When All Heaven Breaks Loose

hatewall

Matthew 16:13-20 NRSV

Jesus understands the importance of perception and identity.

He asks the question about himself: “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say I am?”

It is Peter who answers correctly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Then Jesus shifts the conversation from his identity to the identity of the church, which is very important for us to consider today.

How do people perceive the church? Who are we? What is our purpose? What makes the church special?

Of course, we love part of Jesus’ answer: “The Gates of Hell will not prevail against it” (King James Version).

In a world where all hell seems to be breaking loose, this is some very good news indeed.

The forces of death, despair, and darkness, no matter how great those forces seem to be in our world, will not prevail.

Sickness, disease, divorce, terrorism, war, hate, any power of Hades, which literally means “the power of death” will not have its way with us.

That might be one of the reasons we call the place the church meets each Sunday morning a “sanctuary,” a term, by the way I prefer over “worship center” or “auditorium.”

Death is moving and hell is coming. Evil is barreling toward us like a category 4 hurricane. It threatens us. It frightens us. It slams into us. But together, gathered in this sanctuary as the church, we are reminded that we are safe and secure from all alarm.

There’s no way I can count members of my congregations who have told me that they don’t know how people make it in this world without the church.

Because, when we are gathered in community, assembled in our sanctuary with people who are praying with us and for us, worshiping together, singing hymns like Leaning on the Everlasting Arms together, when we hear evil knocking at the door demanding to come in, threatening to do us harm, with nothing to fear and nothing to dread, we respond with utmost confidence:

“What’s that you say? You say it’s darkness and despair out there knocking on our door? You say it’s ‘hell’ out there trying to get in here?”

“Oh, not no. But heaven no!”

“In the name of Jesus, heaven no, you’re not coming in here! Heaven no, you’re not taking away our blessed peace! Heaven no, you’re not getting any of our joy divine!”

The good news is, and those of us who are the church know it, despite the constant onslaughts of Hades, despite the powers that seek to destroy us, the church hangs on, because we know that ultimately we will emerge victorious.

We hang on.

We hang on.

We. Hang. on.

How many times have you used that expression to describe the church? “How are things going there at First Christian Church in Fort Smith?”

“Oh, we’re hanging on.”

“It’s tough being church in today’s world, but we’re making it.”

“We’re surviving.”

Unfortunately, that describes both the perception and identity of many churches today. They’re in survival mode.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For who doesn’t want to be a survivor, especially when all hell is breaking loose?

“It’s a struggle, but we’re holding on. It’s tough, but we’re paying the bills. It’s a fight, but we’re keeping the lights on. Not sure what we think of him yet, but we got a new preacher, so we’re making it. We’re surviving.”

But wouldn’t you like to be more than a church that is just hanging on and getting by?

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about making a difference out there and less about maintaining the status quo in here?

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about bringing some heaven to earth and less about hanging on until we die and go to heaven?

Although we love the term, shouldn’t the church more than “a sanctuary?”

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about bringing some heaven to earth and less about hanging on until we die and go to heaven?

Let’s look again at this passage. About the church, Jesus says: “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Do you hear it? Do you see it?  Jesus says it’s the gates of Hades, it’s the gates of death, it’s the gates of despair, it’s the gates of darkness that will not prevail.

Notice that he’s not talking about the gates of the church, the doors of the sanctuary, prevailing against an onslaught from Hades. He’s talking about the gates of Hades that will not prevail against an onslaught from the church.

When Jesus describes the identity of the church, when Jesus talks about who we are and who we are called to be in this world, he doesn’t talk about a host of evil rounding us. He doesn’t say death is coming and hell is moving. He says it’s the church that is coming, and it’s heaven that is moving.

It is the host of good that is rounding the host of evil.

By talking about the gates of Hades, Jesus is expecting the church to be on the offensive. Jesus is expecting the forces of truth, light, grace, justice, mercy, love and life to be on the move tearing down the gates of death, darkness and despair.

Jesus isn’t talking about all hell breaking loose in our world. Jesus is saying that when we embrace our identity, when we answer the call, when we claim our authority, when we fulfill our mission to be the church in our world, all heaven will break loose.

Sadly, the perception of the church is often the other way around. We are the ones cowering behind the gates, behind the walls, behind the stained glass. We are the ones on the defensive. We are gatekeepers and wall builders. For our own protection and preservation, we decide who can come in and who must stay out.

But Jesus warns us: “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. And what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.”

Sadly, the church— by taking a defensive posture, with our gates and our gatekeepers, with our walls and our barriers, with our obstacles and our hurdles—the church has been guilty of preventing all heaven from breaking loose in our world.

However, Jesus says we possess the keys, the authority to open doors, remove barriers, and get rid of obstacles. As the church, we are not gatekeepers, deciding who’s in and who’s out; we are gate-destroyers. We are not wall builders; we are wall-demolishers!

And when we do that, when the church swings wide its doors, when God’s people leave the safety and security of the sanctuary, when we boldly go out into our world to confront the gates of death, darkness and despair, Jesus says, the gates of hell will not prevail, and all heaven will break loose.

It should be said that with Rev. Dr. King, I do not believe Jesus wants us to use darkness to defeat darkness or use hate to defeat hate.

I believe Jesus wants God’s people to use the authority entrusted to them to overthrow deep darkness with illuminating light; overwhelm racist hate with revolutionary love; overcome deliberate deception with Biblical truth; overtake fearful prejudice with empathetic mercy, override uncalled-for meanness with called-for kindness, and overrun white nationalism with non-violent determination for liberty and justice for all.

I believe what our world needs more than anything else is for all heaven to break loose!

There are many ways I am looking forward breaking loose some heaven with this congregation here in Fort Smith.

Along with our financial support of the Week of Compassion mission fund, a mission trip to East Texas may be in our future to help remove the hurdles to restoration. And if we do that, if we leave the comfort of our own homes to help repair and rebuild the homes of strangers, all heaven will break loose.

With Ainsley’s Angels, the organization that includes the special needs community in endurance events, we are going to tear down walls of disability that has prevented people with special needs from experiencing the joy of inclusion, acceptance and accomplishment that one receives after completing a 5k, 10k, even a marathon. And when we do that, when we reach out, accept and include, all heaven is going to break loose.

By being a church that is committed to the prophets’ proclamation to take care of the orphan, we are going to do what we can to remove any obstacle to success that stands between a young adult who grew up in foster care and a promising future. We have plans to remodel more apartments for them. We have plans to to mentor them. And when we do that, when we love them selflessly and sacrificially, all heaven is going to break loose.

By being an anti-racism, pro-reconciling church, we are going to demolish the barriers of bigotry that are dividing our nation and do all that we can to work together with all churches, all faiths, all races, to stand up for the equality, the dignity and the worth of all people. And when we do that, when we come together as Americans to fight for social justice, all heaven is going to break loose.

By having a Harvest Festival, not only for our kids, but also for kids who are not members of our church, kids in foster care, kids in shelter care, all kids, we are going to bust down any door that may prevent anyone from being a part of our fellowship. And when we do that, when our focus is not only blessing our children, but the children of our entire city, all heaven is going to break loose.

And as a church committed to the inclusive love of God, the extravagant grace of Christ, we will continue to destroy any gate, remove any hurdle, break down any barrier that anyone tries to erect to keep people from coming to this table and being a part of our mission to be the church in this city, a movement for wholeness in our fragmented world. And when we do this, when we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us, all heaven is going to break loose.

So, let’s embrace our identity! Let’s claim our authority! And let’s answer the call to fulfill the mission to be the church in this world, until all people know who we are and whose we are: disciples of the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!

Amen.

Invitation to Communion

Notice that there are no walls around this table to climb over. There are no barriers to get around, no doors to unlock, no hurdles to jump over and no hoops to jump through. For the Messiah and Son of God has overcome every obstacle for us and has given us the authority to tear down any gate that anyone might try to erect.

So, after we sing our hymn of communion, please know that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from this morning, no matter what you bring with you, you are welcome, here, at this table, in this community.

Eclipsed by Grace


On Monday, if just for a moment, our busy lives were eclipsed by miracle.

At some point we stopped whatever we were doing, with friends, family or co-workers, to wonder at crescent shapes in the shadows on sidewalks, peer through homemade projectors crafted from an empty box of Cheerios, or gaze through a new pair of solar glasses that we will likely misplace or discard before we need them again. The hot August air cooled. The sky darkened. The moon eclipsed the sun, and we expressed a collective “wow!”

The news channels stopped talking about the threat of  nuclear war, unstable world leaders, democrats and republicans, racists and terrorists, and showed us beautiful pictures of heavenly bodies that united us in awe.

It was just what our country needed.

We needed a pause to see the sheer mystery and miracle of it all. We needed a break to experience the utter grace of this mystery we call life. And we needed to do it together, in community, as one people.

It didn’t take long for us to see it, to experience it, and to get it. We only needed a few minutes for it to come into focus. Sun, moon, crescent lights on shadowy sidewalks, cool August breeze, projections in a homemade projector: It was all miracle, and it was all grace, completely unearned, undeserved.

Moreover, as the sky lightened, we began to see that this miracle has been here all the while, every day, every minute. The sun, moon, sky, shadows on sidewalks, trees, leaves, cool breezes, our co-workers, our family and our friends, even the concrete and the Cheerios we had for breakfast last week—it is all miracle, and it is all grace. It is all gift.

And this grace that we call life has the mysterious and miraculous power to unite us all, because it is for all: Caucasian, People of Color, Christian, Muslim, Jew, None, gay, straight, English-speaking, Hispanic speaking, rich, poor, abled and disabled.

The good news is that if we will pause, if just for a moment, we can experience this grace any time, any day. We can see it, and we can get it everyday; and with our human family, with our sisters and our brothers, we can express a collective “wow” at the love and the grace that bonds us together.

Responding to Their Cries

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Matthew 15:21-28 NRSV

This week, someone made an observation about me as a preacher. He said: “You seem to be biblically conservative. You have certainly preached the Bible these past two weeks.” Then he added: “I find it interesting that someone who is as conservative as you can be so inclusive.”

I said that’s because the entire biblical witness commands us to love inclusively—from Abraham who graciously welcomed the strangers by the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18) to John’s great portrait of heaven that we find in Revelation:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, [all] peoples and [all] languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).

I believe Jesus said it best: “On this hangs all of the laws and message of the prophets, ‘you should love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:40). It is as if he was saying, “If you don’t get anything else from the Bible, you need to get this: “Love your neighbor and love your neighbor empathetically—as yourself, put yourself in the shoes of another.” In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Now, of course people have always tried to use the Bible to support their hate and exclusivity. For centuries, the Bible has been used to support sexism, racism, even slavery. It is being used today to support all kinds of bigotry. But to support hate with the Bible, I believe one has to arbitrarily lift verses of scripture out of their contexts.

But that is not how the Bible should ever be read. One must always look at the entirety of its message.

I believe the point could be made that this morning’s gospel lesson is a microcosm of the entire Bible. If one arbitrarily lifted verses from this passage, one might argue that Jesus was a selfish, sexist bigot. But when we look at the whole story, a very completely different message emerges, a message that cannot be more relevant for us today.

Just then, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 

We hear this cry everyday. Yet, we really don’t hear this cry. We don’t understand this cry, nor want to understand this cry. We don’t like this cry. Thus, we never truly listen to the cry. To our privileged ears, it’s just shouting. Strange, foreign shrieks that, frankly, we find offensive.

They are cries of mercy for a child tormented by demonic evil.

They are hopeful cries for a safer, more loving and just world.

They are moral cries for equality.

They are cries for equal access to a quality education, for equal protection of the law, for fair wages, for access to equitable healthcare.

They are prophetic cries against injustice.

They are cries against racism, against discrimination, against predatory loans, against voter suppression, against Gerrymandering, against oppressive government legislation. They cry out that their black lives matter.

Jesus’ first response the cries is the most common response: it’s one of silence.

We know that response all too well. Silence, just silence.

If we ignore their cries, maybe they’ll go way. Responding will only stir things up, make things worse, uncover old wounds. And responding might cost us something. We may have to give up something, change something.

The second response comes from the disciples. It’s shocking, but not surprising. For it’s as familiar as silence: “Send her away.”

It’s the response of fear: fear of the other; fear that causes defense mechanism to go up; fear that breeds selfishness, anger, and hate.

Then, they blame the victim.

“What about her shouting?” “She keeps shouting.”

“What about the way she is behaving?” “She needs to be more respectable.” “She’s only making things worse.” “She needs to go away, get a life, get a job, go volunteer somewhere.” “She needs to learn some personal responsibility, stop begging for handouts and learn that God only helps those who help themselves.”

“She is what is wrong with this country.” “These girly girl snowflakes need to grow up, toughen up and shut up.” “And they need to learn that all lives matter.”

Jesus breaks his silence, but like the disciples, with words that are all too familiar. Words that are culturally popular; not biblically informed.

 ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

“We have to put our people first. We have to look after our own interests. We need to do what is fair for us. We can’t include you, especially if you have needs. If you don’t possess the skills to help yourself, how can you help us?”

She continues to protest. In an act of defiance, she kneels down.

He answered (again with language culturally-accepted; not biblically inspired), ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

But the good news is that is not how the story ends.

The foreign mother from Canaan persists. She keeps shouting. She keeps fighting. She does not lose heart or hope. She believes that justice will come, truth will prevail, and love will win. She speaks truth to power saying: “Lord, at my house, the dogs eat at the same time we eat. Lord, at my table, there’s room and enough for all, especially for those tormented by evil.”

And here is the really good news. Jesus listens to this outsider, and although he was neither Canaanite, female or a parent, Jesus empathizes with this mother from Canaan.

Jesus is able and willing to do something that many are unable or unwilling to do these days; that is, put ourselves in the shoes of the other. Jesus is able to see the world as she sees it, bear the pain of it, experience the brokenness of it, sense the heartache and grief of it, feel the hate in it.

And because he is listening, because he is paying attention, I believe Jesus is outraged. I believe Jesus begins to suffer with her, offering her the very best gift that he has to offer, the gift of himself, which is breaking before her and for her.

Jesus loves her. He loves her empathetically, authentically, sacrificially. He loves her unconditionally, deeply, eternally.

And loving like that always demands action.

After hearing her cries, listening to her pleas, empathizing with her pain, becoming outraged by the demons that were tormenting her child, Jesus announces that her daughter will be set free from the evil that was oppressing her.

However, she will not be liberated by his love alone. She will be liberated from her oppression, both by the love of Jesus, and by the persistent faith of this mother, this mother who will not give up, back down, shut up or go away.

Now, I could pick and choose and lift verses out of this passage and twist words to say some hurtful and evil things. But if I allow the overall message of this story to speak to me, inform me, guide me, this is what I believe:

When we hear the cries of people our culture considers to be outsiders, instead of responding with typical silence, instead of criticizing their shouting, their protesting, their marching and their kneeling, instead of blaming them for their situation, if we will follow the biblical mandate to love them as we love ourselves, if we will listen to them and allow their cries to penetrate our hearts, if we will empathize with them, if we will put ourselves in their shoes, walk in their steps, experience their plight, feel the sting of the hate directed toward them, then a place will suddenly become open at our table for them.

Outsiders become family. The underprivileged become equals from whom we can learn, be led, and change. They will become sisters and brothers.

And then, together— together, because the miracle we need today can not happen unless we come together— together, with the one who is no longer a foreigner, no longer feared, no longer ignored, no longer ridiculed— together, in community, side by side, hand in hand, with faith in God and with faithful persistence— we will stand up, we will speak out, and we will fight the demonic evil that torments God’s beloved children.

Of course, there will be great cost involved, for the Bible teaches us that love is always costly. But the cost of refusing to love is greater.

I love reading what happened next (“the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say). It’s the story of justice coming, truth prevailing, and inclusive love winning.

Beginning with verse 29…

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet and

without asking any questions about where they were from, what they believed, or what they had to offer,

he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:29-31).

Hallelujah. Amen.

 

Invitation to the Table

The good news from our sister from Canaan is that there is room and enough at the table of the Lord for all. Thus, all are invited to share this load and this cup.

As we prepare to eat from this table with our sisters and brothers, may we pray that the love demonstrated in this meal will give us the strength we need to stand up, speak out and fight the demonic evil that is tormenting the children of God in our world today.

On Faith, Compassion and Bigotry

My friend Susan passed away suddenly the day after she published these words. Like the mother of Heather Heyer, I hope to magnify Susan’s words.

Susan Irene Fox

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? Do not try to blend the genuine faith of our glorious Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, with your silly pretentiousness. Dear brothers, what’s the use of saying that you have faith and are Christians if you aren’t proving it by your words and actions? Will that kind of faith save anyone? (James 2:1,14)

In other words, we cannot claim to be Christians, we cannot claim to follow Jesus and at the same time claim to be a white supremacist, a white nationalist, a member of the KKK, or a member of the neo Nazi Party. They are antithetical.

Nor can we simply stand by and say nothing, or choose to say silent about the horrendous bigotry of these groups whose foundation comes from hanging black people and exterminating…

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Charlottesville Wake-Up Call

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I first expressed the following bullet-points following the actions of domestic terrorist and white supremacist Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Many were calling the murders of the African Americans who had gathered for a Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel Church “a wake-up call.” I have heard the same expression used this weekend following the white supremacists who gathered to spew their hate in Charlottesville. What happened? Did we fall back asleep? It is way past time for America, especially the church in America, to stop hitting the snooze button, stop closing our eyes to ignore the racism and bigotry has been emboldened in our country today.  It is way past time to wake up, rise up, stand up, and speak out, as intolerance cannot be tolerated.

  • We must wake up to the reality that racism is not only a wound from our country’s past, but it is a deadly virus that still plagues us today. White preachers, including myself, have been too often afraid to even use the word “racism” from our pulpits for fear of “stirring things up,” as if we might reignite some fire that was put out in the 1960’s, or at least by 2008 when we elected our first black president. We must wake up and boldly call this evil by name and condemn the racism that is ablaze today, in all of its current manifestations: personal racism; systemic racism; political; and the subtle racism that is prevalent in our homes, in the workplace, in the marketplace, in government, and even in the church, for Jesus could not have been more clear when he said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that hatred in this country is being defended by people who are calling it “religious freedom.” In America, we believe all people are created equally; therefore, “religious freedom” never means the freedom to discriminate. Slave-owners used the same religious-freedom arguments in the nineteenth century to support slavery. Today, we do not tolerate people who want to own slaves, nor should we tolerate anyone who wants to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that many who cry out that they want to “Make America Great Again” loath what makes our country great today, that is, our cultural, ethnic, religious and racial diversity. We need to boldly speak out that it is this diversity that makes us look most like the image of God in which we were created. This diversity also looks like the portrait of heaven we find in the book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). We must wake up to voice our opposition to the purveyors of fear, some who are even calling people bear more arms “to take our country back.” Furthermore, we must wake up to stop folks mid-sentence when they start reminiscing about going back to the good old days of the 1950’s when “we had prayer in school,” as they are completely disregarding the fact that during this time African-Americans in our country were not only treated as second-class citizens, but were being lynched in trees.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that the most segregated hours in our country occur on Sunday mornings. We must find ways to build bridges and tear down the walls that we have created that prevent us from worshipping and doing ministry together. To stand against racism, hatred and violence and to stand for social justice and equality for all, we must do it side by side, hand in hand, as one body, one Church, serving one Lord.

Who Is Christ? The One Who Commands Us to Confront the Darkness

Torches

Matthew 14:22-33 NRSV

When Lori and I came and met with you for the first time, I shared the story of some things I discovered before I became Disciples of Christ minister. I had the opportunity to travel the United States while helping a friend start a small business. While I was on the road, I talked with a lot of people about church, more specifically, why they no longer attended church. Here is what I discovered:

You can go to any city or town in this great country of ours and ask people: “Say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say, “’nurse.’”

People will respond: “compassionate,” “caring,” “called,” “selfless,” and “sacrificial.”

Then you can ask: “Now, say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘school teacher’.”

You might hear: “crazy.” But then you will hear words like “selfless,” “sacrificial,” “compassionate,” and “caring.”

Then ask: “Now, say the first word that comes to your mind when I say ‘church goers’.”

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

People will respond: “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “arrogant,” “self-righteous, fake.” You may even hear the word, “old.”

Now, here is the interesting part. You might assume that people today have low view of the church simply because the world is becoming increasingly depraved and anti-Christ. However, if you ask the same people to say the first word that comes to their minds when they hear the word “Jesus,” the same people will respond: “loving,” “compassionate,” “caring,” “forgiving,” “accepting,” “selfless,” “sacrificial” “a role model.”

Here’s what I think this means- Although church attendance is in decline, I believe people in this world still love Jesus. The problem is that people do not see Jesus in the church. In fact, school teachers and nurses have done a better job imitating Jesus than some church people!

I wonder if the reason that the church doesn’t look like Jesus has anything to do with the fact that many church people would have difficulty recognizing Jesus if Jesus actually showed up? For how can we look like Jesus if we don’t know what Jesus looks like?

Now, I know it’s hard to believe that we would not recognize Jesus if he came to us, but this morning, we read where Peter, one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples doesn’t seem to recognize him when he comes to him and the other disciples in the middle of a raging storm.

“Lord, if it is you…”

Strange, isn’t it?

“Lord, if it is you…”

It’s strange because we would like to think that if we were in that boat, we would have certainly recognized him, especially if he came walking out to us on some angry waves.

Because that is exactly how we like to picture Jesus. He is the one who comes to us during the storm. He is the one who comes to us when our world turns dark, when the winds of life are against us, when the waves of life are crashing down upon us.

His is the presence that calms our fears, quiets our anxiety, dispels our despair, soothes our souls.

Jesus speaks familiar, comforting words to Peter and the disciples, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

We know the sound of that voice. We recognize those words. And as a pastor who has the blessed opportunity to walk with people in the storms of life, I cannot begin to count the times I have heard that voice. The voice of the good shepherd coming to rescue his flock from danger.

But, here’s where the story really gets strange. Even after Jesus speaks those familiar, assuring words, Peter still doesn’t seem convinced that it is Jesus.

“Lord, if it is you…”

So, how will how Peter know? How will he recognize that it is Jesus standing before him and not some made-up ghost of his imagination?

Are you ready?

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“If it is you, command me to come to you on the water?”  Is Peter serious?

I wonder why Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, calm this storm.” “If it is you, climb up in this boat with us and hold us, protect us, and take care of us.”  “If it is you, give us some peace.” “If it is you, comfort us and assure us that everything’s gonna be alright.”

After all, isn’t this how we recognize Jesus? “Jesus, come into our church and hold our hands.” “Jesus, come and tell us that the storm will be soon be over.” Jesus, come and assure us that somehow, someway, some day everything’s gonna be alright.”

That’s how we recognize Jesus.

But that’s not how Peter recognizes Jesus.

Peter says, “Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Jesus, if it is you, command me to risk my life. Jesus, if it is you, command me to get up and get out of this boat and venture into a dark world.”[1]

“Lord, if it is you, command me to put it all on the line. Lord if it is you, command me to walk into the storm, face the waves, brave the wind, take on the night.”

It as if Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless this voice commands him to literally throw caution into the wind and risk everything. Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless Jesus calls him to do something dangerous, something selfless, something sacrificial, something foolish.

“Lord it is you, call out to me like you did that day when I heard your voice for the very first time. You know that day I was minding my own business. That day I was there standing in my own little world by the lake with my brother Andrew with a fishing net in my hand. Command me like you did on that day to drop my net, drop everything, leave my family, leave my job and all forms of security behind to venture forth with you on a risky journey called discipleship.”

“Call out me like you did that day when you sent me out into the world to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. That day you commanded me to do risky, demanding, world-changing things like curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and casting out demons.”

“Lord, if it is you, warn me again about certain persecution if I follow you. Tell me again about the trials I will face, the great tribulation I will endure. Lord if it is you, command me to love all people although doing so will certainly upset the racists and bigots of the world. Command me to stand up, name and condemn racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Command me to pray for the enemies of the diversity of humanity that is created in the image of God, even when they are carrying guns and torches and are running over us with their automoblies and killing us. Command me to confront violence with love and light, knowing that only love can drive out hate, and only light can overcome the darkness.[2]

“Jesus if it is you, say something that will remind me that if I follow your voice, not only will there be great risk involved, there will be a cross involved. Lord, it it is you, command me to get out of this pew, (I mean this boat) and walk courageously into the darkness. And then, Jesus, and only then, will I recognize you.”

“Oh, I’ll still be scared. Walking with you like this will not be something that comes naturally for me. It is my nature to avoid conflict. So, I’ll have my doubts. I may even have moments when I will take my eyes off of you and think only about saving myself. I will make mistakes.”

“But Lord, I do trust in your grace. As you taught me to always love the sinner, I know your grace will never forsake me.”

Several chapters later in Matthew, we read Jesus reminding Peter and the rest of his disciples: Do you want to see me? Do you want to recognize me?  Do you want to encounter me? Do you want to know me? Then feed the hungry, and it will be like you are feeding me.

Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those who are imprisoned and you will be doing it to me.

This is how how you will recognize me:

When you do it to the least of these; when you deny yourself; when you empty yourself; when you throw caution into the wind; when you give yourself away, when you do something that your friends and family consider to be unnatural; when you truly love your neighbor as yourself; when you forgive seventy times seven; when you stand up for the dignity, the worth and the rights of the those who are marginalized by the majority of people, even by some of your friends, even your so-called Christian friends; when you make it clear, to even members of your own family, that your faith will no longer allow you to tolerate racism and bigotry; when you make a commitment to live modestly so you can give generously in a world that worships wealth; when you pray and work for peace in a world that only responds to threats of fire and fury; when you do these things… there I will be.

My fear is that the church has watered down the gospel for its own comfort. And by diluting who the Christ commands us to be, by making him up to be some ghost of our own imagination, when people come to church looking for Jesus, he’s nowhere to be found.

I am afraid we have traded the authentic good news to proclaim to the poor for some fake news to appease the privileged.

We have made church more about security and salvation and less about self-denial and sacrifice; more about receiving a blessing and less about being a blessing; more about what is culturally acceptable and less about what is biblically mandated; more about keeping account of the sins of our neighbors and less about loving our neighbors; more about ignoring evil and less about confronting evil, calling evil by name, exorcising evil; more about worshiping Jesus and less about following Jesus; more about dying and going to heaven one day and less about living for Jesus and going to those places Jesus calls us to go today, places we may not want to go, dark, dangerous, dreadful places.[3]

Do you want to see him? Do you want to recognize his voice? Perhaps, more importantly, do you want others to see Jesus in our church? Then let us embrace the authentic good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in all of it’s fullness, its delight and its demand.

For the storms are raging. The rain is falling. The winds of hate have been bolstered. Waves of violence have been emboldened. Each day, our world seems to grow darker.

And he’s coming toward us. Do you see him? Do you recognize his voice? He calls out to us with words that both comfort and challenge, words that calm and command.

[1] This point inspired by a sermon by William Willimon, How Will You Know If It Is Jesus? August 2005.

[2] Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

[3] This line is from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen

 

Invitation to the Table

This is the Lord’s Table and it is Christ who invites us to share his meal. We may have a difficult time recognizing Christ, but be assured: Christ recognizes us, and although it may seem foolish, he looks upon all of us with favor.

Christ befriends us and wants us within his circle. Count yourself among the disciples of Christ as we prepare for the feast of this fellowship as we remain seated and sing together.