On Faith, Compassion and Bigotry

My friend Susan passed away suddenly the day after she published these words. Like the mother of Heather Heyer, I hope to magnify Susan’s words.

Susan Irene Fox

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? Do not try to blend the genuine faith of our glorious Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, with your silly pretentiousness. Dear brothers, what’s the use of saying that you have faith and are Christians if you aren’t proving it by your words and actions? Will that kind of faith save anyone? (James 2:1,14)

In other words, we cannot claim to be Christians, we cannot claim to follow Jesus and at the same time claim to be a white supremacist, a white nationalist, a member of the KKK, or a member of the neo Nazi Party. They are antithetical.

Nor can we simply stand by and say nothing, or choose to say silent about the horrendous bigotry of these groups whose foundation comes from hanging black people and exterminating…

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Charlottesville Wake-Up Call

torches2

I first expressed the following bullet-points following the actions of domestic terrorist and white supremacist Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Many were calling the murders of the African Americans who had gathered for a Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel Church “a wake-up call.” I have heard the same expression used this weekend following the white supremacists who gathered to spew their hate in Charlottesville. What happened? Did we fall back asleep? It is way past time for America, especially the church in America, to stop hitting the snooze button, stop closing our eyes to ignore the racism and bigotry has been emboldened in our country today.  It is way past time to wake up, rise up, stand up, and speak out, as intolerance cannot be tolerated.

  • We must wake up to the reality that racism is not only a wound from our country’s past, but it is a deadly virus that still plagues us today. White preachers, including myself, have been too often afraid to even use the word “racism” from our pulpits for fear of “stirring things up,” as if we might reignite some fire that was put out in the 1960’s, or at least by 2008 when we elected our first black president. We must wake up and boldly call this evil by name and condemn the racism that is ablaze today, in all of its current manifestations: personal racism; systemic racism; political; and the subtle racism that is prevalent in our homes, in the workplace, in the marketplace, in government, and even in the church, for Jesus could not have been more clear when he said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that hatred in this country is being defended by people who are calling it “religious freedom.” In America, we believe all people are created equally; therefore, “religious freedom” never means the freedom to discriminate. Slave-owners used the same religious-freedom arguments in the nineteenth century to support slavery. Today, we do not tolerate people who want to own slaves, nor should we tolerate anyone who wants to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that many who cry out that they want to “Make America Great Again” loath what makes our country great today, that is, our cultural, ethnic, religious and racial diversity. We need to boldly speak out that it is this diversity that makes us look most like the image of God in which we were created. This diversity also looks like the portrait of heaven we find in the book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). We must wake up to voice our opposition to the purveyors of fear, some who are even calling people bear more arms “to take our country back.” Furthermore, we must wake up to stop folks mid-sentence when they start reminiscing about going back to the good old days of the 1950’s when “we had prayer in school,” as they are completely disregarding the fact that during this time African-Americans in our country were not only treated as second-class citizens, but were being lynched in trees.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that the most segregated hours in our country occur on Sunday mornings. We must find ways to build bridges and tear down the walls that we have created that prevent us from worshipping and doing ministry together. To stand against racism, hatred and violence and to stand for social justice and equality for all, we must do it side by side, hand in hand, as one body, one Church, serving one Lord.

Who Is Christ? The One Who Commands Us to Confront the Darkness

Torches

Matthew 14:22-33 NRSV

When Lori and I came and met with you for the first time, I shared the story of some things I discovered before I became Disciples of Christ minister. I had the opportunity to travel the United States while helping a friend start a small business. While I was on the road, I talked with a lot of people about church, more specifically, why they no longer attended church. Here is what I discovered:

You can go to any city or town in this great country of ours and ask people: “Say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say, “’nurse.’”

People will respond: “compassionate,” “caring,” “called,” “selfless,” and “sacrificial.”

Then you can ask: “Now, say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘school teacher’.”

You might hear: “crazy.” But then you will hear words like “selfless,” “sacrificial,” “compassionate,” and “caring.”

Then ask: “Now, say the first word that comes to your mind when I say ‘church goers’.”

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

People will respond: “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “arrogant,” “self-righteous, fake.” You may even hear the word, “old.”

Now, here is the interesting part. You might assume that people today have low view of the church simply because the world is becoming increasingly depraved and anti-Christ. However, if you ask the same people to say the first word that comes to their minds when they hear the word “Jesus,” the same people will respond: “loving,” “compassionate,” “caring,” “forgiving,” “accepting,” “selfless,” “sacrificial” “a role model.”

Here’s what I think this means- Although church attendance is in decline, I believe people in this world still love Jesus. The problem is that people do not see Jesus in the church. In fact, school teachers and nurses have done a better job imitating Jesus than some church people!

I wonder if the reason that the church doesn’t look like Jesus has anything to do with the fact that many church people would have difficulty recognizing Jesus if Jesus actually showed up? For how can we look like Jesus if we don’t know what Jesus looks like?

Now, I know it’s hard to believe that we would not recognize Jesus if he came to us, but this morning, we read where Peter, one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples doesn’t seem to recognize him when he comes to him and the other disciples in the middle of a raging storm.

“Lord, if it is you…”

Strange, isn’t it?

“Lord, if it is you…”

It’s strange because we would like to think that if we were in that boat, we would have certainly recognized him, especially if he came walking out to us on some angry waves.

Because that is exactly how we like to picture Jesus. He is the one who comes to us during the storm. He is the one who comes to us when our world turns dark, when the winds of life are against us, when the waves of life are crashing down upon us.

His is the presence that calms our fears, quiets our anxiety, dispels our despair, soothes our souls.

Jesus speaks familiar, comforting words to Peter and the disciples, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

We know the sound of that voice. We recognize those words. And as a pastor who has the blessed opportunity to walk with people in the storms of life, I cannot begin to count the times I have heard that voice. The voice of the good shepherd coming to rescue his flock from danger.

But, here’s where the story really gets strange. Even after Jesus speaks those familiar, assuring words, Peter still doesn’t seem convinced that it is Jesus.

“Lord, if it is you…”

So, how will how Peter know? How will he recognize that it is Jesus standing before him and not some made-up ghost of his imagination?

Are you ready?

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“If it is you, command me to come to you on the water?”  Is Peter serious?

I wonder why Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, calm this storm.” “If it is you, climb up in this boat with us and hold us, protect us, and take care of us.”  “If it is you, give us some peace.” “If it is you, comfort us and assure us that everything’s gonna be alright.”

After all, isn’t this how we recognize Jesus? “Jesus, come into our church and hold our hands.” “Jesus, come and tell us that the storm will be soon be over.” Jesus, come and assure us that somehow, someway, some day everything’s gonna be alright.”

That’s how we recognize Jesus.

But that’s not how Peter recognizes Jesus.

Peter says, “Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Jesus, if it is you, command me to risk my life. Jesus, if it is you, command me to get up and get out of this boat and venture into a dark world.”[1]

“Lord, if it is you, command me to put it all on the line. Lord if it is you, command me to walk into the storm, face the waves, brave the wind, take on the night.”

It as if Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless this voice commands him to literally throw caution into the wind and risk everything. Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless Jesus calls him to do something dangerous, something selfless, something sacrificial, something foolish.

“Lord it is you, call out to me like you did that day when I heard your voice for the very first time. You know that day I was minding my own business. That day I was there standing in my own little world by the lake with my brother Andrew with a fishing net in my hand. Command me like you did on that day to drop my net, drop everything, leave my family, leave my job and all forms of security behind to venture forth with you on a risky journey called discipleship.”

“Call out me like you did that day when you sent me out into the world to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. That day you commanded me to do risky, demanding, world-changing things like curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and casting out demons.”

“Lord, if it is you, warn me again about certain persecution if I follow you. Tell me again about the trials I will face, the great tribulation I will endure. Lord if it is you, command me to love all people although doing so will certainly upset the racists and bigots of the world. Command me to stand up, name and condemn racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Command me to pray for the enemies of the diversity of humanity that is created in the image of God, even when they are carrying guns and torches and are running over us with their automoblies and killing us. Command me to confront violence with love and light, knowing that only love can drive out hate, and only light can overcome the darkness.[2]

“Jesus if it is you, say something that will remind me that if I follow your voice, not only will there be great risk involved, there will be a cross involved. Lord, it it is you, command me to get out of this pew, (I mean this boat) and walk courageously into the darkness. And then, Jesus, and only then, will I recognize you.”

“Oh, I’ll still be scared. Walking with you like this will not be something that comes naturally for me. It is my nature to avoid conflict. So, I’ll have my doubts. I may even have moments when I will take my eyes off of you and think only about saving myself. I will make mistakes.”

“But Lord, I do trust in your grace. As you taught me to always love the sinner, I know your grace will never forsake me.”

Several chapters later in Matthew, we read Jesus reminding Peter and the rest of his disciples: Do you want to see me? Do you want to recognize me?  Do you want to encounter me? Do you want to know me? Then feed the hungry, and it will be like you are feeding me.

Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those who are imprisoned and you will be doing it to me.

This is how how you will recognize me:

When you do it to the least of these; when you deny yourself; when you empty yourself; when you throw caution into the wind; when you give yourself away, when you do something that your friends and family consider to be unnatural; when you truly love your neighbor as yourself; when you forgive seventy times seven; when you stand up for the dignity, the worth and the rights of the those who are marginalized by the majority of people, even by some of your friends, even your so-called Christian friends; when you make it clear, to even members of your own family, that your faith will no longer allow you to tolerate racism and bigotry; when you make a commitment to live modestly so you can give generously in a world that worships wealth; when you pray and work for peace in a world that only responds to threats of fire and fury; when you do these things… there I will be.

My fear is that the church has watered down the gospel for its own comfort. And by diluting who the Christ commands us to be, by making him up to be some ghost of our own imagination, when people come to church looking for Jesus, he’s nowhere to be found.

I am afraid we have traded the authentic good news to proclaim to the poor for some fake news to appease the privileged.

We have made church more about security and salvation and less about self-denial and sacrifice; more about receiving a blessing and less about being a blessing; more about what is culturally acceptable and less about what is biblically mandated; more about keeping account of the sins of our neighbors and less about loving our neighbors; more about ignoring evil and less about confronting evil, calling evil by name, exorcising evil; more about worshiping Jesus and less about following Jesus; more about dying and going to heaven one day and less about living for Jesus and going to those places Jesus calls us to go today, places we may not want to go, dark, dangerous, dreadful places.[3]

Do you want to see him? Do you want to recognize his voice? Perhaps, more importantly, do you want others to see Jesus in our church? Then let us embrace the authentic good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in all of it’s fullness, its delight and its demand.

For the storms are raging. The rain is falling. The winds of hate have been bolstered. Waves of violence have been emboldened. Each day, our world seems to grow darker.

And he’s coming toward us. Do you see him? Do you recognize his voice? He calls out to us with words that both comfort and challenge, words that calm and command.

[1] This point inspired by a sermon by William Willimon, How Will You Know If It Is Jesus? August 2005.

[2] Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

[3] This line is from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen

Lavish Our World

Matthew 14:13-21 NRSV

IMG_6084I might as well address the elephant in the room right here and now from the get-go.

The rumors are true. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist. And not only that, I was a Baptist pastor for over twenty years.

So, allow me use my first sermon to tell you how I got to this place where I am standing today, behind this particular pulpit wearing a stole with a chalice and a St. Andrews cross.

Although there many types of Baptists, I sometimes place them into two categories.

First, there’s the hard-shell variety. These are the ones who don’t drink, dance, cuss or chew or go with girls or boys who do…at least not before Noon on Sunday.

Then there’s the category that I was a proudly part of: those of the more moderate persuasion.

“Everything in moderation,” we loved to say.

“Let’s be Christian, but let’s not get too crazy with it.”

“Follow Jesus but don’t get fanatical about it.”

“Embrace the gospel, but don’t go overboard with it.”

“Be a disciple, but don’t over do it.”

“Preach the Bible, but don’t challenge anyone to authentically live the Bible.”

“Don’t upset the status quo. Don’t disturb the peace. Don’t stir things up.”

We must remember that “moderation” is the key to everything in life, especially when it comes to pastoring a church.

“Moderation” is the key to playing it safe. Moderation helps one avoid conflict. Moderation keeps your congregation comfortable, satisfied, unchanged. Thus, moderation helps pastors pay their mortgages, get their kids through college, fund their pension. Moderation makes for more pleasant Elders meetings and uneventful board meetings.

But then I started reading the likes of Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell who were anything but moderate.

These Scottish-Americans had the audacity to preach revolutionary messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They courageously denounced all creeds and confessions and radically committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church and defying the societal norms of the culture.

They preached against slavery. They preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table. And they openly criticized mainline Christianity and anything that didn’t jive with Jesus.

And of course, the mainstream powers-that-be pushed back. They said: “Barton and Alexander, you’re taking this too far.” “You’re going out of bounds.” “You need to slow down, pump the brakes, moderate.”

But they would not bow down or back down. They stood their ground. They refused to compromise. And for so doing, they were excommunicated by the Church and labeled heretics, radicals, rabble-rousers and fools. They were called every name in the book, but one.

They were never called “moderate.”

During this same time period, other prophetic voices like William Lloyd Garrison echoed Stone and Campbell’s revolutionary opposition to the injustice of slavery.

Garrison wrote:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.

On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.

No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;

so don’t you urge me to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

After studying the forbearers of the Disciples movement, one day a verse I read in the first chapter of Ephesians nearly jumped off the page.

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (Ephesians 1:8).

“Lavished.” Don’t you like that? When I think of all my shortcomings and failures, I think: “Thank God that God doesn’t give grace in moderation. Praise the Lord that God just doesn’t give me a sensible amount of mercy, a reasonable amount of forgiveness, a rational amount of love. Praise God that when it comes to grace, God lavishes.

When we took our two children to the beach or to the pool when they were younger, Lori was in charge of the sunscreen. And when it came to protecting her babies, she would always lavish them with the sunscreen lotion. The poor things would be covered in white lotion in from head to toe.

And if I ever said, “Baby, don’t you think you overdid it a little with the sunscreen? Moderation, baby. Moderation is the key.”

She’d look at me as if I had lost my mind and say: “You must not love them like I do.”

When it comes to covering God’s children with grace, Paul says that God lavishes. When it comes to grace, God loves all God’s children, thus God overdoes it.

Disciples like to say that where the Bible speaks we speak, and the entire Biblical witness testifies to this lavish grace. It is a grace that is extravagant, excessive, over-the-top, overdone.

Cain killed his brother Able. Cain deserves to die. But what did God do? God lavishes Cain. Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him and protect his life (Genesis 4).

Moses kills an Egyptian, breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But God chooses that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land (Exodus 2).

David not only commits adultery, but kills the husband of his mistress (2 Samuel 11). Yet, Matthew proudly announces David in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).

The good news is, when it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, God lavishes. God always seems to overdo it.

The story of Jesus’ first miracle says it all. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine. But not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had.

Now, having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I know I am not supposed to know about such things, but isn’t 180 gallons of wine an awful lot of wine? Sounds like Jesus may have gone a bit overboard.

Then, there are all those stories that he told.

The father of the prodigal son doesn’t just welcome home his returning son. The father lavishes the son. The father goes overboard: “Quickly bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and drink and have one extravagant party!”

It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he lavished the man. It was the way he goes overboard with the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds, putting the wounded man in his car, taking the man to the hospital and telling the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my debit card, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”

And this morning we read where Jesus was teaching on a hillside and looks out at the large crowd that showed up looking for some hope. Thousands of them came from all over. They were hungry. Darkness was setting in.

The moderate disciples said: “Let’s be reasonable, sensible, judicious and send them back to town so they can eat.”

But Jesus radically takes all they have, blesses it, breaks it, and in an act that can only be described as revolutionary, feeds 5,000 people!

But the story doesn’t end there. They took up what was left over, and 12 baskets were filled. Once again, Jesus overdid it. Jesus went overboard. Jesus took it too far. Jesus lavished.

When Jesus is present, people in need, the hungry, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the vulnerable don’t only get what they need. They are lavished.

Then, there is the story of all stories. When God offered us the very best gift that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst that we had to offer, the cross. But three days later, God not only raised Jesus back to life, but God gave him right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

Yes, there seems to be something built right into the nature of God that tends toward graciously overdoing it.

So, as people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live?  Are we moderate with our love? Are we discriminating with our forgiveness? Are we discreet with grace? Are we modest with mercy? Are we restrained with the good news?

Or do we truly believe that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves?

Because the truth is that the church has been embarrassingly and tragically guilty of doing tremendous damage to the world, as well as to the mission of Christ, by loving God and loving others only in moderation.

I believe this is the greatest travesty in the church today, because out of any human institution on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of love, grace, and forgiveness. Without fear of snooty smirks, judgy jeers, or having a Bible thrown upside their head, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And then be lavished by God’s people with love.

This is why I am no longer a moderate Baptist. But stand here today in the spirit of Stone, the Campbells, Scott, Smith, and prophetic voices like Garrison, around a table that has been lavishly prepared for all people, joining a group of Disciples dedicated to sharing the good news to this city, region and world: That when it comes to the revolutionary Word of God, when it comes to the boundless love of God, when it comes to the extravagant grace of God, when it comes to the prophetic justice of God, when it comes to the radical inclusion of God, when it comes to fighting for a world where all lives have equal value, we will not moderate. We will not compromise. We will not stand down or even slow down. We will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. AND WE WILL BE HEARD.

O God,

Having received your grace revealed in Christ,

having allowed your Spirit to lavish us with it,

cover us from head to toe with it,

Help us to go into the world to share it with all people,

generously, extravagantly, lavishly.

 

Invitation to Communion

 

As we gather around this table, we reaffirm our revolutionary belief that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

There is no height: no creed, no confession;

There is no depth: no doctrine, no bylaw, no tradition;

There are no powers or rulers: no politicians, no judges, no clergy;

There are no things present: no race, no gender, no orientation, no disability;

There are no things to come: no storm, no legislation, no disease, no war;

There is no life: no elder, no deacon, no Sunday school teacher;

There is nothing in all of creation, not angels, not even death itself, that can separate any of us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Therefore, every Sunday we say: “All are welcome here to share this bread and this cup. And all means all.”

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Having received the extravagant grace of Christ,

having allowed God to lavish you with it,

cover you from head to toe with it,

Go now into your world to share with all people,

generously, extravagantly, lavishly.

And let them know that there is a church that exists in this town

that ready and willing to go overboard being like, acting like, speaking like, and loving like Jesus.

And now may the unconditional love of God,

the unrestricted grace of Christ

and the unending communion of the Holy Spirit

continue to lavish us all. Amen.

A Radical Cup of Water

waterhose

Matthew 10:40-42 NRSV

Matthew Chapter 10 is perhaps one of the most demanding chapters in the entire Bible.

Early in the chapter, we read that the discipleship business is a risky business. We are to go out into the world and encounter the sick and the dying. We are to engage those possessed by pure evil. We are to be willing to leave behind our families, our homes, even our clothes! Persecution is not only to be accepted. It is to be welcomed!  To save one’s self, we are to practice denying one’s self, pouring one’s self out, losing one’s self.

And when read it, we think, “You know, I don’t think I am really cut out for this discipleship business. I don’t have the gifts, the time, the energy, the courage, and quite honestly, I don’t have the desire.”

So thanks for the invitation, but I prefer to just keep my place safe and comfy on this padded pew.

Then, we reach the end of the chapter and we read these words: “Whoever gives even a cold cup of water to one of these little ones—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

And we say: “Hey now.  Wait just a minute. You know, I think I might be able to handle this! I can’t heal the sick—I hate hospitals, and I do all I can do to avoid nursing homes.

I don’t have what it takes to minster to the poor. They make me nervous, make me feel dirty, stress me out.

I can’t be with the dying. That is what Hospice is for. And I dread going to funerals. I never know what to say or what to do.

And I can’t leave my family behind. I can’t give up my possessions. And I don’t want to even think about losing my life. But hey, I am all about sharing a cold cup of water!

Finally! Something I can handle. So, Jesus, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. As soon as I get home from church this afternoon, I am going to hook up my water hose to the spigot out in front of my house.  Then I am going to I make a sign and put it out by the road that reads: ‘Free cold drink of water for all who are thirsty!’ And to make the preacher happy, since it is his last Sunday, I will even add: “And all means all.”

Maybe I am cut out to be a disciple of Jesus after all!”

For most of us, this seems like some good news! We who generally fail at casting out demons (even when they show up in church), we who would rather stay in our pews than take the gospel out to the dying, we who take care of our own children while others starve in the streets, and we who find praise far more satisfying than persecution, even we can open the doors of the kingdom through a simple act of hospitality, as small as giving a thirsty stranger a cold cup of water.

“Praise be to Jesus!” we say.

“So, I am going to just forget about all of that other stuff Jesus talked about, that big prophetic stuff, that demanding stuff, that risky and radical stuff. I’m just going to take Jesus at his word in Matthew 10:42 and run with it!  In fact, is going to be my new favorite scripture verse. This is my new calling. This is my mantra and my ministry. Cold cups of water for all God’s people!

But you have to wonder if we aren’t missing something. For deep inside, we all know we can do a lot better than that. We all know a cross or two we could bear. We all know a neighbor we could love. We all know someone we could help out. We all know ways we could be a little less selfish, less materialistic, more generous.

True discipleship really cannot be as easy as passing out a few cups of water, can it? Are we really supposed to forget all about everything else that Jesus talked about? All of that hard stuff about “turning the other cheek,” “loving our enemies,” and selling everything we have to give to the poor?”

Surely those are the marks of true discipleship. Those are the keys to the kingdom of heaven. There’s just no way a small act of inconsequential hospitality can compare to the risky and radical business of battling the demonic, coming into contact with the sick, ministering to the dying and enduring persecution.

But Jesus seems to disagree. For in a fragmented world such as ours, a simple act of kindness, a small gesture of welcome to a stranger, a little genuine hospitality is never an easy, inconsequential act. In fact, it can be very risky business with very radical consequences.

A short time ago, I replied to an email from a complete stranger who wrote to thank me for something that I had written on my blog. By the way, I ended that article, “And all means all.”

I replied to his email with a simple, hospitable, what-seemed-to-be-inconsequential, “Thank you.”

A few days later we are friends on Facebook.

A couple of weeks later, I get a telephone call asking me to pray for him about a job opportunity in the City.

A week later, I am asked to meet this stranger at a restaurant.

Before I left the house, I told Lori exactly where I was going. I called her when I arrived and told her that if she did not hear from me in a couple hours to call the police.

During dinner, he shared with me some his burdens, some of his pain, some of fears. He told me how he had often been condemned by the church for being different. I made myself vulnerable by sharing some of my own burdens. Before we departed, we embraced, no longer as strangers, but as brothers who had made a covenant suffer with and to pray for one another. I drove home wondering: “What on earth have I gotten myself into?”

In this fragmented world, a world of walls and barriers, a world where there is so much division, so much hate and loneliness, replying to a simple email, a small gesture of hospitality, becomes a risky, radical and prophetic act that has the power to change your life, and perhaps the world.

And Jesus says to go and do this. Go out, move out, seek out, and reach out to strangers. Love your neighbors.

And yes, this world is frightening beyond our walls. Our neighbors can be so different. And the truth is some of our neighbors can be downright scary.

But our neighbors are also thirsty.

So, welcome, engage, touch. Share a drink with someone. Make yourselves vulnerable to another. For there is no other way to fulfill the purpose for which you were created—to seek and make genuine peace in this world.

This is discipleship. This is following the way of Jesus. It is done face-to-face, side-by-side, hand-to-hand, person-to-person.

We cringe. Because we know that this kind of hospitality involves risk. It involves radical openness and intimacy with another.

Offering a cup of water to another involves the risk of rejection, but also the risk of laughter; the risk of tears, but also the risk of love.

I’ve heard it said that the problem with others is that they are just so “other.” Others can quite often be different. Others may not like us. Others might refuse our kindness. Others might wound us. Others might crucify us. And worst of all, others might change us.

The truth is that putting a welcome sign in the front yard beside the water hose is a downright dangerous activity.

Nearing the end of my ministry in North Carolina before moving to be with you here in Enid, I went into the church kitchen to get a cup of coffee. A woman from the cleaning service the church had hired was in there preparing to mop the floor. Although I had seen her almost every week nearly three years, I am ashamed to say that I did not know her name.

But that day, before I really thought about it, considered the dangerous consequences of it, I asked this stranger, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Somewhat shocked by my simple act of hospitality, she responded, “Yes, I would.”

She then introduced herself to me over that cup, as she introduced all of her children, a sick grandchild, a sister battling cancer, a brother who lost his job, and an absent husband. I filled a bag with squash and cucumbers from our community garden, and I hugged this woman who I had hardly spoken to in three years—this stranger that I had all but ignored—this woman who was no longer a stranger. She was my sister. And acknowledging the change, the miraculous transformation that had occurred, I thought, or maybe I prayed, “Good Lord, it was just one cup of coffee!”

Paraphrasing United Methodist Pastor William Willimon: This is the way of the good Lord. For Jesus, oftentimes through the smallest and simplest of ways, is always trying to change us, challenge us, move us. He welcomes and accepts us only so we will welcome others, for not only their sakes, but for our sakes.

This is the gift of community. This is why we were created. It is the answer to our own sadness, to our own loneliness and to our deepest desires. Jesus knows we were not created to live in isolation, but created from the heart of a God who lives in a self-giving, loving communion with the Son and the Holy Spirit—A heart that is so full of love that it cannot help but offer grace and redemption to all and call all into this communion.

And this communion grows. It grows when we offer kindness, gentleness, and mercy, when other lonely lives become wrapped up in our own, when the grace of God that was given to us is freely given to someone else.

And before we know it, the small cup of water we offered to another becomes a cup of salvation as fear fades, barriers fall, walls come down, hands touch, hearts connect, eyes open, lives become entwined.  Creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter.

Doing business with this kind of God, even when it seems small, safe and inconsequential, is always a risky business with radical consequences. And Jesus wants us to know that these consequences are eternal. Whether we are fighting demonic evil, healing the sick, caring for the dying, leaving behind our homes, our possessions, our friends and family, being persecuted for taking a stand for social justice, or simply offering meager acts of hospitality to a stranger, we always risk receiving salvation.

This is the great wonder of the gospel. When we reach out, accept, and welcome others, when we take the hand of another, when we embrace another, when we offer the unconditional love of God to another, even in the smallest of ways, even in sharing a glass of water or a small cup of coffee, or in responding to an email, God welcomes us.

When we encounter another, we find communion with God and receive the overflowing hospitality of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[i]

[i] Inspired by William Willimon. “Risky Business,” Clergy Journal, Jun 26, 2005, vol 33, no 2, pp 53-56.

Ashamed of the Gospel

not ashamed

Matthew 10:24-29 NRSV

For a year and a half, I have been preaching that the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. As Christ, we are to continue his self-expending, self-denying ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: bringing healing to the sick, hope to the despairing, comfort to the troubled, grace to the sinners, and life to the dying.

But as I mentioned last week, we have our doubts.

We may say things like: “Seems like Jesus is really asking a lot of us. I ‘m no so sure I am ready. I have some things that I need to work out in my life first. My faith needs some work. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And besides that, I have some very personal issues to deal with. I sometimes have a problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my own self more together, learn a little more, grow a little more, I think I will pass on on making a commitment to be the embodiment of Christ in this world.

But, as you may remember from last week’s sermon, if Jesus can use Judas, the one who betrayed him, and Matthew, the tax collector, to be the church, then surely he can use you and me.

This morning, I want us to look at another disciple. The first disciple listed by Matthew in this chapter, Simon Peter.

You know, Saint Peter. The one Jesus called a “rock” and said, “on this rock, I will build my church.” The one Roman Catholics recognize as the first Pope. Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter: the one whom Jesus loved and trusted to carry on his ministry in this world.

Well, let me tell you a little more about this Peter fella.

One day, he is out on boat with the other disciples. It is the middle of the night, and there’s this big storm. The wind is howling. The waves are crashing against and into the boat. And as you could imagine, they were all scared to death. But then, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them to have courage and fear not.

But Peter…Peter has some doubts. Peter has some questions. Peter needs to work some things out: “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come out on the water.” And Jesus responds, “Peter, you of little faith.”

Later, Jesus is instructing Peter about discipleship. Jesus talks about being humble, about lowering one’s self, even pouring one’s self out. Jesus talks about selfless, self-expending, sacrificial love, being with and for the least of these.

But Peter…Peter has some issues. Peter has some things to learn. Peter gets into an argument with the other disciples about which one of them was the greatest.

After Jesus prays in the garden, surrendering himself to the will of God, Jesus does not resist arrest. Jesus practices what he preaches and turns the other cheek.

But Peter…Peter loses it. Peter acts before he thinks. In a fit of anger, Peter fights back. Peter draws his sword and begins swinging it at Jesus’ captors, cutting the ear off of one.

The entire chapter of Matthew 10 has Jesus warning the disciples, including Peter, that they must be prepared to carry a cross. And if they followed him, if they did what he did, loved who he loved, a cross would be in their future.

Jesus essentially said:

“When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people, even for folks called “illegal” or “aliens”; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you feed the hungry with no strings attached; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you tell the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders, hypocrites, and then point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous-powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will hoist their colors, and they will grab their guns. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.”

In Mark’s description of this scene, remember it is Peter who has some serious issues with that.

Peter says to Jesus: “No way! Stop talking like that. This is not right. You are crazy. We will not let this happen!”

It is then that Jesus responds to Peter with some of the harshest words ever attributed to Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

What in the world?

He never called Judas who betrayed him or Matthew the tax collector “Satan.” Why Peter?

What was truly Peter’s problem. Jesus seems to know what it is. And his problem is greater than doubt, a lack of understanding, or poor anger management.

What is it that is really keeping Peter from being the church, being the enfleshed presence of Christ?

Well, what is truly keeping us from being the church, being the embodiment of our Lord?

After Jesus is arrested, Peter goes into the courtyard of the High Priest. It is a cold night, so he gathers with some folks who had started a fire to warm themselves. A servant girl begins staring at Peter and says: “This man was with Jesus. He traveled around with him doing the things that Jesus did, saying the things that Jesus said.” But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not even know this Jesus.”

A little later, another saw him and said: “You are a disciple, a disciple of Jesus who defended, forgave and friended sinners. You welcomed strangers, visited prisoners, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, and fed the hungry. You restored lepers, elevated the status of women, gave dignity to Eunuchs, and offered community to lepers. But, again, Peter denied it.

About an hour had passed and another man began to insist saying: “Certainly this man was with Him, for he is a Galilean too. You called out hypocrisy on the behalf of widows. You challenged the status quo on the behalf of the sick. You disobeyed the laws of God on the behalf of the suffering.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”

You see, Peter’s denials, his refusal to take up his cross, had to do with shame. And perhaps this was Peter’s real problem all the while.

Peter’s failure to be the church in the world had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, his personal issues, even his poor anger management.

Peter failed to follow Christ, because Peter was ashamed. Peter was ashamed of the gospel: What the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

Peter was ashamed to love, because living among voices clamoring to take their country back from foreign invaders, it was more popular to hate.

Peter was ashamed to turn the other cheek, because it was more popular to draw a sword.

Peter was ashamed to identify with the least, because it was more popular to identify with the greatest.

Peter was ashamed to share his wealth, because it was more popular to hold on to it.

Peter was ashamed to side with the poor, because it was more popular to ridicule them for being “lazy” and “entitled.”

Peter was ashamed to welcome immigrants, because it was more popular to ban them.

Peter was ashamed to defend sinners, because it was more popular to throw rocks.

Peter was ashamed to stand up for the marginalized, because it was more popular to call them “abominations.”

Peter was ashamed to visit those in prison, because it was popular to dehumanize them.

Peter was ashamed to preach a dangerous gospel that demands risk and sacrifice while promoting change and causing trouble, because it was more popular to preach an alternative gospel that demands nothing while promoting peace, security, comfort and family values.

And according to Mark Jesus said: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

According to Matthew Jesus said: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

So, are we ready to proclaim the gospel from the housetops? If not, what’s our excuse? We must remember, with Jesus, a lack of faith, having a lot of questions and some serious issues, or not having ourselves all together simply doesn’t cut it!

Could it be it is because we are somewhat ashamed? Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we ashamed of what it stands for, and for whom it stands?

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter decided to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church, this very thing that we call the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.

And the good news for us this morning is that we still have a little time to deal with our shame.

Preach, Raise, Cast Out and Heal

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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?