Seeing the Flag

confederate

Raised in the rural South and as a big Dukes of Hazzard fan, I grew up loving the Condederate Battle Flag. I was proud to be from the South and proud to be a country boy. The flag represented that pride for me.

I believe in free speech and would die for everyone’s right to proudly fly the Confederate Battle Flag on their personal property if they so choose. I do not believe that flying or displaying the flag makes one a racist any more than I believe that not flying it makes one not a racist.

As a white southerner, when I see the Confederate Battle Flag, I may see Southern history. I have the capacity to see Southern pride and heritage. I can see brave men a ho fought for and gave their lives for their homeland. That is what I see.

I think it is interesting that Jesus talked an awful lot about “seeing.” In fact, he talked more about blindness than he talked about sin. He was constantly asking his disciples: “Do you not see?” “Do you have eyes and fail to see.” Furthermore, it is obvious that when Jesus gives sight to the blind, he is symbolically giving sight to others, especially the religious folks of his day.

In the light of the tragedy in Charleston, I now see the flag differently. With many others, I believe I now see the flag more clearly, more wholly, and more honestly, as I now see it through the eyes of those who were murdered in that church. 

Since the tragedy, I have been reminded how the flag has been used and abused by hate groups, mainly by people who long to go back to the day when “black people knew their place.” l realize that the flag now has meanings that it was never intended to have. I also am reminded why the flag was raised at the South Carolina Capitol in the first place: as a symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement.

I also understand that it is a symbol. It is not a sign. It is not a historical marker. Unlike signs, symbols have a particular power to excite and to elicit. Unlike signs that give information invoking a response in the brain, symbols stand for something invoking visceral emotions in the heart and gut. So when I see the flag through the eyes of the victims in Charleston, I can understand the consternation that most of our African-Americans citizens have in the South when they see it. Seeing it on a bumper sticker, t-shirt, or flying in someone’s yard is one thing; seeing it flying by the government or endorsed on a license plate issued by the government that should be working for liberty and justice for all is quite another thing, especially if that government has a history of oppression.

As a Christian, I believe in the words of Jesus, “love one another as I have loved you” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe we do that best by trying to put ourselves in the shoes of others, when we try to see the world through the eyes of others, especially through the eyes of the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the least of these our brothers and sisters.

And it is a shame that it took the slayings of nine people to help me see that.

Charleston Wake-Up Call: Five Thoughts

dylann roofI have heard many people call the massacre in Charleston a wake-up call for our country. I believe it is specifically a wake-up call for predominately white churches in our country. As a pastor of a predominately white church in the South, here are five thoughts that have been awakened in me:

  1. 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 often afraid to use the “r-word” 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 preach against racism, in all of its current manifestations that are ablaze today: personal racism; systemic racism; and the subtle racism that is prevalent in the workplace, in the marketplace and even in the church, for Jesus could not have been more clear when he said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  2. We must wake up to the reality that preaching and working against racism is not “being political,” but it is being “Christian.” When voting districts are re-drawn to limit poor black votes or when laws are created that make it more difficult for poor black people to vote, we must stand up and boldly proclaim the message of Jesus who came to announce “good news to the poor.”
  3. We must wake up to the reality that hatred in this country is being defended by church folks who are calling it “religious freedom.” In the United States of America, where we believe all people are created equally, 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 or respect the views if anyone who wants to discriminate.
  4. We must wake up the reality that “the oppression of Christians” in this nation and the “war on Christmas” that we hear about every December has been manufactured by folks who loathe what makes our country great, that is our cultural, ethnic, religious and racial diversity. We need to also preach from our pulpits that it is this diversity that makes us look most 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 boldly voice our opposition to the purveyors of fear who are calling on people to bear even more arms “to take our country back.” Furthermore, we must wake up and tell the folks in our pews to please shut up, when they start reminiscing about going back to the good old days of the 1950’s when we had prayer in school. We need to be able to say: “You know, I have many black friends, and I have never once heard them talk about wanting to go back to 1950.”
  5. 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 to bridge the gaps that we have created that prevent us from worshipping and serving together. To stand against racism, hatred and violence, to stand for social justice and equality for all, and to persuasively speak truth to power, we must do it side by side, hand in hand, as one body, one Church, serving one Lord.

Things Could Get Scary

prayer vigil

Mark 4:35-41 NRSV

Today’s gospel lesson is about fear, but more specifically, it is about two very distinct kinds of fear. The first kind of fear is the one with which we are all too familiar. People often liken this kind of fear to a storm.

Death, divorce, disease, disappointment, defeat, demonic evil, mass murder—in a thousand different ways the storms of life come. They even come to church. And when the dark, sinister clouds come, we wonder and we question whether or not we will ever live to feel the warmth of the sunshine again.

There was a great pianist, composer and church musician studying in Chicago who was known throughout the Midwest as Georgia Tom. He was scheduled to help with a revival at a large church in St. Louis about a month before his wife was due to have their first child.

He was afraid to leave her so close to the due date, but was committed to fulfill the promise he made to the church over a year earlier. As soon as he got off the train in St. Louis, someone handed him a telegram which read: “Congratulations, you are the father of a new baby boy.  However, it is with deep regret that we inform you that you wife died during childbirth.

He boarded the next train back to Chicago. Overcome with grief, he arrived at the hospital to hold his new born baby in his arms; however, shortly after he arrived, this little boy, the only part of his wife that he would ever be able to hold again, passed away in his sleep.

Georgia Tom took a leave of absence from his studies, and his ministry. He moved to South Carolina where he did little but grieve.  It was sixth months before he sat was able to sit down at the piano and compose a song.  When he did, the first thing that he wrote and set to music were the following words:

“Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.  Thro’ the storm, thro’ the night, Lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord; lead me on.”

Georgia Tom, or Thomas Dorsey, as evidenced by this wonderful hymn and a long-life lived in dedication to God, knew what the disciples knew about Jesus. That Jesus is the one who ministers to our fears, overcomes our fears, and enables us to live with hope and confidence despite our fears. Jesus is the one who is always there to help us get through the storms of life, get through the night time of our fear into a peace that is beyond all understanding.

In today’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples are in a boat.  It is night, a dangerous time to be on the sea.  And sure enough, “a great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” It’s dark. It’s dangerous. They’re in the middle of a violent storm with no one but Jesus to protect them.

The disciples cry out to Jesus who is sound asleep on a cushion in the stern: “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re sinking?” Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and the waves. And a miraculous calm settles on the sea.

This is what Jesus does. When we call on Jesus in the stormy nighttime of our fear, it may take time, but if we allow him to take our hand, if we grab a hold of his hand, a miraculous calm will settle over us.

Jesus tells us that no matter what, it’s going to be all right. We might not be able to go back to the good old days, but, if we put our trust in him, we can go forward with him into good new days.  Jesus assures us that he is there to work all things out for the good.  That there is nothing in all of creation, no storm in this universe, not even death itself, that can ever separate us from the love of God.

Yes, when we face the fears of this world, Jesus comes and calms us, fills us with peace and gives us hope.

But there’s a rather curious thing about this morning’s lesson. After rebuking the wind and the waves, after bringing a miraculous calm, the disciples are still afraid. But perhaps now, it’s a different kind of fear.

The NRSV’s translation is not quite strong enough here in verse 41.  Mark says, literally in the Greek, that the disciples not only feared, but they “feared a great fear.” Now that’s being afraid!

Isn’t it rather curious that after the storm blows over, in the miraculous calm of the night, the disciples are now “fearing a great fear?”  And notice that Jesus doesn’t ask, as we might expect, “Why were you afraid?”  Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid? I’ve stilled the storm. I’ve calmed the waves. Why are you, even now, afraid?” And then in their fear the disciples begin ask one another, “Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him?”

The disciples were afraid, but now for a very different reason. I believe it’s a different kind of fear. First, there’s the fear of the death-dealing storm. I have called it a Good Friday sort of fear. Your telephone rings in the middle of the night. You get a bad report from your doctor following an exam. A friend betrays you. A child dies. A racist with a gun enters a black church during a prayer meeting. Winds are howling. Water and waves are everywhere crashing over our heads. And we cry out to Jesus, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

But then Jesus rises, rebukes the wind and the waves, and all is calm.  And that brings the second kind of fear—it’s an Easter sort of fear.

There’s a reason why, as the gospels tell it, that the predominate emotion on the first Easter Sunday morning was not joy. It was fear.  Remember how Mark’s gospel ends about a dozen chapters after this one?  The women come out to the cemetery. The angel announces “He is risen from the dead! Go tell!”  And the women do what?  They tell no one.  Why?  Because they were afraid.

People ask me all the time, how are things going at the church?  And each time I respond the same. Things are great! Church is awesome. I bet I get asked this question at least a half a dozen times a week.

I believe that one of the greatest ways I can respond to this question is this: “How are things going at the church?  Well, to tell you the truth, things are so good, its beginning to get a little scary. The truth is, it is so good, that being a member of the First Christian Church is downright frightening. And being the pastor of such a church, well, it’s like fearing a great fear!”

However, it is not what you think. It is not so much because people are sick or people are dying. It has nothing to do with Good Friday fear.

For you see, First Christian Church is a church full of people with an Easter faith. We believe Jesus is on the loose. Jesus is raising up. Jesus is rebuking and calming the storm. But at the same time Jesus is shaking things up. He stills the waters, but he is also rocking the boat! He’s making all things new. He’s creating a brand new world: a world of everyone is treated equally and justice rolls down like waters. He leads us out of one kind storm only to lead us into a storm of another kind.

And the reality is, there a lot of things that’s happening here at our church that is rather frightening. Just ask anyone who attended Vacation Bible School this past week! This building was literally rocking with over fifty children, full of energy and play, who humbled themselves to minister to the poor in our community, to sick children in the hospital, and to the elderly in the nursing home.

Over fifty kids were taught that they possessed gifts that they have been given by the Holy Spirit to do ministry. There’s no doubt about it, lives were changed. Our kids are not the same. The leaders of Vacation Bible School are not the same. Our church might not be the same. Things could get pretty scary around here.

Last week, we talked during worship and during the ministry team meetings about the need to improve and expand our ministry to children. If we work hard, if we truly commit ourselves, next year, we could have over fifty kids rocking our world every week. That will mean more work. More volunteers. More risk. It could get scary.

Yesterday, clergy and leaders of this community met at Mt. Moriah Community Church to graciously pray for the victims of the Charleston massacre and to audaciously pray for the shooter. They met to stand agaisnt to racism and pray for racial unity.

And yesterday afternoon, our church partnered with another predominantly white church to build a handicap ramp for an African American family. We gathered in their living room, held one another’s hands and prayed together in love.

What is going to happen to this town if we keep praying together for social justice and unity? What is going to happen if we all begin working together, white churches and black churches, working side by side, hand in hand, to truly love our neighbors as ourselves?  What is going to happen if we unite our voices to speak truth to power?

In a couple of months for our stewardship emphasis, every member is going to be asked to serve on a ministry team. What’s going to happen to our church if every member begins using his or her gifts partnering with others on a ministry team? And what if those ministry teams begin to partner with the predominately African-American churches in town? What’s going to happen to our community? What is going to happen to our town?

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. It’s going to get scary.

Prayer for Emanuel AME Church and the Global Church

names charleston

The following prayer is a response to a joint pastoral letter from the Disciples of Christ in SC and NC written for a prayer vigil held at the Mt Moriah Community Church in Farmville, 9 am, June 20, 2015.

Good and gracious God, Father and Mother of us all,

Hearts shattered, souls lamenting, bodies languishing, and minds enraged,

We gather together with our members of our family of faith here in Farmville to grieve alongside our sisters and brothers in Charleston, praying that they will know a peace that is beyond understanding. May those who have lost loved ones be comforted knowing that you are suffering with them, and so are we.

We gather to support the leaders and the members of the Emanuel AME Church, praying that they will be led by your wisdom, endowed by your love and empowered by your courage to continue to live selflessly boldly proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to the imprisoned and recovery of sight to the blind, setting free all who are oppressed.

We gather to stand with the leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Denomination, praying that they will persist and prevail courageously ministering to the social, spiritual and physical development of all people.

We gather in prayer for all African American churches who worship, serve and love their neighbors under the constant threat of persecution by the demonic forces of our time. May they be emboldened by remembering the words of their Lord and Savior and rejoice and be glad, for great is their reward in heaven, for in the same way the prophets were persecuted before them.

We gather to pray for the city of Charleston, the political leaders of our cities, states and country, and for the Body of Christ spread throughout our land. We pray for boldness in naming the sin of racism in our lives, our church and our country. We pray for fortitude in confronting racism, in all of its manifestations. And we pray for courage in confronting hatred and violence in all of its manifestations.

And we also gather this day O God to pray for the Body of Christ here in our own community. Forgive our division. Forgive our segregation. Forgive the barriers we have erected: racial, ethnic, and socio-economic. Forgive the chasm of fear that we have created. Forgive our failure to build bridges between the churches here in our own town. Forgive our failure to come together in the name of Christ, one body following one Lord, to stand for justice and equity for all of our citizens. Forgive us of our failure to truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Forgive us, O God, and envelop us with your grace. Grant us your guidance, will and determination to follow the Christ together in the steps that he is leading us next. It is in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord who unites us all we pray, Amen.

Don’t Feel Sorry for Donna Mosley

donna mosley

In Memory of Donna Marie Mosley

Matthew 5:1-9 NRSV

Perhaps the worst thing we can do on this day is to do what we instinctively believe we should do; do the thing that comes most naturally for us today. One of the worst things we can do is put what we have been doing these last few days, and possibly doing throughout Donna’s life, into some sort of formal expression. I believe that the worst thing we can do today is to feel sorry for Donna.

Born nearly blind and with cerebral palsy, to say that Donna struggled throughout her life would be an understatement. But if you ever asked Donna if she thought people should ever feel sorry for her, she’d shake her head and emphatically say, “Naaw!”

But, against her wishes, that is exactly what we are inclined to do. Oh, poor, poor, poor Donna. Born with disability, she struggled to finish high school and attend Pitt Community College, only to never have a career, an IRA or own a 401-k.

Poor, poor, poor Donna. She never got married. She never knew the joy of parenthood. She was to never be a grandparent.

Poor Donna. She never really lived on her own, never owned her own home, never possessed her own car. She was never self-supporting, self-sufficient.

Pitiful Donna. She suffered with so many chronic health problems; she was never able to be physically active. She never hiked a mountain, swam in a river, cycled in the country or ran a 5k.

Oh, poor, pitiful Donna. She suffered so much loss in her life: the tragic death of a father, the untimely death of a mother, and just recently, the slow and painful death of her beloved brother, Albert.

Poor, poor Donna. She suffered so much these past few years and even more these past few months, and she died, so young, just days shy of just her 54th birthday.

This is our natural inclination: to pity Donna, to sympathize with Donna. Because according to the world’s standards of success, Donna simply did not measure up. But if you ever asked Donna how she was doing, even in her final hours when she was barely able to say a word, Donna would always respond: “Doing good.”

I would visit her during these last few months confined to a bed, her body unable to absorb any nutrients or electrolytes, on oxygen, broke out with a rash from her medication, and immediately after she told me she was “doing good,” she would ask: “How’s the preacher? How’s Carson and Sara? What is Ms. Lori up to?” Just like her beloved brother Albert, I never once heard Donna utter a single complaint, regret, or resentment.

“Donna, should anyone feel sorry for you?”

“Naaw! Don’t feel sorry for me. I have had a great life. Yes, I was born with disabilities, I have had my share of struggles, maybe more than my share, but I was born into a family and into a community that gave me everything I ever needed and wanted.

Yes, I was born with disabilities, but ask anyone who remembers me as a child, walking all over this town, even with cast on my leg! Yes, I was born with poor vision, but if I hadn’t been, the Lion’s Club would have never given me my dog Brandy who traveled to New York City with me.

No, I never had a lucrative career, but I was able to finish school, even go to college and work a little. I was able to fulfill a dream of teaching in a classroom. I was able to work some in the public library and even able to help out Bro in Avon on the fishing pier. And no, I have never had any money. But the good things in life, the truly important things in life, do not come with a price tag.

No, I never got married, never had children, but I have had many priceless relationships. Because of my friends and family, I have never felt unloved or unwanted. Because of these relationships, I have never once doubted that any of my needs would not be met. And, seriously preacher, who can really ask for anything more?

I never owned a car, but I went anywhere I wanted to go. I have never been able to run like you Jarrett, climb a mountain, or swim in the sea, but I bet I have been to more concerts and met more famous people than you. I think it surprised my nieces when some of the members of the Cravin’ Melon group called me by name and spoke to me at that Michael Jordan golf tournament!

I have been so many places, met so many people, some of them quite famous, from NASCAR and golf celebrities to Coach Dean Smith.

And yes, I have experienced loss, even tragic loss. But I have always had a strong faith and certain hope that I would see my loved ones again. My faith and hope was so strong when my daddy died, I was somehow able to console my brothers and sisters. You can ask Puddin’ about that.

I think that is why I always loved the song, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ by the Band of Oz. I have always believed in a land and a life that is better than this one: One where the skies are always Carolina blue and all of your dreams come true.

And, although I may not have been ready to leave all of you so soon, I think this is why when Dan asked me on the phone in the hospital early this week how I was doing, although I could barely breathe and could hardly talk, I said, “Doing good.”

So, please whatever you do, even if you are attending my funeral, please do not feel sorry for me.”

I believe Donna Marie Mosley was a living testimony of Jesus’ first recorded sermon. Whereas some may look at her short life of struggle and draw the conclusion that she should be pitied, because she didn’t appear blessed or favored by God like some, in reality, as Jesus reminded us in the Sermon on the Mount, God looked upon Donna with favor, and truly blessed her in ways that few of us here have been blessed. And I believe this is the real reason that no matter her circumstance, no matter how bad she felt, or how hard it was for her to breathe, she said: “I’m doing good!” Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Whereas we may look at those with whose spirits are allowed to soar to achieve success as the world defines it as blessed and favored by God, the reality is that God looks with favor and blesses not those who are born with perfect bodies, 20/20 vision, and silver spoons, but those whose spirits have many challenges and obstacles. And notice that Jesus uses the present tense. Not they will be blessed. Not might be blessed. They are, right now, right here, on this earth blessed. And their future is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Whereas we may look at those who have not suffered the tragic or untimely loss of loved ones as blessed and favored by God, the reality is that God favors and blesses the mourners who have experienced great loss, and God promises them comfort. This is the only explanation how Donna was such a comfort to so many of us during our times of grief.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The meek and the gentle are favored. Not the strong. Not the ones with the physical strength or the confidence to overcome all sorts of adversity and make it to the top. Blessed are the ones who have never made it to the top, never conquered anything, not even their own fears. Blessed are the ones who are dependent on the love and support of others. For it is the weak, the disabled, says Jesus, not the strong, who survive and inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones on whose behalf the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Blessed are the ones who thirst for justice. These are the ones, like the mentally and physically disabled, who have been unjustly judged, mistreated, shunned and even bullied by society. These are the ones society looks upon and says that they haven’t quite measured up. Jesus says that they are blessed. Jesus says that they are the ones who will not only have their thirsts quenched, but they will be filled, their cups overflowing.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed, says Jesus, are the ones who are always putting the needs and welfare of others ahead of their own. Blessed are the ones who are suffering, yet when you ask them how they are doing, they immediately ask you how you and your family are doing. Blessed are the ones whose hearts are full of mercy and compassion, for God will give them mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are those who have the heart of a child: Those who see only the good in others; those who, even in their sufferings, have no bitterness, no complaints, and no resentments. Blessed are the ones who see not only their misfortunes, but see all of their blessings, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Not the ones who have necessarily found the world’s peace for themselves, not the self-sufficient, the self-reliant, not the ones who own their own mortgages, have secured their own peace and security through material wealth and assets, but those who seek God’s peace, because they will find a home, a place of security, a place of rest and a place of peace that is beyond all understanding.

No, whatever you do this day, however you mourn, wherever you hurt, whenever your cry, whatever your inclination, please do not feel sorry for Donna. Because she is doing good. She is blessed beyond measure. And because she’s doing good, because she is blessed, although we may not feel like it, so are we.

Flip-Flopping the Message

flip flop

The following is an excerpt from:  Let the Children Come

Although our intentions were to share the love and grace of Christ with others, I believe the church has actually been guilty of doing the exact opposite. Simply put, with our words and our actions, we have oftentimes preached the gospel backwards, and in doing so, we have shared hate and judgment.

To share Christ with others, we often start with what is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all people are born into this world as sinners. I just don’t believe that is where we should begin the conversation or the sermon.

Our sermon usually has three points: 1) All people are sinners; 2) God sent Jesus to die for us; 3) If we believe this, then God will forgive us and love us as God’s children forever.

I think we should preach the same sermon, only flip-flop it and proclaim it the other way around.

I believe we should always begin with God’s love for all people. We should make our number one point that God loves us as God’s children and wants nothing more than to love us forever. The second point should be that God came through Jesus and loved us so radically, showered us with grace so extravagantly, so offensively, that people, most of them religious, nailed him to a tree. And we should make our third and final point that God did this while we were yet sinners.

Do you see the difference? Instead of preaching that all people are born on the outside of the love of God until they do something, say something, or pray something to earn forgiveness, we should preach that all people are actually born inside the love of God without doing, saying or praying a thing to earn it. Our words and actions only help them to believe this and to accept it.

Jesus put it this way: 1) For God so loved the world; 2) God gave God’s only son; 3) So that all whosoever believes may not perish by their sins but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

If we keep teaching this, continue preaching this with our words and deeds, if we keep making the church a place of extravagant grace and radical love, then, before you know it, we will start seeing the entire world differently. We will start seeing people differently. Instead of seeing people first as sinners who deserve hell, fire, and eternal damnation, we will begin to see all people first as God sees them: God’s beloved children.

Let the Children Come

children diverseMatthew 19:13-15 NRSV

There is so much that the Church can learn from this wonderful passage of scripture.

Little children were being brought to Jesus.

For children to come to Jesus, someone, or something has to bring them. They usually to do get to this place on their own. It may be a parent, a grandparent or another relative. It might be neighbor, a Sunday School teacher, or just someone who cares. A good question for all churches is to ask is: what is it about us that brings children here?

I have said before, and obviously need to say it much more, that a playground, just a simple swing-set or a basketball goal on church property is like the church having a giant billboard that says: “We want children brought here.”

Churches that have worked hard to have all sorts of learning experiences and missional opportunities for children, churches that allow children to participate in and even lead worship, churches that have a safe-church policy to protect children, and churches that are full dedicated and compassionate members to love and nurture children have a similar billboard.

Little children were brought to Jesus that he might lay his hands on them and pray.

Children should always be brought here with a specific purpose to be loved, accepted, embraced, and supported. Children are to be the focus of our prayers. Children are to be the subjects of our most personal and intimate conversations with God. Ask yourself this: how many times are the children in our community truly the main focus of our praying.

But the disciples spoke sternly.

The disciples questioned whether children should be brought to Jesus in the first place. We think: who in the world would want to prevent children from coming to Jesus? The answer surprises us. Matthew says that it was his very own disciples.

Of course, as a part of the Church for nearly 49 years, I have experienced this in many more ways than one.

When I was growing up I remember hearing offended church members say terrible things about my home pastor when he supported having basketball goals installed on the church grounds. They criticized us playing ball at church for many reasons. One, all the running around the goals was going to kill the grass. Two, we might leave drink bottles or other trash on the grounds. And three, the basketball games might attract the wrong type of kids, and by type, well, you know what they meant.

My pastor was also criticized by church members for sending our church bus out to pick up children who lived a few miles away in a trailer park (again, wrong type of kids), for asking the church to pay for children to attend camp in the summer, and for not prohibiting children who had not been baptized to take communion.

Of course, as a long-time pastor, I have experienced similar criticisms, not by people outside of the church, but by people on the inside claiming to be disciples. There have always been people in the church who for some reason or another think it is their God-given, moral duty to put restrictions on who can and who cannot get to Jesus.

And there has been and will always be people who are offended by Jesus’ extravagant and radical words, “Let the children come.”

Let the children come to a safe place of welcome, a place of grace, a place of love, a place of nurturing where they can learn and grow into the people that God has created them to be. And let all of them come. Let all come to a place where no one is judged, treated unfairly, or ever feel excluded, second-rate or second class.

“Do not stop them.” Jesus could not have been more clear. Do not let anyone or anything stop them. Do not let that one with money, power and prestige who thinks God has made him the gatekeeper of the church stop them, and do not let condescending words, snooty looks, or self-righteous expectations stop them. Do not let appearance, dress, ethnicity, documentation, race, size, gender, sexuality, health, class, or disability stop them. Do not let their families’ past, current situation, tax bracket, beliefs or lack of beliefs stop them.

That Jesus said this about little children speaks volumes about who we as the Body of Christ are to welcome and how we are to welcome them. For little children are people before they are old enough, strong enough, or smart enough to help themselves or anyone else for that matter. Little children are folks who are not yet able to contribute to society, pay taxes, earn their place in the world, or deserve any sort of commendation. This means that the arms of the Body of Christ are to be open wide with a grace most extravagant and a love most radical.

It is the same love that Mark and Tiffany have for Evan. They love him more than anything simply because he is their child.  So extravagant and radical is this love that there will be always be those, probably those who call themselves disciples, who will be so offended that they will speak and even act sternly.

To such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.

This, says Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is what heaven looks like. This is what the church should look like. And this is what the church should help the world to look like. I believe one of the great purposes of the church is to show the world, through our words and our deeds, how to be people of extravagant grace and radical love.

Although we had good intentions, namely to share the love and grace of Christ with others, I believe we have actually been guilty of doing the opposite. I believe we have a tendency to preach it backwards. To share Jesus with others, we often start with what is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all people are born into this world as sinners. I just don’t believe that is where we should begin the conversation or the sermon.

Our sermons usually have three points, and point number one is: All people are sinners. Point number two: God sent Jesus to die for us. And point number three: if we believe this, then God will forgive us and love us as his children forever.

I think we should preach the same sermon, only proclaim it the other way around. I believe we should always begin with God’s love for all people. We should make our number one point, the first and foremost point of our sermon that God loves us as God’s children and wants nothing more but to love us forever. The second point should be that God loves us as very own Children so much that God came and loved us so radically, showered us with grace so extravagantly, that it offended the organized religion of his day. They sternly spoke out, “crucify him,” and they sternly acted out with a whip, a crown of thorns and a wooden cross. And we should make our third and final point that God did this while we were yet sinners, before we earned or deserved anything, before we contributed anything, even believed anything.

Do you see the difference? Instead of preaching that all people are born sinners standing outside of the grace and love of God until they do something, say something, or pray something to earn forgiveness, we are to preach that all people are actually born standing inside of the grace and love of God without doing, saying or praying a thing to earn it. For this is the gospel. This is what we want people to believe and accept— that all people are welcomed into God’s gracious and loving arms—they just may or may not know it.

Jesus put it this way—Point number one: For God so loved the world. Point number two: God gave God’s only son. And point number three, so that all whosoever believes may not perish by their sins but have everlasting life.

If we keep teaching this, continue preaching this, if we keep welcoming children, all children, making the church and a place of extravagant grace and a place of radical love; then, before you know it, we will start seeing the entire world differently. We will start seeing people differently. Instead of seeing people first as sinners who deserve hell, fire, and eternal damnation, we will begin to see them first as God sees them, as God’s “little children,” who are to be embraced, accepted, prayed for, nurtured, and loved.