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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - April 8

Sunday, April 8 - (7:30, 9:00, & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, April 11  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Nikos!"

Features - Easter Sunday

Scripture - I Corinthians 15:1-11, 56-57 & John 20:1-18

Theme - Easter is a clebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death. The empty tomb gives us hope as we face the pain and struggles in life.  Since Easter is God's victory of hope and new life, we are also called to offer this good news to a broken and hurting world.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Look at Easter Decorations - Dave's Deep Thoughts

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.
Every holiday has it's unique traditions
and most holidays that have religious roots
often have secular customs that tag along.
That's not what has me bugged.
Now don't get me wrong.
I am all for holidays and
all that they do to bring meaning to our lives.
But let's have a moment
and talk about the elephant in the room.
You may not want to admit it
but you know what I mean........
I am talking about the decorations.
Christmas is often over the top.
We can't seem to get enough of Santas, wise men,
and toylands all rolled into
one ball of festiveness.
A sleigh flying over a manger scene?
Old news.
Halloween is a bit querky.
Some choose to ignore it completely
but many like nothing better
than putting cobwebs, cauldrons, and coffins in their yards.
Add some inflatable vampires,
and you have yourself one little scary celebration.
Thanksgiving is the middle child of the late year holidays....
sandwiched between the two giants,
often overlooked, feeling a bit neglected.
A pumpkin and some corn stalks
is about the best we get for this poor holiday.
This holiday is probably in need of some
major counseling later in life..
Then there are the late winter/early spring holidays.....
mostly quick flashes in the pan.
Valentines is a quick flash of red hearts and arrows.
But let's admit it,
it's all about the chocolate.
On St. Pattie's Day,
we all briefly go green for 24 hours,
though I must admit.....
I'm not a big fan of the leprechaun.
Then there are the summer patriotic holidays.....
Memorial Day, Flag Day,
Independence Day, Labor Day.
You aren't truly patriotic unless
everything is red, white, and blue,
including your picnic napkins
and your fruit salad.
we have a pretty good idea
what to do with each holiday,
that is ...........
you can admit it.
And the winner of the award for
the worst decorated holiday
(drum roll)
is Easter!
In a landslide vote.
Was there ever any doubt?
I'm not sure what the problem is.
Maybe its the pastel colors of spring
that create this garish splash of color.
Maybe my impression of the holiday
was tempered as a child
when I was trapped on a easter egg train ride
with a giant man dressed up in a sweaty easter bunny outfit.
Yeah, that required years of counseling.....
Whatever the reason,
Easter decorations tend to be plain ugly.
It starts with the plastic easter eggs
hanging from tree branches
and goes downhill from there.
So much work
for so little aesthetic result.
I saw an inflatable bunny
rising out of an oversized easter basket.
But I think it was the easter tomb decor
that was the worst of all.
Planted in a yard there it was........
a 3 foot replica of the tomb,
with an easter bunny outside
counting down the days till resurrection.
I think we have a winner folks.
Maybe the reason we don't know how to
decorate for Easter
is because you never win
when you try to re-create the beauty of God.
All around us there are signs of new life,
particularly in this year of the early spring.
Trees, plants, flowers
all exploding in color and fragrance.
The Scripture repeatedly proclaims the theme
that all of creation
gives praise and worship to its Creator.
And as the created,
our best attempts to worship & praise
do not come close to honoring
the source of all beauty.
And because Easter
is the celebration
that trumps all celebrations,
our best efforts to both comprehend it,
and to express it fall grossly short.
So the next time
you see a bad Easter display,
turn the other way
and instead look at a tree in bud,
a flower in bloom,
or better yet,
look to the heavens as the sun
radiantly shines upon you,
and proclaim,
I know that my Redeemer lives.
You won't understand it completely in the moment,
but later on,
on the other side of the river,
you will nod you head
as you gaze on supreme beauty.
A joyous celebration of the resurrection to you and yours!
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of Him who brings good news,
who announces peace and brings good news of happiness,
who announces salvation,
and says to Zion,
'Your God reigns!"
Isaiah 52:7

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jesus (Not the Church) is the North Star

Over my years of pastoral ministry, I have wanted a symbol to convey that even though we face change (a dirty word) in our lives, that God is always steadfast and faithful.  When we know and affirm God's unchangeable attributes of love, peace, graciousness, faithfulness, mercy, truth, etc., then the changes we face (both good and bad) aren't as big of a deal.

When things change, which is the nature of daily living, we  often react with very emotional and knee jerk reactions out of fear because we tend to like it when things are consistent.  Deep down, we know that life doesn't work that way.  The church isn't meant to work that way.  But change still catches us off guard and our first reaction is to resist.

That's why, it's easy to get upset over styles of worship, music, change of schedules, ministries, etc., because we operate out of a poor theology that the church should never change.  Even the great Methodist circuit rider preacher, Peter Cartwright who I consider as one of my heroes in the faith, got it wrong when as a pioneer 18th century preacher, he said that the downfall of the church will be when congregations begin to have pews, choirs, and heaven forbid, those fancy pipe organs!

On one hand, Cartwright makes a good point that the church can become too comfortable.  But in another way, he forgot that change is inevitable.  New historical contexts and culture shifts lead to changes and adjustments.

But here's the key theological point in all of this.  Even with fancy pipe organs, comfortable pews, and screens in the sanctuary, God's attributes have not changed!  God is still loving, faithful, gracious, forgiving, merciful, etc.

In her book, Unbinding Your Heart, Martha Grace Reese offers a powerful symbol to convey this truth that in the midst of the changes in life and in our church, God remains steadfast.  Here it is.  It's simple.  Jesus is the north star and the church is the moving ship. 

Jesus as our north star is the fixed point that provides us with a holy constancy as the church (the ship) travels through the seas of change, adventure, and growth.  This has so many implications for us as people of faith.  When a different worship style is added, a new ministry begins, the Sunday prayer is in a different spot in the order of worship, a new song or hymn is introduced, the children get messy and leave a lot of glitter on the floor, and a new pastor comes to town, it's all OK.  That's life. The church (the ship) continues to boldly sail in being God's faithful people.

And Jesus continues to be our North Star. 

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. - Hebrews 13:8

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon Drawing (March 25) - Peter & Jesus Walking on Water

During my sermon today, local artist and church member, Trisha Sprouse drew this picture during the sermon.  She was helping us to visualize the story of Peter and Jesus walking on water.  I didn't know how she was going to depict this story and I really like how Peter and Jesus are reaching toward each other. 

The symbol of the wind is also powerful as it reminds us that in the midst of life's storms, Jesus promises to be present with us.  This is an important part of the good news of the Christian faith.  Jesus is ALWAYS with us.

Grace in My Pocket

On my day off last week, I took my car in for an oil change.  Fortunately, I had a 10% off coupon that had recently come in the mail.  I placed the coupon on the kitchen counter so I would remember to take it with me.  Believe it or not, I remembered to pick it up!  I usually forget to do things like this, even if it will help me!

I tucked the coupon in my shirt pocket, but thought to myself, "What if I don't remember it's in my shirt pocket when it's time to pay for the oil change?  Nah.  I'll remember to check there when it's time to pay," I said to myself with an air of confidence. As I sat in the waiting room, I did some reading and thought about things I needed to do that day.

"Your car's ready.  Let's ring you up.  Go ahead and swipe your card.  Choose debit or credit and then confirm the amount, and we'll have you out of here in no time," the nice oil change man said to me.  So I pulled out my card and swiped it. 

It was when the nice oil change man was handing me the receipt that I remembered the oil change coupon in my shirt pocket.  Knowing that I was too late, I still pulled it from my pocket to show it to him.  All he did was smile and say, "Just bring it with you next time." 

As I drove off to head home, I quickly figured up how much extra I spent by not handing the nice oil change man my oil change coupon in a timely fashion.  When I thought of how much I didn't save, I began my really bad habit of negative self-talk.  In the course of trash talking myself, I took the coupon out of my pocket and tossed it in the back seat area, sarcastically thinking how I will surely remember to look back there when my next three month oil change is due.  Not!

Reflecting on this recent oil change coupon forgetfulness episode, I am reminded that we sometimes treat God's grace in the same way.  We know it's there to use and that it will help us, but somehow, we still forget to incorporate it into our daily living.  The truth is, God's grace is always there for us.  The good news of our faith is that there is never a moment when God's grace is inaccessible.  God's grace is as close to us as our own shirt pocket, yet we tend to forget that it's there.  So we end up depending on our own efforts and resources when all along, the creator of the universe was reaching out to us with grace and mercy.

Being conscious of the grace of God in our lives takes discipline and attentiveness on our parts.  Having a good mentor friend and/or small group of Christian friends can really help along with attending worship, reading the bible, receiving communion, serving, and praying.

God's grace is as close to me as the pocket on my shirt. I just need to remember that it's there!

Dear Lord, thank you for your grace.  Remind me that your grace is always available in any given moment. In Jesus' name.  Amen.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sermon (March 25) - "Unbinding Your Heart: Faith Focus"

Have you ever seen someone you know very well but not recognize him or her? A couple shared about a surprise they had while traveling in Europe. Walter and Jean settled in at their quaint table at a restaurant in Paris, France. Suddenly, a man was waving frantically to them from across the room. He got up and headed towards them.

“Walter! Jean! Good to see you!”  Walter and Jean could’ve sworn they’d never seen this man before in their lives! They looked at each other for help but neither one recognized him. Then it occurred to them. He was Walter’s cousin! They saw him at least twice a year. And here he was, traveling in Paris at the exact same time they were, eating at the same place! They just weren’t expecting to see him in Paris. So it took a while for them to register that it was him! “Well, hello, cousin,”  Walter said. “What are you doing in Paris?”

The disciples have that kind of experience with Jesus. Jesus sent them off in a boat while he took some time to pray. He planned to meet them on the other side of the lake. “Go on ahead,” he might’ve said. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Everything seemed fine and dandy. But a windy storm came up on the water. The disciples’ boat was taking some pretty good hits from the waves. They were afraid. So Jesus walked out on the water to reassure them. When the disciples saw Jesus coming, they thought it was someone else. Maybe even a ghost! They didn’t recognize him. No one expects to see their cousin from Peoria in Paris. They weren’t expecting Jesus!

St. Matthew included this story in his gospel because he knew there would be times when the church felt like Jesus was far away. Probably his little congregation already had struggled with tough waves and blustery winds.

Every congregation does. Growing pains, conflict, and just plain distractions can batter this ship of ours. If we’re really on a journey with Jesus, it’s going to be exciting, and a little bumpy from time to time. We even can count on some moments of seasickness! Anything really good, really worth doing, is difficult occasionally.

What St. Matthew wants us to know, what Jesus wants us to know, is that we are never out on the high seas alone. Matthew really drives this point home. It’s his gospel that ends with the Great Commission. The last verse he leaves us with is Jesus saying, “I am with you always, to the very end.” We are completely assured of Jesus’ presence with us. Always.

The question is not, “Is Jesus with us?” The question is, “Are we expecting him?” If you’ve heard this story before, you know that usually the point you hear with the story is that Peter failed at walking on the water. We assume that the moral of the story is “Have faith! Get out of the boat!” Something like that. But I don’t think Jesus intended for Peter to walk on the water. The whole thing was Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Look at the thirty-first verse. When Peter begins to falter, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus is not asking Peter why he doubted his own ability to walk on water. Jesus is not saying, “Why didn’t you believe in yourself, that you could do this?” Jesus is asking Peter, and all the disciples: “Why did you doubt it was me? Why didn’t you know I would be coming to rescue you on the water? Weren’t you expecting me?”

Friends, I need to ask you a crucial question. Are we expecting Jesus to show up in this church? Do we believe he knows about us, cares about us, and is here with us? Do we believe he can get this ship through any storm that may come? If we are going to continue this journey in God’s Spirit, we will have to find ways to keep expecting Jesus to show up. Unbinding your Heart gives us the two things that must be in place if we are to effectively share faith with others.

The first thing that needs to be in place is for our own spiritual lives to be well-tended. We must be alert to God’s presence in our own lives every day. And the second thing is that our eyes must be open and receptive to what God would have us do next. As individuals and as a congregation, we must expect God to use us in unexpected ways. If we want to do effective ministry, we have to expect Jesus to show up.

Jesus has shown up all over the place in this 6-week Unbinding Your Heart Lenten journey. Where have you seen him? Let’s hear about where some of you saw Jesus.  

[Two Testimonies – Deb Smith & Bob Lambert]

Jesus is with us always! The question is not, “Is Jesus with us?” The question is, “Are we expecting him?” How can we keep our eyes open to seeing Jesus? The tiniest change, consistently implemented over time, can make a big difference in our ability to expect Jesus. If we can get in the habit of looking for him, we will see him. One small change can refocus our eyes to recognize Christ with us.

A small church declined nearly to the point of closing their doors. They had been through several pastors in just a few years’ time. Finally a layman in the congregation offered to preach for a while since they were without a minister. He mostly just told stories from the Bible. One Sunday he realized that they no longer made announcements inviting people to be baptized or to join the church.

So this lay preacher decided to begin making these announcements again. People thought it was really silly. “It’s just us!” they said. “We’ve been members all our lives.” But he just said, “You never know what God might do.”

One Sunday, a young couple started visiting the small church. They came back the next Sunday. And the next. And the fourth Sunday they came to church, and they heard the pastor announce about joining the church. After worship, this couple said they had never been baptized and they would like to be.  When the church members heard this, they were thrilled, but also horrified. The baptistery area was being used for storage!

It hadn’t been cleaned out in years. But they didn’t want to put the young couple off longer than necessary. So they scheduled the baptism for the following Sunday. And they were busy little bees for the next few days, moving boxes, cleaning, painting, and fixing it up. That baptistery was finally used again for those two new Christians that Sunday morning. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus was there too.

Seeing Jesus is not a casual happenstance. It’s a cultivated habit! A little change, consistently implemented, can keep our eyes expecting Jesus.

A moment in a worship service to invite someone to join the church. Jesus is with us always!

A prayer, prayed before every meeting. Jesus is with us always!

A candle lit to remind us of Jesus’ presence. Jesus is with us always!

A time each day to wait silently for God’s direction. Jesus is with us always!

A little change, consistently implemented, can keep our eyes and hearts expecting Jesus. Seeing Jesus is not a happenstance. It’s a habit.

I have seen a painting depicting this story of Peter walking on the water. You've probably seen it, too, or a similar one. It's a picture of Jesus, standing firmly on the water, his face calm and serene. Meanwhile, Peter's face is full of fear as he sinks below the waters, feeling the waves lapping up against him. Jesus' hand is extended to Peter, and Peter is about to take his hand. What a reassuring image! But there is so much more here.

Consider what happened after Jesus pulled Peter up from the water. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Peter's face is full of relief. Jesus is smiling and has his hand in the middle of Peter's back. They're very close to the boat. If you look closely, you can see that Jesus is pointing Peter back to the boat. He and Peter are about to get in the boat together. All of the disciples are gathered around. Thomas has his hand out to help Jesus over the side. Some of the disciples are already kneeling in worship. Others are
shouting, “It is the Lord!”

Can you see the picture? Open your eyes, friends. And see Jesus here. Jesus Christ is in this church boat with us. Jesus is with us always. When Jesus rides with us, he takes us to places we’ve never been before. He took the disciples to a new place for their ministry. In the boat together, they were back off into the wild blue yonder.

They were sailing free again, to another place and more people who didn’t yet know God’s love. When they arrived, people in need of Jesus' touch stood in line just to get near him. Many were healed. And the disciples were along for the ride.

He’ll be taking us some place new too. We’re sailing with him to new places and new people who need him. Are you up for the ride? Let us trust in him with all of our hearts, and not forget his teachings. Let’s ride the waves with him at the helm of this ship. Let's see where he leads us next!

Based on the resource, "Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism," Chalice Press, 2008

Sunday Worship Preview - April 1

Sunday, April 1 - (9:00 A.M. Traditional Service & 10:30 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, April 4  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Passion Narrative Presentation"

Features - Palm/Passion Sunday & Holy Communion

Scripture - Luke 19:28-40

Theme - Palm/Passion Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the last days of Jesus' life.  It begins on a high note with Jesus being proclaimed as king as he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and concludes with Roman soldiers mocking him as king.  Traditionally, it's on this Sunday, that the church hears the longest scripture reading of the year, the passion narrative from one of the gospels.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Shamrock Shake Temptation: Dave's Deep Thoughts

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.
It is said,
good things are worth waiting for.

But what if they arrive a day early?

Anyone who knows me
knows that March 17 for me,
is Christmas, the sequel.

Oh yes,
I do have a bit of Irish blood in me,
but it's not so much about bloodlines
as it is about sugar.

I am not a big fan of fast food restaurants,
I rarely visit them.
But once a year, I make my pilgrimage
to a certain fast food establishment
that offers a frothy mint dairy delight.

Never mind that these cups of creamed confection
are available to the masses starting on Feb 1.

Oh no.

With all due respect
to those who imbibe early,
I do not decorate my tree on Thanksgiving.
Firecrackers are for July 4th, New Years Eve ,
and openings of Olympic ceremonies only,
and birthday gifts are opened on Oct 11.
Do I even need to discuss Christmas presents?

It's not that I am not tempted.....
Rarely a day goes by that
I don't drive past one of those restaurants.

I have found that at the first site of those arches during the month of March,
I am able to keep driving by.
if I think about tsunamis, nuclear war, or feline leukemia.

Pass a billboard that is exploding in shamrock green?
I look the other way.

See a friend who is importing mint cream through a straw
faster than oil through the Alaskan pipeline?
I move to the other side of the street.

One of those television commercials comes on?
Nothing says no for me more than the almighty mute button.

One shake,
one day,
once a year.

On March 16th,
I was traveling upstate.
My schedule only allowed me an early breakfast.
By early afternoon,
I was hungry.

Traveling through upstate rural Pennsylvania
can be hazardous to your hunger.
You can go long stretches without seeing restaurant signs.

It was almost 4pm and I still hadn't found a restaurant.
I was famished.

I finally was able to get off the back roads
and reach the highway.

Two exits later,
finally, a restaurant sign.

Was there a waffle house off the exit......no
a diner.......no
a steakhouse?

staring me down from 100 yards,
was the arches,
and nothing else.

I gulped and turned onto the exit ramp.

If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach,
then I was being wooed.

If I was an innocent sailor,
then my boat was headed straight towards the sirens.

If I was Samson,
I was headed straight into Delilah's hair cuttery.

I murmured my mantra over and over....

One shake,
one day,
once a year.

I walked in the den of lions.
The lions were roaring....

It's just one day early.
No one will ever know.
They are better than ever.........

I walked up to Satan
who was conveniently disguised
as an 18 year old cashier.

How may I help you today? she said
What forbidden fruit may I offer you today?

Her name tag said Heather,
but I knew fully well that her name was really Eve,
and Adam had just come up to the counter.

I breathed in deeply,
uttered my mantra one more time
and said,
I'd like a #2 meal super sized.

Recognizing that I was clinging onto my faith
like a child clinging to mommy's leg in a room full of strangers,
Eve came at me one last time with both claws....
Would you like a Shamrock Shake to go with your meal?

Unless this restaurant has recently gone with a gargoyle motif,
I'm pretty sure I saw demons hanging from the dessert menu.

There is that moment of truth,
that moment where the world goes quiet
and all you hear is your head arguing....

that moment where you know there is a fork in the road,
and you know once you make your decision,
there is no turning back.

It is said that character is what you do,
when no one else sees you.

Digging down deep
for my last ounce of character I said,
No thank you.

Get behind me Satan.

As I walked past play land,
children demons hissed at me.

As I stepped up to the exit,
I proclaimed the mantra once more....

One shake,
one day,
once a year.
None of us resists temptation all of the time.
If we did, we would have no need for Jesus.
Will power helps,
but what we need most of all
is to invite the Holy Spirit
to reign in us each and every day.
As Christians,
we understand that God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit.
But we also have free will,
and so people of faith need to daily
ask the Spirit to reign over our fleshly impulses.
It's not easy to do,
but the results are far more rewarding
than the immediate gratification
of the latest temptation.
When we realize that God is with us,
dwelling within us,
we find we can do what we need to do.
It is in fact, when we admit that we can't do right on our own,
that God's power is revealed in us.
Don't wait for your Eve or Satan to pounce,
Start the day with the invite.....
Lord, as You live in me,
steer me to follow your ways,
and I will receive Your strength to do what is right.
You might be surprised what God accomplishes in you.
As for me and God,
8am breakfast at the arches on March 17th
was spectacular.
My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is perfected in weakness.
Most gladly, therefore,
I will rather boast about my weaknesses,
that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

Monday, March 19, 2012

Unbinding Your Heart Testimony - March 18

Here's the testimony that new church member, Connie Geary shared with the congregation on Sunday morning, March 18. During these six weeks of Lent, several people in our congregation have been sharing their faith story.

"My husband and I have passed by many time admiring the outside beauty of this church and decided on day it was time to see the inside, this past June. We were overwhelmed by the beauty of this church on the inside, the members of the church whom welcomed us warmly each and every Sunday. That is the real beauty of a church; the people whom make up the congregation, and share their grace of God with others.

We were very moved by Pastor Robert and Pastor Cheryl, with the love and joy they share for the Lord and the way they share this love with everyone everyday. The warm and friendly congregation led by two passionate people not only helped my family decide this was where we belong, but motivated myself to renew my relationship with God by being baptized..

So thank you to everyone for sharing your love of Christ with us and adding to not only the beauty of this church but the community as well."
Editor's Note: The picture in the web blog heading is of Connie being baptized in the youth mud pit with our youth laying hands on her.

A Conversation with Confirmands - Holy Communion

The confirmation class invited me to share with them about the meaning of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Knowing that 7th graders probably wouldn't want a lecture format, I shared off the cuff.  While sharing some thoughts on Holy Communion, these are the things that I thought were important to share with them.
  • Holy Communion is a Sacrament because we believe that Jesus Christ is present every time it is celebrated.  Like Holy Baptism, we can know with confidence that Jesus is present even if we may not feel very spiritual or close to God.
  • This Sacrament has many names - Holy Communion, The Lord's Supper, the Mass, & The Eucharist.  I told them that my favorite name for it is the Eucharist, Greek word meaning, thankful.  It's a thank you meal.  When we receive the bread and the juice, we received God's grace in Jesus Christ anew and we are saying thank you for this gift of grace.
  • Holy Communion comes out of the Jewish Passover meal.  When we receive Holy Commuion, we are to remember the Passover when God had rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  When Jesus was gathered at the Passover meal with the disiples, he pointed to the bread and the cup as symbols of his own life he was about to offer by dying on the cross (Good Friday.)  In a similar way, God was about to rescue the world from slavery to sin and death through his sacrifice.  And because of Easter, Holy Communion has a future dimension.  One day, Jesus will return and we will all share around a great heavenly banquet.  It's important to keep both of these dimension in mind when we receive the Sacrament - the looking back to God's acts of salvation through the exodus story and Good Friday and the looking forward to the time when Jesus will return and all of God's people will be reunited. This is the great hope of the Christian faith!
  • The methods for receiving Holy Communion include intinction (dipping) and by trays in the pews.  I explained that both methods have important dimensions in helping us appreciate this Sacrament.  Intinction is more personal as people come individually to receive.  Trays provides an opportunity for us to receive at the same time which reminds us that we are all one in Christ.  In addition to sharing these methods, I also said that over my years of ministry, the method of communion has been sensitive for some people.  In most cases, this is because we tend to only want to use the method that was used when we were childen and youth.  Because of this, we can shut ourselves off from another method of receiving communion that offers an important symbolic dimension.
  • When we receive the Sacrament by intinction, I think it's important to take a fairly large piece of bread. While this may seem trivial, the Sacraments are meant to help us taste and feel God's love.  When we take a very tiny piece of bread, we lose this sense of taste/touch.  Plus, on a practical level, small pieces of bread are difficult to dip in the cup!  I think people only take a very small piece of bread, because they are trying to be polite but my advice for most people it to take a much bigger piece of bread.
  • When preparing for Holy Communion, I encouraged the confirmands to repeat little phrases like the Jesus' Prayer - "Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."  It helps us to keep in mind  the theological meaning of the Sacrament, rather than it simply being something we do from time to time.
  • We also talked about transubstantiation and consubstantiation.  Some people believe that the bread and the juice/wine literally becomes the body/blood of Christ after the elements have been blessed.  Others see the bread and juice/wine as only symbols.  As United Methodists, we lean more toward the symbolic side of the debate, but we still believe that Christ is present in the elements through the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit.
  • Since Holy Communion is a means of grace, we should receive the Sacrament as often as possible.  There is nothing that says we should only receive it sparingly.  When we worry about it becoming an empty ritual, we forget that God can still transform us even if we are not feeling very spiritual.
At the end of our discussion, we received the Sacrament by intinction.  As each confirmand came forward, they looked into my eyes as I shared with them Jesus' words about the bread and the cup.  With glad and thankful hearts, we communed together and celebrated the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sermon by Pastor Cheryl Foulk (March 18) - "Unbinding Your Heart: Healing Hospitality"

Do you think of Jesus having a home? I think of him as wandering around with his disciples from place to place, finding shelter wherever he can.  But here, in Mark chapter 2, the story goes that Jesus arrived in Capernaum, a fishing village, and that he came home .It  makes it sound like the house he's at might have been his house!  He had a home in Nazareth before he began his traveling ministry, so perhaps he now had a place by the lake in Capernaum.  He is there and the word spreads that Jesus is home. People start to gather outside his door and there is a large crowd. 

In that crowd of people are four folks who have brought a friend who cannot walk. They want to get him to Jesus to see if Jesus can do anything for him. But when they reach the house, it's too crowded to get in. So, they have to find another way. Now, this story doesn't tell how they made the decision to carry this guy to Jesus' house or if they felt awkward bringing him to Jesus. It just says that they did.

In the book,Unbinding Your Heart, we've read together about two kinds of barriers we might have to overcome to bring our friends to Jesus.  Internal barriers and external barriers.

First, the internal barriers are personal barriers,  the barriers inside our heads.
When we think about talking to someone about our faith, we can get stuck        before the words even come out of our mouth. Usually it's because we don't want to lose a friendship, embarrass ourselves or someone else. We don't want to impose on someone's faith zone.

We worry:

What happens if I invite my neighbor to church and then they say no?

What if I make my friend feel awkward?

What if someone thinks I’m pressuring them? What if I come across as judgmental? What if . . . ?

So most of the time, we don't talk to our friends about our faith. These inner barriers can keep us from ever mentioning faith to our friends.

This is Jeff's story. Jeff was going through a difficult time in his life. He had been laid off from work just before his wife was diagnosed with cancer. The financial and spiritual struggles were nearly debilitating. Fortunately, Jeff and his
wife had some dear friends. Two couples that they had known for some
time stuck by them. They came by to see them regularly and brought food.

When Jeff's wife died, they were there to comfort him. These were good friends. After some time had passed, Jeff began to consider returning to church. He hadn't gone to church anywhere since he was a teenager. He kept thinking about church. He decided to try the church in his neighborhood first. When he walked into the sanctuary, there were his friends!
Both couples had been going to that church for years. They had also been friends with Jeff for years. But they had never talked about their faith, even through his ordeals. It just hadn't come up. They all were surprised, and very glad, to see each other at the church.

Research  shows that these internal barriers that keep us from talking about our faith never fully go away. Even people who eventually get really good at sharing their faith still have qualms. Even pastors  worry about losing a friendship or pressuring people. But we work around that barrier! We let our apprehensions  make us sensitive to others, but not shut off from others.

One woman expressed  that a new definition of evangelism had helped her. She thinks of evangelism as sharing something she enjoys with someone she likes. For her, this takes away the fear she has of being overbearing. Sharing something you enjoy with
someone you like. That can be evangelism.

For the four friends in today's gospel story, it was a matter of sharing something they thought might help with someone in need. That can be evangelism too.

Sharing something you need with someone else who needs it . . .

Sharing something that makes you smile with someone who could use a smile . . .

Sharing something that gives you peace with someone in chaos . . .

Sharing something you enjoy with someone you like -That’s evangelism.

Somehow, the four friends in this story had the courage and determination  to bring this man in need to Jesus. Somehow, they had overcome whatever reservations they might have had.. But then, they had to get him to Jesus and   that was another barrier entirely.

Remember, there are two kinds of barriers that might keep us from bringing people to Jesus. Internal barriers in our own minds have to be overcome. But still, external barriers must be broken down.  When the four people got there with the man on the
stretcher, the doorway was crowded and  people were not letting them by. Wonder how long they tried to push their way through before they decided to try another way: the roof!

External barriers can be very daunting. Like a fortress. Do you remember how you felt the first time you visited a church? Or maybe you recall going to some other organization for the first time.

A man had recently moved and went to his neighborhood association meeting.  He
didn't see anyone there he knew, so he just sat in the back .When it was over, he signed up to help with a neighborhood  clean-up day.  He wrote down  his name and his phone number . But no one ever called him.  Afterward he wondered  "I sure hope people don't feel like this when they come to my church."  ( Unnoticed, unimportant)
"They could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowds," we read in the Gospel. Are there any barriers that are keeping people from getting to Jesus in our church?

 No matter the number of people inside, a church building can feel  restricted,closed off. In your mind's eye, join me in a virtual tour of our church facility.

Where do guests park? Do they know what doors to come in? Do they have to "dig through the roof" so to speak, like the paralyzed man's friends did? When they get  come inside, are they greeted by more than one person?

Are there evident signs to show them where the restrooms are, the sanctuary, the nursery?When a guest comes into worship, do they find  room in the back pews?  Do we move over and make room? Do we invite guests to sit with us?

We don’t know for sure whether or not this house described in Mark’s Gospel was Jesus' home. But where really is Jesus’ house? Chapter three of Ephesians says that we are the very dwelling place of God, with Jesus Christ himself as our cornerstone. This is Jesus' house.

As we took our mental tour through the church building, did you see any barriers to Jesus' house?Anything that would keep people from coming in and finding him here?Anything that says “Keep out!” instead of “welcome!”  A large proportion of folks return after visiting a church for a second visit because they felt they were received with genuine caring. Where are we needing to be more ready for guests?  What has made you feel at home? 

A church had a Vacation Bible School outdoors that was set up to be a marketplace from New Testament times. Volunteers portrayed different characters from Jesus' time. They even had a Jesus. The kids loved it, especially  a child named  Elizabeth. After VBS was over for the day, Elizabeth was at home when she fell and scraped her knee.  She showed it to her mother, who gave the required hug and  the Dora the Explorer band aid. But that wasn't enough for Elizabeth

 "I have to show it to Jesus," she insisted. "He can make it better." The mom tried to explain that Jesus didn't really live at the church, that it was a man in a costume, but this made it worse. "He does!" she cried. At a loss, the mother loaded her kids in the car and headed back for the church.  Even though is was late afternoon, people were still taking down the outdoor decorations.

The man who had been portraying Jesus was there, sitting on the church's front porch. He wasn't in costume, just in his usual clothes. Elizabeth didn't seem to notice. "There he is!” she shouted, and ran to him. The man seemed surprised, but held out his hands to greet her. The child told him all about her scrape.. He listened. Together, the mother, two children, and "Jesus" said a prayer.  The very real presence of Jesus' love was found by Elizabeth in her church.

This is our bicentennial year. For many years, the people of Fairfield County have found the presence of Christ in this place. Hearts have been encouraged, lives have been saved and changed, forever friendships have been made, broken people have found healing here. What an amazing place!  What a privilege we have to extend hospitality to one more person seeking the Savior. What a privilege !  Let's pray together that every guest meets Jesus here, from the front porch on. As I look out at you, I say “Welcome, old friends!”  Thank you for your faithfulness. And “Welcome new friends!” To all of you, welcome home.

Based on the resource, "Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism," Chalice Press, 2008