It’s a command.  In fact, Jesus says it will be the one thing that identifies us as his disciples.

And Jesus says, loving one another is a NEW commandment.  In the writings of Moses, Leviticus 19:18, it says that one is to love their neighbor as themselves.  Leviticus comes before John.  So how is loving each other a new commandment?  It’s new because Jesus gives it a new measurement of success. A NEW commandment I give to you, John 13:34 – that you love one another just as I have loved you.  You are to love one another. Before, the disciples were to love those around us as we would love ourselves.  Now, we are to love those around us as Christ loves us!  Christ made himself nothing.  He disregarded what was rightfully his.  He became a servant all the way to the cross.  He purposely gave up his freedom so that we might find it.  That’s a high bar to meet.  But Jesus says that is the standard for us as followers of Rabbi Jesus.

I ask you this morning.  Are you wearing love?  When loving others, what is your standard?  To love them as you love yourself? Or to love them as Christ loved you?

We have a matching family outfit.  It’s designed look like Jesus.  It unites us in our differences.  14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Last week a friend sent me an article written by a pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina.  In it he talks about what it is like to lead a purple church.  A purple church is a church that is mixed politically.  Where the red of Republicans mixes with the blue of Democrats.  In other words, a church very much like our own.  Basically, the author’s premise was this:  We need more purple churches in today’s world.  Because we are becoming more and more polarized in our views.  More and more we are surrounded by what George Will calls thought silos – where opposing points of view are not considered – because they are not even discussed.  This in turn, leads to more and more isolation.  Which results in greater and greater loneliness.   That is not the way of Christ.

Therefore (says Paul), as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  The therefore, in this case, points to the section of Paul’s letter that immediately precedes our text.  In which Paul talks about shedding our old way of life and becoming a new creation in Christ.  He says that in Christ we take on a new identity in which – Verse 11 – there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.

In other words, the way of Christ is not about division.  And the way of Christ does not foster isolation.  We may live in a time when divisive and inflammatory language is celebrated as a strategy. This is not the way of God’s church, because we are a family.  A family that finds its identity in Christ, that finds its source in Christ, that loves with the love of Christ.

So, my challenge this week is to reach out and connect with someone you don’t know.  To break through the isolation.  To assist you, we have put a little card in your bulletin.  We left it blank so that you can add your name and contact information.  Take it and fill it out and give it to someone you would like to get to know more.  And with it extend an invitation for a cup of coffee.  I challenge you to do so right when the service ends.  To not tuck it away for later.  It will get misplaced – at the very least in our minds.  And perhaps, in light of MLK Jr day, and in acknowledgment of our family’s own need for diversity, give your invitation and card to someone who is not like you.  Someone of a different age.  Or someone from a different country.  Or a different race.  Or a different economic class.  Or of a different sexual orientation.  Or a different political persuasion.

The point is to practice being church.  In his book, Eager to Love, Richard Rohr points out that St Francis used the word “doing” 32 times more often than he did the word “understanding”.  He spoke of the “heart” 45 times more often than he did of the “mind”.  For St Francis, the emphasis needed to be on right practice over right beliefs.  He understood that doing the right things lead to believing the right things.  Most of us have to act a certain way before we feel a certain way.  SO, PUT ON love, wear compassion, kindness and humility and gentleness and patience.

I believe that when we put on love that we will find that unity that will overcome isolation. When we put on love we will become the church that God calls us to be.  Not just any church but a vibrant church. The lay leaders who put together the vision felt very strongly that we are to become a family that is alive and growing.  One in which life is being given.  That only happens when Christ is all and in all.  When we put on love we will help us fulfill our mission to make disciples.  Others will be drawn by the love of Christ that we share.  And want to experience it too.  We have a family matching outfit.  It is meant to resemble Christ.  It unites us in a polarizing world.

It is said that Mahatma Gandhi, once seriously considered becoming a Christian. He wrote in his autobiography that in his student days, he was very interested in the Bible.  He was deeply touched by the Gospels, and thought that Christ seemed to offer the only real solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So, one Sunday, he went to a nearby church to attend services. He wanted instruction in the way of salvation. But, when he entered the sanctuary, the ushers refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left and never came back.   He later remarked, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians!”  http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prejudice.htm

I ask you this morning – what would others say about our church family today?  Would visitors say we are united in Christ?  Or are we marked by division and isolation?  Do we include others in the love of Christ and invite others in? Or do we make it all about us?  Are we known as a church that encourages each other?  Are we known for love of Christ?  This is so critical.  Because we are not fighting a bottle rocket war.  We are literally as the living body of Christ in our community.  We are his hands and feet of Christ in this world.

So, I am going to put on the matching family outfit.  The one that looks like Christ.  I am going to wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  How about you?  How about you?

 

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Reveal, Part 1: Why?

January 7, 2018

Matthew 28: 16-20

So, Robyn and I went car shopping this week.  Which was just a miserable thing to do.  For me, buying a car ranks right up there with getting a crown on my back molar.  Or, say, coming down with yellow fever.  It’s not something you willingly choose to do if there is ANYTHING, anything at all that you could do instead.  But my truck is getting up there in miles.  It’s on the cusp of costing us some real money for repairs.  So, we took it in to be assessed.  When we did, the salesman asked how much gas we had in the tank!  Evidently, we are at the stage when a full tank of gas significantly raises the value of our trade in.

So, we are in the market.  And it’s a challenge.  For one, I am not a good negotiator.  I’m too impatient.  I get too invested.  Too afraid of losing what I decide to buy.  Robyn could be negotiating for weeks and get up and walk away from table in the blink of an eye.  Me, I have to sit in the car lest I give away our third child to get what I want.  For another, Robyn and I have very different opinions about what car we should be buying.  For example, I was thinking about something like this (soup’ d up Camaro pic).  I can TOTALLY see myself behind the wheel in that.  Robyn had something like this in mind (bicycle pic).  I compromised, I am secure in my manhood, I can take one for the team, and was willing to settle for this (Suburban pic).  Robyn’s counter offer was this (tiny car pic).  We have totally different ideas about the kind of car we need.  And it has led to some animated discussions in our family.

Where am I going with this?  Well, starting with a common goal matters.  Starting with a common goal matters when purchasing a car.  And starting with a common goal matters when when you’re being a church.  In fact, I would argue that most of the conflict that occurs in the church comes from different opinions about what and how the church should be.  And by far, most of the hurt feelings and brokenness that I encounter when it comes to church occurs from unmet expectations.  AND SO, for the next six weeks, we are going to talk about our new vision.  As I mentioned this past fall, we are moving into a new era of our church’s history.  We have spent the last decade ON THE MOVE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE!  That vision served us well.  It led us to dig wells in Costa Rica and work with orphans in Naivasha, Kenya.  It has prompted us to feed the hungry in Orlando and repair homes in Georgia.  But as always, life has changed.  And the time has continued on and it is time for a new era and a new vision.  As Jesus said, you don’t put new wine into old wine skins.  Or they will burst.

So, take your Bible and turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28.  We will start reading in verse 16.  That’s a change from the scripture reference in your bulletin.  As I got into the preparation this week I felt I needed to back up a step and start with our church’s mission BEFORE I got into the church’s vision.  By mission, I mean the reason our church exists – our purpose, our reason for being.  And by vision, I mean the picture of who we are going to become as we live out that mission.  As I understand it, our vision is the future form of our mission.  Or to put it another way, our mission, the “why” of our church’s vision, before we get to the “how”.  With that in mind, let’s read Matthew 28:16-20.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

So, three things from our passage this morning.  And the first is that, as disciples, we are to make disciples.

Jesus is clear.  The disciples are to make disciples.  It’s the very last thing he tells his disciples to do before leaving earth.  Consequently, our purpose as a church is to make disciples.  The reason FUMCWP exists is to make disciples.  Any vision we have as a church is to be grounded in making disciples.

I’ve been a part of a church all my life.  I’ve been on a church staff for 31 years.  And I’ve led churches as a pastor for 26 of them.  I’ve been in a church or two.  I have been in churches who felt their purpose was to hold a really good fish fry.  And I have been a part of churches who felt they existed to raise money through selling their gently used possessions.  I’ve worshiped at churches who believed their main calling was to provide worship services for their members.  And I have participated in churches who think the reason they exist is to provide a place for the community to meet.

But if I understand the Scripture correctly, these things, no matter how fine they are, are not the mission of the church.  They might be a part of accomplishing the mission.  But they are not the mission.  Our purpose here as a church to make disciples.   Not to make converts to our religion.  And not to make supporters of the cause.  Not even to make Christians.  We exist as a church to make disciples.

So, what is a disciple?  Simply put, a disciple is a learner.  The word means student.  Disciples are lifelong learners. In particular, a disciple is a scholar in what God says and what God does.   “Then said Jesus to those Jews who believed Him, If you continue in My word, you are My disciples indeed (John 8:31).” 

When I think of being a disciple, the image that speaks to me is one that comes from an ancient Jewish blessing which says in part, “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.”  The idea is that a rabbi’s disciples—those who took on his teachings about scripture—were to follow so closely behind him when they walked, that they would become caked in the dust he kicked up with his feet on the road (https://thejesusquestion.org/2015/10/08/get-dusty/).  In other words, a disciple is one who is so intent on learning and so committed on incorporating the instructions of their teacher that they disregard their comfort and their reputation and even their own agenda.

I ask you this morning, how closely are you following your rabbi?  Are you intentionally growing as a disciple?  Are you learning more and more of what God is doing and what God is saying?  Are you coming to obey all that Jesus has taught?

Second, this will disrupt us.  That’s because making disciples requires us to GO!  Specifically, it involves going and hanging out with folks who are not disciples. It’s literally going to where others spend their lives and hang out with them and be present with them!  This is what Jesus did.  And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14).”  Or as the Message translation puts it – The Word became flesh and took up residence in our neighborhood.  Jesus was constantly doing this. Jesus went to where the people were.  He hung out with sinners and tax collectors.  He ate in their homes.  Visited them at their place of work.  He intentionally went to them.

Unfortunately, churches fall into the habit of waiting for people to come to us.  We have this wonderful building.  It’s located in a prime spot in a beautiful city.  Visitors show up as guests on our doorstep every Sunday without any effort on our part.  It’s tempting to take that for granted. It’s tempting sometimes to wait for people to come to us.  To adapt to our worship practices, to invest the time they need to learn how to be one of us.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us to wait.  He tells us to GO!  To go to those among us – to Jerusalem!  But also to those around us and to those who are not like us – to Judea and Samaria.  We are even to go to the ends of the earth – to those who we do not know but are still responsible for.  In other words, we are to GO locally and internationally!  We are not absolved from going half way around the world to Kenya because there are needs here in Orlando.  Conversely, we are not excused from making disciples in Orlando just because we are doing great mission work in Kenya.  We are to GO to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

We are to GO in the belief that God is at work in our lives.  As Methodists, we believe that from the moment we are born God is constantly calling to us, wooing us, drawing us ever closer to Him.  First, helping us recognize that God exists.  And then to admit that we need God and that we cannot be without God.  In 12 step language – to confess that our lives have become unmanageable and that God can restore us to sanity.  God is calling us, and not just us!  But every single person that we meet.  In 1 Peter 3:9 it says that God is not slow as some think but is patient not wanting anyone to perish.

And we are to GO with the intention of becoming a source of God’s grace to those in need.  I recently read a story about St Francis.  He tells a story about one day he decided to go on a preaching mission to a nearby village.  And to take a young novice along with him.  On their way, they passed an injured man.  Francis promptly stopped, saw to the poor fellow’s needs and arranged medical care for him.  Continuing on, they soon passed a homeless man who had not eaten for days.  Again, Francis interrupted his journey and provided help.  And so it went throughout the day: they would come across people in need, and Francis would minister to their needs as best he could. Finally, darkness was about to set in and not a single word had been preached.  Francis told his novice that it was time for them to return to the monastery for evening prayers. The young man was disturbed and said, “But, Father, you said we were coming to town to preach to the people.”  Francis smiled and said, “My friend, that’s what we’ve been doing all day.”

We are to make disciples.  We will have to interrupt our life to do it.  Finally, it’s not a suggestion.  And it’s not a request.  It’s a command.  Our Lord, our savior, the One we have committed our lives to following has commanded us to do so.  Verse 18 – then Jesus said – “all authority in earth and heaven has been given me – THEREFORE – go and make disciples…”  The “therefore” links the authority of Christ with his imperative.  As one commentator I read wrote, the image is that of an officer reminding a private of his or her rank before giving the order.  Our Lord can send whomever He wills to do whatever He pleases.  And he has sent us to make disciples.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor in Nazi Germany who was arrested and eventually martyred because of his work against the Nazi regime.  Before his death, he wrote a number of books, including The Cost of Discipleship in which he focuses on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  And in particular what it says about the cost of discipleship.  He devotes more than a few pages to Matthew 5:13 in which Jesus says to his disciples – “you are the salt of the earth.  But if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

The key word for Bonhoeffer is ARE.  As in, you ARE the salt of the earth.  He points out that Jesus does not say – you ought to be the salt of the earth.  Or you can be the salt of the earth.  Or you will be the salt of the earth.  He says – you ARE the salt of the earth.   In other words, it’s part of your nature.  It’s not something you ask to do or decide to do.  You simply ARE the salt of the earth. You are the ones who preserves and seasons on earth.

In fact, according to Jesus, if the disciples stop doing that or stop preserving and seasoning life, if they stop being salt, they lose their very identity and nature.  Jesus says if the salt loses its taste how will its saltiness be restored? It is really no longer good for anything.  And it is thrown out and trampled underfoot. Being a disciple is either or.  It’s not possible to be a disciple and not make disciples.  It’s part of our nature.

So, my challenge this week is to do a little assessment.  Spend a few minutes assessing your saltiness.  Are you a source of grace to those who live around you?  Are you intentionally spending time with those who aren’t disciples?  Are you purposely going to their world just to be present with them, so you can invest in them? If not, who has God positioned in your life for you to invest time in so you can make disciples? Seminary professor and author Dr. Howard Hendricks argued that every disciple should have three distinct relationships in their life.  An older wiser disciple from who you can learn.  A friend who encourages you and holds you accountable.  And a younger non-believer or new believer in whom you can mentor.   I ask you – who is teaching you to be a disciple?  Who is holding you accountable to walking in the ways of Christ?  And who are you mentoring?  Who are you investing yourself in or to make disciples?  It will disrupt us.  It’s not a suggestion.

This week as I was preparing I came across the story of a women named Yasuko Namba.  An employee of Fed-Ex with a passion for climbing, Yasuko was the second Japanese climber in history to ascend all 7 of the largest mountains on the planet (pic #5).  At 47 years old, she was the oldest woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.  But her accomplishment was short lived.  Tragically she died hours later when her climbing expedition was caught in a blizzard and she succumbed to exhaustion and froze to death.

Jon Krakauer wrote about it in his book, Into Thin Air.  He says that Namba desperately wanted to get to the top of Everest.  That she was totally focused on it.  She even jostled her way past everyone to the front of the line.  And she made it.  She accomplished her goal.  She stood at the top of the world, and was cheered on by millions back home as she did.  But according to Krakauer it was the wrong goal.   Yasuko made a mistake that is frequently made by climbers.  Her goal should never have been to get to the top of the summit.  But to make it safely down. And it cost her everything (www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2016/july/7072516.html).

It’s a tragic story.  One I don’t share lightly.  But I believe it contains some wisdom that we would do well to heed as a church.  Having the wrong goal can be tragic.  There can be tragic results when we lose sight of what ultimately matters.  Especially when it comes to being the body of Christ.  As the living hands and feet of Christ in this world.

Next week I will begin to unpack the vision.  The “how” of our mission.  The way we will strive to make disciples.  For now, I invite you to ponder.  What is the mission here at FUMCWP?  Is it making disciples?  What do our programs and bulletins and worship services and our communication and staffing say about the mission of our church?  In terms of how we spend our time together and the way we allocate our resources – what is the mission of our church?  Are we making disciples?  Are we being faithful to Christ’s command?

The truth is I AM grateful to be a part of this family.  God has blessed us.  And disciples are being made here.  And that is crucial.  Because you and I, we are not just buying a car.  We are the living body of Christ in this world.  We are the salt of the earth.  So, I am going to follow more closely to my Rabbi.  I am going to allow myself to be covered in the dust of my rabbi.  How about you?  How about you?

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2017

I recently heard a story about a woman who wanted a parrot that could speak.  So, she went down to the local pet store and they sold her a parrot that was guaranteed to talk.  She took the parrot home, and placed him in a cage.  Two days later, she returned to the store to complain that the parrot hadn’t said a word.  The owner asked her if she had put a mirror in the cage.  He said, “parrots sometimes like to preen themselves in front of a mirror and that helps them begin to talk.”  So, the woman bought a mirror, took it home and put it in the cage with the parrot.  The next day she returned to the store.  No luck, she reported, the parrot had not even tried to talk.  “Try a ladder,” said the manager.  “Sometimes parrots like to climb ladders and that stimulates them to talk.”  So, the woman bought a ladder and tried that, but to no avail.  The following day she was back again.  The parrot was making no progress.  “Have you tried a swing?” the man said.  “Parrots like to amuse themselves on a swing.  That will surely do the trick.”  As before, the woman bought a swing and placed it in the cage with her bird.  The next morning, she came back to the store.  “My parrot died last night.”  The manager said, “I am so sorry to hear that.  Did he say anything before he died?”  “Yes, he did,” said the woman.  “Just before he took his last breath he said – don’t they any sell food down at that pet store?” (James W. Moore, O say, Can You See?  Dimensions Press, Nashville.  P. 61)

It’s Christmas!  This year I wanted Christmas to be the very best!  And like the woman in the story, I want Christmas to speak to me.  I want it to be profound.  So, I have added in all kinds of things.  Christmas shopping and Christmas decorating and Christmas partying.  Christmas mirrors and Christmas ladders and Christmas swings.  Only to discover that the more I added, the greater my risk of missing the one thing that will feed my soul.  Jesus is the bread of life.  He is the one we hunger for.  And so this evening I want to quickly look at three truths from the story of the shepherds in the hope and prayer we will be encounter anew the profound grace of Christ this Christmas.

The first is that no one is beyond the heart of God.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.

God’s son arrives in Bethlehem and the mayor doesn’t even rate an invitation.  The King of Kings and Lord of Lords comes to earth and the High Priest in Jerusalem is left out of the loop.  It’s the biggest event in human history.  Time will be measured in reference to his arrival.  And yet, Caesar is told nothing.  Instead when the baby Jesus arrives, God sends an angel to shepherds.

In those days, shepherds were regarded as the very bottom rung of social ladder.  Their language was crude.  Their hygiene was spotty at best.  When they walked in the room you were immediately overwhelmed by the smell of a campfire and wet wool sweaters.  They were considered to be liars and thieves.  Their testimony was not admissible in court.  Pharisees lumped them together with tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners.

So why did God send angles to shepherds first? Why not Caesar? Why not Caiaphas, the High Priest?  Why not the mayor or the community leaders of Bethlehem? Why shepherds? I think God came to the shepherds because to show that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

If you hear nothing else this morning, hear this.  No matter your background.  No matter your past.  No what you have done or what others have done to you, you are the desire of God’s heart.  It doesn’t matter how religious you are.  Or how perfect you are.  There is no failure, there is no fault, there is no habit or hang-up that can steer God’s love away from you.  Paul says in his letter to the Romans; I am convinced that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That’s the Christmas message.

Second, God loves us too much to ignore our hurts, our fears and our brokenness.  11 Today in the town of David a SAVIOR has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  At its core, Christmas is about a savior.  We don’t always want to hear that.  We want our Christmases to be merry and bright.  We want to focus on the joy.  We don’t want to hear about the brokenness and the fear.

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Author Philip Yancey tells the story of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who went to China in the sixteenth century.  He brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it.  While the Chinese eagerly embraced the portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, they reacted with revulsion and horror at the paintings of the crucifixion.  Yancey goes on to say that we do much the same thing.  Thumb through a stack of Christmas cards and you will find that we observe a domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. And that above all, we remove from it any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary. (http://cpwchurch.org/our-daily-bread-httpodb-org-a-new-force-philip-yancey-december-14-2013-when-matteo-ricci-went-to-china-in-the-16th-century-he-took-samples-of-religious-art-to-illustrate-the-christian-story-for-p/)

The truth is, Christmas IS a time of joy!  It’s a time of joy precisely BECAUSE we have been delivered from our brokenness and fear.  And not because we have the prettiest tree or get the coolest gift or serve the perfect Christmas dinner.  I ask you this evening.  Do you have joy?  Will your joy outlast your Christmas tree?  Do you have the joy that comes from receiving our savior?

If you are looking for that kind of joy, the first step is to admit we need saving.  It’s funny.  We go to counselors to help us face the hurts and hang-ups.  Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.  We join support groups to overcome our destructive habits.  The 12 steps are built on the premise that acknowledging our addictions is the beginning of journey to health.   But we don’t always connect that to our faith.  How in the world can we recognize a savior much less receive one if we don’t admit we need one?  The Good News is, God is faithful and reliable. If we confess our sins, he forgives them and cleanses us from everything we’ve done wrong.  1 John 1:9

Finally, God has gone to extraordinary lengths to show us His love.  12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 

It’s one thing to believe that Christmas is about the coming of a Savior.  It’s another to believe that Christmas is about a Savior being BORN.  It’s one thing to believe that Christmas is about the One without beginning and without end coming to earth.  It’s quite another to believe that Christmas is about the One without beginning and end coming to earth as a tiny helpless baby.   I mean, why not come as some kind of power or energy field?  To paraphrase the great theologian Han Solo – may the force be with us!  Or why not a commander of an angel army riding in on His white horse?   Why come as a tiny defenseless baby?  Why put yourself at the mercy of others?  I believe God did this for our sake.  Remember what the angel said to the shepherds?  Do not be afraid.  I think if Jesus had come at the beginning like he is going to come at the end, we would run in terror.  So, Jesus came into this world the same way you and I did – through the birth canal.  That’s how much He wants us to know His freedom and His love.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only son.  That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16.

Maybe you have struggled to believe that God could love you.  Maybe you have wondered if God didn’t care.  This Christmas I challenge you to follow the examples of the shepherds.  What did the shepherds say?  Let us go and see this thing that HAS happened.  The shepherds believed.  They have faith.  This Christmas I challenge you to go come and go see the Christ Child. To believe that no one is beyond God’s heart, that God loves us too much to ignore our brokenness and fear, that God went to extraordinary lengths to show us that love.  Because that’s the heart of Christmas.  That’s what makes Christmas significant. That’s what feeds our souls beyond a season.  Everything else is just mirrors and ladders and swings.  This Christmas, I am going to go and see.  How about you?  How about you?

Behold! Part 4

Luke 1:46-55

December 17, 2017

So, my favorite Broadway musical of all time is Les Mis.  Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, it follows the life and trials of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean – from his imprisonment for stealing bread to his ultimate redemption during the 1832 June rebellion in Paris.  Among the supporting characters is a poor working girl named Fantine, whose sole drive is to provide for her young daughter Cosette.  One day, her supervisor at the factory finds out she is an unwed mother.  And Fantine is fired.  With nowhere else to turn, and desperate to make ends meet, she becomes a prostitute.  In turn, selling her hair and then her front teeth to buy clothes for Cosette.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that there is this scene where Fantine sings a song about her troubles and despair.  It is called I Dreamed a Dream.  In our video clip this morning it is performed by Anne Hathaway.  She plays Fantine in the latest version of the movie.  Take a look.  (VIDEO).  “But the tigers come at night.  With their voices soft as thunder.  As they tear your hope apart.  As they turn your dream to shame.”   Feel the despair and the brokenness in those words.

Now compare that song to another song I also brought along this morning.  This one also sung by a young woman who has seen hardship.  Like Fantine, Mary has her share of struggles.  But unlike Fantine, Mary sings words of joy and thankfulness.  Why?  Why does one have words of hope, while the other contains words of despair?  Let’s see if we can find out as we read Mary’s Magnificat – which is Latin for magnify.  It is found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  Starting in verse 46.  It goes like this.

“And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.   He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.  He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”   Luke 1:46 – 56

God has sent the angel Gabriel to Mary.  She has found favor with God.  And she will give birth to a son.  His name will be Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  He will reign on the throne of his ancestor David.  And his kingdom will have no end.  Mary of course, is more than a little curious as to how this will take place.  Not to mention, more than a little anxious about telling Joseph.  Surprise!  I’m pregnant!  And God’s the daddy!  Gabriel tells her – God’s Spirit is going to come upon you.  And God’s power will rest on you.  And Mary says, I am the Lord’s servant.  May your word be fulfilled in me!

After the angel leaves, Mary hurries off to her cousin’s house.  Hurry being relative to that time and place.  Elizabeth lives 90 miles away.  Depending on your preferred mode of transportation – foot or donkey – 90 miles would take 3 to 5 days.  That sounds ridiculously slow in this modern day of Chevy’s and BMW’s.  Though there are some days sitting in I-4 traffic when I’m convinced a donkey would be quicker.  Anyway, Mary goes to Elizabeth’s house.  And when Elizabeth sees Mary, she is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And she proclaims Mary to be blessed and Mary’s child to be blessed.  In response, Mary breaks out in song and she sings about two things in particular.

First, Mary sings a song of gratitude.  “And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. 

David Brooks is an op-ed writer for the New York Times.  In July of 2015 he wrote an article about gratitude.  In it he talks about expectations.  Specifically, Brooks says that gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations.  For example, when he stays at fancy hotels he says he gets grumpy when he has to go crawling around looking for an outlet.  Or if he can’t figure out how to work the shower controls.  Because he expects to be catered to at a fancy hotel.   On the other hand, when he stays in budget hotels he is always pleasantly surprised, grateful even, to find a coffee machine in the room or a waffle maker in the lobby.  Because he doesn’t expect them.  Gratitude, says Brooks, is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.

He goes on to say that while most people are grateful some of the time, some people are thankful almost of the time.   The difference is the latter’s ability to manage their anticipations.  They learn to take nothing for granted.  They understand they have been given far more than they paid for.  And that they are much richer than they deserve. That their families, schools and workplace put far more into them than they give back (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/28/opinion/david-brooks-the-structure-of-gratitude.html).

We see this kind of gratitude in Mary’s song.  In particular, we see this in her use of the word FOR.  “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, FOR or BECAUSE he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”  Mary clearly sees God’s kindness in her life.  She recognizes that she has been given much.  Her singing flows out of the goodness she has received.  And we see gratitude in the way Mary describes her own situation.  “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his SERVANT.  Actually, in the Greek, Mary describes herself as something lower than a servant.  The word she uses is doulos.  It means bond-servant.  A bond-servant is a slave who is owned or bound to his or her master.  As opposed to a servant who is hired help and is free to go elsewhere.  Mary does not have an expectation of God’s blessing in her life.

And just in case we might miss the point, Mary throws in the word – BEHOLD!  We talked about this last week.  And the Greek word idouIdou means LOOK!  Or PAY ATTENTION!  Or if you are really hip – YO!  Idou is found throughout the Christmas story.  We first encountered it three weeks ago when the angel came to Joseph.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…Matthew 1:20.  And then last week when Gabriel paid a visit to Mary.  And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And it shows up again today in verse 48.  The English Standard Version is closer to the original Greek here.  It reads – For BEHOLD, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  Mary wants others to know that God has exceeded her expectations.  She has been given far more than she deserves.  And she is grateful.

I ask you this morning – Are you grateful?  Do you recognize God’s blessing in your life this Christmas? Are you taking his goodness for granted?  Are you grateful for the alarm going off at the start of the day?  It means you are alive.  Are you grateful for that ever-replenishing pile of laundry?  It means you have clothes to wear.  How about the taxes you pay?  Taxes mean you are employed.  The parking spot at the end of the parking lot?  You have means of transportation and the ability to walk.  In what ways has God blessed you?  Or have you come to take His goodness for granted?  How has God blessed you?

I don’t know about you, but to me this is such an important question – particularly at Christmas!  What with all the Christmas parties and Christmas feasting and Christmas gifts, I find it so easy to take on an attitude of entitlement – which just destroys gratitude.  For example, one of the things that I do each year, a little confession about me here, is to prepare a list of potential Christmas gifts I wish to receive.  I type it up and I give it to Robyn.  I want to spare her the grief she might experience over getting me the wrong gift.   Last year, I made it simple.  Right at the top of my list in bold print was a flat screen HD TV.  It’s not like we are hurting for one.  Only have about 7 in the house.  But you never know what happen in the game while you are in the shower.  What I got was two nice sweaters, a tie, a couple of books and a framed picture of our kids.  It was all good.  Especially since I got Robyn a flat screen HD TV for Christmas!  How easy it is at Christmas to develop an edge of entitlement to all the stuff we should receive at Christmas, rather than sense of gratitude for all we have already been given.

Second, Mary’s song is a song of faith.  “And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. 

The key word there is HAS.  For he HAS been mindful of the humble state of his bond-servant.  HAS as in already occurred!  He HAS brought down rulers from their thrones and HAS lifted up the humble.  He HAS filled the hungry with good things but HAS sent the rich away empty. Eight times Mary says that God HAS already done such and such.

And yet at the time Israel is living under the oppression of Rome.  Swindled by tax collectors and suffering from tyrannical puppet kings like Herod, the Israelites are captives in a police state. Still Mary sings – He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever.”  How can she sing that?  Because she has faith!  She believes that God’s is already at work accomplishing His purpose – even if she cannot see it clearly.  The author of Hebrews says that faith is assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.  Mary had that assurance.  She was convinced that God would keep his promises.  How else could she sing – verse 49 – the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

Several years ago, I came across a sermon that talked about the gap of time between Election Day and Inauguration Day.  We elect our Presidents on the second Tuesday in November.  But his or her presidency doesn’t officially begin until January 20th.  That person has won.  It’s in all the media.  The whole country is preparing for a transition.  He or she starts forming a cabinet.  A new era has begun.  But on the other hand, it hasn’t.  There is a period of gestation between Election day and Inauguration Day.

In the same way, God’s reign on earth has begun.  God’s Spirit is already at work.  And yet God’s reign is not yet come into its fullness.  We still struggle.  We still wrestle with brokenness and loss and fear.  There is still war and poverty and discrimination.  But the day is coming when God’s will – WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven.  And so, we sing Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the new born King.  Peace on earth and mercy mild.  God and sinner reconciled.

Maybe this Christmas you don’t feel very peaceful.  Maybe this Christmas you feel far from God.  Perhaps your heart is reeling from the loss of someone you love very much.  Maybe you are overwhelmed with the consequences of some really poor choices you or others around you have made.  I ask you this morning – do you believe that God can and God will bind up your wounds and heal your broken heart?  Are you convinced that God can and God will overturn the damage of past decisions?  Do you believe that God can restore your life to sanity?  Do you have a Christmas faith?  Mary’s song is a song of gratitude.  And Mary’s song is a song of faith.

The other day I had the opportunity to view the theological epic – The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!  Remember how at the end of the movie, the Grinch takes all of the Who’s presents and all of the Who’s lights?  He even takes the last can of who hash.  He hates those things.  He can’t get past them and so he takes them and he packs all of it up on his sleigh.  And he makes his little dog Max pull up to the top of mountain.  And he waits there for all of Whoville to wake up and find Christmas gone and fallen apart.

But much to his surprise, on Christmas morning, the Who’s in Whoville still come out and gather in the town square – and the bells begin to ring.  And they begin to sing another song.  Do you remember their song?  It went – wah hoo, wah hoo, wah hoo, wah hoo, Christmas time is here again!  And it suddenly dawns upon the Grinch that Christmas is not about the presents or the lights or the trees or even about the roast beast.  It’s not until the Grinch gets past all that stuff that he realizes that there is something greater about Christmas.

To me that greater is about gratitude for a love so great that God literally became flesh and moved into our neighborhood!  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14. And to me, that greater is about strengthening my faith in God’s future.  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.  Ephesians 3:20

So, my challenge this week is to broaden your perspective.  To get past, if you will, the surface, to the something greater.  Specifically, set aside time in the next coming days to remind yourself of the bigger picture.  It might be gathering with your loved ones near the tree and saying a prayer of thanks for the coming Savior.  It might be setting aside time at the dinner table on Christmas day to read the first chapter of the Gospel of John.  Reflect upon the meaning of God coming to take up residence among us.  Or gather up some food and take to the local food pantry.  Be a part of God’s work to fill up the hungry with good things.

The point is to prepare your heart for joy!  That’s ultimately the difference I see in Mary’s song.  Her heart rejoices in God her Savior!  Fantine sings of hope torn apart and dreams turned to shame.  She sings a lament.  But Mary finds joy in God’s blessing!  Do you want to find joy this Christmas?  Regardless of your circumstances?  Want to rejoice even though you cannot see the reign of God fully?  Then sing a song of faith.  And sing a song of gratitude.

Because the day is coming when the will of God WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven.  The day IS COMING when God will overcome evil and death and sorrow and war and discrimination and suffering.  His kingdom has begun.

So, I am going to sing.  How about you?  How about you?

Behold! Part 3

Luke 1:26-31

December 10, 2017

So, I brought along a riddle this morning.  It comes from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Faster and Slow.  I want to see how quickly you can solve it.  Are you ready?  It goes like this (slide 1):  A bat and a ball cost $1.10.  The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.  How much does the ball cost?”  Know the answer?  Turn to your neighbor and tell them how much it costs.

How many of you came up with 10 cents?  If you did you are in good company.  According to Kahneman, more than 50% of students at MIT, Harvard and Princeton got the same answer.  Too bad it’s wrong!  If the ball costs 10 cents, then the total cost will be $1.20.  Ten cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat.  The correct answer is 5 cents.  If the ball is 5 cents, then the bat is $1.05.  For a total of $1.10.  (www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2012/february/7022012.html)  Kahneman uses the puzzle to illustrate the importance of slowing down and focusing.  He argues that the answer doesn’t depend so much on intelligence as it does paying attention.

I share that with you because it’s so easy to lose focus during this time of year, it is easy to lose focus.  Advent is designed to be a season of reflection and preparation for the coming Christ child.  But that is often the last thing we do.  What with the Christmas tree, the Christmas gifts, the Christmas lights, the Christmas cards, the Christmas parties, the Christmas in-laws, and the extra five pounds from Christmas cookies!  And yet, when we fail to slow down and pay attention we are likely to miss the point all together.  Just as some of us did in our little quiz this morning.

In recognition of this, we are working our way through a sermon series called BEHOLD!  As I was picking out Advent scriptures this past summer, I noticed that the same Greek word occurs throughout the Christmas story.  It’s the word is idou.  Which means BEHOLD!  Or PAY ATTENTION!  Or in southern Greece, Y’ALL, LOOK!  We first encountered it two weeks ago when Pastor Craig led us in reflecting on Joseph.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…Matthew 1:20. We are going to encounter it again this morning in the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary.  Only you won’t actually find in the Bibles we read today.  Turns out the translators of the NIV Bible dropped the word somewhere along the way.  Idou or BEHOLD is used over 1300 times in the KJV.  But in the NIV Bible it is found only 6 times.  Nevertheless, it’s there (in the original Greek) in the last verse of our reading today.

So, take your Bibles and turn with me to Luke 1:26-39.  One of the first things that Gabriel is going to say to Mary is – do not be afraid!  Which as we know, is the standard angel opener.  Because in the Bible, when angels appear, people get afraid.  Every so often I’ll read a story or see a TV special about an angel appearing.  And it’s all sweetness and peace and nice.  And I’m going – I don’t think so.  When a Bible angel appears, folks fall on their face.  They think they are seeing God.  Bible angels are big and powerful and frightening even when they are not trying to be.  You may want God to speak to you through his Angel.  Me – I’m pretty sure I’d need to change my underpants if an angel suddenly showed up.  With that in mind, let’s read together.  Luke 1:26-39.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

So, two keys to paying attention this Christmas.  And the first to recognize you are favored by God!  God favors you.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Turns out, the particular word Gabriel uses for favored is only found in the Bible twice.  Depending on your translation the only other place is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 1 in his greeting.  So, there is not a lot to be gleaned about God’s favor from cross referencing.  And yet, we can learn some things from Mary’s own story.

First of all, God’s favor is not based upon our background.  Mary was from an insignificant village on the edge of the sticks.  In those days if you had actually heard of Nazareth – you didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about it.  Remember the story where Philip has met Jesus and he goes to Nathaniel and says – Nathaniel I have found the Messiah.  Nathaniel says – really?  Who is he?  And Philip says – Jesus of Nazareth.  And Nathaniel says – you’re kidding, right?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

And God’s favor is not dependent upon our wisdom and ability.  As you know, Mary is very young – most likely somewhere between 12 and 14 when Jesus was born.  We deduce this from the fact that in first century Palestine the average life expectancy of a woman was somewhere between 35 and 40 years of age.  This meant that when you reached the point of being able to have children it was time to get married.  In fact, a young Jewish woman in the first century could become legally engaged when she was 12 years and one day old.  And the Scripture says is that Mary was legally engaged to Joseph when she found out she was with child by the Holy Spirit.

God favor is not about our resources.  Mary was very poor.  In Luke chapter 2 we read that after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple according to Jewish custom to fulfill the requirements of the law.  According to the Law of Moses, after a woman had given birth to a son she was to bring an offering of a one-year-old lamb to the Temple for purification.  If the woman could not afford a lamb, two doves or two pigeons could be substituted.  Luke says that Mary and Joseph brought a pair of pigeons for the sacrifice of purification.

Being favored by God doesn’t mean we will always enjoy great circumstances.  Or that we will always get our way.  I read a sermon this week by a pastor named Michael Marsh.  In it he wonders if Mary really felt favored – walking through town with her unwed pregnant belly the subject of stares and judgment?  Did she feel favored as Joseph planned to leave her and avoid a scandal?  Or when she gave birth on the ground among the animals?  How favored did she feel when she had to take her family and flee for their very lives to Egypt?   Being favored by God doesn’t mean that life will always be easy.

Maybe it’s your first Christmas without your partner or your child or your dear friend and you ache with the grief.  Maybe you have recently lost your job and you wonder how you are going to make the mortgage much less buy Christmas presents.  Perhaps you recently received an alarming diagnosis and you are afraid for your very life.  Maybe you are in the throes of an addiction that has taken your freedom and robbed you of hope of ever being whole.  Maybe you don’t feel so favored this Christmas.

But you are!  That’s because being favored by God is to be pursued by God’s grace.  It’s to be delighted in.   (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5487&t=NIV).  When we favor someone, we want to be with Him or Her.  And clearly God wanted to be with us.  John says that God so LOVED the world that He gave His only begotten Son.  And Paul says – and I am paraphrasing here – that we are to have the same mindset that was in Christ, who being in very nature God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.  But made himself nothing.  And taking the very nature of a servant, and being made in human likeness, and found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

I ask you this morning, what would it be like to go through this Christmas season fully aware that you are favored?  Would you approach Christmas any differently?  Would you treat others differently?  What would it look like to use this Christmas to focus on God’s desire to be with us?

Second, focusing at Christmas means making yourself available to God’s presence.  Verse 38 – “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Or in the ESV – And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Don’t forget the idou (slide 2).

It’s interesting to me that in Luke’s gospel, Gabriel’s visit to Mary comes immediately after the angel’s visit to Zechariah.  Zechariah as you know was the father of John the Baptist.  And her song about her miraculous conception comes right before Zechariah’s song about the miraculous conception of John.  Luke could have written the entire story surrounding the birth of John the Baptist.  And then recorded the conception and birth of Jesus.  Instead he interweaves the two.  He does this because he wants to highlight the contrast between the two responses.  Zechariah does not believe angel’s promise.  In Luke 1:18 he says – how I shall I know this?  In other words, how can I be sure this will happen?  Zechariah wants proof.  Mary on the other hand says – how can this be?  She wants information.  She already believes that it has happened.  And so, she makes herself available.

God chooses Abraham and Sarah to create a great nation, but they are too old to have children.  God chooses Moses to deliver the Israelites from slavery but Moses stutters and is a refugee from the law.  God chooses Ruth to become grandmother to King David but she is a Moabite – a foreigner and a widow with nothing.  When God chooses David to be the next King of Israel David is still a boy tending sheep – picked on by his brothers and considered the runt of the litter by his father.  But David is the one.  And God chooses Mary, a poor teenage girl to bear His son.  Time and time again God chooses the least, and the last, the too old and the too young, not because they are able.  But because they make themselves available.

In her book, Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way.  God does not define our relationship by our really bad decisions or our squandering of resources.  On the other hand, our relationship with God is not determined by our virtue either.  It is not determined by being nice, or being good or even how much we do at church.  Our relationship with God is simply determined by the wastefully extravagant love of God.

So, my challenge this week is to sharpen your Christmas focus.  In particular, I challenge you to identify three ways that you have experienced the presence of Christ this Advent.  It might be the presence of Christ in the love of family or friends.  It might be the presence of Christ in the abundance of delicious and nourishing food.  It might be Christ in the joy of laughter.  Or Christ in the singing of Christmas music.  Identify three ways you have encountered Christ’s presence.  And then share it with a loved one.  This is so important.  Because in Jesus we experience the grace of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  In him we find the favor grace of the Son of God.  Through his presence we receive salvation.  “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”  Luke 1:31. Jesus or Yeshua loosely means savior.  I ask you this morning – where is your focus this Christmas?  Is it on a savior who came out of a wastefully extravagant love for us.

This past Thanksgiving Robyn and the kids I had the opportunity to make our annual trek to the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a very important time with Robyn’s family.  One that we all look forward to.  But here is the thing.  It takes me about three days to disentangle from work.  And then about three days before I return I start thinking about work again.  In part because of the way I am wired.  And in part because I am so performance oriented, I wind up missing a good bit of our family time because I am focused elsewhere.  Which is tragic.  Because it’s time I won’t get back.  It’s not a riddle about baseballs and bats.  It’s real life.

I confess that to you because the same thing so easily happens to me at Christmas.  I can get so wrapped up in the busyness and demands of Christmas, that I miss the wastefully extravagant love of God all together.  So, this year I am going to focus on God’s favor.  And I am going to make myself available.  How about you?  How about you?

Take a look at this video:

Video:  http://www.sermonspice.com/product/75607/getting-christmas-right

Hallelujah!

Festival Gloria

December 3, 2017

We are going to end our worship this morning by singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  The word Hallelujah comes from two Hebrew words.  Hallelu which means praise!  And Jah which is short for Yahweh.  Yahweh being the Hebrew version of Jehovah or God.  It’s an imperative or command.  And it’s plural.  So that Hallelujah translates roughly, praise ye the Lord!  Or praise you the One who is!

As students of the Bible we know that the scriptures are filled with references praising God.  We are to praise Him continually, not just on Sundays (Hebrews 13:15).  We are to praise Him for who He is and for what He has done (1 Peter 2:9).  We are to praise him with song and instruments and dance (Psalm 150:3-4).  It is clear that we are to praise God.  My question this morning is – why?  Why should we praise God?  Are we to praise God simply because He commands us to so?  I was reading the other day about C.S. Lewis’ struggle with the as a young man with all these references to praising God.  He was bothered by the idea of a God who would incessantly demand that His people tell him how great he is.  He wondered – is God so vain?  Surely, God doesn’t need our praise.  So why should he command it?  This morning I suggest two reasons.  Both have to do with OUR well-being.

First, praising God shifts our focus off ourselves and puts it back on God.

Oscar Wilde once told a story in which the devil was crossing the desert and came upon a group of fiends tormenting him. (https://interestingliterature.com/2013/10/16/the-best-anecdotes-about-oscar-wilde/.  As it was obvious that the taunts were just rolling off the holy man, the devil stepped forward to give them a lesson. He said, “What you are doing is too crude.”  And with that he whispered to the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.”  At once, a scowl of malignant jealousy clouded the serene face of the holy man.

The truth is, pride has a way of placing our attention fully on ourselves.  It seduces us into thinking that we deserve all that we desire.  And at least what others have.  The LATEST version of this in my life came this past week.  We now have three and a half drivers in the family and two cars.  And daddy is tired of giving up his truck.  So, last week we found ourselves on the car lot.  I must confess it didn’t take me very long at all before I had convinced myself that I personally NEEDED a new car.  I DESERVED a new car.  In fact, it was my RIGHT to have that new car – simply because I wanted it.  And not just any new car.  One that would require a small mortgage.  Half my blood.  Which is ridiculous.  Truly not healthy or helpful for me or my family.

But here is the thing.  I have this tendency to fall into the trap of thinking I am a god.  Little g-o-d.  When in reality I am God’s.  Capital G-o-d’s.  Can you relate to that?  Ever been increasingly or over focusing on you?  Ever found yourself acting like you’re a god – little g o d and forgetting that you are God’s? It’s especially in these times that we need to praise ye the Lord! Because it shifts the focus off of us and back on to him.

Second, praising God brings transformation.

In Acts chapter 16 of the Bible it says that while they were in Philippi, Paul and Silas were arrested, stripped and flogged, put into chains and thrown into the deepest part of the jail.  And that despite their suffering they began praising God.  And that it was as they were singing and praying that there was a violent earthquake.  And their chains broke free and the doors opened.  But rather than escape Paul and Silas remained where they were.  And it was because of this witness, that the Philippi jailer and his family committed themselves to Jesus Christ.

Praising God brings revival.  It doesn’t just follow revival, it actually brings us for revival.  Andrew Womak puts it this way.  Praise isn’t like the caboose that just follows what happens, but it’s more like the engine of a train that makes things happen.  Be anxious about nothing, but in everything through prayer and petition with Thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:6-8.  At the very least, praising God brings peace.  Not as the world defines peace.  Rather the peace of Christ that supersedes our circumstances.

We know that this in not only Biblical.  It’s also biological.  Saw a Ted Talk this week called Singing Together Changes the Brain.  This idea that singing together with hymns and songs makes us happier, healthier, smarter and more creative.  It boosts our immune system and helps us fight illness and depression https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHOBr8H9EM.  You wonder why the choir is continually growing.  They’re in on this.

I ask you this morning.  What troubles you?  Are you anxious?  Are you afraid? Is there an area of your life that needs change?  Do you need to be less self-focused?  Then praise ye the Lord.  Praise Him for who He is and praise Him for what he has done for you.  Praise Him so that you remember that you are God’s and not a god.  Praise Him to bring transformation to your life and those in the lives around you.  This morning I am going to stand here and I am going to listen and I’m even going to sing as we do the Hallelujah chorus.  I am going to praise ye the Lord! How about you?  How about you?

Legacy, Part 3

Nehemiah 2:11-20

November 19, 2017

When I was in the second grade, my teacher Mrs. Jones, taught our class a poem.  In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.  He sailed by night; he sailed by day; He used the stars to find his way.  Mrs. Jones also taught us that Columbus discovered America.  Which isn’t exactly true.  In fact, Columbus ran into the Bahamas.  Which would have been great if he hadn’t been sailing for Japan.  You see, by the late 15th century, Europe had developed a taste for the spices of the East Indies – black pepper, ginger and cloves.  After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1543, travel to the Far East via the Silk Road had become much more difficult.  Navigators were beginning to explore ways East by sailing West.  What they didn’t know was – how far?  And here Columbus made a series of bad assumptions.

First, he assumed that there was just one ocean – stretching from Europe all the way to Japan.  And that there was no significant land mass between (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Columbus).  I have brought along a map similar to the one Columbus used (slide 1).  On this particular map, the mapmakers have superimposed in light blue an outline of North America to show geography as it actually is.  Land masses Columbus knew about are in yellow.  Spain and Africa on the right.  And Cathay which is China on the left.  And the large Island to the left of center is Japan.  In those days Japan was thought to be located in what we now know as Mexico.

Second, Columbus assumed that Japan was much closer than it actually was.  In 255 B.C. – roughly two hundred years after Nehemiah sat down and wept over the remnant in Jerusalem – the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes had calculated the earth’s circumference to within a few hundred miles.  Columbus combined the work of Eratosthenes along with his own estimation of the breadth of Asia and determined that the Atlantic Ocean was 5000 miles wide.  Subtracting the distance from China to Japan, he then concluded that Japan was 3000 miles away from Spain.  Just by coincidence, 3000 miles was the farthest distance he could travel in his ships.  Today we know that Japan is 12,000 miles from Spain.  Columbus would never have made it.  As it was, he sighted land 29 days into his voyage.  Only instead of the Far East, it was an island in the Bahamas that he named San Salvador.

Now please hear me.  My goal is not to lift up Columbus.  While he did set the stage for discovery of the New World, a lot of his behavior was completely unacceptable.  He committed atrocities against people based on race.  He is credited with founding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  We need to remember and condemn this part of our history.  My point is not to venerate Columbus.  Rather to point out the power of assumptions, that bad assumptions can cause us to completely miss our intended destination.

So, why is this important?  Well, two weeks ago we started a series on legacy.  And we said that each and every one of us receives a legacy from those who precede us.  And each and every one of us passes a legacy on to those who follow us.  The question is this – what legacy will we leave?  Will it be a legacy of pride and self-focus?  Or will it be a legacy of gratitude and generosity?  How will history remember us?  Last week we talked about significance.  And we said our legacy is made powerful through what we do for others.  That great ambition and conquest without contribution is insignificant.  So, a significant legacy begins with a concern God lays on our heart.  We claim the commands of God.  And we commit to doing something about it.  Today we continue our reflection on two key assumptions of any successful legacy.

Take your Bibles and turn with me to the Old Testament Nehemiah chapter 2.  We will be reading verses 11 – 18.  As you are turning there, I need to apologize for something I said last week.  Last week I said that Knee High Miah was the shortest man in the Bible.  Evidently, I was wrong.  After our third service, a member pointed me to Job 8:1. In Job 8:1 there is a reference to Job’s friend, Bildad the Shoe Height.  Well, I couldn’t take that lying down.  So, I decided to do a little research.  And what I found is that neither Knee High Miah nor Bildad the Shoe Height were the shortest men in the Bible.  That honor goes to the Roman centurion guarding Jesus’ tomb (http://www.rrb3.com/breaker/funnies/bible_jokes.htm) before Easter. We read in Matthew that he fell asleep on his watch.

Anyway, you will remember that in the year 586 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, pulled down the city walls and carried off its citizens to exile in Babylon.  And how in 539 B.C. the Persians conquered Babylon.  And that King Cyrus was sympathetic toward the Jews.  And gave them permission to return to Jerusalem.  Which they did.  First under Zerubbabel.  And then under Ezra.  And finally, under Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king.  Last week we read how Nehemiah was moved by the situation of those living in Jerusalem.  And he decides to ask for permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city.  Today we pick up the story as Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem.  Nehemiah 2:11-20.

I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.  13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal[a] Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.  17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.  They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So, they began this good work.  But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”  20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”  Nehemiah 2:11-20

So, two important and key assumptions from this passage and they are clarity of goal is essential to success. We must have clarity of goal.  Verse 17 – ‘Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.’

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the VP’s at Disney.  And I was peppering him with questions about the keys to their success.  He shared that one of the most important things that they do is to focus on the goal instead of the task.  For example, he said that at Disney they don’t employ maids.  They hire people who like to make guests comfortable.  It’s critical, he said, to focus your energy on the end objective.  To which I said – a huh.  Got it.  Focus on the goal.  Check.  What else?  Because it sounds so obvious.  But the truth is – we often focus on the task to the expense of the goal.

Take for example, Thanksgiving dinner coming up in a few days.  Anybody have a Thanksgiving that looks like this (pic 2)?  This is Norman Rockwell’s well-known painting – Freedom from Need.  This was the Thanksgiving I grew up with.  Only my mother would have been distracted by the wrinkled tablecloth.  Her goal at Thanksgiving was perfection.  In the way it looked.  And in the way it was experienced!  So, Thanksgiving was really a time of anxiety and rush.  Now that I am an adult and have my own family, my Thanksgiving’s look more like this (pic 3).  Complete with toast, popcorn, pretzels and jelly beans.  But that’s okay!  Because my goal isn’t perfection.  It’s spending time with family and being grateful.  That and watching football.  This puts the tasks in a different light.

Or how about parenting?  I don’t know about you, but life in the Miller house these days, looks a lot like an episode of Survivor.  Robyn and I are doing our best to Outlast, Outwit and Outplay our three teenagers.  Afternoons and evenings are filled with picking this one up from school.  Taking that one to soccer practice.  Dropping the third one off at scouts.  Circling back to the first one again.  Then sprinting to pick up the third.  While dropping by the grocery store.  And securing more poster board for the latest school project.  All I can say is thank God for Uber! I don’t know how my parents were able to make it without such a tool as that.  To tell you the truth, it is so easy in the midst of the scramble to forget that there is a higher goal than surviving – which is to raise our children to be self-sufficient adults.  That’s what we are working towards.  Robyn may be willing to drive them around after they graduate from college.  Personally, I plan to change the locks.  That’s the goal.

Clarity of the goal is also imperative for church.  From time to time I catch turning church into a task list.  Get people to attend worship – check.  Offer the next Bible study – check.  Raise a certain amount of money – check.  Going on mission trips – check.  But here’s the thing.  To focus overtly on the tasks is to risk losing sight of the purpose our church exists.  In Ephesians 4:11 it says –  So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Paul says the purpose of the church is to collectively grow up in the faith and knowledge of God’s Son and attain the very image of Christ.  Or to put it another way – our reason for existence at First United Methodist Church is to help us and others become like Christ.  The question is – How are we doing?  Is it evident that this is our mission?  Do the things we do and the things we say as a church reflect this purpose?  If not, we are going to miss the goal.  We are going to set sail for Japan but wind up in the Bahamas.

Second, we must include others.  Verse 17 – ‘Come, let US rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.’

When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, he carefully investigates the situation.  He makes sure to assess the need.  And when he is clear about the preferred objective, he starts inviting others into the work.  Rebuilding the wall is too much for one person alone.  The resources needed are too great for a single individual.  The opposition he will encounter is too strong to handle by himself.  To persevere, he will need to draw on others. The resistance he is going to get from others he cannot handle alone. In the Book of Ecclesiastes chapter 4, it says – “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

Do you want to have a legacy that lasts longer than you do? Do you want to have a legacy that is broader than you? Anything that you can bring to the table, you must involve others.

That’s one of the reasons I am eager to start sharing our church’s new vision in January.  For the past 12 years, we have been on the move, as a church, to make a difference.  We have worked hard to bring the grace of Christ to those in Kenya, Costa Rica, Louisiana and here in Orlando.  Now, after 12 years, it’s time to clarify our objective and move into the next part of our legacy.  To create new wineskins for new wine.  And so, for the past 9 months a team of leaders in our church have been meeting and praying and reflecting upon the next stage in God’s dream for us as a church.  Together we have discerned 4 movements of that new vision.  Last week I shared that one of our main objectives will be to be a vital family.  A community that includes, that cares for, that equips and guides each other.  Something that is easier said than done.  That is easier said than done in a world that is increasingly isolated and increasing focused on self-sufficiency.   A second objective is to become Christ-like servants.  Jesus said he came to serve and not be served.  He said that his mission was to give his life away as a ransom for many.  He said that if anyone wants to follow him they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.  For if anyone wishes to save his life will lose it.  But if one loses their life for him and for the sake of the gospel – they will find it.

I am very clear that I cannot become a Christ like servant on my own. I am going to need others. To faithfully walk in the footsteps of Christ I need the help of men and women who will listen to me, encourage me, reflect my behavior and actions back to me, as well as hold me accountable.  Because people are people.  And serving people requires greater resources and skill and perseverance than I have alone.  To paraphrase Robert Owen – all the world is squirrely but me and thee, even thee art a little bit squirrely.  I need clarity about my goal.  And I must involve others.  (http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question41645.html).

So, my challenge this week is to have a conversation about legacy.  It can be with a spouse or a child or co-worker or a fellow church member.  Identify one person that you know will lovingly listen and encourage and even question your motives in a loving manner.  Spend some time thinking about significance and what God’s dream is for you individually and what God’s dream for us as a church.  If you are willing, talk about the significance that you are called to leave.  And the significance that you feel you are leaving as God wants you to have in this world.

I ask you this morning – are you clear about your purpose as an individual?  How about our purpose as a church?  Are you clear about the goal?  What is our legacy to be?  Are you apart of into Christ-likeness?  If not, are you ready to be?

When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain in March of 1493, he still carried around some poor assumptions.  He remained convinced that he had sailed among islands off the east coast of Japan.  It wasn’t until his third voyage along the northern coast of South America that he came to the conclusion that he had encountered a land mass greater than an island.  The truth is, our assumptions can make all the difference.  They can lead us home and to the fulfillment of God’s dream.  Or they can cause us to run into something half way around the world.  So, I am going to ask for God’s blessing and God’s clarity about his goal for us as a church.   And I am going to invite others to join me.  How about you?  How about you?