Can you quote the Virginia traffic law governing traffic signs and signals, and how they are to be obeyed? I know I can’t. Can you quote the law regarding lane changes on multi-lane highways? You can’t? Neither can I. For the most part, we can’t quote the traffic rules that governed our trips to church this morning. We had to learn the rules when we were teenagers so we could pass the driver’s test, and we’ve had to learn the rule changes as we’ve continued to drive, but most of us can’t quote the rules.
It’s because we don’t have to. While most of us can’t quote a single traffic law, we know right and wrong when we see it. That generally means when we see something that doesn’t look right or feel right, our guts tell us that something is wrong. It doesn’t take a law degree to know when traffic laws are being violated. We know it because it simply doesn’t look or feel right.
Today’s scripture teaches us that some things look right, and some things don’t. We know when good fruit is being produced. On the other hand, when our “religion” produces division and conflict, it doesn’t look right or feel right. James tells us that when we are following “the wisdom from above,” our actions are “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” When we see that, we know the Spirit is at work within us.
We’ll talk about this in worship today. What we do here matters.
Back in February of this year, I did something that has been instrumental for me and my faith pilgrimage. Since I was a child, I have always read the Bible on a daily basis. When I was a kid, it was a big deal for me to read through the Bible, and then to announce that I had completed reading it. I must have read it through twenty times before I reached adulthood. I was privileged to have parents who encouraged that behavior, and I was certainly encouraged to read the Bible by my church.
The last few years have found me not reading as passionately as I did in my youth, and I wanted to get back into reading the Bible in a disciplined fashion. So in February, I ordered me a good reading Bible (large print!) and I set myself a new goal. During the 40 days of Lent, I promised God that I would make reading the scriptures a priority, and that I would do whatever was necessary to read the Bible through during the days of Lent. I even disclosed this to other folks, so that they would help keep me on track. With God’s help, and the gentle prodding of a few people, I finished reading the Bible from cover-to-cover in a little over a month.
I cannot explain what happens to me when I spend time in the scriptures, but something significant happens. That’s why I’m about to finish another journey through the scriptures. I’m reminded that God did what God does, and I am reminded that we flesh and blood human beings can be used by God to do things we can’t normally do.
Today’s story is about Esther. The story is full of twists and turns, but in the end, a young woman was able to save her people by risking her life for her fellow Jews. It’s a story that reads like a good novel, but it is a story of faith. When we see Esther’s faith, we are inspired to do and be our best. Her story is but one of many that we read in the Bible. I get excited all over again every time I read it.
I hope you’ll spend time in the scriptures. It really does change us for the better.
Welcome to worship. What we do here matters.
Over twenty years ago, I stood up to preach and noticed an unfamiliar face sitting in the congregation. He appeared to be around 70 years old, and some of our folks seemed to recognize him. At the end of the service, one of our long-time members brought him to me and introduced us. He had grown up in our town, and his family had deep roots in the church. After college, he had moved north to a large city, and had put down roots there. However, he still considered our church to be his home, and the University across the street was his alma mater.
He wondered if he could see me the next day, and of course, I was happy to set a meeting time. He wanted to talk about our campus ministry. He had heard that we were having chapel services on campus, and he was really excited to know that his church was reaching out to his school. After a long conversation about the campus ministry, he asked me if we needed anything. I explained that we had just received a sizable grant from both the District and the Conference, and that for the time being, we were in good shape.
A few months later, we were dreaming bigger dreams. We wondered about enlarging our outreach and offering more ministry to the university community. What began to formulate was a vision of a campus chaplaincy, provided by the church and supported by the university.
The next time my out-of-town visitor stopped by, he asked again if I needed anything. At that point, I laid out the vision of an expanded campus ministry to him. He liked the vision. “How much do you need to fund this?” he asked.
“$100,000,” I said.
He didn’t flinch. He sat and thought for a moment, then said, “Let me get back to you on that.” A few days later, he showed up with a check. Not for $100,00, but still for a substantial sum. And every time I saw him, he brought more money with him.
When he died, he still had not given the full amount, but he had funded a ministry that, a generation later, still impacts college students for Christ. It turns out he knew he was dying, but he wanted to see that a ministry he loved would continue even after his death. He invested in the future of Christ’s Kingdom.
Today, we talk about Hannah. She, too, invested in the work of God. We’ll talk about this today.
What we do here matters.
On September 11, 2001, the Chattanooga District Clergy had their monthly meeting at 10 AM. I was one of the clergy members there for the meeting. Most of us had our radios on in our cars, and shortly before most of us arrived for the meeting, we were hearing news bulletins that hijacked airplanes had just crashed into the World Trade Center, and also at the Pentagon. We would hear shortly after that of another hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania. It was a day that most of us will never forget.
We pastors gathered around a small screen at Brainerd United Methodist Church, trying to make sense out of what had happened. There was fear in the room, and there was anger in the room. Only later would we fully realize the devastation that had taken place in the attack. So many deaths, and so many injuries, and for a long time, so many questions with few answers.
Suddenly, whatever we had planned to discuss that day paled in comparison to our need to be amongst our people during such a pivotal moment. There would be no regular clergy meeting that day. However, before we left and headed back to our churches, we observed Holy Communion. It served to calm my nerves before I went back to my congregation, where people filed into the church to pray, to strengthen each other, and just to talk.
Today, we observe Holy Communion together. I certainly pray that no disaster comes our way. But if it should, we come to a table, to receive grace and help in time of need. Here, we are reminded that our Savior was a real flesh-and-blood human being. He saw humanity at its worst, and still, He overcame.
See you at the Table. What we do here matters.
Our family of origin is the place where our personalities are formed, and where we are molded into the adults that we become. For instance, I was raised by a mother who instilled a love of music in me, and encouraged me to use my gifts. At the same time, I was raised by a father who was a pastor, and who loved to tell the story of Jesus. I learned from both of them.
Generally, we move into adulthood with two agendas. Our first agenda is to do things the way our parents did things, and the way they taught us to behave. Our second agenda, however, is to react against those things we received from our family of origin that we didn’t like, and certainly have no intention of perpetuating.
How sad that for many of us, we never stop and analyze what we’re doing and where our lives are going. We learn bad habits from our childhood that become destructive ways of living when we get older. And we move headlong into self-destruction believing that the way we’re behaving is the right way to do things.
We’re talking about Jacob today. Jacob and his twin-brother Esau had a rocky and destructive relationship. Esau was his father’s favorite. Jacob was his mother’s favorite. They played out their sibling rivalry in ways that would confound the most skilled psychologists today. Jacob was a little smarter, a little faster, and a whole lot more devious than his brother. So it was easy for him to take advantage of Esau.
One day, however, Jacob learned that he had outsmarted his brother one too many times, and suddenly he had to leave everything familiar and run for his life. Talk about self-destructive! He made his brother angry enough to kill him.
There would be other deceptions, and other hasty exits. Then one night, in a private moment, it happened. Something bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than Jacob wrestled with him. Jacob couldn’t talk his way out, wiggle his way out, or outsmart his opponent. He limped away, knowing that God had broken his will and injured his hip. Jacob finally learned that God was not to be defied, and that God was not interested in any of Jacob’s smooth talk. He named the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God.” Once Jacob saw God, he was different. That’s when he got a new name.
Are you tired of fighting the ghosts and bad habits formed long ago? Are you tired of wrestling with yourself and wrestling with God? You don’t have to do it all on your own. And you can’t do it all on your own anyway. Jacob limped away. That’s the price of fighting too long.
We’ll talk about this more today.
What we do here matters.
Years ago, the phone rang late one Saturday night. The call was from the Police station. The person receiving the call was the Associate Pastor on my staff. They were holding her son, a college student, at the city jail, and they were willing to release him into the custody of his parents. Otherwise, he would be held until he could appear before the judge on Monday.
His charge: stealing pumpkins. It was Halloween, and his fraternity sent out its younger members to pull a fraternity prank. The boys were having a good time, stealing jack-o-lanterns off peoples’ porches, right up until they got caught by a police officer. Now, they were taken downtown and booked into the system. The poor preacher’s kid had never been in any trouble before, not even for a traffic ticket. Suddenly, he was thrust into a new, very different environment. He found himself in a holding cell with people he described as “real” criminals.
His mother was not happy, bailing out her son. She was not happy that she had been awakened and forced to retrieve her son from police custody. She was angry. Her son, trying to lighten the mood on the ride home said, “Mom, they put me in the cell with real criminals!”
Mom’s response: “You’re one of them now.”
The young man is now a father in his mid-thirties, has a good job, and hasn’t been back to jail. Seems as though what the police failed to do, his mother did quite well. She held up a mirror to him, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Today, we’re sitting in church with a bunch of real criminals, people who are guilty of violating God’s law. The reason I’m here? I’m one of them. And so are you. When we look in the mirror, we may not like what we see. There’s still time to change the reflection.
What we do here matters.
A call came in to the Church office one day. “This is Bill, from the Monday morning prayer group. This morning, we got ready to pour the coffee, and noticed that none of the mugs we bought for the kitchen was there.”
“How many mugs do you have?”
“We bought ten, and it seems like the number just kept dwindling. Now, we have none. Could you ask around and see what might have happened?”
The secretary assured him she would. She then came to me, since I have been known to drink a few cups of coffee at my desk. I looked around, and sure enough I had borrowed one of their mugs and had forgotten to take it back. That accounted for one, but where were the other nine?
Another staff member who kept a very messy office and work space caught wind of the investigation. He wanted to know what the mugs looked like. Armed with that information, he walked into his office, scooted some things around, and returned carrying the other nine missing mugs. He explained that he had misplaced the mugs, one at a time. They just kept piling up in his messy office until one day, he realized the error of his ways. He hadn’t set out to take nine mugs, but by the time he stopped to inventory his office, he realized that one mug at a time, he had taken nine mugs.
The case of the missing mugs was solved. But it leaves me to wonder if our lives become piled up with mistakes and errors because we never stop to take inventory of the ways we mess up. We want to do the right thing, but we can become very habitual about doing the wrong thing. When confronted with how wrong we’ve been, we’re surprised at what is left in our wake.
What do you see when you look behind you? Have you slowly compromised principles, or slowly let things clutter your life that shouldn’t be there? It’s time to take the mugs back to the kitchen, and get a fresh start!
What we do here matters.
From My Perspective – August 5, 2018
It’s interesting that one of our most sacred moments in the life of the church is that time when we celebrate Holy Communion. Many of us have found special grace during those moments of Communion. Many times in my life, when I’ve needed an extra nudge from God, I have received it at the table. I know I’m not alone in this, because many folks tell me their stories of how God transformed them, or shook them up, while receiving Communion.
I’ve also found that Holy Communion is a time when we get really emotional if someone doesn’t do it “the right way.” I have fielded more than my share of complaints because I, or another minister on my staff, didn’t say the right words, didn’t use the right method of serving the sacrament, or “ruined the moment” by not controlling all the variables.
The common complaint I hear is that Methodists make it look like we’re “herding cattle” when it comes to Holy Communion. Some believe that lining up to receive the elements resembles herding cattle. Others believe that when ushers lead people to kneel at the chancel rail, we’re herding cattle. I’m reminded that anything can serve as a useful metaphor when the intention is to disparage the worship and rituals of others.
But it’s not just us. The church at Corinth messed up Holy Communion so badly that at times, it became a messy, drunken brawl. Instead of herding cattle, they had a cattle stampede! Paul’s letter reminded them that all that stuff was unnecessary.
He said that when we come to the table, we do three things: we remember, we participate, and we anticipate. That’s it. The method is not important. The meaning is.
I look forward to celebrating our first Holy Communion together today.
What we do here matters.
From My Perspective – August 1, 2018
A teenage boy was sitting in the choir during a Sunday night worship service. He was the only teenager in the choir, surrounded by adults. Just before the service started, the boy noticed a girl. She was walking into the back of the church, and even a long way off, she looked really good to the boy in the choir. She was wearing a navy dress, and she had long, straight hair, almost down to her waist. Her skin was perfectly tanned.
As she walked down the aisle to take a seat, the boy asked the man sitting beside him, “Who is that girl?” He explained to the boy that she was a girl who lived in the neighborhood, and she had friends and family in the church. The boy, having fully fallen under her spell - this was based on looks alone at this point – said to the man, “I’m going to marry that girl some day!”
The girl was fourteen years old. The boy was fifteen years old. They became friends. Then they fell in love. Then six years later, they got married. Her name was Angela Owens, and his name was Dale Gilbert. Today, Dale and Angela celebrate thirty-seven years of marriage. It all started in church. It continues today because God gives us grace and keeps us together.
I still sit up on the podium at church and watch her walk in. My heart still skips a beat or two every time.
We talk about love at church all the time. Love comes in many forms. I’ve experienced them all at church.
See you Sunday. What we do here matters.