The Heart of the Matter

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve had this strange sensation in my neck.  To me, it feels like my pulse is a bit off of rhythm, like occasionally it skips a few beats, or does a few too many in a row.  It isn’t a constant thing, and it was pretty random until Thursday.  On Thursday afternoon, this thing, whatever it was, happened multiple times all afternoon long.  It doesn’t hurt, but it was kind of freaking me out so I got in to my doctor later that day.

They took my blood pressure, we did an EKG, and ran some blood tests.  Everything came back perfectly normal and my physician isn’t concerned… aside that I need to exercise more.  

While on the one hand, I’m comforted by the knowledge of what it isn’t, I also don’t necessarily have an answer either.  I found myself yesterday second guessing the way I even described the problem.  Maybe it’s not my pulse I’m feeling, but a twitch in my neck.  Maybe it’s all in my head and I’ve just had too much caffeine.


As we enter this season of Lent, we are going to be exploring some of the ways that both the United Methodist Church and our congregation have found ourselves searching for explanations and diagnosis.  And we are going to be honest about some of the symptoms that we see, the realities of our lives together. 

In the larger denomination, we are in the midst of a time of disunity that really reflects the culture we find ourselves in.  And the UMC is also numerically declining… we have lost a million members since 2006!  But simply looking at those symptoms, like the strange feeling in my neck, doesn’t automatically tell us what the problem is.  Is it that our older generations are dying out?  Are we having less children?  Is there too much competition?  Are we irrelevant?  Theologians and church leaders keep offering their explanations and no one seems to be able to put their finger on “the answer” to the problem.


Bishop Thomas Bickerton wrote the book that is the backbone of not only our worship series this Lent, but also our life group conversations we’ll be having.  (Quick plug: if you haven’t signed up for one yet, you can join this morning’s classes at 9:45, go to Java Joes on Monday nights, or join the one here at the church on Wednesday evenings!)   He thinks in many ways that we are like the church in Ephesus who had forgotten who they were called to be. 

Our scripture this morning comes from a letter Paul wrote to this church and at this time, the church was just on fire for God.  They had started as a small group of committed people and when Paul showed up and ministered among them, the Holy Spirit started working.  God did amazing things through them… impacting the entire city.  Temple prostitution, idolatry, magic, all of these things ended because people instead turned to Jesus.  When the Ephesians experienced the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, God accomplished abundantly more than what those first twelve disciples in Ephesus could have asked or imagined!  

Kind of like the United Methodist Church.  We started with a small group of people at Oxford University who wanted to know God better.  They were committed to the gospel and to Jesus and their faith took them across an ocean to start a church.  John and Charles Wesley could never had imagined the way that God would use them, but their little bands started healing the sick, taking care of the poor, preaching to those who would never have set foot inside the church, and before you know it, the UMC was a world-wide denomination!

You would think that kind of energy can be sustained forever, but it takes work.  We can get ourselves in ruts and we forget the power that got us started in the first place.  In the letters to the churches of Revelation, one of them is written to the people of Ephesus and God praises the work and the labor and endurance of the people, but God also says that they have let go of the love they had at first.  They are urged to remember the high point from which they had fallen.

Maybe the United Methodist Church, maybe our church, has let go of the love we had at first.  Maybe, like the Ephesians, we have a spiritual problem.


Bishop Bickerton points to what he calls the “Five I’s” to help us discern a bit about our spiritual reality and where we might be lacking the love of God.   

He notes that the church is a bit low on our INSPIRATION – that we tend to grumble and complain more than we focus on hope.  We need to remember where God is leading us and get excited about it again!   

He sense a lack of INTEGRATION  between what we say and what we do.  I actually have been fairly proud of Immanuel in this sense, because not only are we willing to talk about things that are happening in the world, but so many of you are out there caring for the homeless, visiting the sick, and living your faith.  

Bickerton also points to the dangers of ISOLATION.  Once you disconnect from a community, it is hard to find ways to become part of the group again.  On the back table as you leave, you’ll notice some names and some cards.  We want to reach out to folks whom we haven’t seen for a little while with a phone call or a card… and if you recognize a name out there and are willing to make a connection, take a card and put your name down!

The fourth I is INDEPENENCE.  This world tells us that we have to do it ourselves, but the church reminds us that we are better together.  We don’t have to do it alone because we all can do our part.  

Finally, INVITATON.   This is actually one of the goals of our church today. When we are excited and transformed by the work of God happening here, then we are going to want to pass it on, to reach out and bring people along with us.  


At Immanuel, we have had a vision that has sustained us for the last four or five years.  Say it with me:  In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.

But one thing our leadership has realized is that we are called to not just be and exist and look to our past, but to continue actively working towards our future.  What are we fighting for? also means What are we fighting to accomplish?  What will be different because we have loved, served, and prayed?  What is inspiring us to move forward?  What is going to challenge us in a way that we simply can’t do it alone and need to invite others to join us?  

As our leadership has discerned, we are feeling God pull is in a new direction and we are excited to share it with you over the coming weeks and months.  

But the heart of the matter, the deep question that faces not just us, but the UMC, and the Ephesians, is whether or not we really want to tap in to the power of God.  The love so strong, so wide, so long, so high, so deep, that God is going to do abundantly more than what we believe in our hearts is possible… if we know where we are going.  If we know what we are fighting to accomplish.    

Love… gotta have it!

The Sunday that I traveled up to Cherokee, my nine-year-old cousin Taylor was baptized.

One afternoon, she came home very upset from school.

You see, one of her best friends at school had asked her that day if she had been baptized.

Taylor wasn’t sure, and her little friend responded: If you aren’t baptized, you can’t be a child of God.

When I first heard the story, I remember feeling a flash of horror come over me. Did she really say that? What a terrible and awful thing to say to someone!

And then I started to wonder why exactly that statement was so off-putting to me: If you aren’t baptized, you can’t be a child of God.

Looking deeper, I realized that my understanding of baptism… the Methodist church’s understanding of baptism is very different from the view expressed by that little girl.

You see, in our United Methodist tradition, baptism isn’t a pre-requisite for receiving the love of God… it is a sign, it is a reminder, that we are already loved.

Baptism is acknowledgment of the fact that God’s grace is already active in our lives… it goes before us – before we even know it is there.

Pop quiz time: Who remembers what kind of grace that is? The grace that goes before us?

Prevenient grace – gold star!

As much as that statement about baptism made me quake a little bit – there is also a measure of truth to the statement. In baptism, we do put on Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness, we are adopted in the family so to speak. In our baptism, but also in our confirmation of that faith when we stand before the church and profess what we believe, we are say to God – I accept that you have called me and claimed me. I will live as a child of God with your help.

But what is important to remember is that it all starts with God. And God acts in our lives because we are loved.

Often times, it is hard to see God acting in the world. Sometimes the world is cloudy and dim and life seems bleak. In fact, in our Advent scriptures this morning, we hear words of promise spoken to people who were scared and broken. In the midst of troubled days, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and offered a sign – a young woman is with child and will bear a son… and his name will be Immanuel.

God with us. Emmanuel.

God acted when He spoke His Word and all creation came into being. God with us, Emmanuel.

God acted when He led Abraham to the promised land. God with us, Emmanuel.

God acted when He saved a baby from the Nile river and led His people out of Egypt. God with us, Emmanuel.

God acted when He anointed a young boy named David as King over the people. God with us, Emmanuel.

God acted when He spoke through the prophets and gave them warnings and signs and promises. God with us, Emmanuel.

And then God acted in the life of a peasant girl from Nazareth. God with us, Emmanuel.
Paul saw these mighty acts of God as he looked back upon the faith he received and he proclaimed that it is through Christ – through the prophecies, through his ancestry, through his birth and life and resurrection – that God has come to be with us. Emmanuel.

He knew that it is only through Christ Jesus that hope, peace, joy and love are truly possible. In Christ we receive this generous gift of life, Paul writes, and we have the urgent task of passing it on to others who will receive it.

We have the obligation… the responsibility… right now… to take this hope, peace, joy and love that is taking root in our hearts… God with us… and to share it with everyone we meet.

And what is it that we proclaim?

God is with us… Emmanuel. And just as he did in the past, God goes before us making a new way.

I think a prime example of that during this Advent season is the vision given to Joseph.

Can you imagine what this man must have been feeling? He is engaged to Mary, looking forward to their marriage, and he comes to find out that she is pregnant.

God did it, she tells him.

Yeah…. Right… Of course he did… Our God goes around impregnating people.

But he loved this young woman.

According to the law, her punishment would have been stoning. But he didn’t even consider it. He didn’t want to make a scene, he didn’t want to humiliate her… and he certainly didn’t want to pretend that another man’s child was his.

He made up his mind to break off the engagement quietly. She wasn’t showing yet – people wouldn’t know that she had cheated on him.


And just when he had finally worked up the courage to do it and layed down to get some rest, an angel appeared to him in his dream.
St. Joseph with Christ Child. Michael D. O’Brien


Do not be afraid, the angel said.

Her child was conceived by God, the angel assured him.

God has done this to save his people… remember the prophets? Remember Isaiah? This is the one that you have been waiting for. This is Emmanuel. This is God, come to be with you.

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.

God acted once again. God intervened and spoke words of comfort and peace.

And Joseph woke up, and took Mary as his wife.

I can actually imagine him running out the door in the middle of the night and heading over to her father’s house. I can see him pounding on the door, begging to see her. I can see them rushing over to the nearest rabbi’s house and waking up the whole household in the process…. Can you marry us tonight?

Because you see, when we realize that God is with us. When we realize that Emmanuel has come to dwell in our lives… we are filled with urgency. Urgency to share that good news with others. Urgency to tell the story. Urgency to obey God’s commands. Urgency to spread hope and peace and joy and love to everyone we meet.

When my cousin Taylor came home from school, believing that she wasn’t a child of God, my uncle sprang into action. He called up the pastor and asked what could be done. And there is no better way to remind us of the way that God loves us – the way that God has already acted in our lives – than to touch these cool waters of baptism.

And so, with our whole family there, that weekend, we surrounded Taylor with our love, reminded her of God’s love for her, and she knew that she was a child of God. She knew that God was with her… Emmanuel.

The only question left for us is who needs to hear those words today? Who needs to know that they too are loved? Where is God already moving and waiting for you to act?

Becoming Disciples through: Service

The other night my husband and I had finished dinner and I stood up to clear the table and take away our plates.

As he handed me his dish he said, “you know, you don’t have to wait on me, I can take my own plates to the kitchen.”

And without even thinking about it, I responded, “I know – but I do it because I love you.”

How many of you are familiar with Gary Chapman’s book “The Five Love Languages’?

A long time ago, a friend gave me the book, and I immediately thought about those five languages when I made that statement to my husband.

I try to do little things to help out because that is one of the ways that I most naturally express my love for him. Gary Chapman calls that acts of service.

Service? Hey – we’re talking about service today! And we are exploring specifically how we express our love of God through acts of service.

Curiousity got the better of me, and I took another quick look at how our five membership vows match up with these five love languages Chapman examines in his books.

We started out with prayer as a way of discipleship… and talked about how we should aim to pray more deeply. Using the metaphor of breathing, our prayers should not be shallow quick breaths, but deep, filling breaths in and out. In Chapman’s languages of love, quality time is about focusing all of our energy on another person so that the time we spend with one another is not simply hanging out, but is a deep sharing of who you are. In many ways, our prayers are how we spend quality time with God, focusing our attention on God’s will for our lives, rather than our own wishes and desires.

Then we looked at what it means to be present as an expression of our discipleship. While it isn’t an immediate fit, Chapman lists physical intimacy and touch as one of his love languages. In so many ways, our presence with one another, our physical presence with people who are hurting is an expression of our love not only for them, but also for God. We literally become the hands and feet of God who hold and comfort and who smile and are close to one another. Our Lord and Savior became human and lived among us – touching the sick and the young and the old and the forgotten in order to express the love of God to the world, and we respond by doing the same.

Last week we talked about our gifts. We are not only given amazing and beautiful gifts by God, but in response, we share those gifts for God’s work in the world. Easy tie in to Chapman’s love language of giving and receiving gifts. I think something that we can easily learn from his description of giving gifts is that we are not investing money (or time) in these gifts, but through the gift, we are deepening our relationship with God. People who have shared with me that they tithe regularly often talk about what a joy it is and how it really does bring them closer to God.

I’m definitely going to have to remember this book next time this sermon series comes around, because our fifth vow next week also correlates pretty well to one of Chapman’s five languages – words of affirmation. Now, witnessing to our faith is not quite the same thing as offering encouragement to a loved one – but in both cases, we sing their praises as we share with the world what is great about either our loved one or about God. Next week, we not only will be celebrating Pentecost – the coming of the Spirit that helps us to witness, but we will also be confirming some of our youth – and will be encouraging them in the faith as they witness to what they have learned in this past year.

But for today – it’s all about service.

And not only for Chapman, but also in our life of faith, service is about love.

Attitude is everything when it comes to service – and our call to service is a call to act out of love and not obligation, to act not out of resentment or guilt or fear or even duty – but out of the depths of our hearts.

In every way, Memorial Day, is about honoring the service of men and women throughout our nation’s history who have done just that. They showed their love for friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in such a way that they were willing to give even their lives.

In both of our scriptures today, we are reminded that there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for one another. From our Epistle reading, we are commanded to love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

While accounts may vary, Memorial Day began initially as community celebrations honoring the fallen soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. Their words of equality and love of neighbor were transformed into moral truths and action on behalf of the disenfranchised and they deserved to be honored. But, because initially these acts of memorialization were so closely tied with the fight for emancipation, the Southern states quickly established their own rival “Confederate Memorial Day.”

These community acts of decorating graves were then made official by an order from General John Logan that Memorial Day be on the 30th of May and on the first Memorial Day in 1868, flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery. But in the effort to put the differences of both sides behind us, the recognition that the Civil War had been a moral battle to free black Americans from slavery was lost. It became more of a generic remembrance of all war dead, while at the same time losing the specific passions of truth and justice that characterized its beginnings.

David Blight wrote about this loss in his book “Race and Reunion.” “War commemorations, he makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead.” They should also honor what those men and women died for – the truth and the action that go along with the sacrifice.

I really struggle with talking about national interests in church. Our time of worship should be focused on God and not on our country. We are coming together to worship the one who is Lord over every nation – not just ours. In many ways, when we become Christian we cease to simply be American.

And yet, in many ways, so many of our soldiers have fallen for that reason – to protect and defend and to free the lives of God’s children all over the world from tyrannies of injustice and oppression. They have put their lives on the line not because of duty but because they genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of people across God’s creation.

They choose to serve in that capacity because they believe that it is in the armed forces that they can make the biggest impact.

Do you remember the question that I asked you at the beginning of this sermon series? I shared with you that the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And I asked very pointedly, how many of you thought that was possible. I asked how many of you really felt equipped and empowered by the church to go out and make a difference in the world.

I believe that tomorrow, we should fully honor our fallen brothers and sisters who died because they believed that the world could be different – because they loved other people enough to put their lives on the line.

But today, I believe that we should lament the fact that our church has not shared our story in such a compelling way. I believe that we should lament the fact that we don’t have strong enough convictions in the power of God to change the world. I believe we should lament the fact that we aren’t out there in the world, putting our lives on the line every day in service to others.

Bishop Robert Schnasse has called churches to be fruitful for God’s Kingdom and one of the ways we can do so is through risk-taking mission and service. Just as in our gospel reading from today, we are called and appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, and the root of that fruit is God’s love. Schansse writes that “nothing is more central to faith identity and to the church’s mission than transforming the lives and conditions of people by offering oneself in God’s name. Nearly every page of Scripture shows people serving God by serving others.”

I’m often asked what the difference is between doing community service and serving people through the church. And usually my response has something to do with the fact that God is the reason behind our service when we do it in the church. We have been loved by our Creator and Redeemer and so through God’s power we pour ourselves out to other people.

But as I read a bit more of Schnasse’s book this week, I also realized a big difference comes in the “risk-taking” element. “Risk-taking mission and service takes people into ministries that push them out of their comfort zone, stretching them beyond the circle of relationships and practices that routinely define their faith commitments.” In other words, when God is in charge, we have no idea where we might end up!

This was certainly true for me on my very first international mission trip. I went with youth from my church to Peru and we had this grandiose idea that we could change the world and make a difference! We believed in the power of God to work through us. We definitely had the first part right!

What we never expected was how we ourselves would also be transformed. As we found ourselves in a completely different culture, making friends with people who looked nothing like us, loving people who were unlovable by their society’s standards, we became different people.

Schnasse writes that “the stretch of Christian discipleship is to love those for whom it is not automatic, easy, common or accepted. To love those who do not think like us or live like us, and to express respect, compassion and mercy to those we do not know and who may never be able to repay us – this is the love Christ pulls out of us.”

This is God’s abiding love that gives us the power to respond when we see a brother or sister in need. This is God’s abiding love that gives us the ability to speak truth to power when there are injustices in the world. This is God’s abiding love that leads us to lay down our lives for one another.

Now, the big question is – how do I live this out through the church.

Oftentimes, when I have heard this topic of service mentioned in the church, it comes with one of two demands. 1) we need to get more people to serve on the committees in the church. or 2) we need to get more people involved in mission and outreach.

The truth of the matter is, we need people to serve in all sorts of different places. In order to have people serving on the front lines of God’s Kingdom, we need people serving on the church finance committee who will hold the church accountable for their resources, and we need an administrative board and PPR that will help us to discern and express God’s vision for our church.

But, we also need people who are willing to go wherever God will lead us.

If you are feeling called and led to go and serve God’s children in a malaria ridden village in Africa – and you want to put your whole life into God’s service – we want to support and encourage you and equip you.

If you are feeling called to make sure those who are struggling financially in our community have food on the table every day – and you are willing to put your whole life into God’s service – we want to support and encourage and equip you.

If you are feeling called to listen to the person who disagrees with you across the table in our church office and work together to really make a difference in how we teach our children – and if you are willing to put your whole life into God’s service in that way – then we want to support and encourage and equip you.

The truth of the matter is, if we can’t love and serve the person who sits down the pew from us or across the table in the fellowship hall, then we aren’t ready to be out in the world loving and serving other people. But here is where we practice, here is where we learn. And here is where we are sent out into the world to serve. Amen and Amen.