Choose This Day

rile up the gov't

Growing up in church, I was taught that the Christian faith, and life itself, was primarily about a choice.

It is about a choice to accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior or to reject Jesus. It’s about a choice to spend all of eternity in heaven with God and his angels or to forever burn in hell with the devil and his angels.

In church, I was also taught that I could not afford to wait to make this choice. I needed to make a decision before we finished singing the last hymn, because if I didn’t, the Lord could return or I might get killed in a car accident on the way home, and it would be too late. So, there was a sense of urgency instilled in me to make this choice.

I was also taught that if I didn’t make a choice, I was actually making choice. Not to choose was to choose.

For me, it wasn’t a very difficult choice to make. “Preacher, you are saying that if I choose to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I get to live in paradise forever? But if I don’t, I am damned to hell for the same amount of time?” Well, preacher, how fast can you schedule my baptism?!

The problem is that the gospel writers never record Jesus presenting such a choice. Although, I’ve heard countless preachers point to our scripture lesson here in Luke 23, and try to say Jesus is presenting this choice, Jesus never does.

The irony is, that here in Luke 23, the chapter that has the story of the infamous thief on the cross that Jesus says will be with him in paradise, we are presented with a choice. And it is a choice that each person born into this world must make. We must choose our kingdom.

Jesus talked about “kingdom” more than almost anything else. Over 100 times in the Gospels Jesus announces that he is building the “Kingdom of God,” and implies almost every time that he needs people like you and me to help him. He taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, KJV).

Jesus’ message compels us to make a choice to live, work, pray and love in ways that bring God’s Kingdom to this world. And, just like I was taught growing up in church, making this choice is an urgent matter. In fact, I believe it perhaps is more urgent today than ever.

And it is in Luke 23 we learn that it was this urgent message that put Jesus on the cross.

The assembly [of the Elders of the people, including the chief priests and the scribes] rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”

Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

He answered, “You say so.”

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.”

But [religious supporters of Caesar] were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place [even here in Jerusalem, here in the capital city!].

And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-11).

It is obvious that Jesus did not rile up the government and the religious establishment by asking people the question: “When you die, do you know where you are going to spend eternity?”

To understand exactly what Jesus is talking about when he talked about “Kingdom,” it is important understand something about the Kingdom into which he was born.

Rev. Joe Kay, UCC Minister from Ohio, describes the Kingdom of Caesar this way:

“It was a Kingdom ruled by the empire’s values of violence, dominance, supremacy, wealth, privilege, and self-interest. Life was cheap, and economic injustice was rampant.”

The empire’s leaders acted in narcissistic ways. As John Dominic Crossan notes in his book God and Empire, Caesar Augustus assumed the titles of “liberator,” “savior,” “redeemer,” and “lord.” He saw himself as the divinely chosen leader of the greatest empire in the world.

Caesar’s supporters praised him constantly and advanced his agenda. His base of support included religious leaders who were co-opted into doing the empire’s bidding in exchange for maintaining their own wealth, power, and privilege.

Religion and Rome were intertwined, working together to advance the empire. Then Jesus came along and challenged it all.”

In fact, this is exactly how his birth was announced by the Angels with the sentence:

“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.”

As I mentioned during the season of Advent, this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus.

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

Thus, the Christmas angels sang the Emperor Augustus’ imperialistic words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest! There’s a brand new kingdom in this world!

Every time Jesus taught and preached about the Kingdom of God, Rev. Kay notes “he was essentially saying: you’ve already been born into Caesar’s kingdom, but now is the time to enter into a completely different realm. You need to be born again into God’s kingdom, into a realm that operates by values that are in stark contrast to the values of Caesar.”

Love rules in the place of selfishness.

Kindness in the place of cruelty.

Generosity in the place of greed.

Humility in the place of pride.

Social justice in the place of inequality.

Mercy in the place of fear.

And grace rules in the place of judgment.

It is important for us to understand that Jesus never talked about the Kingdom as if it were just some future event in the sweet bye and bye. He proclaimed that the Kingdom was already here—a place of unlimited love and unending compassion. A place where everyone is welcomed, especially the marginalized. A place where nobody is ever treated like an outsider. It is a place where even condemned thieves are forgiven and promised paradise.

It’s a place where healing is offered to all. It is a place where peacemaking is valued over warmongering, and where the lowly and the least are treated as the greatest.

The operating values of Caesar’s kingdom — power, greed, wealth, privilege, self-interest — are rejected, resisted and rebuked in God’s Kingdom.

And today, right now, we have a choice. Which kingdom will we choose? Whose values will we live and enact and advocate in our communities and our world?

It can’t be both. And as much as we want to, we can’t try to live with one foot in both worlds — that does not and will not work. As Matthew remembers Jesus teaching, “no one can serve two masters.”

It’s either one or the other.

And like I learned growing up in church, we can not avoid choosing, because not to choose is to choose. To simply go along with the status quo is a choice to support those who rule over it and protect it. If we do not challenge Caesar, we are in league with Caesar — we have chosen his kingdom over God’s Kingdom.

Also, as I learned growing up in church, we cannot delay making a choice. We can not afford to wait. And it is not because we may get into a car accident on the way home from church this morning. It is because the times in which we live are too serious, the problems of this world are too great and the hate in our world is too strong.

Furthermore, Jesus said the kingdom of God is not a future event. It is here, and it is now. And we are invited to become part of it at this very moment.

We have a choice to make… today.

As Crossan puts it: “God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter into it, live it, and thereby establish it.”

And everyone is invited to join. There are no barriers, no borders, no walls. All are welcomed and all means all, but citizenship does come at a cost. Choosing to establish God’s Kingdom in this world is a much more difficult than choosing which kingdom you want to live in the next world. For God’s kingdom unavoidably confronts and challenges the many Caesars that are always in our world, along with their ardent supporters and their devoted religious minions.

And they’ll use every one of Caesar’s tools to protect their privilege and power — bullying, harassment, intimidation, self-promotion, lying, verbal and physical violence.”

The gospels tell us that the kingdom of Rome and its religious supporters conspired to get rid of Jesus and his message to establish the Kingdom of God. And the same thing happens today.

The supporters of Caesar have completely changed the message of Jesus. They have twisted the gospel and perverted the faith. They teach that the Kingdom of God is a future place we experience when we die, not a place we are to live today. They say that the gospel is about personal salvation, not world transformation. They preach that Jesus wants to enter our hearts, not enter Jerusalem, Little Rock or Washington DC.

And at times, it feels like Caesar’s kingdom is invincible, that it is Caesar who will have the final say. The good news is that Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday.

“And in every moment we have trouble recognizing God’s kingdom in our world and in our lives, Jesus says: Look a little closer, love a little stronger, believe a little deeper. And you will see, it’s right here.”

And Jesus invites us all to enter this place of life, love, and healing right now.

Let us pray together.

O God, may thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

 

https://sojo.net/articles/religion-and-power-were-intertwined-then-jesus-challenged-it-all?fbclid=IwAR0_D94N5pdJ2CFbIT4SVTzjPjAJc4-Xv70fQy2Di045VPOesGdkm4mmpek

Advertisements

Forward Together

If our can't fly run

Isaiah 43:16-21 NRSV

They say that hindsight is 20/20. Sometimes, it is easier to see more clearly what is really going on in the world when we are looking back. They say history is the best judge. I believe this is particularly true when it comes to faith.

The presence of God seems to be more recognizable when we look back.

Looking back, we say: “If it were not for God’s abiding presence, there’s no way I would not have gotten through that!” “During the storms of life, at the time it was difficult to see God, but looking back it was obvious that God was undeniably present.”

Looking back, we clearly see God’s hand during the divorce, through the sickness, in the miscarriage, at the death.

Looking back, we plainly see God helping us to learn from mistakes, grow from painful experiences.

Looking back, we see God working all things together for the good, wringing whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Looking back, we can see God, reconciling, creating, recreating, resurrecting.

Looking back, we say, “Yes, I am a better person today because what happened yesterday. Although, I could not see it at the time, that period of struggle was the best thing that happened to me.”

Which raises the question about today? Where is God in the present? What is God doing in our lives at this very moment? What is God up to in the world today? And the more important question, are we able to see it? Or do we have to wait 5-10-20 years to see it?

This may have been what was going on with the Israelites when Isaiah preached the sermon in our scripture lesson this morning.

Some scholars believe the Israelites were on their way back from exile in Babylon. They were on a long and treacherous journey through a desolate and dangerous wilderness. Food, water and shelter were scarce. Protection, minimal. So it was not uncommon for people die in the wilderness.

Then Isaiah proclaimed: “The same God of the great Exodus who liberated your ancestors from Egyptian slavery by making “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isa 43:16) promises to do something brand new: God will make a “way in the wilderness” (Isa 43:19).

“So, stop looking back on those good old days, where God’s presence was so clear, so evident and so real, because God is working even now to create good new days! Bring your faith in the God of the past into the present!” preached Isaiah.

Other scholars believe the prophet was addressing Israelites who had already made it back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, they found an abandoned city in ruins. Having made their dangerous journey through the wilderness, they found themselves in even more danger. Rather than the safety and comfort of home, they found themselves constantly threatened by enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence. The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city. At one point, Nehemiah encouraged everyone working on the rebuilding of the city to carry swords for protection (Neh. 4:17-18)!

So, the prophet was preaching: “You can’t go back, but the same God you clearly see in the past is about to do something brand new to help you move forward with God into a new day!”

But moving forward is almost always one of the most difficult things to do. Moving forward is scary. Perhaps that’s because, without the advantage of hindsight, it is more difficult to see God at work today and tomorrow than it does to see God at work in the past.

But moving forward is what our faith is all about, and it is what it has been about since the very beginning. Once Adam and Eve obtained the knowledge of good and evil, there was no going back, no undoing it. It’s like they say, once you see something there is no unseeing it.

But, in the shame of who they were and what they had become, hiding naked and exposed in the trees, God finds them, then with God’s own hands, makes garments of skin and graciously clothes them. Adam and Eve cannot go back to the good old days of blissful paradise, but now clothed with grace, by the very hands of God, they can go forward with God into good new days.

Cain kills his brother Abel and is excommunicated to the land of Nod. Cain can not undo what he has done. He cannot go back. But God promises to go with him into a new reality and marks him with grace.

The truth is: most of us right now desperately need to hear these words of God, “Behold I am doing a new thing.”

Isaiah understands this need. He is saying: “I know, life may not good for you right now. Some of you are doubting today that will see tomorrow. Although you have experienced the hand of God in your life before, it’s very difficult for you to see that holy hand now. It is hard for you to keep the faith and move forward.”

I believe it is this dilemma that is the death of many churches today. Churches can see God in the past, but they have difficulty seeing God in the present. Ask yourself: “What are the new things that God is working on with us here at First Christian Christian in Fort Smith? What new things is God leading us to do? What new places is God leading us to go.”

“What’s that did the preacher just say? Did he say “new things” and “church” in the same sentence?  New? Doesn’t he know if we’ve never done it that way before, it just can’t be done.

“Behold I am doing a new thing! Can you not see it?”

I believe this may be the most important question we can ask ourselves. “Can we not see it?” Are we capable of seeing the new thing that God is doing in our world? Are we able to open our eyes and see the new world unfolding before us? Are we ready for the new thing that God wants to do in us and through us?

This past week, I read an article that reminded me why this was so important.

On the week of the 51stanniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the article pointed out that the majority of the nation today looks back with reverence and great fondness on Dr. King. We look back, and we can clearly see God at work in him and through him.

However, at the time of his death, Dr. King was one of the most reviled men in the United States. His message of liberation for people of color, Native people and poor people was widely rejected. According to a 1968 poll,75 percent of Americans disapproved of him.

Now, the majority of Americans who were not alive or adults in the 1960’s look back and would like to believe that we would have be in that 25 percent. But would we? Or, back in the mid-60’s would Isaiah’s words convict our hearts, “God is doing a new thing through this young black preacher from Georgia, can you not see it?”

After all, many of the conditions that he marched, boycotted and spoke out against still exist today. Some say that although we’ve made some progress, we have taking a giant step backwards in the last few years when it comes to racism, sexism, materialism and militarism.

And yet, even as we look back today on Martin Luther King Jr with great admiration, much of America condemns the activists today, in the same way he was condemned 51 years ago.

Many detest those today who are speaking out, sitting in, kneeling and marching against the same conditions. If you took a poll today, I believe you would find that the majority of the country disapprove of movements that are demanding justice for Black men, women, and children killed by police, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Most people are leery of people crying for justice for women in the #metoo movement. Most are indifferent to justice movements for immigrants and justice movements for Indigenous peoples like Standing Rock, as well as justice movements for trans, binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

Dr. William Barber, who is currently continuing the work of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, has his life threatened constantly.

Which makes us wonder. What would we have done if we were living in South Africa during Apartheid or Germany in the 1930’s? What would we have thought of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, or even abolitionists like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell?

And what would we have thought of that radical Rabbi named Jesus? What would would our conversations be around the dinner table after we heard the reports—of him breaking the laws of the Sabbath? Touching lepers? Including women as his disciples? Demanding that people sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor? What would be our response to his sermon that encouraged people to turn the other cheek, give the shirt off their back, forgive their enemies, love everyone and take up a cross? What would we have said in response to the news from the women who said that he was not dead, but had risen just as he said?

Would we have been able to see God at work in and through Jesus?

Sometimes we are ready to see something and sometimes we are not. Last week, we were reminded that the so-called “Prodigal” son had to hit rock bottom before he could hear God speaking to him. In today’s Hebrew scripture, Isaiah points out that, as wonderful as God’s new thing was, people may have a difficult time seeing it. Which begs the question: What makes us able to see God at work in the world?

Perhaps you heard the story about the guy who bought a pack mule? The seller of the Mule said: “This mule will understand every order you give him. All you need to do is tell him where he should go and what he should do, and he will do it every time.”

However, when the buyer got home and tried to get the mule to go forward, the mule refused. He couldn’t get the mule to take one tiny step forward. So he took the animal back to the original owner and said, “You lied to me. When I give him the simple command to go forward, this mule won’t move an inch.”

The seller looked at the mule, looked at the buyer, then picked up a two-by-four and whopped the mule on the backside and then said “go forward.” The mule went forward.

The buyer said, “what on earth did you do?”

The seller smiled. Then he said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do some dramatic to get the mule’s attention.”

I wonder if that’s applies to us too?

Whatever it takes, I pray that something gets the church’s attention today, right now, so that we are able to see God at work in our world, so we can join God in that work.

For behold God is doing a new thing. Can you not see it? And God wants us to move forward.

And in the words of Dr. King, if we can’t fly, let’s run. If we can’t run, let’s walk. If we can’t walk, let’s crawl. But whatever we do, let’s keep moving forward. Forward together, not one step back.

 

The Prodigal Parent

Dad wrestle

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 NRSV

One day, Jesus is confronted by some grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do we keep hearing these stories about you hanging out in some very shady places? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and hanging out with known sinners!”

“And you claim to be a man of God!”

“Rabbi, if you are a Rabbi, let me tell you something, our God is an awesome God who will punish not only the sinner, but the sinner’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. God will strike you down with a lighten bolt, and if not that, send a cancer, a heart attack or maybe a stroke.  And, Jesus, you better watch out, because if you get too many sinners in one place, too many sinners at one local restaurant or pub, or in one city or in one nation, God might send a tornado or an earthquake, and take out everyone!”

When Jesus is confronted by these religious people who thought they had all the answers, he responds as he usually does—by telling a story.  Here, he tells three stories—one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.  The parable of the lost boy has been commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  And he is called “prodigal” for some pretty good reasons.

Growing up in church, my home pastor would often use the dictionary when he came to a point like this in his sermon.  I think he defined a word for us every Sunday!  He would say, “Now, Webster defines ‘prodigal’ as…”  In that spirit, but with a 21stcentury twist, allow me to do the same. Dictonary.com defines prodigal as…

1.wastefully or recklessly extravagant

2.giving or yielding profusely; lavish

3.lavishly abundant; profuse

4.a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance.

The youngest son had the gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home.  Demanding his inheritance meant that he had come to this point in his life where he did not mind regarding his father as being deceased.  “I want my inheritance!”  “Daddy, I want to live my life as if you were dead!”

Then the surprising part, the father hands it over to the boy who slips into a “distant country” where he wasted every red cent on selfish, wild living—thus, the designation “prodigal”— reckless, lavish, wasteful, extravagant.

After he spends all that he has, there is a famine and the young boy found himself in great need so found a job feeding pigs…

“Of course there is a famine,” says the religious leaders! That is what we are trying to tell you!  A famine! That is brilliant!  Oooh. God is soooooo good. I bet that boy starves to death! Or at least gets a bad case of salmonella from eating with the pigs. And serves him right! A just punishment for a prodigal—one who had everything only to recklessly lose everything. Death from lack! Death from scarcity! What wonderful irony.”

Jesus continues… “But there in great need, desiring to eat and drink with the pigs, the boy decides to goes back to the father and beg forgiveness…”

“Yeah, good luck with that!” the religious leaders howl, laughing at such a ridiculous scenario!

However, we know the rest of the story…

“And when he was “a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.  Think about this. How did this father see him “a long way off?” It is certainly not because this father was busy going on with his life.  But because the father had been looking for him.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting on the front porch of our home with my brother and my sister, waiting and watching for Daddy to return from work. We would position the chairs on the porch at just the right angle so if we squinted and strained hard enough, we could see through our dogwood trees and our neighbors’ crepe myrtles to get a glimpse of Daddy’s Green Ford LTD almost a half a mile away. Then we would be ready to run to pounce on Daddy to welcome him home.  As soon as he got out of the car I would jump on his back, while my sister and brother would grab his legs. On a good day, if we could muster just enough leverage, Daddy would fall into the grass where we would lavish him with hugs and kisses like three little puppy dogs.  Mama, used to to get on us. She’d remind us how tired Daddy was from working all day, and how one day when he drove up and saw us running and screaming towards the driveway, he was going to just keep going down the road! I think she was just jealous.

Every day this father sat on his front porch, gazing down the road, watching and waiting, hoping and praying, grieving for his boy to return home.  And while he was still a long way off, he was filled with compassion, and he started running! He ran and ran to meet his child, throw his arms around him and kissed him profusely.

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming.  I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you just hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his pastor telling him: “Old man, its time for you to move on. You’ve got to get past this.  Face the facts.  He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. You have to go on living your life. Concentrate on your older boy who’s still here with you.”  But the father still waited and watched, hoped and prayed and grieved.

And he really did not know that his son was still alive. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home traveling alone was an easy target to any would be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Still the father patiently and you might say recklessly waited. Everyday he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see, his son coming home.

Then the reunion! The biggest, most extravagant homecoming party you’ve ever seen! The sandals, the ring, the robe, the best one! The calf, the fattest calf! All of the stops pulled out, for this son who was thought to be dead is now alive, lost and is now found.

And the religious leaders are left scratching their heads. Still grumbling and complaining, ranting and raving, now with the older son.  Listen how the older son talks about his brother: How can you do this for “this son of yours?”  “How can you do this, not for ‘my brother,’ but for this one, as far as I am concerned is still in some distant country?”

This is when it dawns on us. We thought this was a story of a prodigal son, when in reality, it turns out to the story of a prodigal father.  It is a story of a very “reckless” “profuse” “extravagant” and “excessive” love. For when the boy left home, the father recklessly gave him his inheritance.

And while the boy was gone into the far country, his friends and neighbors would say that the father recklessly waited. And when the boy at last returned, the father recklessly threw a huge party, holding nothing back for himself. The father loved his son recklessly when he left home, he loved him recklessly while he was away from home and he loved him prodigally when he returned home.

The good news is that is how our God loves each one of us. Our God is a God who, when it comes to love, holds nothing back. God’s love for us is extravagant, excessive, relentless, even reckless. The one thing that this story reveals is that God’s love for us is profusely prodigal.

This is why I will never apologize for loving others in a way that some religious folks would characterize as “excessive.” For my God is profusely prodigal in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. God is relentlessly radical to have us in God’s arms so God can shower us with divine kisses. As the ranting of the religious leaders and the anger of the older brother reveal, it was this prodigal love that sent Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps the most prodigal statement ever made was made from the cross… “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Then, like a father, turning over his property before he dies, giving away his life, to children who are undeserving, to people who are known sinners, Jesus died.

And the watching and the waiting and the grieving continues…

Let us pray…

God forgive us for the sin of the older brother, the sin of Pharisees and Scribes, forgive of our desire to distant ourselves from those in our family, in our community, in our world we consider to be sinners.  And forgive us for yearning that you somehow distant yourself, turn your back on, and forsake some, forgive us of our racism or classism or simple arrogance that hopes with the Scribes and Pharisees that you are an unforgiving God who punishes your wayward children and their offspring. Forgive us for believing that your love is anything but profusely prodigal.

Holy Week

Emma

It happened 2,000 years ago, and it happens today.

Someone experiences suffering.

They love their neighbors as they love themselves.

They have a dream that love can change the world.

They heal. They teach. They unite. They march.

They speak truth to power.

They inspire.

But they also disturb.

Pushback comes.

Betrayal. Denial. Lies. Mocking. Humiliation. Degradation. Dehumanization.

Some of it comes in the name of God.

The good news is that Easter is coming.

Hope is rising.

And love will win.

The God Who Rides a Donkey

March for our lives.jpg

John 12:12-16 NRSV

I have a confession to make. I got more than a little down dejected last Sunday morning. Looking at the empty pews last when so many were out on Spring Break got me thinking: “What in the world are we going to do to get more people to come to church here?”

And planning for this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem also got me thinking: “Everybody loves a parade!” Maybe that is what our church needs. A good parade!

Now, some may argue that many churches these days already look like some type of parade.

Some churches look like a parade they have down in Southern Louisiana where they throw candy, beads all sorts of fun things from the float. People go to parades like some people go to church: to get something, to receive something, to catch something that is thrown their way, something sweet, pleasant, something that is going to make their lives better, make their family happier.

Then there are other parades. Although no candy is thrown, these parades just have a way of making us feel good. They put us in a good mood. Nothing gets some of us in the Holiday Spirit like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

There are people who go to church to get in a particular mood. They go to hear something that moves them, stirs them. They go to see something that wows them. They go to ooh and ahh. They go to get a good feeling that will hopefully last them the rest of the week.

Then there are military parades. They show off a well-trained, well-conditioned army marching in step with tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads to show the world who’s the strongest and the greatest, whose citizens are the safest, most protected, most secure.

Just like some people go to church to get something that makes them feel a little more superior than others. They also go to be protected from all sorts of evil. And they go for some eternal security.

If we pay attention, we discover that each of these parades has the same drum beat. It is a beat of pleasure. It is a beat of comfort. It is a beat that is easy for us to march to. It is a beat of self-preservation, but also self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. It is a beat of pride. It is a beat of greed. It is beat that entices us.

And, although we know this beat has an innate tendency to be depraved, although we know this beat often stirs the darker, most selfish places within us, we love this beat. We live by this beat. We work by this beat. We relate to others by this beat. We vote by this beat. We even worship by this beat.

But on this Palm Sunday, we are reminded that there is another kind of parade. And it’s a parade that marches to the beat of very different drum.

Nearing the end of his life, Jesus, the savior of the world, paraded into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion, but on a borrowed donkey; not with a well-trained, well-conditioned army, but with a gang of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

The late Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors and pastors once said, that to much of the world, this parade looked “downright stupid.”

For Jesus marched to a difficult beat that pushes against the status quo, that pulls us out of our comfort zones, that challenges our instincts.

While others marched to the beat of a self-serving, self-seeking, self-preserving drum, Jesus rode a donkey and marched to the beat of a self-giving, self-denying drum.

As the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! God save us!” Jesus answered their cries by marching to a beat of sacrifice. Although he knew he would be killed for it, Jesus kept marching forward with a scandalous love and an offensive grace.

Yes, bouncing in on the back of a donkey, Jesus marched to the beat of a very different drum.

During the Fort Smith Marathon, several of you made and held up signs to cheer on the runners who made their way down Free Ferry. Some of your signs were very creative. One read: “You Are Running Better than the Government.” One of my favorite signs that I see people holding in nearly every marathon reads: “Worst Parade Ever.”

If we are honest, this is our initial reaction to this Palm Sunday parade. The people cry “Hosanna! God save us!” And here comes God, riding in on a donkey!

This is not a parade of pride. It is a parade of humility.

It is not a parade that entertains. It is a parade that suffers.

It is not a parade of pleasure. It is parade of agony.

It is not a parade of self-preservation. It is a parade of self-expenditure.

And although the route of this parade brought Jesus to the capital city, this parade was not good news for the rich and the powerful, the self-important and the self-sufficient.

This parade was good news for the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners—for all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

This march was good news those who had been left out and left behind: For sinners condemned by bad religion; For women, children and minorities silenced by the privileged; For the broken cast aside by society; For all those who are unable to march: the blind, the disabled, the mentally ill, the wounded and the sick. For all who realize that they need salvation.

I have heard it said that what America needs right now is a good parade. On this Palm Sunday, I agree.

However, we do not need a parade led by tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads asserting that military might is the answer to our problems.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey asserting that selfless love is the answer.

We need a parade that emphasizes that what this nation needs is more humility and less arrogance, more respect and less name-calling, more empathy and less callousness, more acts of kindness and less talk of preemptive military strikes.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey showcasing not those who sit in the highest seats of power, but school children who just want to be safe, teachers who just want a living wage, women who just want to be heard, persons with different abilities who just want to be included, the sick who just want to see a doctor, the poor who just want to eat, the oppressed who just want to be free.

We need a parade led by our savior who rides a donkey!

And if we are honest, we would confess that this parade is not easy for us accept. Look at verse 16: His disciples did not understand these things…” The truth is: neither can we.

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes: “We wanted Jesus to come to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to march up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine. We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday from noon until three, with hardly a word.”

Jesus didn’t come fixing all of our problems. He didn’t come offering us health and wealth, an easy life or even a better life. He didn’t come showering us with treats to make us feel good good. And he didn’t come showing us his power and might. Jesus came riding a donkey.

For God so loved the world that God came and emptied God’s self. God came and poured God’s self out. God came and bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in the way that we wanted—but, the good news is, God came in the way that we need for life—abundant and eternal.

Those great theologians of our time had it right: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might just find, you get what you need.”

I may want these pews to be full every Sunday morning, even during Spring Break. However, for us to be the church that God is calling us to be, worship service attendance on Sunday morning will never be as important as how we are worshiping God with our selfless service the rest of the week. How we march through these doors today is not nearly as important as how we are marching outside of these doors tomorrow.

To determine if we are being the church God is calling us to be, what we need is a new gauge. We need a new benchmark to determine if we are marching to the beat of a different drum, a new indicator to tell if we are marching in the steps of the One who rides a donkey. For it’s not how many of us are coming to church that is important to this One. It’s what we are doing in the world to be the church.

Spending an entire day with our youth, teaching them how to use power equipment for a mission trip that you plan to lead them on this summer, is a sign that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Making sandwiches for college students who are building affordable housing for the working poor is evidence that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Selflessly giving our time, our resources, and ourselves marching downtown to feed the hungry; marching across town to sit down and share a meal with a group of another faith; marching to the capital to stand up against gun violence, to cry out against injustice and corruption, to speak up for the care of God’s creation; marching down the road to extend mercy to someone who is broken; marching across a room to perform a small act of kindness to a stranger, marching out in the darkness to be a friend to someone who is afraid, marching everywhere we go to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves—

These are the markers that we are the church God is calling us to be.

May God give us the grace and the strength to keep marching forward to the beat of a different drum, to keep following in the steps of the One who rides a donkey; to keep marching a march of suffering, but also a march of joy; a march of sacrifice, but also a march of hope; a march to lose our lives, but also a march for our lives.

Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, as you entered Jerusalem, you did not look like the Messiah that we expected, bouncing in on the back of that donkey,

Lord Jesus, when you stood before Pilate and his inquisition, you did not sound like the Lord of Lords.

Lord Jesus, as you hung in agony on the cross, you did not look like the Kings of Kings.

Lord Jesus, help us to see you, even when you do not look like the God we wanted.  And make us realize through your strong presence that who you are is all we will ever need, now and forever.  Amen.

INVITATION TO CHRIST’S TABLE

Come. Come and find your place at this table.

All are invited, and all means all.

Come and share a very humble meal that in the eyes of many looks downright stupid.

But this is the feast God imagines –

where peace and salvation can be experienced in a simple loaf of bread and in one cup.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

John 12:1-8 NRSV

Every service of worship should begin with a warning. Instead of a welcome and a few announcements before the hand bell choir, the congregation needs to be forewarned, put on alert, and be advised to proceed with caution.

Because every time invoke the presence of the living Christ to join us around this table, things are likely to get little crazy! When Jesus comes to the table, things are going to get out of hand. Things with happen that will surprise, even shock us. Things will mysteriously break open, break loose, change, shift, and spill out.  Because when Jesus comes to the table, things are not always as we expect them to be, nor even as they appear to be. When Jesus is at the table, there is always more going on than meets the eye.

To illustrate what I am trying to say, allow me to share a story.

Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. There has always been a sense of foreboding, of gathering gloom throughout much of his ministry. And now there is a sense that things are coming to a head. The enemies of Jesus, the religious leaders who already had everything in life figured out, those who believed they had all the answers, those for whom life holds no mystery, those who have been lurking in the shadows plotting against him, may be at last ready to entrap him.

But before all of that, before Jesus takes his disciples on that final journey into Jerusalem, they gather with Jesus’ good friends, Mary and Martha, for dinner. And oh-my-word, what dinner it was!

First of all, John opens the story by saying, “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”

Now, can you imagine standing behind your chair at the table getting ready to sit down when someone introduces you to the one standing at the head of the table by saying, “You know our host, Mr. Lazarus, don’t you?  Yeah, we didn’t know he was going to be able to graciously host this lovely dinner party tonight, because, a couple of weeks ago he was very ill.  And about a week ago, he was dead and buried.”

As you pull out your chair to sit down at the table, you’re thinking: “This is going to be one crazy night!”

Well, not long after the cornbread and butter made its way around the table, Mary comes in acting as if she has already had too much wine and falls all over Jesus! She shocks everyone when she lets down her hair right there at the dinner table!  She then takes a bottle of very expensive perfume, gets down on her knees under the table and anoints the feet of Jesus! Pouring the perfume all over his feet and wiping his feet with her hair!

This is certainly not a scene one would expect at the dining room table, especially with a young rabbi over as the guest!  The fragrance, almost overbearing, fills the entire house. So much commotion. Perfume and hair everywhere!  At the dinner table!

John mentions only one other guest at the table that evening.  He is one of Jesus’ students. He is the follower whose reputation precedes him: Judas Iscariot—The very disciple who will betray Jesus just a few days later. Now, let me ask you this, can things possibly get any more crazy?

Shaking his head at Mary making a spectacle of herself under the table, Judas, being the good committed liberal that he is, asks a great ethical question. “Why wasn’t this expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor rather than wasting it by pouring it all over Jesus’ feet?”

It is rather shocking that it comes from Judas, for it’s the type of question that one can easily imagine Jesus asking, especially knowing how he feels about the poor.

Well, surprise, surprise, Judas! You have been paying attention! You didn’t sleep through all of Jesus’ sermons! Way to go, Judas!”

But then, just when you thought things could not become more shocking, comes the surprise of all surprises: Jesus responds: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not always have me.”   Whaaaaaaaaaat?????  Why would Jesus say something like that?

But then we begin to get it. When Jesus first mentioned burial, at first we thought he was talking about Lazarus. But this is not about Lazarus. And this is not about the poor. This is about what is going to take place in Jerusalem during the next couple of weeks.

This meal that should have been a happy gathering of good friends enjoying a lovely dinner was actually a prelude to the crucifixion. Jesus is at the table with both friends and betrayer. Sweet smelling perfume is not the only thing in the air. Disloyalty and disappointment and death are also in the air on this night.

And Jesus still eats and drinks with them. Love, grace and mercy is also in the air on this night.

What a night this has turned out to be—a night of seemingly endless surprises.  So much more is going on beyond the senses.

This is how it always is with Jesus. With Jesus, things are never as they appear to be. With Jesus, there is always more meaning beyond the moment, more reality beyond the senses. The truth is that this very morning, more is going on here in this place than we can possibly imagine.  There is more happening here than the saying of a few prayers, the singing of a few hymns and the mere preaching of a simple sermon.

Whether it be at the table with his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus or here in this place, at the table with us, Jesus, the incarnate deity, is present, communing with us, giving himself to us, revealing himself for us.  And as fragmented human beings, we can always count on being surprised and even shocked.

So, this morning, I am asking you to hold on to your pews, for anytime Christ comes among us, things are liable to break out, break open, change, shift and spill out.

To our absolute amazement a brief moment in prayer gives us strength that is beyond measure.

To our complete bewilderment, the singing of a hymn gives us peace outside all our expectations.

To our pure wonderment, each Sunday morning, gathering around this table with Jesus, some of us friends of Jesus, all of us his betrayers, envelops us with grace which is greater that our understanding.

To our utter befuddlement, a tiny cracker and sip of juice fills us with immeasurable sustenance, giving a sacrificial offering fills us with untold riches.

And it is not only during this service of worship that things are breaking open, breaking loose and spilling out. Because the good news is, if we open our eyes and our hearts to it, we can experience the Spirit of Christ everywhere.

We visit a sick man, dying in the hospital, and we are amazed to discover that he is experiencing more life than the healthiest person we know.

We include someone who is usually excluded, and we are stunned when we realize that we are the ones who have been included in something larger than we could imagine.

A child speaks to us, and we are taken aback when she imparts wisdom deeper than any great philosopher.

We grant unearned, undeserved forgiveness to others and we are astounded to find ourselves forgiven.

We offer a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek (physical, temporal expressions of love), and are astonished when it is revealed that those expressions have spiritual, eternal significance.

And here, right now, because a church in Western Arkansas has made the commitment to invoke the presence of the living Christ to the table every week, because we’ve have made the decision to not only believe in Jesus, worship Jesus, but to actually follow Jesus, to welcome others like Jesus, to serve like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus and to love like Jesus, you know what’s gonna happen!

Like perfume and hair everywhere, the Holy Spirit of God is going to break open, break loose and spill out!

This morning, when you got up, you thought you chose to get dressed and come to church, but you are now stunned to discover that some mysterious Divine Other has chosen you.

You thought that you had things all figured out, had all the answers, knew what was going on and what was not going on in this world, only to be flabbergasted to discover that you did not have a clue.

This morning, you thought you were going to go to church, go through the motions, and go back home as complacent as ever, but to your startling surprise it has been revealed that you have been summoned, you have been called to do something that is bigger than you and to go on a journey that is far from home.

And here is the real shock: in saying yes to this summons, saying yes to giving your life away and to leaving a place of comfort and security, you have never felt more alive, more you, and more at home.

This morning, you thought you were going to come to this place and see a few friends, but you were dumbfounded when you came and saw Jesus.

And Jesus is not finished!  No, he’s not finished with you yet. Some of you have tuned out everything that has been going on and is going on here. You think you are going to leave here in a few minutes to go have a little dinner, unsurprised, untouched, unmoved, unchanged. Well, guess who’s coming to dinner?  I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Sidney Poitier.

Let us pray together.

O God, surprise us, overwhelm us, bowl us over, render us speechless, take our breath away, with your love and your grace, your mystery and your glory, as we follow you wherever you may lead us.

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

As you prepare share this meal from this table, know that you have been forewarned. You have been put on alert. You have been advised to proceed with caution. You will be surprised to discover that objects in the rear view mirror may not be what they appear to be. And you will be shocked to discover that the road ahead may not go where you expect it to go, or even where you may want it to go. So, remain pliable, keep your heart completely accessible and your life totally available. And may the ever present God, the unpredictable Christ, and the Holy Spirit like hair and perfume everywhere, surprise, shock and startle you from all immovable complacency.

Ashamed of the Gospel

not ashamed

I believe the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. We are to continue his ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: offering healing to the sick, sharing hope to the despairing, giving comfort to the troubled, bestowing grace to the sinners, showing love to the hateful, speaking truth to the powerful, and bringing life to the dying.

Now, if this is like any church that I have ever known, there may be more than a few of you who have been thinking: “I just don’t know if I am ready to make such a commitment.”

I have some things that I need to work out first in my life. My faith needs some work. I have my doubts. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And I have some very personal issues to deal with. I have this problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my act more together, learn a little more, I think I will pass on this following Jesus thing. I have enough trouble just believing Jesus.”

Well, here’s my response to that: “Have you ever met Peter?”

You know, Saint Peter. The one Jesus called a “rock” and said, “on this rock, I will build my church.” The one Roman Catholics recognize as the first Pope. Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter: the one whom Jesus loved and trusted to carry on his ministry in this world. You may think, there’s no way I can be like Saint Peter.

Well, let me tell you a little more about this Peter fella.

One day, he is out on boat with the other disciples. It is the middle of the night, and there’s this big storm. The wind is howling. The waves are crashing against and into the boat. And as you could imagine, they were all scared to death. But then, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them to have courage and fear not.

But Peter…Peter has some doubts. Peter has some questions. Peter needs to work some things out: “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come out on the water.” And Jesus responds, “Peter, you of little faith.”

Later, Jesus is instructing Peter about discipleship. Jesus talks about being humble, lowering one’s self, even pouring one’s self out. Jesus talks about selfless, self-expending, sacrificial love, being with and for the least of these.

But Peter…Peter has some issues. Peter has some things to learn. Peter gets into an argument with the other disciples about which one of them was the greatest.

After Jesus prays in the garden, surrendering himself to the will of God, offering himself as a sacrifice, Jesus does not resist arrest. Jesus practices what he teaches and turns the other cheek.

But Peter…Peter loses it. Peter acts before he thinks. In a fit of anger, Peter fights back. Peter draws his sword and begins swinging it Jesus’ captors, cutting the ear off of one.

And in our text this morning, Jesus foretells that garden event. He talks about being rejected by organized religion. Jesus is essentially saying:

“When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you tell the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders hypocrites and point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous-powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.”

But Peter…Peter has some serious issues with that. Peter says to Jesus: “No way! Stop talking like that. This is not right. You are crazy. We will not let this happen!”

Then, having had about all that he could stand of Peter and his nonsense and excuses: his doubts, his questioning, his anger, his lack of faith, his personal issues, all the mess that he needs to work out, Jesus responds to Peter with some of the harshest words ever recorded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

And yet, that did not stop Jesus from loving Peter, from using Peter. Jesus kept teaching Peter, kept calling Peter, and kept leading Peter to do his work in the world. In fact, that did not stop Jesus from calling Peter to start his church in the world.

So, if you do not feel like you can follow Jesus, and if your excuses are: that you have doubts; or you have questions; or you are just not ready; or you have some issues to work out; or even have days you feel unworthy, even have days you know you resemble Satan more than God; then you are going to have to come up with another excuse, because as Peter teaches us: with Jesus, those excuses simply don’t fly!

So, what is it that is really keeping us from following Jesus?

After Jesus is arrested, Peter goes into the courtyard of the High Priest. It is a cold night, so he gathers with some folks who had started a fire to warm themselves. A servant girl begins staring at Peter and says: “This man was with Jesus. He traveled around with him doing the things that Jesus did, saying the things that Jesus said.” But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not even know this Jesus.”

A little later, another saw him and said: “You are a disciple, a disciple of Jesus who defended, forgave and friended sinners. You welcomed strangers, visited prisoners, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, and fed the hungry. You restored lepers, elevated the status of women, gave dignity to Eunuchs, and offered community to lepers. But, again, Peter denied it.

About an hour had passed and another man began to insist saying: “Certainly this man was with Him, for he is a Galilean too. You called out hypocrisy on the behalf of widows. You challenged the status quo on the behalf of the sick. You disobeyed the laws of God on the behalf of the suffering.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”

Peter’s denials had nothing to do with his lack of faith. His denials, his refusal to take up his cross, his failure to follow in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, his personal issues and poor anger management because, as Jesus pointed out over and over, those excuses simply don’t cut it. Peter’s failure was shame.

Peter had trouble following Jesus, because he was ashamed of the gospel.  He was ashamed of what the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

Which raises the question: “Could this be our failure to follow in the way of Jesus?”

Peter was ashamed to love, because living among voices clamoring to take their country back from foreign invaders, it was more popular to hate.

Peter was ashamed to identify with the least, because it was more popular to identify with the greatest.

Peter was ashamed to be last, because it was more popular to be first.

Peter was ashamed to tell the truth, because it was more popular to embrace a lie.

Peter was ashamed to embrace a way of humility, because it was more popular to be arrogant, proud, condescending and self-important.

Peter was ashamed to share his wealth, because it was more popular to hold on to it.

Peter was ashamed to side with the poor, because it was more popular to call them “lazy.”

Peter was ashamed to include foreigners, because it was more popular to dehumanize them by calling them “aliens” or “snakes.”

Peter was ashamed to defend and forgive sinners, because it was more popular to throw rocks.

Peter was ashamed to welcome and elevate children because it was more popular to put them down.

Peter was ashamed to visit prisoners, because it was popular to treat them as animals.

Peter was ashamed to stand up for the marginalized, because it was more popular to call them “abominations.”

Peter was ashamed to respect women as equals, because it was more popular to treat them like objects.

Peter was ashamed to turn the other cheek, because it was more popular to draw a sword.

Peter was ashamed to pick up and carry a cross, because it was more popular to pick up and carry a weapon of war.

And Jesus said: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So, are we ready to follow Jesus? Are we ready to give sacrificially and serve graciously? If not, what’s our excuse? We must remember, with Jesus, a lack of faith, having a lot of questions and some serious issues, or not having ourselves together simply doesn’t cut it!

Could it be that we are ashamed? Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we ashamed of what it stands for, and for whom it stands?

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter repented. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church and has been named by the Church as its first Pope.

And the good news for us this morning is that we still have a little time to deal with our shame.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to deal with our shame and openly commit ourselves to following the way of Christ, his gospel, his mission in this world. Help us to pick up our crosses and courageously follow Christ, unreservedly, confidently and unashamedly wherever he leads. Amen.