Go and Get You Some Glory

Class 2019

John 13:31-35 NRSV

During a recent concert here in Van Buren, in between songs, the musician interacted with the audience with some back and forth exchange. It must have been obvious to the musician that one group was there to celebrate an occasion. Perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. So he asked: “What are you guys here celebrating tonight?”

A young man sitting at the table shouted out, “It’s my graduation!”

The musician responded: “Oh, your graduation? Well, congratulations! Where are you graduating from?”

“UFAS!” shouted the graduate.

“That is wonderful! Now, it is time for you to go and get you some moneeeeeeeeey!”

Of course, everyone laughed, clapped and cheered! I even leaned over to my son Carson and said, “That’s right! You go get you some money, Carson!”

For that’s what parents want of our children do we not? We want them to get a good education so they will not only be self-sufficient, but they will be successful. We want them to be able to afford nice things and live in nice places.

But almost as soon as I said it— “Go out and get you some money”—before the cheers and the clapping had time to die down, I knew there was something wrong with those words. And then, I could almost hear the words of Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).

Yeah, I am certain there’s now way Jesus would have shouted out: “Now, go out and get you some money!” And am even pretty certain he wouldn’t have laughed, clapped or cheered.

Now, I realize that there are some preachers you see on TV who would disagree with me here. Sitting on their opulent gold sofas, I have heard them point to scripture like our gospel lesson this morning to justify their prosperous and luxurious life-style.

“Look,” they say, “Jesus himself said: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified…’ That means Jesus came to earth and was ‘glorified.’ And if Jesus was glorified, then that means that God want us to be glorified too!”

Then they point to their mansions and their private jets and their gold watches and rings of every finger as signs of God’s glory. And I have seen them look into the camera and say something like: “And God wants you to go out get you some glory! And if you send me some of your money, you will get it!”

Although the word “glory” might suggest worth and value, I believe Jesus’ had something very different in mind.

The Greek word “glory” is doxaa, whichliterally means “reputation.” It is the root word of our word “doxology.” When used as a verb, it means to enhance one’s reputation. To glorify is to praise, honor or recognize someone to the extent that they have a reputation for greatness. It means to assign honor, prestige and fame to someone. So EVERYONEwill know who they are.

And while the world may glorify the rich and the famous, Jesus was talking about another kind of fame and glory. This reputation has nothing to do with having a lot of money and material possessions.

Jesus says, “Here’s the reputation, here’s the glory, I want you to have:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Listen to this) By this EVERYONEwill know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In other words Jesus says: “I want you to be famous! I want you to be recognized. I want you to be renowned the world over. I want you to be glorified. I want EVERYONE to know that you have the reputation of being my disciples. And you do this by simply loving others as I have loved you.

St. John of the Cross wisely wrote:

In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.

My hope for the class of 2019, and I believe God’s desire for you, is that you will get up and go out and get you some glory. I want you to get up and go out and love others in such a way, the very same way Jesus loved others, so that EVERYONE will know that you are his disciples.

Because today, what this world needs now more than anything else is for everyone to know the transforming love of Jesus. What this world needs now is change. What this nation needs now is change. And it is a change that you have the power to bring. For our reputation as a nation has certainly been diminished in the world these days. Our glory days seem to be over.

My Disciples of Christ friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, has made this challenge to the class of 2019:

I’m here to tell you, if you graduate and get up and get together and get involved, love can take on hate, mercy can take on meanness, justice can take on injustice, truth can defeat lies. You cannot merely get a job and a car and quarantine your life. Your graduation is more than just getting another slice of materialism. You must stand against injustice and be part of reviving the heart of this nation.

There are too many people in this world who are living their lives without any glory, without any reputation at all. Well, for the very few who know them, they have the reputation of keeping to themselves, minding their own business, being self-centered or just too afraid to step out and step up. Some would like to see the world change, but they are sitting safely back, waiting for someone else to go get the glory.

Yes, Class of 2019, what this world needs is more people who want to some glory!

We need more people who are willing to step up and step out, to put themselves out there, to put their reputation on the line, to run for office, to start a non-profit, to speak truth to power, to serve selflessly, to love this world as Jesus loved this world. We need more people to be the change, be the solution, and be the church this nation needs.

I am now going to address something that may be a very sensitive subject, especially here, in this place, during this hour. It is the subject of church.

It is no secret that the majority of high school and college graduates today and church do not mix.

According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (that’s 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 here’s what might be the most frightening statistic: 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, in the form that it is in today, will slowly cease to exist in 50 years.

I had an opportunity to have lunch with Nadine Burton our Regional Minister this past Wednesday. When I asked her how she has been doing, she responded: “On most days I feel like a real estate agent more than I feel like I am a minister.” I was afraid to ask, but asked anyway, “Because so many churches are closing and selling their property?” She said: “yes.”

Now, here’s the sensitive part that I was warning you about. I do not blame the Millennials for the church’s decline. And I don’t blame Millennials for dropping out of church. For I believe the church today has a long way to go to prove that it is a worthwhile venture. Much has to change in the church today if it is going to look like the the authentic embodiment of Christ in this world. The church today has undergo a drastic and dramatic transformation to love like, give like, and live like Jesus.

I think we need to face the hard and painful truth that the church, in its current form, does not have a very good reputation in the world. The church today has lost much it’s glory. And I believe that is the reason the heart of this nation is so very sick today.

But here’s the good news. Although our glory days have greatly diminished, I do not believe our glory days are over.

So, here’s what I am here to say to the class of 2019 on behalf of the church: “I want you to go and get you some glorreeeeeeee!” I want you to get up, stand up and speak up to transform the church. If the church is not what you think the church should be, I want you to do the work to reshape it. I want you to teach us how to love others as Jesus in loved others in such a radical way, EVERYONE will know we are disciples of Christ.

Now, I am aware that not all churches will listen to you. Not all pastors want to hear from you. I understand that. That is why you are dropping out. That is part of the reason you believe attending church is a waste of your time. And that is why our regional minister can continue to expect to be in the real estate business.

But I believe that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, wants to hear from you. I know this pastor wants to listen to you. I want to work with you to help bring glory back to the church, to help restore the church’s reputation in the world.

And I believe with all my heart that your generation will one day have the reputation, the glory, of saving the church, and thus, quite possibly, saving this nation.

I Don’t Know Much About Theology

Racel Held Evans doubt

John 10:22-30 NRSV

I recently read that a pastor in Fort Smith is going to begin a Bible Study series entitled:“Answers to Your Toughest Faith Questions.”  The article listed a small sampling of the theological questions that he would be giving answers to—

How did the Father send the Son if the Father and the Son are one?

How could God, the son, die?

Why was it necessary that Jesus’ body be resurrected?

What does it really mean when we say that Jesus died for our sins?

Now, I was raised going to church every Sunday. I hardly ever missed Sunday School class, attended every Vacation Bible School and went to church camp every summer. In college, I minored in religion. I went on to get a Masters of Divinity Degree and then a Doctorate in ministry. I did some math and deduced that I have written over 1,300 sermons. You would think I would know a thing or two when it comes to theology. But guess what? The truth is: I don’t know much.

The only thing that I really know about theology is that the more I know, the less I seem to know.

Some of you are probably thinking about right now, “if this local pastor is really going to give some answers to those tough theological questions, maybe our pastor, bless his heart, should show up a learn a thing or two!”

But here’s the thing. I know just enough about theology to know that there’s many different ways one can answer those types of questions. In our theology classes in seminary, we studied several different answers to those tough theological questions from several different theologians and then we worked to form our own opinion.

This may surprise you, but that’s about all I’ve got—opinions.

This is part of the reason I could not be happier today to be a Disciple of Christ. With the late, wonderfully honest and thoughtful Rachel Held Evans, I have always “longed for a church to be a safe place of doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”

I believe First Christian Church is that type of church. We call ourselves “Christians” because we have have decided to follow Jesus as our Lord, not because we have figured out the tough questions of faith.

Have you noticed the words that I use more than any others when I am preaching?  Besides “God” and “Jesus” and “good news” and “all means all” and “inclusive love.” The two words that I use more than any other is: “I believe.”  “I believe this to be true…I believe that God works this way…I believe that God desires this…I believe that God wants that….  “I believe God is calling us to…”

I had a parishioner in one of my churches who made an appointment with me so he could tell me that saying “I believe” so much really frustrated him. And he said if I didn’t stop saying it, he might have to find another church!

I asked him, “What would you rather me say?”

He said that I needed to be more authoritative. He wanted me to say: “I know,” “I’m certain,” “I’m confident,” “I’m convinced,” “I conclude…”; not “I believe.”

But, like I said, that’s all I got. When it comes to theology, I theorize. When it comes to faith, I think.  I consider, I ponder, and I wonder.  I lean “more towards.” I surmise, I guess, I deduce, I speculate, estimate and contemplate.  I hope, which, by the way, infers that I also doubt.

And if that exasperates any of you who come to this place Sunday after Sunday in search of concrete, black and white answers, I am really sorry, because if I frustrate you, I know Jesus does.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ critics have just about had it with Jesus. It’s the gospel of John and according to John, Jesus can be fairly evasive, ambiguous and hard to figure out.

They come to Jesus, and they ask, “who are you?” And Jesus answers the same way he always answers according to John. He says things like: “I am the vine, and you are the branches;” or “I am the bread;” “I am life;” “I am the way;” “I am the Good Shepherd.”

What is any of that supposed to mean?  It’s all so symbolic, so metaphorical, so figurative.

In exasperation, they demand: “Jesus, show us plainly, directly, and clearly who you are!”

Then, it’s Jesus who begins to get exasperated. “I have been teaching you, telling you, over and over, but you haven’t seen and you haven’t heard. Then Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”

Sheep?  Now we’re back on the metaphorical, the symbolic, the figurative.

But you know something? I may not know much about theology, but I think I almost get what Jesus is talking about here. And I have a strong hunch that some of you who are here today know exactly what he’s is talking about!

In fact, I do not believe that the majority of you are here today looking for clear answers to the tough questions of the faith. I think you are here this morning because, despite all of your lack of knowledge and misunderstandings, you have heard the voice of Jesus, and you are trying your best to follow him.

Thus, most of you are not going to get upset with me for speculating, because that’s the best you do, speculate.

Like me, you don’t know much about theology.  But you know Jesus.  Maybe not as clearly as you would like, but you know him clearly enough, for you to follow him.

In some inexplicable but certain way, the Risen Christ has come and revealed himself to you. Jesus has broken through and spoken to you. And you have heard his voice as the very voice of God.

Thus, Jesus says in our Gospel, “I and the Father are one.”  In other words, what you have seen and heard Jesus, is as much of God as you ever hope to see and hear on this earth. And that’s why you are here today.

Jesus says: “My sheep know me.” Not everyone knows him. His critics and enemies may not know him. But here’s the good news: by the grace of God you know him. And yes, that in itself is a miracle. But it’s a miracle that has happened to you.

You were sitting all alone one day after your tragic loss, and this peace came over you that was beyond all understanding. And although could never explain it, you knew, you were convinced, and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

Out of nowhere, a memory popped into your mind that brought a smile to you face and a joy in your heart—and you can’t figure it out, but somehow, some miraculous way you knew, you were convinced and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

You were sitting on your sofa feeling sorry for yourself, when a knock at the front door came. When you opened it, in walked your good friend with a smile and an encouraging word. How in the world did they know you needed to hear that word? You can’t put your finger on it, but somehow you knew, you were convinced and certain that it was Jesus.

You thought about spending time doing something you wanted you to do, but something persuaded you to do something for somebody else, and you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt you knew, that it was Jesus.

You decided to visit the nursing home, or you decided to serve a meal at Hope Campus, or you decided to visit someone in the hospital, or you decided to volunteer with Ainsley’s Angels, and while you were there, while you were looking in the faces of the tired and weak, the broken and poor and the differently-abled, you knew, you were convinced, and you were absolutely certain that you were looking into the face of Jesus.

This is the good news behind this rather exasperating episode in John’s gospel for people like you and me who do not have all the answers, who do more pondering than knowing and more wondering than concluding:

Christ is risen and he has come out to meet us, in our doubts and our misgivings, in our misunderstandings and our unanswered questions, in our sin and in all of our brokenness, because he loves us. He loves us more than we will ever comprehend. And he knows us. He has called us by name.

And somehow, some miraculous way, we have heard his voice. And although will never figure it all out, although we will never be able to wrap our minds around him and all he claims to be and promises to give, we are nonetheless following.

And here is some more good news.  I KNOW, yes even I, one who doesn’t KNOW much about theology— who some say might not know much about anything, from a science book or three years of the French I took— BUT I KNOW, without a doubt, with absolute certainty that the risen Christ is here, and he is calling you and me, and if we answer this call, what a wonderful world this would be.

For Easter to Happen, Somebody Needed to Pick Up and Carry a Cross

oklahoma city bombing firefighter baby

Luke 24:1-12 NRSV

It is Easter Sunday! Resurrection morning has dawned. New life is being born! Something wonderful has been lost, but something magnificent is being gained.

However, on this Sunday of Sundays, I believe it is important for us to realize that before we can experience new life, before we can celebrate resurrection, before we can sing alleluias, before love can win, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

And the sad thing is that there are very few of Jesus’ disciples who understand this. They do not understand it today, and they did not understand it 2,000 years ago.

Although Jesus continually taught that to gain our lives, we must be willing to lose our lives, that Easter could not happen without some self-denial, that resurrection could not come without some self-expenditure, that new life could not be born without some sacrifice, that love could not be won without some suffering, that the the light of Sunday morning could not  dawn without the darkness of Good Friday, when the time came for the disciples to follow Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross, most all of them very selfishly fled to save their lives.

One would betray Jesus. Another would deny that he even knew Jesus. Nearly all would desert him. In spite of Jesus’ continual call to pick up a cross and follow him, most of the disciples never got it.

However, there were a few disciples who did get it. There were a few who were willing to carry a cross. There were a few who chose to live selflessly and to love sacrificially. There were a few who faithfully followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

Although the intrinsic sexism of this world’s history has caused many in the church to overlook these faithful disciples, the good news is that all four Gospel writers did not.

In Luke 8 we read these words: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women…Mary, called Magdalene… Joanna…Susanna, and many others…” These women helped support Jesus and the twelve “out of their own means.”

And on Good Friday, when none of the male disciples could be found, Mark 15 reads: “There were also some women looking on…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, Joses, and Salome.

In Matthew 27 we read: “Among them [gathered at the foot of the cross] was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

In John 19:25 we read where all the male disciples fled: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

There are many problems with Christianity today. However, I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith today, especially here in North America, is that we have too few Mary Magdalenes.

There are too few people who understand that authentic faith, true discipleship, always involves a cross. It always involves answering a call, taking a risk, denying oneself, going against the status quo, pushing the boundaries, stepping way outside one’s comfort zone.

A problem with the church today is there are too many Christians who believe they can sing “alleluias” on Easter Sunday without going through some suffering on Good Friday, who believe they can experience some new life without death to self, who believe they can somehow rise up from the waters of baptism without getting their hair wet, who believe they can serve Jesus without getting their hands dirty.

What this world desperately needs needs right now, and what the church needs more than anything today, are more disciples like Mary Magdalene. For Mary Magdalene understood that when Jesus called people to be his disciples, Jesus was always clear that there would be a cross involved.

I think this is the reason that Mary Magdalene is remembered today by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is the reason she is mentioned by name by the gospel writers more than any other apostle. And this is the reason that today, on this Easter Sunday morning, Christians all over the world will hear her name mentioned as they gather to worship.

Some will hear her name as Mark 15 is read: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where Jesus was laid.”

Some will hear her name as Matthew 28 is read: “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.”

Some will hear it as Mark 16 is read: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.”

And others will hear it as John 20 is read: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.”

Just as Mary Magdalene had given what she had to support Jesus’ life, Mary was still doing all she could for Jesus in death.

And because she always selflessly pouring herself out, because she kept giving, kept sacrificing, kept risking, serving, bending, expending, anointing, because she was the most faithful of all of the disciples, because she not only sacrificially followed Jesus all the way to the cross, but courageously followed him all the way to the grave, because she followed him to the very end, she was the first person on earth to see the risen Lord.

Mark 16:9 reads: “Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene…”

And in John 20:18 we read where it was Mary Magdalene who first proclaimed the good news of Easter, speaking five simple words that changed the world forever: “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”  Not only was she the first person to see the Lord, she was the first person to proclaim the world-changing, earth-shaking, life-saving good news of Easter to the world!

Mary Magdalene was the very first to preach the glorious good news of resurrection on Easter Sunday, because she stayed with Jesus until the very last in his suffering and death of Good Friday. Easter happened for Mary because she had answered a call to follow Jesus, and she followed Jesus all the way.

Observing Good Friday this year was a surreal experience for many Americans, as it fell on April 19, the day of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.

The story of one survivor, Terri Talley, exemplifies the suffering experienced by our nation, as well as how new life was raised out of the ashes through those who were willing to pick up and carry a cross.

Employed by the Federal Employee’s Credit Union on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building, that morning was extremely busy for Terri. She had just returned to work after spending several days away, and a stack of paperwork waited for her.

Catching up on work, Terri took a moment that morning to chat with her good friend and coworker Sonja Sanders. “For her, it was a big day. She had just been promoted into management,” states Terri, who is certain she was the last person to have spoken with her friend.

What seemed like just moments afterward, everything changed. At 9:02 am, thousands of pounds of explosives, assembled in the back of a Ryder moving truck parked in front of her office building, exploded.

Terri recounts: “I fell from the third floor to somewhere around the basement level. It was really really fast. It was so fast that I didn’t really know what had happened. The suction pulled me down so quickly.”

Surrounded by noise Terri says, “When I came to the first time, I thought: ‘This is a really bad dream. I will just go to sleep and when I wake up everything will be okay.’ But when I came to [again], everything wasn’t okay. I thought that I must have been in a really bad wreck, and I must be [pinned in the wreckage], because I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even scream for help. I would try, but I was really squished. And I thought to myself: ‘I hope someone finds me.’”

Terri was found by a firefighter who almost overlooked her. [Like being sealed in a tomb] she was completely encased in concrete and granite. Terri says: “There was just a little hole and a little piece of me was showing. He touched me and … started screaming: ‘Hey! I have a live one here, and I need some help!'”

After much hard work, Terri was freed and rushed to a nearby hospital, where her injuries were identified: temporary blindness, a concussion, temporary amnesia, a cracked first vertebra in her neck, a broken right ankle, skin damage on her foot, and multiple abrasions. During her seven days in the hospital, and for weeks following, a sense of shock permeated her life.

However, today, she has this powerful message for the world:

I always tell [even] the littlest of kids: ‘Don’t think that there is nothing you can do, because kids would color pictures and send me notes. Those made me feel like people were really thinking about me. You can always do something, no matter what age you are.’[i]

This illustrates that to experience Easter Sunday, we have to have a Good Friday.

Before new life could be experienced, before resurrection could be celebrated, before “alleluias” could be sung, before love could be won, somebody needed to pick up and carry a cross.

-First Responders needed to run toward an explosion.
-Firefighters needed to go into a burning building.
-Doctors and nurses needed to give all that they had to give.
-Friends and family and church members needed to pray.
-And little children needed to pick up some crayons and color a picture.

To make Easter happen for someone–today, right here, right now–we can all do something, be something, risk something, sacrifice something, give something, create something.

We can all pick up and carry a cross.

We can feed someone who is hungry.

Visit someone who is lonely.

Love someone who is hurting.

Include someone who has been left out.

We can mentor someone who lives in a foster home.

Care for someone who is sick.

Forgive someone who has made mistakes.

Believe someone who has been abused.

We can share grace with someone who faces discrimination.

Stand up for someone victimized by injustice.

Speak out for someone devalued by oppression.

We can stay close by and anoint someone who is dying.

Be a friend to someone who is grieving.

With the spirit of Mary Magdalene, let’s keep the faith, and let’s keep the faith going, keep it moving forward, all the way to the foot of the cross, through the betrayals, through the fear, through the denials, through the suffering, through the shame, all the way to the grave, even to a tomb that has been sealed by granite or concrete.

Let us keep doing whatever we can, with whatever we have, wherever we are, to love one another until the entire world is able to sing:

“Alleluia! Alleluia! I have seen the Lord!”

 

[i]https://www.nps.gov/okci/learn/historyculture/stories.htm

Holy Friendship

Friendship

John 15:9-17 NRSV

To prepare us for a new church year, today, I invite us to be a part of a four-part sermon series entitled: Renewing Our Mission. To be the church that God is calling us to be, the church that God needs us to be, we will be challenged to renew our mission in at least four areas: friendship, partnership, stewardship and discipleship. Today, I want us to think about friendship.

Friendship. It’s a word that we use casually, superficially. These days we call nearly every acquaintance or contact a friend. I have Facebook friends, friends who follow my blog or my Twitter, many I have never met and never will. I have ministry-colleague friends. I have teacher friends, professor friends. I have friends from high school, college and seminary. I have running friends, gym friends, and I have Ainsley’s Angels friends all over the country. I have a dry cleaning friend, a friend who cuts my hair, and just this past week, I met a new friend who repairs my automobiles. And, of course, I have some wonderful church friends.

But we all know that friendship can be experienced on another level. Genuine, long lasting friendships can be so much more profound than our more casual relationships.

A week ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two old friends. Steve is a pastor outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas. We met fifteen years ago in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Gardner-Webb University. We used to get together every year; however, this was the first time that we have gotten together in maybe eight years.

We decided to meet somewhere in the middle, so we chose Memphis. We spent one day at the National Civil Rights Museum and one day on the golf course. And spent both days, eating a lot of barbeque.

Although Steve has had a career serving with mostly Baptist churches, he now serves with an inter-denominational church. I said Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas; however, he is only a pastor for another week. His passion for serving the poor and the marginalized is prompting him to leave the pastorate to co-direct a ministry for the homeless in Longview, similar to Hope Campus here in Fort Smith. Steve and Cary are both the fathers of two children.

So, the three of us share much in common (our jobs, our religious convictions, family, golf and barbeque); however, this is not the reason we are such good friends.

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner perfectly describes our friendship:

Basically, your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you yourselves are the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.

Only being together matters.

And although we hadn’t been together in almost a decade, although the hair on our heads were much more gray and thin, it was somehow like no time had elapsed at all. Yes, we did our best catch up one another, but we really didn’t have to. That is friendship. And the joy that is experienced in such a friendship is priceless.

Another one of my favorite pastors, Henri Nouwen, said this of friendship:

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.

This makes it all the more astonishingly wonderful when we read scripture like:

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet Isaiah says that God referred to Abraham saying: “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

When we consider what friendship truly means, when we consider the innate grace of friendship, the unconditional love of friendship and the immeasurable joy that is experienced through friendship, “the friendship of God is a staggering thought.”

The friendship of God—that the creator of all that is wants to be with the creatures just as they are, and that everything else is “beside the point” except for that—This privilege, this divine gift, this holy friendship is such a staggering thought, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, but I’m no Abraham. I am no Moses.”

The good news is that that too is beside the point.

Through our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus says to his disciples and to everyone of us: “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”

Notice that their relationship has changed. It has grown to another level.

The disciples are much more than acquaintances, contacts or colleagues of Jesus. They are no longer students, no longer servants of Jesus.

Jesus says: You are my friends. I love you. I want nothing more for us to be together. I want to commune with you. I want to abide with you. I want to live with you, in you and through you. Your denials, your betrayals, your lack of understanding, your fears, your faults: none of that matters. It is all beside the point. The only point is you. I want to be with you, and I want nothing more than you to be with me.

And listen, for this is how you can be with me. This is how we can be together, finally and fully. This is how you can experience a joy that will fill you, complete you, satisfy you.

You are with me when you love one another. You are with me when you love one another as I have loved you. You are with me when you look past the flaws and failures of others. You are with me when meet people with a clean slate every time, always meeting them on equal terms. You are with me when all of the usual distinctions, older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter.

You become close to me when we gather at the table, when we share the loaf and drink the cup, but we are together, when you are willing to break your body, pour yourself out, and give yourself away for others.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Do you want to be with me? Then give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothing to someone in need, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. When you are a friend to the least of these, you are a friend of mine. When we love others as I love others, you are my friend.

If we are to be the church that God is calling us to be, if our joy is ever to be complete, I believe the first thing we must do is renew our mission to be a friend of Jesus. We need to make the commitment not to study Jesus, admire Jesus, hit “a Like button” for Jesus, but to be a friend of Jesus.

We are going to take a step toward making this commitment tonight at our cabinet meeting, as we are going to talk about our church officially adopting a non-discrimination policy. I think such an official position is needed, but, doesn’t it seem like, for the church, for the body of Christ in this world, for the Body of the Christ who never excluded anyone, a non-discrimination should be the default? You would think that a vote would only be needed if a church wanted to start discriminating. But sadly, we know that’s not the case.

We know there are too many people today who call themselves Christians who are behaving more like acquaintances of Jesus, students of Jesus, Twitter followers of Jesus, even servants of Jesus, but not friends of Jesus.

You can call ourselves Christian, but if you discriminate against or denigrate anyone because of race or religion, ability or class, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or any other social identifier, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can worship God, but if you mistreat, take advantage of, or neglect the poor, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can say your prayers, even make a National Day of Prayer, but if you do nothing to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens: our children, the elderly, the differently-abled; then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can sing God’s praises, but if you are silent in the face of immorality, dishonesty and injustice, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can hear God’s truth proclaimed on Sunday morning, but if you fall for lies the rest of the time, because you’re afraid of standing for that truth, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can give our tithes, but if you do not support fair living wages, equitable healthcare, access to a quality education and affordable housing, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can eat the bread and drink the cup and remember a life poured out, but if you are never willing to sacrifice for anyone or anything, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

A common phrase that we say to our friends is: “a friend of yours is a friend of mine.” But this takes on a very challenging meaning when we remember that Jesus was widely known and ridiculed for being of who? “A friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

This means we can attend church every Sunday, but if we never go out and eat and drink with those outside of the church, if we fear getting a reputation for hanging out with the wrong type of people, then we might not be a friend of Jesus.

As I speak these words, I am reminded of my response to my son who is visiting with us this week when he asked to go downtown last night to eat supper. I said, “Downtown? This weekend? With a motorcycle rally going on?” “Heck no.”

But being a friend of Jesus is risky. It is difficult, and it is costly. Being a friend of Jesus takes us places that we would rather not go and puts us into contact people we would rather avoid. However, all who have experienced the complete joy of friendship know that to be friends with God is more than well worth it.

Invitation to Communion

We believe it is the Risen Christ who invites us to eat and drink from this table. And we believe that he invites us, because he has chosen every person in this room to be his friend. Our faith or our lack of faith—it’s not the point. Our understanding or our ignorance—it’s not the point. Our deeds or our misdeeds—it’s not the point.  The Lord invites us because we are the point. Take and eat the bread, drink from the cup. Accept this friendship. All are welcome.

Obstacles to Church Growth

God abhors you

I believe there are two primary obstacles to church growth these days, two obstacles that prevents people from being baptized.

1)       Some believe their sins are so great, that they are outside of the boundaries of God’s love. Or, they at least they believe they will be treated that way if they go to church.

2)       Some believe no one is outside of the boundaries of God’s love, but they believe most churches today believe that some people are.

This is why I believe the 21stcentury church needs to pay careful attention when this Ethiopian Eunuch asks Phillip if there is anything preventing him from being baptized.

Which begs another question, “Are we doing something, or are we not doing something, that is preventing people today from coming to Jesus?”

I believe Acts chapter 8 has much to teach us on this subject, especially those of us who are trying to do church in 2018.

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go…:

One obstacle that I believe stands in the way of people coming to Jesus is that we have forgotten our call to “get up and go” to meet people where they are. Too many Christians these days are sitting back, expecting people to come to us.

And not only do we need to get up and meet them where they are, out on the road, even on a wilderness road, we are to meet them where they are, period.

The problem is that churches too many churches not only expect people to come to them, but they expect them to come in a manner that meets their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come to them that look like them, behave like them, and believe like them.

Let’s face it, excluding the other seems to be something that comes very naturally for us. I think if we are honest, we would admit, that we would much rather be around people who are a lot like us.

Some have said that it may be part of our evolutionary DNA. It’s some inborn, natural instinct of survival. Fear the different. Beware of the other. Trust no foreigner. Avoid the outsider. So we instinctively put up these barriers all sorts of obstacles.

But this is what fuels racism. It supports white nationalism and isolationism. It builds walls, discriminates, excludes and demeans the other.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he talks about the dangers of being led by the flesh and not by the Spirit. Because we human beings can easily be led by the flesh. A false prophet or Anti-Christ-like leader can quite easily stoke the fear of the outsider that is inside all of us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a stable genius to lead us  to hate the other.

However, the Spirit leads us to take a higher road.

Notice that Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urgePhilip, the Spirit had to push Philip, pull Philip, to get up and go to this chariot to meet this Eunuch from Ethiopia.

Philip, I know this may be hard for you. I know this may be against your natural inclination. But go to this chariot and meet this stranger foreigner, this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith, this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality, this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says Eunuchs are forbidden to enter the temple, this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go to his chariot and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

I believe there are thousands of people living here in Fort Smith who are not here this morning, who are not worshipping in any church, because the church simply refuses to be urged by the Spirit to go out with love and grace to meet people where they are, especially those considered to be outsiders.

Philip meets the Eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah. This should not surprise us. For this is one of the most hopeful books in the Hebrew Bible for those who have been marginalized by sick religion, for those who have been taught that they are despised by God. Imagine the hope that burned in this Eunuch’s heart when he read the following words we find in Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
beside those already gathered.

Philip heard him reading from Isaiah and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Eunuch responded: “How can I understand it unless someone interprets it for me?

What a great question! What a better place this world would be if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted.

I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that churches are in decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice.

And because of that, there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of sick religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

Then Eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’

The Eunuch was asking: Who is this one was also ostracized and marginalized by others, as I have been? Who is this who was led like a sheep to be slaughtered? Who is this one who has been humiliated and denied justice? Who is this who had his life taken from him? Who is this one who is just like me? Who is this one who relates to me so well, who understands my pain, who knows my heartache, who empathizes with my sufferings? Is it Isaiah? Or is it someone else?

Then, Philip tells the eunuch the good news. The one who understands your pain, the one who knows your heartache, who empathizes with your sufferings is none other than Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one who relates to you, identifies with you, and because of that, loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, and forgives you like none other, is the very one that others said despised you.

When the Eunuch heard this good news about Jesus, the words of the prophet became not only hope for the future, but good, glad, certain news for the present:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Suddenly, the barriers fell. Walls crumbled. Obstacles disappeared. And the very doors of the Kingdom of Heaven swung wide open.

It is then the Eunuch, this one who had no name and no future, but now has an everlasting name exclaims, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me then from being baptized?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And the church grew.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to get up and go out to meet people where they are (not where we might want them to be) meeting them without judgment, without condemnation. Guide us always interpret the scriptures in the light of Christ, sharing the good news of his unreserved love, unconditional acceptance, and unearned forgiveness with all people. And all means all. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

The bread is ready, the cup is filled, the table is set for all people.

Let all who are hungry for the love of God, come and be fed.

There are no hurdles standing before you. There no walls to climb over, no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to go around.

Let all who are thirsty for new life, come and share the cup.

There is nothing preventing you.

Let all who want to follow Jesus, come and join the feast.

Love One Another

Tolerate

1 John 3:16-24 NRSV

It the Fourth Sunday of Easter, like the very first disciples we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith.  Why? There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning.  But here we are.  We are here, together as a community of faith, because like the very first disciples, we have seen the risen Lord!

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, those moments of hunger and thirst, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ showed up. He inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence, and filled us with a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as those who have seen the risen Christ, as those who have experienced the marks of his suffering. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

So here we are.  Now the question is: what are we supposed to do? How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the answer that is found in the book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that our professor had us to translate was 1 John.

Why 1 John?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct. There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simple, most direct, but at the same time, most difficult and complex words ever put together in one command. Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult and complex because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love those who look, believe, behave, and live differently than we.

So, although we have this direct commandment to love one another, we still think, “Surely God must have meant something else.” For it really doesn’t make any sense. We don’t even think it is possible. And let’s face it. There are just some people in this world that are impossible to love.

We can understand God saying something like, “You know, in this fragmented world of sinners, let us learn to live with each other.”  Now that’s a good commandment! Despite our differences, let’s just get along! Live and let live.

What about “Be tolerant.”  I like that commandment.  I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I suppose I can in someway put up with her.

What about “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Ooh, that’s a good one! I can love ‘em, and at the same time, I can hate everything about them! I am pretty sure I can handle that.

How about, “Let bygones be bygones.” I like that. We’ve got to move on. We can’t nurture our resentment forever. It’s not healthy. We need to get over it. Although that is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can obey that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than that. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command.

Unable to obey this command, many today have reduced our faith to some sort of selfish, personal and private spirituality. People are fond of calling themselves “spiritual.” And when they say they love one another, I suspect they are only talking in some spiritual sense that is never fleshed out in a tangible way. 1 John reminds us that we need to recover a love that compels us to physically lay down our lives for one another, never refusing to help a brother or sister we see in need. We need to love, not in word or speech by in truth and action.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, puts it this way: “If you say you are full of the Holy Spirit, but if your spirit doesn’t lead you to speak up against injustices and oppression, then your spirit is suspect.”

Yesterday, I counseled a couple planning getting married. I pointed out that nowhere in the ceremony will the minister ever ask you if you are “in love with one another.” As if love is some kind of spiritual thing. No, you will be asked, “Will you love? Do you promise to love?” Because love is not a feeling. Love is action.

This summer, I will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the day that I promised before God and a congregation to love Lori. Thirty years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always look at best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that annoy her, that get on her last nerve, she somehow has the ability to look past it. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That is love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to disappoint us or hurt us, we focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances or to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what’s going on in his or her life that made him or her treat me this way?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that makes her view me in this way?”

Because once we decide that love is not an option, once a war begins, once we decide that we can’t look past another’s shortcomings, we free ourselves to demonize the other. In war, all moral bets are off. Once the shooting starts, we free ourselves to only see the worst in the other. You know the old saying?  In war, we actually kill our enemies twice.  First, we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we are wronged, all moral bets are not called off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are wronged that the true moral test begins.  Elsewhere, the scriptures remind us that if we love those who show love to us, what is that?

Why are we commanded to love this way?  Why does Easter demand such a thing?

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding, we realized that although we had betrayed, denied and abandoned God, God, in Christ, loves us.

God not only puts up with us, gets along with us, tolerates us, but God loves us. God doesn’t love us and hate our sin, because love doesn’t keep account of our wrong doings. God looks past our failures. God sees the very best that is about us, and then calls that best that is within us all to come out. God loves us, and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

When they mistreat us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they use us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they hate us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are unlovable, we’re going to love ’em.

When they belong to another faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have no faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have polar opposite political views, we’re going to love ’em.

When their sexuality differs from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are differently abled, we’re going to love ’em.

When their race, ethnicity, language or citizenship differ from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re sick, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re hungry, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re afraid, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re lonely, we’re going to love ’em.

For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, we’re going to love ’em, because we have seen the risen Lord. We’re going to love ’em, because we believe in Easter. We’re going to love ’em because we’ve experienced a divine, unconditional love— A love that demands us, compels us, and commands us to love one another in truth and in action.  Let us pray together.

O God, teach us how to love as you have loved us. Teach us to love the unloved and the unlovable. Teach us to see others as you see them; teach us to see ourselves in the light of your forgiving, forbearing love.  In the name of the risen Christ we pray.  Amen.

 

Invitation to the table

As we come to these moments of communion, none of us is “pure and blameless.” But because of the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus lavishly showered on each one of us, we can come to the table of the Lord without fear or hesitation, trusting that God’s grace revealed in Jesus creates a welcome space for all to come, confessing and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior.