Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21
These are strange times. It is as if Mother Nature wanted to remind us yet again with these winter storms that we are not in control—as if we had not already learned that lesson a hundredfold since Ash Wednesday last year. It seems as if we have been in a perpetual Lenten season for almost a year. It’s enough to wear even the most faithful of us to a frazzle as my daddy would say.
The observance of Lent is a call to a deeper faithfulness.
What is Ash Wednesday if not a reminder of our own humanity and the acknowledgement that we will all face the limits of life, one day coming face to face with our own frailty.
We’ve seen that frailty all around us. On March 13 a year ago, my mother crossed over to the church triumphant just fifteen months after my father’s death. Who of us has not known of a friend or a neighbor—a family member or a coworker who has succumbed to Covid-19? It reminds me of the words from our service of Death and Resurrection…in life we are in death.
Caught between the light of Epiphany and Easter we come to observe this Lenten season. “Lent is a time to stand against the strings someone else pulls,” Howard Thurman once said.
It is a time to look within, to determine that which I want to relinquish and that to which I want to give myself. This is, finally, the Lenten question.
In the words of Parker Palmer, “What can you not, not give yourself to?”
The corporate nature of our world is rooted in effectiveness. Stephen Covey captured our attention 25 years ago with his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I took the course. I got the big notebook. “Begin with the end in mind.”
And yet, what Covey did not ask was, what does it mean to be faithful? Is the Lenten journey one of effectiveness or one of faithfulness? Is your walk with Jesus one seeking to get results or is it one of faithfulness? In the end, with God, there are no final results.
St. Benedict said, “Daily keep death before your eyes.” This, above all, is the Lenten call. If we follow the lectionary readings for the season of Lent, our journey will take us along familiar roads. The Gospel readings for Lent place us within the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There is no avoiding the steps Jesus walked on our behalf. Pay close attention. Lent is not a time to have an egocentric posture about your faith journey.
In fact, in Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is taken from Matthew 6, right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus begins in 6:1 with a warning: Beware.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
“Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms.”
“When you pray, go to your room and shut the door. God will see you and hear you.”
Then Jesus teaches us how to pray… my Catholic friends refer to this as the “Our Father.”
We say “The Lord’s Prayer.”
In verse 16, Jesus says…oh yes… “and when you fast…don’t look so dismal.”
Lynn and I have been doing the intermittent fasting thing…and I can tell you, it’s easy to look dismal.
Finally, in verse 19—Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth…but store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is…there will your heart be also.”
For me, beginning this Lenten journey is an examination of heart. I pray with the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Before the Christian walk can be a journey outward, it is a journey inward. Yet, often, we fall into the category against which Jesus is teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.
We resemble Paul’s words in Romans 7, “The very good I would do I do not do.” In short, we are more concerned about how we appear than about who we are.
Let me illustrate with a story from the Jewish Talmud.
There is an old Hasidic tale about three pious Jews who decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey, without food or money, intending to walk the entire way.
Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake and they must do something. They came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honored to have a rabbi visit their town. None of the three, being pious, wished to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one who drew the short straw had to don the clothing of a rabbi. Another dressed as his assistant.
When they drew near to the next village, they were greeted with excited cries of joy, “A rabbi is coming! A rabbi is coming!” Escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, the hungry threesome was treated to a delicious meal.
When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the “rabbi” and spoke with great sorrow. “Rabbi, you must pray for my son,” he said. “He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, may respond to our prayers.”
The counterfeit rabbi looked desperately to his friends for help. They motioned for him to go with the innkeeper to his son’s bedside. They had begun this hypocritical game, and now there was no choice but to keep on playing the game. The mock rabbi accompanied the distraught father to his son’s sick bed.
That night, the three travelers slept fitfully. They were eager to get out of town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting “rabbi,” sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses.
They left the village and traveled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the spell of the famous rabbi. His teaching of the Torah carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.
Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms furiously. But to the pretender’s delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, “Thank you, rabbi. Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors were amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.”
The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony “rabbi” companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. “What had he done at the boy’s death bed?” they demanded to know.
He replied that he had stood at the boy’s side in silence and then began to lift his thought to heaven: “Master of the universe, please; this father and son should not be punished because they think I am a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing! A pretender! If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of his father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?”
The Hasidim tell this story because of its profound insight into all of us. We are all pretenders, fall short of what God’s desire of us is.
My prayer for myself and for you is that this Lenten season, we remove the masks we hide behind. Take the inward, healing, cleansing journey and allow God’s gracious, merciful, and redemptive work to begin in us.
So that…by Easter Sunday, God will have renewed our spirits by the transforming of our minds.
I look forward to the journey with you.
We have learned much about ourselves, and our ability to adapt in the past year. The arrival of COVID-19 has had some impact on all of us, and tremendous impacts on many.
Our guest post today is from Richard H. Gentzler, Director of the Encore Ministry, part of the Golden Cross Foundation for the Tennessee Conference. Today, Richard brings us hope for a brighter tomorrow as well as words for the care of not just ourselves, but also our neighbor.
The Bible begins with God taking a formless, empty, and dark earth and creating life in God’s image and declaring everything good (Genesis 1:1-31). Since we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), we understand ourselves to be co-creators with God. As co-creators, we can be grateful for the fact that the world’s scientists collaborated in new ways over a very short time frame to create several vaccines at an unprecedented speed. The development and rollout of the various vaccines to combat COVID-19 is a great benefit to humankind.
However, the virus is still present. We must keep in mind the pre-existing health conditions of many older adults. Even with the vaccines’ effectiveness and speed of their rollout, many more people will likely die in the months ahead. What continues to be of upmost importance for older adults’ safety over the next few months is a combination of mask wearing, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.
As church leaders, let us be vigilant and help older adults continue taking all necessary safety precautions. Encourage all members, including older adults, to get vaccinated. The State of Tennessee’s website, https://covid19.tn.gov/covid-19-vaccines/, informs Tennesseans about COVID-19 vaccinations and enables each person to sign up for special COVID-19 announcements from the state. Similar information for Kentuckians can be found at https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-covid-vaccine.
Share with your congregation the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines concerning daily activities during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- In general, the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread
- If you engage in public activities, continue to protect yourself by practicing everyday preventive actions such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing or sanitizing your hands frequently
- Keep these items on hand when venturing out: a face mask, tissue, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol
Prayerfully, the pandemic won’t last forever and we will begin a new normal. May God bless and guide you in your ministry by, with, and for older adults.
Grace and peace,
Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., D.Min.
Director, ENCORE Ministry
In observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the Council of Bishops President Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey has issued a call to action letter.
A Call to Action for The United Methodist Church in Times of Challenge
Grace and Peace to you, Sisters and Brothers in Christ. These are challenging times that we live in. The continued rise of COVID-19 infections and deaths around the world, the attack on the US Capitol last week, and the undeniable expressions of racism, white supremacy and systemic inequity in our communities have provided a sobering start to the new year. And yet, I find that the upcoming commemoration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Inauguration Day in the US provide us, in the midst of turmoil, with much needed opportunities for reflection and rededication.
The images of insurrectionists storming the hallowed halls of the Capitol cannot be unseen. For the first time in history the President of the United States has been impeached for the second time. The deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to Washington, DC for the inauguration appear as scenes from a movie. As one who sits in a state capitol preparing for further disruption, I grieve for America, for democracy and for our Christian witness.
I ask myself, “what would Dr. King say? What would he do?”
Dr. King lived during challenging times as well. In his sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, he says, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Dr. King proclaimed and demonstrated a picture of peace for our world that has been so deeply violated. Those who participated in the act of sedition last week wanted the world to believe that it was a revolution, but it was not. It was insurrection rooted in racism.
The majority of persons on the capitol grounds were white.
The slurs shouted were not Christian.
The signs invoking the name of Jesus in the midst of these violations offensive.
The destruction of property is inexcusable.
The Confederate flag waving in the Rotunda was abhorrent.
All were signs of white supremacy that runs rampant in America today.
Despite this disheartening event and the history of violence and harm that has been fueling it for generations, I believe that we are in the midst of the revolution that Dr. King references. Social change is happening. Peaceful protests for racial justice which declare that Black Lives Matter are helping to make our voices heard and are changing the way we live together.
The lectionary gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:43-51) finds Jesus issuing a call to one of the disciples, Philip, to “follow me” and another, Nathaniel, deciding whether or not to say yes. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked. There are many who look upon the blemished history of our denomination and wonder if we will sleep through this revolution. They wonder if anything good can come from The United Methodist Church in the movement to dismantle racism. As members of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, we have rededicated ourselves to this work and are responding to this query as Phillip did saying, “Come and see.”
We invite you to join us as we take seriously the call to follow Jesus during these challenging times by renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world and repenting of our sin. In the coming weeks we will be offering and highlighting opportunities for spiritual formation, dialogue, and action so that we might, like Dr. King, serve as the ambassadors of love, grace, peace and justice that once and for all tear down the strongholds of hatred, oppression, and division among us.
My prayer is that the people of The United Methodist Church will not sleep through this revolution. We must be willing to adopt the new hearts, minds and skills necessary to build a church and world where all belong and are embraced as beloved of God.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
President-Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church
It’s been my pleasure to participate in some way at Warmth in Winter over the past few years, and this year is no exception. Even though the event will look very different than in the past, our young people and youth leaders will still come together virtually for a weekend of worship, music and fun. I am looking forward to being there to worship with them!
For those of you new to this event, Warmth in Winter is a place for our teens to deepen their faith, connect as a group, and grow together with the larger church. We usually host over 2,000 youth who gather together in a big hall. The pandemic has forced a redesign of the event for 2021.
The team planning Warmth in Winter put together a brief video to explain how things will work this year. I’m including it on my blog to help them get out the word – to the entire Episcopal Area. One of the big advantages of holding this event online is that ALL of our churches to the east AND west can easily participate. I encourage you to do so.
Over the past 40 years, Warmth in Winter has transformed the lives of many young people. I have no doubt it will again this year. I hope to “see” you there!
Message from WnW planning team members
While we know this is a little different, we are excited about what God is going to do through this new, and outside the box, year!
The cost is $35 per person and for all supplies -except for food- including a t-shirt for every person signed up. But, register soon! This cost will go up to $45 per person after January 15.
In the midst of an unusual year, many of our ministries found ways to flourish and grow. Trinity Community Commons is one such ministry. Our guest post today is from Nate Paulk, Director of Trinity Community Commons in East Nashville, a part of East Nashville that has not re-gentrified.
Trinity Community Commons is an example of a ministry that is seeing all the people and investing in their neighbors. For the last several years, TCC has been reaching the surrounding community, building relationships so that when schools went virtual the team at Trinity was able to provide a safe, virtual learning environment for children who otherwise would not have been able to receive online learning.
Seven years ago, I sat alone in an empty church building and wondered how it might be useful to the community.
This past year I caught a glimpse of what was possible. TCC quietly continued to be a gift to its community in ways that I could not really imagine. In a year that was so hard for so many of our community members, the space and the organization of TCC remained a refuge and a beacon of light when it was needed most.
Our team is entering into 2021 with clarity and vision: We leverage sacred space to affirm and activate the worth and potential of all people in our community.
There are so many accomplishments from this year which were unimaginable to me seven years ago. One of the most obvious was our creation of a Virtual Learning Support program for neighborhood families. Additionally, supplies were deployed, people were fed, families were supported, people were connected with resources to help them cope with an unbearable 2020.
All of this was achieved by a team of common people with a shared vision and belief that this sacred space says something about a community. We hold powerful beliefs about our community: that people are worthy of every gift, experience and opportunity that comes their way and the potential held in each child and adult will transform our world.
Thank you for your investment in the work of becoming common. Happy New Year!
TCC Executive Director
One hundred sixty-eight years ago this Advent season, the priest and the organist of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church combined their talents to create a carol which is perfect in its simplicity and wonder. For Phillip Brooks, the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were inspired by the profound memory of his 1865 visit to the Holy Land.
In the summer and fall of 1865, Brooks had the great joy of traveling in Europe.
By December, his travels took him to the holy places in Israel and Palestine. On Christmas Eve, he arrived in the little town across the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem. For those who have travelled to the Holy Land in recent years, Bethlehem is anything but a small quaint village. But in 1865, Bethlehem was a quaint small town. That night, Brooks visited the old Church of the Nativity where tradition indicates the birth of Jesus occurred. Brooks wrote: “I stood close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole Church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”
If life allows it, how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity! Here’s the truth of the Advent journey: every Advent we are invited to go to Bethlehem. It is the culmination of our spiritual pilgrimage every Advent.
I contend that we need this Advent journey this year as desperately as we have needed it in my lifetime. As I write this, 300,000 persons have died from Covid-19. I dare say not one of us is untouched by some friend or family member who has been infected. We know what it is to sing, “where in thy dark streets shineth” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
The beauty of this simple yet profound hymn is that God comes. God comes to the small, the insignificant. God came at Christmas through the lowly—a baby, a manger, a place called Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, shepherds far from the seat of power in Rome. To make this journey is to discover that truth.
Not only does God come to the small and insignificant, God comes in the silence. The hymn, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. No ear can hear his coming.” It strikes me, when I read the Bible, that the world was created in silence. In the beginning. In creation…silence.
When I was a young adult, I did a little duck hunting. I remember going out before daylight in a boat to a duck blind and waiting in silence until the first light of day came through the trees. I can still hear the sound of ducks landing or taking off, breaking the silence of the morning. I gladly would go again and sit in the cold just to hear the profound sound of hundreds of ducks landing or taking flight.
I’m quite sure the first Christmas was not silent. Most certainly the baby Jesus cried. The barnyard animals made their noises. Mary and Joseph, no doubt, discussed this moment. Here’s the truth of it: God makes and remakes a world out of silence and saves it. The final word of truth from the hymn is this: God comes to bring salvation. Brooks penned these powerful words: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
Theologically, Brooks makes a move here few of us do in Advent and Christmas. He links the child to the savior who will cast out our sin. We are drawn, if we are paying any attention at all this Christmas, to the brokenness of our world. You know too well the brokenness of our country, the death of thousands, the suffering of many more. People are dying alone. Socially distanced funerals are the norm. We do not live in peace. Food lines are lengthening while our leaders in Washington debate a relief package for US citizens. Many have been unemployed for far too long. Others fear unemployment will soon come. Evictions from homes are dreaded. How we need the hope and confidence of these words today.
1. O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
2. For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the king,
and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
In the spirit of Lectio Divina, I invite you to write down the word or phrase that speaks to you this day. Meditate on that phrase. Write it on your heart. Write as many word associations as you can think of to this phrase. Think deeply about your life. Offer your thoughts as a prayer. And trust that God will hear and shape your responding in ways you could never imagine.
For me this day, I pray “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” My longings for normalcy in this season are growing stronger every day. Too much of my time is lost in fretting over what I cannot control. So again, this Advent, I invite the Holy child of Bethlehem to come, to abide, to be little, Emmanuel.
This morning, in Sunday School, we reflected on memorable Christmas Eve Services. From the time I was 13 years old, my church home was First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS. It remains to this day the place of meeting our Lord. It is my Bethel. From 13 until I was 28 years old, we celebrated Christmas Eve in the sanctuary there. In the years beyond college, I was often the liturgist in the service. Always, Phillip Brooks was with us in spirit as we sang this hymn.
As you journey to Bethlehem this year, reach back and touch your Bethel. Remember where Jesus entered in and sin no longer had power over you. Pray that God will impart God’s richest blessings on you and your family.
Until we can be together singing hymns and lifting candles, let God’s presence surround you with great grace and peace and hope.
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The lectionary Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent always centers on John the Baptist, “the voice crying in the wilderness.” In just a few verses, Mark will send Jesus out into the wilderness where he experiences temptation.
Mark was well acquainted with the wilderness, as was Jesus. In terms of the geography of the Holy Land, there is Galilee where things are lush and green and water is plentiful. Less than 100 miles to the south, there is the stark contrast of the wilderness where the land is barren and dry and dusty.
John the Baptizer was well acquainted with the wilderness.
So here he is, “A voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare. Make straight.” Get your affairs in order. There is One coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
The wilderness isn’t a Condo at the beach.
The wilderness is not just somewhere out there.
For some of us, the wilderness is a place inside our hearts. It is an emptiness. It is longing.
It is an absence of the presence of God. It is a place where no grace is found.
In the Biblical sense, wilderness was a place where Israel lost its way. It was a place where there was no home. It was a place where the children of Israel bowed before other gods.
Wilderness, we will remember in just a few weeks, was the place where Jesus was tempted to abandon God’s will.
To be clear, wilderness is not so much a place as it is a terrifying experience. There are no clear paths. Much chaos, plenty of temptation and bewilderment sets in.
And yet, the music this text sings is that out in the wilderness God comes. In a wild place where the screams of wild animals are heard, there is a different song being sung.
“Prepare Ye the way of Lord.”
I can still hear in my mind the pure, steady voices from the musical Godspell (https://youtu.be/qzLrs3eKbXk ) that many church youth choirs sang in my years as a youth.
Maybe the reason John comes pointing the way to Jesus is that we can’t find our way to him on our own, so God has to come to us.
And this voice crying out is calling us to a different way of living—a call to listen to a different kind of voice. Not the voices that demand you to do something or go somewhere but rather a voice that calls for a change in direction. A chance to come clean. An opportunity to stop pretending. To start over. To get washed clean. This is the Lord’s voice, spoken through one of his very own.
This call is more than a mild adjustment to our attitude or practices. It is an invitation to rewrite the script of our lives. It is an invitation to encounter the past we have lived through but have not fully experienced. It is to remember. Before we can more forward, we remember.
Eudora Welty comes close to this when she writes in her small volume, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” about what deep insight can come when people explore memories of experiences they thought they already fully understood. She writes, “connections slowly emerge…cause and effect begin to align themselves…and suddenly a light is thrown back, like when a train rounds a curve showing there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you have come…and is rising still.”
This is the terrain about which John is preaching. This is the territory of repentance.
Sometimes, if we are not careful, because of our familiarity with a particular passage of scripture, we will gloss over a text or will try to make it say something it does not mean.
There are other times when because of the circumstances of life or what we are enduring in a season we pause in a different way and hear the scripture anew. When we allow the Holy Spirit to speak in that way, the Bible will encounter us anew. The demanding possibilities will come front and center, and we will receive that new word for our lives. That is when, I contend, we are in a posture of repentance. We rise and go in a different direction, follow Christ into new places, in new ways.
And we see more of God’s hand at work than we ever knew or expected.
Then, then, we, too, begin to sing…prepare ye the way of the Lord.
I’m listening. The world needs your voice to join with the voices already singing. Together we can prepare to receive the Christ anew.
Bishop William T. McAlilly
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
In 1744, Charles Wesley penned these familiar words to this powerful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Second only in popularity to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” this hymn ushers the Church into Advent by reminding us of the long awaited return of Jesus. In fact, Advent is a looking forward with expectation of that time when Jesus will return and looking back at a journey to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Both sentiments find voice in this powerful hymn.
Charles Wesley was captured by the words of Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” After reflecting on this text, Wesley began to imagine what the birth of the Christ child might mean to his community, indeed, to the entire world. In England in the mid 1700’s many were suffering in hunger and poverty. Children were abandoned and left as orphans. There were class distinctions, and slavery was on the rise. To Wesley, it seemed little had changed in the 1700 years since Christ was born. In fact, he wondered if humanity had improved at all.
In spite of the bleakness of the conditions around Wesley, a thread of hope began to emerge in his mind as he thought of Jesus’ birth. He found himself hoping for the return of Christ, likening that thought to the expectation of Haggai as he looked forward to the birth of Christ. In that hope, he penned the expectant words of this hymn.
1. Come thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
2. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Wesley understood the power of the Christ to set people free. Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy and the answer to the problems all persons know, as well as to the world. The hymn embraced both the loving nature of Christ and the power of that love to deliver the world from sin. Ultimately, it was the love of Christ that would change us into being more Christ like.
The year 2020 has been a year of waiting. And while we wait expectantly for some semblance of normalcy—in respect to the pandemic of Covid-19, the healing of relationships due to systemic racism, political divisions in the land—we are reminded in the lectionary texts for the Season of Advent that wilderness is a part of the journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah in John 1:23, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
We have felt some sense of wilderness this year. Sometimes our wilderness is of our own making. At other times wilderness visits us and thrusts us into an unfamiliar place emotionally and sometimes physically. In that space, we hold on to one another even when we are distanced. We love each other well by distancing and mask-wearing. We stay connected via Zoom, texts, calls, Face Time, and FaceBook live. We trust that God is with us. We trust that God is calling us to a deeper walk in this wilderness time.
We pray, come thou long expected Jesus. Let our hearts rest in thee. Deliver us. Free us from the chains that bind us. Fill us with love that conquers. Let power and love combine to free us from fear and anxiety. Let us live with holiness of heart and life.
Advent is a season of waiting. It is the metaphor for 2020. We are waiting, Lord.
Make us whole.
Let us live with great expectation for a world that is healing in body, mind and spirit.
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, United Methodist Hymnal No. 196, 1989.
Collins, Ace (2006). “13: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 102. ISBN 0-310-26314-X.
I welcome Reverend Johnny Jeffords as a guest writer for today. Please read and share his excellent post.
Sisters and brothers,
As we enter the holiday season this year, we can’t help but be aware that so much is different. Even in the best of times the season is difficult for many. The irony of “the most wonderful time of the year” being the time most dark and painful is a present reality. Statistically we know that the season amplifies the mental and behavioral health issues with which many struggle, and so many live that struggle in silence or untreated altogether.
And now we have the not yet fully realized impact of a global pandemic in front of us. This year, 2020, it’s all been too much. I’ve heard many say how ready they are for 2020 to go away. It’s an understandable feeling. The number of times I’ve heard the word “unprecedented” in 2020, is, well, unprecedented. The never seen before doesn’t surprise us as it once did. The unprecedented has become common. And you know what? It’s exhausting.
The challenges of this year have made us rethink so much. What does it mean to be the church in a pandemic? What does it mean to live in community at a distance? What is it to school our children? To take care of the least of these? Add the holidays into this mix, what with all that they are that is joyous for many while triggers for anxiety and depression for others, and this season will unquestionably be unlike any we’ve known before. It’s, and there’s that word again, unprecedented.
And then there’s the health implications of coming together within the expectations of family traditions. How does that happen? Does it happen? There was a time earlier on when we thought that these months of inconvenience would give way quickly to the return to the normal we lived in before. But what we knew as normal will always remain in the past. The pandemic has left us indelibly marked, as we have been by the divisions of political and theological tribalism, and by the abuses of power writ large. Brought together, it’s a lot. It’s too much, really. Our need to care for one another has never been greater. Our need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves has never been more important either.
No doubt public health leaders will give their best guidance on how to approach family gatherings during the holidays, and we’d do well to adapt our traditions to best protect those we love most. But each of us is feeling the pressure of the season in different ways. Some of us are finding that this year is more difficult than any before. We know we’re in trouble and scared about what to do next. In the absence of healthy resources, we revert to behaviors to numb our pain to the detriment of own health and to the relationships of those we love. What I’m encouraging each of you to do this season is be aware of your own inner struggles and know there are resources available to help you.
One such resource lives under the umbrella of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. It’s the Dennis H. Jones Living Well Network. The story of how LWN came to be is born out of the tragic death of a United Methodist layperson who lived in the silence of devastating depression. LWN is Dennis’ family’s ongoing gift of hope for those who need not struggle in silence anymore. LWN evaluates need and makes direct connections with resources that helps each person address their struggles. The Jones family’s gift to the community is available for any of us, all of us. The number is 901-762-8558. There is a counselor available to talk with you from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday. You can find them on the internet at https://www.methodisthealth.org/the-living-well-network/ .
So, we’re looking for healing. People of faith always are. In the Greek, the word for healing, “sozo,” carries a wide range of resonant meanings among which are healing, wholeness and salvation. It concerns the totality of who we are with focus on our spiritual health, our physical health, and our mental health. If you’re struggling with stress, depression and anxiety, don’t be afraid. If you’re self-medicating to cope and are tired of living in the shadows, there is help. The totality of who you are is how God made you. And God desires restoration of our total selves, mind, body and spirit.
If you’re struggling, there is no shame. There is only care, only hope.
In June, a task force was established for the purpose of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and giving guidance about in person worship. The document they put forth assisted congregations in making wise decisions about proper protocols and protections. You can re-familiarize yourself with it here.
As many congregations have resumed some in-person worship and activity, it has gone reasonably well and great appreciation for being together has been expressed. After all, we are meant to be in fellowship with each other to worship our Lord and to serve our neighbors.
I am mindful that across the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences there have been ministers and laypersons who have contracted the virus. We give thanks for the recovery of many and grieve the loss of life among us that has been experienced in our churches.
As I am sure you know, the virus is spiking in areas across our future Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference. Therefore, I felt it wise to offer further guidance to assist your decision-making based on your context.
Some of our churches are making decisions about in-person worship based on data points such as the positivity rate, which is the percent of people being tested who receive a positive result.
Across Tennessee and Kentucky, we are seeing average positivity rates of over 13%. In Tennessee, 84% of our ICU beds are in use. These increases warrant consideration of suspending in-person worship for a season.
The wisdom of Dr. Scott Morris of our Church Health Center is that in-person worship should be suspended in favor of virtual worship for those communities with a positivity rate of 5% or higher.
You may find the rates for Tennessee and Kentucky from local media. You may also visit https://covidactnow.org/ where data points at the state and county level including positivity rate, transmission rate, ICU usage and more are available.
As the numbers increase in each community, more precaution is necessary. It is wise to await a 7- to 14-day trend of significant decrease in new cases before we relax safeguards.
If both clergy and lay leadership agree that it is safe to continue in person worship, it is important that each person in worship wears a mask. This is because we know that not all people who have contracted the virus show symptoms, which increases unknown spread.
All of these actions, virtual worship, mask wearing, social distancing, additional surface cleaning and frequent hand washing help to reduce the strain on our healthcare systems, and by so doing we are loving our neighbor well – in a tangible way.
I acknowledge that there are some who dismiss the threat of COVID-19, and that there are more still who are very anxious in this time. What we know to be true is this: 12 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 – almost 4% of the US population. There have been 256,000 deaths due to COVID – about .08% of the US population. On average, you have a 99.92% chance of not dying from COVID-19. You don’t need to be paralyzed in fear. However, most experts believe that these numbers can be decreased based upon the precautions we can take to reduce the spread of the virus.
Also, please take precautions during the Thanksgiving season to protect your family and friends. Our family has determined it is best not to gather in person.
As I reflect on the hardships of so many during 2020, I pray for those among us who have suffered diminished health, economic hardships, loss of employment, and loss of life of family and friends. I pray for our children, youth, and young adults who are struggling with their education as well as for those teachers and professors who are providing instruction in this environment. I pray for parents who are strained with childcare concerns and workloads. I pray for our healthcare workers as they provide care for those in their communities under stressful conditions. I pray for our pastors as they shepherd their congregations through these difficult days while in search of the green pastures and still waters that will surely come.
I pray for all of us to live with a spirit of gratitude as we approach Thanksgiving, knowing that, for many of us, Thanksgiving will look very different this year. I am grateful for the many ways you have continued to reach out in your neighborhoods to meet the needs of your friends and neighbors.
In 1974 I celebrated my eighteenth birthday. As I recall, there was no fanfare, no big celebration. I think my mother probably made her famous strawberry cake that was divine. However, this was a monumental milestone for I was now (legally) an adult.
The Draft for military service was winding down, as was the Vietnam War. In fact, the 1967 Selective Service Act expired in 1973 ending the authority to induct draft registrants. However, those of us turning 18 in 1974 were still required to register. I was grateful the war was coming to a close.
The second marker of 1974 was that I was now eligible to vote in United States elections so I was eager to register. I did so and since 1974 have exercised my privilege to vote. It is a sacred honor of our democracy.
Over the years I have cast my ballot most often for the person, regardless of the party, who I believed could best serve our country, state, city and county governments.
I have already exercised that privilege this year by voting with a mail-in ballot in the State of Tennessee.
As I consider this election season, at the heart are two significant concerns:
The first one is civil—that is, the preservation of democratic norms and institutions. In Abraham Lincoln’s powerful address at Gettysburg, these now famous words come to mind: “that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This is the beauty of being an American and the privilege of being a United States citizen. We participate in sharing in the preservation of democracy every time we cast our vote. If our preferred candidate is defeated in an election, we accept it and move on until the next opportunity to support our preferred candidate.
The second one is ecclesial—that is, our ability and willingness to love one another through this civil process. It is the heart of our Christian faith. Neighbor love is how our dear friend Dr. Doug Meeks speaks of Jesus’ instruction to love God and love neighbor. When we love our neighbor we are concerned for all the dimensions of a person’s life.
Perhaps you are familiar with John Wesley’s instructions about an upcoming election in Parliament. He wrote in his 1774 Journal:
“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
- To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy.
- To speak no evil of the person they voted against,
- And, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.“
My sense is this: these two concerns are at stake in the November election: 1) Civil—the preservation of our democracy and 2) Ecclesial—the exercising of the call of Christ on our lives to neighbor love.
A lot has changed in our country since 1974. I have travelled many roads. I still remember in one of my early appointments two members of the same church. In the home of one hung a picture of President Ronald Reagan, in the other, a picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
That’s who we United Methodist’s are—those with the ability to disagree and hold hands at the same time. Love God and love our neighbor.
It’s not 1974 anymore, not that I wish it were. I simply acknowledge that the landscape has shifted and continues to shift. It often feels as if we are in the wilderness, and it is yet unclear when we will come to the Promised Land. The cultural shifting of partisanship politics bleeds into the Church. The margin for misunderstanding grows wider and wider in this politically polarizing season. Contrary to what some might like to believe, Jesus is not a Republican, nor a Democrat.
Voter suppression is real and has been for 150 years in this country. Historically, voters of color and low-income voters have had their right to vote suppressed by those in power. What does voter suppression look like today? State and local governments making it harder for people to register to vote; purging voter rolls; disenfranchising criminal justice populations; reducing the number of polling places; restricting early voting; enforcing rigid voter ID requirements; restricting alternatives to physical voting and registration.
All those who seek to cast votes need to have the privilege granted to every American citizen. Those votes need to be cast with integrity and honesty.
It is my prayer that regardless of your political preferences, you will participate in helping make our country more loving and just.
It is in that spirit that I offer this prayer from the Moravian Daily Text, November 4, 2018:
God of love, may our love for you mirror your love for us. May others know us to be your disciples—through our love for our enemies and those with whom we differ—as well as those with whom we have affinity. Amen.
O God, give us clarity of mind and spirit. Bring us to a place of deep understanding and peace within our land. Keep us from harming one another. Give us courage to speak our truth in love as we exercise the privilege given to us to vote in this country. These and all things we pray in the name of the one who taught us to love You and love those you love. Amen.
I encourage each of you to VOTE in the upcoming election. And then, no matter the outcome, let’s come together to be the people of God in our land, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our families.
We have work to do…offering Christ to a hurting world one neighborhood at a time.
Perhaps you have seen in United Methodist News Service or other sources the news of the tragedy that occurred September 27 in Eastern Congo.
Six United Methodists were among 19 civilians killed in a massacre in Mamove that has been blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, an armed rebel group that operates in Eastern Congo and Uganda. ADF, a radical Islamist group, is believed to be responsible for the Sept. 27 attack as well as a series of massacres in Eastern Congo since January that involved some other rebel groups.
Many of those who lost their lives were among our United Methodist brothers and sisters. On Oct. 6 those who died were memorialized at the Kivu Annual Conference . The Rev. Dumas Balaganire, District Superintendent of the Beni District, reports that there are four local United Methodist Churches in the Mamove area.
Balaganire said the United Methodists who were killed are:
— Kakule Olenga, who led the choir at Mamove United Methodist Church.
— Okenge Junior, a member of the Mutuei church and the district evangelist.
— Abibu Chantal, president of United Methodist Women at the Samboko church.
— Mwayuma Shabani, secretary of the women’s group at Mutuei United Methodist Church.
— Augustin Omeno, president of the United Methodist Men at the Mamove church.
— Muyisa Kambale, the treasurer of the Mamove church.
This is a devastating loss to these communities and to the United Methodist family. As you might imagine, several children lost a parent.
We would like to support these communities with a financial gift. If you or your congregation wishes to make a love offering to the Bini District, please do so through the Memphis Conference or the Tennessee Conference Office of Administrative Services.
Our prayers continue to surround these brothers and sisters in Christ during this tragic and devasting loss.
Below is the text from the sermon I gave for the Services of Licensing, Commissioning and Ordination in both the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences in recent weeks. Video from these services are available on the conference websites.
Will you pray with me and for me now?
Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter in the storm of life, and our eternal home. Teach us, lead us, help us order our steps in your word as we live into the call that you have placed upon our lives. Grant it in these moments that those who are gathered here will hear you and not me, will see you and not me, and when we leave this place that we give you all the praise. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Church said, Amen.
Well, you have been on my mind this summer. I’ve thought a lot about you. I’ve thought a lot about this service, you who are being licensed and commissioned and ordained this morning. You’re stepping into leadership in the church at a most unusual time. You are aware of the unusual time into which you are moving, right?
You’re stepping into this chapter of your journey when your colleagues and friends must support you at quite a distance. Amen? You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the future of the United Methodist Church is at best, a little shaky. You’re stepping into leadership in the church when the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism have controlled the news cycle constantly for the last five to six months and, oh yes, did you notice that there is a Presidential election during this season? I’ve prayed for you. I have worried about how we would be able to offer an in-person service of commissioning, licensing, and ordination in a protected way.
As a thought about that, I remembered this beautiful Black gospel hymn, Order My Steps. It began to echo in my mind, and I began to just sing it over to myself, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word, order my steps in your Word. When I was down on the Mississippi Gulf coast, I went to this rural church and there was this beautiful rendition of a particular gospel song that day. And after the service, the choir director came up to me and said, if that don’t warm your heart, your wood’s wet.
So, you’ve been on my mind. Did I mention that you’d been on my mind? I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t recommend doing life as I do it, but I’m a last minute kind of guy. I don’t want to peak too soon. I want to be pumped up right when it’s game time, this is game time for a Bishop. Ordination day, commissioning, licensing. It’s game day. And so, I was just getting myself really revved up last night and I spilled my big drink on my keyboard of my computer in the midst of my rewrite, the 14th rewrite, of this sermon. Has that ever happened to anybody else? I need somebody to order my life. Amen? But in this anticipation of this service, I even left my script for the service in my wife’s car, and she’s gone to Hermitage this morning. Has this ever happened to anybody else? Lord have mercy on a Bishop!
In my anticipation, this disrupted out of sync season of annual conference in September and moving day in July. It’s just been a strange season for the church, for our conferences. It’s just been weird. I mean, my life has been patterned. My steps have been patterned for 40 years with annual conference in June, moving day the end of June, and then I’m free. We got a little respite. But, we’re ramping up in August/September towards the big event. My life is out of step. What do you do when you’re out of step?
I usually need to go back to the source. When I find myself walking out of step, I have to go back to the source of my call, the source of my strength, the source of my very being. So, I started thinking about my call to ministry, about the place scripture and the Holy Spirit in my life, in your life. I don’t know if you’re a follower of the great preacher, Fred Craddock. Some of us were blessed enough to have Fred teach us a little bit about preaching. He said, “no one is ever called loud enough for everyone in the family to hear. No one is ever called loud enough for everybody in the family to hear the call.“
And so as I lean in, and I tried to listen to the still small voice of God and reflected on all that’s gone on in this summer, I started thinking about my why. My call. Why? Why I’m in this work?
It’s a simple question. Simon Sinek wrote an entire book about knowing your why. Why are you here? Really? Why are you sitting here preparing to be licensed, commissioned or ordained? Do you know why? Why did you answer your call? In 1989, Steven Covey published his bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Sometime around 1982, I took the now famous course, Franklin Covey’s Seven Habits. Maybe you did that as well, somewhere along the way. You may ask me, why did you take such a course? I took the course because I wanted to be effective in my steps. I took the course because I wanted to know my why, I wanted to write a mission statement, I wanted to live into who God had called me to be. I wanted to get clarity about that. I wanted to get my steps ordered in those seven habits. One of them was remember to begin with the end in mind. We’re going somewhere, brothers and sisters. We’re not there yet. Well, God has us on a mission and we’re going toward what God’s calling us to. We’re not there. I think Martin said that, didn’t he?
Hold on. I’m just stepping into mine. I wish I’d of had a Fitbit when I started my stepping into the ministry. I’d love to know how many steps I walked in the name of Jesus in the last 40 years.
I started stepping into this call when I was in high school. I was very active in conference youth work in my local church. I spent a lot of weekend retreats in summers at our conference camp. We had this beautiful hillside with these three crosses on the hill and you could look out over the valley and I would pray fervently, God I’m listening. Show me, show me what to do with my life.
Show me. I found myself stepping into the call one Sunday morning at Grenada First United Methodist Church, Grenada, Mississippi. The preacher happened to be my father, who offered the invitation and the closing invitational hymn was Oh, Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee. I wanted to be that prophet who would not be afraid. And I stepped in and made a public confession of my call to ministry. I stepped into my call again when I walked onto the steps of Candler School of Theology, walked into the halls of Bishop Hall and sat at the feet of Fred Craddock and Leander Keck who taught New Testament. I remember clearly the night I stepped to the alter at First United Methodist Church, Columbus, Mississippi, and Bishop C.P. Minnick put his big hands on my head and said “take thou authority to preach the word and administer the sacraments.” I can still feel the weight of his hands on my head.
Fast forward to 25 years later, August, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. The Friday after Katrina hit, I was on my way to Guadalajara, Mexico on a medical and work mission trip and our work team had to make a decision. Were we going to go on and go to Mexico? Are we going to hang out and worry about our home state that had been ravaged by a hurricane? We finally concluded that we couldn’t do anything in that moment on the Gulf Coast. So, we went to Mexico because we knew nobody else will be going to Mexico that week to do what God had called us to do. So we went. As soon as I returned from Mexico, I loaded up my car with all the supplies I could muster. And I drove to Bay St. Louis, where Rick Brooks was the pastor of Bay St. Louis United Methodist Church. Rick’s home had eight feet of flood water. It was the parsonage. I got there in time to take that big wide scooping shovel and scoop out the mud and the muck, and the smell was wretched.
I began to take trip after trip, after trip. Our church decided to take on the task of rebuilding the parsonage. And I began to feel God doing something in me in that moment. And I said to my Bishop. (Be careful what you say to your Bishop, by the way.). I said to my Bishop, “if you need me to go to the Gulf Coast, I feel that might be what God is calling me to do.” And Lynn and I spent six years helping the people of the Seashore District recover after that devastating storm. All of those steps, every one of them is rooted in my why.
So the question that I want to put before you this morning is, are your steps being ordered in the word? In God’s word? Do you remember when God first called you? Do you remember when the phone rang and God said, I want you? Do you remember when it was?
Do you remember the last time God called you?
God doesn’t just call you one time. Hear me now. That call has to be heard over and over and over again. I can’t tell you a hundred percent the first time I got that call, but I can tell you the last time.
Last week I received a text message from Embra Jackson. Embra is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, Mississippi, and Embra sent me a text that said, “can you do a grave site service in Nashville Thursday?” Dr. Swan Burrus has passed away.
Swan was an OB/GYN. He was 90 years old. He was a beloved member of the church. He was the permanent president of his Sunday school class. He had four children who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. I had known two of his children since camp days when we went to Camp Lake Stephens together and later two of them, his oldest two daughters, were at Millsaps College with me. I had not seen these friends for 40 years, these two sisters. Last week I learned this is just how God works these things out. This is the beauty of our United Methodist connection. Swan grew up at Inglewood United Methodist Church, then Methodist Church.
It’s now Home Church. His family grew up in that community. Marianne, his wife’s, father, get this, was the Reverend Frank Calhoun, an Elder in the Tennessee Conference. He met Marianne when her father was appointed to Inglewood and they started carpooling to Vanderbilt together at the request of her father and the rest, as they say, is history.
Did I mention, did I say I’m wondering why I was asked to step in to this season of life and death with these long time friends? While I was giving the message at the Spring Hill Cemetery in Madison on the hottest day of last week, Thursday two o’clock in the afternoon. Think about that.
I remembered my why. In the midst of all the conversations, all the prayers, all the sacred words. I found myself remembering my why. I remember that in my heart of hearts, at the very core of who Bill McAlilly was created to be, and who God called, is that I’m called to be a pastor.
I wasn’t called first to be a Bishop. My first call was to be a pastor. To bring good news to all God’s children, to care for the broken, the wounded, to offer Christ to those who are lost, and confused, and alone, who need a second chance? Do you know anybody right now who needs another chance? Our God is a God of second chances, friends, and you’re there to help them hear that message of hope and promise and possibility.
Do you know your why? If you are not crystal clear about your call, when the challenges get big, grow large, mount, you will want to quit.
You’ll want to quit. If you haven’t already had that experience, stay tuned. Bishop Bob Tullis told us many years ago, in an ordination sermon, “if you are not spending time daily in scripture, reading, and prayer five years from now, you will not be in ministry.”
If you are not aligning your why with scripture, you will wake up five years from now and wonder where you are and how you arrived at this unfamiliar place. Luke 4, what a great text for an ordination sermon. Luke 3 and 4, remind us that it was at Jesus’ baptism that he got clarity about his call. Jesus heard the words, “Thou art my beloved son with whom I’m well pleased.” It was in the wilderness, “immediately,” the text says. He went into the wilderness immediately.
The Spirit led him into the wilderness and he worked it out. He had to figure out what kind of leader he was going to be.
What did God really need from him? It wasn’t power. It wasn’t sitting up high and holy on a throne lifted up. No, it was down in the valley. It was down where the people were, where the pain was, where the suffering is. That’s where Jesus heard his call.
Have you been tested this week? Last week? When was the last test? Oh, some of you say, well, I got tested by the Board of Ordained Ministry. That’s not the worst test you’ll ever have friends. Trust me. There will be more difficult and challenging tests. Stay tuned.
I remember Craddock, in his Preaching 101 class, say “what you want to do and what you have to do will occasionally line up. What you want to do and what you have to do will from time to time be in sync.“ So, follow this Luke 3 & 4 text. He’s led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is this guiding staff. Luke wants to make clear that we understand the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of Jesus. These three things occur: his baptism, the wilderness, and then in our text today, he goes home. Anybody ever go back to their home church to preach?
They remember you when you do and they will tell you what they remember about you. And it’s not all good. Trust me. I served my home church in my first appointment out of seminary. And my mother-in-law was the choir director.
Lord have mercy.
When Jesus came back home, he stood up and he read from the prophet Isaiah. I want to suggest to you this day that the prophet Isaiah, the text from which Jesus read, was Jesus’ why. It helped him know what his why was. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to preach release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.“ Listen again to what it means to order your steps in the word.
I want to walk worthy, walk worthy Lord, My calling to fulfill. Please order my steps Lord, Order my steps and I’ll do your blessed will. The world is ever changing, it’s changing Lord, But you are still the same; If you’ll order my steps, I’ll praise your name. Order my steps in your word. Order my tongue in your word. Guide my feet in your word. Wash my heart in your word. Show me how to walk in your word. Show me how to talk in your word. If I need a brand new song to sing, Show me how to let your praises ring, In your word, your word. In your word, your word. Please order my steps in your word.
How are your steps ordered today? As you step forward into this covenant life? Earlier, I mentioned Katrina recovery. That experience reframed my life. It did not change my why, but it did reorder where I walked. Last week, the simple act of offering grace to a family broken by the loss of a dear loved one reminded me of my why, of my call. It wasn’t dramatic. Lightening didn’t flash and I didn’t hear a voice from heaven, but it was a reordering of what mattered most. So to each of you, I invite you this very day, this day— go home tonight and take your Bible and in the front of your Bible on a page write the story of your call. Just write it out.
And go to the internet and copy the words of Order my Steps and paste that beside your call story. And when the storms come, when the seas are raging, when the negative voices are biting at your feet, and they will, go pick up your Bible and read your story, read the text of the hymn, listen to it, hear the words, pass them into your heart in such a way that you will never forget them. Find that one verse that you hang your whole life on, find it and write it there.
Then remember, if you’re ordering your steps in the Word, here’s what I know:
I know because of what Jesus taught me that racism is real right now in our country. And if you don’t find a way to speak a word of grace and hope to dismantle racism, then you’ve got to go back and read it again. The COVID-19 pandemic is real and people are dying every day and they’re dying alone and families are broken because of the loneliness, and frustration, and horror of what it means to lose a loved one, separated by a hospital wall. If you don’t know that’s real, go read Luke chapter 4 because Jesus came to speak into that moment.
And if you hadn’t noticed this whole world of ours is fractured and it grieves my heart more than I can say in words, that some of the fracturing comes out of the mouths of Christians.
The rhetoric coming out of Christians in this moment needs a word of Gospel spoken into it and a Word of peace, so that those who are oppressed can be set free.
Let me Close in this way:
The spirit of the Lord is upon you because he is anointing you to preach the gospel to the poor. He is sending you to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind and to set at liberty those who are bruised. So let your steps be ordered one more time. Not just today, but every day you wake up and call yourself pastor.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As you may know, Martin Methodist College has entered into an agreement with the University of Tennessee to pursue a partnership with UT whereby Martin becomes a satellite campus of the University.
While there is a great deal of work that must be accomplished for this to occur, it does appear to be a very real possibility.
Below, please read Allen Stanton’s guest blog post about what this will mean for our United Methodist presence on Martin’s Campus. Allen is the Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist and illuminates what is hoped for with regard to our Wesley Foundation and the Turner Center going forward.
Guest Post by Rev. Allen Stanton
When Martin Methodist College announced our intention to become part of the University of Tennessee System, I knew that I would get a fair amount of questions from colleagues and friends. As the director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, I knew that most of those questions would be asking about my thoughts as the leader of a faith-based initiative. How was I feeling about this transition? What does this mean for Methodist higher education? What does this mean for the mission of Martin Methodist?
Martin Methodist College is a special institution in the Nashville Episcopal Area, and I know that a number of people share those questions. To answer them, I think it’s important to remember a few points.
First, Martin Methodist College was founded in a deep Wesleyan tradition of expanding access to education. For those early Methodists, access to social goods like education was about inviting participation into the Kingdom of God. By opening up this access, the college could be a place that offered transformation for the students and the community.
That mission is still deep in our DNA. Today, we pride ourselves on serving rural students, first-generation college students, and Pell-eligible students. It was a mark of pride when US News and World Report ranked us among the top colleges for social mobility.
It’s important to know that Martin Methodist College is still a strong institution. Unlike a lot of colleges of our size, we have a strong and stable enrollment. We have low debt, and we are constantly seeking new ways to live out our mission.
That strength does not make us immune from changes facing every small college, though. For instance, there are fewer high-school students than in decades past, which means colleges are competing for a smaller pool of students. And, COVID-19 is forcing change in every college, from the wealthiest to the smallest.
All of this leaves us with an important question: What is best for our mission?
The truth is that by becoming part of the University of Tennessee System, we will be able to improve the ways in which we carry out that foundational calling. We will have more resources to continue to provide quality education for our under-served area. We will be able to improve the economy of South-Central Tennessee. We will be able to help every member of our community unlock their potential and realize their vocation.
The second point that I want to emphasize is that we will still retain a connection to our Methodist tradition, and the people of the new Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. For our students, we will have a robust Wesley Foundation, where they will experience the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. The Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, meanwhile, will continue to work with faith-based communities, including United Methodist Congregations, to cultivate thriving rural communities.
The truth is this: Just because we lose our Methodist name does not mean that we lose our connection. In my first job out of seminary, I managed an initiative at a public university that supported United Methodist congregations in ways that mirror much of the current work of the Turner Center at MMC. There is no doubt that we will continue in our work. Even as we prepare for this transition, we will soon be announcing new initiatives, including a partnership with Duke Divinity School to expand access to theological education in our area.
All of this brings me to the question I am most often asked: How do I, as an ordained elder who came to Tennessee to work at Martin Methodist College, feel about this new development?
Simply put, I am hopeful. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to embrace transformation. Just as our episcopal area is becoming recreated into a new Conference, and just as our denomination is in a state of change, Martin Methodist College will enter into this transformation sure and confident in our ability to “do all the good we can.”
What I love about Martin Methodist College is that we are a people on a mission. Our mission permeates our campus culture. It is at the heart of all that we do. In staff meetings, when working with students, and in conversations with faculty, we are constantly reminding ourselves of the work to which we are called.
We are a people on mission, and we will go where the mission demands.
We are a people on mission, and we are always confident in the grace that makes all things new.
We are a people on mission, and our mission deserves nothing less.
Rev. Allen Stanton is the Executive Director of Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, working with rural congregations, non-profits, businesses, and community leaders to cultivate thriving rural communities.