Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Work

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”
A Message on John 6:22-27
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 24, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

John 6:22-27 (NRSV)

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

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As we continue our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer I want to begin today by doing something that I forgot to do this past week, and that is to say the prayer together:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Now to understand today’s scripture from John’s gospel better we need to explore the backstory a little bit.

Back at the beginning of chapter 6 in John’s Gospel we have Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish, donated by a young boy. (Kind of the original Hello Fresh.) The people were there because of Jesus. As he traveled around doing miracles and teaching he drew quite a following. No matter where he went, crowds followed him.

For the human side of Jesus, it must have been overwhelming. We read in verse 15, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

He did this often, just to get away from it all and pray to God. This time when he went up the mountain the disciples didn’t follow. They got in a boat that night and started rowing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). After three or four miles a storm blows up and the waves get huge. This is when Jesus comes to them walking on the water, freaking them out. And as soon as he got into the boat the wind and waves calm down and they arrived at their destination.

So now Jesus and the disciples are on the northwest shore of the sea. You would think that they wouldn’t have to worry about crowds anymore, but that’s not the case. As we read in the scripture today the people find some boats and follow Jesus across the sea so that they continue to follow him.

So even though he crossed the sea he finds himself being followed by crowds once again. That’s when Jesus gives them a lesson about the important things in life, and he uses bread as a metaphor. Here is how The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free. Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” John 6:26-27

Jesus is using bread as a metaphor, which I think is brilliant.

I love bread, especially homemade bread. Mmmmmm, there’s nothing better to eat than the crispy heel of still-warm fresh baked bread with a little butter spread on it. Oh my, it tastes so good!

But bread doesn’t stick with you long, does it? You can eat bread until you are stuffed and then not too long afterwards you find yourself hungry again. The people following him are the same people who ate the bread he made at the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. And if Jesus made the bread, can you imagine how good it must have tasted? Oh man!

So they are showing up and hoping for a second course of some tasty bread, but Jesus, knowing why they are there, turns it into a learning moment,

Earthly bread lasts only a little while. You eat it and it’s gone. Then you have to get some more. But the bread of heaven…

Jesus tells them that instead of putting their efforts into things that are temporary they should be focusing more on the things that are eternal. And in addition to bread, he uses another metaphor: work.

Now some translations say labor, but the meaning is the same. Don’t work for temporary things, work for eternal things.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

And that’s where the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we will be exploring today comes into play: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”

Now there are two meanings to the scripture and the line of the prayer when it comes to “work” or ‘employed.” The first is the literal meaning. Most of us have jobs, employment, occupations.

If you are young and still in school your occupation, your job, is to learn, to become educated.

For older folks it’s how we make a living. We perform a particular skill or ability and in return receive remuneration for it; we get paid, in other words.

If you are a cook at Dairy Queen, for example, your skill is to prepare and cook food to eat. You have the skill and ability to determine how long to leave a hamburger patty on the grill. If you leave it on too long it will be burned and not taste good, and if you take it off too soon it might still be raw inside, and that’s not a good thing. And in return for your services in cooking you get a paycheck from the owner of the restaurant.

That’s the first meaning, the literal meaning. The second meaning is metaphorical. What work are you doing for the kingdom of God? As a follower of Christ, how are you working for the bread of eternity, to make disciples (the mandate given by Jesus at the end of the Gospel of Matthew)?

Now many Christians separate those two things and think that their work, their occupation, has nothing to do with the work they do for the kingdom of God. I want to challenge that, however. I think that both meanings can “work” together to serve the greater good.

Back in the 1600s over in France there was a man that went by the name of Lawrence. He was known as Brother Lawrence because he worked as a lay worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France.

He grew up in a poor family and when he got old enough he joined the army just so he could have something to eat and a place to stay. He fought during the 30-Years War, a bloody affair in central Europe, and was wounded, making him lame. After the war he worked for a while as a footman, but the horrors of war led him to revisit the religion of his upbringing.

At the age of 26 he entered the monastery as a lay member and was given the assignment of being a cook for the people living there. He served as a cook there until his war injury forced him to do something else, at which point he became a cobbler that made sandals for the monks.

Even though he was not one of the monks, he gained a reputation as someone who developed a very close relationship with God. He offered advice to others on how to do this, and eventually a big-wig in the Catholic church, Abbé Joseph de Beaufort, came and visited with him and wrote down those sayings in a book titled, The Practice of the Presence of God.

For example, Beaufort wrote, “The most excellent method [Brother Lawrence] had found for going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.”

Here’s another: “We ought not weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

Okay, let’s think about this. Here’s a guy working away in a kitchen in Paris, France. But unlike the movie Ratatouie, this kitchen isn’t in a fancy restaurant but a monastery. (For some reason I think of the movie “Nacho Libre” when I think of Brother Lawrence. “Can’t we ever have like a salad or something?”) I can just picture him there peeling potatoes or parsnips or whatever in a cold, damp kitchen, day after day after day. But instead of being dismayed and depressed by it, he is content and filled with a sense of well-being because he does his work while being present with the Lord.

Paul writes in Colossians, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

We can learn from Paul, from Brother Lawrence, from John the Disciple, and from John Wesley: no matter what our “work” is here on earth, do it to the best of our ability as if we were doing it for God.

It doesn’t matter if we are the head of a Fortune 500 company or if we pick up cans on the side of the road, or even when we are unemployed (what Wesley calls, “laid aside”) when our hearts are set on God we serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is honor and dignity to be had in our work. Unfortunately we sometimes tend to look down on certain jobs and the people that do them. Take the people that pick up our trash and haul it off. It’s a hard job that they have to do in all kinds of weather. Can you imagine starting out before dawn on one of our cold winter days with a drizzly rain riding on the back of the truck out in the elements, stepping up and down off the platform at the back over and over again, emptying trash cans into the back of the truck? (Kind of like the original step aerobics.)

And there’s the messiness and the smell in addition to the physical exertion. And to top it off the job doesn’t pay very well, either, with very few paid holidays.

And yet, if those people didn’t do their jobs and pick up and properly dispose of our trash, can you imagine how our lives would change? Those workers are doing honest, honorable work, work that we ourselves don’t want to do. We should respect them for that.

You get the idea? No matter what we do, we can honor God by our labors. (With the exception of some illegal and immoral jobs that don’t count. If you are a human trafficker, for example, I don’t believe you can honor God by your labors.)

Remember Jesus’ words: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

Remember John Wesley’s words: “Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee…”

So my challenge for you this week is to be present with God while you work. As you work for the “bread” that you pay your bills, also be working for heavenly bread that never goes bad. Work with your best effort, as if working for the Lord instead of for others, and while doing so praise God for all his blessings and especially for his son Jesus Christ.

Remember that God’s son, Jesus Christ, worked as a carpenter and also for his heavenly father. We should also.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Suffering

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”
A Message on James 1:2-4
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 17, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

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The book of James in the Bible can be a difficult book to read. It’s not necessarily because of big, sesquipedalian words or deep theological concepts, but because James doesn’t mess around with the information he wants to get across.

He just kind of hits you in the face with it. For example, he warns us that the tongue is like a fire, one that cannot be tamed, and that it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8b). Gee, James. Tell us what you really think, would ya?

The scripture we read today from the first chapter of James, right at the beginning of the book, he does that as well. He says something that seems to be counterintuitive and… well… wrong.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

I beg your pardon? Say what? Be joyful when we have trials? What kind of logic is that? It doesn’t make sense. When we’re having troubles, when we’re suffering, and we’re supposed to be joyful? You gotta be kidding…

And yet… that is what James is saying. Here’s The Message paraphrase: “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”

I think that the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we are studying today, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering,” echoes what James is saying in his scriptures.

The apostle Paul, who became an expert on suffering after choosing to follow Jesus, tells us that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3b-5

King David, who was known as the man after God’s own heart, also went through periods of suffering (especially when King Saul was trying to kill him). David wrote in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

Peter, the disciple also known as Simon, who Jesus told would become the rock that the church would be built upon, wrote “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Paul wrote this in the book we know as Philippians : “For he [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” Philippians 1:29

Back in 1940 C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled, The Problem with Pain. (I highly recommend it, by the way.) In it he talks about why he believes God allows humans to suffer. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I agree with him. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe he allows it. And I think that suffering is one way that God uses to get our attention.

When everything in our lives is going good, when we are healthy, have loving relationships, and maybe even have some money in the bank, then we tend to forget about God. He gets bumped down our priority list, pushed to the back of the cupboard and covered up with other things.

Oh, we still believe in God, but in the back of our minds we start to believe that we don’t need God. Things are going great, God. I got this.

But suffering refocuses us on God. We painfully come to the realization that we do, indeed, need God. Suffering moves God to the top of our priority list, moves him from the back of the cupboard to being out on the counter. Pain reminds that we are a broken people, that we aren’t as strong as we think we are, and that we need a savior. We need help.

Although thankfully it is rare, there is a medical condition that some people have that prevents them from feeling pain. Known as “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP),” or congenital analgesia, these people simply can’t feel pain. They can’t even describe it because they don’t feel it.

I have to admit that having such a condition sounds appealing at times, especially those times when we are hurting. But the reality is that CIP is life threatening. People die because of this.

For example, say a child has a cavity which causes a toothache. A normal child would feel the pain that creates and alert the parent, who would get the child to a dentist and have it taken care of. But if a child has CIP then he/she does not feel the pain and thus doesn’t know about the cavity. That cavity can get infected but again, not feeling pain, the child isn’t aware of it. And then that infection can spread to the point that it kills the child. Not a pretty picture.

I think that can be a good metaphor for our spiritual lives. If we don’t feel pain, if we don’t suffer, then we don’t turn to God.

Food tastes better when we’re hungry than when we’re full and not hungry, doesn’t it? A glass of ice water is much more refreshing when you are thirsty, isn’t it? A roaring fire in a fireplace feels much better when it’s cold outside, doesn’t it?

Suffering reminds us that we need a savior.

Now don’t misunderstand me and think that I am saying that suffering is a good thing. No. What I am saying is that because we live in a fallen world, each person will experience suffering in their life. Even Jesus tells us that “In this world you will have trouble.” My point is that when we as Christians do suffer, it is an opportunity for us to grow closer to God and to glorify God in our suffering.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

“Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

John Wesley knew about suffering. As a matter of fact, his best selling book, Primitive Physic, was a book of home remedies for various ailments.

But his lifestyle also included self discipline almost to the point of suffering. For example, he tried to eat no more than six ounces of meat per day. That’s not much. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and ordered at 6-ounce steak, what they bring to you is not very much. And for Wesley, that was per DAY, not per meal.

He fasted twice a week. He took cold baths (and in England that meant REAL cold) not only because they were therapeutic but because he could give to the poor the money he would have spent on coal used to heat the water. He wore simple, plain clothing, didn’t believe in having lots of fancy furniture, and pretty much gave away all his money.

He got up at 4 a.m. every morning and went to bed at 9:30. He wrote letters, wrote sermons, had conversation with others, met with small groups, prayed, preached twice each day, read voraciously, and travelled a lot.

Many years ago Samuel J. Rogal wrote about Wesley’s daily activities and how much he traveled. It is estimated that between 1748 and 1790, John traveled a total of 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons. Now 225,000 miles is a lot of miles, but when we remember that most of that was on horseback it makes it even more impressive. (I don’t think I would have wanted to buy a used horse off the man because the odds are that it would be pretty much worn out.)

Even in his 80s he kept a rigorous schedule, even though his body was starting to show the strain. He wrote in his journal, when he was close to being 87, a self-assessment of being “an old man, decayed head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed by God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.”

Many of the places where Wesley preached he caused so much anger towards him that he was forbidden from preaching there again. Mobs ran him out of many of the places he preached and tried to cause him physical harm.

He had failed relationships with women and also marriage, with he and his wife never divorcing but living separately from each other.

And yet as part of his covenant prayer, he wrote, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Are you willing to continue to proclaim God’s glory when your life is falling apart around you, or you are seriously ill, or emotionally spent? When you are suffering or having a hard time, are you willing to “consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing”?

That is my challenge to you this week. Praise God in your sufferings. In this world we will have trouble. Jesus tells us that. But the troubles don’t have to win. Endure hardships with optimism, knowing that Jesus died for our sins and that no matter what this world throws at us, as believers in Christ and children of God we are promised that something better is coming.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Acts 15:36-40

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra on their 1st missionary journey—Jacob Jordaens, 1593-1678

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer
A Message on Acts 15:36-40
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 10, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Acts 15:36-40 (NRSV)

After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.

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To start off with today let us come together and say the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer together.

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

Today we continue our sermon series on the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer by exploring the second line of the prayer, “Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.” Or, to phrase it in modern English, “Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.”

My version is something like, “Give me the work that you want me to do, and connect me with the people you want me to work with.”

Now this can be an uncomfortable prayer if you pray it earnestly, which I hope you do. I have often said that it is very, very rare for God to lead us to the easy places. I think there is a reason for that, too. We don’t spiritually grow in the easy places. It’s only in those difficult, uncomfortable situations, those places that really stretch our faith, that we spiritually grow.

I’m not sure where it came from, but there seems to be a myth that if we follow Jesus, if we are nice to others and obey the 10 commandments and stuff like that, then God will reward us by making our lives easier, more comfortable, and, if you believe in the “Prosperity Gospel” (and I pray that you don’t), financially blessed.

But that is a myth. God doesn’t work that way. And how do we know? Just look at Jesus’ followers in the Bible.

In the scripture we read today from the book of Acts we find Paul preparing to go on what is known as his second missionary journey. He had already completed one (called, of course, his first missionary journey) in which he went with Barnabas as well as John, also called Mark, which we call John Mark.

But while on this first missionary journey John Mark left Paul and Barnabas when they were in the area of Pamphylia and went back to Jerusalem. We don’t know why (although there is plenty of speculation), but John Mark left and went back to Jerusalem.

It is thought Paul’s first missionary journey lasted two to three years, the last part of it minus John Mark, then Paul and Barnabus returned to Jerusalem.

The scripture we read today happens after that as Paul is preparing for his second missionary journey. He wants Barnabas to go with him, and Barnabas is willing to, but he wants John Mark to go as well. And there’s the problem.

Paul doesn’t want John Mark going with them. In the scripture we read today from the NRSV translation we find that Paul feels that John Mark “deserted” them by leaving during their first journey. Other translations use words like “departed” and even “withdrawn.” John Mark left, and went back to Jerusalem.

Apparently Paul still has a problem with John Mark’s decision to leave them, and puts his foot down in spite of Barnabas’ pleas and refuses to let John Mark go on the trip. The scriptures tell us “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.”

Wow! Okay, now let me get this straight. These are both followers of Jesus Christ, people who have traveled all over their known world starting churches and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and the power of his redeeming grace, and even performing miracles, and now they get into a tiff over who can come with them?

Yep, that’s the case. It gets to the point where Barnabas says, “Oh yeah? Well, if you are gonna be a stubborn-head and won’t let John Mark go then you go on your own, buddy. I’ll go with John Mark and we’ll do our own thing! So there!” (Or something similar to that, I imagine.)

It almost sounds like a couple of elementary kids arguing on the playground instead of the leaders of the Christian movement as it began.

So that’s what happens. They go their separate ways. Barnabas and John Mark get on a boat and travel northwest to the island of Cyprus, while and Paul, who chooses Silas to go with him, heads north overland to Syria and Cilicia, located in present day Turkey.

The good news is that they later reconciled, so they didn’t stay mad at each other the rest of their lives. (Again, kind of like elementary kids.)

Now I bring this scripture up today because it brings us back to the second line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.” Or my version, “Give me the work that you want me to do, and connect me with the people you want me to work with.”

Just as we have a false expectation of our lives being worry free after deciding to follow Jesus, I think that we also have an expectation that God will call us to work all by ourselves for his kingdom, or that if he does want us to work with others that those people will be just like us. And yes, that sometimes does happen, but my experience is more often than not God places people into our lives who we are to work with but that… well… we may not like them very well.

I thought about that this past week as I read about what was happening in our nation’s capital. (I refused to watch the national TV news. It offends my journalism degree.)

The two parties are supposed to work together to represent the American people, right? The Democrats and Republicans, even though they may disagree on many things, are supposed to work together and compromise with each other so that our country as a whole benefits, right? That isn’t happening and hasn’t happened in a while.

What if we as Christians behave in the same manner? Think God will be pleased? Hmmmmm. I think that answer would be “no.”

Back to the scripture we read today, it’s interesting that the writer of Acts, who we believe to be Luke, includes this disagreement in his writing. It’s almost like airing the apostles’ dirty laundry, isn’t it? Why not just skip it or edit it out?

Here’s what I think. I think the fact that the disagreement is included proves that it really happened.

Think about it: If you were going to make up a religion, if you were going to fictionalize a religion, everybody would agree with everything, right? You would only have one story line and everyone would agree with it. You wouldn’t have four different gospels that have differences between them, and you wouldn’t have the leaders of that religion disagreeing with each other.

But Luke does include this disagreement. And I think that proves that it is the truth, that it really happened.

So what can we learn from this? How can we apply this to our lives today?

I think it shows us that sometimes God may change the people he wants us to work with.

Years ago I was watching a broadcast on TV of a Madea play featuring Tyler Perry. In the play Madea was consoling a young man named Sonny whose girlfriend had broken up with him. Madea tells the young man that sometimes it’s best to let people go. He says, “Some people’ll come in your life for a lifetime, and some’ll come for a season. You got to know which is which.”

I remember when I heard that it really struck me as sort of profound. (You can tell I’m a deep thinker when the things I think are profound are things that Madea says.) And I still think there is a lot of truth in that.

I believe that sometimes God puts people in our lives for a lifetime, and sometimes it’s for a season. And we need to seek God’s guidance to discern which is which.

Paul and Barnabas were together for a season. They separated and Paul set out with Silas while Barnabas and John Mark go off together in a different direction. But by doing this, they double their efforts. Instead of two people going out, four people went out. The Good News was multiplied.

We are called to go out as well. Maybe not to Cyprus or Turkey (although you can never tell…), but we are all called to go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ. That goes for every Christian. Not just preachers, but every Christian. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are to share the Good News. No exceptions.

Wesley’s prayer asks God “place me with whom thou will.” Are you willing to pray that same prayer? Are you willing to be “placed” with whom God wants you to work with, even if it’s someone you may not like?

That’s my challenge to you this week. Be willing to let God place you with individuals to work together to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s for a lifetime or a season, be willing to say, “Yes, Lord, send me.” Be willing to work with others for the Kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Galatians 2:20-21

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer
A Message on Galatians 2:20-21
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 3, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Galatians 2:20-21 (NRSV)

…and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

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Today we are going to start the New Year with a new sermon series that is based on what is officially known as “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition.” I like to just call it the “Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.”

If you have been here the first Sunday in January for the past six years you know that we always recite this covenant prayer during our worship service. It’s a great way to start the year by reaffirming our covenant with God.

Let’s go ahead and do that right now. Stand as you are able, and as we pray this prayer together.

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

Well this year I wanted to go further than just reciting the covenant prayer one time in one service. (After all, it should be something we live, not just recite.) So today and for the next six weeks we will be exploring this covenant prayer by having a sermon series that looks at the scriptures that form the foundation of this prayer.

So each week as we gather both in-person and online we will delve into one part of the prayer, dividing it into seven sections and looking at those sections each Sunday until Ash Wednesday when the season of Lent begins.

Scholars can’t agree on exactly where the prayer comes from. (But do scholars ever agree on anything? Right?) As its name implies it comes from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who lived in England in the 1700s. The man himself attributed the English puritan Alleine as the source of inspiration for the prayer, but other people (mainly those pesky scholars) want to give credit to a German pietistic movement and even the “high church” tradition of the Church of England, of which Wesley was a priest.

The first documented printed version that we have is from 1780 when ol’ John published in a pamphlet titled, “Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God.”

Wesley wrote the prayer with the expectation that the people called Methodists would recite this prayer at the beginning of each year. It was designed as a New Year’s prayer, and as such, I think it’s spot on. And after the year we had in 2020, I think it becomes even more important. (And if you haven’t eaten your blackeyed peas for good luck this year, please do so as soon as we get through here! Apparently lots of people failed to do that this past year.)

Today we focus on the first line of Wesley’s prayer, “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

This is an important aspect of being a Christian. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior we rearrange our priorities. Instead of a worldly view where we put ourselves first, we put loving God and loving others first. We change our perspective. It is not only a spiritual shift, but an attitudinal one as well.

“I am no longer my own, but thine.”

In the scripture we read today from Galatians we find Paul emphasizing this point.

“and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

I like the way the late Eugene Peterson paraphrases the scripture we read today: “I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.”

Wow. Did you catch that one sentence, “My ego is no longer central.” Ouch.

That’s completely opposite the teachings of the world, isn’t it? The world teaches us every day through advertisements and messages that we are the center of the universe and that everything should revolve around us. It’s all about self satisfaction and building up our ego as to how important we are. It’s all about “me.”

I have known many people that are like that, and you have too, I’m sure. It’s all about them. And yes, although it is painful to say, if we are honest there are people like that in this church.

It’s easy to fall into that kind of thinking though. Our world bombards us with advertisements that make us think that if we only had that product our lives would be so much better and we would find happiness and contentment.

And while there is nothing wrong with having things, including nice things, if we look to “things” for happiness and contentment we will always, always, be disappointed. It is a matter of priorities.

While I was working on this message I was receiving messages on Facebook messenger about some clergy friends who were very, very ill with COVID. As I checked these messages the Facebook page came up and this was one of the ads from Nikon.

The ad says, “Go ahead. You deserve it,” The ad was showing a new model of camera that Nikon has out. I clicked on it (after all, it said I deserved it…) and I will admit that it’s a pretty cool camera. (Can you say, “covet”?) And after searching the site I finally found, in very small print, the cost of the camera: $1,999.95. (Why don’t they just add a nickel and call it $2,000 even?)

So, for two grand I could get that camera and I would be the best photographer ever. It would be a big boost to my ego and I would feel so much better about myself and I would be completely happy. My wife would love me more and I’m sure it would even improve my looks.

Except that it won’t. That’s faulty thinking and bad psychology. And really bad theology.

The Bible tells us that if we want to feel good about ourselves the key is not focusing more on ourselves, but less on ourselves. Yep. We are to focus more on God and others. Less of “me,” and more of “thee.”

“…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

That’s why Wesley starts off his prayer with “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

So my challenge to you today, this first Sunday of 2021, is to think less of yourself this year and more of others. Make a New Year’s resolution to focus on God and others and less on yourself. Remember Paul’s words, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives.

Begin every day with the first line of the Wesleyan Covenant prayer: “I am no longer my own, but thine.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Glory to God!

Glory to God!
A Message on Luke 2:8-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 27, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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How many of you are disappointed that Christmas is over? Raise your hand if you are disappointed because it’s 363 days until Christmas?

As a kid I remember experiencing the reality of a post-Christmas letdown. It wasn’t a sadness, but just missing the anticipation and excitement that I had been having for the last couple of months. Christmas day came, it was great, and then the day after Christmas, even though I had new toys to play with, there was kind of a void where that anticipation and excitement had been.

Well if you are kind of feeling that way I have good news for you: It’s still Christmas!

Yes, indeed! The church calendar lists this time as “Christmastide.” It’s a short season, only lasting until Epiphany on Jan. 6, but it’s an important season nonetheless!

You know the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? (I love Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck version. “… and some parts to a Mustang GT.”) Well it is not about the 12 days before Christmas, but the 12 days after Christmas. Yes. So we are in Christmastide and can continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, Jesus.

The scripture we read today from the Gospel of Luke tells us of the first people to learn about the miraculous event that happened that we now call Christmas: the shepherds!

We have to remember that in the First Century the people had an agrarian based economy. People’s survival depended on the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. We also have to remember that barbed wire was still 1,867 years from being invented, so what very few fences they did have were made of rocks and maybe some timber.

If you raised livestock in those days you had many challenges. You had to find something for your livestock to eat. You couldn’t go to Attwoods and pick up some sacks of horse and mule feed (which I am convinced is where we get granola). Most of the livestock diet consisted of forage, of grasses and plants growing naturally that the animals could graze on.

We also have to remember they didn’t have mechanized farm machinery. If you wanted hay you had to cut it by hand with a scythe, bundle it and tie it together by hand, haul it to wherever you were going to store it, and then feed it to your livestock during the winter.

So the livestock were semi-free-range, and even in the winter time their survival depended on roaming the countryside and looking for forage for the animals to graze on.

While cattle were an important livestock for the people at the time (because they provided not only meat but also milk, leather, and were used as draft animals), sheep and goats were more important to the economy for several reasons.

First, they required less land to raise. On average, according to those who know such things, it takes one to two to 25 acres of land to raise a cow, while sheep and goats require only one-half an acre per animal.

One of the reasons for that is that they aren’t as picky eaters as cattle. Sheep, and especially goats, will eat almost any kind of plant that will grow. When they bite off the grass, they do so closer to the ground than cattle. (Fun fact: None of these three ruminants have any top front teeth to graze with. They only have bottom incisors. They have a tough pad on top that the teeth press against to bite grasses in two, but no top incisors like we do. If you want to play a practical joke on someone ask them to check a cow/sheep/goat’s top teeth. It’s great fun.)

And because there was no refrigeration back then, when an animal was slaughtered for food that meat had to be eaten before it went bad. There were a few forms of preservation, like drying the meat to make jerky or salting, but that was pretty much it. Sheep and goats, being much smaller, made more sense for a people without refrigeration.

I tell you all of this because I think it’s important background information to know about when we talk about the shepherds that the angel appears to on Christmas night.

The shepherds were out in the fields that night because, well, it’s what they normally did. At the end of the day they would gather the sheep up (sheep normally stay together anyway) and find a place to speed the night. It was usually on the top of a little hill for several reasons: 1. It provided better line of sight for the shepherds to watch out for nocturnal carnivores hoping to have a late-night snack of mutton. 2. In case such critters did show up, it was better to fight them with gravity on your side than having to fight them and gravity both. 3. In the winter time it would be a few degrees warmer than at the bottom of the hills since cold air sinks.

So in my mind these shepherds are on the top of a hill outside Bethlehem. One or more of them are awake and on watch against the aforementioned carnivores, and others would have been sleeping on the ground with their big cloaks over them, keeping them warm.

And then suddenly the darkness of the night is pierced by the blinding light of the angel showing up with the “glory of the Lord” shining all around them. The scriptures tell us, “And they were terrified.” Well, yeah! Who wouldn’t be!

Then the angel says what angels usually say when they appear before humans: “Do not be afraid.” Yeah, easy for you to say. Man, I’d be shaking so hard and be so scared I would pass out!

And then, as the shepherds quit freaking out and no longer feel like they are going to pass out, the angel tells them what is happening in Bethlehem.

This is how it is paraphrased in The Message translation: “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

Now for the shepherds those last two sentences would have seemed like an oxymoron, a phrase that contradicts itself. Being Jewish, they would have known the scriptures that prophesied about the messiah coming, but for the messiah to be a baby and, most shocking of all, to be lying in a manger!

Now we have romanticized the manger so much that we have forgotten what its primary purpose was. We see nice replicas in manger scenes and come to see it almost as a piece of furniture. But its real purpose was to hold hay or feed for livestock. That’s it.

To help us understand how the shepherds would have perceived it, let me add a little East Texas to it. “…you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feed trough.” Not as romantic, huh?

The shepherds would have all known what a manger was, and how it was used. So for them to hear that the messiah, the hoped-for savior of the Jewish people, was a baby in a feed trough, it had to be confusing for them.

Now here’s what I think is an important aspect to the scripture we read today: The angel doesn’t tell them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angel tells them what had happened, and where Jesus was, but did not say, “Therefore, go with haste to see the babe.” Nope. The shepherds decided to go see Jesus on their own.

I think that’s a good metaphor for our understanding of evangelism. We can’t force someone to come to Jesus. We can, and should, tell them. We can, and should, share with them the difference Jesus has made in our lives. But we shouldn’t command them. We shouldn’t tell them, “You better find Jesus or you’re going to burn in hell.” No. Please don’t exclusively represent Jesus as fire insurance.

So the shepherds talk it over and decide to go to Bethlehem. So they do.

Now here’s something that my brain wonders about. Did they just leave all their sheep out there and go to Bethlehem? I guess they could have taken the sheep with them to Bethlehem, but I kinda doubt they did this. That would have been very difficult to do, especially in the dark.

I think they did something like leave the youngest or whoever was lowest on the shepherd pecking order behind to watch the sheep. They may have drawn straws to see who would stay behind to watch the sheep. We just don’t know.

But we do know that they went. They went and saw the baby Jesus.

Now it is also important what they did after finding baby Jesus. They didn’t just show up, see the baby, and then go back to tending sheep. No. Here’s what the scriptures tell us: “…they made known what had been told them about this child.”

They told others. They told everyone they met. They spread the good news!

That’s what we are to do as Christians still today. We are to “make known” to others just how life changing Jesus is. The Good News isn’t something to keep to ourselves, but something to share.

The Great Commission, found at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, tells us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” We are to go and tell people about Jesus Christ!

Christmas isn’t over! We may take our trees down and put the decorations away, but Christmas needs to live on in our hearts. We are to share the Good News of how Jesus came to earth in a very humble way, how he grew up to perform miracles and teach us about God and how to live. And we need to share how Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the price for our sins that we could not pay ourselves. And because of that, because of God’s great love for us, our sins are forgiven and we are promised life everlasting. That is the greatest gift, ever!

So my challenge to you during this Christmastide is to not put Christmas away with the decorations. Let the joy of the birth of Jesus be present in your mind, in your words, and in your actions. Like the shepherds, tell others about Jesus.

After all, Christmas isn’t over.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Jesus is born!

Merry Christmas! Here are the messages given for the Christmas Eve services at Jacksonville First United Methodist Church.

The first message was given at our 5 p.m. service, aimed primary at children. The second was given at our 7 p.m. traditional service.

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
5 p.m. Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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I’m so excited for us to be together tonight, Christmas Eve! Santa Claus is coming tonight! Wooo hoooo! I know I’ll have trouble going to sleep because I will be so excited. I just hope I’ve been good this year! I think I have but Pam, my wife, told me she’s not so sure.

Christmas is a great time to gather together and share memories with family and friends. And even though “The ‘Rona” is preventing some of that from happening, we can still gather, even if it’s virtually, and share the stories that remind us who we are and whose we are.

There’s a guy named Andrew Peterson who wrote and recorded a whole album called, “Behold the Lamb of God.” The subtitle of the album is, “The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.”

And while this story sounds like a tall tale, one that is exaggerated and is a myth and not true, Andrew is correct in saying that it is the “TRUE Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.”

Do you like stories? I do! I love stories! And I really like the stories in the Bible! Because they are true!

And I really, REALLY like the story of Christmas, the celebration of baby Jesus coming to the earth.

In the scripture we read today, written by a guy named Luke, we hear about a man with the kinda strange name of Emperor Augustus. Now that first word, Emperor, isn’t really a name but it’s a title, a word that tells what someone does. And this guy named Augustus was the emperor, the leader of that part of the world. Kinda like our president, but different.

Anyway, because this guy named August was the leader he got to make the rules. One of the rules he made was that everybody had to go back to the town their family was from. Once that got there the rule was they had to write their name down and then give some money to the emperor’s people. (They didn’t like that part. It was yucky.)

So there was this guy named Joseph, and he lived in a town called Nazareth which was way up north in Galilee. But his family was from Bethlehem, which was a little bitty town (much smaller than Jacksonville) which was not quite 6 miles south of the big city of Jerusalem. So he had to go to Bethlehem because David was one of his relatives. (He was Joseph’s great x 23 grandfather.)

And they didn’t have cars back then, either! Nope! No airplanes, either. No buses, no computers, and not even telephones! Can you believe it!

And here’s the amazing thing: they walked everywhere they went! Yep! If they wanted to go somewhere, they walked. And it was a long way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A long, long way if you’re walking!

So Joseph had a girlfriend, and her name was Mary! Joseph really liked her and had asked her to marry him and be his wife, but they hadn’t had the wedding yet so they weren’t really married.

Well while they were still in Nazareth, an angel from God came down and talked to Mary. Angels can be kinda scary because they have this bright light all around them and they sorta fly, and Mary was kinda freaked out when this angel named Gabriel showed up to talk to her. But Mary was very brave and asked the angel, “What’s happening?”

Then the angel told Mary that she was going to have a baby! Oh wow! But the angel also said that the baby wasn’t going to be just an ordinary baby, but a special one. A real special one! This baby was going to be the son of God! Yes! God!

As you might imagine Mary was confused by all of this and asked, “What? How can this happen? I don’t understand?” And after the angel explained some more she said, “Okay, I still don’t understand it all, but I’m okay with it. I trust that God knows what he is doing and I’m willing to do whatever he needs me to do.” Isn’t that awesome!

So some time passes and sure enough, Mary has a baby in her tummy! And it grows a little bit each day until her tummy stuck out and she walked kinda funny.

It was getting kinda close to time for Mary to have her baby when BOOM, Joseph gets the word that he has to go to Bethlehem because the Emperor said so. He doesn’t want to, because he knew walking hurts Mary’s back, but they don’t have much of a choice so pack up some things and leave their home to go to Bethlehem.

Now we don’t know this for sure, but a lot of people think that because Mary had a baby in her tummy that Joseph found a donkey for her to ride on. He walked and led the donkey, and Mary rode the donkey and they started traveling. I sure hope that was the case!

We don’t know for sure, but we think it took Mary and Joseph somewhere between a whole week and 10 days of walking just to get to Bethlehem! That’s a long time! And a lot of walking! Each night they would either camp out or find somebody who would let them stay at their house, and they walked and walked and walked.

Finally, FINALLY, they got to Bethlehem. When they got there Joseph started looking for a hotel for them to stay in, but because lots of people were coming to Bethlehem all the rooms were full. They couldn’t find a place to stay at all! Then, when they couldn’t figure out what to do, someone told them about a kind of a barn, called a stable. It’s where animals like sheep, goats, cows, and probably some chickens stayed. Mary and Joseph were disappointed that they couldn’t find a room, but they figured a barn was better than nothing, so they settled down to stay in the stable with the animals.

But did things settle down for them, then! No way! Mary started having her baby! They didn’t even have hospitals back then, so when she started having her baby there was no place to take her. So guess what? She had her baby right there in the stable. Yep. That’s where she had it.

After he was born Mary and Joseph took some pieces of cloth that they had and they wrapped up little baby Jesus to keep him warm.

So there they were in a barn, Joseph, Mary, and little baby Jesus.

Now the reason this is important, the reason we have Christmas, is because that baby would grow up, being 100 percent God and 100 percent human, and perform miracles, teach people how God wants them to live, and prove to us just how much God loves us.

Jesus, when he was about 33 years old (which is old, I know), he let some mean people beat him up without even fighting back. Not only did they beat him up, but they put him up on a cross and left him there until he was dead.

It sounds like a sad story, doesn’t it. But the story doesn’t end there! No, not at all! It has a happy ending! Because three days after he died he came back to life! Yes, he did! And Jesus did all that so that when we do something wrong, whether we do it on purpose or by accident, God doesn’t hold it against us. God still loves us. Not only that but because of Jesus, God also forgets the things we do wrong.

And, there’s more! God promises us that we will live forever with him in heaven! Which is really awesome!

That’s why we celebrate Christmas! Jesus comes to the world as a little baby born in a small town in a stable. Yes, we have Santa Claus, who is named after someone named Saint Nicholas who went around and gave people who were poor things for Christmas. And we have Christmas Trees and special songs that we sing and presents that we open, but ALL of those things we do as ways of celebrating Jesus’ birthday.

So happy birthday, Jesus! We love you and are so glad you were born. And that, folks, is the True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. Praise be to God!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen,

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 2:1-7
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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In the winter of 1914 a war was raging. Known as “The War to End All Wars,” (which it didn’t, by the way), World War I began in July of that year. Along the “Western Front,” located in France and Belgium, war was being fought between the troops of Germany on one side and the French and British on the other. (The US would not fight in the war until April of 1917.)

These troops were serious about trying to kill each other. And they were doing a good job of it as the battles were brutal and the number of dead and injured was high.

But right before Christmas of 1914 something unusual happened. As Christmas day drew nearer the soldiers on both sides created and observed a truce, a period of time where they quit trying to kill one another.

Called “The Christmas Truce,” soldiers from both sides crawled out of their trenches and met and mingled with each other. In some places soldiers from both sides even met in the middle, in “no man’s land,” to exchange greetings and talk. Some even exchanged gifts, such as food, tobacco, and souvenirs such as buttons off their jackets.

There were candles, Christmas trees, and the sides joined together in Christmas Carols, both in German and English. There were even games of soccer between the two sides.

Unfortunately the truce didn’t last long, and in some places by the end of the day they again set about trying to kill each other.

The higher-ups in the military on both sides found out about it and issued orders to make sure it didn’t happen again. Why? Because it’s harder to kill the enemy if you see them as human beings rather than as the enemy.

In the First Century the Jewish people had a similar view of what the messiah would be like. They were waiting and wanting for the messiah to show up and have great military power, to be able to call on the angels of heaven to militarily defeat the occupying Roman forces, kicking them out of the holy land and restoring Jewish leaders to their rightful place.

But it didn’t happen that way. The messiah didn’t come on a large horse with a drawn sword, but as we read in the gospel of Luke Jesus comes to earth in a small livestock stable, in a small town, to a young couple, neither of which was very high up the social or political ladder, but who not only trusted God but were both willing to be obedient to God. Through this one event everything changes, because God comes to earth and dwells among us.

Instead of great military might, the messiah brought something to the world much more powerful: love.

As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, Love divine.”

Christmas is about love. And to quote another song, this one from 1965, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.”

It has been a difficult year on this planet, to understate the obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected not only our country, but the entire world. It has had an impact financially, politically, medically, emotionally, and in many other ways. It has even had an impact on how we worship as Christians.

And yet, into this darkness and fear of the unknown comes the 25th of December, tomorrow. Christmas, the day our savior, Jesus Christ, was born. It is such an important day that we even tell time by it, using the abbreviation AD, from the Latin anno Domini, to mark the years since the birth of Jesus 2,020 years ago.

In the Northern Hemisphere the days of shortening daylight have turned around as the daylight hours get a little longer each day. This year we have even had a “conjunction” of the planets Saturn and Jupiter now as they appear to be so close to each other that they appear as a double star, and which, because of its timing, has been dubbed, “The Christmas Star.”

Light shines out in the darkness. And this year as we celebrate Christmas may our spiritual lights shine out in the darkness.

Here in just a few minutes we will observe a Christmas Eve tradition by lighting candles as we sing “Silent Night.” Our technical crew will dim the lights and this sanctuary will be filled with the light rays of hundreds of candles reflecting throughout the room. It’s one of my favorite experiences of being a pastor as I have the best seat in the house, being able to see your beautiful faces illuminated by the candlelight as we worship our Lord. Each year I want to take photos of it because it is so beautiful, but each year I don’t because it is a holy moment, one of those encounters with the almighty in which I just want to be present and experience with all my senses.

It is important for us to remember that as Christians we are called to be the light in our world. In the 5th chapter of Matthew Jesus himself tells us, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

The baby that was born on the cold winter night 2,020 years ago grows up and tells us that we are to be the light of the world. And then he willingly goes to the cross to take our place and pay the price we can never pay ourselves. His death and resurrection give us forgiveness of our sins and eternal life, the best gifts ever. Bethlehem leads to Calvary.

So my challenge to you this year is to be the light of Christ in our world. Yes, our worlds may be turned upside down and uncertainty about the future may weigh heavy on our minds, but our faith in Christ can give us the boldness to face the future unafraid, knowing that whatever happens in this world we are not alone.

Jesus Christ is born. Emmanuel. God is with us! Praise be to God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You

“Annunciation,” Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1472–1475

Advent 2020: The Lord Is With You
A Message on Luke 1:26-28
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 13, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Luke 1:26-28 (NRSV)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

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Today we continue our Advent journey, preparing our hearts and souls for the birth of the Christ child, by looking at Luke’s gospel and the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s known as “The Annunciation.”

Now usually when angels show up the first thing they say is “Do not be afraid.” And I think the reason they say this is because it’s scary as all get out! But Gabriel doesn’t say that to Mary. Instead he says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

“The Lord is with you.” This is one of those verses that really doesn’t vary much between translations. Even the King James version says, “The Lord is with thee.”

What an interesting thing to say. What does it mean?

One way to look at it is that since Gabriel is an angel, and therefore a representative of God, that she is in the presence of God. But I don’t think that’s it. I think if that had been the case Gabriel would have said, “God is present,” “I represent God,” or even “God says hi,” or something like that.

“The Lord is with you.”

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is venerated much more than we do in our Protestant tradition. They even have a belief in the “immaculate conception,” which refers not to Jesus, but to the conception of Mary. This results in a belief that Mary was without sin when she conceived Jesus.

As United Methodists, we don’t believe that. We believe that Mary was a virgin and conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, but other than that she is just human like all of us. We believe that Mary is a good example of God using ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

“The Lord is with you.”

As you know when we begin our service, one of the first things I say is, “The Lord be with you.” And you reply, “And also with you.” This is an ancient greeting and is not done by accident. By proclaiming these words we acknowledge that God is indeed in our presence, that God is not some far-away deity but living and present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There are even some pretty humorous memes out there about Star Wars, that when one of the characters says, “The force be with you,” that United Methodists will respond with, “And also with you.”

For Mary, up north in Nazareth, hearing Gabriel say, “The Lord is with you,” would have been one of those knee-buckling, heart-pounding, take-your-breath-away moments. It would have been one of those throw-yourself-face-down-on-the-floor moments, an encounter with the holy, an experience with the supernatural that could not be explained by science or the laws of nature.

For our first reading today we read from the Gospel of Matthew where Joseph, Mary’s fiance, also has a supernatural encounter. Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:20b-23

“The Lord is with you.” “God is with us.” Hmmmmm

You know this year, 2020, has been a challenging year, hasn’t it? So many things changed. Our regular routines were turned upside down and shaken real hard. Our lives are still being shaken.

Pam and I certainly experienced that a few weeks ago when we, along with Emily, Sarah, and Scott, all came down with COVID-19. We don’t know where we got it, but boy, we did. And it was rough, especially on Pam and me. We never got so bad that we had to go to the hospital, but it was still very debilitating.

We were in College Station with the girls and Scott when we came down with it, and then Pam I drove back home to Jacksonville. And there we stayed. We were so blessed to have so many people offering help, which we took advantage of, and had things dropped off on our front porch. But we never left the house. We quarantined, just the two of us, at the parsonage for a couple of weeks.

Having COVID is bad, but it is much better when you’re not alone. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for someone who is by him/herself.

As humans we are not made to be alone. Now I know that in the early church and even some today there are sects to seek to live an ascetic lifestyle as a spiritual discipline. There were desert monastics who would go way off into the desert to live all alone in caves. People would go to visit them to seek wisdom and learning and would bring them food, or they would have starved to death.

And while I acknowledge the self determination for a person to be able to do that, I think the Bible calls us not to live alone but in community not only of believers, but also among those who don’t believe.

If you think about it, the most serious punishment we inflict on criminals in our justice system, short of lethal injection, is solitary confinement. The worst punishment short of death that we can give a prisoner is to lock them up by themselves. We remove their ability to interact and live in community with others and lock themselves up all alone.

Being alone makes it difficult to have hope for the future. Aloneness has the ability to sap one’s energy and optimism, to beat up one’s courage and self confidence to face the future unafraid.

We have seen this during this pandemic. While Pam and I were both sick, we still had each other. I really feel for those who are alone and fighting COVID-19. It has to be much, much more difficult.

As Christians we are called to remember that no matter what we are going through, even if we are by ourselves, we are not alone. The Lord is with us. God is with us.

Let me tell you of one example that I became aware of just yesterday. Debbie Mastin passed away yesterday morning after a heroic battle against cancer. I drove out to be with Danny to pray with him and read some scriptures.

While we were waiting for the funeral home people to arrive Danny started telling me about cards and notes that Debbie would receive in the mail from one of our young Mini-Methodist kids, Stevie Rae Gresham.

Stevie Rae is one of our regular Mini Methodist kids, and she is awesome. She is smart, talented, and a great soccer player. One of the “options” classes she attends at Mini-Methodists is “Tending the Flock.” Sarah Hugghins leads this class and the idea is for the young kids to connect with church members who may be shut-ins or in assisted living or nursing homes. The kids will create and write cards and notes during this class that we then mail to the people.

Danny was telling me of one particular card that Stevie Rae had made and sent Debbie a few weeks ago. It was a homemade card , and on the card Stevie Rae had written something like, “Remember, God will never __ you.” And in the blank space she had glued a leaf from an oak tree. In other words, the message was “Remember, God will never ‘leaf’ you.”

Danny said that Debbie really enjoyed that card, not just because of the visual pun, but because a young person who she may have never even met in person took the time to create a card and mail it to her. Debbie knew she was not alone. The Lord was with her and spoke to her through a homemade card.

During this Advent season it’s important for us to remember that the Lord is with us. Sometimes we may not feel his presence, but the Lord is there.

For the people in the First Century it was probably hard to think of the Lord being with them. They were under the military rule of the Romans who were brutal in their treatment of anyone who got out of line. And while they had the temple and were able to worship there, the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Saducees, demanded strict adherence to the 600-plus religious laws on the books.

They had heard about the prophets who had talked about a Messiah, someone who would come and save God’s people, but many false prophets had shown up, claiming to be the messiah, only to not be able to walk the walk that they had talked.

And then God puts on flesh and comes to earth, but it’s not in the way they had imagined it. Jesus comes to earth by being born to a young woman who wasn’t even married, and in a stable, a place for livestock. And the baby was born in a small, little town, not a big city like Jerusalem.

What a strange way to save the world.

The late Rich Mullins wrote a song titled, “Surely God is With Us.” Some of the lyrics are:

Well who’s that man who thinks He’s a prophet?
Well I wonder if He’s got something up His sleeve
Where’s He from? Who is His daddy?
There’s rumors He even thinks Himself a king

Of a kingdom of paupers
Simpletons and rogues
The [prostitutes] all seem to love Him
And the drunks propose a toast

And they say “Surely God is with us.
Well surely God is with us.”
They say “Surely God is with us today!”

The Lord is with us. God is with us. We know this and are able to claim this because the Holy Scriptures tell us the gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ. He comes as a baby, lives among us in flesh, grows older and teaches and performs miracles that pass beyond scientific knowledge not only of that age but of our own as well. He not only teaches us how to live, but gives us examples by the way he lives his life.

And he goes to the cross as one who is sinless, taking the place of every human who is sinful. His death does something we cannot do by ourselves: reconcile ourselves to God. His outstretched arms bridge the gap between God and humans, offering us God’s grace that goes beyond understanding and which offers us eternal life and victory over death.

And it starts with Mary and Joseph, living in Nazareth, obediently following God’s will.

So my challenge for you this week is to remember that the Lord is with you. God is with us. In the midst of the tinsel and presents and food let us seek to remember the reason for the season. God comes to us on Christmas Day as a newborn baby, gentle and meek, the son of God and the son of man.

Surely God is with us, surely God is with us today!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Don’t Worry: Thankfulness

Don’t Worry: Thankfulness
A Message on Colossians 3:12-17
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 22, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Back in September of 1620, 102 people walked aboard a wooden ship called the Mayflower in Plymouth, England and set sail for what was for them a new land. About half of them were what we now call Pilgrims: people seeking a place where they could worship God as they chose instead of having to conform to a national religion. After 66 days (that’s more than two months, folks!), the ship arrived and dropped anchor at Cape Cod, way north of their intended location of the Hudson River. (I guess their GPS wasn’t working right.)

After a month at anchor there, they set sail and crossed Massachusetts Bay before landing and setting about establishing a village that they named Plymouth.

Sailing was a tough adventure back then. It was brutal. Only about half of the people who boarded the ship lived to see the spring of 1621. During that first winter most of the survivors lived on the ship, where they suffered from cold, disease, and limited food.

In March of 1621 those that survived moved ashore where they were greeted by Native Americans. These native Americans helped the English out by showing them how to plant corn, hunt animals, catch fish in the rivers, harvest sap from Maple trees, and how to identify the edible plants from the poisonous ones.

That summer the crops grew and in November, when the corn was harvested, Governor William Bradford ordered a celebratory feast be held. The feast, which included the Native Americans who had helped out the colonists, lasted for three days. This was the original thanksgiving. [Source: https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving]

I think there is somewhat of a parallel of Thanksgiving this year with the original thanksgiving. It hasn’t been a very good year in most respects, has it? We have a new disease that is not only disrupting our “normal” lives, but it is deadly and is killing people we know and people we love. And instead of things getting better and COVID-19 going away, it has become worse, rearing its ugly pandemic head yet again.

But just like the Pilgrims, we have reason to rejoice even in this difficult year.

We still have the freedom to gather and worship God the way we choose to instead of being forced to observe a government-mandated religion.

Hopefully none of us are suffering from malnutrition (I doubt any of us have scurvy, for example), and even in the midst of a word-wide pandemic we have safe, nutritious food to eat.

We have houses to live in to protect us from the elements, with heating and cooling to keep us cool or warm, depending on the weather. Those houses have beds to sleep in, running water, sanitation, lights, and other conveniences that have become so commonplace that we take them for granted.

There are so many things to be thankful for.

When we read the Bible we find out that a spirit of thankfulness goes back thousands of years before 1621.

Here are some example just from the Psalms:

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High. Psalm 7:17

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. Psalm 9:1

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. Psalm 100:4-5

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 106:1

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Psalm 107:21

And, of course, our first reading today: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever; Psalm 136:1-3

We find it throughout the New Testament as well. Here are some examples:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

And also the scripture we read today from Colossians, especially verses 15-17: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Within those three verses we find three references to gratitude or giving thanks, including a three word sentence: “And be thankful.”

As humans I think it is part of our human nature to focus on the negative and in doing so disregard the things we should be thankful for. We find this in what we call news. It’s not the cars that drive to Tyler and back each day safely that we find fascination with, it’s the ones who wreck and pique our interest. It’s even created a term for the cars traveling in the opposite direction of the wreck but who slow down to look at the carnage. That term is “rubbernecking.” You really see it in populated areas.

But as Christians I think we need to consciously focus on the good, on the things we should be thankful for. And I think that we need to do that every day.

This past Friday I drove to my hometown of Cooper, TX and to the United Methodist Church that I grew up in. I was asked to bring the funeral message for one of my high school English teachers, Mrs. Sandra Watkins. She died on Nov. 15 at the age of 77 from COVID-19, one day after her sister’s funeral.

Mrs. Watkins had a big influence on me when I had her for English my sophomore year in high school. I was a short, skinny, dorky kid when I was a sophomore. I wasn’t athletic nor was I overly smart academically. I was also very socially awkward.

Mrs. Watkins told me I had a talent for writing. She encouraged me and gave me confidence to write. Her words and encouragement later led to me earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in journalism and photography with a second major in English composition.

I wasn’t the only one. Her daughter’s Facebook page had so many former students posting that Mrs. Watkins was their favorite teacher, that she was the “cool” teacher, and how she had encouraged and made them feel better about themselves and gave them confidence.

Looking back on things I might have told Mrs. Watkins “thank you,” but I don’t remember any specific instances of doing so. I wish I could remember doing it. It’s not that I am not grateful and thankful, but that I can’t remember telling her specifically, “Thank you.” I regret now not doing so.

We don’t say “thank you” enough, do we? Oh we kind of get in a habit I guess, like if you are eating at a restaurant and the waitstaff refills your drink or delivers your food. But in those instances it’s almost like a habitual, automatic response. And it’s a good one, don’t get me wrong. But it’s almost like hearing Elvis say, “Thank ya. Thank ya vury much.” It seems to sort of lack sincerity, doesn’t it?

As Christians we have a lot to be thankful for, and we should make it a point to offer sincere, heartfelt thanks to God multiple times every day. It should never become rote or lack sincerity.

Our thanks and gratitude should result as our response for the grace God has given us. This grace, the offer of his son Jesus Christ, who went to the cross even though he was without sin, is not something we are capable of earning. We are sinful and cannot be made righteous by our own actions. The sinless one, Jesus Christ, went to cross and was crucified in our place, and in doing so our sins are forgiven and wiped clean and we can obtain righteousness through grace. We are reconciled to God because of God’s overwhelming love for us. We become a resurrection people.

And because we are a resurrection people, our faith gives us not only gratitude but faith and hope as well. We can be confident that no matter what happens in our world that for those of us who believe something better is coming. We can ease our worries and our fears by remembering that we are given a promise by God (and God keeps his promises).

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:53-57

So my challenge to you this week is to be thankful. Be truly thankful for all the blessings we enjoy, and most especially be thankful to God for his son Jesus Christ. And let us express this thanks not only at Thanksgiving, but several times each day, regardless of the circumstances.

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Don’t Worry: Faith

Don’t Worry: Faith
A Message on Hebrews 11:1-3
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 15, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

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There is a story about a man walking along a ridge line on a mountain. He loses his footing and slides off the side of a steep cliff. As he is falling down there is a tree branch sticking out that he grabs onto, hanging in mid-air. As he looks down at the several-hundred-foot-fall he knows he has no chance of surviving. He starts yelling. “Help! Help! Someone help me!”

No answer. He had been hiking alone and hadn’t seen another human being for several hours, so the odds weren’t good that someone would hear him. Still, he yells for help. “Help! Help! Please help me!”

Suddenly he hears a loud voice and knows it is the voice of God. The voice said, “I am here and I will help you. Do you have faith in me?”

The man answers back, “Yes! Yes I have faith in you!”

The voice responds, “Then let go and I will catch you.”

“Say what?” the man says, thinking he had misheard.

“Let go of the tree and I will catch you and keep you from harm.”

The man thinks about it for a while, then yells, “Is there anyone else up there that can help me?”

While humorous, (at least I hope it was humorous…) this story does a good job of illustrating what faith is and how difficult it can be to actually live out one’s faith, to trust God and let go of the things we hold so tightly.

In the scripture we read today from Hebrews, we find the author giving us a definition of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

It’s interesting that if you compare translations you’ll find several words that are used where the NRSV uses “assurance” and “conviction,”

Here are some of the other words other translations use instead of those:

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (NIV)

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV)

“Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.” (NLT)

“What is faith? It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead.” (The Living Bible)

“Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” (CEB)

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.” (The Message)

I am always amazed when I read all those different translations because while there is some duplication there isn’t nearly as much as we see in other verses. And yet all of these I think can give us a better understanding of what the author is saying.

The New Testament was written in Greek, and if we look up the word for “faith” we find that the Greek word pistis is used. This word comes from the Greek god of good faith, trust, and reliability. (Those Greeks… they had so many gods!)

We really don’t know for sure who wrote the book of Hebrews. At first it was attributed to the Apostle Paul but since about the third century this has been disputed. The general agreement now is that it wasn’t Paul but we don’t know who it actually was.

Whoever wrote it was quite the Jewish scholar as much of the book seeks to prove how Jesus is the messiah and how Jesus fulfilled the Jewish prophecies about the messiah.

Here in the 11th chapter we read the beginning of it where the author talks about the importance of faith. But he doesn’t stop there. For the rest of the chapter the author gives examples from the Hebrew scriptures of people who believed in something they couldn’t see, people who exhibited faith. And he points out that these people of faith had righteousness because of their faith.

He starts way back in Genesis with Abel, who offered a more acceptable sacrifice than his brother Cain, who got jealous and killed him because of it.

Then he mentions Enoch, the father of Methuselah. Enoch, if you remember, didn’t die on earth. In Genesis 5:24 we read, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.”

Then he mentions Noah, whose faith that there was going to be a flood was greater than the humiliation of his neighbors who made fun of him for building a big ol’ ship.

He then mentions Abraham, whose faith was so strong that he was willing to sacrifice the son he and Sarah had so longed for, Isaac.

Then he mentions Moses and how Moses had enough faith to go before Pharaoh, putting his own life at risk, and asking Pharaoh to let his people go.

He mentions Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho, who helped the Hebrew spies and in return was saved, both her and her family, when “the walls came a tumblin’ down.”

Then he lists other names of faith heroes: “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Hebrews 11:32-34

So why did the author of Hebrews go to all this trouble to mention all these people? It’s because all of these people, these great heroes of the Bible, were just normal people but people who experienced faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” They didn’t know the outcome of things before they made decisions, they stepped out on faith and put their belief in God that things would turn out alright.

Today we are living in a time where we have the perfect opportunity to develop and practice our faith. This is a great time to illustrate “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I’m talking about the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. We hope for and pray for an end to the pandemic, but we don’t know when it will end. It’s something we can’t see, something we can’t reliably predict even using all the modern science and technology and super computers. We simply don’t know.

Now we can respond by wringing our hands and worrying about it and giving ourselves ulcers from the stress. We can live paralized by fear and anxiety. We can do that. Or…

Or we can trust in God, have faith, and live our lives with the “confidence of things unseen” that God is in charge. We can be okay with not knowing how or when the pandemic will end because we put our trust in God, in our risen savior Jesus Christ. Through our faith we can claim the promise made in Romans 8 “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

One of my youngest daughter’s heroes is Dolly Parton. She loves her music and can sing every one of Dolly’s songs. Even at the age of 74 years old Dolly is still creating music and has even ventured into the Contemporary Christian Music genre, singing “God Only Knows” with For King and Country and an extremely beautiful duet “There Was Jesus” with Zach Williams. (Both have great videos, too. Check them out!)

I found a transcript from years ago when Dolly was a guest on Larry King Live and he asked her about her faith. This was her response:

“I grew up in a very religious background. But I trust God for everything. I don’t do a thing without praying. I trust God, I love God, and I love the thoughts of it. Even if there was no God, I’d prefer to believe it, because I prefer to believe in something greater than we are. It takes all of the pressure off of you. You don’t have a bunch of ego problems. But I do believe in God, and I really gain strength from that in everything I do.” [Source: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0307/03/lkl.00.html]

Now Dolly would be the first to tell you that she is not perfect and I don’t want to lift her up as if she is, but I do believe her faith keeps her grounded, keeps her humble, and helps her focus on what’s really important, like the fact she’s been married to the same man for 54 years in an industry where that is extremely rare.

So what if we as Christians lived out our faith with boldness, putting our trust in God and depending on him to know the future when we can’t. What if we had “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”?

We could change the world. Seriously. We would change the world. I’ve said many times that God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. Faith is an integral part of that.

Years ago back in early 2004 I was really struggling with going into the ministry. I had prayed, read the books and met with pastors and even met with a mentor pastor once a week for about eight months. I had done everything the United Methodist Church required and even suggested for a person considering a call to ministry. I knew that I felt a call to go into the ministry, but there was so much that was unknown.

Would we be able to sell our house that we had poured ourselves into and loved? Would we be able to survive financially if I went to seminary? And how would I pay for seminary? At the time it was $636 per semester hour, and a Master of Divinity degree required something like 84 hours. Our daughters would be uprooted from their friends in Kilgore and would be attending different schools in different communities that we wouldn’t even be choosing but that I would be appointed to. We had so many questions and few, if any, answers.

I even sat down and did the ol’ method of listing “pros and cons” on a sheet of paper, and I can tell you the “cons” outnumbered the “pros.” I can remember Pam and I sitting at our dining room table one evening talking about and trying to decide whether we should go into the ministry or not. What was the right thing to do, the thing that God wanted us to do? How could we be sure we were doing the right thing?

As we were talking about it the doorbell rang and it was Garry Mount, a friend of ours from church who had sponsored me on my Walk to Emmaus a couple of years before. Garry is one of the most humble yet faithful servants of Christ I have ever met, even to this day. He said he was looking at some CDs at a store and just really felt compelled to buy this one CD and give it to me. So he stepped out on faith, bought the CD, and was delivering it to me personally.

It was a CD by Casting Crowns, their self titled one that had come out a few months before. I put the CD on and started listening to it. “Voice of Truth” was the third song. Here are the lyrics at the beginning of that song:

Oh what I would do to have
The kind of faith it takes
To climb out of this boat I’m in
Onto the crashing waves
To step out of my comfort zone
Into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is
And He’s holding out His hand

But the waves are calling out my name
And they laugh at me
Reminding me of all the times
I’ve tried before and failed
The waves they keep on telling me
Time and time again. “Boy, you’ll never win!”
“You’ll never win!”

The Chorus is:
But the voice of truth tells me a different story
The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”
The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

I decided then, after hearing that song, that I would pursue the ministry. I didn’t know if I had enough faith to do it, but I decided to do it anyway.

Faith is stepping out of the boat when the waves are high and we’re not sure whether we will sink or not. Faith is not worrying but trusting in God. Faith is not knowing the outcome, but trusting that God will provide a way.

It wasn’t easy. I drove from Carthage to Dallas each week to take classes and spent the week in a “commuter” dorm room, a two room dorm room that I shared with three other guys. I saw my roommates more than my family. Pam and I went through our savings and the equity from the sale of our home. My income as a student pastor was so low that our kids qualified for free lunches at their school. I saw and heard things taught at seminary that were so bizarre that they were, in my opinion, not only wrong but bordering on–or even crossing into–heretical.

We did that for four years, plus another year as an internship where I didn’t have to drive back and forth but still had to read books and write tons of papers. (And pay tuition, of course.) But we did it, and I graduated and then a year later was ordained as an elder in the Texas Annual Conference.

I tell you this not to lift myself up but to tell you that if little ol’ me, an ol’ country boy from Delta County, can go through all that to become a United Methodist pastor, you can have the faith to do whatever it is that God is calling you to do. And God is calling you to do something, rest assured. The term “passive Christian” is an oxymoron. God calls each of us to step out in faith and do something for his kingdom.

So my challenge to you this week is to have faith. Whenever you find yourself worrying, turn that worry into a prayer and depend upon faith. Lean upon that faith in trying times such as now. Know that God is in control and that while earthly things may disappoint us and let us down that God is forever faithful and his love never ends.

No matter how steep your mountain looks, God, through faith, will help you climb it. We have to trust God and let go of the tree branch when he tells us to. We have to live boldly as a resurrection people, knowing that no matter what happens in this world, something better is coming, something so great that it is beyond our ability to comprehend. Something so great has been promised to us not because of anything we have or can do, but simply as a gift of grace from the one who loves us. Jesus’ death and resurrection have paid the price for us, and it is by faith that we accept that grace.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Don’t Worry: Planting Seeds

Don’t Worry: Planting Seeds
A Message on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 8, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 (NRSV)

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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I was at a preacher’s meeting this past week with other pastors in our area discussing the challenges we face as United Methodist pastors during these unusual times. One pastor, whose identity will not be disclosed in order to protect the innocent, talked about walking into a parishioner’s home and seeing a small, strange looking, box-like contraption sitting on a small table in their living room.

Curious, he asked the parishioner what it was, thinking it might be some form of an Echo or Alexa or one of those voice activated devices. It wasn’t. It was a Joel Osteen Inspiration Cube. Seriously. I’m not making this up. A Joel Osteen Inspiration Cube.

Here’s a photo of it. See, it even has his name, “Joel,” across the top of it.According to the Joel Osteen website, “The portable Inspiration Cube gives you over 400 encouraging audio messages, personally selected by Pastor Joel! This audio device doubles as a Bluetooth speaker with high-quality sound and optional headphone port.” It goes on to say “Our thanks for a gift of any size.”

But wait, there’s more! For a gift of only $150 or more you get a gift package that includes not only the inspiration cube but also a “blessed serving board plus custom greeting cards of hope.”

Now let me be clear that I’m not a Joel Osteen hater. I have some serious disagreements with him both theological and otherwise, but I give him a tip of the hat for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through his ministries. But really?

The reason this came up in the discussion among us United Methodist pastors was that during this pandemic we are finding it very challenging to keep our church members who have to restrict their out-of-home activities connected to the church. The in-person pastoral care methods we have practiced for years, the personal visits to homes, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living centers, are no longer possible because of the coronavirus. Those places where we could meet with a person, hold a person’s hand, kneel beside them and pray for them, or just simply be present with them, are for the most part not possible now.

Instead we are wearing out our cell phones with phone calls and text messages, frustrated because we know that God’s message of hope and courage isn’t communicated as well this way. It’s kind of like being a chef trying to work without cooking utensils and having to serve Lunchables instead.

And while not necessarily a competition, my colleague finding a Joel Osteen inspiration cube in one of his parishioner’s homes does point out the fact that people are drawn to personalities in ministry just like in other areas of life. And if we are not careful, we begin to worship those personalities instead of Jesus Christ.

In the scripture we read today from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, a city which still exists today in south-central Greece, we find that the early church had challenges with leader personalities back 2,000+ years ago.

As humans we are competitive. We see this even in little kids as they compete over little things such as being at the front of a line.

Back in the ancient Middle East the early Christians were competitive as well. Quarrels and arguing broke out among followers of Jesus Christ over which apostle was the best to follow.

Word of this had gotten back to Paul, who, ironically, was one of those that peoples were following. And this greatly disturbed Paul. Paul’s preaching, Paul’s theology, Paul’s life all were focused on one thing: Jesus. Paul never intended to be a “rock star” apostle with a group of fans following him.

Now I think it’s important to remember the religious environment of the area at the time. In the first century the city was at the crossroads of trade routes, and while the city had Greek origins it was under Roman occupation and control. Just as the city had different cultures it was also composed of different religions.

Both Greek and Roman religions worshipped multiple Gods. If any of you were forced to study Greek Mythology in school (I always wondered why it was okay to study Greek religion in school but not the Christian religion, but I digress…) you’ll remember that the Greeks had a god for pretty much everything. The Romans were polytheists as well, not only believing in multiple Gods but believing and worshipping the Emperor and his family as gods as well, creating what is known as a“cult of personality.”

So the concept of worshipping multiple gods and even religious or civic leaders as demi-gods or even full fledged gods was pretty common at the time.

In the 14th chapter of Acts we find Paul and Barnabas traveling to Lystra, which is located in modern-day Turkey. While there they are sharing the Good News when they come across a man who had been crippled from birth. The man had never walked. Paul perceived that the man had the faith to be healed, so he told him to get up and walk, and he did. People were amazed at the miracle and, as a result, said that the gods had come to earth and began to worship Paul and Barnabas.

They were claiming that Paul was Hermes, the god of language (among other things), and that Barnabas was Zeus, the ruler of all the gods on Mount Olympus. The people started bringing gifts to these two “gods” including oxen and garlands of greenery and flowers (“Bring me a shrubbery!”) and wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas.

Paul and Barnabas were horrified. They tore their clothes and said to the people, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”

The scriptures go on to say, “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” But then the Jews showed up, the people who opposed those who followed Jesus Christ, and with their smooth talking won people over to their view that Jesus was not the messiah and that Paul was bad, and so they stoned Paul and left him for dead. They went from worshipping Paul to trying to kill him. Go figure. People are fickle, huh?

So Paul is experienced with people who claim to be followers of Jesus while also finding theological rabbit holes to go down that lead away from Jesus.

Paul says that the only thing anyone should focus on is Jesus. To emphasize this point Paul utilizes a metaphor: planting seeds.

Paul points out that it isn’t important who plants the seeds. It isn’t important who waters the seeds. The person that plants and the person that waters, if they focus only on what they are doing, will miss the truly wonderful and miraculous thing: the growth comes from God.

It is about humbleness.

I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating: I have never met a farmer who is an atheist. I grew up in an agricultural area and even worked as a farm hand. Every year these farmers took great gambles with their ability to provide financially for their family. Drought, pests, and disease were always threats, and in those few years when they experienced a bumper crop they often found the price for their harvest to be lower as a result.

Yet in spite of those factors I didn’t know a single farmer (or rancher, for that matter) who didn’t have a strong faith in God. They may not share that faith publicly, but I could see it in their actions. They knew that they may have prepared the soil, planted the seed, cultivated the crops, worked at controlling the pests and the weeds, and fertilized the soil, but they never forgot that it was God who gave the growth.

Spiritually speaking I think it is important that we as Christians remember this as well. We are called to cultivate our spiritual lives by practicing spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible reading, meditation, worship, service to others, and even fasting. There are things that we are to do.

We are called to plant seeds as well. We are called to share the Good News with others. We do this by how we interact with others. Our words are important, to be sure, but we tend to forget that our actions, the way we actually live our lives, speak louder than our words.

You can practice all the spiritual disciplines regularly, but if you then go out to eat at a restaurant and treat the waitress or waiter rudely and leave a miserly tip, then your actions are speaking louder than your words. You are planting weeds instead of good seed.

(By the way: wait staff at restaurants will tell you that the shift they dislike working the most is the one that encompasses Sunday noon. So many of the people they wait on, people who have been to church to worship God and proclaim they are followers of Jesus Christ, are the pickiest, rudest, and poorest tippers. That’s not acting like Jesus, folks.)

We are called to plant. We are called to water. But we are always to remember that it is not us, but God who gives the growth.

Knowing and regularly remembering this gives us hope in times like now that are full of anxiety. There still may be some uncertainty and anxiety in who our next president will be, but we can find comfort that God is still on the throne that really matters. Our hope doesn’t rest in government or human constructs, but in our savior Jesus Christ.

The rise in COVID-19 cases and knowing those close to us (and maybe it is even us) who are battling the disease, or even those who have lost loved ones to the disease, can cause us to have fear and anxiety. But we can be comforted by knowing that “the ‘Rona” doesn’t win because Jesus Christ won the ultimate victory by shedding his blood and rising from the dead 2,000 years ago.

Social unrest. Economic uncertainty. Job security. Personal finances. Relationships. All of these things that we tend to worry about, that we tend to fear and agonize over, that take our time and our energy and sometimes even our physical health. In all of these we can find comfort and peace in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Savior.

We don’t tackle our troubles alone. Now don’t get me wrong. We are called to work on these things. We are to fight for justice (true justice, not a political ideology of justice), we are called to be good stewards with the gifts God has given us, we are called to support God’s church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But we are not alone in doing these things.

Let us remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We are not followers of Christ who become passive observers. No. We are to work, but we are to always remember that the growth comes from God, not ourselves. We don’t do it on our own.

So my challenge to you this week is to be like the Apostle Paul, a servant of God planting seeds of faith but always knowing that God provides the growth. May all we say, everything we do, point to Jesus. May we bear his yoke not for our own recognition, but to point others to Jesus Christ.

If you ask me, that’s much better than a Joel Olsteen inspiration cube.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.