Category Archives: Church Year

God With Us: Endure with Hope – Sermon on Luke 21:25-36 Advent 1C

Video

Happy New Year!

That’s right. Today marks the beginning of the new church year. For you liturgy geeks, this is Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle, which means we will be hearing a lot from the gospel according to Luke over the next 12 months.

But the gospel passage assigned for the first Sunday in Advent, this first Sunday in the new church year, does not come from the beginning of Luke. It comes from near the end, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for one purpose only: to give his life for the redemption of us all. His earthly ministry is nearing its completion, and he knows it.

So see if this gospel reading sounds a little familiar, like something you’ve heard from Mark and John over the past couple of weeks:

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Lamenting All the Saints

All Saints 2021

It’s been a long slog through pandemic times as we celebrate All Saints Sunday this year. We are weary of grief. Some of us cannot even weep anymore, as Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. We’ve grown numb to the pain, to the loss.

Some of us are too angry to cry. We’d rather shake our fists at God and yell for God to do something, anything. If God is so omnipotent, why is there no end in sight to this suffering? Does God even care?

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Getting Closer to the Kingdom – sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Confirmation Sunday, October 31, 2021
Video

It’s Confirmation Sunday! Over the past several months, three young women have been exploring their faith to determine what they believe, and why they believe it. We’ve had some interesting conversations! If they’ve learned anything at all, they’ve learned that easy answers are never enough, and sometimes finding answers to our questions just raises more questions.

We joke sometimes that Confirmation is too often like graduating from church – once teenagers get confirmed, we never see them or their families again. But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

These confirmands are just beginning a journey of faith that will carry them into adulthood. This isn’t the end of the road – it’s the starting line. This is where we equip young people with the basic tools of faith, and teach them how to use those tools, to continue to grow into Christ-likeness. As they move into the next stage of faith development, we the church come alongside them, helping them get closer to the Kingdom of God.

We just heard a couple of scripture passages that highlight the way the Law of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Our gospel reading for today connects the dots between these two ideas – Law and Grace. It’s perfect for Confirmation Sunday! As these confirmands have wrestled with what they believe over the past few months, they have had to consider how the Law and Grace intersect at the point of personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark introduces us to a scribe – one of those legal experts who have been trying, along with the Pharisees, to trap Jesus. Only this particular scribe has been paying attention. He sees something in Jesus the others don’t see. And Jesus sees something in him we might not expect. Jesus can tell this particular scribe – just like our confirmands – is getting closer to the kingdom of God.

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
– Mark 12:28-34

What’s the most important commandment of all?

613 rules define what was known as The Law. But the first rule, the first commandment in the Ten Commandments, is known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel!” The Lord our God, the Lord is One!” Or, as our modern translations put it: Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! This acclamation of who God is doesn’t even sound like a Commandment. It’s more of an affirmation of faith. Our God is the One, the Only One. Not a bunch of little statues made out of wood or stone, but a living, all-powerful being who made us to reflect that one-ness. Pretty powerful stuff, when you think about it.

But the second most important commandment of all does sound like a true command. Or does it? “You will…” (or ‘Thou shalt’) could mean “do this.” It could also mean “this is what will happen” – not so much a command, as a prediction.

Because when we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, doesn’t it just naturally follow that we will love our neighbor as ourselves? When loving God is at the very core of who we are, won’t we naturally want to include others in that vast love?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, throughout history, we know that has never really been the case for God’s people. Maybe it’s because we don’t love God as deeply as we say we do. Maybe it’s because we get distracted by satisfying our own needs and desires, and forget to look out for the needs of others.

Whatever the reason, the simple truth is we don’t do a very good job of loving God or loving our neighbors. Left to our own devices, we would never even get close to the Kingdom of God. We might talk the talk, but we don’t do a very good job of walking the walk. No wonder people outside the church call us hypocrites.

Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus often called the scribes and Pharisees. Scribes just like this one, who notices Jesus is teaching real truth. This legal expert, who would normally be on the opposite side of any argument with Jesus, finds himself in complete agreement. Perhaps no one is more surprised about this than the scribe. “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom,” Jesus tells him. And I can’t help but imagine these two men locking eyes in mutual recognition, nodding to one another with a little smile that says, “You get me. Cool.”

But the best part of this story, in my opinion, is the last line. “After that, no one dared ask him any more questions.” It’s the first century Palestinian version of the mic drop. Boom.

But here’s the good news. You can ask Jesus anything. The ones who wouldn’t dare ask him any more questions were only trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him.

But when we recognize Jesus for who he is, when we see that the most important rule is the rule of love, and we start to live according to that rule, Jesus locks eyes with us and smiles. You’re getting closer to God’s kingdom, he tells us. Or, as John Wesley would say, “you’re going on toward perfection.”

In a moment, you will see a short video of a Zoom call among our candidates for confirmation. They will tell you what they can confirm about their faith right now. This is not the end of their story. It’s the beginning. I hope, as you listen, your own faith is kindled anew. I hope you find yourself coming maybe just another step closer to the kingdom of God.

Faith Works: Pray for One Another – Sermon on James 5:13-20

September 26, 2021
Video

We’ve made it to the final chapter of James, and the final message in this series called Faith Works. James has urged us to avoid showing favoritism to the rich, he’s admonished us to be slow to speak, but quick to listen, and he’s given us further instruction on taming our tongues. Last week, James compared heavenly wisdom to earthly wisdom, encouraging us to lean into wisdom that comes from God. We can recognize that kind of wisdom as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17), and the result of cultivating this kind of wisdom is “a harvest of righteousness.” (3:18)

When James compares heavenly wisdom to earthly wisdom, something else becomes clear, and it’s the underlying lesson James has been trying to teach us throughout this letter: wisdom from God focuses our attention on the needs of others, while earthly wisdom focuses our attention on ourselves. This whole letter is about how to behave toward one another, so our lives will reflect faith at work in us. Because when we work our faith, we develop a faith that really works. One place we can really see our faith growing is in the practice of prayer. You might think James is going to focus on how prayer connects us to God, but James knows the way prayer really helps our faith grow is in our prayers for each other.

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Bread for All: Bread of Life – Sermon on John 6:(22-23) 24-35

August 1, 2021
Video

Children’s Message
Last week we heard the story of Jesus feeding 5000 people with bread and fish that kept multiplying until everyone had enough, and there was some left over. I talked about how, in Communion, we break the bread just as Jesus did, and ask God to make us be the Body of Christ for the whole world, as we eat it together.
Today we will hear Jesus talk about himself as the Bread of Life, and I want to help you understand how we see Jesus giving himself to us when we receive Communion.
Who knows what a symbol is? It’s usually a picture or an object that stands for something else. For example, we have a steeple on our church building, and that’s a symbol for our purpose as a church. The church is supposed to point people to God. Some churches believe that the bread and the juice we use for Communion are just symbols of Jesus to remind us that he gave himself for us. In the Methodist Church, we say the bread and cup become Christ’s real presence among us when we take them. They are more than just a symbol.
So let’s go back to the steeple on our church. Did you ever play “here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people?” Let’s do it together. See, the steeple is just a symbol of what the church does – it points people to Jesus. But when you open the door and see all the people, they are the real presence of Christ in the world. It’s the people in the church who point others to God. Let’s pray.
Jesus, help us point others to you for real, not just be a symbol of you. We love you, Jesus. Amen.

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Why Are You Afraid? – Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Pentecost B+4 Video

There’s a lot going on today – it’s Father’s Day, another one of those Hallmark Holidays that doesn’t necessarily get celebrated outside the United States. We have also just honored our high school graduates and prayed a blessing over them as they set out on the next stage of their education.

In the middle of all that, we are still keeping track of the Corona virus, working to keep everyone healthy and safe as the pandemic seems to be winding down. We continue to mourn the losses we have experienced over the past 15 months, and while some of us yearn to party like its 2019, others are wary of falling into the patterns of the past, noting that sometimes the “good old days” weren’t so good for everyone.

We are in that in-between, liminal season of change, but we can’t quite see what that change is bringing. Some of us face this uncertainty with dread, while others see possibilities the future promises. In fact, we aren’t so different from the disciples who followed Jesus through Galilee as he taught and healed and shared the good news of God’s kingdom coming into the world

Those disciples knew they were on the cusp of change, but they couldn’t imagine what lay ahead. Some of them were convinced Jesus would soon lead them in a military takeover. Others were confused by the way he turned upside down everything they had known to be true.

But there was one thing they could all agree on: Jesus was worth following. Staying close to Jesus was worth risking everything, even their lives. In today’s gospel reading, they get to do just that.

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Four Questions – Sermon on Acts 8:26-40

Video of this sermon from May 2, 2021

Our readings from the Book of Acts have been skipping all over the place in these weeks after Easter. Instead of a logical, sequential story line, we’ve danced all around the healing of a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate, without ever hearing the story itself. And we won’t get back to Chapter Two, where all the post-resurrection activity began, until the Day of Pentecost at the end of Eastertide.

Today’s reading is literally full of hops, skips, and jumps. At this point, you might be wondering why this whole sermon series is even called “Getting our ACTS Together.” It seems so disorganized and chaotic. Stay with me. Our story is shifting from Peter and John to Philip the Deacon. The ride might get bumpy, so hold on.

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“Anything Good?” – Sermon on John 1:43-51 for Epiphany 2B

This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and even though our focus for this church year will be in Mark’s gospel, the second Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us to John. We’re still in the first chapter, and our reading today will bring us to “what happens next” after Jesus is baptized.

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From Darkness into Light: Turn to Joy – Sermon on Luke 1:46-55

Have you ever wondered why one of the Advent wreath candles is a different color than the others? In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent, to represent joy.

In the early church, Advent was a penitential season, much like the season of Lent. New believers prepared for baptism through spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the promise of Christ’s coming as Emmanuel, God With Us.

One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke. Next week, we will get the story surrounding this song, now known as the Magnificat – that’s Latin for the first word in the song: “magnify”. We’ll hear how Mary sings this song when her relative Elizabeth greets her and calls her ‘blessed.’ This week on the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy, let’s focus on the song itself:

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From Darkness Into Light: Awaking to Hope – Sermon on Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B

Watch a video of this sermon.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Have you been losing sleep these past several months? Do you find yourself lying awake around 2 or 3 AM? Insomnia is apparently a side effect of pandemic stress. Researchers have even coined a term for it: “Caronasomnia”.

The problem with this kind of sleeplessness is that our bodies and our minds never really get the rest they need. We depend on good sleep to let our brains “reboot” and our minds to refresh. Losing sleep creates “brain fog” – we are sluggish and easily confused. We can’t think creatively. We aren’t as effective at our work. We have a hard time staying alert.

So here we are at the beginning of a new church year, diving into the season of Advent, when we should be looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s coming, and all we really can think about is how much we’d like to take a good nap. Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” just isn’t very appealing, is it? Until we realize that the kind of exhausted sleeplessness many of us have been experiencing isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all.

It’s the first Sunday in the season of Advent. That word “Advent” means “arriving” or “coming toward” – God is coming toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, as we come toward God through Christ’s grace. And we do that “coming toward” God by means of hope.

I think it’s interesting that we begin the first Sunday in the new church year near the end of Mark’s gospel. Over the last few weeks, we heard Matthew’s version of Christ’s final teachings, and here we get Mark’s recollection of the same timeframe. Both accounts focus on the ‘end of the age’ or ‘end times.’

While these words sound apocalyptic, Jesus is making it clear that he isn’t predicting when the end will come – no one knows the day or the hour. That word “apocalypse” really means “revelation,” and this passage seems to obscure more than it reveals. So it might be more helpful to understand what Jesus is saying by remembering he is actually talking about his own end, the completion of his own ministry on earth.

One clue that we should hear this as a farewell discourse is the way Jesus uses so many imperative verbs: learn, beware, keep awake, be alert. Christ is giving instructions for his disciples to follow after he is gone. Paul does the same thing in his late writings. So perhaps we should take these words of Jesus personally, because he is speaking to all his disciples, and that includes us here and now. 

So what does it mean to “keep awake” as we wait for Christ’s return? How do we demonstrate our hope for Christ’s coming with alert anticipation? The first Sunday in Advent is traditionally called the Sunday of Hope. Where do we find hope in these difficult times? How can we see light breaking into our darkness?

The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t fortune tellers, they were truth tellers. They didn’t predict the future so much as they announced God’s presence in times when people couldn’t see it for themselves. The prophets showed God’s people where to find the light when they despaired in darkness.

We are in a time that seems quite dark. I used to check the COVID Situation Update website every day – now I don’t want to know how bad it is, how many more deaths there have been, how many more people are sick – because now I know some of those people. They aren’t statistics any more; they are friends and family.

We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Remember when we hoped things would get better soon enough we could celebrate Easter together? And then we hoped for summer to settle things down.

By October, we were struggling with decisions to cancel or limit traditional Fall activities like a bazaar or trunk-or-treat. Now we are so tired of being vigilant, so weary of staying isolated, so stressed that – even in our weariness – we can’t sleep through the night. Where has our hope gone? Some have given up, and abandoned safety measures altogether. Others have given up and slipped into depression. Where is the light shining into our darkness?

Part of the problem is that, while we know we must keep alert and be ready, we have no idea when Christ will come. These months and months, which we all thought back in March would be maybe a few weeks, have given us an opportunity to train for this kind of alert anticipation.

In the first few weeks of closing businesses and events, we learned how to pace our response to the COVID virus spread, realizing we were heading into a marathon, not a sprint. We learned to curb our anxiety as we sheltered in place. We found ways of adapting our normal routines to maintain safe distances from others, while we washed our hands and put on our masks. We became more disciplined. We started to pay better attention to others.

This is exactly the kind of ‘being awake’ Jesus asks of us. Instead of fear and worry, we respond with discipline and compassion. “There’s a difference between “keep awake” because everything is out of your control, you can’t fix most of what happening, and it’s getting downright scary—and “keep awake” because God never ceases to be at work, the Spirit is doing a new thing, and you don’t want to miss any of it!” (Diane Strickland)

In today’s epistle reading, Paul greets us with those familiar words we hear every Sunday: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” and we wonder if he knew, nearly 2000 years ago, just how much we would need to hear those words now.

Then Mark interrupts again with the admonition to “Keep awake!” Another way to translate this is “Be awake” – Jesus isn’t telling us to wake up from sleep, but to stay alert. Be in a state of readiness. When Christ comes – and we learned last week in the parable of the sheep and goats that Jesus comes when we least expect him, in ways we least expect him, and through people we least expect to bear his image – but when Christ comes, we are to be ready for him, because he does come. Your hope is in the Christ who comes to you in the here and now, bringing light into your darkness, calling you out of despair and weariness into his strength and peace.

Four times in this passage, Jesus says, “Be awake.” He doesn’t say, ‘drowsily prop your eyelids open’ or even “wake up!” with a jolt. He says, ‘remain in a state of readiness, of eager anticipation for the joy that is to come. Live in hope.’

Hope gives us the fuel we need to stay alert. Hope gives us the energy to remain ready to welcome Christ into our midst. It is hope that keeps us awake and rested.

Have you ever watched a Texas A&M football game? Did you notice the entire student body standing for the entire game? The spirit of the “12th man on the team” goes back to 1922, when the Aggies had suffered so many injuries, there was no one left on the bench. One version of the legend says that a student jumped down from the bleachers to take the field when the next injury occurred, running in the final touchdown to win the game.

The facts aren’t quite that dramatic. E. King Gill had recently left the football team to concentrate on basketball. He was at the game that day, and put on an injured player’s uniform, standing on the sidelines for the entire game in case another player might get injured. But he never had to go in. The Aggies rallied and won the game, and from that time on, the student body stands throughout each game, partly to honor Gill’s selflessness, but also to demonstrate their readiness to hit the field if needed.  

This is the kind of ‘staying awake’ Jesus asks of us. It’s the kind of alert attention that anticipates victory, and remains willing to participate at any moment. Over the next four weeks, we will celebrate Advent in ways we never have before. Traditions we hold dear will be laid aside, as we look for the light of Christ to shine into us in a new way. We need to be awake to see that light. And there’s another kind of alert wakefulness that demonstrates our hope as we move from darkness into Christ’s light. A mom was driving along when her 8-year-old asked,” Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?” “No, not in the car! Why do you have confetti in your pocket?” the mom asked. Her 8-year-old answered, “It’s my emergency confetti. I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.” (private Facebook post)

As we move from darkness to light during this season of Advent, this time of ‘coming toward,’ may your hope be anchored in the good news that Jesus comes, just as he promised, and when he comes, he hopes for something, too. He hopes you will be alert, that your supply of emergency confetti will be ready to announce his coming.

November 29, 2020 Advent 1B