Renewing Our Hearts for a Mission of Fellowship

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Last week the sermon challenged us to renew our discipleship mission. We were asked to prayerfully reflect on the words of Jesus: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” I hope you are as excited as I am, and maybe a little nervous, about being a part of a church that is seeking to be on a mission that is self-denying and cross-bearing, a part of a church that is not about creating programs that will benefit your life, but is about creating opportunities for you to give your life away.

Today, the sermon is going to give us something else to think about. Today, I want to challenge us to prayerfully consider renewing our fellowship mission.

Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “Oh boy, fellowship! Now, this is a sermon of sermon I can relate to!” Others of you are thinking: “I might actually pay attention today!  Because when it comes to church, I am all about fellowship. In fact, it may be the one thing about church that I am actually really pretty darn good at. Denying myself? Carrying a cross? Giving my life away? I don’t know about all that. But fellowship? Coffee and Doughnuts? Fried chicken and sweet tea?  Now, that is what I am talking about!  Do you know what my favorite place in the church is? It’s the fellowship hall! It’s the room with a kitchen. So, brother, preach on, preach on, you have my full attention today!”

That’s good, because we all really know that when it comes to following Jesus, nothing is really that simple.

Fellowship—while it may sound like an easy and fun-cake-filled venture, is actually one of the most difficult, self-denying, self-expending, cross-bearing parts of being the church.

The Greek word for fellowship, koininia, means something much deeper than coffee and doughnuts or fried chicken and sweet tea. koininia, biblical fellowship, means a radical and profound commitment to share all of life with others. Acts chapter 2 describes what this commitment looks like:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

This type of personal sharing, this type of intimate communion, having “all things in common” is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote that members of the church were members of but one body. We are to share such an intimate bond with one another, we are to be so personally interconnected and interrelated, we are share such a fellowship with each other, Paul writes: “If one member rejoices, all rejoice. And when one member suffers, all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).

Do you remember the story of Job? After Job loses all of his possessions, all of his children, and is stricken with a painful illness that has affected every part of his body from his head to his toes, three friends come to Job to “console” him. Console—it is a powerful word in the Hebrew Bible.

Like the Greek word koininia, the Hebrew word translated console has a much deeper meaning than the way we commonly use the word. It means much more than sending a card or flowers, patting someone on the back or even giving a quick hug. The word literally means “to move back and forth with grief,” to show physical signs of empathy and compassion. The friends of Job came to him in his darkest hour and had fellowship. They did not share coffee. They shared pain. They did not share fried chicken. They shared grief. They did not share cake. Their shared their very lives.

And it is this type of fellowship, this type of profound sharing, that is our mission as a church.

Last week, I said that the reason many have given up on the church is because the church simply does not look like Jesus. It does not look like a group of people who have decided to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus. They see churches that promote programs to benefit the lives members, instead of seeing churches that create opportunities for members to give their lives away.

Another reason I believe people are leaving the church is that they see within the church a group of people who fail to see the importance of true fellowship, of suffering with others.

Today, this can most obviously be seen on social media, especially facebook. Someone will post a tragic circumstance: the loss of a job, the loss of their health, or even the loss of a child. Then come the God-awful comments: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” “God has a purpose.” “God has a plan.” “God knows best.” “God needed another angel.”

For some reason or another, some Christians think it is their mission to help others avoid suffering, as they think suffering somehow means their faith is weak. They believe they must say something to fix the problems of another, to say something theological to make everything better. However, their trite comments are seen as uncaring, unsympathetic, distant, and cold. And people everywhere read those callous comments and think, “If that is the church, then I want no part of it.”

Henri Nouwen has written: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those, who instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

In the story of Job, we are told that Job’s friends consoled him and then sat silently with him for seven days and nights. They sat silently and simply cared. They sat silently and fellowshipped.

And this is the type of fellowship that we recommit ourselves to today. When life is difficult for others, when their world turns dark, they will need their church. However, they will not need religious advice from us. They will not expect from us an easy solution or a cure. And they will need much more from us than a cup of coffee or a bucket of chicken. They will need for us to be there with them, for them, beside them. They will need us to silently hold their hand, shed a tear, and truly fellowship. And through our fellowship, through our consolation, with the help of God, true healing will come.

Because when we do that, when we stay with someone in their pain, when we acknowledge their pain, when we suffer with another, when we truly fellowship with another, Nouwen writes that we are led “right into the center of the mystery of God.” He continues: “When we look at Christ, we see him as one who has suffered all human suffering; all human suffering has flowed through him. On the cross, all history is concentrated there, and all evil is overcome there. People are saved by that knowledge, when they realize that suffering is suffered by God, embraced by God, and overcome.”

I believe this is one of the reasons that communion around this table is so powerful, so holy, so healing. We eat bread and drink from a cup acknowledging that in our suffering God did not remain distant, cold, callous. God did not simply give us a book of advice of how to deal with our suffering. God entered our suffering, God’s body broken, and God’s very life poured out. Around the table, we are reminded that God, the creator of all that is, wants to have fellowship with us.

And the good news of all of us this day is that after we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion, all are invited to eat and drink from this table and share in the personally profound and intimately radical fellowship of God.

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Grace and Gratitude-Remembering Johnny Matthews

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Grief comes to us in many forms. Many have said that the worst kind of grief is the kind that is experienced suddenly, without warning, without any time to prepare for it, or even brace for it.

This is the how we experienced it on the fourth of September as sharp, sudden grief took us by surprise. There was shock and denial.  “No, God, no, not now.” “Please, Lord, this can’t be.” “I can’t believe it.” There was anger. “How did this happen?” And with all grief, there has been guilt: things we wished we said; things we wished we could have taken back.

And here we are, almost two weeks later, and some may still be having a difficult time accepting it.

We are perhaps having a difficult time accepting it, because Johnny was such a good, fun-loving, people-loving, life-loving person. He has been described this week by the people that he did business with in Tallequah as “a hoot to be around.”

I am not sure if anything actually made him this way, or he was just born with it. For even as a little boy, he he sounded like he was sort of a hoot. His sister Virginia fondly remember their mother taking Johnny with them and some girls in the neighborhood to her Tap, Ballet dance lessons. Because Johnny always had a strong thing for the opposite sex, Johnny didn’t mind going. But then, Johnny must have thought, if I have to go along with them to these lessons, I might as well dance too. So the instructor recruited a few other boys and created a ballet with baseball players and clowns.

That experience may have had something to do with him enjoying ball room dancing later as an adult. Or it could have been that he never did outgrow his affection for the opposite sex!

Johnny loved the arts, loved formal dancing and the type of music that soothes the senses. He appreciated nature, a beautiful landscape: the grandeur of the plains and the majesty of the mountains. But he also loved sports and driving a truck and working on a farm, especially during the harvest.

Johnny loved Cajun food. And Johnny loved Mexican food. Johnny loved food with flavor. But of course, to Johnny, life itself was smorgasbord of spice.

Johnny loved family. His sisters remember him saying and saying often that his children had no idea how much he loved them. Johnny loved family gatherings, for they reminded him of the love he had for grandparents.

There wasn’t anything Johnny would not do for any member of his family. When his sister Virginia was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, had neck surgery, couldn’t walk, like he did when his mother was sick, Johnny dropped everything he was doing and drove to Colorado to stay with Virginia, not for a couple of days, or for a couple of weeks, not even for 2 months, but for 2 years.

And it wasn’t only his family that he would do anything for. He loved to do whatever he could to help anyone he could. His sisters said every time it snowed, he wished he owned a tractor with a plow so he could clear as many driveways and sidewalks. Johnny simply loved people and loved to help people.

I believe Johnny would have loved to know that on the day that his life was celebrated, Heather and Ben ran in this morning’s Great Land Run, pushing a child with exceptional needs, including them in their first 10k race.

Johnny was also very proud of his service to his country, giving four years of his life during the Vietnam War in the United States Air Force.

So when sudden grief came to us on September 4th, we grieved hard. “No, God, no, not now. Please Lord, this cannot be!” And even, today, almost two weeks later, we are still having those thoughts.

 

It grieved me when Joyce told me that Johnny enjoyed worshipping at our church and looked forward to coming back. It grieved me because Johnny is the type of person that pastors love to have in their congregation. A group of ministers were having a conversation one day about how many active church members they had.

One minister said, “How many active church members do I have? Probably about half of them.”  They all chuckled, for they knew that was the sad truth. However, one minister spoke up and said that all of his members were active.

“What?” Asked the others. How can that be?”

He said, “Half act one way, and the other half act another way.”

Johnny would most definitely fall into the category of “the way we want our church members to act: Fun loving, people loving, life loving.”

I believe that is because Johnny truly understood that all of life is but grace. This mystery we call life is all unearned, undeserved. And Johnny lived a life of profound gratitude for it all.

I believe this is the way that he was able to get through the divorce of marriages and not be bitter. Johnny would probably say, “I didn’t deserve to be married to one woman, and I had three.” Instead of being bitter about what he did not have, or what he lost, Johnny was grateful for what he did have.

And people who get that, get that all of life is but grace, are generally good, people loving, life-loving people.  This is why I believe Johnny especially loved Disciples of Christ Churches. He loved the openness of our church, our welcome and love for all people.

And people who don’t get that, that all of life is grace, people who believe life or the world owes them something, that they somehow have earned it, are generally not the type of people that we pastors, especially Disciples of Christ pastors, like to have in our churches.

When Johnny was nineteen years old, he would drive the church bus full of high school youth to out-of-town football games. One night they were on their way back from a game in Stillwater. It was raining cats and dogs. They were heading west and approached a stop sign at a “T-intersection.: With all of the water on the road that night, the brakes failed, and the bus went through the stop sign and ended up sideways, miraculously without rolling over into a ditch. Johnny somehow managed to steer the bus in that ditch another 100 yards before it came to a stop with every on board safe and sound.

Now, I am not sure what was going through Johnny’s mind when the brakes failed on the bus that day. But it might have been something like:

“No, God, no, not now.” “Please Lord, this cannot be.” I am only 19. Never had a chance to marry, have a son and a daughter. Love a son and a daughter more than they will ever know. Become a grandfather to three boys. No, God, no, not now. I have yet to be able to serve my country in the Air Force. Please, Lord, this cannot be. I still have many more ballgames to watch, more spicy food to enjoy! There’s still so many people I want to help. I want to be there for my family and neighbors. I want do what I can for a few more years to make this world a better place. I want to see so much more of the beauty of this world.”

Now, that being said, I am also not sure what was going through Johnny’s mind on September 4 when before his vehicle crossed the center line to crash head on into another car. But it might have been something like:

“O God, please protect those in the other car. Please keep them safe. But as for me…Thank you. Thank you for the grace. Thank you for my life. Thank you for my family. My children and grandchildren. Thank you for the grandeur of the plains and majesty of the mountains. Thank you for music and dancing and food with lots of flavor. Thank you for allowing me to serve my country. Thank you for the grace of it all.

Instead of being bitter about what he was losing, I believe Johnny was grateful for what for all that he had received.

I am certain that the first thing that he learned in eternity was that not one of the three children or the four adults were seriously injured that car accident.

And this, my friends, is how I believe we can all get through the sharp, sudden grief we are still experiencing today. By being grateful for the grace of it all.

Garth Brooks once sang 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 the pain we are feeling today is to have never loved Johnny and to have never been loved by Johnny. We grieve today, because we were given a gift of God’s grace named Johnny Matthews. Johnny was himself grace, unearned, undeserved.

And when we can understand that, the sheer grace of it, instead of being bitter for what we have lost, I believe God will give us hearts, souls and minds, as God gave to Johnny, to be somehow be grateful for what we had.

Until that day comes when we will surely see Johnny again, face to face, as we will meet the Giver of all Graces face to face. Amen.

Renewing Our Hearts for a Mission of Discipleship

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Matthew 16:24-26 NRSV

Good things are happening at Central Christian Church as our church is on a mission.  As we say every Sunday around this table, we are on a mission to be a church of extravagant welcome. We want to live up to the identity statement of our denomination and truly welcome all people to the Lord’s Table as God has graciously welcomed us. Because we believe when we graciously and generously welcome others, we welcome God. When we compassionately and lovingly include others, we include God. And when we welcome and include God in our lives, in our church, good things happen.

Here at Central we believe God is here with us. The spirit of the Risen Christ is here moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming. Central Christian Church is on a mission, and we are on this mission with none other than the Risen Christ himself.

Thus, I believe it is the Christ who is calling us today to be faithful disciples, and I believe he is calling us in the same way he called the first disciples, with the simple, yet powerful words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus says that the first thing we need to do is decide if we want to follow him. He said: “If any want to be my followers…”

I have said in recent weeks that I believe the reason many churches are losing members today is because, for many, the does not look like a group of people who have decided to follow Jesus. Church members do not look like people on a mission for others, but look more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.

This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.”  This thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It is not about achieving a good, happy and successful life or even an eternal life. It is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing others. It is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry. It is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outcast and the homeless. It is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving everything away to the poor. It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by. It is not about winning. It is about sacrifice. It is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to self.

There is a reason that we do not make a habit of clapping in church after the choral anthem or after a solo. Because the music being offered is not for us. It is for God. It is not about sharing music to bless or uplift us. It is about sharing the best of what we have to praise God.

I believe the reason that churches struggle today is because, in our attempt to entice new members, excite new members, gain new members, we have made the church about us. We have said, “Come, and join our church where we have services and programs that are certain to benefit your life. Instead of saying: “Come, join our church, where you will be given opportunities to give your life away.” “Come, join our church, where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and serve and to deny yourselves.”

Jesus said, “Let them deny themselves, and take up their crosses.”

I don’t know how it happened, or precisely when it happened, but I can understand why it happened. At some point we have interpreted taking up and carrying our crosses to mean something completely different than what Jesus intended. Somehow, the crosses we bear have become synonymous with the pain and sufferings that we involuntarily put up with in life.

We say: “Diabetes: It’s my cross that I have to bear.” “Arthritis: It’s the cross I carry.” “Migraine headaches: It’s the cross that I have take up.” Anything from High Blood Pressure, heart disease and C.O.P.D. to a bad back, cold sores and varicose veins: “It’s the cross that I bear in this life.”

However, when Jesus is talking about cross bearing, he is talking about something completely different. He is not talking about some kind of involuntary pain and suffering that we are forced to put up with. He is talking about pain and suffering, the giving way of our lives, that we voluntarily choose for the sake of others.

On this fifteenth anniversary of 9-11, we remember a day of great tragedy for our nation, but also a day of great heroism. With much pride, admiration and gratitude we remember the first responders who gave their lives trying to rescue those trapped inside of those towers.

We also remember the men and women who, loving country more than self, gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting the war on terror. Every September 11, I think of my friend Christopher Cash, who did not hesitate to report for duty when his National Guard Unit was summoned to go to Iraq. And in Iraq, Chris carried a cross, meaning that he gave all that he had, as he lost his life in an ambush.

And of course, we do not have to be a first responder or join the military to carry a cross.

Adopting a resident in the nursing home to visit when the nursing home is the last place on earth you want to go may be a cross Jesus is calling you to bear.

Deciding to forgive someone who has wronged you and has caused indescribable pain in your life may be a cross you Jesus is calling to carry.

Electing to serve on the youth or children’s ministry team when you already have little or no time for yourself, may be a cross Jesus is calling you to pick up.

Agreeing to volunteer to feed the food insecure when your own cabinets are almost bare, may be a cross Christ is calling you to take up.

Picking a less lucrative career because you feel called to serve others might be a cross Jesus wants you to pick up.

Choosing to love someone when you know that loving that someone will inevitably bring enormous grief may be a cross Jesus wants you to bear.

Resolving to make a generous pledge to the church’s annual budget when your own budget is tight is a cross Jesus is calling you to carry.

Standing up for the rights of minorities when the majority is against you is cross that I believe Jesus asks us all to take up.

I believe churches are struggling today, because they only encourage their members to do what makes them happy, what is comfortable for them. “Do you love kids? Do children make you happy? Then serve on our children’s ministry team!” “Do you love going to the hospital to visit sick people? Have you always wanted to be a nurse? Then serve on our hospital ministry team!”

As a leader of this church, I want to ask you to sign up for, not only what may be uncomfortable for you, but those things that actually might cause you great pain and grief. Because, more than anything, I want to lead a church of committed disciples who have intentionally decided to deny themselves and take up their crosses to sacrificially serve others.

Finally, Jesus says, “After you decide to follow, after you deny yourselves, and after you pick up your crosses, then I want you to follow me.”

Jesus wants us to “follow;” which denotes moving; not sitting in a pew.

Our faith, our discipleship, our church is to never be complacent, stationary or constricted. It is not an inert, static thing. It is not something that we can hold or withhold. It is a dynamic, moving, changing, progressing, dancing, advancing, all-embracing energy of sacrificial, selfless love.

As we say every Sunday, we need to make this place a place of welcome for all people. Because, when we welcome others, we welcome God. However, our church, our discipleship should never be limited to any place. Yes, I do believe that the doors, walls and ceilings of our buildings should be warm welcoming; however, they should never constrain our true mission.

We are a church that meets in a place, but we are also a church on the move, following Christ, sacrificially denying self, courageously taking risks, wherever Christ leads in our community, throughout the region, into all the world.

Central Christian Church is indeed on a mission. And we believe we are on a mission with none other than the Spirit of the Risen Christ himself. We believe he is here today, right now, moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming.

9-11 Reflections

new-york-77639_640.jpgAround 8:50 am, on September 11, 2001, I arrived with members of my church at the town’s community center to distribute bags of food to the impoverished. This was something that our church did every month.

About 40 people had gathered in the lobby of the community center that morning to receive one small grocery bag each containing five non-perishable food items. All wishing to receive a bag were asked to sign their name in a notebook that was passed around to each person.

After everyone signed their name, I had the painstaking task of reading and checking off each name as they were handed their bag of food. The names were often very difficult to read. Sometimes it was the handwriting that was challenging, but oftentimes it was the names themselves, as they obviously denoted a variety of ethnicities.

As the notebook was being passed around the room that day, someone turned on the television that was mounted on the wall. The Today Show hosted by Matt Lauer and Katie Couric was reporting that a small plane or a helicopter had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The room hushed as we watched the life-changing news unfold together. As Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were beginning to speculate that it was a large passenger plane, another plane flew into the South Tower. It then became obvious that we were being attacked.

As we watched together in stunned silence, someone handed me the notebook that everyone had finished signing. One by one, I somberly read the names, checking them off, as they received their small grocery bag. Strangely, maybe miraculously, the names were much easier to read on that day. Handwriting was more legible. Foreign names sounded familiar and even familial. As I read, I did not once secretly roll my eyes, wince or make any judgments.

On that day they were not African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, middle-class Americans or poor Americans. They were not “entitled,” “illegal,” and they were certainly not “aliens,” “trailer-trash” or “rag-heads.” They were neither rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian, black nor white, educated nor illiterate, Democrat nor Republican, deserving nor underserving, gay nor straight, him nor her nor them. They were only Americans. They were my family. They were my sisters and my brothers. They were we.

On that day, I believe we were miraculously united by something that our divided country desperately needs today. On that day, it was not fear of another attack that made us one. It was not hate for the foreigner that unified us. It was love. It was the fulfillment of what Jesus called the greatest of all of the great commandments. On that day thirteen years ago, if just for a few moments, we truly loved our neighbors as ourselves.

May God bless America and help us to love yet again.

A Bunch of Losers

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Luke 14:25-33 NRSV

I have heard people say that one of the reasons that they do not belong to a church is that the church is nothing more than a “bunch of losers.” They say we are weak, and we weaklings find strength in numbers. They say we cannot handle life on our own, so we use religion, faith, and church as a crutch to help us get along in this broken world.

Now, as bad as it might be for us to hear this, these critics of faith and religion may have a point. Sadly, their critique of Christianity, especially here in North America, may be justified.

To understand where they are coming from, all we have to do is turn on our TVs at almost any time of the day. There we will find countless preachers with great hair, bright smiles and big dimples promoting a health- wealth-and-prosperity gospel offering strength to the weak. Or we only have to walk into any Christian bookstore and see the shelves that are literally full of books promoting this message of self-help and good fortune.

I believe this is the reason Jesus may have become a little irritated with the large crowds that often followed him during his earthly ministry. One day, noticing the growing number of people following behind him, like a scene in Forrest Gump, Jesus suddenly stops, turns to the masses and says something like: “Do you people really know what this is all about?” Like someone asked me when I first moved to Enid, “Do you really know what you are getting yourselves into here?”

“Because I am not so sure the crowd would be this large if you really knew!” says Jesus. “Do you really understand what you are signing up for here? Do you really get this journey called, ‘discipleship’? Because, I have a sinking suspicion that most you do not have a clue.”

I suspect that the large crowds were following Jesus that day for much of the same reasons some people attend church today. They were looking to get something out of it. Some sort of blessing, reward, some kind of direction, perhaps a better handle on things, a little attention, keys to a better, more successful and prosperous life. They were looking to strengthen their families, be a more productive businessperson, get a leg up, receive a helping hand, get a little boost, a shot in the arm, a pat on the back and maybe just a little dose of something to help feel a little bit better, at little more righteous, a little more holy than all of those people who were not following Jesus.

As the church critics and cynics say, “They were merely looking for a crutch to help them to cope with everyday living. They were a bunch of losers looking for something, anything, to help them become winners. Because after all, isn’t that what God is all about: winning?

And noticing what was going on, Jesus stops in his tracks, turns and says to them, “You people really do not get this, do you? This journey called discipleship is not about making your family stronger. In fact, this could tear your family apart. This is not about making you feel superior or more holy than the ones who are not following. This journey will humble you! It will bring you down to your knees! This is not about self-help. It is about denying self. And this is certainly not about obtaining any keys to a more successful and productive life. It is not even about helping you cope or get a better grip on your life as it is. This is about losing your life. This is not about winning. This journey called discipleship is about losing.

So if you really want to follow me on this journey, you better think long and hard about it. Because this journey is not about receiving any reward or gain. In fact, the opposite is true. This journey is going to cost you. And it is going to cost you every possession you have. And guess what, there is even a cross involved. And you, my friend, are going to carry it.  So you better do some calculations, you better do a good ol’ gut check, you better look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really have what it takes to follow me on this journey. For this journey is not for the weak, the timid or the reluctant. It is for the courageous and the heroic. Some say that it is for the crazy and the foolish.

So, if you are a loser looking for something to make you a winner, this may not be for you. But if you are an ordinary person who really wants to find true life, life the way God intends for it to be, I am looking for a few good people who are willing to take some risk and lose it all!

This church has two wonderful practices that define who we are as the Disciples of Christ. The first one is what we call Believers Baptism. One of the reasons that we do not baptize infants is because we recognize that there is some cost involved to becoming one of Jesus’ disciples. Although the gift of salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it, walking with Jesus as disciples is a risky and costly venture. So, we wait until a child is of an age where they can weigh and calculate that cost. We call it the “age of accountability.”  They have to be able to do some accounting. And that age is different for different children.

The second practice that defines who we are as Disciples of Christ is Communion. Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the cost that is involved on this journey we call discipleship. We break bread remembering that God through Jesus loved this world and all of us in it so much that he was willing was willing to suffer greatly for us. We share a cup representing the blood of Christ remembering that God’s love for us compelled God to pour God’s self out, empty God’s self through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

And we are reminded that we as disciples are called to take this same journey, carry our own crosses. We come to church not in search of some crutch to help our broken selves, but to be reminded that we are called to be willing to break ourselves for others, suffer with and for others. We come to church not looking for something to help us improve life, but for the courage and the opportunity to pour our lives out to help others.

I firmly believe that fully embracing this identity is the only way we are going to change the way the local church and the Christian faith is often perceived by those people who have all but given up on organized religion. Instead of being a bunch of losers looking for the church to help us become winners, we need to be a bunch of ordinary people who are willing to be a bunch of losers, willing to lose our very selves.

Then, we will not only have life the way God intends for it to be, we will be the witness to the world of the love that God calls us to be. And if we pay attention, there are examples of this witness all around us.

I have a friend in Raleigh who left a good paying job to become the pastor of a group of homeless men and women. He looks to the generosity from friends scattered all over the country to pay for a roof over his head and to put meals on his table. Loving God more than self, he gave up much, risked much and lost much to love a group of people who can offer him little in return.

There are people right here in this room who have given up much to not only do missions in other parts of the world like Peru and the Dominican Republic, but also right here at home. You give of yourselves constantly to minister to the poor and needy here through Loaves and Fishes or Our Daily Bread. Others here could have chosen more lucrative careers, but instead you answered a call to serve others as social workers, school teachers, nurses and other service oriented professions. Others have sacrificed much to provide for children, other family members, and even friends or employees who have exceptional needs.

Just this week, some of you gave up, lost an entire Wednesday evening, as you did yard work for people who needed it through Hearts for Care.

So to all of the church skeptics and critics, I want to say this: I understand that no one wants to be associated with a bunch of whiney losers who are always looking to get something, to find something to make their lives better or to get something just to help them cope. And I know that is why some people in the church are very attracted to the health and wealth evangelists and the always-smiling prosperity preachers.

However, I belong to the Central Christian Church of Enid, Oklahoma, a church that is full of a bunch of losers of another sort: a bunch of courageous and faithful losers who have made a commitment to always strive to love God and others more than self; a bunch of self-denying, selfless losers who are willing to risk it all to put the needs of others over their own needs and wants.

And no, we are not perfect. We all have our selfish moments. But we have decided to try our best with the help of God and each other to follow Jesus on a risky journey called discipleship— a journey of self-denial, self-giving and sacrifice, believing that it is the only journey that leads to real life, life that is truly abundant and eternal.

We believe “losing” is what “winning” really looks like. And yes, as crazy and as foolish as it may seem, we do know what we have gotten ourselves into!