Sermon: None Dared Ask, For They Knew

The Gospel of John doesn’t end with Jesus’ resurrection. There’s one more story in John 21, in which Jesus appears to seven disciples as they are fishing. At its surface, it’s a simple story. The disciples are struggling at catching fish; Jesus appears to them and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat; they do as Jesus says and catch a lot of fish; Jesus transforms the fish into a massive meal.

This story has much more to the plot than what happened. The significance is in what didn’t happen — for the first time, the disciples didn’t question if it was Jesus. They knew it was him. They had faith. The disciples entered a new mode of seeing Jesus — not with the eyes but with the heart. And we can learn to see Christ in the same way.

This story assures us that the God who gave us physical sight at our birth can give us spiritual sight at our rebirth.

“None Dared Ask, For They Knew”

“None Dared Ask, For They Knew”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
John 21: 1-19
May 5, 2019

Devotional: April 23

By Erin Barger

For me, the week of celebrating resurrection is the cornerstone of the year. Why this is, I share below. As I know it does for many of you, this week brings closer within my grasp the incredible promise that those who we lost in this life will be restored to us again. The following was written within hours of my sister’s death, to be read at her memorial. Nearly ten years later, I share it with you. Her name was Susie. In her last 3 years of life she cared for 18 foster children, as well as the 4 children she brought into the world. May God be glorified in her death as He was in her life.
John 1:4 — In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

As the book of John opens we are introduced to an entity named the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. He brought an omnipotent kind of light to the world, and this light is strong enough to offer us all an otherwise impossible inheritance: the right to be sons and daughters of God. He also came in grace and truth, and from the fullness of that grace we have received one blessing after another.

Knowing Susie Graves as my sister was also one blessing after another. My memories of her begin with knowing a mother like figure. Thirteen when I was born, Susie was more like a mother to me than a sister: as I began kindergarten she was finishing high school. She worked after school jobs and, like my brother, shared her earnings by buying me coloring books and generally spoiling me. I could have had no doubt that I was loved, partially because of her.

As I grew into womanhood, we shared a new bond as sisters. As I recovered from knee surgery in high school, she and my brother were by my side. As they witnessed my first steps as a baby, they were there again to hold me as I learned to walk again. It was a scary time but, yet again, there she was. On my wedding day, she was to my immediate left. On her dying day, I was face to face with her, racing to find just the right words to communicate all that she had meant. Perhaps I should have simply said: “Susie, you have given one blessing after another.”
Within hours of her death, I thought of the story of Lazarus and knew that I would not read this story in the same way ever again. Today I can picture Mary running out to meet Jesus, knowing that His presence could have saved her brother’s life. The book of John says that Mary fell at the feet of Christ. Mary seemed willing to do anything to see her brother alive again, and now I can finally understand how that must have felt. We know that Jesus was so moved by her grief that He also wept. Although Christ knew that He would restore Lazarus to life, his love for these sisters and their grief compelled his perfect compassion. He restored Lazarus to life, and I know He will also resurrect my sister to life. I praise God today, not only for the power that He will share to restore us to never-ending life, but also for the compassion that drove Jesus to cry with Mary that day. This realization is powerful, as I know that today Christ is weeping with me, and that His comfort is perfect and the epitome of love.
Christ also redefined love later in the same book: when He is preparing his closest friends to live without Him, he shows the full extent of His love by washing their feet. Those of you who knew Susie well, knew that she also showed the full extent of her love in a similar manner. By opening her home to a little boy named Cooper whose parents were lost to him; by sacrificing daily for Emily, Caitlin, Hannah, and Amanda; by serving her husband Shayne; by watching over her little sister Erin; by creating a home for children that are often forgotten about and thereby, practicing pure religion: it is in these ways that Susie showed the full extent of her love. I praise God today for His grace upon my sister, which allowed this love to come to life after the example of our Lord.
Death has already been swallowed up in victory the day that Jesus fought death and won. Through this, I know that these memories with my beloved sister are a blink of an eye compared to the life that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps what allowed Christ to stop weeping the day he comforted Martha was, not just his vision of Lazarus coming back to life temporarily, but even more the sight of Lazarus rejoicing by the side of Mary and Martha in heaven. Therefore, we too “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” knowing that if we cling to Christ our own mortality will be swallowed up in life. I praise God for helping me to know Him more because of Susie and for his promise to protect her and keep her safe as a perfect Father until we are together again.

Prayer: God, your promise of resurrection defines our approach to death, and drives our fearlessness in life, as we remain rooted in Your love. Thank you. God, I don’t understand why death is essential, having lost so much as a result. But I look to you, and I trust You with what I do not understand. I believe that whatever I suffer, You suffered it first. Please send your Spirit and humility as a balm; deliver your resurrection promise in ways all who are hurting can see, even today. Thank you for the compassion of Jesus that led Him to restore life, no matter the cost to Him. May I follow in His steps.

Sermon: Hail Thee, Festival Day

When the resurrected Jesus meets the Marys after they found the tomb empty, he tells us them to “rejoice.” It isn’t just a command. It’s a type of greeting — a cheerful, “Hello!”

The King James Bible has a unique interpretation of Matthew 28:9, in which Jesus says, “All hail” to the Marys. The word “hail” has a unique meaning — it means that something is good, and in the greeting of someone else, you call out the goodness for all that is. When we say “Happy Easter,” we’re hoping that the other person will be able to fully enter into the festivities of the celebration.

Today is the feast of Easter — when death has been swallowed up in victory and love proves stronger than death. The Christian faith is a kind of party that connects to the whole of creation. All hail!

“Hail Thee, Festival Day”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby

Click to listen to the Easter Sunday choir anthems for the day.

“Hail Thee, Festival Day”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 28: 1-9
April 21, 2019 • Easter Sunday

Choir Anthems: Easter Sunday

Performances by the Oconee Street UMC Chancel Choir on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Call to Worship: “Resurrection Alleluias” by Tom Fettke
Directed by Amanda Martin
Maxine Easom, piano • Ben Otieno & Elizabeth Scott, trumpets
Choral Worship: “It is Finished” by Ken Dosso
Directed by Amanda Martin
Maxine Easom, piano
Choral Worship: “By Our Love” by Christy Nockels
Arrangement by Mary McDonald
Directed by Amanda Martin
Maxine Easom, Piano • Ben Otieno & David Stanley, trumpets

Listen to Pastor Joe Gunby’s Easter Sermon, “Hail Thee, Festival Day.”

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, April 20

By Dee Cole Vodicka

John and I thank God that we were led through the doors of Oconee Stree United Methodist Church! We have been so blessed by your warm and gracious welcome. You are so welcoming, in fact, that you allow a non-member to offer a Lenten reflection. Here goes!

In this season of Lent, I’m taking time to read and reflect on “An American Lent,” from the Repentance Project.  “The Repentance Project exists to encourage racial healing by communicating the systemic legacies of slavery, building relationships, and creating opportunities – through formation, repentance and repair – for a just future.” https://repentanceproject.org/

Each day, I’m challenged to read and reflect on the legacy of enslavement in the United States, and to repent on how this evil practice lives on in systems and structures that benefit me every day. I encourage you to sign up for their daily Lenten readings.

Then I started to think about other systems and structures that call out for justice, particularly the struggle to lift up and affirm the full personhood of my LGBTQ siblings. And, I’m thinking about my place in this struggle, and how to respond as a straight woman. It occurred to me that I might learn something by applying lessons from the civil rights movement for racial equality to the civil rights movement for LGBTQ equality, and that these lessons might also inform us at Oconee Street UMC as we consider “The Way Forward.”

I recently re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963. In it, he lays out a case for clergy, and all people of faith, to apply Jesus’ teachings to a movement demandingrecognition of the full personhood of African Americans. Please read these excerpts (and read the entire letter, when you have time), and then reflect on whether you see an application to other movements for civil rights.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

……

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

……

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

……

And, speaking of people of faith who stood up and spoke out: Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Please pray with me in a prayer adapted from this week’s Repentance Project meditations:

God our creator and redeemer, you are holy and just. You love honesty and fairness. You embedded your image in all people.  I don’t know what to do with my failure to recognize this and my failure to act justly with all people – especially people who don’t look like me, or who identify differently from me, except to ask for your mercy and for the courage to be stretched to meet the challenges before me. May your will be done; your ways established; and your honesty, generosity, and freedom openly exchanged among your children —here in our town, in our state, and in our nation. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on us.

Lenten Devotional: April 19

By Joe Dennis

Luke 23:34: Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them; they do not know what they’re doing.”

More than 2,000 years ago today, Jesus was brutally murdered.

I can’t fathom the suffering he endured. I can’t imagine the abandonment he felt that two of his closest friends turned him in and denied knowing him. I can’t grasp the humiliation he was subjected to, as the very people he came to save mocked him, spit at him and cheered as he was hanging from the cross.

Thinking about the crucifixion fills me with emotion, ranging from deep sadness for my hero to rage against those who killed him. But Jesus didn’t show those emotions. Through his immense emotional, physical and even spiritual pain, Jesus found the capacity to forgive.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to never lose someone to murder, but I’m pretty confident forgiveness for the perpetrator would be low on my list of feelings. I find it difficult to forgive those who have wronged me. Like most people, when I’m wronged my first inclination is to seek justice — doing everything in my power to make sure the perpetrator is found and appropriately punished.

But not Jesus. He endured the ultimate injustice, and he forgave. After having bullet fragments in her back and leg removed, Parkland shooting survivor Daniela Menescal forgave the shooter. After spending a year in the hospital recovering from bullet wounds to her stomach, liver and spleen, Rosemarie Melanson forgave the Las Vegas shooter. After losing nine chirch family members, the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston forgave the shooter.

These examples show that even in the most dire situations, God grants us the capacity to forgive. So why is it so hard for me?

Prayer: Jesus, teach me to forgive.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, April 18

by Nevena Martin

On Tuesday morning, I cuddled my son as he received a breathing treatment in the Emergency Department. Some of the mist aimed at his mouth rolled over his nose, curled up my arm and dissipated in my own face. As I breathlessly observed him, hoping the medicine would ease his effort to breathe, I waited for the tightness of my own chest to slowly release, too. Five mornings earlier a patient of mine, I’ll call him Mr. B, told me he couldn’t breathe. He asked for a breathing treatment. A few hours later, he would be dead.

Haunted, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind as we sat in the trauma bay. Was this revenge? Was it karma? What caused my otherwise-perfectly-healthy son to not be able to draw an adequate breath? How many other people had sat in this room designed specifically for battles that can go either way? What was the driving force of these outcomes? How many miracles had occurred in this trauma bay? How many times was it simply science drawing a natural conclusion?

As the direness of Gus’ situation wore off, I pondered whether God loved him more than Mr. B. Had enough people prayed for his recovery? Was a lamb, off in some distant land, slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice, pleasing God enough to change His mind? Is that the kind of God I wanted to serve:  an all-powerful entity whose mind I could change with enough renditions of “please, sir”? What had Mr. B done wrong, what had Gus done right? Do I praise God on Tuesday but not on the previous Thursday? More concretely, is Death a punishment and a long life a reward? An interesting thought the week before Holy Week.

My thoughts circled back to more of the catch-all mainstream Christian phrases that I often scoff at, and I reconsidered them. Does God have a plan that includes sad, injust incidents as well as acts of unearned forgiveness and redemption? In the battle between predestination and free will, is there a third way? What do we know of Jesus’ ministry on earth that provides evidence for each of these arguments? Is this even a conceptual divide which impacts how one should conduct herself? My thoughts swirled, refusing to settle.

I wondered what I should pray in the moment without realizing I had been praying. Having been conditioned to think prayer looked something like the castigation and implorement of the Joel Osteen’s of the world, I struggled to recognize my ponderance and curiosity of God to be prayer; I struggled to see this as *my* personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And then I remembered a bit from a sermon near Christmastime where Joe described the Adult Sunday School class sharing their favorite lines from Christmas songs, and I offered up this borrowed prayer:

Be near me Lord, Jesus, I ask you to stay. Close by me forever, and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there.

Sermon: “In the Time of Trial”

Prayer is a practice with which many of us struggle.

It’s seems like such a waste of time to sit in nothingness. We begin to think, “Wouldn’t it be better to be more productive with that time?” Our anxieties begin to arise. Our deepest fears are unwrapped. Our saddest thoughts become present. These are the times in prayer when we just might be at the forefront of something good.

Our anxiety over the future, our frustration over our job, our concern over an ailing loved one — these are the places where we fail and fall, and these are the paths back to God. Rather than run from it, go down into the darkness a little further and see where it leads. God will be there.

Prayer is less something we do, and more something we find ourselves in doing. God must do it within us, or it will not get done: when our faith is dried up, God graces us with streams of living water in the most parched places of myself.

Sermon: “In the Time of Trial”


“In the Time of Trial”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Luke 22:39-46
April 14, 2019 • Palm Sunday

Sermon: Discerning the Body

Paul tells the Corinthians that if they are confident in their spirituality, it is OK to go ahead and eat with nonbelievers. It would be better to share in a meal rather than shun another person. Paul consistently tells the Corinthians it is more important to think of others, rather than think of what others may think of them. And we should treat others with dignity and respect out of love for them, and not so we will be recognized as good people.

As we discern our next steps as a church in regards to how we welcome and show love towards our LGBTQ friends and family, we should remember this advice from Paul. We need to reach out to those who need us, but ensure that we are serving them out of a place of love rather than self-righteousness.

Sermon: Discerning the Body

“Discerning the Body”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 10:23-33
March 31, 2019 • Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lenten Devotional: Monday, March 25

God the Pipe Bomb
by Alys Willman

You thought God was an architect, now you know.
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
—Jason Isbell, “24 Frames” 

You thought God was an architect.  Isn’t that what most of us are taught? We bring God down to our size, try and fit God into the limits of our own understanding. The Great Creator of the universe is reduced to a dude with glasses hunched over a drafting table. The power of the One who surpasses all understanding is focused on helping me secure a nice parking spot.

The truth is, most of probably never stop to consider how powerful God actually is. And that means we reduce our idea of God’s work to the things we consider reasonable.

This Lenten season, I am coming to believe in a God who is capable of things I cannot even begin to understand, a God who is waiting to create through me. I am coming to believe in God the Pipe Bomb. 

On Ash Wednesday, I taped a piece of paper over my prayer space. It says, “What if God is capable of anything?” When I sit with this prospect sometimes, I hear a voice whispering to me, saying things so crazy, so impossible, and yet so tantalizingly exciting I can barely stay still. What if you spent today writing poetry instead of working? What if you learned to juggle? Auditioned for a band? 

Inevitably, these whispers are met with a clamor of protests from the other voice in my head (the one who sounds like my mother, if I’m being honest). Who’s going to pay for this? Are you really going to sit around writing mediocre poems, or playing guitar, instead of picking the kids up from soccer practice? What will people think? These voices sound suspiciously to me like the ones who tempted Jesus in the desert. This Lenten season, I am trying to tell those nagging, critical voices to get behind me.  They have served their purpose and now, well, time’s up. 

I am beginning to believe that my wildest dreams and talents might just be  a gift straight from God.  I am asking myself how I would spend my time if I really believed that. Maybe, just maybe, chasing my dreams could be an act of worship. Maybe writing, singing and creating would be acts of service instead of  guilty pleasures that must be earned and negotiated. 

As we move into spring, my heart is restless at the prospect of a second chance. The resurrection is coming. May we be open to it, ready for God to burn away everything we have built that’s all for show, and trusting that something amazing  will rise from the ashes. 

Prayer: God, I confess I put limits on Your power. You send me gifts, and I send them right back. I am sorry. Obliterate me with Your love, burn away my small self and flow through me, that my life may be a prayer to You.