For the Beauty of the Earth

(Author’s note: This article was written for the May 2018 Newsletter “The Cross and Tower” for First United Methodist Church Winnfield)

IMG_2117

Azalea cluster closeup from the author’s yard March 27, 2018

If you are a musician or even a fan of music, you probably recognize the title of this article. It is from a hymn by the same name, number 92 in the United Methodist Hymnal. The first stanza reads “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies. Lord of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.” Each stanza of the hymn paints a picture of gratitude embodied in some aspect of God’s creation: the earth (stanzas 1 and 2), the senses (stanza 3), “human love” (stanza 4), the church (stanza 5), and the gift of God as manifest in Christ (stanza 6). (source: For the Beauty of the Earth History)  The writer of the hymn was Folliot S. Piermont in 1864 and the music by Conrad Kocher in 1838.

IMG_2173

White Bearded Iris from the author’s yard on April 15, 2018 

Indeed, it has been a beautiful spring. My neighbor, Mrs. Price, has some azaleas in the front of her yard that bloomed so profusely that the plants seemed ablaze with red flowers for several weeks. In my own yard, my bearded irises bloomed for the first time in several years, my azaleas bloomed beautifully, my roses are just now having their first flush of blooms, and I have flower scapes on my daylilies. The days have been markedly cooler, albeit too cool for some, (especially those in the Northern US who have received FEET of snow in April). But I’m trying to enjoy these cool days because I know that all too soon August will be here and it will be hot again. Even many of the sunsets and sunrises have been beautiful this winter and into the spring.

Sunday, April 22, 2018 was Earth Day. But God was showing His beauty through the earth, long before there was an earth day. Consider these scriptures. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Eccleasiastes 3:11 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8:3-4. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31.

These are only a few of the scriptures that speak of the beauty of God’s creation. The next

IMG_2158

Rose from the author’s yard April 6, 2018.

time you see a flower, or a sunset, or a flying bird, or the beautiful stars, or maybe hear a beautiful hymn, take a moment to enjoy and say thank you for the beautiful earth that God has graciously given to us. Even as we enjoy God’s creation, we know it is also our responsibility to protect the earth and pass all of these beautiful things on to those who come after us. Notice and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, but protect it so that others can experience “the beauty of the earth” and experience God in the same way.
Noticing God all around me,

Kevin Smith

Eating With Ghosts

luke 24_36-48(Author’s note:  this is the introduction to my sermon “Eating With Ghosts” from Luke 24:36-48 on April 15, 2018 at FUMCWinnfield)

A company once hired a recent immigrant and put him to work in the mail room. To the foreman’s shock, the guy was a whiz. He stood in front of the sorting racks and shuffled the letters into slots with amazing speed. The foreman had never seen anything like it. At the end of the day, the foreman shook the new man’s hand, thanked him and said, “I’ve never seen anyone who could sort mail as fast as you.” The new immigrant smiled and said, “You think I’m good now, you wait until I can read English.” (source: The Jokesmith)

Maybe that explains some of the mail in my mailbox. My apologies to anyone who works in the post office. But the truth is that we are cynical and skeptical. Too many times we have been let down. Too many times promises have been broken. And yet, every once in a while, we get pleasantly surprised. Something that seems too good to be true.

That’s the scene in today’s scripture. The disciples are huddled together and Cleopas and his companion enter and add word of their encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. (you can read that story in Luke 24:13-35). Luke describes the scene like this: “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost” (v. 36). Imagine how we would have reacted to this first appearance of the risen Christ after his resurrection. This account picks us up at a point where — were we to be present at Easter’s ground zero — we also would have been “startled,” and “terrified.” But Jesus seeks to calm their fears. He reassures them that it is he, inviting them to touch him, and then does a simple act that no ghost would ever do- he asks them for something to eat, then eats the food in their presence. Suddenly it becomes evident to the disciples that this is no ghost that they are eating with. It is the resurrected and living messiah, son of God. How would we react? What would we say if Jesus suddenly appeared to us? If one that we thought was dead, was a ghost, showed up to eat lunch with us? Here’s how the first disciple’s reacted.

Surprise in a Graveyard

tomb-960x350(Author’s note:  This is the conclusion of my Easter message “Surprise in a Graveyard” at FUMC Winnfield April 1, 2018.  I have the source for this story listed as Rosemary Kadrmas in Jeff Cavins, et.al, Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, LLC, 2003), pp. 211-212.)

A woman named Rosemary works in the Alzheimer’s Unit of a nursing home. Rosemary and a colleague named Arlene brought the residents of the home together one Good Friday afternoon to view a movie called Jesus of Nazareth. They wondered whether these elderly Alzheimer’s patients would even know what was going on, but they thought it might be worth the effort.

When they finally succeeded in getting everyone into position, they started the video. Rosemary was pleasantly surprised at the quiet attention being paid to the screen. At last came the scene where Mary Magdalene comes upon the empty tomb and sees Jesus’ body is not there. The risen Christ comes and asks Mary why she is looking for the living among the dead. Mary runs as fast as she can back to the disciples and tells Peter and the rest with breathless excitement, “He’s alive! I saw Him, I tell you! He’s alive.” The doubt in their eyes causes Mary to pull back. “You don’t believe me . . . You don’t believe me!”
From somewhere in the crowd of Alzheimer’s patients came the clear, resolute voice of Esther, one of the patients. “WE BELIEVE YOU,” she said, “WE BELIEVE YOU!”

Well, Esther, I believe it too. I believe because we have many credible witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection, it has changed the lives of many including you and me, and it explains why there is so much suffering in our world. The evidence is overwhelming, and life makes no sense without it. Jesus Christ is alive and rose from the dead.  Hallelujah!  Amen!

Cheering and Encouraging Others

SO_Louisiana_Mark_XXX_XXX-21(Author’s note: this article originally appeared in the April edition of “The Cross and Tower” newsletter from FUMC Winnfield.  The entire newsletter can be viewed at http://www.fumcwinnfield.com)

On March 15, 2018, I was invited to speak for a few moments at the Winn Parish Special Olympics at Stokes Walker Stadium on the campus of Winnfield Senior High School. I also led the athletes and spectators in the Special Olympics pledge “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” It was a great privilege to play a small part in this special event for these special needs students from all over Winn Parish.

I was touched by so many volunteers, adults, teachers, youth, who made this a special day for these students. I was touched by the big smiles on the faces of the students as they ran, jumped, and were awarded medals for competing. I was touched by the crowd that cheered and yelled as each student competed in the events.

But what really got my attention was the finish line of the races. As each competitor raced, student volunteers held up and waved signs of encouragement. Other volunteers cheered and applauded. Each competitor received hugs, high fives, and a medal as he or she crossed the finish line. Inevitably, whether the finish was in first place, second place, or even last place, smiles and joy was the result for the competitor.

As I watched, I wondered what would happen to us if we intentionally tried to be encouraging. How would the world change if we smiled more, gave more high fives, a few more hugs, and cheered for one another? This world is full of criticism, disappointment, trouble, and frowns. But what would happen if we learned from these special Olympians and those volunteers to cheer for and encourage others rather than discourage and marginalize others?

There’s no way to know what would happen, but my guess is that if we truly cheered for and encouraged others, we would have fewer tragedies like 17 students killed in a high school shooting. We would likely see violence decrease. Maybe we would remember what we have in common rather than our differences. Maybe our world would change, one person, one special person, at a time.

Can you imagine what would happen in our church if we made a habit of cheering on and encouraging others? If we patted people on the back and said “great job” instead of criticizing and cutting down? It seems like this is God’s design for His church. I Thessalonians 5:11, written by Paul to the church at Thessalonika, says “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Paul’s clear expectation for the church is that we are already cheering for, helping, and encouraging each other.

Who are you cheering for? Who are you encouraging? Cheering and encouragement made a difference for these special needs children and it will make a difference in the lives of those you help. Thank you to the Winn Parish Special Olympics for allowing me to help. And thank you for reminding me how important it is to cheer on and encourage others.

Looking to Cheer for and Encourage Others,
Kevin D. Smith

Will You Join the Parade?

palm_9427p(Author’s note: this is the conclusion of my message titled “Will You Join the Parade” on March 25, 2018 [Palm Sunday] at FUMC Winnfield.)

When the Salvation Army first went to India, the British authorities were concerned about them, and issued an order that no open meetings and no parades were to be held. But Commissioner Tucker of the Salvation Army decided that order must be defied. One day the Salvation Army came marching down the street. They were met by soldiers. The officer in charge said, “In the name of her majesty, the Queen of England, I order you to disperse.” But Tucker replied, “In the name of the King of kings, I order you to stand aside.” They stood aside.

One day, one palm-waving day, Jesus marched right into Jerusalem, the Holy City, and said to everything unholy, “Stand aside.” And he is calling us to join him in the parade, and to say to everything keeping us from him, “Stand aside.” When we dare to do it those things will stand aside. His kingdom will live in us, and we will help spread his rule in his world.

Palm Sunday. It reminds us of how Jesus came, humble and riding on a donkey and that God has need of even us. It reminds us of the reaction of the crowd, that they cried “Hosanna” one day and shouted “crucify him” a few days later. And it reminds us that it still has meaning for us to worship and follow Jesus. Would you dare to do it? Will you join the parade?

The God of Second Chances

second_chance-696x397Author’s note: every week I run across good stories and illustrations that I just don’t have enough time for in my sermon.  Today’s story is a challenging one that was left on the cutting room floor for my sermon on March 18, 2018 from Jeremiah 31:31-34.  I have the source listed as “Adapted from Andrew H. Rogers, https://sermons.logos.com/submissions/11254-The-Blood#content=/submissions/11254.”

One night in a church service a young woman felt the tug of the Holy Spirit in her heart. She responded to God’s call and accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. The young woman had a very rough past, involving alcohol, drugs and prostitution. But, the change in her was evident. As time went on she became a faithful member of the church. She eventually became involved in the ministry of the church. It was not very long until this physically and spiritually beautiful young woman caught the eye and the heart of the pastor’s son. The relationship grew, he asked her to marry him, and they began to make wedding plans. This is when the problems began.

You see, about one half of the church did not think that a woman with a past such as hers was suitable for the pastor’s son. The church began to argue and fight about the matter. So they decided to have a meeting. As the people made their arguments and tensions increased, the meeting got completely out of hand. The young woman became very upset about all the things being brought up about her past. As she began to cry, the pastor’s son stood to speak. He could not bear the pain all this was causing the woman he loved who was soon to be his wife. He began to speak and his statement was this: “My fiancé’s past is not what is on trial here. What you are questioning is the ability of Christ to wash away our sin and make us new persons. Maybe we are even questioning whether or not Christ can wash away my and your sins, even the worst of them. So, does he wash away sin or not?”

The whole church began to weep as they realized that they had been slandering the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, even as Christians, we bring up the past and use it as a weapon against our brothers and sisters.  Forgiveness is a foundational part of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  If the blood of Jesus does not cleanse the other person completely then it cannot cleanse us completely.  If that is the case, then we are all in a lot of trouble.  What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus! End of case!!!!

It is a powerful question: Does Christ wash away sin or not? If he does not, we are all in trouble. What about us? Are we willing to give a second chance?  In Jeremiah, God says to us, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” In Jeremiah, the people of Israel had completely broken their covenant promises and God was upset. They had blown it big time. Only a miracle could save them now. That miracle was to be found in the love, forgiveness, and second chances of God.

A Prescription for Salvation

numbers-bronze20snake

(Author’s note: this is the introduction to my sermon on March 11, 2018 “A Prescription for Salvation” from Numbers 21:4-9 at First United Methodist Church Winnfield, LA)

A guide at Blarney Castle in Ireland was explaining to some visitors that his job was not always as pleasant as it seemed. He told them about a group of disgruntled tourists he had taken to the castle earlier in the week. “These people were complaining about everything,” he said. “They didn’t like the weather, the food, their hotel accommodations, the prices, everything. Then to top it off, when we arrived at the castle, we found that the area around the Blarney Stone was roped off. Workmen were making some kind of repairs.” “This is the last straw!” exclaimed one lady who seemed to be the chief faultfinder in the group. “I’ve come all this way, and now I can’t even kiss the Blarney Stone.”

“Well, you know,” the guide said, “according to legend, if you kiss someone who has kissed the stone, it’s the same as kissing the stone itself.” “And I suppose you’ve kissed the stone,” said the exasperated lady. “Better than that.” replied the guide. “I’ve sat on it and you’re more than welcome to kiss me there.”

Last Sunday we left the people of Israel at Mount Sinai where they had received the commandments of God. They spent about a year at this holy mountain. (They arrived at Sinai in Exodus 19:1; they did not break camp until Numbers 10:11.)  In today’s text, the people of Israel are like those complaining tourists.  In our text for today, they are on the move again through the wilderness. God had graciously provided for their needs with manna in the morning, but all they had was an attitude: “We detest this miserable food” (v. 5)! It was manna, heavenly food, but they were tired of it. We don’t really know what “manna” means. Some scholars say that the word “manna” came from the word meaning “what is this”, others say it comes from the word “to despise,” so that the very name of the daily provision from the hand of God was being mocked every time they gathered it in the morning.

Because of their complaining, God infected them with a plague of poisonous snakes. This is a strange and maybe even repulsive story to us. This story still has meaning for us because the Israelites are not any different from us, and I believe God teaches us a three-part lesson through this experience of the children of Israel: first, their discontent (vv. 4-6); second, their petition. (vv. 6-7); third, God’s prescription (vv. 8-9).