A Word from the Lord

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Luke 4:14-29 NRSV

Tom Long tells the story of an incident that occurred in a church one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. The minister had just finished reading the scripture lesson and was taking a deep breath before launching into the sermon when suddenly, a man, a complete stranger, stood up in the balcony and startled everyone by proclaiming in a clear, loud voice: “I have a word from the Lord!”

Shoulders tensed and heads swiveled around and upward to see the source of the interruption.

What “word from the Lord” did this man possibly have to bring to the people on that day?

Well, no one will ever know, for the ushers, says Long, “bounded like gazelles” up to that balcony, and before the man could utter another word, they had escorted him down the stairs and out the front door.

Now, with Long, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said we ought to do things with some semblance of order, and his was way out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit.

Isn’t it strange? Sunday after Sunday countless preachers in innumerable pulpits spread out their sermon notes, clear their throats, and begin their sermon, saying, or at least implying, that they have a word from the Lord. And nobody tenses. No heads swivel in alarm. No ushers leap into action. Instead, people sit back in their pews, crease their bulletins, silently check their watches, and settle back for the sermon. For that is what you came here for, right?  A sermon. Not a word from the Lord.[i]

This is exactly how it was on that Sabbath day in Nazareth. Joseph’s son Jesus was home for the weekend and had been asked to read the scripture lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew Jesus well. They knew his parents and remembered him as a little boy. They were no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his preaching and teaching. So, they settled back in their pews to hear what this articulate young man had say. What were they expecting? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.

Part of the reason I believe we expect a sermon instead of “a word from the Lord” is that as much as we do not like admitting it, we really would prefer not to hear such a word. We prefer a simple sermon. We prefer some nice religious words, some nice sweet thoughts to help get us through the week. What we expect is a little “chicken soup for the soul.”  Some good advice to help make our lives run a little more smoothly, some encouraging words to help get us through the week.

A word from the Lord is completely different. A word from the Lord is disruptive. A word from the Lord is uncomfortable. A word from the Lord can be painful.

A sermon can be can be easily forgotten and even completely ignored. But, a word form the Lord must be heeded. A word from the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For a word from the Lord is news, real news. It is news that turns our whole world upside down. A word from the Lord changes everything and forces us to adjust our lives to that change.r

It has been said that most people who pick up the newspaper every morning or watch the evening news are not so much interested in the news as they are in confirming that the world is pretty much the same as it has always been. “Democrats are still not cooperating with the Republicans and vice versa.” “Politicians are still lying.” “The New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl, again.” Yep, that’s the way the world is, it’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be.”

I am afraid that is why many of us come to church. We do not go to church to hear any real news. Instead, we go to church to have the things that we have always believed about God confirmed. We listen to the sermon to have the way we have been practicing our faith all of these years affirmed. We’d really prefer not to hear anything new. We’d rather not hear anything that challenges our beliefs, calls the way we practice our faith into question or creates any urgency to change. We are really not interested in hearing any real news.

For real news is unexpected. Real news is surprising. Real news is disturbing. Real news means the world is not the same as it was yesterday; therefore, I cannot live my life in the same way. A word from the Lord is real news.

It is news that demands change. It is news that demands a complete reordering of priorities. It is news that causes us to see the whole creation in a brand new way. It is news that moves us and mobilizes us to take some kind of action. It is news that often requires sacrifice. It is news that necessitates us doing things that we do not want to do and going to places that we do not want to go.

So, thanks but no thanks. Preacher, I think I’ll be just fine with a simple sermon instead. Either say some words to reaffirm what I already believe or maybe give me a little antidote that might help me live a happier, healthier life. Give me some good ideas that might fix some of the things that are ailing me.

I am afraid that, for some people, going to church is like heeding the advice of Joe Namath by calling the Medicare Coverage Helpline. People go to listen to the preacher tell them about all of the benefits they deserve, benefits they are eligible for as a Christian.

By the way, “Does anyone really believe Joe Namath needs rides to  medical appointments?”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were probably expecting when they showed up to hear Jesus’ first sermon back in hometown Nazareth. They came expecting a sermon, to have what they already knew reaffirmed or to find out some benefits God offers them that they didn’t know about, maybe to get a little pat on the back, a little stroke of the ego, a little feel-good-pick-me-up to get them through the week, not a word from the Lord.

So, when Jesus stood up and began to speak, no shoulders got tense. No ushers tried to muscle him out into the street. People smiled and whispered to one another how proud they were of this their product, and how Mary and Joseph must be tickled pink to have such a fine son.

They came expecting a little sermon. But instead of a sermon, they got a word from the Lord. Jesus began to say things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he? I thought God was all about making things easy! I thought sermons were about making us happier.”

Jesus continues:

“Love your neighbor, including your enemies. Be a blessing to the poor and to all who hunger and thirst for justice. Stand up for the liberty of those oppressed and bullied by culture. By the way, people will persecute you for that, utter all kinds of evil against you for that, but pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself. Don’t just hear these words, but do these words.”

And then, his words began to sink in. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today.Not yesterday, not in times gone by, not someday, but today.  Fulfilled.  Not read nicely, heard sweetly, or barely remembered, but fulfilled. In yourhearing. Not in somebody else’s. Not just in Abraham’s, Moses’, Elijah’s, and Deborah’s, but in you.

And the Word of the Lord was also not just for them. Jesus said it was for all people. It was also for outsiders, foreigners, those marginalized by society, widows and lepers and others who were not a part of their synagogue, their faith, or even their culture.

And it then became obvious that this was not just another simple sermon. This was a word from the Lord. This was news. Real news. God had come. God is present. Here. Now. Today. God is here, and God’s love is for all people, even for the lepers of Syria in and the widows in Sidon.

The world was now changed, for the Word of God had come, and the Word had come for all people. The Word of God had been made flesh and was now present in all its demanding fullness. And you could fight it, you could try to hurl its presence off a cliff, or you could accept it, you could follow it, but there was no way on earth you could ignore it.

Each Sunday morning, our worship should be about the gospel truth, the amazing good news, that God is alive and present to us this day, as alive and present here as Jesus was to those worshippers in Nazareth. Thus some shoulders here this morning should be a more than a little tense, for God has work for us to do!

God is here! God’s kingdom is now! God speaks words of love and of grace, of mission and of purpose, of vocation and of duty, that are fulfilled in our hearing. Words that, if we listen and respond, will send us out from the pews into the public square to transform our world.

[i]https://www.cathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/tl080601.shtml

 

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Why This Christian Pastor Is Pro-Choice: It’s Personal

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

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Introduction

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor who was raised in the rural South as an evangelical Southern Baptist, many are quick to make many assumptions about me.

The most prevalent assumption is that I am on the Pro-Life side of the abortion debate, as many assume that one simply cannot be both a Christian and Pro-Choice. Many believe it is a black and white issue, a simple decision between good and evil, life and murder.

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor, I strongly support the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. And, of course, I do not believe I am making a decision to choose evil. My convictions about abortion are strong, because my convictions are personal.

My Personal Story

It was the summer 1993. My wife Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary…

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Home by Another Way: Remembering Harold Stewart

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July 17, 1946 – January 1, 2019

As evidenced by the attendance here this morning, the shocking news of Harold’s passing has been devastating to many.

We did receive some comforting words. Harold did not suffer. There was no prolonged illness, no pain, no struggle. Harold was given the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with loved ones here in Fort Smith and then in Nebraska. Harold was happy. He was full and content.

But then we received a dreadful word, a word that was difficult for us to hear, that that his wife Audrey, whom we all know he adored, had to drive home from Nebraska all by herself as Harold’s body was sent home by another way.

“Home by another way.” Those are the exact words Matthew uses in yesterday’s gospel lesson to describe the journey of the Wise Men after they worshiped Jesus, laying down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, we are told that they went “home by another way.”

“Going home” is of course how we like to talk about death. We find great comfort in the old hymn:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

“Home” is being with God. It is a place of perpetual belonging, acceptance, comfort and love. It is a place of eternal rest and peace.

In his book of Revelation, John described it this way:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21).

So, in a way, going home is the goal of every believer. And as Christians, we believe that how we get there, how we go home, matters.

Do we go home following the instructions of King Herod? Do we go home by collaborating with the empire? Or do we go home by another way?

Do we go home following the way of greed and power, the way of self-centeredness and fear, the way of deceit and cowardice, the way of exclusion and isolation? Or do we go home by another way?

I believe the most comforting word, the most hopeful word for us this morning was what we first thought was a most dreadful word: “Harold went home by another way.”

As Christians, we believe Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life, the very narrow, yet broad and expansive way home.

Matthew writes:

One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd of people. While he was still speaking, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’

But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers!’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

In other words Jesus said, “here is my home, here is my family.”

I believe this story reveals that Jesus had a much broader, more expansive definition of home and family than we often do.

This, of course is why Gentile Wise Ones from the East were guided by that star to worship the Jewish Christ child: The people of God, the family of God, extends beyond Israel, and includes all people.

And so it was with Harold.

If I said to you, “Harold sure did love cooking for his family.” Your first response would probably be: “Which family are you talking about?”

Are you talking about the Stewart family? Or are you talking about his family at the Elks Lodge? Perhaps you are you talking about his family at First Christian Church?

Someone told me that he left Mike and Jane one of his famous pizzas in the fridge before he and Audrey left for Nebraska. That was so Harold. As his mother Roberta Ray used to always say: “It is very difficult to get Harold out of the kitchen!”

Harold also loved to make his pizza monthly for his Elks lodge family. And each time Harold invited me to the lodge and introduced me to other lodge members, it was obvious to me that he was introducing me to his home away from home. During the fish fry, he introduced me to his son Mike and daughter-in-law Jane, but he also introduced me to countless sisters and brothers. Chris Perry has written that Harold’s example and leadership is the reason they like to say that the “Elks Loge 341 is the friendliest little Elks Lodge in America.” That is because they are truly a family.

And of course this church was the beneficiary of having a brother named Harold in our family. Our brother Harold spoiled us with that infamous pizza recipe, the juiciest hamburgers you have ever tasted, unbelievable pulled-pork barbeque, and most recently, a Christmas dinner that featured a prime rib that Steve Riggs described best as “crazy good.”

What if I said to you that “Harold loved being there for his family?”

Well, are you talking about his sons Brian and Mike? Are you talking about one of his six grandchildren or his great-grandson?

Are you talking about his family at Fort Smith Restaurant Supply? Are you talking about the names of the people with whom he worked that he would text to his pastor requesting prayer for them when they were sick, experienced a loss or had a need?

Or are you talking about a child he mentored for the last three years at Howard Elementary School? Are you talking about the 12-year-old boy he visited once a week, oftentimes bringing him lunch, building his self-esteem, encouraging him in his studies and teaching him the importance of values that he may not learn in the classroom, like looking someone in the eyes while giving them a firm handshake?

Or are you talking about one of the children at the church who he made an effort to greet every Sunday morning before reaching in his pocket and giving them a piece of candy.

Yes, the good news is that Harold certainly went home by another way.

Speaking of going home by another way, it is no secret that Harold could literally build a home. His sons describe him as the best teacher they ever had. They even built an entire house together on Ten Killer Lake. Harold taught them how to do everything, from carpentry, duct work, heat and air, plumbing to laying tile and flooring. They said Harold knew how to crack a whip in such away that you never even knew there was a whip.

Harold could fix anything. His son Brian recalls that anytime he or Mike ever had a problem with their house, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, heating or air, all they had to do was call Dad. They said: “And it seemed like it was before we get the phone hung up the doorbell would ring and there would be Dad, standing there wearing a tool-belt around his waist and light on his head.”

With Harold, anytime something would break, his family said they never called a professional. They called Harold. Just like we did here at the church. Just like I am sure they did at the Elks Lodge.

Yes, more than anyone we know, Harold went home by another way.

Yesterday, someone asked Audrey: “How in the world did you drive home all by yourself?” She replied: “I had a good teacher.”

We all know how he absolutely adored and cherished his wife of 38 years, Audrey, but the love he expressed to Audrey always seemed to have an even higher purpose. For me it was like he was modeling for others what love looks like, what being a true gentleman looks like, what being an authentic disciple of Christ looks like.

As I watched him each Sunday morning, walking into the church building holding Audrey’s hand, opening the car door for her after church—it was as if he loved her as an example to the world how we ought to love one another.

Perhaps that is exactly what Harold was doing. Harold was not only a mentor to a young man at the Howard Elementary. He was trying to teach us all how to be wise men and wise women and go home by another way.

He was teaching us how share the inclusive, expansive love of God with all people; how to see and treat all people as children of God, as sisters and brothers; how to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Yes, as his sons have said, Harold was one of the best teachers we have ever had, for he taught us all how to be wise men and wise women by avoiding the way of King Herod that so many seem to be taking these days, and instead, choose another way:

the way of chivalry over the way of indecency,

the way of love over the way of indifference,

the way of compassion over the way of apathy,

the way of sacrifice over the way of self-centeredness,

the way of inclusion over the way of fear,

and the way of calmness and peace over the way of stress and worry.

And when we choose to go home by this way, not only will we change the world and leave this world a better place than we found it, we can rest assured that like Harold, we will see that the home of God is among mortals. With Harold, we will dwell with God and be God’s peoples. God God’s self will be with us.

To wipe every tear from our eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

There is a great old hymn with beautiful words that describes what Harold experienced the first day of this new year.

Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,

Of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.

Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,

Of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality

Of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,

Of looking up and finding it home.

Church Growth Epiphany

empty pews

Ephesians 3:1-12 NRSV

These days every civic organization, every service club and every church is talking about it. Every week when they meet together and look around the room at the empty chairs and pews that were once filled with people, it is obvious to everyone that something needs to be done.

“We need to do something to reach more people.” “We need to change something increase our numbers.” “We need to expand our club.” “We need to grow our church.” And sadly, we need to grow not so we can do more things, change more lives, make more of a difference in the world; no, we need to grow just so we can maintain what we have. We need to grow so we can just keep doing what we’ve always been doing. We need to grow to just prevent us from dying.

This was the focus of our weekly Kiwanis meeting this past Thursday. And it will be the focus of our church meeting tonight, as it is the focus of countless churches across America today.

Yes, these days, the church has a lot in common with civic organizations and service clubs everywhere.

However, there is one main difference. And we have a word for that difference, and that word is “Epiphany.”

By the sixth day in January, the culture has moved well past Christmas.People have returned to work. Kids are back in school. And Wal-Mart has replaced Christmas decorations with gas grills and lawn mowers.

The church, on the other hand, insists on a full 12 days after Christmas Day to remember the visit of the Wise Men, gentiles from a foreign land, to the young Jewish Christ Child.

First recognized in the fourth century, Epiphany celebrated the revelation that the wall that was thought to divide humanity from divinity has been torn down. Epiphany celebrated what we call the incarnation, the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, of God becoming human, the revelation that Jesus was God and God was Jesus, the revelation that in Christ, God became one with humanity, the revelation that no wall, no barrier, no temple curtain, no obstacle in all of creation can separate us from God.

The revelation of this unity prepared the way for another unity, that is Gentiles, as represented by the Gentile Magi, should be one with Israel. This made it clear: Along with the wall that separated God and humankind, any wall of religion or politics that separated Gentiles from Jews, or separated anyone from the promises of God, should be torn down at once.

This is what Paul is proclaiming in our Epistle lesson this morning, and it is the revelation he began proclaiming in the first two chapters of Ephesians as he declares to his Gentile readers and hearers that they have been chosen by God for adoption.

“Adoption”—it is a wonderful word Paul uses to make the point that we do not have to be born into the people of God to be the people of God. It means that all are God’s chosen people. Although Gentiles thought they were separate from God, Christ reveals that they are not. As the Divine and the human became one in the incarnation, the entire human family is one in Christ.

Paul points out that it is because of his proclamation of this Epiphany that he is now a prisoner. We read in Acts that Paul is locked up because his inclusive message breached the walls erected by the religious powers-that-be. They accused him of teaching “against the law” and “bringing Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:28).

Can you imagine a preacher being accused today of teaching against the law by bringing a certain group of people into the church?

I think you can.

I believe this is the reason that Paul says that in former generations this revelation was not made known. No one had the courage to preach such radical inclusion.

Notice that Paul not only has the courage to preach it, but he seems undaunted by his circumstances in prison. That is because, for Paul, Epiphany is not just one day, or even a season, but Epiphany is his very purpose. He preaches and doesn’t mind being imprisoned because God has revealed this revelation to him giving him a holy purpose to share it with the world!

Through Paul’s courage, the Spirit has revealed what has always been the eternal plan of God, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, fellow participants in the promises of the gospel.[i]

When the church tears down the the walls that divide us, when we welcome and include all people, and all means all, then the church proclaims the creative diversity of God’s eternal wisdom. As we welcome and include and add to our membership different races, classes, and genders, we proclaim the mystery of God who brings all of God’s creation together by becoming human, by becoming a Jewish baby worshipped by Gentile kings from the East.

So, although we have much in common with civic organizations and service clubs these days that need to grow, that need to add to their memberships in order to survive, there is a major difference, and we call that difference “Epiphany.”

We should grow as a church. We should intentionally work to add to our numbers. We should all do all that we can do to fill these pews; however, it is not so we can pay our bills. It is not so we can keep up our property or care for our buildings. It is not so we can keep the staff we have or even pay the preacher. We should grow as a church, because this is our holy purpose, this is our divine calling. And it has always been a part of God’s eternal plan.

As a pastor, I have been to many church growth conferences and seminars. In almost everyone, the leader points out the number of churches that are closing their doors for good and selling their property. And the point is usually made that most churches are not willing to change anything, not willing to do the work they need to do to grow the church, until they wake up to the reality that if they don’t change, if they don’t grow, they too will soon die.

However, I pray this is not our motivation for concentrating on church growth in 2019. Avoiding shutting down the church like the government should not be our reason for welcoming, including, adopting more people into our church family. The fire that needs to be lit under us to do the work to grow our church must come from another place.

What I believe we need is a church growth Epiphany.

We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to what has always been the eternal plan of God; that is, the promise of the gospel, the unconditional love of God, is for all people.

We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to the radical inclusiveness of God’s love, especially for people who have always felt outside of God’s grace.

We need a church growth Epiphany, an awareness that this revelation has not always been taught, and in many churches today, is still not being taught, so it is up to us who have received this revelation to proclaim it boldly and loudly.

We need a church growth Epiphany that reminds us we are on a courageous mission trying to selflessly follow the way of a brown-skinned, Jewish Palestinian refugee who gave his life trying to tear down the political walls of hate and bigotry and to put an end to the divisiveness and exclusivity of religion.

We need a church growth Epiphany that refuses to build any wall that separates us from people who do not look like us, dress like us, or even believe like us.

We need a church growth Epiphany that this inclusive work is not for the fearful or the cowardly as this work has put many apostles in prison and has gotten many preachers fired. We need to be willing proclaim the inclusive good news of the gospel even when our neighbors and members of our own family ridicule us, try to shame us and shun us.

We need a church growth Epiphany that is continually and courageously reaching outward, beyond, as far away as the Wise Men were from Bethlehem when they first saw the star, to welcome and adopt all people into our family to join our mission of inclusive love and grace, mercy and justice.

We need a church growth Epiphany of the eternal plan of God to love, include and save all people. Because if we try to grow for any other reason, if we try to fill these pews in order to pay the bills, to keep up the property or to compensate the staff, we will die as a church. We will surely die.

Even if we add 1,000 new members, even if we begin ending each church year with a budget surplus, if we grow only to maintain and preserve what we have rather to fulfill our mission as bold proclaimers of the promise of the gospel of Christ for all people, we may live on as a club, but we will be dead as a church.

May it never be so.

[i]http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1507