Eternal Preparedness

God of captives and pilgrims,
you brought your people home from despair
and gave them a land of freedom and plenty.
Look in mercy on us your servants,
deliver us from the prison of selfishness and sin,
and bring us home to justice, sharing, and compassion,
the realm you promised all the world
in Jesus Christ the Savior. Amen. (source)

 

Today we are going to examine our lives in light of eternity. The four lectionary texts call us to recognize our need for God (Psalm 70), to be hopeful in salvation through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (I Thess 4), and to live out God’s heart for justice (Amos 5) in order to be eagerly prepared for Jesus Christ’s return (Matt 25).

 

Psalm 70 Verses 4-5 in the NRSV

4 Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, “God is great!”

5 But I am poor and needy;
hasten to (help) me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!

 

David, the Psalmist, is in some serious dismay. He has vengeful enemies who scoff at him and delight in shaming him. But he turns his gaze from those who “seek his life” to the One who can save his life. He recognizes his need for God and delights in his salvation. Verse 5 speaks of David’s humility. He says, “But I am poor and needy;”

 

Friends, I think humility is our first step toward God and I think it’s required of us each and every day. How often do we go about life without recognizing our need for God? (snarky) We feel a bit proud of the Christian life we’ve been living, of the way we’re caring for our family, or that at least we don’t have “those” problems (whatever problems we most despise in others…). And with these attitudes we    reject    God.

 

So ask yourself as honestly as you can manage:

Do I need God?

How am I poor?

How am I needy?

 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (page 836) Paul gives us the abbreviated version of the Gospel good news of Jesus. He says in verses 13 -14  

 

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

 

Paul is saying, LOOK! THERE’S HOPE! Death is the not the final straw! We will be raised again to new life to spend eternity on the New Earth in which Jesus will reign as Lord! Amen and amen! Let it be so!

 

In verse 18 Paul closes by saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” That sounds all fine and dandy, I mean, hope is a good thing, but I wonder, is it actually encouragement if we’re not prepared? Do we have hope if we’re not living in humility and seeing our constant, desperate need for God and for building his kingdom?

 

Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 (page 702) depicts a bleak picture of those who claim to be his followers and yet neglect to be prepared for his return. Ask yourself honestly, “Is this me? Am I unprepared?”

 

I have never really understand this parable before reading the the IVP Bible Background Commentary on it this week. First I learned the word translated “virgin” in the NIV is actually referring to bridesmaids in a bridal party. “Being a bridesmaid was a great honor;” the commentary says, and “to be insultingly unprepared and shut out of the feast was the stuff of which young women’s nightmares were made.” The pinnacle of the wedding celebration would occur at at night. After 7 DAYS of wedding festivities (yes, DAYS), it was the bridesmaids’ supreme duty to stand prepared with large torches (not small, handheld lamps like I pictured before) waiting for the groom. The Groom would arrive to be escorted by the bridesmaids’ torchlight back to his bride, whom they all in turn would escort to the groom’s house. Five of these 10 women fell asleep and didn’t bring extra oil to keep their torches lit, resulting in their excommunication from the party.

 

In this parable Jesus implies his divinity to the listeners, referring to himself as the Bridegroom, and exhorts them to be anticipating his return. He was indicating that one day he would ascend back to heaven to dwell with the Father, and until the day of the New Earth when He would reign as Lord, we must be busy preparing his for his return.  

 

But what does that preparing look like?

 

Well, the Prophet Amos tells us what it’s not.

 

Amos 5:18-24

18 Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light. (if you’re not prepared)

Verse 20 Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me. (do we stink?)
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps (or pianos or guitars).

I think this prophecy is as applicable today to our middle class American churches as it was in 755 BC. The lands of Judah and Israel were disgusting God by their mechanical, religious celebrations and their mistreatment of the poor. In my Life with God Bible one of the notes says, “Although the Israelites performed their rituals of worship, their lack of love for those around them revealed the superficiality of their worship.” Ouch. I don’t know about you, but that’s like a punch in the gut for me. How often do we worship in this place and then go out and avoid those who disgust us or focus on our own goals in life or neglect to extend hospitality? Too often.

 

Remember that message of humility from Psalm 70, recognizing our need for God? I think we’ve gotten too comfortable, much like Judah and Israel. Material wealth abounded in their day and their kingdoms were expanding (sound familiar?) Again a note from the Life with God Bible: “This prosperity led them to forget their God and his laws.” Is our prosperity leading us to apathy in our love for God, a lack of love for others, concerning ourselves instead with our “American dreams” of owning a house and nice cars and 47 inch plasma tv and the new iPhone 10 retirement plans?  

 

Do    we    even     need    God?

 

Verse 24 of Amos 5 is the linchpin of our salvation, it’s how to be prepared for eternity:

 

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-ending stream!

 

The Life with God Bible, says, “God cares about how we live our lives. By protecting justice, by generosity, simple living, and holy relationships, we will find ourselves living with God and extending his Kingdom” rather than our own.

 

As we enter the season of holiday hubbub, of overspending, and over-decorating, perhaps you will join me in practicing the discipline of simplicity. Let’s decide to have our hearts be singly focused on God and his kingdom, rather than pursuing our own dreams and desires. We don’t need to keep up with anyone else’s standard of Christmas presents. Let’s go against the grain of American Christmas. Let’s simplify our gift wrapping by giving more to the poor and needy like ICCM and Heartbeat. Talk with your family about changing the standard and having a simple Christmas, honoring God.

 

Let’s live out our salvation and be prepared for Christ’s return by getting rid of the excess and repenting of our pride, and turning humbly to God in our daily need.

 

As we go today, I send you with this benediction:

 

May the Spirit of God disrupt us in our comfort and force us from our apathy,
May He form in us Christ’s perfect love,
And fill us with authentic desire to worship God and build his kingdom
Until the day of his return. Amen.

Freedom from Anxiety: a new perspective of Psalm 23

This is the sermon transcript from Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Monroe Free Methodist Church. If you’re interested in listening to the audio visit: http://www.monroefmc.com/resources/sermon-audio/


This morning I want to invite you to re-imagine Psalm 23 and how life might change if we actually believed its words. What would happen if we allowed Jesus to shepherd us? What if we trusted him to lead us to wide open pastures of safety? What if we released fear, totally and completely? What if we allowed him to serve us as his honored guest? What if we believed that his love is in constant pursuit of us?

It would change everything.

St. Augustine wrote in the 4th century, “When you say, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.” The call, then, of Psalm 23 is to set down our right to be afraid and our right to go wherever we want to go, and instead to follow the Shepherd. We will only be protected and cared for if we allow Jesus to lead us.

The past two weeks I have been meditating on the words of this Psalm thanks to the song we sang earlier this morning. (I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.) The Lord has graciously led me to a new understanding of what the words mean for my life, the ways He is offering me protection and freedom. This line has been particularly meaningful as I face my own fears: “You prepare a table right before me in the presence of my enemies. Though the arrows fly and the terror of night is at my door, I trust you, Lord.” Perhaps some of you can relate to struggles with anxiety, a fear that is nearly paralyzing. Over the past few weeks I have been facing my own anxieties. Nightmares crop up in my dreams and my body reacts with itchy hives reminding me of the stress it’s under. Now, hear me, friends, I am not saying any of this for sympathy but to share my journey toward peace and to invite you to move in that direction with me.

What if you and I were to picture the Lord preparing a great feast in our honor and inviting us to sit at the table? And what if as we sat down and picked up our forks we looked out the window and saw the Enemy – the thing each of us fears most? Maybe your fear is a person or maybe it’s a fear of failure or a fear of being exposed as a fraud or a fear of death. When you see your Fear, the first reaction might be to begin to tremble or to take cover under the table or to run and hide or maybe even to fight that Fear Enemy. But the truth is, friends, you don’t have to engage your arsenal of defense mechanisms when you’re seated at the Lord’s Table. The Lord wants you to sit down and enjoy his hospitality and his presence, to notice the Fear outside the door – yes, but then to release it to his care.

We read of the Lord as Table Host in three separate passages this morning:

  • Isaiah 54:6 “ the Lord prepares a feast for all peoples”
  • Psalm 23:5 “ you prepare a table before me”
  • Matthew 22 “ the parable of the wedding banquet

The Lord is the ultimate example of hospitality. According to the imagery drawn for us today in these passages, we learn that the Lord’s hospitality includes these four elements: an invitation, provision of food, generosity, and safety.

The invitation of the Lord is filled with desire. He pursues his guests, even the undeserving ones ,like the wedding host did in Matthew 22 and as verse 6 of Psalm 23 says. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The word mercy used in that verse is the Hebrew word “hesed” meaning a “love that never quits.” According to my Life With God Study Bible, “This is a love that doesn’t just follow, but always pursues us. To perceive God’s love as pursuing rather than begrudged deepens our ability to trust.” What if we believed that the Lord’s invitation to his table isn’t out of pity but out of genuine desire to be with us?

Secondly we see the Lord’s hospitality as including a lavish meal. He “prepares a table” (in Psalm 23:5) and makes a feast of rich food and expensive wine (in Isaiah 25:6) and sets out the choicest meats in Matthew 22. Part of hospitality is simply providing for the needs of the guests, but the Lord goes above and beyond with the best spread of food – all of your favorites, because he knows you like a Shepherd knows his sheep.

Thirdly, the Lord anoints our heads with oil, bestowing on us the gift of honor. I learned in the Bible Background commentary that in ancient times, fine diners were sometimes anointed with oil by their hosts. This was a luxurious and generous gift, first of all because the oil itself was expensive. But consider for a moment the dry desert climate of the those living in Old Testament cultures and think of effects it had on their skin. The oil was a way to lavish honor on a guest by offering their complexion a fine sheen. Plus the fragrance present in the oils gave the guests and the room a pleasant aroma. The anointing was a way to say, “You are a valued guest. Let me demonstrate my love for you through this small but meaningful indulgence.”

Finally, when we respond to the Lord’s hospitality to join him at the table, He will provide safety and security for us. When we look out the window and see the enemy ready to attack us or we are faced with our crippling anxiety, we can look into the eyes of our Shepherd-host and know we are safe at his table. As I was pondering my own fears and what freedom would look like for me, I pictured the story of the passover in Exodus 12 where the Israelites are told to stay inside their homes and to paint the blood of the passover lamb around their doorframes. Verse 23 says, “When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.” I imagine my freedom looking this way – me sitting at the Lord’s table, enjoying his delicious meal, and his loving company, and his generous anointing, and noticing out my window the thing I fear most. But instead of being swallowed by the Fear, I acknowledge my emotions and I let it pass by my door. I am safe at the table of the Lord.

Now that we are beginning to understand the Lord’s hospitality and what Psalm 23 invites us to, what’s our response going to be? I think the answers lie in Philippians 4:6-8, some of my favorite verse in Scripture. “4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Friends, the fears or concerns in our life “are to be addressed not by worrying about them, but by developing habits of prayer and rejoicing.” (Life with God Bible)

So our first response to the Lord’s hospitality is to rejoice always – for the Lord, our Shepherd is always worthy of our praise.

Secondly, we have to make our requests known to the Lord. We must tell the Lord about our anxiety and fear. This by itself disarms the stronghold on our lives.

Third, we must be thankful. We must be aware of the Lord’s presence in our lives, pay attention to his hospitality – how he welcomes us, notice his generosity to us, and see his pursuing love. A few weeks ago I was in Meijer and saw milk was on sale for something like $1.29 a gallon. My first response was to say, “The Lord loves me so much sometimes.” Now I know that’s kind of silly, first of all because it’s just milk, but secondly, because the Lord loves me so much all the time. But I’ve taken a liking to saying that phrase more and more, recognizing all the little ways the Lord shows his love for me. It’s like he’s bringing me home flowers, showing me his committed pursuit in the form of small gifts that are my favorite things. We must all be on the look for the little ways the Lord is loving us.

Finally, after we respond to the Lord’s hospitality with rejoicing and requesting and thanksgiving….GET THIS…He gives us the Peace of Christ to guard our hearts and minds. He Loves us so much sometimes. :)

 

Friends, as you go today, let me declare the words of the Message paraphrase of Philippians 4:7-8 as our benediction.

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Justice and Humanity

From July 11-20, I was experiencing the lush country landscapes of Guatemala, meeting the beautiful people – both Spanish and indigenous – and learning historical, cultural, and justice lessons with my fellow cohort friends and professors. This intensive residency is a part of our graduate program – a Master’s in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. The design of this class includes pre-course reading and discussion, Scripture reading and reflections, journals, and a final synthesis paper to weave together what we’ve learned about Social Justice and Christian Spirituality. 

What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached at my home church on Sunday, July 23, processing the intersection of justice and the created intention of humanity.

20108369_10211776827233984_2395036290356569670_n
back (l-r) Adam (worship leader), Ron, Margareta, Vickie, Gina, Mika, Jess, Jael, Angel, host son, Melissa (prof’s assistant). front (l-r) Cindy (host mom), Will, me, Paul
IMG_1117
The host home we stayed in for our 4 days in Antigua
* Antigua
The cobblestone streets of Antigua, right outside our host home

My time in Guatemala was incredibly beautiful and deeply challenging.

I saw the lush mountains and waters of Lake Atitlán:
01 Lake Atitlan

I visited the great cathedrals and the memorials of the 200,000 victims of the civil war that lasted from 1960 – 1996
IMG_1083
02 Cathedral
03 Memorial

I saw the powerful Volcanoes surrounding Antigua, the same volcanoes that leveled the city in the 1700s and moved the capital to Guatemala City.
04 Volcano Feugo

I hiked through the hilly fields of a fair trade coffee coop in San Juan La Laguna.
05 Coffee

I smelled the filth of the GC Dump – spanning 24 football fields – where scavengers – both birds and humans – hunted for scraps of worth.
06 Dump 2

07 Dump

I met some of the children of dump-employees who are cared for in the school called Camino Segura (“Safe Passage”) to give them a few hours with food, safety, fun and education – a break the cycle of poverty.
IMG_0923

I saw the sprawling city cemetery stacked high with the poorest deceased, their death date scribbled by a finger in wet cement while the rich were honored in grandiose mausoleums.
10 Cemetery

I visited La Limonada, one of the largest slums in the world – with 60,000 people living in shanty homes stacked along the ravine 1 mile long and ½ a mile wide.
11 La Limonada


But I didn’t feel pity. I encountered humanity and experienced how little separates us from them.

I learned that justice isn’t donating to charity. Justice starts by seeing the needs in our community, getting to know the marginalized among us, and acknowledging their humanity.

Being a Christian would be much easier and far cleaner if we kept to ourselves. But following Jesus comes with a biblical mandate to do justice. The prophet Micah declares as much in chapter 6 verse 8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Reading the word “require” is likely to agitate our inner rebel. Most of us middle-class Westerners prefer a faith that has no specific rules and a god who has no expectations of us. If we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, however, we find the Lord chastising the people of Israel for the way they have perverted the sacrificial system and are bringing “meaningless offerings” (Isaiah 1:13). Instead they must “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Jesus himself confronts this issue of justice with the Pharisees in Luke 11:42. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” These scriptures paint a portrait of the essential practice of justice for those who wish to follow this Yahweh God.

Too many evangelical churches have come to see justice as an optional aspect of the Christian life, a sort of religious “bonus point” if you will. But justice is inextricably connected to the heart of God and His intentions for our lives. I believe God’s creative initiative in the beginning was a call to hospitality: a call into God’s own self and a call to lovingly welcome others into the love we ourselves have received from God. This form of hospitality is the crux of justice: to know the “other” and to love them. We cannot “do justice” simply by donating money to a good cause or by giving a tenth of our income to the local church. If we do not find our hearts being transformed throughout our spiritual journey to join God in his work of love and justice in this world, then we need to seriously evaluate our Christianity and delve deeper into a contemplative connection to God’s Spirit. We must ask God to grant us “epiphany eyes:” eyes to “see through the façade to the real […and] eyes to see by the light of Christ’s word.” If we go about life with our eyes closed we run the risk of avoiding spiritual transformation altogether.  Father John P. Bertolucci is quoted in a book called The God of Intimacy and Action as saying, “[…] prayer and evangelization without social action leads to a pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”

Friends, can we call ourselves Christian if we are not doing justice?

Ok…now that we’re all panicking inside, I want to invite you to take a deep breath and explore with me what it means to practice justice. Our evangelical definitions are so often severely truncated, keeping to the work of soup kitchens and warming shelters. The biblical practice of justice goes beyond the realm of the physical into the emotional and spiritual, ensuring all of God’s creation are offered fullness of life which Jesus describes in John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life and have it to full!”

My experience in the Guatemala City shantytown of La Limonada was a pivotal moment in my visioning of justice, an encounter using my “epiphany eyes.” What I saw can only be described as paradoxical, a site full of both despair and hopefulness. From the rooftop of one of the safe schools, I gazed out over the cinder-blocked homes stacked one on top of the other into the walls of the ravine, expecting to see only heartbreak and filth, despair and poverty. Instead, my eyes were met with humanity all around me. I saw countless clotheslines strung with surprisingly-white baby onesies and undergarments, well-worn jeans and tshirts. I saw shoes lined up on the doorsteps, little ones being carried in slings by their mamas, and meals being prepared. I was not blind to the pain, but I also saw the Kingdom of God unfolding in the shape of humanity. Though the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are probably numbingly familiar to many of you (“For I know the plans to prosper you…”), the preceding prophecy correlated with my consistent conviction that seeing one another’s humanity is the starting point of justice. In Jeremiah 29:5-6, The Lord tells his people to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters.” This is what life in God’s kingdom is all about – belonging to a community and doing life together. Justice in light of Jeremiah 29 and the slums of Guatemala City starts by seeing the beauty of mundane life in which we have families and settle into community and grow our food and to pray for God’s peace in our world. We can do that, right?!

As we practice the justice-work of seeing one another’s humanity, being with one another in our mundane, everyday life, we are recognizing that God’s kingdom is already among us (in the beauty of families and gardens and animals) and not yet here (in the reality of pain and suffering). When we sit with another in their suffering, we do it not with pity but with a mutual love. We say to each other, “Friend, this should not be. Let me walk with you. Let me hear your story. I may not be able to offer an answer or repair, but I will sit with you in your pain.” This kind of justice is “looking for trouble,” as Jim Martin would say.  [Looking for] “the place where we have become so identified with the suffering of our neighbors that we are suffering alongside them. It’s the place of desperation where we cannot help but fall at God’s feet and beg for his intervention.”

I believe our church is poised for justice work. We are building true community among us and inviting others to join us. We are sharing our chicken eggs and our garden vegetables and our honey. We are going shopping together and playing disc golf together and praying together. We are having fun and we are expanding the Church beyond Sunday mornings. I can’t wait to see how we might participate in Creation Care and Justice Work in the next year. Maybe we’ll have shelves in our fellowship hall where we can begin to actively share the bounty of our gardens and bees and chickens. We could truly have “everything in common” as the apostles in Acts 2. Perhaps we could change a few simple habits within our church and homes, such as eating with reusable plates and silverware or hanging a rack for mugs above our coffee bar. It’s the little decisions that begin to change our hearts and our world.

Mostly, though, I believe our church and our leadership must begin in contemplation and prayer. We must stop and be still before the Lord, to “listen to what the Lord says” as Micah 6:1 declares, in order that we may then “Stand up, plead [his] case before the mountains.” In waiting and responding to God, we will avoid asking God to bless our haphazard-justice-work. Instead, as Bono said in his 2006 National Prayer Breakfast address, my heart would be that our church would “stop asking God to bless what you are doing. [Instead we must] get involved in what God is doing because it’s already blessed.”

Lord, forgive us for doing evil in our pursuit of doing the right thing. Surely we have each fallen into the trap of pleasing you in our elaborate rituals and spiritual practices, when truly our hearts are far from you. How can we join you in healing the world? Help us to do what is right in your sight, to know what it means to “do justice” in our own context, within our neighbors and stores and families and churches. Amen


“As the plane left the ground and the clouds gradually shrouded the beautiful Guatemalan countryside, we looked at each other and spontaneously said, ‘Thank you.’ To the God who sent us and brought us together we also said ‘Thank you.’ We had traveled between two worlds and found them one. Something new was building, strong and beautiful, marvelous in our eyes. ‘De un corazón nuevo nace la paz’ : from a new heart peace is born.”

Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story

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Homes of Hospitality

I’m going to suggest something crazy: what if God’s call for his people – for us – is to create lives and communities of hospitality? From the time of creation, through the covenant with Abraham, to the sending of the Spirit: all of these pivotal moments in the story of God’s People has had to do with responding to God’s invitation to be part of God’s own self and to join God in his work. What does this look like? Well, Rev. Marjorie Thompson says,

“The essence of hospitality is receiving the other, from the heart, into my own dwelling place. It entails providing for the need, [the] comfort, and [the] delight of the other with all the openness, respect, freedom, tenderness, and joy that love itself embodies.”

Based on today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis 18, I see hospitality as three things: as paying attention, as responding to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, and as giving of yourself – your space, your time, your home, and most importantly your love. This is the story of Abraham and the Three Visitors at the Oaks of Mamre. This passage is called the “Hospitality of Abraham” and it’s an incredible story of God himself – God as three strangers – showing up. Verse 1 says,

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”

By this chapter in Genesis, Abraham has a history of responding to God’s prompting, having made a covenant with God and willingly taken his son Isaac to be sacrificed. God knew Abraham would be paying attention, and so God himself showed up. Abraham notices the strangers and felt the prompting to invite them to his home. He responds by giving of himself, asking to serve them. This hospitality wasn’t a hand-out, it was a loving invitation to spend the day getting to know these strangers and serving them. Abraham’s invitation included choosing a choice calf, having it slaughtered and prepared for a meal, asking Sarah to bake bread (which takes hours alone), and conversing with his guests. The beauty of the invitation is that Abraham is served by his visitors: the Lord said to Abraham in verse 14:  “Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Because Abraham was paying attention, responds, and gives of himself, he receives this precious message directly from God. God initiated the process, Abraham responds, and God continues his work. Because of Abraham’s hospitality, we are a part of God’s chosen people – a people chosen to show God’s hospitality.

The Hospitality of Abraham is depicted in this icon of the Trinity. Now, if you’re like me and you’re unsure about icons or just plain unfamiliar with them, fear not! One of my favorite resources, the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook describes them this way:

Icons are not a work of art that people worship – they are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most. This visual language is not drawn or painted, it is “written” for it communicates unchanging truth about spiritual realities.

The spiritual reality being depicted here is the hospitality of the Trinity and the invitation of God to join him at the table.

In the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham we see the three “strangers” depicted as the three members of the Trinity. While every member’s clothing contains similarities in the blue coloring signifying their deity, there is also a unique element to each person’s garb. The Son (in the center) has a dark brown garment which correlates with his earthly existence along with a gold sash symbolic of his royal priesthood. The Spirit (on the right) is clothed in grassy green, the color of new life and growth. The Father’s garb is largely gold referencing his place in heaven. In the tilt of the shoulders, the position of the feet, and the angle of their heads, we see the mutual dynamic of love and respect shared between these three sitting down to a meal. In the foreground, we notice a not-so-subtle opening at the table. It is to this seat which God invites each of us. There is not a hierarchy nor a prerequisite to joining into this sacred setting. As the Trinity shows hospitality within himself, so God invites us to be a part of his hospitality and to invite others with the same hospitality we have received.

One of my favorite spiritual authors, Henri Nouwen, says this about this icon of the Trinity:

The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted not as a lovely decoration for a convent church, nor as a helpful explanation of a difficult doctrine, but as a holy place to enter and stay within.

As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.  The movement from the Father toward the Son and the movement of both Son and Spirit toward the Father become a movement in which the one who prays is lifted up and held secure…

We come to see with our inner eyes that all engagements in this world can bear fruit only when they take place within this divine circle… the house of perfect love.

When I say the word “hospitality” your minds are probably turning with your own definitions of what that looks like. Maybe you think of hospitality as creating elaborate meals and making sure your houses are spotless. Perhaps you get excited at the thought of inviting people into your home or maybe you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Our culture’s definition of hospitality has become exquisite event-planning or perfect Pinterest parties. I’d like to invite you to redefine hospitality. I believe our call to hospitality involves an inner attitude and a way of life. Hospitality is about paying attention to the others around me, responding to the Spirit’s prompting, and giving of myself to make space for those “others.” When we practice hospitality, we are saying to someone, “I see you. I want to make time for you. I want to meet your needs and show you sincere love.”

This type of hospitality can take many forms. Certainly it is having friends or family over for dinner or taking care to set out the food you know someone will love. Hospitality might look like inviting someone to take up residence in that spare bedroom or giving a stranger a ride to work. Hospitality can also be found in a conversation with someone, giving them your full attention. You can create space for the “other” in your home, in your time, and in yourself.

In my January grad school residency, one of our assignments was to lay out attainable goals for our churches for creating lives and communities of hospitality. First, Church, I have to tell you how incredibly moved I am by the type of hospitable community you all have created over the past couple of years. Most every person who comes to worship with us comments on how safe and welcomed they feel, and how they can experience the love of God and a complete lack of judgment. This is an outstanding testament to the work God has been doing in us as a people.

Today, I want to challenge you to take this a step further. I believe God is wanting us to expand our church’s hospitality by creating homes of hospitality. Dr. Christine Pohl of Asbury Seminary writes,

Recovering hospitality will involve reclaiming the household as a key site for ministry and then reconnecting the household and the church, so that the two institutions can work in partnership for the sake of the world.

We want to become a church that continually and casually welcomes both friends and strangers into our homes, breaking down our barriers of insecurity and pride. This means inviting people into our space no matter how much or little we have to offer, despite our messy living rooms and our dirty bathrooms. It doesn’t matter if we live in a an old farmhouse, a modest ranch, a tiny apartment, or a cozy trailer. Our homes are a gift God has graciously given us and God himself dwells with us; therefore our homes are a sacred space for hospitality. This means letting strangers become friends as they see the pictures on our walls and eat our cooking and watch us bicker with our spouses over how to load the dishwasher. It means holding each other’s babies, helping the elderly up the steps, it means sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows or playing a rousing game of euchre. Hospitality is anytime you welcome another.

I hope the Lord has already been prompting your heart this morning, giving you ideas and bringing people to mind. I challenge you to join me this week in creating homes of hospitality.

Let’s hold one another accountable to creating homes of hospitality. Let’s ask each other each week, “Who have you welcomed and how? Where did you respond to God’s prompting?”


 

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Cor. 13:14

 

 

Living Disciplined in the Dark

In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.

According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.

The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV)  and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.

This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother,  I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.

That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.

10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;

Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.

The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.

In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.

If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.

The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm),  meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.

The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.

The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

In her Lenten Reflections booklet, Ruth Haley Barton says,

During Lent we are called to enter more intentionally into prayer, self-examination and repentance for the purpose of restoration and renewal. As painful as it is to be exposed at this level, awakening is evidence of God’s Grace.

Using the story of Jesus and this Samaritan woman we’re going to explore awakening to God’s grace. I want to invite you to join me in the process of restoration and renewal of our souls and to experience the belonging Jesus offers us. 

Last Sunday we read the verses 16-17 of John 3, which say “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In Chapter 4 of John we see Jesus putting his teaching about salvation into practice. Without using words Jesus shows his disciples that THIS is what he meant by loving the whole world, giving love and belonging to this woman, this Samaritan woman, this abandoned Samaritan woman.

Most of the sermons I’ve heard about this Samaritan woman describe the forgiveness of Jesus and the sinfulness of the woman. But there is no mention of forgiveness or promiscuity here – we have read that into the text. Perhaps this woman’s story is different than that. Perhaps her story is more like ours than we’d like to admit. Though the details may be unique to her story, I believe each one of us is longing for relationship and acceptance, just as she was. And I believe that Jesus offers the same belonging and salvation to each of us as he offered to the Samaritan woman.

This woman had been married five times and she has been abandoned five times…abandoned through death of a spouse or divorce, likely due to her barrenness. The ability to bear children in ancient times was seen as the primary purpose of a woman, carrying on a male’s lineage was the entire point of marriage. If this woman was incapable of this “basic biological function”, she would surely be rejected. Thus when she meets Jesus at the well, she is thirsty for more than water. This woman is in need of acceptance, of relationship, of belonging.

My own story is not unlike this Samaritan woman’s. As a young married woman, I wanted nothing more than to have children. I had framed my future and my sole purpose in motherhood. Thus, I was completely shaken when my body’s functioning wasn’t “normal” and healthy. I, too, was barren. I spent five years of sorrow and darkness and questioning my worth and belonging. My friends were having children, women’s retreats would gather and discuss their kids, and I was on the outside. My infertility was even used as a weapon against me when some people questioned my effectiveness in church ministry if we didn’t have children. How could we possibly connect with the community without kids? These types of statements were both cruel and untrue. Though we knew these words were not of God, the shaming from outsiders was hard to bear.

Gradually my darkness began to transform me. I turned to God with more intensity than ever before. Gently and graciously, He began to unravel the strings I had tied up in my worth as a mother. He began to reveal to me the truths: I was valuable… apart from whether I had children or not. Kids would not fulfill me, my husband could not fulfill me, a job or ministry could not fulfill me. Jesus told me I was loved and I had belonging in him, no strings attached. This is the message of salvation for each of us – love and belonging.

So back to Sychar…there’s Jesus interacting in the most unlikely places with the most unlikely people. Meeting at a well was somewhat scandalous in itself, for wells were often the place where love-matches were made. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and others like them met their spouses at a well. Jesus’s Jewish heritage came with an unspoken rule to not interact with their rebel-cousins, the Samaritans. And as a man, Jesus was ignoring all sorts of social protocol by interacting with a woman, going as far as to ask her to share her drinking vessel with him. He was risking his reputation in order to share the refreshing streams of God’s love with this thirsty woman.

Even in the Exodus passage we read about how physical needs drive us to God. In chapter 17, the Israelites are complaining and arguing with Moses about how terrible their living conditions were. They were so overcome with their selfishness and their thirst that they went as far as to complain that they were no longer slaves in Egypt! Moses was afraid their rage was going to result in his stoning. (Talk about “hangry”!) In verse 6, God provides the miraculous water from the rock at Horeb and Moses commemorates the occasion by naming the location Massah and Meribah which mean “Test and Quarrel.”

But the thing about each of us, and the Samaritan woman, and the Israelites is our thirst is so much deeper than a dry mouth. Our physical symptoms or outward actions are often an expression of an inward spiritual need.  How often do you find yourself acting out in anger or impatience when the real problem isn’t really your kids or your husband or the barista or the guy in the car next to you. The real cause of your turmoil is something inside you. The stress or selfishness or jealousy causes us to act out, and those feelings are all rooted in a need to be filled with the living waters of Jesus. When we look inside ourselves and begin to dig through the mess we’ve created – the broken relationships, the poor self-image, the fear about money or anxiety about future plans – we find that at our core we need belonging. We try desperately to fill ourselves and take away the ache of belonging…that dream job, the perfect house, that friendship, the 401K, the fairytale wedding, the marriage, those kids, that college degree…none of it works, friends. All of this can just mask the problem unless we let Jesus walk us through the process of releasing our desires and our inadequacies and to be filled with him alone. It’s terrifying, I’m not gonna lie. But what I know for certain is that Jesus wants to save us from ourselves. He wants to give us living water that wells up to eternal life. By believing in him and following him, we find the belonging and we find salvation. And we, like the Samaritan woman, can’t wait to share this truth with everyone we meet.

This woman kept asking more and more questions of Jesus. “How can you be asking me for a drink? Where do you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors? Will you condemn me for the life I’ve lived? Where should we worship you? Are you really the Messiah?”

And she believes him. She knows he must be the Messiah and runs to tell everyone in her city that very day. The truth sets us free, friends! And this woman was changed from a shamed barren reject of society to a missionary for the good news about Jesus.

So how does Jesus want to save you? What shame or struggle does he want to free you from? What does he want you to release to his care so he can fill up your real need, your need to belong.

This is salvation, friends: to find acceptance and belonging in Jesus.

 

Enduring Presence,
goal and guide,
you go before and await our coming.
Only our thirst compels us
beyond complaint to conversation,
beyond rejection to relationship.
Pour your love into our hearts,
that, refreshed and renewed,
we may invite others to the living water
given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

source

 

Sermon given at Monroe Free Methodist Church based on the texts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

 

Mary, Mother of God

Take a deep breath and close your eyes for a just a moment. Travel with me back in time…to a place of dusty roads and leaky roofs, a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. The homes are fashioned from mortar and stone, the windows let the night sounds and biting bugs inside, the fire in the stove serves for cooking and warming. This is a time centuries before smooth roadways and fast cars, before the privacy of indoor bathrooms; a culture where women’s husbands were chosen for them.

 

It is in this town called Nazareth that we find a young girl, not quite a woman. Mary lives with her family and tends dutifully to her chores. She bakes over the open fire, carries water from the well in the center of town. And she kneels regularly on the dirt floor to pray to her God. Many times a day she and her family stop their work and return their hearts to a reverent silence. Mary takes a deep breath and utters a prayer she knows by heart. Her words aren’t cold and rote, however. Mary’s heart has been formed by her true faith in this God of her ancestors. Whereas many of her friends seem most interested in their dreams of future husbands and households, Mary lives a life that is devoted wholly to God. She knows the story of Abraham and the faith he had to bring his son, Isaac, to the altar. She knows about Noah and his faith to build the ark when everyone laughed in his face. She has learned of Hannah’s faith as she offered Samuel – her only son for whom she had wept and longed for – back to God in the temple. And beyond all of that, Mary knows this God. She knows of God’s faithfulness to his covenant. And she serves him out of devotion and love. Her prayers are heartfelt.

 

God sees this young woman and smiles. He has watched her grow up, steady and pure, a heart that longs for obedience and holiness. Throughout the centuries of pursuing a relationship with his people, God has waited. He has waited as his people have chosen selfish pursuits over faithfulness to the covenant He made with them. Occasionally He’s seen glimmers of true faith in a man or a woman, but the time wasn’t right. He was willing to wait.

 

When God sees the goodness of Joseph, a man born in the lineage of King David, he sees a man with humility and meekness. When this good man becomes the fiancé to the young and faithful Mary, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit come to a beautiful consensus, “This is it, the time is now. We will save our people from their sins.”

 

As Mary sits quietly kneeling during her morning prayers, she hears a voice, a gentle thunder in the room with her.

 

(The following is from The Message, Luke 1:26-38, with additions by me)

 

“Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
[highly favored by him.] You are Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.”


She was thoroughly shaken [fearful and confused], wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a [tremendous request to ask of you, a great] surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”
The angel answered,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.

Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

 

Could she even believe what her eyes had seen, her ears had heard? Her mind was racing with doubt and questions. What if I just imagined that? Why would God choose ME? But despite her youth, despite her uncertainty, Mary gathered up that favored faith of hers, and replied with quiet confidence: Let it be to me according to your word.

 

Could we respond with such graceful obedience?

 

Those first few months were especially difficult as her belly remained hidden, but the waves of nausea threatened Mary’s daily tasks. She felt more exhaustion than she knew possible, often falling asleep during prayers. Soon she began to feel these flutters deep inside her belly, confirming the truth of the angel’s message to her. Her heart quickened whenever she pondered this reality – in her womb the Spirit of God had conceived a child. She was the Mother of God.

 

Though she had found favor with God and had faith in his good plan, Mary fought back frightened tears from time to time, wondering what childbirth would be like. She had overhead midwives helping her mother and neighbors during their deliveries. It seemed so unknown…not to mention incredibly painful. And on top of those wonderings, the question loomed in Mary’s mind: was she capable of mothering the son of the Almighty?

 

Would any of us be up for that task?

 

Her belly stretched, her ankles swelled…her body walking through the beautiful motions of pregnancy without asking her for permission. In the weeks ahead, Mary and Joseph endured harsh criticism: Mary was shamed for this act of apparent infidelity, Joseph questioned for his loyalty to his pregnant fiancé.

 

It almost brought Mary to tears when she realized they would need to be traveling to Bethlehem for this census during the final weeks of her pregnancy. She felt awkward and uncomfortable these days. To carry a child is to be a vessel for new life; to allow your skin to be stretched, your organs compressed. To carry a child is to commit to treating your body with newfound gentleness and respect, treasuring the life that is transforming yours. Pregnancy is exhausting and wonderful, terrifying and tremendous all at once. And Mary really wasn’t looking forward to a long ride on the back of a clomping donkey.

 

As they traveled in silence, Mary treasured the reality of Immanuel – God with us – rolling and stretching and kicking her ribcage. She felt out of breath, her lungs running out of room inside her chest, and yet the Breath of God was inside of her. Tears welled in her eyes. “Thank you, God”…she whispered to herself.

 

The contractions started slowly, almost imperceptibly. Mary didn’t want to worry Joseph, so she kept her instinct to herself – the time had come for her baby to be born. They lined up to find lodging, and Mary’s heart plummeted as the rejections turned into an offer to stay in the dilapidated stable. “God be with me,” She prayed…knowing he was more present than her mind could understand.

 

For the next few hours, Mary breathed long and hard, her body responding to the intensity of the contractions. The animals groaned with her, as if offering their comfort. Working toward the pinnacle of birth, Mary responded to the prompting of God within her, pushing and straining and crying towards redemption. “Save me, Lord” she shouted in the moments of transition…and the earth echoed her cries for salvation. With one final push, the Rescuer – the Saving One – Jesus Christ was born! Mary grasped his tiny body with renewed strength and laid him on her chest. The two of them lay, skin to skin, breathing in the miracle. Life. Eternal Life.

An Advent People

This morning I have the privilege of ushering you all into the New Year…the new liturgical year, that is. At Monroe Free Methodist Church, Pastor Kevin and I have chosen to follow the Revised Common Lectionary and today is the beginning of Advent, the start of the new Church year. To begin, we’ll spend some time breaking down these “church-lingo” terms, then I’ll share a bit of my personal story, and finally I’d like to challenge us to become an Advent People.

12_07_13 Advent Candle

Ok, so backing up a bit…the Lectionary. What in the world is it? The root of the word is “lection” which simply means “reading.” The Lectionary, then, is a predetermined way of reading through the Scriptures. Back in the 60s, the Catholic Church made the groundbreaking decision to begin following an organized plan or reading the Bible. The Revised Common lectionary came about in the 80s and 90s when a long list of non-Catholic Christian Churches tweaked the original reading schedule. Each week we read a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, an Epistle (the biblical term for “letter”), and a Gospel (the biblical term for one of the four books teaching on the Good News, the life of Jesus.) Many Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Mennonites, Anglican and Free Methodist churches follow the lectionary together. That’s one of my favorite parts about the lectionary – knowing that on this Sunday I’m reading the same passages that many other churches are across the country, and around the world. The reading unifies the Church across space and time.

The cycle of readings begins in “Year A” with Matthew and it’s correlating Old Testament, Psalm, and Epistle. Then, we start over again with a new set of passages for Year B (using Mark), then Year C (in Luke). Thus…we travel a three year journey through the whole story of the Bible. Though not every verse or chapter can be read during this time, we as a church are able to get a better taste for the beautiful story of God’s redeeming plan for creation, a story that spans Genesis to Revelation. 

Following the Lectionary is not required of our church. It is a decision Kevin and I have made out of conviction; conviction that our personal plans for sermons will never surpass the wisdom of God. Sure, we could be determining our sermon series based on our own agenda, but we’re pretty sure our creativity would run out, our biases would show through, and we could easily steer the church on our own insight. In reading the Lectionary, we trust that the Holy Spirit works outside of time, believing that even (and perhaps especially) predetermined Scripture readings are exactly the message God has for us today. We choose to submit to the authority and study of the men and women who’ve gone before us, as opposed to sticking to our favorite books of the Bible or using the trusty “open your Bible and blindly point” method. It’s exciting to watch how God has used these pre-planned Scripture passages to weave together sermons at the proper time. He is so faithful.

Ok…so now that we understand the Lectionary a bit better, there’s this concept of the Church Calendar (also known as the Liturgical Year or the Christian Year). This is yearly progression through the life of Christ, a calendar of seasons – of feast days and fasting – adhered to by nearly every Christian church. We begin now with Advent, then follow the arc of scripture through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Season. With each changing season, we are offered the opportunity to reflect on how God worked in us and we’re invited to become aware of his leading into the coming season.

Which brings us to today. The cool thing about today?! It’s the first day of the New Year in Year A! So if you’re just hearing about this for the first time, you’re getting in on the “ground floor.” (But don’t worry, we’ll come back around to Year A in 2019).

Today we are entering into the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The origin of this Christian season dates back to 480 AD and perhaps even further…to the times of Peter and the Disciples. The word “advent” simply means “to come” and so this season is an opportunity to prepare and to wait with baited breath for the arrival of the newborn King. We wait, as Mary did, for Jesus Christ to be born. We wait, as the prophets did, for their long-awaited Prince of Peace. But as followers of Jesus on the “other side” of his birth, we have a different invitation to wait. Knowing that the celebration of Jesus’ birth is imminent, we now wait for his second coming. We wait for the day when Christ will come to bring his perfect peace to earth as it is in heaven…for all eternity. We wait with hope and angst for the day when he will make all things right, restoring relationships, repairing sick bodies, aligning healthy governments, abolishing poverty. We wait with excitement and perhaps dread, for his day of judgment, knowing that our trust in him brings salvation but that a detailed account of our lives will acknowledge the moments when we failed to follow faithfully. But we wait.

After years of following Jesus, I only recently began to embrace the seasons of the Christian calendar. A few years back, a friend who I deemed my “spiritual mother” invited me to join her intimate small prayer circle. Each Wednesday evening, five of us would gather in a chilly, candlelit sanctuary for an hour of stillness. We prayed the vespers service together, reading Scriptures and praying written-out prayers. Spending this type of quiet time together was new to me, but became deeply transformative. Together we were experiencing the life-changing lessons contained in the liturgy and the communion of saints.

And it was there that I met Advent. Along with my dear vespers sisters, we read Ruth Haley Barton’s Advent Reflections to guide our focus during this season of faith. Ruth’s writing and urging, combined with the lectionary Scripture passages offered the opportunity for self-examination, for refocusing, for shifting my perspective. Yes, this is the very same devotional guide we’ve offered to you. (Which, side note…the orders are in, and we have two extra, if you’re interested!)

Advent is such a beautiful, yet challenging time in life of the Church. It is at this time of year that we are reminded of our need to wake up to the coming of Jesus in our lives, to become an Advent People.

This Advent-waiting is so difficult because we are invited to sit in this in-between space: a space where we are no longer experiencing the comfortable, oh-so-familiar life, yet neither have we seen the resolution of the waiting…the answer, the direction, the “ahhhh yes” everything-is-turning-out-just-fine moment. We are in the time of holding our breath, left to wait. We can choose to gasp for air, fight for our lives, flee the fearful expectancy. Or we can seek the Lord Jesus Christ in this uncertainty, looking for his movement, listening to his voice. Because even in the waiting, especially in the waiting, there is Jesus.

When I first started observed Advent in 2013, I was in the middle of one of my darkest winters. It was our third year of infertility and that combined with other life circumstances made the dark winter nights a reality in my heart. But during that time, I prayed this prayer:

Lord Jesus, As hard as this is to admit, I thank you for this long time of advent in my life. This journey of infertility may continue for many more years, I don’t know, but the grace, the blessing has come and is coming in the ways I’m learning to seek you. I imagine where my focus would be right now if I had gotten “my way”…and it’s not likely to be totally on you. Teach me now how to keep company with Jesus, how to kindle communion with Him, that it may be an inextricable part of me in years to come.

Advent is so much more than a countdown to Christmas. It is an invitation to wait with God on God in our everyday lives. The process of Christian growth – of spiritual formation – is slow and ongoing and, quite frankly, beyond of our control. Friends, my challenge for our church is to become an Advent People: a congregation who responds to God’s invitation every day; a people who hold vigil with Christ each day – keeping the candle burning in our devotion to prayer and to scripture and to one another; a humble group of Jesus-followers becoming increasingly willing to change, willing to step out of the control seat and willing to let God do his transformational work.

Come! Let us walk in the light of the Lord together! (Isaiah 2:5)