I Smell Smoke

Pentecost fire

Luke 3:15-17 NRSV

Let’s be honest. Church, even as Christmas approaches, can be a pretty boring experience. Each Sunday we sit in the same pew, follow the same order of service, look at the back of the same ol’ heads, sing the same hymns, say the same prayers, and hear a sermon that we’ve already heard before.

I remember as a child doing all kinds of things to do to pass the time. I remember counting the number of times the preacher would wipe the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief. I also remember holding mama’s hand and playing with her jewelry, turning the rings on her fingers, messing with her bracelets. And when she would get tired of all of that, I would just sit there and twiddle my thumbs, while secretly hoping and praying, begging for something, anything to happen.

Lord, if you love me, why don’t you send mouse running down the aisle, or through the choir loft? And Lord, if you really love me, maybe a cat chasing the mouse! How about bird swooshing through the front door!  Please, Lord, let something happen, something, anything!

I’ll never forget that Sunday my prayers were answered. In the middle of the typical, predictable service, while we were singing the offertory hymn, we began to smell this smell. It was hard to tell what it was, a burnt, smoky kind of smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy whisper, “I think I smell smoke.”  Mama whispered back, “Gene, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Then, in the middle of the half-hearted singing and murmuring, someone in the congregation, shouted: “Fire!”

We then did what most folks do when someone yells, “fire,” in a crowded building. We got out.

We evacuated the sanctuary, but only to discover, there wasn’t really a fire. The furnace had simply over heated or something.

It was one of the best worship services that I’d ever attended!

As a pastor, there have been many a Sunday I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it would somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have thought, what we need is somebody, anybody to stand up in this place and yell “fire” to just to create a little bit of excitement.

Well, this week, we’re in luck, because somebody is coming that is going to do just that! In the middle of our order of service that hasn’t changed in decades, comes this shocking introduction by John the Baptist:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I believe we really need to hear these words, because of how these words cut across the grain of why most of us, especially us grown-ups come to this predictable place to worship Sunday after Sunday. Children may still pray for something exciting to happen at church, but we adults, we know better. We know that nothing ever really happens here. Nothing ever changes. If we’ve never done it that way before, then we’re not going to be doing it anytime soon. And you know something? We like it that way.

We come here seeking a place of comfort and quiet consolation. Because after all, our lives are always on fast-forward, a real-rat race, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to sit down, to stop, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with that which is stable and dependable, even if it issometimes boring.

In our fast-paced world where we have grown accustomed to burning the candles at both ends, especially during these weeks before Christmas, we like to come to this place Sunday after Sunday to slow down, cool down, quiet down and settle down. In a world ablaze with constant change and ceaseless activity, we need a place, if just for an hour, to just chill out. So here we are. The problem is: here comes someone who does something as audacious as yelling “fire” crowded building!

When we least expect it and perhaps least desire it, John the Baptist stands up and says, “Someone who is more powerful than me is coming, and he is coming with fire!”

Moses had just killed a man in Egypt. He’s a fugitive, a sinful human being floundering in the middle of nowhere without a purpose. Then, out of nowhere, comes, you guessed it, fire!  A bush bursts into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “I’m sending you Moses to stand up to the Pharaoh, to the powers that be, to give liberty to the oppressed!”

And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you. I intend for you to rise up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of refugees and migrants, to proclaim with your words and actions liberty and justice for all.

The children of Israel were freed by Moses from Egyptian slavery.  But shortly thereafter, in the wilderness, they began complaining, “You know, at least as Pharaoh’s slaves, we had three meals a day. At least the status quo gave us some stability, some sense of security. But now, here in the dangerous wilderness, we don’t know where we are going or what we are doing.”

Do you remember the response of God?

God said, “You poor, poor babies. I’m so sorry. Let me slow things down a bit and let you build a comfy and cozy sanctuary from the wilderness. Let me give you some nice padded pew cushions, so you can sit down and take a load off. I’ll send you a good preacher to sooth your spirits, ease your minds.”

No, God said, “I’ll give you fire, a pillar of fire leading you out into the darkness, driving you towards your purpose, pulling you into my future. I’m giving you fire to lead you to be the people I am calling you to be out in the wilderness.

And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “Jesus is coming and he is kindling that same Exodus fire. And he’s going to light you up and show you gifts you never even knew you had, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”

When the prophet Daniel describes the throne of God, he doesn’t describe a reign that is stationary and static, immovable and immobile. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne with wheels, active, on the move, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.

And here comes John saying to all of us who prefer to be set in our ways, secure in our beliefs, Jesus is coming on a chariot with those same wheels of fire to change your ways, challenge your assumptions and move you to take action.

The disciples were gathered together after Jesus had left their presence. They were just following the order of worship, going through the motions. The ushers were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone’s comfortable and seated, doors shut, typical boring service, then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, the building began to rumble, the windows started rattling, the doors swung open, and somebody shouted, “fire!”

We call that day the day Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit showed up as fire. William Willimon says that on that day, “the church was born in the crucible, in the furnace of God’s fire.

[And here comes Jesus, saying to those of us today who have come to this place to check out and chill out], My Spirit is ablaze with that same Pentecostal fire and I’m looking for a few good men and women here who are combustible!’”

The truth is, when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing ever changes, where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as the children of a dynamic, moving God. We are not the incendiary force that Jesus ignites us to be. And we are one boring sight—to God as well as to the world.

Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, disrupted, when we allow ourselves to be engaged by the Christ, when we truly decide to not just worship Jesus in here but to follow Jesus out there, to not just go to church but to be the church, when we move our church out of the sanctuary into the world, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve him, to truly love all people as we love ourselves, to meet the needs of our community; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the movement of God, we become a purifying and warming blaze, and it is, I promise you, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.

The question today is: Will First Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. For today, here in this place, the good news is:

I smell smoke.

Advertisements

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

its the end of the world as we know it

Luke 21:25-36 NRSV

December is here. The Advent Season has arrived. As Luke says, it’s time to “be on guard.” “It’s time to be alert.” “The Son of Man is coming!” It’s time to get ready! It’s time to make some preparations! It’s time to get our homes, this church and this city looking more like Christmas!

In just a few weeks, wherever we are, standing in line at Wal-Mart, sitting in the office or sitting in church, people will start asking us the question, “Are you ready?” “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Of course, what they mean is: “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping? Have you purchased all of our groceries? Have your wrapped all of your presents? Is your house decorated?”

But the question that we probably should be asking, and especially be asking here in church is: “Are we ready for Jesus?” “Are we really ready for the Advent of the Messiah? Are we really ready for the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ?”

“The gospel”—that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

The problem is that it is this word, “gospel,” is one of those words that we have heard and used so much as Christians, that it’s meaning has been distorted, diluted and even lost.

For some the word “gospel” only means some kind of individual, private relationship. It means the forgiveness of personal sins. It’s an individual’s ticket to heaven. It means that a personal transaction can be made with Jesus to avoid going to hell.

For others, the word “gospel” means the “right thinking about the Christian faith.” When some say “gospel,” they mean the body of doctrine that a person is expected to believe to be a true Christian. It’s a list of things we are supposed to be against as Christians, and most of it is individual, personal things.

However, the truth is that if we take the Greek word, evangelion, the word we translate “gospel,” many theologians agree that the word would best be translated as “revolution.”

In Jesus’ day, it meant “good news.”  But evangelionwas not just any good news. And it was never understood as individual, personal good news. But was good news that had political and social significance.

When one nation was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, evangelionor “gospel” was what was the report that was brought to the General. “Good news, the battle has been won!”

Or when a son was born to the king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, evangelion or “gospel” was what they announced to the public.  “Good news! A child has been born to the king. Our reign is secure.”

Mary’s gospel song at the news of Jesus’ birth is an example of such good news proclamation. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The good news, the evangelion continues: kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over, and the rich are being sent away empty.”

Her song is nothing less than a battle cry!

The song of her kinsman Zechariah at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, is a similar gospel song: “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”

And when that baby grew up, when John began his own preaching in the wilderness, Luke literally described it as “gospeling.”  And what was the nature of his gospel or` good news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.”

“And the crowds asked him, ‘what then should we do?’  In reply he said to them, ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food, must do likewise.’”

In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, in terms almost identical to John’s, that “the kingdom of heaven is near,” and then more precisely, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And by the way, this year of the Lord’s favor, this acceptable year, is what is called in Leviticus “the year of Jubilee.”

According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.

It would involve turning the world upside down, the redistribution of wealth and power.

Do you detect a pattern to this good news?  When God comes into the world, when God moves against the present order, it is always good news for the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the proud and the powerful—it’s political, economic, social good news, much more than individual, personal good news.

Evangelion means the end of the world as we know it.  Evangelion is what is described in our scripture lesson this morning: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations.” Our Savior is the one who saves the world by disrupting the old order of things and bringing a brand new order. And his reign, his dominion, is going to be so adversarial toward dominion of the powers-that-be, that his work among us is nothing less than a revolution.

No wonder that there were many in Judea that thought that good news really didn’t sound that good news at all.

No wonder John the Baptist ended up dead shortly after his sermon.

No wonder Jesus himself found himself hanging on a cross between two thieves just three years after first announcing this good news.

This is the good news of the gospel. This is the good news that John and Jesus, Mary and Zechariah proclaimed. It is not individual, personal good news that changes our hearts saves our souls. It is revolutionary good news that changes everything and saves the world!

Which begs the questions: Is this our idea of good news?

I suppose that the main difference between good newsand bad newsis where you happen to be standing when you get the news.

Here I stand. My life, my world is not too shabby. It’s a pretty good world, a pretty good life. I’m benefiting fairly well from the present order. I am pretty well-fixed, fairly secure, quite cozy. I have warm clothes, a warm home, a warm car, and warm food to eat and drink. I have never felt oppressed, hated, or discriminated against. I don’t need a revolution. And I don’t really want a revolution, especially if that revolution will come cause me to sacrifice something in my life, if it is going to mean the end of my world as I know it.

No wonder the meaning of the word gospel has been changed over the years from revolutionary good news to merely individual, personal good news.

“Good news!  The Messiah’s coming and he’s going to finally set right what’s wrong with this world!  He’s going to do justice where injustice has been done!” “He is going to change everything! He’s turning this world upside down. “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

“Well, please forgive me for not rushing over to Bethlehem for the party!”

When Jesus was born, according to Luke, people like me missed the whole thing. The angels’ heavenly message of evangelion came to none of them. Rather, the heavens split open, songs filled the air, and an angelic army appeared to who?  To lowly, poor shepherds out in the fields working the night shift.

And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.” Did you know that this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus, one of the world’s most powerful and ruthless dictators?

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

Do you see what’s going on here? Christmas angels now sing the Emperor Augustus’ imperialist words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest. There’s a new king on the throne, and Jesus Christ is King!” Therefore, Augustus is not.

Love is King. Selfishness is not.

Generosity is King. Greed is not.

Humility is King. Pride is not.

Social justice is King. Inequality is not.

Mercy is King. Putting yourself first is not.

Grace is King. Judgment is not.

Selflessness, sacrifice and self-expenditure is King. Self-protection and self-preservation is not.

Being a church that is about feeding the hungry is King, coming to church to get fed ourselves is not.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

It’s good news.  I guess.

Let us pray together.

Come Lord Jesus. Expectantly, eagerly, we await your advent among us.  And when you come, give us the courage to receive you, to open our doors to you, and to open our hearts.  Give us the grace to receive you as you are, not as we would imagine you to be.  Give us the strength to step up, to let go, to move out, and to become citizens of your reign.  Amen.

A Glimpse of Heaven: Remembering Janice Rickman

Janice Rickmans Tie Dye Moment
May 24, 1946 – Dec. 8, 2018

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner, has wondered what Heaven is like. With me, he believes we can get a foretaste of heaven right here on earth.  Buechner writes: “To speak of ‘heavenly’ music or a ‘heavenly’ day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something.”

Upon experiencing something that is soooo good, perhaps we have all said, “Ahhhh! This is heaven!”  A bite of chocolate cake. A warm cookie with cold milk.  A lover’s touch.  A faithful friend.  A child’s hug.  A walk on a beach or in the snow. Resting one’s head on your mother’s shoulders. Undeserved forgiveness.  Unconditional love.  Unwavering devotion. Unexplained strength.

I heard a another preacher describe it this way: Heaven is sort of like this perfect room on the second floor of the house. It is a room upstairs where we are not yet permitted to enter from our position in a room here on the first floor.

However, there is this small, tiny hole in the ceiling of our room. And if we position ourselves just so under that hole.  At just the right angle.  At just the right moment.  If the light is just so. The shadows fade and we can see a little of that room. We can catch a glimpse of Heaven.

Greta will tell you that one thing that she will never forget is her mother recalling the moments after Greta was born, and specifically that moment Janice held her for the first time. As soon as the doctor handed Greta to her, as she held Greta in her arms, pressed her lips to kiss Greta’s forehead, and said Greta was “as warm as toast.”

Greta, you will always remember that, because your mother was describing a moment for her that was nothing less than heavenly. As she held you in her arms, as she loved you as she loved Bradley and Sarah, with a love that was out of this world, that hole in the ceiling got a lot larger for your mother. The light got just right, the shadows faded and heaven came down.

The Bible paints many portraits of the widening of this hole in the ceiling.

The prophet Isaiah prays for such widening:

Shower, O heavens, from above,

and let the skies rain down righteousness;

let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,

and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;

I the Lord have created it. (Isa 45).

Ezekiel writes about the glimpses of heaven he experienced:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1).

Malachi talks about opening a window to heaven,

…see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing (Malachi 3).

John talks about opening a door to heaven:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’ (Revelation 4).

And then we have those beautiful recollections of Jesus’ baptism as the Gospel Writers describe the heavens opening up. Mark literally says the heavens were “ripped apart” as the Spirit of God descended like a dove.

Greta and Sarah, I do not believe either one of you will ever forget the many ways that your mother helped to open up the heavens for you, to make that tiny hole in the ceiling a little wider, to move you to just the right position, to be in just the right light, at just the right angle, for the many times she caused heaven to only open but to actually come down so close to earth that you could feel it, hear it, smell it, and touch it.

When we study the Bible, from the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, through the occupation of Israel by Babylon, to the oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire—from the tribulations of Job, the persecution of Daniel, through the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, to the trials and hardships of the Apostles Paul and John, the one theme that is constant is the divine strength, the holy resoluteness, the sacred presence of God in difficult times.

Greta and Sarah, you and Bradley, all of her grandchildren have witnessed this miraculous strength in ways that you are still trying to, but may never comprehend. Whatever storm came her way, divorce, death and disease, her love for you never failed, in fact, it never even wavered. Her love for you was indeed out of this world. No matter her circumstance she was always there with you, never away from you, always for you, never against you.

She possessed this supernatural strength, this holy fire, this divine determination to always be there to give any of you what you needed. Janice became a single-parent when Bradley was 11, Sarah was 9 and Greta was 2, and although she experienced the grief and sorrow of divorce, she never let you kids see it. She remained dedicated to her job as a legal Clerk and later with ABF to make sure that your needs were always met. If she ever went into her room, closed the door and cried, you never knew it. Her love was selfless. Her love was sacrificial. It was self-expending. It was heavenly. And there is no wonder that you look back on your childhood today, at her love and care and strength, and ponder, “How in the world did she do that?” In her strength, you were catching a glimpse of heaven.

During this Advent season, we celebrate another moment when the heavens were opened, when a choir of angels filled the skies to announce the birth of a baby.

John describes the announcement this way,

See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1).

Through the gift of a baby born in Bethlehem, we are all born into the family of God. Through this baby named Jesus, we have been made family.

For 20 years, Janice worked as a legal clerk here in Fort Smith. When she left that position to work for ABF, she grieved. Why? Because her co-workers there in the legal office had become family to her. The same thing happened while she was at ABF.

Janice was not a member of the church or the denomination with which I serve as pastor. She was a proud member of the Church of Christ.

When she first moved to Methodist Village, one of her big concerns was that they were going to make her a Methodist. To illustrate this, the first weekend she moved into Methodist Village this past April, they had a tornado warning. The protocol for a tornado warning is to place identification tags on a lanyard around the necks of all the residents. When they placed a name tag around Janice’s neck, she wasn’t so much concerned about the possible tornadoes as she was about her name being printed under the word “Methodist.” She took one look at her badge and said, “I knew it. They have made me Methodist!”

So when I would visit her at Methodist Village and others would ask her if I was her pastor, she would immediately respond: “Oh no. He is my daughter’s pastor.”

This makes it all the more special some of the last words she spoke to me. She looked up at me said, “I love you.” Janice loved me, not as her pastor, but as family.

With those three simple words, “I love you”, she moved me. She moved to just the right spot, to that spot where the light was just right, to that spot where the shadows faded, and just for a moment, I could see through that hole in the ceiling, and I caught a glimpse of heaven.

This is the power of love. Love has the power to make strangers family. Although we have different faiths and different beliefs, love has the power to unite us all as sisters and brothers.  And when we love one another like family, when we treat one another as sisters and brothers, the heavens are ripped apart!

Since I have been a pastor here in Fort Smith, I have been impressed with the quality of care and love I have witnessed through the good people who work and serve at Methodist Village. They truly love and care for the residents as family. So each time I go out there, every time I visit, I catch a glimpse of heaven.

As I’ve mentioned, when Janice first became a resident of Methodist Village, it took her a little while to accept it. At first, it was a strange place, a place where she did not belong. After all, as she would tell me, there were “old people” living there. She assumed that her stay there would only be temporary. She would get a little rehab and then go home.

So, who could blame her for not immediately embracing nursing home residency and all of the activities and programs they offered. When she first arrived, if you wanted to visit Janice, you knew that you could always find Janice in her room. She wouldn’t be in dining hall with the other residents tossing a bean bag or playing bingo.

One day, when Sarah came to visit, like always she went straight to her room, but Janice was not there. She walked down to the nurses’ station where they would sometimes seat her, but Janice was not there. She searched the entire facility until she finally asked someone for assistance.

They said, “Well, today is Tie Dye Day! Perhaps she is with the other residents making a Tie Dye!”

Sarah immediately responded, “Oh, I don’t think so.” But they went down to the dining room anyway where everyone was tie dyeing, and there she was.

She was sitting there wearing this tie dye wrap, or scarf, or hat that she had made on her head. And she was holding this clapper in one hand, this hand that made a clapping noise when you moved it back and forth.

She looked up at Sarah. And waving the clapper in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, giggled and said, “I am having a tie-dye moment! And I am ready to party.”

Sarah responded the way that most of us respond these days when we catch a glimpse of something like this, something beautiful, something fun, something that warms our heart and makes us smile, something that is soooo good that we can only describe it as heavenly.  She pulled out her phone and took a picture and sent it to Greta.

And the good news is that this picture of Janice having a tie-dye moment, is a picture of Janice today. Through the tiny hole in the ceiling, we can see her today, sitting in the banquet hall of heaven, surrounded by family including her son Bradley, enveloped by eternal love, encircled by amazing grace, giggling, clapping, partying.

And because of that, we who grieve today know we are going to be ok. Greta and Sarah are going to be fine. Her grandchildren are going to be fine. Not only because your mother and grandmother has given you some of her strength and love (after all, you said you only needed a piece of it to be ok), but because you will be able to always see her, she will always be with you, each time something moves you to just the right spot, at just the right angle, when the light is just right, and the shadows fade, and this warmth comes over you, as warm as toast.

 

Who Is Your King?

christ the king

John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his words and deeds and has already been questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. Because the sad truth is, that in this world, when you love all people and teach others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you.

It is now Pilate’s turn to question him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus is the King. But as he told Pilate, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in our response to the threat of terrorism that is in our world today.

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “I hear you, and the ones who knocked down these buildings will soon hear from all of us!”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas; we speak English, and if you don’t like it, get the heck out.”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love and help only those who we believe deserve our love and help.

We prefer a kingdom where people know their places and have earned those places.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we love ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus is implying that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And Jesus is asking Pilate and Jesus is asking you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers safety;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king offers security;

One king demands risk.

One king endorses greed and prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king leads by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king demeans and mocks women;

One king elevates women as an equals.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

So, of course the powers that be, the kings of this world, arrested the king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course they tortured this king, spat on this king, mocked this king and crucified this king, this king from a foreign realm. Of course they tried to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate could not defeat this king. Bigotry could not stop this king. Religion and nationalism could not overthrow his throne. This king would rise again. But not the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there was no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There were no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There was no shock and awe or violence of any kind.

For this king understood what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” said the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king arose from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe or to doubt, to reject him or to follow him. This king drove out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king drove out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these dark days of November 2018?

It all depends on who your king is.

Three years ago this week, Antoine Leiris lost his wife in a terrorist attack in Paris. ISIS claimed responsibility. Days following at the attack, Antoine proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.

The good news is that our king is not Donald Trump and our King is not Nancy Pelosi. Our King was never Barak Obama or George W. Bush.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they may offer is temporary. Their reigns are fleeting.

If we choose, our king is and will be the one whom the prophet Daniel speaks:

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousand served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgement,

and the books were opened. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14)

Remembering Naomi Hatley: Things Are Not What They Appear to Be

Naomi Pic
Naomi Hatley
April 17, 1924 – November 16, 2018

Esther 9:20-23

John 16:20-24

The late Reverend Warren Carr, a friend of mine and mentor, once said that a person’s eulogy in a Christian memorial service should be limited to those aspects of a person’s life that proclaimed the gospel, proclaimed the message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that we have much to say about Naomi today for she proclaimed the message of Jesus in ways that Rob and I never could.

When many think about proclaiming Jesus, they might first think about preachers. However, as those words attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” teach us, you don’t have to be preachy to preach.

Naomi was anything but preachy. Her faith was quietly practiced but deeply felt. Always self-effacing, she never imposed her faith on others.

However, her faithfulness was clearly evident to all. Many witnessed her faith through her active participation with this church as she led worship by singing in the choir and playing bells with the Primetime Ringers. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and possessed the heart of a servant, always enjoying potluck dinners and other fellowship occasions. When she could no longer drive to church, she had the church van pick her up at Butterfield Place so she could be here to faithfully worship and serve with her family of faith.

However, this was certainly not the only way that Naomi proclaimed the gospel.

It could be said that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to teach us that things are not always as they appear to be. Sometimes reality is the exact reversal of actual appearances.

For example, Jesus said that those who appear to be last are actually first. And those who seem to be first are actually last.

In his first sermon, he said that it is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is the not the strong who inherit the earth, it is the meek. The Apostle Paul said it is not the wise who shame the foolish, but it is the foolish who shame the wise. It is the weak who shame the strong.

The gospel continually teaches us that things are not what they appear to be.

Of course, Naomi, first taught us this reality with her name.

It is not Nayomey or Nyomi.

It is Nayoma.

No matter how it is spelled, or what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, no matter what you’ve seen or think you see and hear right now, things are not what they appear to be.

Naomi taught us this gospel truth in many other ways. Perhaps the the ways we will most remember, and for which we are most grateful, are the ways Naomi taught us, in the words of Ralph Sockman, that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

If you thought Naomi was gentle and quiet, then you probably never watched a Dallas Cowboy or Arkansas Razorback football game with her.

If you thought Naomi was a non-athletic spectator, someone who sat serenely on the sidelines of life, you probably never saw her slalom waterski, which she did until the age of 69 when she fell and cracked three ribs.

If you thought Naomi was this prim and proper Southern Belle, you probably never saw her play in the waves of the ocean. You never heard her laugh like a child as the waves would crash over her head knocking her off her feet.

If you thought Naomi only enjoyed soft church music, the chimes of handbells, the harmonious sound of a choir, a piano and organ reverently praising God, then you’ve probably never been to an Eric Clapton concert with her.

If you thought her husband of 66 years Pete, with his large, confident personality was the rock of the family. Then you probably didn’t know Naomi as well as her children knew her, as one with an iron backbone in a fluffy coating.

If you thought Naomi might be a pushover, a softy, a patsy you were probably not raised by her and as one of her children never did anything or said anything that would make her chase you with a fly swatter.

And you probably did not do or say anything that caused any harm to any of her children, because you would have quickly discovered that, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, you simply do not want to mess with Naomi.

Naomi was soft as a pillow, but she was hard as a rock.

Naomi was tenderly ladylike, but she was a tough old broad.

Naomi was humble and unassuming but the sound of her laughter, the melody of her heart, and loud reverberations of her spirt can still be heard today.

Like the good news of the gospel, things are not always what they appear to be.

Of course Jesus taught us this reality to lead and to guide us down a certain path, on a specific journey, on a particular and peculiar way:

A way where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty;

A way where those who mourn are comforted and the meek inherit the earth;

A way where those who are hungry and thirsty for justice are satisfied;

A way where those who show mercy because they know they need it for themselves receive mercy;

A way that those who may not be pure, undefiled and unbroken on the outside will see God.

It is a particular and peculiar way where peacemakers are called children of God, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and outcasts are included.

It is way that always graciously extends hospitality, always asking if you need anything to eat, something to drink, a time to rest.

Her children tell me that had to stop visiting their mother when it was mealtime at the nursing home. Because she would always try to share her food with them. No matter her circumstance, the needs of others came before her own. Whenever it appeared that you were the one being hospitable to her, being a blessing to her, she was actually being a blessing to you.

This is a way that sets a high bar in a culture that seems to have no bars, that offers a righteous morality in a culture influenced by a distorted morality, that teaches ethics rooted in a selfless, self-expending, self-effacing love for this world and every human being in a culture with ethics rooted in greed and self-interest.

Jesus also taught us that this particular, peculiar counter-cultural way is the way to life everlasting. To save ourselves, we must lose ourselves. To truly and fully live we must die. And all who embrace this way, live this way, though they are dead, live.

The good news is as Jesus and Naomi taught us, things today are not what they appear to be.

Four years ago, when Naomi broke her hip, and then suffered a stroke during surgery becoming wheel-chair bound and unable to communicate clearly, it appeared that her life was over. She had no reason to live, no reason to smile, and certainly no reason to play the piano.

However, this tender soul made even more tender by the difficulties of life was a tough old broad, under the fluffy and frail coating, an iron backbone was as strong as ever. Thus, Naomi continued to play that piano. She continued to live her life and she continued to be grateful and always found a reason to smile.

No, nothing in this world is what it appears to be. Nothing this hour is what it appears to be.

Naomi appears to spell her name Naomi yet it is Naomi.

Naomi appears to be buried in the National Cemetery, yet her music is still filling this sanctuary.

Naomi appears to be gone from our presence, yet her gifts live on through her children and grandchildren.

Naomi appears to be dead and no longer in our presence, yet those of us with faith know that she is alive and is in the presence of the Lord.

It appears to be a cold, dark, rainy day, but somehow, some miraculous way, the sun is shining.

When some learned of her passing, they may have thought about how losing someone during a holiday week makes it all the more heartbreaking. Families are supposed to be gathering together this week to celebrate life and to give thanks for the blessings of life. They are not supposed to be gathering for a memorial service.

But the good news is, things are not what they appear to be.

In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”

There is no doubt in my mind that on this day after Thanksgiving with Advent and Christmas approaching this family is going to be alright. Pray for them, but don’t despair for them. Console them, but don’t pity them. For if Naomi taught them anything, it is that these days are not as they appear. What is going on right now, today, this very hour, is not what it may appear.

Sorrow has been transformed into gladness. Pain has been turned into joy. A day of mourning has been transformed into a holiday, and everyday are becoming holy days. And because we believe what Naomi proclaimed with her life, this week of Thanksgiving will always be for her family days of feasting, gladness and celebration. Thanks be to God.

Grateful to Be Done with Religion

done

Hebrews 10:11-25 NRSV

I am done. I give up. I have nothing left. I just can’t do this anymore. It’s over. No matter how hard I try, nor how much I put into it, I can never get it right.

And I know that I am not the only one. In fact, do you know what the fastest growing “religious” group in America is called?  They are called “the Dones.” At one time, they tried religion. But now they are done.

But here’s the good news—here’s what may be the best reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving: The wonderful truth about the Christian faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what anyone may tell you, the church is not a religious organization.

While I was pastoring a church right out of seminary back in 1993, a deacon in our church asked me where I saw myself in twenty-five years. Although I didn’t mention Arkansas, I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”   I asked.

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”

“Why do you say that?”

He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not a religious organization. And the last thing a Christian pastor should be is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  It comes from the late Episcopal Priest Robert Capon: “Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.”

Now, for some people religion has absolutely nothing to do with God.

For example, some say that I run religiously. I have heard my wife tell me that I read Runner’s World magazine like the Bible. I read it religiously to reach beyond myself, to run faster, achieve good health so I can enjoy the good life!

We’ve observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the stock-market religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows a low-carb diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

We work out, eat right, study, go to work, follow a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some, religion is all about God. There are those who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. The main reason they go to church is to work on their relationship with God. They believe if they say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then they can be right with God and God will bless them. If they can conduct their lives in a certain way, they can place themselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

The bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion.  No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right.

We can read all about running and how to run fast, but we will probably get injured.

We can study the Wall-Street Journal religiously and still make a bad investment.

We can religiously follow a diet and still gain weight.

We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.

And when we finally arrive at the place where we think you we have it right with God. When we finally believe we’ve got it right in the religion department, guess what? It only leads to pride and arrogance. A church member once told me, “I am the most humble person in our church!”

Sure you are.

In his wonderful book Unafraid: Moving Beyond a Fear-Based Faith, Benjamin Corey writes about a strange encounter with someone who was religious.

Upon meeting the gentleman, he wondered whether he could ask me a few questions to determine what kind of Christian I was. For some reason, I agreed—and ended up quickly regretting my decision, because the two questions out of his mouth were: “Do you spank your kids? And “Do you think gays are going to hell?”

I was like, “Wait…what kind of survey is this?” I should have known that this True Christian Surveywasn’t going anywhere, but in that moment I was foolish enough to answer his questions.

When I answered “no” on both counts, and answered another question to indicate that I did not believe in the rapture, the gentlemen told me that the reason why I was an adoptive father instead of a biological father was because God was refusing to bless me with children.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to such nonsense, to put an end to religion.

Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Well, of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies.

And I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my shortcoming as a fragmented human being are not going to disappear. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and offers again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

Now contrast the posture of the priest to Jesus. Notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting down. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. And through this great gift of God’s self, God revealed to the world that we should be done with religion.  Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right beliefs, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God.

We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ.

This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing in this set of principles or that set of ideals, in that biblical interpretation or in this style of worship. It is about trusting and following Jesus.

That is why we call it the gospel. That is why we call it good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged.

This Thanksgiving, I thank God that through Jesus Christ this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God that the church is not a religious organization!  If it hadn’t, as irreligious as I am, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, working hard, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. Religion is finished. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us. Our relationship with God has been made right through him.

So, instead of spending holy moments working on our relationship with God, we can spend some sacred time working on our relationships with others, loving others as we love ourselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We don’t need religion, but we still need church. However, we don’t need church to get right with God. We need church to discover ways we can get right with our neighbor. Because what this world needs is not more people who say they love God, but more people who love their neighbor with the unconditional, unreserved love of Jesus. We are free. We are free from fear. And we are free to love.

I know that there are some who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. They have never stepped out to follow Christ, to share the love of Christ with others, because they are waiting until they somehow get it right themselves. They are busy trotting back and forth to the altars of right beliefs, right thinking and right praying.

But this morning I am inviting all to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invite all to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

Thanks be to God.

Invitation to the Table

Each one is now invited to be served the bread and the wine of this table representing the broken body, and outpoured life of God.

There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn a rightful this table. There are no right words, right actions, or right beliefs. The good news is that when we could not make things right with God, God, through the sacrifice of Christ, revealed to the world that things have been made right. May we reflect on the sacrifice of God as we remain seated and sing together.

 

 

[i]Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.

Unless the Lord Builds It

grandaddy
My grandfather, Eugene Gaston Banks, Sr., served in the US Coast Guard patrolling the North Atlantic during World War II.

Psalm 127 NRSV

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

This is definitely true in marriage.

If a couple does not incorporate some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith into their marriage, their attempts to build a happy home will be in vain. Ephesians 5:20 reminds us that mutual submission in marriage should exist: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

If there is not some mutual sacrifice, self-giving and cooperation in a marriage, then there’s a pretty good chance that the minister who officiated that wedding wasted his or her entire weekend. Randy could have gone to that TCU – Arkansas football game! Howard could have played in that golf tournament!  And we don’t even want to think about what the parents of the couple could have done with all of that money they spent on the wedding!

Furthermore, as a Christian who seeks to be guided and defined by the love of God fully revealed in Christ, here’s the verse from Ephesians that means to most to me: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

If I do not love Lori with a self-giving, self-expending love that is revealed to us in the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross, then all the effort we put into our marriage is in vain. 

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

 This also applies to the church.

Like marriage, I believe the church should be built on the foundation of God’s love that was revealed on the cross.

One day, a very wealthy church member approached the new pastor after he preached a sermon on the inclusive love of Christ. He asked: “Pastor, we’re not going to be the kind of church that welcomes and accepts those people, are we?

By “those” people, I am certain he was referring to anyone who does not look like, live like, love like or think like him.

The new pastor answered, “Of course we are going to be that kind of church. For we believe that the love we are to model to others was fully revealed in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross reaching out to all people.

The wealthy man replied: “I suggest that you do everything in your power to prevent that from happening, or I am going to take my family and my money to another church!”

This story, which by the way is a true story, a very personal story, begs the question: “Can a church practice exclusivity and continue to be a church that the Lord is building?”

I believe the answer has to be “no.” For the inclusivity that is revealed in those outstretched arms of our Lord on the cross is foundational to who we are as the church.

A church that does not love and welcome all people in the name of the Christ who died for all is not a church at all, but is only the worst kind of club. And every member of that club is wasting their time. They worship in vain.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

I believe this most certainly applies to our nation.

If the Lord is not building our nation, if our security and foundation is not in the Lord, then those who labor for this nation and those who guard this nation do so in vain.

Where this becomes the most serious, of course, is when we consider our veterans, especially our veterans who have not only guarded this nation, but gave their lives for this nation.

At one point during the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC, we ran along the scenic Potomac River and what’s called “the Blue Mile.” This is a mile stretch of the marathon where fallen service members are commemorated in photographs along the roadway decorated with American flags.

As I ran the Blue Mile, I tried my best to read each name and their ages when they made the ultimate sacrifice. I did not see an age over 39.

As Americans, we owe it to them to do all that we can do to ensure their lives were not given up in vain.

We also owe it to every veteran who survived but nevertheless sacrificed much in service to our country, to do all that we can to ensure that they did not serve in vain.

In the 1930’s Henry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of Riverside Church of New York, once talked about the seriousness of the Lord building and shaping this world.He prophetically proclaimed:

For myself, I shall try to stand for Jesus Christ as the interpreter of… life. In this world with its cynicism, its disillusionment, often its disheartenment, how men and women are needed to stand for him with the intellectual, personal, and social implications of his gospel. And it is going to be serious business standing for him in this generation.

Fosdick then tells a story:

It is said that a man once came to [the great artist James Abbott] Whistler, and asked his help in hanging a new and beautiful picture. The man complained that he could not make the picture fit the room, and Whistler, looking over the matter, said, ‘Man, you’re beginning at the wrong end. You can’t make that painting fit the room. You will have to make the room fit the painting.’

Fosdick says:

So when we carry into this modern world the picture of [the] life that Jesus Christ brought, we cannot make it fit the room. Put it over against our private morals, our disintegrating family life, our economic system… it will not fit the room. We must change the room to fit the picture. [And] that is serious business.

It is important to mention that since Fosdick inferred that we the need to renovate of our nation to fit the portrait of Jesus, Christian “Reconstructionists” have sought to rebuild or reconstruct America to fit their personal interpretation of biblical morality. You need to know that I am not talking about doing that. I am not advocating transforming our democracy into some sort of theocracy. And I am certainly not advocating dismantling the First Amendment.

I am talking about building upon that foundation that was laid in 1776 with these powerful words found in our Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Although I do not believe our nation is or was ever intended to be a Christian nation, I believe these words found in our Declaration of Independence, like the words inscribed in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are rooted in and influenced by the love of God revealed in that selfless, inclusive portrait of Jesus hanging on the cross with outstretched arms.

And for me as a Christian, it is this foundation that I believe should be preserved and built upon. This is what it means for the Lord to build the house and guard the city to ensure that the veterans who guarded this nation, did not do so in vain. And more importantly, that those who gave their lives for this nation, did not die in vain.

So, more than anything, what I believe our nation needs today is some Jesus!

I believe that means we must work to ensure that every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, tax bracket, ability, and religion, is valued equally. That means we must stand against racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and Christian White Nationalism. We must speak out against Islamophobia, Xenophobia, trans and homophobia, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must work to ensure that every vote counts in our democracy. That means we must fight all tactics of voter suppression, voter intimidation and partisan gerrymandering, or else those veterans who served this country did so vain.

I believe we must work to preserve our fragile freedoms: the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must defend the rights of every person to live, to work, to love and to have equal protection under the law. We must work for affordable healthcare, access to quality education and to fair living wages. We must do more that send our thoughts and prayers in response to the mass shooting epidemic in this nation, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must be relentless in the difficult work of peacemaking, of reconciliation, of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. That means we must stand against tribalism and the politics of vulgarity, vitriol, and violence. We must agree that words do matter, and we must be willing speak up against words that stoke the fires of fear and fan the flames of hate, speak against any word that seeks to divide us rather than unify us. We must work with other nations to end perpetual war and the profiteering from war, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must care for our environment, to do what we can to reduce the number of wildfires on the West Coast and the number of hurricanes on the East Coast and the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must continuously work for, march for, fight for, and vote for the liberty and justice of all, especially for the most vulnerable among us, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

This building-of-a-more-perfect-union was stated most beautifully in a poem written during the First World War by Canadian physician, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in action.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky,

The larks, still bravely singing,

Fly, Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.  Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Let us pray together…     

Dear Lord, please keep our veterans in your care and grant them the peace that they sought to safeguard for others. As we continue honor our veterans, we also pray for peace everywhere. O God, teach your children of every race, creed and faith, in every land, the ways of peace, freedom and equality, so that those who have sacrificed so much for peace and freedom will not have sacrificed in vain. It is in the name of Christ Jesus, the prince of peace we pray, Amen.