Hebrews 13: 1-3: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
As this year comes to a close, there is much to reflect on. We see polarization and division within families and across borders, we anticipate uncertainty at every turn, and we feel the weight of our collective suffering bearing down upon us. Where can hope be found in times like these?
The answer will be different for each of us. Perhaps hope can be found in new life brought forth from the swollen tummies of pregnant mothers, or spotted in the twinkle of a stranger’s eye as they pass us on the street. Maybe hope sounds like the laughter of the neighborhood’s children, carried on the wind like a song as they race by on their bicycles. At times, hope may feel like a distant and elusive thing. But might it also be found in one another?
A few weeks ago we found ourselves with positive covid tests, dizzying coughs, and an empty refrigerator—seemingly the worst combination for a two week quarantine with Thanksgiving smack in the middle of it. Loneliness fell heavy upon our shoulders those first few nights, separated from family by far too many miles. And yet, the heart of God was not lost on us. Even here, love found us.
Where there is suffering, there is opportunity for healing. And if our suffering is great, as is now the case, then isn’t there space for healing on a scale so grand that we can hardly comprehend it? Perhaps that is where we can find hope in this season. A hope for healing; for unity; for love.
In our time of need, we found our church working as body with its many beautiful parts to meet our every need: a letter of encouragement sent through the mail; a sack of cookies dropped on the doorstep; small-groups over Zoom continuing to deepen our faith; meals delivered with a warm smile and lively waves of “hello” and “take care!”.
In the midst of our loneliness, when the burden feels too heavy to carry alone, there are helpers and healers among us, working diligently to spread Christ’s love. This is where our hope is.
Our church is filled with gifts of kindness and warmth. Rather than building up walls to keep all of that goodness within, we have been so generously offered a place at the table. And there has been no shortage of goodness to go around. How much hope there is to be found in one another!
Loving God, be with us here. We pray today for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. May your love wrap us in an embrace so warm that we cannot help but feel cared for. May your goodness lift our spirits, and may your kindness overflow so that we might be even more generous to our neighbors. Thank you for watching over us. Our hope is in you in this (and in every) season. Amen.
The temple in Jerusalem was an architectural masterpiece. It certainly had significant religious significance for those of the Jewish faith, but additionally was a massive structure that dominated the landscape. So when Jesus goes to the temple and says that it will be destroyed and he will rebuild it in three days, it was a bold proclamation.
We now know that Jesus didn’t mean he will literally rebuild the physical structure of the temple, but rather the structure of the church. And at the heart of the rebuilding is us — the people of God.
It’s important to recognize that although we have each been given the of God, Jesus still wants us to be the church. The community of believers is integral to our faith — calling out our sinfulness, lifting our spirits and collaboratively impacting change in the world. We are the church. We need the church.
“The Stone Left Standing”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Mark 13: 1-8
Nov. 18, 2018
Today is Pentecost, which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit unto the disciples, empowering them to spread the word of God across nations.
Although we celebrate Pentecost every year, many of us feel like we have few – if any – “Pentecostal moments” — that inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In order for these moments to happen, Luke tells us that we need to have some things in place.
First of all, to be a church we need to come together — not when it’s convenient, not when we feel like waking up, not when we don’t have a soccer game — but every Sunday as a church. If you want to be in the life of the Spirit, you have to be together with God’s people.
Secondly we need diversity. The church is a group of people, gathered across cultures and across time. Inherent in the story of Pentecost is how the Holy Spirit empowered disciples to speak in languages to communicate with all people.
Lastly, we need unity. That can be difficult to come by, and without diversity, we can develop a sense of false unity. However, the truth of Pentecost is that we are working toward a day when God will sweep across our diversity and turn in into true unity.
I have been fortunate throughout my life to have found that at each stage, it was the best, most challenging time ever. That was true in my 20’s when I was in college and graduate school, married and became an English teacher, in my 30’s and 40’s when I became mom to Sean and Meg, and left teaching to work as a medical office manager. And it was never more true than when I entered Candler School of Theology two months before my 50th birthday to study to become a pastor because I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
God has blessed me beyond measure in this late calling. In my first appointment, the good people at Corinth and Pentecost UMCs in Winder welcomed me, their first woman pastor; they encouraged and taught me, and put up with me as I learned the ins and outs of pastoral ministry. Then after 4 years in Winder, I moved twenty whole miles up the road to Athens and to Oconee St. and Athens Urban Ministries (as Action Ministries was known at that time.) I was the Director of AUM for 8 years, retiring from that position in 2009 but continuing on as the part time pastor of Oconee St.
Little did I know in 2001, that my second pastoral appointment would last for 15 years and contain so many joys and blessings along the way. My hope was always to be able to use the gifts God had given me in concert with the individual and corporate gifts of a congregation, so that we could be church together – because, as you know, it truly takes all of us. I believe that has happened here beyond my greatest expectations.
We have been through a lot together, and that’s putting it mildly! And through it all, God has been good to us. I looked back a few days ago over the names of those whose memories we hold dear in our hearts, many of whom were here to greet me when I arrived, and who now have gone home to God. And then I looked at the names of all the babies whom I have been privileged to baptize in this church. Lucy Hines started it all, and now as I look at our children, I smile every time I remember the unbreakable bond of baptism that I have with so many of them.
We have grown in many ways – in membership, programming, mission, and outreach, always guided by our desire to be a church that welcomes everyone regardless. And if I were to choose which characteristic most describes you, it would be your gracious, inclusive welcoming of each person who comes through our doors. You’ve experienced that welcome yourself, and you pass it on each Sunday.
We have also experienced hardship as well as joy. The fire in 2013 forever marked those of us who were here at that time. We will never forget that event, where we were when we found out, how we felt, what we did in the first days afterward, and how we grieved together and planned together for the future. In those first months, our guiding scripture was from 1 Thessalonians “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” And then later, we transitioned to Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And finally last June we did see it! And in August we celebrated it!
During the rebuilding time, we grew stronger, more compassionate, more trusting, more reliant on one another, and more committed to the mission and ministry of this church that has been a beacon of hope to so many for over 145 years. I think we also became more aware of and grateful for what we have and who we are because of the deep sense of loss that we experienced together.
I am so very proud of you and have such confidence in you. I know that you can do anything. It is because of that, I can share with you now that I will be retiring in June at Annual Conference, and a new pastor will be appointed to Oconee Street.
Why now? Scripture says that for everything there is a season. First, there is that sense of your strength and resilience that allows me to step back, knowing that you will be OK and will go on to greater things, supporting your new pastor as you have supported me. But additionally, I believe it is time now for me, at 72 years of age – 72 and ½ by Conference time (but who’s counting?) to spend more time with my family and my grandchildren who are now five and six. I feel very strongly about this, perhaps because my own mother died when my children were 2 and 7. None of us knows the number of our days; we only know that they are held within God’s good hands. And so, I want to spend more time with my boys; I want them to remember their grandma.
I have a few health issues too, but who doesn’t at 72 and so I’ll look after my left knee, gather all my courage, and have knee replacement surgery, work hard at rehab, and come out so much improved that I can enjoy the cruise my son in law has promised me for after Christmas!
I hope in the weeks ahead that we will have time to visit together, to share stories, to talk about the future, and to prepare ourselves for our lives ahead. There will be some tears, but also some laughter along the way. Both are evidence of loving and being loved, and an indication of God’s blessing on us; so I welcome them and I hope you will too.
Maxine, who led us through the rebuilding, is now the chair of our Pastor Parish Relations Committee . We can have confidence that she will lead our transition with the same dedication and sense of service to God and congregation that so characterized her work with the rebuild. We could not be in better hands. Pray for our Pastor Parish Relations Committee, for our District Superintendent and Bishop; pray for me, and above all pray for the new pastor – there is someone out there right now who will be standing here on June 19. How comforting and encouraging it will be for him or for her to know that you have been praying for them since January. I’m already doing that every day.
Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I was raised in a very conservative, hell fire and brimstone, first cousin of snake handlers type of southern Baptist church. I know that sounds negative and judgemental so let me also say that the congregation was filled with extremely kind, good hearted people who meant the best and cared for me deeply. I know that many of them have prayed countless hours for me and my family and for that I will always be grateful. But some of the experiences I had there and the general church dogma pushed me so very far away from God. For 5 years from the age of 11 to 16, I spent summers laying in the alter praying to God to be “saved” and was led to believe that if I walked that out the church door that night without being “saved” then I would surely perish in hell if I were to die before I found my mystical moment of salvation. I watched as the other kids around me had these grandiose experiences and were baptized while I had to wonder what it was I was doing wrong or why God didn’t love me. Finally my dad told me that for him the experience was just God taking his burden away to be “saved” and after the fifth year I can say with confidence that the last time I rose out of the altar I had no burden from God whatsoever to accomplish anything else in that manner. So I joined the church having been “saved” and was baptized.
It was not just the revival season that started to push me away. The whole attitude of the church and others like it in the area was that they were right and everyone else was wrong and going to hell, plain and simple. That was my upbringing. So as I moved to Athens to attend UGA at the age of 18, I had a pretty narrow minded view of religion and Christianity. During my four years at UGA and the years following I met a very wide variety of people from different walks of life with all sorts of different attitudes towards religion. I became very interested in what others believed and more importantly why they believed what they believed. My world kind of opened up and I tried to absorb the best of what I heard. During this time I stopped going to church and began to form my own brand of spirituality. “Spiritual but not religious” is a term I have heard in recent years which seems to fit my thought process at the time. Eventually even the spirituality began to fade and you could just about peg me as an agnostic.
So several years ago when Jamie told me that we should find a church I will be the first to admit that I was against it. I was doing just fine and really did not see the need since my beliefs seemed so far away from any Christian church that I had ever attended. But she persisted and after some thought we decided to give Oconee Street a try. The service was so very different from what I had experienced growing up and each week seemed to inspire me in some way or make me think about something in a different light. It surprised me that I actually enjoyed attending and over time the members became like family to us. It took many years but I finally found my church home and feel much stronger spiritually than I ever have at any point in my life. I think about the term “revival” in a much different light now as I have had my own revival so very different from the ones from my youth. It goes to show that no matter your background or how far you have travelled in another direction you can always open new doors and find the right path that works for you.
Prayer: Let us always be open minded and give thanks to those who help us find our way on our journey.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 27, 2014
Today is called “low Sunday” by some traditionalists in the church. Low because so many people who were here last week are absent this week, so our attendance is lower than it was. Low because we have come down from our celebratory Easter high, full of alleluias, and Christ is risen, and even the Hallelujah Chorus, which I was delighted to see was sung not only by the choir, but by the congregation as well. And finally low because we are back to normal again, although for this church determining what is normal right now is a bit difficult to pin down!
Normal is the everyday, back to usual and customary, back to what happens after the party is over, the guests have gone home, and it’s time to think about what to do next, where do we go from here. John’s story is appropriate in this context because he tells about the aftermath of the resurrection high. If you recall what happened in the 18 verses immediately preceding today’s reading, you will remember that Mary Magdalene had come to the garden early in the morning while it was still dark and had seen the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. She ran to tell the disciples, and Peter and John ran back to the tomb and found it empty with just the grave cloths remaining. In John’s gospel there are no angelic messengers with the good news, “He is not here; he is risen.” And the disciples don’t quite understand yet what they’ve seen. John says “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” There seems to be nothing left to do at the tomb, and so they go home. Mary Magdalene, however, stays in the garden weeping because she thinks Jesus’ body has been stolen. And that’s when she has her encounter with Jesus, mistaking him first for the gardener, but realizing who he is when he calls her by name. She then goes to the disciples and announces to them, “I have seen the Lord,” and tells them about her amazing experience.
Well, obviously it didn’t make much of an impression because when we see them next, it is the evening of that very same day – it is Easter evening — and they have locked themselves into a little room because they are afraid; they are huddled behind closed doors, lying low, getting their alibis straight, trying to figure out how to stay alive and what to do next because people are out to get them. It is not a very pretty picture. Despite the fact that in their last hours together Jesus had done his best to prepare them for life without his physical presence, it seems that they’ve forgotten everything he told them. He had encouraged them to live with confidence, devoted to God and to one another. He had urged them to be a bold presence in the world, doing deeds even greater than his own, and he’d prayed that God would unite them in one spirit.
But that is not what we see here. They are disheartened, defensive, cowering in fear, their sense of bold mission having been overwhelmed by their anxious and timid spirits. And this is John’s picture of the very earliest church on the night of resurrection. A whole bunch of nothing – not a leader among them – not a bright spot – not a hopeful word – not an inspired plan; just paralyzing fear.[i]
And then suddenly Jesus is there, standing right in the middle of them. In the midst of the void created by his absence, Jesus comes to fill the space. The first thing he says is “Peace be with you.” And then he shows them his wounds, which let them know for sure who he was. He was not that sweet, benign, every-hair-in-place, untouched-by-human-pain, floating-above-the- fray Jesus of some of our favorite artistic renderings of him; but he is “the resurrected Christ, . . . wounded, scarred, identifying with all the other wounded and scarred people on earth.” That’s how the disciples knew . . . that’s how we know . . . who he is.[ii]
The things Jesus says and does seem random perhaps, but on closer look, we can see that they each have a purpose; they each represent various aspects of the life of the church – there is blessing, and the word of peace; there is the Lord’s supper recalled in the offering of his wounds; there is baptism, with the breathing of the Holy Spirit; there is mission, sending them into the world; and there is fellowship, commending to them acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.[iii] Jesus is calling them back to their best selves; calling the church to be its best self.
This is, I think, the ongoing challenge to every church – to be our best selves because there are times when it is easy to become like those frightened disciples behind locked doors. We’ve heard that he is risen, but we don’t trust that good news enough to live into it. It is then that the risen Christ comes and says “Peace be with you,” And tells us that he is sending us out into the world to be his hands and feet, wounded and yet holy instruments of the living God. He gives us the Holy Spirit, and gives the power to forgive one another of our sins.
Without the spirit of the risen Christ at the center of what a church does, it will eventually become like this pitiful little group of discouraged disciples – defensive, anxious, empty of meaning and purpose, engaging in various activities to fill in or ignore the void created by the absence of the holy. Worship can easily become entertainment; mission can simply become social work. With Christ at the center there is humble trust, joyful praise, brave and creative mission, and a reconciled and forgiven community excited and awed by the opportunity to participate in what God is doing for the transformation of the world.
Christ-centeredness doesn’t mean that life is easy. It means that life has purpose. It doesn’t mean that everything will go our way. It means that God will help us to find a way. We know whether or not Easter has happened to us by whether or not the resurrection has made any difference in our lives. What counts is not in the end the gladness and Joy of last Sunday, but how we go about living our lives now that things are back to normal. The coming weeks and months will tell whether or not we welcomed the Risen Christ last week. If we can see the spirit of Jesus at work here as we do our work, then we will have welcomed him. If people within this place and beyond are being touched and transformed, then Christ was welcomed last week and remains with us.
But you know, one of the disciples wasn’t there the night that Jesus came and said those blessed words, “Peace be with you.” We don’t know why Thomas was absent – maybe he wanted to be alone with his sorrow; maybe he was out scouting around to see what was happening in Jerusalem. Thomas was a brave person, contrary to some depictions of him. When the disciples tell him what happened, he isn’t quick to believe. He gave them the same response that perhaps they had given Mary Magdalene when she came back with her own good news. Whatever the reason, he’s not buying it. “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself,” he says.
We often call Thomas the doubter and I have preached on this text many times before to point out that doubt can be a healthy part of the growth of our faith because it leads us to important questions which can then lead to important answers
But this morning I want us to consider another side of Thomas’s response. There is something kind of selfish – all about me-ish – in his response. Like he’s saying that nothing can be true unless he has verified it by his own experience. Nothing is true unless he believes it to be true.[iv] So he discounts their story; he rejects their testimony; he says what he feels and thinks is more real to him than the combined experience of the entire group. That’s a real slap in the face to these people with whom he has been so closely connected for the past three years. They’ve been through all kinds of incredible experiences together; they’ve known each other at their best and at their worst; they’ve bonded through their love of Jesus, and their trust in him and his message.
Here they thought they were all in it together, but now he’s denying that reality by giving more value to his singular doubt than their combined witness. And we’ve all been there at one time or another – I know I have — not ready to receive the contribution that someone else might want to make to our lives because it just doesn’t fit with what we want, with how we’d do it, with where we are at that moment.
The good news is, of course, that the disciples don’t get angry with him and kick him out of the fellowship! They may be disappointed, but they don’t give up on him. And then eight days later Jesus shows up to give Thomas what he needs. And he’s in the right place at the right time to receive it. Jesus greets Thomas with the word of peace, and then invites him to see for himself, to do exactly what he needs to do in order to believe.
Christ can come to us undeterred by our doubts, to give us a mission and purpose in life and to equip us for the job. “He comes to show us that [always] the world is greater than we think and that we are capable of more than we dreamed as we go on together.”[v] We are called to be the body of Christ together; called to be the church, and Christ will give us what we need—Spirit, Mission, and Forgiveness– in order to accomplish what he has called us to. Christ gives us everything. Church isn’t my hard work or your hard work or our long-range planning. Church is a gift, a visitation, an intrusion of the living Christ standing among us. Do you believe that to be true? That’s why John told us this story, you know, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” May it be so for each one of us. Amen.
[i] Tom Long, “The Church with Nothing, “Whispering the Lyrics, 1995, 90.
[ii] H. Laron Hall, “I’ll Believe It When I See It,” No Darkness at All, 1994, 132.
Some people have given up the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer.
“My faith is strong. I have a good personal relationship with God. I pray every day. I do good deeds. There’s really no need to go to church.”
Do any of those reasons for not attending church resonate with you?
They certainly did for me a few years ago. But now, I can’t imagine – nor would I want – a life without church. My faith grows with every Sunday service. Countless times my faith has been renewed, my spirits uplifted, my practices challenged and my life inspired, by being an active member of Oconee Street UMC.
In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul reminds us of the importance of a faith community. But what Paul doesn’t warn us about is how easy it is to lose touch with that community, and in effect lose touch with God.
It’s happened several times in my life. I miss church one Sunday for a “legitimate” reason like a sick child or I’m out of town. The next Sunday I think about all the work I have to do, and somehow that one hour on Sunday morning is absolutely critical for me to do all that work. The next week I realize my Sunday afternoon is crammed with kid’s activities, and since I worked all day Saturday I deserve that one hour to relax. After three weeks of missing church, I’m embarrassed to return, so I stop attending altogether.
Meanwhile, I’m not being challenged by Pastor Lisa’s sermons to change my life to be more Christ-like. My faith is not being renewed through singing hymns, hearing the Gospel and listening to the opening prayer. My spirits are not being uplifted through greeting church family in the passing of the peace. My life is not being inspired through hearing everyone’s joys and concerns.
By missing church regularly, God begins to disappear from my life.
I won’t let that happen anymore. If I want to remain faithful, I need to attend church.
Prayer: Dear God. Thank you for giving us such a wonderful church family at Oconee Street UMC. We pray that you help us remain faithful to you through our presence, practice and prayer. Amen.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” – Colossians 3:23 (NIV)
You aren’t good enough for this church.
You aren’t Christian enough.
You aren’t worthy.
You don’t work hard enough to deserve the title “Christian.”
You don’t work hard enough.
All of these are ways that – in the past – this verse has made me feel. At one point, more than fourteen years ago, it scared me enough to pack my bags and leave Christianity. After all, if I am responsible for doing each thing as if I am working for the Lord himself, how could anyone ever live up to that expectation? I think, especially for those of us that are hard on ourselves, it is easy to always believe that we have held back. It is easy to punish ourselves later, believing we should have given more. For those of us with those feelings, this verse can be a punch in the gut. This verse can, easily, remind us that we are not doing all things under the terms of faith that we would do if God was physically present among us.
Fortunately, I feel that I know God better now than I did when, at 16, I read that verse for the first time. So now, with his aid, I feel I understand the scripture in a truer way. It is the following epiphany, which has come to me only recently, that I hope works as a devotional to your day:
Doing things for the Lord, with all your heart, does not mean simply to exert yourself. It is not simply about working hard, because God’s requirements are rarely that simple. Instead, we must work for the Lord in the way that most pleases him. Every boss is different, and our heavenly supervisor is especially unique. Through the Bible, he asks us to love. To show kindness. To remember the prisoner. To value meekness over riches, sincerity over shows of grandeur, and the kingdom of heaven over the power of the world. To judge not lest we be judged. To give our jacket to those that would ask for our shirt. To forgive others … and ourselves. God doesn’t ask us to do things with all our might, or all our strength. God asks us to do it with all our heart.
As we move through the season of Lent, we should remember that in order for Jesus to die, he had to live. That the reason his death is a tragedy is not solely because he was innocent, but also because of the potential he represented. The message he brought to earth was beautiful, compelling, and kind. That man, the man who died on the cross, deserves our efforts. He deserves us to not only work hard, but to follow his instructions. We must do all things as if we are working directly for him, not for the “human masters” that surround us.
As you go throughout your day today, work in a way that you can imagine bringing a smile to the face of the Lord. In doing so, try to take a moment and sense his joy at your good work.
Most of all, realize the following:
He finds you worthy.
He is glad you are in his church.
He loves your work.
He loves you.