Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sent: Jesus Reconciles

Advent is upon us! I have to admit, the long season of days after Pentecost, or what is sometimes called "ordinary time," can drag on a little too much for me. For the past few weeks, I have been anticipating and getting excited for the season of Advent. This is a season of waiting for the coming of Christ, so you could say that I was waiting to wait. That might sound strange to you, and now that I have realized this, it is quite peculiar.

I think what intrigues me so much about this season of Advent is the anticipation; the build up; the dramatic longing for Christmas day. I feel like a kid again. I remember getting up on Christmas morning with my brother, and it was commonly agreed upon that we had to try and wake up our sisters before we headed downstairs to gather around the tree. I remember the rule: "not before 6 AM!" I just couldn't wait to enjoy the holy day with my family. Eventually, my sisters would come downstairs and we'd begin opening presents, usually after some bacon and eggs.

It didn't matter that we didn't get along all the time, it didn't matter that we had just argued and fought over the last piece of bacon, or that we didn't wait until 6 to wake up my sisters. What mattered is that we were all there, spending this holy day together.

Looking back now, I can see that Christmas brought my family together. The weeks leading up to Christmas was full of excitement and anticipation...of longing for the day to come where we would enjoy what God has given us...God's very own Son. Looking back, I can see, indeed, that Jesus reconciles. And Jesus continues to satisfy our longing, that is what Jesus does.

This season of Advent, we will be participating in a Bible Study called "Sent." My preaching will coincide with this study, because I really do think God has some amazing things to show us. In the first lesson, Jacob Armstrong says "Advent is a beautiful time, even if you get frustrated with the commercialization and the busyness of it all. There is something beautiful happening in the hearts of people who long for something else, who hope that we will find what our hearts yearn for.In my estimation we are hoping and longing for reconciliation. And the longing is deep."

After receiving the news from an angel that the Messiah had been born, the shepherds "went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them" (Luke 2:16-18).

The ones to whom Jesus was sent became the ones who were sent to bring Jesus to others. That's the deal. That's the reconciliation that God sends us out to do. God has sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, but also us to one another. May it be so.

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

11/22/15---Grace: Means of Grace

Malachi 3:7. which is one of the verses that John Wesley focuses on in his sermon "The Means of Grace," says: "Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?" The prophet goes on to answer the question by saying "do not rob God," referring to tithes and offerings, and "do not speak against God." The prophet encourages the listeners by saying that God will bless them. 

Wesley thinks about it a little differently, although he regarded giving as an essential piece of Christian living. In his sermon, he begins by asking a similar question that Malachi did: "But are there any ordinances now...? Are there any means ordained of God as the usual channels of his grace?"

Glad you asked, Mr. Wesley. Indeed, there are. Acts 2: 42, which may be regarded as the first Christian community (after the Pentecost experience and the first converts), says that "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." These believers were also just baptized. These are the means of grace, the ordinances of God, the channels of grace. These are the ways we experience God's love in our lives and in this world.

Embedded in these means of grace are different ways in which grace can be described. In our Methodist tradition, through the teachings of John Wesley, we know grace to exist in 3 forms: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.

Prevenient grace is, literally, "the grace that comes before." It is grace that precedes human decision. Methodists most commonly conceptualize of this form of grace through the ordinance of baptism. More specifically, infant baptism. We baptize babies before they even know about God's love for them because of prevenient grace. Further, it explains why God is graceful to us, even when we have done wrong. It does not matter what we do, grace is available to all.

Justifying grace is the grace that pardons us from our sins. It is the kind of grace in which we understand that we are saved. It is called the assurance of faith, the kind that does depend on what we believe. In a Word document, there is a "justify" feature where you are able to line things up the way you want. This form of grace is similar: as justifying text within a document puts all the words in line, justifying grace puts us "in line" with God. 

Sanctifying grace is our response to what God has done in our lives. Because of our assurance of faith, we want more and more of God's love; we desire holy living. Wesley would say that this is our "going on to perfection" in order to live more like Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. At this point in our journey with God, we have the assurance that God loves us. The idea of sanctifying grace, though, is that God loves us so much that God desires for us to be made new, not to stay the same. This leads to good works of faith and mercy in the world. 

What's incredible to me is that we know God's grace through our own story with God. Notice that these forms of grace are understood within your journey. So, live your story! 

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

11/15/15---Grace: It's Free

Although it seems like we hear of and experience God's grace all the time, focusing in on it gives us a great opportunity to be attuned to what God is doing in our lives and the world around us. We know something about God's grace, as we just celebrated 50 years of ministry here at Gray Memorial last Sunday. We know something about God's grace, too, as we anticipate the coming holidays in which we are intentionally thankful to God, and celebrate the birth and sending of Jesus.

For the next 2 weeks, grace will be our focus. I will be preaching on how grace is free, and the ways in which we experience grace in the world and in our lives (John Wesley calls these ways "means of grace.")

John Wesley preached about grace, too. His, and my, focus verse when talking about the nature of grace, that it is free for all, is Romans 8: 32 "He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?" The key word here is "give." God gives us grace. God does not make us earn it; God gives us opportunities to respond to the grace God has given us. There is a world of difference there. Wesley wrote a sermon called "Free Grace" in which he describes the nature of grace, largely up against the idea of predestination. He argued that since grace is free, it is also "in all." The idea of the "elect" still exists in Christian thought, although I believe the idea that we have to "earn" God's love is more prevalent (although the ideas are related). We have inside of us a mind that cannot conceive the fact that God freely loves us because of God's goodness. We cannot imagine having something like that for free, and so this idea creeps into our minds and our hearts.

However difficult it is for us to fathom, God still makes this true. On our worst days, our best days, and all of them in between, God's loving grace never runs out or is diminished. Grace is not performance based. Grace gives us a reason to be our best, to run our race with perseverance, to walk our journey with hope, to reach out in courage, and to speak with boldness of this grace.

I pray that these 2 weeks before Advent give us a way in which we may approach the holidays, knowing that it is because of God's grace that we have reason to celebrate.

I'll see you on Sunday!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Cloud of Witnesses--11/8/15

There has been so much planning...so much anticipation, excitement, and preparation for Gray Memorial's 50th Anniversary celebration. Well, it is finally here! With all of this build up, it will not only be a relief to see it all play out and participate in such a noteworthy occasion. It will also be a blessing. It will also be something many will remember for years to come.

This Sunday, we will fellowship together, remember and celebrate Gray Memorial's 50 years of ministry, and give glory to God who is faithful to God's people here. Part of what I anticipate will make this day special is the people who will show up. Folks that have been part of the story of the ministry in and through this church will gather to celebrate what God has done. Memories will be drawn up by the mere sight of some individuals. Stories will be shared, and God will be honored by it all.

1 Corinthians 3:9-11 is also a testament to this church's ministry: Christ is the foundation of what we do. This has not been, is not, and will not be simply a place where people gather for their own sake. We do so in Christ, for the sake of Christ's mission in the world and for us: to know  and show God's love, and be made new. Christ is the foundation, Christ gives us our purpose for being here, and is reason we exist. Without a good foundation, any structure will ultimate fail, it will only stand for some limited amount of time. So it is good that our foundation is Christ, for the mission and purpose of this church coincides with Christ.

Hebrews 12:1-3 names those people who surround us as a "cloud of witnesses." Those gathered here on Sunday all have witnessed something about God in and through Gray Memorial. We can testify to God's activity through our ministry. There is no greater thing to witness than the ministry of God; that's the best kind of witness you can be.

And Ephesians 3: 16-20 names the mystery of how this ministry can actually happen in and through a community of imperfect people: because God can do more than we can ever imagine. We are witnesses to this! 50 years of ministry is no accident! God is doing the work. What a blessing it has been to many to be involved in God's ministry through this community of faith!

These are the reasons we celebrate. These are the reasons Gray Memorial can look back on 50 years of ministry and glorify God through all the ups and downs and everything in between. God has been faithful to us, praise God!

So come...celebrate, reminisce, fellowship, remember, honor, worship, and praise the God who is with us in every step of the way.