May 2013


Yesterday was the homecoming & memorial day service for Liberty UMC. Below is the script from which I shared.

Scripture text – 2 Corinthians 3:16-17

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

I sat down and read a lot about the history of Liberty UMC this week and have found myself chuckling at some stories, scratching my head at others, wondering about some of the missing details, and weeping tears of empathy at those confessing deep pain and loss. In a world of brokenness like ours, any story worth telling will be filled with the message of redemption that is brought through pain.

But one story that stands out in particular is the story of the roof of the church catching on fire one cold Sunday in March of 1928 when Liberty was a wooden building. The details of how certain people went to great lengths to keep the fire and damage to a minimum are awe-inspiring in some parts and kind of comical at others. But I thought the closing reflection of the story said it well…

“Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, ‘Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large’.”

Well, as I look out over this crowd I just might say, “Maybe we should have a homecoming & memorial day every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large!” I really am not interested in setting the roof on fire.

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

Have you ever just paused and thought about the name of this church? It’s really a great name. Liberty. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “liberty”?

I asked this question to F.W. and H.P., two of our most faithful members who are now home-bound or at the nursing home. Before sharing a story or two about their experience at the church, they both said the same word came to mind when they hear “liberty” and that word is freedom.

In fact freedom is the word that is used in most English translations of our passage this morning: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…”

But what else comes to mind when you hear the word “liberty”? Perhaps the infamous Liberty Bell. What is the distinguishing mark of the Liberty Bell?

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

The crack in it, right? Of course, that mark can serve as a good reminder that what is required for liberty, or freedom, comes at a great cost and often leaves its scars. Even the resurrected body of Jesus still had the scars from the nails in his hands and feet as well as from the spear in his side.

Or maybe you’re a wordsmith and famous lines containing “liberty” are more likely to stand out. Like famous statement by Patrick Henry? “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Or perhaps what is found in the Declaration of Independence? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other sounds or images of “liberty” come to mind for those of us living in the U.S.? Probably the Statue of Liberty. She really is a fine statue, but have you ever considered the irony, the contradiction, in the title? Think about it. A statue is something that is permanent, something fixed, something that is not living, that is, something that is not really “free” yet the word “liberty” itself means freedom. But as I pondered the apparent contradiction of that term, “Statue of Liberty” my mind was taken to some words offered by John Wesley.

Wesley wrote a collection of prayers for individuals, families, and children for morning and evening, each day of the week. His Thursday evening prayer for families begins this way: “O LORD our GOD, thy glory is above all our thoughts, and thy mercy is over all thy works. We are still living monuments of thy mercy; for you have not cut us off in our sins, but still give us a good hope, and strong consolation through grace. You have sent thy only Son into the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish in his sins, but have everlasting life.”

I like that. We are “…living monuments of God’s mercy…” or to put another way, “…living monuments of liberty…” I looked out over our cemetery this week and saw all the monuments identifying who is buried by each one. The stones and their engravings are there for our remembrance, that we may recall the faithfulness of God in the lives of our forefathers and foremothers. That is, we remember that God is faithful to bring liberty, or freedom, to God’s children. And as I looked over those monuments of God’s mercy, I realized that the act of remembering our past is an extremely important task for we who seek to follow Christ. Consider that in establishing the meal of the new covenant, Jesus said, “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.” Remembrance is a necessary act for Christians. For if we look or move toward the future without acknowledging God’s faithfulness in the past (and present), then we would be performing an exercise of futility.

This day, we remember and celebrate the liberty that God has wrought in the great work of our redemption in Christ. Liberty is at the heart of Jesus’ mission statement. In Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke (4:16ff.), he is reading from Isaiah in worship in the synagogue and he applies this statement to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” That would be a great vision for a church, wouldn’t it? “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…”

Hobart & Hazel Hargis were one of four couples who had been married for over 50 years when a history of Liberty UMC was written in 1984 for the Bicentennial celebration of when the Methodist Episcopal Church was established, which was in 1784. For the bicentennial, each couple that had been married over 50 years was asked several questions about their married lives, what advice they would pass onto younger couples, etc. They were also asked what their biggest crisis was over the course of their marriage. To this question, Hobart & Hazel responded that theirs was the long illness of their baby and being able to finally hear its cry.

I’m unsure of exactly the nature of that illness as there were no further details of the story in what I read, but it sounds to me like the type of longing expectation to be fulfilled like one who has been captive to be set at liberty. Ever had a nightmare where you’re trying to cry for help but have no voice? Then when you wake up, there is this great sigh of relief…you’re free. This baby’s voice and health was seemingly held captive, but after a long struggle, was set free. That’s an image of liberty.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” More recently, we’ve had people join the church in the past few years who in the past were held captive in various ways: by addictions, by debt, by guilt. And they have found a home in liberty, both in this church that bears the name and in the glorious liberty of knowing the freedom in Christ from being held in bondage.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” I look out over this congregation and I see living monuments of God’s mercy and Christ’s great act of liberty. I see the Spirit of the Lord, that is the Spirit of Christ, and Paul says wherever that Spirit is, there is liberty. And we have been set at liberty, that is, we have been set free to join Christ’s great mission “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” If God has been faithful thus far, imagine what greater things God has in store if we will but live into this mission of proclaiming liberty to the captives.

"...my chains fell off..." (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

“…my chains fell off…” (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

I close with an image of liberty that I have found quite powerful. My favorite hymn by Charles Wesley is ‘And Can It Be That I Should Gain’ which is #363 in our hymnal. It is filled with some of the greatest language describing God’s free(ing) grace. Verse 4 has long been my favorite and it goes like this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

We had been locked in a dungeon, bound in darkness and sin. But when we allow Christ to shed light to pierce the darkness and to break those chains that have held us in bondage, then we will know what liberty truly means as we will be free to follow this Christ who has set us free.

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It was sometime around the ninth century that a hymn for the Holy Spirit was believed to be written by Rhabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. With today being Pentecost, the day we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Acts 2, I wanted to share the lyrics of the hymn with you. The English translation below is taken from Raniero Cantalamessa, an Italian Catholic priest who has served as the preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. Cantalamessa shared this translation in his excellent book of meditations upon the hymn in Come, Creator Spirit.

Come, Creator Spirit,
visit the minds of those who are yours;
fill with heavenly grace
the hearts that you have made.

You who are named the Paraclete,
gift of God most high,
living fountain, fire, love
and anointing for the soul.

You are sevenfold in your gifts,
you are finger of God’s right hand,
you, the Father’s solemn promise
putting words upon our lips.

Kindle a light in our senses,
pour love into our hearts,
infirmities of this body of ours
overcoming with strength secure.

The enemy drive from us away,
peace then give without delay;
with you as guide to lead the way
we avoid all cause of harm.

Grant we may know the Father through you,
and come to know the Son as well,
and may we always cling in faith
to you, the Spirit of them both.

Amen.

Happy Pentecost, sisters and brothers!

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Latin lyrics of the hymn:

Veni Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paracletus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas
et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae Dei tu digitus,
tu rite promissum Patris
sermone ditans guttura.

Accende lumen sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus,
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus,
ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne noxium.

Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus atque Filium,
te utriusque Spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Amen.

Disclaimer: prepare for a little satire…

“Set yourself on fire (with enthusiasm) and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” – Someone other than John Wesley. You may have seen this line or something similar attributed to the Rev. Wesley but it is not something he ever wrote and the language sounds out of place for an 18th century Anglican clergyman, even one who was at times accused of being an “enthusiast.” Even though there is no evidence to show the co-founder of Methodism ever said such a statement, I think that I may have come across why this quote has been associated with the ecclesial traditions bearing the theology of the original Methodist.

This upcoming Sunday is the Homecoming/Memorial Day Service for Liberty United Methodist Church in Camden, Tennessee, which is one of the churches to which I am currently appointed as pastor.

Current picture of Liberty UMC in Camden, Tennessee.

Current picture of Liberty UMC in Camden, Tennessee.

And as this is my first year there, the tradition holds that I am to be the bearer of the homecoming message. So I’ve spent a good amount of time hearing and reading accounts from the history of Liberty UMC’s life up to this present day. Some parts are fuzzier than others, but the details in a story entitled “An Unusual Sunday at Liberty Methodist Church” are quite specific. You see on a cold Sunday morning in March of 1928, there was a fire that threatened to consume the old wooden church building. A person driving by the church noticed smoke coming from the building and announced, “The church is on fire!” There was an immediate commotion and a very risky and enthusiastic attempt by two brave men to put the fire out, which only threatened a portion of the ceiling. Their attempt was successful and the fire was extinguished, but by the time it had fizzled out, there was a very large crowd gathered outside the building, greatly exceeding the normal attendance for worship. The reflection I read says it all:

Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, “Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large.”

So maybe it was more like advice to the church that says, “Set your(roof) on fire and people will come for miles to watch (it) burn.”

Nah…

The story is true though. Hope to see you Sunday!

“Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

Ascension of Christ - GBOD

The Ascension of Christ. Late 6th century illuminated manuscript (c. 586). Public Domain. via GBOD of the UMC

Talk about a cliffhanger! “This Jesus…will come…” Some TV shows do a good job of leaving you on the edge of your seat at the ending of a season finale. One of mine & Carrie’s favorites is ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ in which the character Barney is notorious for saying, “It’s gonna be LEGEN… wait for it… DARY!” In fact, they ended one season just as Barney said, “…wait for it…” The purpose of the “…wait for it…” or the “…to be continued…” is, of course, to hopefully increase ratings, but in terms of the story, it’s to pique your interest and heighten your sense of expectation of what is still to come.

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension (for we who are in the Western Roman Catholic/Protestant traditions of the Church), in which we remember that, as the Creed says, “…he [Jesus] ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” In terms of the holy days remembered throughout the Church year, Ascension Day is for many Protestants among the lowest on the totem pole, if it’s even present at all. But Christ’s ascension is a vital part of the story of God’s redeeming us and the world. Christ’s bodily departure prepares the way for the Holy Spirit to fill Jesus’ followers, empowering them to be the heralds of this new king whose heavenly reign is breaking in on earth.

And in this, for those of us who wish to be aligned with Jesus the Christ, we are beckoned to bear witness to God’s coming kingdom, that we are still waiting for in its ultimate fulfillment. For now, the remnants of darkness and death still plague the creation, but the rays of light and new life have shown through and we have a confident hope that the good work that has begun will be brought to completion.

So as we herald this news of greater things still to come, we face the (often) gut-wrenching task to “…wait for it…”; to, in patience, work for the kingdom until Jesus comes in final victory. Happy Ascension Day!

“Everliving God, your eternal Christ once dwelt on earth, confined by time and space. Give us faith to discern in every time and place the presence among us of the One who is head over all things and fills all, even Jesus Christ our ascended Lord. Amen.” (from UM Hymnal, #323)