Home by Another Way: Remembering Harold Stewart

harold stewart pic
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

Unto Us, a Child Is Born

Good news from North Haven

Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. All of our waiting and expectation is almost over. We have gathered here this morning, and will gather here again tomorrow night to receive once again the long-expected baby Jesus.  Like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, something inside of us is leaping for joy!

Our anticipation standsin sharp contrast to that first Christmas, when this baby was not received by everyone. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” in response to the good news. But not everyone thought of this birth as good news.

The shepherds were filled with fear. King Herod, despite all his soldiers guarding him at the Palace, was sore afraid as he saw this baby’s birth as a threat to his empire. Even Joseph, the man engaged to Mary, didn’t readily receive the baby. In the beginning he spent many a sleepless night questioning, “Who’s really the father of this baby?”

Jesus was conceived by a woman who was not married to anyone. We have given ugly names to such babies. Thankfully, I don’t here many children called the “b-word” anymore. It is such a sad name to describe a child, I find it inappropriate to say aloud from this pulpit. I do, however, hear the word, as I am certain Mary and Joseph heard the word, illegitimate, to describe such children.  And that, too, illegitimate, is a sad, ugly term for anybody, much less the very Son of God. Today, we also use other sad and ugly terms for children: “illegal,” “alien,” “abomination.”

In contrast to that very first Christmas where very few received this baby they called illegitimate, we will gather with the Church around the world to welcome and embrace this baby. With triumphant voices we will sing, “Come let us adore him!”

And there is a counter miracle occurring here. We are receiving the baby, but this baby is also receiving us. In the birth of Jesus, God came to us because we could not come to God. So, before we congratulate ourselves on our willing and eager reception of this baby, let us wonder at this baby’s reception of us.

Knowing that we cannot reach up to God, God reaches down to us.  God takes on our humanity so that we might assume some of God’s divinity. God came to show us that we are all children of God.  Think about that this morning.

You are a child of God. I am a child of God. We have divine value, sacred worth, a holy purpose.

We need to wonder at this reception, because we Christians have come to speak almost casually of this miracle when we say, “I am child of God.”

As someone who has been in the church for over fifty years now, and a minister for over thirty years, people often tell me that I should write a book.  A wonderful book of church stories filled with stories about you.

A Presbyterian minister from Northhaven, Minnesota did just that. In his book entitled, The Good News from Northhaven, Michael Lindval writes about his Presbyterian congregation.

It was his first Thanksgiving as pastor of the church. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving they were having an infant baptism. Dr. Angus McDonald II, (he sounds Presbyterian doesn’t he?) and his lovely wife, proudly presented their new son, Angus III, otherwise known as Skip, to be baptized.

When it was time for the baptism, Rev. Lindval turned to the congregation and asked what is traditionally asked in many churches that baptize infants. He addressed the congregation and asked: “Who stands with this child?”

Immediately, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and an assortment of relatives and friends, stood up and joined the parents at the front as they held the baby, presenting the baby for baptism.

When the service was over, after the congregation shook the minister’s hand upon exiting the church, Rev. Lindval, walked back through the sanctuary and noticed that one person had remained. He recognized her as someone who always sat on the back pew, closest to the back door. She was a social worker, he remembered. She seemed to be at a loss for words.

After an awkward silence, she commented on how lovely the baptism was, and then, fumbling for words, said to the pastor, “One of my clients, her name is Tina, has had a baby, and well, Tina would like to have the baby baptized.”

The pastor suggested that Tina should come to see him, along with her husband, and then they would discuss the possibility of baptism.

The woman looked up at the pastor and said, “Tina has no husband.  She is not a member of this church but attended the youth group some when she was in Junior High School. But then she got involved with this older boy.  And now she has this baby.  She is only 17.”

The pastor awkwardly mumbled that he would bring the request before the next meeting of Session, their church board meeting.

When the pastor presented the request before the Session, there was a lot of mumbling?  “Who was the father?”  The pastor said that he didn’t know.  “Does Tina have any other family?” “I don’t know,” the pastor said. Heads turned.

“How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises that she was making in the baptism?” was a concern brought by more than one elder.

The pastor only responded by shrugging his shoulders, but thought to himself, “How could they really be sure about anybody’s promise?”

With a lot of reservations, the Session reluctantly approved the baptism of Tina’s baby for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

When the Fourth Sunday of Advent came, the sanctuary was full as children were home from college and many of the members had invited guests. They went through the service singing the usual Advent hymns, “O Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and so forth. Then, it was time for the baptism.

The pastor announced, “And now would those to be presented for baptism come forward.”  An elder of the church stood up and read off the three-by-five card, indicating that he did not remember the woman or the child’s name, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.”  The elder sat back down with an obvious grimace on his face.

Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month old James in her arms. A blue pacifier was stuck in his mouth. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be.

Tina seemed so young, so poor, so alone.

But as she stood there holding that baby with poinsettias and a Chrismon tree shining brightly in the foreground, they could not help but to think of another poor mother with a baby, young, alone, long ago, in somewhat similar circumstances.  Yes, in another place and time, Tina and Mary seemed like sisters.

And then the pastor came to that appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?”  He looked out at the mother of Tina dressed in her meager way, and nodded toward her.  She, almost hesitantly, awkwardly stood and moved toward her daughter and her grandson.

The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed with the questions to be asked of the parents when he became aware of movement within the congregation.  A couple of elders of the church stood up.  And many, on the same row, stood up beside them. Then the Junior High Sunday School teacher stood up. Then a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustered around the baby.

Tina was crying.  Her mother was gripping the altar rail as if she were clutching the railing of a tossing ship, “which in a way she was”—a ship in a great wind.  Moving forward this day so much closer to her ultimate destination. And little James, as the water, touched his forehead, grew peaceful and calm, as if he could feel the warm embrace of the entire congregation. Every person in the room stood as if this was their child, as if they were all family.

The scripture reading was, as it often is during this time before Christmas, 1 John 3:1, “See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Tomorrow night, a baby will be born into our family. But it is by this baby we have been made family.

Maybe you came to this service this morning and plan to come tomorrow night all by yourself.  Maybe you do not have much family, maybe you lost the family you had, or perhaps your family is far away.

But on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, here, right now, do you hear that rustling in the pews? Listen. That’s the sound of your family, the whole human family, taking shape around the manger. And in a few moments, as you gather around this table and prepare to break the bread and drink from the cup, strangers become sisters and brothers.

Christmas means the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us.

And what is that word?

“See what love the Father has given to us so we should be called children of God. And so we are” (1 John 3:1).

For unto us a child is born.

So no child born should ever be called “illegitimate,” “illegal,” “alien,” or an “abomination.”

For unto us a child is born.

So we will stand up to stand with all God’s children.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will be welcomed, loved and affirmed; every child will know their divine value, their sacred worth, and holy purpose.

For unto us a child is born.

So all children will receive the hospitality of a cold cup of water, a hot meal, and warm shelter.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will have access to equitable education, a fair living wage, affordable healthcare, equal protection under the law—everything they need for a future full of promise, potential and peace.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will know freedom, justice and salvation.

For unto us a child is born

So every child will experience life: abundant and eternal.

For unto us a child is born,

So blessed is the fruit of every womb.

I Smell Smoke

Pentecost fire

Luke 3:15-17 NRSV

Let’s be honest. Church, even as Christmas approaches, can be a pretty boring experience. Each Sunday we sit in the same pew, follow the same order of service, look at the back of the same ol’ heads, sing the same hymns, say the same prayers, and hear a sermon that we’ve already heard before.

I remember as a child doing all kinds of things to do to pass the time. I remember counting the number of times the preacher would wipe the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief. I also remember holding mama’s hand and playing with her jewelry, turning the rings on her fingers, messing with her bracelets. And when she would get tired of all of that, I would just sit there and twiddle my thumbs, while secretly hoping and praying, begging for something, anything to happen.

Lord, if you love me, why don’t you send mouse running down the aisle, or through the choir loft? And Lord, if you really love me, maybe a cat chasing the mouse! How about bird swooshing through the front door!  Please, Lord, let something happen, something, anything!

I’ll never forget that Sunday my prayers were answered. In the middle of the typical, predictable service, while we were singing the offertory hymn, we began to smell this smell. It was hard to tell what it was, a burnt, smoky kind of smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy whisper, “I think I smell smoke.”  Mama whispered back, “Gene, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Then, in the middle of the half-hearted singing and murmuring, someone in the congregation, shouted: “Fire!”

We then did what most folks do when someone yells, “fire,” in a crowded building. We got out.

We evacuated the sanctuary, but only to discover, there wasn’t really a fire. The furnace had simply over heated or something.

It was one of the best worship services that I’d ever attended!

As a pastor, there have been many a Sunday I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it would somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have thought, what we need is somebody, anybody to stand up in this place and yell “fire” to just to create a little bit of excitement.

Well, this week, we’re in luck, because somebody is coming that is going to do just that! In the middle of our order of service that hasn’t changed in decades, comes this shocking introduction by John the Baptist:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I believe we really need to hear these words, because of how these words cut across the grain of why most of us, especially us grown-ups come to this predictable place to worship Sunday after Sunday. Children may still pray for something exciting to happen at church, but we adults, we know better. We know that nothing ever really happens here. Nothing ever changes. If we’ve never done it that way before, then we’re not going to be doing it anytime soon. And you know something? We like it that way.

We come here seeking a place of comfort and quiet consolation. Because after all, our lives are always on fast-forward, a real-rat race, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to sit down, to stop, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with that which is stable and dependable, even if it issometimes boring.

In our fast-paced world where we have grown accustomed to burning the candles at both ends, especially during these weeks before Christmas, we like to come to this place Sunday after Sunday to slow down, cool down, quiet down and settle down. In a world ablaze with constant change and ceaseless activity, we need a place, if just for an hour, to just chill out. So here we are. The problem is: here comes someone who does something as audacious as yelling “fire” crowded building!

When we least expect it and perhaps least desire it, John the Baptist stands up and says, “Someone who is more powerful than me is coming, and he is coming with fire!”

Moses had just killed a man in Egypt. He’s a fugitive, a sinful human being floundering in the middle of nowhere without a purpose. Then, out of nowhere, comes, you guessed it, fire!  A bush bursts into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “I’m sending you Moses to stand up to the Pharaoh, to the powers that be, to give liberty to the oppressed!”

And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you. I intend for you to rise up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of refugees and migrants, to proclaim with your words and actions liberty and justice for all.

The children of Israel were freed by Moses from Egyptian slavery.  But shortly thereafter, in the wilderness, they began complaining, “You know, at least as Pharaoh’s slaves, we had three meals a day. At least the status quo gave us some stability, some sense of security. But now, here in the dangerous wilderness, we don’t know where we are going or what we are doing.”

Do you remember the response of God?

God said, “You poor, poor babies. I’m so sorry. Let me slow things down a bit and let you build a comfy and cozy sanctuary from the wilderness. Let me give you some nice padded pew cushions, so you can sit down and take a load off. I’ll send you a good preacher to sooth your spirits, ease your minds.”

No, God said, “I’ll give you fire, a pillar of fire leading you out into the darkness, driving you towards your purpose, pulling you into my future. I’m giving you fire to lead you to be the people I am calling you to be out in the wilderness.

And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “Jesus is coming and he is kindling that same Exodus fire. And he’s going to light you up and show you gifts you never even knew you had, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”

When the prophet Daniel describes the throne of God, he doesn’t describe a reign that is stationary and static, immovable and immobile. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne with wheels, active, on the move, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.

And here comes John saying to all of us who prefer to be set in our ways, secure in our beliefs, Jesus is coming on a chariot with those same wheels of fire to change your ways, challenge your assumptions and move you to take action.

The disciples were gathered together after Jesus had left their presence. They were just following the order of worship, going through the motions. The ushers were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone’s comfortable and seated, doors shut, typical boring service, then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, the building began to rumble, the windows started rattling, the doors swung open, and somebody shouted, “fire!”

We call that day the day Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit showed up as fire. William Willimon says that on that day, “the church was born in the crucible, in the furnace of God’s fire.

[And here comes Jesus, saying to those of us today who have come to this place to check out and chill out], My Spirit is ablaze with that same Pentecostal fire and I’m looking for a few good men and women here who are combustible!’”

The truth is, when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing ever changes, where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as the children of a dynamic, moving God. We are not the incendiary force that Jesus ignites us to be. And we are one boring sight—to God as well as to the world.

Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, disrupted, when we allow ourselves to be engaged by the Christ, when we truly decide to not just worship Jesus in here but to follow Jesus out there, to not just go to church but to be the church, when we move our church out of the sanctuary into the world, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve him, to truly love all people as we love ourselves, to meet the needs of our community; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the movement of God, we become a purifying and warming blaze, and it is, I promise you, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.

The question today is: Will First Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. For today, here in this place, the good news is:

I smell smoke.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

its the end of the world as we know it

Luke 21:25-36 NRSV

December is here. The Advent Season has arrived. As Luke says, it’s time to “be on guard.” “It’s time to be alert.” “The Son of Man is coming!” It’s time to get ready! It’s time to make some preparations! It’s time to get our homes, this church and this city looking more like Christmas!

In just a few weeks, wherever we are, standing in line at Wal-Mart, sitting in the office or sitting in church, people will start asking us the question, “Are you ready?” “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Of course, what they mean is: “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping? Have you purchased all of our groceries? Have your wrapped all of your presents? Is your house decorated?”

But the question that we probably should be asking, and especially be asking here in church is: “Are we ready for Jesus?” “Are we really ready for the Advent of the Messiah? Are we really ready for the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ?”

“The gospel”—that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

The problem is that it is this word, “gospel,” is one of those words that we have heard and used so much as Christians, that it’s meaning has been distorted, diluted and even lost.

For some the word “gospel” only means some kind of individual, private relationship. It means the forgiveness of personal sins. It’s an individual’s ticket to heaven. It means that a personal transaction can be made with Jesus to avoid going to hell.

For others, the word “gospel” means the “right thinking about the Christian faith.” When some say “gospel,” they mean the body of doctrine that a person is expected to believe to be a true Christian. It’s a list of things we are supposed to be against as Christians, and most of it is individual, personal things.

However, the truth is that if we take the Greek word, evangelion, the word we translate “gospel,” many theologians agree that the word would best be translated as “revolution.”

In Jesus’ day, it meant “good news.”  But evangelionwas not just any good news. And it was never understood as individual, personal good news. But was good news that had political and social significance.

When one nation was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, evangelionor “gospel” was what was the report that was brought to the General. “Good news, the battle has been won!”

Or when a son was born to the king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, evangelion or “gospel” was what they announced to the public.  “Good news! A child has been born to the king. Our reign is secure.”

Mary’s gospel song at the news of Jesus’ birth is an example of such good news proclamation. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The good news, the evangelion continues: kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over, and the rich are being sent away empty.”

Her song is nothing less than a battle cry!

The song of her kinsman Zechariah at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, is a similar gospel song: “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”

And when that baby grew up, when John began his own preaching in the wilderness, Luke literally described it as “gospeling.”  And what was the nature of his gospel or` good news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.”

“And the crowds asked him, ‘what then should we do?’  In reply he said to them, ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food, must do likewise.’”

In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, in terms almost identical to John’s, that “the kingdom of heaven is near,” and then more precisely, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And by the way, this year of the Lord’s favor, this acceptable year, is what is called in Leviticus “the year of Jubilee.”

According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.

It would involve turning the world upside down, the redistribution of wealth and power.

Do you detect a pattern to this good news?  When God comes into the world, when God moves against the present order, it is always good news for the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the proud and the powerful—it’s political, economic, social good news, much more than individual, personal good news.

Evangelion means the end of the world as we know it.  Evangelion is what is described in our scripture lesson this morning: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations.” Our Savior is the one who saves the world by disrupting the old order of things and bringing a brand new order. And his reign, his dominion, is going to be so adversarial toward dominion of the powers-that-be, that his work among us is nothing less than a revolution.

No wonder that there were many in Judea that thought that good news really didn’t sound that good news at all.

No wonder John the Baptist ended up dead shortly after his sermon.

No wonder Jesus himself found himself hanging on a cross between two thieves just three years after first announcing this good news.

This is the good news of the gospel. This is the good news that John and Jesus, Mary and Zechariah proclaimed. It is not individual, personal good news that changes our hearts saves our souls. It is revolutionary good news that changes everything and saves the world!

Which begs the questions: Is this our idea of good news?

I suppose that the main difference between good newsand bad newsis where you happen to be standing when you get the news.

Here I stand. My life, my world is not too shabby. It’s a pretty good world, a pretty good life. I’m benefiting fairly well from the present order. I am pretty well-fixed, fairly secure, quite cozy. I have warm clothes, a warm home, a warm car, and warm food to eat and drink. I have never felt oppressed, hated, or discriminated against. I don’t need a revolution. And I don’t really want a revolution, especially if that revolution will come cause me to sacrifice something in my life, if it is going to mean the end of my world as I know it.

No wonder the meaning of the word gospel has been changed over the years from revolutionary good news to merely individual, personal good news.

“Good news!  The Messiah’s coming and he’s going to finally set right what’s wrong with this world!  He’s going to do justice where injustice has been done!” “He is going to change everything! He’s turning this world upside down. “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

“Well, please forgive me for not rushing over to Bethlehem for the party!”

When Jesus was born, according to Luke, people like me missed the whole thing. The angels’ heavenly message of evangelion came to none of them. Rather, the heavens split open, songs filled the air, and an angelic army appeared to who?  To lowly, poor shepherds out in the fields working the night shift.

And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.” Did you know that this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus, one of the world’s most powerful and ruthless dictators?

When Augustus made some imperial decree to support Roman occupation of the Near East, the following were the words which opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”

Do you see what’s going on here? Christmas angels now sing the Emperor Augustus’ imperialist words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest. There’s a new king on the throne, and Jesus Christ is King!” Therefore, Augustus is not.

Love is King. Selfishness is not.

Generosity is King. Greed is not.

Humility is King. Pride is not.

Social justice is King. Inequality is not.

Mercy is King. Putting yourself first is not.

Grace is King. Judgment is not.

Selflessness, sacrifice and self-expenditure is King. Self-protection and self-preservation is not.

Being a church that is about feeding the hungry is King, coming to church to get fed ourselves is not.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

It’s good news.  I guess.

Let us pray together.

Come Lord Jesus. Expectantly, eagerly, we await your advent among us.  And when you come, give us the courage to receive you, to open our doors to you, and to open our hearts.  Give us the grace to receive you as you are, not as we would imagine you to be.  Give us the strength to step up, to let go, to move out, and to become citizens of your reign.  Amen.

A Glimpse of Heaven: Remembering Janice Rickman

Janice Rickmans Tie Dye Moment
May 24, 1946 – Dec. 8, 2018

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner, has wondered what Heaven is like. With me, he believes we can get a foretaste of heaven right here on earth.  Buechner writes: “To speak of ‘heavenly’ music or a ‘heavenly’ day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something.”

Upon experiencing something that is soooo good, perhaps we have all said, “Ahhhh! This is heaven!”  A bite of chocolate cake. A warm cookie with cold milk.  A lover’s touch.  A faithful friend.  A child’s hug.  A walk on a beach or in the snow. Resting one’s head on your mother’s shoulders. Undeserved forgiveness.  Unconditional love.  Unwavering devotion. Unexplained strength.

I heard a another preacher describe it this way: Heaven is sort of like this perfect room on the second floor of the house. It is a room upstairs where we are not yet permitted to enter from our position in a room here on the first floor.

However, there is this small, tiny hole in the ceiling of our room. And if we position ourselves just so under that hole.  At just the right angle.  At just the right moment.  If the light is just so. The shadows fade and we can see a little of that room. We can catch a glimpse of Heaven.

Greta will tell you that one thing that she will never forget is her mother recalling the moments after Greta was born, and specifically that moment Janice held her for the first time. As soon as the doctor handed Greta to her, as she held Greta in her arms, pressed her lips to kiss Greta’s forehead, and said Greta was “as warm as toast.”

Greta, you will always remember that, because your mother was describing a moment for her that was nothing less than heavenly. As she held you in her arms, as she loved you as she loved Bradley and Sarah, with a love that was out of this world, that hole in the ceiling got a lot larger for your mother. The light got just right, the shadows faded and heaven came down.

The Bible paints many portraits of the widening of this hole in the ceiling.

The prophet Isaiah prays for such widening:

Shower, O heavens, from above,

and let the skies rain down righteousness;

let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,

and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;

I the Lord have created it. (Isa 45).

Ezekiel writes about the glimpses of heaven he experienced:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1).

Malachi talks about opening a window to heaven,

…see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing (Malachi 3).

John talks about opening a door to heaven:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’ (Revelation 4).

And then we have those beautiful recollections of Jesus’ baptism as the Gospel Writers describe the heavens opening up. Mark literally says the heavens were “ripped apart” as the Spirit of God descended like a dove.

Greta and Sarah, I do not believe either one of you will ever forget the many ways that your mother helped to open up the heavens for you, to make that tiny hole in the ceiling a little wider, to move you to just the right position, to be in just the right light, at just the right angle, for the many times she caused heaven to only open but to actually come down so close to earth that you could feel it, hear it, smell it, and touch it.

When we study the Bible, from the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, through the occupation of Israel by Babylon, to the oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire—from the tribulations of Job, the persecution of Daniel, through the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, to the trials and hardships of the Apostles Paul and John, the one theme that is constant is the divine strength, the holy resoluteness, the sacred presence of God in difficult times.

Greta and Sarah, you and Bradley, all of her grandchildren have witnessed this miraculous strength in ways that you are still trying to, but may never comprehend. Whatever storm came her way, divorce, death and disease, her love for you never failed, in fact, it never even wavered. Her love for you was indeed out of this world. No matter her circumstance she was always there with you, never away from you, always for you, never against you.

She possessed this supernatural strength, this holy fire, this divine determination to always be there to give any of you what you needed. Janice became a single-parent when Bradley was 11, Sarah was 9 and Greta was 2, and although she experienced the grief and sorrow of divorce, she never let you kids see it. She remained dedicated to her job as a legal Clerk and later with ABF to make sure that your needs were always met. If she ever went into her room, closed the door and cried, you never knew it. Her love was selfless. Her love was sacrificial. It was self-expending. It was heavenly. And there is no wonder that you look back on your childhood today, at her love and care and strength, and ponder, “How in the world did she do that?” In her strength, you were catching a glimpse of heaven.

During this Advent season, we celebrate another moment when the heavens were opened, when a choir of angels filled the skies to announce the birth of a baby.

John describes the announcement this way,

See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1).

Through the gift of a baby born in Bethlehem, we are all born into the family of God. Through this baby named Jesus, we have been made family.

For 20 years, Janice worked as a legal clerk here in Fort Smith. When she left that position to work for ABF, she grieved. Why? Because her co-workers there in the legal office had become family to her. The same thing happened while she was at ABF.

Janice was not a member of the church or the denomination with which I serve as pastor. She was a proud member of the Church of Christ.

When she first moved to Methodist Village, one of her big concerns was that they were going to make her a Methodist. To illustrate this, the first weekend she moved into Methodist Village this past April, they had a tornado warning. The protocol for a tornado warning is to place identification tags on a lanyard around the necks of all the residents. When they placed a name tag around Janice’s neck, she wasn’t so much concerned about the possible tornadoes as she was about her name being printed under the word “Methodist.” She took one look at her badge and said, “I knew it. They have made me Methodist!”

So when I would visit her at Methodist Village and others would ask her if I was her pastor, she would immediately respond: “Oh no. He is my daughter’s pastor.”

This makes it all the more special some of the last words she spoke to me. She looked up at me said, “I love you.” Janice loved me, not as her pastor, but as family.

With those three simple words, “I love you”, she moved me. She moved to just the right spot, to that spot where the light was just right, to that spot where the shadows faded, and just for a moment, I could see through that hole in the ceiling, and I caught a glimpse of heaven.

This is the power of love. Love has the power to make strangers family. Although we have different faiths and different beliefs, love has the power to unite us all as sisters and brothers.  And when we love one another like family, when we treat one another as sisters and brothers, the heavens are ripped apart!

Since I have been a pastor here in Fort Smith, I have been impressed with the quality of care and love I have witnessed through the good people who work and serve at Methodist Village. They truly love and care for the residents as family. So each time I go out there, every time I visit, I catch a glimpse of heaven.

As I’ve mentioned, when Janice first became a resident of Methodist Village, it took her a little while to accept it. At first, it was a strange place, a place where she did not belong. After all, as she would tell me, there were “old people” living there. She assumed that her stay there would only be temporary. She would get a little rehab and then go home.

So, who could blame her for not immediately embracing nursing home residency and all of the activities and programs they offered. When she first arrived, if you wanted to visit Janice, you knew that you could always find Janice in her room. She wouldn’t be in dining hall with the other residents tossing a bean bag or playing bingo.

One day, when Sarah came to visit, like always she went straight to her room, but Janice was not there. She walked down to the nurses’ station where they would sometimes seat her, but Janice was not there. She searched the entire facility until she finally asked someone for assistance.

They said, “Well, today is Tie Dye Day! Perhaps she is with the other residents making a Tie Dye!”

Sarah immediately responded, “Oh, I don’t think so.” But they went down to the dining room anyway where everyone was tie dyeing, and there she was.

She was sitting there wearing this tie dye wrap, or scarf, or hat that she had made on her head. And she was holding this clapper in one hand, this hand that made a clapping noise when you moved it back and forth.

She looked up at Sarah. And waving the clapper in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, giggled and said, “I am having a tie-dye moment! And I am ready to party.”

Sarah responded the way that most of us respond these days when we catch a glimpse of something like this, something beautiful, something fun, something that warms our heart and makes us smile, something that is soooo good that we can only describe it as heavenly.  She pulled out her phone and took a picture and sent it to Greta.

And the good news is that this picture of Janice having a tie-dye moment, is a picture of Janice today. Through the tiny hole in the ceiling, we can see her today, sitting in the banquet hall of heaven, surrounded by family including her son Bradley, enveloped by eternal love, encircled by amazing grace, giggling, clapping, partying.

And because of that, we who grieve today know we are going to be ok. Greta and Sarah are going to be fine. Her grandchildren are going to be fine. Not only because your mother and grandmother has given you some of her strength and love (after all, you said you only needed a piece of it to be ok), but because you will be able to always see her, she will always be with you, each time something moves you to just the right spot, at just the right angle, when the light is just right, and the shadows fade, and this warmth comes over you, as warm as toast.