Rising Above the Mess!

It is the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus was standing at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, and John simply says “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) But this isn’t the only time Jesus shed tears. Only a short time later, Luke tells us that as he drew near to Jerusalem, Jesus looked out over the holy city and “wept over it”. (Luke 19:41) Isn’t it something that Jesus, the One who was before all creation, the very One God sent to be our Lord and Savior, felt such grief that he was moved to weep for us? For Lazarus and his family, Jesus felt deeply the pain of their loss, just as he feels our pain when we lose someone we love. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus had said early in his ministry. But Jesus also weeps for us and our world. Jesus knew well the power that sin has over us and how it takes hold of our heart and sows only hatred and hurt and corruption. He wasn’t weeping for himself, he knew his purpose for coming; he was weeping for us and the sordid mess we have made of our world. And it is a mess. There is still so much evil and suffering in our world. Power and greed rule over nearly every regime or country or government, and people don’t seem to matter at all; or so it seems to me. Sadly, even America isn’t immune. As a nation, we are more divided than anytime I can remember in my life—politically, socially, ethnically, ideologically, religiously, you name it. So, where is our compassion? Where is our basic sense of goodness? Where is our humanity? Or is it only the “bottom line” that matters anymore? No wonder Jesus weeps over our world. And so, the One who was at the beginning of creation and who, says Paul, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5- 9), that we might live not under the burden of sin but rather under the blessing of grace. What happened on Good Friday represented the worst of humanity, but God wasn’t finished! The story wasn’t over! The tomb was empty! The Christ who died for us didn’t stay dead! He was alive again! And he lives with and within us even today! Thanks be to God! And so, for me, the Day of Resurrection takes us to the pinnacle of our worship celebration. It is the one Sunday of the year from which flows all of our Sunday celebrations. And yes, I will probably choke up as we sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” just as I have for the past thirty Easter Sundays as a pastor under appointment. But that’s okay. It is more than a special day to me, and I hope it is...

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Living in Grace!

Grace isn’t fair! At least, that is, according to the standards of the world. And sometimes that bothers us greatly. I had never thought about it that much until I read Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s So Amazing about Grace?” Yancey has long been one of my very favorite Christian authors, both for his insightful gleanings on matters of faith and his easy style of writing. He also challenges me to think about my own faith often. Such was the case with his book about grace. Indeed, from the first time I read it and the numerous times since that I led a study on the book, I am still challenged, even troubled, in trying to understand this whole concept of grace. No, there is nothing about grace that is fair by our standards; and aren’t we glad? You see, grace permeates our whole relationship with an all- loving, all- powerful, all- knowing God. Out of a love that you and I may never fully comprehend, God gave us a gift—the most precious gift we could ever have. God gave us his own Son, Jesus Christ, not out of condemnation for sin, but rather the forgiveness of sin. God’s gift is undeserved and unmerited on our part. There is nothing we can do to earn or buy it. We can only accept it! That, my friends, is grace! God going before us; God justifying us; God finally sanctifying us! And all along the way, God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is making a way for us, giving us what we need at the moment and in the midst of whatever besets us. Or, as one of the great old hymns puts it: “Grace, grace, God’s grace…grace that is greater than all our sin!” For something so important to our lives of faith, it is good every so often to revisit, review, and refresh our beliefs. And what better time to do this than in the season of Lent, that time when we are encouraged to look inward, to take stock of our faith, and perhaps to make changes that lead us back to that closer relationship with Christ. After all, it is grace that “leads us home.” Please join us on the Sundays of Lent as we explore what “Living in Grace” can mean for each of us in a new series of sermons. Lauren and I also invite your “feedback” as we learn together. In the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,...

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What’s a Christian To Do?

As a pastor, I am used to people asking me questions, mostly about matters of faith. Recently, someone greatly concerned about the new president’s actions on the banning of immigrants and refugees from sev- en Muslim countries, posed this question: “What then is a Christian to do? What does our faith teach us about these things?” After some thought, I decided to respond in this format because I believe it is indeed such an important and timely question for all of us who profess our faith in Jesus Christ. And, too, perhaps it will open the door for more of us to come together to share our thoughts and concerns as members of the Body of Christ through what John Wesley called “Holy conferencing.” My response is to offer two perspectives. First, as a citizen of the United States and an avid student of American history (my minor in college), I do acknowledge that one of the duties of the president is to protect the freedom and insure the safety of all citizens. And, yes, it is true we live in a time when our nation is under constant threat from those whose greatest desire is to bring devastation and fear to our homeland. We have already witnessed such acts of hatred and violence, as have other countries, perpetrated by various radical elements of Islam. This is a fact. However, I find very troubling the manner in which the president’s order came into being. For something this important and which impacts the lives of so many people, it is obvious it was “rushed through” without much attention to detail, particularly in regard to some of those who have been affected. There have been reports that some of the top heads of various agencies tasked to oversee these matters, along with mem- bers of Congress, apparently knew nothing of the details of the order until it was signed. If this is true, then that is a bit scary for me and not how things should be done. As Republican Senator James Lankford (Okla.) stated, “This executive action has some unintended consequences that were not well thought out.” But there is an over- arching concern here for all of us, and it has to do with our identity and values as a nation. Think about it. America is a nation of immigrants. I am descended from John Holder (1810 census) who arrived in America, likely from England, in a wave of immigrants after the Revolutionary War. On my mother’s side, the Finchers likely came from Germany about the same period. And so did your ancestors, too, coming from all parts of the world at different times in history. America from its beginning has offered the promise of a new life for those seeking prosperity or sanctuary. And, let us not forget that many of the people who came to these shores...

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How Is Your Soul?

“How is your soul?” For John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, this was a crucial question for every follower of Jesus Christ. So much so, that Wesley started the “class meeting” as a means for Christians to ask that question of each other as members of a small group that covenanted to meet at least once a week. It wasn’t a social time, nor was it a Bible study. It was a way for Christians to disciple each other toward growing their faith (which, for Wesley, meant growing closer to Christ). And, of course, that also meant being honest with oneself and being intentional in one’s discipleship. Wesley also saw the beginning of a new year as a great opportunity to consider these things. So, here we are at the beginning of another new year, and maybe we are thinking about some changes or resolutions we need to make for our lives. Certainly, it is always good to think about healthy living, or being more kind and thoughtful of others. Perhaps we would like to take on a new thing— a hobby, a special task, learn a new lan- guage, or find a place to volunteer. All of these are good and beneficial; however, none are more important—in the scheme of things, according to Wesley and the Apostle Paul—than tending to one’s soul. So, as one of your pastors, may I ask, “How is your soul?” Seriously, how are you doing, really? Are you satisfied with where you are in your faith journey? Or does it seem as if something is missing? Many people seem to be content with where they are, but is that what Christ expects of us? Here is a truth about faith: You and I cannot stand still or tread water in the Christian life. We are either moving closer toward Christ, or we are missing (rejecting) opportunities to grow and, therefore, gradually moving away from Christ. There isn’t a middle ground here, brothers and sisters. Paul makes it clear that the goal of every person who has professed Christ should be to become a disciple—a follower—of Jesus Christ. Kevin Watson, in his book THE CLASS MEET- ING, says this doesn’t happen by reading books about following Jesus; it happens by doing. It happens by being with fellow Christians, each of whom is also “on the Way.” It happens when we hear the Word in worship and study, and seek to live it. And it happens when we are intentional in our praying, and giving, and serving, and witness- ing, here in our church and out in the community. It happens when you and I strive to live the commitment and vows we have made when we joined this Body of Christ. Moving into this new year, Lauren and I want to focus on what it means to live in covenant with God through a...

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The Child Is Born Again

Christmas has just started at the Biltmore House but actually they have been preparing since last January. For us, that is what the Season of Advent is about—it is our time to make ready once again for the celebration of Christ’s birth. No, I’m not talking about the decorations or Christmas tree we will be putting up. I’m not talking about our Christmas shopping lists, or the parties we are hosting, or even the travel plans we might be making this year. It’s about what we are doing to get our hearts ready to receive Him. So, what might that look like for you? Ann Weems has written a wonderful book of poems, “Kneeling in Bethlehem,” which I find myself going back to every year at this time. May I share one of my favorite poems? Each year the child is born again. Each year some new heart finally hears finally sees finally knows love. And in heaven there is great rejoicing! There is a festival of stars! There is celebration among the angels! For in the finding of one lost sheep, the heart of the Shepherd is glad, and Christmas has happened once more. The child is born anew and one more knee is bowed! May your Christmas be a blessed...

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What’s a Methodist Christian to do?

I became an unaffiliated voter (or independent voter, as I like to call it) soon after coming to my first appointment as a pastor. In part, it was because I had church members who were heavily involved in partisan politics—both sides—and I took seriously the notion of trying to be pastor to all. Another reason is because I have always looked to vote for a person, not a political party, based on the merits I see in that person. That said, this has been a particularly bitter and ugly election, the worst I have ever seen in my 42 years of voting, and I am disgusted (to put it mildly). I am disgusted that we have fallen so low as a nation in our values that it seems we have put aside decency and fairness. I am disgusted that “big money” from corporate, so called “PACs” and other interests seems to be running the show. I am disgusted over how truth gets twisted and turned for political advantage, and good people get put down and labeled by false- hood. I am disgusted over the deep divisions and wounds that have been opened across our land over recent election cycles. And I am disgusted that this is where we as a people and a great nation find our- selves, and it is so wrong in my humble opinion. Sadly, instead of our best, we are seeing humanity at its worst! That bothers me! Does it bother you? Friends, there is another reason I shall always work to keep partisan politics out of the church I serve. Yes, we are citizens of the United States of America, but through Jesus Christ we are made “citizens of the Kingdom.” When this election is over, we will still have to live together, worship and serve together. We will still will have to work to make our community the caring place God calls it to be. We will still have to live by faith in a great and righteous God. Right or wrong, whether our candidates win or lose, we know there is a lot of healing and coming together that will need to happen. Where do you think that starts? It starts with us, all of us, especially when we take to heart Paul’s words about living a life “worthy of our calling.” John Wesley, the “father of Methodism,” offered some timely advice some 250 years ago. He wrote “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them: 1) To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged the most worthy; 2) To speak no evil of the person they voted against; and 3) To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” Good words, don’t you think? As the votes are being counted on Election Day,...

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Stewardship That Makes a Difference!

I had always thought Johnny Appleseed was a myth; just one of those “tall tales” we learned in elementary school—you know, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, and the like. But then, a few years ago, I discovered Johnny wasn’t a myth at all. He was a real person who actually traveled this young country planting apple trees. Why? He did it for those who would come after him. He wanted them to have fruit to enjoy. There is a lesson here about faith. You see, in a sense, as members of this “Body of Christ” in Brevard, we all are like little “Johnny Appleseeds.” We may not be sowing apple seeds, but we are sowing seeds of some kind or another. These can be seeds of love and kindness, as the old song says, or the seeds of faith and generosity. Speaking of the latter, our church has been exceptionally generous in recent years by living a stewardship that truly is making a difference in our community. Maybe you remember the chart we had in the Welcome Center, back in the spring, that showed our church giving over $142,000 to missions in 2015! And that was just in direct-giving to missional causes; it didn’t account for all the volunteer hours given by members work- ing on the “front lines.” Considering that a standard formula used by charities puts the value of volunteering at $17 per hour, I would suggest that our church’s giving to missions actually exceeded $200,000 in total value! That’s a lot of seeds, don’t you think? And, I would add, we are well on our way to equaling if not topping that total for this year. Brothers and sisters, all of this is in addition to providing for the ministries, programs, worship, facilities, staffing, and “Generation to Generation” interest payments that make up our general budget for a growing church. Again, all of this is made possible by you and your generosity, and it shows us what can happen when we all can put our hearts and gifts together in our love for Jesus Christ and for our church. It also proves what Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians. He urged them to look at the blessings they had, which were quite abundant for many of them, and then to have faith that God will always meet their needs and more. He even told them they will have “more than enough” for doing good for others. Or, in other words, he was teaching about the kind of stewardship that always makes a difference, both for those in the community but also for those who were giving. We will always have all that we need from God to meet our own needs—we call these blessings! And we will always have “more than enough” in our blessings to be shared with others, especially through our...

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Claiming the Sabbath

Recently, I preached on the topic of “Claiming the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is God’s gift to us for two basic reasons. First of all, it is for our benefit. It is God’s way of saying “take a rest, take a break from the routine and busyness of our lives for our own sake so that we can be renewed, re-energized.” Second, we need the Sabbath to help keep our focus on God, and on doing the things that help us grow in our faith. It is our way, as the psalmist reminds us, to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) Early on, the Christian church made Sunday our Sabbath Day. Why? Because it was the day of the week that Jesus came out of the tomb of death. Therefore, each Sunday was to be a celebration of the resurrection, like a “mini- Easter.” For us, Sunday is our day to come together as the church, as the Body of Christ. We do this so we can hear and study the Word, and to commune and be in fellowship together, and to worship and give thanks to God. Yes, Sundays offer us lots of choices, especially in our part of the world. It is so important for us to have family times, or to go to the lake or beach, or take a walk in the woods. Those are the kinds of activities that can be “Sabbath breaks” for us. But God wants to be important in our lives too. One of the commandments God gave to Moses for his chosen people was this: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Sunday is our day for Sabbath, our day to focus on God and the disciplines that help us grow our faith. From my perspective, I have come to think of summer as kind of a “Sabbath season.” As a pastor, it has al- ways been a good time after a busy year to lighten the schedule, enjoy the outdoors, catch up on my read- ing, take vacation, and clear the mind, so to speak. It is also a good time to step away from the busyness so I can be ready for the busy fall and winter. But summer is winding down and school starts back in just a few days, and once more our lives will fall into those needful routines, whether we are ready or not. And as we do, may I make a plea. Let us remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness,” as the people of God. May we covenant to make it God’s day. May we come together in this place on Sunday for our sakes… and for Jesus...

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Troubles and Blessings

“…In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” -Romans 8:37 We are weary of the violence and hatred and killing. We are tired of politics and bitter rhetoric. And we are more than concerned over the direction our nation seems to be headed. So, what to do about it? The Apostle Paul saw and dealt with a lot of trouble in his time—a harsh and unjust world Christians being persecuted for their faith, and of course, his own personal issues, as well. And yet, through his strong faith, Paul was able to affirm that God was still working for good “in the lives of those who loved Him.” No matter how bad things got, God was there, often behind the scenes, working to bring blessing out of our worst. Often, this meant that God was working in our own lives to strengthen our faith, or, as Paul says, even that we would be conquerors over the troubles that beset us. So, how can that be true in these times? And what can you and I do to make a real difference, if not out in the world, at least right here in our community? Yes, in some respects, we live in a place that almost seems like a “safe haven” from the mess we see “out there.” That is a blessing, as far as it goes. But even here, we know it is not perfect. We know there is plenty of work to be done, an awful lot of needs right here in this county. It is sad to me that over 65% of the children in our schools need to be on a “feeding pro- gram.” And it is sad that over a hundred young people were classified as homeless at the end of the school year (for many different reasons). It’s sad that The Sharing House has such a huge list of clients, a list that is growing every year…along with the services provided by The Haven and Bread of Life. And it is sad when one considers the state of health care in our state, or rather the lack of health care available to every person. No, our community has great needs, too. But instead of just being sad about things, let’s consider doing something about it. Since Paul’s time, Christians have risen above the mess and worked for good in their world, often at great risk to themselves. Indeed, in a cruel world they were known “by their love.” What are we known for today? In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul understands the challenges of overcoming the world’s problems, but he also sees a starting place. And that is the faith that resides in the heart of every Christian. In and through that faith in Jesus Christ, we work to make our world a better place; indeed,...

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Random Thoughts: Celebration, Sadness and Thanksgiving!

The memories came flooding back as we processed into Stuart Auditorium for Lauren’s ordination service. We were marching to that great old hymn, THE CHURCH’S ONE FOUNDATION, and I admit that there was a lump in my throat in that moment. I remembered walking into Duke Chapel to that same hymn in May 1985, the organist seemingly pulling out all the stops, as we received our M.Div. degrees and then were “sent out” to serve the church. Two years later, when I was ordained an elder, the same hymn marched us into the service. There are a lot of things I have forgotten about that service, but what I do remember is this: to kneel and have the hands of the Bishop (Bevel Jones) and all the other elders and bishops placed upon you is an absolutely awesome moment. Indeed, it is hard for me to put into words what I felt. I suspect Lauren Sims-Salata felt as much when it came her turn to be ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church. What an honor it was for me to stand with her and to be one of those “laying on” hands! And how proud we all are of her as she has come to this sacred moment! And, yes, it is a sacred moment. For you see, it is the affirmation of a sacred calling laid upon the lives of those being ordained to go forth and serve Christ as a minister in his church. Yes, we are all called to min- istry and serving through our church; let us not forget that. But then, with ordination there also comes the awesome responsibility—and privilege—of serving God’s people; of preaching and ordering our worship and sacraments; of being there with folks in good times and bad; of helping build the kingdom now and for the future. Thinking about these things, there is something else I remember about my ordination, and that is how heavy were the hands of the bishop and the others that were placed upon me as I knelt that even- ing, and rightly so. May we remember always the One who is the center of our faith and the foundation of our church—Jesus Christ our Lord. We were all touched and horrified by the news of what happened in Orlando, and we should be. Forty-nine lives were snuffed out. I don’t know that it matters all that much as to whether it was an act of a terrorist or a deranged, hateful person. What matters to me is that people of faith stand against such violence in our land. And yes, it has happened way too often. Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference (and my classmate at Duke Divinity School) spoke for the Flori- da Conference prior to their meeting in Orlando last week when he and the cabinet said: “…we call upon...

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