Look up and see Jesus

This is the group morning devotion I led this morning on our last day of Mountain T.O.P Adults In Ministry. I normally wouldn’t post something like this, but I had a special request. (Hi, Jan Lloyd-Gohl!)

Camp Cumberland Pines, Cumberland Heights, TN
June 29, 2013

Matthew 17 (CEB)
17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The Transfiguration, along with maybe the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is probably the most amazing thing witnessed by the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to the crucifixion.

Peter, upon witnessing the presence of the two legendary figures, immediately went into public relations mode. Hey, he must have thought, this will show everyone! Once they see this, they’ll know that Jesus is the Messiah and have no choice but to appoint him as king and allow him to lead us in revolt against the Romans. Peter, overwhelmed by the experience, offers to put up tabernacles, or shrines, or shelters, depending on who you believe.
But God reminds Peter of what is really important: “This is my beloved son, Jesus. Listen to him.”
Many of you, like me, have been coming to this place, this program, for years. Others are first-timers. It’s a special experience, one we look forward to every year, one we’re constantly talking to our friends and neighbors about. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. I didn’t think I was going to make it to the mountain this year, but God and the full-time staff made it possible for me to be here on short notice, and I was so excited about coming.
But now, we’ve gotten our fishhooks and we’ve loaded up our cars. In a little while, we’ll be headed home.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The purpose of this week has been to fix up houses and to teach workshops. But beyond that, it’s been to love our home repair families and the teenagers with whom we’ve worked. And beyond that, it’s been to look up, and see no one except Jesus. We mustn’t ever become so obsessed with the Mountain T.O.P. experience that we forget to look at Jesus.
On Wednesday night, some of us stopped by and saw the inscription at the lookoff point at Beersheba Springs, where Mountain T.O.P. was born: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” That’s from Psalm 121. Here it is in the Common English Bible:
121I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is your shade right beside you.
6The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.o
8The LORD will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.

“…and they looked up, and saw no one except Jesus.” As wonderful as this experience has been, all that matters is for us to look up and see Jesus. When we’re looking at our slide show, when we’re sorting through our photos or giving a report to our Sunday School class, we’ll talk about our traditions and the friends we’ve made and the worship that made us cry and the fun times we’ve had. We’ll talk about dominoes, and the room that got TPed, appendicitis, and Stone Door, and the woman with the distinctive laugh, and poppy-seed chicken, and putting the “P” in MPT, and fishhooks. That’s a natural way to talk about an experience like this. But let’s never get so excited about putting up a tent for Elijah that we forget about Jesus.
Going forward, we have to continue to have the faith, and the works, that we had this week with Moses, and Elijah, and Michael, and Joey, and Janey, and Brooke, and Alli here on the mountain.
As you leave here, look up – and see no one but Jesus.

From suffering to endurance

First UMC Shelbyville
May 26, 2013

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.

Zach Sobiech, an 18-year-old from Lakeland, Minn., died this past Monday after a four-year battle with bone cancer. I first found out about Zach this week in a 22-minute documentary, called “My Last Days,” that you can see on the Internet. In fact, I strongly recommend that you look it up on the Internet. I also strongly recommend that you have a box of Kleenex handy while you watch it.
Zach Sobiech became an Internet sensation last fall, when a song he wrote as a farewell to his family was posted to YouTube. It got three million hits before his passing and has gotten at least two million since that time. That prompted a web site called Soul Pancake to do a short documentary about this remarkable young man.

What’s so remarkable about Zach Sobiech is his attitude. He wasn’t suicidal – he wasn’t looking forward to dying or being separated from his family and friends – but his attitude was relentlessly positive, life-affirming, dedicated to loving those around him for every last second he had available. He and his family made a decision that he would plan his treatment around quality of life rather than trying to prolong the inevitable, and he spent as much of his time as he could loving those around him and trying to live life with his friends, and his girlfriend, as a normal teenager. Continue reading

Not Fade Away (2013)

Because I got the call to preach at the last minute, I dug through the “sermons and devotionals” folder on my hard drive and found two earlier occasions when I spoke on Palm Sunday. This is basically my 2009 sermon, with a few tweaks and a paragraph lifted from my 2002 sermon.

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
Palm Sunday – March 23, 2013

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,

19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”

19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 2005, I made my second short-term mission trip to Kenya. On my first trip the year before, we’d been working in the Kibera slums right outside Nairobi. But on this trip, we were working in a place called Ndonyo, in southwestern Kenya. It was a six-or-eight-hour drive for our team, which was riding in two weather-beaten vans.
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Sacrifices with shouts of joy

Concord UMC
February 24, 2013

Psalm 27 (NRSV)
27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.

27:3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

27:4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

27:7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

27:10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.

27:11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

27:13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.

27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!


(Concord had special music today, featuring Jonathan and his daughter Corinna Lingle of Trinity UMC, and they were wonderful.)

The first verse of the 27th Psalm is one of the most beautiful in the Bible: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Of whom shall we be afraid? Of what shall we be afraid?
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Normally, I preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and had every intention of doing so this time. People don’t always expect guest speakers to follow the lectionary, but I find it a great discipline, one which forces me to look at the scripture rather than sticking to stories or themes with which I’m comfortable. When I went to look up the week’s passages on the web site, however, I looked at the wrong date — a special mid-week observance rather than what were supposed to be the Sunday passages. By the time I realized my mistake, I’d already started working on the sermon, and — with Rev. Nan Zoller’s permission — I went ahead with it.

Concord UMC
Feb. 3, 2013

Luke 2:22-40 (CEB)

22When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
25A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. 28Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,
29“Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, 30 because my eyes have seen your salvation. 31You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. 32It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
33His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. 34Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”
36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37She was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshiped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.

Our Bible passage begins with Joseph, Mary and Jesus heading to Jerusalem, a trip of about six miles from Bethlehem.

There’s a reference to ritual cleansing – and many Bible versions refer to “their” ritual cleansing. That pronoun is a little bit of an evasion. The first reason for the family to go to Jerusalem was specifically for Mary to be ritually cleansed. Under Jewish law, childbirth made a woman ritually unclean – for 40 days if the child was a boy, and 80 days if the child was a girl. (This was, of course, a very patriarchal society, a society where men had a lot more value than women.) During that time, women couldn’t participate in any religious ceremonies or services.
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The Faith of “Yes”

Concord UMC
October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In today’s Gospel passage, a man asks Jesus about the key to eternal life. The man is enthusiastic; the Bible describes him as running up and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. He calls Jesus “good teacher,” and Jesus immediately corrects him.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. “Only God is good.”
Of course, we understand Jesus to be a part of the divine Trinity, “of one Being with the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed. But Jesus had not fully revealed that aspect yet, and perhaps Jesus sensed, and was trying to explore, that this man was fascinated by teachers. Continue reading

Artificial light

Concord UMC
October 7, 2012

Psalm 8 (CEB)
For the music leader. According to the Gittith. A psalm of David.

LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!
You made your glory higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
you have laid a strong foundation
because of your foes,
in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
4 what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
7 all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
8 the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!

I go to church with a man named Billy Hix. Actually, I go to church with two men whose names sound like “Billy Hix.” Billy H-I-C-K-S is a retired bank president, while Billy H-I-X is a teacher at Motlow State Community College. It’s that second Billy, Billy H-I-X, I want to talk about.
Billy H-I-X teaches computer sciences at Motlow, but his real passion is talking about, and teaching about, space. He’s worked with organizations like NASA and the National Space Foundation to help teachers use space to get kids passionate about science and mathematics. In the era in which both Billy and I grew up, every little boy wanted to be an astronaut. Today, though, more kids need to be given that little nudge into careers in science or mathematics. Experts use the acronym STEM for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the four subject areas that we as a country have to excel at if we’re to remain competitive in an international market.
Billy consults with teachers, and he conducts STEM day camps during the summer at which kids learn about science with hands-on experiments and with field trips to the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Billy has also been a United Methodist lay speaker, and I don’t think he’d mind me repeating something he used once in a program at our church.
It was a unique message; he used various astronomical photos to convey to us the size of God, with Psalm 19:1 as his scripture. Like Psalm 8, our Lectionary passage for this morning, Psalm 19 uses the heavens – the sky – as evidence of God’s majesty. Continue reading

Get off the boat

First United Methodist Church Shelbyville
Galilean Service
Sept. 16, 2012 – Barton Springs Recreation Area, Normandy Reservoir

Matthew 4:18-22 (CEB)

18As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

In Jesus’ day, your life was defined, in large part, by where you lived and what you did for a living. Today, you read these statistics about how the average person changes jobs five times of the course of their life, and many of us have lived in more than one place in our lives. But back then, if you were born into a family of fishermen on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, there was a good chance that you were going to live your entire life as a fisherman on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. And you probably thought that was a good thing, a sign of security and stability.
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Mercy overrules judgment

Goose Pond UMC
September 9, 2012

Today’s Bible reading comes from the Lectionary, and I’m going to read from the Common English Bible, which you may have noticed is now being used in some of the United Methodist Sunday School literature. I’m still getting to know the Common English Bible, but I like it so far – it’s an accurate translation, based on the work of scholars from a number of denominations, but it’s written in a very readable, easy-to-understand manner.
James 2:1-17 (CEB)

1My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? 8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it. 11 The one who said, Don’t commit adultery, also said, Don’t commit murder. So if you don’t commit adultery but do commit murder, you are a lawbreaker.
12 In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. 13 There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

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Stewardship and provision

Ransom UMC
July 29, 2012

John 6:1-21 (Common English Bible)
6 After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberius Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.
5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.
7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.
14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.
16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.

2 Kings 4:42-44 (CEB)
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God some bread from the early produce—twenty loaves of barley bread and fresh grain from his bag. Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat.”
43 His servant said, “How can I feed one hundred men with this?”
Elisha said, “Give it to the people so they can eat! This is what the LORD says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers.’” 44 So the servant gave the food to them. They ate and had leftovers, in agreement with the LORD ’s word.

The London Olympic games began this weekend, and of course they’ve been in the planning stages for many years. There’s a 2009 report you can find on the Internet about food service at the games. The London Olympic organizing committee expects to serve more than 14 million meals at 40 different locations over the course of the Olympics and the Paralympics which follow them.
In the Olympic Village alone, the organizers expect to need 25,000 loaves of bread, 260 tons of potatoes, more than 92 tons of seafood, 35 tons of poultry, more than 112 tons of meat, almost 20,000 gallons of milk, 21 tons of eggs, 24 tons of cheese and more than 370 tons of fruit and vegetables. Continue reading