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This is the fourth of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” Here are the links to the other sermons:

Part 1: “…to be the hands of Jesus…”
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”

A sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-18 and Matthew 26:26-30

Something happens to our bodies about the time we turn 30, I’ve discovered. Things stop working like they once could and illnesses take a greater toll and become much more difficult to get over – harder to lose weight. I know, I know…some of y’all are saying, “Just wait till you turn 40…or 50…or 60…” But for now, just allow me to be amazed at this discovery and don’t take away my pity party. The Avett Brothers recently released a song that says this:

Call the Smithsonian I made a discovery
Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free
Loved ones will break your heart with or without you
Turns out we don’t get to know everything

Get the young scientists, tell them come quick
I must be the first man that’s ever seen this
Lines on my face, my teeth are not white
My eyes do not work and my legs don’t move right.

–  The Avett Brothers, Smithsonian

Several weeks ago on the Sunday morning we began this sermon series on our new vision at Ellendale – “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ” – I woke up queasy and I knew it wasn’t just nervousness about preaching that sermon or anything. You see, my daughter had had a stomach virus a couple of days earlier that made her vomit. So when I woke up feeling unsettled on that Sunday, and then when my wife woke up a few minutes after me and she said she felt queasy, too, and threw up about 2 minutes later, I knew some rough hours were coming. I prayed right then and there – “God, if you can help me hold it together until 12:15 so that I can get this sermon preached in both services, after I get home you can let this hit me as hard as it has to.”

Well, God was faithful to God’s end of the deal. I kept my distance from the congregation that morning, and I made it to 12:15, put on my Green Bay Packers gear (that was the Sunday they played the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs) and then collapsed onto my bed, which I did not leave except to go to the bathroom for the next 36 hours. I couldn’t even get up and cheer when Mason Crosby kicked the winning field goal. Ugh…that was horrific…my body has never felt that badly in my whole life. I ached in places I didn’t know you could ache. My body was getting all out of sorts and I couldn’t get comfortable…just miserable.

Now after I recovered, I’ve had several weeks to ponder about this…not so much the getting older part, but the mystery of how a body processes and responds to an illness. The body is an amazing thing – sometimes extremely fragile, at other times remarkably resilient. It’s amazing how all the parts of the body are intertwined and interconnected…to such a degree that when one part, or shall we say, member, hurts, the whole body hurts with it. Yet at the same time, while the body might be wiped out, there are still some things that you have to do to sustain you through those rough times…even when you have the stomach flu, you have to keep eating and drinking – to stay hydrated, to get some nourishment, however small it is, to the body for the sake of its survival and recovery when the stuff finally goes away.

And then there’s that first meal you have after the virus is finally gone – is there anything quite like that satisfaction? I mean it’s not like you’re able to go after a filet mignon and lobster tail right away, but just the feeling of health and life and strength come back…it’s so refreshing to eat and you know it’s going to stay down.

To put it another way – during the sickness, at times it felt like I was getting dismembered – my body was being torn in pieces. And the last thing I felt I had the strength to do was to piece my body together and eat and drink. The other thing about it is that when my feet couldn’t get me to the kitchen, what had to happen? My wife or the kids had to bring me something.

So the point to consider: when our bodies are all out sorts and we feel dismembered, the way to get well again is through a process we might call re-membering, putting the members back together, and this is best done through nourishment of a meal – to practice and celebrate recovery from an ailment, to get healthy again, to gain strength so that the body, now made well, can go on about its mission…its purpose – vitality! Life!

There are times when the body, that is, the church, is all out of sorts too. Fractured relationships, broken trust, as Paul alludes to in his letter to the contentious Corinthians, jealousy over not getting to be the part of the body you want to be, pride – all of these and more that tends to dismember us, if not in actual people leaving the church, at least in a virtual distance even if we’re in the same space to worship or to learn in Sunday school or to break bread. There are times, probably, where you just don’t “feel like” it…like breaking bread with him or her or them. “Ugh! I have to share at the table with them?”

But Jesus has said that when we come together to break this bread and drink this cup, we are to remember him. Remember by recalling the mighty acts of redemption through Jesus Christ, but also by re-membering, that is putting the members of the body back together, through a meal of reconciliation – a meal to restore the fellowship, to practice the presence of God and be truly present to one other, to gain nourishment so that the body, being made well by the mystery of God’s grace, can go on as a body sent out into the world to share that grace with those who are broken and hurting, with those who for some reason or another can’t or haven’t made it to the table yet.

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We come to the table and the words are spoken – make these elements Christ’s body and blood so that we…that is the church…might be the body of Christ for the world around us – the world outside these walls. This isn’t a private meal, but an open one so that we all can experience God’s healing grace and become more faithful and empowered to be, as we have envisioned – “…the hands, feet, and voice – yea, the whole body – of Jesus Christ.”

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

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

This is the third of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” Here are the links to the other sermons:
Part 1: “…to be the hands of Jesus…”
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on Romans 10:17 & John 7:53-8:11

After a Sunday morning service one day there was a young boy named Philip who suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a pastor when I grow up.” She said, “Well, okay, I’m glad to hear this. But I’m curious, what made you decide that? Did you feel God calling you to do this?” “Well,” said Philip, “I’ll have to go to church on Sundays anyway, so I figure it will be more fun to stand up and talk than to sit down and listen.”

My mom always used to quote this Proverb to me that always sounded a little Mark Twain-like to me: “Better to keep silent and people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” It turns out there is a Proverb in the Bible that is remarkably similar to it. Listen to what Proverbs 17:28 says in the Message: “Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they’re smart.”

At some point or another, or perhaps throughout the lives of many of us, we have this tendency to put our foot in our mouth or to say something we shouldn’t say – something foolish, something hurtful, something irrelevant – just to fill the air. Let’s face it, the Scriptures are clear in multiple places about the power of our words – of our voices – of the significance of the content of what we say as well as the timing and the tone. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, expressing wonder about how the smallest muscle in the human body has the power to inflict the most damage but also to bring about the best blessing and build up someone else through encouragement.

The spoken word is so potent that it is by the act of God’s speaking, according to Genesis, that the creation comes about. God spoke, “Let there be…” and so it happened. John begins his gospel with a take on the creation that speaks to this in saying, “In the beginning was the Word…” And like when some superheroes come to terms with whatever their superpower is, they go through a phase in which they wrestle with this power and how to control it or use it for good, when we discover the power of our words to wound or heal, we struggle with keeping our tongue in check. Some of us, anyway. The alternative, of course, is to just say whatever we want, regardless of how it affects others, or just to say whatever pops up and not care what others think.

But when it comes to things pertaining to the gospel, I think more often than not, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or of causing harm – to such a degree that we are reticent to say anything about God or Jesus or things pertaining to faith. One of the most beloved quotes we cite is attributed to St. Francis and it says, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” We love that because, honestly, we think it lets us off the hook from speaking any words of truth or grace or about Jesus.

To put it another way, there are two ways in which to share the gospel – through word and through deed. The reality, I think, is that it is so easy to do one and not the other. Some faith traditions are very, very good about sharing about the good news of Jesus Christ through their words, but are sorely lacking in following through with action and building relationships and being the “hands and feet of Christ.” But, conversely, there are other faith traditions, and I think that a lot of us Methodists fall in this other camp, that are very good about ministering through our deeds – by being the hands and feet of Christ, but are reluctant to say anything. Against these tendencies, we have Jesus, who married word and deed such that wherever his feet took him, he taught with his mouth while breaking bread with his hands…he touched and healed the ill and blind and issued the word of forgiveness and grace to set them free…he embraced the children and outsiders and taught about how they were first in the kingdom of heaven…with the miracles of his hands, he also preached with his lips. It’s all through the Gospels! Jesus wasn’t a mime! He didn’t just perform works with his hands, but also spoke grace with his voice. It’s in our liturgy: “Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.” Do you hear the marriage of word & deed?

It’s why, I think, it’s so important for us to include being Christ’s voice in our vision statement – to accompany the hands and feet. And this passage from the gospel is so revealing about what the voice of Jesus is all about – and what it’s not about. And that ought to make us give serious thought to the manner in which we use our voice for the sake of the gospel. For lessons about speaking abound in this story.

Jesus is teaching in the temple in the position of authority by sitting down. Jesus’ voice is found teaching and we as the church ought to find ourselves sitting as his feet as the one with authority by learning from Jesus and from one another about him. So that speaks to one dimension of what it means to be the voice of Jesus Christ as part of our vision.

But I’m particularly interested in how Jesus engages the situation that interrupts his teaching – when these scribes bring and expose a woman caught in the act of adultery. Now this raises all kinds of issues with me – where was the man that was committing adultery? It seems like these “scribes” were more PI’s trying to catch someone in an unholy act than to pursue justice, holiness, and peace. In any case, what becomes apparent is that for them, ultimately, this woman was just a pawn…to try to trick and trap Jesus. They demanded an answer – the Law says this; what say you, Jesus? If he says, “Yes, you have permission to stone her,” this would go against every sort of similar encounter where he had shown mercy directly to the offender and discredit what he had done and said elsewhere. But if he says, “Nah…don’t worry about it,” he gives them ammunition against him to accuse him as a teacher who was breaking ways with the Law of Moses. They thought he was predictable…that he would reply one way or the other, but they must not have imagined how he responded. How beautiful, his response. He stops talking…stoops down…scribbles something in the ground…what he was writing we don’t know…but interestingly this is the only time in the New Testament where it says Jesus was writing something with his finger, just as the only time when it says that God wrote with his finger was when he wrote the Law on the tablets of stone.

john-8-1-11-3

“Hello, Jesus! Give us an answer! Can we go ahead and stone her?” And then Jesus says what is one of the most quoted statements of Jesus – “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” This statement seems so powerful to us…such a burn on the accusing mob. But we also know the end of the story. Suppose we didn’t know the rest of the story…that’s a risky challenge. It would take just one hot-headed self-righteous guy to say, “Psh…I haven’t sinned like her…” someone like what I have heard (or maybe I’ve tended to think)… “They needs Jesus more than I do…” and then the stoning could’ve commenced. What must that woman have thought or feared?

“If they were so scheming as to try to catch me in the act and not ashamed of dragging me out, what’s to stop them from following through?”

But Jesus’ words, Jesus’ voice does something else…in this case as he spoke and then stopped, returned to his scribbling…his voice disarmed the stones of condemnation and judgment. One by one, they dropped their stones and left. Left her alone with the one who was without sin. I love what St. Augustine, one who struggled with lust and sexual sin, said about this – He wrote:

They left the woman with her great sin in the keeping of him who was without sin. And because she had heard, ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone at her,’ she most likely expected to be punished by one in whom no sin could be found. But he who had repelled her adversaries with the voice of justice lifted on her the eyes [and I would add the voice] of mercy.

To be the voice of Christ in this world, like in this story, is to speak mercy where others speak judgment, to disarm the condemnation that even the most rigorous and well-known scholar of the Bible spews to belittle others, to know when to not speak as much as when to speak and when (not if) the right time comes, to speak grace and truth though it may cause others to scratch their heads or drop their stones and move forward in pursuit of a holy love.

When the opportunity came along for Jesus to give a word of judgment, of condemnation, of ridicule, of putting her in her place, he bent down to the ground – called out the judgmental hypocrisy of the scribes – and practiced mercy all the way through. And in mercy, he also isn’t afraid to challenge this woman either – go and don’t sin anymore. “He proclaimed release to the captives.” You’re free – you don’t have to do that anymore. That mercy, that antidote to condemnation, is what inspired Charles Wesley to pen what is my absolute favorite hymn, And Can It Be, the last verses of which say 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.
No condemnation now I dread, Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
Alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.

Preach the gospel at all times – with your hands, with your feet, and also with your voice – for the times will come when it’s needed. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is the second of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” Here are links to the other sermons in the series:
Part 1: “…to be the hands of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on Mark 5:21-43 and Ephesians 6:15

footprints

Confession: There are a handful of movies that, while conjuring up lovely memories in the minds of many people my age and older, give me nightmares and I envision them not as fantasy and wonder but horror. I include among these: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. I mean for real…those flying monkeys with their zombie-like expressions and movement… *shudders*. I’m no fan of horror movies, and neither is my wife, Carrie, but she loves all things Oz – the books, the movies, she has a collection of Christmas tree ornaments from the movie, and on and on. (I only knew of one Wizard of Oz growing up and his last name was Smith and he played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. But I digress…) Now there’s this new TV series called The Emerald City, which is putting a new twist on the story. And I have to admit, I’ve gotten into this last one…intriguing. No flying monkeys yet, but I am drawn in by the story telling. It’s been pretty suspenseful so far.

Now the thing about suspense is that it makes us want to get to the resolution. It is symptomatic of our way of living in the Western world that we long for closure. While we hate to see our favorite TV shows or series come to an end, we do, nonetheless, long for that closure. And so relative to that baneful movie from 1939, to avoid all the mess and heartache that Dorothy experienced along the road, I would like to tell her as soon as she got to Oz, “Hey, Dorothy, click those red ruby shoes together three times and say, ‘There’s no place like home!’!” You can avoid all the nonsense and the horror along the yellow brick road. To be immediately brought to the resolution. What must that experience be like? Or to speak to more recent cultural expressions than the old Wizard, what it would be like to be “Beamed up, Scotty!’? But isn’t this what we’re obsessed with – getting where we need to go…and quickly…no delay…no detours…minimal pit-stops or layovers… are… we… there… yet?

C. S. Lewis once said that “The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’ It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.”

I think sometimes even in the church we get caught up in this seeming light speed pace of the world and we get impatient when things don’t move fast enough to get done what we know needs to be done. It may help us to remember that Jesus didn’t save the world traveling at the speed of a NASCAR, but at a simple walking pace. Jesus saved the world at a pace of about 3 miles per hour. Even in emergency situations, Jesus remained calm – he was deliberative, yes – but he was never in a hurry as far as we can tell.

And this is what brought me to the Gospel passage this morning. Perhaps there could have been better or more detailed stories or examples of Jesus’ feet and what we see them doing elsewhere in the gospels. Like we learned last week about Jesus’ hands, his feet can be found in many other modes – in some passages, they are found to be on the receiving end of being anointed and/or kissed by a woman, they can be found walking upon the water in a shocking miracle displaying his authority over the created order, there are the instructions Jesus gives to the seventy disciples he sent out with preparations for their feet, the way in which he washes the feet of his disciples, and of course, the fact that his feet, like his hands, were pierced by nails, shedding his blood. This last one in particular is potent just as we saw the hands of Jesus at the cross display the vast, immeasurable expanse of God’s love. So also the feet, shedding blood, are the means by which Jesus makes peace through the blood of the cross.

But there is something more vital about Jesus’ feet that is subtler and can be seen underneath the surface in what takes place in this passage from Mark. And I believe it is this quality that speaks to what is central to our new vision at Ellendale – to be the hands, feet, and voice of Christ – and that is this: about Jesus’ pace, or the way he moves his feet, and how this speaks to the manner in which Jesus carries out his mission. That is, Jesus’ feet are the vehicle of carrying his grace to the hurting world. Whenever you see a reference to Jesus going or coming, always think this – his feet got him there – and its always on purpose. Jesus walks with resolve to do his Father’s will…and that means, like what we see in our text today, that he takes unexpected (and undesired) detours even when they’re puzzling to his followers.

A synagogue leader asks Jesus to heal his dying daughter. And Jesus responds by going…not by asking, “Hey, you need to bring her to the synagogue” or “to the church”…no. Jesus goes. Now it doesn’t say that Jesus was walking with a particularly slow pace, but I imagine if I’m the synagogue leader and Jesus is walking with me to heal my daughter who is on the brink of death and I don’t have an ambulance, yes, I’m probably doing my best to rush him. Perhaps he was walking briskly, but this was stifled at least to some degree by the crowd pressing in on him, when all of a sudden, Jesus pauses…and takes a detour.

“Who touched me?” His followers said, “Who touched you? More like, who didn’t touch you? Ugh. Somebody needs to go to Sam’s to get some Lysol and hand sanitizer.”

But there’s more to what Jesus is saying…he felt healing power going out from him when a particular person touched him. And he goes…off the path…off the script…his feet veer away, momentarily, off of the way we think he should go. But instead Jesus goes aside, he kneels, he speaks, he makes whole. Jesus took the time to walk to this woman and make her whole before he resumed his course to the young girl. By then it seemed too late for her. But allow this One to be fully present with her, too, and she will be made well – and that is what happened. The feet of Jesus walked to enable him to be fully present and minister wherever he went. And here’s the kicker—no pun intended—his feet took him outside the walls of the worshiping community because the world outside the walls was where the hurt was.

And that’s why this vision of being the body of Christ, including being his feet, is not ultimately about what we want to take place inside the walls of this building, but more importantly about what we desire to take place in the community – in the lives of the people who come here and the people with whom we come in contact as we walk, and run, and jog, and drive, and fly, through life. It’s taking each step on purpose and being fully present in every circumstance. Only we should let God’s grace shine with us wherever we are. It’s not about mere engagement here on Sunday morning. It’s about taking the mission out there, about sharing God and grace as we go.

This is why we also heard from Ephesians 6:15 earlier – feet fitted with readiness to share the gospel of peace. John Wesley commented about this passage:

Let this be always ready to direct and confirm you in every step. This part of the armor, for the feet, is needful, considering what a journey we have to go; what a race to run. Our feet must be so shod, that our footsteps slip not. To order our life and conversation aright, we are prepared by the gospel blessing, the peace and love of God ruling in the heart. By this only can we tread the rough ways, surmount our difficulties, and hold out to the end.

Feet then, in Wesleyan terms, serve as prevenient grace – that which goes before and enables us to share the gospel of peace – of God’s reconciling love through deed (expressed with the hands) and word (expressed through our voice). When we are serving as the feet of Christ, we are expressing that God’s grace comes to us on its way to another and we are invited to hop on board and follow – not clicking our heels together, not getting beamed up, but walking in step with the Spirit at the pace of Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about the feet of the messenger – how beautiful they are in bringing the good news that God is King and our good God reigns!

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of them
Who bring good news, good news,
Announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness,
Our God reigns, our God reigns…

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

This is the first of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” For the other sermons in the series, click on the links below:
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on James 2:14-17 & John 9:1-12

A few Christmases ago, Carrie gave me a print of the painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son by the great artist Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s a remarkable piece in so many ways and you’ll likely hear me refer to it multiple times in sermons in the future. But there is one feature that I’ve been drawn toward multiple times, including this week as I’ve been pondering about the significance of the work of our hands in reference to being the hands of Christ, which is the first part of our new vision at Ellendale UMC.

The central figure in Rembrandt’s painting, as in Jesus’ parable, is the lovesick father who at long last welcomes home his wayward child. In Rembrandt’s portrayal of the encounter, there is something fascinating and beautiful about the father’s hands, which is featured on the cover of your bulletin.

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Do you notice the difference between the hands? One hand appears more rugged and masculine – wide and with thick fingers and appears more calloused. The other hand, however, looks softer and more feminine – narrow, caring, nurturing. Together these go “hand-in-hand”(I know…I know…preacher’s humor can be the worst) to give us a picture of the strong, yet tender love of God – gentle enough to embrace us without causing us harm; strong enough to rescue us and hold us secure. I went back to that painting this week and as I reexamined it, I saw the hands of my grandparents.

That rugged hand looked just my Papaw’s. I remember those hands well…hands that held onto a piano bench pad in the living room of his home. We grandchildren turned their living room into a rodeo frequently. He would hold the piano bench pad down between his chair and Granny’s, pretending that the pad was a gate holding in the bull, which was one of my uncles or my father with us, the bull riders, on their back…those rugged hands that grabbed me while I was giggling and kicking and screaming while he pulled me into his “bear trap” every Sunday (there was no getting out of Papaw’s bear traps)…hands that, when we had sleepovers at Papaw and Granny’s, would rub us down with Vick’s 44 vapor rub even though we weren’t sick, because we needed that “calming down” that only Vick’s could provide after those rodeos…hands that were rugged and calloused from feeding cattle or bloody from messing with the barbed wire fencing…hands that went through his garden and fields picking vegetables not only for Granny to prepare and cook but also to give to needy families in the area…hands of service…hands of work that as I’ve shared before gripped a hammer and fence post as he breathed his last.

That other hand is Granny’s, though. Papaw’s hands worked the earth. Granny’s work was more delicate – handiwork, needlework, crafty. The quality of her hands, while different from Papaw’s, was just as much needed. Her hands were caring…not inflicting Vick’s 44. Those hands were artistic – she played the piano some, but one of her best gifts was the care she gave through hospitality and cooking – preparing meals for family and guest, for friend and stranger alike…hands that frequently held a book, usually a Bible or a hymnbook as she loved the Lord and sang with all her might…hands that were well trained in serving and loving.

These are the hands of my grandparents…and they give me a glimpse, albeit imperfect, into what the hands of Jesus were all about. Our gospel lesson tells us one way in which Jesus’ hands go to work. Jesus’ hands in this passage worked with dirt and water. I’ve always been curious about Jesus’ use of spit and dirt, mud…it seems so, well, unsanitary, dirty, unclean, odd. But he does this here and on some other occasions, where he uses spit and dirt to form mud and rubs it over the eyes of a blind person to bring them vision, to give them, in a sense, new life. And as I pondered on this, I realized, as some of the ancient Christian writers did, that Jesus was revealing his relationship with the God who fashioned humans from the dirt all the way back in the account of creation in Genesis 2:7.

In the second century, there arose a teaching that challenged the notion that Jesus was truly and fully human but taught, rather, than Jesus only appeared to be like a human. You see, this teaching couldn’t grasp how someone could be both truly and fully God and truly and fully human. Yet one of the key leaders in the church at the time was a bishop named Irenaeus, who helped guide the church into maintaining belief in both Jesus’ full humanity as well as his full divinity. Irenaeus was a student of one of the Apostle John’s disciples. Irenaeus wrote about this connection between Jesus in the flesh and God’s work in creation by pointing out the work of Jesus’ hands:

Jesus bestowed sight on the one who was blind from birth – not by a word, but by an outward action. He did this neither casually nor simply because this was how it happened. He did it this way in order to show it was the same hand of God here that had also formed humans at the beginning. And therefore when his disciples asked him why he had been born blind, whether by his own fault or his parents’, Jesus said, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be manifested in him.” The work of God is, after all, the forming of humans…for the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man. Notice here too how the Lord spit on the earth, and made clay and smeared it on his eyes, showing how the ancient creation was made. – St. Irenaeus

Hmmm…When the disciples get into a debate about some philosophical or theological argument about the origin of this suffering, about the problem of evil, Jesus’ takes them to a new level and his hands go to do the work of God. Maybe there’s a lesson there for us. For the disciples could’ve just said, “We’ll pray for you, blind man,” and then gone about their merry way. Just like the negative example depicted in the passage from James. But, if when walking down the road and our hands have the cure or the ability to supply the actual need of someone in search for it, we keep our hands in our pockets and just ask the theoretical question, then, well, we’re not being the hands of Christ and James tells us our faith is useless.

What sorts of things do we see Jesus doing with his hands in the gospels? Healing (as we have seen in our passage this morning and many, many other places where he touches an ill or dying or dead person, or in some cases where an ill person touches him); Jesus’ hands can be found drawing artwork in the sand one chapter earlier in John 8; they are touching the disciples who were afraid at the transfiguration in Matthew 17; Jesus’ hands washed feet; blessed, broke and dispersed bread; served others; touched the untouchable; got dirty by reaching to the unclean; and in the end were wide open as they were wounded and nailed to the cross to show the full expanse and embrace of God’s love. And that’s what the hands of Jesus convey – love!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!

And if our vision, I would say, is that we would be the hands of Christ to the world around us, then well our hands ought to be doing the same things that Jesus’ hands did in the gospels – creating, healing, giving grace, offering hope and encouragement and faith, getting dirty, washing feet, feeding the hungry, touching the untouchable, and willing to be wounded for the sake of God’s love.

Legend is told of a church that was destroyed during World War II.  Among the ruins there was but one item left standing, a statue of Jesus with his arms reaching out. However, his hands were severed in the midst of the wreckage. The church was rebuilt and a sculptor offered to make and attach new hands to restore the statue but the members of the church opted to let it stand as it was saying, “For Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work on earth.  If we do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, entertain the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked, who will?”

One last word – my grandparents’ hands, like everyone’s, withered over time. Granny’s hands weakened to where they couldn’t cook or create or serve like they once could. I had to come to terms with the reality that the work of the hands I witnessed in my grandparents would have to continue in people like me. The work is now ours. John Wesley made this observation when he talked about the transfer of ministry and leadership from Moses to Joshua in the Old Testament as they approached the promised land. Wesley made this statement: “Let not the withering of the most useful hands be the weakening of ours.” We are here because of useful hands…some of those hands have withered, some have gone…but those hands have designed to strengthen ours so that when the time would come for us to take up the task, we would be able to do so. So, let not the withering of those useful hands be the weakening of ours. Let’s be the hands of Christ.

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,
Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.

Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white,
Neighbors are near and far away.
 

These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love;
All these are neighbors to us and you.
 
Kneel at the feet of our friends, silently washing their feet,
This is the way we should live with you.

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

Re: Romans 13:11-14 & Isaiah 2:1-5

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.

Paul Simon wrote this in the early 1960’s. There is a longing in this vein for a reality that is truer than the “neon gods” we make. It is so often like us to want to escape or avoid genuineness in our relationships and communication and fall for the imitation of it offered by the neon lights of media, television shows, movies, and so on…and this is from the early 60’s, long before the invention of the internet or the smart phone or social media. We still miss out for we’re “talking without [really] speaking,” we’re still “hearing without [really] listening.” The dark reality is dreadful and at times frightening yet if we don’t acknowledge the darkness, then light will not get where it is meant to go. For Jesus came not to light a path that was already lit, but to bring light where there was none. That is, he entered the darkness to punch holes in it, as Robert Benson’s recent book speaks to. Jesus didn’t escape the reality and go daydreaming or fall for the fake alternative.

“Hello darkness, my old friend.” It is precisely to this context – a world in darkness – that St. Paul encourages the Romans, and therefore us, to wake up – awaken from our day- or night-dreaming and not seek those things that provide an escape to reality. Rather it is time to put our clothes on – Jesus himself, who is the Light of the world – and go share some light! In Advent, while the darkness still abides, light makes its way in one candle at a time…one hole at a time.

one-candle

This is the beauty and mystery of this season in conversation with this Romans passage. For I think we can put it like this: the Son of God put on our flesh so that we can put on Christ’s. We can put him on as our clothing – and neither He nor we will ever be the same. Christ could’ve escaped the reality, escaped the darkness – remained in the confines and safety of his heavenly home without having to suffer, but this way, what Charles Wesley called the sojourning “through this vale of tears” was the only way to bring light to darkness. He steered toward the pain and refused the escape clause, the fake reality. “Hear my words that I might teach you…take my arms that I might reach you.” Reality is Christ’s voice speaking to us, Christ’s arms reaching toward us and our really hearing and listening and welcoming and embracing. Then we extend that out.

How do we do this? How do we live into this? Waking up, not day dreaming, but embracing the reality of this world and its darkness AND YET…AND YET rejecting that this is all there is to it. The season of Advent tells us and gives us the vehicle in which we can proclaim, the best is yet to come! Yet it also manifests itself in simple acts that punch holes in the dark and I think that there is a practice that can help you every day to move toward that end. It can be as simple as doing what Paul says here: “Wake up and put on the Lord Jesus!” Here is a prayer that I use as part of my ritual to begin my days. It is in the midst of a longer set of prayers but this particular prayer is the centering or orienting prayer for how I want to put on the Lord Jesus for the day. The morning canticle from the Northumbria Community, also found in Celtic Daily Prayer:

Christ, as a light, illumine and guide me. Christ, as a shield, overshadow me.
Christ under me. Christ over me. Christ beside me on my left and on my right.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Christ be in the heart of each to whom I speak, in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me, lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Christ as a light; Christ as a shield; Christ beside me on my left and on my right.

And when you catch yourself escaping too frequently into an alternate world that avoids reality, put your phone down, close the computer, get off Facebook, and go give someone a hug, write a letter, make a phone call, buy a cup of coffee for a stranger, visit someone unable to leave their house, go to the checkout line that isn’t self-serve and share a little light with a clerk. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and let your light shine.

A Pastoral Word on the Presidential Election…    

Greetings friends!

As the late hours of Tuesday night unfolded and paved the way toward Wednesday morning, the surprising news of an upset became a reality as Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Presidential election. Of course, not all were surprised at the results, but based on what was being projected prior to the first polls closing, it appeared that Clinton had an 80% likelihood of winning the election and taking up residence in the White House. Instead, however, now President-elect Trump (as of this writing) secured 279 electoral votes to Secretary Clinton’s 228. (It appears, after Michigan, Arizona and New Hampshire are settled, the final tally will be Trump 308, Clinton 232.) The results have also indicated that for the second time in the lifetime of most of us, the candidate that had the higher popular vote lost the election. (Secretary Clinton has roughly 300,000 more votes overall than President-elect Trump; similarly, President George W. Bush won the electoral college while losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.)

My message to the community of faith I pastor at Ellendale UMC is not about my personal feelings or opinions about the election results. What is undeniable is that we live in a land and are part of a people that are divided very deeply on a number of significant issues. Having only been a part of the electorate for now five presidential races, it is without question that this political season has been the most tense of my lifetime and it has unveiled some of the worst in our capacity to speak and do harm unto others. Based on things that were said and done during the campaigns, it is not surprising that many went to bed Tuesday or woke up Wednesday feeling a wide range of emotional responses, and for many, this feeling won’t just go away overnight. I could go into more detail about why this is and would be glad to do so at another time or in private conversation if you would like to follow up with me.

However, what I do want to speak to at this point is how I believe we as a people whose ultimate allegiance is to Jesus the Christ as the Sovereign over our lives and the created order, ought to begin to respond in moving forward. I think it comes down to the three simple rules of Methodism: 1. Do no harm; 2. Do good; 3. Practice the means of grace (or, as the late Bishop Reuben Job put it, ‘Stay in love with God.):

  1. Do no harm. Enough harm has been done in this election season. Hateful things were said by and about the candidates and also about the people who voted differently than you did. Understandably, then, a large number of people are deeply grieving about the results. Of course, there are many who are celebrating. Meanwhile, based on the rhetoric spewed over the last year or so – comments and actions that degraded others because of their sex, race, nationality, economic class, religious convictions, sexual orientation, education level… – many are sincerely afraid of what the future holds for them in our land and whether or not they are truly welcome to be a part of it. So…let us be a community of light that does not engage in that kind of behavior – no name-calling, no hate, no referring to others as “nasty” or “deplorable.” Every human being is made in the image of God.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

  1. Do good. Please, please, please let us learn to love one another. Jesus said it quite simply, though it may be the hardest thing for us to do. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you…’.” (Matthew 5:43-44). As contentious and negative as the campaigns were, I am encouraged by the tone and tenor of the manner in which Trump, Clinton, and also President Obama have charted the course and given us a gracious example thus far of “the peaceful transfer of power.” Coming together after this election will be difficult and for many, the grief and anger will take a long time to process. If you are angry or saddened by the results, that is okay. Feel free to speak your mind about it! If, on the other hand, you’re elated or satisfied with the result of the election, then I would encourage you to be gracious and understanding with those who are not. Again, the hateful words filled with racism, classism, sexism, etc. have left many wounded and afraid. Let us remember that God has always come to the side of those who are oppressed and that Jesus ministered at great length with the vulnerable, with those whose beliefs were different than his own, with people of all ethnicities and was gracious to all, while especially challenging the religious majority and those in power. Let us be instruments of peace and reconciliation, especially by modeling love and encouragement to the most vulnerable in our world.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

  1. Practice the means of grace. Again, the late United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job rephrased John Wesley’s third rule (“attend upon all the ordinances of God”) to say, more memorably, “Stay in love with God.” But staying in love with God is not a mere sentimental expression to give you all the warm fuzzies…it is a call to action and involves doing things, practicing habits that center our hearts, minds, souls and strength on God! What does this mean? It means that we need to take part in things that God’s people do: pray, search/read/study the Scriptures, take part in the worshiping community of faith, partake of the sacrament when offered, build relationships with others in the community through discipleship and fellowship, show mercy to those left on the side of the road, practice hospitality… In other words, don’t retreat! We really are stronger together (no pun intended) when we unite in our allegiance to Jesus the Christ in worship, in love to God and to our neighbors (including our “enemies”), and in our witness by being the light of the world.

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

Now as we seek to put some pieces back together in witnessing the fragility and brokenness of our nation, let us keep our intention on these – avoiding harm, doing good, practicing grace – and ask for God to work through and far beyond our efforts, for healing can only come through God’s grace. We used this prayer of confession in our post-election communion service and I find it a fitting note on which to end my message to you:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out our fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-from The United Methodist Book of Worship #482

three-simple-rules-parkerumc-dot-org

Photo credit – parkerumc.org

Words matter. And the last words we remember from loved ones matter in particular. In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, I’ve pondered about the importance that we often attach to the last words of our beloved ones, of the saints who have gone before. Sometimes the words are a cry for help, sometimes they are words of a deeply committed hope and faith, sometimes they are words of blessing upon the family or loved ones who are at the side of the dying person, sometimes they’re just random. In many cases, of course, we aren’t sure what the person’s final words were. But in all of the varied cases, one thing remains the same: for the survivors, the future is uncertain and sometimes downright scary. The new reality that will unfold in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is one that is largely unpredictable. How will I…how will we move on without him or her or them? The beast of death and of the uncertain future is so scary.

And it works for more than death too. To speak to other current events (ahem, Election Day)…what will I/we do if my/our ideal candidate is not elected? We’re so prone to be trapped in fear about what we hear might happen if the worst thing occurs and the beast on the other side of the political aisle gets elected? Or perhaps there is more than one beast on the ballot? The future is so uncertain. How do we move on when the beast will surely rise from the earth and claim us, one way or another (or both)?

Daniel has a vision, a dream of sorts, which though it has a nice resolution at the end is filled at first with monsters who evoke fear and terror and death on the rest of the world who would dare stand in their way. Daniel admits that he is deeply troubled by these four beasts and asks for an interpretation by one of the angelic attendants in the dream. And did you notice the angel’s response? It’s almost nonchalant. The angel in a matter-of-fact way just says those four beasts represent four kingdoms. The angel doesn’t put as much significance on that part of the vision as Daniel (or we) would wish, but moves rather swiftly to point out that the eternal kingdom belongs to the “holy ones” of the Ancient of Days, or as other translations put it, the “saints” of the Most High God! If you continue reading the rest of Daniel 7, you’ll notice that Daniel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity about the nature of the vision and what all is represented therein…particularly those beasts. You see, living with ambiguity and the temptation to fear is not a new predicament for God’s people.

The angel, and thereby God, is inviting Daniel, and thereby us, to take a longer view than to be merely caught up in the temporal realities and kingdoms and powers that will one day pass…and yes, Tuesday (Election Day), too, shall pass. We are invited to take a view that, rather, is one that has stood the test of time and remains throughout kingdoms and empires, across crusades and dark ages, through times of persecution and exile, and even survived the times of enjoying popularity which was probably the most threatening temptation to the preservation and deliverance of genuine faith. The communion of the saints. It’s a part of the Creed we confess…a creed that has been around longer than any of the political candidates up for election, a creed that is older than the United States, older than the British empire, than the Holy Roman Empire, older than the dark ages, older than when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, even older than when the Church established which books would be within the canon of the New Testament. “I believe in…the communion of saints… (or the communion of the holy ones)…” and this forever and ever “…life everlasting.”

The last words of our Creed, the last words of the angel to Daniel in our passage. Congruent with the last words of our movement’s founder, John Wesley, who on his death bed proclaimed several times: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That statement – “God IS with us” is not a statement bound by a particular time period but is an eternal statement that stands the test of time…God was, God is, God will be – or as God revealed God’s self to Moses, “I am.” That is the one to whom the saints ultimately give their allegiance – not to the beasts that emerge from the earth, not to the kingdoms that come and go, not to the political parties or any temporal reality – but to the One who sits on the Throne, who has conquered the realm that ruled over all the kingdoms of the earth. For you know what the beasts all have in common? They all died: the reign of death. And this One, the one who appeared “like a human being” or “a Son of Man” established at the funeral of one of his best friends that, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

stole-from-papaw-ties

Last words. My wife, Carrie, made this stole (see above) for me. The symbols of eternity and the Trinity that are intertwined are made from the materials of some of my Papaw’s neckties. When I think of the communion of saints, he is one of the first ones who come to mind. The reality is that I don’t know what my Papaw’s last words were. I don’t know what he uttered as he died, if anything, for he was alone building a fence around some hay bales for his cattle. But even though his last words are unknown, he actually left a message loud and clear for his loved ones in positioning himself the way he did when he died. Granny found him lying in the field, his glasses in his shirt pocket, his right hand holding a hammer, his left hand holding a fence post. He died sending a message that said: “Until the eternal kingdom comes in fullness when God wipes away all tears and death and crying and pain will be no more…until that day, I will not stop working.” No temporal reality, no setback, no fear, no temptation would hold him back from his task. Papaw’s favorite hymn was one called ‘Yield not to Temptation,’ #191 in the All-American Hymnal that resides in the pews at Oscar UMC. Almost every time there was a hymn sing and my dad (the song leader) opened the floor for requests for congregational hymns, Papaw would holler out, “Number 191!” The final verse is so fitting for Daniel 7. Yield not to temptation…yield not to fear of the beasts…death will not have the final say…

To them that o’ercometh, God giveth a crown,
Through faith we will conquer, though often cast down;
He who is our Savior, our strength will renew;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

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