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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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>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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