For the Least of These or for the Exalted of Us?

 

Debbie Berg finish

Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV

During the three three years that I took a break from local church ministry, I had a taste of what some of you refer to as “the real world.” You might say that was pursuing the American dream, chasing the almighty dollar.

I worked in the development office for a small university which meant that my job was to raise money. I was continually seeking to locate and to build relationships with some of the wealthiest people in the area with the sole purpose of getting them to freely and enthusiastically open up their checkbooks.

And then some friends and started a small business, manufacturing and selling products to the electrical construction industry with the same exact purpose, trying to get some of the largest electrical distributors in the United States to write us some very large checks.

So, for three years, I traveled the country, by car, pickup truck and plane, on a continuous quest, searching high and low, scouring the landscape, and at all times, during an economic recession, looking for the next prospect, that next big donor, that next big customer, that new big account, all with the purpose of growing, advancing, and expanding an institution or a company.

And during those three years, driving many a mile, flying in many a plane, and speaking with many a person, I had the opportunity to talk with others about, and to reflect on, the current state of the local church, which, like our nation’s economy at the time, was in sort of a recession of its own.

It is news to no one that local church membership in North America has been in a state of perpetual decline for most, if not the entirety of my lifetime. These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. Consequently, many churches have simply given up trying to grow, advance or expand. They are just trying to survive. Hold on. Maintain. Keep the piano tuned and lights on.

And during my travels, I also had some time to reflect on the current role of the pastor of a local church, at least the way that I had always approached the role; which, quite frankly, was very similar the way that I approached business in the so called “real world.”

As a pastor, I had often been on a constant search, scouring the landscape, at all times, during a church membership recession, looking for that next wealthy prospect, that next big giver, that next new member who will come into the church, open up their checkbooks to help pay for our programs, fund some needed renovations, finance a new roof, and perhaps most imporantly, support my salary.

“What did I hear you say?  A doctor has moved into your neighborhood? Well, give me her name and address and I’ll be sure to pay her a visit! We’ll give her and her family free meal tickets to Wednesday night suppers for a month!”

“You say, ‘An attorney has opened up a new practice in town?’ Well, I need drop by his office this right away! Invite him to the next Men’s Breakfast!  I wonder if he has any children. More children with well-to-do parents will help us attract even more children with their well-to-do parents.  After all, we need to keep growing, advancing and expanding! Well, to be honest, we need them just to maintain, keep our programs going, keep the utilities paid, keep the AC on and our doors open. And we have to keep searching, keep seeking, keep inviting, keep persuading, keep trying to find people, and not just any people, people with some means, people with some resources, folks with some wherewithal!”

But then we read Jesus, and we quickly learn that he does not care too much for our real-world way of growth, expansion, and advancement, especially when it comes to building the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says when you are sending out invitations, don’t send them to the well-to-do folks that can offer you something in return. Don’t invite your friends and your neighbors, you know, the folks who look like you, dress like you, think like you, and have the same if not more income as you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite even those who can in no way pay to support the church’s budget and donate to the organ fund.

The holy wind of the Spirit is calling, says Jesus: “Invite, welcome, include and love those society considers to be the least among us: the unfortunate and underprivileged, the ostracized and outcast, the deprived, downtrodden and derelict, the poor and the pitiful. Greet, accept and receive the stranger. Quench the thirsty. Heal the broken. Feed the hungry. Protect the bullied. Care for the dying. Befriend the friendless. Forgive the wrongdoer. Love the sinner. Be the embodiment of my Holy Spirit in this broken world.”

I have told you before, and I still believe it today. People are not leaving the church because they are leaving Jesus. I believe the vast majority of people love Jesus and I believe sincerely would like to follow Jesus. The problem is that when they come to church, they simply do not find Jesus.

Where then can Jesus be found? When does Jesus appear in our churches?  One day a crowd of people asked Jesus, “When did we see you.” Jesus responded, “when you loved and cared for the least of these” (Matthew 25).

Jesus says that if you want people to see him, we must welcome, include, accept and minister to the least, to those who cannot offer us anything in return. I understand that this is very difficult to hear, especially in the midst of a membership recession.

“Forget about yourselves,” says Jesus, “Forget about self-preservation, forget about reaching folks that might be able to help us with our programs, balance our budget, pay our utilities and support salaries.”  And notice that he even says that we might have to wait to be rewarded, not in this life, but at the resurrection.” There may be nothing more difficult than hearing this. Except for maybe doing this!

But here’s the good news. I believe that there are people everywhere, some may be your friends, relatives or rich neighbors, who are still searching for a group of believers that not only hears these words of Jesus, but actually has the courage to act on them. They have all but given up on organized religion; however, they are still hoping that there is a church that exists somewhere in this broken world that looks and acts like Jesus.

If you are my friend on facebook…and if you are not, you should be. And and if you are not on facebook period, opening up a facebook right now is worth it, just to be my friend to see some the things that I have been posting lately regarding Ainsley’s Angels of America.

Ainsley’s Angels are groups of runners that includes children and adults with exceptional needs in 5k races, 10k races, or even in marathons all over the country. Welcoming and including and sharing joy with children and adults with exceptional needs is such a holy work; it is such a pure mission, such a selfless act; it’s such a Christ-like grace… that guess what? People everywhere are asking how they can be apart of this!

Listen to this, because I can’t make this stuff up. Through just a through a few posts on Facebook during the last two weeks, we have raised over two thousand dollars and recruited a team of dedicated Angel Runners. Everyday our numbers keep growing. Runners are calling. Walkers are calling. Even couch potatoes, who now, because of what they have seen on Facebook, want to be runners are calling. And of course, parents of children with special needs are calling.

We had a funeral here a few weeks ago. When the funeral director saw the chairs designed to include children with exceptional needs we had displayed in our gathering area, he walked into my office and handed me a check for $500.

I didn’t call the Enid Civitan Club. They called me. They didn’t ask me to come and be the program for them. I am not sure if they even saw the chairs in our gathering area. But they called to say they wanted to donate $1,000.

And people are calling me asking me to be their programs. During the next month I have been asked to speak at 2 Ambuc clubs, the Kiwanis Club, and even the Corvette Club. And I didn’t ask to speak at any of those clubs.

With support like this, do you know what I think? I think I could start a church!

Simply because I am involved in something that looks like Jesus: Reaching out to, welcoming, including, sharing joy with, those society considers to be the least among us.

And everywhere church people are asking, “Why does it seem that people just don’t want to go to church anymore?”

However, have you ever thought that maybe people not going to church is actually a good thing!

Because maybe church is not some place to which we are supposed to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be.

So, instead of inviting others to go to church, perhaps we should be inviting them to be the church, saying: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this broken world with a burning passion for the disabled and the powerless, for the left out and the left behind, for the poor and the bullied. Come and join us to be the body of Christ as we humbly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and care less about ‘the exalted of us’. Go and be something and do something that is truly holy, pure and selfless.”

Jesus in Vegas and Enid

Luke 13:10-17 NRSV

Many of you have not heard the story of how I made the transition from Baptist to Disciples of Christ, and why I moved to Enid, America. So, this morning, I thought I’d tell ya.

After being serving as a Baptist minister for over 25 years, I reached that point that pastors are warned in seminary about: “burn-out.” And left the ministry for a short time.

Now, because of time, I can’t give you all the reasons if felt like I needed a break from pastoral ministry. So, I will just sum it up with a statement that I made repeatedly before I left the church. I said, “For at least six months before I die, I want to do all I can to be a follower of Jesus, and I no longer feel like I can do that as a pastor of a church.

You might say that I had grown into a church cynic, someone who had all but given up on organized religion.

As the pastor and spiritual leader of the church maybe some of it was my fault, but for me, the church no longer looked like Jesus. It didn’t look like a a group of people committed to be on a mission for others, but looked more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.

And of course there were other reasons for my burn-out. I was constantly getting in trouble for breaking all of the religious and cultural rules, the club rules, like refusing to re-baptize Methodists and Presbyterians as a requirement for church membership because when they were baptized in their church people in my church said they were not old enough or did not get wet enough.

Mike Huckabee, former pastor and Arkansas governor, wrote about why he resigned from the church to enter politics. He states: “I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry,” As a young minister, he said he envisioned himself as “the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But he said, what the people really wanted was for him “to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was comfortable and having a good time.”

So, like Mike Huckabee, I left the ministry. But instead of going into politics, I worked a little in Higher Education. Then a good friend of mine who was an electrical contractor asked me if I wanted to help him start a small business. He had designed a tool that can be carried in the back of a pick up truck, a tool that you could assemble in 10 minutes and take down or pick up and set up to a 40-foot light pole.

We applied for a patent and took it to National Electrical Contractor’s Association’s Convention in San Diego where we won an award for one of the best new tools in 2011 for the electrical construction industry.

We filed to trademark the name of this tool (and here is why you have never heard this story before). Because the tool enables you to lift the pole and walk with it until it is ready to be set, we called it the Pole Dancer.

So I went from being a preacher to Pole Dancer. Lori says I went from saving souls to raising poles. For three years I traveled all over the country demonstrating and selling Pole Dancers.

Now, as I was traveling, I got to meet a lot of people, and I quickly discovered that the majority of people in this country do not belong to a church. Some have never belonged to a church. But I met many who were raised in the church, but had reached a point where they had given up on the church. They said some of the same things that I said about the church, that they simply did not see Jesus in the church.

They would quote the Bible to me saying, “although Jesus said do not judge and let those without sin cast the first stone, churches are filled with some very judgmental people!” They’d say: “Churches are all about themselves. All about making money, building large buildings.”

Well one day, I got a call to do a Pole Dancer demonstration in Las Vegas. Sin city. Perfect place for a Pole Dancer, I thought. The city that people say represents everything that is depraved about us.

That’s right, your pastor traveled to Las Vegas with a Pole Dancer.

Early one morning, I went for a run on the Las Vegas strip. The streets were already crowded with people. Some were shopping. Some were on their way to another casino. While others were on their way to do who knows what to fulfill their most selfish desires.

As I ran along, I noticed that all of the electronic billboards suddenly changed at once displaying a picture of a young man with words that read, “David Vanbuskirk. 1977-2013. Las Vegas Police Search and Rescue Officer.” I later read that Vanbuskirk died while rescuing a hiker stranded in an off-limits area of a mountain northwest of Las Vegas when he fell from a helicopter hoist line.

I ran a few more blocks until I noticed that the people walking up and down the busy sidewalks began to stop and peer down the street that was suddenly empty of traffic. The entire Las Vegas strip, which just a few seconds earlier was booming with the sounds of automobiles and of people enjoying their selves, became profoundly silent. Men began to remove their hats. A woman covered her heart with her hand. A little boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders, saluted. I stopped running. And with everyone else, my eyes turned toward the street where we watched and listened as a very long police motorcycle motorcade produced the only sound on the hushed strip. The motorcade was followed by a white police pick-up truck carrying a flag-draped casket.

After the processional, people remained silent and still for several more minutes. Some bowed their heads. Others wiped tears from their eyes. Others embraced their loved ones.

This is when I believe I heard the voice of God clearly calling me to go back into the ministry. At this time the First Christian Church of Farmville had already asked me to do some pulpit supply for them and there were whispers about me becoming their interim.

And there on the Las Vegas Strip, as the casket of Vanbuskirk passed by, God was speaking loudly and clearly to me, revealing that there is something within all of us, deep within our most selfish, indulgent and decadent selves, even in the heart of “sin city,” that yearns to associate with those who love others more than self, with those who humbly, courageously and sacrificially serve, expecting absolutely nothing in return.

There is something within even the most devout church cynic, even within the ones who have all but given up on organized religion, that desires to be more like Jesus. And they are hoping that somewhere, somehow, some way, a church exists in this broken world that looks more like the self-denying mission of Jesus than some sort of religious club.

I thought about the circumstance of this police officer rescuing that stranded hiker. I am sure he did not know anything about that hiker. He didn’t know whether the hiker was male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, documented or undocumented, Muslim or Christian, black, brown or white, English-speaking or Spanish-speaking.

He didn’t know whether or not this person would ever really contribute to society or even one day give to the Fraternal Order of the Police.

He just knew that the hiker was stranded and needed help. The hiker was probably afraid. The hiker was probably hungry, thirsty, perhaps wounded. And Vanbuskirk was called to offer peace, give food, provide food and bring healing.

Vanbuskirk wasn’t worried about breaking any religious or cultural rules. He was only worried about rescuing the perishing, saving the lost.

It was in that moment, that I made a promise to God. “God, if you give me an opportunity to serve as a pastor again, I am going to do all that I can do to lead your people to love others more than self, to serve humbly, courageously and sacrificially, graciously, expecting absolutely nothing in return.

God, I will lead your church with great worship services, but more importantly, I will lead your people to worship you with great service to their community. And I will lead them to do it with no strings attached whatsoever.

I will comfort the fearful, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the wounded, not because they might believe like I believe, contribute to the budget, or even attend one of my sermons, but simply because they need help.

And I will lead without prejudice, without judgment. I will lead the church to love all people, and all means all.”

So that’s why I am here.

Like the the Disciples of Christ Church in Farmville, North Carolina, I believe I have found here, in Enid, America, a congregation that wants to be the type of church that even the most devout church cynic can appreciate and even yearn to be a part of.

Pillar of the Church: Remembering Jane Adams

Jane-Adams-1471363292

When I texted Rev. Speidel early Tuesday morning to inform her of Jane’s passing, she responded back with the words: “Pillar of the church.”

Jane Adams exemplified the foundation of Central Christian Church in Enid Oklahoma, as I believe Jane Adams, even in her last days on this earth, exemplified the very foundation of the gospel.

The day after they removed her ventilator, one week before she died, Jane asked me to give her an update on what was happening at the church. I knew exactly what she meant. She wanted to know if anything had happened that she would normally be involved with. In particular, she wanted to know if she missed helping to organize, prepare and serve a meal for a family before or following the funeral service of a loved one. For this is what she perhaps loved to do most in the church.

So, I mentioned the passing and an upcoming service for of one of our members, Bob Shaw. She immediately asked (now remember, they just pulled out the respirator less than 24 hours earlier): “Jarrett, have you contacted Dorothy Bracher about serving the church serving a meal for the family?”

I said, “Yes, I called Dorothy, but she is on her way to Texas for the week.”

I will never forget the concern that came over her face. I said, “Jane, don’t worry, I have contacted Irene Green, and she has agreed to plan the meal.”

Jane immediately: “Poor Irene! I don’t think has ever organized a funeral meal. I will help her!”

I said, “Jane, we will be fine, you just worry about getting well.”

She asked, “When is the funeral?”

I sort of chucked and said, “It’s Friday afternoon.”

And before I could say, “but,” she said, “Maybe I will be home Friday morning, and I will be able to help.”

“Jane!” I said with a smile, “Yesterday you were on life support! You don’t need to be worrying about this!”

She shook her finger at me, and we laughed together.

After a moment of laughter, Jane said, “Seriously, I will at least talk with Irene and give her some instructions.”

Jane was a pillar of Central Christian Church because Jane possessed the gift that I believe the scriptures suggest is the pillar of the Church, the gift that is the very foundation of the gospel.

Israel was commanded over and over to show hospitality, not only to fellow Jews, but also to the “sojourner, the stranger in their gates.”  Deuteronomy chapter 10 reads, “Remember you were a stranger and a sojourner, and God took you in. Therefore, you do the same.”

This virtue of hospitality is the foundation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Our statement of identity which is displayed at the doors of our sanctuary read: “We welcome all to the Lord’s table, as God has welcomed us.”

Jane Adams emulated this virtue, a virtue that is commanded throughout the Scriptures.

One day, Abraham and Sarah were awakened from their afternoon nap by three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre.  Sarah, like Jane did so many times in our church’s kitchen, prepared and served the strangers dinner.

Do you remember the rest of the story?  Those strangers turned out to be angels in disguise, angels who blessed Abraham and Sarah for their hospitality.

In practicing her gift of hospitality, her gift of welcome, her gift of being family to strangers, Jane continued the hospitality of the matriarch of our faith who entertained angels unaware.

Throughout his letters, the Apostle Paul picks up on this Hebrew theme by often encouraging the early church to “practice hospitality.” He recounts the words of Hosea to the Church at Rome:

As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”,  and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”.

And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, do you remember what Jesus says is the great test of our faith, the one thing Jesus says that separates the sheep from the goats?  Jesus said that the major test of our faith is:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

And welcoming strangers into our church after or before a funeral service, becoming like family to them, is not the only way that Jane practiced this great virtue of hospitality.

I had only been in Enid a few hours when I was invited to the home of Tina Swanson for a welcome-to-the-church-new-pastor meal. Guess who else was a part of that meal? That’s right, one of the first persons who welcomed me to Enid as the minister of this church was Jane Adams.

Many people in the church do not even know this, but it was Jane Adams who made sure all children felt welcomed when they entered our education wing, as she decorated, and continually updated the decorations, of the front of our Children’s Library.

Now, I am aware that nearly every church has someone like this who volunteers their time and talents to make children feel welcome; however, more often than not, that someone usually has children or grandchildren of their own in the church. So they have some very personal reasons to make sure that children are welcome.

But this was not the case with Jane. With no children and no grandchildren of her own using our children’s library, Jane only had very divine reasons to welcome the children. Children that were not her own, became her children.

And as rare as this type of gracious hospitality is, none of her own children who are here today are surprised by this.

After teaching elementary school students in France and Germany, Jane returned to San Antonio where she taught at the Randolph Air Force Base for fifteen years. And then on June 6, 1978, Jane married Paul Adams. But here is the thing: Paul brought with him to this marriage, six children.

It was like the Brady Bunch; however, unlike Carol Brady, none of the six children were her own. And unlike Mike Brady, Paul Adams was not an architect, but was an Air Force Pilot.

And not long after they were married, with four kids still living at home, John 16, Lori 12, Philip 11 and James 5, Paul’s duties took him away from home for three months of Commander School.

So there was Jane, a newlywed. Since moving to the home of Vance Air Force Base, I have been told that being a newlywed to an Air Force Pilot has its own challenges. But here was Jane, a newlywed to an Air Force Pilot with a 16, 12, 11 and 5 year old, all of whom she barely knew, suddenly in her home without their father!

However, because of Jane’s innate gift of hospitality, James and John remember Jane being completely dedicated to their family from the get-go. It was like she just jumped right on in saying “well, here we go.”

Although those kids were almost strangers, Jane quickly became their mother, quickly and lovingly became family to them.

This reminds me so much of Paul’s words to the Ephesians. In chapter two, we read:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

“Foundation.” “Cornerstone.” Another word for those things is “pillar.”

I believe this is why the Scriptures place so much emphasis on extending hospitality. This is why hospitality is the foundation of not only Central Christian Church in Enid, but of the Church. Hospitality, becoming sisters and brothers, or mothers to others, welcoming the stranger, helps us to welcome God.

When we become a pillar, our souls are forever attached to the pillar, a pillar though shaken will never fail, a pillar that not even death itself can move, because that pillar is none other than Jesus Christ himself.

The good news for all of us today is that there is no doubt in any of our minds that Jane had welcomed Jesus into her life.

She lived for Jesus. She proclaimed Jesus. She emulated Jesus. She was indeed a very part of the structure of the Body of Christ here at Central. In fact, she was one of our most important parts, for she was truly a pillar of this church.

And because of that, we have full confidence that she is forever attached to the pillar of Christ himself.

And here is more good news for her church that she loved and for all of us who are grieving this day: Because Jane welcomed others and thus welcomed Jesus, we have the certain hope that Jesus has now welcomed her. As Jane has welcomed so many people as family to her table, she is now and forever a child of God at the heavenly table.

Matthew writes that the “Kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a [great] wedding banquet (the kind that Jane prepared for so many, figuratively and literally)…[and he said] tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”

And one of the most hopeful passages in the Bible is found in the book of Revelation: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God’ (Revelation 19).

The good news for us today is that because Jane welcomed so many, became family to so many, thus welcoming Christ himself, the Lord has now welcomed her part of the eternal household of God. She is seated at the table being waited on by the Lord himself, this day and forevermore.

And what’s more, if we follow Jane’s example by welcoming others, God will one welcome us to join Jane at that table. Amen.

Back to School Prayer

Inside of a classroom with back to school on the chalkboard

Thank you, O God, for public school teachers and administrators.

Thank you for their selflessness, sacrifice and passion. Although they could have pursued more lucrative careers, their love for all children persuaded them to choose this sacred vocation. Therefore, please show us ways that the church can support them. Help us to join you in enveloping them with your grace and granting them the patience and the determination that is required to prepare all children for a future full of promise and hope.

Thank you, O God for children.

Thank you for the many lessons that they teach us: lessons of fun and play, lessons open-mindedness, a willingness to learn new ideas and to dream new dreams. Please help us to give them what they need to be the best students they can be. If they are hungry, help us to feed them. If they are struggling, help us to encourage them. If they are hurting, help us to comfort them. If they feel unloved, help us to love them, and through our love, may they come to know your love for them.

And forgive us, O Lord.

Forgive us for the church’s complacency as public school education seems to be less a priority in many states. Forgive our apathy as teachers continue to be among the lowest paid professionals in our state’s workforce. Forgive our silence as it becomes more difficult for poor children to get a quality, equitable education.

Forgive us, O God, and then stir us.

Move us. Mobilize us. Revive us again to be the Church, the body of Christ in our world. Help us to boldly be the embodiment of the Christ who welcomed and blessed the children, even while others sought to hinder him. Help us to be a blessing to all children without prejudice and without reservations. Reveal to us tangible ways we can support our public schools again, generously and persistently, until the day comes when all children are seen as you see them: your beloved children, created in your image.

Amen.

Burning Down the House

Jackson Weibling Baptism

Luke 12:49-53 NRSV

I’ll never forget what the youth minister said to me right after I bought a brand new car back in 2003. It was a time when I was not a very happy person.

My father-in-law had just died. As a senior minister, I was coming to the harsh realization that it was absolutely impossible to please everyone. The youth minister knew this.

It was during this time I traded in my pick up truck that was just a few years old. The youth minister said, “Jarrett, when most people get a little blue, they might go to the mall a buy a new outfit or get a new pair of shoes, maybe a new piece of furniture, but you go out and buy a brand new car!”

At the time I remembering justifying the purchase by saying that my truck got poor gas mileage, and it just wasn’t very practical driving back and forth to the hospital. I needed something smaller, more economic.

But the reality is that the youth minister had a pretty good point. I, like so many American consumers, thought that I could maybe buy me a little bit of happiness. I could perhaps purchase me a little bit of fulfillment.

We buy new furniture. We hang new clothes in our closet. We park a new car in the garage. And we might even buy a whole new house. But guess what? We are still unhappy. Things at home are still not right. Our spouse is still distant. The relationship with our children is still not what it should be. And our souls are still filled with discontent. On the outside our home looks beautiful and whole, but on the inside our home is broken and is in danger of falling completely a part.

So what do we do? We do what I suppose most good God-fearing Americans do. We go to church. We say: “Maybe that is what is missing in my life. Perhaps the church is the solution to building a happy home, the key to good relationships, the key to my happiness and my fulfillment.”

So we come to this place. We attend Sunday School. We come to worship. We sing and we pray and we listen, and we take communion, and we sing and we pray.

After the first week, nothing really changes in our lives. But we realize that what’s broke didn’t break overnight, so it probably wasn’t going to be fixed over night. So we do it again the next Sunday, and the next and the next. We even start having family devotions, holding hands and saying grace at our meals and praying at bed time. But, still, nothing at home changes.

We’re still struggling. We’re still lost, and the confusion is painful. We are still unhappy. Things are still not right.

Why? Why hasn’t religion worked? Why haven’t things gotten better? We got Jesus. He’s supposed to help our families. He’s supposed to be the glue that keeps us together, right? After all, you know what they say?  The family that prays together stays together, right?  Well, according to our scripture lesson this morning, not necessarily. In fact, according to Luke, Jesus may be more of a home-wrecker, than he is a home-maker.

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!”  Luke even softens this a bit for us, for in Matthew Jesus sounds downright violent: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword!”

“I will divide father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

St. Francis of Assisi became a knight in the wars with Perugia and had a promising future ahead of him. His father was proud of his son, but the problem was that Francis kept going to church and praying and asking God what he wanted him to do. Over time, he became convinced that God did not want him to be a French troubadour or a dashing knight, but rather to be a follower of Christ, a genuine disciple. God wanted Francis to serve the poorest of the poor.

Francis heard the scripture say, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and with a startling naïveté he said, “Okay.” And he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor.

But his father took exception, for what the boy gave away really wasn’t his but was given to him by his father, who had no urge to take the Bible literally.  He threw Francis in jail, then took him to court.

It was then Francis said, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father, for, from now on, my father is in heaven.”

Sometimes, Jesus sets father against son and son against father.

But that is not the same Jesus that we go to church to get. Is it?

We go to get a different kind of Jesus, a Jesus of our own making.

For many of us, our faith is just one more materialistic thing we own. Many Americans have trivialized Christianity to the point that Jesus has become just another commodity that is supposed to make our lives easier, better, more productive. That’s why we go to church. We go to get this product called “Jesus” to make us feel better. He’s like a new pair of shoes, a new outfit, a new piece of furniture, or a brand new car. He is something that fulfills our desires, our wants, our needs. He is something that helps us to do the things we want to do in life.

But as nine-year old Jackson Weibling told me about his baptism that we are celebrating this day: “Having Jesus in my life means that I can no longer do the things that I want to do, but only the things that God wants me to do.”

Rev. Marianne Williamson once said, “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything just needs a little cleaning—and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then one day you see that there a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you’re going to have to start all over from scratch.”

Our problem is that we have so trivialized Jesus, we think of Jesus as someone who comes knocking on our door with a bouquet of fresh flowers to brighten the whole house up when in reality, Jesus comes knocking with a flamethrower to ready to burn the whole house down.

We thought that all we needed was a little bit of family prayer time.  So we prayed for two minutes a day. And it didn’t work. We were still cold.  Why?  Because we can’t pray for two minutes a day, patch that prayer onto an otherwise unchanged life and expect it to be different.

Jesus does not come into our lives so our behavior will just be a little different, but so that everything will be transformed. Jesus is not some sweet commodity we can pick up at church to bring home and meet our needs and fulfill our desires. Jesus comes to change our needs and transform our desires!

And we don’t get Jesus. Jesus is not something that can be got. It is Jesus who gets us.

If Jesus is something or even someone that we get, then the church really does become just another product whose members are merely consumers. Thus, like going to a store, the spa, or the local cineplex, church becomes some place we go to get something. Some go to get fed. Others go to get nurtured and pampered. Some go to get entertained.

However, if it is Jesus who gets us, if Jesus is about us giving ourselves to the God revealed in Christ, then church means a radical, self-denying, sacrificial way of living.

If Jesus is about giving one’s life away, then the church becomes something much more than a self-help center offering self-improvement workshops.

Sunday school and Wednesday Night Fellowships become less of a time to get fed, physically and spiritually, and more of a time to pray for others, celebrate the joys of life with others, and even suffer with others. It becomes a time to build a community of selfless love and forgiveness with others. Bible study becomes less of a time to acquire more biblical knowledge than others and more of a time to consider how the scriptures inform our service to others.

Sunday morning becomes less about what God has to offer us and more about what we have to offer God. When we eat the bread, we do not consume it. When we drink from the cup, we do not merely swallow it. We allow it to consume and swallow us, every part of us. And we commit ourselves to presenting our own bodies as living sacrifices, pouring our very selves out for others in the name of the God who emptied God’s self out for us.

And every day of the week, we become much more than Christians who possess exclusive tickets to heaven in hand. We become the Light, even the fire of the world.

So for all of us who have been settling for an innocuous faith:  look out the window. The torch is lit. The wrecking ball is swinging. So let’s get out of the house!  Let it do its work. Let it bring destruction of all that holds us back form God. Let it all burn down to the ground. Then let our lives be rebuilt on the only foundation that can give us life.

Life Like a Country Song: Remembering Robert Dean Shaw

Bob shaw

Bob Shaw loved music, more specifically country music, more specifically pre-1960 country music, and more specifically, pre-1960 country music that you could dance to, or at least tap your toe to. The kind of songs that were earthy, rural, set in a small town or in a farming community. Songs stirring patriotism and championing hard work. Songs speaking about lasting love and songs speaking about love lost and heart break. Songs speaking about rural life: the land, raising children and bird dogs, hunting and catfishing. Songs of sacrifice and worrying about the kids and the dogs.

Bob loved another Bob with the last name of Wills, known as the King of Texas Swing.

Bob had such a love for Texas Swing that he taught himself to play the guitar, and steered his daughter Ronda away from the flute, an instrument that may never have been played in the Texas Playboy band. Bob even took some guitar lessons in his late in his forties.

I don’t believe Bob’s love for country music should not surprise anyone who reads reads his obituary, as his epitaph reads like lyrics to a country song, you might say, some good ol’ Texas Swing.

Born in Lacey, Oklahoma, a small rural farming community, Bob attended Mound Ridge, a one room school house.

Bob Wills once sang of the rural, slow paced, southern way of life that Bob Shaw was born into:

Yes, this is Southland, where everything’s fine

It’s where they really live and give you a feeling

That you’re welcome any time

You’ll find our men are stronger, women sweeter

And you’ll live much longer, no rush every day.

Bob graduated from high school and was drafted into the United States Army, serving from 1953 to 1955 during the Korean Conflict. He was stationed in what he called “cold and dark Greenland,” building a runway to defend the North Atlantic from a possible Russian advance. Those years of service were difficult for Bob. He lost a dear friend and comrade in an explosion, and Bob himself was injured in an accident with a Jeep. This service and sacrifice, this love for country led him to later become the Commander and District Commander of the American Legion. Bob’s love for country is perhaps what attracted him the patriotic music of Bob Wills’. One song goes:

When the Yanks raised

The Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima Isle

Ev’ry heart could sing once again

And the sight of Old Glory over Iwo Jima Isle

Swelled the hearts of our fighting men

After serving his country, Bob moved to Kingfisher where he worked for Cimarron Electric, and later he would move to Enid to work with OG&E where he continued to sacrifice for others. Working with electricity is a dangerous venture, but being a lineman, is another kind of danger.

One day, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Bob was on the ground while a fellow lineman was high in a bucket truck working on an electric line. Not knowing that the line was live, his co-worker grabbed the line. The electricity immediately grabbed and held on to him, until Bob says he could see smoke appear to come from the top of his head. Without hesitation, and putting himself at risk, Bob climbed the pole and pulled his co-worker off of the line, saving the man’s life.

Bob would find love, have two sons, but then, like a country song, lose love, as his first marriage would not last.

Bob Wills sings of the heartbreak of love lost:

No more to be sweetheart, no more to be friend

My yesterdays haunt me, my weary heart cries

I just can’t go on, dear, with tears in my eyes.

However, Bob Wills also sings of the hope of finding new love:

I’ll have somebody else as soon as you are gone

You’ll never break my heart no more

I used to weep and sigh each time we said goodbye

You broke my heart so often, there’s no more tears to cry.

And in 1969, Bob married Linda Kisling.

Celebrating the joy of lasting love Wills sings:

Stay all night, stay a little longer

Dance all night, dance a little longer

Pull off your coat throw it in the corner

Don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer.

And that is just what Linda did, standing faithfully by his side for 47 years. The two of them had one child together, his only daughter, Ronda.

Bob enjoyed hunting quail on the farm. He and his bird dogs also hunted ducks, turkeys and pheasants. He also enjoyed fishing, especially catfishing. Bob liked to get a way, and enjoy the outdoors. Bob believed in working hard, but he also believed in taking it easy.

Bob Wills sings:

I might have gone fishing. I got to thinking it over.

And the road to the river is a mighty long way,

Now it could be the season, no rhyme or no reason,

Justa taking it easy, it’s my lazy day

Bob Shaw’s obituary closes: Bob is survived by his wife, Linda, a daughter ,Ronda and her husband Terry, two sons, Jerry Walker, Larry Walker and his wife, Candy, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and one sister, June Lindsey. He was preceded in death by a brother.

When I asked Bob’s family how Bob expressed his love and devotion to them, they all agreed: “He worried about us.” Ronda said that he especially worried about her driving, arriving at her destination safely, wherever that may have been. Bob would probably agree that worry is the price that parents pay for the gift of children.

Again, Bob Wills sings:

Woe is me, so is you

What a price to pay

Tell me what I’m gonna do

I can’t go on this way

Every night I walk the floor

Worried over you

All I do is watch the door

Hopin’ you’ll come through

Pacin’ up, pacin’ down

‘Til the break of day

I’m the saddest soul in town

I can’t go on this way

Where are you at tonight?

Now, I do not believe that Bob Shaw’s worry meant that he lacked faith in God. For after his heart surgery, Bob made a grateful promise to God that he’d be more faithful in his church attendance. Keeping his promise, Bob and Linda would arrive around 9 am for the 10:15 service almost every Sunday! They sat together on the same bench for over an hour in the gathering area waiting for the service to begin. It was kind of their spot.

Thus, I don’t believe that Bob’s worry meant his faith was weak. I believe it only meant that he loved you so. Worry was simply the price that he paid for love.

I believe it is good to be reminded that, like worry, grief is also the price we pay for love. Grieving only means that we have loved have loved another the way our creator has intended for us to love another.

Garth Brooks, a post-1960 country music star that Bob probably never listened to, sings a song entitled, “The Dance.”

One line of that song goes: “I could have missed the pain, but I’d a’had to miss the dance.”

The only way to miss pain in life is to miss love in life. But to never love someone the way you loved your husband, your father, your brother, your grandfather and great grandfather is to never really live. As the country song goes, the only way to miss the pain of loss is to miss the whole dance of life.

You loved Bob, and now you are paying the price for that love. Grief is the consequence of love. But you know something? Everyone of us here this day, is going to go on courageously loving one another because the ones we love are worth that price. You have loved.  And now you grieve.

So I say to you this afternoon, grieve. Grieve long and deeply. Do not dare run away from it. Do not treat it as if were a stranger you could send away, or deny that grief, because who does not know any better thinks it means your faith is weak. Grieve what is lost. Grieve honestly, lovingly and patiently. Grieve until your cup is emptied. For this is the only way back to wholeness.

Grieve and even thank God or your grief. Because like Bob’s worry, your grief only means you loved. However, also remember the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians that those of us who call ourselves Christians should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  As Christians, our grief is different, because as Christians we possess hope.  We have the hope that as God raised up Jesus from the dead, God has raised Bob.

Perhaps today, Bob Shaw has found another Bob, and maybe even the rest of the Texas Playboy band, and they, even now, are playing the guitar and singing together:

Will you miss me when I’m gone?

Will you ever think of me?

Will the past be just today…

If you cry yourself to sleep

As I did for you for so long

Then perhaps you’ll dream of me

Will you miss me when I’m gone…

…I love you just the same

More than you will ever know

When your hair has turned to white

And you feel so all alone

Maybe then you’ll think of me

Will you miss me when I’m gone?

When God Refuses to Listen

NotListening1

Isaiah 1, 10-20 NRSV

I like to be honest from this pulpit. I like to be real. So let’s be really honest this morning. Have you ever prayed and had the feeling that God’s not listening?

You come to this place of worship and you go through all of the motions. You sing all of the hymns. You actually pray during the moment of silence, instead of spending those moments planning the rest of your day. You listen reverently to the choir’s anthem, and like few people, you even listen intently to every word of the sermon. But as the organist begins playing the prelude, you wonder if it was all just a big waste of time.

I believe this is a reason some people stay home on Sunday mornings. They are not getting through to God and God isn’t getting through to them. And Randy, as the Choir Director, guess what? Sometimes, they say it is your fault. They say that the music just doesn’t inspire them. But most of the time, it is the preacher’s fault. They usually say something like, “I am just not being fed anymore at that church.” Have you heard that before?

Well, Randy, I have some good news for us! Isaiah suggests that their belief that worship is a waste of their time, that God is not listening, is not the choir director’s fault, and it may not be the preacher’s fault either.

Isaiah says that the reason that you may feel like worship is not bringing you close to God, the reason you don’t feel like God is listening, the reason that you feel like God has not heard a word you’ve said is because God has not been listening to a word you’ve said.

Now, I believe that the entire Bible and Jesus himself came and taught us that God operates by something we call grace. Salvation, and prayer for that matter, conversation with God, a personal relationship with God can not be earned, and it is in no way deserved. “We are saved by grace and not works lest anyone should boast.” I know that.  And I believe that with all of my heart.

However, Isaiah says that if we truly want to know that God is listening to us, if we truly want to feel close to God, if we want our worship on Sunday to mean something, there are some things that we must do.

And if we don’t do those things, according to Isaiah, God might respond to our worship this way: “What are your services to me? I have had it up to here, I am sick to my stomach of all your worship! I have no desire for any of it. Stop tramping into my courts. And I have had enough of your preacher with his fancy robe who thinks he is all that with all of his seminary degrees. Your prayers, your hymns, they have become a burden to me. I have stopped listening!”

So, according to Isaiah, what must we do to be heard by God?

Put away the evil of your deeds. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.

If we want to be heard by God, if we want worship to be meaningful, Isaiah says that we better doing what we can help the most vulnerable members of our community.

My friend Rev. Dr. William Barber has he wonders why we spend so much time doing the things about which “God says so little” while doing so little of the things about which “God says so much.”

I wonder if Isaiah is suggesting that the church might re-evaluate our committee meetings. Like any congregational-led church, we have a lot of committee meetings here. Isaiah may want us to ask: “What has been the subject of your longest, most arduous church meeting? What was the agenda of that meeting that caused your spouse at home to worry about you, or even question your whereabouts, because they thought you should have been home hours earlier?”

Was it about how our church could could advocate for those in our community who feel oppressed? Was it about meeting the needs of children who do not have the support of family? Was it about defending the rights of widows or the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community? Was the agenda something about which God says so much? Or was the agenda something about which God says so little?

Rev. Michael MacDonald writes that many Christian Americans not only never have any lengthy church meetings about how they can better serve the poor, they just simply have a bad attitude about serving the poor. So bad, that many folks probably wished they had the license to rewrite the many scriptures which speak for the poor.

I would argue that many people actually believe they have such a license. Because as a pastor, it has been my experience that whenever I have spoken on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, someone almost always accuses me of being a “liberal.” Then, they will something like, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.”

When in fact, the overall message of the Bible says nothing close to that. Aesop’s Fables say that. Benjamin Franklin said that. Thus, I want to respond: “Who’s the liberal here? The one who is conserving the Judeo-Christian teachings of the Scriptures to help the poor, or the one who is re-writing the scriptures with the words of a fable or Deist Ben Franklin?”

For example: This is how McDonald said some Americans would rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan:

The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “Now by chance a priest was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who was hungry and ill clad.  He thought about stopping to help him, but decided that the man had probably been planted there by advocates for the homeless, so he walked by on the other side lest he give encouragement to those who wanted to divide society along class lines in order to gain political power for themselves.

So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, thought about helping him. But the Levite was afraid that he would rob the man of his independence, and he could plainly see that the man had sandal straps by which to pull himself up. So, he too, passes by on the other side.

But a Samaritan came near him and was moved by self-righteous pity. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine on the, no doubt as a publicity stunt to make his own self feel good and look good before his peers.

Then the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, and will repay you whatever more you spend,” thus encouraging the injured man to live like a parasite off other people’s hard-earned wealth.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?  The lawyer said, “[Well of course] the two who showed him mercy by walking by on the other side.”

And God says, “You can pray without ceasing but I won’t be listening. I won’t listen to those of you who pervert justice, those of who champion the cause of the rich and powerful, those of you who take advantage of the powerless. God ahead, have yourselves a worship service, have three of them, but I won’t be there.” God says, “I simply don’t listen to the prayers of those who are all about feeding themselves while orphans and widows, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, go hungry.”

I believe Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo is right when he says that the one thing every Christian should do is not only write a check to help the poor, but help the poor in such a way that we actually build a relationship with them, get to know them on a personal level.

This is what I want to do when we begin feeding the food insecure later this year as the prelude to a new worship service. I don’t want to merely hand them a brown paper bag lunch out the back door, with perhaps a scripture verse stapled to it, or a religious tract thrown inside of it, and then encourage them to go someplace else to eat it, out of sight, out of mind.

I want us to sit down at the table with them, get to know them, listen to them, love them, befriend them, be family to them. Let them know that you are willing to fight for them, defend their rights and plead their case. Be there to help them become the person that God is calling them to be.

Campolo says, in a way that only a good ol’ Baptist could say it, that one important reason that Christians should want to do this is because on the last day, when we are standing before the Great Judge, as God is separating the sheep from the goats and points to us and asks the question, “When have you clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink the thirsty, when have you shown generosity to the least of these my brothers and my sisters?”—That is when you are going to want to have the new friend we met around that table standing beside us, and we are going to want to be able to turn to them with confidence, pat them on the back, and say with a smile, “Go ahead, you tell it.”

Do you want to come to this place on Sunday morning and really have an encounter with God? When Terri begins playing the Postlude, do you want to know that you have actually communed with the creator of all that is? Isaiah, and I believe Jesus says, that will depend on how you commune with the most vulnerable members of our community.