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

torches2

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

Lavish Our World

Matthew 14:13-21 NRSV

IMG_6084I might as well address the elephant in the room right here and now from the get-go.

The rumors are true. I was born and raised a Southern Baptist. And not only that, I was a Baptist pastor for over twenty years.

So, allow me use my first sermon to tell you how I got to this place where I am standing today, behind this particular pulpit wearing a stole with a chalice and a St. Andrews cross.

Although there many types of Baptists, I sometimes place them into two categories.

First, there’s the hard-shell variety. These are the ones who don’t drink, dance, cuss or chew or go with girls or boys who do…at least not before Noon on Sunday.

Then there’s the category that I was a proudly part of: those of the more moderate persuasion.

“Everything in moderation,” we loved to say.

“Let’s be Christian, but let’s not get too crazy with it.”

“Follow Jesus but don’t get fanatical about it.”

“Embrace the gospel, but don’t go overboard with it.”

“Be a disciple, but don’t over do it.”

“Preach the Bible, but don’t challenge anyone to authentically live the Bible.”

“Don’t upset the status quo. Don’t disturb the peace. Don’t stir things up.”

We must remember that “moderation” is the key to everything in life, especially when it comes to pastoring a church.

“Moderation” is the key to playing it safe. Moderation helps one avoid conflict. Moderation keeps your congregation comfortable, satisfied, unchanged. Thus, moderation helps pastors pay their mortgages, get their kids through college, fund their pension. Moderation makes for more pleasant Elders meetings and uneventful board meetings.

But then I started reading the likes of Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell who were anything but moderate.

These Scottish-Americans had the audacity to preach revolutionary messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They courageously denounced all creeds and confessions and radically committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church and defying the societal norms of the culture.

They preached against slavery. They preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table. And they openly criticized mainline Christianity and anything that didn’t jive with Jesus.

And of course, the mainstream powers-that-be pushed back. They said: “Barton and Alexander, you’re taking this too far.” “You’re going out of bounds.” “You need to slow down, pump the brakes, moderate.”

But they would not bow down or back down. They stood their ground. They refused to compromise. And for so doing, they were excommunicated by the Church and labeled heretics, radicals, rabble-rousers and fools. They were called every name in the book, but one.

They were never called “moderate.”

During this same time period, other prophetic voices like William Lloyd Garrison echoed Stone and Campbell’s revolutionary opposition to the injustice of slavery.

Garrison wrote:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?

I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.

On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.

No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;

so don’t you urge me to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

After studying the forbearers of the Disciples movement, one day a verse I read in the first chapter of Ephesians nearly jumped off the page.

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (Ephesians 1:8).

“Lavished.” Don’t you like that? When I think of all my shortcomings and failures, I think: “Thank God that God doesn’t give grace in moderation. Praise the Lord that God just doesn’t give me a sensible amount of mercy, a reasonable amount of forgiveness, a rational amount of love. Praise God that when it comes to grace, God lavishes.

When we took our two children to the beach or to the pool when they were younger, Lori was in charge of the sunscreen. And when it came to protecting her babies, she would always lavish them with the sunscreen lotion. The poor things would be covered in white lotion in from head to toe.

And if I ever said, “Baby, don’t you think you overdid it a little with the sunscreen? Moderation, baby. Moderation is the key.”

She’d look at me as if I had lost my mind and say: “You must not love them like I do.”

When it comes to covering God’s children with grace, Paul says that God lavishes. When it comes to grace, God loves all God’s children, thus God overdoes it.

Disciples like to say that where the Bible speaks we speak, and the entire Biblical witness testifies to this lavish grace. It is a grace that is extravagant, excessive, over-the-top, overdone.

Cain killed his brother Able. Cain deserves to die. But what did God do? God lavishes Cain. Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him and protect his life (Genesis 4).

Moses kills an Egyptian, breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But God chooses that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land (Exodus 2).

David not only commits adultery, but kills the husband of his mistress (2 Samuel 11). Yet, Matthew proudly announces David in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).

The good news is, when it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, God lavishes. God always seems to overdo it.

The story of Jesus’ first miracle says it all. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine. But not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had.

Now, having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I know I am not supposed to know about such things, but isn’t 180 gallons of wine an awful lot of wine? Sounds like Jesus may have gone a bit overboard.

Then, there are all those stories that he told.

The father of the prodigal son doesn’t just welcome home his returning son. The father lavishes the son. The father goes overboard: “Quickly bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and drink and have one extravagant party!”

It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he lavished the man. It was the way he goes overboard with the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds, putting the wounded man in his car, taking the man to the hospital and telling the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my debit card, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”

And this morning we read where Jesus was teaching on a hillside and looks out at the large crowd that showed up looking for some hope. Thousands of them came from all over. They were hungry. Darkness was setting in.

The moderate disciples said: “Let’s be reasonable, sensible, judicious and send them back to town so they can eat.”

But Jesus radically takes all they have, blesses it, breaks it, and in an act that can only be described as revolutionary, feeds 5,000 people!

But the story doesn’t end there. They took up what was left over, and 12 baskets were filled. Once again, Jesus overdid it. Jesus went overboard. Jesus took it too far. Jesus lavished.

When Jesus is present, people in need, the hungry, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the vulnerable don’t only get what they need. They are lavished.

Then, there is the story of all stories. When God offered us the very best gift that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst that we had to offer, the cross. But three days later, God not only raised Jesus back to life, but God gave him right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

Yes, there seems to be something built right into the nature of God that tends toward graciously overdoing it.

So, as people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live?  Are we moderate with our love? Are we discriminating with our forgiveness? Are we discreet with grace? Are we modest with mercy? Are we restrained with the good news?

Or do we truly believe that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves?

Because the truth is that the church has been embarrassingly and tragically guilty of doing tremendous damage to the world, as well as to the mission of Christ, by loving God and loving others only in moderation.

I believe this is the greatest travesty in the church today, because out of any human institution on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of love, grace, and forgiveness. Without fear of snooty smirks, judgy jeers, or having a Bible thrown upside their head, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And then be lavished by God’s people with love.

This is why I am no longer a moderate Baptist. But stand here today in the spirit of Stone, the Campbells, Scott, Smith, and prophetic voices like Garrison, around a table that has been lavishly prepared for all people, joining a group of Disciples dedicated to sharing the good news to this city, region and world: That when it comes to the revolutionary Word of God, when it comes to the boundless love of God, when it comes to the extravagant grace of God, when it comes to the prophetic justice of God, when it comes to the radical inclusion of God, when it comes to fighting for a world where all lives have equal value, we will not moderate. We will not compromise. We will not stand down or even slow down. We will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. AND WE WILL BE HEARD.

O God,

Having received your grace revealed in Christ,

having allowed your Spirit to lavish us with it,

cover us from head to toe with it,

Help us to go into the world to share it with all people,

generously, extravagantly, lavishly.

 

Invitation to Communion

 

As we gather around this table, we reaffirm our revolutionary belief that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

There is no height: no creed, no confession;

There is no depth: no doctrine, no bylaw, no tradition;

There are no powers or rulers: no politicians, no judges, no clergy;

There are no things present: no race, no gender, no orientation, no disability;

There are no things to come: no storm, no legislation, no disease, no war;

There is no life: no elder, no deacon, no Sunday school teacher;

There is nothing in all of creation, not angels, not even death itself, that can separate any of us from the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Therefore, every Sunday we say: “All are welcome here to share this bread and this cup. And all means all.”

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Having received the extravagant grace of Christ,

having allowed God to lavish you with it,

cover you from head to toe with it,

Go now into your world to share with all people,

generously, extravagantly, lavishly.

And let them know that there is a church that exists in this town

that ready and willing to go overboard being like, acting like, speaking like, and loving like Jesus.

And now may the unconditional love of God,

the unrestricted grace of Christ

and the unending communion of the Holy Spirit

continue to lavish us all. Amen.