Archive for the ‘Sermon’ Category

Message given at Sixty-First Avenue UMC, Nashville, Tennessee

When my daughter started 1st grade, the school allowed parents to walk the child to their classroom on the first day. When I got there, Marissa wouldn’t turn loose of my hand! Each time I tried to leave, she started to cry out, so I just stayed there. While the teacher took roll, while she began lessons, up until recess. We walked outside and I was trying to tell her that she would be ok without me. A little girl who had just moved to Mississippi from Mexico came up and without saying a word, pried Marissa’s fingers off my hand and taking Marissa’s hand, led her to the playground.

Have you ever suffered a problem that nobody seemed to understand? You may feel lonely and alone and frightened, even isolated. And then one person comes along who has experienced something similar themselves and suddenly you don’t feel alone anymore. Cinthia, the little girl from Mexico, knew what it was like to be scared in a new place and she understood what Marissa was feeling. She was in a position to help her like none of the other kids or even me, her mother, could.

A shared experience among people who are suffering is powerful. That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other similar groups often see powerful results…people who understand can help each other get to the next place in life.

Tonight we recognize World AIDS Day as we celebrate the first week of Advent. Tonight, we recognize that there are human beings among us, who understand our sufferings – and that Christ Jesus, who came and lived as God with us – Emmanuel – not only understands, but has broken through to the other side – so that one day all these present sufferings can be transformed to beauty. When we walk alongside Christ and those who seek to live in His light, everything changes.

According to the aids.gov website, “1 million are living with HIV in the U.S., 1 in 5 are living with HIV without knowing it, and 1 in 4 new HIV infections is among youth ages 13-24. Globally, 33.4 million are living with HIV/AIDS. While cases have been reported in all regions of the world, almost all those living with HIV (97%) reside in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.”

AIDS is a preventable, treatable disease, but a lack of awareness, knowledge and good practice has been at the root of its spread. I’d like to share a video now about the impact of AIDS on children in Africa, and how their newfound community has impacted their lives.

Watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjgF0u7Y3fU

Purity – the young girl in the video – found someone to help her – to walk alongside her – who understood her plight, and it impacted not only her life – but that of her whole community. Having someone who understands walk alongside you can make all the difference in the world. It can impact the path you take, the things you do along that path, and it can even build your character – the essence of who you are meant to be.

Tonight’s Scripture gives us a vision of what can happen when we walk alongside God:

Isaiah 2 1-5 The Message Isaiah got regarding Judah and Jerusalem:

 There’s a day coming

when the mountain of God’s House

Will be The Mountain—

solid, towering over all mountains.

All nations will river toward it,

people from all over set out for it.

They’ll say, “Come,

let’s climb God’s Mountain,

go to the House of the God of Jacob.

He’ll show us the way he works

so we can live the way we’re made.”

Zion’s the source of the revelation.

God’s Message comes from Jerusalem.

He’ll settle things fairly between nations.

He’ll make things right between many peoples.

They’ll turn their swords into shovels,

their spears into hoes.

No more will nation fight nation;

they won’t play war anymore.

Come, family of Jacob,

let’s live in the light of God.

This vision of how life will be impacts the individual and the community. For the individual, the vision is God: “show[ing] us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made.”

We’re made in the image of God. We’re made to be loving, grace-filled, gift-bearing, obstacle-overcoming, community-driven, creation-building creatures! Each and every one of us! When we walk alongside God, we can live that way – the way we’re made.

Have you ever had a problem with a piece of equipment that had to be reset back to manufacturer’s settings? Maybe it got bogged down with too many programs and didn’t have enough memory to operate! Sometimes we’re like that! We have to be reset to manufacturer’s settings so we can operate the way we were made to…in the image of God.

This Scripture also speaks to how we will live in community when we walk together alongside God: They’ll turn their swords into shovels, their spears into hoes. No more will nation fight nation; they won’t play war anymore.

Can you imagine no more war? Can you imagine the millions and trillions of dollars spent the world over making machines of war, instead making machines that create life? Food, shelter, education, health, meaningful work?

The Christian faith is based on God who created the universe, loved humanity so much, that when sin separated God from human, God sent Christ to become human – showing us the way that we should live – and overcoming death so that nothing could separate us from God again. Christians are people of hope, because if death can be conquered, isn’t all else possible?

Advent is that time of year that we think about God becoming human. God leaving the perfection of heaven to enter the realm that we live in – to experience the things we experience.

The lady I stayed with in the Philippines is from Seattle, Washington and she told me about a time when ladies from Africa came to stay with her. She said that their reaction to her home was interesting. The lady said, “Kristin – your home is so beautiful. You have a beautiful house, food, a lovely family. If I lived  here, I would never leave. Why would you come to Africa?”

We can ask God the same question – why would you have left Heaven to come here? Why would you want to experience the pain and suffering of others? Why would you put yourself in that position?

The answer is the same. Love. Love can take you to difficult places. And God loves you so much that God bears that pain. God’s love is beyond any love we can conceive. We see glimpses of it through stories from ZOE Ministry – where families are based on blood relatives, but on the blood of Christ that creates new family that walks alongside through pain and joy. We see glimpses of this love through people like Kristin who leaves the comfort of her home to go to uncomfortable places and be in ministry with strangers. We see glimpses of this love here at 61st Avenue – where people are planning and preparing to bring Christmas joy to children we may not meet till we all get to Heaven. But all the love we experience here, is just a fraction of the love that God has for us – it’s not dependent on us looking a certain way, speaking a certain language, living in a certain neighborhood or country, or being free of infectious diseases. God’s love blankets the world and includes you – no matter how unlovable you may feel at times. It’s a free gift…all we have to do is open our hearts and our hands.

Tonight we begin the walk towards the manger. It’s a walk that we don’t need to take alone. Remember – who we walk with can impact the direction we go, the things we do, and the character we become. During this period before December 25, commit to walking with the church. Praying and reading Scripture daily. Practicing the actions of the person you want to become. God will be with you in your practice, God will walk alongside.


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Tonight I want you to think of roadblocks. Things that get in the way – that stop you from going where you want to go, doing what you want to do , being who you want to be. Sometimes these roadblocks are physical things – perhaps disabilities, financial limits, you name it. Other times roadblocks are inside of us. Negative thinking, addictions, generational expectations – you know – limiting your own thinking because that’s the way your family’s always done it.

Roadblocks. Obstacles. Things that get in the way of us being who God calls us to be as people living an abundant, thriving life. That’s the focus tonight. But as we think about what limits us, we will also see how there is nothing that is insurmountable with the help and guidance of God. Let us pray.

Tonight’s scripture reading is from Mark 2:1-5, 12. You’ve heard the story before – about a paraplegic whose friends lowered him through a roof so he could be healed by Jesus. Remember the story? Before I read, I’d like you to think of this person – someone who didn’t have a motorized scooter to get around, wheelchair ramps, elevators, etc. This person, living in ancient times, would have lived a life on the ground most likely crawling to get anywhere on unpaved, rocky roads. This person would have relied on friends to carry him when necessary. Dignity would have been something long lost, but community would have been key to his daily survival.

Now think of his friends. These would be people whose efforts would have been tapped on a daily basis. People whose muscles were built up by carrying their friend, and whose food supply would have been diminished – not increased by their friend’s ongoing needs. Friends who had seen their friend suffer, and who wanted to help him in any way they could.

Now listen to the Scriptures:

1-5 After a few days, Jesus returned to Capernaum, and word got around that he was back home. A crowd gathered, jamming the entrance so no one could get in or out. He was teaching the Word. They brought a paraplegic to him, carried by four men. When they weren’t able to get in because of the crowd, they removed part of the roof and lowered the paraplegic on his stretcher. Impressed by their bold belief, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Son, I forgive your sins.”

(he looked now at the paraplegic), “Get up. Pick up your stretcher and go home.” And the man did it—got up, grabbed his stretcher, and walked out, with everyone there watching him. They rubbed their eyes, incredulous—and then praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”

Roadblocks. In this scripture, we can think of a few. The large crowd of people surrounding Jesus who made it difficult to get their friend through. Have you ever been to a concert or large public gathering? If you’re like me, you’re quick to just stand towards the back, rather than push my way forward. But these four men, carrying their friend on a stretcher didn’t give up. When they couldn’t see Jesus easily, they persevered, climbing to a higher spot, and getting to him any way they could. They persevered for their friend – maybe even he was uncomfortable and wanting to give up. Can you imagine hearing them concoct their plan to get on top of the house? What would you say if you were on that stretcher and someone wanted to climb on a roof with you? But something within them pushed them to give it their all – to be daring – and bold – to believe that healing would come, if they only made it through the roadblocks to the other side.

When you are down and out, what gives you strength? When you feel in your gut that you can’t go on, what pushes you to persevere? When roadblocks get in your way – internal and external – where do you turn? How do you get to a higher place to see Jesus?

Romans 8:26-28 tells us:

 26-28Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Isn’t that something? That the God of the universe would care so much about you and me, that he would yearn for us? When we can’t pray for ourselves, God is yearning for us – rooting for us –wanting the best for us. This is called prevenient grace – the grace that goes before us before we even know it.

Now God is not just yearning for us to acquire personal satisfaction – God is yearning for the world of which we are a part. God wants the whole world to experience abundant life. You and I are a part of that full creation. When you and I are made whole, the world around us is made better. In our thriving, the world around us becomes more alive. It’s not just individuals – it’s the whole world that is waiting salvation – wholeness – completeness – freedom from sin – freedom from roadblocks.

Romans 8:22 says:  “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

We are made for connection – that when you have what you need, I am better off as well. I’ve been reading a document this week that taps into this very subject – through an African concept called Ubuntu.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, who helped South Africans move peaceably away from segregation said,

“Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is God’s dream.”

We have personal responsibility in overcoming these roadblocks – in living into God’s dream – not just our own. We rejoice that the Holy Spirit prays for us – yearns for us – but that does not relieve us from our own responsibility. God’s grace empowers us to make different choices – to knock down roadblocks – for ourselves and for others – just like the friends in tonight’s scripture did.

Too often, we fight roadblocks with the wrong tools – tools that only create more roadblocks. We can look around us and see all kinds of examples.  We see political leaders around the world using language of hate and violence, when God’s world deserves unity and peace. We see celebrities gaining in celebrity status by drinking and engaging prostitutes, rather than using their God given gifts to inspire. And right around us, we see those we love go back to the very things that destroy them, rather than striving to live the life that God intended – a life not of chaos but of order – a life not of brokenness but of wholeness.

A friend of mine had knee replacement surgery this last week, and is spending time in a nursing home – going through physical rehabilitation. That is painful! The exercises that she has to do each day don’t feel good, yet if she doesn’t do them she will not be able to walk.

Isn’t it like that in our lives? We want to take the easy way out when we really need to put in the time, the effort, the exercise to get where we need to be – past those roadblocks. A disciple of Christ is always in rehab – sin is always ready to hold us back but our exercises keep us standing. We have to strive to thrive.

We have to exercise our spirits through prayer, scripture reading, worship, Holy Communion, doing things for others. We have to do the things that will make us stand up, take up our stretchers and walk.  God’s grace goes before us, the Holy Spirit walks alongside us, and the church – the great connection –  pushes us towards something far greater than ourselves – the kingdom of God.

Thurgood Marshall said,

“None of us has gotten where we are…by pulling ourselves up from our own bootstraps. We got here because somebody bent down and helped us.”

We do not walk alone. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


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Today is Mother’s Day – a day first celebrated as a national holiday in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson. Efforts had begun actually much earlier than that to get women everywhere to rise up for the efforts of peace. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, who had written the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War, wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. This, after she had worked with women, children and soldiers both Union and Confederate, having seen the devastating affects of war and having come to the conclusion that the two most important things are peace and equality…and seeing the world at war once again:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.”

Mother’s Day was not imagined by Julia to be a day where flowers were purchased and women were to be tenderly remembered for bedtime prayers and lullabies. It was a day where women would rise up to the full occasion of motherhood of the earth and all humanity to give birth to a season of peace.

As we remember this Mother’s Day– whether it be through flowers & chocolate, or by other means, let us call to mind Christ’s mother, her burden and her gift.

John 19:25-27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

This is a poignant story of adoption – adoption by a mother of a son and adoption by a child of a mother – Jesus last act of compassion for others before he gave up his spirit and embraced death on our account. The following verse begins, “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” Think about that…All was now completed…the joining of loved ones together so that they would have comfort in the days to come was Christ’s last act.

We have probably all heard the expression, “blood is thicker than water” – what does that mean to you?

By Christ’s blood, we are given a new meaning of “blood relatives.” We may or may not be related – us here in this room. We may not be first, second or third cousins – even twice removed! But by Christ’s sacrifice, we are blood relatives in an even more powerful way – one that stands the test of time – even throughout eternity.

To those present at the time of Christ’s death, this adoption meant that just because Jesus was dying, Mary’s motherhood was not over. Her son was dying on the cross and her agony must have been immense. Yet Christ knew part of her – the mothering part – would not die with his physical body, so he united her with one who would need care, the beloved disciple – the one whom Jesus had turned to and cared for and nurtured and the one who had followed and obeyed and loved. These two persons needed one another – because in losing one whom they both cared greatly for, they would also lose a part of themselves – a part that could only be restored through relationship.

Isn’t that still what Christ does in the world today? Restore us through relationship? Bring out the best in us, the gifts that God has given us that can only be fully revealed through relating to others?

John Wesley once said that there is no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. In the scripture read today, we see the need for connection – the need for us to be in relationship with each other. We cannot live the life of faith in seclusion or isolation! We each have a part to play in the creation of God’s kingdom on earth and we can only get there together!

So when we think back on our families…looking at how we were raised, how we are being raised, and how we are helping to raise others, we must expand that view to see that our roles as caregivers, nurturers, instillers of the faith are not limited to simply those whom we can trace in our family lineage.

We have a responsibility now to care and to be cared for by others. We must let God break into our midst and shed light on those who He seeks to connect us with as Christ did Mary and the beloved disciple.

Now I know that we can get off course sometimes can’t we? We get our sights set on doing things that seem right to us – that seem to be the logical thing to do – yet if we examine these things a little closer God may reveal to us that we are failing to do the very one thing that is the most important. Sometimes we focus more on institution than on kingdom…whether that institution be of family, of denomination, or of nationality. Sometimes we forget that Christ calls us to be blood relatives with all of humanity!

Years ago, I was working with a group of people on a project to create affordable day care for impoverished children. We kept meeting and meeting and meeting. And the meetings often involved talking about the building – which was necessary – but certainly not the main thing. One night in the midst of this planning, I had a dream…I dreamed that the building that was to house the daycare was in tiptop shape. I dreamed that when I entered the doors, there was a great celebration going on for those who had made this thing possible…who had made this building great…it was a policeman’s ball and there was dancing and eating – people even dancing on tables. But when I looked around, I remember wondering where the ministry was. There were no children present. I walked throughout the building only to find the children in a room to themselves, sitting on a wood floor with no toys, no supervision, isolated from the party – forgotten by those who celebrated their own accomplishments.

In our family, in our congregation, in our community, in our world, who now sits in a room by themselves? Who awaits the care that we as their blood relatives should give? What things can we do to create a Christian home, not just in the conventional, limited, institutional sense, but in a broader, kingdom sense, where the world is the home and Christ dwells within it?

There are people right here in Nashville who need mothering and to mother. Children whose birth mothers cannot care because of poverty or drugs or alcohol. Programs like the one at 61st Ave UMC that need tutors is one example. There are women who need to remember their motherhood because their sons and daughters have been lost to them – in war or illness or accident or miscarriage. There is a need for blood relatives here in Nashville!

There is a need for blood relatives in America! For us to get past the divisiveness of a nation that sometimes lives out of fear more than out of faith, so that we can live into the courage that God brings to unite us so that we may see one another as brothers and sisters regardless of age, nationality, or citizenship!

There is a need for blood relatives in the world! In Zimbabwe, where children are living on their own, as heads of household because they’ve lost both parents to AIDS, there is a need! And God has given us in this day and age a means by which to reach them physically and financially. We barely have to give them the scraps from our tables in order to make their lives sustainable.

There is a need for blood relatives everywhere we look. And if we listen, and if we look, Christ is right there among us, calling to unite us with one another so that through his suffering we may find peace, true peace in the union of souls bound by the sacred blood of God.

In praise to God, let us sing now with vigor the chorus to Battle Hymn of the Republic, as a prayer that God’s truth will truly march on…let us sing,

“Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on!”


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Reflections for Palm Sunday…on Sat night at 61st Ave UMC, Nashville, TN

Tonight is a special night. Many times we read the Scriptures…tonight we act them out – with the children parading in, waving palm branches and us shouting “hosanna” just as they did way back when. Tonight is a special night because we are nearing the end of a season in church life. Just as we have spring, fall, winter, and summer, the church has its own seasons and one of them is Lent. This 40-day period before Easter, prepares Christians to experience the depth of love that Christ shared on the cross.

At the beginning of this season, we marked ourselves with ashes – the sign of the cross on our foreheads. I thought about that night and how crossing lines on our foreheads should be a symbol of the way we live our lives as Christians. God calls us to go into new places and meet new people – to cross these artificial lines drawn to separate us instead of bringing us together. We cannot grow by staying on “our side” and there’s no Scriptural foundation for us even trying to do that. Jesus crossed all sorts of lines – eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts, visiting homes of and talking with people who were despised in their day. The ultimate hope of God is that all shall be brought in to His love and that we love one another in that way. God, who wants no stone unturned until all who are lost are found, calls us ultimately to the cross – the place where the ultimate lines were crossed – those lines between sin and redemption, love and hate, life and death.

This week – the week before Easter, which we call Holy Week, leads us to the cross, if we dare go there. We would of course rather go from the praises that we’ve just experienced directly to Easter and the resurrection. We’d rather not think about what Jesus went through in the days leading up to the cross. Oscar Wilde once said, “he who can look at the loveliness of the world and share its sorrow, and realize something of the wonder of both, is in immediate contact with divine things, and has got as near to God’s secret as any one can get.” That is where we are going tonight. To look at the sorrow of the world and God’s loveliness…drawing near to the Divine and experiencing God.

Someone asked me this week why, if people were so glad to see Jesus, they would kill him. He went on to say that Jesus had to have done something in between the praises and the crucifixion to get killed. I had not thought of it that way before, but Jesus did do something. Scriptures tell us that in between the praise and the cross, Jesus upset the way that people were doing things. Jesus went to the temple and threw out the “money changers”…those who were making a profit by selling “acceptable” sacrifices and creating a barrier for those who sought to honor God but who maybe didn’t have that kind of money. Money is power – at least in this world – and Jesus did not win any friends that day among those to whom money and profit was their best love.

Jesus had a history of challenging people’s love of money. He once told a parable about workers who were paid the same as others even though they had not worked as much. Of course, this (in our world) isn’t right! We’d rather people get what’s coming to them…if you’ve worked x amount of hours, then you need to get paid for that amount of hours. Just think – if we’ve worked hard all day, and someone else shows up at 4:45 and gets paid the same, we’d probably all be trying to pass some kind of legislation to make sure it didn’t happen again. Yet Jesus said that this is the way of God. God’s economy isn’t based on getting what you’ve worked for. God’s economy is based on a concept called grace…getting something for free out of love…not what you’ve earned. In fact, we even segment a verse from the Bible to prove that point. Most of us know “The wages of sin is death.” Can anyone share the rest of that verse? “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) The gift of God…a gift is something unearned…free…undeserved.

Before the cross, Jesus was challenged by those who considered themselves to be righteous. They drilled him with questions, trying to trip him up. They couldn’t. Yet they also didn’t like his answers. Jesus’ answers threatened their complacency…the way they had come to love life.

That scares all of us. We get settled into a certain way of doing things and we don’t want somebody else coming in and shaking things up. Darkness breeds darkness. The things we do in the dark, we want kept in the dark. Think about Jesus coming in and turning a light on in a room where drugs are being done, where people are getting drunk, where there’s adultery and cheating and lying, or money exchanged in illegal, underhanded ways. Can you just imagine someone coming in and turning a light on in any of these situations…disrupting the darkness? Jesus coming into a room and shining his natural light would anger anyone who wants to be left alone.

Now put yourself on the outside side of that room – that place of darkness – at darkness’ door. Have you ever stood by while someone you loved was doing something hurtful to themselves or others? Have you ever wrestled with how to confront that kind of situation? It’s painful. We don’t want to shine a light on their darkness because we know they’ll get mad at us. We’re afraid that they might hurt us, or never talk to us again. Yet leaving the darkness alone only commits it to an environment where it will grow and affect more people and future generations.

In smaller towns and throughout tribal villages, accountability is stressed – people are accountable to one another because they know who each other is and where they are from. In our society today, people do not know one another – who you belong to. We stay out of one another’s business.

Jesus wouldn’t stay out of humankind’s business. Jesus – God – put Godself squarely in the middle of humankind’s business. And we didn’t want him there. Those who were content doing things that impoverished the poor did not want Jesus there challenging the way they handled money. Those who were oppressing the powerless certainly didn’t want change…they liked things just the way they were. Those who segregated people based on their particular sect of religion or heritage didn’t want to come together..they liked setting themselves higher than others. Still, God did not stand outside humanity’s door of darkness…God entered taking all risks because God loved us so.

Thank God that He put himself in the middle of our darkness! His light is the only thing that drives out pure darkness – His light overcomes it and from that light even death’s darkness evaporates. Line by line, all was crossed for the sake of love.

As we approach Holy Week and in particular, Good Friday – when we remember that day when Christ was crucified – we go there not to bear the weight of sin – Jesus did that for us. While Jesus went to the cross bearing that weight, we go to the cross to let go of our burdens. While Jesus went to the cross to experience the pain of separateness, we go to the cross to become whole again – a part of a collective whole where all is made well. While Jesus went to the cross to die – we go to the cross to live – to find life anew…not just that life that we have to die to get, but a new life to be experienced here and now.

May God lead us to the cross. Amen.

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Sermon from 4th Sunday of Easter

By now you’ve probably eaten most of the Easter candy laying around your house…vacuumed up the last of the strands of Easter grass…Easter seems like a distant memory, yet we are still living in the Easter season! In fact every Sunday should remind of us Easter!

Signs of resurrection are all around us…the earth is resurrecting in this season…colors coming out, flowers that not long ago lay dormant are now back in bloom, people coming outside of the “caves” of their homes back into the streets. Within sanctuary walls we hear the story of Christ not being overcome by the cross or the grave, but that He is alive…not just for a while, but forevermore.

The song “Easter People, Lift your Voices” was playing in my head the other day and it made me think about what that means. Easter people are the ones who see resurrection and tell others about it! They are the ones who see that resurrection is not a future, distant option but rather a very present one – with people living to testify to God’s goodness here and now! And Easter people are the ones who don’t shy away from the Good Fridays in other’s lives. They’re the ones who remain present – who stick things out – bearing their pain, relieving it when they can, and pointing to the hope that the other person may not be able to see.

Last Fall, a group of deacons from all over the U.S. traveled together to Africa where there were present day resurrection stories all over the place. Where people who might have been overcome by the destructive power of disease and poverty are rising up as communal witnesses to show that resurrection can be sensed and felt in the present, and that when you think all hope is lost, it’s there and more powerful than ever.

Psalm 30 – The Message

I give you all the credit, God— you got me out of that mess,
you didn’t let my foes gloat.

2-3 God, my God, I yelled for help
and you put me together.
God, you pulled me out of the grave,
gave me another chance at life
when I was down-and-out.

4-5 All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God!
Thank him to his face!
He gets angry once in a while, but across
a lifetime there is only love.
The nights of crying your eyes out
give way to days of laughter.

6-7 When things were going great
I crowed, “I’ve got it made.
I’m God’s favorite.
He made me king of the mountain.”
Then you looked the other way
and I fell to pieces.

8-10 I called out to you, God;
I laid my case before you:
“Can you sell me for a profit when I’m dead?
auction me off at a cemetery yard sale?
When I’m ‘dust to dust’ my songs
and stories of you won’t sell.
So listen! and be kind!
Help me out of this!”

11-12 You did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.

This psalm is particularly poignant when I think about Project Tariro – a program located at the Old Mutare Mission in Zimbabwe which began as a deacon’s initiative. Tariro in Shona means hope. When you feel as if you’ve descended to Sheol…to the abode of the dead, you need hope. And like the psalmist, those who find out that they’re HIV positive in Africa, often feel as if they have descended to the land of the dead. Because understanding and treatment is often very limited, families will turn out those who find themselves diagnosed with this disease. Can you imagine? Just when you need someone the most, you are all alone. It reminds me of Good Friday – when Christ was given a death sentence, and the ones he loved betrayed him. By God’s grace, Project Tariro others are present to help people through their betrayal and illness to help them realize that HIV/AIDS no longer has to be a death sentence for them, but that they can be resurrected in this life.

Watch video:

Grace, Robin, Agatha, so many others have found through Project Tariro that they can live resurrected lives. First, they’ve found acceptance…when they enter the door of Project Tariro and see Joyce or Evelyn and they hear perhaps for the first time that an HIV diagnosis does not mean death. When they hear that they’ll receive drug therapy and nutritional assistance, can you imagine how that must feel? When they receive handshakes and hugs and know that they’re in a community who will not abandon them to the land of the dead, hope – resurrection – feels possible.

Project Tariro is a partnership of The United Methodist Church of Zimbabwe, The Faculty of Health Sciences at Africa University, and Friends of Project Tariro – led by Rev. Dr. Paul Van Buren. What began as a dream is now a reality thanks to donations from so many.

As you saw in the video, Project Tariro has social workers and support groups, a nutritional garden to feed and to seed future gardens, job training, and an educational program that goes out into the field – sometimes literally – to inform others and provide HIV testing on the spot. Project Tariro is filled with Easter people…people who point to hope when it seems to be hidden…who tend to those who are hurting and who tell others what may seem to be an unbelievable story – that people can live positive lives even after they’ve been diagnosed with HIV.

And it’s not just the one diagnosed who can then live a positive life. In this great web of life, it is the family and the friends who are brought into that positive, resurrected life as well. Children, who instead of becoming known as AIDS orphans, have a living breathing parent to rely on! Grandparents, who instead of having to raise grandchildren get cared for themselves in their old age. Positive, resurrected life for everyone…and even for those like us who choose to stand in the margins with them.

Because you know God…when you go into the margins, you can’t help but be changed yourself! You may even get more than the physical help you’re giving to someone else. You may get a spiritual awakening. A reordering of what is important in life. You may get the very life lessons that nobody else could teach you besides someone living in the margins.

One woman who had suffered so greatly, spoke to me with eyes that see beyond the physical. Telling me of the losses she had endured, she then said that when she gets down, she sings…Because He Lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives. All Fear is gone. Because I know who holds the future, Life is worth the living just because He lives.

People who find hope through Project Tariro – that life can be positive even with AIDS – live out the message of the Psalm…testifying that:

11-12 You did it: you changed wild lament
into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band
and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song;
I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God,
I can’t thank you enough.

(watch video of dancing at Project Tariro: http://www.youtube.com/user/nneelley#p/a/u/1/cJUxGDFa5yY )

Still, when we opt for the margins, we see that in the here and now, all is still not well. There are plenty of Good Fridays still being experienced even as we gather today. We still see those in Zimbabwe diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who feel lost – many times without homes, forsaken by their families, left by others to descend to their own depths of Sheol.

One woman – Nora – who found out she was HIV + – was turned out by her family into the streets. When she discovered Project Tariro – it was there that she found an even deeper meaning of family. That those who were living a positive life were ready to support not only her but also her daughter, Thandiwe. This new family supported Nora through her earthly resurrection…enjoying her presence and her spirit. But there were limits to what they could do for her…lack of transportation, lack of medicine eventually claimed Nora’s life, with her daughter Thandi at her side. Nora’s support group and Project Tariro family once again stepped up…raising money for a decent burial when the blood relatives would not come forward, and taking Thandi when no one would claim her. Nora’s dying words expressed the depth of concern that parents of young children have – who would take care of Thandi when she was gone. By then, she knew with confidence that her new family would do everything they could.

We know that Nora is resurrected with Christ – her care is now out of our hands. But what about others like Nora…who still feel the depths of hell in their lives? They wait on hope. In a country where so many are infected, many do not receive treatment and help.

As Easter people, we believe in the resurrection – that one day all shall be well. That all people’s needs will be met. That the love which we may only have seen dimly as in a mirror will be understandable and tangible for all. That there will be a place at the table for everyone. That there will be no more crying and suffering and dying. But as Dr. Martin Luther King said,

“It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.” If Dr. King were living today, perhaps he would add to that list Africa and maybe even Old Mutare, Zimbabwe.

The second verse of Easter people says:
(Sorry, I can’t find the lyrics online!)

Will we be Easter people year-round? May God help us to stand with those who need hope as they experience “good Fridays”; may Christ’s mercy help us to do all that we can for them. And may God help us proclaim with our lives that Christ is alive! It’s in His name that I offer these words, Amen.

Note: You can learn more about Project Tariro by visiting www.projecttariro.com

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This is my sermon from Sat night Dec 11, 2009 at 61st Avenue UMC, Nashville:

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

We all know the Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It paints such a beautiful picture, doesn’t it?! People there we love getting things ready for us…snow, mistletoe, presents under the tree. Everything we would want! You can just imagine it…surrounded by those you love. Bellies full, toes warmed by the fire. Satisfaction.

These feelings don’t come from just being in a house – they come from that feeling of home and that can come to us at different places. Maybe some of us feel home when we are with family. Maybe it’s with friends. Maybe it’s here at 61st Avenue. Home is satisfaction in the heart – being “right” with the ones we love.

That’s not always an easy thing to have though is it? The Whitney Houston version “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” begins with these words:

“I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do. And although I know it’s a long road back, I promise you…I’ll be home for Christmas.”

How do we get to that place that feels like home? How do we get our relationships in order so we get that feeling? Tonight’s scripture is about repenting…that word might cause a feeling of dread in our hearts…maybe it conjures up old feelings of someone trying to beat you over the head with religion. But repentance is God’s way of making a home…sweeping out the trash to make way for the good stuff.
It may feel like a long road back to home, but God is near, and will always make a way – even when we think there is none.

Today’s scripture begins with John the Baptist getting angry at people assuming they are entitled to a place in God’s home:

Luke 3:7-18 (The Message)

7-9When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

To make God’s household right, John is saying that we need to turn our hearts around and that it needs to show! That people around us should see us blossoming! And that this happens from the inside out – not just by washing our skin with waters of baptism but by changing our lives.

Have you ever had people say words that ring hollow? Maybe someone who says they’re sorry but they go right back to what they’ve been doing all along? That hurts doesn’t it?! That’s what John is saying here – that God expects us to turn our lives around – to express repentance with our ways, not just our words.

All of us have gotten this wrong – and sometimes we mean well, we just don’t follow through. When we do that with relationships in our lives, we feel it even more strongly because it breaks up relationships. When we do wrong to someone, we need to show that we are sorry by our new ways, not just continuing old ways with new words!

When my sister was raising her daughter Amy, Amy would sometimes say she was sorry about doing something wrong. And Susan would say, “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” That’s kind of what this scripture is saying. Don’t speak words that have no meaning to you and expect things to be better. You’ve got to participate in being the meaning of the word! You’ve got to be the dictionary that explains repentance to others!

Sometimes home feels far away because of something beyond our own doing – something that has happened to us like divorce or death, prison, maybe mental illness, addiction, the list goes on. When a situation is in our hands, we have control over what we can do, right? When the other person in the relationship is not honoring the relationship, sometimes we do what we can and we move on. This can be really painful, but even then, having a good relationship with God – the head of our heart’s household, can provide us with what we need to find that contentment even in the face of sorrow.

I have seen this illustrated in many places, where people who are hurt by others move into Christian community and find a true home among others who know what it’s like to be hurt and excluded. Sometimes the home we find in Christian community may feel more like home than any place we grew up in. I see this lived out in many places, but one place especially touched my heart this October when I traveled to Zimbabwe. It’s Project Tariro – Tariro means hope in the local language – and Tariro provides a community of love especially to those whose blood relatives have turned their backs.

Play Video: http://umtv.org/archives/adult_aids_health_care.htm

While I was there, I met a young girl named Thandi – a twelve year old girl. Her mother, Nora, had been diagnosed with AIDS and her family threw her out. Nora was faced then with raising her daughter amidst unbelievable poverty – the kind of poverty where most people around you have nothing and there’s nobody even to beg from. But Thandi and her mom came to Project Tariro and found that there were others like them who had also been turned out by their families who were finding a way by having a nutritional garden, counselors, health support and more . In March of this year, Thandi’s mother died when the medicines she needed were not available. Once again, her own family would not or could not help. But the Christian community that surrounded them did not let them down. Thandi is living with the pastor there and is able to continue schooling and is getting what she needs to survive. She is not alone.

When we realize what it means to be “home for Christmas” we are able to help others who are without. The scriptures that I read before continue with the crowd’s continued interaction with John the Baptist:

10The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

11″If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

12Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

14Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”

When we really repent, we see an outward change that helps those around us.

I’ve seen this at 61st Avenue, in other places in Nashville and again in Africa. I feel uncomfortable when people look at me like I’m good for going there to Africa to help others. I’m no better than anyone. And really, when I go there, I am the one who comes back full. I am the one who has been home for Christmas. Because when I’m there, I see glimpses of heaven in the way that people love one another and love God. The first time I went to Zimbabwe, a child who had an old pair of shoes received a new pair, only to run and happily give the other pair to a child without shoes. I have met elderly people who barely have what it takes them to survive for a day stand and sing with joy that God has shown favor upon them. I have listened as a woman who lost three siblings last year to political violence sing to me her profession of faith – Because He Lives. Because He Lives – I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know who holds the future, life is worth the living just because he lives.

I’m always amazed at how people whose faith is strong can get through tough times. But it’s because I have witnessed this that I can share with you that it is possible! Even when times are unimagineably tough, people who have a strong faith in God persevere and overcome in time. Things are different. Home can be found in the midst of a desert where others find only desolation. This is what happens when we are changed from the inside out.

The final portion of this scripture shows people questioning John who has been saying these things.

15The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

Are we ready for Christ? December 24 is just around the corner…the time that we recognize Jesus’ birth and spiritually prepare for receiving him in our hearts. What trash do we have to be swept out?

Another song sung this time of year is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The difference between Santa and the messiah – Jesus Christ – is that Santa comes to those who are nice, not naughty. God sent Jesus especially to the “naughty” as the gift to end all gifts! All God asks us to do is to prepare him room. May we prepare for His coming – making space knowing that maybe this year, we will find the true meaning of being home for Christmas. Amen.

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>Sermon for 61st Avenue UMC, Nashville, TN Oct 10, 2009, 6 p.m.

Psalm 124

1-5 If God hadn’t been for us —all together now, Israel, sing out!—
If God hadn’t been for us
when everyone went against us,
We would have been swallowed alive
by their violent anger,
Swept away by the flood of rage,
drowned in the torrent;
We would have lost our lives
in the wild, raging water.

6 Oh, blessed be God!
He didn’t go off and leave us.
He didn’t abandon us defenseless,
helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.

7 We’ve flown free from their fangs,
free of their traps, free as a bird.
Their grip is broken;
we’re free as a bird in flight.

8 God’s strong name is our help,
the same God who made heaven and earth.

If it had not been for the Lord, where would we be? Tonight, we will look at three stories of people who can testify to God’s commitment to life – in all of its goodness – they’ve come through situations that others would have considered hopeless. Whether we acknowledge it or not, God is walking alongside us – through the peaks and the valleys – empathizing, sympathizing, and yearning for life in its abundance to be restored within us and throughout creation.

Let us pray.

This summer, while United Methodist Communications was conducting training for six conferences in Africa, I came to know a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pastor Louis Loma Otshudi came to the U.S. to learn about communications technology. While he was here, his host family came to me, saying that he had saved a baby’s life in the Congo – that the baby was now living in Houston and that his family was coming to Nashville to visit Pastor Otshudi. That was the beginning of what I knew about a baby named “Innocence” whose life is a testimony of “had it not been for the Lord.”

Watch Video: Congo Family Adoption

“It wasn’t just another thing he did for the church – he saved that baby’s life.”

God’s most precious gift is life. And God doesn’t want to see that gift – life – go to waste.

Sometimes we go through things that we think we can never get through – mountains too steep to climb or valleys too low to ever climb out of. Yet I’ve met people who’ve come through things that I thought would have destroyed them. I’ve witnessed people who’ve come through war and prison and torture, the loss of family and loved ones – still proclaiming the goodness of God – and how if it had not been for the Lord, they surely would not have made it.

God’s mercy isn’t just for those who’ve earned some special right to it. God’s mercy is for ALL. When we read this psalm, we could get hung up on the part “If God had not been on OUR side…” Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that God is only on one person’s side in an argument (usually our side). I don’t think God is on any one person’s side – God is on the side of life, love, peace, hope, joy, redemption, salvation, and grace. God calls all of humanity to be on God’s own side – it is there that we all can find the true meaning of life. No matter who we are.

In 2008, I heard of a man named Corey Wagner, living in the Adams County Detention Facility in Colorado, and of his pastor, Yong Hui McDonald. I’d like to share their story with you.

Watch Video: Art by Inmates

Sometimes people think that God has brought them to trouble, only to raise them out of it. I don’t see it that way. I think that this world is full of brokenness and that each of us has choices to make and that we will encounter the choices that other people make – sometimes wrong choices – that hurt us in the process.

In the midst of trouble, I think of God as the Great Recycler – you know? Taking the brokenness of our lives – the junk the trash the pain the hurt and making something beautiful of it. For Corey Wagner, he took his junk to prison, but God has turned that junk into something beautiful – not for Corey to hoard for his own happiness and redemption but for other inmates who may finally recognize God’s grace as they experience it through Corey.

If you study the Bible – you’ll see that the great heroes and “she-roes” of the Bible are not people who lived perfect lives. They are people who finally got on their knees and humbled themselves, admitting that they were not perfect and calling upon God’s help. And through that admission, God’s grace accomplished amazing things through them. Look at Moses – who killed an Egyptian – King David – who had an affair with a married woman and had her husband killed to hide his sin – look at the sinful woman mentioned in Luke whose humility and devotion to Christ raised her up as an example of dedicated worship.

Our last story is of a pastor whose ministry became even more vital when he admitted his own brokenness.

Watch Video: Recovery Church

All of us are broken – we come from various places of brokenness and we may be at different places on the path to healing. Sometimes we think that a person has it together because they look alright on the outside, maybe they wear the right clothes, drive the right car, live in the right neighborhood. But we just never know what’s going on inside a person – what pain they may be hiding from others just to live into that “right” image.

God knows. God knows what is going on inside of you and me, right now. And no matter what you’ve done or how broken you think you are, God’s love is still there for you – going before you and behind you and beside you – waiting for you to receive.

Romans 8:38-39 says:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Psalm 139:8 says:

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

There is no place we can go, no place we can hide, nothing we have done or can do to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Are our souls open and ready to receive this transformative love? Are we ready to make that difficult climb out of the valley or up the mountain?

I’d like to close with these words from a hymn:

(Listen) God Hath Not Promised

God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God hath promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labor, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.

What is your story? How do you say now or how will you one day say, “Had it not been for the Lord?” If you feel led to open yourself up to God’s grace this night, we invite you to come forward. If you’d like to take the hands of people here in this congregation so that your walk will be shared by others you can love and be loved by, please come during the hymn of invitation.

“What a Friend”

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