There is no doubt that we have a crisis in this country. It is a spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of the soul. And it is a national emergency.
There is an anti-Christ spirit in our land that refuses to love our neighbors as ourselves. This spirit has poisoned religion in our culture to the point that people of faith are not only indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors, but they actually doing harm to their neighbors.
This spirit has reduced faith in God to something that is merely private and personal. Faith is understood as something that can save one’s own life, rather than saving the lives of others. It is understood as a ticket to leave this world, rather than keys to loving and blessing this world. Whereas Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” the church has made life’s most urgent question: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior so you can one day go to heaven?”
It is a spirit of selfishness. It is a spirit of greed. It is a spirit of power and privilege.
And although this anti-Christ spirit is obviously demonic, this spirit is not other-worldly. It is a familiar spirit that has haunted our nation since its founding.
The source of this spirit is most revealed today in the politics of Christian White Nationalism that is being fueled by the fear that black and brown people will soon be in the majority. The source of the anti-Christ spirit in our land and our national emergency is racism.
I suppose we think: “If we keep our faith in God personal and private, then we don’t have to obey what Jesus said is the greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that include those who do not look like us.
The good news is that this evil spirit is no match for the power of love. It never has been and it never will. Love always finds a way.
A bullet in Memphis could not stop it. Jim Crow could not silence it. Civil War could not end it. And a cross in Jerusalem could not crucify it.
I believe the best way to fight an anti-Christ spirit is with the spirit of Love Himself, the spirit of Christ. We can respond to our national emergency and defeat the spirit of the anti-Christ by being the body of Christ, understanding that our faith is not solely a personal matter and should never be private.
The Gospels paint a portrait of a Jesus who is continually tearing down the walls that divide us. From the wall of heaven being ripped apart at his baptism to the temple curtain being being torn in two at his crucifixion, it is evident in the Gospel stories that no wall on heaven or on earth can contain or limit the love of God.
Jesus breaks every barrier erected by religion and culture. He touches lepers and a woman with a hemorrhage, making himself ceremonially unclean. He allows Mary Magdalene to sit at his feet as a disciple, a position (the feet of a Jewish Rabbi) that was previously reserved for male disciples. He welcomes little children to the dismay of his disciples. He learns from a Syrophoenician woman. He asks a woman from Samaria for water. He breaks the chains and liberates a demoniac. He eats and drinks with known sinners. He raises the dead.
I believe this is what is needed to attend to our national emergency today. Understanding that nothing in all of creation separates any of us from the love of God, as the Body of Christ, we must do the public, social and political work of Jesus to proclaim every human being is united by this love. We are all beloved children of God; therefore, we must all learn to live as beloved sisters and brothers.
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.
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,
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.