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In The Gathering

“Here's the church... Here's the steeple... Open the door... and see all the people!”  

As a kid I used to love singing this nursery rhyme song and doing the hand motions that go along with it.  Full disclosure here, the secret to making the hand motion work eluded me for quite some time.  Then one day it was an “aha” moment... “So, that's how that works!” I remember from early Sunday School days that this song and hand motion was used to help us kids see the church was the place, the building, that you went to on Sunday morning... with all the other people!  

“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people. I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!” (We are the Church, United Methodist Hymnal # 558).  

I remember singing this song for the first time as a young adult in worship services. In it, I was learning a different message from the nursery rhyme of my childhood. People are the church. 

In the last few years, I've come to know the church is more than people; it is people gathering in the name and presence of Jesus!  I think it's interesting that in the four New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), of the ten times Jesus appeared after his death and resurrection, only once was it to an individual. Nine times the risen Christ appeared to a gathering of two or more disciples.  

“It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”                    (John 20:19, CEB)  

As the disciples found out on that first Easter Sunday evening, something unique happens when followers of Jesus gather. The risen Jesus Christ steps into our lives as a gathering of disciples. Then Christ’s presence and peace sends us out in the life-breathing presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Click here to listen to more (April 18 sermon).  

My prayer for you is that you will make a habit of gathering with other followers of Jesus to worship, to be in conversation, to be in mission, to study the Bible, to enjoy a meal, etc.  My prayer for you is that you gather with other followers of Jesus as often as you can, in whatever way you can (in-person or virtually). And my prayer for you is that whenever you gather with other follows of Jesus, you will always expect Jesus to show up and change your lives in the gathering that is the church!

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve 

Breaking Bread

“Jesus himself came near... but their eyes were kept from recognizing him... As they came near the village... he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, 'Stay with us...' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him...” (Luke 24: 15-16, 28-30, NRSV)  

For me, the story of the walk to Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday has always been the most intriguing of the Bible's reports of the risen Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). We could debate the possible reasons the two disciples didn't recognize the risen Jesus, however, in the end we would have to confess we just don't really know.  

But what we do know is that for those two “Emmaus bound” disciples, that Sunday had not yet  become Easter. They had not truly encountered the living Jesus, even though he was walking right beside them. It didn't happen, until they invited this “stranger” to a shared meal and he blessed and broke the bread.

We’re not told specifically what blessing prayer the risen Jesus prayed, but more than likely he was following an ancient Jewish table tradition.  Before a meal, the male head of the household would take a loaf of bread, pray the traditional blessing, break or tear the bread apart, and distribute it to all those assembled for the meal.  That prayer went something like this: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” It was a table blessing the two disciples would have heard and prayed hundreds of times before, but this time was different!

Every meal, especially those shared with others, can be an occasion to experience the presence of Christ.  What was it Jesus said? "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20, NRSV).  So, I encourage you to receive the gift of Easter that is Jesus Christ's presence and grace, at each and every meal you sit down to. As on that first Easter evening in Emmaus, it all begins with your invitation for Jesus to join you at the table.  

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve 

The Feed Scoop

As soon as she (Mary Magdalene) had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.” (John 20:14, CEB) 

Growing up on a farm, rolling out of bed early to do morning chores was pretty routine and forgettable. But there is one morning when I was 11 or 12 years old that sticks in my memory decades latter. It was still dark when I reached into the feed barrel to scoop out some feed for the cows. Instead of the scoop handle, I grabbed a opossum. Scared the daylights out of me! Click here to listen to the full story (first part of the April 4 sermon).

In the early morning darkness, the bottom of the feed barrel was the last place I expected to see a opossum, let alone grab a hold of one! So, you better believe I was looking for it after that!

The only reason a hungry opossum was able to get into the feed barrel in the first place was that I, or one of my brothers, left the lid off the barrel the night before. I of course blamed my brothers. Regardless of who was at fault, after that I always made sure the barrel lid as tightly secure after the chores were done. I had never carried a flashlight to do morning chores before, but I did after that! For the next several days, I would shine that flashlight every where I went in the early morning darkness. And I always made sure to look into the feed barrel first, before reaching in to grab the scoop.

After my close encounter with the furry feed scoop handle, I expected a opossum to be lurking at every turn. I was not going to be caught off guard by it or any other varmint again! It's the same way with Easter. If you really believe that Jesus Christ is risen, do you expect the living Jesus to show up in some way in your life?

Receiving the gift of Easter means expecting Jesus at every turn!

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve

Headed West

It was still dark on a cold January morning when I backed the car out of the driveway a little before 6:00 am. A little later I eased onto I-44 headed west towards Tulsa, Oklahoma a two hour drive away. Once there I had a full day and evening of classes before climbing back into my car for the two hour drive east, hopefully arriving home before midnight.

Lots of questions rolled through my mind. What would graduate school be like? What would being back in the classroom after 20+ years be like? Could I keep up with all the lectures, reading, paper writing and projects. Could I keep up with my obligations of family, a day job, and being a rookie weekend pastor of a small congregation? I'd done the math, crunched the time numbers, but it didn't really make sense.

It was my first day of seminary and I was really nervous! But I was also excited!

A few years earlier I had begun to sense God nudging me to do something different with my life. That “something” eventually became a call into formal ministry in the United Methodist Church. After lots of prayer and conversation with my wife, I decided I should say “yes” to this call. And that decision set in motion a process that had brought me to this January morning headed west to Tulsa.

But was this really the right thing to do?

I tuned the radio to the local Christian radio station. Somewhere in the midst of the music and stark beauty of the eastern Oklahoma landscape becoming visible in the sunrise, I got a very powerful sense of the presence of God. In those holy moments few, if any, of my questions were answered. In spite of that, I was confident I was headed in the right direction!

It may or may not be a life changing call into formal ministry in the church, but God calls each of us to obedience with a purpose. It’s in the midst of that obedience that we find confidence in God’s presence and help! Click here to listen to more (March 28 sermon).

May you and I always be able to say, “Where you lead me today, God, I will follow.”

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve 

Power of the Past

History was my favorite subject in school! I know that's not the case for everyone. So, I asked my “history loving” elementary teacher son, “How do you make history exciting and relevant for your grade school students?” He chuckled and said, “You have to get creative. It also helps to get them thinking about how what’s happened in the past connects with what’s happening now.” 

He gave the example of the history of communication. You start by digging into how people used to send messages to each other 50, 100, or even 2000 years ago. Way back then you might have to rely on someone delivering a letter on foot, or if you really wanted express delivery, on horseback. Later came message carrying by ship, then train (and here’s where things really start accelerating), then came the telegraph, telephones, computers, email, cell phones, and instant messaging. 

"But you don't stop there," he said. "You have your students think about the ways communication may well evolve in the future. If that’s how fast and different communication has evolved in the past, just imagine what might happen in the years ahead! And it’s then that students of all ages begin to see how sometimes it takes the past to better understand the present and future." 

Sometimes, something old can help us better see the new!

That's true when in comes to our past with God. In fact, God's past repeats itself in new ways! So, I want you to look back to the power of the cross and resurrection of Christ, through the lens of where you are today. Through the lens of where you are, what you're doing, and where you're going... look back to the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ! It's how you'll recognize the new thing God is doing in your life. Click here to listen to more (March 21 sermon). 

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve

Hungry?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, enjoy the richest of feasts.” (Isaiah 55:2b, CEB)

It's said that smells can be powerful memory triggers to places and events that have emotional connections for us. I believe it!

When hit with the aroma of fresh-baked bread, immediately in my mind's eye I'm walking through the back door of the farmhouse I grew up in. Coming in from a long summer day of playing outside with my brothers or after finishing my chores on a cold winter evening, the smell of my mom's homemade bread in the air let me I know all would be well. Mmmm... I can taste now!

As good as a slice of freshly buttered, steamy “right out of the oven” slice of my mom's bread tasted, it was much more than that really! The smell, sight, and taste of that bread confirmed that I was invited to come in, loved and cared for deeply, and always welcomed home no matter what. And when I think of some of the mischief my brothers and I could get into, that's pretty amazing really!

It's the same way with God!

God invites us back to the rich banquet of life in God’s presence and grace. It doesn't matter who you are or aren't. It doesn't matter where you've been or not been. It doesn't matter what you've done or not done... the invitation is always there to seek God, call on God, abandon our ways, and return to God (Isaiah 55:6-7). God's invitation still stands! Click here to listen to more (March 14 sermon). 

My prayer is that you will make yourself fully available to God's invitation and say “yes!”

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve 

Unopened Box

It was a medium sized box that was taped shut. It had never been opened. It had not one, not two, but three moving company labels on it. So, that box was first packed three moves earlier, over 15 years ago. I picked it up, wasn't very heavy. Gave it a shake, didn't rattle. I had no idea what was in it.

There it was, in my hands, taunting me. What was inside? How important could it be? Why hadn't it been opened? Should I open it now? I decided not to, and put it back on the shelf where it came from. Sometimes it's just easier leaving things unopened and hidden in the past. “Out of sight out of mind” as they say.

But when in comes to the disgrace or shame of our past, “out of sight out of mind” doesn't always work. Some things we seek to keep unopened in our lives... things like past hurts, past doubts, past disappointments, past loss, past guilt and sin... these things tend find their way out the box in defining moments and controlling ways. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish...” (John 3:16, NIV). Shall not perish... under the weight of past shame and guilt. Shall not perish... in the pain of past hurts. Shall not perish... in the grip of past temptations or additions. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ shall not perish, but have what? Eternal Life! In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God rolls away the disgrace of our past forever into our future!  Click here to listen to more (March 7 sermon).

My prayer for you is that you can let go of the disgrace of your past and open the box of God's grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ!

Your partner on the journey,

Pastor Steve

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