Preach, Raise, Cast Out and Heal

Heal-the-sick-300x200

Matthew 9:35-10:8

I think sometimes we need to be reminded of the strange way that the Kingdom of God was started on this earth.

Jesus begins his ministry ushering in the reign of God, and how does he do it?  Does the Son of God, the Messiah of the world, the alpha and the omega, the one through all things came into being, do it all by himself?

Nope.

Oddly enough, he calls together and sends out ordinary people like you and me to help him.

Master preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has written a wonderful meditation called The Preaching Life where she stresses the need for all Christians to recognize that they have been called to be ministers.

She writes:

Somewhere along the way we have misplaced the ancient vision of the church as a priestly people—set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, made manifest in service to the world. That vision is a foreign one to many church members, who have learned from colloquial usage that minister means the ‘ordained person,’ in a congregation, while lay person means ‘someone who does not engage in full-time ministry.’  Professionally speaking that is fair enough—but speaking ecclesiastically, it is a disaster. Language like that turns clergy into purveyors of religion, and lay persons into consumers, who shop around for the church that offers them the best product.

Taylor says we need to revive Martin Luther’s vision of the priesthood of all believers, who are ordained by God at baptism to share Christ’s ministry in this world.

All we have to do is sit down and study he scriptures to understand that this is just how our God works in this world. Nowhere in the scriptures do we find God saying: “Go into the world and make Christians. Bring them into the church so they can sing some hymns, sit and pray and listen to a sermon about being good, moral people. Form a type of club. Hire a full-time club president who is going to be there to plan activities for and to support the club members, making sure they are comfortable and happy.”

No, what we do find in scriptures is Jesus instructing us to go into the world and make disciples out of all nations. Make disciples, not Christians.

And what do disciples do? Sit on a pew every Sunday? Sing, pray, try to be good. Maybe attend a committee meeting every now and again?

No, they do what Jesus did. Nothing too big mind you. Just your ordinary raising of the dead. Just your routine healing of a disease. Just your typical demon exorcism sort of thing. They do things that change the world.

Seriously. That’s what it says. Read it with your own eyes.

Maybe this is part of our problem. Maybe ancient scriptures like this which don’t seem to apply to us are why we sometimes look more like club members than disciples.

Perhaps we are tempted to believe that passages such as this have absolutely nothing to do with us. For how in the world can we sophisticated 21st-century folk take these words about raising dead people and casting out demons seriously?

Jesus also sent the disciples out to heal diseases. “Does that mean we are supposed to have faith healing services? Put a billboard out on Garriott: “Before you go to the Emergency room at Bass or St. Mary’s, swing by Central Christian Church first!”

I guess we will also need to create a demon exorcism ministry team and put an ad in the paper which will read: “Know someone possessed by the devil? Call the demon exorcism team of Central Christian Church. We’ll make your possessed loved one’s head spin around until the demons are cast out and are gone for good!”

And then I suppose we need to create a resuscitation ministry team—A team that will be on call to receive calls from families of loved ones who just died? We’ll send out flyers to hospitals and nursing homes which will read, “Before you call the funeral home, call our resuscitation ministry team, and we’ll bring the dead back to life!”

So, we read this and think that just maybe we’re not supposed to take this passage that seriously. Maybe this is not what we are to be about. After all, it was written very different people who lived a long, long time ago, in place far, far away. How in the world can this passage be for us living in the 21st century?

But this is the Bible we are talking about here. If there is anything true, it is in here. We are baptized Christians and believe Jesus is Lord—he is our Lord.  And this is Jesus speaking here. This passage has to have something to do with us—perhaps everything to do with us.

Let’s look at healing diseases. Several years ago, Duke University did a study which revealed that people who go to church, people who have faith and a family of faith, people who are prayed for, statistically have a better recovery rate from major surgeries than people who are not a part of a church. Think of how many dreadful experiences you have had, how many horrible things you have gone through which made you say in the end, “I don’t know how people without faith and the church do it.”  Christians bring healing to people whenever they pray, send cards or flowers, and make visits or phone calls.

Now, let’s look at casting out demons. We need to understand that the problems that people possess really have not changed in 2000 thousand years. It’s just the descriptions of those problems that have changed. Demon possession was a diagnosis given to a whole host of problems. Most of these problems labeled demon possession had an oppressive nature. People who were said to be possessed by demons had a problem or a habit, perhaps an addiction that they could not break by themselves.

And of course that is still true today. On this day, when our thoughts once more are turned toward family, there are countless children, living right here in our city, who are bound, living in a cycle of poverty from which they can not escape. Drugs have taken their toll on some of their parents. Some have been abandoned by their fathers, some by their mothers. Some of their fathers are in prison. These children feel unloved, unwanted, and unclean. The demons of these children are many. They are in survival mode. And a way out seems impossible.

Unless someone intervenes. Unless someone becomes a mentor or a role model to these children. Unless someone answers a call to step in to befriend these children, include these children, tutor these children, read a book to these children, coach these children, love these children. Unless maybe a church dedicates themselves to these children.

Ok, perhaps we can understand how we called to partner with Jesus to fight the world’s demons and diseases, but how on earth do we raise dead people back to life?

I want to suggest that we do this all the time.

Tony Campolo tells the story of attending a funeral where the minister stopped preaching to the congregation and started preaching to the dead body. The casket was still open as the minister recounted Clarence’s faithful life and talked about how everyone would miss him dearly.

Then his tone changed, as he started talking directly to Clarence. He walked down and looked at Clarence lying there in the casket. He said: “Today, Clarence, we say good-bye. But this good-bye isn’t ‘so long.’ Clarence, it’s ‘until then.’” Then he closed the casket himself and said, “Good night Clarence, we’ll see you in the morning.”  Then the choir rose up and started to sing, That Great Getting’ Up Morning.

And when I think about it, at every funeral, I try my best to raise the dead. With scripture and prayer, I do all I can do to assure everyone that we will see them again.

And I will never forget how the dead was raised at the first Enid Welcome Table on Easter Sunday when one of our guests said to a volunteer: “Today, you have made me feel human again.”

The truth is that Jesus Christ gives all of us, his disciples, the power and the authority to partner with him in his mission and ministry in this world which includes, casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead.

But, you say, that’s still not for me. That kind of work was for the apostles. It was just for those special twelve disciples that Jesus called to follow him. They were special people, with extraordinary gifts and powers. I’m just an ordinary lay person. This passage is really not for me.

Let’s take a closer look at the list of these twelve to find out what was so special about them. Only two of the twelve here have descriptions in addition to the mention of their names (the rest of them are so ordinary that their names do not merit a description).

One name that does is “Matthew, the tax collector.” Matthew was a despised, disreputable, no good, low-life tax collector who took money from his own people to give to the Roman occupiers.

The other one with a description is “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” Jesus is either a miserable judge of character, or even his worst enemies are able to go out and work miracles in his name.

Think about it. There is nothing here to indicate that Judas failed to go out and preach, raise, cast out and heal. As far as we can tell, Judas had the same success as everyone else, including Matthew, the despised tax collector.

Beverly Gaventa says that this passage indicates that Jesus had a general rule for disciple-calling: “Only tax-collectors and traitors need apply.”

Jesus seems to only call sinners and nobodies to do his work.  Does anyone here really know who James, the son of Alphaeus is?”

If even these twelve can be called to do Jesus’ work, so can people as ordinary as us. The truth is: this passage, that may seem strange and outdated on the surface, has everything in the world to do with us.

Are you ready to take it seriously? “The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few,” said Jesus. God is calling every one of us to preach, heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead.

What will be our response?

Let’s Dance

old-guy-dancing

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

2 Samuel 6

Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses. It means literally in the Greek, “to dance,” suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…

 

And that, writes Lewis,

is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…

Lewis continues:

And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world.  The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.

I want to assert that the the problem with most churches today is that there is just not enough dancing. For some reason, maybe it is from our Puritan roots, church people are too reserved and rigid. Most of us prefer to keep our faith personal, private, than let it all hang out for others to see.

There’s a great dancer in our Bible that I believe the church could learn a thing or two from. We read about him in 2 Samuel 6.

After David led a great army to get possession of the Ark of the Covenant to return it to Jerusalem, David and his army were so overcome with what was going on that they engaged in festive rejoicing and dancing. They were seized by what James Newsome, New Testament professor of Columbia Seminary calls “a spirit of prophetic ecstasy.”

The scriptures say that David sang and danced before God “with all his might.” He sang and danced before God with all that he had and with all that he was.

You might say that David was God-intoxicated. And when you become God-intoxicated, so filled with the Holy Spirit of God, there’s just know way you can keep it private.

When David and his wife Michal arrived home from the party and began preparing to turn in for the night, David, if he was anything like me, was probably hoping to hear some words of affirmation from his wife. Something like, “Honey, you were so wonderful today. As I listened to you sing and watched you dance in the streets, you just don’t know how proud I was of you! You danced your heart out! And why shouldn’t you have, you brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem where it belongs!”

However, the words David hears are something like: “David, you looked like a drunken fool.”

Perhaps David did act like an intoxicated fool. Uninhibited and unrestrained, he lost all self-control. Seized by “a spirit of prophetic ecstasy,” David held absolutely nothing back. David surrendered to the Spirit which had filled him.

David danced, charged by the rule of God. David danced, electrified by the justice of God. David danced a dance of total self-surrender. David danced, holding nothing back. David danced giving all that he had and all that he was to God. And there was absolutely nothing personal or private about this dance. This dance caused a scene. This dance created a fuss. This dance got people’s attention. This dance challenged the status quo. This dance disturbed the peace.

And Michal despised David for it.

This is what happens when one drinks what Paul calls in Ephesians “huge draughts of the Spirit of God.” This is what happens when one becomes God-intoxicated. There is no way to control it, temper it. There is no way to conceal it. There is no way to regulate it to two hours on a Sunday morning. When one becomes drunk with the rule of God, the love of God, one’s feet will inevitably move to the dance of the gospel, and one will be despised for it.

The truth is: the dance of the gospel is a dangerous dance. The dance of the gospel is a disturbing dance. Because the active affirmation the rule of God does not set well with the Michals of the world.

The dance of personal, private piety are easier steps to follow, aren’t they? The message of false prophets watering down the gospel of Christ as nothing more than a little dose of “chicken soup for the soul” is much easier to swallow. If we just get ourselves right with the Lord, if we pray right and live right, if we are good moral people, if we don’t drink, dance, smoke or chew or go with girls who do, then God will bless us and one day send us to heaven.

The dance of the gospel is radically different. The dance of the gospel are steps to the beat of a different drum. If we get right with the Lord; if we pray right and live right; if we lose all inhibitions and all restraint; if we completely surrender ourselves to the rule of God; if we love others as Christ loves us, unconditionally, unreservedly; if we question the status quo, if we disturb the peace; if we dance to the beat of this drum, then we will invariably upset some folks.

That’s a good question for all of us who are attempting to follow Jesus, is it not? In your walk with Jesus, are you getting any push back?”

The answer should always be “yes,” for the dance of the gospel is a dance of self-surrender to a radical beat. It is a beat of sacrifice. It is a beat of selflessness. It is a beat of self-expenditure. It is a beat of a scandalous love and an offensive grace. And to world, as the Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians, if we let go and dance to this beat, we are certain to look like fools.

And as Luke warned us in Acts chapter 2 last week, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God, we may even be accused of public drunkenness, even if it before 9am in the morning.

We will be called drunken fools when we offer our friendship and our food to a group of people on a late Sunday afternoon who can offer us nothing in return.

We will be called drunken fools we spend valuable time volunteering at the hospital, visiting a nursing home, serving lunch in a soup kitchen, or spending a week of your hard earned vacation as a counselor at church camp.

We will be called drunken fools when we offer love and forgiveness to our enemies, when we give the shirt off our backs to complete strangers in need.

We will be called drunken fools anytime we love anyone with the self-expending love of Christ—whenever we love someone without inhibitions, without restraints, and without any strings attached.

We will be called drunken fools when we continue to challenge the status quo, question immoral systems of injustice, and disturb the peace.

For the Michals of the world despise this dance. And they will do everything in their power to stop this dance.

We have all heard their voices: loud echoes which discourage such dancing. “Don’t get too close to him. Do not give your heart to her. You will be sorry. They will only let you down.”

“Don’t love that man. He has done absolutely nothing to deserve it and will never reciprocate.”

“Don’t love that woman. She is too needy. She never does anything to help herself. She will demand too much.”

The voices of Michal say: “The system is not that broken. The poor get what they deserve. Most minorities have it pretty good in our country, and they are the real racists. Public education is not worth fighting for. Healthcare is not a right.”

The voices of Michal say: “Keep your faith private, personal. Keep it between you and God. Don’t stir up trouble. Just sit on a pew and look forward to going to heaven. Sing behind stained glass. Forget about being missional. Don’t worry about your neighbor. Don’t waste your time giving yourself away to strangers. Loving like that is crazy. It is too risky. It leads to too much pain.”

However, there is another voice, a Divine voice that was heard by David: “These are serious times, so let’s drink large draughts of the Holy Spirit, until we are all God-intoxicated! Let’s sing and dance in the streets with all we have.” It is a voice which says: “Let’s Dance!  Hold nothing back. Give yourself away. Surrender yourself to the beat of the heart of the gospel. Love. Love honestly and deeply. Love courageously and graciously. Lose yourself. Empty yourself. Pour yourself out. Question the systems of injustice. Defend the powerless. Stand up for the marginalized. Challenge the status quo. Disturb the peace.”

Will this love cause pain?  It will cause enormous pain. But the joy of God which will consume you will be so immense the suffering will be well worth it.

You’ve heard me quote the great Oklahoman theologian, Garth Brooks’: “I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to have missed the dance.”

Dancing the dance of the gospel will inevitably bring pain. However, never truly following in the steps of Jesus to avoid that pain is never really living. There is no joy being a wallflower on the wall of life or being a Sunday morning pew-napper.

So, let’s get our backs up off the wall! Let’s drink huge draughts of the spirit of God, and let us dance!  Let’s go out and dance in the streets of Enid and have seizures of prophetic ecstasy!

Now, be warned! Qe will look like drunken fools, and we will suffer for it. But the immense joy of God, the joy of abundant life, now and forevermore, is well worth it.

We Need a Little Pentecost

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Acts 2:1-21 NRSV

Did anyone get what we were trying to do last Sunday afternoon in this place? Clergy, adorned in red stoles symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit, came from all over the Oklahoma and beyond to surround the Reverend John Wheeler in this place. Do you know we were doing in this area down front, laying our hands on John or on somebody that was laying their hands on John?

We were trying to bring John a little Pentecost!

Because Rev. John, bless his heart, certainly needs a little Pentecost—

-Graduating from seminary;

-Pledging a commitment to vocational Christian ministry;

-Dedicating his life to preach, not just any message, but the message of one who was forced to carry a cross for that message;

-Vowing to walk in the steps of the one who loved his neighbors with such a radical grace and inclusion that he was called a glutton and a drunkard who ate and drank with the wrong kind of people.

-Accepting the call to do the works of one who was run out of many a village for those works, who never made any money because of those works, and was arrested, beaten and crucified for  those works;

—Yes, Rev. John Wheeler, bless your heart, you certainly need a little Pentecost!

Pentecost is often called the day God gave birth to the ministry of all ministers—the day when the outpouring of God’s energy through the Holy Spirit swept down like wind and fire and touched all who had gathered for the Jewish festival.

New Testament professor Beverly Gaventa describes the energy that poured out that day as: “Sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life!”

And when you are called to be a minister, when you are called to be the church, to be the very hands and feet of one gave himself unto death, even death on a cross, oh how we need this life-giving power! Oh how we need a little Pentecost!

And this power came in dramatic, indescribable fashion. Gaventa writes: “It is as if not even the most lavish use of human language is capable of capturing the experiences of the day.” She writes: “All of the stops on the literary organ are employed: a heavenly sound like rushing wind, descending fire, and patterns of transformed speech.” That’s because there are just no words to describe this sudden, unmerited, irresistible gift of new life!

And this is exactly what Rev. Wheeler needs as he commits his life to ministry. And this is exactly what our church needs today if it is to continue to be the church God is calling us to be.

Before last Sunday’s ordination, perhaps the only thing that has come close to Pentecost for John and Sally was the time they held their son Luke, and a few years later, Chloe, in their arms for the very first time: feeling their soft skin pressed up against theirs, smelling their sweet heads, listening to their precious sounds. Sudden, unmerited, irresistible, new life. There are just no words in any language to describe the immense power of it, the sheer miracle of it.

This is what Acts 2 was trying describe that day that new life came.

Don’t you wished you could have been there at that festival that day to get you some of that! Don’t you wished you could have felt the wind, saw the fire, heard the miracle?

If only we, living today in the 21st century, could have been there on that day. Think of what Central Christian Church could be, rather would be, if only we could have been present on the Day of Pentecost. Think of impact we would have in our city and in our world if you and I could have received this indescribable gift of the outpouring of God’s energy. Think of all we could accomplish together in the name the Christ who loved all and poured out himself for all.

But we were not there, were we? Unfortunately for us, we were born nearly 2000 years too late. The Day of Pentecost was just a one-day, one-time event in human history, and we missed it all! God simply does not work that way in our world anymore.

Well, I don’t believe that, and I have this sense that you don’t either. That is why we had that ordination service last week for John: to make it happen all over again!

Theology Professor, Robert Wall, points out that the Pentecost experience of God’s Spirit occurred not only once, but is repeated several times in Acts. The images and language of Pentecost, Walls says, “are routinely recalled to interpret subsequent outpourings of God’s Spirit as the constant testimony to God’s continuing faithfulness.”

In the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, we read that after Peter and John laid their hands on the people of Samaria, they received the Holy Spirit.” They received sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life.

In the tenth chapter of Acts we read that while Peter was still preaching, “the Holy Spirit came on all who had heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Again, in the eleventh chapter Peter says, “As I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us in the beginning.”

In the nineteenth chapter of Acts, after Paul baptizes twelve people in Ephesus, we read: “After Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them….”

Throughout Acts we learn that Pentecost, the power of sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life is not a one-day, one-time event in human history. The gift of Pentecostal power is an experience which is repeated and repeated often in our world. And it is still being repeated today.

The truth is that I believe we have experienced the possibilities of Pentecost on numerous occasions. We just didn’t know what to call it.

The exhilarating discovery that a new baby is on the way. The miraculous birth of that baby. The excitement of a new job. The anticipation of a new school. The hope of a new marriage. The promise of new friendships. Yes, we have all experienced the grand possibilities which come with new beginnings, fresh starts or second chances.

And it is not only in the special events of life that we experience these possibilities. I believe when we consider that all of life is a gift of God’s grace, there is no event which is so ordinary that the Spirit of God is not present in it.

Frederick Buechner writes that God’s Spirit can be found in the most common of places, “always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.” Because all of life is a gift of God’s grace, inexplicable new life can be experienced everywhere!

Buechner writes that it can be found “Taking your children to school, and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window.”

Yes, the possibilities of Pentecost can be experienced everywhere, but perhaps, most especially, as we reach out to others in unconditional love.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that in Acts we read that the gift of the Holy Spirit often came after Peter, John or Paul laid their hands on others. I believe one of the best ways to usher in the possibilities of Pentecost is by reaching out and personally touching others.

God’s energy is released and new life comes when we lay our hands on someone ordaining them to Christian ministry, but also when we graciously serve a meal to someone hungry, when we tenderly caress the forehead of someone in a nursing home, when we gently hold someone’s hand in a hospital, and when we empathetically embrace someone in a funeral home.

Pentecost comes when we, the body of Christ, lay our hands, which, by the way, are the hands of Christ, on all who are in need. Pentecost comes when we seek out someone who has wronged us to offer a handshake of forgiveness a hug of mercy, the grace of friendship. Pentecost comes when we welcome, accept and hold the hand of an outsider.

And the good news is that this sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life can come even in our darkest moments. Pentecost can happen, not just when something or someone is being born or reborn. Pentecost can come, not just with the sunrise of new day. The truth is that Pentecost can happen at what might seem to be the sunset. Sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life can happen even amidst the storm.

Peter, in his sermon, recalls the words of the prophet Joel. He recalls the signs Joel says are a prelude to disaster—blood, fire, darkness and smoky mist. However, the death and destruction prophesied by Joel is transformed on Peter’s tongue into a declaration of new life. For Joel, these signs of the outpouring of God’s Spirit are a prelude to disaster. But for Peter, with faith in the power of the risen Christ, these signs of God’s energy released are a prelude to the redemption of humankind.

Thus, whether it be days in our lives, or days in our church, that cause us to despair, God, with a power called Pentecost, can redeem the darkness of even death into the light of life.

Pentecost—this is our hope.  And this is our purpose. May Central Christian Church, who may not have been present on that day nearly 2000 years ago, but has, in so many ways, experienced this power of Pentecost nonetheless, work together to share this gift of new life with our city and our world. May we share it with our words, but also through the laying on of our hands of service, so that sudden, unmerited, irresistible new life may rain down from heaven like wind and fire and touch everyone!

Thank You Enid, Oklahoma

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Boomers or Sooners, it doesn’t matter. The people of Enid, Oklahoma possess the same boundless spirit today that settled the Cherokee Strip in the 1893 Land Rush. It is a spirit of possibility, opportunity and welcome.

Soon after I staked my claim here, I inquired about the possibility of bringing an Ainsley’s Angels’ Ambassadorship to Enid. Ainsley’s Angels is a non-profit running group that shares joy and acceptance by including children and adults with special needs (Athlete Riders) in endurance events. However, I was told that the small population of Enid would not be able to support it, and I would need to incorporate a larger city, like Tulsa. They said that I would not be able to raise enough money or recruit enough runners.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I introduced Ainsley’s Angels to Enid with a 5k in August. Three Angel Runners pushed two Athlete Riders. In September, twenty-one Angel Runners pushed nine Athlete Riders in the Great Land Run 10k.

When our church learned that Sunday was the only day of the week that the food-insecure were not served a free meal in Enid, we suggested recruiting 52 businesses or organizations to prepare and serve one meal a year on Sunday in a nice sit-down restaurant atmosphere from our church’s kitchen. However, some responded by saying that doing this weekly would be unachievable, and we should perhaps aim for once-a-month.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

Today, groups from our high schools, businesses, civic organizations, Vance Air Force Base, and even a group from an assisted-living facility, have volunteered to prepare and serve a Sunday meal to hungry men, women, and children with grace, dignity and love.

When some of my colleagues heard that I was going to publicly stand up and speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ community after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, I was told that the people of Enid, who live in the conservative Bible Belt, were going to run me out of town.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

After I helped lead a prayer vigil on Enid’s town’s square, the leaders of our church had a meeting and reaffirmed our church’s commitment to be a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children though differing in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective. They said they wanted their pastor to love all of our neighbors, and all means all.

When I told people that I wanted to serve and worship with the African American churches in Enid, someone told me that this would be very difficult, because Enid was still somewhat segregated.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I have been honored to preach at St. Stephens AME Church on two occasions and to be the Master of Ceremonies at Enid’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. On World Communion Sunday in October, our church was led in worship by the African-American voices of the Southern Heights Community Choir and of the First Missionary Baptist Church. On that day, we renewed our commitment to partner with the larger Church to overcome barriers of race and ethnicity, and we renewed our commitment to social justice by being an anti-racism, pro-reconciling church in our community.

Thank you Enid, Oklahoma for still being a place of boundless possibilities, opportunities and welcome!

I thank God that I got a chance to know you!

Get Your Heads out of the Clouds

Acts 1:6-14 NRSV

I have had more than my fill of end-of-the-world Sunday School lessons and doomsday sermons. In the sixth grade, I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about the end of days and the imminent return of Christ every Sunday for a year. She clouded my head with charts and graphs, all indicating that Jesus was certainly going to come back before my high school graduation.

In seventh grade, our youth minister took us to see the movie The Late Great Planet Earth. Like the recent Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage, it was about all these people disappearing in the rapture. Planes, trains and automobiles were all of sudden without drivers. I watched in horror as planes crashed into crowded cities, trains derailed, and automobiles collided on every street.

And if that was not enough to permanently scar me for life, it seems like every revival preacher I ever heard would preach that the Lord was going to return in their lifetime. This always bothered me, especially since most of these revival preachers were retired, and to me, looked like they only had two, maybe three good years left.

Today, you can find preachers on TV who are still preaching the imminent return of Christ. They point to world events—ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia—as signs that the end is near. If you took some of these preachers to heart, you’d never plan anything a week in advance. You sure wouldn’t be freezing strawberries, and you’d never buy green bananas!

This is where today’s scripture lesson offers us a little bit of sanity.

For months, the risen Christ had been warning his followers that he would one day leave them, but he had reassured them, “I will not leave you orphans.” He told them that when he left they were to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s lesson, the time that they had been dreading for weeks had come. But before he departed, they asked him what my Sunday School teacher and those revival preachers seemed to already know: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After those words, he ascended into heaven, vanished from their sight, and left them standing there, gazing into the sky. They just stood there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they were gazing up toward heaven, while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, for Jesus would one day return to them. They don’t know when, but they don’t need to know. In the words of Jesus, “It’s not for them to know the time or the period.”

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that he is coming.” It’s a certainty; he’s coming, so you can stop looking into the clouds, and start living for him by doing what he has commanded, and being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story teaches those of us who are obsessed with the second coming of Christ, that we need to stop obsessing. We need to get our heads of the clouds and start living the way Jesus commanded us to live.

There are too many Christians who regard faith as some ticket to heaven. Their salvation is something to be possessed, held on to, not actually lived, or shared with others.

I believe this scripture reminds us to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off of heaven, and come back down to earth. Come down and go to Jerusalem. Come down and go into all of Judea and even into places that we do not want to go, like Samaria. Go and be a witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere. Don’t go to church for the assurance that you possess something spiritual that others lack. Go and be the church by giving yourself to others who are the very image of God.

The story also teaches us that if we truly want to see God, if we really want receive the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of looking up in the clouds, all we have to do is to look around us.

In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

The truth is that we find God when we redirect our gaze from the heavens toward people, and toward the world around us. We find God when we understand that grace, salvation, and the love of God are not mere tickets to heaven, but something that is to be shared with all people every day here on earth.

And we find God through mirroring God’s love, a sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love from a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self. Thus, our faith is about honoring a God who died for all.

Here in Enid, Oklahoma, our heavens are blessed with the roar of aircraft piloted by men and women who possess this same sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love that is willing to give all, for these men and women we see in the skies above us love their country more than self.

Tomorrow, we remember those who did give all, as they paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom, but we also honor all who are willing to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice. And in Enid, living in the shadow of Vance Air Force Base, named for Leon Vance Jr. who heroically gave his all during World War II, all we have to do is walk outside and look toward the heavens to be reminded of these men and women.

But as our eyes are focused upward, we need to pay attention to the voice of angels: “Men and women, boys and girls of Enid, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Get your heads out of the clouds and share this love—the love that you see in the jets flying overhead—share this love throughout Garfield County, across Oklahoma, and even into those places that you may not want to go.

This is the reason it has been such a wonderful blessing to welcome members of the 3rd and 33rd Flying Training Squadrons into our church the past two weeks to prepare and serve a hot meal to some of the the most impoverished men, women and children living in our community (last they week they served 60). The sacrificial love we hear and see in our skies literally came down to earth.

For when I walked into our church’s kitchen the last two Sunday afternoons, I saw none other than the very presence of the risen Christ. He had not disappeared into the clouds, but was right here in our church through the love of these service men and women who sacrificed a Sunday afternoon to feed the hungry. And there was no doubt that the risen Christ was also there sitting around those tables. You could see him clearly in the smiles, in the sincere gratitude of the ones who were being fed, accepted and embraced by selfless and unconditional love.

This is why the angels told the disciples to redirect their gaze, to get their heads out of the clouds. Stop looking for Jesus in the heavens. The angels said to them and says to us: “Look around you. In Jerusalem and Judea. But also look beyond you, even into Samaria, even in places that you may be afraid to go, places that may make you uncomfortable, places that may be painful, risky, dangerous.  Look, go, and live for Jesus, and you will find him.

Moshe is a prophet in Elie Wiesel’s book entitled The Oath.

Moshe was speaking with Azriel, the narrator of the story one evening after a meeting at the synagogue.

“You go to school?”  asked Moshe. “To what purpose?”

“To learn,” said Azriel.

“To learn what?”

“Torah,” the boy said uneasily (That’s the first five books of the Old Testament).

“Torah is life,” said Moshe, “and life must be lived; it cannot be learned from books, between four walls.”

“I thought,” said Azriel, “that Torah is more than life, since God himself submits to its commandments.”

“God too must be lived, my boy,” said Moshe. “You must live God, not study God in books, between four walls.”

Let us pray together.

God, help us to get our heads out of the clouds,

out of books,

out from these four walls,

and go out into the world to live Christ,

around us and even beyond us.

Help us to go and be the body of Christ,

be a community of grace,

of self-expending love,

and wholeness in our fragmented world. Amen.

Memorial Day and the Gospel

Memorial Day

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country struggle every Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about play golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-centered activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about men and women giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

Thus, Memorial Day is about honoring those who died for us, and praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to blow up innocent children at a concert without a second thought, and do such evil in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this day is all about, or worse, for watering it down.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle every day, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe, live and love differently? Is it about possessing an attitude of arrogance or superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about going to heaven one day or some other self-absorbed venture?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all, and we do that by loving all of God’s children. It is about recommitting ourselves daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy any of God’s children without a second thought, and do such evil in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about.

And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God calls us to live and who God calls us to love, everyday.

Born Holding Hands

Twins holding hands at delivery

John 14:15-21 NRSV

Three years ago on Mother’s Day, a rare set twins were born. They were called mono, mono twins, meaning that they shared the same amniotic sac and thus were in constant contact with one another. However, it was not the mono, mono rarity that got them so much attention. Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite were born holding hands.

One of the most popular songs when I was born back in 1966 was entitled, Born Free. “Born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows, born free to follow your heart.”

It’s a nice song. However, Jillian and Jenna reminded us of the truth. We were not born to be independent and free, but we were born to be bound to, dependent on, one another. We were born to need one another. Jillian and Jenna reminded us that Christ has commanded us to love one another, to link up with mutual care and concern for one another, and to feel responsibility for one another. We were born to live in community.

We were not born free, as the song goes. We were born holding hands.

This should not surprise even the most casual observer of the human condition. The human animal is dependent upon his or her parents longer than any other animal on the face of the earth. We humans are born as frail, vulnerable, needy and very dependent creatures. Other animals are born with a more robust set of instincts. Within a few days after birth, a few hours for some, other animals are out and about, exploring the world on their own two or four feet; but not humans. We remain dependent for years, needing parental instruction for just about everything that makes us human in the first place. The truth is that we were created to be dependent.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples.  But notice how he says goodbye. Does he say to them: “Congratulations, I’ve taught you well! You are now free to be on your own. Good luck with that”?

No, Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  “I’ll give you another advocate.”  And this “advocate” will be the Holy Spirit who is to be the same counselor, comforter and guide that I have been with you.”

Jesus is preparing to leave, but he promises that he will not leave his disciples alone. He does not expect them to freely find their own way. He tells them that this companion, this Holy Spirit, “will abide with them, and will be in them.” In other words, they will have the same intimate, personal connection with the Advocate that they have enjoyed with Jesus.

Jesus promises to never leave his disciples alone, and with that promise comes the responsibility to keep his commandments, which Jesus said could be summarized in two: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus wants the disciples to ensure that none of their neighbors ever feel alone or unloved. They are commanded to remember how they were born, to be in relationship with others, linking up with one another in mutual care and concern, always feeling responsibility for one another.

Jesus understood that human beings, like perhaps no other animal on earth, share a primal need for community. And Jesus understood that God wills for no one to ever be alone.

The pain of loneliness is so great that many have likened it to Hell itself. C. S. Lewis once wrote about waking up in the middle of the night, and not being able to go back to sleep. He was living alone at the time; and as he lay there in utter darkness, and with no one to whom to relate, it dawned on him that such a condition was the antithesis of what it meant to be a vibrant human being. Then the thought struck him,

“What if I had to live on in this kind of vacuum forever?” Such a prospect appeared more fearful than a thousand burning hells. Then he realized that this kind of aloneness was the logical end of not loving or of refusing to relate.[i]

T. S. Elliot once wrote these words about loneliness:

There was a door, and I could not open it. I could not touch the handle. Why could I not walk out of my prison? What is Hell? Hell is oneself, Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections.

There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to. One is always alone.[ii]

No wonder the first thing in the creation that God said was “not good,” says Genesis, was loneliness.

During the same week that the Thistlewaite twins were born, I visited someone in the nursing home who was sound asleep when I arrived in her room. Her roommate heard that I was having trouble waking her up, and spoke up with a soft voice through the curtain that divided the beds: “She has been sleeping like that for hours.”

Being polite, I acknowledged her, “Hey! How are you doing today?”

The way she barely responded let me know right away that she was not well. So I went around the curtain to her bedside.

“How long have you been in the nursing home?” I asked.

“Three years,” she said.

“Three years! My goodness. Well, why are you here?” I asked.

She said, “I can no longer walk. I cannot even get out of this bed.”

She then told me that she had been a victim of domestic violence. “My second husband beat me and beat me and beat me. He messed up my back, my hip and my legs.”

“I am so sorry to hear that! Have you had surgery?”

“Oh, yes, I have had many surgeries, but none of them did any good.”

Do you have any children?”

She said, “I have two boys. One though lives in Oklahoma City. He is a pilot. The other lives closer. He is the only one who comes to see me.”

I asked: “Are you a member of a church?”

Tears began to well up in her eyes as she responded: “I tried to join a church one time, but I was always black and blue from the beatings my husband would give me. I reckon that because of that, people did not accept me. At least, I never felt that they accepted me.”

As tears now streamed down her cheeks, she got louder and said, “But I wanted nothing in my life more than to be a part of a church, to have a church family, to be accepted.”

I asked, “So you have never had a pastor?”

She shook her head “no.”

Now, how else could I have responded? What else could I have said? There was only one thing that I could have said. I was not free to say anything else, for I had been commanded by my Lord and Savior to say it. I pulled a business card from my pocket and said, “Well, you have a pastor now.”

I then reached down and took her hand, and holding hands, we prayed together. After the prayer, I told her that I was going to my car where I had some more information about our church for her. When I came back, she was holding the card that I had given her, sobbing. She looked at me with a smile and thanked me as if I had given her a million dollars.

May we never forget that each human born in this world was born to hold hands with another. No one is ever born to be alone. Everyone needs to be accepted. Everyone needs to be loved. Everyone needs to be a part of a family. Everyone needs to believe that their life matters to someone. Every one needs to be understood. Everyone needs to be able to pray the prayer of the seventy-third Psalm: “O God, I am never away from you, always with you, for you hold my right hand.”

Today is Senior Sunday. We do not have this service this morning to say: “Congratulations, you have been taught well. You are now free to be on your own! Good luck, with that!”

No, this morning, like every Sunday morning, we have gathered this morning acknowledging our dependency on one another and on God. We are here to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves. We are here seeking to move away from selfishness and towards selflessness, away from loneliness and towards community. We are here to hold hands with one another and to hold hands with God.

We are here to help each other die completely to self, to deny the self-centeredness that C.S. Lewis said leads to “a thousand burning hells.” We are here to remind ourselves that we have been born again, not to be free, but to be dependent on God and one another as we seek to keep the commandments of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Emily Angleton, Meg Bloom, Molly Bloom, Hunter Evans, Sarah Johnson, and Brent Tilley…

Wherever you go, know that you are never alone. Know that you will always have a home here. You will always have a family here. You will always have a community of grace here. And remember you have been called to share the community we experience here, to share the love of Christ that binds us together here, with all people.

Be thankful not only for what you have already learned, but for the opportunities that lay before you to continue learning, to continue to be seekers of truth and knowledge; and may you use truth, never for selfish advantage, but to be advocates of acceptance and justice for all people.

Now, at this time, may we all reaffirm our commitment to love one another, to love these graduating Seniors, to link up with one another in mutual care and concern, and be responsible for one another, to live in community, to truly be a family of faith, by taking the hand of the person sitting next to you. For the sake of these graduates and for our community, let us follow the lead of Jillian and Jenna Thistlewaite, as we pray together.

O God, thank you for the high school graduates of our community.

Bless them as they seek to die to self and follow you daily.

May they remember that they are never alone. For we are and will always be family to them.

And we ask your blessings upon all of us here as we hold hands and commit ourselves be a community, a family of faith for each other.

And may we continue to recognize that there are many in our world,

in our town, who are experiencing the burning Hell of loneliness,

those who have never been accepted, welcomed, loved by others.

May we commit ourselves today to reach out to them with grace,

accept them, love them, and take them by the hand,

until they know the love of Jesus Christ

who does not want to leave any person orphaned. Amen.

[i] Claypool, John. God Is an Amateur (Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1994), 32

[ii] William P. Tuck, When You Are Lonely