Preparing

Preparing

This sermon was preached at Kenai United Methodist Church and North Star United Methodist Church on March 17, 2019.

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Throughout the season of Lent, we are preparing for the resurrection. Each year, we know Easter is coming, yet the preparing and the intentionality remain part of our practice. Today’s scripture describes Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees, who warn Jesus that death is coming. While we assume Jesus wants to be safe himself in his earthly body, he tells the Pharisees that he still has work to do, a mission to uphold.

Last week, we talked about the devil, Jesus’ encounter of being tempted while he was in the wilderness. And today, Jesus’ ministry is being challenged and tested again, this time by an earthly ruler, King Herod.  Perhaps this is an important Lenten reminder that our lives which are held in love and God’s grace still involve risk, still involve hardships along the way, as we travel towards resurrection. Death or loss is always involved in resurrection.

Part of the beauty in our walk with Jesus is the messiness we encounter along the way, the messiness that we can see through our Lenten journey, leads us to the cross, to resurrection. If Jesus was only with us in the good moments, we’d be lost a lot of the time. So we are challenged to ask, how does Jesus’ experience of danger and warning reflect our own drive to follow God?

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The language “today and tomorrow, and on the third day” from verse 32, give voice to his death, an acknowledgement of the humanness of Jesus in this form. It also makes clear his divinity, or rather, the divinity of the mission of God. It defies death. It defies earthly timelines of life. It defies the tragic role of the city of Jerusalem. Jesus leads us to an important realization about how we are to lead abundantly, as we prepare for the resurrection. Death is not the final answer. But it still is something that happens, and Jesus is well aware of that reality.

Jesus’ death went along with the rest of his ministry, which is why his sense of fear did not deter him from doing the work he was called to do, which in his case was casting out demons, we read.

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Our risk and our work is a little different. Our risk involves fear, but likely not fear that will make us fear for our life. It probably is closer to a fear of loss, or failure, or disappointment, or change.  And our work isn’t really about casting out demons, at least not literal demons. But it may involve finding ways to push out negative feelings, habits, or toxic parts of our life that take up too much space.

How might we encounter our missions and our ministries with a perspective that goes beyond our daily tasks, our earthly attempts at doing the work. Jesus invites us to see our lives as a reflection of the Divine, the God who brought us to being out of dust, and the one who sees us beyond the dust after our body dies. And when we see our lives in this way, we allow ourselves to look beyond the fear. It doesn’t go away, but we can see it and still see the mission we are called to.

How does the calling you strive to follow, reflect the cross today, tomorrow, and even on the third day? How does Christ’s experience of danger and warning reflect your drive to follow Christ, anticipating resurrection? How might we work in our humanity to bring prophetic witness and service to those we encounter, revealing the fully human and fully divine being of Jesus Christ into our lives this Easter season?

On Ash Wednesday, our service involved posting confessions on a giant door, things we were holding on to or wanted/needed to let go of in order to see the fullness of God and the fullness of who God created us to be.

Can you remember what you posted on that door? And if you weren’t there, can you think of something you would post, something that stands between you and God in this season, however small or big it might be?

Being super transparent with you all, the thing I wrote down for myself was ‘imposter syndrome’, which is this fear or paranoia of being ‘found out’ in a way. This is a pretty common thing, especially I’d say for young people, and also church people. We usually want to put our best self forward, showing a put together or knowledgeable or even so far as perfect front. At least for me, this leads to a fear of other people seeing the imperfection as being not capable. It pops up in various places, not just work. I notice this imposter syndrome in relationships, in watching successful people around me, in silly things like walking my dog. It’s this little voice in the back of my head that says, maybe you’re not as good as people think you are, and one day, they’ll find out and think less of you because of it.

And so, for me this Lent, my practice is to see past that voice. We might call it a demon. And in seeing past that voice, in pushing whatever it is away from my view of God, I’m able to do work more freely. The time it takes to wonder what people are thinking or saying or worrying that they are, that time instead can be spent doing the things and being the person God calls me to be. It frees space, precious space that instead can be used to prepare me for my own resurrections.

Jesus, in our story today, is doing this work. He’s pushing away the voice that warns him to the point of quitting, of straying away from his view of the cross.

“The Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus knows he is called. He knows he is good and enough and worthy. And so his response to the Pharisees, his response to fear, is to say to them, ‘hold on, I’m not finished yet’. Perhaps we too, can respond this way to our own fears, our own insecurities, our own confessions, the things that stand between us and the full view of the cross.

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As we leave this place today, my challenge for you, as our Lenten journey unfolds, is to identify that thing or those things for you, the things that need to be pushed away in order to see your call, your path in following God. And from there, I challenge you to walk with me, with us, throughout this Lenten season, to do that work and to push those things aside, so together, God can lead us towards the cross, towards the resurrection God promises us all.

Let us pray. God of spacious life, we give you thanks for your promises to us, promises of abundance and freedom. Walk beside us as we strive to see you more fully, fully alive and thriving, so we too may live that way. In your loving name we pray, Amen.

Tempted

Tempted

This sermon was originally preached on March 10, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church.

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

    and serve only God.’”

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

‘God will command God’s angels concerning you,

    to protect you,’

and

 ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

I get to do some really meaningful work inside and especially outside this congregation, with people on the margins, people who we might consider to be oppressed, based on their orientation, gender, or status. In this work, a common tool that gets built up is knowing the scripture that will be inevitably be used against them. There are certain texts, that had once been assigned to place harm and push out certain people groups, that if used out of context, seem to provide some semblance of ‘proof’ as to why they don’t belong, or why they need to change. Sometimes we call these things clobber texts.

So if someone falls into the people group that is being oppressed by society, they will often learn those texts, study them in depth, so that when the time comes for someone to challenge their existence, their worth, they cannot internalize the inappropriate usage of the text, and also defend it with how context matters.

Perhaps you fall into one of those people groups. Maybe you’re divorced, or too old, or too young, or too poor, or too single. We end up having to defend parts of our humanity to those who think they can recite the Bible better than us, and it can be tempting to enter the great unknown land of playing into that game.

Our scripture today gives us a comparable encounter, when Jesus encounters the devil. The devil had unsuccessfully tried to tempt Jesus for the past forty days he was in the wilderness fasting. And now this scene enters Jesus, who certainly is incredibly hungry, and I’d imagine hangry too. This scripture is the final three temptations Jesus encounters in the forty days.

In each temptation, the devil uses scripture to try and convince Jesus to play the devil’s game. The devil tries to tempt Jesus by de-valuing his identity. The devil tries to claim that Jesus is not the son of God, by asking him to perform tasks that focus on self-indulgence, self-centeredness, and self-serving-ness.

When I imagine this story, I like to believe that Jesus could have done each of these tasks. In fact, we’ve seen the miracles Jesus did perform, so that isn’t really a huge stretch to believe that he could have. But Jesus doesn’t do any of them. He doesn’t make bread out of stones, worship the devil in exchange for the land, or throw himself off the temple.

Jesus instead tells the devil each time, ‘you’re missing the point. I’m here, and that alone, is testament to my humanity’ and in his case, his divinity. Jesus, each time, responds to the devil’s backhanded quotations of scripture, by responding with quotes of his own that show his commitment to be dependent on God, that show his awareness of the true source of his life and his identity.

In this passage, Jesus shows who he is, and his life has been a testament to the life-giving nature of God’s intent for scripture. Not to bring people down or to nickel and dime them into doing something or believing something harmful, but to continue giving voice to the two most important commandments from the gospel: love God, and love neighbor.

The truth about the bible, is that you can make it say pretty much whatever you want it to say. If you are looking for something in the bible, you can find it somewhere in there. The bible addresses slavery, women being silent, men lying with other men, hurting children, and the list goes on. Anybody, the devil included, can page through and find a verse or two that can harm, that can ‘prove’ why someone doesn’t belong, why someone isn’t worthy. And because this book was recorded thousands of years ago in a language most of us don’t understand, in a place that most of us have never been to, there’s not a lot we can do about it. Because the bible has stood the test of time, a lot of time.

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But what this scripture teaches us, is that the bible has not stood the test of time because it’s a weapon. It stands the test of time because over and over, Jesus points us to the life that comes from it. Love God and love neighbor. Jesus points us, over and over, to the fact that God is love, and through God, we were created with love in mind. Jesus’ job, in this passage, was to not stoop to the level of the devil, who tried to tempt Jesus by using the text to produce bad fruit, fruit that would lead to, well, nothing fruitful.

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Jesus’ job, in this passage, was to remind himself, as he was fasting, being tested, that his worth came from God, and that this reality was completely enough. Similarly, our relationship with God is between ourselves and God. The outside voices who try and bring us down, who attempt to creatively weave poorly used scripture verses into a part of our story that the outside voices only know a piece of, those voices do not follow love God or love neighbor.

At the end of the day, we call ourselves Christians because we believe in the validity of Jesus’ words, his ministry, his resurrection. We have said that this guy is worth following, his teachings, his commitments, his agenda. If we were interested in the bible because we wanted to use it to invoke harm, if we truly believed that was the purpose for it, we would need to find ourselves another name to be called, because Christians doesn’t really lead to that.

Each time the devil asks Jesus the question, he begins with the word ‘if’. If you are the son of God, do this. If you worship me, you will gain everything. If you are the son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple. The word ‘if’ is conditional. It implies that whatever is being claimed by Jesus is not true.

The devil sets up a far too familiar trap. We probably have heard this interpretation in our life as well.

If God really loves you…

If you’re going to be forgiven…

If Jesus was the son of God…

These ‘if’ statements set up a false narrative, where we as the recipient of the statements, are being asked to prove our worth, prove what we know. Jesus, in this encounter, teaches us that we don’t have to.

For each ‘if’ statement from the devil, Jesus responds in his own way, by removing the ‘if’ and replacing it with a few little words of his own; it is written.

Jesus teaches us that it’s not a matter of if God loves us. Instead, it is written: God loves you. It is written: I am the son of God. It is written: You are forgiven. Our worth is never determined by what we can quote, by how creatively we can construct an argument, by how convincing our exegesis work is. Instead, Jesus reminds us here, and reminds us throughout the gospels, that our worth is ultimately determined by God, and if we can remember God’s two greatest commandments, love God and love neighbor, we are set.

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So as we leave today friends, may we remember that our worth is not determined by how much of the bible we’ve memorized. Our belovedness has nothing to do with the amount of proof we can conjure up. And may we never forget that the story of Jesus will always lead us to the reality, that our relationship with God is a relationship of love, and it will always be valid, worthy, and holy.

God of goodness and love, we praise you for your constant presence, your reminder that we need not be tempted by forces that work to pull us away from you, or doubt your love for us. Remind us that you created each of us as your beloved children, and nothing can take away from that. In your hope-filled name we pray, Amen.

With Great Boldness

With Great Boldness

With Great Boldness

This sermon was originally preached on March 3, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church in Alaska.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that[a] was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

We talked last week about how things were changing very soon, and how very soon, we’d be asked to respond. Well friends, things have changed. If you have not yet heard, the United Methodist Church has met and they voted to adopt the traditionalistplan, a way forward that continues to ban gay clergy and same-gender weddings. In a vote of 438 to 384, the traditionalistplan has been affirmed, and will be in place until/unless it is ruled unconstitutional. There’s a lot of church hierarchy language to that, so I’ll say it in English- The church is broken.

Now, I come to you today as a person who is fully affirming of LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the church. That shouldn’t be shocking unless you’re new here. And I recognize we are all in different placeson this topic. I acknowledge that some of you may even be happy with the decision, that some of you had hoped this plan would be passed. And that is your choice and your freedom.

But as your pastor, I cannot stand up here today and tell you that I think this is what God wanted. I cannot even fathom a world where that would be true. And as a spiritual leader, who has been trained and commissioned to listen for God in the church, and to communicate the story of Jesus with congregations like you all, I need to be honest with you and say that I am angry, and that this feels to me like a big abuse of power.

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I’m not so much angry that there are people, even in this congregation, who believe something different than I do about the Bible. I respect the complexity of scripture, and how it speaks to all of us in different ways at different times, depending on our identity and our culture. I’m angry because there is no doubt in my mind that every single one of us deserves to be invited, included, and allowed to fully participate in the church. And we, this week church, we voted to say no, that is not true. Some of you are not welcome.

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As I sat watching the livestream, the moments on the clock counted down to the time the conference would be over, and the UMC would need to clear the space for the monster truck rally that was coming to the arena next (a true story). As I waited, I wondered how I would respond. How can I both communicate the news, and also communicate the good news, in such a time as this?

And then I read the scripture. Imagine that- the Bible can provide us with words when we have none.

In the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing to the people of Corinth, and tells them they need to be prepared.

“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” 

Something is about to happen. As we move into 2 Corinthians, it happens. Paul now has a different role. He’s not warning anymore. Rather, he’s coaching folx on the question of ‘what now’. Our scripture today begins with Paul offering hope, a hope that comes when we act boldly. The kind of boldness he’s talking about is acting in opposition to that of what the law of Moses is telling them to do. He said Moses put a veil over the people from Israel, so they could not see the glory.

But the Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is the one who sets that veil aside, the one who allows us to see the goodness and the holy, and the image of God in all that is before us. God offers freedom to those who look at this glory fully, who can pull the veil off in order to see the richness that is the kindom of God.

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Paul reminds us that we are here, in ministry, because God brought us here. We aren’t doing the work by coincidence, or because we’re the only people left that could do it. We are here because this divine being imagined it.

Verse 2 of chapter 4 says that “by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God”. I don’t see any exclusions, exceptions, or descriptions in that verse. God sees everyone, and God sees truth and goodness in everyone.

The United Methodist Church has put a veil on right now. It’s been on for quite some time, and this decision we made this past week further shows that there is no intention to take the veil off, by the church majority, by those who are represented in the 438 votes who voted for this traditionalist plan.

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Even amidst this statement that has been made, when we look, we can see glimpses beyond that veil. This week even, some pretty ‘kindom of God’ things happened. On the General Conference stage for the very first time, ‘I am a gay man’ was spoken aloud. Delegates spoke in favor of a plan that allowed for diversity of opinion, even though they believed in what the Traditionalist Plan offered. Prayer and witness and deep listening took place from beginning to end, with bishops, delegates, clergy, laity, and observers together. Thousands of young people stood up and made a statement for diversity of opinion, where they revealed themselves as the future of the church. We saw what could be, when the veil is lifted and God’s fullness is revealed.

In the final moments of the conference, our Western Jurisdiction delegation spoke from the floor to say that they as a leadership body, would be continuing to live and act as one church, as a body of believers with diversity in opinion and diversity of identity. We as the Western Jurisdiction have seen what it’s like to be under that veil, and we’ve also seen and practiced what it is like to remove it, and to see the fullness of God and the Holy Spirit at work. And I am thankful for our leadership, for discerning what that means for us moving forward, as we take bold steps in our faith.

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A preaching professor told me that if I couldn’t think of what to preach on,then do this. Talk about where you’ve seen God recently, say something true about God from scripture, and then sit down. Well, I’ve already messed that up, but it’s not too late to close with that.

I’ve seen God this week, through the ways people come together, amidst chaos and confusion. I’ve seen God in the crying out, the anger, the stories, the small celebrations, and the togetherness of mourning. God spoke this week, and the votes that occurred can’t take away from that.

And here is what I know to be true about God, from our scripture today. God is bigger than we often allow God to be. God, through the Trinity, makes themselves known in the complexity of people who make up God’s Church. God invites us to lift the veil to see the freedom found in the spirit of God for all people.

So friends, as we transition from this time into our time of holy communion, may we be rooted in our collective wholeness, in the wholeness of God who each of us were created by and for. As we gather around this table today, may we lift the veil, to rid ourselves of notions of who is in and who is out, who is included and who is excluded, and especially who is compatible and who is incompatible.

Because the reality, and the good news, is that each of you is called.

Each of you are good.

Each of you are invited to this table today.

I say this every time we take communion, but today, it is especially important. This is not my table. It is not your table. And it is not the United Methodist Church’s table. This is God’s table. This table is a place open for all who love God, all who want to know God, all who doubt or question or want to know more. It’s a space for all who are rejoicing or mourning or angry or excited or terrified. No matter what, you are invited to this table today.

This Sunday, the table serves the same purpose it always has, but for many, it will take a very different form. This Sunday, may we be intentional about reminding ourselves who the table belongs to, and who is invited.

The migrants

The curious

The queer

The homeless

The addicts

The young

The unemployed

The disabled

The lonely

The broken

The left-behind

 

All invited. All celebrated. Period.

The open table of Christ is not subject to a vote. And neither is the story of Jesus. Amen.

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Up for Debate

Up for Debate

This sermon was originally preached at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church on February 24, 2019.

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your God is merciful.

 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Our scripture this morning is a continuation of the sermon on the plain we read last week, where Jesus is giving instructions to the people, on even ground. As Jesus addresses the people in the first sentence of verse 27, he calls them ‘you that listen’. The folks there are there to hear what Jesus has to say, and they are in a position where listening is really what they can offer at that moment.

In a way, right now in our church, in our denomination, we too are like the people in the gospel, in a place where listening is all we can really do. As we are here today, conversations and legislation are taking place in St. Louis, with bishops, delegates, and observers from all over the world. The United Methodist Church is in a crossover season, where we are learning and waiting to know what the future of the denomination will look like. We are in that place on the roller coaster where we’re pretty much up the hill, and we can feel that we’re about to take the plunge downhill super-fast, but not yet.

I find myself stressed, because so much is out of my control. I don’t have a vote. I’m not at the conference. At best, I’m watching pieces of it through a screen. But still, I need something from the folks there who do have control. So I listen, in response, just like the folks in Luke did.

The response those people got, the disciples and those who had heard about Jesus, is the part we read today. Jesus gives instructions about love; how to love, who to love, and why we love. He has a habit of repeating himself several times, because if we’ve ever taught to a group of people or said something to a loud room, we know there’s a good chance that some of what you say will go in one ear and out the other. So Jesus says it more than once.

He starts out by using four different illustrations of the same instruction: loving your enemy:

  • Turn the other cheek.
  • Do not withhold to those in need.
  • Give to those who ask of you.
  • If your goods are taken, don’t ask for them back.

Then he goes right into the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated, do to others as you would have them do to you.

Jesus’ instructions are clear, and even if they aren’t clear the first time, he repeats himself three more times just to be sure. Those hearing his words again, are in a position where the words Jesus is uttering are out of their control. But they can control how they will respond.

The votes that will take place these next few days by the delegates are their way of responding to Jesus, collectively. We as official and unofficial members of this church will not be voting, but we will be able to respond accordingly.

We have been living our lives in a certain way up until this point, and soon, things are going to change. Those on the plain had been living the same way, and now like us, they are at a crossroads, where they are given a choice of how to respond to the reality before them. This scripture gives us what we can control: our response.

Jesus calls us to respond in love, and to respond in love to both those we already agree with, and those who we don’t, even those who hate us.

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More conventional teaching back in Jesus’ time would say that if someone harmed you, you harmed them back. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of stuff. But what Jesus is doing here, is saying, no, this isn’t about coming out on top anymore. This is about human relationships. Turn the other cheek.

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The crossroads we as a denomination are coming to have up until this point, divided us big time. We chose sides. We argued about who was right and who was wrong. Like any democracy, someone comes out on top, and someone loses. Often, the ones who lose are the ones whose voice is being silenced by the powerful, the majority. And in a lot of ways, the result of this General Conference will be no different.

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But what is different, what we hear echoed from Jesus today, is that our future isn’t about winners and losers. Some will be more hurt by the outcome than others. Some will be celebrating while others mourn a loss. Some will become more invested in the church, and some will leave forever. But we are not being called to that. We are being called to give to those who ask of you, to not withhold to those in need, to treat others how we want to be treated.

Now friends, these next three days, we are out of control, waiting, listening, watching. But soon, we will be asked to respond. We will be asked to be a part of whatever change our representatives have decided will happen. And we can either respond by continuing to hurtfully divide, or we can respond in love. It also occurs to me that maybe, our division could also be a response in love. Jesus is calling us to be generous in our response.

The command to love one’s enemy can sound like a further source of division, giving us permission almost, to ‘us’ and ‘them’ each other. But what we’re talking about when we hear Jesus saying ‘love your enemy’, is that we are making the choice to no longer regard the separations we have previously placed on people, moving to a spirit of inclusion.

So today, I find myself preaching and leading from a weird spot in our denomination’s history. In tens and twenties of years, we will look back and see February 2019 as the turning point for the United Methodist Church. It is going to change from what we know it to be today, and we can’t yet predict if that change will be good, will help grow the church, will cause it to schism, will cause lasting damage. But that change is going to happen, and we today, are being asked to respond in love, when it comes time for us to respond.

Wherever you find yourself, however you are feeling, let us remember the clear instructions of Jesus one more time.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your God is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

When we respond in love, we follow this Holy example that is Jesus Christ. Through his death, his resurrection, and through his ministry, he is a beaming example of what it means to choose love as a response to all things, and to value relationship over choosing sides.

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Today, as we sit waiting, listening, and preparing our response, let us practice that spirit of relationships, of responding in love with one another in perhaps the most sacred of ways, through the sharing of the bread and cup, as we share in Holy Communion.

As a reminder, this table, like the love of Christ, is open for all. This is not my table, or yours, or even the United Methodist Church’s table. This is God’s table, and God invites all who love God, all who want to love God, all who are curious or are doubting or who have questions. So today, know that God’s active love is inviting you, me, and all of us to the table today.

Blessed Are You

Blessed Are You

This sermon was originally preached on February 17, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church and Kenai United Methodist Church.

Luke 6:17-23

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

    for yours is the kindom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now,

    for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now,

    for you will laugh.                                                                        

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

When you think of Jesus, as a fully divine and fully human being, what words come to mind to describe him?

Sometimes, when I think of Jesus, I think of him as this high up person, teaching from the top of benches in the towns or, like the sermon on the mount, on top of a mountain. Because Jesus gives us these huge instructions, right? Or it seems like that at least. Because he’s Jesus.

Today, we read a scripture that makes us question that notion, or makes me question it, at least. This scripture is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. If you’ve seen a plain before, you know that there is absolutely zero way of someone, even Jesus, to be higher than someone else. A plain is a flat, sweeping landmass that doesn’t change much in elevation.

It’s important to note this, because it normalizes Jesus, or it puts Jesus on a level, a plain, that is equal to us. So in this sermon on the plain, Jesus is doing more discipling than he is preaching or lecturing. As it should be, if you ask me.

A word of confession, is that I googled the word plain so I could make sure the language I used to describe it was correct, because even if I did spend four years in western Montana, the flattest and most boring place on the planet, I figured y’all would know more about land than me, so I had to get it right.

As I googled plain, I got the wording I needed for the landmass, but I also got another definition for plain. The kind of plain that is synonymous with simple and not ordinary in character. This kind of plain describes something that is basic, modest, without frills. This kind of plain doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful thing, whatever we are describing as plain, but it means that special attention wasn’t brought to it to make it a big thing.

Jesus’ sermon on the plain was a sermon that was plain. It was basic, because the things he was saying, the things he was calling his disciples and the multitudes to, were nothing new or out there. These people had come to hear him speak and to be healed of their diseases. They were looking for something miraculous.

And what Jesus said to them was miraculous, but it was also incredibly plain. But in no way was it boring.

You are a blessing, he said to the poor and the hungry and the mourning and the ones hated and excluded by society. And to those who were not any of those things, the privileged we might say now, Jesus’ message was to include and to celebrate those people. Feed people. Give money to the poor. Be present with those who are hurting. Love those we are taught to hate. And that’s it. That’s the teaching.

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Jesus did some pretty wild stuff in his ministry, and today, the wild was born out of the simplicity, the simple instructions Jesus gave, and the simple instructions he continues to give us.

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Jesus, in the sermon on the plain, is giving a call. A call to feed the hungry and to heal people through faith. This week, the unbelievable happened in our church community, as our friend Vicky Johnson passed away very unexpectantly. Vicky touched so many of our lives, and the lives of those in our community. Every Thursday morning, Vicky could be found at the food pantry, working in the back to make boxes to feed those who were hungry. And every week, she would gather with her friends to laugh and eat and drink and share stories.It is clear, for anyone who knew her, that Vicky radiated this incredible faith. She was committed to being a Christian, and she certainly followed the call Jesus is giving to the people on the plain in our scripture.

I don’t have many reassuring things to say today, no explanation of why this happened. And we are all still grieving, and that is okay and normal. But if I’ve learned anything this week, about God, about people, about Jesus, it’s that we can follow the example of the people closest to us, because there are people like Vicky all around us, ordinary people who believe in Jesus, who have answered the call to feed and clothe people, to pray for people, to heal and to laugh with people. And we would be doing ourselves a disservice to forget about the ways people like Vicky have answered the call and lived their lives in this way.

Sometimes we think of Jesus in this high up, unreachable way. And in some ways that’s true, because Jesus was fully divine. But in other ways, proven today by our scripture, Jesus was really good at giving us simple instructions.

On that plain, Jesus stood on the same level as those gathered, and today, Jesus stands on the same level as us to tell us that our job is to love people well and to help where we can. And that is it.

So today friends, I want us to be reminded of the ordinary people in our lives to are doing the plain but remarkable work of living this call out. Who are the really good examples of this that you know? Knowing many of you all, you are examples of this.

Who are the people in your life who Jesus would be blessing, the poor, the hungry, the underrepresented? Have you blessed them too?

We as Christians are given the call to love people. It’s a tall order, but it’s a plain call. It’s tough for us to do sometimes, but Jesus gives it to us simply, on the same level, and simply encourages us that we can do it.

So may we look to those we admire, those we know have answered this call, and say thank you. May we take from the example of Jesus, leveling ourselves to be a part of the plain call. And may we remind ourselves that even though Jesus is Jesus, he gives us simple instructions, and above everything else, Jesus wants to bless us.

Let us pray:

God of simplicity and depth,

You call us to live our lives according to the calls of Jesus. Your greatness withstands time, circumstances, and translations, and ends up being a plain call to love. Guide us to know our place in that call, and to be that blessing your son Jesus taught us to be.

In your loving and gentle name we pray, Amen.

 

Casting Our Nets

Casting Our Nets

This sermon was originally preached at North Star United Methodist Church in Nikiski, AK on February 10, 2019. To watch the full recording, click here.

 Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

When I read this scripture, I was reminded of a recurring experience from my childhood. I remember I would try to do something on my own, like use the new TV remote or open a jar. And it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get the jar open and the TV wouldn’t turn on. And then I’d go to my parents, usually my dad, and let him know that I tried and it wasn’t working. He, with good intentions, would always ask me if I did it ‘this specific way’, which obviously, yes dad, I did and it’s still not working. So then he’d say, ‘okay let me try it’, and I’d roll my eyes while he’d go and do the exact same thing I did, but somehow did it better, because every time, whatever the thing was would finally work or open. It still happens today, and it’s still just as frustrating.

I was reminded of this because Simon Peter does the same kind of thing. He had been out fishing all night, in the deep water, and had caught no fish. Then Jesus comes in, and says ‘hey, try it this way’, to which Simon Peter replies, ‘yeah we already did and we have no fish’. But because he is Jesus, he let down the nets again, like they had done the night before. And of course, it worked. They started getting fish so quickly that it began to break the nets and sink the boats.

In my case, I blame my dad always getting things to work as dumb luck or witchcraft. But in this situation, with Jesus and Simon Peter, Jesus was teaching Simon that he needed his guidance to make the fishing thing work, and that it would end up working better if he looked to Jesus.

When I think about all that people do, to make the world a better place, to serve the church, I can also see this incredibly scary feeling of being overwhelmed constantly. We as a society have romanticized being busy, which leads to people being overworked and eventually burning out. Whether your thing is being on a board, helping at the food pantry, cleaning the church, etc. the reality is that all of us are working so hard. Some of us are already at that point of feeling burnt out, exhausted, and others are well on their way.

We are like Simon Peter, who has been fishing all night. He was tired. He just wanted to clean his nets and move on. But Jesus tells him that now isn’t the time to give up. Instead, he offers a way for him to fish without having to feel that exhaustion, without that burnout.

Self-care is kind of a tricky topic. It’s really popular these days, and it often equates to things like bubble baths or reality TV binges. But when we really think about self-care, beyond it being important, we actually are called to it.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, promises and encourages rest among all his people. He does this by making a promise, in our passage today, to Simon Peter, saying that he will help him do this thing without it being absolutely exhausting. Jesus is offering self-care to Simon Peter, which Simon reluctantly says yes to.

What we might take from this interaction today, is that mission doesn’t need to lead to burnout. And more specifically, when we are following Jesus and listening to God, our work becomes more than work. It becomes a part of our spiritual life. When something fills us spiritually, it means it is life giving, allowing us to be filled by something greater than what we can do ourselves. It means letting go of how we think things should be done, and instead, asking how God can help us with the task at hand.

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Sometimes we can feel like we need to do more to prove our worthiness or our belovedness, but the reality is, that no amount of service or busy-ness can change how loved we are from the very beginning. But God does want to partner with us as we serve, as we help others. God can help us move from a place of doing things because it makes sense in our brains, to doing them with God’s purpose in mind.

It’s kind of like the phrase, work smarter, not harder. When we work smarter, meaning working towards hearing God more in the areas we serve, God can show us the right time and the right places to fish. In the end, this can save us some of the frustration and the tiredness of working around the clock just to find out something isn’t working how we want it to, or how we hoped it would.

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We can care for ourselves by listening for Jesus, by looking to him for the ways he encouraged all the folks like us throughout scripture, ordinary people who wanted to serve the same God we do. And we can also care for ourselves by serving in moderation, by being okay with taking breaks. By turning our phones off, by taking a week off, by saying no to a project. Part of self-care is finding balance, balance to serve and make an impact, but not at the expense of rest.

Simon Peter couldn’t predict that Jesus would come and overflow his boat with fish the night before, when he was out all night. But he did try to get those fish, and when he realized it just wasn’t happening for him, he decided to call it a night and wash the nets, going back to try another day. Sure he was frustrated, and he was obviously hoping for those fish sooner rather than later, but he also understood himself, that he couldn’t just stay out there fishing for days, because he wouldn’t be getting filled himself.

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Today, instead of a challenge, I want to encourage you. Actually, depending on who you are and how hard it is for you to take a break, it actually kind of is a challenge, now that I think about it.

What I hope we can learn from this passage of Jesus and Simon Peter, is that Jesus doesn’t want us to work hard so that we are tired, or to the point that we want to quit. Jesus wants to help us, to be our guide, our leader, so that those things don’t happen.

My hope is that you, wherever you find yourself leading, serving, helping, existing, you can allow yourself to take a break when you need it. That you can say no to that meeting, that you can leave the floor un-vacuumed for an extra day, that you can step back when you’re feeling overwhelmed, that you can take that medication.

Jesus didn’t call us to be busy. Jesus called us to make disciples. There’s a huge difference. God created us to be in relationship, not in social overdrive or overexposure to people. When we allow God to be God, and us to listen when we feel overwhelmed, we are caring for ourselves in the way we were created to do so.

So this is your encouragement, slash challenge if you are one of those workaholic types like me:

May you understand that enough is enough, even when there is more to do. May you see God in the ways you care for your body, your soul, and your spirit. May you serve with Jesus as your guide, listening for him to find you the best spot to fish. And finally, may you know that God’s love for you, your worth, has absolutely nothing to do with what you’ve accomplished. Let us pray.

God of overwhelming grace and love, we thank you for your tender care in the times of our life where we need it most. You call us to do big things, and you remind us that while we do it, we also need rest. Remind us that you rested too. Give us the strength to pause and the permission to pause longer. We ask these things in your precious name, Amen.

I Have Been Fully Known

I Have Been Fully Known

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (MSG)

I Have Been Fully Known

This sermon was originally preached on February 3, 2019 at North Star United Methodist Church in Nikiski, AK. You can watch the video recording here. 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (MSG)

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!

 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

 

If this sounds like a familiar scripture, but haven’t heard it read like this before, you’re not alone. The translation we used today is from The Message translation, and we’re using it for several reasons.

Our traditional hearing that you may be familiar reads, “love is patient, love is kind”, and so on. We’ve probably heard it several times, read around February 14, found on anniversary gifts, and recited at weddings. It’s used a lot, and that’s because this love thing it talks about is very important. But sometimes, when we hear something, even something as powerful as this message, it can be easy for us to forget just how fundamental it is, as if we were reading it for the first time.

The other reason, is that this passage demands action at its core, and we can’t always see that by just reading into the more traditional version of the text. If we take this passage back to its original translation, the verb ‘is’ in “love is patient”, and all the other ones, is incredibly powerful. Is in English, really is a kind of filler word, a word that helps to build sentences when it needs a more generic verb. But at its core, the word ‘is’ really translates to ‘to be’, which are words that demand action.

Talking about love is great. We do it a lot in the church, and for good reason. Love is worthy of being celebrated, talked about, and pursued.

It’s also easy to forget the power of love. Love is bigger than a reason for a holiday. Love cannot be defined by a simple heart symbol. That is, because love is an action.

A man named Bob Goff wrote a book about the power of love, called Love Does. In it, he talks about the power of love when it’s an action. He says this: “Love is never stationary. In the end, love doesn’t just keep thinking about it or planning for it. Love does.”

So when we approach this scripture today, one that again, we’ve probably heard a lot before, we can see it in new ways when, instead of asking what love is, we can ask what it does.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love takes pleasure in truth. Love trusts God. Love perseveres. Love does.

It does something to our minds, when we are able to appreciate beauty and goodness and joy in ways that help us to see the sacred. Love does good in our world, when we can channel love as an action, an action that will help others. Love does so much, when we can see it, and when we can recognize it as something we do and something we are.

I started watching a new show on Netflix, called Tidying Up. And when I say started watching, I mean that I started watching it and finished the series in the same weekend. Tidying Upis a show featuring Marie Kondo, a woman who has changed the cleaning and organizing game by introducing her method, the KonMari method, through her book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. A big part of her method involves people asking what items spark joy for them. It makes people look past things like reliability, or what you might use for this one occasion down the line, or what serves a purpose but you hate it. Marie Kondo instructs people, to pick up each item in your closet, or kitchen, or in your storage space, and ask if it sparks joy for them. If it does spark joy, meaning it gives them a physical, bodily reaction of goodness, then it stays. And if it doesn’t spark joy, she tells folks to thank the item for what it’s done for them, then pass it on.

The thing that struck me, is the idea of something sparking joy. It gave me this new perspective on stuff, and how the items we use every day can be more than just useful, more than just pretty or nice to have around to serve a purpose. Instead, they can cause our mind to change, giving us a sense of joy, of happiness that we wouldn’t experience without them. Our stuff then takes on a new dimension, and instead of just a thing we use, it becomes a thing that is actively influencing our brains and our body.

Love takes on the same quality, when we allow it to. Love is a verb, when it goes from something that simply is, something that sits on a shelf or is useful in some way, to something that radically changes our being, that moves us into new ways of thinking and doing.

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That love, that verb, that action, models the way God loves us. God’s love is busy. It’s all over the place, and there’s an overwhelming amount of it all around us. God’s love is active, never stopping, always changing the way it shows up.

God’s love acts, and in acting, it causes change. It causes us to be changed, as we let God’s love in, and through God’s love for us, God’s active and alive and full love, we are able to love, too.

In this passage today, if we picture love as a living and moving being, love is busy. Love is searching for places to act, places to spark joy, to be in the world. Love in this passage is reminding us that even if we do everything by the books, even if we follow the steps laid out for us to the T, without love, we are missing a key piece of the puzzle.

Our actions speak to us louder than our words, but if love is not part of that action, our scripture says, what are we doing? Love in this passage, is always finding a way to express itself for the good of others. Love is constant, and it’s also intentional, taking flight in the avenues of life that require it.

So I think it would be easy to walk away today thinking we need to love more. That’s a good takeaway, right? But in the spirit of love we read about today, the spirit of love as an action, a verb, I think we need to take it further.

Where are the areas of your life that love needs to act more? What thing are you doing, because it makes sense in your head, but is lacking a purpose, a drive, a why or a how? In what spaces, can love act bigger, louder, with more intention?

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In my own life, I tend to be a really methodical person. Rationally, I know that something is good, and often, I’ll do that thing because I know in my head it’s right. But sometimes, I will do something without a cause, without a purpose or an active component of it. I do it because it’s good on paper, but I leave love out of it. I don’t let love speak loudly, and because of that, it lacks drive, and it lacks the heart.

So for me, love can act more when I let my heart speak more loudly than the rational part of my brain. And part of that is looking at things differently, seeing things in a different light, reframing what love could be if I gave it space to be that.

I wonder, what we could do, how much more outreach, how much more evangelizing, how much differently we could dream, if we could adopt this reframing. If we could ask ourselves why we do the things we do, and if we are allowing love to be active in the areas we work and live, would we still be doing things the same way?

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My guess is that adopting this mentality, through the commission of our scripture, we will change. Just as an infant grows and leaves their infant ways, we are being invited to act in love, and to grow from doing things because we think we have to, to doing things with love as the action behind them. When we remember that we are granted the ability to love actively, with purpose, with truth, we remember God loves us that same way; actively, with purpose, and with truth.

So we are invited, to love actively, through our faith, and through our actions. When we allow love to act, we learn about the extent that God loves us, and we begin to see the areas that God’s love shows up. As we leave this place today, may we begin to look to our lives for those ways that love can be more active.

May we see each opportunity as more than an obligation, but as an opportunity to redefine love, moving from something that has qualities of patience, kindness, and so on, to something that shows patience, and that honors kindness. May we learn to step aside for long enough to let love act in our lives, allowing God’s love to work through our hearts and our mind.

When we read again, our list of actions that love does, I’m reminded of course, of the life of Jesus.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Jesus embodies love in ways we can only imagine. But still, Jesus also acted in love his whole life, and he still does now. From his miraculous birth to a virgin woman, to the ways he stood up to power, to his genuine care for all those who looked to him for guidance. And of course, perhaps the biggest and most powerful way we see the way Jesus loved, was through his death, an act that reminds us that his sacrifice was an act of love so that we also, could love.

Jesus’ passion for us, for humanity as a whole, is an act of love that we remember by recreating his last meal with his disciples, a meal that was rooted in active, full, and constant love.

As we begin our celebration of holy communion, may we remember that we are also called to act in love, following the example of Jesus. I invite you to turn to page 13 to begin our communion liturgy.

As a reminder, this table, like the love of Christ, is open for all. This is not my table, or yours, or even the United Methodist Church’s table. This is God’s table, and God invites all who love God, all who want to love God, all who are curious or are doubting or who have questions. So today, know that God’s active love is inviting you, me, and all of us to the table today.