Saturday, December 07, 2013

Sermon: "Abound in Hope"

I haven't posted any sermons here for a while, but because church has been cancelled at the church I serve (FUMC, Gainesville, TX) tomorrow because of an ice storm, I am posting the sermon I would have preached here.  Maybe I should have saved it for 3 years from now when this lectionary cycle rolls around again, but thought some folks might want to read it.  Hope everyone stays safe in the bad weather.  God bless!

Romans 15:4-13
December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent  (Year A)

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

10and again he says,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

11and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

12and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This passage today from Romans begins with hope:

…so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

And it ends with hope:

13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hope is there from start to finish.

The season of Advent is like that.  Advent begins with hope – hope for Christ’s promised coming.

And it ends with hope – the hope of a baby born in Bethlehem.

Hope is not just the theme of the first candle we light on the Advent wreath – as we remembered last Sunday and remembered again today as we also lit the candle of Peace.  Hope is present throughout the whole time of Advent, from beginning to end.

Life itself begins and ends with hope.  When a child is born, there is hope.  I know that when each of our three children were born, I had all kinds of hopes for them, but mostly that they would grow up to fulfill God’s unique purpose for their lives.

In a sense, whenever a baby is born, hope is born anew.  Hope for the family.  Hope for the world.

At the opposite end of life, as one nears death, the hope of eternal life sustains those who are in Christ.  Life begins in hope and ends in hope.

But sometimes, in between birth and death, hope can be lost.  Confidence about the future can give way to hopelessness.

There are hopeless people all around us.  Maybe there have been times in your life when you’ve felt like things were hopeless.  Maybe you’re feeling that way right now.

We know that one of the symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness.  If you suffer from depression, those feelings may be amplified at this time of year when we feel like we have to be upbeat, smiling, happy all the time. 

Depression is a disease and affects different people in different ways.  Yours may be temporary and short-lived, or it may last longer, a matter of months or years, or it may be something you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your life.

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from depression, let me urge you to see a doctor or a mental health professional right away.  There are treatments for depression that can do a lot of good.

Depression isn’t the only reason that people may lose hope.  A single mother struggling to support her children who loses her job might give in to feelings of hopelessness.

An older man whose whole identity has been wrapped up in his career but now finds himself retired and with no real motivation to get out of bed in the morning may feel hopeless.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it to read the newspaper or watch the 6:00 news.  It’s full of tragedy and suffering of people here at home and all over the world.  War, famine, starvation, disease, disaster, scandal, recession, unemployment, terrorism…  We may be tempted to wonder if there’s any hope for this world.

But still, we don’t give up hoping.  As Alexander Pope said in his Essay on Man, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

We can’t live without at least some small measure of hope.  The old saying goes, “While there’s life there’s hope.”  We might also reverse that: “While there’s hope there’s life.”

If you take the hope away from a person, you have, for all intents and purposes, taken away their life.  When you rob the hope from a person, you take away something very precious.  We are sustained by our hopes.  We don’t give up hope without a fight.

What is that you hope for?  Most of us hope for the basics: good health; that our families will be taken care of; a long and happy life; and so forth.

Our hopes may also take in the larger world: hope for peace; hope that hungry people will be fed; hope that tragic diseases like cancer and AIDS and heart disease will be cured; hope that people won’t turn to violence to solve problems or as a way to deal with hopelessness.

But unless there is some basis, some ground, to our hopes, they’re nothing more than wishes.  A person who plays the lottery might wish they’d win the jackpot, but if they pin their hopes for the future on that possibility, they’ll surely be disappointed.

A hope is more than a wish.  Hope, at least as we use it in the context of the Christian faith, is grounded in the promises of God.  That’s why Christian hope is much more than just a wish.

In today’s passage from Romans 15, Paul reminds us of the ground of our hope.  In verse he says that one reason we have hope because of the “encouragement of the scriptures.”

The scriptures are full of the promises of God.  We just had a sermon series this September on some of the promises of Jesus that we find in scripture: promises of his presence, power, pardon, and peace.  Those are just a few.  God promises us forgiveness, love, salvation, deliverance, healing, reconciliation.

Many of us have experienced the fulfillment of those promises in our lives.

We can hope for what scripture promises because of faith.  Remember Hebrews 11: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”  Our hope is grounded in our trust that what God has said in God’s word is true.

But even more, our hopes are grounded in God himself – the “God of hope” as Paul calls him in vs. 13.  Christians can hope, and know that our hopes are more than wishes, because our trust is in the God of Hope.

It was the God of Hope who made a covenant with Abraham; who led the Hebrew people to freedom from slavery in Egypt; who sustained the people with hope when they were oppressed.

And it was the God of Hope who gave us the greatest symbol of hope of all: a baby born in Bethlehem who was God’s own Son, born to set all of God’s people free.

We aren’t hopeless because we believe in the God of Hope.  We can experience the joy and peace in believing that Paul talks about.

We can “abound in hope,” even in a world that at times appears hopeless, because we know that our hope is in God who created heaven and earth, and who sent God’s only Son Jesus Christ to forgive us and make us new people.

The hope of God in Jesus Christ is a hope for all people.  Not just for the Jews, as Paul says, but also for the Gentiles.  Christ is the world’s hope.  In truth, Christ is the world’s only hope.

Only Christ can forgive our sin.  Only Christ can give us new life.  Only in Christ can all people hope to live in harmony and peace with one another.

The message of Advent, along with Peace and Joy and Love, is a message of Hope. As Christians we proclaim hope to the hopeless, not because we believe wishing can make things the way we’d like them to be, but because we worship and serve the God of Hope.

If God hasn’t given up hope for us and for Planet Earth, then who are we to give up hope in God?

Jesus Christ is the supreme symbol of God’s hope in and for the world.  If God didn’t have hope for us and for the world, do you think God would have sent his one and only Son into this world to become one of us, to be born, live, and die for us on the cross?

Where there’s Christ there’s hope.  And where there’s hope, there’s joy and peace and steadfastness and encouragement and harmony.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound – not just live, not just exist, not just squeak by – but ABOUND in HOPE!


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Taking a Break

I will not be posting sermons here for a while.  I had been writing them out in manuscript form for many years and it was a simple matter of copying and pasting to this blog.

I am now writing more in outline/note form, and I don't really feel like taking the time to go back in afterwards and convert to manuscript form, so I won't be posting sermons here for awhile.

I know this is a blow to all of my 30-odd followers.  If you like, I can send you my notes.  If I write a sermon manuscript, I will post it here.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Sermon: "Living on Faith"

1 Kings 17:8-16
June 9, 2013
Third Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 

So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 

But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Venezuela is one of the most oil-rich countries on earth, ranking right up there with Iran and Saudi Arabia, but because of a shaky economy, its citizens have to stand in long lines every day for necessities like milk, sugar, cooking oil, medicine, and even toilet paper.

Now even the church is having to deal with shortages.  There is a lack of crucial ingredients needed to celebrate mass: altar wine as well as wheat to make communion wafers.  Churches are being asked to ration their wine and wafers during this emergency because they are down to a two-month supply.

This is a bad problem for Venezuela, which is predominantly Roman Catholic.  Dare I ask the question: Which would affect you more – a shortage of Communion juice and bread or a shortage of toilet paper?  You don’t have to answer, but I think I know what most of us would say!

We are blessed that we don’t have to deal with shortages like that here in the U.S.A.  We live in a land of plenty, not of scarcity.  The shortages we deal with are usually of a non-critical variety.

Lots of us can remember the gas shortages of the 1970s.  I especially remember the one in 1979.  Suzanne and I had just gotten married.  We were living in Dallas, working at summer jobs until we moved to Chicago to go to school in the fall.

We had a car – a little red Chevy Vega, which got pretty good gas mileage – but gas prices had gone up, and when stations had gas there were often long lines waiting to get it.  Suzanne and I both had bikes, so we did a lot of bike commuting to work that summer.  I worked at SMU and she worked at a church not far from campus.  We were living in the Lakewood area of Dallas, so we enjoyed riding our bikes to work most days.  It was an inconvenience, not a crisis.

My mom and dad lived through World War II, and they used to tell me about the rationing during those years.  There were books of coupons or stamps that let you buy items in short supply, like sugar, meat, butter, etc.  My mom would tell me about how they used to have to mix a packet of yellow dye with the “oleomargarine” to make it look like butter.

Gasoline and tires were rationed.  It was the beginning of recycling, with metal, paper, and rubber saved and reused.  “Victory Gardens” were planted for people to grow their own food.  But no one complained, because they were being patriotic and supporting the soldiers overseas, who were making a much greater sacrifice.

Most of our shortages are more in the category of inconvenience than a matter of life or death.  But some shortages can be critical.  I was reading the other day about a shortage of chemotherapy drugs in the U.S.  83% of oncologists said they’ve faced drug shortages that have impacted their patients’ treatment.  Evidently there just isn’t enough of some types of cancer drugs to go around.

We were reminded this past week about another critical shortage – of organs for donation.  The story that brought it to mind was about 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan, a little girl in a Philadelphia hospital, who is waiting for a donated lung to become available so she can have a transplant that could save her life.  A judge ruled she could receive an adult lung, even though she wasn’t yet 12, because pediatric lungs are in such short supply.

Today’s Scripture lesson is about a widow and her son who were facing a life-and-death shortage – a shortage of food.  For them, it wasn’t a slight inconvenience.  They were close to starving to death.

Food was in short supply because of a drought.  We Texans can identify with that part of the story, can’t we.  It seems like we are always either coming out of a drought, going into a drought, or in the middle of one.  Last week’s substantial rains were sure a blessing to us as summer approaches.

This drought had to do with God.  God was mad at the King of Israel, King Ahab, and his wife Jezebel.  Ahab was about as wicked a king as Israel had ever seen.  Ahab worshiped foreign gods and even built a temple for Baal, the chief foreign god.

So God told the prophet Elijah, the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets, to go to Ahab and tell him that it wasn’t going to rain again until God decided to make it rain.  And so the drought came.

God told Elijah to go out to the desert and God would have the ravens feed him and there would be water there.  Elijah survived for a while on food the ravens brought him and on a little trickle of water in the desert, but before long that ran out.

Our story begins when God tells Elijah to go to a foreign country, to a town called Zarephath, and there he’ll find a widow who will feed him.  Elijah must have had his doubts about going to another country and depending on a widow – widows were supposed to be taken care of by others, not the other way around.  But Elijah obeyed God and went.

There he meets this widow and her son who are close to starvation.  She’s collecting a few sticks for a fire.  Elijah decides this must be the widow God meant, so he asks her to bring him some water and some bread.  She lets him know that she was collecting this wood to make a fire so she could prepare one last meal for herself and her son.  She only has enough flour and oil to make one last dinner for the two of them, and certainly not enough to spare for Elijah.

Elijah, because of his great faith in God, assures her that it will be okay.  Just do as he says: make him some bread and make some for herself and her son.  You see, Elijah knows something she doesn’t: God has told him that her supply of flour and oil won’t run out until the drought is over and God makes it rain.

Sure enough, it happens just like Elijah says.  Miraculously, every day when they wake up, there’s enough flour in the jar and oil in the jug to make bread for the day. And they survive the drought and the famine.

Elijah does another miracle for this widow in the next part of the story that we didn’t read this morning.  Her son becomes sick and dies.  At first, she blames Elijah for somehow causing his death, but Elijah cries out to God for God to revive the boy.  God hears the prophet’s prayer and answers and the boy is brought back to life.

This widow has been taught a great lesson: that we can trust God absolutely, unconditionally, radically for life and for the things we need.  God will take care of us.

We might say, what choice did she have?  She had to trust God.  She didn’t have any other options.  But we always have options.

When Elijah first showed up in her village, she might have told him, “Go away.  You’re a foreigner.  I don’t want to have anything to do with you.  Your God is not my God.”

Or she might have told him, “My son and I don’t need your help.  Somehow we’ll make it through this.  We don’t need anyone’s help.”

But instead she trusted Elijah and the God he represented.  But maybe that shouldn’t surprise us.  In the Bible, widows often show the most faith, even though they’re living on the margins of society, vulnerable, often one day away from starvation.

The Book of Ruth is about two extraordinary widows, Naomi and Ruth, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, who are left with nothing but each other.  Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, her deceased husband’s mother, and leaves her own homeland of Moab to go to Naomi’s homeland of Israel, to Bethlehem, to make sure Naomi is taken care of.  It’s from Ruth that we get that extraordinary statement of devotion:

“Do not press me to leave you
      or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
      Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
      and your God my God.”  (Ruth 1:16)

Remember, it’s a widow that Jesus points to as the one who makes the greatest offering of all, when she puts her whole net worth, two small copper coins, into the offering plate.  (Luke 21:1-4)

There was a widow who lived next door to an atheist.  They used to get in arguments about the existence of God.  He couldn’t convince her and she hadn’t changed his mind.

She used to pray every day, thanking God for taking care of her, even though she had very little.  She would pray with her window open, so the atheist could hear her pray, and it really annoyed him.  One day he heard her praying that her cupboards were empty, her refrigerator was empty, so would God please provide her with some food.

He decided this was his chance to teach her a lesson.  He was going to show her that there was no God.  He went to the store, bought several bags of groceries, and then snuck up on her front porch and put the food in front of her door.  He rang the doorbell and then hid in the bushes and watched.

The widow opened the front door and when she saw the bags full of food, she was overjoyed.  She immediately started crying and praying and thanking God for answering her prayers.  Just then, the atheist jumped out of the bushes and said, “Ah hah.  I can finally prove to you that there’s no God.  God didn’t give you these groceries, I did.  Here’s the receipt from the grocery store to prove it.”

He handed her the receipt, she looked at it, and then said, “O God, I knew you were powerful and good but this proves it once and for all.  Not only did you provide me with the food I needed, but you made the devil pay the bill!”

It’s been my experience that those who have the least in terms of material possessions often have the most when it comes to faith.  I’ve seen this especially in the mission trips to Mexico I’ve been a part of.  We usually work with the poorest of the poor. In one place we built houses and churches for rural people because they were living in cardboard and scrap lumber shacks.  We dug holes for outhouses.  We taught Bible School to the children.  They might have one central water faucet for the whole village.

And yet, when we would announce that we were going to have a worship service, they would come pouring out of their homes to gather and sing and pray and praise God.  They couldn’t get enough of God.

While it’s certainly a blessing to live in this country where we are blessed so abundantly with material possessions, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, sometimes I think it can be a disadvantage to our faith.

When you have little to nothing, like the widow of Zarephath, Ruth and Naomi, the widow and her two coins, the peasants of rural Mexico – you have to depend on God.  You have to have absolute faith and trust that God is going to take care of you.

We don’t have that concern.  We tend to trust in other things – our savings account; our 401K; our mutual funds; the equity in our homes.  Our money says, on every coin and bill, “In God We Trust.”  But lots of times, if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that we trust money more than God. 

Most of us don’t have to live, thank God, on that ragged edge where we are one day away from hunger and starvation and homelessness.  And yet God calls all of us, rich or poor, to trust in God and God alone for what we truly need – life, abundant and eternal.  That’s the lesson that God was teaching the Israelites in the wilderness when God fed them on manna and quail and water from a rock – they could depend on God.

That’s the lesson that God was teaching Elijah and the widow of Zarephath – that they could trust God that the flour and oil would last until God made it rain.

That’s the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach in his parable about the rich fool who wanted to tear down his storehouses and build bigger ones – our life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions but in being rich toward God.  (Luke 12:15)

That’s the lesson Jesus was trying to teach the rich young man who wanted to know the secret to attaining eternal life.  Jesus told him to sell all he had and the give the money to the poor and come follow him.  Jesus knew it was his wealth that was killing him. He had to stop doing what was killing him and then he could find life.

We have to stop doing what’s killing us – trusting in other things besides God; trying to find life everywhere but where it’s truly found, in Jesus Christ – and trust completely, absolutely, unconditionally in the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The widow of Zarephath trusted God and lived.  Won’t you?


Sermon: "A New Song"

This sermon was preached on the first Sunday that Rebecca Garrett, our church's new Director of Music Ministries, was present with us.

Psalm 96
June 2, 2013
Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

Have you ever had an experience like this?  I’m driving in the car and a song comes on the radio from my teenage years (I listen mostly to oldies or classic rock), and it suddenly transports me to a whole different place and time?  And lots of times, I can sing along to every word, even after 40 years or more.

One of those songs is “American Pie” by Don McLean.  I know it’s not everyone’s favorite, but every time I hear that song today, it takes me back to August 1972 and a highway somewhere in central California.  I’m driving my Chevy Nova to Dallas, about to begin my first semester at SMU.  And I’m singing along with every word.

I don’t completely understand why, but music has that power like almost nothing else – except maybe a smell, like the smell of fresh-baked bread suddenly takes you back to your mother’s kitchen when you were a kid.

Maybe every generation feels this way, but I believe I grew up in the absolute greatest era of music in at least the 20th century and maybe for all time – the 1960s and 1970s.  I don’t think my parents and the people of their generation felt that way – they were more into Lawrence Welk, Mitch Miller, and Perry Como.

I can still remember the first time I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.  I was only ten years old, but music was starting to enter the consciousness of me and my friends.  We had never seen anything like them.  We all wanted Beatle wigs and Beatle boots, but none of us got them.

They appeared on Ed Sullivan again a week later.  My older sister was dating a guy named Lad, and even though he was probably just in his early 20s, here’s how big the difference in generations was.  Mitzi Gaynor was also a guest on the show that night, and Lad said he’d rather see Mitzi Gaynor than the Beatles!  Isn’t it funny that I still remember that 50 years later?

Music was everything to me and my friends.  We bought 45’s of our favorite songs, and LP albums when we could save up enough money.  My friends and I made guitars out of cardboard and lip-synched to Beach Boys songs in my friend’s basement when I was 12.  It really was the “Golden Age” of rock music.

We knew the words to almost every song by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Herman’s Hermits, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters and all the rest.

Isn’t it amazing that music has such power to stir the human soul?  For you it could be classical or country or opera or rap – but it seems true for almost every generation, that the music we listen to when we are young defines the rest of our lives.

Music is universal.  It’s found in every known culture in the world, both past and present.  The first musical instrument was probably the human voice itself.  Rhythm and sound are all around us.  Infants in the womb seem to respond to music.  Many people say plants respond to music.

Because music is so vital to the human spirit, we’d expect that it’s important to the life of faith and to the church.

I realize I may be stepping over into Rebecca’s territory here, but I’d like to get away from the idea that music is the province of one department in the church and that they “provide” music for us.  I think Rebecca would agree that music is for all of us and we all have a part to play in the music ministry of the church.

We see the importance of music shot throughout the Bible.  Moses and the children of Israel sing a song of deliverance after they cross over the Red Sea.  Young David played the lyre for King Saul to soothe him when an evil spirit would torment the king.

The Book of Psalms has given the people of Israel and the church a “sung theology” for thousands of years, covering everything from human nature to God’s greatness, human suffering to human triumph, deep lament to joyful celebration.

The first verse of today’s sermon reading in Psalm 96 invites us to …”sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”

Matt. 26:30 says that after the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn and then went out to the Mount of Olives.

In Ephesians 5:18-19, Paul instructs the faithful to “be filled with the Holy Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs … making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”

Music is so important to the church.  As United Methodists, we are held together by three books primarily – the Bible, the Book of Discipline, and the UM Hymnal.  Our musical heritage goes back to the Wesley brothers – John and Charles.  Look sometime at how many hymns by Charles are in our hymnal.

We express our theology through our music.  If we take time to really think about the words we sing, we get a short course in Christian doctrine.  We may not be able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, but when we sing, “Holy, holy holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” we believe it.

There are so many wonderful hymns.  You probably have your favorites and I have mine.  Certain hymns may bring up good memories, like a song on the radio.  “Are Ye Able” makes me think of my days in UMYF.  When the youth got to choose the hymns for worship, for some reason we always chose that one.  “This Is My Father’s World” (which we’ll sing on Father’s Day) reminds me of a summer leading worship services in a campground at Grand Teton National Park when I was in seminary.  We sang that hymn almost every Sunday.

Other memories may be bittersweet, if a hymn, like “Hymn of Promise,” or “In the Garden” was sung at a loved one’s funeral.

I realize that music can be a divisive topic in the church – the “worship wars” between “traditional” and “contemporary” styles of worship usually boil down to music – organ and choir vs. band and praise team; hymns vs. choruses; hymnals vs. words on a screen.  We need to remember that each generation needs to find its own musical voice.  I would hope this means appreciating the best of our musical heritage while finding new songs to express our faith.  I believe Rebecca, with her training and experience, will help us do that.  Just remember, even a song like “How Great Thou Art,” was “contemporary” in the beginning.  As far as I know, no hymn was already 100 years old when it was first written.

In the search process, Rebecca shared with us her philosophy of music ministry.  I liked one thing she said – that while children’s, youth, adult and handbell choirs are the “backbone” of her ministry, she sees the whole congregation as a choir and she is here to help us find our voice as a worshiping body.

That’s important to remember.  We aren’t here mainly to watch others “perform” musically for us.  Worship is not meant to be entertainment.  Engaging, yes.  Lively, yes.  Moving, yes.  We are here to sing our own “new song” to the Lord.  The psalmist doesn’t say, “Sing to the Lord, some of the earth,” or “Sing to the Lord, those of you with good voices or those in the choir.”  We all need to sing our song to the Lord because this is one of the best ways we have to praise and worship God.  We can’t all pray out loud, we can’t all preach, but we can all sing, even if you sing softly.  Sing to the Lord, all the earth, for great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.  Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sermon: "What Makes a Hero?"

Romans 5:1-5
May 26, 2013
Trinity Sunday

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day.  We who live here in the “Most Patriotic Small Town in America” know that Memorial Day is about a lot more than furniture sales, car sales, mattress sales, picnics, barbecues, a 3-day weekend, and the unofficial start of the summer season.

Memorial Day is a day we set aside as a nation to remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  It originated after the Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died during that war.

In the beginning it was called Decoration Day, because it started with the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.  That’s why it falls at the end of May – because that’s the optimum time for blooming flowers.

Many towns and cities hold Memorial Day parades or gather in national or military cemeteries or at other monuments to remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Memorial Day shouldn’t be confused with Veterans Day in November.  Veterans Day honors all those who have served in the armed forces.  Memorial Day is for those who died while serving.

While Memorial Day is not a specifically religious holiday, it has taken on sacred importance because of its themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth.

Even though I didn’t choose today’s reading from Romans 5 because of Memorial Day, I couldn’t help but think about those we honor on that day as I read Paul’s themes of suffering, endurance, character, hope, and love.  And that brought to mind the theme of heroes and heroism.

We throw the term “hero” around casually nowadays.  You’re a hero if you sink the winning basket or score the winning touchdown.  That’s not the kind of hero I’m talking about.

We have experienced a lot of tragedies in the last six weeks or so, beginning with the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the West fertilizer plant explosion, and continuing with the weather-related disasters in Granbury and Cleburne and now in Moore, Oklahoma.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the bad news and to begin to take on a negative or pessimistic view of life and the world.

If you get feeling that way, stop to remember all the stories of heroism that have come from these and other recent tragedies.  When you start looking for them, they’re easy to find.  Fortunately, the news media has featured many of their stories.

We heard many inspiring stories coming out of the Boston bombings of people who ran to the aid of those who had been injured.  Jeff Bauman was injured so severely that both of his legs had to be amputated.  But he was able to give information about one of the suspects to the police that helped lead to their identification and capture.

Carlos Arredondo, known as the “Cowboy Hat Hero,” was one of those who came to Bauman’s aid, helping to stop a bleeding artery and get him to medical help.  Arredondo himself had been in a deep depression after losing one son in the military in Iraq and the other son to suicide.  He had given up on life, attempting suicide himself, but then found a reason to live in helping others and was able to help save Bauman’s life.

Heroic first responders, fire fighters and EMTs, were first on the scene, trying to fight the fire at the West fertilizer plant, and tragically, they were 11 of the 14 people who lost their lives in that disaster.

Teachers turned into heroes at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore when the deadly tornado stormed through town.  They hustled children to a nearby shelter at a church.  They moved students to safe places in the school.  They used their own bodies to shield the children from the twister’s destructive power.  Walls collapsed on top of them but not on the children they protected.  This just reminded us of what we already knew -- that teachers perform heroically every day in the classroom.

Dallas firefighter, Stan Wilson, heroically sacrificed his life in a fire last week, caught in the collapsing condominium where he and others were battling a blaze.

Heroes were celebrated in Yorba Linda, California this past week at the 40th anniversary of a 1973 White House Dinner that honored the returning survivors of Vietnam POW camps.  One of them, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Doug Burns, was shot down, taken prisoner, and held for 6 ½ years, much of it in solitary confinement.

Heroes are all around us, if we will just look for them.

Not only is Gainesville the Most Patriotic Small Town in America, we are the only Medal of Honor Host City in the country.  We all take a great deal of pride in the annual observance every April, when these heroes of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan visit our city and ride down the street in a grand parade.  They are heroes in every sense of the word.

But to a man, they remind us that the real heroes are their fellow soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who did not make it home from the war.

I enjoy reading stories about wartime heroism.  If you haven’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, you really need to.  It’s the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete in 1936, whose plane went down in the Pacific while on a search and rescue mission for another downed plane.  He and a fellow flyer survived for 47 days on a raft, were captured by the Japanese, and survived another two years of brutality in POW camps.  It’s a great story of heroism and inspiration.

Stories like this are so inspiring but sometimes I wonder how I would react if I were put in these same situations.  Could I act heroically?  Would I freeze?  Would I run away?

Would I run toward the danger or go the other way?  Would I be more concerned about other people than myself?

If I were a soldier in battle, could I do what a hero like MOH recipient “Doc” Ballard did:  he braved enemy fire to render medical aid to a wounded marine, then threw himself on an enemy grenade (which, thank God, didn’t explode) to protect his fellow marines, then got up and tended to more wounded.  Each MOH recipient has a similar heroic story to share.

I think about the question asked in the title of this sermon:

What makes a hero?

Some heroes are obvious.  Almost every tragedy, crisis, disaster, or battle brings out the hero in someone or many people.  Victoria Soto, the teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut who died while shielding her students from the gunman last December is a hero in anyone’s book.

Heroes are the people who have buildings named after them, statues erected in their honor, who ride in convertibles in parades and have thousands attend their memorial services when they die.

But there’s another kind of hero who’s just as important.  We might call these people “everyday heroes.”  I think these are the kinds of heroes Paul had in mind when he wrote the words we read today from Romans 5:

…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…

Heroes can be everyday people like us who, when challenged with suffering or opposition, don’t give up or give in, but instead who ask for God’s help to get through it and come out on the other side, seeing that each time of suffering made them a little stronger, a little more able to endure, and that built their character and that gave them hope – because they knew that suffering would not have the last word but God would, and God would bring them through.

As I look out at this congregation, I see lots of everyday heroes.  Oh, they probably won’t give a parade in your honor or put up a statue to your memory, but God sees how you handle suffering and God knows what a hero you are.

I know of heroes who receive a diagnosis of cancer and their first instinct is not to give up but to fight as hard as they can.

I know of heroes who take in children not their own who need a home, and even though it’s not easy, you endure because your heart is filled with love.

I know of heroes whose children are born with physical or mental or emotional challenges and you show them all the love and care and support you possibly can.

I know of heroes who get up every morning and go to jobs they may not love, but they work hard to support their families and they come home and try every day to be the best parents they can be.

I know of heroes who take principled stands on controversial issues, and even though other people may question why they’re making it into such a big deal, why don’t they just go along with the crowd, they stick to their beliefs.

And I know of lots more heroes, sitting here this morning.

And these heroes could tell us that their suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces a hope that never disappoints us because it’s a hope in the God who never fails, the Savior who always redeems, and the Spirit who unfailingly fills us with love and power.

Could we be heroes in the middle of a battle, a storm, a catastrophe or a crisis?  Until it happens to us, we don’t really know.  I hope I could act heroically if I was called upon.

But we can be heroes every day when we turn suffering into endurance, endurance into character, and character into hope.  The difficult trials each one of us face almost every day are making us stronger, they’re shaping our character, and they’re filling us with hope in the God of love and grace.

May we all be heroes, each in our own way, today and every day; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sermon: "Children of God"

Romans 8:14-17
May 19, 2013
Pentecost Sunday

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

I can’t say that I know what it feels like to be adopted.  If I were adopted, I hope I would feel:
·         Loved
·         Wanted
·         Special
·         Chosen

I know families who have adopted children.  I was mentor pastor to a colleague in the ministry almost 25 years ago when he and his wife adopted a baby boy from the Methodist Mission Home (now Providence Place) in San Antonio.

I have walked with congregation members through at least four international adoptions – three from China and one from Romania.

And I have gone to court for the final hearing of step-parents adopting a spouse’s children and the children taking their new last name.

These are all special and priceless moments.  I have a great deal of respect for adoptive parents. I know it’s not always easy, for the parents or the children.

I also have a great deal of respect for birth mothers who decide that giving their baby up for adoption is the best thing for that baby and the mother’s future.  I can only guess how difficult that decision must be.

Not all adoptions follow all the legal steps.  I know a number of you have taken on the responsibility of giving a home to grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or other children that you just knew needed a place to go.  You have my respect as well.

I would imagine that if you’re adopted, you go through a period in life when you wonder who you really are.  You may want to find out more about your birth parents and find out if you have any brothers or sisters from your birth family.

I was not adopted, but I did experience a family taking me in and giving me a home for a short time in my life when I needed it.

Toward the end of my junior year in high school here in Texas my dad found out that his job at Sheppard AFB was being transferred to Hill AFB in Utah.  If my dad wanted to keep his job, we would have to move, so move we did, right at the end of the school year.

I certainly wasn’t happy about it – moving right before my senior year in high school, the year that I had always heard would be the greatest year in my life (graduates, is that true?) – but what choice did I have.

So we moved to Ogden, Utah and that summer I had to go to the high school to register for the classes I would be taking in the fall.  Nothing about going to school in Utah excited me – I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t really want to know anyone.  All my friends were back in Iowa Park.  It would be the worst senior year anyone ever had in the history of ever.

To make a long story a little shorter, I talked my parents into letting me drive back to Texas for one last visit with my friends at the end of the summer before school started.

While I was in Texas, I received my call to ministry and also convinced my parents that it would be a lot better if they would let me stay in Iowa Park and go to school.  One of my best friends talked his parents into letting me stay with them so I was all set.

For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out for me stay with my friend, but I didn’t know that until I went back to Utah for Christmas break.  So I was without a place to live in Iowa Park.

That’s where I got “adopted.”  Sam and Wanda Hunter, members of the UMC in Iowa Park, offered to let me stay in a guest room in their home for the second semester until I graduated.  They took me in and treated me like a member of their family.  Even though I was there for less than five months, I felt loved and cared for.

I know that’s nothing like being legally adopted, but it gave me a small sense of what it’s like to leave one family behind, even if it’s just for a semester, and join a new family.

The truth is, all of us who are in Christ have been adopted.  That’s what Paul says in today’s reading from Romans 8:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. 

It’s a reminder that none of us is born into the family of God, simply by virtue of our physical birth.  We are born “creatures” of God.  God made all of us.  God is our Creator.

We can be “born again” into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit.  That kind of language is used often in the Scriptures. – we are “born anew to a living hope.”  “You must be born from above,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

Paul uses a different kind of image from birth, and one that would be very familiar to the people of his time – the image of adoption.

You may remember how confused Nicodemus was by Jesus’ talk about being born from above or born “again.”  That does sound confusing.  How can you be born a second time?  Nicodemus wondered if he had to go back in his mother’s womb.

Paul’s readers would not have been confused by his use of the imagery of adoption, because they were all quite familiar with the difficult and serious adoption process used in the Roman Empire.

William Barclay describes it very well in his commentary on Romans.[1]

In the Empire, fathers wielded absolute power and control over their families.  It was the power of life and death.  “In regard to his father, a Roman son never came of age.  No matter how old he was, he was still under the patria potestas (father’s power), in the absolute possession and under the absolute control of his father.”

So this made adoption very difficult, because a child would have to pass from one father’s power to another’s.

The Romans had a two-step process for this kind of adoption.  First was the ceremony of the “emancipation.”  A father would sell his son twice symbolically and buy him back both times.  But the third time he didn’t buy him back and the power of the father was considered to be broken.

This was followed by a ceremony called “vindication.”  The adopting father went to a Roman official and presented a legal case for transferring the person to be adopted into his power.  Then the adoption was complete.

The consequences that came from this adoption are important for the picture Paul is painting of how we are adopted into God’s children and become “sons” and “daughters” of God:
1.      The adopted person gave up all the rights they had in their old family and gained all the rights of a legitimate child in the new family.  In a binding legal way, he got a new father.
2.      The adopted son became the legal heir to his father’s estate.
3.      The old life of the adopted child was wiped out.  All debts were cancelled.  He was a new person entering a new life and his past was forgotten.
4.      In the eyes of the law he was absolutely the son of his new father.

This is the image of adoption that Paul must have been thinking about when he said all those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God and we receive not a spirit of slavery but a spirit of adoption.  He even mentions witnesses.  Roman adoptions required seven witnesses, so if the adopting father died, one of these witnesses could come forward and swear that the adoption was legitimate.  Paul says the Holy Spirit himself witnesses that we are children of God.

For us to become children of God, we had to be adopted by God.  We have to be set free (emancipated) from the slavery of our sin and from the power of the evil one.  Jesus paid the price for that freedom when he died for us on the cross.  His sacrifice paid the debt that we rightfully owed because of our sin.

Our past is cancelled and all our debts have been forgiven.  We have been transferred into the absolute possession of our Creator and Redeemer.  Our old life has no more hold over us.  God now has absolute right over us.

We now begin a new life as sons and daughters of God and we have become heirs of all of God’s riches.  As Paul says, if we are children of God, then we are…

… heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

Everything that Christ inherits from the Father, we inherit.  If Christ had to suffer, we also have to share in that suffering.

That’s the only negative part of this adoption.  We share in Christ’s sufferings.  But that’s the only path to sharing the heavenly glory of Christ.

… we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

But we can be assured of this: that any suffering we may go through is nothing compared to the glory we will receive as children of God.  That’s what Paul says in the very next verse after today’s reading, in Romans 8:18:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

It’s kind of like this.  Suppose a multi-billionaire offered to adopt you and make you heir to all his fortune.  But in order to inherit, you had to work for ten years as a servant in his house – washing his cars, scrubbing his floors, doing his laundry, cooking his meals.  But in ten years, you would inherit billions and billions of dollars.  Most of us would accept that offer.

When we are adopted into God’s family, we will experience sufferings of various kinds.  But now it’s suffering for a purpose – we suffer now so we can inherit the glory of Christ, so we can live forever with Christ in eternity.

Through faith we become God’s adopted sons and daughters.  This is who we really are.  This is our true identity.  We don’t have to live as slaves any more.  We don’t have to live in fear any more.  We can call God “Abba! Father!” and mean it because God really is our Father.  We belong to God.  We are God’s children.  Glory be to God!  Amen.

[1] William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study Series, Revised Edition, The Letter to the Romans, Philadelphia: Westminster Press; pgs. 105-7.