Quiet, Compassionate, Generous – Remembering Earl Umphlett

Earl Umphett

There are basically two types of Christians in this world.

First, there are the loud, demonstrative, sanctimonious and pretentious Christians. Every time the church doors are open, they are present. Every time they do a good deed, you know it. They speak very openly about their faith, even to total strangers. They never miss an opportunity to teach a Sunday School class or chair a church committee; lead a prayer, sing a solo or read scripture in worship. They are all over social media, posting and tweeting all sorts of religiosity. And if they are not careful, they can come across to others as arrogant, superior, holier-than-thou, and even fake.

That’s the first type.

Then, there is Earl: quiet, unassuming, inconspicuous, real, not a pretentious bone in his body. He modestly served his Lord reticently, yet compassionately and generously. Earl served his Lord, not so much in the church, as in the community.

Earl enlisted in the US Army at age 17. He was promoted to staff sergeant, while he served for ten years through both the war in Korea and the war in Vietnam.

But how many of his friends and clients knew this? How many of his neighbors knew this? For Earl never bragged about his generous service to his country. He never boasted about any of his military accomplishments.

Earl was also a generous supporter of scouting for most of his life. I am certain that one thing that he really appreciated about his church is our sponsorship of Cub Pack 25. But how many of his friends and clients knew this about Earl? How many of his neighbors knew of his compassionate contributions to the youth in this community?

Donna said that she remembers first witnessing this quiet, yet compassionate faithfulness when they learned that Danielle Nelson, a nine-year old girl from Bethel, was diagnosed with cancer. She lived only one more year. Donna says she will never forget the sincere empathy that Earl possessed for that little girl and her family and the quiet, yet generous compassion that he shared with them.

Donna remembers many times watching Earl quietly being moved to tears, after they learned someone, especially a small child, was diagnosed with cancer or another dreadful disease. And she said that his compassion almost always led him to give generously.

But how many of his friends or clients knew this? How many of his neighbors or church members knew this?

I believe Earl possessed something that more Christians need to possess in this world, and that is: the quiet empathy of Christ.

Over and over, the gospels speak of Jesus being “moved with compassion.” And the Greek word translated “moved” is a deep, inward, visceral word. It is a special reaction that takes place deep within someone’s soul. And usually, only someone who is very close to one who has this reaction notices it.

When Jesus encountered the hungry Matthew says, “he was moved with compassion.”

When Jesus encountered the helpless who were: “like sheep without a shepherd;” he was moved with compassion.”

When Jesus encountered someone who stricken with the dreadful disease of leprosy, Mark says, “he was moved with compassion.”

Jesus was moved with a deep, visceral, real compassion.

This was type of Christian that Earl was.

Earl lived his life with a quiet faithfulness and dedication. He loved and took care of his family, his children and grandchildren, unassumingly, yet compassionately and generously. He never bragged about being a good father or grandfather. He never flaunted his love. For his love was deep. His love was visceral. His love was real.

Earl took care of his clients with the same quiet, faithful dedication. He worked hard until the job was finished, yet he never sought any accolades or special recognition. Because his dedication was deep. His dedication was visceral. His dedication was real.

Earl gave generously to this community whenever he learned of a need. But he always gave quietly, almost always in cash, not expecting anything in return, not even a tax deduction. And he was a CPA! Because his generosity was deep. His generosity was visceral. His generosity was real.

Donna said that Earl loved the scriptures; however, he preferred the scriptures that were the direct words of God, as opposed to, for example, the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of those words. Some might call Earl a “Red-letter Christian,” in that the words in the Bible written in red letters, the direct words of Jesus, meant something a little more to Earl.

For those of us who really knew Earl, this should not surprise us. For in his first recorded sermon, Jesus spoke the following words:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:1-3).

Earl would quietly attend our Wednesday night suppers at church with Donna. As soon as they walked through the door, they would be greeted by Kim, our church administrative assistant who takes up money for each plate which costs $6.00.

Kim says that every time before Earl would pay for him and Donna, he would say the same thing. He said: “Look, I will make a deal with you. I don’t have any money on me today. But Donna will wash all of the dishes.” Then, he would whip out a hundred dollar bill, put it in the basket, and say, “Keep the change.”

The only reason that I know this is that Kim tells me this every Thursday morning after this happens. She says: “And he never says what all of the extra money is for! When he first did it, I thought he was pre-paying for him and Donna for an entire year of suppers. But, every week, he keeps doing it.”

Knowing Earl, I believe when he walked into our fellowship hall, he immediately saw a table full of children who come to our church without their parents. And looking at them, he knew could not afford the $6. Thus, I believe that when he saw them, he was moved with compassion. He had a deep, visceral, real reaction which led to his quiet, yet passionate; secret, yet generous donation.

Every Thursday, Kim would ask: “Why does Earl keep doing this?”

I would respond today: “That was just the type of Christian that Earl was.”

The good news is that now as Earl has given generously to us, compassionately, yet quietly, and secretly; his heavenly father who sees in secret has rewarded him.

For when Earl’s heart stopped on Thursday evening, I believe God was moved. Knowing the pain that would be experienced by Maurey and Brent, by their children, and by Donna, I believe God was moved with the quiet empathy of Christ.

And then I believe God came. God came to Earl. God came quietly, and God came compassionately. God came quickly, and God came generously. And the generosity of God is deep. The generosity of God is visceral. The generosity of God is real. And the good news is: the generosity of God is eternal.

And as God came and gave God’s self to Earl compassionately, generously and eternally, God promises to come to you Donna, to you Brent and Maurey, to all of Earl’s family and friends. For God knows your pain. And God is deeply moved by it.

God will come to you with the same empathy of Christ we have been blessed to know through Earl.

Because that is just the type of God our God is.

Prayer Works

Quilting Bees 1

James 5:13-20 NRSV

For perhaps too many weeks now, maybe too many months, our scripture lessons have been pointing out the things that are not right within the church. They have been pointing out the sins of the church. They spoke about disciples being ashamed of the gospel: ashamed of the extravagant grace and unrestricted love of the gospel. They pointed out the hatred, bigotry and racism that is present in society, but also in the church. They talked about the temptation to do what is popular instead of what is holy. They spoke about the dangers of following the laws of culture instead of the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves. And last week, the scriptures said to be a consecrated church, to be a blessed church, we need to stop worrying about how to be the greatest and start worrying about the least, the poor, and the marginalized.

Well, today, it appears that we may finally be off the hook, as our scripture lesson this morning focuses on some things that I believe are very right within the church.

“Are any among you suffering?” James asks. “Then you should pray.”

Hallelujah, we got that, James!

For this is one thing that we are actually pretty good at doing! We will certainly pray for one another, especially if we hear that another among us is suffering.

One of the comments that I hear frequently from church people who have experienced some form of suffering is: “I just don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.”

You say that, because you truly mean that. You say that, because when you needed your church the most, people in the church prayed for you. People in the church cared for you. When you suffered, people in the church came to your side and suffered alongside you, offering you mercy and compassion, love and grace.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).

James continues: “Are there any among you cheerful? Then sing songs of praise.”

Amen, brother James! We got that too!

This past Wednesday night, when we heard Ann Byrd and Myrtle Sugg had turned another year older, we cheerfully put our voices together and sang “Happy Birthday!”

For as Paul also said, “When one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice!”

James goes on: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Oh, we are quite good at that too, brother James!

One of the first things we do when we hear someone has been hospitalized, has become ill, has lost a loved one, or has been bitten by a dog, is to email the Elders.

Then, although we may not use olive oil like it was used in the first century, we do participate in other acts of “personal touch,” other forms of “laying on of hands,” to bring healing, to foster wholeness and peace. And we do it the name of the Lord.

As most of you know, we have a wonderful prayer quilt ministry here. We have a group that meets monthly to make the quilts that we pass around to the entire congregation, so each member of the church can prayerfully lay their hands on each quilt, before we present it to the person who is suffering. It is a truly wonderful ministry.

Then, James reminds us that prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer brings healing; sometimes physical; always, always spiritual. Prayer, says James, helps us to forgive one another. Prayer “saves.” And the Greek word translated “save” here, is sozo, the same word that we use when we talk about “salvation.”

And then James tells a story to back it up, a wonderful story about Elijah and the power of prayer.

James, we are with you 100 percent! Preach it brother! For we also have our stories.

Just last Sunday afternoon, I visited an elderly widower in his home. He shared his joys with me. I shared mine. Then, the shared some of his sorrows. He shared his sufferings. He talked about his failing health and his frail body. He talked about a new medication that the doctors were trying. Dr. Barrow, we laughed together, when he said, “You know doctors, though. They only practice medicine.” I said, “Just like preachers: “we only practice faith.” Then he got serious, as he said, “So, only God knows if I am going to get any better.”

After we talked a little more, we joined hands, we bowed our heads, and we prayed together. After we prayed, he took out a handkerchief, removed his glasses, and wiped tears from his face.

Then, with a grin that emitted pure joy, he said, “I know I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine one way or another. Whether I get better, or whether I go to be where my wife is. God knows, either way, I am going to be fine.”

Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer raises people up. Prayer saves people. Sometimes physically; always, and most importantly, spiritually.

And, all of us inside the church have countless stories to back it up.

So, Amen again brother James! Preach it! As Bobby Jr. says, “You got that right!”

But brother James…oh, he’s not finished with us yet.

Listen to how biblical scholar, Eugene Peterson, puts it:

My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God. (James 5:19-20 MSG).

Hmmm, not only does prayer work, prayer is work!

So, maybe, we are not so much off the hook this week after all. For we would all confess that this is an area that is not always right within the church.

Most churches are pretty good about being a community of care of concern. We are good about praying for one another and rejoicing with one another. The bad news is: we are also good about sometimes writing people off. Where we sometimes struggle is working to bring others into our community.

For churches generally have programs and ministries that are geared to meet the needs of primarily whom?

They have shepherding programs, prayer shawl or prayer quilt ministries, prayer meetings, Bible studies, hospital visitation teams, homebound ministries, bereavement care, youth and children’s programs for whom?

For folks outside of the church?

Or for folks inside of the church?

Do you remember one of the first things that I led us to do as the pastor of this church? I said that we really needed to fix our stained glass windows as soon as possible. The Plexiglass that protected our beautiful stained glass windows depicting the good news of Christ were tarnished so badly on the outside, that our windows could only be seen by those of us on the inside the church.

I said, “aesthetically speaking,” it was “horrendous;” but “theologically speaking,” it was a “disaster.” I said that we needed to make sure that we were always working to share the good news of Christ with those who are on the outside of the church.

Do you remember what one of the first things we heard from folks who questioned us having a community garden?

Someone asked: “What if someone who doesn’t belong to the church comes by and steals your tomatoes?”

And we responded, “Isn’t that the whole point?”

One thing that I love about our church, and one of the reasons that I believe we continue to grow, is that we are moving well past a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the membership and moving toward a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the community.

The good news is: when I ask for a prayer quilt, no one asks me: “Well, pastor, is this for a member of the church?”

The good news is: when we get a request to build a handicap ramp, no one asks, “Is this for someone we know?”

The good news is: when I ask the outreach ministry team for some money to pay someone’s utilities, no one questions: “Does this person really deserve our help?”

The good news is: when I ask you to pray for someone, no one asks: “What church do they belong to?”

The good news is: no one here batted an eye when the town wanted to have a meeting in the fellowship hall to discuss Pitt Community College coming to Farmville. And, as far as I know, no one even raised an eyebrow when they asked us to serve them a meal.

The good news is: I know of no one who got upset when the Methodist church in town borrowed our van to go on a mission trip. And no one even flinched when money was allotted to send a mission team from our church back to West Virginia.

And, the good news is: I know of no one who criticizes me for spending time ministering to those outside of our church, like the elderly widower with whom I spent part of last Sunday afternoon.

Because you get it.

Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer heals. Prayer raises people up, and prayer saves.

And we have stories to prove it.

And, as James reminds us, prayer is not just for us.

Prayer is for all.

And all means all.

Prayer works, and prayer creates work. Prayer generates selfless and sacrificial efforts. Prayer fosters acts of extravagant grace and unrestricted love. Prayer encourages generous mercy and boundless compassion. Prayer creates risk. Prayer creates responsibility. Prayer creates a church with wide open doors and a wide open table.

Yes, you are right. I don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.

So, let’s keep praying and let’s keep working. Let’s keep sacrificing. Let’s keep giving, and let’s keep risking to invite and to welcome them into our church family, showing them by our extravagant grace and unrestrictive love, through our generous mercy and boundless compassion, that prayer works.

Prayer works, indeed.

Being a Great Church

A little girl our mission team met and helped in Nicaragua earlier this year.
A little girl our mission team met and helped in Nicaragua earlier this year.

Mark 9:2-4, 33-37 NRSV

Today is Consecration Sunday. It is the day that we ask God to consecrate our pledges and bless our commitments—all to make our church great! That is what we want, isn’t it? To be a great church!

But what does it mean to be a great church? Well, we really do not have to ask, do we? For all we have to do is listen, and we will hear countless voices telling us exactly what we need to do in order to be great.

Do you want to be a great church?

As the pastor, don’t ever be too real. Don’t let people know that you are a sinner. Don’t let it slip out that you sometimes have doubts. Make them believe that since Jesus came into your heart you no longer struggle, you never question your faith, and you have all of the answers.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t make people think too much. Don’t give them too much to ponder. Don’t make them question those things they have always believed. Don’t ever challenge them. Allow folks to check their brains at the door. Tell them what they need to believe to be a good Christian. Keep it simple. Make it black and white.

Do you want to be a great church?

Make church a little more entertaining. Do you really need to have communion every Sunday? That’s a lot of work. And besides, come on, no one wants to hear about sacrifice, spilt blood and a broken body every Sunday. Trade the bread and juice for some coffee and doughnuts or, on special Sundays, some cheese biscuits. Make church a little more fun.

Do you want to be a great church?

Remove the pulpit, or at least step out from behind it. Do away with your manuscript. Look people directly in the eye and tell them exactly what they want to hear. Give them some chicken soup for the soul. Give them something that will make them all warm and cozy on the inside.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t ever criticize folks inside the church. Instead, criticize folks outside the church. Create a “we-verses-those” mentality, an “insider-verses-outsider” way of thinking. And remind the congregation every Sunday that we are “in,” and those who disagree with us are “out.” Make them feel righteous, holy, superior, knowing that while we are on their way to heaven, those who are unlike us are on their way to hell.

Do you want to be a great church?

Look, it’s is fine to welcome all people to church. And I guess it is ok to say that all means all. But you don’t have to say it every Sunday! Don’t over-emphasize it. Don’t over-broadcast it, because that is only going to attract those who are bad for business.

Be careful what you put on facebook. Sidestep anything that might be offensive. Avoid race baiting, and stay away from that rainbow filter.

And you know, you really shouldn’t let some people, you know, those people, serve in any leadership positions. Don’t make them deacons and for God’s sake, never let them teach your children.

And don’t use words like “inclusion” and “diversity” so much. Because, the truth is, we like to be with folks who think like us, act like us and look like us.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t let babies, small children, or folks with disabilities disrupt the service. And don’t talk about helping the poor so much. Don’t talk so much about helping the marginalized of society so often. Because, if word gets out, you know what will happen. They will take advantage of us. They will use us until all of our funds run dry!

Do you want to be part of a great church?

Have more programs that are uplifting and edifying for the members. People come to church to be spiritually fed. So keep everyone satisfied, happy and comfortable. Don’t pressure members to do things that are outside of their comfort zones like building handicap ramps for strangers; serving in the Soup Kitchen, delivering Meals on Wheels, assisting the poor with their utility bills, or visiting nursing homes

Do you want to be part of a great church?

Preach what is popular. Instead of preaching extravagant grace, preach “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Instead of preaching social justice, preach “God helps those who help themselves.”

Then Jesus comes, and he asks:

“What are you talking about?”

We are silent.

But Jesus heard us.

He sits down, calls all of his disciples together, and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he brings a little baby out of the nursery; and taking it in his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In other words, Jesus said: “Stop worrying about being the greatest and start worrying about the least. And when you do that, when you take care of those who cannot care for themselves, when you feed those who cannot feed themselves, when you clothe those who cannot clothe themselves, when you welcome those who usually feel unwelcomed, especially by organized religion, then you will be welcomed, and you will be blessed by the one who sent me. You will be sanctified and you will be consecrated.”

I do not believe it is a coincidence that these words from Jesus are recorded in the same chapter as “The Transfiguration” of Jesus, that scene Jesus appears to the disciples, dazzling, in all of his transformed, consecrated glory, with Moses and Elijah representing the law and the prophets.

Holding that baby in his arms, it is as if Jesus is asking: “Do you want to dazzle the world? Do you want to be transformed, transfigured and consecrated? Do you want me to bless your pledges and sanctify your commitments? Then listen to my voice and listen to the voices from the law and the prophets.”

Jesus is saying remember the voice of Moses who commanded:

If there are any poor…in the land…do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. …Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need (Deut 15:7-11).

Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. …True justice must be given to foreigners living among you… (Deut 24:14-16).

Jesus is saying to remember also the voice of Proverbs, as we learn exactly who God consecrates:

…blessed are those who help the poor… Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him (Proverbs 14:21, 31).

If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord— and he will repay you! (Proverbs 19:17).

And listen to who is not blessed by God:

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need (Proverbs 21:13).

A person who gets ahead by oppressing the poor or by showering gifts on the rich will end in poverty (Proverbs 22:16).

Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed (Proverbs 28:27).


Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

Remember the voice of the Psalmist…

Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless; (Psalms 82:2).

And remember the voice of Isaiah:

Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool (Isaiah 1:17-18).

“In other words,” says the Lord, “when your pledges help the least, when your commitments side with the poor, I will transform and transfigure them. I will consecrate them!”

“Do you want to know how to have a successful consecration Sunday?” asks Jesus. “Then listen some more to Isaiah:”

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains of injustice. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. The Spirit of God will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply, ‘Remove the heavy yoke of oppression…Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon’ (Isaiah 58:6-10).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want us to be a great church. I want us to be a consecrated church. I want us to be a transformed and a transfigured church. I want us to be a Christian Church that is welcomed and blessed by God. I want us to be Disciples of Christ who are led forward by the Lord’s Spirit like the dawn, a light shining forth into the darkness. I want us to be a church that radiates love and light. I want us to be a church that dazzles the world!

More than once, I have heard Billy Lovic talk about serving some of the most impoverished folks living in our hemisphere in Nicaragua He says something like: “It is hard to describe, I have never felt more at one with the Holy Spirit than I do when I am with those folks.”

I can just imagine those impoverished children looking up at Billy, at the compassion in Billy’s eyes, at the love of Christ in Billy’s smile, and I can imagine those children being dazzled his presence!

Today is Consecration Sunday. However, the consecration of our pledges will depend on what we do throughout the year. It will depend on how we serve. It will depend on where we serve. And it will depend on whom we serve.

What Is God Calling Me to Give?

pledgecardThe disturbing data is in. Church membership in America is declining rapidly. I read a recent poll that revealed that although 76% of Americans claim to be Christian, only 17% claim to be a member of a local church. Ten years ago, 38% of Americans identified themselves as church members. Someone recently posted the following question on Facebook and Twitter: “Why are you opposed to church membership?” One of the most popular answers was: “I don’t want to join a social club.”

I believe that one of the greatest threats to the church is the heretical understanding that the church nothing more than a local social club or social-service organization. And it is not non-members who are propagating such a false understanding of the church, but church members themselves.

We act as if the church is about meeting our needs, instead of rearranging our needs. We come to church asking God to fulfill our desires, instead of transforming our desires. We view the church as a place we go to take care of the self, instead of viewing the church as a way of life to die to self. The question that we most often ask in the church is: “What do we want?”; instead of asking: “What does God want?”

Another way that we act like social club instead of the body of Christ in the world is the way give to the church. In the past, we have looked at the church’s budgetary needs, and then have asked the question, “What are my church’s needs?” If the church’s budget is increases, we increase our pledge. If the church’s budget remains flat, so does our pledge. If we did not give anything the previous year, and the church met its budget, we figure the church does not need us to pledge anything for the coming year.

However, since the church is not a social organization designed to meet selfish needs but is the living body of Christ, the proper question to ask is not “What do I want to give” or even “What does my church need me to give?” The proper question is: “What is God calling me to give?”

I believe, if we truly asked this question, our finances would never be in a state of deficit, and our membership would never be in a state of decline.

Ashamed of the Gospel

ashamed of the gospelMark 8:27-38 NRSV

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday. It is the Sunday that we are asked to prayerfully commit ourselves to the 2016 budget of this church and to serve on a ministry team, and it is the Sunday that we will ask God to bless those commitments. Members will receive a pledge card in the mail. If you are not yet a member, if you wish, you will be able to pick one up from an usher.

We are doing this, because for almost two years now, I have been preaching that, perhaps more than anything else, the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. As Christ, we are to continue his ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: offering healing to the sick, hope to the despairing, comfort to the troubled, grace to the sinners, love to the hateful, and life to the dying.

Now, if this is like any church that I have ever known, there may be more than a few of you who are thinking: “I just don’t believe I am ready to make such a commitment. I have some things that I need to work out first in my life. My faith needs some work. I have my doubts. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And I have some very personal issues to deal with. I have this problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my act more together, learn a little more, I think I will pass on this pledge card thing.”

Well, here’s my response to that: “Have you ever met Peter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in our text this morning, Jesus foretells that garden event. He talks about being rejected by organized religion. Jesus is essentially saying:

“When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people, even for folks called “illegal” or “aliens”; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you tell the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders hypocrites and point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous-powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will hoist their colors, and they will grab their guns. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.”

But Peter…Peter has some serious issues with that. Peter says to Jesus: “No way! Stop talking like that. This is not right. You are crazy. We will not let this happen!”

Then, having had about all that he could stand of Peter and his nonsense and excuses: his doubts, his questioning, his anger, his lack of faith, his personal issues, all the mess that he needs to work out, Jesus responds to Peter with some of the harshest words ever recorded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

And yet, that did not stop Jesus from loving Peter, from using Peter. Jesus kept teaching Peter, kept calling Peter, and kept leading Peter to do his work in the world. In fact, that did not stop Jesus from calling Peter to start his church in the world.

So, if you are not ready to make a commitment to Christ and his church, and if your excuses are: that you have doubts; or you have questions; or you are just not ready; or you have some issues to work out; or even have days you feel unworthy, even have days you know you resemble Satan more than God; then you are going to have to come up with another excuse, because as Peter teaches us: with Jesus, those excuses simply don’t fly!

So, what is it that is really keeping us from committing ourselves to Christ and his church?

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

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

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

Perhaps Peter’s denials had nothing to do with his lack of faith. Perhaps his denials, his refusal to take up his cross, had to do with shame.

Peter’s failure to pledge his commitment to Christ and his church had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, because, as Jesus pointed out over and over, those excuses simply don’t cut it. Peter’s failure was shame.

Peter’s failure to start his own ministry team had nothing to do with his personal issues or poor anger management. Peter’s failure had to do with shame.

Peter failed to make a pledge; Peter failed to commit himself to Christ and his church, because he was ashamed.

Peter was ashamed of the gospel: What the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

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

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

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

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

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

Peter was ashamed to welcome immigrants, because it was more popular to dehumanize them by calling them “aliens.”

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

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

Peter was ashamed to visit those in prison, because it was popular to treat them as animals.

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

So, are we ready to commit? Are we ready to give sacrificially and serve graciously? If not, what’s our excuse? We must remember, with Jesus, a lack of faith, having a lot of questions and some serious issues, or not having ourselves together simply doesn’t cut it!

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

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter made his commitment. Peter turned in his pledge card. Peter joined one ministry team and started another. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church and has been named by the Church as its first Pope.

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

Hating on the Pope

pope francisMany people were shocked when they learned that there are people in the United States calling for the assassination of Pope Francis as a response to the pontiff’s call for European Catholics to shelter asylum seekers from Syria. Someone wrote, “White people need to be protected from the genocidal anti-white Pope and the genocidal anti-white religion he pushes.” Another wrote: “The pope deserves to be executed for crimes against the White race.”

But should Christians be shocked?

Over and over Jesus taught his disciples “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31). I believe Jesus was essentially saying:

When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people, even for folks called “illegal” or “aliens”; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you command the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders hypocrites and point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you humble yourself and do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will hoist their colors, and they will grab their guns. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.

Therefore, the hate that is in our world for Pope Francis should not surprise us. But it should raise a few questions. Among them are: “Why am I not hated for my faith?” “Why have I never been threatened for my faith?” “Why do I feel so safe and secure in my faith?”

Are We More than Theologians?

hungryMark 7:24-30 NRSV

Our scripture lesson this morning has been called one of the most disturbing passages in the gospels. And it is disturbing on many levels.

On one level, it is disturbing, because Mark tells us that Jesus goes on a trip to a Gentile region and enters a house hoping no one would know he was there. This is so unlike our portrait of Jesus as a fisher of people, as a good shepherd who seeks and finds.

The story becomes even more disturbing, when he encounters this Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin. Mark tells it as if Jesus is bothered by this woman. “Yet, he could not escape notice.” Have you ever had to run to the grocery store early in the morning? Unshaven. No makeup. Wearing a pair of sweats. You go hoping you would not run into anyone you know. But it never fails. You always do. Mark tells this as if Jesus has that same type of disappointment. “Yet, he could not escape notice.”

Then we begin to wonder the real reason he was disappointed. Was it because someone recognized him or was it because a “Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin” recognized him? Why would Mark point out this woman’s ethnicity?

The story gets worse.

The woman begins to beg Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. This is when the seemingly disappointed Jesus gives the woman a callous, seemingly racist answer. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus, using a common expression of his day, says: “Let the needs of the Jews be met first, for it is not fair to take the gifts of God which are intended for Jews and give it to the Gentiles” [he calls “dogs”].

Of course, many have speculated why Jesus gave such an insulting response. Some have said that it was because he was simply tired and needed little break. Jesus was trying to get away, get some rest and have some privacy. And this woman simply ruined his vacation.

Some say that since Jesus was a good Jew, he still had problems sharing the good news to the Gentiles. Jesus had problems and prejudices, like we sometimes have problems and prejudices, sharing the good news with folks who are different.

Others have tried to soften the words of Jesus. They say that when Jesus called the Gentiles “dogs,” he was merely referring to beloved household pets. He wasn’t being harsh at all. He was referring to lovable animals that people cherish and treat as part of the family.

Some have even suggested that Jesus did not really mean what he said. He was only saying it to test the woman’s faith.

Then, just when you think it cannot get any worse, the story becomes even more disturbing, as we hear from the woman. The woman schools Jesus:

Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. [In other words: At my house, the dogs eat at the same time the children eat. So why should have to wait until the needs of the Jews are met before my needs are met? There’s enough room and enough food at God’s table for all of us at the same time.]

Jesus recognizes her wonderful answer and says: “For saying that, your daughter has been healed.”

This is disturbing because this is the exact opposite of what we usually expect from Jesus. It is Jesus who is supposed to answer with a wonderful good news revealing the truth of God’s grace and love for all people, Jews and Gentiles. But here, it is the woman, the Gentile, the outsider, who gives the correct response, who gives the good news, and even appears to correct Jesus with the good news.

Well, I have told you how others have interpreted this disturbing text. Now, let me tell you what this text means to me.

I believe it is very important to interpret this text within its context. Before coming to Tyre, Jesus was back in Galilee arguing theological matters with the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, regarding who was clean and who was unclean. The religious leaders said that all non-Jews, like the Syrophoenician woman, who did not strictly adhere to their traditions were “unclean” in the sight of God. In the previous passages, calling the religious leaders “hypocrites,” Jesus says “no” to this type of thinking with a very deep, insightful theological discourse.

Then he goes to Tyre, and he is confronted by a non-Jew who has a daughter with an “unclean spirit.” It is now time for Jesus to practice what he has been preaching. However, Jesus is still thinking theologically. It may be because that was the purpose of his solitary stay at that house. He was perhaps there to do some theological reflection regarding the nature of his ministry and mission. So when he is surprised by this woman, taking a little off guard, still in a theological frame of mind, he responds with the theological statement that children should be fed before dogs.

The truth is that God did choose to reveal God’s self, first, through Israel. God emptied God’s self and became human as a Jew. However, God did not come for the Jews only, and Jesus never says that. He only says that “children are fed first.” His statement does not rule out a mission to the Gentiles. He was making a truthful theological statement.

And notice that the woman does not dispute Jesus’ statement. She does not say that Jesus is wrong. She does not deny who she is apart from God. What I believe she is saying is this: “Jesus, that may be good theology. That may win you some arguments in the seminary back in Galilee, but you know something? It does absolutely nothing to help my sick daughter. My daughter still has an unclean spirit.” Jesus is then challenged to put all of the theology he has been teaching into practice.

Therefore, the question I believe this text asks us is: “Are we more than theologians?” Because, like Jesus, we are confronted by people every day who need more than our good theology.

I believe there are many who look at us theological church people and say:

You know, I am glad you go to church. I am glad you believe in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but you know something? That does nothing to help my daughter. I am glad you worship every Sunday. I am glad that you tithe faithfully and celebrate weekly communion, but you know something? That does nothing to help my son.

How do we respond to one who is hungry? Are we merely theologians? Do we simply say that we believe God blesses those who hunger? Or do we put our theology into action and feed that person?

How do we respond to one who is lonely? Are we merely theological? Do we tell them that God is with them, and if they pray they will sense God’s presence and not be lonely? Or do we offer ourselves, our presence, and our friendship? Do we offer the image, the presence of God in us, to that person?

How do we respond to one who does not profess Christ as Lord? Do we tell them how he came and died on the cross for their sins? Or do we show them by our own actions of sacrificial love?

How do we respond to people who are: sick or depressed; marginalized or imprisoned; poor or homeless; afraid or dying; grieving or suffering? Are we more than theologians?

And how do we respond to people who are different? How do we respond to those who have been taught by society, and even by the church “on God’s authority,” that their lifestyle is outside of God’s grace and love? How do we respond to those we sometimes refer to silently, if not out loud, as “dogs?”

If anything should disturb us about this passage, it is this! Because I think we know the answer.

Fourteen years ago this month, shortly after September 11th, a husband and wife and their beautiful daughter visited a church in North Carolina. They were new in the community and had heard about the reputation this church had for being a warm, friendly, loving community, so they decided to visit.

After the service, the pastor was at the front door shaking the hands of these visitors letting them know how glad he was that they had come to worship with them this morning. A deacon, one of the most revered, theologians in the church, passed by. He had been a Sunday School teacher for 30 years. The pastor got the deacon’s attention and introduced him to the visiting family. The father extended his hand to shake the hand of the deacon. The deacon, however, looked irately at the pastor and then walked out the front door, leaving the visitor’s hand extended in the air.

For you see, this visitor’s hand had a Middle Eastern tone. He was Arabic. And his wife’s hands were black. And the little girl’s hands were a mixture of both.

I don’t know what the family said to one another when they got back to their car. I do know that it was the last time they visited that church. But they might have said something like:

You know, I am glad that you say that you love the Lord. I am glad that you people are faithful to this church. I am glad you believe the things you say you believe. But you know something? That does nothing to help my daughter. And no, we are not like you at all. We are not the traditional Norman Rockwellian family, and you may think we are dogs. But, you know something, at my house, even the dogs eat at the same time the children eat. At my house, there is enough room at the table and enough food for all.