30 December 2016

Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service: January 1, 11:00

One of my favorite services of the year is the first Sunday in January, traditionally in Methodist churches a time to renew our covenant relationship with God. John Wesley himself wrote out an annual covenant renewal service, still in use today, and we will place ourselves in that history and tradition January 1. Here are some words of introduction to the Covenant Renewal service from the British Methodist Church Book of Worship:

From the earliest days of the Methodist societies, John Wesley invited the Methodist people to renew their covenant relationship with God. Wesley drew much of his material for the service from the seventeenth-century Puritans and subsequently made changes to it. The Wesleyan Conference revisited it twice during the nineteenth century and other branches of Methodism had versions of it. 

The emphasis of the whole service is on God’s readiness to enfold us in generous love, not dependent on our deserving. Our response, also in love, springs with penitent joy from thankful recognition of God’s grace. The covenant is not just a one-to-one transaction between individuals and God, but the act of the whole faith community. The prayers of intercession which follow emphasize our unity with all humanity. The service proceeds to emphasize the continuity between word, response and sacrament. The service is meant to lead us, by a path both similar to and differing from that of normal Sunday worship, to that commitment which all worship seeks both to inspire and strengthen.

Join me this Sunday for this amazing service. We'll read aloud our covenant renewal with God, sign it, and take home to read throughout the year. Remember: One service only at 11:00. See you then!

Happy New Year!
All Grace is Amazing!

24 December 2016

Christmas Eve 2016

I’m probably not the only one here tonight who is happy to say goodbye to 2016. This year was absolutely devastating. What an emotionally exhausting year. We lost amazingly talented people, suffered terrible violence, and endured an 18 month long election, the ramifications of which we’ll likely feel for many years to come. I compiled a list the other day, which I am sure is incomplete, but you get the idea of how rough 2016 was:

  • David Bowie
  • Prince
  • Glenn Frey of the Eagles
  • Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Sharon Jones

  • Alan Richman
  • Gary Shandling
  • Gene Wilder
  • Alan Thicke

National figures:
  • Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court
  • Nancy Reagan
  • Muhammed Ali
  • Elie Wiesel
  • John Glenn

Terror attacks:
  • San Bernadino
  • Paris
  • Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub
  • Dallas

Social unrest:
  • Police shootings, Black Lives Matter
  • Civil War in Syria and refugee crisis
  • Election

And that’s not even counting Carrie Fisher’s heart attack yesterday. As far as I know Princess Leia is still with us.

Each of us was impacted by these individuals and events in one way or another, and to various degrees. Prince’s music and persona defined my teenage years. John Glenn was an American hero, but also for all of humanity. I loved Gene Wilder’s movies and personality and Gary Shandling’s humor. The shootings in Dallas and Orlando were terrifying. But none of those tragedies and losses can match the scale of the refugee crisis as a result of the civil war in Syria and continued war in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Honduras, and many others. A quick internet search on the plight of refugees brought these statistics:
  • Worldwide, more than 21 million people have been displaced from their homeland by violence, religious unrest, poverty, or famine. A refugee is not someone who voluntarily leaves home to find work or resettle in another country; they must leave home or die.
  • Of those 21 million refugees, more than 13 million are from Syria. They are not only Muslims; many are Christian.
  • Many of these refugees escaped their homeland by way of the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach the coasts of Italy or Greece. In 2015 one million refugees came to those shores-- half from Syria-- and 4000 drowned, many of whom were children. In 2016 5000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The refugee crisis in Europe is the worst since WWII.
  • Of those 21.3 million refugees, less than ½ of 1% will make it to America-- roughly 85,000 (most of them from the Congo).

As the humanitarian crisis has reached unprecedented levels, here’s what’s most alarming to me: the response of Christians. A survey from WorldVision showed these results:
  • In 2015 44% of committed Christians had taken some action on behalf of refugees; this year that number dropped to 38%. Only 19% of committed Christians said they were actively praying for refugees.
Here’s why this is important, and why it’s drawing my attention on Christmas Eve. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were refugees themselves. We heard in the gospel reading how they were forced to travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth to register for the census. This was ordered by the Roman governor, a foreign occupying presence. Israel lived under occupation during Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew also tells us the Holy Family had to resettle to Egypt during Jesus’ infancy to escape the wrath of Herod, who sought to kill all the male children under two years old. We serve and follow a refugee. So our hearts ought to break for other refugees, regardless of where they live, what language they speak, even which religion they practice, of any.

Listen to our second reading, from the Book of Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

God’s grace has appeared to us-- it’s Christmas Eve, people-- but how do we deal with that? First, we examine our own behavior and attitudes. We stop doing things that are self destructive and choose to resist harmful temptations. We live upright lives, meaning we live, act, and love as Jesus himself did. We live to serve others. We see others as Jesus. And we honor God in everything we do and say. We live in such a way that God is glorified by our lives. Sometimes loving the stranger is difficult. But just as Jesus came into our world, we also must enter in to others’ sufferings. Jesus was born into a world of foreign occupation, poverty, and oppression. The shepherds had their peaceful night with the flocks interrupted by the angels, whose first words were, “Do not fear.” They visited the Christ child and left, sharing their joy with everyone who would listen. What would the world look like, if we responded to war, violence, and despair with the peace and hope of Christ? Let’s increase, rather than decrease, the impact committed Christians can make on suffering refugees. 100% of our offering tonight will benefit refugees seeking the most basic human needs: food, water, shelter, hope.

2016 has been a difficult year. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, may we honor God by our lives and attitudes, that we may make the world a more hopeful place in 2017 and beyond. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

22 December 2016

A Christmas Invitation and Prayer

Years ago at my ordination my mother gave me a stack of books. She had asked around to trusted pastors what they enjoyed reading, and she purchased several of those recommendations for me. They have informed my prayer life, sermon preparation, and thought formation ever since. Two of my favorites are books of poetry by Ann Weems: Kneeling in Bethlehem and Kneeling in Jerusalem. They are both outstanding: fun, emotional, wonderful, powerful, and creative.

Christmas Eve is only a couple of days away, and I look forward to celebrating our first Christmas at Grace. The following poem is from Kneeling in Bethlehem. I love the line about sitting down to bread and wine with strangers. We'll receive communion at the 7:00 and 11:00 services Saturday night, alongside many pilgrims whose only, or first, journey to Bethlehem is this hour via Grace United Methodist Church.

God So Loved the World

The story of Jesus Christ is this:
The people of this earth waited for a Messiah... a Savior... and only God would send a little baby king.
The child grew and began to question things as they were,
and the man moved through his days and through his world, questioning the system of kings and priests and marketplace.
He was called
the New Creation
the New Covenant
the Son of God
who brought to all who listened
who saw
who understood
change and new life.
But kings and corporations and churches of this world
work very hard
to keep things as they are out and to forever Amen.
And so they killed him:
he would said, Love one another,
he who said, Feed my sheep,
for they didn't want to share their bread and wine.
Now the story should have ended there
except that the story has always been
that our God is the God of the covenant.
The Good News is that
in spite of our faithlessness
God is faithful
and Jesus Christ was resurrected,
for God so loved the world
that God gave his only begotten Son
that whoever believed
might have everlasting Life.
Listen, you who have ears to hear.
Listen, and sit down to bread and wine with strangers.
Feed his sheep... Love one another,
and claim new life in his name.

18 December 2016

Abide In Us

Matthew 1:18-25
Romans 1:1-17

I've always been nervous before preaching-- it gives me energy. But when I first came to Grace six months ago (wow, it's been six months!), I noticed the Sunday morning nervousness was amped up. My first Sunday Lynda or Marianna, maybe both, asked how I was doing, and I replied, "Terrified." That feeling persisted for several weeks and months; then I decided to seek out a spiritual director. The first thing he asked was, "How is your prayer life?"


I was expecting advice... hands on tips... not to discuss my prayer life. How does prayer enter in to my sermon preparation? I had to be honest. I said, "Pretty much non-existent." So he challenged me to try some new prayer practices. One I was interested in for many years, but never tried, was praying with beads. I had heard that it was very appealing to perfectionist personalities. So I bought some and an accompanying prayer book. Praying through the beads has been wonderful. Here's how it works:

There are 33 circular beads around the circle, symbolizing Jesus' 33 years on earth. Beginning with the cross, you pray one prayer, then a different one at the invitatory bead. There are four large beads around the circle, which form the shape of a cross. They are called cruciform beads; they have their own prayer. Then in between the cruciform beads are seven smaller beads called weeks. They have their own prayer too. There are four total prayers prayed every day.

The prayer book I use has the prayers tied to the lectionary, so the themes of the prayers are linked to the themes of the sermon. Two of the prayers I prayed this week, last week and this morning, directly spoke to me for this sermon. Last week: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream" (Psalm 126:1). This morning: "Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself."

All during the week I am praying: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. And then I remember the Gospel text: Joseph heard an angel of the Lord while dreaming. I thought: What are we dreaming of this Advent? What are God's dreams for us?

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a "righteous man," the same language used to describe Noah (Genesis 6:9). He was engaged to Mary, but discovered she was pregnant. He had several options: he could annul the engagement, divorce her, or if he had been a fundamentalist, could have her stoned on suspicion of adultery. But he decided to quietly breaks things off. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream... When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream... and told him not to divorce Mary. He did as he was told. He was obedient. The Romans text reminds us that we received grace to "bring about obedience" (verse 5).

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph could find no room at the inn, so Jesus was born in a barn. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. We hear Jesus speak about mansions prepared for us in the next life, but this prayer is focused on us in this life: are we preparing ourselves for his coming? Are we making our hearts a mansion to welcome him?

There is a wonderful Advent/Christmas service in many Latin communities called Las Posadas. Pilgrims walk from house to house, reenacting the Holy Family's visit to Bethlehem for Jesus' birth. It is a conversation between those outside of the house, seeking shelter, and those inside. Here's one version of the 400 year old liturgy:

The Pilgrims…
In the name of the heavens, I request lodging from you,
Because she cannot walk, My beloved wife.

The Innkeepers…
This is not an inn, Go on ahead
I can’t open up for you, In case you’re a crook.

The Pilgrims…
Don’t be cruel, Give us charity
That the gods of the heavens, Will give it to you.

The Innkeepers…
You can go now and, Don’t bother us
Because if I get upset, I’m going to beat you.
The Pilgrims…
We come tired, From Nazareth
I am a carpenter, Whose name is Joseph.
The Innkeepers…
Your name doesn’t concern me, I’m going to sleep
Because I already told you, That we don’t have to open up.
The Pilgrims…
I’ve asked you for lodging, Dear innkeeper
Because the mother is going to be, The queen of the heavens.
The Innkeepers
Then if she is a queen, Who requests it
How is it that at nighttime, She’s traveling so alone?
The Pilgrims…
My wife is Mary, Queen of the heavens
And mother who’s going to make, The divine oath.
The Innkeepers
You are Joseph, Your wife is Mary
Come in travelers!, I didn’t know it.
The Pilgrims…
May God pay gentlemen, For our charity
And may the heavens overwhelm you, With Happiness!
Happy (or blessed) is the house, That shelters today, The pure virgin, The beautiful Mary.
Enter holy pilgrims, Receive this haven, That although it’s a poor dwelling

The dwelling…
I offer to you from the heart.

The house is lighted, the doors flung open, and everyone is welcomed inside for a celebration. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. Here's the question to ask of ourselves: Are our hearts a mansion made ready to welcome Christ? Then I found this:

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.” 
- Meister Eckert (1260-1328)

Earlier in the service we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem, which ends with these words: "O come to us, abide in us, our Lord Emmanuel!" May Christ at his coming find you a righteous person. May Christ at his coming find your heart a mansion with lights on and doors flung open. May you welcome Christ this Christmas season and always! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

15 December 2016

Yes, She Knew.

When I was in seminary I took a part-time job at a brand new cinema at Cityplace in Dallas. It's now a gym or a Kroger or something, but then it was a Sony Theatre, which became Loews, which became AMC. Wasn't it beautiful?

Christy even showed up one night with her Dad when we were first dating. You're shoveling popcorn one moment, and then your beautiful girlfriend's Dad is looking back at you. Yikes. Anyway, at Christmas they would play "holiday" music-- you know, the secular stuff, not the religious. Being a Sony cinema, their featured artist that year was Mariah Carey, singing All I Want for Christmas Is You. It's a catchy song, but hearing it over and over again until 3:00 a.m., covered in popcorn oil, the bottoms of my shoes sticking to the floor after spilt soda..

Enough, Mariah!

Yesterday driving through Dallas I heard another popular "holiday" song, though it's more of a borderline religious song: Mary Did You Know? This version was by Pentatonix, and it's great. Check it out:

It's a good song, and it features Mary, the mother of Jesus. It wonders if she knew all the details of his life, like walking on water. Did she know about his true identity: the great I AM (God's name in the Bible). Here's the thing about this song, and why I still consider it a "holiday" song: the answer is YES. She did know. I'm driving my car, digging the music, but after every question I am answering: YES! She knew! Check out Luke Chapters 1 & 2. She knew!

The angel appears to her and says, "He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David... the child will be holy and called Son of God" (1:32, 36). She knew. When she visited Elizabeth, her relative says, "Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?" (1:43). Mary knew! Elizabeth too!

The shepherds visited Mary, Joseph, and the baby at his birth, and shared what they heard from the angelic chorus (2:18). What had they heard? "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (2:11). Everyone else at the manger was astonished (2:18), except Mary-- because she knew. Eight days later the Holy Family presented Jesus for his dedication in the Temple. An elderly man Simeon was there, and seeing the child he proclaimed, "My eyes have seen the salvation [God has] made ready in the sight of the nations..." (2:30). Then to Mary Simeon said, "Look, he is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed-- and a sword will pierce your soul too (3:35). Yes, she knew everything. Anna, a prophetess in the Temple, also saw Jesus that day, "...and spoke of the child to all who looked forward to deliverance of Jerusalem" (3:38).

When Jesus was twelve they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. They became separated, and after a couple of worrying days they found the adolescent Jesus teaching the elders in the Temple. After his parents scolded him, Jesus said, "Where else would I be? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (2:50). Luke does tell us that they didn't understand at the moment; but it's fair to say she knew.

Mary knew everything about Jesus-- and probably more than what is recorded in the New Testament. A couple of times Luke even says Mary "treasured" these things-- and probably more she witnessed and heard-- in her heart (2:19, 51). The Church has taught that Mary was Jesus' first disciple. She was the first to say yes to the invitation to participate in the new phase of God's plan for salvation. She followed Jesus throughout his life and was present at his cross when he died-- when the other "traditional" disciples had fled out of fear and doubt.

I love what Joyce Hollyday says about Mary:

Long before anyone else understood-- while Jesus was sill in her womb-- Mary knew what his birth would be about. God had entrusted her with the message of the radical social upheaval that was to come, when the rich and the powerful would be put off their thrones, the poor would be uplifted, and the hungry would be fed. It had already come true in her. She was a poor Jewish woman, a victim of oppression by class, race, and gender. You could not get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty. But Mary was the chosen vessel of God's incarnation; God's promises had already become truth in her flesh." -- Clothed with the Sun, 1994

So when you hear that song over the next week or so, answer YES to every question. Mary knew. Here's the big question: Do we know? And if not, are we ready to hear? Ten days and counting...

But of course now I have that Mariah Carey song in my head... again!

07 December 2016

Christmas Planning at Grace

Last night a handful of Grace folk began decorating our Celebration Center at the church-- thank you! It looks beautiful, and should provide an uplifting, Christmas-y feeling to your Sunday this week. Those decorations combined with the cold front we're experiencing now show me Christmas is near. So here are a few notes on upcoming Christmas opportunities at Grace-- mark your calendars!

This Sunday December 11-- the choir will offer several Christmas anthems, we'll sing several hymns, and we'll have a Hanging of the Greens liturgy. Both services this weekend will be identical.

December 24-- The schedule is different this year; and it's on a Saturday, which is kind of complicated.
4:00: A special service for children and families. This will be an informal time where the kids will lead worship through bells and chimes, singing, and scripture reading. We'll sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus and enjoy birthday cake after worship.
7:00 and 11:00: These services will be identical, except for music. Both will feature candlelight and communion. The choir will sing at the earlier service so it will have a more traditional feel; the Hartmans will lead worship at 11:00 so it'll have a more contemporary feel.

December 25 and January 1 are both on Sundays, so there will be one service only both days-- 11:00. If you are used to worshiping at 8:30 please do not take these two Sundays off. These will be unique experiences.

Christmas Day will be "PJs and Pastries." Children and adults alike are encouraged to wear pajamas to worship-- no kidding-- and we'll have donuts before worship. Kids, bring one favorite toy you received as a gift and we will have a blessing of toys.
New Year's Day will be a Wesleyan Covenant Renewal service-- we'll begin the year by renewing our relationship with God. We'll also start a new sermon series on Grace UMC's Core Values.

But the fun doesn't end there. Sunday January 8, 2:00-5:00, everyone is invited to the Parsonage (1612 Lamberth Circle) for the annual Drenner Epiphany Party. We'll provide the homemade desserts and coffee; you bring the fellowship. This is our family's way of saying thank you to Grace for having us as your parsonage family.

Thank you for the privilege of serving such a wonderful congregation. I look forward to a wonderful Christmas season with you!

06 December 2016


Matthew 3:1-13
Romans 15:4-13

I've heard from several of you this morning that you did your daily Bible reading this week. If you were not here last Sunday and have been out of touch with the church, we're reading Matthew during Advent, four chapters a day. It's 28 chapters long so we are completing the Gospel in a week-- four times before Christmas. I'm always surprised when I read the scriptures, even familiar ones, and this week I was struck by the relations Jesus had with the religious leaders of the day. Over and over again throughout Matthew, and the other gospels as well, Jesus is fighting with the Pharisees and others.

The scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious folk were lay people with specific spiritual training and practices. They were not, as they are often portrayed, evil people. And they are never meant to reflect the religious practices of all Jews during Jesus' lifetime. They were fundamentalists who pointed out the spiritual failings of others. That's not a good thing to do, but at least their intentions were good. They were overly religious. We become religious when we are more concerned with the actions of others than our own. We become religious when we perform the duties of our faith as a sort of check list. The last thing Jesus wanted was to found another religion. He doesn't want us to be religious; he wants us to be faithful. This is at the heart of his conflict with the Jewish leaders.

Something spiritual was happening during Jesus' lifetime. Jesus warned his followers many times to beware of false messiahs. John the Baptist was part of that revival. He had his own disciples and following. His ministry was about preaching repentance-- our need to confess our sins, hear God's word of forgiveness, and commit to live a new life. To repent literally means to make a U-turn-- to go in a different direction. And people were hearing John's message. They came from Jerusalem, Judea, the area of southern Israel, and the area around the Jordan River. They came to be baptized. In today's text we see that even the religious leaders heard that call and responded-- not in judgment and condemnation, but in humility.

John greeted them harshly, calling them snakes: "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire" (3:7, 10). He warned them not to take solace in their tradition: "Do not assume to say to yourselves, 'Abraham is our ancestor,' for God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones" (verse 9). In other words, God wants us to live in such a way that our lives reflect what we believe. We cannot assume that because we are good Christians that we are somehow insiders and don't have to change our lives. Jesus wanted his followers to be faithful, and our actions to match our belief. All through Matthew Chapter 23 Jesus rails against the hypocritical Pharisees and religious folk. They, and all religious know-it-alls, point out the faults in others, but they do not do the necessary internal work of repentance and new direction.

Here are a couple of examples from Matthew of Jesus speaking about the relationship between faith and action: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord Lord, Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast our demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers'"  (Matthew 7:21-23; my emphasis). Only those who do the will of my Father... Or Matthew 15:8-9: "This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines." Correct, right, religious beliefs alone are not enough. You'll end up like the religious leaders, pointing out the faults in others. It's the old saying about when you see yourself as a hammer everyone else becomes a nail. Our actions must reflect what we believe.

 I found this prayer from St Augustine, one of the great church patriarchs. Listen to how he searches for God:

I came to you late, O Beauty, so ancient, so new. I came to you late. Look! You were internal and I was external, running about in my ugly fashion, seeking you in the beautiful things you made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you, even though if they were not in you, they would not be at all. You cried and called out and you broke open my deafness. You gleamed and shone and chased away my blindness. I breathed in your fragrance and pant for more. I tasted and now hunger and thirst. You touched me and I burn for your presence.

How do we make this turn? How do we strengthen our prayer life so that we can experience transformation? I found this prayer practice to help us. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:33): "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Draw a large circle, and around the edge of the circle write down your own concerns: family, health, financial, whatever they are. These are the "these things" of Matthew 6:33. Inside the circle is a large empty space. Meditate on that space and in the silence listen for God. Seek first the kingdom of God/then all these things will be given to you as well. When you focus on seeking God's kingdom and hear an answer, write it in the empty space. Here's an example:

As I was preparing for worship this morning, just before we started my microphone wire was tangled. It took a few moments to get it right. And I thought: this is a metaphor for my life, and for many others during this time of year. We are all tangled up. But the work of untangling can be a spiritual discipline. Slowly, quietly, during Advent we untangle ourselves, preparing our hearts and minds for Christ's coming.

Let us pray.

O God, whose will is justice for the poor and peace for the afflicted, let your herald's urgent voice pierce our hardened hearts and announce the dawn of your kingdom. Before the advent of the One who baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit, let our complacency give way to conversion, oppression to justice, and conflict to acceptance of one another in Christ. We ask this through the One whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts and How to Avoid It

I am a Harry Potter fan (books and movies, although I still have not read The Cursed Child; I am determined to finish The Count of Monte Cristo first). I found the franchise fun, exhilarating, even wonder-inspiring. I loved that it inspired such a love of reading in a new generation of kiddos, including my own. Fantastic Beasts belongs to the Harry Potter universe, but it does not have any source material-- no original novels. It's based on a reference book Harry and the others study at Hogwarts 80 or so years later. JK Rowling wrote the screenplay herself. There will be a total of five Fantastic Beasts movies over the next decade or so, all to be directed David Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter films.

My biggest question, after seeing the first movie: Why?

Hint: in a couple of weeks it's made roughly $180MM.

The movie looks great, is incredibly loud, but really has no story or plot. Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, who will eventually write the Fantastic Beasts textbook, tries hard to move the thing along, and has a couple of funny scenes, but can't. The screen is filled with such overwhelming effects that it's hard to relate to anything or anyone. I did like the casting of Dan Fogler, who sort of reminded me of the great Lou Costello. For me, he's about all there is to enjoy. 1920s New York was fun too.

Our family watched FB at the marvelous downtown Dallas Alamo Drafthouse last Saturday on our way home from Thanksgiving in Bay City. Christy and Miles (11) liked the movie very much, although Miles "watched" a fair amount with hands clasped over ears and eyes closed. Not sure how Linus (9) felt about it. James (14) and I both gave it a thumbs down.

This is not a kids movie, by the way-- take them to Trolls or Moana instead (Miles, Linus, and my mom all said that was great). If you want a good fantasy movie, check out Dr Strange. Or you may know there's a new Star Wars movie coming in thirteen days!

27 November 2016

A More Meaningful Advent

Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Happy New Year! I know 2017 doesn't start until January 1, but the church's calendar turns over today, the first Sunday of Advent. The word advent means "coming," and during this four week season we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. As we begin a new church year, you'll notice that our gospel readings each week are different. Last year we read from Luke; this year we'll read from Matthew.

Waiting is a key practice during Advent. Nobody likes waiting. I waited sixteen years for a new Star Wars movie, then after three duds I waited another ten years for a good one. A new Star Wars movie opens in... 19 days. As much as I would love to rush to cinema to see it today, I know I have to wait. We have not decorated the church for Christmas yet-- we want to encourage waiting. We will not forget Christmas, I promise. But first, we wait.

Advent has a sort of dual focus: now that Thanksgiving is over we are excited for Christmas, so we are naturally looking in that direction. But ultimately Advent is about preparing oneself for Christ's triumphant return. In the early days of the church, Advent was thought of in much the same way as we think about Lent, the weeks before Easter. It was a time of preparation. As we go through Advent consider changing your activity level: slower and more contemplative. As everyone else is rushing from one thing to another, go through your day thoughtfully and deliberately. As the noise around you gets louder and louder, practice silence. Advent urges four different kinds of effort:

  • Mental
  • Moral
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual

So I want to invite you to join me in a couple of spiritual practices this Advent season: prayer and scripture reading.

One practice of prayer we often neglect is confession. Offering our brokenness to God, and hearing God's words of forgiveness and pardon, gives us assurance and hope. So right now we'll pray together a prayer of confession, which will be followed by a time of silence, to lift up your own individual sins before God. Then we'll hear words of assurance of forgiveness. Let us pray.

Holy and forgiving God, we have sinned against you and each other in thought and word and deed. We have turned from your life-giving word, and ignored the message of those you sent. We are unprepared for the coming of your Son. Have mercy upon us and forgive us, that strengthened by your love we may serve you more faithfully; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

** silence **

'I am making all things new,' says the Lord. This is Christ's gracious word: 'Your sins are forgiven.'

A second spiritual practice for Advent is the reading of scripture. Simply reading the Bible on a daily basis promotes spiritual health. Advent is four weeks long, and the Gospel of Matthew is 28 chapters long, so the math makes it very easy. Every day during the week, join me in reading four chapters. By the end of Advent you'll read the Gospel four times through. Reading four chapters takes about 20 minutes. This can be a great family activity too-- kids can read, couples can read to each other, etc. Here's how the schedule works:

Gospel of Matthew Reading Schedule for Advent

Sunday: Chapters 1-4

Monday: 5-8

Tuesday: 9-12

Wednesday: 13-16

Thursday: 17-20

Friday: 21-24

Saturday: 25-28

Both of our texts today emphasize the importance of staying awake. One of the greatest temptations followers of Jesus must face is tiredness. Remember the disciples in the garden with Jesus? He brought Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane to pray with him. Again and again he went away to pray, but when he returned he found them sleeping, unable to stay awake. Someone said advent texts are read not for the oppressed but for the sleepy. In the Romans text Paul urges them to, "Wake from sleep" (13:11) because "salvation is nearer than when we first became believers." I love the idea of salvation being nearer. It implies movement. The longer we believe, the closer God moves toward us. In the gospel text, Jesus says, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming" (24:42). We become sleepy. We've waited for Jesus' return, it hasn't happened, and we become apathetic. We must be about the work Christ calls us to, spelled out for us in Matthew 25:31-46:

 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ 

Keep awake by doing the work Christ has called us to do: serving others.

Throughout Advent, you'll see images of lighthouses on the bulletins. The one today is taken from a distance-- you can only see the light faintly. Each week the image will change, closer and more in focus. Lighthouses protect ships from the danger of losing their way or crashing on the rocks. Christ is our light, guiding us, if we are awake enough to see. So join me in the spiritual practices of daily prayer, emphasizing confession and silence, and scripture reading: four chapters from Matthew each day. And live your life in such a way that when Christ returns he finds you awake, shining your light for others. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

21 November 2016

We Did Not Forget Advent.

The other night I drove to church for a meeting and this caught my attention:

Now, this was 40 days before Christmas, and a week before Thanksgiving. But this house in our neighborhood was ready to go. My first reaction was shock, but it quickly turned to a sense of warmth. I thought perhaps this family was sending the rest of us a message: Let's move on from all the tough feelings after the exhausting election. Let's experience some joy instead. Right on.

But you'll notice this Sunday that Grace isn't quite ready for Christmas. November 27 is the first Sunday of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, but the season of Christmas does not begin until December 25 (or 24th). It then continues for twelve days. Advent and Christmas are not the same thing-- they don't even have the same liturgical colors (purple and white, respectively). But many, probably most, churches blend them together. In our worship planning team a few months ago, we decided to wait a couple of weeks before decorating for Christmas.

Waiting, after all, is what Advent is all about. Anticipation. Preparation. Advent was once thought of in the same way we think about Lent; instead of a season of self-examination before Easter it was applied to Christmas. The scriptures speak of unfulfilled promises. But in our rush to Christmas we have lost the spiritual discipline of waiting. Like the culture around us, we have rushed on to the next thing instead of delighting in the moment. There's a reason why it's so shocking to see Christmas decorations up in the stores before the proper time-- why don't we feel the same way about churches?

So for a couple of Sundays I invite you to wait. Christmas will come, I promise, and it will be joyful and exciting. Join us for the Hanging of the Greens, decorating the church for Christmas, on the afternoon of Sunday December 4. The choir will offer wonderful Christmas music on December 11, the first Sunday the Celebration Center will be decorated. How amazing will that be?? Your first visual moment of "Behold!" followed by an audio moment of "Behold!" Then we'll have three distinct, but each meaningful, services on Christmas Eve:

  • Children's/Family service at 4:00
  • Traditional worship with candlelight and communion at 7:00
  • Blended worship with candlelight and communion at 11:00
Plus on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, both on Sundays this year, we'll have one service only, 11:00, to celebrate our unity and the holiness of the season together.

But before all that good stuff happens, I invite you to wait. Join me for a special Bible study for Advent, "The Birth of the Messiah," where we'll study the infancy narratives and images from Christian art: Wednesdays, 5:30-7:00 p.m., November 30 and December 7 & 14. 

I know waiting is not fun. How many times have you sat in a waiting room at a hospital or doctor's office and thought, "This is the most amazing place ever!!" I get it. But trust in the Church's ancient practices. Listen to God's promises. And live into hope. 

20 November 2016

King of Kings, Lord of Lords

Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-44

In the days leading up to the election, on Election Day, and especially the day after the election, I kept seeing the same post show up on social media from liberals or conservatives, depending on the day: "Remember, if nothing else, Jesus is still on the throne!" I actually went to Twitter just now and did a quick search, and there were hundreds of posts between late October and last week. Lots of people find comfort in Jesus' authority, as well they should. But there's just one thing:

Jesus is on that throne forever. That's not going to change. Let's be careful that being on the throne doesn't give us an excuse to abdicate our Christian responsibility. Jesus was on the throne September 11, 2001 and September 12. Jesus was on the throne before the Berlin wall was built, and was on the throne when it was torn down. Jesus will be on the throne whether or not we care for the poor and those who need God's justice. Jesus will be on the throne regardless of human agency. What does it mean in the first place to affirm Jesus is on the throne? We have this day, Christ the King Sunday, to explore the idea that Jesus is Lord. 

We may have a difficult time fully comprehending the kingship of Christ, living as we do in a democracy. But folk in Jesus' day understood it well: 

  • Like the wisemen: "Where is the child that is born King of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:2)
  • Like the crowds on Palm Sunday: "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Luke 19:38)
  • Even Pontius Pilate, who affirmed his boss Caesar as king, asked Jesus: "Are you the King of the Jews?" (John 18:33)
  • And above his head on the cross hung a sign that said, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (John 19:20).

The writer of Colossians expressed the notion of the supremacy of Christ by quoting a specatular hymn, one that was probably widely circulated among the earliest Christians-- even before the first Christian scriptures were recorded. The other day at Perkins I heard the great biblical scholar NT Wright say that it is often the case that we best express ourselves through poetry or hymns before words. He reminded us of the famous quote of St Augustine: "Those who sing pray twice," and then said, ""Poetry first, then theology. Worship first, then thoughtful reflection." Too often in worship we are rushing to get through one thing to the next. It's certainly true of me. But for many of us, maybe most of us, worship is an hour a week, something we do in a long list of activities. I remember years ago in Prosper a woman who would sit at the back of the church and take notes during my sermons. It always made me feel so proud. Until one day I noticed a scrap of paper left behind in her pew: her grocery list!

We're probably all guilty of it. Dr Wright encouraged us to slow down in worship. Participate fully in the reading and hearing of scriptures. Let them speak powerfully on their own. So I want us to rewind a bit, stand as we are able, and read aloud together the magnificient words of the ancient Christian hymn found in Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

Just before the ancient hymn, the writer tells us that God has transferred us to Christ's kingdom-- we have moved from the power of darkness to the throne of grace.
One of my favorite movies is Saving Private Ryan. It's the story of a desperate search for Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat. The War Department dispatches a crew of excellent soldiers to find Ryan, to make sure his mother does not lose all of her sons in war. The group of soldiers is not pleased with the assignment, which will be very dangerous. Ryan is in an unknown location far behind enemy lines. After a long struggle they find him, and he is resistant to go-- why should he be so special? Why should he be the only one to go home? Near the end of the movie, Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying. He pulls Ryan to him, and whispers these words: "Earn This." Here's the scene:

The movie began in a WWII cemetery, and now at the end we return to the scene. Ryan, now a grown man, is surrounded by his wife, his kids, and grandchildren. He kneels at the grave of Capt Miller and weeps. His wife consoles him, and he says, "Tell me I have been a good man." For the last sixty years, Ryan has carried the burden of the sacrifice these men made on his behalf. The words, "Earn This" are etched on his soul. Has his life been worthy of the sacrifice?

From the Cross, his throne, Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34) on behalf of those crucifying him and others who are deriding him. Even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in the chorus. The other criminal, however, says, "Hey we deserve our fate; he does not. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replies, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (23:43). He does not say to anyone, "Earn This." He could have. It would have been easy. But it would have left all of us with a burden similar to Ryan's from the movie. We would face the cross and say, "Tell me I have been a good person. Tell me it was worth the sacrifice." But Jesus would have us live free of guilt. We cannot earn God's love and forgiveness anyway. It is offered to us freely as a gift. We can accept it without guilt or shame.

I read a prayer the other day that said, "As your arms were stretched out to receive the nails on the cross, so may we stretch out our hands to serve others in your name." For me, that idea better reflects the Lordship of Christ than, "Whatever happens, Jesus is still on the throne." Jesus is our King. The Cross is his throne. By his power and authority he transformed the message of the cross from one of suffering and shame to one of forgiveness and invitation. So on the day we reaffirm his Lordship, as his followers let us honor the one on the throne by loving and serving those for whom he was born, lived, died and was raised again. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen