The Desire to Stop

Adapted from a sermon preached at Centenary United Methodist Church on Wednesday, December 2, 2015. The text was Luke 1:26-38.

One of my favorite quotes about the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary comes from Elie Wiesel: “Whenever an angel says, ‘Be not afraid!’, you’d better start worrying. A big assignment is on the way.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger assignment than the one given to Mary—to become the mother of God, to carry Jesus in her womb and bring him into the world. In Mary’s time, pregnancy and childbirth were incredibly risky. Even after Jesus was born, the chances of a childhood disease or accident claiming his life were far higher than we could imagine today.

Before you get too excited about Jesus being God and therefore somehow being protected, remember that part of the point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, susceptible to the same pain and illness and death that you and I experience. Mary had good reason to be afraid.

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I Have Anxiety, So I Bought a Sassy Mug

I have anxiety.

I’m probably on the mild-to-moderate end of that spectrum–even at its worst, my anxiety has never succeeded in taking me out of school or work or life completely, and I take seriously how much more debilitating it is for others than it has been for me. At the same time, I think I’ve downplayed its effect on me, so I’m trying to give myself the grace to admit that it does affect me pretty profoundly from time to time.

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Good Intentions, Bad Gifts, and Their Usefulness

A week or two ago, someone left a bunch of donated sweatshirts for me at the church’s welcome desk. I was mildly irritated. Although it is very likely I had had a conversation with someone about this, probably on a Sunday morning,* I could not remember the context. And so it felt like one of the many instances in which a well-intentioned person thinks they know what is needed and gives that thing when perhaps it is not, in fact, what is needed.

For example, last year, several people at church donated blankets to be used at the winter overflow shelter. This makes complete sense–except that there had already been a HUGE donation of blankets made, and the shelters actually had too many blankets. The shelter monitors were begging us not to send any more blankets.

Case in point: always ask whether something is needed before you just drop it off somewhere. So many nonprofits wind up with piles and piles of stuff (sometimes very nice stuff!) they can’t use, either because it’s the wrong stuff or because there’s too much stuff or because they don’t have a system in place for distributing the stuff.

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Who Do You Say That I Am? (Luke 10 Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, October 25, 2015. The text was Luke 10:25-28. This was the final installment in a series called “Games People Play.” This week’s game was Twenty Questions. Congregants were given a fortune cookie containing a slip of paper with the question “Who do you say that I am?” on it.

When it comes to answering questions, Jesus is about as helpful as a bathing suit in a snowstorm. Jesus never gives a straight answer. More often, he answers a question with another question, or with a seemingly unrelated story, or by writing in the dirt with his finger.

Because of that, Jesus would not be very Twenquesgood at the game Twenty Questions. To refresh your memory, in Twenty Questions, one person chooses a subject or object, and the other participants ask up to 20 questions with “yes” or “no” answers to help them guess what it is.

Jesus isn’t big on “yes” or “no” answers. And the legal expert who questions Jesus in Luke 10 isn’t playing by the rules either—I thought about putting in a lawyer joke here, but there are a lot of lawyers in this church, so let’s move on.

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A Great Thanksgiving for All God’s Children

Yesterday was World Communion Sunday, and my church had planned its annual Worship in the Park, where we relocate to a local park for outdoor worship and a shared meal. Thanks to Hurrcane Joaquin, we had to move worship back to the church–so one staff member cleverly dubbed it “Worship in the Ark.”

Our focus for the day was Mark 10:12-6, the passage about Jesus welcoming children to come to him despite the disciples’ protests. We were keenly aware on this day of the need for us to broaden our conception of who count as God’s children–particularly refugees and immigrants as we hear news of the Syrian refugee crisis. This and more informed my attempt to craft a Great Thanksgiving liturgy for communion for ALL God’s children.

Since we were going to be in the park, this was written without including the usual congregational responses. It was shared in two voices, mine and our senior pastor’s. I share it here with permission to use and adapt it, as long as credit is given in some form.

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Stop Blaming Shootings on Mental Illness

If you’ve tuned in to any of the inevitable debate around guns following yet another mass shooting in Oregon (how truly awful is it that I can say “yet another”?), you have probably heard something to the effect that mental illness is the cause of these tragedies.

To all the media outlets, special interest groups, and individuals perpetuating this myth, I want to say, gently but firmly:

Stop it.

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Sticks and Stones (1 Samuel 17 Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, June 21, 2015. The text was 1 Samuel 17:32-49. You can download a PDF here

Over the last two months, the Rev. Dr. Bill Medlin has set the bar unfairly high when it comes to humor in sermons. I spent some time this past week agonizing over how I was going to hold a candle to his talent for telling jokes. Then I remembered a family story that made me think I shouldn’t even try.

My grandfather is a retired Methodist minister who also had a penchant for joke-telling in sermons. In one transition, a group of congregants put their heads together on a perfect gift for him as he moved to a new ministry. It was a book entitled, “Jokes We Hope Tom Will Tell Again.” When my grandfather opened the book, he found it was full of blank pages.

Whatever my heritage may be in terms of humor, perhaps today is a good day to forego jokes. Today, myself and countless other pastors are climbing into their pulpits wondering what in the world we can possibly say in the wake of the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. On Wednesday evening, a group gathered for Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street in Charleston. They welcomed a stranger into their midst. After an hour, that man opened fire.

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