A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Post June 26 Sermon Reflections

This past Tuesday, I joined several church members in helping to serve a meal at Foundation Dinners, a local outreach providing meals for those in need.  As I was standing in the kitchen, a church member said, "Did you see the scripture painted on the dining room wall?  That's one of the scriptures you talked about on Sunday"

This scripture was from Psalm 121 - "I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."  This is considered a Psalm of Ascent which was the focus of the sermon last Sunday (June 26.)  These words would have been sung by Israelites as they looked up and saw the city of Jerusalem and the Temple off in the distance.

Imagine, the joy and renewed faith the people must have felt after traveling many miles and finally seeing their destination just ahead.  Even after all of these years, I get that similar sense of joy as I near the exit which will take me to my home town.  Traveling in a car for six hours is very different from riding on donkey for a couple of days three times a year to make it to your destination!

For the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem was literally where heaven and earth met.  It was where the Lord resided.  No wonder they sang out, "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."  Even though the Temple was destroyed during the 1st century, Jesus showed us that he was the living Temple, the place where heaven and earth meet.  And because Jesus continues to be present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, we continue to encounter those moments and places where heaven and earth converge, like in a place that serves meals for the homeless.

I'm thankful that this church member remembered the sermon and the scripture reading from last Sunday to be able to notice it on the wall of that dining area.  It's a very appropriate verse for a place that provides warm and abundant meals for those in need on a daily basis.  The psalms of ascent (Psalms 120 - 134) continue to provide hope and joy as we travel to places where heaven and earth meet.

What are those places and moments that lead you to say, "My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth?"  When do you experience God's presence and see signs of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (The Lord's Prayer)?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Do United Methodists Believe? - Justifying Grace

Our United Methodist Church website includes excellent summaries of United Methodist beliefs. This blog series is meant to inform as well as encourage discussion and spiritual growth. Let's look at each set of beliefs one at a time and ask ourselves, "Does this describe my foundational beliefs as a follower of Jesus Christ?"

John Wesley affirmed that God's grace is known and active in three ways: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, & Sanctifying Grace.  Today's focus is on God's Justifying Grace.
Justifying Grace

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

These verses demonstrate the justifying grace of God. They point to reconciliation, pardon, and restoration. Through the work of God in Christ our sins are forgiven, and our relationship with God is restored. According to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, the image of God—which has been distorted by sin—is renewed within us through Christ’s death.

Again, this dimension of God’s grace is a gift. God’s grace alone brings us into relationship with God. There are no hoops through which we have to jump in order to please God and to be loved by God. God has acted in Jesus Christ. We need only to respond in faith.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sermon (June 26) - "Expressions of the Heart: Psalms of Ascent"

    Have you ever had a song that you’d sing as you went somewhere?
     Penny remembers all kinds of songs that she would sing either with Girl Scouts or marching band as they would hike or travel to various places.
     One of those songs was “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,
His name is my name too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout,
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah
    Now here’s what I want us to do.  Pretend that we’re on a six-hour bus ride to a Penn State football game.  And we’re kind of bored and so our organist Virginia Rosberg yells out for us to sing this song.  And we can’t say no to Virginia, right?  So let’s sing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” together.
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,
His name is my name too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout,
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah.
     A little quieter this time and then let’s get really loud at the end:
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,
His name is my name too.
Whenever we go out,
The people always shout,
There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
(Louder!) Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah!!!
     And guess what?  That song is going to stay in your head all day long.  You can thank me later!
     From the movie, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles starring Steve Martin and John Candy, there’s a funny scene where people start singing during their long ride.  Let’s watch:
(Movie Clip)
     We know what it’s like to be with other people on a long journey.  Singing is often part of the trip.  You’re tired.  You’re defenses are down.  You want to have some fun on the trip.
     I think we’re starting to get a feel for our topic for today – psalms of ascent.
     They are called Psalms of Ascent because they were the traveling songs of the people of Israel. The ancient Israelites sang these songs as they approached the Holy City of Jerusalem when they traveled there three times a year for the festival celebrations at the Temple.
     A footnote in my Wesley Study Bible says, “These songs were likely sung by pilgrims on their way up to the temple on Mount Zion for feast celebrations.”
     Psalms 120 – 134 collectively are known as the Psalms of Ascent.
     Psalm 120 is a poem whose setting takes place outside of Jerusalem; in fact it takes place outside of Israel.  The poet cries out in distress to God, and laments that he lives among an alien people.  He lives among deceitful people with lying tongues; he lives among a warlike people, and he prays for peace.
    Listen to Psalm 120.  (Read)
     Next, in Psalm 121, the psalmist seems to be on the way to Jerusalem—perhaps from one of the countries to which the Jews have been dispersed—the foreign countries mentioned in Psalm 120.
     On his journey, the psalmist lifts up his eyes and is reminded of God.  The city of Jerusalem sits on a hill, and Mount Zion with the temple of God is the pinnacle of the city.  People have to travel up to Jerusalem, because they must go up in elevation to get there.
     In Psalm 121 the psalmist places his trust in God for a safe journey.  The roads to Jerusalem were not always safe roads to travel.  The rocks and valleys gave bandits lots of good hiding places. 
     Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into some bandits who robbed him, and beat him, and left him for dead.”
     This Psalm of Ascent looks to God for protection.
     Listen to Psalm 121.  (Read)
     This leads us to this morning’s psalm:  122.  This psalm of ascent begins with these words, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
     I hope you were glad this morning when you knew you would be coming to church.
     At a church I was serving, I got to know one of our newer members.  His name was Dave.  He was in his late 20s, not married, and lived in the neighborhood near the church.
     He came every Sunday to worship and always had a smile on his face.  You would also see him working around the church during the week to fix or repair things or to make the church look better.
     I appreciated his joy-filled faith and all that he was doing for our church.  And so I asked him one day, what it was that first brought him to our church.
     And he said that his parents had taken him to church when he was young, but over time he had drifted away from the church.  And then he said something really interesting to me.
     He said, “When I bought a house to live in this neighborhood, my Sunday morning routine was to sit in my sun room and read the Sunday paper.
     “And every Sunday morning, I would hear the church bell ring.  And during one of those Sunday mornings, I heard it ring and it was like it was ringing just for me.  So, I put down the paper, got ready, and came to church.  And I’ve been here ever since and I love it.”
     Instead of Psalms of Ascent, for Dave it was Bells of Ascent that called out to him to make his pilgrimage to Zion United Methodist Church one Sunday morning.
     Did you know that John Wesley used to start getting ready for Sunday worship on Thursday?  He’d start confessing his sins to God on Thursday, so that by Sunday he’d be ready to receive Holy Communion with a clean conscience.
     On Friday he’d fast as part of his preparation to be ready for Sunday worship.
     By Sunday, he was ready to worship!  He spent about half of each week getting himself ready to worship on Sunday morning!  We could probably all learn something helpful for ourselves by taking to heart even just a little of Wesley’s preparation.
     The psalmist was glad to go to the house of the Lord.  He was glad when his feet were standing in the gates of Jerusalem.
     In verse 4 we learn that all the tribes of Israel went up to Jerusalem.  God commanded for them to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year to worship God at the festival celebrations.
   This was one of God’s decrees for the Israelites—they were to go “to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”
     That’s why we go to all the trouble to come together for worship… “to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”
     This psalm ends with a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. 
     One of the poetic devices of Hebrew poetry is repetition.  Lines and phrases are repeated using slight variations which emphasize what is being said.
     Listen to verses 6 – 9 of Psalm 122 – “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May those who love you be secure.  May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.’  For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.”
     In the original language, the word for “peace” or a slight variation of it is repeated multiple times.  We can see in English that the word “peace” is repeated three times in three verses.
    In Hebrew, the word for peace is “shalom.”
     The very name Jerusalem is a derivative of this word.  In Hebrew it is “Yerushalayim,” (you can hear the sound similar to “shalom” more clearly) and it means “abode of peace.”
     Also, the word for “security” used in verse 7 is from the root word “shalom” in Hebrew.
     The psalmist is really driving home the image of peace in these closing verses.
     There are two levels of meaning here.
     First, the psalmist is literally praying for the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants to be at peace in which Israel and her neighbors live in safety and security.
     But secondly, the psalmist is also looking toward the day when God’s reign of peace will come in its fullness; when Isaiah’s vision of swords being made into plowshares, and the lion lying down with the lamb is fulfilled.
     These two ways of thinking about the closing four verses of the psalm can also teach us something about Psalms of Ascent and our prayer life:
     First of all, we are to pray for peace in the world.  We pray for countries that are experiencing war, including our own country.
     And we also pray for and work for the day when the reign of God’s peace will fill this earth.
     As followers of the Prince of Peace, the Church is to be God’s agent of peace in the world, working to bring peace to the world.
     Verses 6, 7, and 8 all show the psalmist praying for peace, or speaking words of peace.  As United Methodists we might call this our inner spirituality, or our vital piety. 
     But in the final verse, the psalmist says, “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”
     I will seek your good.
     I will work for peace.
     We might call this our outer spirituality, or our social holiness.
     So, here is my challenge for each of us this week:  pray for peace, and work for peace.
     Pray for peace in our world, and in the Church.
     And think of one action you can take this week, or one action you can refrain from, in order to promote peace, and then do it.
     Simple things to do, yet they will have a profound impact.
     Psalms of Ascent are the traveling songs of the church to help us be the people of God as we journey together as the people of God.  They remind us of who we are and to whom we belong.
     For the past twenty-five years, we have been blessed and even spoiled to have Virginia Rosberg as our organist.  Many of us only know the back of Virginia’s head since she is always facing the choir when she plays on Sunday mornings.  But she also has a beautiful face as well.
     But let me tell you something about Virginia.  She has always put a lot of time in getting ready for each Sunday morning.  Her prelude music has always been carefully chosen to tie in with our worship theme.  And week after week, she practices and practices in preparation for Sunday’s services.
     John Wesley would begin preparing for Sunday worship on Thursday.  Virginia prepares weeks ahead on our behalf. 
     And this is the whole point of the Psalms of Ascent, isn’t it?  They help us to sing our faith and to be God’s people of peace long before we find our seat in the pew on Sunday morning.
     One of the things I really appreciate about living in downtown Lancaster is that I get to hear church chimes throughout the day.  They play the great hymns of faith reminding us that as we journey through our week, God goes with us.
     During my first year here, I remember one day in particular, when I was anxious about some things.  My heart was unsettled and I was troubled in spirit.  And as I made my way to the church, I could hear a psalm of ascent playing from our church tower.  And I know that it was playing just for me in the middle of that week.
   “He leadeth me.  He leadeth me.  By his own hand he leadeth me; his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.”
     I couldn’t get that song out of my head for the rest of the day.  As I hummed that song over and over again, it made all the difference in the world.  I now had the peace of Christ.  That’s why the Psalms of Ascent are important for each one of us.

Poem in Honor of Virginia Rosberg's Retirement - June 26, 2011

By Robert Vincent McDowell

Virginia.  Such a pretty name, but hard to rhyme.
What about Rosberg?  Maybe, but I’m run’n out of time.
How about a name change, like Mary, Pam, or Sally?
Nah.  You’ll find the word.  But just don’t diddle dally.

This is after all about the woman we all know and love.
Her notes always point us to the one who is above.
You can have your trumpet, your drums, and your kazoo.
But the way she plays that organ will make you a fan, too.

She likes her tea and her peanut butter sandwiches.
She proofreads the bulletin making sure of no glitches.
I’m not sure what we’re going to do come July 1.
It won’t be the same.  I’m going to miss her a ton.

Twenty-five years can go by really fast.
I’ve known her for just two and it’s been such a blast.
Wait, I think I have it.  This rhymes with Virginia.
But it makes no sense, ‘cus she’s not a Ninja.

Now that I think about it. This rhymes with Virginia.
Both of us were born in York.  That’s York, Pennsylvania.
But it doesn’t convey my heart for my dear friend, Virginia.
So I’ll end with this rhyme.  Virginia, we all love ya!

Sunday Worship Preview - July 3

Sunday, July 3 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, July 6 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon"Expressions of the Heart: Psalms of Enthronement"

Features - 3rd Sunday After Pentecost; Holy Communion; & Independence Day Weekend

Scripture - Psalm 96

Theme - Psalms of enthronement are Psalms that focus on the Lord’s sovereign rule over all creation and the rule of the human king of Israel.  How can the Psalms of enthronement help us to remember and celebrate the Lord’s reign over all the earth especially on this Independence Day weekend?

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Creativity & Depth of the Christian Calendar

The daily devotional reading from "Forward Day by Day" reveals the creativity and the depth within the Christian calendar.

Today (June 24) recognizes the birth of John the Baptist who was born six months prior to Jesus (December 25.)  The devotional reading explains the symbolism of the placement of these two dates on the church calendar.  I've included today's reading which is a great example of how the Christian calendar can help us think about our faith in creative ways.

Years ago I was in a parish staff meeting reviewing the calendar of activities when a fellow staff member noted the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist with great puzzlement. “What a random date,” the man exclaimed. “Why is it here at the end of June?”

I reminded him of the history of Christmas. Ages ago the church placed the festival of Christmas in the midst of the winter solstice celebrations to correlate with the victory of light over darkness. As the sun reaches its nadir, and darkness seems to be the ­victor, light begins growing in its power and duration. It echoes the reign of Christ.

The metaphor is reversed with John. His feast occurs in the midst of the summer solstice. As the sun marks its zenith and begins to diminish, we remember John the Baptist who paved the way for Jesus and proclaimed, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Isn’t that a fitting credo and lesson for us all?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Psalms of Ascent Reflections

This Sunday, I will be preaching on Psalms of Ascent.  These psalms were the traveling music for Israel when they journeyed to Jerusalem for the big festivals during the year.  It must have been an exciting time when these events rolled around and the people packed their belongings to make the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Like any long trip, singing often finds its way into the journey.  These psalms were hope filled, expectant, and filled with praise and thanksgiving for the opportunity to make such a trip.  It would have been a joy filled experience as they traveled many miles to reach the place where they would feast and celebrate as one people for worship. 

How has music been an important part of helping you to prepare for worship?  Do you ever find yourself singing/humming the songs from the previous week of worship?  What's it like when you arrive to church for worship?  Are you filled with anticipation for how God will meet us as we gather as God's people?

We use the word, "ascent" because to journey to Jerusalem, you literally had to ascend and make a gradual climb to reach the city.  Tired and exhausted, just think of how incredible it must have been as you looked up and finally saw the Temple off in the distance.

I have a friend who is there now.  It must be a moving experience for him as he walks in the footsteps of God's people from centuries past. 

Psalms of Ascent give us a glimpse of what it means to travel to worship with the people of God week after week.  Before we arrive to church each week, let's make sure that we already have a song on our heart.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Virginia Rosberg Staff Worship Message - June 16, 2011 (First UMC Chapel)

Stained glass windows have always inspired me. Maybe that’s because the gothic style church I grew up in had such beautiful stained glass windows.  A large rose window was at the front of the sanctuary with Luther’s rose at the back.  One whole side depicted Moses and the prophets while Jesus and the gospel writers graced the opposite side.  Smaller story windows filled in the gaps.  Sitting in the sanctuary gave you a feeling of being in a very holy presence. For all the beautiful services I attended there, though, I’ve always felt that what I learned about my faith I learned in the basement.

My earliest recollections of Sunday School in the basement are of our whole second grade class carrying our little chairs and following our teacher like ducks in a row to the kitchen.  Now the kitchen could be a real scary place when the big ovens were lit and a dinner was being prepared.  But on Sunday mornings our teacher, dressed in hat, gloves, purse, shoes and dress to match, brought Bible stories to life.  Later on I learned she tutored children with reading difficulties in her home, where she would likely be down on the floor playing with trucks and building blocks.

Junior Choir was always a highlight of my week.  About 60 of us would gather on Wednesdays after school and learn our music.  Bedlam reigned supreme, and I’ll never understand how we learned three-part music in that setting.  We sang every month in church, wearing our choir robes – purple skirts (for both boys and girls) and white tops – all washed, starched and ironed by our mothers.  We marched into the sanctuary 2 by 2, 2 rows apart and stuffed ourselves into the front pews.  Even after we sang our anthem, we remained in church for the entire service, marching out in reverse order.  No wonder those robes had to be washed every time we wore them.

Bible school was held for 2 weeks right after school was out for the summer.  One year my father built a large sandbox, and my mother helped us make all kinds of figures with clothespins.  We made tribes of Israelites and Egyptians, then led the Hebrews out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, wandered in the dessert, received the 10 Commandments, and entered the Holy Land – all in 2 weeks time.

As much as I remember about my time in the basement, there is one event that stands out in my mind in the sanctuary.  One year at Christmas, my mother (one the church’s organists) gave me some music of a medley of Christmas carols for piano/organ duet.  After looking at the piano part, I freaked out. No way could I play that music!  She explained it was just arpeggios, like I do when I practice scales, but I was terrified of it.  “All right” she said. “You play the organ and I’ll play the piano part.”  For some reason, that didn’t scare me at all.  She showed me the registrations and helped me with my part, and I even played some pedal notes for the program.  From then on, I knew I wanted to play the organ in church.

So much for my stories; I bet you have many wonderful memories of events that happened as you were growing up in the church. They molded you and shaped you, inspired you and taught you about what it means to be a Christian.  As awe-inspiring as stained glass windows can be, it was the people who provided the real inspiration for your life.  As I look back on my 25 years here at First Church, it is the people I have met and worked with who have been my inspiration.  Members and staff alike have touched me – and I have grown in faith because of you.  That is what I will miss most.

I feel blessed to have served in ministry with you, and I thank God for our time together.  God Bless You All!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sermon (June 19) - "Expressions of the Heart: Psalms of Lament"

     For the next three weeks, we’re going to be exploring how the Book of Psalms can be a way for us to express what is on our heart in any given moment.  In fact, I can’t think of a better book in the Bible than the Book of Psalms when it comes to our spirituality and how we can best express our faith.  For many people, the Psalms are what have helped people to connect in their faith or reconnect in their spiritual journey. 
     I became facebook friends with someone I met in person several months ago.  I didn’t even know if he was a Christian but this is what he wrote about himself on his facebook profile which really interested me since I knew that we would be focusing on the Psalms for this sermon series:
     “Reading the Psalms allowed me to grow into my own haphazard prayers and to inch my way before God with all my conflicting thoughts and feelings. If people in the Bible could shake their fists at God while truly believing in the majesty of God, then maybe I can too.”
     For my friend, it was through the Psalms that he was able to reconnect to his faith.  And I think this is true for a lot of people.
     The Psalms are centuries old prayers grounded in Hebrew spirituality.  The Book of Psalms found in the Old Testament is a collection of 150 biblical psalms.  The psalms emerge from a people who are in love with life and want to see good or better days.  Each generation passes these time tested prayers on to the next.  Passed on but never passed over – such is the prayer book called Psalms.
     The God of the psalmists is the God of Israel, the God of the covenant.  And this God is interested in human troubles, triumphs and trust.  This God initiated the relationship with Israel in the first place by calling Abraham and Sarah to leave their old neighborhood and move on to a new place.  The same God invited Moses to come right up to the burning bush and learn God’s name.  The psalms celebrate this relationship that we can have with God.
     Since the Psalms are expressions of the heart, we’re going to look at three categories of Psalms that can help us grow closer to God.  We’re going to look at Psalms of lament which is today’s focus.  Next Sunday, we’ll look at Psalms of ascent.  And two weeks from today, we’ll focus on psalms of enthronement.
     So what are Psalms of lament?  To lament is to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow, or regret.  In the Jewish tradition in which these Psalms were written, the initial grief process is known as “shiva.”  This is a time of formal mourning when for at least a full week, you don’t go to work or cook or take care of errands around the house or do anything else.  Other people take care of those things for you.  And the reason for this is to provide you the time to face the reality of your loss and not to minimize or deny it.
     If you have experienced the death of a loved one or have been angry about the unfairness of life, psalms of lament can be an emotionally and spiritually healthy spiritual exercise.  As Renee Rust, author of the book, “Making the Psalms Your Prayer” shares, the Psalms of Lament are the bible’s complaint department.
     Some people attend seminars to help them reduce stress.  The Psalmist’s program for stress reduction is heard through throbbing wails of lament.  And these wails of lament are ultimately directed to God and this is what helps us to know that not all is lost, because no matter how deep the loss may be, God cares about our pain.
     There are three main areas that Psalms of lament cover.  And the first area is loss.  Now this can be a death, or another type of loss, like the end of a friendship or another type of significant relationship.
     David from the Old Testament is a good example of how this works.  For anyone who has felt betrayed by a friend as David did, maybe his words from Psalm 55 hit home – “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me: that I could bear.  It is not a rival who taunts me, but you, my other self, my companion and my close friend!”
     But here’s the key to these Psalms of lament.  As I mentioned before, Psalms of lament remind us that no matter what life may throw our way, that not all is lost.  Just a few verses later in that same Psalm, David prays, “But for me, I will call on God who will save me.”
     Another main area of Psalms of lament is in the area of our own sins.  And not only our own personal sins but the sins and brokenness of a whole community.  A lot of the Psalmists express this mourning and sadness because they have sinned against God.
      Instead of Psalms of lament, some people might call these penitential psalms.  Psalms of lament aren’t meant to leave us feeling empty and terrible about ourselves, they are meant to help us face the reality of our unfaithfulness so that we can receive God’s forgiveness and redeeming love.
      Psalms of lament related to our sins are meant to help us to admit what we did, take responsibility for what we can change, and receive God’s healing and forgiving love so that we can move forward in life and learn from our mistakes.
      At the Coventry Cathedral in England there is probably the most dramatic symbol of forgiveness. The old cathedral was destroyed in the blitzkrieg of World War II, in the constant bombings of England. Only a shell of the old cathedral was left. The congregation left it, and built the new cathedral right next to it, so that the entrance into the new is through the ruins of the old. You enter new life through forgiving the past. So in the courtyard of Coventry Cathedral, where the altar was in the old church, there is a cross made out of the charred timbers of the roof of the old cathedral. It says these words, "Father, forgive."
     I remember standing there at that site wondering how this congregation was able to choose forgiveness over hatred and revenge.  This charred cathedral is a testimony to the healing power of God’s love and forgiveness.  But it’s only as we first walk through the charred past of our sins, that we are able to enter into the new future that God has in store for us, a future of love and forgiveness.
     In Psalm 130, we hear these words of hope and new life – “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God; God, hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.  If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, and for this we revere you.”
     John Newton who wrote the lyrics of the hymn, “Amazing Grace” is quoted as saying, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly.  I am a great sinner.  And Christ is a great Savior.”
     Newton, who before his conversion was a captain of a ship that transported slaves during the 18th century didn’t deny his many sins when he wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
     Psalms of lament help us to not only express our sense of loss and sorrow for our sins, but thirdly, they also help us to express whenever we feel lost.  Have you been there?  Maybe you’re there right now, where you feel disoriented and confused about your direction in life.  Psalms of lament can help us to express that feeling of being lost so that we can find our way again.
     Some people have a better sense of direction than others.  Have you ever noticed that?  When one of our kids was in High School marching band, Penny and I went to mapquest to get directions to go to one of the away football games which was about a 45 minute drive for us.
     The directions worked really well until we got off the highway.  It had us turn onto this one lane road that went straight down a hill into a secluded wooded area.  It started as a paved road but then turned into a dirt road. 
     I thought that maybe it was a back road that would take us to the high school but instead it became a dead end with thick woods preventing us from going any farther.  I felt embarrassed and confused but then in my rearview mirror there were other cars immediately behind us that had made the same mistake.
     One time, I was in Michigan and driving back to Ohio when I ran into a detour.  My GPS recalculated sending me a different route.  But something didn’t seem right and when I clicked on my GPS to bring up a map of where I was located, it had a picture of my car driving through the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa. 
     Even with modern day technology, it’s still easy to get lost.  The bible recognizes this and provides us with psalms of lament whenever we feel disoriented and we get lost in our spiritual journey. This sense of feeling lost may be due to a major change that has happened in our lives and we don’t know what direction to go.
     Sometimes life is unfair and it makes us question our faith and the meaning of life.  It’s times like this that some of the Psalmists offer their psalms of lament expressing that feeling of being lost and in need of direction.
     Listen to this Psalmist from Psalm 77 who is feeling lost in life.  “I cried aloud to you, O God, I cried, and you heard me.  In the day of my distress I sought you, Lord, and by night I stretched out my hands in prayer.  I lay sweating and nothing would cool me; I refused all comfort.  When I remembered you, I groaned; as I pondered, darkness came over my spirit.  My eyelids would not close; I was troubled and I could not speak.”
     But then listen to the change of tone by the end of this same Psalm.  The Psalmist says, “Your path led through the sea, your way was through mighty waters, and no one marked your footsteps.  You guide your people like a flock of sheep, under the hand of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
     Because God has guided and directed the people of Israel in the past, God will do the same for this Psalmist and for us as well. 
     These are the main areas of Psalms of lament – when we have experienced a death or a loss, when we have sinned, and whenever we feel lost and in need of direction.
     To help us use Psalms of lament in our daily living, in your bulletin, I have provided a listing of Psalms of lament according to different pictures of who God is.
     The different circumstances include God, the merciful forgiver; the just judge; the healer of confusion & uncertainty; the one who answers our pleas; the one who acts too slowly; and the ultimate avenger.
     Today is Trinity Sunday, a day in the church year for us to remember that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one God known in three persons.
     By remembering that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we remember that whenever we offer our laments, we are praying to God the Father, who created the world to be a place of love, peace, harmony, joy, and fulfillment.  And whenever this world is anything less than this, we know that God shares in our lament.
     We also offer our prayers to God the Son, who wept at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus and who told Mary and Martha who were also grieving, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
     And when God the Son hung on the cross, he was lamenting all three areas that we find in the psalms of lament.  He was experiencing a sense of loss as he was offering his very life by dying on the cross.  He was experiencing the pain of sin as he was taking upon himself the sins of the world.  And he was experiencing loneliness and a sense of abandonment as he hung on the hard wood of the cross.
     And when we pray to God, the Holy Spirit, we pray to the one who promises to always be with us until that time when Jesus will return and God will make all things new.  The Holy Spirit is who provides us guidance whenever we feel lost and in need of direction.
     By praying to God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are praying to the one who understands our cries of lament.
     And this is why the Apostle Paul can write in his letter to the Thessalonian Christians whenever they face grief and loss, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
     We do not need to grieve as those who have no hope.  We grieve and offer our prayers of lament to the one who is more than able to make all things new.
     In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday Worship Preview - June 26

Sunday, June 26 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, June 29 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon"Expressions of the Heart: Psalms of Ascent"

Features - 2nd Sunday After Pentecost & Virginia Rosberg Retirement Sunday

Psalm 121
Theme - Psalms of ascent are Psalms of worship and praise.  These prayers/songs help us to prepare when we will gather for worship to offer our very best praise and adoration of almighty God.

Trinity Sunday (June 19) Prayer

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Do United Methodists Believe? - Prevenient Grace

Our United Methodist Church website includes excellent summaries of United Methodist beliefs. This blog series is meant to inform as well as encourage discussion and spiritual growth. Let's look at each set of beliefs one at a time and ask ourselves, "Does this describe my foundational beliefs as a follower of Jesus Christ?"

Prevenient Grace was John Wesley's way of marrying two theological doctrines; God's sovereignty (God's grace and not our works) and free will (our freedom to choose God's grace.)  Prevenient Grace protects God's sovereignty because God's grace is offered to everyone regardless of whether we want to receive it or not.  And it protects free will because we can either accept or not accept God's grace. 
While this might make sense theologically, the predestination proponents continued to disagree with Wesley that humans have any role in salvation at all.

Prevenient Grace helps us to appreciate infant baptism.  We United Methodists believe that God's grace is extended to every single person in any given moment whether we consciously recognize God's grace or not.  Because of this, we baptize infants to signify that God's grace has claimed that child with the hope that one day he/she will respond to God's Prevenient Grace and claim the name, "Christian." 

For me, the most exciting thing about Prevenient Grace is to know that right now as I type this sentence, God's grace is being extended to me whether I realize it or not.  The question for us is, "will we receive the grace that is being offered to us?"

Prevenient Grace

Wesley understood grace as God’s active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift—a gift that is always available, but that can be refused.
God’s grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God’s invitation to be in relationship with God. God’s grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good….
God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God’s love and grace. God actively seeks us!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sermon (June 12) - Gifts for All (Pastor Cheryl Foulk)

There is an old folk tale called Stone Soup. Strangers come to a village and are hungry but no one wants to feed them. In fact, the villagers have hidden their food away. The strangers then announce that they would like to make stone soup. This stirs the curiosity of the villagers. The visitors to the village say that if they only had a large pot and some water, they could make the stone soup. The cauldron was filled with water and three stones were put inside. A fire was built. The strangers tasted the broth and said that the soup was ok but it would be better if they could have a few carrots.  A woman brought some carrots and they were added. Then they said if we only had some cabbage...some beef...some potatoes..some barley...some milk. If these were added, what a fine stone soup it would be! Each villager brings out what they have to share. At the end, they have a wonderful stew with plenty for the strangers and for the whole village. It was delicious because everyone had a part. Imagine, and all from three stones!

God has brought us together as a church family and has designed our community so that we need each other and the gifts that we each have. We become a wonderful spirit soup together.  Everything that we need to be God's faithful energized people is  here.

On this day of Pentecost it is exciting to  to consider our spiritual gifts. In the N.T. Paul, in several of his letters, mentions spiritual gifts that persons (who are part of the church family) have received.  A spiritual gift is  an unique ability given by God so that we can serve in love. The gifts are given to us  to help strengthen the church itself and to reach out to the world. References to gifts of the Spirit can be found in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, I Corinthians 12, and I Peter 4.  If the gifts that Paul mentions are compiled, you usually get a list of around 20. If you consider all the ways that the Spirit has empowered people in the Scriptures, the list would be even more extensive.  There are many ways that God's Spirit is being expressed in our lives. You may have read through these passages in the past and  thought:”That doesn't sound like me,  I'm not an apostle, or a prophet.” I would like for you to reconsider: Each one of us has been given at least one gift. You have been given something of value- unique, expressed as only you can express it with your personality, your abilities, your history. We are given the tools necessary to build the Kingdom.

It is as if God wants something to be done on this earth, and you have been chosen to see that it happens. I want to emphasize this: you have a key role in  God's plans.

In considering Paul's lists,I want to mention some of the 20 gifts just by name and then define some of the others. Do you recognize your abilities as I read them?

Administration,Apostle,Discernment, Evangelism,Healing, Knowledge, Missionary, Music,Shepherding, Prophecy, Teaching.

Let's  look at some of the other gifts more closely.  All of these gifts are vital for our  church family and ministry.

Gift of encouragement:  To stand by, urge onward, to comfort, to support

Gift of faith: Looks to God for great things regardless of circumstances- has hope for the future

Gift of craftsmanship: Praises God and encourages belief through creativity, the arts,
construction, crafts,etc.

Gift of giving: to share liberally with joy.

We were introduced to a young girl at Annual Conference,Kara Russell,  of Lima, Ohio, 5th. grader.  She has been supporting Grace Children's Hospital in Haiti since she was a preschooler. {Grace Children's Hospital (begun in 1967) treats children with TB, Aids, malnutrition}  The hospital was heavily damaged in the hurricane last year. This child raises money throughout the year by making Christmas ornaments and chocolate lollipops. ( I bought two to show you but they were melting so I had to eat them!) At Conference,she is on stage in front of several thousand people

holding zip-lock bags full of bills and change. She apologizes that she didn't get to raise as much money this year because her family went through a move. She announced that she had earned over $1000 thru her projects for Grace Children's Hospital.

I would say that she  certainly has the gift of giving;  there are no age barriers on having spiritual gifts. Children can express their gifts as well as those in nursing facilities. I have known people who were confined to bed and still expressed their gifts of encouragement, intercession, faith.

Gift of hospitality: To warmly welcome the stranger

Gift of intercession- To pray consistently, passionately, often for others

Gift of leadership: (may not be the official chair of a group)  to motivate,
to accomplish goals, to have vision

Gift of mercy:  to have compassion and concern for those hurting

Gift of serving/helping:  To help/ assist / do whatever is needed

Gift of wisdom: To have insight, to be able to see a situation and its solution  

Let me tell you about a time where the gift of wisdom was evident in the midst of decision making.

In a church that I served , at the Administrative Board, we were meeting to discuss memorial monies that had not been designated. What were we to do with the money? This involved a long discussion, Would we use it for capital improvements? We were struggling to focus. A suggestion was then made that we put up a flagpole, bricks underneath that would have the names of persons to be memorialized.  This led to a longer discussion. How tall would the flagpole be, where it would be located. It was getting later. A woman had been listening to the entire discussion. She reminded us that there had been a plea some time earlier by the Bishop of the Methodist church in the Congo that there was a great need there for housing for pastors and their families. They were building adobe parsonages.  They could build one house for about the exact amount we were discussing! A family would have a home.  She felt that this was the direction that we should go.  The Holy Spirit flowed through her- we were all in agreement- yes, this is what the money should be used for. We had unity/ peace about the decision.  She had the gift of wisdom and it was helpful on many occasions as it was that night.

Reminder: each one of us has at least one gift, and I believe that most of us have a blend of several.

Spiritual gifts can be expressed in many different venues- limitless. A husband and wife both had the gift of evangelism. He used his gift at a Bible study in a local prison; he enjoyed the challenges and the discussion with the men. She would have felt uncomfortable in that setting, but used her gift as she interacted with her friends daily  at work.

Do you know what your gifts are?

I think that it is very helpful if you can identify your  spiritual strengths.

Galatians 6:4 “Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given and sink yourself into that.” (from the Message paraphrase)  To know your gifts helps give you  an understanding of possible ways that your gift can be used.  You don 't have to do everything. You also don't have to feel guilty that you can't do everything! You can be yourself and have joy in what you do. To identify your gifts is a way of honoring God.

Elizabeth O'Connor said “ We cannot be ourselves unless we are true to our gifts.”

How do you know what your gifts are? You can take an inventory, and there are several tools for doing that. (New members here  at First UMC take an assessment led by Pam George)  When I have taken inventories in the past, shepherding and mercy are usually my strengths (which I feel is fairly accurate)  These inventories can be helpful in your exploration.

 You can also discover  your gifts by trying a variety of ministries and see what fits. Step out and try new things. You may discover an area of ministry that was made for you!

You can also ask a friend (who knows you well )what your gifts are.

A young woman was searching for  her niche. She tried working with church kids club ( not a good fit); she tried  ushering (also not her passion.) But when she saw the flower beds around the church building and began gardening, she felt right at home. Her gifts of creativity, order, detail, craftsmanship all came together as she planted and weeded.

What do you love to do?  What do you look forward to being a part of?

How would you finish this statement:  “Here at First UMC, I just love to___________.”

Find your sweet spot here within our church family as we minister together.

Three important things to remember:

 1.Spiritual gifts are meant to be shared within your church, in the world. In other words,

If you have been singing in the shower for years, now is the  time to join the choir!

2.God gives us the power to express our gift- we are always dependent upon the Lord.

I cannot do what I do without the Spirit. And neither can you. Don't be afraid.

3.Spiritual gifts  when used will glorify God!

Look around you.

Who among us has the gift of apostleship and can work to strengthen  our church?

Who can prophesy and speak the truth?

Who can be a tender shepherd?

Who can be a helper, a servant?

Who explains the faith so simply as they teach?

Who here is an evangelist who loves to invite others to meet Jesus?

Who gives extravagantly?

Who has the gift of leadership and administration to guide us?

Who are the merciful? Who are the healers who bring comfort?

Who go as missionaries to those of other cultures?

Who are our lovers of prayer?

Who has faith that is like a rock?

Who welcomes and finds a place for the stranger?

Who witnesses in art, music, drama?

Who discerns God's purpose and has wisdom?

Those persons are all here in this place.

We are blessed with amazing, needed gifts from God.

10 years ago we cleaned out my parent's home getting it ready for sale. Going through the items in their bedroom,we emptied  my father's chest of drawers. Inside were a collection of gifts still in the plastic wrappings. New socks, dress shirts, pajamas, handkerchiefs. All gifts for him, and not used. Being frugal,  I think my father was saving them for a rainy day. He wanted to hold on to them for a later time.

With our spiritual gifts, we don't want to let them go unused.  Our church and our world need our gifts to be expressed.

Have you found the opportunity to do what you do best? There is a sweetness when you are using your gift and you also know that God is enabling you to do what you are doing. There is nothing better that that!

I hope that you have experienced this joy.

Paul wrote to his friend Timothy: Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.

On this Pentecost Day,

What an appropriate day to celebrate the gifts that you have been given.

What an excellent day to ask God to show you what your gift is and how it can be used.

What a day of realization that perhaps you have not used your gifts as you should, but you want that to change.

A rabbi named Zeke died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him  “ Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Soloman or why weren't you King David ?”  But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked “Why weren't you Zeke?”

Be yourself. Thank God each day for your gifts. Share those gifts with others.