Busyness prioritized

Matthew 16:13-20

Romans 12:1- 8

September begins in 4 days.  It is unlikely that is news to you.  Even if the looming school year isn’t already turning your schedules from summer agendas to fall schedules, the numerous advertisements filling printed pages, internet sites, and the airwaves are already pushing us into a new season.  Sales and displays already leaving the green of summer and moving into the earth tones and bright oranges and reds of fall.  Halloween decorations and treats already available for us to purchase.

My summer flew by, filled with a variety of ministry and other responsibilities.  Already feeling over scheduled and busy beyond hours in the day, the idea of a “fuller” fall schedule seems a bit overwhelming.

I suspect a new school year, ongoing harvests, the upcoming rummage and chowder sale, pie baking, Applefest, as well as more meetings and increased worship and study opportunities at church, have you looking at your calendars wondering if there is room to add anything else.

Busyness may have all of you a bit overwhelmed as well.

We have turned to scriptures over the past couple of weeks to consider how to deal with being overwhelmed with expectations and with worry.  This week we look to the passages from Matthew and Romans to find some ways to handle the busyness of our lives that threatens to overwhelm us.

Our schedule and “to do” list is likely full of important and very important items.  If we name them one by one we can make a case for giving them each the amount of time we have designated.  Unable to remove or reduce any item there.

Anyone who had taken the Franklin Covey time management workshop knows that such an assessment on our part isn’t valid.  Some of the items are urgent but not important, some of them important and not urgent, others. Important and urgent, and we need assessment tools to figure out which is which.  That doesn’t mean which ones we like to do the most, which we find the easiest to do, or the ones others are pushing us the hardest to make a priority.  It means allocating time to the things that best fit our overall goals and values and to those which are effective and meaningful.

As Jesus talks to his Disciples, he asks them who others say he is and who they say he is.  It is the answer to the second question which will determine how they personally prioritize their busyness throughout their ministry.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter responds.

If I asked you who you say Jesus is this morning I expect your answer would be a variation of that statement of faith.

Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus points out that no one of flesh and blood can figure that out on their own, but that knowledge only comes through God the Father.   Jesus also declares that his church is stronger than anything that comes against it, even the realm of the dead, even the busyness that threatens to overwhelm those who are part of the church.

We declare Jesus to be the Messiah, informed by the Holy Spirit, and nothing can come against us, even our busy schedules.  Yet it seems that is exactly what happens: we are late for school or work and so we let devotions slide for a day, or two, or three.  We had a really hectic week so we put off making that phone call to someone we promised to check in on, we decide to forgo dropping off a meal for someone who is sick; they aren’t expecting it anyway.

Worship in any form, at any time, needs to fit into the schedule.  A kind word, a generous gesture, a gift of our talents, something we share if convenient.

When we declare with Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, transformation of our lives requires that we live what we declare.  The words fall empty without the depth of faith and the overflowing of the Grace and Holy Spirit we receive into every part of our being, and then out into the world.

Peter declared Jesus as Son of God with all aspects of his life, with how he ordered his life and used his gifts of preaching and healing.

Paul writes to the Romans about what worship looks like when we receive God’s grace through Christ Jesus.

We offer ourselves a living sacrifice

We don’t judge others

We use our God given gifts to build up the entire body of Christ.

Paul calls us to worship by offering God our bodies and all that we do with them daily.  As citizens of God’s kingdom, our priorities shift to those things which incorporate Christlike behaviors, ethics, and actions.  J.B Phillips’ translation of verse 2 says: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.”[1]

Paul shows us that confessing that Jesus is the Son of God requires us to surrender our busyness to Him.  Every item we add to our schedule, every obligation we accept, every job and every hobby, every agenda filtered through its embodiment of Christ’s character.  Every choice and allocation of time based on the gifts God gives us.  Every relationship centered on the understanding that our gifts help us work together to bring the kingdom of God into a hurting world.

Sometimes things evaluated this way won’t be important or urgent, others will move to the top of the priority list because they are both urgent and important by this standard.  Sometimes some reorganization and new order of things allows most items to stay on our busy schedule.

When I went to college I had mandatory chapel three times a week.  Sunday morning worship was not mandatory and no one was taking attendance and sending a record back home to my parents.  I tried sleeping in a couple of Sundays my freshman year and found I missed being with others in worship.  I joined the choir and made choir rehearsal and Sunday morning worship a priority.  Even when exams and papers loomed I kept that personal commitment to myself.  What I found was that all the other things fell into place.  That committing a couple of hours a week to using my gifts and joining in corporate worship didn’t diminish the time I had to do the things necessary to complete my education or to have some “me” time.

That pattern has continued over the years.  The weeks that I make sure the devotional and prayer time in my schedule comes before anything else, what is truly important “kingdom building” stuff gets done and the stuff I only thought was important takes care of itself.  It is a lesson I don’t always remember and that is when I can become overwhelmed by busyness.

Paul reminds us that God provides everyone in the body of Christ gifts to build up the body of Christ.  We are all important to the work of the kingdom.  Sometimes we don’t recognize our gifts, sometimes others have a difficult time seeing them because of perceptions and histories, but that does not eliminate their existence or our responsibility for sharing them to their fullest potential.  Those gifts also help us focus our busyness.  Putting our gifts to use building the kingdom and encouraging others to us their gifts for that purpose eliminates the pressure to be all things to all people and to take on every job.  It allows the body to function as God designed it.

Do-it-All Christianity.  Occasional Christianity.  Negative Christianity.  Doubt ridden and excuse making Christianity.  Self-determined priority Christianity.  Are NOT Christianity in the terms Peter and Paul set before us.

As we organize the busyness of our lives if we consider Christ priorities and our God given gifts the things that need doing will get done and the others are best left to others.  This way of keeping busyness from becoming overwhelming does not mean that you must attend every worship and study opportunity, or that you need to sequester yourself into a monastery.

It means that in standing with Peter to identify Jesus as the Son of God you are called to a transformed life that replaces world-driven, self-selected schedules for Christ-led agendas every day.



[1] Book of Romans Sermon Starters Week 13 Discipleship Ministries

Overwhelmed by Anxiety

Genesis 45:1-28

Matthew 6:25-34

Matthew 15:21-28

Worry seems to be a default human action.  Our minds drawn to dwell on difficulty and trouble, productive thoughts pushed aside, our energy drained and our actions paralyzed.  Our worrying putting us into a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems.

Worry seems a natural reaction to the things that come at us every day: Health, stretched finances, employers or employees who are difficult to work with, weather patterns that impact our crops, our outdoor activities, and potentially our property and livelihoods.  Relationship challenges with children, spouses, co-workers, neighbors, and within our faith communities.

That is before we even get to the newspaper and news broadcasts.  Massive weapons in the hands of persons of questionable mental stability and hate filled agendas.  Terrorism designed to divide, create distrust, and fill people with life-changing fear.  Murder, rape, layoffs, businesses closing, accidents, people clashing in the streets, drug epidemics, Human Trafficking….

No wonder we worry.

It seems logical that we should be overwhelmed by anxiety.  The stuff we face is unrelentingly difficult.

BUT  God continually reaches out to us with the message that worry should not be our default position.  That worry has no place in the lives of those who follow God.

Joshua 1:9  Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

Isaiah 43:1  But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

Psalm 23: 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 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?

Psalm 118:6 The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?

John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid

1 Peter:6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

2 Timothy 1:7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

And today’s gospel lesson Matthew 6:34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

One commentator noted that there are more than enough “Do not fear” verses in scripture to give us more than one a day to remind us of God’s direction for our lives.

It seems clear God has something else in mind to which we should direct our energy.  It may  not be as clear as to what that looks in our daily lives when there are so many reasons to be overwhelmed by anxiety.

We heard the story of the Canaanite woman this morning, and I shared the story of Joseph with the children.  I think these scripture readings model some ways heeding God’s directive to “not worry,” looks in facing life’s difficulties.

Joseph has every reason to be overwhelmed by anxiety.  He is basically abandoned by his brothers to strangers.  His future looks pretty bleak as he sets off to a foreign land stripped of his freedom and his family.  He is faced with a choice: trust the God of his father to secure his future or give up all hope.  He chooses trust.

Not explicit in the text, but evident in the outcome:  Joseph chooses to pray and to worship God in the midst of an impossible and threatening situation.  The evidence in his encouragement to his brothers that they not be distressed or angry with themselves:  “ for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Joseph’s trust in God does not mean he sits down and waits for something to happen.  He builds on his experience, his talents, his relationships to excel in everything he does.  Never at the expense of someone else, but always to the glory of God.  Trust doesn’t mean he waits around to see what happens.  It means he actively looks for the path God sets before him to change his situation.

He doesn’t hold grudges, he holds on to love and hope, and his first question to his brothers seeks information on the welfare of his father and his actions focus on making sure his family is well cared for.

Worry, which likely surfaced from time to time in Joseph’s journey, never becomes a focus, a distraction, or a deterrent to his watching for and working toward God’s direction in his life.

Many of us understand, at least in part, the anxiety facing the Cannanite woman whose daughter is in desperate need of healing.  All she wants is healing for her daughter. None of the medical experts of her time could or would do anything. There was no recourse. All seems hopeless, an overwhelming worry for a parent wanting the best for a child.

Then she hears about Jesus. He heals people. He heals people who weren’t even Israelites. “Maybe, just maybe”, she thinks, “He can help my daughter.”

It took a lot of courage for this Canaanite woman to come and confront Jesus. She was risking her life. In this society women did not openly speak up to men in public and women from other cultures and races certainly were not welcome in conversation out in the public realm. But this Canaanite woman had great courage — she was willing to risk her life, trade it for her daughter’s healing.

Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus ignored her at first and then she was told that he had come for the house of Israel. He said that it was not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She countered with “But even the dogs gather the crumbs that fall to the floor”. With that bold proclamation, she announced her courage and her faith; the consequence was that her daughter was healed.[1]

Like Joseph, she chooses to trust God.  She is able to stand face to face with Jesus, match him point for point, argue her case.  What she does in person, those choosing to heed God’s call for us not to worry, can do in prayer.  We can actively look to God to show us the way through the messiness that often surfaces worry in our hearts.

Like Joseph, she doesn’t look to fix her situation by bringing harm to anyone else.  She doesn’t ask for the children’s bread, she asks for the crumbs that fall to the floor.

Support systems are important in both of these situations as well.  Joseph has an important leadership role which can help his family, but he also has the full support of the Pharaoh who encourages Joseph to send supplies with his brothers and to bring them to Egypt where he wants them to have the best land and to enjoy the fat of the land.

The Cannanite woman must have had people telling her about Jesus.  He wasn’t taking out ads in the newspaper and with her social status she was unlikely to have bumped into him at the corner coffee shop.  People cared about her and gave her a heads up as information that could help her out of a helpless situation.

Joseph and the Cannanite woman don’t let the worry that comes with their situations overwhelm them.  Each in their own way, seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness first.  The things that help them move forward come as a result of setting that as their priority.  Choosing to trust God’s promises, to use the experience, relationships, talents given them, they make a transformational difference for others.  They put into practice “not worrying about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  We all know the truth that each day really has enough trouble of its own.

Evidence that God is faithful to walk with us through everything is found in many verses of scripture as well.

Psalm 34:4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.

Psalm 94:19 When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.

Romans 8:38-39 that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

2 Timothy 1:7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.


There are things which push us to feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.  We don’t have to stay overwhelmed.  God provides encouragement, examples of trust helping us move through the difficult times, people and resources to walk with us, a path for us to find.

Sometimes we are called to be the resources for others, to tell our stories of the many times God has faithfully gotten us through being sold into slavery or brought healing into our lives.  We need to be aware of God’s faithfulness in those times, as much as in the times we need to see a way forward.

In it all, we need to seek God first, leave the worry at his feet, and the rest will come.  This is true for us individually and as a church.  Many of the same stressers: finances, our past history and tradition, things seeming out of our control, relationships, all impact how we move forward as a congregation.

As we prepare for our future together, we need to leave the worry to Jesus and prayerfully and actively seek the path set before us.  It may mean new experiences as it did for Joseph or some time wrestling with our understanding of the overall mission as it did for Jesus, but if we refuse to let anxiety be our driving force, I believe we will be able to see where God is moving us into relationships and ministry that is transformational.

Let’s heed the words God gives us over and over: “don’t be afraid” “do not worry”.

Let us pray

Thank you God for your faithfulness in all things.  Help us to not become overwhelmed by anxiety when things seem out of control, but to trust you to lead us forward.  Help us to actively seek the path you prepare, even when it takes us into unknown territory.  In the confidence of your love shown through your son Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] Ministry Matters, Worship Resources Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

When expectations overwhelm

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Matthew 14:22-33

Every day brings with it a set of expectations.  Expectations we experience as part of our society, our work; our relationships with family and friends, our community, our church, even our relationship with God.

We are surrounded with messages from commercials and peers that we need to eat certain food, wear particular styles and brands of clothing, use specific skin creams, shampoo, and make-up, drink certain brands of beverages, drive specific makes of vehicles, make a certain level of income, have homes that could be featured in Better Homes and Gardens, and more …  if we are to live up to the expectations defined by marketers who are likely more interested in the bottom line than the quality of your life.

In the faith community we sometimes experience others expecting us to dress and behave a certain way, to find God in the same places and people they do, understand scripture exactly as they understand it, to provide hospitality in a specific way and to support ministry in a prescribed manner.

We are pushed by a perception that anything less than perfection is somehow failure.  That everyone else has it all together.  That our uniqueness is imperfection.  That we need more stuff and things marked off the bucket list to have lives which reflect expectations met.

Expectations can be overwhelming.  They can keep us in a constant state of anxiety.  They can prevent us from experiencing the peace Christ offers, as well as from accepting ourselves and others as God created us.  They can leave us feeling alone.

That doesn’t mean that as Christians we accept mediocrity, that we don’t work to develop the gifts and talents we receive, or that we settle for less than we can be.  We have many references in scripture pointing out that we each are uniquely equipped to answer God’s call on our lives and our faithful response is important to the church universal.

As United Methodists we are known for striving for perfection, a pretty significant expectation.  Perfection as defined by John Wesley is not about the world’s expectation of perfection, but rather about our Christian walk.  He saw faith as an ongoing journey following in the footsteps of Jesus, one in which we are made perfect in love.  Being made perfect may sound like one more thing to add to the expectations that “overwhelm” list however, I think the scripture we heard this morning helps us move through those times when expectations overwhelm, so we that can experience perfection in a God directed way.

The story of Jacob and his sons is familiar to most, if not all of you.  Many times it has surfaced as an example of how God is faithful through situations which seem to have no good ending.

In light of this morning’s focus, I took a look at it through the lens of expectations.

Jacob and sons are living in their family’s hometown.  They are well known, respected, and successful members of the community.  Probably everyone expects certain behaviors from Jacob’s sons.  That happens in small towns where families put down roots that extend for multiple generations.  Expectations are directly related to who your parents and grandparents are.

Joseph likely knows those expectations well and as siblings sometimes do, lets his father know when his brothers aren’t meeting them.  This wouldn’t go well regardless of the circumstances, but the fact Jacob has illustrated that he loves Joseph more than any of his other sons, this only fuels the hatred they have for him.  Then Jacob sends Joseph out to see what his brothers are doing.  An expectation he will continue to report back any “below expectation” behavior.

Joseph’s brothers are definitely not up for having their “dreamer” of a brother evaluate if they are up to the family standard and plot to fix the situation.  Reuben goes along, but negotiates a plan that meets his brother’s expectations and those of his father to keep Joseph alive.

Judah, meets the expectations of a clever businessman and comes up with the plan to rid the brothers of Joseph while making a profit.  A pretty good deal it seems.

The brothers, overwhelmed by the expectations of family and community, take a way out that meets their immediate needs.

Joseph is likely also overwhelmed by the expectations of being his father’s favorite, overwhelmed by the expectations of his brothers, and soon overwhelmed by the expectations of a community in which his unique qualities are unknown and in which he has no standing.

We didn’t hear the rest of the story this morning, however, we know that Joseph chooses to trust God and to make the best of his situation, seeing himself sent by God, surpassing the expectations of those he serves, ultimately earning a position which allows him to save his family from a famine.  He turns his focus to God, to service, to forgiveness, and gratitude.  When overwhelmed by expectations he relies on God’s direction to make the right choices.

Last week we revisited the disciples and Jesus as they met the physical needs of over 15,000 hungry men, women, and children.  We talked about how the disciples had a difficult time understanding how they could meet the expectation of Jesus to feed all these people, struggling to see out God provides the resources for the work we are called to do.

This morning’s reading is what happens immediately after the crowd is fed.  Jesus expects the disciples to go by boat ahead of him, to give him some space to pray and recharge.

The Disciples likely expect that they will have a safe journey and some time off themselves while they wait for Jesus.

Those expectations seem reasonable, until everything starts to go unexpectedly and the disciples are overwhelmed and frightened by a storm.  Jesus focuses on prayer during the night, seeking God in the midst of all the expectations he is experiencing, then heads out over the water.  In what happens next we see more expectations unfold – the expectation that only a ghost could walk on water. Then when that expectation is proven inaccurate, the expectation Peter should be able to walk on water.    The expectation that once walking on the water he can stay afloat.

So many of us think we can stay afloat in the midst of overwhelming expectations.  We recognize the encouraging words of Jesus in the midst of the storms and chaos of our lives, we hear the invitation to join him.  What I, and my guess is, you, at least some of the time, forget is that when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid and began to sink.  When he lost focus on what Jesus expected – Peter to walk with faith, Peter began to sink.

It was in Peter re-connecting with Jesus, and Jesus joining the disciples in the boat that the expectations were truly met and the disciples recognized Jesus as the Son of God and worshiped him.

We may expect that because we claim Christ as Lord that everything should go the way we want it to go.  That getting together as a family and as a faith community will always go just as we expect it to.  We may expect that God has given us all the answers and everyone else needs to come in line.  We may expect that we can focus on what the world sets as standards for us and still have the miraculous ability to walk through all the expectations threatening to overwhelm us like the crashing waves in the midst of a storm.

We may see all the expectations put on us as impossible to fulfill and experience a life filled with gasping for air moments.

Those who stopped letting world directed expectations determine their actions and listened for God’s expectations in these passages saw a way through threatening situations and, while they would not have predicted the outcomes, found themselves moving toward perfection in love.

Micah 6:6-8 tells us what God expects.  In this passage, the people are overwhelmed by what they perceive to be onerous expectations if they are to have a relationship with God

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

.  This passage includes a reminder of what those expectations are.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (NIV)


John Wesley reflected this scripture in his General Rules – Do no harm, Do good, Walk Humbly with your God.

When we consider the expectations that build our schedules and consume our energy.  These passages and Wesley’s rules can help us connect with which expectations are life giving, and which ones are overwhelming.  They can help us turn overwhelmed into God directed and God sustained.

Reader: I’m so tired. There are so many stresses in my life and now the church wants me to think about What Jesus Would Do. They’ve got to be kidding. I don’t have time for this. There are too many things coming up which will need my full attention. That scripture about Jesus walking on the water to the disciples drives me nuts! Unless you have pontoons on your feet, you can’t walk on water! You know, I think I’m just going to cruise through the rest of the summer and then get back into this church thing in the fall. Oh, I’ll be in worship, because that’s what I do on Sunday, but sometimes it’s just too hard to cope with all this stuff.
Voice off to the side: Do not fear! I’m with you. You can handle this and not feel so stressed.
Reader: Who is that? What do you want? Where are you?
Voice off to the side: I’m right here, with you. Relax. You’re OK.
Reader: Call me. I’ll see if I can find you.
Voice off to the side: Come to me. Bring your fears and burdens. I can help.
Reader: OK, I’ll give it a try. I’m coming in the direction of your voice.
Voice off to the side: I’m right here. Don’t be afraid.
Reader: I’m not sure I see you – I’m trying to focus on your voice. This is ridiculous. What am I doing, following a voice?
Voice off to the side: Keep your focus on me – you’re almost here now.
Reader: No, I’m not. I’m scared. I can’t see you, I can only hear you, I think, unless you are just a figment of my imagination.
Voice off to the side: Do not let your faith weaken. You can do this!
Reader: Help me. I’m falling and failing.
Voice off to the side: Reach out your hand, I’ll help you.
Reader (reaching out): Lord, save me.
Voice off to the side: I’ve got you. You are safe. Place your trust in me.
Reader: Oh, my God! It is you!

Voice: You are safe. Come with me. (1)


As Jesus tells us, Do not be afraid, God’s expectations are filled with love and all the resources you need to fulfill them.




(1) Ministry Matters, Worship Elements, August 13, 2017

Promises Kept

Genesis 32, Psalm 17,

Matthew 14, Romans 9:1-5

As we explored “The Apostle’s Tale” over the last few weeks we have explored Alternative realities, Productive groaning, and the Practice of prayer, as we looked at how the Old Testament stories of the Patriarchs, the teachings of Jesus, and the encouragement of the Apostle Paul work together to help us understand God’s faithfulness and our call to action as followers of Jesus.

“’Promises” surface in the readings this week.  Promises fulfilled in the midst of struggle as Jacob continues to figure out his relationship with God.  Promises which cause the Disciples to wrestle with an understanding of the abundant resources they have as followers of Jesus.  Promises, the meaning of which, Paul wishes everyone could grasp.

The song “Promises, promises” began to pop into my head as I worked through the passages.  I’m not sure exactly why, it was popular in the late 1960’s and I suspect I haven’t heard it lately.

It was written as part of a story about relationships that are about pleasing self and some of the consequences of promises broken, and as I looked at the words I thought they reflected some of the things we have talked about.  There are two kinds of promises in this song – promises based on lies which can destroy a life and take all the joy from life and promises which lead to joy and hope and love.

The words, for those too young to remember include:

“Oh, promises, their kind of promises, can just destroy a life
Oh, promises, those kind of promises, take all the joy from life
Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises
Can lead to joy and hope and love
Yes, love!!

Every night I sleep now, no more lies
Things that I promised myself fell apart
But I found my heart”

Jacob is in the midst of returning to his homeland, all of the questionable decisions he has made over the years likely causing him to wonder what the future holds.  Wondering if God will keep a promise made to someone who has depended on self, rather than God, deceiving so many to get what he wants, including his father, brother, and now father-in-law.  It makes sense he is having a difficult time falling asleep.  He doesn’t have a cell phone or Facebook page to know if he is a forgiven man or if those he has wronged are preparing to pay him back.  No way to know whether he is surrounded by those hoping to bring him harm. He wrestles all night long, discovering that God is faithful, and God-made promises are promises kept.

He learns that promises of success “by any means” are built on lies, are life destroying, and are without joy.  He finds that he needs to put the past behind and work into God’s future with God beside him if he wants joy and hope love.

The Disciples are witnesses to a physically and emotionally tired Jesus who is trying to get some time away from the crowds that surround him.  They understand his need to rest, who wouldn’t with all the demands on his energy and now the news that his cousin, John the Baptist has been beheaded.  They also understand why the crowds are drawn to the healing presence of this rabbi whom they follow.  They don’t seem to understand why he puts others first, why compassion makes him dig deeper to meet their needs, why he doesn’t send the crowds away, how he can possibly feed a crowd probably close to 15,000 people.

Jesus shows them what can happen when we give what we have, even if we thing it is very little, to God to provide an opportunity for those who want to know more about Jesus, to hear more of what he teaches, or those who just need to experience some grace and love in their lives.  He teaches them that God can multiply what the world thinks can’t possibly be enough into more than enough.  That God’s promise of abundant life is already kept in the life and work of Jesus.

The fear of scarcity fuels lies of promises not kept, the understanding of God’s abundance brings a promise kept and filled with joy, hope, and love.

Paul is frustrated.  His brothers and sisters seem to be stuck in their understandings of God’s promises and can’t see them fulfilled in Jesus.    His anguish so deep he wishes they had all come to understand how God’s action in their history points to salvation in Christ even if it meant he would be cut off from Christ.  As deep as his faith has become, this is a significant wish.

He has come to realize that making judgements about others is not his job.  He teaches that it is the example of how we live our lives that will inspire others who do not yet know Christ to want to know more about him, and that it is not up to  us to convert or to point out where others are wrong.  That is God’s work and God’s alone.  It is God’s promises, promises kept, that allow Paul peace in the midst of his anguish as well as the strength to do what he is called to do and leave conversion of his brothers and sisters to God.  His, and our, responsibility is to live as if we believe God keeps promises.  To extend grace and love through all we do.  We can engage in conversations about why we do and believe what we do.  But we aren’t called to point out what we think others are doing wrong.  God, through the Holy Spirit, is already convicting all of us on how we should live.  Our job is to trust and to live as we hear God calling us to live.

When we stand on the promises of Jesus Christ our lives give testimony to his grace and love.

We stand on the solid ground of God’s promises for us, even and especially when we may not see them fulfilled, even in our lifetimes.

Our past won’t keep us from a relationship with God.  We have all the resources we need to do what God calls us to do.  We know that God’s promises are promises kept.  And that knowledge keeps us moving forward touching lives of others in ways they can see Christ in us.













The Practice of Prayer

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Romans 8:26-39

“Practice” is a familiar directive in our family.  “Practice your scales,” a common phrase as our daughters prepared for NYSSMA judging, “Practice your lines,” as the annual musical was in production.  “Practice your routine,” as cheerleading or marching band competition neared.

You may hear the encouragement to practice spelling words, swimming stroke, dance routine, a quilting stitch, a recipe, a golf swing, a maneuver on the boat, or parallel parking the car.  Circle of Nails has “practiced” diligently for the upcoming Gathering and Boomwackers will practice when they can find some mutually agreed upon time together.  For the most part, we all understand that to become accomplished at anything, we need to practice.

In this morning’s Epistle reading the Apostle Paul reminds us that we do not know how to pray, especially when we are in the midst of situations which leave us feeling hopeless.  He reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who helps us know how to pray, who is able to understand even those things we don’t understand and communicating them with God.  From that we may come to the conclusion that prayer is not one of the actions we need to practice because the Spirit will handle everything anyway.  Yet, Jesus prayed regularly and gave his disciples directions on how to pray.

The Disciples walked with Jesus, watched his example of regularly connecting to God through prayer, and they realized they needed instruction and practice.  The Prayer Jesus encourages, and Paul is addressing here, is not just a series of sentences we memorize and recite at just the right time.  Jesus specifically teaches us not to pray in vain repetitions as the heathen do because they think they will be heard for their many words.  Jesus also teaches us not to make prayer something we do to draw attention to ourselves. Prayer is not just a list of solutions we want God to provide or people we want God to fix.

We are a praying congregation.  The Prayer Chain is activated regularly and we share the news of prayers answered with joy.  We acknowledge God’s presence among us and the power of joining together.  We lift joys, praise, and petitions.  We might think we are proficient and a call to practice prayer is misplaced.

I think Prayer, as described in the teachings of Jesus and as lifted by Paul, is about how we enter conversations with God, our Father, the one who has adopted us as children through Christ Jesus.  It is multi-faceted communication which draws us closer and closer to God’s direction in our lives and our witness in the world, which reflects Christ in us.  For me the prayer referred to in this passage is as much about sharing what is on my heart with God as it is about listening for what God needs me to hear and taking action reflective of that conversation.

Good communication always takes practice.

When you came in this morning I asked you to write down your favorite place to pray.

You shared:

“With my husband,” “my friend’s house,” “Living Room,” “outside on the deck,” “throughout the day, whether it be driving, or making dinner, whenever I feel I need to,” “Any place I need to talk to God,” “the game room and the bedroom,” “The ‘throne’,” “In the woods,” “In a tractor going through the apple orchard.  I always feel close to God while out I His creation.”

“Dining Room,” “Wherever I am,” “My favorite place to pray is in bed, especially when I can’t sleep, I think of all my friends and relatives who need prayers.”  “In my kitchen (really everywhere!),” “I don’t have a ‘favorite’ place to pray.”

“Outdoors,” “On my swing overlooking the lake,” “Church and when I am in magnificent outdoor scenery,” “Morning, noon and night, wherever I may be,” “Anywhere or everywhere,” “Tree stand in the woods,” “Outside when I am going for a walk,” “In my car, on a long quiet trip, no busyness to get in the way,” “In my bedroom,”




A similar request by United Methodist Communications on Facebook had similar responses, highlighting places in an individual’s home, while engaged  with activities such as running, hiking, gardening; in the midst of a setting in nature, while driving (one of my favorites), and in churches or chapels.  Some noted in or by their bed.

We know Jesus often went away from the crowd, separated himself, if only for a short distance, from his followers, to spend time in conversation with God.  His practice of seeking a place apart is one that helps us as we practice prayer.

Jesus moved away from the distractions.    Paul names some of the distractions of his day: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, oppression, life-threatening situations.     We might name fear of the unknown, concern over violent crimes, alarm over terrorism, the inability to control one’s life and circumstances, finances, and health as distractions similar to those facing the early Christians.

No one is immune from hardship and suffering, but the noise of those things attempting to divert our attention from God, can distract us from feeling the presence of God as we pray.  Only with practice can we begin to push those distractions aside and experience the Holy Spirit connecting us to our Creator in life-giving ways.

We can move away from those distractions by the time and place we regularly pray, by coming to prayer expecting God is already there through the Holy Spirit within us, by including gratitude, praise, and petitions and a time when we are still, confident that God is in the silence bringing us peace unlike anything this world has to offer.

Jesus showed us that even when the answer to prayer isn’t what we prefer, God is faithful and gets us through anything we face, even persecution and death.  As Paul reminds us we can come to prayer knowing that God has it handled through Christ.  That our relationship with God is stronger than anything that tries to make us believe it is more powerful, important, or influential than God.

As we practice prayer we become more and more in tune with God’s love and constant presence with us.  We increasingly know that God is not the cause of all the dark places life may take us, but that there is no dark place where God refuses to go with us.   More and more we come to understand that the worst that can happen to us cannot compare to the best God has already accomplished for is in Jesus Christ.  If God is for us, we don’t have to care about who is against us?[1

There is discipline to prayer.  It is God’s vehicle for spiritual maturity, however, too often prayer is reactive rather than pro-active and not part of all that we do.  God is always present with us.  We can pray anywhere, anytime, for any reason.  It just takes consciously connecting with God in all areas of our day.

Those of you who “Facebook®” know that it can be a powerful place of prayer as friends around the country, sometimes the world, join together to meet God in conversation over specific situations.  This week some members of our congregation had some rough spots and reached out with prayers and requests for prayers.

One prayer lifted:

“Lord, we need a window opened if you see fit…. Because…. well… See below…  “Some people will like you only if you fit inside their box  Don’t be afraid to shove it up their”

“Note: yes I’m prayin’ and hoping for others to pray with me…. And yes that prayer is coupled with a meme about shoving boxes in places where boxes shouldn’t be; but even if I didn’t attach it, God knows what’s in my mind and on my heart so I might as well share it!”

Looking beyond the distractions of a world that pushes against what it doesn’t understand about followers of Christ living differently, this prayer:

asks for God’s window, not a particular solution,

seeks the support of other prayer partners,

acknowledges God’s presence in all places

understands that God’s knows what is on the heart even when not spoken,

and shows confidence that nothing we face can separate us from the love of God.

I could not have written a better example of practicing prayer.

We are called to pray without ceasing.  God knows what brings us joy, what causes us pain, and everything in between, and as the hymn suggests – we need to take everything to God in prayer.

If we are practicing prayer we Don’t box prayer into before meals, at church, and at bedtime.  We Don’t save it for the hard times.

We Practice prayer, as we practice anything which we what to do with excellence, as often as possible, in every place possible, fully present and expecting it will change things.

[1] Christopher News Notes, August, 1993

Groaning Productively

Genesis 28:10-19a

Matthew 13:24-30

Romans 8:12-25


As we began looking at The Apostle’s Tale last week we considered alternative realities highlighted by the Apostle Paul.  In one reality, followers focus on the Law – the rules and regulations – pushing themselves and others to follow the letter of the law through guilt.  In this reality, sin and death are in control because sin is stronger than the Law’s commands.  It is focused on self, and what self can do to fulfill the law, what self can accomplish.  It easily opens up to choices which are controlled by passion or envy or pride or ambition.  In this reality, self, rather than God, becomes the focus.

In Paul’s second reality, followers focus on God – looking for God’s grace in their own lives and extending it to others.  In this reality, Christ’s death and resurrection allows followers to live “in Christ,” in a grace-filled, new world where life is in charge.  Walking according to the Spirit sets a person free from the power of sin.  Followers who are in Christ bear spiritual fruit, practice their faith in all areas of their daily lives.

Paul encouraged all to live in the second reality, living in Christ through God’s grace.

In the words we heard this morning, Paul points out that there is a cost to choosing that reality, that it is not without challenges, frustrations, and suffering.  He also lets us know that all of creation is groaning with us as it waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For all of creation to be freed from decay.

Groaning is an underlying action in all of the lectionary readings this morning.

We heard some about Jacob during the children’s message this morning.  Genesis 28:10-19a.  Jacob meets God in a dream while “on the run” after tricking his brother.  Until this point in the Jacob, Esau, Isaac and Rebekah story, there has been no record of Jacob and God having any conversations, of Jacob seeking God’s wisdom before his actions that allowed him to steal his brother’s birthright, no indication he prays to, or worships, or acknowledges God.  He hasn’t really been an upstanding, ethical, loving member of the family.

If we could overhear Jacob as he flees to join his mother’s family and to find a wife from her kin, we might hear some groaning, some deep sounds coming from the pain produced in pushing his body to complete the journey, some groans of hopelessness about what the future holds, maybe some regret.  Groans expressing exhaustion and a sense of loneliness.

If we walk beside the servants and the disciples in the gospel passage from Matthew this morning, we may hear groans as well.  Groans that there are weeds growing alongside the wheat, taking resources away from the plants which have potential to nourish the hungry.  Groans that they aren’t allowed to go out and decide what is a weed and what is of value, groans that they must till, water, and care for all of the plants, leaving the judgement of what to keep to the harvesters.

There are likely groans from the disciples as they again find themselves at a loss of what Jesus is trying to teach them.  Groans as they realize they are called to nurture all, as determining what is wheat and what is tare is not up to them, but up to the angels.  Groans for clarity of how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into being.

There are many groans surfacing in our world today.  Groans from those who feel they are in hopeless situations: health, finances, relationships, circumstances within their community and others …  Groans from the pain of loss, addiction, oppression, hunger, feeling invisible, loneliness, and more.

We hear some of these groans in the news, some of them on prayer chains, and others around our tables.

I believe many of us groan within as we long for God’s Kingdom to come to earth now.  As we pray for others to come worship in our buildings, to sing the songs we love, to pray the prayers that well up in our souls.  We are frustrated that there seems to be too little wheat and way too many weeds.

Paul refers to groaning as it reflects the pain of childbirth.  Many women have learned how to groan through the pain of childbirth in a way that makes that groaning productive, helping them through labor into the joy of welcoming their child into the world.

Groaning productively helps us all get through the pain that confronts us in our society, in our churches, in our homes.  From Romans 8:26-27 we know that the Spirit helps us in our weakness interceding for us through wordless groans when we don’t even know what to pray for.  Groaning productively on our behalf.

God recognized Jacob’s groans even though Jacob didn’t seem to know he was making them.  God came to Jacob, encountering Jacob where he was.  Jacob recognizes God, recognizes God’s promises, shares the story with others, and marks the spot with a rock, but there is not a record of Jacob making a commitment to God in that time and place, no act of surrender, emotional or otherwise.  The encounter led to what we may consider a bargain of sorts, if this God makes good on his promise, Jacob will do his part.

It is God’s commitment that leads to fulfilled promises, and a new nation, not Jacob’s commitment.  God’s grace gives room for Jacob to take one step at a time in coming to understand God’s direction for his life and how to groan productively to bring forth new life for himself and others.

Groaning productively, allows the servants to stay focused on the task assigned to them.  To nurture all growing in the field.  To take judging the value of what is entrusted to them off their responsibility list.  They are to turn their groans of complaint into groans of labor so all make it to the harvest.

Similarly, the Disciples, past and present, are sent into the field which is the world.  We are to teach and nurture.  While we know the field contains the people of the kingdom and those drawn away from the kingdom, we are not charged with figuring out who is who.  That is left to the angels at the end of the age.

While there is a distinct genetic and visual difference between wheat and weeds, this passage indicates there isn’t that same easy to identify difference between those who are living into the kingdom and those who aren’t.  In reality I think we all have some wheat and weed tendencies within us and it is through our receipt of God’s grace that we become more and more wheat and less and less weed.

It is also possible that those who we think are weeds, are like Jacob, still coming to recognize God’s call and direction for their lives.  In this passage, there is hope that all will recognize God is reaching out to them and will be transformed by God’s grace before the harvest.

Paul reminds us that “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.”  They can only be revealed if each of us is groaning productively:  If our energy is in recognizing all the places God’s grace is extended to us, particularly if we haven’t been looking.  If we extend God’s grace to others at all times.  Showing up, just as God shows up for Jacob and as the servants care for the wheat and weeds alike.

Groaning productively leads us to share our experiences as children of God with others with our personal stories wherever the opportunity arises, to embody God’s kingdom the best we can with the help of the Holy Spirit, and to give others room to experience God’s grace one step at a time.

Groaning wells up within us as we recognize the distance between the fullness of the Kingdom of God and the reality of the world in which we live.  Our Groaning becomes productive as it joins the groaning of the Spirit and all creation, waiting in hope.

The groaning energizes us, propels us forward, as in labor.  It is the first fruits of the amazing harvest to come.

We live in a culture that wants to silence the groaning, kill the pain, or divert our attention from what is happening within us and around us in other people’s lives, and in creation.  It is a culture which calls us to point out everything that is wrong in the “other” and to ignore the groan inside that alerts us to where God’s grace is extended and being reflected, that calls us to join “other” as they reflect the kingdom of our Father.  How we reflect God’s grace to others, within our faith community, geographic community, or world will determine if we shine like the sun.

Recognizing God’s presence in our lives, seeking to live in Christ, is possible through the work of the Spirit, but it is not easy.  We can “reality check” ourselves on how much we are shining by how we talk to one another, how we make a difference in the lives of those who are hungry and thirsty, those without hope, those whose voices are not heard.  We can reflect on our level of generosity, encouragement, faithful distinctiveness, hospitality, patient companionship.  Our priorities tell us if we are following through on God’s actual desire for us.

We must dig in deeper to help others see Christ in us, and wait with patience, knowing that our God is good and is working actively and behind the scenes to bring all creation into the full glory of God’s kingdom even when the outcomes are not obvious to us.  We must groan productively.

Sources include Preaching Notes Rev. Dawn Chesser, Discipleship ministries.

Alternative Reality

Romans 8:1-11

Periodically I call one of my sisters to have what we call a “reality check.”  It can be about our perception of something going on in the family, in the community, as well as sometimes, in the world.  The most frequent topic is something someone has said or done that seems completely disconnected from reality.  The “check-in” phone call is to make sure it isn’t that I’ve disconnected from facts and actual circumstances and need to adjust my take on the situation.  Sometimes I do have to make that adjustment, but more frequently, I am reminded that perceptions, definitions, priorities can cause us to understand reality differently.

Books, radio programs, television programs, and movies offer up their own kind of reality.

Books come to us in the form of: Fiction and Non-Fiction – Fantasy or Fact.   All presenting alternative realities based on goals, audience, and understandings.

A “Vegan” cookbook is as accurate as a “How to Cook Meat to Perfection” cookbook.  But the second is an unlikely choice for someone who has made a decision to eliminate all animal food items from their diet.

A Documentary on President Jimmy Carter produced by Habitat for Humanity may present something entirely different from a documentary on President Carter produced by a military hostage negotiator who specializes in foreign countries.  Both documentaries may be filled with fact-checked information, and yet give a very different reality of who President Carter is.

Star Trek brought us the Nook and Kindle before we had the technology to create them.   Like many science fiction books and movies – Sometimes fantasy becomes reality.

There are fact-checked researched news programing and “talk radio” with opinions flowing that may or may not be based on facts or facts taken in context.   Many television programs: those lifting the disclaimer that they do not depict any particular person or event – those promoting themselves as reality – as well as some labeled “news” – often blur the lines between entertainment and presenting accurate portrayals of people and events.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a book written in 1986 and revised in a new Hulu series, gives us a look at a possible reality if a certain set of circumstances are in place.  In some ways a cautionary tale, similar to 1984 by George Orwell.  Fiction lifting the possibilities of future realities if particular paths are taken.

There are alternative realities.  Realities authors and playwrights create.  Realities I live – realities you live.

So many realities I think we all need “reality checks” on a regular basis.  Apostle Paul offers us reality checks throughout the Book of Romans, and in particular in this passage.

The Message by Eugene Patterson shares this passage this way:

Romans 8:1-11The Message (MSG)

“The Solution Is Life on God’s Terms

8 1-2 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

3-4 God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

9-11 But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!”

Realty in two forms: Those who think they can do it on their own; those who trust God’s action in them.

Everything in The Handmaid’s Tale is about what humans do for God to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  The reality described in its pages is one of black and white, pick a particular scripture out of context to support a political agenda to correct am issue as a particular group of people see the problem.  It is a world in which God is angry with humankind, just waiting for humans to mess up, in which God sends out human spies and leaders to keep people in line and punish them when they stray from the determined norm.

The reality of the world to which Paul writes the letter to the Romans is not the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the role of Law in relationships between God and humankind is reflected in both the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale and the unique problem in a unique time and place of The Apostles Tale in Romans.

Historically, a large number of Jewish people living in Rome were forced to leave in the late 40s CE.  Under a change in Roman leadership, that expulsion was reversed and people of Jewish descent returned to their home city.  The new community of faith following Jesus had seen an increase in the number of Gentiles coming to believe in Christ and there was a question within the community of faith as to whether it should continue to concentrate on winning Jewish people to Christ or concentrate on the Gentiles.  Early in Romans Paul makes his position clear as he writes, “God’s power for salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”[1]  For Paul, all meant all, so the Christians in Rome were obligated to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.[2]

It wasn’t as simple as this indicates because the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians had, in some ways, two distinct realities created by their cultural traditions and practices, including what food they could or could not eat.  Later in Romans Paul acknowledges practical differences, noting that there are things about which people of faith can disagree, but that these differences should not hurt the community’s worship of God or life together in Christ.[3]

We are also living in a time when people who follow Jesus come from a variety of traditions which impacts their sense of what living out their faith and worship looks like.  It can be true even within one geographic community, as it was in Rome.

In the passage this morning, Paul does not describe God as the divine judge waiting in the wings to punish those who do not follow a list of specific regulations as is the case in the fictional world of The Handmaid Tale.  Paul doesn’t’ suggest that God is choosing one side or position of faith over another.  Saying instead: “For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”[4]

In one reality, followers can focus on the Law – the rules and regulations and push themselves and others to follow the letter of the law through guilt.  In this reality, sin and death are in control because sin is stronger than the Law’s commands.  It is focused on self, and what self can do to fulfill the law, what self can accomplish.  It easily opens up to choices which are controlled by passion or envy or pride or ambition.  In this reality, self, rather than God, becomes the focus.

In another reality, followers can focus on God – looking for God’s grace in their own lives and extending it to others.  In this reality, Christ’s death and resurrection allows followers to live “in Christ,” in a grace-filled, new world where life is in charge.  Walking according to the Spirit sets a person free from the power of sin.  Followers who are in Christ bear spiritual fruit, practice their faith in all areas of their daily lives.  Others are drawn to Christ as they see followers making choices and communicating the desires and dictates of God’s love.

God living in us enables the transformation not only of who we are, but the transformation of the world.

Those who choose the reality that focuses on God have the strength to get through every day not matter what it brings.  We don’t have to worry about either yesterday’s sins or tomorrow’s sins, because we are assured that we are forgiven.  Earlier in the Book of Romans, is the discussion followers have with Paul about God’s grace as it relates to messing up and why we need to try to live a holy and sinless life.  Paul answers that God’s unlimited grace should not a reason to sin more, but an inspiration to us to learn to walk in the Spirit of the one who has saved us, the Spirit of life and peace, because walking in the Spirit of Christ is a better way to live.

I choose the reality that is God-focused, that gives me strength to face whatever comes, in the knowledge that in Christ I am forgiven when I fall short and that I have all the power and resources I need to reflect more and more the Spirit that dwells within me.

As believers in Christ Jesus, as those who seek to live in Christ and be God focused, it is the reality you can claim.  It is the reality that is filled with abundant life.


1] Romans 1:16 NRSV

[2] Dawn Chesser, Preaching Notes The Apostle’s Tale

[3] Romans 14:1-12

[4] Romans 8:1-2 NRSV