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Sad day for United Methodists…

A Movement of Selfless Love

inclusive church 2

One day, a long-time, very wealthy church member approached a new pastor and asked: “Pastor, are we going to be the kind of church that welcomes and accepts those people?

By “those” people, I am sure he was referring to people of color, people who do not speak English, people from other faiths, poor people, people covered with tattoos, undocumented people, mentally-ill people, LGBTQ people, people with police records or anyone who does not look like or think like him.

The new pastor answered, “Of course we are going to be that kind of church.”

The wealthy man replied, “I suggest that you do everything in your power to prevent that from happening, or I am going to take my family and my money and find another church!”

The new pastor responded: “Well, you are in luck. Because you will not have to search very long to find another church…

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The Real World

Walter Cronkite

Luke 6:17-26 NRSV

Dishonest, greedy politicians. Drug addiction. Gun violence. Russian collusion. Racist public policies. Perpetual war. Poverty. Haitian protests. Homelessness. Immorality. Inequality. White Christian Nationalism. Child abuse. Climate Change. Bigotry. Mental illness. School shootings. Sexism. Suicide. Sick religion.

Billy Joel once sang: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

In other words, this is the way it is, and this is the way it has always been. This is reality. As Walter Cronkite used to sign off after talking about

Watergate, Vietnam, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and the murder of John Lennon: “That is the way it is.” In other words: This is the real world.

Which raises a very important question: What is reality? And who gets to define reality. Who gets to say what is real in a world where, in the words of Plato, there is obviously “more shadow than truth?”

The world is forever telling hopeful, progressive Christians like myself to “get real.”  “Bleeding heart preachers like you are out of touch with the real world.” “Things are not getting any better.” “He’s never going to change.” “She is not going to ever be able to take care of herself.” “Preacher, you are wasting your time.”

“You know, I think faith in God is fine and all, belief in a higher power of love and justice is okay, but sometimes you just got to get real.”  “You say what now? That selfless, inclusive love can change the world? That love wins?” “Preacher, it’s like you are living in another world.” “You need to come off of all that progressive idealistic thinking and hoping and believing and face the facts!”

The world is forever telling people like me: “Wake up ‘cause you must be dreaming.” “Open your eyes man.” “Hello?!” “Get your heads out of the clouds, and get real.”

All of which begs my prior question: “What is real? What on earth is reality?” “What are the real facts of life?” And “Who gets to say what is real?”  Who gets to define reality?” “Who gets to name the facts of life?”  “Who is ultimately in charge of this world in which we live?” “Who gets to say the reason we are all here and the direction the world is heading?”

Do we really come into this place Sunday after Sunday to escape from the real world? After all, we do call it a “sanctuary.” When we enter this sacred space where all are welcomed, accepted and loved equally and unconditionally, are we entering into some sort of never-never land? What are we really doing here in this hour with all of our singing and hoping and praying and preaching and eating and drinking from this table?

Maybe it would help us to listen again to one of Jesus’ very first sermons. Now, you might think that Jesus would use his first sermon to tell us what to do. For isn’t that the purpose of a sermon? To learn what we must do in order to live a better life? You come to this sanctuary every Sunday to get some advice on how to survive out there in the real world.” Right?

But this doesn’t seem to be the purpose of this sermon in Luke. Jesus is not telling people what to do out there in the real world. Instead, Jesus is defining the real world. Jesus is telling the crowd what’s what. “Here are the facts” says Jesus. “This is the way life is.” “This is the real world.”

Jesus begins his sermon by pointing out the people in the world who are blessed. Jesus doesn’t tell people what they must do in order to be blessed; rather, he simply announces that certain people in this world are blessed. The entire first half of Jesus’ sermon is simply a list of facts.  He’s simply stating the facts of life. He’s telling us the way things really are in the real world.  In one of his very first sermons, Jesus is defining reality.

And it was as obvious to his first hearers as it is as obvious to us today, that according to Jesus, the way things really are in the real world is nowhere close to the way we thought they were. In a few simple statements, Jesus turns the whole world completely upside down. If you thought God was in the business of damning the sinner and rewarding the saint, Jesus says: “You better think again!”

Blessed are the poor—the same people whom we overlook, disregard, despise and consider failures, worthless. Blessed are the mothers who can barely take care of themselves, much less their children. Blessed are the fathers who are doped up and locked up and all together messed up.

Blessed are the hungry—the same hungry people who we know must be lazy or inept. Blessed are the ones who we think are always looking for a hand-out instead of a hand-up. Blessed are the unwaged and unemployed who we believe are solely responsible for most of their misery.

Blessed are those who weep—the same whiners and complainers who are always acting like they’ve had it worse than everyone else. Blessed are those who think they are the only ones in the world with problems. Blessed are those self-centered crybabies who believe the whole world should stop and join their little pity party.

Jesus says, that reality is, the God’s honest truth is, that God blesses those in the world whom we tend to curse.

I expect it was a shock for all the good, church-going, Bible-believing people of that day when Jesus completely shattered their old image of God and the world by introducing them to a brand new world. A brand new way of seeing things. A brand new reality.  A new creation.

Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his sermon by healing everyone who came forth and touched him. The mass healings were a sign that a new world, a brand new reality, was breaking into the old world where those on the bottom are brought to the top. In this new reality, those who are poor and those who are weeping are put at the center of what God is up to in our world.

No, in defining reality in this sermon Jesus does not tell us to go out and do anything. However, by implication, Jesus’ words lead all of us to think of some things that we need to do, to think of some places that we need to go, to think of some people that we need to see.

But we do not do these things or go to these places or see these people because Christ commands us to in his first sermon. We do not visit the nursing homes or the hospitals, we do not feed the hungry, we do not help a stranger clean-up her house, we do not give generously to the mission and ministry of the church because Jesus tells us to.

We do these things and go to these places and give of ourselves, because of the way we now know the world to be.

We rebuke dishonest, immoral, and greedy politicians who hurt the poor so we can get in line with what’s what.  We stand against racism and all kinds of bigotry to get real. We detest division and seek unity to get in step with the facts of life.

We deplore the worship of guns and all apathy towards war and all violence to get grounded in the truth.

We welcome and include children, we fight mental illness, and all sorts of addiction, we support healthcare for all, and we are good stewards of this earth, not merely because we believe Jesus leads us to do those things, but because we want our feet planted deep in the real world, in the new reality that Christ has revealed to us. We love our neighbors as ourselves, because we believe God’s got the whole world in God’s hands.

William Willimon tells the story of nurse who works with seriously ill cardiac patients. Most of her patients were born with defective hearts. She assists in the surgery and the care of people whose hearts have all but given out. Many of her patients do not make it through the very delicate and risky surgery. And most of the ones who do pull through the surgery have a very difficult time in recovery. They are prone to infection and a host of complications. It can be a depressing and very draining job.

As her pastor, one day Willimon asked her, “How do you do it? How do you keep going?”

Without hesitation the nurse replied: “Walks in the park.” She then explained, “I take an hour off for lunch every day and go for a stroll in the nearby park. And there I see people everywhere who are happy and healthy. I see children laughing and playing, and I see older people sitting on benches enjoying being with one another. I am thereby reminded that this is how things are meant to be. This is the real world. And this is what keeps me going day after day in hospital.”

Are her walks in the park an escape from reality? Some trip into never-never land?  No, they are for her, a realistic engagement with the reality of the way things are supposed to be. And these engagements keep her going in an oftentimes shadowy world where it is easy to forget what’s what.

That is, of course, one of the main reasons we come to this place Sunday after Sunday—to be reminded of what’s what, to get a grip, to capture a vision, to receive a picture of reality now that God through Jesus Christ has reached out to us. We come to this place, to this sanctuary, not to escape from reality, but to get real.

We come as shameful, sinful human beings who are unable at times to look ourselves in the mirror, and we receive grace and forgiveness.

We come feeling loathed and despised and lonely, and we find acceptance and love.

We come broken and sick and tired and weak, and we are given healing and wholeness.

We come with pain and grief and despair, and we are offered assurance and hope.

We come floundering and meandering, and we receive a purpose.

We come to this place failing and fading and dying, and we are gifted with life abundant and eternal.

That, my friends, is the way it is.

This is reality now that God through Jesus Christ has come into our world.  May we all have the grace this day and every day to get real, to live in this reality and to share this reality with all people.

  O God, grant us the grace to see the world as it really is, the world as you intend it to be, the world you are working to create for us. Keep revealing to us your intent for the world and for our lives. Then, help us to live in the light of that vision. Help us to align our lives with the true shape of reality, this day and always. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Far from the Shallow Now

over your head

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

Early one morning, Jesus is standing on a beach preaching to a large crowd of people. The crowd that had gathered, and were probably still gathering, is so great, Jesus felt like they were about to push him right into the lake.

As he is preaching, he sees two boats left on the beach by some fishermen who were washing their nets. He gets into the boat belonging to Simon, and asks Simon to anchor the boat a little way from the shore, where Jesus continues his sermon to the crowds from the boat.

Luke doesn’t record the words to Jesus’ sermon, but from his sermon in the very next chapter, we could probably take a good guess: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Love everyone, even your enemies…” –a sermon of a abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love that can change the world.

After Jesus finishes his sermon, he suggests that he wants to do a little bit of fishing himself. He to says to Simon: “Let’s leave these shallow waters and let down the nets.”

Simon responds, “Master, with all due respect, I, along with my long-time business partners, James and John, have fished these waters all night long, and we haven’t caught a thing.  Yet, if it will make you happy, I will go out a little deeper and put down the nets.”

It is then that a miracle happens.

As soon as the nets hit the water, they catch so many fish that the nets begin to break. They quickly call out to James and John to get the other boat and offer them a hand.  And when they come, they fill the boats with so many fish that both boats begin to sink.

And as Simon takes in the overwhelming scene— nets breaking, boats sinking, fish everywhere, a scene of failure and scarcity transformed into triumph and abundance, a scene of what can happen when you leave the shallow for something deeper, what can be experienced when you obey the commands of Jesus—Simon is overwhelmed, and falling down at Jesus’ knees, he says: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “Go away, get out of here!  Leave me alone!”

It was as if Simon suddenly realized that he had only thought that Jesus was finished with his sermon. Jesus is fishing, but he is still preaching. Jesus is still revealing God’s abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love. Believing he is underserving of God’s love, how unworthy he is of such abundance, Simon asks Jesus to go away.

But Jesus never goes away easily. “Simon, not only are you worthy to receive this miraculous love, you are worthy to share it with others, so do not be afraid; for you are no longer going to be catching fish, you are going to be catching people!”

“I am asking you, Simon, along with your business partners James and John, to leave your shallow, contained, little world to venture out with me into a deeper, revolutionary, larger reality. The truth is, Simon, I need you to go deeper. I need as many people as I can get to go deeper. The problems of the world are too great and your lives are too short to waste any time wading in the shallow. And the grace of God is too extravagant. The mercy of God is too abundant. The love of God is too boundless for you to keep it all to yourselves!

I need you to leave your shallow, safe world of spending all of your time making a living, meeting the needs of your immediate family, and I need you follow me into the deep, risky reality of sacrificing your time to make a difference in the lives of others, meeting the needs of the human family.

I need you to leave your shallow life that feeds you and your children, and accept a deeper life that feeds every child of God.

I need you to move beyond your shallow, narrow mission of mowing and watering your own lawn, and accept the deeper, wider mission of caring for the entire planet.

I need you to lose the apathy towards issues that do not concern you and your limited of circle of family and friends to possess a deep empathy towards all who experience injustice.

I need you to move beyond your shallow understanding of success. Simon, no matter what you have been taught, success is not defined by the amount of fish you catch, the size of your bank account or even how many children or grandchildren you have. Your success is not defined by the size of your budget or the number of people sitting in the pews of your synagogue. It is so much deeper than that!

Your success will be measured by how many people you helped to know the love of God.

I need you to go deeper, Simon. You too, James and John, and be my disciples and fish for people. Do the hard, messy, oftentimes frustrating work for meeting the needs of people, caring for people, loving people. I need you to move far from the shallow now to do the deep work of grace.

I believe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summed up what Jesus was trying to say to Simon, James and John, when he said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Now, here is what I believe is the real miracle in this story. It’s verse 11. After Jesus invited them to leave the shallow for something deeper, to leave catching fish for catching people we read: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

This is miraculous because when it came to accepting the extravagant grace and love of God revealed in the large catch of fish, Simon, seemed to have some difficulty: “Get out of here, Jesus! I am a sinful man!”

However, when it comes to following Jesus to a deeper life, to love others, to live selflessly and sacrificially, he, with James and John, leave everything and follow.

This seem even more miraculous when we consider it is the exact opposite of how most of us work. We seem have no problem accepting the grace of God. We have no issues receiving the love of God. But we prefer to keep it shallow. We prefer to keep it safe, keep it contained, keep it to ourselves.  We are reluctant to go deeper.

Because going deeper can be dangerous. Going deeper can be costly. Going deeper can be overwhelming. In the deep, fish will break your nets, and people will break your hearts.

Eddie Donavan from the Fort Smith Boys Home illustrated this when he spoke to our Kiwanis group this week. He said several people say they would like to help at the Boys Home, but when they come to the home and begin to interact with the boys, boys who have a plethora of needs, they immediately realize that they are in way over their heads.

So here is the real miracle:

Jesus says: “Simon, from now on, you will be catching people.”  And Simon drops everything and follows.

And the good news is, I am blessed to witness this very same miracle today. For you are also following this Jesus. Not only have you accepted the grace of Christ, but you are making an effort to share it with others. For you are here, with First Christian Church, part of a movement for wholeness in our fragmented world.

My friends, you are in deep.

Some might say that you are in over your head.

You are far from the shallow now.

You have gathered here this morning with a group of people who are called Disciples of Christ, disciples who have decided to go on a journey to share the abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love with all people. And we know this journey is not an easy one. This journey is not a comfortable one. And today, this journey is not a popular one. This journey is a risky, and it is costly.

You have decided to go on a journey with a church that has several members who are committed to the deep and difficult work of recovery through Alcohol Anonymous.

You are on a journey with other members who do the deep and oftentimes discouraging work with persons addicted to narcotics;

With others who do the deep and demanding work of leading a summer camp for troubled boys;

With others who do the deep and daunting work of with people who are homeless;

With others who do the deep and draining work of being Court Appointed Special Advocates for children in the court system;

And with others who do the deep and disturbing work with foster children.

You have decided to go on a journey with a church that is committed to following the deep, difficult and sometimes dangerous way of Jesus.

We know, we could just to Disciples Hall after worship and enjoy a shallow plate of spaghetti together. Enjoy what we call some good ol’ christian  fellowship. Share a laugh or two.

But we are going to go deeper than that.

We are going to listen Gary Udouj from the Adult Education Center and Heather Edwards from the Literary Council as they share opportunities for us to give of ourselves, sacrifice some of our time, to do some very deep work with people whose lives are literally hanging in the balance.

We know, we could just send checks to ministries that feed the hungry, but we are going deeper than that. We are going to work with organizations like Antioch Youth and Family, and movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, and we are going to work alongside our elected leaders to do the deep work of rooting out some of the causes of hunger and poverty and come up with solutions right here in Fort Smith.

Yes, my friends, today, you are in deep.

But I believe it was John Shedd once said: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

We are on a ship with Jesus. He is the captain who has navigates our journey out of the harbor. And we are far from the shallow now.