Monday, November 25, 2013

Mary Did You Know?

This Sunday we will begin our journey to Bethlehem.  I, for one, am excited that we can share this journey together.  I am glad you will be seeing the sights, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds and learning the history of the most amazing series of events in the history of the world.

This week will be all about Mary of Nazareth (that's where our journey begins).  In a sense Nazareth should feel like home for many reading this post.  We live in Abbeville (or somewhere near this little town of 3,000 people).  Nazareth, like Abbeville, was a little town near a much larger and more affluent city named Sepphoris.  Sepphoris, a town of 30,000 people, was an affluent place fit for the origin of a king.  It had culture, shopping and social life.  People would have gone there to shop.  They, not Nazareth, would have had the Walmart, the mall and the Carmike 12 showing the latest Christmas blockbusters (ok, I did take a little cultural license with that one).  You get the point ... Nazareth was where people traveled from to go somewhere else ... Sepphoris was a destination.  We get a little taste of what people thought about Nazareth when, in John :46, Nathaniel asks "can anything good come from Nazareth?" What we know is that something very good came from Nazareth!

Nazareth was Mary's hometown.  Nazareth was where Mary is told of her coming child and she utters those amazing words "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38 NRSV)."  Those words have always reminded me of Jesus' words in the garden of Gethsemane "Not my will but thine."  Nazareth is where a little boy named Jesus grew up, halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.  And Nazareth was the place where Jesus is conceived when God's Spirit overshadows Mary and God (the divine, perfect, holy being that has existed in history as a being made of light, life. purity and omniscience) does something amazing ... He shows His transcendence as He travels from eternity into time and into a virgins womb.  And it all starts in a little town called Nazareth.

Maybe for the world, Nazareth was a place that was obscure, unimportant and insignificant.  But for people (all people whether they know God or they are oblivious to God) it is a place that "Good tidings for all people" began.  We, who live in Abbeville, can be reminded that making a difference isn't about the size of the town we are from.  It isn't about whether we have a reputation for greatness or a social status that makes us "upper crust."  It is about being good, hard working people like Mary's family probably were.  It is about telling God "Here am I ... let it be as you have willed."  Mary's story is one of greatness.  Her obedience changed everything, including the entire history of the world.  A 13-year old teenager makes a decision that gives me hope and strength ... it has empowered and altered our nation ... and that power to change is planted in the hearts of every Christian in Abbeville, Alabama.  We may not have a Walmart ... but we've got Jesus!  Randy

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ridiculous Things

Ever encounter something that is ridiculous and impossible?  Today I was riding my bike and a little dog came out from a block away ... about six inches tall and full of himself.  He was barking and threatening and his poor little head wouldn't even reach the pedal.  It was both funny and ridiculous. I told him to go on home before he encountered something that might eat him.

We sometimes do things that are ridiculous.  Many times we tackle causes that are impossible (like that little dog).  I did admire his courage and our courage for wanting to fight the unbeatable foe.  But sometimes we tackle projects that are ridiculous from their inception.  They are things that are self-evident.  We try to push and control them.  I wonder if this is what God was saying to the prophet when he asks several rhetorical questions and then answers them.  The conversation goes like this ...  "What can we bring the Lord?  What kind of offerings should we give Him?  Should we bow before God and give of yearling calves?  Should we offer Him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?  No ... O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what He requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:7-8)."  God is saying that we ask these questions and maybe (in my case) preach sermons about truth that is self-evident.  God is sarcastically saying "Don't being that weak stuff and those silly questions in here ... you know full well what you should do and I am not going to let you hang your responsibility on the messenger, the eloquence of the presentation, the magnitude of the offering or any other excuse you might have."  God is explicitly saying we DO know what He wants.

In that spirit, this is the time of the year I am supposed to have what is called a "Stewardship Campaign."  It seems that such campaigns are "the way it has always been done."  They are the little dog (the pastor) chasing a task way bigger then he is.  So I am going to rely on what God's Word has told us.  That way I won't mess up the message with a "campaign," a "scheme" or some great idea to tell you what you already know.  I am not going to insult you with a beautifully-designed card or that little table that tells you what 10% of your income figures out to be (we can do the math).  I am not going to tell you that we are better or worse off than we are.  But here is what will be done faithfully:

     1. I will ask the finance team to report our monthly income so you will know the financial condition of the church.
     2. We will send (at least quarterly) a statement of your giving.  You can do the math and see where you stand, and I am confident that you know what God requires of you.
     3. We will answer any financial question you might ask and I will ask for your prayers to lead us to faithfully care for God's money.
     4. I will continue to give thanks for your giving (because of your giving we have been faithful participants in God's mission through the Church in our community, our nation and our world).
     5. I will ask you to read (often) Micah 6:7-8 so you are reminded of what God requires of you ... that way I won't need to repeat it.

Thanks for listening today!  You are all a blessing and I give thanks to God for you!  Randy

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Roads, Continued!

Last night I spoke to our Wednesday night group about Isaiah 40, the passage where God, through the prophet Isaiah says "Prepare for God's arrival.  Make a road straight and smooth, a highway for for our God.  Fill the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts and clear out the rocks.  Then God's bright glory will shine and everyone will see it." 

I love this passage.  It is inspiring, radical and challenging because it is about the arrival of Jesus that (in John 14:6) is the way (our road) the truth and the life.  For me and you and all of the Church, our road is here.  We know our destination and we also know that our primary focus is not about getting ourselves there.  It is about loving others enough to sacrifice, lead, love and tell what is necessary to get them to God's place.  In fact, our mission is never about ourselves ... it is about others.  We are servants.  We are missional.  We are outwardly focused.  And by being in this servant posture we are uniquely prepared to lead others along that straight, smooth road fit for our God.

Last night I began to think of this image in the context of Abbeville United Methodist Church.  How can we make the road straight and smooth?  How can we bulldoze centuries of dirt and muck so that everyone that comes in our doors sees a straight path to Jesus?  How can we fill the valleys?  Maybe Celebrate Recovery does this for some folks because it welcomes anyone to come and realize their valleys are not as deep as they once thought.  How can we level off the hills?  Maybe our high places (they are spoken of negatively in Scripture) need to be brought down to a level that everyone can get in ... low enough so that our table truly becomes the Lord's table that invites anyone calling upon the name of the Lord.  How can we smooth out the ruts?  On roads ruts happen and they need to be found and patched.  We should look often and be willing to patch the places that become barriers to some of "the least of our brethren."  And how do we should clear off the rocks?  We call them what they are ... rocks like our denomination's name (which can become an idol), our lifestyle that we perceive as both better and justifiable, our possessions which have always been barriers to God's call, our institutions which lead us away from devotion to God (remember this when you sing "I Surrender All"), and our submission to Jesus' clear and perfect Gospel message which should change us into a path to Him.

I know that is a lot to take in.  You are probably asking, "What does he mean?"  I want you to think about that.  If we are called to make a straight path for and to our God, how should we do it?  Maybe we should do what the old song says ... "nothing in my hand I bring, only to the cross I cling."  Our denominational differences, our music styles, our prejudices, our stuff, our ideas about what "our God" is like, our idols and our sports teams mean nothing to Jesus.  God seeks our hearts.  He is knocking at the door.  Let's let Him and anyone who comes with Him in! Randy 

Monday, November 4, 2013

OK ... It's Getting Close! A Word About Christmas

What is Christmastime to you?  I think the answer is different for each of us.  Maybe the answer changes as we get older and the expectations of children change to the obligations of adulthood.  Maybe we are influenced by our favorite Christmas specials or turned off by the constant stream of commercials hoping to win our Christmas dollars.  Maybe the booking of travel plans and the idea of a vacation have caught our eye and we are bent on making this trip the best ever.  Maybe none of what I have said above has any relevance to the real meaning of Christmas.  Maybe our society has a bad case of commercialism and needs a savior.  I have good news about that ... there is a savior and he came to Bethlehem to a manger ... truly a strange way to go about saving the world.

Being new in Abbeville I have gotten lots of information about what happens here at Christmas.   I have heard about the plans for a live Nativity ... the Polar Express night for children ... the Christmas Eve "Come-and-Go" Communion and some of the parties that are planned.  I have been working on  our Christmas Sermon Series which will be about the physical and spiritual journey of Mary and Joseph as they make their way to the manger.  We will learn about Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Way of the Patriarchs, and about two people named Mary and Joseph.  I hope you will be there every week as the Bible tells us the story of God with us.

Then ... on Christmas Eve ... I hope you will make worship a part of your day.  The Come-and-Go Communion time and the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service will offer all (we will invite the entire community) a chance to kneel and offer Jesus the only gift He really wants for Christmas ... our hearts.  Did you know that Christmas Eve is a great time to invite family, friends and your neighbors to worship in a beautiful setting ... a setting where we are all on the same song sheet singing about the Christ Child and His birth?  Did you know that this service, more than any service of the year, is our gift to God and our community where we say ... "Come see the Child ... the season is not about parties or programs or lights or presents or wearing our best clothes.  It is about Jesus."  Come and sing ... pray ... kneel at the altar ... take the bread and cup with our friends, family and neighbors.

I have to say ... our time in worship is the only thing that seems to center me in the Christmas season.  I have had the honor of serving communion to many at Christmas Eve services, including an off-duty Santa Claus still in his suit. It is always a blessing I carry with me through the rest of the season.  Some have said ... "it is inconvenient for the participants and it adds another event to an already busy season."  Yep ... that is true.  So I might have to eliminate a party, a trip to a light show, or a last minute trip to the mall.  Or I might have to tell the people at my house, I'll be back in 45 minutes ... I have something important I need to do.  Why?  Because the story of Christmas tells us that the shepherds left their flocks and the angels left the heavenly realm.  Because of all nights of the year, this is the night to worship.  I love the words of the Casting Crowns song that make a harrowing observation about this night ... "O Bethlehem, what have you missed while you were sleeping, for God became a man and stepped into your world today, O Bethlehem, you will go down in history, as a city with no room for it's king."  This night, this season and really each day we draw breath, is about a God who deserves our devotion, our talents, our time, and our worship.  I won't make excuses.  If my world has no room for the king, then there is something wrong with my world.  What say you?  Randy