Go and Get You Some Glory

Class 2019

John 13:31-35 NRSV

During a recent concert here in Van Buren, in between songs, the musician interacted with the audience with some back and forth exchange. It must have been obvious to the musician that one group was there to celebrate an occasion. Perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. So he asked: “What are you guys here celebrating tonight?”

A young man sitting at the table shouted out, “It’s my graduation!”

The musician responded: “Oh, your graduation? Well, congratulations! Where are you graduating from?”

“UFAS!” shouted the graduate.

“That is wonderful! Now, it is time for you to go and get you some moneeeeeeeeey!”

Of course, everyone laughed, clapped and cheered! I even leaned over to my son Carson and said, “That’s right! You go get you some money, Carson!”

For that’s what parents want of our children do we not? We want them to get a good education so they will not only be self-sufficient, but they will be successful. We want them to be able to afford nice things and live in nice places.

But almost as soon as I said it— “Go out and get you some money”—before the cheers and the clapping had time to die down, I knew there was something wrong with those words. And then, I could almost hear the words of Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).

Yeah, I am certain there’s now way Jesus would have shouted out: “Now, go out and get you some money!” And am even pretty certain he wouldn’t have laughed, clapped or cheered.

Now, I realize that there are some preachers you see on TV who would disagree with me here. Sitting on their opulent gold sofas, I have heard them point to scripture like our gospel lesson this morning to justify their prosperous and luxurious life-style.

“Look,” they say, “Jesus himself said: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified…’ That means Jesus came to earth and was ‘glorified.’ And if Jesus was glorified, then that means that God want us to be glorified too!”

Then they point to their mansions and their private jets and their gold watches and rings of every finger as signs of God’s glory. And I have seen them look into the camera and say something like: “And God wants you to go out get you some glory! And if you send me some of your money, you will get it!”

Although the word “glory” might suggest worth and value, I believe Jesus’ had something very different in mind.

The Greek word “glory” is doxaa, whichliterally means “reputation.” It is the root word of our word “doxology.” When used as a verb, it means to enhance one’s reputation. To glorify is to praise, honor or recognize someone to the extent that they have a reputation for greatness. It means to assign honor, prestige and fame to someone. So EVERYONEwill know who they are.

And while the world may glorify the rich and the famous, Jesus was talking about another kind of fame and glory. This reputation has nothing to do with having a lot of money and material possessions.

Jesus says, “Here’s the reputation, here’s the glory, I want you to have:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Listen to this) By this EVERYONEwill know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In other words Jesus says: “I want you to be famous! I want you to be recognized. I want you to be renowned the world over. I want you to be glorified. I want EVERYONE to know that you have the reputation of being my disciples. And you do this by simply loving others as I have loved you.

St. John of the Cross wisely wrote:

In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.

My hope for the class of 2019, and I believe God’s desire for you, is that you will get up and go out and get you some glory. I want you to get up and go out and love others in such a way, the very same way Jesus loved others, so that EVERYONE will know that you are his disciples.

Because today, what this world needs now more than anything else is for everyone to know the transforming love of Jesus. What this world needs now is change. What this nation needs now is change. And it is a change that you have the power to bring. For our reputation as a nation has certainly been diminished in the world these days. Our glory days seem to be over.

My Disciples of Christ friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, has made this challenge to the class of 2019:

I’m here to tell you, if you graduate and get up and get together and get involved, love can take on hate, mercy can take on meanness, justice can take on injustice, truth can defeat lies. You cannot merely get a job and a car and quarantine your life. Your graduation is more than just getting another slice of materialism. You must stand against injustice and be part of reviving the heart of this nation.

There are too many people in this world who are living their lives without any glory, without any reputation at all. Well, for the very few who know them, they have the reputation of keeping to themselves, minding their own business, being self-centered or just too afraid to step out and step up. Some would like to see the world change, but they are sitting safely back, waiting for someone else to go get the glory.

Yes, Class of 2019, what this world needs is more people who want to some glory!

We need more people who are willing to step up and step out, to put themselves out there, to put their reputation on the line, to run for office, to start a non-profit, to speak truth to power, to serve selflessly, to love this world as Jesus loved this world. We need more people to be the change, be the solution, and be the church this nation needs.

I am now going to address something that may be a very sensitive subject, especially here, in this place, during this hour. It is the subject of church.

It is no secret that the majority of high school and college graduates today and church do not mix.

According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (that’s 22-35 year olds) who were raised in church have since dropped out of church completely. Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending a church is worthwhile. And here’s what might be the most frightening statistic: 35% of Millennials believe the church today does more harm in the world than it does good.

Nearly all church growth experts agree that this means that church as we know it today, in the form that it is in today, will slowly cease to exist in 50 years.

I had an opportunity to have lunch with Nadine Burton our Regional Minister this past Wednesday. When I asked her how she has been doing, she responded: “On most days I feel like a real estate agent more than I feel like I am a minister.” I was afraid to ask, but asked anyway, “Because so many churches are closing and selling their property?” She said: “yes.”

Now, here’s the sensitive part that I was warning you about. I do not blame the Millennials for the church’s decline. And I don’t blame Millennials for dropping out of church. For I believe the church today has a long way to go to prove that it is a worthwhile venture. Much has to change in the church today if it is going to look like the the authentic embodiment of Christ in this world. The church today has undergo a drastic and dramatic transformation to love like, give like, and live like Jesus.

I think we need to face the hard and painful truth that the church, in its current form, does not have a very good reputation in the world. The church today has lost much it’s glory. And I believe that is the reason the heart of this nation is so very sick today.

But here’s the good news. Although our glory days have greatly diminished, I do not believe our glory days are over.

So, here’s what I am here to say to the class of 2019 on behalf of the church: “I want you to go and get you some glorreeeeeeee!” I want you to get up, stand up and speak up to transform the church. If the church is not what you think the church should be, I want you to do the work to reshape it. I want you to teach us how to love others as Jesus in loved others in such a radical way, EVERYONE will know we are disciples of Christ.

Now, I am aware that not all churches will listen to you. Not all pastors want to hear from you. I understand that. That is why you are dropping out. That is part of the reason you believe attending church is a waste of your time. And that is why our regional minister can continue to expect to be in the real estate business.

But I believe that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, wants to hear from you. I know this pastor wants to listen to you. I want to work with you to help bring glory back to the church, to help restore the church’s reputation in the world.

And I believe with all my heart that your generation will one day have the reputation, the glory, of saving the church, and thus, quite possibly, saving this nation.

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I Don’t Know Much About Theology

Racel Held Evans doubt

John 10:22-30 NRSV

I recently read that a pastor in Fort Smith is going to begin a Bible Study series entitled:“Answers to Your Toughest Faith Questions.”  The article listed a small sampling of the theological questions that he would be giving answers to—

How did the Father send the Son if the Father and the Son are one?

How could God, the son, die?

Why was it necessary that Jesus’ body be resurrected?

What does it really mean when we say that Jesus died for our sins?

Now, I was raised going to church every Sunday. I hardly ever missed Sunday School class, attended every Vacation Bible School and went to church camp every summer. In college, I minored in religion. I went on to get a Masters of Divinity Degree and then a Doctorate in ministry. I did some math and deduced that I have written over 1,300 sermons. You would think I would know a thing or two when it comes to theology. But guess what? The truth is: I don’t know much.

The only thing that I really know about theology is that the more I know, the less I seem to know.

Some of you are probably thinking about right now, “if this local pastor is really going to give some answers to those tough theological questions, maybe our pastor, bless his heart, should show up a learn a thing or two!”

But here’s the thing. I know just enough about theology to know that there’s many different ways one can answer those types of questions. In our theology classes in seminary, we studied several different answers to those tough theological questions from several different theologians and then we worked to form our own opinion.

This may surprise you, but that’s about all I’ve got—opinions.

This is part of the reason I could not be happier today to be a Disciple of Christ. With the late, wonderfully honest and thoughtful Rachel Held Evans, I have always “longed for a church to be a safe place of doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”

I believe First Christian Church is that type of church. We call ourselves “Christians” because we have have decided to follow Jesus as our Lord, not because we have figured out the tough questions of faith.

Have you noticed the words that I use more than any others when I am preaching?  Besides “God” and “Jesus” and “good news” and “all means all” and “inclusive love.” The two words that I use more than any other is: “I believe.”  “I believe this to be true…I believe that God works this way…I believe that God desires this…I believe that God wants that….  “I believe God is calling us to…”

I had a parishioner in one of my churches who made an appointment with me so he could tell me that saying “I believe” so much really frustrated him. And he said if I didn’t stop saying it, he might have to find another church!

I asked him, “What would you rather me say?”

He said that I needed to be more authoritative. He wanted me to say: “I know,” “I’m certain,” “I’m confident,” “I’m convinced,” “I conclude…”; not “I believe.”

But, like I said, that’s all I got. When it comes to theology, I theorize. When it comes to faith, I think.  I consider, I ponder, and I wonder.  I lean “more towards.” I surmise, I guess, I deduce, I speculate, estimate and contemplate.  I hope, which, by the way, infers that I also doubt.

And if that exasperates any of you who come to this place Sunday after Sunday in search of concrete, black and white answers, I am really sorry, because if I frustrate you, I know Jesus does.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ critics have just about had it with Jesus. It’s the gospel of John and according to John, Jesus can be fairly evasive, ambiguous and hard to figure out.

They come to Jesus, and they ask, “who are you?” And Jesus answers the same way he always answers according to John. He says things like: “I am the vine, and you are the branches;” or “I am the bread;” “I am life;” “I am the way;” “I am the Good Shepherd.”

What is any of that supposed to mean?  It’s all so symbolic, so metaphorical, so figurative.

In exasperation, they demand: “Jesus, show us plainly, directly, and clearly who you are!”

Then, it’s Jesus who begins to get exasperated. “I have been teaching you, telling you, over and over, but you haven’t seen and you haven’t heard. Then Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”

Sheep?  Now we’re back on the metaphorical, the symbolic, the figurative.

But you know something? I may not know much about theology, but I think I almost get what Jesus is talking about here. And I have a strong hunch that some of you who are here today know exactly what he’s is talking about!

In fact, I do not believe that the majority of you are here today looking for clear answers to the tough questions of the faith. I think you are here this morning because, despite all of your lack of knowledge and misunderstandings, you have heard the voice of Jesus, and you are trying your best to follow him.

Thus, most of you are not going to get upset with me for speculating, because that’s the best you do, speculate.

Like me, you don’t know much about theology.  But you know Jesus.  Maybe not as clearly as you would like, but you know him clearly enough, for you to follow him.

In some inexplicable but certain way, the Risen Christ has come and revealed himself to you. Jesus has broken through and spoken to you. And you have heard his voice as the very voice of God.

Thus, Jesus says in our Gospel, “I and the Father are one.”  In other words, what you have seen and heard Jesus, is as much of God as you ever hope to see and hear on this earth. And that’s why you are here today.

Jesus says: “My sheep know me.” Not everyone knows him. His critics and enemies may not know him. But here’s the good news: by the grace of God you know him. And yes, that in itself is a miracle. But it’s a miracle that has happened to you.

You were sitting all alone one day after your tragic loss, and this peace came over you that was beyond all understanding. And although could never explain it, you knew, you were convinced, and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

Out of nowhere, a memory popped into your mind that brought a smile to you face and a joy in your heart—and you can’t figure it out, but somehow, some miraculous way you knew, you were convinced and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

You were sitting on your sofa feeling sorry for yourself, when a knock at the front door came. When you opened it, in walked your good friend with a smile and an encouraging word. How in the world did they know you needed to hear that word? You can’t put your finger on it, but somehow you knew, you were convinced and certain that it was Jesus.

You thought about spending time doing something you wanted you to do, but something persuaded you to do something for somebody else, and you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt you knew, that it was Jesus.

You decided to visit the nursing home, or you decided to serve a meal at Hope Campus, or you decided to visit someone in the hospital, or you decided to volunteer with Ainsley’s Angels, and while you were there, while you were looking in the faces of the tired and weak, the broken and poor and the differently-abled, you knew, you were convinced, and you were absolutely certain that you were looking into the face of Jesus.

This is the good news behind this rather exasperating episode in John’s gospel for people like you and me who do not have all the answers, who do more pondering than knowing and more wondering than concluding:

Christ is risen and he has come out to meet us, in our doubts and our misgivings, in our misunderstandings and our unanswered questions, in our sin and in all of our brokenness, because he loves us. He loves us more than we will ever comprehend. And he knows us. He has called us by name.

And somehow, some miraculous way, we have heard his voice. And although will never figure it all out, although we will never be able to wrap our minds around him and all he claims to be and promises to give, we are nonetheless following.

And here is some more good news.  I KNOW, yes even I, one who doesn’t KNOW much about theology— who some say might not know much about anything, from a science book or three years of the French I took— BUT I KNOW, without a doubt, with absolute certainty that the risen Christ is here, and he is calling you and me, and if we answer this call, what a wonderful world this would be.

For Easter to Happen, Somebody Needed to Pick Up and Carry a Cross

oklahoma city bombing firefighter baby

Luke 24:1-12 NRSV

It is Easter Sunday! Resurrection morning has dawned. New life is being born! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, on this Sunday of Sundays, I believe it is important for us to realize that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, before love can win, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that there are very few of Jesus’ disciples who understand this. They do not understand it today, and they did not understand it 2,000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain our lives, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter could not happen without some self-denial, that resurrection could not come without some self-expenditure, that new life could not be born without some sacrifice, that love could not be won without some suffering, that the the light of Sunday morning could not  dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives.

One would betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples never got it.

However, there were a few disciples who did get it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross. There were a few who chose to live selflessly and to love sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused many in the church to overlook these faithful disciples, the good news is that all four Gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…” These women helped support Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means.”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, Mark 15 reads: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: “Among them [gathered at the foot of the cross] was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

There are many problems with Christianity today. However, I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith today, especially here in North America, is that we have too few Mary Magdalenes.

There are too few people who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, always involves a cross. It always involves answering a call, taking a risk, denying oneself, going against the status quo, pushing the boundaries, stepping way outside one’s comfort zone.

A problem with the church today is there are too many Christians who believe they can sing “alleluias” on Easter Sunday without going through some suffering on Good Friday, who believe they can experience some new life without death to self, who believe they can somehow rise up from the waters of baptism without getting their hair wet, who believe they can serve Jesus without getting their hands dirty.

What this world desperately needs needs right now, and what the church needs more than anything today, are more disciples like Mary Magdalene. For Mary Magdalene understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always clear that there would be a cross involved.

I think this is the reason that Mary Magdalene is remembered today by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is the reason she is mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And this is the reason that today, on this Easter Sunday morning, Christians all over the world will hear her name mentioned as they gather to worship.

Some will hear her name as Mark 15 is read: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Some will hear her name as Matthew 28 is read: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Some will hear it as Mark 16 is read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

And others will hear it as John 20 is read: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Just as Mary Magdalene had given what she had to support Jesus’ life, Mary was still doing all she could for Jesus in death.

And because she always selflessly pouring herself out, because she kept giving, kept sacrificing, kept risking, serving, bending, expending, anointing, because she was the most faithful of all of the disciples, because she not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the cross, but courageously followed him all the way to the grave, because she followed him to the very end, she was the first person on earth to see the risen Lord.

Mark 16:9 reads: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

And in John 20:18 we read where it was Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the good news of Easter, speaking five simple words that changed the world forever: “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”  Not only was she the first person to see the Lord, she was the first person to proclaim the world-changing, earth-shaking, life-saving good news of Easter to the world!

Mary Magdalene was the very first to preach the glorious good news of resurrection on Easter Sunday, because she stayed with Jesus until the very last in his suffering and death of Good Friday. Easter happened for Mary because she had answered a call to follow Jesus, and she followed Jesus all the way.

Observing Good Friday this year was a surreal experience for many Americans, as it fell on April 19, the day of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

The story of one survivor, Terri Talley, exemplifies the suffering experienced by our nation, as well as how new life was raised out of the ashes through those who were willing to pick up and carry a cross.

Employed by the Federal Employee’s Credit Union on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building, that morning was extremely busy for Terri. She had just returned to work after spending several days away, and a stack of paperwork waited for her.

Catching up on work, Terri took a moment that morning to chat with her good friend and coworker Sonja Sanders. “For her, it was a big day. She had just been promoted into management,” states Terri, who is certain she was the last person to have spoken with her friend.

What seemed like just moments afterward, everything changed. At 9:02 am, thousands of pounds of explosives, assembled in the back of a Ryder moving truck parked in front of her office building, exploded.

Terri recounts: “I fell from the third floor to somewhere around the basement level. It was really really fast. It was so fast that I didn’t really know what had happened. The suction pulled me down so quickly.”

Surrounded by noise Terri says, “When I came to the first time, I thought: ‘This is a really bad dream. I will just go to sleep and when I wake up everything will be okay.’ But when I came to [again], everything wasn’t okay. I thought that I must have been in a really bad wreck, and I must be [pinned in the wreckage], because I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream for help. I would try, but I was really squished. And I thought to myself: ‘I hope someone finds me.’”

Terri was found by a firefighter who almost overlooked her. [Like being sealed in a tomb] she was completely encased in concrete and granite. Terri says: “There was just a little hole and a little piece of me was showing. He touched me and … started screaming: ‘Hey! I have a live one here, and I need some help!'”

After much hard work, Terri was freed and rushed to a nearby hospital, where her injuries were identified: temporary blindness, a concussion, temporary amnesia, a cracked first vertebra in her neck, a broken right ankle, skin damage on her foot, and multiple abrasions. During her seven days in the hospital, and for weeks following, a sense of shock permeated her life.

However, today, she has this powerful message for the world:

I always tell [even] the littlest of kids: ‘Don’t think that there is nothing you can do, because kids would color pictures and send me notes. Those made me feel like people were really thinking about me. You can always do something, no matter what age you are.’[i]

This illustrates that to experience Easter Sunday, we have to have a Good Friday.

Before new life could be experienced, before resurrection could be celebrated, before “alleluias” could be sung, before love could be won, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

-First Responders needed to run toward an explosion.
-Firefighters needed to go into a burning building.
-Doctors and nurses needed to give all that they had to give.
-Friends and family and church members needed to pray.
-And little children needed to pick up some crayons and color a picture.

To make Easter happen for someone–today, right here, right now–we can all do something, be something, risk something, sacrifice something, give something, create something.

We can all pick up and carry a cross.

We can feed someone who is hungry.

Visit someone who is lonely.

Love someone who is hurting.

Include someone who has been left out.

We can mentor someone who lives in a foster home.

Care for someone who is sick.

Forgive someone who has made mistakes.

Believe someone who has been abused.

We can share grace with someone who faces discrimination.

Stand up for someone victimized by injustice.

Speak out for someone devalued by oppression.

We can stay close by and anoint someone who is dying.

Be a friend to someone who is grieving.

With the spirit of Mary Magdalene, let’s keep the faith, and let’s keep the faith going, keep it moving forward, all the way to the foot of the cross, through the betrayals, through the fear, through the denials, through the suffering, through the shame, all the way to the grave, even to a tomb that has been sealed by granite or concrete.

Let us keep doing whatever we can, with whatever we have, wherever we are, to love one another until the entire world is able to sing:

“Alleluia! Alleluia! I have seen the Lord!”

 

[i]https://www.nps.gov/okci/learn/historyculture/stories.htm

Choose This Day

rile up the gov't

Growing up in church, I was taught that the Christian faith, and life itself, was primarily about a choice.

It is about a choice to accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior or to reject Jesus. It’s about a choice to spend all of eternity in heaven with God and his angels or to forever burn in hell with the devil and his angels.

In church, I was also taught that I could not afford to wait to make this choice. I needed to make a decision before we finished singing the last hymn, because if I didn’t, the Lord could return or I might get killed in a car accident on the way home, and it would be too late. So, there was a sense of urgency instilled in me to make this choice.

I was also taught that if I didn’t make a choice, I was actually making choice. Not to choose was to choose.

For me, it wasn’t a very difficult choice to make. “Preacher, you are saying that if I choose to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I get to live in paradise forever? But if I don’t, I am damned to hell for the same amount of time?” Well, preacher, how fast can you schedule my baptism?!

The problem is that the gospel writers never record Jesus presenting such a choice. Although, I’ve heard countless preachers point to our scripture lesson here in Luke 23, and try to say Jesus is presenting this choice, Jesus never does.

The irony is, that here in Luke 23, the chapter that has the story of the infamous thief on the cross that Jesus says will be with him in paradise, we are presented with a choice. And it is a choice that each person born into this world must make. We must choose our kingdom.

Jesus talked about “kingdom” more than almost anything else. Over 100 times in the Gospels Jesus announces that he is building the “Kingdom of God,” and implies almost every time that he needs people like you and me to help him. He taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, KJV).

Jesus’ message compels us to make a choice to live, work, pray and love in ways that bring God’s Kingdom to this world. And, just like I was taught growing up in church, making this choice is an urgent matter. In fact, I believe it perhaps is more urgent today than ever.

And it is in Luke 23 we learn that it was this urgent message that put Jesus on the cross.

The assembly [of the Elders of the people, including the chief priests and the scribes] rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”

Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

He answered, “You say so.”

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.”

But [religious supporters of Caesar] were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place [even here in Jerusalem, here in the capital city!].

And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-11).

It is obvious that Jesus did not rile up the government and the religious establishment by asking people the question: “When you die, do you know where you are going to spend eternity?”

To understand exactly what Jesus is talking about when he talked about “Kingdom,” it is important understand something about the Kingdom into which he was born.

Rev. Joe Kay, UCC Minister from Ohio, describes the Kingdom of Caesar this way:

“It was a Kingdom ruled by the empire’s values of violence, dominance, supremacy, wealth, privilege, and self-interest. Life was cheap, and economic injustice was rampant.”

The empire’s leaders acted in narcissistic ways. As John Dominic Crossan notes in his book God and Empire, Caesar Augustus assumed the titles of “liberator,” “savior,” “redeemer,” and “lord.” He saw himself as the divinely chosen leader of the greatest empire in the world.

Caesar’s supporters praised him constantly and advanced his agenda. His base of support included religious leaders who were co-opted into doing the empire’s bidding in exchange for maintaining their own wealth, power, and privilege.

Religion and Rome were intertwined, working together to advance the empire. Then Jesus came along and challenged it all.”

In fact, this is exactly how his birth was announced by the Angels with the sentence:

“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.”

As I mentioned during the season of Advent, this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus.

Each time Augustus made an imperial decree to support the Roman occupation of the Near East, the following words opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”

Thus, the Christmas angels sang the Emperor Augustus’ imperialistic words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest! There’s a brand new kingdom in this world!

Every time Jesus taught and preached about the Kingdom of God, Rev. Kay notes “he was essentially saying: you’ve already been born into Caesar’s kingdom, but now is the time to enter into a completely different realm. You need to be born again into God’s kingdom, into a realm that operates by values that are in stark contrast to the values of Caesar.”

Love rules in the place of selfishness.

Kindness in the place of cruelty.

Generosity in the place of greed.

Humility in the place of pride.

Social justice in the place of inequality.

Mercy in the place of fear.

And grace rules in the place of judgment.

It is important for us to understand that Jesus never talked about the Kingdom as if it were just some future event in the sweet bye and bye. He proclaimed that the Kingdom was already here—a place of unlimited love and unending compassion. A place where everyone is welcomed, especially the marginalized. A place where nobody is ever treated like an outsider. It is a place where even condemned thieves are forgiven and promised paradise.

It’s a place where healing is offered to all. It is a place where peacemaking is valued over warmongering, and where the lowly and the least are treated as the greatest.

The operating values of Caesar’s kingdom — power, greed, wealth, privilege, self-interest — are rejected, resisted and rebuked in God’s Kingdom.

And today, right now, we have a choice. Which kingdom will we choose? Whose values will we live and enact and advocate in our communities and our world?

It can’t be both. And as much as we want to, we can’t try to live with one foot in both worlds — that does not and will not work. As Matthew remembers Jesus teaching, “no one can serve two masters.”

It’s either one or the other.

And like I learned growing up in church, we can not avoid choosing, because not to choose is to choose. To simply go along with the status quo is a choice to support those who rule over it and protect it. If we do not challenge Caesar, we are in league with Caesar — we have chosen his kingdom over God’s Kingdom.

Also, as I learned growing up in church, we cannot delay making a choice. We can not afford to wait. And it is not because we may get into a car accident on the way home from church this morning. It is because the times in which we live are too serious, the problems of this world are too great and the hate in our world is too strong.

Furthermore, Jesus said the kingdom of God is not a future event. It is here, and it is now. And we are invited to become part of it at this very moment.

We have a choice to make… today.

As Crossan puts it: “God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter into it, live it, and thereby establish it.”

And everyone is invited to join. There are no barriers, no borders, no walls. All are welcomed and all means all, but citizenship does come at a cost. Choosing to establish God’s Kingdom in this world is a much more difficult than choosing which kingdom you want to live in the next world. For God’s kingdom unavoidably confronts and challenges the many Caesars that are always in our world, along with their ardent supporters and their devoted religious minions.

And they’ll use every one of Caesar’s tools to protect their privilege and power — bullying, harassment, intimidation, self-promotion, lying, verbal and physical violence.”

The gospels tell us that the kingdom of Rome and its religious supporters conspired to get rid of Jesus and his message to establish the Kingdom of God. And the same thing happens today.

The supporters of Caesar have completely changed the message of Jesus. They have twisted the gospel and perverted the faith. They teach that the Kingdom of God is a future place we experience when we die, not a place we are to live today. They say that the gospel is about personal salvation, not world transformation. They preach that Jesus wants to enter our hearts, not enter Jerusalem, Little Rock or Washington DC.

And at times, it feels like Caesar’s kingdom is invincible, that it is Caesar who will have the final say. The good news is that Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday.

“And in every moment we have trouble recognizing God’s kingdom in our world and in our lives, Jesus says: Look a little closer, love a little stronger, believe a little deeper. And you will see, it’s right here.”

And Jesus invites us all to enter this place of life, love, and healing right now.

Let us pray together.

O God, may thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

 

https://sojo.net/articles/religion-and-power-were-intertwined-then-jesus-challenged-it-all?fbclid=IwAR0_D94N5pdJ2CFbIT4SVTzjPjAJc4-Xv70fQy2Di045VPOesGdkm4mmpek

Forward Together

If our can't fly run

Isaiah 43:16-21 NRSV

They say that hindsight is 20/20. Sometimes, it is easier to see more clearly what is really going on in the world when we are looking back. They say history is the best judge. I believe this is particularly true when it comes to faith.

The presence of God seems to be more recognizable when we look back.

Looking back, we say: “If it were not for God’s abiding presence, there’s no way I would not have gotten through that!” “During the storms of life, at the time it was difficult to see God, but looking back it was obvious that God was undeniably present.”

Looking back, we clearly see God’s hand during the divorce, through the sickness, in the miscarriage, at the death.

Looking back, we plainly see God helping us to learn from mistakes, grow from painful experiences.

Looking back, we see God working all things together for the good, wringing whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Looking back, we can see God, reconciling, creating, recreating, resurrecting.

Looking back, we say, “Yes, I am a better person today because what happened yesterday. Although, I could not see it at the time, that period of struggle was the best thing that happened to me.”

Which raises the question about today? Where is God in the present? What is God doing in our lives at this very moment? What is God up to in the world today? And the more important question, are we able to see it? Or do we have to wait 5-10-20 years to see it?

This may have been what was going on with the Israelites when Isaiah preached the sermon in our scripture lesson this morning.

Some scholars believe the Israelites were on their way back from exile in Babylon. They were on a long and treacherous journey through a desolate and dangerous wilderness. Food, water and shelter were scarce. Protection, minimal. So it was not uncommon for people die in the wilderness.

Then Isaiah proclaimed: “The same God of the great Exodus who liberated your ancestors from Egyptian slavery by making “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isa 43:16) promises to do something brand new: God will make a “way in the wilderness” (Isa 43:19).

“So, stop looking back on those good old days, where God’s presence was so clear, so evident and so real, because God is working even now to create good new days! Bring your faith in the God of the past into the present!” preached Isaiah.

Other scholars believe the prophet was addressing Israelites who had already made it back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, they found an abandoned city in ruins. Having made their dangerous journey through the wilderness, they found themselves in even more danger. Rather than the safety and comfort of home, they found themselves constantly threatened by enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence. The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city. At one point, Nehemiah encouraged everyone working on the rebuilding of the city to carry swords for protection (Neh. 4:17-18)!

So, the prophet was preaching: “You can’t go back, but the same God you clearly see in the past is about to do something brand new to help you move forward with God into a new day!”

But moving forward is almost always one of the most difficult things to do. Moving forward is scary. Perhaps that’s because, without the advantage of hindsight, it is more difficult to see God at work today and tomorrow than it does to see God at work in the past.

But moving forward is what our faith is all about, and it is what it has been about since the very beginning. Once Adam and Eve obtained the knowledge of good and evil, there was no going back, no undoing it. It’s like they say, once you see something there is no unseeing it.

But, in the shame of who they were and what they had become, hiding naked and exposed in the trees, God finds them, then with God’s own hands, makes garments of skin and graciously clothes them. Adam and Eve cannot go back to the good old days of blissful paradise, but now clothed with grace, by the very hands of God, they can go forward with God into good new days.

Cain kills his brother Abel and is excommunicated to the land of Nod. Cain can not undo what he has done. He cannot go back. But God promises to go with him into a new reality and marks him with grace.

The truth is: most of us right now desperately need to hear these words of God, “Behold I am doing a new thing.”

Isaiah understands this need. He is saying: “I know, life may not good for you right now. Some of you are doubting today that will see tomorrow. Although you have experienced the hand of God in your life before, it’s very difficult for you to see that holy hand now. It is hard for you to keep the faith and move forward.”

I believe it is this dilemma that is the death of many churches today. Churches can see God in the past, but they have difficulty seeing God in the present. Ask yourself: “What are the new things that God is working on with us here at First Christian Christian in Fort Smith? What new things is God leading us to do? What new places is God leading us to go.”

“What’s that did the preacher just say? Did he say “new things” and “church” in the same sentence?  New? Doesn’t he know if we’ve never done it that way before, it just can’t be done.

“Behold I am doing a new thing! Can you not see it?”

I believe this may be the most important question we can ask ourselves. “Can we not see it?” Are we capable of seeing the new thing that God is doing in our world? Are we able to open our eyes and see the new world unfolding before us? Are we ready for the new thing that God wants to do in us and through us?

This past week, I read an article that reminded me why this was so important.

On the week of the 51stanniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the article pointed out that the majority of the nation today looks back with reverence and great fondness on Dr. King. We look back, and we can clearly see God at work in him and through him.

However, at the time of his death, Dr. King was one of the most reviled men in the United States. His message of liberation for people of color, Native people and poor people was widely rejected. According to a 1968 poll,75 percent of Americans disapproved of him.

Now, the majority of Americans who were not alive or adults in the 1960’s look back and would like to believe that we would have be in that 25 percent. But would we? Or, back in the mid-60’s would Isaiah’s words convict our hearts, “God is doing a new thing through this young black preacher from Georgia, can you not see it?”

After all, many of the conditions that he marched, boycotted and spoke out against still exist today. Some say that although we’ve made some progress, we have taking a giant step backwards in the last few years when it comes to racism, sexism, materialism and militarism.

And yet, even as we look back today on Martin Luther King Jr with great admiration, much of America condemns the activists today, in the same way he was condemned 51 years ago.

Many detest those today who are speaking out, sitting in, kneeling and marching against the same conditions. If you took a poll today, I believe you would find that the majority of the country disapprove of movements that are demanding justice for Black men, women, and children killed by police, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Most people are leery of people crying for justice for women in the #metoo movement. Most are indifferent to justice movements for immigrants and justice movements for Indigenous peoples like Standing Rock, as well as justice movements for trans, binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

Dr. William Barber, who is currently continuing the work of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, has his life threatened constantly.

Which makes us wonder. What would we have done if we were living in South Africa during Apartheid or Germany in the 1930’s? What would we have thought of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, or even abolitionists like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell?

And what would we have thought of that radical Rabbi named Jesus? What would would our conversations be around the dinner table after we heard the reports—of him breaking the laws of the Sabbath? Touching lepers? Including women as his disciples? Demanding that people sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor? What would be our response to his sermon that encouraged people to turn the other cheek, give the shirt off their back, forgive their enemies, love everyone and take up a cross? What would we have said in response to the news from the women who said that he was not dead, but had risen just as he said?

Would we have been able to see God at work in and through Jesus?

Sometimes we are ready to see something and sometimes we are not. Last week, we were reminded that the so-called “Prodigal” son had to hit rock bottom before he could hear God speaking to him. In today’s Hebrew scripture, Isaiah points out that, as wonderful as God’s new thing was, people may have a difficult time seeing it. Which begs the question: What makes us able to see God at work in the world?

Perhaps you heard the story about the guy who bought a pack mule? The seller of the Mule said: “This mule will understand every order you give him. All you need to do is tell him where he should go and what he should do, and he will do it every time.”

However, when the buyer got home and tried to get the mule to go forward, the mule refused. He couldn’t get the mule to take one tiny step forward. So he took the animal back to the original owner and said, “You lied to me. When I give him the simple command to go forward, this mule won’t move an inch.”

The seller looked at the mule, looked at the buyer, then picked up a two-by-four and whopped the mule on the backside and then said “go forward.” The mule went forward.

The buyer said, “what on earth did you do?”

The seller smiled. Then he said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do some dramatic to get the mule’s attention.”

I wonder if that’s applies to us too?

Whatever it takes, I pray that something gets the church’s attention today, right now, so that we are able to see God at work in our world, so we can join God in that work.

For behold God is doing a new thing. Can you not see it? And God wants us to move forward.

And in the words of Dr. King, if we can’t fly, let’s run. If we can’t run, let’s walk. If we can’t walk, let’s crawl. But whatever we do, let’s keep moving forward. Forward together, not one step back.

 

The Prodigal Parent

Dad wrestle

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 NRSV

One day, Jesus is confronted by some grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do we keep hearing these stories about you hanging out in some very shady places? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and hanging out with known sinners!”

“And you claim to be a man of God!”

“Rabbi, if you are a Rabbi, let me tell you something, our God is an awesome God who will punish not only the sinner, but the sinner’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. God will strike you down with a lighten bolt, and if not that, send a cancer, a heart attack or maybe a stroke.  And, Jesus, you better watch out, because if you get too many sinners in one place, too many sinners at one local restaurant or pub, or in one city or in one nation, God might send a tornado or an earthquake, and take out everyone!”

When Jesus is confronted by these religious people who thought they had all the answers, he responds as he usually does—by telling a story.  Here, he tells three stories—one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.  The parable of the lost boy has been commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  And he is called “prodigal” for some pretty good reasons.

Growing up in church, my home pastor would often use the dictionary when he came to a point like this in his sermon.  I think he defined a word for us every Sunday!  He would say, “Now, Webster defines ‘prodigal’ as…”  In that spirit, but with a 21stcentury twist, allow me to do the same. Dictonary.com defines prodigal as…

1.wastefully or recklessly extravagant

2.giving or yielding profusely; lavish

3.lavishly abundant; profuse

4.a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance.

The youngest son had the gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home.  Demanding his inheritance meant that he had come to this point in his life where he did not mind regarding his father as being deceased.  “I want my inheritance!”  “Daddy, I want to live my life as if you were dead!”

Then the surprising part, the father hands it over to the boy who slips into a “distant country” where he wasted every red cent on selfish, wild living—thus, the designation “prodigal”— reckless, lavish, wasteful, extravagant.

After he spends all that he has, there is a famine and the young boy found himself in great need so found a job feeding pigs…

“Of course there is a famine,” says the religious leaders! That is what we are trying to tell you!  A famine! That is brilliant!  Oooh. God is soooooo good. I bet that boy starves to death! Or at least gets a bad case of salmonella from eating with the pigs. And serves him right! A just punishment for a prodigal—one who had everything only to recklessly lose everything. Death from lack! Death from scarcity! What wonderful irony.”

Jesus continues… “But there in great need, desiring to eat and drink with the pigs, the boy decides to goes back to the father and beg forgiveness…”

“Yeah, good luck with that!” the religious leaders howl, laughing at such a ridiculous scenario!

However, we know the rest of the story…

“And when he was “a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.  Think about this. How did this father see him “a long way off?” It is certainly not because this father was busy going on with his life.  But because the father had been looking for him.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting on the front porch of our home with my brother and my sister, waiting and watching for Daddy to return from work. We would position the chairs on the porch at just the right angle so if we squinted and strained hard enough, we could see through our dogwood trees and our neighbors’ crepe myrtles to get a glimpse of Daddy’s Green Ford LTD almost a half a mile away. Then we would be ready to run to pounce on Daddy to welcome him home.  As soon as he got out of the car I would jump on his back, while my sister and brother would grab his legs. On a good day, if we could muster just enough leverage, Daddy would fall into the grass where we would lavish him with hugs and kisses like three little puppy dogs.  Mama, used to to get on us. She’d remind us how tired Daddy was from working all day, and how one day when he drove up and saw us running and screaming towards the driveway, he was going to just keep going down the road! I think she was just jealous.

Every day this father sat on his front porch, gazing down the road, watching and waiting, hoping and praying, grieving for his boy to return home.  And while he was still a long way off, he was filled with compassion, and he started running! He ran and ran to meet his child, throw his arms around him and kissed him profusely.

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming.  I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you just hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his pastor telling him: “Old man, its time for you to move on. You’ve got to get past this.  Face the facts.  He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. You have to go on living your life. Concentrate on your older boy who’s still here with you.”  But the father still waited and watched, hoped and prayed and grieved.

And he really did not know that his son was still alive. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home traveling alone was an easy target to any would be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Still the father patiently and you might say recklessly waited. Everyday he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see, his son coming home.

Then the reunion! The biggest, most extravagant homecoming party you’ve ever seen! The sandals, the ring, the robe, the best one! The calf, the fattest calf! All of the stops pulled out, for this son who was thought to be dead is now alive, lost and is now found.

And the religious leaders are left scratching their heads. Still grumbling and complaining, ranting and raving, now with the older son.  Listen how the older son talks about his brother: How can you do this for “this son of yours?”  “How can you do this, not for ‘my brother,’ but for this one, as far as I am concerned is still in some distant country?”

This is when it dawns on us. We thought this was a story of a prodigal son, when in reality, it turns out to the story of a prodigal father.  It is a story of a very “reckless” “profuse” “extravagant” and “excessive” love. For when the boy left home, the father recklessly gave him his inheritance.

And while the boy was gone into the far country, his friends and neighbors would say that the father recklessly waited. And when the boy at last returned, the father recklessly threw a huge party, holding nothing back for himself. The father loved his son recklessly when he left home, he loved him recklessly while he was away from home and he loved him prodigally when he returned home.

The good news is that is how our God loves each one of us. Our God is a God who, when it comes to love, holds nothing back. God’s love for us is extravagant, excessive, relentless, even reckless. The one thing that this story reveals is that God’s love for us is profusely prodigal.

This is why I will never apologize for loving others in a way that some religious folks would characterize as “excessive.” For my God is profusely prodigal in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. God is relentlessly radical to have us in God’s arms so God can shower us with divine kisses. As the ranting of the religious leaders and the anger of the older brother reveal, it was this prodigal love that sent Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps the most prodigal statement ever made was made from the cross… “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Then, like a father, turning over his property before he dies, giving away his life, to children who are undeserving, to people who are known sinners, Jesus died.

And the watching and the waiting and the grieving continues…

Let us pray…

God forgive us for the sin of the older brother, the sin of Pharisees and Scribes, forgive of our desire to distant ourselves from those in our family, in our community, in our world we consider to be sinners.  And forgive us for yearning that you somehow distant yourself, turn your back on, and forsake some, forgive us of our racism or classism or simple arrogance that hopes with the Scribes and Pharisees that you are an unforgiving God who punishes your wayward children and their offspring. Forgive us for believing that your love is anything but profusely prodigal.