Saturday, October 13, 2018

Sermon Sketches: Joshua 24:1-18 ~ Promised Land Living: Remembering

When our oldest child, Jesse, was just a toddler, we began a tradition at birthdays: we would tell “the story.” We would tell the story of the day/night our child was born. Jesse’s begins, “Your Nana was visiting to help Mom with the new baby. That Monday evening, Mom was upstairs, tired from cleaning the kitchen all day....” Meg’s begins, “Dad was at work at the college, and Mom was getting her morning shower when all of the sudden....” And, Andrew’s begins, “We decided to go out for supper because Mom had determined that all the shelves in the kitchen needed to be re-papered...that day! The kitchen was still a mess when we left for Cracker Barrell...” Now, even though our children are all adults, after we’ve had the cake, they will urge us, “Tell the story, tell the story....” And we do.

Joshua and the people of Israel are about to take up permanent residence in the Promised Land. They have come through the wilderness. They have battled hunger, thirst, depression, and armies. God has brought them to where they are, and Joshua reminds them of this. You see, they are about to make it to their goal. They are about to settle in. And, if they don’t remember where they’ve come from, they won’t remember who they are. If they don’t remember how they got to this place, they may not remember who to worship in the future. So, Joshua tells them the story...again. Listen to the story:

Joshua 24:2-13

They are where they are because God has been with them. They are free from the slavery of Egypt because of what God has done for them. They are in this new land—new to them—and they are taking up residence without having to build, reaping harvest without having to plant...all because of the work of God. Then must remember the story if they are going to live well in this land.

How often do we remember our story—our story as a congregation? Where did we come from? How did we get to where we are today? What and who made possible this congregation, this sanctuary, the ministries of this church? Listen to a story:

1749 – The city of Camargo is established on the southern side of the Rio Grande by Jose de Escandon.
1751 – A flood ravages the town of Camargo, and many residents move to the north side of the River. This new settlement is first called Rancho Carnestolendas, then Rancho Davis...and eventually Rio Grande City.
1848 – The north side of the River becomes territory of the United States after the Mexican-American War.
1859 – Henry Clay Davis, founder of the newly established Rio Grande City, requests a minister from the West Texas Conference, and Rev. Oliver Adams is appointed to the “Brownsville-Rio Grande Circuit.” Methodists meet in homes for prayer, singing and Bible-study.
1875 – The first Methodist pastor is appointed to Rio Grande City—Rev. Clemente Vivero. Methodists continue to meet in homes for services.
1878 – Land is purchased for a sanctuary--$75!
1882 – A sanctuary is built; an identical sanctuary is built for the Mexican Methodists in Camargo.
               Doors – Left for the men to enter and right for the women to enter!
               Bell – forged in 1856; purchased for the congregation by Mr. J.P. Kelsey
1917 – First parsonage built next to church.
1943 – Two-story annex constructed (during WWII) – educational space.
1947 – First bilingual Methodist service initiated – English-speakers still meeting in homes are invited to join Spanish-speakers.
1950 – Brick parsonage built next to church.
1972 – Dr. M.J. Rodriguez dies and his family (members of the church) sell the Rdz. Mem. Hospital to the church for $8000 – Education Building.
1974 – Third parsonage built (the “old parsonage.”)
1979 – Congregations splits—primarily Anglo members leave to form new congregation in the Southwest Texas Conference. St. John UMC is born.
2007 – Church purchases Palm Circle home—fourth parsonage.
2009 – Congregation celebrates sesquicentennial – 150 years.
2015 – English-language conference (Southwest Texas Conference) and Spanish-language conference (Rio Grande Missionary Conference) unite to form the Rio Texas Conference.
2016 – Administrative Council closes the Methodist Day Care and converts Education Building into the Methodist Community Center
·       Wesley Nurse Program – serving the underserved
·       Community Counselor – counseling services for individuals, couples, families
·       Nuestra Clinica del Valle – health-related services for community
·       Driskell Health Care – program for first-time mothers 
2019 - ....?

Two things strike me as I look over this history, a history compiled by our beloved Mrs. Olga Saenz. First, our ancestors in the faith did whatever was necessary. They built the Annex during WWII because there was a need for educational space. This was during a time of rationing, a time of scarcity. But, the need was there, so they built it. In 1974, they built the ‘old parsonage’...and do you know how they paid for it? They held a big dinner every November—someone donated a small cow to be slaughtered and cooked; members brought all the veggies from their gardens—and by selling these food-plates, they paid for it.

The second thing I see (or don’t see) are all the years that aren’t mentioned, all those years when nothing ‘notable’ happened. Very important things were happening in those years. On our timeline, we have 14 or 15 years mentioned...of the 159 years of our history! What happened in those other 144 years? I’ll tell you: the people called Methodist gathered, and they prayed, and they worshiped, and they gave, and studied Scripture, and they encouraged one-another, and they invited friends and neighbors to know God and to know this congregation, and they worked, and they painted, and they repaired, and they witnessed, and they loved, and they cared. In short, they were the Church...everyday, everywhere they went. Oh...and they? They is we. This is our story.

Joshua called the people to remember who they were because they were about to dive into the daily business of life. They needed to remember who and Whose they were. Before they got there, they needed to make a conscious decision about their identity. Before the tribes separated and when to their assigned holdings, they needed to remember their common identity.

Before stepping out into any grand endeavor, it would do us well to remember who we are and where we have come from. Before that young person goes off to college, maybe Mom and Dad should sit down and tell them the story. Before that young man or woman goes off to serve in the armed forces, parents should sit down and tell the story. Before that little one gets on the bus for that first day of school, that would be a good time to tell the story. Then evening before that son or daughter makes those wedding vows, that’s a good time to tell the story. And, today, as we stand before 2019, it was a good time to tell the story.

While there is no assigned time in the church calendar for remembering our congregational story, what if we determine that on second Sunday of October every year we will tell the story; we will remember who we are and Whose we are? And then, on this day each year, the minister will read aloud the words of Joshua—those powerful, decisive words:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
And all the people will respond:

“Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We, too, will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
We will honor and remember our story and all of those who have gone before us.

Still, my brothers and sisters, this story—the Joshua story—is only the beginning. We have another story to tell as well—the story of our encounter with Jesus, like the story Paul told that we heard in our New Testament reading this morning (Acts 26:1-18)—but, that story must wait until another day.

Let us remember today what God has brought us through and this moment that God has brought us to. And, let us endeavor to go forward faithfully in this place of promise as God’s people. Someday, years from now, someone will be here telling our story...and it will be their story. Let's give them a good story to tell!


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sermon Sketches: Genesis 19:3-8a ~ God's Promises: A New Identity

We continue to leap through the grand story of God’s people in the Old Testament. From Abraham a few weeks ago, we jumped to his great-grandson, Joseph the dreamer, in Egypt. Joseph eventually becomes one the of the leaders of Egypt and his family—those brothers who sold him into slavery and his father—all join him there (by the way, those dreams all came true.) Time passes, the government changes, and soon the favored people became the disfavored people—the people of Abraham, the children of Jacob, became slaves. God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom, and back to the land of promise. At the beginning of the great exodus, God carries the people through the Red Sea and destroys the Egyptian army that is in hot pursuit. Today, we find God’s people and their leader, Moses, at Mt. Sinai—that symbol of God’s presence.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to be someone else, to be someone different from who you are? Perhaps we've all fantasized at times about moving far away and making a clean start, getting a new identity. God, too, wants to give us a new identity. It's not that God made a mistake in who we are--we make the mistakes. Perhaps we could say it better like this: God wants to remind us of who we are and of the amazing relationship we can have with our Creator.

Our focus is Exodus 19:5-6: Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

We find here one of the several “If..., then....” promises of God, found throughout Scripture, promises that are predicated on our activity, our attitudes, our behavior. Some of God’s promises are conditional.

Of course, we know some things are unconditional in this world—
  • God’s love for us.
  • A parent’s love and care for their child (or, this should be unconditional.)
  • Our Christian disciplines and holy habits—we do these regardless of God’s response, or should.
  • The proper execution of our jobs—we do what we’re hired to do...regardless of feelings, people, etc.
But, a lot of things in this world are conditional. In the freshman composition course I teach at the local community college, the grades are conditional— “If you show up and do the work, you will pass the class.” Promotions in the work-place are usually conditional— “If you meet the standard and go beyond, if you put in the hours, if you bring in the money, you will be promoted....” Sometimes, we do have conditional relationships— “Hey, Bro., can I borrow your amazing ‘flower-power’ t-shirt for the concert in the park tomorrow?” Bro: “Sure, I guess so...if you cut the grass for me this afternoon.” And, of course, even those unconditionally loving parents can be conditional— “Dad, can I borrow the car?” Dad: “If you clean your room, take out the trash for your mom, and make a ‘B’ on that Math test tomorrow, yes.”

About those conditional promises: Often times, people—parents, bosses, teachers—are striving to instill positive disciplines in those seeking favor. They want to teach us that nothing is ‘free’ in life. They have good intentions, but we tend to want everything for nothing. Others simply want to control and manipulate—to get what they can out of us. So, what is God up to here? What is this conditional promise about?

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

When I give my college students that beginning-of-the-semester promise—if you show up and do the work, you will pass the class—I am not promising to actually do anything myself. I’m making a declaration of what the results of their own actions will lead to. I do not say, “If you show up and do the work, I will pass you.” Rather, I say, “ will pass the class.” This is a conditional promise that seeks to establish behaviors that will result in something positive for the person who embraces them. And, God seems to be speaking in the very same way:

     “...If you obey..., will be....”

It’s not, “I will make you to be....” Rather, you will simply be this because of your obedience and covenant keeping. Your doing these things will result in something positive. You will become something different for having done these things. In fact, if you do these things, we--God and human--will have a new relationship, and we humans will have a new identity--treasured, priests, holy nation.

Of course, Moses takes this back to the people, and they—with the best intentions, I’m sure—say, “Yeah! We’ll do it!” And, as we follow the story of these people, all through the wilderness wanderings, they continually renege on the deal...a practice they carry on through the conquest of Canaan, the Kingdoms...all the way to the dissolution of Israel. A kingdom of priest and a holy nation they never really became...because they could not or would not live up to the conditions of the covenant.

But, that is not the end of the story. In fact, God did get that kingdom, that nation.

In the New Testament, Peter writes, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (I Peter 2:9-10).

So, God just did it, just made it happen anyway? What about the conditional covenant? Well, none of that changed. To this very day, the condition is still there, “If..., then....” So how does this work?

Romans 8:1-3 provides the answer: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Granted, Paul is a bit thick in his writings at times, but the clarity of what we find we find in vs.3-4 is unquestionable: “ sending his own Son...condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us....” In other words, God has allowed Jesus to be the one who obeys and keeps covenant in our place and gives us the privilege becoming “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.”

Again, we aren’t made to be these so we can sit back on our chosen, royal, holy and special back-sides to enjoy our 'specialness;' we are made these things so we can “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are made into this people, priesthood, nation so that we can declare God’s grace, love, forgiveness and mercy to a world starving for forgiveness, love...for a second chance.

So, how many of us are living into our identity? How many of us live as chosen, royal, holy and special people? I wonder if many of us are not living like the almost-broke, aimless fellow on the streets who doesn’t know he’s been given an inheritance, title, lands and more. Worse, we know we’re children of God, and we still choose to live aimless, loveless, empty lives.... Today is a good day to change that!

Christ has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. On this World Communion Sunday, we come to the Table to remember—and to celebrate!—the love of God shown to us through the Son, Christ Jesus our Lord...and may it be a time we determine to live into our God-given identity.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sermon Sketches ~ Gen. 39:1-23--God with Us.

How easy it is, when no one is looking, when no one is do just what we want to do. No one will miss a few items from the storage room when there are so many things in there; no one will notice some food items missing from pantry, it’s so full; no one will catch that I misrepresent my assets on my income tax return; no is going to see me cheat on this exam; no one is going to see what happens when I’m out of town—after all, "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." That’s the attitude that we have far too often...and how far from the truth we have wandered.

Joseph has been through some hard times. If anyone deserves to have a chip on his shoulder, it’s Joseph. Sure, he had those amazing dreams of his brothers all bowing down to him. That didn’t settle well in the family. Then, Dad (Jacob) gives the boy this crazy-wild outfit to wear...and that only makes the brothers more jealous and angry. Finally, they’ve had enough and decide to kill the boy. Now that is jealous and angry to an insane degree! But, one brother intervenes—"let’s just sell the guy into slavery and tell the family he’s dead;” that way, no search party...and he’ll be gone forever. Out in the pasture, they toss Joseph in a deep well, rip and shred his precious cloak and splatter it with blood from a sheep they slaughter for supper, and then take the cloak home to show that Joseph has been killed by some wild animal. And Joseph is gone.

When we read the stories of the dreams, Joseph doesn’t seem braggadocios—at least not in my reading. He seems rather matter-of-fact in the whole thing, and he is not recorded as droning on and on about it. He has a dream, tells the dream...and moves on. Does he deserve the hatred his brothers have for him? Probably not that degree of hatred. So, he’s sold into slavery...and ends up in Egypt where a fellow named Potiphar buys him and brings him home.

Young, healthy, handsome Joe is not only strong and able; he has a good mind. He organizes. He plans. And, he has a way with people—there are some leadership qualities there. Soon, Potiphar puts Joe in charge of the household—over the other slaves, over purchases, upkeep. He holds the keys to home. He does his job well. He doesn’t take a little here and a little there. He doesn’t turn away when other slaves are out of line—he corrects them. He is what we would call a man of integrity.

Integrity has been defined and articulate in various ways:

Merriam-Webster defines integrity as 1) a firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values, 2) an unimpaired condition, and 3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided.

Others have said...

 “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”   ― Oprah Winfrey

 “One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.” —Chinua Achebe

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.”  ― Abraham Lincoln

Integrity is the teenager in California who this week found a purse beside the road that contained $10,000...and took it to the police station and saw it returned to the owner.

Integrity is the politician who graciously concedes defeat and walks away.

Integrity is not taking advantage of people, situations, and laws...just because you can.

Integrity is selecting the best person for the job rather than the person who’s related to so-n-so. (And integrity is firing the person who is not doing the job.)

Integrity is as simple as the person who promises to be there, who gets through with work after a long day and is tired...but shows up anyway because he or she promised to be there.

Oh, to have people of this character in public life today!

Joseph adhered firmly to code of living, he allowed nothing to impair him, and he was complete and undivided in his determination. And, not even the mistress of the house was going to deter him from his path of life, his way of living.
     “Joe, come...let me show you something.”
     “Joe, you look tired—just lie down here with me a while.”
     “Joe, no one is around, no one will know. Potiphar won’t be home for hours.”
Joseph’s response? “No.” And he said “no” over and over and over.

Why? What led to this firmeza de conciencia (strength of conscience)? Could be that Joseph was keenly aware of what we see over and over again throughout this narrative, a truth that comes through time and again in Scripture? At the beginning and end of this passage, we hear “...the Lord was with him....” Could it be that Joseph was very aware that God was with him...there...and everywhere? Could it be that he learned something powerfully important in his experiences—that at the bottom of that well he sensed God’s presence with him? As he trudged along beside the other slaves headed for Egypt, did he feel God was with him? As brought order to Potiphar’s home, did he know God was with him...right there, with him?

The Psalmist sings of this presence, this inescapable presence of God, in Psalm 139 (NIV):
Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Wherever Joseph goes, God is there. When Joseph is part of the slave caravan, God is there. When he is in Potiphar’s house, God is there. When he is thrown into prison, God is there.
When we get to the New Testament, God is there as well. In fact, God breaks into our world in a new and amazing way:

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:23).
In Jesus, God with us...God now walks among us.

Wherever we go, God is with us. When we are enslaved to addictions, God is there. When we’re home or at work or in between, God is there. When we are imprisoned in difficult situations or relationships, God is there. No matter what seemingly bottomless well we think we’re stuck in, no matter what strange situation, no matter how distant we may be from all that is comfortable and known, God is with us.

Perhaps knowing God was there is what gave Joe the courage to remain true, to do the right thing. Perhaps that idea that “no one will see” or “no one will know” is simply a lie we tell ourselves—because God is there. God is with us! God is with us and God loves us.

Too often, we imagine that if God is there, God is standing over us, waiting for us to screw up so punishment can be dealt. I think of Jesus...walking beside me. I think of Jesus, laughing, talking, interested in me, in you. He walks with us not to “catch” us; rather, Jesus walks with us because he loves being with us, he wants to share life with us...and, he wants to help us to live well, to live lives of love and care, to live with integrity.

Integrity is seeing those people, places, attitudes, beliefs and activities in our lives that are out of line, out of character, with who we are as Christians and deciding to remove them from our lives. Easy? NO. Not at all. If it were, we’d all be people of integrity all the time—integrity feels a lot better than the cheating, stealing, defrauding, lying, playing-favorites self. But, God with us! The Spirit of Christ is with us to help us, encourage us, cheer us towards a life of greater and greater integrity. Do you need to make changes? God invites us to a life of integrity. We can do what’s right, we can live well, because God is with us, empowering us to live that way, God’s way. 


(Sermon Sketches are the bare bones of sermons that are 'in-process' around the mid-week mark. I invite readers to build on what I've written, make suggestions, and ask questions.)

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Church Strong – Making Disciples

               One of my students, Karina, was telling me that she enjoys making tamales. She learned from her ‘abuelita’ (grandmother). She would stand beside her and watch. She asked her grandma why she did certain things, what spices were added. She watched as her abuelita mixed the ‘masa’ (dough) She watched as her grandma cooked the beans, chicken, or beef that went inside. She watched as the masa was spread in the dried corn husk, filled with meat or beans, rolled up and placed in the pot. As she got older, her abuelita put her to work, had her doing parts...adding spices...stirring this...mixing that. Today, Karina is in her early 20’s. She says, “Yeah, I can make a really good tamale...almost—almost! —as good as Abuelita’s.”

               Karina learned by watching, listening, practicing and asking questions. In fact, as I thought about it, that’s how anyone becomes proficient in a practice of any sort. Think about it—doctors, mechanics, artists and teachers all become proficient by doing the same things. Doctors spend a time as residents—after all the book learning—when they shadow veteran doctors. Mechanics go to work in a shop and watch and listen and try and learn. Artists watch and try and watch and learn. Teachers do the same—after classes are done, it’s time for that three-month “student teaching” when the student teacher works with and learns from a seasoned teacher.

               The mission of the United Methodist Church is clearly stated: 

        To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world

We could spend hours taking this a part; it’s a rich statement and a high bar we’ve set. But, it’s a thoroughly biblical bar. So, for today, let’s just take those first few words—to make disciples. How does one make a disciple? Well, just like all the things we mentioned above, only a disciple can make a disciple.

               We find disciples in the Gospels. They were those men and women (yes, there were women disciples) who walked with Jesus—watching, listening, questioning, and doing. At times, they didn’t understand the parables— “Lord, explain what you mean....” At times, Jesus sent them pairs to the surrounding villages. For three years, they were there by his side listening, listening, learning, learning.

               There is a mistaken idea in many corners of the Church today that we are called to be Christians. The idea goes something like this: A person hears the Gospel and believes or accepts the message; that person prays a prayer (“Lord, forgive me; come into my heart....”); they are then baptized and recite the vows of membership...and voila! —they are now a Christian and they are done. First of all, this might be the FIRST steps of a life of faith, but this certainly isn’t the end. Then, in the Gospels, following Jesus doesn’t look anything like this. Following Jesus (being a Christian) is all about being a disciple—learning, listening, watching, reading, questioning, doing.

               And, being a disciple involves making disciples. Just take a look at Matt. 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8. These are some of the last things that Jesus says to his disciples, to us, and it all involves making disciples, sharing the story.

               As disciples today, we keep an eye on the Gospel and an eye on one another. We watch Jesus and we watch those who have been walking with Jesus longer. We listen to Jesus and we listen to those who have listened longer than we have. We question Jesus and we question those who have questioned Jesus through the years. We begin to live the changed, transforming lives that God calls us to. This is how we BE disciples. And at some point along the way, someone is watching, listening and questioning us...and we begin to MAKE disciples—to invite people to live that changed, transforming life that God calls us all to.

               For the last four weeks, we looked at those holy habits—prayer, presence, giving, service. We insist that when we make these habits part of our lives, we have a Church Strong...and we have stronger lives of faith. But, why? What for? Why do we want a ‘church strong’? Why do we want stronger lives of faith? So we can be disciples and make disciples for the transformation of the world.

               Will you commit to being a disciple—to learning from, watching, listening to Jesus who transformed you and me through his life and death and resurrection? And, then will you make disciples? Keep coming, keep gathering, keep being present, keep praying, keep giving and keep serving...and God will give you the wisdom and ability and the opportunity to share your faith with others—for the transformation of the world.


A Church Strong – Talents

               My friend James was on a flight from Dallas to Raleigh when the fellow sitting beside him slowly leaned over and collapsed on James’ lap. James is an officer in the US Army. He has seen combat in Afghanistan and served in several over-sees settings. And, he’s a medical doctor. He immediately sat the man up and checked his pulse. None. By this time, the flight attendant was there and they maneuvered the man into a prone position on the floor of the aircraft. James administered CPR. Soon, the fellow was breathing again. The story ends well. At the end of the flight, the James walked the man off the plane to his awaiting family. James says that the best he could determine was that the fellow had had a ‘cardiac event.’

               James has a gift—he’s a physician. He understands the human body and how it works. He knows what chemical compounds will have what effect on the body. He knows how to increase the likelihood of healing. He has a gift that most of us don’t have. If I were flying from Dallas to Raleigh and had a ‘cardiac event,’ I’d want James beside me!

               We all have talents, gifts, abilities, skills. Some are born with these things—they just have a “knack” for something. Some work for or earn these things—they put in the time, the hours, the practice. Some are God-given, divine—God gifts us for the work we’re called to.

               The Apostle Paul writes especially about this last category—gifts given by the Spirit of God to the people of God. Every Christian, everyone who has received the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, through faith has been gifted by God. Take a look at I Cor. 12:1, 4-6. Different gifts are given to different people—and only God knows why one receives one gift and someone else receives another.

               However, one thing is clear—we don’t receive gifts so we can be better people. God does not give us gifts so I can be a better me. Rather, I Cor. 12:7 points out that “the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Not for my good—for the common good...the good of all.

               What would have happened if James responded to the situation on the plane like this: “ know, I’m an Army doctor, so, I just do my doctor-thing when I’m on base, in uniform. Sorry....” What would happen to my friend, Marcos, if when he got home the A/C goes out and his wife asks him to work on it, and he responds, “Oh, I do HVAC at work; not at home. I’m tired....”

               How many skilled, gifted, talented people DO take that attitude? We have educators, accountants, organizers, singers, painters, electricians, musicians, cooks, gardeners...people with the gifts of wisdom, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, guiding, encouragement, giving, generosity, hospitality, leadership, mercy. And how often do these gifted and talented people separate their lives into compartments, drawing lines—this is my work; I don’t do this at church. This is my spiritual gift that I use at church; I don’t do this in the community. What has happened to the idea of ‘common good’? Why do we not use our gifts, talents and abilities everywhere we can?! Imagine how strong our congregation would be! Imagine how our communities would be impacted!

               So, let’s remember yet again those words we’ve read several times already over the last few weeks:

Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?

Our service—our use of talents, gifts and abilities—is to be a habit in our Christian lives. Sadly, all too often people do not bring their gifts and talents to the church. And, sadly, all too often the church has been possessive, guarded...not allowing everyone to bring their service to the church. If our congregation has been this way, please forgive us. From this day forward, we are the ‘open’ congregation God meant for us to be, and we want you to bring your gifts and talents to the needs of this fellowship. (If you are interested in knowing more about ‘spiritual gifts,’ just let us know—we have an inventory/worksheet that can point you in the right direction...)
When we serve out of our strengths—our gifts and talents, we have a Church Strong...and our lives of faith are stronger as well.


Sometimes the sermons we preach do something to us, something we don’t expect. The preaching of this sermon actually changed the trajectory of my life. Because of this sermon, I really examined my life—my talents, skills, abilities—and asked if I was actually using my gifts and abilities for the ‘common good.’ I was not. I have determined to do things differently, to use my gifts and talents in ways that impact more people in more places. I’m grateful that God spoke to me in this way. God has again transformed my life!

A Church Strong – Giving

               Do you remember in high school or college when your first ran into that famous equation that Einstein gave us: E=MC2? Energy (E) equals mass (M) times speed of light squared (C2). Ronald Laskey explains this for us in an article found in Scientific American:

Consider a cubic hollow box at rest in space with sides of length D and a mass of M. This box is also symmetrical in its mass distribution. One of the faces inside the box is coated with a fluorescing material, and, at a given moment, a photon (i.e., a particle of light) is emitted from that material, perpendicular to its surface. The momentum of this photon causes the box to move in the opposite direction as the photon, and it continues to move until the photon hits the opposite wall. During this time the box moves a very small distance, Δx.
Newton's laws of mechanics tell us that the center of mass cannot move, because the box has not been acted upon by an outside force. However, in order to keep the center of mass constant, since the box has moved, some mass must have been transferred from the fluorescing side of the box to the absorbing side in the process of generating the photon and its striking the opposite side. Therefore, the photon must have a mass, m.
What? Feeling a bit lost? This is a bit complicated, right? Somethings in this amazing world are incredibly complicated. God’s plan for the Church with regard to giving is NOT.

               When Abraham runs in the high priest Melchizedek in Genesis, Abraham hands over 10% of his goods as act of worship and good faith. In Exodus, as the people of Israel cross the wilderness to the Promised Land, the Law—Torah—is handed down and they are to bring a tenth of their goods to God. In Deuteronomy, we find a shift from a barter/goods economy to a cash society—in 14:22ff, God calls for a tithe, but allows that the distance may be too great to carry the goods, so they can convert the good into silver and bring that to Temple. And, of course, Malachi makes things very clear:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. (Mal.3:10)
               This idea of 1/10, 10% or a tithe was so clearly understood, such an ingrained part of the people’s understanding, that when Jesus comes preaching in the New Testament, he never has to mention how much. He reminds them of the blessing (Luke 6:38). When Paul writes to the congregations scattered around the Mediterranean (many of the people Jews of the Diaspora), again, the focus is never on ‘how much,’ but on the attitude (II Cor. 9:6-11).

               Today, most of the people who grew up in and around the Church know—they KNOW—that the starting point, the basic expectation for giving, is 10%, 1/10th, a tithe of our income. (Some folks are curious about whether this is pre- or post-tax. The rule of thumb in our house is simple—10% of what we receive.)

               So why don’t more Christians actually give 10%? Studies have been done that show that most Protestant Christians give 3-4% of their income. The numbers go up to around 6-7% for just Pentecostals. One of the interesting phenomena is that poorer people and poorer groups tend to give a higher percentage of their income. That’s something to think about. So, why don’t more Christians bring a tithe to God?

               Fear. Unbelief. Distrust. When we don’t do what God asks us to do, we are basically saying, “I don’t believe God’s Word; I don’t trust God to do what the Bible says God will do.” Yet, God could not be more clear— “...bring the tithe...and test me.” Wow. That’s a challenge! And, I’ll second it. Before my wife and I married, we discussed finances...and we decided 1) to put all our money in one account and 2) that we would always tithe—no matter what. The tithe comes off the top, from the front. We don’t wait to see what we have at the end; the first money out is the tithe. In 28+ years, God has always provided what we need. So, God’s Word challenges us, and I lay down the challenge as well—do what God asks us to do, and see if God does not provide and bless you. What the blessing looks like, how God provides—that, we don’t know and can’t guess. But, never in 28 years have my wife or I said, “I wish we hadn’t tithed this month....”

               Giving is one of the holy habits of Christians, a habit that builds our faith and trust, and leads to a Church Strong. Let’s open our hymnals once again to page 48:

Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?

We pray for our church—asking God to break-through with new visions and dreams, new avenues and places of ministry.

We are present with one another—encouraging one another in love and to do good works.

We bring our gifts, we give—we give out of habit, as part of the rhythm of our lives—because God has called us to and because through our gifts our congregations touch lives here and around the world.

If you have not given before, decide today to begin giving. If you give some from time to time, decide today to give regularly. If you give regularly but you’ve never tried to tithe, take God up on the challenge and determine to tithe for two, three, six months—and see if God’s Word is true.

When we embrace these holy habits, our own faith grows stronger...and we have a part in building a Church Strong.


A Church Strong – Presence

               Actor/director Woody Allen—like him or not! —observed that “80% of life is showing up.”

               Over the years, I have talked with business owners and managers, and I have often asked them, “What is your greatest frustration?” The answer—workers or employees who don’t or won’t show up.

               We value ‘being present,’ showing up. Every school I know gives that coveted “perfect attendance” award (an award I never earned, he said sheepishly...). In our schools and in our culture, we value showing up.

               Often around town here and in other places we’ve lived, folks have had these big raffles. I almost bought a ticket when I was visiting my parents in south Alabama one time—I was absolutely certain, I felt it...I had a ‘premonition’ that this was it...I was going to win that brand-new BMW. I had my $10 in hand...and then I saw the small print: Must be present to win.

               I teach a couple of classes each semester at the local community college, and one thing I tell my students—I guarantee them! —is that if they will 1) show up and 2) turn in something every time something is due, they will pass my class. It’s that simple. Now, I don’t give anyone a grade—every grade is earned. But, what I learned long ago is that showing up matters. Just being in class every time almost ensures that the student is learning the material. So, with all confidence for the last nine years, I have told my students that if they just ‘show up’ and ‘do the work,’ they are guaranteed to pass my class. And it works—when they show up, they pass...earning every grade they get.

               Being present is really important. And, like prayer, presence is a matter of of those ‘holy habits’ that we find in our Methodist hymnals on page. 48. Let’s take a look:
          Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your  presence, your gifts, and your service?

               Where did these holy habits come from that we ask people to affirm as they are joining our congregations? They come from over 2000 years of Christian life and practice. They come from the Scriptures—seeing the habits and practices of Christians and other faithful followers of God through the ages. These are the habits that make for strong Christian lives...and for a Church Strong.

               In the Old Testament, in the Psalms, we hear the call to gather—Psalm 122:1 and Psalm 27:4. Jesus our Lord—our example, our guide—shows us that one of his holy habits was gathering with God’s people—Luke 4:16a. And, we have that well-known admonition from the writer of Hebrews—10:23-25. When we read this last passage closely, we realize that it’s not about you or me. I don’t ‘gather’ and God doesn’t call me to ‘gather with others’ for me. Verse 24 calls us to “spur one another” and verse 25 tells us to “encourage one another.” We gather because we need each other. Our faith is strengthened we come together—we are better, stronger, and more faithful when we gather together.

               In a perfect world, when this holy habit, this ritual, is part of our rhythm of life, the question in the Christian household will not be, “Are we going to church today?” Rather, it will be, “What time are we leaving for church today?” The going, the gathering, will be presumed.

               These little rituals, rhythms and habits—like making the bed—sometimes seem small and insignificant. But, they can have a huge impact on our lives and the lives of others. Just 5 – 10 minutes in prayer for our congregation can make a difference. One hour of presence in worship with God’s people can impact the other 167 hours of your week in ways we cannot imagine.

               May we decide to make these our habits, and may God help us to live in new rhythms and rituals. Our lives of faith will be made strong...and we will have a Church Strong.