Trick or Treat or Truth

Trick or Treat1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 NRSV

From Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, it seems evident that they had to deal with the same sorts of things that we have to deal with. For it is as if Paul wants to set the record straight. He wants to let people know what the church should be in a world of bad religion, alternative facts, and oppressive politics.

So, this morning, let us follow Paul’s lead and set the record straight.

In a world such as ours, the first thing that Paul mentions is the importance of having the courage to truthfully proclaim the gospel in spite of great opposition.

Sometimes, I think we forget that Paul’s message that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” challenged the entire culture. Paul did not face opposition for proclaiming a personal, private gospel to help people make it through the week. He would not be thrown in prison and put to death for preaching a little “chicken soup for the soul.” No, Paul was opposed by the religious and political authorities for having the audacity to preach truth to power and an inclusive love that has the power to change the world.

Because they lack the courage, I am afraid many churches today are only preaching the gospel in a manner that is culturally acceptable. They are preaching an “alternative gospel” that is popular with their base and keeps the people and the offerings coming.

It’s a gospel of personal piety and one that creates division, defends prejudice and emboldens bigotry.

Unlike this “alternative gospel,” the “authentic gospel” calls for radical repentance and cultural change. It calls for a revolutionary restructuring of the status quo. And because of this, because it commands the tearing down of the walls of division, because it demands a dismantling of the systems of injustice, because it refuses to bow down to the powers-that-be,

because it is extravagant with grace and inclusive with love, because it has the power to change everything, the authenticity of this gospel inherently and inevitably brings opposition.

So, first and foremost, we need to proclaim the gospel with authenticity and courage. And notice that Paul says that this courage we need does not come from our own resources or discipline. It comes from God.

The second thing that Paul wants to set straight is the importance of proclaiming the gospel without tricks or treats—words of flattery that bait and switch and deceive.

Like in Paul’s day, today there are churches who say all are welcome and all means all. However, when some show up they quickly discover that the grace they first experienced as a treat was only a trick.

Churches say “come just as you are,” but after you come just as you are, you soon learn you are expected to become just like they are.

Many churches host events like the one we are having today. Stores do it too. They entice people in the community with bouncy houses, hotdogs, popcorn and candy. However, they soon make it clear that if you’re not buying what they’re selling, you are not welcome.

There is a video that went viral last year of a homeless man who came into a Chick-fil-a in Tennessee asking if they had any extra food. The manager meets the beggar and says: “I will give you a hot meal, if you will pray with me.” The man agrees. The manager lays his hands on him and prays. And then gives him a sandwich.

Christians loved this video and shared it all over social media. [i]

But it is important for us to remember that Jesus never said: “Feed the hungry, if they will pray with you” or “Welcome the stranger, if they will believe like you” or “Give drink to the thirsty, if they will dress like you” or “Free the oppressed, if they will contribute to your budget.”

No, Jesus said: “love your neighbor as yourself”—period! No “if’s,” no “but’s,” no strings, no tricks. Paul says we are to love others “as a nurse tenderly cares for her own children.” Care for others because they are God’s children who need care, not for any other reason.

When we love our neighbors, we don’t do it to please the finance committee or the membership committee. We love our neighbors to please God and only God.

And Paul says we please God by sharing not only the good news of the gospel, we please God by caring for others so deeply that we share our very selves.

So, today, when we leave this place to greet members from our community, let us not go looking to make some new converts or to get a new donation. Let us go out today to give our very selves. Let us go and make some new friends. Let us love the ones we meet this day honestly, courageously, unconditionally. And let’s not be afraid to make a Jewish friend, make a Muslim friend, make an agnostic or atheist friend.

So today, we are not about “tricks” or “treats.” We are about having the courage to be about “truth.” We are about honesty and integrity and authenticity. We are about sharing the good news of God’s grace and love and sharing ourselves simply because that is what we are called to do.

Now, because we are being truthful and because we truly care, let’s always make it clear to those who may be interested in becoming a part of our church, that although they are invited to come “just as they are,” and although they are never expected to become “just as we are,” if they come, we really do hope that they don’t stay “just as they are.”

Let us set the record straight that the reason we are a part of this church, including the pastor, is because we are all hoping to change, to transform into the people God is calling us to be.

But it’s never our job to judge or change anyone. That’s always God’s job. And we pray God is currently judging and changing all of us. We are praying for a radical repentance that takes away all of our prejudices, while filling us with more kindness, mercy, forgiveness and love.

We pray that if others choose to join our mission, God will bring us together in love, unite us by grace, change us with the truth, and give us the courage to change the world. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Now, as we sing our communion hymn, let us prepare our hearts to be united by the love that is revealed in the sharing of this bread and cup. And as always, we only exclude those Christ excluded from this table, and that is no one.


[i] http://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/most-popular/chick-fil-a-manager-prays-with-homeless-man-gives-him-warm-meal

A Politically-Correct Gospel

Shannon

The following sermon was preached by Rev. Shannon Fleck at the Installation Service of Jarrett Banks as the 25th Senior Minister of First Christian Church in Fort Smith. 

Matthew 22:15-22 NRSV

  • Good morning everyone! I want to preface this morning by saying that I am not the usual occupant of this pulpit. So if you are visiting this morning and you hate it, come back next and hear Jarrett before making that decision. If you love what you hear today, come back next week also because he and I are kind of cut from the same theological cloth.

 

  • It is my intention to get a little real with you today. Because the world we live in could use a little more real. A little less side stepping. A little less “fake news”. A little less politically correct. I hope you don’t mind.

 

  • For sixteen blissful, easy breezy, smooth sailing months Jarrett and I served in ministry as a team in Enid, OK. And by easy breezy, I mean the hardest experience in ministry either one of us has ever faced. Those 16 months united the two of us as a team more so than any ministers I had ever seen.

 

  • And I tell you this only to qualify myself to you all as ready and willing to stand here on his behalf, alongside him as he makes promises to you all, his new congregation… and you make promises to him.

 

  • Ministry is hard. Ministry is especially hard in a world where religion has been used to repeatedly cause traumatic injury to God’s children for centuries. As a minister, one walks a consistent line of being “pastor” to those who have been hurt and those who have committed the hurting.

 

  • Living always in a dichotomy of another’s religious priorities versus your own, and inevitably, always letting someone down for not “doing faith” exactly as they see fit.

 

  • So friends, heeding to the promises exchanged here today will at times be easy and at times a challenge. But a minister’s heart and mind is constantly living in multiple places in order to be present with all of you;

 

  • You’re ALWAYS a minister. It is not an occupation that you do, it is a call you live every day, in every interaction.

 

  • I mean, one of the first questions one has upon meeting someone is asking what they do for a living, right? Ministers dread this question, because the minute we tell someone, we are immediately sentenced to carry whatever religious opinion, or guilt, or shame, or praise (maybe) they have.

 

  • Ministry is so very hard.

 

  • I know this person, as all of you will, if you don’t already. And he knows as well as I that there are things that pastors will always want to say that they probably never should, but a guest pastor can.

 

  • Like say, talk about politics from the pulpit.

 

  • This has been a spoken and unspoken no-no for ministers and preachers of the gospel for what seems like an eternity, erring on the side of caution, rather than offending the occupants of our pews. Ministers have been cautioned using the most emphatic of deterrents, fear.

 

  • So, imagine my quandary when today’s text appeared before me as the lectionary gospel for this week. A text that unashamadely places issues of religion and politics fully front and center. Crammed together. Not uncomfortably, like an awkward interaction with a relative at Thanksgiving, but as a matter of fact….

 

  • Any person who claims that religion and politics don’t mix, clearly missed today’s Gospel lesson.

 

  • It is important to note that Jesus, does not provide religious absolution from political and government involvement, we are going to have to pay those taxes.

 

  • But he makes the important distinction that loyalty to such things should only go so far as our complete and moral love of God will let us. So as we seek to give to Caesar what is caesars and to God what is God’s, we must remember that each and every being is God’s, and our loyalty is to what belongs to God first.

 

  • Now as I begin to wonder if some want to shift in their seats a bit I have to say that it’s understandable really, our desire to keep these topics out of the forefront of our most comfortable settings. Our relationships, our families, our sanctuaries. We do not want to be uncomfortable. There is nothing safe about that.

 

  • But in this effort to bifurcate the gospel from the reality of the political systems that influence our lives, we have done a disservice to that all important notion of Christian call.

 

  • And most importantly, we have left faith vulnerable and isolated. Up on the auction block to the highest bidder.

 

  • The bible has been contorted so many times to fit the comfort level of the powerful. Pushed, twisted, and breached more times than we can count.

 

  • What is politically correct about that?

 

  • Well church, if you wanted a pastor who would succumb to the fear of offending you… you hired the wrong guy.

 

  • Because this man that you just exchanged promises with, knows the politically correct work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And most importantly, he knows all about its unpopularity amongst the masses.

 

  • He is not concerned about comfort, least of all his own, he is concerned about living in the messy, abundant, unapologetic love of Christ with all people.

 

  • He is not one who will, as a friend of mine says, give you baby food from the pulpit, but sustenance for the journey.

 

  • He will ask from you all that makes you comfortable so that it can be stretched and extended into a grace filled life you may not had known was possible. But it will take trust on all your parts to change this world, and a willingness to stand up tall for what is hard.

 

  • That is a politically correct Gospel.

 

  • And in case you might need some real-world examples of a politically correct gospel, let me see if I can come up with a few.

 

  • When a terrorist, no matter the color of their skin, rings shots out through the streets or schools of America, the church should be prepared to offer a call to action against such disasters. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

 

  • When thousands upon thousands of women cry out “me too” on social media, the church of Jesus better stand in support of the endless victims of assault, harassment, and violence. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

 

  • When yet another person of color is gunned down by those sworn to protect and serve with nothing to show for it but another acquittal. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

 

  • When individuals are hated, ostracized, belittled, stripped of rights and protections, or disowned because of who they love. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

  • When the hurting, disabled, and abused are brushed aside, not even to be seen or heard. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

 

  • When white supremacists once again feel the safety to come out of their holes of hiding and not be held accountable by modern day “caesars”. Remaining silent is not an option.

 

  • When events like taking a knee become more important than providing aid to devastated storm victims, remaining silent is not an option.

 

  • When public education is devalued, politicized, and underfunded; when immigrants and refugees are locked out and shoved out of a better life; when Christians use their religious privilege to demean and degrade other religions… we absolutely cannot remain silent.

 

 

 

  • The idea that the Gospel isn’t political is offensive, because it refutes everything Jesus stood for and died for.

 

  • This gospel is a moving, emphatic, provocative, unshakeable political statement against a world that wants nothing to do with the unrestricted love God

 

  • I cannot help but congratulate you all on your choice of pastor.

 

  • Jarrett has had a journey out of a denomination that did not fit his need to practice a politically correct Gospel and into one that fits him like a glove.

 

  • His immense and humble gratitude for the opportunity to genuinely serve in context that is ready and willing to move and shake a world with unrestricted, unapologetic and immovable love radiates in his passion for the work of Christ.

 

  • Congratulations to you all. Now it’s time to get to work.

 

About Shannon

The Rev. Shannon Fleck currently serves as the Director of Community Engagement with the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, where she focuses on Community Organizing, Social Justice and Interfaith ministries.

Rev. Fleck is a native of the State of Oklahoma, spending her childhood with her family in Guthrie. Rev. Fleck attended the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, OK, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. After working for the State of Oklahoma for two years in Juvenile Justice, she began seminary at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK where she was the Matthew Thompson Fellow, Student Senate Moderator, and the recipient of the Sojourner Award, the Interpreter’s Award and multiple book awards. Rev. Fleck was Ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2011.

Prior to her current position with OCC, Rev. Fleck served as the Associate Minister at Central Christian Church in Enid, OK where she was instrumental in beginning the weekly Welcome Table Ministry for the food insecure of Enid, a bi-monthly Suicide Survivor Support Group, a religious presence at Enid’s Pride Celebration, and multiple services and programs throughout the church year to accommodate marginalized communities. She has also served in ministry at the Little Rock Air Force Base Chapel in Jacksonville, Arkansas, First Christian Church in Yukon, OK, Western Oaks Christian Church in Oklahoma City, OK and First Christian Church in Guthrie, OK.

Rev. Fleck serves on the Board of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice and is the 2nd Vice Moderator for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oklahoma. On October 20, 2017, Rev. Fleck was presented the 2017 Church Women United in Oklahoma Human Rights Award in recognition of her justice work in the State of Oklahoma. Rev. Fleck is a passionate minister for the work of Social Justice; standing up for the marginalized and ensuring dialogue and understanding among all people is at the heart of what ministry means for Rev. Fleck.

Halloween Masks and the Church

Some more Halloween thoughts…

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

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As a child, I had my share of nightmares.  The wicked witch from the “Wizard of Oz” would fly through my bedroom window to get me. Ronald McDonald and a gang of clowns, including Bozo and the Town Clown from Captain Kangaroo, would chase me down the road as I ran for my life. Even today, clowns still sort of freak me out. It might be why I prefer Wendy’s over McDonald’s.

However, the most frightening dream I ever had was the one where I was standing in the school cafeteria line. As I was on my way to the cash register to pay my 10 cents for my lunch and a carton of milk, I looked down to discover that I had somehow forgotten to dress myself that morning. I was as naked as I could be.

Now, I am not a psychiatrist, and I do not presume to…

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Halloween: O Holy Night

Some thoughts about Halloween…

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

peanuts halloweenHalloween is sometimes called an evil or even a demonic holiday. However, I believe when we narrowly define demonic evil as fictional ghosts, goblins, and vampires that come out one night of the year, we may miss the true demonic evil that surrounds us every day—Greed, hate, racism, sexism, and all kinds of bigotry haunt our world day and night.

Furthermore, when one takes a close look at how our society observes All Hallows Eve, I believe one can reach the conclusion that Halloween may be the most holy night on the calendar. For example:

On what other evening of the year do we turn on our porch lights to welcome, not only friends and family, but all who may pass by?  All are welcomed and greeted with smiles and laughter, and “all” even includes witches, monsters and little devils. It does not matter who they are or from whence…

View original post 192 more words

No Regrets: Remembering Charles Young

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Life. Those of us who are truly grateful for it, those of us who understand the sheer grace of it, grasp the gift of it, appreciate the miracle of it, hope to get the most out of it as we possibly can. Whether we live 90 years or 83 years, we want to squeeze as much joy out of this world as long as we are in this world.

Charles and Wanda Young were those kind of people.

Charles faithfully served this country in the US Army during World War II. When the war was over, he continued serving in Germany, helping persons get their lives back on track, helping others squeeze as much joy as they could out of it, despite having their lives displaced by war or having their lives interrupted as a prisoner of war.

When he returned home, he continued serving others as a member of the First Christian Church of Fort Smith and as a member of the Belle Pointe Lodge of Freemasons in Fort Smith. He loved working to raise funds for Shriners Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, serving as the Shrine Circus chairman. He also served children and youth here in Fort Smith, helping them to enjoy life through play and completion, as he coached and supported the Fort Smith Boys Club.

Charles also enjoyed playing himself. He loved hunting, fishing, skeet and trap shooting. He and his wife of 63 years, Wanda, were both Arkansas State Trap Shooting Champions for a number of years. The both of them also enjoyed playing golf.

These opportunities to enjoy life were afforded to him by his work ethic, starting many businesses throughout his career, retiring as president and owner of R.A. Young and Son Construction Equipment Company.

Now, on the surface, all of this sounds like a full and fulfilled life; all of this sounds as if Charles truly did squeeze all of the joy out of life that he could, especially as we consider how he also did all that he could to give others a chance to enjoy life. 

However, as I have heard many preachers say, when people reach the end of their lives, when they look back to make an assessment, look back to make a list of their regrets in life, there are several regrets that are never mentioned.

For example, at the end of life, no one ever says: “I regret that I did not spend more hours in the office  away from home.”

No one ever says: “I regret that I did not spend more time away from my family trapshooting, fishing, hunting or playing golf.”

And as proud as people usually are of their military service, preachers never hear people say: “I regret that I did not spend more years overseas away from my friends and family.”

No, the regret that most preachers hear is:

“I regret that I did not spend more time with my family.”

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have paid more attention to my children.”

“I wished I would have shared more of my life with my kids.”

“I regret that I did not teach my children more of the values that were instilled in me by my parents.”

“I wished I would have spent more time with my wife, especially when she became ill.”

This is why I believe the greatest line in Charles’ obituary, which is full of his attainments, pursuits and successes is this one:

“His family always came first in his life.”

Greater than his military achievements that we honor today in this National Cemetery, greater than his business accomplishments, perhaps even greater than his charitable generosity, was his devotion to his family. First and foremost in his life, and in the life of Wanda, whose obituary reads much like her husband’s as she had her own list of accolades, was family.

Their daughter Linda shared the following words with me:

We are grateful that both Mom and Dad shared their zest for life with us. They were both people with many varied talents and interests. Growing up with Mom and Dad was always an exciting adventure. We were constantly involved in interesting activities such as golf, skeet and trap shooting, and trail riding on motorcycles in the beautiful Ozark mountains, hunting, fishing, calf roping, heading and heeling.

A love for education, of reading and art was also important in our lives. Learning about new things, learning to do new things, accomplishing and mastering new activities was a constant in our lives. Life’s lessons were embedded in all the activities. Dad spent his life teaching us about the cornerstones of life that would guide us as adults.

These always involved pursuing excellence and competitions. Dad taught us that practice makes perfect. That meant lots and lots of practice at whatever we were learning.

They took us with them everywhere, and they involved us in everything.  Dad was the one who set the pace and it was rigorous.

Mom was always a good sport and jumped right in to join in the fun and learn right along with the kids! She ended up being an expert at whatever the activity. As the only girl, I am grateful that my mom set an example for me – ‘girls can do it all!’ With the right attitude and determination [I learned to always] go after your dreams!

We are grateful that Dad took time to be our mentor and a great role model.  We are grateful that dad spent lots of time with us teaching life’s lessons along the way.  My brother, Jim, reminded me that Dad had themes he worked on with us; he taught us to persevere – he taught us the meaning of integrity – honesty – and persistence – and to never judge the other man.

He taught us generosity for those less fortunate in life.

We are grateful that our mom was always home for us and that we were her sole focus in life besides our dad.  She shared her artistic talents with all of us. We all spent hours with Mom doing art projects, painting, ceramics, and other arts and craft activities. She always took us along when she volunteered at the Girl’s Club as an art teacher.

She was a perfect match for Dad in spirit and in energy. They shared 60 years together. When my mom became ill with Alzheimer’s, Dad took care of her at home. For six years, he devoted his life to caring for her and giving her the most quality of life possible as the terrible disease progressed.  Even when it was very, very hard he stepped up and worked harder at caring for her.

We are grateful that he showed us what true love and commitment is really about.

Life. Those of us who are truly grateful for it, those of us who understand the sheer grace of it, grasp the gift of it, appreciate the miracle of it, hope to get the most out of life as we possibly can. Whether we live 90 years or 83 years, we want to squeeze as much joy out this world as long as we are in this world.

Many people try to do that. However, I believe very few people can actually do it without regrets.

The good news is, according to what I have learned about Charles and Wanda through their children, I believe they may have done it: leave this life with no regrets.

And it is because of this good news, and because of their faithfulness to their God, to their church, to their communities, to this country, but especially to one another and their children, we, who are left behind to continue our lives, we also do not have any regrets this day. For we know that as they were faithful with the lives they were given by the miracle of creation, God has now been faithful to them by the power of the resurrection.

We come to this place with grateful hearts. Thanking God for eternal life in heaven, but also for eternity here on earth, as the Spirit of Charles and Wanda are still very much alive through their children and grandchildren.

Therefore, the final words from the Apostle Paul are most appropriate to conclude this eulogy, marking the end of lives well-lived.

2 Timothy 6

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 6:6-8).

 

Obituary

Charles Holt Young, 90, of Hot Springs passed away Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. He was born in Greenwood on Nov. 10, 1926, to Horace William and Lucille (Scales) Young. Mr. Young graduated from Kemper Military Academy in 1944 and went on to attend Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He was a World War II veteran serving in the 3rd Army, First Calvary Division. Following the war, he remained in Nuremberg, Germany, as part of the Army of Occupation assigned to oversee reintegration of displaced persons and prisoners of war.

Mr. Young was a Mason and a member of the Belle Point Lodge in Fort Smith. He served as the Shrine Circus Chairman raising substantial funds in support of the Shriners Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. As a longtime volunteer and board member of the Fort Smith Boys Club, he enjoyed coaching and supporting the baseball program.

His interests included golf, reading, hunting, fishing, skeet and trap shooting, performance breeding of Angus cattle and thoroughbred horse racing. A keen competitor, he held state, regional and national trap and skeet shooting titles. He was the Arkansas State Trap Shooting Champion for a number of years and inducted into the Arkansas Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1973. A successful businessman, Mr. Young started numerous businesses throughout his career. Prior to retirement, he was president and owner of R.A. Young and Son Construction Equipment Co.

His family always came first in his life. Loving survivors include his daughter, Linda Young of Little Rock; two sons, Charles William Young and wife Ranie of Dallas and James Franklin Young and wife Mary Ellen of Chicago; grandchildren, Charles and Patrick Murray, Dr. Virginia Young and husband Brad Geswein, Clayton and Madeline Young. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Wanda Louise Young; and his two sisters, Nancy Young and Billye Smreker.

A kind and generous man, Mr. Young will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Arrangements by Little Rock Funeral Home and Edwards Funeral Home in Fort Smith.

In lieu of flowers, please consider donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, www.michaeljfox.org.

Let the Children Come

Children

Matthew 19:13-15 NRSV

There is so much that the Church can learn from this wonderful passage of scripture.

Little children were being brought to Jesus.

Before children can come to Jesus, someone, or something has to bring them. They usually to do get to this place on their own. It may be a parent, a grandparent or another relative. It might be a neighbor, a Sunday School teacher, or just someone who cares. A good question for the church to ask is: what are we doing to bring children to this place? Or are we merely waiting for children to come.

Churches make the following mistake all the time: Oh, we don’t have a youth minister any more, because we just don’t have that many children. Have you ever considered that not having many children is the best reason to have a youth minister?

I believe churches bring children to church by working hard to have all sorts of theologically-sound learning experiences and hands-on missional opportunities for children. We don’t wait until we have enough children to have a vibrant children’s ministry. We create the very best ministry to children we can to bring children here.

I believe churches bring children to church by allowing children to participate in and even lead worship, for children have much to teach us.  We also bring children here by providing separate opportunities for smaller children during worship, as our education committee is currently planning.

I believe churches bring children to church by having a safe-church policy to protect children, and dedicated, compassionate, and screened volunteers to love and nurture children.

Little children were brought to Jesus that he might lay his hands on them and pray.

Children should always be brought here with a specific purpose to be loved, accepted, embraced, and supported. Children are to be the focus of our prayers. That means that children are to be the subjects of our most personal and intimate conversations with God.

Ask yourself this: how many times are the children in our community truly the main focus of our prayers?

But the disciples spoke sternly.

We think: who in the world would speak sternly preventing children from coming to Jesus? The answer surprises us, but at the same time, doesn’t surprise us. Matthew says that it was his very own disciples.

As a part of the Church for over 50 years, I have experienced this in many more ways than one.

When I was growing up I remember hearing offended church members sternly say terrible things about my home pastor when he supported having basketball goals installed on the church grounds. They criticized us playing ball at the church for many reasons. One, all the running around the goals was going to kill the grass. Two, we might leave drink bottles or other trash on the grounds. And three, the basketball games might attract the wrong type of kids, and by type, well, you know what they meant.

My pastor was also criticized by church members for sending our church bus out to pick up children who lived a few miles away in a trailer park (again, wrong type of kids), He was also criticized for asking the church to pay for children that they picked up on that bus to attend camp in the summer. And the four times each year we has communion, I always heard people grumbling about the pastor for not prohibiting children who had not been baptized to take communion.

As a long-time pastor, I have experienced similar criticisms, never by people outside of the church, but by people on the inside claiming to be disciples. There have always been people in the church who for some reason or another think it is their God-given, moral duty to put restrictions on who can and who cannot get to Jesus.

People have and will always be offended by Jesus’ revolutionary words:

Let the children come.

Let the children come to a safe place of welcome, a place of grace, a place of love, a place of nurturing where they can learn and grow into the people God has created them to be. And let all of them come. Let all children come to a place where no one is judged, treated unfairly, or ever feels excluded, second-rate or second class.

Do not stop them.

Do not let anyone or anything stop them. Do not let that one with money, power and prestige who thinks God has made him the gatekeeper of the church stop them, and do not let condescending words, snooty looks, or self-righteous expectations stop them. Do not let appearance, dress, ethnicity, documentation, race, size, gender, sexuality, health, class, or disability stop them. Do not let their families’ past or current situation, tax bracket, beliefs or lack of beliefs stop them.

That Jesus said this about little children speaks volumes about how we as the Body of Christ are to welcome all people.

For little children are people—

Before they are old enough, before they are strong enough, or before they are smart enough to help themselves or anyone else for that matter. Little children are folks who are not yet able to contribute to society, pay taxes, earn their place in the world, or deserve any sort of commendation. This means that the arms of the Body of Christ are to be open wide with a grace most extravagant and a love most radical.

It is the same love that parents have for our own children. We love them more than anything simply because they are our children.  So extravagant and radical is this love that there will be always be those, probably those who call themselves disciples, who will be so offended that they will speak and even act, sternly.

To such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.

This, says Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is what eternity looks like. This is what the church should look like. And this is what the church should help the world to look like. I believe one of the great purposes of the church is to show the world, through our words and our deeds, how to be people of extravagant grace and welcome, of radical love and acceptance.

But sadly, the church has been guilty of doing the opposite, have we not?  People go to church looking for grace and acceptance, and all they find is judgment and condemnation.

Somehow, we have been preaching the gospel the wrong way. In fact, I believe we have a tendency to actually preach the gospel, not just the wrong way, but we have a tendency to preach it backwards.

To share Jesus with others, we often start with what is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all people are sinners. I just don’t believe that is where we should begin the conversation or the sermon.

Our sermons usually have three points, and point number one is: All people are sinners. Point number two is: God sent Jesus to die for us. And point number three is: if we believe this, then God will forgive us and love us as God’s children forever.

I believe we should preach the same sermon, but proclaim it the other way around. And I believe the way we bring children here, to a place of grace, acceptance and welcome is the way to help us turn it around, to preach the gospel the right way.

I believe we should always begin with God’s love for all people. We should make our number one point, the first and foremost point of our sermon that God loves us as God’s children and wants nothing more but to love us forever.

The second point should be that God loves us as very own Children so much that God came and loved us so radically, showered us with grace so extravagantly, that it offended the organized religion of his day. They sternly spoke out, “crucify him,” and they sternly acted out with a whip, a crown of thorns and a wooden cross.

And we should make our third and final point that God did this while we were yet sinners, before we earned or deserved anything, before we contributed anything, even believed anything.

Do you see the difference? Instead of preaching that all people are born sinners standing outside of the grace and love of God until they do something, say something, or pray something to earn forgiveness, we are to preach that all people are actually born standing inside of the grace and love of God without doing, saying or praying a thing to earn it. For this is the gospel. This is what we want people to believe and accept— that all people are welcomed into God’s gracious and loving arms—they just may or may not know it.

Jesus put it this way—Point #1: For God so loved the world. Point #2: God gave God’s only son. And Point #3: So that all whosoever believes may not perish by their sins but have everlasting life.

If we keep teaching this, continue preaching this, if we keep welcoming children, all children, making the church and a place of extravagant grace and a place of radical love; then, before you know it, we are going to change the whole world. We will start seeing people differently. Instead of seeing people first as sinners who deserve hell, fire, and eternal damnation, we will begin to see them first as God sees them, as God’s “little children,” who are to be embraced, accepted, prayed for, nurtured, and loved.

O God, thank you again for all of the children in our midst and for the wonderful ways that they remind us of your grace and love. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Christ welcomes all to eat and drink from this table,

And the arms of Christ are open wide.

There is nothing here that can stop you sharing this meal.

There is no sin so great, no shortcoming so large, no wound so deep, and no mistake so wide that it does not fit inside the arms of his grace. In the eyes of Christ, no one here is second-class or second rate. All are God’s beloved children. All are welcome.