A New Church Expression

New Church Ministry

Mark 6:6-13

When I think about following the way of Jesus, I am drawn to Mark 6. It is the account of Jesus sending his new friends out into the world for the very first time to be disciples, to do the very same things he had been doing. It has been called: “The first mission trip.” I believe it should also be called: “The way to be church.”

6aAnd he was amazed at their unbelief. 

I wonder if Jesus is still amazed at our unbelief. Having served on a church staff for 30 years, I am often amazed how many in the church today do not seem to believe that we are called to live, love and serve like Jesus. And believe that living, loving and serving in that way has the power to change the world.

6bThen he went about among the villages teaching.

Jesus never stayed in one place for very long. He was constantly on the move, going from village to village, teaching, healing and restoring. He never set up shop in a building and expected people to come to him.

7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 

Jesus didn’t go on mission trips by himself. He called and gave authority to disciples to go on mission trips and do the things that he did.

8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 

Disciples are to travel light, to keep it simple and to stick to the basics. They are adopt a minimalist approach. Disciples do not need unnecessary funds or line items, and they do not need to carry any baggage that might slow them down, make them forget about their mission, or enable them to get too comfortable in one particular place. Jesus said that they need to leave some things behind if they want to be his disciples in the world. It is a selfless journey. And notice that Jesus said they are to take no bread. Could that mean that Jesus wants them to go out and share a meal with others?

10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Disciples can expect failure. If disciples are following Jesus and taking his inclusive love out to the people, they will not be received by everyone. But they should peacefully keep moving and keep doing what they have been called to do.

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 

Disciples go out and proclaim that all should repent of their selfish, self-centered ways. However, that is difficult to do if the disciples are not willing to repent of their own self-interested ways.

13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Disciples were sent out into the world big things. They stand up and speak out against evil. They restore, and they heal. They are a literal movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

The Challenge

I believe this account of Jesus sending the disciples out on a mission trip raises several questions for the church today:

  • What if a church’s annual “Mission Trip” was not just one week a year, but it was 52 weeks a year? What if church itself was a Mission Trip?

 

  • What if the church truly left the building to move from village to village to teach the selfless, restorative, healing love of God to all people? What if the church stopped talking about getting outside of the walls of the sanctuary and the church literally had no walls? What if the church proclaimed the love of God, not in one town, but in several towns?

 

  • What if the church left behind all of its baggage—its old structures, old frameworks, and old models? What if the church left behind its love for the nostalgic memory of the way things used to be? What if the church stopped its pining to return to the good old days, and instead, dreamed new dreams and embraced a new vision, and moved freely forward into good new days? What if the church simply kept it simple by sticking to the basics, like loving others as Jesus loved others?

 

  • What if the church was a courageous, risk-taking, wall-breaking, peace-making venture that was never afraid of going to new places, even to those places it is not welcomed? What if the the church felt free to move around to multiple locations to do the work it has been called to do?

 

  • What if the church repented and changed its ways from a selfish faith that focused on going to heaven and receiving a blessing? And instead, what if the church embraced a faith that focused on being in the world and being a blessing to the world? What if the church was able to catch a new vision of how to be church, how to be on a mission to follow Jesus wherever he leads it to go?

 

  • What if the church was a literal, living movement for wholeness in this fragmented world? And what if church was about making new disciples instead of keeping old members happy?

I believe the answer is: “We could change the world!”

 

Northshore Disciples: A Movement of Selfless Love

Beginning January 1, 2020, I will begin working in partnership with the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), New Church Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Grace Disciples of Christ Church, to create and lead a new expression of church north of New Orleans, Louisiana called, Northshore Disciples: A Movement of Selfless Love.

We will bring together a diverse group of people who believe that selfless love, the kind of love that Jesus taught and embodied, is what gives our lives meaning, purpose and direction, and believe that this love has the power the change the world.

When Jesus commanded us to love one another, he never said to build a building with a steeple at a certain address and invite people to come and get some love. He said to go out to the people and love them (Mark 6). Thus, we want to find a group of people willing to gather weekly in different places on the Northshore.

We will gather on Friday nights for a dinner party (either inside a community building, outside in a park, or in someone’s backyard) with food, drink, music and conversation about the way Jesus loved others. During the “love feast,” several opportunities for hands-on service projects will be presented that we will execute sometime during the week in that community. The projects will range from small projects that can be completed by one or two persons in an hour or less, to much larger projects that will take more time and people. Instead of renting or purchasing a building and paying expensive maintenance and utility bills, we will have an enclosed cargo trailer for all of our supplies. This minimalist approach will allow us to spend our donations on service and enables us to be mobile.

We will end each dinner party on Friday nights with Communion. Communion will be optional and always open to all. The bread will remind us of Jesus giving himself and the wine will remind us of Jesus pouring himself out. However, it will also be a symbol of our commitment to give ourselves and pour ourselves out to make this world a better place.

There is an important reason that we will gather on Friday. For the the first 500 years, Christians met on the Jewish Sabbath which begins at sundown Friday. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, their meetings were moved to Sunday because that was the day Jesus was resurrected. Every Sunday is said to be like a “little Easter.” Unfortunately, the only reason some people seem to be Christian today is because they want to be resurrected like Jesus and go to heaven. Therefore, we will gather on Friday, the day Jesus selflessly gave himself away, to give of ourselves, to bring a little heaven to earth.

Every Sunday for the past 20 years, I have concluded each worship service I have led with the same words. Before the pronouncing the Benediction, I say: “Let us now leave this service of worship to go out into the world to worship with our service.” This will be the mission of Northshore Disciples: A Movement of Selfless Love.”

 

Core Values and Mission

Values

Love, Service, Inclusion, Humility

Mission

A movement of selfless love following the inclusive, self-expending way of Jesus.

Strategy

Mobile Weekly Gatherings, Weekly Service Projects

Measures

Lives transformed, Community Created, New Disciples Made

 

Foundational Beliefs

 

Gather Together. We were created to live and serve in community. Community is where we find our meaning, purpose and fulfillment and are connected to the life-changing love of God.

Focus outwardly.Discipleship is not about getting people to come to our buildings, participate in our programs, believe our creeds or support our institutions. It is about making other disciples by going out and loving others where they are.

Follow Jesus.We are disciples of Christ. And everyone will know this by our love because we are going to live, love and serve like Jesus.

Make Disciples. When did Jesus say “go and make Christians?” or “go and make church members?”

Welcome all.Jesus never discriminated against anyone, nor should we. We must be Open and Affirming, because followers of Jesus have no business being closed and condemning.

Love unconditionally. We are to love others without reservations expecting nothing in return. Jesus never said to love someof our neighbors if… We are to place no limits on the power of God’s love to forgive, to restore and to welcome.

Do Justice. We must be pro-reconciling, anti-racism and anti-every-other-horrible-ism and phobia. As followers of Jesus, we must have a heart for people who are poor, marginalized and oppressed and do all we can to bring them freedom, restoration and peace.

Practice forgiveness.Love demands that we be a movement of grace, because love keeps no account of wrong-doing.

Be ministers.We don’t pay clergy to be ministers for us. We all have been given gifts to be caregivers, grace-givers and hope-givers to one another. Clergy with training and experience can lead us to be ministers, but all are called and gifted to serve as ministers.

Live authentically.God created human beings. Thus, we should not be afraid to act like one. We must openly confess our shortcomings and never act like we are better than anyone else.

Embrace mystery.No human being can grasp the full meaning of God. If we think we can, then our concept of God is too small. A safe environment should be created for questions to be freely asked, and doubt freely expressed.

Serve Ecumenically. We partner with all who believe in the Golden Rule and in the greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Interfaith relationships and partnerships should also be fostered.

Communicate Transparently. Fully disclose where every dollar goes and how every decision is made.

Go Green. We will avoid plastics and Styrofoam by using washable or biodegradable dinnerware. Plant a community garden. Serve fair-trade coffee (Disciples Exchange). Limit and recycle paper. Share documents via Google Drive and email.

Take risks.Jesus’ love for others got him killed. If we make this new venture about sanctuary, comfort, safety and security then we have missed the whole point of who Jesus calls us to be, where Jesus calls us to go, and who Jesus calls us to love.

Stay flexible. The ministry plan is always subject to change. When we fall or falter, we must be ready to bounce back up to keep patiently moving forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Extended Mission Trip

New Church Ministry

On the Sunday we recognized our graduates this year, I shared some disconcerting statistics. According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (22-35 year olds) who were raised in church have since dropped out of church completely. Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending a church is worthwhile. And 35% of Millennials believe the church today does more harm in the world than it does good.

Nearly all church growth experts agree that this means that church, as we know it today, will slowly cease to exist during the next 50 years.This is the reason that mainline denominations are encouraging the planting of “new church expressions.” The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is committed to “become passionately involved in birthing, nurturing, engaging and encouraging sustainable new churches in as many ways as possible” (https://www.hopepmt.org/plant/new-church-movement/).

Believing that I possess the gifts, passion, vision and call to give birth to a new church expression, I have accepted a position to work in partnership with the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), New Church Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Grace Disciples of Christ Church, to create and lead a new expression of church north of New Orleans, Louisiana called, Northshore Disciples: A Movement of Selfless Love. I will begin this work January 1, 2020.

In another recent study, Pew Research reported that 26% of Americans self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” This is up from 17% just 10 years ago. However, the number of people who identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” has risen only slightly. This means that although people are leaving the church, they are not leaving the faith. In other words, they may be giving up on church, but they are not giving up on Jesus.

Therefore, I believe that looking like the authentic embodiment of Christ in the world is what is most needed today. You may have heard me say that we need “to overdo it” or “go overboard” to love like, serve like, and live like Jesus. Northshore Disciples: A Movement of Selfless Love will seek to do this by following a model inspired by the first biblical account of Jesus sending the disciples out to do ministry (Mark 6:6-13). The vision is to be a mobile, first-century expression of church that will offer weekly Dinner Gatherings (with Communion) and Service Projects (for more on this expression see: A New Church Expression).

Although I am resigning as the Senior Minister of First Christian Church in Fort Smith, I do not understand my resignation as leaving this church, and I am by no means giving up on them. I see it more as: “going on an extended Mission Trip” to do what I can to help First Christian Church and the larger Church discover new models that will enable us to continue sharing the love of God with the world. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to lead First Christian Church to be the hands and feet of Christ in Western Arkansas, as I am grateful for this new opportunity that will hopefully help us to proclaim the love of God in the River Valley for generations to come.

I will also have the opportunity to continue to push for inclusion as the new Ainsley’s Angels Ambassador in New Orleans. Ainsley’s Angels in NW Arkansas is in capable hands as Lindsey Berg has agreed to enter the Ambassador in Training program. Lindsey and Rob Berg are fortunate to have a team of Angel Runners and Guardian Angels to help them continue the mission of Ainsley’s Angels in Western Arkansas.

I will miss my service with Fort Smith Kiwanis and my place on the boards of Antioch Youth and Family and the Sack Lunch Program. I will also miss literally “running this town” with the Western Arkansas Runners and the True Grit Running Company. I will forever be grateful for my time in Fort Smith. I am not saying good-bye as I will be back in 2020 for the Regional Assembly of the Great River Region hosted by First Christian Church, for the Ainsley’s Angels Arkangel 5k, and hopefully for a Pub Run, and of course for a Beer and Hymns!

A Movement of Selfless Love

As you may have noticed, I have changed the name of my blog to: “A Movement of Selfless Love.” The reason for the change is simple. I believe a movement of selfless love is what our world needs now more than anything else.

 

We need a movement.

Not a gathering of good people;

not a philosophy class;

not a social club;

not an assembly of worshippers;

not a group of day-dreamers;

not a church of well-wishers.

We need a movement.

We need a movement of goers and doers, going and doing all that we can, when we can, where we can, with all that we have been given

working for wholeness in a world that is broken;

working for justice in systems of inequality;

working for mercy and grace in a society of bigotry;

working for peace in a culture of violence;

working for truth in a nation of politics;

working for hope in a state of despair;

working for love in a world of hate.

And the love we work for must always be selfless.

Not a love that expects anything in return;

not a love that is conditional, prejudicial, exclusive or elusive;

not a love that is self-seeking, self-regarding or even self-interested.

But a love that is always self-expending, self-giving and self-denying;

a love that is forbearing, forgiving and free;

a love that is gracious, grateful and generous;

a love that is encouraging and empathetic;

a love that never gives in, gives up or gives out;

a love that is positive and pure.

It is a love that is forward-thinking and forward-marching, going out to give hope to those the world leaves behind.

It is the love that Jesus modeled, taught and commanded.

It is the love that is God.

It is the love that can heal sick religion, restore a distorted morality and rebuild a broken world.

It tears down walls that divide and barriers that exclude.

It is the love that has the power to change the world.

 

The Miracle of Pure Positivity: Reflections from the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon

 

MCM2019 JOSH FINISH

Josh France has Angelman Syndrome. He is non-verbal. He has excessive hyper-activity and has trouble resting. He has a difficult time walking and with all motor skills. But his smile and his laughter are infectious. He is a gift of God to the world. As of Sunday, he is also a marathoner.

Josh’s journey to the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC began early this year with our fundraising campaign. Thanks to some amazing people with generous hearts, we were among the first Duo Teams to meet our fundraising goal to be an Ainsley’s Angels Charity Partner by raising $1,750 in just a few weeks. Having experienced the incredible joy Josh receives participating in local races, and understanding the powerful symbol of inclusion that Josh’s participation in what is called “The People’s Marathon” conveys, members of the Western Arkansas running community and members of Josh’s family did not hesitate to give generously.

Pub run

Inspired by Josh’s love for racing with Ainsley’s Angels, Josh’s father, Mike, recently became a runner himself. To prepare Josh to cover the 26.2-mile distance, Mike trained with Josh all summer by pushing him several times each week. Mike also pushed Josh in the weekly Fort Smith Pub Run and in every local race in which Ainsley’s Angels participated.

MCM 2019 GO TEAM JOSH

During last week’s Pub Run, the local running community came together again for a $5 5k to raise money to help the France’s travel expenses to Washington. The previous week, at a group run sponsored by True Grit Running Company (our local running store), runners and storeowner Melissa Vitale surprised me with a generous gift of a new Garmin running watch, a pair of Mizuno running shorts and Balega running socks. The love that Josh and I have received from Western Arkansas has been humbling and something that I will forever cherish.

One week before I planned to depart for Washington DC, as I was on one of my final training runs, I badly injured my left knee. The next day, it hurt to walk. I was unable to run one step. The day before I boarded the plane, I was still unable to run a step; however, several of my running friends assured me that they were praying for me and had faith I was going to be able to run on Sunday. I responded: “That will take a miracle! If I can run the first mile, I will be surprised.” I boarded the plane on Thursday with my running shoes packed, hoping for such a miracle.

MCM 2019 Ambassadors

Athlete Riders, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels, Caregivers and Local Ambassadors from all over the country began gathering at our host hotel in Crystal City shortly after I arrived. The place was exploding with pure positivity, as I was surrounded some of the most selfless, most giving and most dedicated people in the world. Ambassadors Michelle Smith and Bethann Wilkie, who first introduced me to Ainsley’s Angels, were there. Rob Cass, who swam across the Chesapeake Bay earlier this year, was there. Maggie Seymore, who ran from San Diego to Virginia and donated two of Arkansas’ first three chairs and helped light a fire of inclusion in Arkansas, was there. Shaun Evans, who pushed his son Shamus, who has Cerebral Palsy 3,200 miles from Seattle to New York City was there. And Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Joe Orth, who pours all he has into this event every year, and Ainsley’s Angels President and founder Kim “Rooster “Rossiter were there. And many others, too many to name. It soon became very obvious that nothing in heaven or on earth was going to be able to tell any of us, “No you can’t.” Not the forecast of torrential rain, not the warmer than average temperatures, not the increased World Series traffic, and not the bursitis that had inflamed my left knee. On Thursday night, Joe Orth asked me how I thought I was going to be able to run on Sunday. Although it hurt to pick up my left leg, I responded: “Like a gazelle!”

After picking up our race bibs on Friday, Ainsley’s Angels Ambassador Caitlin Espy from Raleigh, who is a physical therapist, massaged the ligaments around my knee. Ainsley’s Angels Vice President Chris Wood bought me a beer or three. On Saturday, Peggy Wolfe, who was Ainsley’s therapist, taped my knee up. Ambassador Kristy High and Angel Runner Sharon Wood supplied me with plenty of ibuprofen. I received texts from friends in Fort Smith telling me that I was going to be fine and assuring me they were praying for me. Josh continually blew me kisses all weekend as if to say: “Jarrett, I am going to love you no matter what.” And although the pain in my knee was so intense that it prevented me from falling asleep on Saturday night, I got up on Sunday morning at 3:30 am and laced my running shoes up to attempt to run a marathon. As I experienced pain in my knee while putting my shoes on, I thought: “If my knee hurts this bad before the marathon, I wonder what is it going to feel like afterwards, even if I only run part of it? And I wonder how am I going to sleep tonight!”

MCM 2019 josh and jarrett ready to go

There are so many miraculous images in my mind from Sunday; however, the image I know I will never forget is the parade of 100 positive souls, including caregivers, Ambassadors, Angel Runners, Guardian Angels and Athlete Riders, making the half mile journey from the Ainsley’s Angels equipment trailers to the marathon starting line. It was 6 am. We had already been up for hours. It was pouring rain. It was dark. And it was very wet. But together, we marched and rolled to the starting line with joy, excitement and confidence. No one was complaining. No one contemplated turning back, and no one even thought about sitting it out. Not one ounce of negativity anywhere. It was miraculous.

I should not have been surprised. The dedication I witnessed overcoming the chilly rain before dawn on Sunday morning in that parade of positivity was really nothing compared to the dedication that our Athlete Riders and caregivers possess to overcome greater obstacles every day of their lives. Of course no one was complaining. Of course there was no giving up or giving in. Of course no negativity was present. This was nothing. This was just a little inconvenience. This was just a little annoyance. This was just a little water, a little early.

MCM 2019 Frances

And I was only experiencing a little pain. How inconsequential is the pain in my knee compared to what caregivers like Mike and Hong France and Athlete Riders like Josh endure 24/7? Pain, by the way, that was caused by running, by doing something that Josh will never be able to do on his own.

I then thought about where we were standing. We were standing just a few feet from Arlington Cemetery, where the bodies men and women were laid to rest after sacrificing life itself, so we could be free.  A little rain; a little pain— Inconsequential.

It was not an easy race. No marathon is. But we ran every mile of it. At times, the rain was blinding. But Josh kept smiling. Josh kept laughing. Josh kept giving spectators high fives and blowing them kisses. The sun came out at mile 20 transforming the nation’s capital into an 80-degree sauna, but it didn’t phase Josh. He kept waving to the crowds that were lining the streets. So, I kept running.

MCM 2019 JOSH Capitol

I would have never finished the race without my new friend for life and Angel Runner Steve Ruggles, who helped push Josh, alternating with me after every mile. This was not only Steve’s first time pushing an Athlete Rider, this was Steve’s first marathon! He also hurt his knee during one of his final training runs, and like me, he was unsure if he could finish the race. But as we like to say: Together, we shall.” And together, we did.

This was also Josh’s first marathon, but this was certainly not his first race. During the last two years, Josh has completed over 50 races with Ainsley’s Angels. Each time a medal is placed around his neck at the finish line, he immediately takes it off and throws it to the ground. And then he laughs out loud. Every single time. It has gotten to the point where we have almost stopped putting the medal around his neck. However, when the Marine placed the beautiful Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor medal around Josh’s neck, as I was prepared to pick it up off the ground and to apologize to anyone that might get hit with it, Josh grabbed the medal, held it to his face and kissed it repeatedly. MCM photographers took several pictures that should be available soon.

MCM 2019 JOSH FINISH JARRETT

I spent Sunday night at Rooster and Lori’s house in Virginia Beach. It was good to see Lori and Cameron. I knew this was always a very emotional weekend for this special family. I had the privilege to sleep in Ainsley’s room. I closed my eyes thinking about Ainsley, how the Marine Corps Marathon was her last race. I thought about Rooster and Lori’s dedication to her, and now, to her amazing legacy. Unlike the night before, the pain in my left knee did not prevent me from falling sound asleep. As I slept, I dreamed of Josh and the other Athlete Riders I am blessed to know. I dreamed about the privilege of being pulled by them in races. I can’t recall every detail of my dreams, but I know I dreamed pure joy, goodness and positivity.

I awoke refreshed. I was a little sore, like I had run a marathon. However, my left knee felt like it had never been injured.

It was a miracle. But I am not surprised.

In a Foreign Land

church in decline

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 NRSV

I often think of Rev. David Brooks. He was the first pastor who suggested that God may be calling me to be a pastor. I had the opportunity to serve with him as the youth director of a church during the summer of 1986.

I will never forget the day that he called me into his office and shut the door behind me. I thought I was in some kind of trouble. For this was the first time I had ever served on church staff, and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing.

Well, I soon found out that I was in trouble, albeit a different kind of trouble. For he asked me: “Jarrett, have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a pastor?”

“Me a pastor? No way I will ever be a pastor!” I said.” He then went on to point out the pastoral gifts that he saw in me and to encourage me to prayerfully consider that God may be calling me to pastor a church. Out of respect for him, I told him I would.

Well, five years later, as I was getting ready to graduate from seminary to be a pastor, I was sad to hear that Rev. Brooks had passed away.

I think about him often today. For, as we are studying on Wednesday nights, the church and the culture has changed so much since that day he called me into his office, and I think of how shocked he would be if he could witness what we are experiencing today.

I must confess that I also wonder if he would still believe I possessed the necessary gifts to pastor a church. Because the truth is, although I now have over 30 years of experience serving with churches since that day I was called into his office, I still have moments, especially here in 2019, when I am not too sure I know what I am doing.

In the 1980’s, if a pastor loved the members of their church, if a pastor showed up on Sunday morning with a sermon (it didn’t have to be an awe-inspiring or even a good sermon, just a sermon that was based on scripture and had an appearance that the pastor had put a little work into it), then the church pews on Sunday morning would be full of people to hear the sermon.

Parents with young children came without hesitation, although the only children’s program consisted of a nursery and a simple Sunday School lesson. Young adults even found the music meaningful, that consisted only of a small choir, organ and piano.

Today, the only churches that seem to be full of people are expected to have elaborate children’s centers that rivals some amusement parks, a Chuck-E-Cheese or a Playland at McDonalds. The music must be on par with the music that entertains us at concerts. There’s disappointment if there is an absence of video screens, smoke machines and concert lights. The pastor needs to wow us with their charisma, and just make us feel really, really good.

He also never experienced 9-11 and the rise of religious fundamentalism that came out of it. He never witnessed the election of the first black President, and as a response, the resurgence of the religious right and the rise Christian white nationalism. He never witnessed the anti-Christ spirit that is in our nation today: the greed, the vulgarity, the selfishness, the fear of the other, and the further marginalization of those who are different.  And he never knew that many churches today would support, even seem to worship these anti-Christ sentiments.

And Rev. Brooks died before some people started walking away from the church for good. He knew that many churches in Europe were in delcine, but he never saw it here. He could not ever imagine that an entire generation of young adults would reject the church.

From the vantage point of 1986, it is like we are living in a strange, foreign land, in a completely different world. Churches that were once the insiders of society are now the outsiders. And many of us in churches like ours today are afraid, and we are not too sure if we know what we are doing.

This is exactly where the Israelites find themselves in today’s Hebrew lesson. They have just been exiled into Babylon, finding themselves in a foreign land.           .

It is into this strange and fearful reality, that the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter of hope.

Jeremiah writes that they can find their hope in the willingness and the courage to let go of their past.

Jeremiah insists that the people who have found themselves in a foreign land must surrender its old identity and accept its new situation not only to survive, but to eventually flourish.

He encourages them to begin working towards building a new way of life. They needed to accept that Babylon was where God has planted them and where God wants to work through them.

When Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on their behalf,” the prophet is affirming the truth that God can be found even in this strange and foreign land. God has never left them. God is still working among them and wants to use them to make their new world a more just and peaceful place to live.

Jeremiah wants them to know God is present everywhere, even at the margins, even among the broken, the dejected, the afraid, and the subjugated, in other words, even among outsiders like them.

Jeremiah assures them that they can call on the Lord even without the temple, and the Lord will answer.

Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered and vengeful. And Jeremiah writes: “Seek the welfare of the [foreign] land to which God has banished you.” In other words, “Seek the well-being of the land of your enemies. For their well-being is also you well-being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.”  This is an illustration of the social and political significance of praying for and loving one’s enemies.

Jeremiah encourages them to accept their situation in exile, but not to regard it as hopeless or unchangeable. As he mentions in a later verse, we have the promise from God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I believe Jeremiah’s letter has much to say to churches in 2019 who find themselves in a foreign land.

Churches today who find themselves living in a foreign land respond respond in several unhealthy ways.

The most popular response is to just give up and walk away, to give in to defeat and scarcity, to succumb to the lie that God is no longer present, no longer working in the land, that God no longer has anything for us to do, that church today is just a waste of time.

Another popular response is to just be in denial about it all and to just ignore it. “Yes, the world may be different, but we really don’t need to do anything differently to live in this new reality. So we just need to keep doing the same things that we have always done.”

Another response is to adopt a defensive, self-protective posture. Paralyzed by fear, having no idea what to do, we retreat into our safe sanctuaries to comfort one another while loathing our enemies, for those we blame for this new reality.

Another response is to join the new culture. “People crave entertainment? We will give it to them. People want to feel good about themselves today? Let’s make that happen. The culture has embraced an “us vs. them” mentality? Our leaders resort to name-calling and bullying and work to further disenfranchise the other? To survive in this new world, we will join them and do the same thing. Everyone around us has forgotten that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, we’ll just forget that too. To survive in this new culture, we will simply blend in with the new culture.”

I believe Jeremiah’s prophetic words call churches today to respond in a better way.

The prophet reminds us that God is still here, and God is still working in this world. And God still wants to work through us. And God still has a lot of work for us to do!

And God is specifically pressing us to move away from the private walls of the church and into the world, into the public space, to do what we can to fulfill our calling as people of faith to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.

And because churches that embrace love, kindness and humility now find themselves living in a world of hate, meanness and greed, because churches that embrace the inclusive, counter-cultural way of Christ, are now the outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized of society, I believe we are to especially go out and address the needs of others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, all those who suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination.

For one thing that our faith teaches us is that God is always most discernible and most present in the margins. Jesus called his disciples to leave their old lives, their old worlds behind, to drop their nets, to journey out to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms.

So, what does God want us to do in this foreign land? What do we do when we are not sure what to do?

We need to first make sure that our theology is not a private theology, but that it is a very public theology. It is one that presses us to pray for the welfare, not for our church, but for our city and nation.

It pushes us to commit to work for shalom, for peace, for well-being, for healing, for wholeness, and for justice, not just for the members of our church who feel like they are now living on the margins of society, but for those who have always lived on the margins, for those who have always felt like outsiders…

…while remembering the great promise of God:  “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Let us pray together

O God, in this strange time and place, help us to be strong and courageous as we share the good news of gospel out to the margins of society. Knowing that you are with us and with you is our hope and our future.

Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

When God Refuses to Listen

heather in ainsleys chair

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NRSV

I like to be honest from this pulpit. I like to be real. So let’s be really honest this morning. Have you ever prayed and had the feeling that God’s not listening?

You come to this place of worship and you go through all of the motions. You sing all of the hymns. You actually pray during the moment of silence, instead of spending those moments planning the rest of your day. You listen reverently to the choir’s anthem, and like few people, you even listen intently to every word of the sermon. But as the organist begins playing the prelude, you wonder if it was all just a big waste of time.

I believe this is a reason some people stay home on Sunday mornings. They are not getting through to God and God isn’t getting through to them. Sometimes, they blame it one the music. They say that the music just doesn’t inspire them. But most of the time, it is the preacher’s fault. They usually say something like, “I am just not being fed anymore at that church.” Have you heard that before?

Well, Isaiah suggests that their belief that worship is a waste of their time, that God is not listening, is not the choir director’s fault, and it may not be the preacher’s fault either.

Isaiah says that the reason that you may feel like worship is not bringing you close to God, the reason you don’t feel like God is listening, the reason that you feel like God has not heard a word you’ve said is because God has not been listening to a word you’ve said.

Isaiah says that if we truly want to know that God is listening to us, if we truly want to feel close to God, if we want our worship on Sunday to mean something, there are some things that we must do.

And if we don’t do those things, according to Isaiah, God might respond to our worship this way: “What are your services to me? I have had it up to here, I am sick to my stomach of all your worship! I have no desire for any of it. Stop tramping into my courts. And I have had enough of your preacher with his fancy robe who thinks he is all that with all of his seminary degrees. Your prayers, your hymns, they have become a burden to me. I have stopped listening!”

So, according to Isaiah, what must we do to be heard by God?

Put away the evil of your deeds. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.

If we want to be heard by God, if we want worship to be meaningful, Isaiah says that we better doing what we can help the most vulnerable members of our community.

My friend Rev. Dr. William Barber has he wonders why we spend so much time doing the things about which “God says so little” while spending so little time on the things about which “God says so much.”

I wonder if Isaiah is suggesting that the church might re-evaluate our ministry-team meetings. Like any congregational-led church, we have a lot of meetings here. We are having several tonight.

If Isaiah was here, he might ask us: “What has been the subject of your longest, most arduous church meeting? What was the agenda of that meeting that caused your spouse at home to worry about you, or even question your whereabouts, because they thought you should have been home hours earlier?”

Was it about how our church could could advocate for those in our community who feel oppressed? Was it about meeting the needs of children who do not have the support of family? Was it about defending the rights of widows or the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community? Was the agenda something about which God says so much? Or was the agenda something about which God says so little?

Rev. Michael MacDonald writes that many Christian Americans not only never have any lengthy church meetings about how they can better serve the poor, they just simply have a bad attitude about serving the poor. So bad, that many folks probably wished they had the license to rewrite the many scriptures which speak for the poor.

I would argue that many people actually believe they have such a license. Because as a pastor, it has been my experience that whenever I have spoken on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, someone almost always accuses me of being a “liberal.” Then, they will something like, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.”

When in fact, the overall message of the Bible says nothing close to that. Aesop’s Fables say that. Benjamin Franklin said that. Thus, I want to respond: “Who’s the liberal here? The one who is conserving the Judeo-Christian teachings of the Scriptures to help the poor and champion the oppressed, or the one who is re-writing the scriptures with the words of a fable or Deist Ben Franklin?”

For example: This is how McDonald said some Americans would rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan:

The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “Now by chance a priest was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who was hungry and ill clad.  He thought about stopping to help him, but decided that the man had probably been planted there by advocates for the homeless, so he walked by on the other side lest he give encouragement to those who wanted to divide society along class lines in order to gain political power for themselves.

So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, thought about helping him. But the Levite was afraid that he would rob the man of his independence, and he could plainly see that the man had sandal straps by which to pull himself up. So, he too, passes by on the other side.

But a Samaritan came near him and was moved by self-righteous pity. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine on them, no doubt as a publicity stunt to make his own self feel good and look good before his peers.

Then the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, and will repay you whatever more you spend,” thus encouraging the injured man to live like a parasite off other people’s hard-earned wealth.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?  The lawyer said, “[Well of course] the two who showed him mercy by walking by on the other side.”

And God says, “You can pray without ceasing, but I won’t be listening. I won’t listen to those of you who pervert justice, those of who champion the cause of the rich and powerful, those of you who take advantage of the powerless. God ahead, have yourselves a worship service, have two of them, but I won’t be there.” God says, “I simply don’t listen to the prayers of those who are all about feeding themselves while orphans and widows, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, go hungry.”

I believe Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo is right when he says that the one thing every Christian should do is not only write a check to help the poor, but help the poor in such a way that we actually build a relationship with them, get to know them on a personal level.

When I have been in conversations with churches about feeding the food-insecure, I always say that I believe we should merely hand them a meal.

I believe we should to sit down at the table with them, and get to know them, listen to them, love them, befriend them, be family to them. Let them know that we are willing to fight for them, defend their rights and plead their case. Be there to help them become the person that God is calling them to be.

Campolo says, in a way that only a good ol’ Baptist could say it, that one important reason that Christians should want to actually sit down at the table with people who are poor is because on the last day, when you are standing before the Great Judge, as God is separating the sheep from the goats and points to us and asks the question, “When have you clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink the thirsty, when have you shown generosity to the least of these my brothers and my sisters?”—That is when you are going to want to have the new friend you met around that table standing beside you, and you are going to want to be able to turn to them pat them on the back, and say with a confident smile, “Go ahead, you tell it.”

Do you want to come to this place on Sunday morning and really have an encounter with God? When Mary Beth begins playing the Postlude, do you want to know that you have actually communed with the creator of all that is? Isaiah, and I believe Jesus says, that will depend on how you commune with the most vulnerable members of our community.