“Do Not Be Afraid to Hope” – Do Not Be Afraid… Pt. 1 (December 3, 2017)

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Conklin United Methodist Church in South River, NJ starts the Advent season with a new series on the Christmas Story found in the Gospel of Luke titled “Do Not Be Afraid.” Pastor James​ explores the powerful moment God listens to Zechariah’s teeny-tiny prayer by fulfilling the ultimate prophecy of centuries past, and how we too can trust that the same God hears our teeny-tiny prayers and fulfills them in ways far beyond our imagination.

If you were to see an angel, would it freak you out a little? Do you think you’d be afraid? Most people in the Bible were, which is why the first thing the angel usually said was, “Don’t be afraid”. Four times in the Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke an angel appears to someone, and each time the angel says, “Don’t be afraid”, but each time gives different reasons. We’re going to look at those four stories, and see why Jesus’ coming is the ultimate reason to let go of our fears.

Luke 1:5-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

“Stop the Greed (Less is More)” – [Stop the] Madness Pt. 3 (November 19, 2017)

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We have an interesting relationship with money, don’t we? We live in a culture that is completely DRIVEN by the accumulation of wealth and instant gratification. In 2016 the average household debt in the U.S. was $137,063. That’s almost $13 trillion in debt. We borrow money and spend money we don’t have to get things we don’t need. Today’s new homes are 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973. Meanwhile, the average household size has been declining, from 3.01 persons per household on average in 1973 to a new record low of 2.54 persons per household last year. We are smaller families living in bigger houses. A study from 10 years ago showed that about 60% of those whose assets ranged from $1 million to $5 million don’t consider themselves wealthy. We are the wealthiest we’ve ever been in the history of humanity, but we don’t see ourselves as rich.

Today’s wealth-driven culture has led to the I-centered culture. Individualism over the community. Me over you. And all this reminds me of a sermon from the past. The founder of Methodism John Wesley gave a powerful sermon in 1789 titled “The Use of Money,” where he makes three biblical conclusions about money. That is, that we ought to:
1. Make all you can
2. Save all you can
3. Give all you can

John Wesley wasn’t against people having money, nor did he think that money was evil. What mattered most was what people did with their money. For Wesley, “money is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked.”

I believe these three points by Wesley and today’s passage from Paul’s letter to Timothy can all be summarized by three words:
Sometimes when it comes to money, LESS IS MORE.

1 Timothy 6:6-10New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that[a] we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

“Stop the Objectifying” – [Stop the] Madness Pt. 2 (November 12, 2017)

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Thursday October 5, The New York Times publishes a story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. Since the publication, the total number of accusers go beyond 80. At the root of this “Weinstein ripple effect” is PEOPLE BEING OBJECTIFIED. People being seen as objects and not fully human. And we as the church cannot brush this off and go “Oh well, that Hollywood. They have nothing to do with us.” Because it has everything to do with us. This hyper-sexualized culture in the entertainment industry directly correlates to the normalization of sexual objectification in our own communities.

We are often swayed by what we see in the physical appearances in people. Or take it further, we let what we think other people see in us sway how we think of ourselves. As we are saturated by an objectification culture, we often find ourselves objectifying others and even objectifying ourselves. Our gaze and the gaze of people carries so much weight in the decisions we make in our lives. What we wear. How we talk. What we eat. Where we live. What car we drive. What makeup you put on. We give so much power to the gaze of people and yet it is like the paper currency not backed by gold: There is no real value to it.

There is, however, a gaze that matters. The gaze of absolute truth. The gaze of perfection. The gaze that determines our salvation. The gaze of God. And in verse 7 God reveals the rubric of his gaze; the angle from which he looks at us: “the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” The one true gaze that ACTUALLY matters does not see us like a piece of meat. The one true gaze does not objectify us. The one true gaze does not look on the outward appearance, but he looks on the heart.

1 Samuel 16:6-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[a] 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

“Stop the Demonizing” – [Stop the] Madness Pt. 1 (November 5, 2017)

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It is so much easier to be with people that look like you and all agree on every issue; and demonize people who aren’t like you and don’t think like you. It is much harder and messier to see people as human beings, build relationship with them, and listen to their stories. But that is what Jesus did! He didn’t demonize people but developed relationship with people; especially those who were the outcasts of the society, and demonized by others. Once you have a relationship with a person you disagree with, the issues might become messier, but it also becomes much closer to the truth.

Pastor James Lee of Conklin United Methodist Church begins a new message series “Stop the Madness” in this sermon given on November 5, 2017. During this series, we will be focusing on restoring faith in humanity and to address the growing polarization in our society.

Ephesians 6:10-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

“Play” Tuning Pt. 3 (October 22, 2017)

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“Play” Tuning Pt. 3 (October 22, 2017)

We are going through a series on Tuning, the still sacred moment of alignment to the tuning pitch. The first step of tuning is to be still and silent before the tuning pitch, because clarity of the tuning pitch comes in the silence. The second step was to actually tune your instrument, to turn the pegs, to twist your instrument – that blessings can be found in the midst of tension.
And today, we approach the third step, which is to PLAY. Because when you’re playing in an orchestra, whether you are truly in-tune can only be confirmed once the instrument is played alongside other instruments.

We who are many parts of one body experience transcending joy when we play together. The feet will run with greater vigor when the eyes see the goal set before them. The violinist plays her violin with greater passion as she hears how her part adds to the various parts to create a greater sound than anything she could possibly create on her own. The church plays her mission with greater joy as she sees lives being changed in her community.

In play, we find life. In play, we find out who I am.
In play, we find out who we are.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 26
“12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

“Tune: Blessings in the Tension” Tuning Pt. 2 (October 15, 2017)

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“Tune: Blessings in the Tension” Tuning Pt. 2 (October 15, 2017)

Tuning is crucial if a musical performance to sound correct. No matter how fantastic the musician, if their instrument is out-of-tune, the music will sound horrible. This tuning, this perfecting is a foundational necessity for a musical performer. and tuning happens when tension is introduced to the strings.

We often think of tension in our lives as something that happens to us apart from God’s rescue plan. In the secular view, trials and suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption. But the Book of James Chapter 1 helps us see that tension is part of God’s redemption. Specifically in today’s reading, we see three things about tension in life:
1. You will experience it
2. You will be perfected through it
3. You will find true joy in the midst of it

James 1:2-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
2 My brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

“Listen” Tuning Pt. 1 (October 8, 2017)

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“Listen” Tuning Pt. 1 (October 8, 2017)

When you go to see a symphony orchestra performance, musicians file on stage, take their seats and warm up – and a sort of chaotic noise ensues. Then, the principal violinist comes on stage, and after a moment of silence –she takes a breath, and signals the tuning pitch. In other words, after the noisy chaos and before the music can begin, there is a sacred moment of alignment, also known as tuning.

As we prepare for the music performance that is our daily lives, I like to spend the next four weeks focusing on the sacred and meditative moment of tuning to the pitch of God. And this first week we will talk about the first step in tuning: To be still. To LISTEN.

Any musician here can attest to this – there is nothing more frustrating than when there are too many distracting noises when you’re trying to tune your instrument. Because clarity of the tuning pitch comes in the silence.

1 Kings 19:11-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

“Why Do We Do Communion?” Sermon by Pastor Tanya Linn Bennett (October 1, 2017)

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Why Do We Do Communion? – Sermon by Pastor Tanya Linn Bennett (October 1, 2017)

For World Communion Sunday, special circuit elder and guest speaker Rev. Dr. Tanya Linn Bennett gave a message asking the question “Why Do We Do Communion?” Dr. Bennett explores the history, diversity, and inclusive power of the sacrament known as Holy Communion.

“Why Do We Go To Church Every Week?” Why Do We Do That Pt. 5 (September 24, 2017)

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“Why Do We Go To Church Every Week?” Why Do We Do That Pt. 5 (September 24, 2017)

Why do we come to church? You go to school to get an education so you can make a living. You go to work to make money so you can pay the bills. You go to the gym for exercise and better health and possible to loose weight. You go to the mall to shop for clothes and the grocery store to buy food. You go to the lake to fish and ski, the ball game to cheer on your favorite team, and golf course for fun.

But church? Why go to there? Why get up early on one of your few off-days? Why go through the hassle of dressing up and the getting the kids ready? Why go to the trouble of finding a parking space around downtown South River? Why go to church?

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about that little question, you’re not alone. Surveys tell us that as many as 79% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, yet only 20% of Americans attend church regularly. I guess some people look at going to church as a bother — an unnecessary burden to be avoided whenever possible — a perfectly good hour wasted in order to keep a wife or a preacher or a parent off their backs. Others see it as sort of like punching a spiritual clock or earning brownie points with their Maker.

When speaking to the millennial generation, many would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” There is an animosity towards the institutional church, and this idea that one can experience spirituality alone in the confines of their home better than in public with other people and distractions.

But to someone who understands church and what it’s really all about, going to church can be the most spiritually fulfilling, inspiring thing you do all week.
Specifically, the one point I want to drive home today is THIS:
Attending Sunday Worship is admitting the fact that you cannot walk in your faith journey alone.
1. Singing together aligns our vibrations and knits our hearts together
2. Powerful uplifting words can be spoken over you and over me
3. Generosity can be practiced and tested
4. Corporate Prayer reminds us to breathe: to exhale the troubles in our hearts and breathe in the same God.

There is something immensely prideful and self-centered when one says: “I can do this all by myself.”

You cannot walk in your faith journey alone.
1. The church gives you community.
2. The church gives you strength.
3. The church points you true rest.

Exodus 20:8-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Acts 2:41-47 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Life among the Believers
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[a] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[b] and ate their food with glad and generous[c] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

“Why Do We Pray?” Why Do We Do That Pt. 4 (September 17, 2017)

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Why Do We Pray? | Why Do We Do That Pt. 4 (September 17, 2017)

From around 60 to 62 AD, the Apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial with the very real possibility of execution looming over him. Surely, he had the right to be anxious. It was under these circumstances that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, and in the fourth chapter, Paul provides the only true and ultimate solution to the suffocating power of anxiety.

And that is prayer.

Now you might say: “Okay, Pastor James, I’m glad you found the solution to my anxiety, but your answer is giving me an anxiety attack because I don’t know how to pray!” Well, you Paul had you covered almost 2000 years ago – because our Philippians passage today helps see that PRAYER IS BREATHING.

Philippians 4:6-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.