29 January 2017

Be the Blessed Community

My alarm clock just went off (it's 5:00 a.m.), but here's the thing: I've been up since 3:30. I've known since last night I was going to have to change my sermon for this morning. I know there is a feeling out there that churches should not be political, and that pastors should refrain from speaking to the issues of the day. That the church should somehow be insulated against that. As I have said before, I believe that idea is naive-- people are inherently political. But beyond that, one does not have to read the Bible on a very deep level to see that Jesus, the Hebrew prophets, the apostles, the heroes of the Old Testament such as Moses, Ruth, Esther, Job, the writers of 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, and so many others spoke the truth to earthly, political power. And to not stand in that same tradition as a minister of the Gospel is a question of Christian integrity.

So I decided late last night to change the sermon for today. I came in super early to write this new sermon, which is why I am using a manuscript this morning! We'll talk about Grace's Core Value of Missions another day; although Mission is certainly at the heart of today's message. I intended to save today's assigned Gospel text for next Sunday, when we will begin a new sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. But it's too relevant for today.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. -Matthew 5:1-12

I said last week that the purpose of the church, any church, is to form people into the image of Christ. The Beatitudes show us what that looks like. Christ confers blessings on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Followers of Jesus Christ may find themselves in these particular circumstances from time to time, and can find comfort and peace because of these words. But every follower of Jesus must keep his or her eyes and heart open at all times to see others in these circumstances, to cherish the chance to confer God's blessing on them in their times of trouble.

A couple of days ago President Trump issued two Executive Orders I consider morally bankrupt and at odds with Christian faith. Let me say that I am speaking today as a Christian and a pastor, not as a liberal or Democrat, and I believe this message should speak to everyone across the political spectrum. For the record, I have been critical of leaders throughout my career as a pastor, regardless of political party, whenever I considered actions or legislation to be contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

One of President Trump's Executive Orders stopped the immigration of refugees from Syria for a minimum of 120 days. I spoke to the plight of Syrian refugees here at Grace on Christmas Eve, and I was so proud when we received nearly $800 to minister to them through our global denomination. These are families who are seeking safe passage from the violence of their home country. They have been vetted for 1-3 years. I heard of one Syrian family, two parents and four children, living in Turkey. They were given visas to the US, found a home in Cleveland, and were ready to fly here tomorrow. Now they must wait at least four more months. This Executive Order is meant to protect us from terrorists entering our country illegally; but there is no evidence that a refugee has ever committed an act of terror here-- they are fleeing terror. To deny them safe passage and the opportunity for a new life in freedom and peace is to deny ourselves any sense of moral character and authority.

Another Executive Order also banned anyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen) from entering the US-- unless they were Christian, supposedly. This ban even includes people with green cards, who have families here and are legal residents. The director of a movie nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film may not be able to attend the ceremony. All across the country yesterday people were detained at airports, some forced to return to their home country. Airports flooded with large crowds last night, demanding that these men and women be freed to return to their loved ones. Several of my North Texas United Methodist clergy colleagues were at DFW Airport to offer support.

Throughout the day I kept thinking about my friend Nazli and her family. Nazli and her husband came to America a couple of years ago from Iran to be with her parents. She was a lawyer in Iran, but became frustrated with the limits she dealt with as a woman under the oppressive regime. She also did not feel free to live out her Christian beliefs, even though Iran is home to some of the world's oldest Christian communities. Nazli began attending church at Custer Road in Plano, although she lived in Dallas at the time. She and I became close, and a couple of years ago it was my privilege to baptize her. Normally before a baptism I meet with the person to discuss what it means. When I went to Nazli's apartment not only was she there, but her parents, her husband, her son, and her sister. I spent several hours with them. On the day of her baptism Christy and I invited Nazli's entire family to our home for lunch after church. It was a joyous occasion, and they later invited us to her parents' home in Garland. Our boys played with her son in the backyard. It was a holy time.

Under President Trump's Executive Order, Nazli and her family would not be able to enter the United States. They are peaceful, joyful people, and my life is enriched because of their presence. Those seeking passage to the US bring a wealth of skills and passion our society needs. They love America more than anyone, because they see it as a place for hope and safety and possibility. But today we have sacrificed our moral standing because of our fear and suspicion. Hours after Friday's Executive Order a mosque in Victoria, just down the road from my hometown of Bay City, was burned.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports more than 1000 incidents of hate against immigrants, African Americans, gays and lesbians, and Muslims since the election last November. If we are going to live in to our purpose, to be formed in to the image of Jesus Christ, we must say no to hate and injustice. As our baptismal vows proclaim, we:

  • Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of sin
  • Accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves
  • Confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races
Then to the person baptized, the congregation says:
We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

The Beatitudes speak to a new reality, inaugurated by Christ.The realities and the expectations of the world are turned upside down. Those we would see as victims are given new life and hope. Those we consider outcast are given purpose and a home. Those who find themselves isolated by life's circumstances are promised God's presence. No earthly power can deny anyone a sense of blessedness. But we can't sit idly by and wait for justice to roll down like waters and righteous like and everflowing stream, either.

Since Friday, several of my friends have reminded us of the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Others have just posted a picture of the statue, saying, "I'm with her." I'll close by reminding you of the words from our epistle reading this morning: 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ - 1 Corinthians 1:25-31

Be the church. Be the blessed community Christ calls you to be. Be the place where others find a home. Demand that Christ's principles of love and welcome and dignity be reflected by those in power. Be the place where the victims of hate and oppression find safety and sanctuary. Offer blessings to those who are are poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, that they may be filled with comfort and mercy-- "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

25 January 2017

Wakefield Blitz

This week I've been doing some sermon planning, and as of a couple of hours ago, I've tentatively outlined the remaining Sundays of 2017. Looking further down the worship road, here's where we are headed over the next couple of months: during February we'll explore the Sermon on the Mount. Lent begins March 1, and during that season of deepening our faith we'll hear from Romans each week. Check it out:

DateSeriesSeason & Liturgical ColorFirst ReadingSecond Reading
Feb 5A Blessed Life- Sermon on the MountOrdinary Time/Green1 Corinthians 2:1-16Matthew 5:1-20
Feb 12A Blessed Life- Sermon on the MountOrdinary Time/Green1 Corinthians 3:1-9Matthew 5:21-37
Feb 19A Blessed Life- Sermon on the MountOrdinary Time/Green1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23Matthew 5:38-48
Feb 26Transfiguration of the LordWhiteExodus 24:12-18Matthew 17:1-9
March 1Ash WednesdayPurpleJoel 2:1-2, 12-17Psalm 51:1-17
March 5A Righteous Life- Romans for Lent1st Sunday of Lent/PurpleMatthew 4:1-11Romans 5:12-19
March 12A Righteous Life- Romans for Lent2nd Sunday of Lent/PurpleJohn 3:1-17Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
March 19A Righteous Life- Romans for Lent3rd Sunday of Lent/PurpleJohn 4:5-14Romans 5:1-11
March 26A Righteous Life- Romans for Lent4th Sunday of Lent/PurpleJohn 9:1-12, 35-41Romans 6:1-14
April 2A Righteous Life- Romans for Lent5th Sunday of Lent/PurpleJohn 11:17-27Romans 8:6-11

We'll also focus on 1 Peter (after Easter), Genesis (summer), and Exodus (September) this year. This Sunday we'll finish up our sermon series on the Grace UMC Core Values with Missions.

Speaking of Missions, a couple of years ago, Bishop Mike McKee urged all pastors and churches of the North Texas Conference to begin partnerships with local schools. It was a vision to get churches outside of themselves and place them in ministry in their local parish. Called "One + One," the goal is for all 300 North Texas churches to have at least 10% of the average Sunday morning worship attendance active in a school. So I signed up to be a mentor to a student at a local school in Plano. Every Monday I met with a 3rd grader during his lunch time. We would play games together-- usually Uno. It was fun, and required very little effort on my part.

When I moved to Sherman last summer, I tried to settle on a school to become a reader or mentor to a local kid. It took a while, but I finally settled on Wakefield, where many other Grace folk already served, or had just begun to serve. Yesterday was my first day. I sat in the hallway for an hour, listening to 2nd graders read. Again: fun, with very little effort required.

Over the last couple of weeks, Wakefield has popped up in unexpected conversations and occasions. Le Lange mentioned her work there. Ron Woodworth mentioned not only reading but as a Grace Trustee he's noticed some needs of the school. And it just so happens that our new Missions Board Chair, Sue Ann Spencer, lives in the immediate neighborhood around the school. She watches those kids walk past her house every day. I began to think and pray: how could Grace bless even more families at Wakefield? And could we change our outreach efforts to focus specifically there? I've spoken with Sue Ann, our Administrative Council, and a few others about the possibilities. Everyone has been very enthusiastic. I even mentioned deepening our relationship to Mrs Linson, the school principal. She is already very appreciative of our support of the school, and was very excited about the possibility of growing the relationship further. Grace can make a lasting impact on our community.

Yesterday was my first day to read at Wakefield. Bigger things are coming!

It's a blank slate for now, but I am calling the mission focus a Wakefield Blitz. The exciting thing about this effort is there will literally be an opportunity for everyone to participate, according to their individual gifts. For now, go to the Sherman ISD website and register as a volunteer at Wakefield. It's one hour a week. The kids are adorable. And as you stop in to read, or drive past on Sunset on your way to Dairy Queen, say a little prayer for the families of that school. And its future partnership with Grace. That all of us together may see and feel the presence of God in a new way in our neighborhood.

"For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." - Ephesians 2:10

15 January 2017

MLK 2017

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr day. Christy and I are taking the boys to see Hidden Figures for the occasion. We want them to see and hear vital stories of African Americans making meaningful, often forgotten, contributions to our country.

This morning I offered the following prayer in worship. Quoting from Dr King's Letters from a Birmingham Jail, the litany was written by two of my professors from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, where I earned my doctorate in preaching.


We remember the conviction of Martin Luther King Jr, that "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Therefore, let us pray for courage and determination by those who are oppressed...

We remember Martin's warning that "a negative which is the absence of tension" is less than "a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world may cry out first for justice...

We remember Martin's insight that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one affects all indirectly." Therefore, let us pray that we may see nothing in isolation, but may know ourselves bound to one another and to all people under heaven...

We remember Martin's lament that "the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church's silent and often vocal sanction as things as they are." Therefore, let us pray that neither this congregation nor any congregation of Christ's people may be silent in the face of wrong, but that we may be disturbers of the status quo when that is God's call to us...

We remember Martin's "hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." Therefore, in faith, let us commend ourselves and our work for justice to the goodness of almighty God.

- United Methodist Book of Worship, page 435

12 January 2017

Renovate or Redecorate

Years ago, and I mean years ago-- probably 15+ years ago-- Christy gave me a beautiful, hardbound copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. I read this book way back in high school or college and really liked it. I mentioned that to her once, and voila, here comes a gift. She's that kind of person. Anyway, this copy sat on my bookshelf for many years, unread. I didn't have the time. I would see it out of the corner of my eye, think, "I really need to read that," and move on to something else.

That pattern continued until last Spring. The announcement came down that we were moving to Sherman, we had a ton of house showings, and one morning when we had to be out of the house for several hours I pulled this off of my bookshelf and headed to Starbucks.

I loved it immediately. I knew it was a book about vengeance, but I forgot how dense the book is. My version is nearly 1400 pages long. And the conversation between characters is a style and formality unknown to most of us. I made it a goal to finish the book by the end of the year. When we took a family vacation to Chicago last summer, we returned to Texas on a 24-hour train ride (highly recommended, by the way). I brought Monte Cristo with me. I read a few pages, but the Illinois farmland was more inviting. When we moved to Sherman, I placed this book on my bedside table, remembering my goal. And for the most part, it sat there. I picked it up the other day, now in 2017, and started again. 300 pages to go! And last night I discovered there is such a thing as a Monte Cristo sandwich. I didn't eat it, but here's an example:

What does it have to do with the book, if anything? No idea. But it looks good!

Sometimes in the church we approach needed changes the way I've approached my book. We see it every day, know something needs to be done, and yet... it's too big or too difficult or too time consuming or life gets in the way. Here at Grace we've recently begun a six-month process called the Healthy Church Initiative. The first step in that process is to read Bishop Bob Farr's book Renovate or Die. It's a challenging book! The book distinguishes between renovation and redecoration. Redecoration is a new coat of paint on the wall; renovation is knocking down the wall to change the existing space. One is relatively easy; the other can be very difficult.

As we go through this process, I invite you to be an active participant. At Administrative Council meetings you might hear updates. Ask some of our lay members what they are learning. And be in prayer for Grace, that we may hear God's vision, and approach it boldly and without fear or hesitation. Unlike how I've approached The Count of Monte Cristo

Lay members participating in Healthy Church Initiative:
Frank Holcomb  Tom Busby Carolyn Nicholson
Carol Kennedy John Murphy Tim Williams Janet Hayes
Stephen Clayton Jim Nicholson Jim Williams Cindy Pressley

04 January 2017

2016 Media Reviews

I usually post an end of the year movie review bonanza, but this year is different. I saw a handful of movies last week, but I am not sure I watched enough movies in 2016 to produce a proper top 10 list. But I did see several brilliant longer than feature length documentaries and a TV series unlike any other, so after a few short reviews I'll offer a Top 10 Media List.

I intentionally waited a couple of weeks to review the latest Star Wars movie, but I couldn't avoid a couple of tweets about it:

Rogue One is great-- just not to the level of 1977 or The Empire Strikes Back. And it's a close runner up to last year's The Force Awakens. I nudged that one above Rogue One for a few reasons:

  1. Its scope. It's the beginning of at least two more movies, but doubtless many more (it grossed more than $1.5B worldwide). This movie had to set a tone with new characters and a plot that moviegoers could invest in for the long term
  2. Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren-- great performances from the actors, interesting characters
  3. The idea that the light side of the Force tempts us too-- never seen before in a Star Wars film
Rogue One didn't have that kind of scale or agenda-- it slots into the timeline just before the 1977 film with characters we do not know (other than Darth Vader of course). Unlike every other SW film, RO has a defined beginning and ending. I saw it a second time with my Dad the day Carrie Fisher died. I loved it even more. Humor, action, gorgeous to watch, wonderful performances. This was the first film where we saw Darth Vader truly as Darth Vader-- ferocious and evil. It is not a kid movie. It's a war movie where actions have deep consequences.

The Death Star is the focal point of the movie, and seeing its destructive power unleashed on cities rather than a planet or space ships had a interesting effect on me. We see massive mushroom clouds rising from where a city and a military station once stood, and consider countless lives vaporized in the moment. I had just watched several episodes of The Untold History of the United States on Netflix, an Oliver Stone documentary telling stories and viewpoints of the last 100 years often overlooked in history classes (think about the feeling of JFK as a semester-long history class instead a three hour movie about one event). The combination of hearing alternative viewpoints about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the threats of using nuclear weapons in places like Vietnam, and President-elect Donald Trump's recent musings about expanding our nuclear arsenal brought about a profound sense of dread and worry that I am still struggling with. For a reference, here is the United Methodist Church's stance on war and the use of nuclear weapons.

La La Land

I liked, but didn't love, the musical La La LandEmma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the sweetest actors giving great performances, but I am not sure this is Best Picture worthy, as it is being marketed. I love old Hollywood too, and this is a great, optimistic movie. If you are feeling dread about 2017 and everything else, go check it out. You'll feel better.


Last year when Oscar nominations were released, #OscarsSoWhite was a trending hashtag on Twitter since no African Americans were nominated in the major categories for the second consecutive year. Fences guarantees that will not happen in 2017. If Viola Davis isn't nominated for Best Actress-- not Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I haven't seen Jackie, but I've heard Natalie Portman is amazing in it. But this performance in Fences is one for the ages. Denzel is great too, and the supporters, but Viola...

Fences is based on a play, and the movie feels like a play-- there's only one setting, and the actors give long soliloquies. Denzel plays a former baseball player, "third only to Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson," who never really had a shot at baseball greatness because of racism. Growing up during the Jim Crow era of the American South, he had little opportunities. Fences is about some of the struggles oppressed communities deal with every day, like racism and poverty, and the painful shame they bring. Interestingly, Christy and I were two of only a handful of Caucasian folk in a packed auditorium. I'm not sure why that is. This is a movie everyone should see: it has amazing performances by some of our great actors, and a powerful message for our society.

Black Mirror

I'm kinda late to this party, but Christy and I have been watching Black Mirror on Netflix recently. It's like a modern Twilight Zone, but the commentary is more focused on the dangers of technology than paranoia over communism.  Some episodes are funny, some are serious, some are scary. I love Black Mirror because it isn't structured like a regular TV show. I've been sort of burned out on TV series recently, not wanting to dedicate 22 episodes per season to the same people doing the same things. Black Mirror exists in different times and places, and people share the same technologies, but each episode is its own unique story with its own characters. We're partly through Season 3, having watched the horrifying haunted house video game episode last night.

Best of Visual Media in 2016

Best feature length movie: Arrival (read my review halfway down this page). I love sci-fi, because it speaks to universal situations in unexpected ways. This movie lines up with the best of sci-fi movies. It is smart, original, beautiful, and emotional. Runners up: Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War (yes, I am serious).

Best conventional TV: Stranger Things. Forget media; this was one of my favorite things about 2016. Read my review here. Runners up: Black Mirror and Westworld.

Best documentary (some were broadcast on Netflix; does that make them movies or series or what?): OJ Made in America. This is seven hours of incredible film making. I could not stop watching it or thinking about it between viewings. It's available on Hulu or espn.com. I had no idea about the social and political implications of those murders and OJ himself. I mostly tuned out the case in 1996, but this series is immersive and unforgettable. Runner up: 13th. It's a powerful commentary on the criminal justice system in America, specifically the ramifications for the African American community.

Top 10 for 2016

Stranger Things
OJ: Made in America
Rogue One
Black Mirror
Captain America: Civil War
La La Land