Bear Fruit or Die

rose of sharon

Luke 13:1-9 NRSV

One of the great things about living in southern Louisiana were the countless stories I heard about two infamous Cajuns named Boudreaux and Thibodeaux.

Reverend Boudreaux was the part-time pastor of the Boondock Bible Church and Pastor Thibodeaux was the minister of the Backwoods Gospel Church located directly across the road. One day, they were both standing out by the road in front of their churches, each pounding a sign into the ground as fast as they could. The sign read:

Da End is Near
Turn Yo Sef ‘Roun Now
Afore It Be Too Late!

As soon as the signs got into the ground, a car passed by. Without slowing down, the driver leaned out his window and yelled as loud as he could: “You bunch of religious nuts!”

Then, from the curve in the road they heard tires screeching and a big splash.

The Reverend Boudreaux yells at Pastor Thibodeaux across the road and asks:

“Do ya tink maybe da sign should jus say ‘Bridge Out’?”

Now, because I am a seminary-educated minister that has spent the bulk of my ministry preaching from mainline, downtown pulpits, I have always sought to differentiate myself from the so-called religious nuts. The repent-or-be-sent, turn-or-burn, reach-for-the-sky-or-fry, get-saved-or-get-microwaved style of preaching has never been a part of my repertoire.

Thus, when I preach a passage of scripture like our gospel lesson this morning, I have steered away from any interpretation that sounds like what Jesus is actually saying here is: “The end is near! Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

For example, I have used this passage as an opportunity to have a deep, theological discussion on the problem of evil. I have said that here, in this passage, we have two basic types of evil in the world. There is natural evil, and there is personal evil.

The tower of Siloam, I have said, represents natural evil. In this fragmented world, sometimes tornadoes and straight-line winds destroy property and take lives.

And the Galileans massacred by Pilate, represent personal evil. In this broken world, sometimes a broken person will grab a gun, fire shots out their car window while driving down the road, then walk into a place where he once worked and begin shooting anyone in sight.

And with Jesus’ very emphatic response, “No, I tell you!” Jesus is saying that God does not will such tragedy because of human sinfulness or any other reason. In this imperfect world, sometimes bad things happen to very good people, and there is no divine explanation or driving purpose for it.

However, maybe, to avoid sounding like a religious nut, I have actually missed the very simple point of this passage which is, “The end is near. Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

Maybe the point that Jesus is really trying trying to make here is: “Unless you repent, you will perish.”

You have a little more time, but unless you start producing some figs, start bearing some fruit, at least start sprouting a bloom or two, you are going to die.

“But, Dr. Banks, that sounds too much like the hell, fire and brimstone sermons of those backwoods churches in the boondocks, far from the lights of downtown, and you know that we moderate, educated clergy in our mainline, sophisticated pulpits are way too smart for that.”

However, I have a feeling that through this passage Jesus is arguing that we may be too smart for our own good!

People had gathered together, and they started doing what people do best when they gather together, even in the church. They began to gossip, especially about the sinfulness of others, the sinfulness of “those” people. “Those” people who had this tower tragically collapse on top of them.

Sadly, I believe this may be the only reason some people go to church these days: to hear about the sins of all those who are not in church. It makes them feel good, religious, superior, righteous.

And Jesus is emphatic, “No, I tell you!”

It is as if he is saying: “You better stop judging your neighbors and start taking a look at yourselves. Stop worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and worry more about the log in your own eye. Look, bad things happen this world. People die. It’s not a matter of degrees of rightness or wrongness, sin or sainthood. Everyone dies. And one day, you are going to die. So, you better repent. You better change. Ya better turn yo sef roun now. A fore it be too late!”

And to drive the point home, Jesus tells the story about a fruitless fig tree. And the moral of the story is simple. Bear fruit or die.

Reverend Sharron Blezard believes this text is begging the church today to ask: “What are we doing to bear fruit, to bloom where we’ve been planted?”

She says, that far too many congregations are merely existing like a barren fig tree, wasting the soil. There are no signs of any fruits, no promise of any blooms. These churches exist primarily to get together, and sadly to do what people do best: to gossip, to talk about the sinfulness of those outside the church, to lament about the moral decay of society, and to pine for the return of good old days.

And they’ve lost hope. They’ve grown too weary, too worn down, too disheartened to invest the energy, creativity, and passion to share the Good News of Jesus with a broken and hurting world. While many congregations do provide a place to take care of one another, they have no sense of mission to be the Body of Christ that is sent by God into the world bearing fruit.

She says, think of it this way: fruit always “grows outward from the plant into the light. So, too, a healthy church grows outward.”

Several years ago, my mother gave me a Rose of Sharon root. She told me to plant it, and it would grow to be one of the most beautiful plants in my yard, with its flowers blooming all summer long.

Well, although the plant grew, it did not produce a single bloom that summer. I called Mama and said, “I think you must have given me a dud.”

She said, “Oh no. It’s not a dud. It just needs a little TLC. You may need to dig around it, give it a little fertilizer. You may even need to dig it up all together and plant it in better soil. Make sure it is in soil that can soak up water and is growing in a place where it can get good light.

As always, I did what Mama told me to to do. I ended up transplanting it to a spot that had better topsoil. I kept an eye on it, watered it, cared for it, and the next year, just like mama said, it produced the most beautiful blooms all summer long.

From the short time that I have known you, it is obvious that God has given this church many good gifts. The talents and resources that are here are astounding. There is not one dud in this room. And because of that, God expects us to be fruitful with those gifts. God expects our church to bloom.

I believe Jesus is asking us to take a lesson from a barren fig tree. To bloom and bear beautiful fruit will require some work, some sacrifice. We may need to dig around, put out some fertilizer, even transplant a thing or two. It may take some cutting back, pruning, shaping and nurturing.

Yes, it is scary. It is difficult. It is risky. But, Jesus says that it is the only way to life, the only way to bear fruit that nourishes the world.

Eddie Hammett, my friend and church consultant, loves to say that Christians need to stop going to church, and start being the church.

I believe he is talking about the difference between a church that is inward focused, therefore barren, and one that is outward focused, therefore bearing fruit for the world.

Hammett says:

Going to church is routine and easy. Being church in the world is challenging, difficult and calls for prayerful intentionality. Going to church keeps us safe…. Being the church makes us uncomfortable and challenges us to learn to BE salt, light and leaven. Going to church is familiar….Being the people of God as church is unfamiliar to many and overwhelming to most. May we press on in the faith…

And as much as I may want to avoid sounding like a back woods religious nut in the boondocks and speak only articulate, sophisticated words that make us comfortable from this mainline, downtown pulpit, maybe what we really need to hear is that the time is coming, the day is approaching, as it was for that barren fig tree, there’s going to be a reckoning.

What we really need to hear is that we must bear fruit or die. What we really need to hear is: “The end is near, so ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

May we use the gifts God has given us to press on in the faith, step up and out in our discipleship, do the hard work of getting out the fertilizer and the shovel, doing some digging, getting our hands dirty to produce some figs.

May we quit worrying about empty pews and why more people are not in church these days and begin worrying about what we are doing to be good stewards of the the gifts we have been given.

In the words of Blezard: “For there’s a big world out there, a world that is thirsting and hungering for the love of God. May we go out and bloom, bearing fruit in the image of Christ” (paraphrase).

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We Must!

cane ridge

Luke 13:31-35 NRSV

I love to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands upon thousands of people in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up. That’s 10% of the entire population of Kentucky.[i] Can you even imagine that?

Today, I believe a good question we should ask ourselves is: What in the world were these folks preaching? How did they start a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

I believe they simply had the audacity to fully commit themselves to following Jesus at all costs.

Following Jesus was not something that they did casually, haphazardly, timidly, or reservedly. They followed passionately and fervently, eagerly and urgently. And following Jesus was not something that they did privately. They followed Jesus very publically. And they did not care who they offended, or if those with political or ecclesial authority opposed them for it.

They unashamedly imitated Jesus who said, “Oh, King Herod, wants to kill me? Well, you tell that fox that I must keep doing the business of the one who sent me. I must keep liberating people from demonic evil, systemic, cultural and personal. You tell Herod I must keep bringing people healing and wholeness today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And you tell them that I must take this mission all the way to Jerusalem. That’s right, you tell that fox for me that I must do these things. Not that that I might do these things, not maybe, not that I am going to try, but that I must be on this way.”

I believe Barton Stone simply put the word “must” back into a Christianity that had grown apathetic, moderate and mainstream.

He preached that Christians must put God’s word over culture, the way of Jesus over the way of the world. We must denounce all man-made creeds and confessions, and we must commit ourselves to following Jesus at all costs.

“Oh, the presbytery thinks we’re going against the doctrinal grains of the church do they? Oh, the government thinks we are bucking the political system? Well, you tell those foxes that we must keep following Jesus today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We must keep fighting for the inclusion of all at the communion table. We must keep preaching against the demonic evils of slavery. We must keep standing against the power of the clergy over the laity, the power of Bishops over the clergy and anything else that does not jive with Jesus! You tell those foxes that we must be on this way.”

I do not believe we can overemphasize how committed our forbearers were to the gospel even when the gospel was directly opposed culture. At Cane Ridge, during a time when Presbyterians believed only like-minded Presbyterians could receive communion, Presbyterian Barton Stone invited an African-American slave, a Baptist, to not only receive communion, but to actually serve communion. And if you could ask him why he included this man, I believe he would simply say, “I must include him.”

And later, when Stone inherited two slaves, he immediately emancipated them. Trouble was that they were living in Kentucky long before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. So what does Stone do? He tells his family and his two former slaves, “Pack your bags, because we must move to Illinois because our new friends must be free!”

And thousands of people from all over the then expanding United States responded to Stone by saying, “We must join this movement!” And by 1960, the movement they started exploded into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

Now here’s the troubling news. In 2012, we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[ii]

There are many complex reasons for this decline. However, this morning, I want to suggest that one of the reasons is that somewhere along the way we have taken the word “must” out of our church vocabulary.

We have lost our passion to follow Jesus at all costs. We have lost our drive to place the law of God over the law of the land to the point that it creates some opposition. We have lost a sense of urgency to be a powerful movement for wholeness that upsets the powers that be in our broken world. Our faith has become more of something that privately changes our souls instead of something that publically changes the world. Our faith tends to embrace the culture instead of challenging the culture. Watered down by peer pressure, our faith has become mainstream, mainline and moderate.

In fact, when you look up the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Wikipedia, you will discover that we are described as a “mainline denomination in North America.”

Barton Stone would roll over in his grave! For he followed a Jesus who was far more upstream than mainstream, more radical than moderate, always swimming against popular currents of culture. He followed a Jesus who must be on the way to truth and life, even if it upset folks along that way.

Do you remember the story of twelve-year old Jesus when he did the unthinkable by leaving his parents behind? When his upset parents finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?

After healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds used all of the peer pressure they could muster to prevent Jesus from leaving them, but he replied, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Warning the disciples who resisted suffering and persecution, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

When he encountered a man who needed to stop stealing from the poor, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

Right before his arrest on the Mount of Olives Jesus describes his death by saying: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Jesus selflessly and sacrificially travels to Jerusalem, to the city that is known to kill the prophets, not casually, haphazardly, timidly or reservedly. But with passion. With eagerness. With urgency in his steps, conviction in his heart, and the word “must” on his lips.

Now tell me when is the last time you have ever said aloud or silently:

“I must share the love and grace of Christ with someone today.”

“I must find a way to love this one who no one else loves today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

I must find a way to forgive this person who has hurt me today, the next day, and the day after.”

“I must feed someone who is hungry.”

“I must share hope with the hopeless.”

“I must do my very best in preparing to teach this Sunday School lesson for these children this morning.”

“I must make sure my children are in Sunday School this morning.”

“I must attend Sunday School this morning.”

“I must visit the nursing home this afternoon.”

Truthfully, as a pastor, I do not hear many folks use the word “must” in the church these days. I hear the word “might.” “I might, if nothing else comes up.” “I might if everything else goes alright this week.” “I’ll check my calendar, and then I might think about it.”

And I hear the word “try.” “I’ll try to help out if I don’t have somewhere else to be.”

And I hear many “maybes.” “Maybe I’ll be able to work a little on that project. Maybe I will be able to give a time this week.

And sometimes I hear all three: I might try harder to be more faithful, maybe.”

But think about what kind of church this would be if we all had the same type of urgency and passion as our Lord. “Can you help with our children on Wednesday nights?” “I must help with our children.”

“Can you serve on this mission project? “I must serve on it!

Will you follow Jesus at all costs?” “We must!”

The good news is that I believe this urgency and this passion can be as contagious in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.

I believe Central Christian Church can bring revival to our city as we encourage many others to join us saying…

I must join this movement for wholeness in this fragmented world.

I must join this mission to share the gifts God has given me.

I must serve on a ministry team to make a difference in this world.

I must take a stand for the Word of God, even if it gets me into some trouble.

I must do what I can to change this city, our region and our world even if it goes against the powers that be.

I must follow Jesus even when it is not popular or socially acceptable.

I must love my neighbor as myself.

I must do unto others as I would have them do unto me, even if my friends forsake me, and my enemies wish to do me harm.

I must deny myself, pick up my cross, and carry it wherever my Lord leads, even if it means losing my life. Let us pray together.

O God put conviction in our hearts, urgency in our steps and the word “must” on our lips as we serve selflessly and sacrificially all the way to Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.

[i] Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Church_(Disciples_of_Christ)

God Fights for Us – Remembering Jane Puckett

3597981

I believe this ground, this sacred place where tears have cried a river, is reminiscent of that place the Israelites found themselves in after they were liberated from Egyptian bondage.

With Pharaoh’s army advancing behind them, it was as if their whole world was suddenly crashing down upon them. Because standing before them stood what they perhaps feared the most, the Red Sea. It stood before them like the casket of a loved one for it most certainly represented the end of the line, the end of dreams, the end of hopes. For the Israelites, encamped by the sea with an army closing in behind them, the sea represented certain death.

Overcome by fear, the Israelites did not know what to do. They could not go back to the good old days, and going forward into the promise of good new days seemed impossible. Paralyzed by grief, unable to take one step forward, they did the only thing they could do. They cried out. They cried out to the Lord. They cried out to Moses. They cried out to anyone who would hear. They cried out in disbelief. They cried out in anger. They cried out in fear. They cried out in grief.

But then, the good news. Moses said to the people: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14: 13-14).

And we know the rest of the story: The Red Sea was not the end of the line. It was not the end of their dreams. It was not the end of their hopes.

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.”

Then the same Israelites who were unable to move forward, unable to see beyond the sea, or the casket in front of them, rose up and walked into the sea of their fear as if it were dry ground. They rose up and moved forward into the future with a renewed confidence and a resurrected strength. And this is how they were able to make it to yet unimaginable promised land.

Gary, Josh, Heidi, Amy and Mike, although you cannot go back to the good old days, this is how you and your family will be able to move forward this day into unimaginable good new days. The good news is that the Lord will fight for you. And the really good news is that you only have to stand firm and keep still.

There is no other way that I can possibly explain the industrious strength and the unfailing patience of Jane Puckett. There is no other explanation for her tenacious work ethic, serving her country working for Vance Air Force Base with aircraft maintenance for 42 years. She only recently retired because her unbeknownst cancer made her work physically impossible.

And how else do you account for her courageous battle she fought once she discovered her stage-four cancer that started in her lungs but had metastasized into her brain? How do you explain someone who was as sick Jane, but never complained?

And if anyone had any reason to complain it was her. To work as hard as she did for 42 long years without the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned retirement would make even the sweetest personality bitter. The truth is: a diagnosis like Jane changes most people.

But not Jane. Jane remained firm. She was still the sweet, fun-loving person that she had always been.

The one who loved to go snow skiing in Colorado and water skiing in Canton Lake.

The one who loved to patiently cross stitch gifts for her family and friends.

The one who loved to make baby blankets that were so beautiful that the mothers who received them would hang them on the wall for all to see instead of wrapping them around their babies.

The one who never said anything negative about anyone else.

The one with terminal cancer who had every right to be jealous of those who arbitrarily live into their seventies, eighties and nineties, but still refused to join in any conversation that demeaned another.

The one refused to be bitter and impatient with anyone, including herself and God.

She was still the same firm and patient one who not only tried to make caramel once, only to have it explode sending its sticky shrapnel flying all over her kitchen, but she was the one who had the audacious forbearance to try it again, albeit with the same result.

Even with a terminal disease, she was still the same person who loved to sit on the back porch with Gary and her beloved pet Weazer enjoying a cold drink on a summer evening, thanking God for the gift of her life.

Now, some may say that her kids should probably take some credit for some of her patience and strength, for they were both known to test it a time or two or thirty. Like the time one winter Josh decided to go skiing in the back yard. However, the flat plains of Oklahoma have never been very conducive to backyard snow skiing. But Josh, being a crafty and smart kid, some would argue “perhaps a little too smart for his own good,” decided he would ski off the roof of the house.

Sitting inside, Amy was watching the snow fall out the window, when here comes Josh flying off the roof like some Nordic Olympic ski jumper. “Mama, Josh just skied off the roof!”

Amy also remembers trying her mama’s patience by doing foolish things like walking through a glass door, without first opening that door, requiring a multitude of stitches.

However, as much as these kids tried her patience and tested her strength, I still believe that her strength, her courage, and her patience, especially in the face of her illness, came from a much higher place. I believe it came from the God who continually whispered words to her throughout her living and perhaps especially in her dying. It was the same words whispered to Moses and to the Israelites when they were tested in the wilderness: “The Lord will fight for you, and all you have to do is be still.”

The good news is that her fight is now over. Jane has crossed the sea. Her enemy, her cancer, has been defeated like Pharaoh’s army. She has been led by a pillar of fire and cloud, led by the very hand of God, into a promised land.

And the good news is that as the Lord fought for her, the Lord will fight for you too, and all you have to do is be still. Be still, and then move forward, holding onto one another, holding onto the memory of Jane’s courage and strength, while holding onto the hand of God.

I want to close by reading some words that I read at my grandmother’s graveside service. She also died in her sixties with lung cancer that also had metastasized. However, because of her courage and strength, because she, like Jane, never complained, never had a bitter bone in her body, never uttered a word of malice against anyone, there was no doubt in my mind that before she died, God was there fighting with her and for her. And I knew that everything was going to be alright.  The following are those words (author unknown):

Although Cancer seems to destroy so much, when God is fighting for us, it is obvious that there are many things that cancer cannot do. Cancer, in fact, is very limited in the presence of God. [Like my grandmother, Jane Puckett was a testimony of this].

Cancer is limited.

Cancer cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope.

It cannot corrode faith.

It cannot eat away peace.

It cannot destroy confidence.

It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot shut out memories.

It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul.

It cannot reduce eternal life.

It cannot quench the Spirit.

It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.

Thanks be to God.

This Church Is Going Down

downward

Luke 4:1-13 NRSV

Before coming to be the senior minister of this church, I should probably let you know that I checked your references.

One reference said: “Since losing their beloved pastor John Mclemore, who retired in November and passed away last year on Valentine’s Day, things have been very difficult for the church. John could relate to his congregation like few pastors today can. And they loved him for it. They lost a good man. However, there are still some very good people still that church, and Central has all of the makings to rise back up.”

Another said: “Several people recently joined the church. So, I think Central Christian Church is on an upswing!”

Someone from the Disciples of Christ office in Indianapolis said: “I believe Central Christian Church has to potential to once more be an “up and coming” church in our denomination.

Now, I will be the first to admit that your references sounded pretty good. It sounded positive. Obviously it sounded like the type of church that I would like to be a part of: “A church on its way up”; “on an upswing”; “up and coming.”

Because that is how our society measures success. Success in our world means things are moving ‘upward.”

We are taught at a very early age that “up” is where it is at, and we spend the first twenty years of our lives trying to grow up. Then we go to college in order to move up a little higher. And after graduation we work hard to make sure we are still upward bound: up for a promotion so we can always move up the ladder.

Up, we are told, is where we will find our life, a life that is full, complete, and abundant. Up is where we are able rub elbows with others who also shaped up, grown up and moved up. They are what we call the “in” crowd. They are the “up” and the “in” as opposed to the “down and the out.”

So when I heard others describing this church as one that has the promise to move “up,” of course, I got excited.

And, I suppose, if you look at us on the surface, there are many things about us that are up. Attendance is up. Participation is up. People here seem to be upbeat, uplifted, you seem to have taken an upturn. And that sounds good, doesn’t it?

Being “up” sounds so good, that many churches have actually named their churches “Upward.” If you go on the Google, you will find an Upward Baptist Church, Upward Presbyterian, Upward Methodist, Upward Pentecostal, and yes, even an Upward Christian Church. There is also Christian sports program for young people, with basketball, flag football, soccer and cheerleading, called, you guessed it, “Upward Sports.”

The premise behind almost every Christian best-seller in the bookstore and the message of nearly every popular preacher in America is all about how to shape up and move up, get uplifted and be upbeat.

Thus, it sounds very positive when people say we are a church that is on its way up; that we are up and coming, that we are on an upswing, that we are a church with upward mobility.

However, as the pastor of this church, I would argue that, here at Central Christian Church, it can also be said that the exact opposite is true. It could be said that this church is actually on its way down.

In fact, as one really gets to know this church, gets to know its people, its passions, its love for God and for others, I believe it becomes very obvious that that there is far more here that is going downward than upward.

Now, I realize that sounds rather disconcerting. For nobody wants to go downward. For guess what happens when you go on the Google and look for churches with the name “Downward?” They’re not any. Just like there are no Christian or any sports leagues called “Downward Sports.”

As Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite pastors has said: “Downward mobility [in our society] is not only discouraged, but even considered unwise, unhealthy or downright stupid.”

Yet, that is exactly where I believe we as a church are heading. And guess what? On this First Sunday in Lent, this is actually some very good news.

For on this Sunday, we remember that at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, at the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus resisted the temptation to embrace any type of ministry that was not one with downward mobility.

Notice verse 5: “The devil led him up…”

And again in verse 11: The devil said that the hands of angels would bear Jesus “up.”

Jesus was Savior. But he was a different kind of savior. Jesus was King, but he refused to succumb to the temptation to rule from on high like the Kings of this world. Jesus was a King from another world, sent by a God who chose to reveal divine love through a life of downward mobility.

When God chose to reveal to the world God’s holy power over sin and evil, a power that is even victorious over death itself, God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, humbled God’s self and came down, down to meet us where we are, down to earth through a tiny baby, laid down in a manger, to be worshipped by down and out shepherds.

The scriptures do say that Jesus grew upward in stature; however, the gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus’ life as one of downward mobility. He is continually bending himself down to the ground, getting his hands dirty to touch the places in people that most need touching.

While his disciples seemed to always focus on privilege and honor and upward mobility, chastising little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they could come to Jesus, Jesus argued that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples argued about who was going to be promoted to be first in the Kingdom, Jesus frustrated them (and if we are honest, frustrated us) by doing things like stooping down down to welcome small children, moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, bending down to wash their feet, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to serve the poor, lowering himself down to accept the outcast, touch the leper, heal the sick, and raise the dead.

And nearing the culmination of this downward life, Jesus, the savior and King of the world, made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion that made its way up the equestrian ladder, but on a borrowed donkey. And he rode into Jerusalem not with an elite army that had advanced up the ranks in some up-and-coming militia, but came in with an army of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

The whole scene, in the words of Henri Nouwen, looks “downright stupid.”

While others exercised worldly power to move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a strange and peculiar power that always propelled him in the opposite direction. It is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

It is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

It is not a power that seizes. It is a power that suffers.

It is not a power that transforms stone into bread to feed his body. It is a power that transforms his body into living bread to feed the world.

It is not a power that commands angels to save himself. It is a power that gives himself away.

It is not a power that dominates from some high place in glory. It is a power that dies in a low place called Golgotha.

This is the narrow and seemingly foolish way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

What do they have to offer? Not success, not popularity, not riches, not worldly power, but the way to life, full, complete, abundant and eternal.[i]

And the good news is that as I look around this room, I see people who are committed to traveling this same downward path.

I see people who have chosen to be here this morning, not to move up to be with the “in” crowd. Not to get something here in worship that will make you more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. You are not even here looking to be uplifted or to be more upbeat or for some kind of upstart to get your life headed on an upswing. I see people here who have chosen to move in the opposite direction.

I see a room full of people who are here not to get something, but to give something, not to be served by programs, but to serve on a mission.

Because you have heard, and you have believed Jesus when he said: “You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt; among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

May this always be who we are as a church. Although it may sound good to be a church that is “up and coming,” may we always be a church that is “down and going.”

May we always go down, humbly, sacrificially and selflessly. And then may we go out, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May we go out and stoop down to welcome all children. May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the outcast. May we go out and get down on our knees to pray for and suffer with the sick and the despairing. And as I saw at the Civitan Dance this Friday night, may we always be a church that is ready to get down, drop it down, to get as low as we can go, with any in our community who have special needs.

So, the next time you hear someone say that your church is on the way up, that we are on an upswing, you need to correct them by saying, “No, Central Christian Church is where it is all going down.” And down, not up, is where we have found our life: a life that is complete, full, abundant and eternal.

A Transfigured Church

hold child hand

Luke 9:28-38, 46-48 NRSV

In Luke chapter nine, we find the disciples arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest.

And who could blame them? For it is in this same chapter that we read Peter, James and John had just witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. They watched as the appearance of Jesus, his face, even his clothes transformed before them. Luke uses the word “dazzling” to describe the scene.

So, of course they are arguing about greatness. For they too wanted some glory. They too wanted to “dazzle” the world. They wanted to be great.

But what does it mean to be a great disciple of Christ? 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 in the logia. Tell them exactly 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, shed blood and a broken body every Sunday! Trade the bread and juice for some coffee and doughnuts, or, on special Sundays, some biscuits with gravy. Make church a little more fun.

Forget about this Ash Wednesday thing. No one wants to talk about sin and mortality.

Do you want to be a great church?

Just skip the whole season of Lent and jump straight to Easter.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t ever criticize or challenge folks inside the church to change. Instead, criticize folks outside the church for they are the ones who really need to change. 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 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.

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 a great church?

Have more programs that are uplifting and edifying for the members. Don’t you know that people come to church to be spiritually fed. So keep everyone filled, satisfied, happy and comfortable. Don’t pressure members to do things that are outside of their comfort zones like sitting like sharing a meal at the same table with the homeless; developing a close friendship with a self-proclaimed atheist; volunteering at a prison, visiting nursing homes; or traveling to in impoverished areas of Peru or Congo.

Do you want to be 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 only helps those who are willing to help themselves.”

Then Jesus comes, and he asks:

“What are you talking about?”

We are silent.

But Jesus heard us. Jesus always hears his disciples.

It is then that Jesus goes into the nursery and brings out a little baby; and taking the child 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” (Luke 9:47-48).

In other words, Jesus said:

“Stop worrying about being a great church 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. And like me standing on that mountain, you will be transformed, and you will be transfigured.”

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 and transfigured as you saw me standing with Elijah and Moses? 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’s dazzling to the eyes of God:

“…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 are not so dazzling in God’s eyes:

“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).

So, “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 NRSV).

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).

Do you want to dazzle the world? Then 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 you help the least, when the mission and ministries of your church side with the poor, I will transform you. I will transfigure you!”

“Do you want to know how to be a transfigured church?” 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 Central Christian Church to be a great church. I want us to be a transfigured 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!

I love hearing Sue Dell, a member of this church, talk about serving the impoverished in Peru where our church has helped to build four schools. It is hard to describe, but When Sue talks about giving those poor children opportunities that only the rich kids in their country have, it is as if her face changes, transfigured if you will.

I can just imagine those impoverished children looking up at Sue, at the compassion in Sue’s eyes, at the love of Christ in Sue’s smile, experiencing the warmth radiating from her heart, and I can imagine those children simply being dazzled her presence!

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. However, the transformation and transfiguration of our church 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.

Measure in Love – Remembering Judith Dell Carter

judy carter

There are many ways that we measure our lives.

Most of us measure our lives by the number of birthdays we’ve celebrated. This weekend, when we learned that Judy had passed away, one of the first things that many of us asked was: “How old was she?” 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.

Judy had seventy-two years on this earth. Many would say that is a full, complete life, three-score and twelve. However, I do not believe that that is the true measure of her life.

Others measure lives by the number of children one has, and by the contributions of those children. This is also something that we sometimes list in the obituary. Judy had two beautiful children who both work tirelessly to make this world a more just and opportunistic place. Jane, who lives in Washington DC, has selflessly devoted her life to justice in the workplace. And Frank or “Skip,” who lives in Fort Worth Texas has sacrificed much to teach math to Middle School students.

However, as proud as Judy was of her two children and their many contributions, I do not believe they are the true measure of her life.

Some measure their lives by the number of grandchildren they have. It would be fair to say that Judy, who has suffered with many health issues since Roland, the love of her life passed away, would probably not have lived as long as she did if it were not for the gift of her precious twins Luke and Reese.

However, although she figuratively and literally lived for those babies, I do not believe they were 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, 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 control how many children, grandchildren we might have or what their contributions to society may or may not be. However, the one thing that we can all control is the love that we offer to others. And in the end, this is how 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 and “this is how people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Judy lived seventy-two years on this earth. Some would say that is a full, complete life. But the good news is that this is not the measure of her life. The good news is that Judy loved more and deeper than some people who live 82, 92, or even 102 years on this earth.

I shared with our congregation a couple of weeks ago that one of my favorite camp songs from my youth is entitled: The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

One of the things that I love about the Disciples of Christ is they way we remind ourselves of that main thing every Sunday morning. For each week, we come together around a table and practice the hospitality of Christ by welcoming all people to join us. And when we say “all,” “all” means all. I sometimes say, “We exclude only those whom Jesus excluded, and that is no one. We are reminded that we are to welcome and to love others as our Lord welcomes and love us, unconditionally, unreservedly.

This is exactly how Judy lived her life. She practiced a notorious, gracious, vivacious and unconditional hospitality by generously welcoming all people into her home and heart. And all means all. She loved with a love that was without judgment, without restrictions.

And she did not welcome and love others by merely opening her door and being polite. But like our Lord who turned 180 gallons of water into the best tasting wine people had ever tasted and fed thousands with a few loaves and fish, she welcomed people extravagantly. Sometimes she welcomed people with what I have been told was the “best darn chicken-fried steak around.”

It should be noted that the word “darn” is not the actual word I was told to describe this chicken-fried steak. But because I have only been a pastor here for a month, although it is not the most descriptive or the most accurate adjective for her wonderful cooking, this is simply the best I can do from the pulpit at this time!

Jane said that her mother could somehow make a simple “Diet Coke” taste better. It was no doubt to anyone who knew her that her secret recipe in everything that she did was the unconditional love that she had for others.

Thus, Skip and Jane, Cara, Luke and Reese, and all of Judy’s friends, I believe every February for the rest of your lives, before the celebration of patron saint of love, Valentine, you will undoubtedly thank God for the unconditional love of Judith Dell Carter.

Skip and Jane, you are able to thank God not only for the way that she selflessly supported and encouraged you by traveling all over the country to watch you twirl, debate, or play basketball, but for the way that she lovingly supported you through your own illnesses and other difficult times, including the loss of your father.

And Skip and Jane, you will always be able to thank God for the special way that your mother helped you to be the people you are today. For there is no doubt that her extravagant love for others, her selfless work as an elementary school teacher and her work with the PEO has influenced your lives. You make the saying true that the apple truly does not fall far from the tree. And she was so proud of that!

So today, just a few days before Valentine’s Day, we thank God for Judy’s life. But we thank God especially for the love that she shared with this world. For love is the true measure of her life.

And one day, may someone say of us that it is not the number of birthdays that we had, nor 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. People will still ask how old we were. And they may talk about our children and our grandchildren, but that will not be as important to God, or as remembered by anyone, as how much we loved.

And here is the good news. Because we believe that Judy emulated the love of God, our God loves each of us with this same extravagant, tenacious love. A love that is without judgment. A love that is without restrictions. A love that is unconditional. A love that is eternal.

May this wonderful hope, this divine, holy love, give us the strength and the courage, the peace and the comfort, that we need to continue our lives, measure the rest of our lives, living as Judy lived, by loving one another graciously, extravagantly, and unconditionally.