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

16 November 2016

Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday

I've spent two days this week at SMU Perkins School of Theology. It's Ministers Week, and the guest presenter is NT Wright, a theologian and retired Anglican priest. Dr Wright's final post before retirement was Bishop at Durham Cathedral (sidenote: Christy and I visited many cathedrals when we lived in England nearly two decades ago; Durham was my favorite). I mean, check it out:

How can you even work in that place? I am sure there are many amazing hiding places in there! Anyway, Bishop Wright now teaches theology at St Andrews University in Scotland. He's written a couple of books I've enjoyed: Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope. He is a prolific author. I've enjoyed listening to him.

Returning to Perkins always warms my soul (hey, it's hot today already-- a new DFW record!). When I arrived here to study, in 1995, I had very little training and scarcely any biblical knowledge. Perkins shaped me in a profound way. I remember this seminary as a holy place where I made new friends, most of whom are pastors today. I remember the sense of community here. And of course at my first semester at SMU I met Christy. So there's that. Amazing!

As I write this, I am sitting at one of the desks in Bridwell Library, a quiet storehouse of ideas. Well it's supposed to be quiet. At the table next to me a couple of coed students are whispering and giggling. One of them seems to actually trying to study; the other not so much. Hey-- it's a theological library!! I'm old.

Anyway, I always loved sitting at one of these great wooden desks, piles of books spread out, glowing in the light of the desk lamp. Not much has changed in 21 years! It's fitting that I am here this week, in this theological library, because this Sunday is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. We'll reflect on the lordship of Christ over all things-- the church, the world, the universe and everything within it. Thinking of Christ in a cosmic sense has a different scale than a rabbi from Nazareth! So this Sunday, come in expectation:

  • 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)
A prayer for the Reign of Christ, from the Book of Common Prayer
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.

See you Sunday.

15 November 2016

Time Bandits

Christy and I saw a couple of movies recently: last week Dr Strange, which I saw again with James the other day, and yesterday Arrival. I'll offer some general thoughts on each movie and expound upon a key theme in both-- the manipulation of time. Spoilers ahead.

Dr Strange is a Marvel movie about a surgeon who suffers a horrific car accident in which his seemingly all-powerful hands are destroyed. After undergoing many surgeries and physical therapy, Dr Strange gives up on Western medicine and travels to the East, seeking spiritual ways of healing. He learns the mystic arts and becomes a great sorcerer. The movie is funny and brilliant to watch. I saw it in 2D twice, but I can imagine 3D would be amazing and worth the extra cost and annoyance (I'm not a big fan but go for it). If you dug The Matrix and Inception, you'll like this.

Dr Strange's go-to spell choice manipulates time. There's a fun sequence when he is first learning the spell involving an apple. He turns his wrist one way, and the one bite becomes many-- down to the core. Turn the wrist the opposite direction and the apple fills in again, bite by bite. Turn it back the other way and it disappears again, and even begins to rot. At the end of the movie he uses this time manipulation to trap the villain and save the planet.

Arrival is something totally unexpected. This is one of the most beautifully filmed and edited movies you will ever see. It's one of the best movies of the year, Oscar worthy in just about every category. It's best of sci-fi: thoughtful, with deep themes. It sort of reminded me of ContactAmy Adams is amazing, as always. She plays a linguist whose skills are needed to interpret the language of an alien species, which has arrived on Earth in twelve giant pods stationed at various places across the globe. She's partnered with Jeremy Renner, an astrophysicist.

Each nation uses some of their most skilled scientists to try to communicate with the aliens, and at the beginning at least they share their learning with each other. As suspicions against the aliens build, the humans disconnect from one another, leading to more paranoia and fear. So Arrival has a global scale-- but it is also deeply personal.

I mentioned spoilers earlier, remember?

As they begin to understand the alien language, they discover the sentence structure is not linear, the way you are reading this blogpost now-- left to right. The alien language is expressed in a circular form, starting from both the beginning and the ending of the thought. The aliens can also see, and share, the future. They come to the Earth because they will need our help in 3000 years. The movie begins recalling the life of Amy's daughter, who died from a rare disease at a young age. As the movie progresses, we see more and more scenes from the daughter's life, and Amy realizes she is learning about the present situation by remembering the past.  She learns clues to the puzzle by going backward. By the end of the movie, we realize she has not yet birthed her daughter-- that what she understood as memories before, the past, are actually visions of the future.

We're used to hearing warnings in sci-fi movies about the manipulation of time-- everything from Doc in Back to the Future to the TV series The Flash. If you change anything in the past you could seriously threaten the future. In these movies, time paradoxes work differently: at the end of Dr Strange, time is an endless loop, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The clever sorcerer can release you from the trap if you promise to leave the universe.

But in Arrival time presents a metaphysical choice. If you knew the outcome of a certain situation was painful, would you still make the choices that lead up to it? Or would you take a different path? Amy's choice brought to mind one of my favorite scriptures, where Jesus says, "When a woman is in labor she has pain, because her time has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world" (John 16:21). Yesterday after we left the cinema Christy and I went to lunch, then ran a couple of errands. We talked about the movie for an hour or more: "What would you do?" It stuck with us both, and probably will for many years to come. I need to make an adjustment to my all-time favorites list. It's that good.

13 November 2016

Life Together After the Election

Last Wednesday, “the day after,” as it will be called for decades to come (probably not), I overheard someone say, “Did your candidate win?” “Yes,” the person responded. “But I hope I don’t regret it.” Then a couple of hours later I picked up some lunch and the woman asked me the same question: “Did your candidate win?” I was sort of taken aback-- literally the same question, word for word. “No she did not,” I said. “I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I felt sorry for her.” I didn’t ask if her candidate had won, but I appreciated her sentiment.

Unlike many of my colleagues in the ministry, I didn’t have any comforting, unifying words to offer on Facebook Wednesday. I needed some space to process my own feelings, always being aware that as a pastor I have to love and care for people with varied opinions, and that I represent all of you. That being said, I’ve never been afraid to address spiritual issues in the broader society in sermons. It’s clear to me that our reactions to the election have profound spiritual implications and are worthy of being addressed in worship. I appreciate, and take very seriously, the trust you give me every week to share with you that message I believe God confers to me. Thank you.

I haven’t watched The Simpsons in years, but I’ll always remember a random sign outside of Grandpa’s nursery home that said, “Thank you for not discussing the outside world.” Unfortunately, when it comes to politics, our churches have the same attitude. Many of us believe there is a barrier at the doors to the church, separating those inside from those outside. In here it’s ok to discuss missions, whether the pastor should wear a robe or not, or whether we should sing songs written after the Civil War-- but leave your politics at home. It’s just not a realistic way to live. if we really are to live in to those core values we have hanging all over the building, we’ll have to acknowledge that many of us have differing opinions about the world, and it is ok.

(By the way, if you’re wondering what those core values are:
  • Living as a family of believers
  • Missions
  • Loving Acceptance
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Authenticity
We’ll explore them more in a sermon series next January.)

The last five days have been very difficult for our country, much as the last two years have been. We endured the longest presidential election in history, only to see it come down to the wire: Donald Trump won via the Electoral College, but Hillary Clinton received more votes nationwide. As President-elect Trump met with President Obama in the Oval Office, protests were staged in cities across the country. I heard a survey on the radio yesterday that about a quarter of people said they unfriended someone on social media due to their vote, and 7% said they lost an actual friendship after the election. I’ve seen people from all over the political spectrum take to social media to express their joy or outrage or fear or hope. And many people felt they must defend their votes, while ridiculing those who voted for the opposite candidate.

One person in my Twitter feed said, “If you promised to move to Canada if Trump won, buh-bye. You won’t be missed.” Others have said, “I am a Republican, but I am not a racist.” From the left, some said to their conservative counterparts, “Hey, you’re condemning ‘Not My President’ protestors, but you didn’t condemn the KKK marching and celebrating a Trump victory.” And so many people are saying from both sides, in one way or another: I had no good choice. Something like 39% of people who voted for Trump think he is worthy of their vote. It’s where we are as a people. And before I offer some insights on the messages I believe this week’s scriptures have for us, I’d like to offer a could of general recommendations for our common life:

  1. If your candidate won, don’t run up the score.
  2. If your candidate lost, accept the result and regroup for the midterms in 2018. And you know the presidential race for 2020 began last Wednesday.
  3. If you are a Democrat, don’t assume every Republican shares every view of the President-elect.
  4. If you are a Republican, join the voices of your liberal friends in condemning overtly racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Islamic, or anti-immigrant actions. There have been several incidents reported since the election. It’s unacceptable. People are genuinely afraid.
  5. Don’t assume you know the full story, or any of the story, of those reacting differently than you. Instead of rushing to judgment and tweeting your reactions, actually have a conversation with someone. Or keep your thoughts to yourself. We’re all exhausted.

Beyond those general admonitions, here are some words for people of faith as it pertains to living out what we believe. I came across this scripture in my devotional last night:

“Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve him” (Malachi 3:18).

What is the difference between someone who serves God and someone who does not? For me, it comes down to attitude. The Gospel text is set in a time of great upheaval, when the Temple will be torn down and believers will be brought before religious authorities because of their faith in Jesus. In the midst of such calamity, Jesus promises his followers: “I will give you words [literally in Greek ‘I will give you a mouth’] and a wisdom no one will be able to contradict.” No literal religious structures are being torn down, and Christians are not oppressed in the USA-- but metaphorically all kinds of chaos is happening. What words and wisdom is Jesus offering his disciples today? Hint: it’s probably not “Get over it.” Have you seen the post it notes in the New York subway? Random people have left hundreds of bright colored notes of encouragement on the walls. A simple gift to people who are struggling. How may your words offer grace and hope instead of hurt?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 challenges the Christians to be faithful and steadfast in what they believe. It rejects idleness:  “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you.” The warnings about Christian idleness reminded me of John Wesley’s historic admonitions to preachers:

Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.
(no clergy, including me, has ever answered, ‘no’.)

These admonitions against idle time made me wonder: what exactly are we to do with our time? Is it not to bless and serve those around us? Isn’t a form of idleness not doing the work we’ve been called out to do? The lesson ends with: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” If there are more appropriate words for the week following such a divisive election, I’d like to hear them!

So we’ve heard about our words: they will be given by Jesus with his wisdom. And our actions: do not be weary in doing good. Now Isaiah brings everything home with vision.

Isaiah 65:17-25 is a text about hope. In the midst of losing everything, God promises the hurting Israelites that they will be restored. And their future will be better than they could ever imagine. Even God will join in the celebration: “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and I will delight in my people” (verse 19). Animals that are normally enemies will be friends. People who are desperate will be provided for. Everyone will live long, full lives. “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God says. Our brokenness, our pain, our desperation are never the end. Christians are people of hope. We endure. We witness to what we believe. We share a loving, unashamed faith that the future belongs to God.

I love that the window above the door as we leave our church has the words of Micah 6:8 etched on it. I put bright neon signs there today that says, “Read this!" and ”Look up!" In a divided nation, may everyone see the followers of Jesus Christ, especially those here at Grace UMC, as those who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

10 November 2016

That One Thing

Several years ago when Christy and I served in England I attended a workshop for ministers in training. The presenter said pastoral ministry can be very tricky. Every pastor, especially those with small or no support staff, is ultimately responsible for a myriad of tasks in the local church. Trying to do everything with the same level of energy or expertise will lead to burnout. Instead, we should focus on one thing we do well, and do it even better. Everything else will take care of itself. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies, City Slickers, where Billy Crystal's character asks Jack Palance's character, Curly, what the secret of life is. Curly responds just like this:

"Your finger?" Billy Crystal asks. Curly rides off. Later he finally breaks down and says the secret of life is to do the one thing you love best. Good advice, from cowboys or workshop leaders.

Every pastor has certain gifts-- particular areas he or she enjoys the most in ministry. Some are more administrators than caregivers; others are more managers than visionaries. My "one thing" is preaching-- that's why I studied preaching for my doctorate and not an area I don't consider a strength. I wanted to build on my one thing. Whatever "one thing" my colleagues have, none of them has ever said to me, "You know Frank, my 'one thing' is end of year reporting. I went to seminary and was ordained to fill out membership and compensation reports." Maybe I don't know enough pastors!

I am very grateful for the staff here at Grace-- they are all dedicated and fun to serve with. They too each have their own gifts, and save me from having to do many of the tasks of the local church. Marianna helps with hospital visits and community outreach; Jan helps with bulletins and newsletters; Pastor Leon helps with worship and Bible study; Janet runs the children and youth ministries; Jack keeps the facilities clean and put together; Lynda leads 8:30 worship and overall worship planning; David plays the piano; the Hartmans lead 11:00 worship; and Rhonda looks after the business operations. Rhonda has carried the heaviest burden on the end of year reporting, though there are some forms I must complete. Thanks to you all!

While I am bragging on the church staff, let me also brag a bit on Grace as a whole: our stewardship campaign, Fall Into Grace, was a huge success. With several pledges still outstanding, we have already exceeded our pledged income total for next year by more than $20,000! PLUS: 75% of pledges increased over this year! That is an amazing response, and a credit to the Stewardship Team who made it happen. I sent texts bragging on Grace to both our District Superintendent, Dr Marvin Guier, and our guest preacher on Commitment Sunday, Dr Larry George. All Grace is Amazing!

The best part of end of year reporting is that it points us to a new year in ministry together. Let's celebrate 2016 at the annual Charge Conference, which will be held at First UMC Sherman, November 20 at 3:00. We'll hear about some very exciting ministries from the Northwest District and throughout the North Texas Conference.

As we look to 2017, what is your "one thing"? And how can you use that to bless others through the ministries of Grace UMC?

08 November 2016

Election Day 2016

I found this liturgy four years ago, and we offered it as a special worship service for Election Day. Then came Election 2016; we need these prayers more than ever.

The psalmist declares: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, so that we might proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness and into the marvelous light!
We are no longer Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God!
We are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. 

Prayers From the UM Book of Worship

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of 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 true forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice that separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Teach us, God of every nation, to see every question in the light of our faith, that we may check in ourselves and in others every passion that makes for war, all ungenerous judgment, all promptings of self-assurance, all presumptuous claims. Grant us insight to recognize the needs and aspirations of other nations, and remove our suspicions and misunderstandings, that we may honor all people in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God of all the ages, in your sight nations rise and fall, and pass through times of peril. Now when our land is divided, be near to judge and save. May leaders by led by your wisdom; may they search your will and see it clearly. If we have turned from your way, reverse our ways and help us to repent. Give us your light and your truth, let them guide us; through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of this world, and our Savior. Amen.

Scripture Lesson Galatians 3:28

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” 

Lord Jesus Christ, we come to you today carrying burdens of exhaustion. Take our burdens of partisanship, that we may take on the joy of discipleship.

Before his arrest, Jesus prayed these words: “As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may [my followers] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. That glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as you and I are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”

Lord, make our nation one, as you are One: Father, Son, Spirit.

Jesus said, “My Father gives you true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Give us this bread always! We hunger and thirst for righteousness. For justice. For mercy. For hope. For comfort. Heal the woundedness of our nation, and fill us with the nourishment we need to live full, rich lives for your sake.

06 November 2016

All Saints Sunday, 2016

Luke 6:21-30
Ephesians 1:11-23

Beginnings are important. How a story begins can dictate how well a book or screenplay will hold our attention. There is that moment in a baseball game right before the first pitch is thrown-- anticipation, excitement is tangible-- then as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand the announcer says, “We are under way.” Listen to how one of my favorite books of the Bible, Hebrews, begins:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.


Or the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

As Bill and Ted would say in one of their excellent adventures, “Whoa.”

Or what about the Gospel of Matthew:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Wait, I was expecting Bethlehem or angels or shepherds and I got genealogy? The other day in my devotional reading one of the assigned scriptures lessons was another genealogy, buried deep in the Old Testament. When I started reading those ancient names I became frustrated, looked to the end of the passage, and seeing only names I jumped to the next scripture. Then I remembered: All Saints Sunday is coming up. Remembering names is important. So I jumped back to the first text and carefully, thoughtfully, read each name.

All Saints Sunday is a day of remembrance. It began as a day to commemorate the lives of the saints of the church, then over time the focus of the day evolved. Christians began to remember the lives of those individuals who taught the faith, or influenced our lives in some significant way. Churches began to remember the lives of members who had died in the last twelve months. Later in the service we’ll read the names of folk who have died in the faith here at Grace during the past year, and remember the impact each of them had on us. It’s important, vital, to remember those names and express our thanks.

I read this scripture this week:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
  and worship him day and night within his temple,
  and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them,
  nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 7.9-17).

You’ll notice Pastor Leon and I are wearing our white robes today. I bought this robe several years ago to celebrate earning my doctorate. When I first wore it in church, someone remarked, “You look like an angel!” I shared that with someone else in the church and she replied, “You’re no angel.” But on All Saints Day the white robes remind us of the vision of heaven, where the saints worship around the altar of God in their white robes.

Earlier I mentioned the remarkable Book of Hebrews. Chapter 12 gives us language to articulate the meaning of this day: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith…” It is because of the great witness of the saints that our minds and hearts focus on the faith of Jesus. Their impact on our lives, the challenges they faced, the grace they offered to others, are all because of the faith of Jesus. Jesus embodied this faith we call Christianity, and the saints of the church, from the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Old Testament to the apostles of the New Testament, to the martyrs to our Sunday school teachers and pastors, owned faith in Christ and lived it for us to see.

So we gain from those who went before us, as they gained from those who preceded them in faith. And every Christian for all time gains from the faith first exhibited by Christ himself. What do we call it when we gain from those who lived before us? An inheritance. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are part of the family of Christ. We have an inheritance; and not the kind where you receive a check in the mail from an unknown great uncle in Montana. Our inheritance is our life in faith and the living presence of Christ in the world. As our epistle text proclaimed today,

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…”

“In whom you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of his promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance…”  

“So that, with your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious riches among the saints…”

Our inheritance is based on one of the most important characteristics of Christianity: hope. What do we hope for? The realization of the faith of Christ and the saints. The Beatitudes are the embodiment of hope, unseen but promised:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
  for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
  for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
  for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets….

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Bringing about this vision is our purpose. Its upside down reversal of current values means it may be difficult to realize. But Jesus’ life, and the witness of our remembered saints, testify to God’s making the impossible possible. When the lectionary was organized no one could have known that we would be talking about loving enemies and doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who curse you, doing to others as you would have them do to you, and all this “blessed life stuff”  just 48 hours before the end of an exhausting, emotional, difficult election season. I’ve prayed for November 8, 2016 for a long time, but it’s probably more important to pray for November 9th!  

When I read those genealogies in the Bible earlier this week, it was easy to skip through them. But those names are remembered in order to give a context to the story. The Temple was built during the lives of those specific people. Jesus’ ancestry can be traced through those specific men and women. What is the context in which our names will be remembered?

May the faith of Christ give us courage. May the lives of the saints give us inspiration. May the inheritance we have received from Christ and the saints give us hope, that we will see Christ’s vision for humanity realized. And everyone will experience the life of blessing Jesus promised-- the blessed lives our saints continue to live in, through the power and hope of resurrection. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.