Tag Archives: unconditional love

How come we don’t get it?      Faith is simple:           Just four steps.

Special note:  This is a brief summary of the sermon I heard on Sunday.  Just a reaction, almost, to a simple idea.  Faith can be developed, I believe, and the hymn seems to show the four levels of grace that John Wesley has identified:  prevenient (born into God’s grace), justification (learning how God’s grace works), sanctification (knowing the Holy Spirit is with you in all that you do), and perfection (truly assimilated into the Christian lifestyle).  Now those are not the formal definitions, but they are in my words.  The hymn, Spirit of the Living God, almost boils it down to just the four verbs:  melt, mold, fill & use.

For years, the question has cycled through my brain: Why is developing one’s faith in God so difficult? 

 

Sunday’s sermon by Rev. Jim Downing was titled, Faithfull.  Simple, right?  No, we have a way of making something simple, complicated.

 

God did everything he could to make it simple to be faithful; and we tend to do everything we can do making our lives faithless.

 

Rev. Downing began Sunday’s sermon with a review of a classic hymn, “Spirit of the Living God,”(United Methodist Hymnal, #393):

 

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

 

One verse.  Simple.  Direct, and often overlooked, certainly in today’s contemporary Christian music. But the words carry the message in classic simplicity, and those in the Celebration Center could join in the words with little trouble as it is deeply etched into memory.

 

Those four lines serve as a prayer asking God to fill us with the Holy Spirit; but in that third line comes the simple steps to living life faith-filled:

 

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.

 

Granted, there are many who still do not know the story nor the significance of Jesus Christ and his life

 

One must hear the story of Jesus Christ and how his ministry taught us to live in relationship with God and with one another—loving others as we want to be loved.  Hearing the story is the first step, then we begin duplicating the loving behaviors of Jesus—at this point we are meltingthe old self and the old behaviors away.

 

Accepting Jesus Christ as our savior and beginning to live the lifestyle of loving one another above all else, the Holy Spirit fills us up and we become moldedin the faith. People see a change in us as we model the behaviors Jesus lived.  The Holy Spirit, God within us, now molds us.

 

The third verb listed is fill.  One might think that anybody who is modeling Jesus’ lifestyle of loving one another is already filled with the Holy Spirit, but the process of fillingone might indicate the emptying that happens when one tries pouring out love to others.

 

One of the best qualities of the Holy Spirit is that as long as one pours out unconditional love to others, the Holy Spirit keeps fillingone up with more love to give.

 

This leaves one verb left: useThis is the challenge level of faith.  Our lives can be very comfortable just accepting God’s love, yet Jesus told his disciples that we are to dolove.  Loving one another is not a noun, it is an action—a verb—it is how God usesus.

 

The hymn calls for God to renew us (me); to fall afresh on us (me).  The idea of being refreshed indicates that as humans we can be emptied or worn out.  Jesus did not tell us that living in our earthly world would be easy; but he knew that when Jesus was not physically present, we were alone, we needed the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence, within us.

 

The Holy Spirit renews us, stays with us and keeps usingus to serve as the hands and feet of God in a world that needs so much.

 

The message from the hymn seems so simple.  We only have to meltfrom self-control to God-control.  God will then moldus into the Christians Jesus teaches us to be. This will fillus with the Holy Spirit (or God within us) to live a life loving one another.  As we turn ourselves over to God, we then ask that he useus in any way that he can to do all we can in any way we can to love one another.

 

Dear Heavenly Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

 

Thank you for loving me despite all my flaws.

Thank you for understanding I am worn down

     and need refreshing.

Thank you for showing me how easy it is

     to be refreshed.

Thank you for melting me from my old self,

     for molding me into a loving Christian.

     for filling me up with unconditional love,

     and for using me to do all that I can

     in any way that I can so others, too,

      are refreshed by they Holy Spirit.  –Amen

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Going home . . .

 

Over the weekend, we made a trip back to my hometown, Montgomery City, where the annual Old Threshers was the drawing card.

 

Old Threshers is a trip back to the past.  The old steam engines were on display working like they did when they first joined farmers in the hard work that had to be done—harvesting, cutting logs into boards, and more.

 

And that is not all.  The tractors of my childhood and even before all line up for everybody to review and remember.  I always look for the Oliver 66, which is the tractor Dad taught me to drive and the one I like the best.

 

There are other displays and activities, but there is something about seeing that Oliver 66 and the others from my past.  There is a magic that occurs when the steam whistles sound, the steam puffs up toward the clouds, and not to mention the smell of the freshly cut cedar planks.

 

But Old Threshers, this year, was special.  I visited with old church members, cousins, and neighbors. Recognition had to be awakened. Stories had to be shared.  But most important was sharing the past with the future.

 

For the first time, my grandchildren walked the fair grounds with me.  They saw the equipment for the first time.  They heard some of the stories of my parents and my childhood.  And I felt my heart soar.

 

And the day expanded as we returned to the farm.  I got to share the house with my daughter-in-law for the first time.  I watched the awe as she and her son/my grandson looked at Mom’s piano.  It continues to sit there waiting even though the keys are in bad shape and tuning has not been done in decades.

 

And the grands met their cousins!  Yes, the next generation met for the first time.  My kids with their cousins.  My grandkids with their cousins.  My brother, too, along with me and our cousins.  Wow!

 

I know, the experience was everything to me and not so everything for everybody else. But I am reminded that family is family. I am reminded that when we expand our family by joining in new families, home never really changes.

 

For years, I have thought about why I was so eager to leave home after college.  I have wondered why home always stays with you.  I went home regularly.  I really did not divorce myself from home.

 

But life divorced me from home.  Life circumstances can distance us from the very foundation of our lives. True, I became distanced from home; but I never became distanced from the foundations taught me at home.

 

My parents came from different faith backgrounds.  True they were both Protestants, Mom a Presbyterian and Dad a Methodist.  But when they married, the decision was to be a Methodist family.

 

My faith journey began with their faith journey.  And my faith home remained Methodist, even with a brief visit with a Presbyterian congregation.

 

When I returned home over the weekend, the first face I recognized was a member of that Montgomery City Methodist church.  How warming it was to feel that sense of recognition and to glory in that relationship.

 

The recognition reminded me that we are all of one family.  We may have different parents, different genetics, but the common ground of faith makes us so close to one another regardless of location or distance defined by years.

I find myself thinking about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son:

  • How many times do we walk away from the foundations of our lives thinking we could do better?
  • How many times do we avoid going home?
  • How many times do we ignore what we are taught, esp. about God?
  • How many times does our life decisions risk poisoning our lives?
  • How many times do we think we cannot go home?

 

The parable shared in Luke , speaks to all of us at so many different levels.

 

As a parent, we do our best to raise our children so they know they are loved and will always be loved.  We know we have to discipline them at times.  We know we have to let them grow up.  We know we have to accept their decisions even if we disagree. Yet, we pray they succeed and that they come home; not permanently but emotionally.

 

As a child, we all know that as we grow up, we look forward to living as independently.  We grow up and move on.  Maybe like me, I never wanted to be labeled a teacher, marry a farmer, and stay in my childhood community.  But, I also never expected to face some of the challenges I did.

 

Thank goodness my parents laid the foundation for me life that included God and church.  I fled that farm life, but I never left the church.  My life challenges certainly knocked me down, but with my faith in God, I kept going.

 

The story of the Prodigal Son is as much a story of me leaving and returning as it is as a parent who watches children leave.  God provides unconditional love to all always.  It is us who must find our way home.

 

Going home is tough, true.  But going home warms the heart and the benefits are immeasurable.

 

Going home this weekend was a delight.  My family that remains in Montgomery were there.  My family who live outside of Montgomery, were there. My heart was warmed by all the memories, all the relationships, and all the promises of the future.

 

My prayer is that all of my family and friends from my childhood, from today, and from the future know that they are loved.  There is enough unconditional love from God to accept all the mistakes we make, but we may not know it until we stray away.

 

Thank you, God, for all the love and all the grace and all the forgiveness that you provide.  I hope I model it for others, too.  –Amen.

 

Luke 15:11-32:  Parable of the Lost Son

11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

 

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

 

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

 

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.[a]

 

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

 

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on.27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

 

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him,29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

 

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

 

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Puppy Love: Unconditional love in a bite for our duo

This is one of those days that the brain seems a bit fractured.  Maybe that has a negative twist, but I suspect most of you know those days.  As I went from one task to another without a plan, I realized that I needed some kitchen therapy.

I would never have considered kitchen therapy two years ago because after a busy school day and doing whatever household chores had to be done, esp. laundry, the kitchen was just another task.  After two years and moving to three, I have found that when I can’t seem to focus well, I turn to the kitchen.

Today, I decided that I needed to refill my homemade doggie treats, so I started the process.  I have taken two different recipes and tweaked them.  I use the basic standard of graham flour, rolled oats (not quick), egg, and applesauce, but then change them up.

Puppy Love Treats:  First batch out, now a second.  I even cook the scraps for a little extra in the food bowl.

I have found that baby food purees are a great way to add the sweet potatoes, peas, and apples that seem to please the dogs, so I add that in, too.  Vanilla seems to be a special ingredient in a wide-range of recipes, so I generously add that, too.

This time I am adding steel cut oats partly for the roughage, but also because it is smaller for my small Havanese to manage chewing.  Our bassador has no problem with anything and at 13 he has no teeth issues.

I cut them pretty thin and small so we do not overuse them, and they store very nicely.  The smell is great in the kitchen today, and even though the spring sunshine makes it look delightfully warm outside, it still is in the 50s.

Our Duo

Meet Possum the Havanese and Ralph the Bassador. They provide unconditional love whenever needed, so why not a little puppy love for them right out of the oven–cooled of course.

 

 

My brain is kicking in a bit better now, so I have also made my husband one of his favorites:  Butterfinger toll house cookies.  I think he will be surprised when he gets home that the oven has been working this afternoon.  They are in the oven now.

I have one more major task I wanted to accomplish and I think my brain is cleared enough to get it done.  Thanks for seeing how a little Puppy Love treat makes me percolate a bit better and the family gets the benefits and it all comes from unconditional love just like God loves us and asks us to love others.

 

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Mary Magdalene at the The Cross/The Tree of Jesus

Easter Sunday sermon:  The scriptures are embedded in the text, but I would also like to share that I am sharing some of the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during the service, also.  Please listen to Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the final song, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at its inclusion.  I was fortunate to see the Broadway production in 1972 with my high school classmates on our senior trip.  The fact that it is going to be a live performance this Easter Sunday on NBC will be a dramatic ending to this Easter Sunday.  

Let me introduce you to Mary of Magdala.  Her image is the final one in the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window.  She is sitting on a stone, weeping and alone—at least the artist has her pictured this way in the window.

The trial and the crucifixion is over and the very same people who were standing along the road cheering as Jesus arrived on a donkey one week earlier are now in hiding.  Mary of Magdala is not.

Mary stayed beside Jesus as he hung on the cross and died. Joseph of Arimathea takes the body and places it in his personal tomb late Friday just before Sabbath began. The first opportunity Mary and a few other women have to complete the burial practice was Sunday morning:

It was customary to wash the body and anoint it with perfumes and spices, not ever for embalming but always to control the odors. . . . The hands and feet were wrapped with linen clothes (grave-bands), and the face and head were covered with a small cloth and bound.  It was loving friends and relatives, mostly women, who prepared the body.  The Jews did not use coffins and did not embalm. [Accessed on 3-29-18 at http://www.bible-history.com/backd2/burial.html.]

 

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary of Magdala is first introduced by Luke earlier in the story of Jesus’ ministry found in Luke 8:1-3:

Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.

 

This introduction immediately follows the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet while at a dinner with the Pharisees.

But who is this Mary and why did she stay beside Jesus only to be the one who witnessed and recognized his resurrection first?

Research shares insight into the character Mary Magdalene, but the reality of this woman cannot be definitively identified with factual details.  The possibility of her relationship with Jesus being more than a disciple is the subject of movies.  The research cannot refute it, but the fact does not change the importance of Luke’s and John’s reporting of her presence at the resurrection.  And, if the possibility of the intimate relationship with Jesus is true, the morning of the Resurrection may actually be more believable.

The Gospel of John reports the morning’s events to the earliest Christians:

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

     Peter and the other disciple started out for the tomb. They were both running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings. Then the disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, and he saw and believed— for until then they still hadn’t understood the Scriptures that said Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then they went home.

     11 Mary was standing outside the tomb crying, and as she wept, she stooped and looked in.12 She saw two white-robed angels, one sitting at the head and the other at the foot of the place where the body of Jesus had been lying. 13 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” the angels asked her.

“Because they have taken away my Lord,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

      14 She turned to leave and saw someone standing there. It was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize him. 15 “Dear woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked her. “Who are you looking for?”

She thought he was the gardener. “Sir,” she said, “if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.”

Who is Mary Magdalene?

Why did this woman stay beside Jesus through the crucifixion?

Why did Jesus speak to her that Sunday morning?

Mary came from the city of Magdala, a trade center, and probably was a successful businesswoman in the textile industry. She was afflicted with seven demons according to the scripture.  The story does not explain, but you know the demons that can cause one to lose focus. Maybe she was mentally struggling with manic depression.  Maybe one demon was physical pain from something like endometriosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe she had a strawberry birthmark that caused her embarrassment.

The demon does not matter, but what the story tells us is that Jesus loved her unconditionally and healed her from the demons. Such unconditional love is the message that Jesus delivered.  Mary chose to accept that unconditional love and responded in a manner that she became a disciple—maybe even one of Jesus’ inner circle, an apostle.

Put yourself in Mary’s place on that Sunday morning. Would you have been sitting on that rock weeping?  Or would you have been one who had gone into hiding?

Mary’s story continues as she arrives at the tomb early Sunday morning.  Her sorrow keeps her steps slow and heavy.  Her head remains downward.  She carries the supplies she needs to complete the burial ritual.  There is no joy in her heart, in her step, nor in her expression.  Her eyes are red from the tears shed over the past several days.  Her hair is a mess.  She has no reason to fix herself up.  She is raw.

And as she reaches the tomb, she looks up.  The stone is rolled away from the opening! The exhaustion she feels turns into agitated confusion.  Why is the tomb open?  Why is the tomb empty?  New tears begin flowing now from confusion and uncertainty and even fear.

Then she turns and sees a figure.  Out of context.  Out of a mind.

And the figure speaks to her. Only when he addresses her in that familiar tone she knows so well, “Mary”, does Mary of Magdala recognize Jesus.  In John, the story continues:

     16 “Mary!” Jesus said.

She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”).

     17 “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

     18 Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message.

Tears turn to joy!

Mary carried the news to the other disciples.  She knew where they were.  She knew the importance of reporting what she saw—who she spoke to. The story of Jesus’ ministry must continue and she who may have been the most emotionally connected to Jesus now had to take a new role—deliver the message of his resurrection.  He still had work to do and even though she wanted to hold him, she couldn’t.  Her faith caused her to move into action.

In a male-dominated culture, where Jesus treated the women equally, Mary Magdalene recognizes the truth of the resurrection. Jesus is alive and all the disciples now must carry the story forward.  They must live as Jesus taught them.  You, too, even 2,000 years later are to join in the task of telling the good news, living the Christian lifestyle, and loving one another as you want to be loved.

Why did Jesus speak to Mary that Sunday morning?

Because he lives.  [Conclude with the music, Because He Lives.]

Closing prayer

 

Dear ever-loving Lord,

May we experience the joy

Mary of Magdala did

As Jesus called out her name.

May we hear God call our names

As Mary Magdalene did

Knowing we, too, are with you

Now and forever.

Guide us to understanding.

Guide us to commitment.

Guide us to serve

One another in love,

Unconditional love.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

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Getting along with God

given on Human Relations Sunday, January 17, 2016:

Scripture base: Psalm 36, esp. v. 5-9, NLT

 

Get along with God. It sounds so simple, so why don’t we do it. Get along with God! Today is Human Relations Sunday according to the UMC calendar, but nationally it is also the weekend that is designated to honor Martin Luther King’s work in civil rights. Can you imagine what our world would be if everybody simply used “get along with God” as a guiding principle.

Accepting God in our lives and acknowledging that Christ was born, lived and died for us, we accept the responsibility to get along with God. God asks us to use grace each day to maintain loving human relationships, yet we continue to fail.

Each day we depend on God to guide us and to protect us. As Christians, God expects us to guide and to protect one another. God depends on us to be his representative in our communities. If we model God’s grace and unconditional love, we will get along with God as well as make a difference in our own world.

Consider the word ‘depend.’ Mental health practitioners analyze human relationships and see patterns of behaviors that are reactions to how people treat each other. As the world shrinks and boundaries blur, human relationships depend on unconditional love. A breakdown in a relationship can even lead to a diagnosis of codependency:

of or relating to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way. [Accessed on January 14, 2016 at dictionary.reference.com.]

 

Sadly codependency becomes a systemic cancer as it leads to repetitive behaviors between generations and also has a magnetic quality as codependents gravitate to one another.

Following God’s law, offering grace and loving one another unconditionally can prevent codependency. Relationships based on the non-judgmental, unconditional love God demonstrated through Christ’s ministry lead to an interdependent peaceful community within one’s own home, neighborhood, country and even globally.

How, then, do we live in a challenging world that seems filled with judgmental, hateful and faithless people? The Golden Rule may be ringing in our ears, but applying it can be difficult. Yet, God has provided the prescription and sent Jesus to demonstrate how to use this perfect form of love. All we need to do is get along with God by getting along with one another.

In Psalm 36, King David outlined the benefits of getting along with one another. We depend on God’s grace and love:

Your unfailing love, O Lord, is as vast as the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your justice like the ocean depths.
You care for people and animals alike, O Lord.
    How precious is your unfailing love, O God!
All humanity finds shelter
in the shadow of your wings.
You feed them from the abundance of your own house,
letting them drink from your river of delights.
For you are the fountain of life,
the light by which we see.

 

Even in David’s ancient times, long before Jesus was born, the prescription for healthy human relations is explained:

Because I love Zion [God],
I will not keep still.
Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem,
I cannot remain silent.
I will not stop praying for her
until her righteousness shines like the dawn,
and her salvation blazes like a burning torch.

–Isaiah 62:1 (NLT)

 

Do not stop praying for her or him or for a country or a neighbor or a family member. Dependency on God will keep unhealthy relationships from developing and getting along with one another is also getting along with God.

Depending on God leads to healthy independence from the unhealthy human relations whether it is between family members, friends, neighbors, strangers, or even cultures. Turning over negative relationships to God through prayer frees us to develop our healthy relationships. So . . .

  • Practice dependency on God. Turn the hurt over to God in prayer.
  • Practice independence from people who trigger negative behaviors.
  • Practice interdependence with Christians who work together to share God’s love.

 

The outcome of a non-judgmental, faithful, and loving lifestyle is a world that radiates freedom. Getting along with one another is getting along with God.

This Sunday may be Human Relations Sunday, but every day should be. God created a world that was designed to meet our every need. He created us with free will, too, but we fail to use God’s law and a healthy relationship with him—we get along with God.

As we continue into this new year, remember to offer grace to others who may not yet know God’s grace and unconditional love. Each person you meet needs your unconditional love, too. Get along with one another.

When something gets your ire up, stop and think. How do you want to be treated? Treat others the way you want to be treated. Do not use cross words in reply, pray for God to guide you. When a driver cuts you off on the road, take a deep breath and cry out to God for help.

If you react negatively, others react negatively towards you. God will be missing in your life. God’s grace is your fuel, so use or offer grace in all your relationships with others. That is how you get along with God, but it is also the way you get along in a diverse world of believers and non-believers, too.

Today may just be 1/365th of an entire year, but in all your relations on each day of the year, practice God’s law. Let others see what dependence on God does in your life so they will find the blessing of God in their lives. Getting along with God makes getting along with others positive not negative. And the ultimate outcome is salvation and joining with others getting along with God throughout eternity.

Closing prayer

Dear God,

Daily we are challenged by relationships

That hurt our feelings or even our bodies.

We struggle to offer grace to those who hurt us.

We struggle to love unconditionally when filled with pain.

 

Guide us to follow your son’s example.

Guide us to love one another

even when we do not love the behaviors.

Guide us to offer grace

even if others do not.

Guide us to get along.

 

Thank you for your grace and unconditional love.

Thank you for your son, Jesus Christ.

Thank you for the promise of everlasting life

When we get along with you, God. –Amen

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The Truth of Christmas: Unconditional Love

given on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014

Advent ends this week. We meet this morning to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Over the weeks of Advent we have talked about the sounds, the promises, and the fears of Christmas. Today it is the truth of Christmas.

In the midst of a world filled with challenges, God loved the people despite all their flaws. He used every prophet, every leader, every set of parents he could to warn the ancient people to remain faithful, and to trust that he would meet all needs. A few clung to the promises and maintained hope while trusting in God.

The truth of Christmas is that God’s unconditional love for all of his creation led to the birth of Jesus. The warnings had not worked. Life’s challenges were wearing down the people. The magnitude of God’s unconditional love led him to send Jesus.

Jesus is the Word, as John explained in the opening of his gospel. He is God. He walked the roads just like we walk. He experienced the heat of a summer son, the dust blowing up in his eyes, and the chill of a northern wind. The truth of Jesus’ life is the truth of our lives.

The miracles, the compassion for the sick and the infirmed, the love for family and friends, and the concern he felt for the Apostles’ uncertainty are truly the same emotions and feelings we experience in our own lives. Jesus demonstrated how unconditional love can lead to solutions, can help us make decisions, and can show us how we can serve one another.

The truth of Christmas is that God meets our needs with unconditional love. We can also use unconditional love to keep Christmas alive in all that we do. God expects us to create harmony when we speak with each other, when we work side by side with each other, and when we take some time to relax and to play with one and another, too.

God waited years, thousands of years to see if we could learn the truth to leaving in peace. God never gave up, but a time came when words were not enough, the plagues had not worked, the trials and tribulations, the proof that he provided manna and even birth when it seemed impossible. The truth of Christmas is that we had to see, to touch, to know how to use unconditional love.

Are we able to unwrap this gift and use it? The truth is that we must. Accepting God’s gift means we accept our role as his children. And as we all know the people we are reflect our own human parents through genetics, but reflecting the unconditional love of God proves the truth of Christmas each and every day.

Let us greet Christmas Day with the enthusiasm of all the little children waiting for Santa’s visit. Let us watch with glee as the gifts are opened, the meal is shared, and the stories are told. Enjoy all the twinkling lights in the dark and the melodies filling the air. Share a hug as you greet guests and thank each other.

Christmas is one time each year that offers us a chance to thank God for his unconditional love. It is one day, one season that the truth of Christmas becomes so real. Unconditional love is demonstrated in so many different ways, but we must open this gift and share it year round. Use prayer continually. Study the Word as preserved in the scripture. Worship together. Be in community with one another as you work to carry God’s love to others around us and even in regions we cannot see.

Today we are closing in on Christmas, but Christmas is a truth that lives with us daily. God loved us so much that he sent us his son to teach us how to love unconditionally. Let us share the truth of Christmas with all that we know, too. We must give the gift of unconditional love.

Closing prayer

Dear Gracious God,

Our world is filled with wrapping paper and ribbons.

Sometimes we see only the gifts under the tree.

May we open our hearts to know your gift,

The gift of your son Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

Guide us as we join our family and friends

For a celebration filled with unconditional love.

May the love we share with one another

Reflect the truth of Christmas, unconditional love,

That day when Mary and Joseph gave birth to Jesus. –Amen

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Star or No Star? Belong or Not Belong?

given on the fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30, 2014

references the book The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss by Rev. James Kemp

Star or No Star?

Belong or Not Belong?

 

            How many groups do you connect with? Do you go to school reunions? Have you paid any dues for various organizations that share interests with you? Do you get publications you subscribe to because it applies to your profession?

If you can identify even one group to which you belong, then you know the comfort you feel because of that relationship. The importance you place on the relationship typically determines how much time and money you invest in belonging to that group.

Consider this question: Was what you believed more important than belonging or was belonging more important in learning about the group/interest?

Another thought to consider: Would you have joined that organization or even subscribe to that publication if you had no knowledge or even little knowledge of the subject?

Rev. James Kemp read The Sneetches, a Dr. Seuss book written during the civil rights movement, and he connected the overriding theme to Paul telling the earliest Christians that there was no difference between the Jews and the Gentiles: “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus. As a Christian, all were completely equal.

These are the words from The Sneetches that capture the message:

Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

The story continues showing how the stars excluded the non-stars from playing together. Simply put, the stars discriminated the non-stars. For those born prior to the 1970s, the story is a political satire concerning the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s. We might even tune out the story since we lived through it ourselves.

Would Paul have asked us to ignore the issue of discrimination or not? Hardly. In his own life experience, he first would have been a Sneetch with a star on his belly, but along the road to Emmaus, God removed his Jewish star. God wanted Paul to get the message of Jesus Christ; and since Paul was persecuting the first Christian believers, God needed him to get the message in a very direct and concrete manner.

The no-star Sneetches knew they were being excluded even though they were exactly the same as the starred Sneetches. The problem of belonging to a group or not is found throughout history. Due to Paul’s personal conversion, he learned there were no differences between Jews and Gentiles as he writes to the Galatians:

28 There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. Because you belong to Christ Jesus, you are all one.

 

In today’s society, belonging is everything. Everybody seems to find some way to connect with people through genealogy, social media, alumni organizations, sports teams, common experiences. The list continues to grow and sometimes it seems a game to see just how many ways you can “belong” to as many groups as you can. (Sorry to John Wesley for the parallel phrasing.)

Fortunately, characters like Sylvester McMonkey McBean are not always around trying to find a quick fix to connect one to some particular group through false methods. The Sneetches paid the $10.00 charge to add a star to a belly. The fix worked until the Sneetches with the stars naturally discovered they were no longer special and Sylvester McMonkey McBean devised the machine to take the star off, too.

The New Covenant delivered by Jesus eliminates such risky investments. Rev. Kemp places the emphasis on the inclusiveness of God’s love. No longer is there any reason to look for ways to belong, believe in Jesus Christ and you do belong.

Rev. Kemp focuses on the similarities rather than the differences:

  • Creation. We all are created by God. We are both alike and different from one another, but God called the whole of creation good.
  • Calling. There is purpose in life for each and everyone of us. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament were called, we too are called for a purpose.
  • Sin. All of us have fallen short of what God requires. We deceive ourselves if we think we have not sinned. But to acknowledge this does not mean accepting it as the last word.
  • Christ.We share in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves us despite our failings. This is by far the most important basis for our unity. [p.70-71]

 

People want to belong. There is a very basic human need to feel connected with others and belonging to special groups helps fulfill that need. It is the very reason that gangs continue to grow in today’s culture.

A mobile, global society has significantly altered the sense of belonging to a community. In small towns, the economic need for a community has shifted. Transportation has eliminated the 10-mile radius that once determined where business was transacted. Communication is instant and no longer needs a central location to connect people to people.

Belonging to a family, a community, or a church is no longer dependent on genetics or even beliefs. Belonging comes first. Once individuals develop that sense of belonging, the practices in that setting lead to belief. After one becomes accustomed to the practices, the belief becomes part of the foundation.

This faith process is just opposite of what it has been for thousands of years. What you believed determined where you belonged. Beliefs led to practices that identified to what group you belonged. Belonging was the result of the belief system.

Paul’s message to the Galatians came at a time the belief system was changing. The belief in Christ eliminated the difference between the Jews and the Gentiles. As the centuries passed, the Christian faith grew. People belonged and it created the Judeo-Christian foundation for governments, human relations, and more. The Western Cultures were defined by the Christian beliefs.

Today, the Sylvester McMonkey McBeans character might be considered an excellent marketing executive, but marketing today—even in our churches—is to show others how they belong, and in our churches the unchurched first need to know they already belong in God’s world. There can be no discriminating factors in our churches because Jesus erased them. The doors are open, but our arms must be open, too.

Rev. Kemp wraps up his sermon focusing on how we all belong to God. We can do it, he says,

“Proclaiming and celebrating unity in the church . . encouraging others and not boasting about our own accomplishments.  It means courting a spirit of gratitude instead of pride. It means that we cannot separate love for God from love for one another.” [p. 71]

Any church that can demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance creates a sense of belonging. In this 21st century, those outside of the church are watching closely to see who belongs or who does not belong. They are watching to see if the arms are as open as the doors.

Rev. Kemp closes with these thoughts:

No kind of Christian is the best Christian in the church. There are no Star-Belly Christians. We are family. We are one in Jesus Christ. [Ibid.]

 

Churches who can demonstrate this depth of Christian love for one and for all, then others will come. Others will discover they do belong to this family, a Christian family. They will be able to work together in acts of mercy and to develop their acts of worship. John Wesley lived when the belief, supported by the practices, created a strong bond of belonging within the church.

What works is what James wrote in his letter, too:

. . . treat everyone the same.

     2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. And suppose a poor man in worn-out clothes also comes in. Would you show special attention to the one who is wearing fine clothes? Would you say, “Here’s a good seat for you”? Would you say to the poor person, “You stand there”? Or “Sit on the floor by my feet”? If you would, aren’t you treating some people better than others? Aren’t you like judges who have evil thoughts?

 

Today’s churches are working to make sure all feel as they belong. First they invite, they host, they teach, and they love one another. As one feels a sense of belonging, they join in the practices, and they live what they now believe. Sounds backward and upside down, but the churches who grow know loving one another breaks down all the differences. We are truly “one in Christ Jesus,” as Paul wrote the Galatians.

Closing Prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for granting complete equality for all who believe.

Thank you for loving us before we know we are worth loving.

Thank you for sending your Son to teach how to live your love.

What barriers you have removed between people,

help us to keep them torn down,

help us to reach out to include them,

and help us to share the joy of Christian family.

Guide us in our decisions, in our efforts, and in our plans.

May we welcome others into the glory of God’s grace. –Amen

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