Have a Selfless Christmas

Bobby running

I have been an avid runner now for ten years. I love the way running makes me feel. I love the way running keeps me relatively thin. I love the way running allows me to enjoy nature. I love the way running gives me opportunities to make new friends.

Do you notice a common theme here? Me, me, me, me.

I confess that I run for many selfish reasons. However, thanks to Ainsley’s Angels, an organization created to help those with physical disabilities to enjoy some of the benefits of running, my running has suddenly become more selfless. Last week, Ainsley’s Angels graciously donated a wheelchair to be used to run 5k races with Bobby Hodge, Jr. who suffers with cerebral palsy.

It is as if a little bit of time spent running with Bobby this week has nearly absolved ten years’ worth of selfishness!

The holidays are upon us. If we are honest, we would confess that we love these days for many selfish reasons. We love the way that they make us feel. We love the way they help us enjoy our families and our friends. We love the lights, the parties and the gifts.

However, the truth is that it only takes a little selflessness to absolve a whole month of selfishness. So, during this holiday season, let us spend a little bit of our time doing something for someone else. Serve a hot meal in a soup kitchen. Visit a nursing home or a hospital. Adopt a family in need. Give to a charity. Make worship a priority. Most importantly, put a little faith in a little baby lying in a little manger.

And may our selfish days be transformed into selfless days. May our holidays suddenly become holy days.

Measured in Love – Remembering Lou Taylor Lewis Summerlin

Lou SummerlinThere are many ways that people measure their lives.

Some people measure their lives by the amount of money that they earned. Some people measure their lives by the number of their possessions, acquisitions, businesses owned, or by their stock portfolio.

Others measure their lives by the square-footage of their house or by the number of their houses. Some measure their lives by the size of the estate they leave behind.

Some measure their lives by the type of car they drive or by the clothes or jewelry they wear. Some measure their lives by how long they were able to enjoy good health, by how little medicine they took, by how few nights they spent in the hospital.

As a single mother of three, and as a selfless, self-giving,  hard-working public school teacher, as someone who sacrificed her entire life for others, Lou did not accumulate great wealth and did not leave behind a sizable estate. For many years now, after suffering a debilitating stroke, she had lived in the home of her daughter Bonnie or had stayed for extended periods of time with Meredith and Carol. However, I do not believe the size of her estate or the vitality of her health are the true measures of her life.

Many people measure their lives by the number of birthdays they celebrated. When many of you learned that Lou had passed away Saturday morning, one of the first things some of you asked was how old she was. This is not surprising for this is the standard question we ask when someone dies. For time is the standard way that we measure life. It is what we list in the obituary, on funeral bulletins and on headstones.

Lou had seventy-eight years on this earth. Many would say that is a good, complete life. However, I do not believe that that is the true measure of her life.

Others measure lives by the number of children one has. This is also something that we list in the obituary. Lou had three beautiful daughters: Bonnie, Carol and Meredith; and eight grandchildren: Jamie, Sam, Matthew, Jacob, Ashlyn, Eryn, Grace and Isaiah. However, as wonderful as children and grandchildren are, I do not believe they are the true measure of her life.

I believe the real measure, the real yardstick of life, is the amount of love that we share while we are on this earth. Love is the true measure of a person’s life.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-Winning musical, Rent, author Jonathan Larson wrote the following words:

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand moments so dear,

Five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure—measure a year?

In daylights—in sunsets

In midnights—in cups of coffee

In inches—in miles

In laughter—in strife.

In five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure a year of life?

How about love?  How about love?

How about love? Measure in love.

Seasons of love.  Seasons of love.

When it is all said and done, it really doesn’t matter how much money we made, how large our home was, what kind of car we drove, or what kind of jewelry or clothing we wore.

And in the end, none of us can control the quantity of days we will have on this earth. None of us know how many calendars, how many birthdays we will see. And none of us can control how many children or grandchildren we might have. We can, however, control the love that we offer to others. And in the end, others will know what kind of life we lived.

The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes knew something about this.  That life is measured, not in years, but in seasons. And one of those seasons is love.

The Apostle Paul said, “Three things will last forever, Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is love.”

The Apostle John said, “Love is of God, for God is love.”

And our Savior Jesus Christ proclaimed, “The two greatest commandments are to love God, and to love one another.”

Lou lived seventy-eight years on this earth. Some would say that is a pretty good, complete life. But the good news is that that is not the measure of her life. The good news is that Lou loved more and deeper than some people who live 88, 98, or even 108 years on this earth.

When I went to see Lou’s family when I received word that she had passed away, her sister Cordelia immediately shared: “Lou emulated everything Jesus taught.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

She replied with two words: “Unconditional love.”

A great illustration of the depth of her unconditional love is the time she invited her son-in-law Troy, then a recent graduate of West Point, to come and speak to one of her classes. Before he arrived, she had been announcing to the class that her son was going to be a guest speaker. The class loved Mrs. Summerlin, and thus, they were very eager to meet her son. When the day came, in walked Troy: very tall, very handsome, and very dark.

The class questioned her, “This is your son?”

“Yes,” she proudly responded with a smile, “This is my son.”

It would be an understatement to say that Lou loved her daughters, and her daughters’ families, more than she loved her own life. This love propelled her to give all that she had to give and to work until she could work no more. And it was by this love, and the love that she had for her friends and others that she measured her life. She lived a simple life of contentment because of the love she possessed and shared.

Lou also deeply cared for her  group of girlfriends that have been best friends since high school. They call themselves the “Cameos”.  Every October, she looked forward to meeting somewhere for a long weekend of fellowship and fun. She missed the most recent reunion due to her many health issues, but she was so moved by the outpouring of love she received from her dear Cameo friends in the way of visits and cards.

Lou loved to play the piano and she loved to sing. She sang at many funeral services. But Lou understood the words of the Apostle Paul, that if we play music and sing like angels, but do not have love, we are nothing, a loud gong or clanging cymbals. When Lou played and when Lou sang, it was always with love.

Jesus said, “this is how people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” No matter what the TV evangelists say, it is not by your wealth or by your health. And it is not even by the number of children or grandchildren you have. They will know that you belong to me by your love.

So today, just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, we thank God for Lou’s life. But we thank God especially for Lou’s love. For love is the true measure of her life.

And one day, may someone say of us, that it is not the amount of money we earned, not the number of days we stayed out of the hospital, not the number of birthdays that we had, and not the number of children or grandchildren that we produced, but the way we loved, and how we loved, that indicated that we had a very full and complete life.

Oh, they may still talk about our age, how long we walked the earth, they may talk about our children and grandchildren, but that will not be as important to God or as remembered by anyone as how much we loved.

I want to close by reading a poem that Lou’s daughter Carol wrote many years ago entitled, “An Angel on Earth.”

Carol describes the poem with the following words:

          This poem was written for my beautiful mother. She is the sweetest most caring person in my life. I love her dearly. She is single and has sacrificed so much in her life for her three girls. She is my medicine. Just the sound of her voice comforts me like nothing else in this world can. She is my angel on earth. When I read this poem to her, she acted strange and said it wasn’t her. It almost hurt my feelings! I didn’t think she liked it. But what I realized was that this was what made her so special. She doesn’t even know how special she is. A couple of days later, she asked to have this poem read at her funeral when the time comes. I said, “ok,” but that is a day I hope doesn’t come for a very long time.

Angel on Earth

She holds strength in the palm of her hand.

She is patient and she is kind.

She loves the sound of laughter, the smell of the

and the sparkle in a child’s eye.

She can soothe the soul with the sound of her voice,

ease the pain with the touch of her hand.

Build confidence through words of encouragement

and lift spirits when no other can.

She inspires one to grow, to love and to learn,

always strives to please, not herself, but others.

She is a cherished friend and confidant.

This angel on earth is my mother.

And here, as we mark the end of Lou’s wonderful life, the words of this poem could not be more true. Because, as Cordelia said, Lou was the personification of everything Jesus taught: love, unconditional love.

Thanks be to God.

Who Is Your King?


John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his actions and his teachings 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.”

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We prefer “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands.”

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 in 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 and comfort;

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 rules 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 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 patriotism 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.

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 in him or to doubt him, 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 2015?

It all depends on who your king is.

This past Monday, Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in the attacks in Paris, 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 does not have to be Pat McCory and our King does not have to be Barak Obama.

If we choose, our king will never be Donald Trump or Ben Carson, and our king will never be Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they 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

Lessons from the Greatest Generation


Every weekday morning, a small group of retired men meet at a local restaurant and gather around what they call “the Round Table.” Many, well into their nineties, meet to discuss politics, religion and how old they are getting over a cup of coffee and a sausage or cheese biscuit. All attend church regularly somewhere in town. Nearly all of them served our country during World War II or the Korean War. I would describe them as “conservative,” “patriotic,” and “Christian,” and maybe a little “grumpy.”

As a pastor in the community, I have learned that “the Round Table” is the place to go in town to get the latest news, a good laugh, and yes, even some gossip. I can always count on them to speak their minds, holding nothing back, whether it is regarding their latest physical maladies or what they really think about Obama.

One morning last week, part of the conversation went something like this:

“Preacher, what do you think about all of these poor refugees?”

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” I responded.

“And what do you think about all of these state governors saying that they are not allowed in their states?” asked another.

Before I could answer, another spoke up and said: “I can’t see Jesus turning away any of these refugees.”

Another said: “Yes, it may be risky. But Jesus did ask us to carry a cross, didn’t he?”

Someone added: “And he said that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.”

I tried to get a word in edgewise, but quickly realized that, this time, it was best for the preacher to sit back and just listen.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” one said.

“Do unto others as you would have it done unto you,” said another.

“And all of these people are saying that we don’t have room for them. I got nine rooms in my house, and I only use three: the bathroom, the kitchen and the den. I fall asleep most nights in my recliner!”

“I got a whole upstairs with three bedrooms and a bath that I have not seen for years!”

“And these people would probably gladly live in our garages, even without heat!”

“And these young people are saying that we don’t have enough here in this country for them. They don’t know what it is like to live in this country when we really did not have anything. When I was growing up, we really did not have enough!”

“And if we turn our backs on these people, don’t you think it is only going to make people in this world hate us more than they already do.”

“We can’t let fear cause us to hate.”

“That’s right.”

Someone then changed the subject asking, “Preacher, have you seen John lately? He was in bad shape the last time we saw him. He could barely walk.”

“I thought he was going to fall the last time he came in here,” another said.

I said, “I will go by and check on him.”

Several responded at the same time: “Yes, we all need to do that.”

I then told them that I needed to go to the office. As I walked out the door, I thought to myself: “No wonder people call them “the greatest generation.”

Gone out of the Religion Business

GoingOutOfBusinessHebrews 10:11-25

This morning, I wonder how many of you could answer the following question if you were on television playing for one million dollars. You’ve already used all of your lifelines. You can no longer poll the rest of the congregation or use your friends at AT&T to telephone a friend.

Which of the following is not a religion?

a. Running Marathons

b. Investing in the Stock Market

c. The Atkins Diet

d. The Christian Faith

Again, you can only choose one. All life lines have been exhausted. Which is not a religion?  If you said, “d. the Christian faith,” and that was your final answer, you just won one million dollars!

The wonderful truth about our faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what some may tell you, the church is not in the religion business.

While I was pastoring a church back in 1993, a deacon asked me where I saw myself in twenty years. I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere, or playing a college professor in a TV commercial. 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 in the religion business. The truth is, the last thing a Christian pastor should be, is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  This comes from 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.

William Willimon has said: 

Religion is the human attempt to get a handle on the key to life, to plug in to power, to find the program that leads to happiness, meaning, self-esteem, or whatever it is that gives a person life.

And the strange thing is: that key, power or program may have absolutely nothing to do with God. Before my knee surgery, Lori used to say that I ran religiously. She has said that I read Runner’s World magazine like I read the Bible. I read it religiously every month, trying my best to run faster, achieve good health and look better so I can enjoy the good life!

We have all observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the Wall-Street Journal religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows the Atkin’s diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

The truth is many of us are doing all we can do, working out, eating right, studying, going to work, following a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! We do it for ourselves, but we also for that something which is beyond ourselves: low blood pressure and cholesterol, smaller hips, a house on the river, for that something which will grant us fulfillment and satisfaction. So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some of us, religion is all about God. There are those of us who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. Religion is viewed as something that people work at in order to have a correct relationship with God. If we can say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then we can be right with God. If we can conduct our lives based on high moral and ethical standards, we can place ourselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

Willimon says that 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. For years I had been following the advice of Runner’s World magazine by eating salmon every chance I can got for those omega three fatty acids for my heart. I used to eat the stuff all the time. Lori once said she thought I was going to turn into a salmon. Well, in an issue not that long ago, I learned that if the salmon is not caught wild, straight from the ocean, it will probably give you cancer. Turns out, the farmers who raise the fish feed it these food pellets which are laced with cancer-causing chemicals. No matter how hard we try, we can never get it right.

They used to say that eating bacon and eggs every morning will make you fat and kill you. Now, they say it is that bagel which is going to make you fat. They used to tell us we could get thin by snacking on rice cakes, now they tell us its best to snack on pork rinds. We can’t win! Religion is always a one-way ticket to failure.

Take the religion of golf. You master your irons and start slicing with your woods. You drive long and straight with your driver, hit your iron and land on the green in two, and then you three-putt. That is part of the reason golf is so addicting. It is a one-way ticket to failure. You make a bad shot and it makes you mad. You make a good shot and it makes you mad, because you wonder why you can’t hit it like that every time!

The truth is: at religion, the harder we try, the greater we fail. We can eat all of the right foods and exercise every day of the week and still need knee surgery.

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 you finally arrive at the place where you think you have it right with God. You finally believe you have got it right in the ethics and morality department, guess what? It usually leads to pride and arrogance. I had a church member tell me one day, “I am the most humble person in this church!”

Sure you are.

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 religion.  Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies. Think about it: 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 have to 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 sin is still going to get the best of me before I can get back to my car. 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 again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

In contrast to the posture of the priest who is always standing, notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting. “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. In this great gift of God’s self, God put religion out of business. And now, Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, 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 this set of principles or that set of ideals, that biblical interpretation or this style of worship. It is about believing and following the Christ.

That is why we call it the gospel. It is 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. Praise God, in Jesus Christ, this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God the church has gone out of the religion business!  If it hadn’t, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

This is why extremist or fundamentalist religion is wrong and dangerous, whether it is fundamentalist Muslim religion or fundamentalist Christian religion. Religious extremists believe that their salvation and the salvation of the world is dependent on the laws they believe, the laws they teach and the laws they obey. That Is how they can justify shooting people in a marketplace, in a school, or in a church, or blowing up a plane, a restaurant, a theater, an abortion clinic or a building with a daycare center. And this is how they can justify creating a fuss if others do not believe as they believe. They believe it is their God-ordained, religious duty to force their beliefs on others to keep themselves right with God.

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, creating a fuss, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. The work of religion is out of business. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us.

Think about that. Because I know that are some of you who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. You have never professed faith in Christ through baptism because you are waiting until you somehow get it right yourselves. You’re busy running back and forth to altars of good heath, right conduct and correct thinking. I invite you to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invited you to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

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

God in Paris

paris 1Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister and children’s television host, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

When horrific tragedy unfolded in Oklahoma City in 1995, New York City in 2001, and in Charleston, Kenya, Lebanon, and Paris in 2015, we witnessed demonic evil personified through the selfish actions of terrorists influenced by pride, hate and bad religion.

The evil was real, yet unimaginable; heart-wrenching, yet heart-numbing. The evil produced deafening silence and loud cries of anguish.

However, during the same dark moments, we witnessed holiness personified through the selfless and sacrificial actions of police officers, firefighters and other first-responders influenced by pure love and authentic faith.

We also witnessed love through the prayers, thoughts and actions of God’s children: Muslim, Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and others.

The love expressed was real yet unimaginable, heart wrenching yet heart numbing. The willingness of people to suffer with, and even sacrifice their lives for, strangers produced deafening silence yet loud cheers of praise.

And the good news is this love that is pure, holy, sacrificial, real and unimaginable, unspeakable and cheerful, suffering and shocking, always overcomes the hate. This light always overcomes the darkness. This good always overtakes the evil.

So, in the midst of every tragedy, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Consequently, in the midst of every “scary thing” you will always find hope. You will always find God.

Grateful for Grace

life itself is graceDuring the holiday season, I often hear promos on the radio or television soliciting donations of toys, clothing or money to benefit “deserving” families. People will call me every year to ask our church to help an individual or a family at Christmas, and when they do, they will almost always add: “I believe these are the type of people who ‘deserve’ our gifts.”

When the love of God compelled God to give the gift of God’s self to the world, I am thankful God did not limit the gift of Christ to only those who “deserve” such a gift. It was while we were yet sinners, yet undeserving, that God revealed God’s unconditional love to us.

I recently visited a young man in the hospital. He suffered a stroke a few months ago and was being treated for an infection around his heart. It was obvious that he was experiencing both pain and fear. Yet, when I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “Well pastor, I am alive. So, I am doing better than I deserve.”

Aren’t we all? For who on earth did anything to “deserve” the gift of life?

This holiday season let us share our gifts freely, without restrictions, without conditions. Let us love our neighbors as we have been loved by God.

And this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for grace, because if we are alive, we are doing better than we deserve.

The Jug Did Not Fail

Cornucopia by Joyce Lethworth- A symbol that with God, there is always more than enough.
Cornucopia by Joyce Letchworth symbolizing that with faith in God, there is always more than enough

1 Kings 17:8-16 NRSV

“The word of the Lord came to him” (1 Kings 17:8).

Whenever I read a text like our scripture lesson this morning, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people and worked miracles today like God did back in the Old Testament.”

I usually respond: “I believe God still speaks to people. The problem is we’re not listening. And I believe God still works miracles. The problem is we’re not paying attention.”

Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive (1 Kings 17:9).

Notice that Elijah is listening. He sets out and goes immediately to Zarephath. And when he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He called to her and said, “Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a morsel of bread.”

But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.’

See, like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her to feed Elijah when he arrives. Or perhaps she heard the command; she just doubted the command. She questioned the command. She feared the command, for she knew that she only had enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her son. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, they would surely die.

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid” (1 Kings 17:13).

Old Testament Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth and the wadis run dry. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.”

Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son (1 Kings 17:13).

“How dare this man of God ask me for bread, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own child? There is simply not enough to go around. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There is not enough. And Death waits at the door.”

Then the good news:

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you not been listening?

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you doubted it? Have you questioned it? Have you feared it?

I thank God that many of you have not only heard it, but you believe it. And not only do you believe it, you live it. And today you are a living testimony to the miracle of that word.

One day, you lost your child in a tragic accident. Years later, you needed open heart surgery. A year later, you fell and broke your hip. Then just a few weeks ago, you fell again, this time breaking several ribs. But yesterday, you got up, got dressed, and in spite of some who did not believe you had the enough energy to leave the house, you not only came to the Fall Festival, but you came to decorate this sanctuary with this beautiful fall cornucopia, symbolizing abundance, symbolizing that with faith in God, you not only have enough, you have more than enough, symbolizing a jar that will not empty and a jug that will not fail.

A few years ago a failed marriage destroyed your business, your financial worth and your self-worth. For years, you struggled for enough sticks to survive. And today, your business is back, your debts are being paid, and you are using your gifts to make a difference in the world. All because, although your jar got low, it never emptied, although your jug almost ran dry, it never failed.

You woke up one morning with blurry double vision. You later discovered that you suffered a stroke. Unable to work, unable to see, unable to live without assistance, you never lost your sense of humor or your sense of gratitude. In the face of your suffering you continue to worship God, praise God, and thank God for the gift of life. Somehow, some miraculous way, your jar never emptied and your jug never failed.

Several of you made decisions in life that landed you in the hospital or in jail. It was not that long ago that people were saying that you were all but out of sticks. But here it is, just a short time later, and you have a new lease on life. Your jar never emptied. Your jug never failed.

You were taking out the trash one day when you fell and broke your leg. And when you needed him the most, your husband abandoned you. People said that you were too old to get back up, too frail to start over. They said you only had a few good sticks left. But miraculously and mysteriously, today, you are as strong as ever. Your jar was not emptied and your jug did not fail.

A few years ago, a church found itself without a pastor. An interim pastor was even hard to find. Attendance was down, the budget was behind, morale was low, sticks were about to run out. They could see the bottom of the jar and squeezing mere drops from the jug. But the church was listening, and the church heard the word of the Lord. The church followed and the church risked. Their jar never emptied and their jug never failed.

Some in our culture complain that following Jesus is too much risk. Some say that it brings too much discomfort, too much pain. They say that the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus is too generous, and the love of Jesus is too abundant. The light he commands us to shine is too bright. They fear such light, and they say it would be better for business if it is kept under a bushel.

They say they can tolerate the church preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and it is ok to believe that all means all; just as long as the church doesn’t actually practice what it preaches.

But when the culture tries to control you, when it tries to hold you back, when it uses fear to tempt you to preach and practice what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to preach and practice what is socially acceptable instead of what is the Word of God, when the culture tells you that you do not have enough sticks; behold, you miraculously receive the word:

“Do not be afraid. Because your jar will never be emptied and your jug will never fail, and as long as you are following Jesus, you will always have a great big pile of sticks!”

Pricilla, a dear friend of mine from Louisville, Kentucky, called me one day to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two more children from Ukraine.”

They had already adopted two the previous year, one is two and the other is three years old. They both have lived in an orphanage since they were born.

As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You already have two adopted children. And I know what a handful they are. Pris, I know you are a great mother, and I know Brad is a good father, but don’t you think there are limits? Aren’t there limits to how much you can give?”

Pricilla responded by saying something like: “When it comes to love, I have not yet found the limits. You know, Jarrett, I really don’t believe one can ever run out of love. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give, the more love you seem to have.”

The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources. So, do not be afraid. There is enough.

No, in God’s abundant mercy, there is more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

It’s November


It is November, and our world seems to get darker by the day. Sunny days are few and far between. There is a leak in our roof. Our car needs new brakes. A friend has let us down. Politicians continue to disappoint. Refugees despair as doors close. An airliner crashes killing hundreds on board. ISIS marches on. GI Joe was not the hero we thought he was. Promises have been broken. Trust has been betrayed. Relationships have failed.

It is November, and in a few days, we are somehow, someway supposed to gather around a table and a turkey and be grateful.

And this year, for the very first time, there will be an empty chair or two around that table. There will be sorrow, and there will be grief around that table. This year, there will be despair around that table.

During a famine, a widow once told Elijah: “I only have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am going to prepare one last meal and gather around the table one last time with my family. And then we will die” (1 Kings 17).

Elijah responded: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: the jar will not be emptied, and the jug will not fail.” And Elijah was right. The widow and her family were able to eat from that jar and that jug around that table for many days and endure the famine.

This is how we can gather around a table and a turkey and be grateful this November. Because despite the dark and damp days, despite the closed doors and the shattered dreams, despite the sorrow and the grief, God promises that our jars will not be emptied and our jugs will not fail. God promises that hope will never disappoint us, for God’s love for us never ends.

The good news is that with the help of God we will endure these dark days of November until hope springs eternal.

What Heaven Looks Like

barefootThe following sermon is for an All Saints’ Day Service remembering the seven members of the First Christian Church of Farmville NC who died during the past year.

Revelation 22:1-7 NRSV

To be honest, the promise of going to heaven one day to live forever has not always appealed to me. Floating on a cloud playing a harp for all of eternity does not sound like good times. Furthermore, I have always been leery of Christians who seem to make going to heaven one day the whole point of what it means to be a Christian. It sounds rather selfish to me. And when I consider the selflessness of Jesus, the mission of Jesus, I believe that type of theology actually misses the whole point of what Christianity is all about.

I have also never desired to live in a mansion or walk on streets of gold. Again, because of what I know about Jesus’ identification with the poor, such opulence turns my stomach as a follower of Jesus.

However, there is one description of heaven in the Bible that I do find rather interesting, even attractive.

The most vivid, and perhaps the best description of heaven may be found in the last chapter of our Bible.

What does heaven look like?

Although the description is certainly symbolic, it is nonetheless beautiful. There is a holy city, and in the middle of the city’s main street, there is a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

What does heaven look like?

On both sides of the river, there is the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves on the trees have the power to heal the nations.

What does heaven look like?

Nothing accursed will be there. There will be no more hate; no more bigotry; no more ugliness; no more backbiting and powerplays; nothing that is vile, foul or evil.

There is nothing accursed in heaven, because the throne of God, the compete rule of God, and the Lamb, who is Jesus the Christ, will be there.

And here’s my favorite part. There is nothing accursed in heaven, because all of the servants of Christ will be there; together, gathered around the throne worshipping the Lamb face to face,

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like John Barefoot.

According to the gospel of Luke, when the angels announced that heaven was coming down to earth, they said: “I am bringing you good news of great joy.”

Almost a year ago, I believe those of us who went Christmas caroling to John Barefoot’s house were privy to a glimpse of what the joy of heaven looks like. For, as we sang around John’s bed where he was confined after suffering yet another debilitating stroke, something miraculous happened. God showed up. Heaven came down. As we watched John donning a Santa hat and wearing this smile that was so amazing that it had to be divine, as we watched him sing along with the children the best that he could, with a joy, this amazing joy, a joy that had to come from heaven, Christmas became real to us. Faith became real. God became real.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks alike Alawoise Flanagan.

According to Isaiah, heaven looks like children who are being comforted by their mother: “You shall nurse and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” says the Lord.

Alawoise lived her life providing motherly comfort, not only to her own family, but also to the residents at the nursing home in Farmville where she devoted much of her life. And in the end, it was obvious that this one who comforted so many was herself comforted.”

I don’t believe there is any other way to explain the very last words Alawoise said to me. Just days before she died, after suffering more than anyone one deserves, she opened her eyes, and spoke, not words of complaint or bitterness, but words of a loving mother, or of a child who has been comforted by her heavenly mother. After I asked her how she was doing, she immediately asked me: “And, Jarrett, how is your family.”

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like Albert Mosley.

Nearly every time before I left Albert, even in ICU after a stroke that would take his life, he would miraculously say to me those words that Jesus often spoke to his disciples: “Peace be with you.”

And the miracle was not only that Albert could speak those words of peace, but was how it was obvious to all that in spite of every tribulation he encountered, Albert actually possessed this miraculous peace. And he truly wanted to share it with others.

The only way that I can possibly explain how Albert endured his suffering is that the God of Jesus, heaven itself, somehow, some miraculous way, came to Albert and filled him with this peace that surpasses all human understanding.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like Donna Mosley.

As Jesus reminded us in the Sermon on the Mount, God looked upon Donna 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 disability, no matter how bad she felt, or how hard it was for her to walk, see, eat or breathe, when you asked her how she was doing, she would always respond: “I’m doing good!”

I believe Donna was a living testimony of Jesus words about heaven when he said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Whereas we may look at those with whose spirits that are allowed to soar to achieve success as the world defines success 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 in their mouths, 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.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like Harry Albritton.

Having returned yesterday from Wyoming County, West Virginia, one of the most impoverished counties in our country, the words of Harry Albritton are fresh on my mind. Some of you here remember.

How many people do you know who after listening to a presentation at church about a mission trip opportunity to repair homes in the rural Mountains of West Virginia became so moved, so agitated and concerned that he stood up and spoke out, saying that he didn’t want to just put a Band-Aid on the poverty, but he wanted to actually do something to cure the poverty? He wanted to strategize, energize and mobilize to end the poverty, to repair the breach, to restore the streets, and make it a place where future generations could thrive.

He wanted to set up meetings with the CEO’s of corporations, with state and local government and investors and encourage them to build new factories in the area and offer employment. And if that did not work, he wanted to lobby Congress to provide tax incentives to create ways to re-locate the residents to the jobs.

Someone spoke up responded, “We can’t do that!”

He said, “What do you mean ‘we can’t?’ There’s no such thing as ‘can’t.’ You mean, we ‘won’t.’”

Only Harry.

It was the prophet Isaiah who painted this can-do portrait of God’s heavenly justice by admonishing God’s people: “to rebuild the ancient ruins, to raise up the foundations for future generations, to be called the repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in” Isaiah 58).

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like Earl Umphlett.

Jesus tells us that God loves a quiet, generous giver.

‘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 it 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 for pay 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, when he’d catch Kim off guard, 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 told me this every Thursday morning after this happened. 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.”

This was just the type of Christian Earl was. Unlike some who brag openly about how much they give to the church, Earl gave quietly, unassumingly, inconspicuously. Earl did not have a pretentious, hypocritical bone in his body. Earl modestly served his Lord reticently, yet compassionately and generously.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like Joseph Scott Thorne.

When Jesus found himself in the wilderness, Mark says that angels came down from heaven and waited on him.

Heaven is a place where no one is ever in need, because there are a multitude of angels waiting on us.

Although Scott was disabled, I could stand up here for the rest of the day and talk about the countless mission projects that Scott served on here in Farmville waiting on folks in need. He volunteered through the First Baptist Church, Monk Memorial Methodist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Farmville Community Soup Kitchen. Scott spent incalculable hours volunteering his time to serve this community, many times working all through the night, painting, refurbishing, repairing, restoring, and landscaping.

Scott also shared his talents by working on many homes that needed repair throughout eastern North Carolina. Additionally, Scott volunteered at a homeless shelter in Tarboro doing whatever they needed him to do.

Along with local mission projects here in eastern North Carolina, Scott traveled to Gulfport, Mississippi to repair homes with this church after Hurricane Katrina. Scott also traveled to Moldova on a mission trip with the Oakmont Baptist Church of Greenville. Scott’s mission in life, despite his disabilities, was literally doing anything he could to serve someone else.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like a river of life, bright as crystal. Heaven looks like a tree of life with branches of healing. Heaven looks like the rule of Christ, the Kingdom of God. And the good news is that heaven looks like the servants of God, worshiping the Christ.

John Barefoot taught us that heaven looks like amazing joy. Alawoise Flanagan taught us that heaven looks like a mother’s comfort. Albert Mosley taught us that heaven looks like a peace that is beyond our understanding. Donna Mosley taught us that heaven looks like eternal blessedness. Harry Albritton taught us that heaven looks like the prophet’s justice. Earl Umphlett taught us that heaven looks like selfless generosity. And Joseph Scott Thorne taught us that heaven looks like angels waiting on us.

They all taught us that heaven looks like Jesus. Heaven looks like who God is calling us to be as the church. Heaven looks like extravagant grace and unconditional love. Heaven looks like the selflessness of Christ, the mission of Christ.

So, maybe living forever is not so bad after all.