When God Calls

called

Jeremiah 1:4-10 NRSV

Almost every Sunday, I stand from a pulpit and say something about the calling of God. I say things like, “God is calling us to use our gifts.” “God is calling us to this mission or that mission.” “God is calling us to catch fire and light up this city.” God is calling.

Oftentimes, I talk about this “calling” when I pray. “God, you have called us to this place.” “God, you call us to be your servants.” “God, you call us to live a self-denying life of discipleship.”

And on many Sundays we even sing about this calling. “Jesus is tenderly calling.” “I can hear my Savior calling.”

It is the kind of language that I use when my North Carolina beach loving friends ask me: “Why did you move from a place that is a little over an hour’s drive from the ocean to land-locked Oklahoma? Do you have family there? Do you have good friends there? Do you owe someone a favor there? Did you lose some kind of bet?”

“No, I am here because I believe God has called me here.” “God called me to go to seminary.” “God called me to be a pastor.” “God called me to serve with the Central Christian Church in Enid.” God called.

But what are we really saying when we speak of God this way? What is this call of God? Why does God call? How do we recognize God’s call? And more importantly, how do we answer God’s call?

I do not believe there is any better place to examine the nature of God’s “calling” than these first few verses of the book of Jeremiah:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’

It should be noted that the very first word of this prophetic book that we call Jeremiah belongs to God. The prophet’s words begin, not with the prophet having some word inside of him that needs to be expressed, but rather with God’s word coming to him. This is what Martin Luther referred to as “the external word,” a word that is not self-derived, but a word that comes as an intrusion, oftentimes a surprise, a gift from the outside, a word from a God who says: “I want to transform the world, and guess who I am calling to help me do it!”

Therefore, it is a misnomer when we speak of this book of the Bible as “The Book of Jeremiah,” as if this book were mostly about the words of one man. It is perhaps better entitled, “The Book of God,” for it is God who begins the conversation.

In the beginning, Jeremiah sets the record straight that the words, the mission, and the direction of Jeremiah’s life was God’s idea before it was Jeremiah’s idea. “I knew you before you knew you,” says the Lord.

I believe this is one of the most important theological concepts that the church needs to recover today. Our worship, our mission, our purpose as a church is not about us. This, what we are doing right here and now is not something that we created for ourselves. Central Christian Church was God’s idea before it was our idea.

William Willimon once put it this way: “[Church] is primarily about learning to suppress some of our self-concern and cultivate more God-concern.” Thus, Sunday worship is a blessed opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to get outside ourselves, to hear and to embrace and to follow the external Word.

But notice how Jeremiah responds to this external word. When he hears it, he has a hard time accepting it and even a more difficult time following it. For his very first words in response to the word of God are words of resistance:

Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.

Hmmm. If the external Word of God is anything like the way most preachers these days describe it, why in the world would Jeremiah resist it? For who in their right mind turns down some chicken soup for the soul? Who refuses to take a little pick-me-up-feel-good vitamin to help get you through the week? Who says “no” to words that meet needs and fulfill desires? Who rejects a God who is all about making us happy, healthy, comfortable and prosperous?

And Jeremiah is not alone. He’s not the only one in the Biblical witness who has trouble accepting this divine Word. Remember when God called Sarah? She spat out her coffee and laughed out loud: “Ah Lord God, I am much too old for such a calling!” Remember when God called Moses? “Ah, Lord, God, not me! I am not very good at public speaking.” Remember when God Mary: “Ah, Lord, God, not me! How can this be? I am much too young for such a calling!”

Why the resistance? Why do they all try to argue their way out of it?

Could it be that they all knew just enough about God to know that this word, this external Word, this divine Word was not about them, or even for them, thus it was bound to make their lives more difficult.

But notice that God not phased by Jeremiah’s resistance and continues calling, commanding Jeremiah to “go.” But promises that in spite of the persecution that he will no doubt receive for going out, for standing up and for speaking out, God would be there each time to rescue him.

Now, there is no way that I can go into all of the horrible things that happened to Jeremiah along the way and still keep this sermon under twenty minutes. He was scorned by community leaders. He was beaten and bullied by organized religion. He was physically assaulted by his own family. He was put in prison by the government. And he had his life threatened more than once.

And each time, God did come to his rescue. Well, sort of. For each time Jeremiah got knocked down, God came and picked him up, but only to immediately call out to him once more: “Go!  Get up and go young Jeremiah, for:

Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.

No wonder Jeremiah is continually persecuted! Change is never painless. In order for something to be planted, something must be plucked up. The word that brings new life is also the word that destroys and overthrows. As we’ve learned earlier this month, oftentimes the Word of God comes as fire. Henri Nouwen once wrote that our God is one who is continually calling us to go into “unknown, undesirable and painful places.”

After all, this Word, this external Word, this divine call is not about us. This call is not about meeting our needs; for if it has anything at all to do with our needs, this Word is about rearranging our needs. This call is not about fulfilling our desires; for if it has anything at all to do with our desires, it is about transforming those desires. This call is about what God desires and what God needs from ordinary people like you and me to build God’s kingdom on this earth.

Thus, I believe the church must be very careful when we talk about our ministry and mission.

During our wonderful leadership retreat that Rev. Speidel facilitated a week ago, I heard many say that they desired to come up with some ministries that would bring in new people to Central and fill up this sanctuary.

I believe that is a very good desire. It is my desire. However, I wonder if we are ever going to fill this sanctuary again, one of the first things we might need to stop saying is that we desire to fill this sanctuary. After all, this thing called “church” is not about what we desire. It is first and foremost about being called by an external, divine Word.

Let’s have the very best, the most active and the most theologically sound ministry with children and youth in this city. But not because we want to attract and bring in new young families to our church who will come in and help make our church more exciting. Let’s all use our gifts, selflessly and sacrificially, to build a great ministry with our youth and children because we have been called to do so. Because we have heard an external word, saying that “unless one welcomes little children, they do not welcome me.”

Let us love and respect our neighbors who do not belong to a church, meet them where they are, build relationships with them, earn their trust, care for them, be their friends, rejoice with them, even suffer with them, not because they might start coming to church with us, take our place on some committee or begin putting dollars in the offering plate, but because we have been called to love them. We have heard an external Word to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Let us give the poor and the hungry a chicken sandwich, treat a stranger like family, give someone who is cold a new coat, offer assistance to those who have been imprisoned, not because they might pray with us, one day believe like us, worship like us, dress like us and act like us, not because they may one day help us or even help themselves, but because we have been called to do this. We have heard an external word to do it unto the least of these our sisters and brothers.

Let us go an visit residents in the nursing homes. Embrace them. Send cards to them. Visit them. Prepare meal for them. Not because cooking or going to the nursing home makes us happy. Not because being nice to someone in the nursing home might one day get us or the church a special gift, but because we have been called to be family to them. We have heard an external word to take care of widows and all who are lonely and destitute.

You want to bring more people into the church? Then maybe we need to stop saying or even thinking that we want to bring more people into the church.

And just go. Go and selflessly and sacrificially use the gifts God has given us to share the love and grace of Christ with others for no other reason except that is what we have been called to do.

Just go and love one another with a love that is so radical and with a grace that is so socially unacceptable that it will cause people to ridicule us asking:

“Why on earth are you treating them that way? Are they friends of yours? Are they family?  Are you returning a favor? Did you lose a bet? Or do you expect them to reciprocate by doing something for you?”

And we respond: “No, we love them like that, because that is simply what we have been called to do. For each Sunday morning our church gives us this blessed opportunity to look beyond ourselves, to get outside ourselves, so we can hear and embrace and follow the divine, external Word.”

Well, I’ve preached long enough this morning. I realize that at this point this sermon seems to be unfinished. It seems to be lacking something. That’s because it is. This is a sermon that doesn’t have a conclusion—yet. That’s because we are going to write the conclusion.  It’s a sermon that each of us who are being called today are going to have to finish ourselves.

I’ve walked you through the story of Jeremiah’s calling, a story that began with God. Our story also begins with God. God is here and God is calling. How will we respond?

A Word from the Lord

cialis

Luke 4:14-29 NRSV

Tom Long tells the story of an incident that occurred in a church one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. The minister had just finished reading the scripture lesson and was taking a deep breath before launching into the sermon when suddenly, a man, a complete stranger, stood up in the balcony and startled everyone by proclaiming in a clear, loud voice: “I have a word from the Lord!”

Shoulders tensed and heads swiveled around and upward to see the source of the interruption.

What “word from the Lord” did this man possibly have to bring to the people on that day?

Well, no one will ever know, for the ushers, says Long, “bounded like gazelles” up to that balcony, and before the man could utter another word, they had escorted him down the stairs and out the front door.

Now, with Long, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said we ought to do things with some semblance of order, and his was way out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit.

Isn’t it strange? Sunday after Sunday countless preachers in innumerable pulpits spread out their sermon notes, clear their throats, and begin their sermon, saying, or at least implying, that they have a word from the Lord. And nobody tenses. No heads swivel in alarm. No ushers leap into action. Instead, people sit back in their pews, crease their bulletins, silently check their watches, and settle back for the sermon. For that is what you’re expecting isn’t it?  A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.[i]

This is exactly how it was on that Sabbath day in Nazareth. Joseph’s son Jesus was home for the weekend and had been asked to read the scripture lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew Jesus well. They knew his parents and remembered him as a little boy. They were no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his preaching and teaching. So, they settled back in their pews to hear what this articulate young man had say. What were they expecting? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.

Part of the reason I believe we expect a sermon instead of “a word from the Lord” is that as much as we do not like admitting it, we really would prefer not to hear such a word. We prefer a simple sermon. We prefer some nice religious words, some nice sweet thoughts to help get us through the week. What we expect is a little “chicken soup for the soul.”  Some good advice to help make our lives run a little more smoothly, some encouraging words to help get us through the week.

A word from the Lord is completely different. A word from the Lord is disruptive. A word from the Lord is uncomfortable.

A sermon can be can be easily forgotten and even completely ignored. But, a word form the Lord must be heeded. A word from the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For a word from the Lord is news, real news. It is news that turns our whole world upside down. A word from the Lord changes everything and forces us to adjust our lives to that change.

It has been said that most people who pick up the newspaper every morning or watch the evening news are not so much interested in the news as they are in confirming that the world is pretty much the same as it has always been. “Democrats are still not cooperating with Republicans and vice versa.” “It’s going to be windy today, again.” “There was another small earthquake in Fairview.” “The Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions are still not going to the Super Bowl.” “Yep, that’s the way the world is, it’s the way it always has been, and it is the way it always will be.”

I am afraid that is why many of us come to church. We do not go to church to hear any news. Instead, we go to church to have the things that we have always believed about God confirmed. We listen to the sermon to have the way we have been practicing our faith all of these years affirmed. We’d really prefer not to hear anything new. We’d rather not hear anything that challenges our beliefs, calls the way we practice our faith into question or creates any urgency to change. We are really not interested in hearing any real news.

For real news is unexpected. Real news is surprising. Real news is disturbing. Real news means the world is not the same as it was yesterday; therefore, I cannot live my life in the same way. A word from the Lord is real news.

It is news that demands change. It is news that demands a complete reordering of priorities. It is news that causes us to see the whole creation in a brand new way. It is news that moves us and mobilizes us to take some kind of action. It is news that often requires sacrifice. It is news that necessitates us doing things that we do not want to do and going to places that we do not want to go.

So, thanks but no thanks. Preacher, I think I’ll be just fine with a simple sermon instead. Either say some words to reaffirm what I already believe or maybe give me a little antidote that might help me live a happier, healthier life. Give me some good ideas that might fix some of the things that are ailing me.

I am afraid we often want a sermon to be like some new prescription drug that has just been FDA approved. Much like the ones whose benefits are being touted these days on nearly every other television commercial.

Do you have frequent heartburn? Are you tired of being tired? Is depression making you depressed?  Do you have trouble going to sleep? Do you have difficulty waking up? Do you want to avoid diet and exercise? Do you want to lose weight and still enjoy the foods you love? Is it painful for you to walk your dog? Is your hair falling out? Do you have a going or a growing problem? Do you need to put some excitement back into your relationships?

And then, in nearly every commercial, after the person begins taking what they asked their doctor to prescribe, there is all of this exuberant celebration: dancing in the streets; jumping up and down; digging for clams; running around in the yard with your dog and your water hose; even sitting outdoors and watching the sunset while holding hands with your significant other in separate bathtubs!

As a pastor, I oftentimes wonder if this is not how we oftentimes promote church. If you channel surf through the religious channels, you will find that there is no shortage of preachers who sound like they are spokespersons for some new drug. “Are feeling depressed?  Are you drowning in a sea of debt? Are you empty inside? Does your marriage need a boost? Then pick up the phone and make your pledge, send in your check, and sit back and wait for God to pour out God’s blessings!”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were probably expecting when they showed up to hear Jesus’ first sermon back in hometown Nazareth. They came expecting a sermon, a little pat on the back, a little stroke of the ego, a little feel-good-pick-me-up to get them through the week, not a word from the Lord.

So, when Jesus stood up and began to speak, no shoulders got tense. No ushers tried to muscle him out into the street. People smiled and whispered to one another how proud they were of this their product, and how Mary and Joseph must be tickled pink to have such a fine son.

They came expecting a little sermon. But instead of a sermon, they got a word from the Lord. Jesus began to say things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘difficult,’ did he? I thought God was all about making things easy! I thought sermons were about making us happier.”

Jesus continues:

“Love your neighbor, including your enemies. Be a blessing to the poor and to all who hunger and thirst for justice. Stand up for the liberty of those oppressed and bullied by culture. By the way, people will persecute you for that, utter all kinds of evil against you for that, but pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself. Don’t just hear these words, but do these words.”

And then, his words began to sink in. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today. Not yesterday, not in times gone by, not someday, but today.  Fulfilled.  Not read nicely, heard sweetly, or barely remembered, but fulfilled. In your hearing. Not in somebody else’s. Not just in Abraham’s, Moses’, Elijah’s, and Deborah’s, but in you.

And the Word of the Lord was also not just for them. Jesus said it was for all people. It was also for outsiders, foreigners, those marginalized by society, widows and lepers and others who were not a part of their synagogue, their faith, or even their culture.

And it then became obvious that this was not just another simple sermon. This was a word from the Lord. This was news. Real news. God had come. God is present. Here. Now. Today. God is here, and God’s love is for all people, even for the lepers of Syria in and the widows in Sidon.

The world was now changed, for the Word of God had come, and the Word had come for all people. The Word of God had been made flesh and was now present in all its demanding fullness. And you could fight it, you could try to hurl its presence off a cliff, or you could accept it, you could follow it, but there was no way on earth you could ignore it.

Each Sunday morning, our worship is about the gospel truth, the amazing good news, that God is alive and present to us this day, as alive and present here as Jesus was to those worshippers in Nazareth. Thus some shoulders here this morning should be a more than a little tense, for there is work for us to do!

God is here! God’s kingdom is now! God speaks words of love and of grace, of mission and of purpose, of vocation and of duty, that are fulfilled in our hearing. Words that, if we listen and respond, will send us out from the pews into the public square to transform our world.

[i] https://www.cathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/tl080601.shtml

 

I Smell Smoke

Fire.jpgLuke 3:15-17 NRSV

Sometimes it astonishes me that I am a pastor today, because as a child, I remember going to church on Sunday mornings and being bored out of my mind. Each Sunday my family in the same pew. We followed the same order of service, sang the same hymns, prayed the same prayers, heard the same ol’ stories, and looked at the back of the same ol’ heads.

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

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

I’ll never forget that one glorious Sunday my prayers were answered. In the middle of the typical, predictable service, while we were singing the offertory hymn, we began to smell this smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy murmur, “I think I smell smoke.” Mama whispered back, “Gene, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

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

We then did what most folks do when someone yells “fire” in a crowded building. We got out. Standing outside we discovered that the furnace had overheated.

It was too smoky to go back inside and too cold to stay outside, so after the pastor made the announcement about the furnace, he passed an offering plate (that he just so happened to conveniently grab on his way out door), skipped the sermon, and immediately pronounced the Benediction.

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

As a pastor, there have been many Sundays I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it could somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have looked at the congregation, some distracted, some nodding off to sleep, some flipping through the hymnal, some playing on their phones, and thought, “What we need here is for somebody, anybody, to stand up in this place and yell “fire!”

Well, this week we’re in luck, because somebody is coming to do just that! In the middle of our order of service comes this shocking introduction by John the Baptist:

 I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And nine chapters later, Jesus affirmed these words by proclaiming:

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you…I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

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

We come here seeking a place of comfort and rest. Because, after all, it seems as if our lives are always running on fast-forward, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to slow down and sit down, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with the things that are stable and dependable, even if it is sometimes boring.

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

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

Moses was running away from his problems. He was looking for some sanctuary, a place to escape from it all. He was laying back, and he was laying low. Then, out of nowhere comes, you guessed it, fire! A bush burst into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “Moses, I have a purpose for you, yes even you Moses, with all of your problems and excuses. I expect you to stand up to the Pharaoh, speak truth to power and liberate the oppressed!”

And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you for I have a purpose for everyone of you. Like Moses, I also expect you to always stand up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized, proclaiming with your words and your deeds liberty and justice for all.”

The children of Israel were set free. But shortly thereafter, they began complaining, “You know Moses, at least as slaves of the Pharaoh, we had three meals a day. At least the status-quo gave us some sense of stability, security and certainty. But out here in the wilderness, we sometimes don’t know whether we are coming or going!”

Do you remember the response of God?

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

No, God said, “I’ll give you fire, a pillar of fire leading you out into the darkness, driving you towards your purpose, pulling you into my future. I’m giving you fire to lead you out of the sanctuary into the wilderness to be the embodiment of my grace for all people.”

And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, saying to a new pastor whose kids are grown who may be tempted to spend the second half of his ministry playing a little golf while playing a little church: “Jesus is coming, and he is kindling that same Exodus fire. And he’s going to light you up and show you gifts you never knew you possessed, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”

To give hope to an Israel conquered by Babylon, the prophet Daniel described the throne of God. But unlike most thrones, God’s throne is not stationary and immovable. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne that has wheels. God’s reign is active, turning, moving, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.

And here comes John saying to those of us who oftentimes feel conquered and defeated, cowering behind stained glass windows, set in our ways: “Jesus is coming with his kingdom on those same wheels of fire to liberate you, but not without first changing you, challenging you, and moving you to take action.”

The disciples were gathered together going through the motions, following the order of worship. The deacons were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone was comfortable and seated, typical boring service; then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, somebody stood up and shouted, “fire!”

We call that day the day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit showed up as fire. William Willimon says that on that day, “the church was born in the crucible, in the furnace of God’s fire. [And here comes Jesus, saying to those of us today who have come to this place to check out and chill out], ‘My Spirit is ablaze with that same Pentecostal fire, and I’m looking for a few good men and women, boys and girls, who are combustible!’”[i]

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

Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, and disrupted; when we allow ourselves to be engaged and challenged by the Christ; when we decide to not only worship Jesus but to follow Jesus; when we commit to not just go to church but to be the church; when we move our church out of the sanctuary into the world, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve others, to truly love all people as we love ourselves; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the mission and movement of God, discovering God’s purpose for us, I believe we become a purifying blaze, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.

When others see that this church looks like the fiery Holy Spirit of Jesus, when they see that we understand…

Church is not about bringing people in to receive a blessing. It is about sending people out to be a blessing.

Church is not about changing people to be who you want them to be. It is about allowing God to change them to be who God wants them to be.

Church is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry.

Church is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outsider.

Church is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving to the poor.

Church is not about learning how to be successful and get ahead. It is about sacrificially sharing with people who can barely get by.

Church is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to ourselves…

When they see us adopting an entire class at Vance Airforce base, meeting and accepting them where they are; when they see us opening our doors to a Hispanic congregation; when they see us visiting the nursing homes and caring for the most vulnerable among us; when they see us throwing a dance party for the disabled; when they see us defending the rights of the marginalized; when they see us feeding and clothing the impoverished; when they see us continually participating in various hands-on mission projects in our city, throughout our region and around the world; when they read on our website, “All Are Welcome,” and they experience our commitment to a gracious inclusion and begin to realize that, that unlike many churches, all really does means all; when they see that we are willing to change and adapt, even reorganize, to meet the needs of a hurting and changing world; when they see that we have different beliefs, follow different politics and even different orders of worship, yet are forged together as one by the love of Christ; when they see the warm glow of Jesus burning in us and through us and from us, I believe that many here in Northwestern Oklahoma will want to catch fire with us and join us in lighting up this city and and our world.

The question today is: Will Central Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. Because today, here in this place, the good news is: I smell smoke.  Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, rekindle us, ignite us, set us on fire and enflame us in passionate love for you and for others. Draw us out of the confines of our safe and predictable faith. Prod us, move us, pull us into an adventuresome discipleship. And may we forever burn brightly with your love for us all.  Amen.

[i] This part of the sermon was inspired and adapted from a sermon preached by William Willimon, entitled Fire!

Welcome to Oklahoma

oklahoma home

One week ago, I arrived in Enid, Oklahoma to serve with the Central Christian Church as their new senior minister. I am 1,300 miles from the people who know me best in eastern North Carolina. I have yet to preach my first sermon here, officiate my first wedding, or speak at my first funeral service. I have not led a mission trip, created a new ministry, taught a Bible study, or even offered a blessing for a meal in the fellowship hall. I have only visited two people in the hospital.

However, I have been welcomed here. I have been accepted here. I have been unconditionally loved here. Although I am but a stranger here, people have fed me and have offered me something to drink. I have been embraced as family.

This is church. This is real church, for this is grace. We love others, not because they love us, but because God loves them. We welcome others, not because they have done something to deserve our welcome, but because this is the way God loves and welcomes all of us. In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, family or stranger, insider or outsider; for all are one.

As members of the Church, we are united, not by what we have done as Christians for God, but by what God in Christ has done for us. We are not united by our belief in God, our faith in God or even our love for God. After all, our beliefs are shallow, our faith is weak, and our love for God is oftentimes indifferent. We are united by God’s passionate love for us and by God’s unwavering belief and unfailing faith in us to be the hands, the feet and the voice of God in this world.

As the church, let us continue to be a community of grace, by welcoming all people to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us: as an Oklahoma church has welcomed a North Carolina pastor who has done absolutely nothing to earn his place.