Archive for August 2011

Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition…

August 15, 2011

I think we all learned from the Paul-Apollos dispute in 1 Corinthians 3, and in many other places in Paul’s letters and from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels that “we are all God’s servants, working together.” And like the Corinthians who were divided, saying, “I belong to Apollos” and “I belong to Paul,” we cannot and should not (especially as United Methodists) say “I belong only to Wesley Memorial,” or “I belong to Suber-Marshall Memorial,” or “I belong to Asbury Memorial” because we are all Christ’s working toward one common purpose–no matter where our church membership resides.

However, that being said there is nothing wrong with a little friendly competition between churches. I’m not talking about sheep stealing, or any other kind of frowned-upon competition that is outside of church etiquette. I’m talking about a competition that unites our churches to support a good cause–and a fun, friendly event that gives bragging rights to the fastest church in Columbia.

Wesley Memorial UMC at 2501 Heyward Street in Columbia challenges your church to our first (and hopefully annual) “Battle of the Churches 5k.” Get together all male, all female, or co-ed teams (at least 2 females on all co-ed teams) from within your churches and come out to race to raise funds and shoes for Following the race there will be live music, lots of free food, games, bouncy houses, door prizes and much, much more. And for all you non-runners come out and cheer on your church–this is one day, one church will have the right to proudly say “I belong to __________ church.” Who will be the fastest church in town?


Heart Check-Up: Matthew 15:10-20

August 14, 2011

I’ve thought about hearts a lot this week. My mom was out of town and one of her members from her church in Hartsville had to come to Providence Hospital for heart surgery, so I visited her and waited with the family as she came out of her surgery. Many of you know I coach Dreher’s cross country team, and Daniel Brooks who was my coach in high school is who I coach with now, and his father-in-law went in for a routine heart check-up just so he could get one of his prescriptions refilled, and to his and everyone’s surprise he was rushed to Richland Heart Hospital for emergency heart surgery. Sadly Eugene McCoy did not make it through his open heart surgery; his family was and still is heartbroken over his untimely and unexpected death. But I also went mall walking with two of our members this week—Margaret Burley and Henry Porcher and some of Henry’s 80 and 90 plus year-old friends—one of whom our church has been praying for because he just got out of the hospital after his third or fourth heart attack. For the first time since his last heart attack he was out walking laps around the mall with us.

A mother I know took her little girl in for her yearly wellness check up this week only to find out that the doctor heard a slight murmur and now the little girl must see a cardiologist. All the kids on the cross country team were getting physicals this week, and a 9th grade boy who has so much potential and who has worked so hard getting in shape this summer went in for a routine physical only to be told he had to stop running until he saw a cardiologist because the doctor heard an abnormal heartbeat. And also this week my youngest sister who is studying in Australia had her heart broken when her boyfriend of five years broke up with her.

So, I’ve done a lot of thinking about hearts this week; it’s amazing all that can happen in one single week. As I sat and waited at Providence hospital I learned that thousands of heart surgeries are done daily across the U.S., and probably more than thousands of hearts are broken each day. I learned that Providence alone did 605 open heart surgeries last year and more than 6000 other kinds of heart surgeries, repairs and operations. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., so I guess it shouldn’t shock me that heart check-ups and surgeries are a pretty regular and routine at doctor’s offices and hospitals. And as for the broken hearts—I think broken hearts are a part of the human experience. It is part of dating, of being young or old and in love and growing up. It is part of being a parent, or a sister, or brother, or family, or even close friends.


As my mom and dad drove out to Texas with my younger sister Macie to help her get moved in, set up and ready to begin her first real adult-world job, my mom was experiencing some heart break. Her nest is truly empty now. My youngest sister is off in Australia studying; her birthday was this week and we no longer have any teenagers in our family. She turned 20 and is and has been very independent, but not having that “teen” attached to your age somehow makes you feel so much more grown-up. My other sister, Macie, is engaged, has moved to Texas and has a big-girl job. I am working and engaged. My older brother and sister have long been on their own, and as of this summer my brother is married and starting life with his new bride in Minneapolis.

Suddenly my mom’s five children don’t need her as much as she wants to be needed, and I think that breaks her heart. I am sure over the last 30 years of having and raising children we have made decisions and said things that have broken both my mom and dad’s hearts. In one of my favorite books called The Undertaking, American poet and writer Thomas Lynch writes that grief or heartbreak is the price we pay for loving. I think for the most part that is true. Much of life is about heartbreak and heart check-ups.

It is funny how God plans and works things out. This is the kind of week that I know that life is more than just a series of random coincidences. Weeks like this make me know that God is truly with us, around us, in this life with us in the here and now. My week has been overwhelmed with hearts, and I have been reading our scripture in Matthew 15 over and over, and what has come out from these verses each time I read them, and what I truly think Jesus is saying is that we all need a heart check-up. I’m not talking about going to the doctor to have him or her listen to your heart with a stethoscope. And I am not talking about open heart surgery or any other kind of heart surgery where a doctor has to go inside you with tubes, tools and tiny cameras.

No, the kind of heart check-up Jesus is talking about doesn’t even look directly at or in the heart; there is no surgery required, no operation, no ultrasounds and no stethoscope needed. Jesus says all we have to do is look at what comes out of our mouths to know what kind of spiritual shape our heart is in. Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles…For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” We don’t have to look any further than our lips to have a spiritual heart check-up.

Last week in our verses from Romans 10 we were encouraged by Paul to confess with our lips that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and Paul talked about how such a confession means that your whole life inside and out is lived wholly for God, but in Matthew 15:8—just two verses before the beginning of our scripture text today—says that it is possible to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far, far removed from God. Or in the Message Jesus says it this way, “These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart aren’t in it. They act like they’re worshiping me, but they don’t mean it. They just use me as a cover for teaching whatever suits their fancy.” Does that sound familiar?

You might be asking yourselves who are “these people;” who are “they” that Jesus talks about? In these verses in Matthew 15 Jesus is talking about the Pharisees. Just before our scripture lesson today the Pharisees approach Jesus and accusingly ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” In the ancient world cleanliness was very important. Maybe you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped a stranger on the side of the road get to a doctor. If you remember that story you remember that first a Jewish priest and a Levite passed the wounded stranger and did not stop to help because they did want to defile their clean hands because they believed if their hands were unclean then they, themselves, were unclean. But Jesus challenges the Pharisees and their outward rituals and traditions—that is why our scripture lesson says the Pharisees were offended. Jesus says that “clean hands by themselves are not enough. Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it makes a very poor substitute. The pure in heart are those who are spiritually pure rather than ritually or ceremonially clean.”[1]

Jesus is recommending these Pharisees have a heart check-up. He calls them hypocrites in Matthew 15:7. How many times have you heard Christians today called hypocrites? I think the number one excuse I hear why people don’t come to church today is that they don’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of hypocrites. There is some truth in that accusation. Sometimes we can be like the Pharisees, and we can get caught up in ritual and tradition, and we too are accused by Jesus of making void the Word of God for the sake of our comfortable traditions. Every now and then we all need to have a heart check-up.

Our heart check-up begins by looking at what we say, not just at what we do. Sometimes as Christians we get so caught up in what we do or don’t do that we don’t examine the things that come out of our mouths; we don’t examine the inconsistencies, or the hypocrisies we live. That old children’s playground adage that goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not true. Words hurt. “Jesus insists that harmful words express evil intentions that lead to harmful deeds.”[1] Words are a public display of our inner world, and words can keep us and others from living as children of God.[2] “Our words come from our hearts and often they head straight for the heart of another.” [3] If the heart is a poisoned, it has great potential to defile.

You have probably heard the tongue called a double-edged sword; the Bible supports this description of the tongue. Proverbs 12:18 says, “Rash words cut and maim, but the words of the wise have the power to heal.” Or Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Verses from James 3 says, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it.

Remember it only takes a spark to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.

With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!”[4] I think that is why in James, chapter 1 we are warned to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Our heart check-up begins by keeping our tongue in check, and thinking before we speak because as Jesus teaches us, words reveal the condition of our hearts. German WWII-era preacher and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that Christians “need to practice the ministry of holding one’s tongue.”[5] That is exactly what Jesus reminds us. Word are powerful. Words bring forth life, but also death.

Matthew 4:4 says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “When we feast on the bread of life who is Jesus Christ, our hearts are pure. And it is from a pure heart that loving words [flow].”[6] Words that pronounce Good News; words that give life; words that heal and build up; words that forgive; words that are patient, kind, and just. “The pure in heart recognize their need for God.”[7] They come before God in all their brokenness and with all their failures and mistakes; the pure in heart know that they must “consistently and repeatedly allow God to cleanse them of these corruptions of the heart. King David of the Old Testament was called “a man after God’s own heart;” those who are pure in heart strive to have the heart of God.[8]

The pure in heart are those who allow God’s light to shine in their hearts,” and that light is reflected in not only what we do, but what we say—or sometimes what we don’t say.[9]

Today Jesus tells us that we all need a heart check-up.  You don’t have to have open heart surgery to examine your heart, Jesus says. There is a simpler way, though sometimes this way is a very hard reality to face because it is an intense heart-to-heart with ourselves—our whole selves—all the good, bad and ugly. For our spiritual heart check-up we just look at the words that come from our mouth. What kind of words do you utter most often? Are they words that glorify God, lift up, build up, and witness to your life in Christ? This week I challenge you to ask yourself: How healthy is my heart? What kind of results will your heart check-up reveal?


[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, “It’s About What Comes Out: Reflections on Matthew 15:10-20,” Edgy Exegesis, August 14, 2011,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joy Mounts, “Straight from the Heart,” sermon preached on August 26, 2007 at First Congregational Church of Westfield in Westfield, NJ,

[4] McKenzie.

[5] The Message

[6] Kenneth Boa, “Communication Skills,”

[7] McKenzie.

[8] 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22

[9] McKenzie.

God’s Got the Whole World in God’s Hands

August 8, 2011

August 7th’s verses from Romans 10 and Matthew 14 reminded me of a favorite childhood song:

He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

He’s got my brothers and my sisters in His hands,
He’s got my brothers and my sisters in His hands,
He’s got my brothers and my sisters in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

He’s got the sun and the rain in His hands,
He’s got the moon and the stars in His hands,
He’s got the wind and the clouds in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

He’s got the rivers and the mountains in His hands,
He’s got the oceans and the seas in His hands,
He’s got you and he’s got me in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

He’s got everybody here in His hands,
He’s got everybody there in His hands,
He’s got everybody everywhere in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

How comforting are the words and message of this old hymn!! And how easily we forget these simple words of comfort and hope when we grow up. How easy it is to forget that God is holding us all in God’s hands, so easy because we blindly reach out and search and grasp for control. We would be wise to remember these words and live in boldness and with confidence that God truly does have us in God’s hands.

Jesus and Beautiful Feet

August 7, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011
Sermon Text: Romans 10:5-15

In 2008,[1] Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love, was a national bestseller, and just last year the movie starring Julia Roberts as Elizabeth came out in theaters everywhere. In case you missed it, Eat, Pray, Love is the story of how Elizabeth fled a bad marriage, a dead end job and a broken life and found really good food in Italy, had a spiritual awakening experience in India, and found love in Indonesia. I think part of the reason the book was so popular was that it touched themes common to all of us. We have all experienced times in our life when we question our identity, our purpose, and our meaning. Perhaps many of us have experienced restlessness and have been overwhelmed by the fast-pace of life. We have all had tough, strained and broken relationships, and most people, I think, enjoy a good meal; and we all want to be spiritually alive, and most of us are suckers for love stories. So, Eat, Pray, Love was a runaway bestseller both in book sales, movie tickets and merchandise. For two years it felt like stores everywhere were inspired by Eat, Pray, Love’s Italian, Indian, and Indonesian food and fashion culture. Listen to what Elizabeth Gilbert says about her search for meaning, purpose and contentment:

“I have searched frantically for contentment for so many years in so many ways, and all these acquisitions and accomplishments—they run you down in the end. Life, if you keep chasing it so hard, will drive you to death. Time—when pursued like a bandit will behave like one; always remaining one country or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair color to elude you, slipping out the back door of the motel just as you’re banging through the lobby with your newest search warrant….At some point you have to stop because it won’t. You have to admit you can’t catch it—that you’re not supposed to catch it. At some point…you gotta let go and sit still and allow contentment to come to you.”

Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of how she found purpose, meaning, identity, and her contentment both spiritually and emotionally by traveling to Italy, India, and then Indonesia. But in Romans 10 Paul tells us how we can find fulfillment or contentment, or peace or whatever you think you are searching for without traveling at all.

We’re in the book of Romans today, and “Paul is talking about faith. In chapters 9 through 11, Paul is specifically talking about his people, the Jews. And, he is explaining the difference in trying to live by the law and living by faith. Paul says the law of God is a good thing, because the law was meant to bring us [closer] to God.”[2] But somehow the law has become an end in itself for the Jewish people; God’s chosen people have thought that the law was salvation, that “living by the law was their ticket to favor with God.”[3] But Paul tries to explain to them that it is not all about the rules; it is not all about adhering to the do’s and the don’ts; it is not all about following a rigorous and ritual routine. How many of us need to hear this same message today Paul preached to the Jews thousands of years ago? How many of us get caught up in the details, the rules, the do’s and the don’ts, and outward appearances that we forget who we are even living for? In this passage, Paul talks about how we find God, or really how God finds us.

“Paul says that we don’t have to travel to exotic places to find God.”[4] Paul actually takes a very well known passage in Deuteronomy 30 to explain this to us. I like the way The Message bible translates Deuteronomy 30 beginning with chapter 11; it says, “This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it!”

How many people do you know, or how many of us think that the Christian life is just too much, too many rules, to many do’s and don’ts and too many expectations? How many friends and family have we talked with that say, “The church doesn’t want me; I’m too bad, or I have too many doubts and questions, or I’m not perfect, or I want to get right before I try the whole God thing.” And yet I think it is clear that these people are searching for something. I think that contentment, satisfaction, purpose, identity or whatever it is that we think we are searching for to make our lives more full and complete is God, and God is not as far away from us no matter how imperfect, bad, or low we are or may feel. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal says it perfectly; he says, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every human and only God can fill it.”[5]


Paul says, “The word is near, on your lips and in your heart.” I like that phrase; it is comforting and empowering. “Our ability to find God is right here. Not in Italy, India, or Indonesia, but right here.”[6] We come to realize that God who created us never left us. In fact we learn that God searches for us and calls us. God is not some watchmaker God of the deists who believe that God set the world in motion and left us on our own to figure everything out. That is not what our verses today say. Romans 10 reminds us that God is near; God’s word is near, and that we have to go no further than our hearts to know that God is Emmanuel—that God is with each of us. “As a matter of fact, we are wired for God. Rick Warren calls it our purpose in his book, The Purpose-Driven Life. He says that we are made to be tuned in to God.”[7] And once again Pascal says, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every human and only God can fill it.” Paul said this thousands of years before Pascal when he said, “The word is near, on your lips and in your heart.”

This is the Good News we are called to not only bring to the world, but to live in the world. When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord with our lips and our lives we confess that we are not trying to find purpose, fulfillment, satisfaction in any earthly accomplishment, pastimes, achievements, goals, careers or all those other things we strive for in our lives. Confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is making God the first priority in our lives. When God is first in our lives everything we think, say and do confesses that Jesus is Lord of our lives. How many people have asked you, “What must I do to be saved?” Being a pastor I get that a lot. And Paul tells us that we do not need to look any further than our lips and our hearts, for in Jesus Christ, salvation has come very near.

He says, “Confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and you will be saved.”  “To confess with the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, to believe and live in such a way as to put all your trust in God, and make God first in your life, may be a straightforward thing to do,”[8]  but it is not always an easy thing to do, and such a confession does not guarantee an easy, bump-free life, and such a confession does not mean we will suddenly be perfect and won’t have to work on our relationship with God and others. Such a confession does remind us, however, that in all the ups, downs, messiness, questions and searching in life that God is always near and with us.

Confessing Jesus Christ is Lord sounds so simple, but simple should not to be confused with easy. In Paul’s day the confession that “‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ flew in the face of Caesar. To say Jesus Christ is Lord was to say that Caesar was not Lord. To say ‘Jesus is Lord’ meant that there was a higher power, a supreme ruler, one above the emperor, an absolute Lord who demanded total allegiance from those who followed him.”[9] Such a confession led to many deaths. In our lives today the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord does not usually physically put us in harm’s way, but to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord is to make Jesus Lord of everything in our lives. To say Jesus is Lord is to say addictions, habits, people, material things, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera are not Lord of our lives. Hiram, my fiancé, always likes to remind me that people can’t really be multi-taskers. I certainly like to think I do a good job at multi-tasking but I know that I do my best when I focus on one thing at a time. Likewise the focus of our lives should be one thing. It is hard to say Jesus is Lord and yet serve our own interests. To confess that Jesus is Lord it is to put our relationship with Christ first. To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives is to respond to God’s grace and love that was made incarnate through Jesus Christ.

And such a confession is not reserved for an elect few or chosen people, but our verses tell us today that, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Again this is the Good News of our faith—first that God is near and second God’s grace does not discriminate, but reaches out to all people everywhere.

Paul tells us that confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is not merely a mental assent or a verbal commitment. “Salvation is not merely transactional.”[10] It is not merely saying the words “Jesus Christ is Lord,” rather such a confession calls us to a whole new life in Christ. A life that can’t help but live and spread the Good News of God’s grace and love which is not far off and unreachable, but close to each of us, within our hearts calling out to each one of us. Such a confession of faith is not satisfied being contained within a single hour of worship, or a single place of worship. The General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church says that these verses in Romans 10 inspire us to move from “passive pew sitting to active faith sharing.” It is as our verses from Matthew 14 say today–it is about getting out of the boat in faith which means sometimes going beyond our comfort zone, out into the world and trusting that God is with us every breath and step we take and every word we speak.

Too often today the goal of churches has been to get people to come to church, to fill our pews, to be involved in our programs. Let me remind you that Jesus’ great commission in Matthew 28 is to “go into all the world,” but that commission has been replaced by “come to church.”[11] How will the world know the Good News that God is near and God reaches out to all people everywhere? How will people know that what they are truly searching for is also searching for them? How will people know that God does not require you to figure everything out, get your life straightened out, or clean up certain areas of your life before coming before God? How will people know that you can come as you are with doubts and questions and imperfections before God? How will the world know all this unless the church moves beyond our walls and not only proclaim the Good News but embody and live the Good News with passion and conviction? How can people be invited to come and know the grace, mercy and love of the God we call Father if our lips and hearts do not witness to our faith?

Our scripture lesson today says people will only know Christ’s unconditional love if they first hear the good news proclaimed. How can they hear if our lips and our lives do not proclaim that Jesus Christ is truly and fully Lord of our lives? Paul indicates that Christianity involves doing. The doing is active belief in Jesus Christ. “Oh, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News.” Such feet are feet that will change the world. Amen.

[1] Much of this sermon is inspired by Rev. Chuck Warnock’s sermon “On Your Lips and In Your Heart,” preached on August 10, 2008 at Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia. Rev. Warnock has a blog called “Confessions of a Small Church Pastor which I have enjoyed reading. He is a wonderful writer and has been the primary inspiration for the shape of this sermon.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted in Rev. Warnock’s “On our Lips and In our Hearts”

[6] Warnock

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karen Pidcock-Lester, “Romans 10:5-15,” Interpretation, July 1, 1996 (288-292).

[9] Ibid.

hiring a music director

August 5, 2011

“There’s within my heart a melody Jesus whispers sweet and low: Fear not, I am with thee, peace be still, in all of life’s ebb and flow.”

I love church music. I love the old gospel hymns. I love Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, Brian Wren and many, many other hymnists in our United Methodist Hymnal. But I also like some of those old words to more contemporary, faster-paced tunes. And I like some modern praise music from the likes of Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin, Newsboys, David Crowder, Hillsong, and I could go on and on. The Christian music genre is rich with old and new styles, sounds, tunes, and words, and many churches today are places where the old and new come together in a variety of blended services.

Wesley Memorial is a church that is striving to be a blended service, trying to reach multiple generations through a variety of music styles. About 80% of church worship services on Sunday morning are devoted to singing or music. I have been told that great music can make up for less than stellar preaching, but out-of-this-world preaching cannot make up for horrible music. Music speaks to people in ways that the spoken and written word cannot. Music has a way of lifting the spirit upward; music is a vital part of church worship services.

We don’t have horrible music at Wesley Memorial, but we could use some improvements. I, myself, am not a singer or a musician. I love and appreciate music, but that melody within my heart is probably where it should stay because I am not guaranteed to consistently sing on key or rhythm. Oh, I make every effort to sing “lustily and with good courage” and to sing “in time” as John Wesley instructs us to do in his 1761 Directions for Singing. I am not afraid to sing out loud at church, but I am not a music leader–as much as I would like to be one, leading music is not my spiritual gift.

For that reason and for many, many other reasons Wesley Memorial is seeking to hire a part-time (4-5 hrs/wk) music director to lead worship and direct the choir on Sunday mornings (11:00am). We are looking for someone who has experience in leading traditional and contemporary services. Wesley Memorial is in transition, and we are looking to become a more blended worship service. We want to hire someone who is confident in directing a choir, singing/playing traditional hymns, as well as confidence and ability to lead/play contemporary praise music and lead a praise band.

Do you know someone who has a gift for music and a heart and passion for God and God’s church? Help us in finding a person who will work well with our church in revitalizing our Sunday worship music and music ministry. Pass this information along to a friend or family member, and have them call the church office (803-771-4540) or email the church at And please pray for our church as we search for the right person…not just any person to fill a slot, but the right person who will help us move into the future, so that we can be a place that truly makes, nurtures and shapes disciples of all generations.

Be Thou our Vision, O Lord

August 3, 2011




Momentum is picking up on the corner of Queen and Heyward in Columbia, SC. We are in the middle of re-visioning and renewal at 2501 Heyward Street. We just turned 100 years old last year, and we decided that it was time for this old church to get our groove back, so for the past several months we have been praying, taking surveys and talking with church members, neighbors and the community about how our little church can serve God and our neighbors and be a place that invites, nurtures and sustains disciples of Jesus Christ. We are still in conversation, but we have come up with a concise way to express our unique  vision and goal of Wesley Memorial UMC that has really gotten the ball rolling on seriously thinking about what we hope our church offers to our members, visitors and neighbors.

Our mission at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church echoes the global United Methodist Church’s mission to serve God and neighbor and “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (BOD ¶120). Our vision at Wesley Memorial is to live this mission by nurturing people in the Word of God and living the Word in our world. This vision calls us out of the world and into the Word; or as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12—to live in the world but not of the world.

Carrying out our mission and vision (Book of Discipline ¶122): Our strategic flow…helping disciples grow in and through all ministries, worship services, programs, service projects, fellowship suppers and even committee meetings

Invite: “Proclaim the Gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ.”

Interact: “Lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ.”

Invest: “Nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace.”

In-body: “Send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the Gospel

Introspection: “Continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the body of Christ.”


Our Follow through: Keeping our community of faith at WMUMC accountable in the Word and World

PRAYER           How are you in prayer for our church and world?

PRESENCE     How are you present at church? How are you making God’s presence known in the world?

GIFTS               How are you using your gifts and giving to the church and world?

SERVICE        Where and to whom are you at service with and to in our church and world?

WITNESS       How does your everyday life witness to God’s presence in our church and world?





God is in this Place: Genesis 28:10-19a

August 3, 2011

July 17, 2011 (sermon on the occasion of retiring our church’s debt in full! hooray!)

I love the Bible. I guess that should be a given since I am a preacher, and my job is to know and share the Good News of the Bible, but I love the Bible more than because it is simply my job to love the Bible. I love the stories of the Bible; I get caught up in the unfolding of human drama and stories of where God is in all this life. I have a Bible that is written in comic book form with pictures, conversation bubbles, kabams, kabooms and everything. It is called the Action Bible.[1] I used this Bible at Vacation Bible School to tell the Bible stories. Sometimes I think kids and adults alike can get a little overwhelmed looking through thousand-plus pages of single, ten-font print of the typical bible. Sometimes it is so overwhelming and daunting that we don’t know where to begin or what to read, so we just don’t read it.

But the Bible, in comic-book form or not, is action packed.  There are twists and turns and surprise endings that all good stories have. There are stories of love and hate, covenants and war, brutal honesty and deceit, births and deaths, freedom and slavery, marriage, adultery and prostitution. There are stories of people who have escaped and survived lion dens, giants, burning fires, whales, and even death. Doesn’t that just make you want to read the Bible? The story of Jacob in Genesis is one of these action-packed, thrill stories. Our verses from Genesis 28 don’t say it, but Jacob is on the run; he is running from a brother who wants to kill him, a mother who wants to save him and a father who is on his death bed. He has been running and deceiving his whole life—literally his whole life since he came out of his mother’s womb. Jacob’s parents’, Isaac and Rebekah, named him Jacob which translates “heel”—“h-e-e-l” as in the heel of your foot—because as Jacob and his twin brother were being born, Jacob grabbed and held on to his brother, Esau’s, heel. Jacob can also mean grabber and that often gets translated trickster, cunning thief, and deceiver.

And that is a pretty good description of how Jacob lived his early life. Jacob resented being the second son, so he was constantly grabbing for his brother’s future, his brother’s inheritance, his brother’s birthright. Jacob was never satisfied with what he had. Jacob schemed and manipulated his father and brother into giving the birthright of the first child which included their father’s blessings, wealth and land of the family to him, to Jacob. It kind of always seemed to me there was an emptiness Jacob was trying to fill. As the second son he felt inferior, unsatisfied, unappreciated, and so to me it seems that Jacob thought, “If only I could get what my brother, Esau, has…if only I could be raised to my brother’s position in the family…if only I had wealth and a wife and family like Esau then I can and will be happy.” How many of us have been there? How many of us have seen others get everything, and we think, “If only…If only I were better at…If only I were my parents’ favorite…If only I were smarter…and we could go on and on. Sometimes it is easy to focus on others and miss what God has given us. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side as popular culture would have us believe.

But back to Jacob…Jacob does successfully con his brother out of all his birthright, the family blessing and wealth. It is a great story. If you have time go back a couple chapters and read the story of Jacob and Esau. Part of Jacob’s scheming plan includes dressing up in animal skin, so that when his blind father touched him, he would think he was laying hands on Esau whose name means “hairy”—hairy with an “i”—not as in Harry Potter or Prince Harry, but as in hairy the opposite of bald.  If any of you ever disliked your name or wish your parents had come up with a better name for you, be happy they did not name you “Heel” or “Hairy.” Anyhow like all good con artists caught in Jacob’s predicament, Jacob had to run for his life. And that is where we join Jacob in our scripture reading today.

Jacob is in the middle of nowhere on the run from his brother. Jacob, the schemer; Jacob, the trickster; Jacob, the heel-grabber is wandering in the middle of the desert alone, far from home and uncertain where he is going and what the future holds for him and if he will ever see his family again to inherit the blessing and wealth he stole from his brother.

I think this is the kind of situation people call being between a rock and a hard place. This seems like a hopeless situation, nowhere to go, and no room for movement. But we are told that on this unremarkable, ordinary day on his solitary journey Jacob stops at an unremarkable, ordinary place and shoving a stone under his head Jacob went to sleep and he dreamt of a ladder or a stairway or a ramp where angels were ascending and descending it. And standing beside Jacob, not above him, not below him, not far from him, not way off in the distance, but standing beside Jacob is God reassuring Jacob with promises of God’s presence, power, protection and providence.[2]

That old spiritual “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”—maybe you have heard of it; it is in our United Methodist hymnal on page 418—but that old spiritual gets it all wrong. Jacob didn’t climb the ladder; we don’t climb the ladder. The ladder is an avenue of grace;[3] God descending to us; God coming to us where we are—especially at times when we are between a rock and a hard place. God is with us. God stands beside us and with us even when we have been on the run, even when we have tricked, schemed, manipulated, lied, and tried to fill voids in our lives with any and everything other than God—as Jacob did. God is with us wherever we are whether we are aware of God’s presence or not. God is Emmanuel.

Jacob’s ladder is truly a vision of God’s grace. Did you notice how God stood beside Jacob promising a bright future and to keep him safe, but God did demand or ask anything of Jacob? God simply came to Jacob full of grace, love and promise. Grace does not expect reciprocal action. Grace does not ask anything of us. Grace is a gift. We do not do anything to earn grace. John Wesley said that grace is God’s love freely offered to us. Often today as people in the workforce or even as neighbors we ask, “If I do this or that for you, what will you do for me?” But God comes to us in grace not expecting anything in return. In and out of love God promises to be our keeper, to be with us now and in the future.

“The journey of faith is often filled with these Bethel moments,”[4] moments of loneliness, fear, despair, disappointment, regret, uncertainty and struggle that are transformed by the presence of God standing beside us. These verses from Genesis 28 today attest to the ability of God’s reality, an alternative reality, to break into a world of fear, terror, despair, disappointment loneliness and transform us and inspire us “to an alternative way of being and living in the world and dealing with and overcoming and not giving power to our shortcomings,”[5] dashed hopes, disappointments, fears and uncertainty. Sometimes it is only after we emerge on the other side of the trouble that we see where God was at work, when we pause for a moment and look back we can see that ‘the LORD was present in that place—and I did not know it!

However, so often today we rob ourselves of these Bethel moments; we go through life, or we have these Bethel moments without really being present or attuned to God’s presence. We often resign ourselves to worldliness, to being swallowed in our woes and worries that we don’t even notice God’s presence, or we don’t even look for the presence of God during those rock-and-a-hard-place moments. But Genesis 28 teaches us that in those moments when all seems lost there can be new life and new beginnings. We see in the story of Jacob that God’s gracious dealings with men and women of all kinds of backgrounds, carrying all kinds of burdens, anxieties, regrets, uncertainties and struggles—God’s gracious dealings with us can turn us from worldly individuals caught up in our own struggles and pains into worshipers as Jacob was when he awoke from his dream.

“When we wake up and find ourselves living in relationship with the living God, things change,”[6] lives change, the world around us can be changed. Knowing God is at work in our world, knowing God is beside us can generate a new expectancy in us. It can encourage us to venture out beyond what we once thought was our comfort zone to see what can happen. It can teach us a new way of being alive. That is what happened to Jacob. Jacob went from being a scheming trickster to later being called Israel who God used in mighty ways.

In Genesis 28 Bethel was a place of sanctuary for Jacob. Bethel places are those places that draw us apart from the stress of our world to be met by God.[7] For Jacob, Bethel was a place of renewal in God, a place where God spoke to him, a place of new beginnings, a place of new birth, a place of sending forth. In that place Jacob was moved to worship. But a place of worship is never to become a place of final destination but a place where we gather with God’s family to be renewed and strengthened; places of worship are on-going reminders of God’s presence for the journey; places of worship are springboards for living our daily lives in worship, devotion and commitment to God.  As one member told me just last week, “Church is the place I get my battery recharged.”

I know for many years Wesley Memorial was in between a rock and a hard place. For many years we didn’t know if this 100 year old church would survive. For the past seven years we have worried how we would ever repay a $170,000 loan. We worried more as numbers dropped, people left and died and the economy hit rock bottom. Since last October at our Centennial Celebration Sunday, I don’t know about you, but after seeing the hundreds that returned to Wesley Memorial because for them this was a Bethel experience place; this was a place where they met and experienced God and were nurtured in the faith; since that Sunday and every time I am at this church I cannot help but feel the presence of God in this place and know that we are in God’s hands and God is leading us to new life.

Today as we celebrate repaying our debt in full we celebrate new life; we have been given a second chance; we have been renewed as Jacob was when he stood beside God at Bethel. It is only by the workings of God that we have gotten to this point today. A year ago, I don’t know if any of us imagined we could really retire the debt in one year. But by the grace of God in a little over six months we repaid a debt that we hoped would be repaid by December of this year. God has stood with us throughout our 100 years as a church family; and God’s faithfulness was with us as we sought to repay our debt; and in all this as we look back we should be moved to worship and join past and present generations of Wesley Memorial in saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. Surely the Lord is in this place.”

This is not the end of a journey for us, but this is merely the beginning of a new life here at Wesley Memorial. Just as Jacob’s dream and anointing at Bethel was not the end, but the beginning of his life in God, so too are we at a crossroads in our church’s history. Last year we said goodbye to one century and this year we have entered our second century of being a church; a new century, a new life. I hope this single moment of celebration will wake us up to the thousands of ways God is in all of our lives and God is working and moving in and through our church. Together with God this church has weathered the ups and downs of the life of this church, and together we move into the future.

Jacob’s eyes were opened to the wider workings of God at Bethel; for the first time he saw that he was a part of a larger reality; God showed him that God has things in store for him beyond his own human plans and schemes. In the same way I hope you are awake and expecting God to use this little church in big ways. I pray that this moment in our church’s history will encourage all of us to venture out beyond what we once thought was our comfort zone to see what can happen. I pray we will be open to rethinking church and allowing God to lead us into our next century. I pray that this moment is just the beginning of new life for our church. I pray we are truly a Bethel place where people enter and meet God and in being moved to worship shout, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heave. Surely the Lord is in this place!”


[1] Sergio Cariello, The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Publishing, 2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Geoff McElroy, “July 20, 2008: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost,”

[5] Ibid.

[6] James L. Killen, “Surprised by God,”

[7] “The Promise of Bethel”