Let the Children Come

Children

Matthew 19:13-15 NRSV

There is so much that the Church can learn from this wonderful passage of scripture.

Little children were being brought to Jesus.

Before children can come to Jesus, someone, or something has to bring them. They usually to do get to this place on their own. It may be a parent, a grandparent or another relative. It might be a neighbor, a Sunday School teacher, or just someone who cares. A good question for the church to ask is: what are we doing to bring children to this place? Or are we merely waiting for children to come.

Churches make the following mistake all the time: Oh, we don’t have a youth minister any more, because we just don’t have that many children. Have you ever considered that not having many children is the best reason to have a youth minister?

I believe churches bring children to church by working hard to have all sorts of theologically-sound learning experiences and hands-on missional opportunities for children. We don’t wait until we have enough children to have a vibrant children’s ministry. We create the very best ministry to children we can to bring children here.

I believe churches bring children to church by allowing children to participate in and even lead worship, for children have much to teach us.  We also bring children here by providing separate opportunities for smaller children during worship, as our education committee is currently planning.

I believe churches bring children to church by having a safe-church policy to protect children, and dedicated, compassionate, and screened volunteers to love and nurture children.

Little children were brought to Jesus that he might lay his hands on them and pray.

Children should always be brought here with a specific purpose to be loved, accepted, embraced, and supported. Children are to be the focus of our prayers. That means that children are to be the subjects of our most personal and intimate conversations with God.

Ask yourself this: how many times are the children in our community truly the main focus of our prayers?

But the disciples spoke sternly.

We think: who in the world would speak sternly preventing children from coming to Jesus? The answer surprises us, but at the same time, doesn’t surprise us. Matthew says that it was his very own disciples.

As a part of the Church for over 50 years, I have experienced this in many more ways than one.

When I was growing up I remember hearing offended church members sternly say terrible things about my home pastor when he supported having basketball goals installed on the church grounds. They criticized us playing ball at the church for many reasons. One, all the running around the goals was going to kill the grass. Two, we might leave drink bottles or other trash on the grounds. And three, the basketball games might attract the wrong type of kids, and by type, well, you know what they meant.

My pastor was also criticized by church members for sending our church bus out to pick up children who lived a few miles away in a trailer park (again, wrong type of kids), He was also criticized for asking the church to pay for children that they picked up on that bus to attend camp in the summer. And the four times each year we has communion, I always heard people grumbling about the pastor for not prohibiting children who had not been baptized to take communion.

As a long-time pastor, I have experienced similar criticisms, never by people outside of the church, but by people on the inside claiming to be disciples. There have always been people in the church who for some reason or another think it is their God-given, moral duty to put restrictions on who can and who cannot get to Jesus.

People have and will always be offended by Jesus’ revolutionary words:

Let the children come.

Let the children come to a safe place of welcome, a place of grace, a place of love, a place of nurturing where they can learn and grow into the people God has created them to be. And let all of them come. Let all children come to a place where no one is judged, treated unfairly, or ever feels excluded, second-rate or second class.

Do not stop them.

Do not let anyone or anything stop them. Do not let that one with money, power and prestige who thinks God has made him the gatekeeper of the church stop them, and do not let condescending words, snooty looks, or self-righteous expectations stop them. Do not let appearance, dress, ethnicity, documentation, race, size, gender, sexuality, health, class, or disability stop them. Do not let their families’ past or current situation, tax bracket, beliefs or lack of beliefs stop them.

That Jesus said this about little children speaks volumes about how we as the Body of Christ are to welcome all people.

For little children are people—

Before they are old enough, before they are strong enough, or before they are smart enough to help themselves or anyone else for that matter. Little children are folks who are not yet able to contribute to society, pay taxes, earn their place in the world, or deserve any sort of commendation. This means that the arms of the Body of Christ are to be open wide with a grace most extravagant and a love most radical.

It is the same love that parents have for our own children. We love them more than anything simply because they are our children.  So extravagant and radical is this love that there will be always be those, probably those who call themselves disciples, who will be so offended that they will speak and even act, sternly.

To such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.

This, says Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is what eternity looks like. This is what the church should look like. And this is what the church should help the world to look like. I believe one of the great purposes of the church is to show the world, through our words and our deeds, how to be people of extravagant grace and welcome, of radical love and acceptance.

But sadly, the church has been guilty of doing the opposite, have we not?  People go to church looking for grace and acceptance, and all they find is judgment and condemnation.

Somehow, we have been preaching the gospel the wrong way. In fact, I believe we have a tendency to actually preach the gospel, not just the wrong way, but we have a tendency to preach it backwards.

To share Jesus with others, we often start with what is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that all people are sinners. I just don’t believe that is where we should begin the conversation or the sermon.

Our sermons usually have three points, and point number one is: All people are sinners. Point number two is: God sent Jesus to die for us. And point number three is: if we believe this, then God will forgive us and love us as God’s children forever.

I believe we should preach the same sermon, but proclaim it the other way around. And I believe the way we bring children here, to a place of grace, acceptance and welcome is the way to help us turn it around, to preach the gospel the right way.

I believe we should always begin with God’s love for all people. We should make our number one point, the first and foremost point of our sermon that God loves us as God’s children and wants nothing more but to love us forever.

The second point should be that God loves us as very own Children so much that God came and loved us so radically, showered us with grace so extravagantly, that it offended the organized religion of his day. They sternly spoke out, “crucify him,” and they sternly acted out with a whip, a crown of thorns and a wooden cross.

And we should make our third and final point that God did this while we were yet sinners, before we earned or deserved anything, before we contributed anything, even believed anything.

Do you see the difference? Instead of preaching that all people are born sinners standing outside of the grace and love of God until they do something, say something, or pray something to earn forgiveness, we are to preach that all people are actually born standing inside of the grace and love of God without doing, saying or praying a thing to earn it. For this is the gospel. This is what we want people to believe and accept— that all people are welcomed into God’s gracious and loving arms—they just may or may not know it.

Jesus put it this way—Point #1: For God so loved the world. Point #2: God gave God’s only son. And Point #3: So that all whosoever believes may not perish by their sins but have everlasting life.

If we keep teaching this, continue preaching this, if we keep welcoming children, all children, making the church and a place of extravagant grace and a place of radical love; then, before you know it, we are going to change the whole world. We will start seeing people differently. Instead of seeing people first as sinners who deserve hell, fire, and eternal damnation, we will begin to see them first as God sees them, as God’s “little children,” who are to be embraced, accepted, prayed for, nurtured, and loved.

O God, thank you again for all of the children in our midst and for the wonderful ways that they remind us of your grace and love. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Christ welcomes all to eat and drink from this table,

And the arms of Christ are open wide.

There is nothing here that can stop you sharing this meal.

There is no sin so great, no shortcoming so large, no wound so deep, and no mistake so wide that it does not fit inside the arms of his grace. In the eyes of Christ, no one here is second-class or second rate. All are God’s beloved children. All are welcome.

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God-Blessed Eyes

Harrison

Matthew 13:10-17 NRSV

The pastor stands up in the pulpit, clears his throat, and announces: “This morning we are going to talk about racism and reconciliation.”

And all over the sanctuary the congregation winces. Under their breaths, they beg: “Preacher, please don’t do it! You are getting ready to open up a can of worms!”

But the middle-aged preacher, who has opened up more cans of worms than anyone could possibly count, ignores the grimaces and metaphorically gets out the can opener.

Ever since I have been a pastor, church folks have urged me to avoid talking about race.

They say: “If you talk about it, you are just going to stir things up, make things worse. If we would all just leave it alone, it will go away.

And if you think about, those who call attention to the color of their skin are the real racists. They need to stop saying their lives matter and understand that all lives matter. Reconciliation Sunday? Really? Come on, preacher, we just need to let it go!”

And, for the most part, when it comes to talking about race, we white preachers have been very silent.

But guess what? It ain’t working.

The recent Alt-Right White Nationalists’ march in Charlottesville was a stark reminder that racism in this country is not going away that easily.

Yet, many would still rather shut their eyes and close their ears, pretending that racism no longer exists.

A couple of years ago, someone blocked me on Facebook. When I asked a mutual friend why I was blocked. She responded that he didn’t like seeing my Ainsley’s Angels posts of children with special needs. He said that the pictures of the children made him uncomfortable.

“Out of sight out of mind,” as we like to say.

Maybe this is why Jesus talked more about sight than he talked about sin.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus asks: “Do you have eyes and fail to see?” (Mark 8:18)

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah:

You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes and listen with their ears.

In Isaiah chapter 6, we read that closed minds, closed eyes, and closed ears (ignoring injustice, looking the other way, tuning it out), will lead to “cities lying in waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land utterly desolate.”

Refusing to listen to and understand the cries of injustice— possessing hearts that are dull and indifferent— leads to complete desolation. It leads to tiki torches in Charlottesville, a shooter in Charleston, voter suppression in North Carolina, an assassination in Memphis, Jim Crow in the South, a holocaust in Germany, and a mass lynching of 237 African Americans in Arkansas.

Isaiah continues:

Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again,
like…an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’

But listen to the good news. This passage in Isaiah concludes:

The holy seed is its stump.

There’s a holy seed ready to sprout forth. In a land of deep darkness, a light shines forth. In the demise and the decay, there is the promise of new life. Like a candle flickering in the dark, hope is burning. Like a stream trickling in the desert, reconciliation is possible.

And Jesus suggests that the key to reconciliation, healing and redemption is open minds and open hearts.

The mission of Ainsley’s Angels is the very thing that Jesus is talking about here. The primary mission is “raising awareness.”  Awareness, says Jesus, is having God-blessed eyes and God-blessed ears. Because whether you are talking about ableism or racism or any other ism, awareness is what is needed before reconciliation can happen.

And with this blessed awareness, what is it specifically that Jesus wants us to see? What do we see for Jesus to respond: “Blessed are your eyes for they see!” “Prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it!”

I believe the answer is in Jesus’ first recorded sermon. In Matthew 5 we read where Jesus went up on a mountain and taught them saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

God-blessed eyes see that the “poor in spirit” and the “meek” are blessed by God; Not the one who has never had a reason to doubt that God was indeed for them, not against them; with them, not away from them. But God-blessed eyes see that God is on the side of the ones who have been degraded and dehumanized by the systems and structures of the priveledged. Their spirits have been crushed by inequitable education, poor healthcare, discrimination in the workplace and racial profiling in the streets. But their future, says Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

God-blessed eyes see that God empathizes with the mourners. Not those the Apostle Paul is talking about when he says we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), or “rejoice even in the midst of suffering” (Romans 5:3-10), but the ones who have a difficult time finding anything for which to be thankful. For them, there is no rejoicing. They are not just complaining about the pain in their life. They actually in mourning over that pain. They look at how their parents and grandparents were valued by the world. They see how their lives are valued. And they look into the eyes of their children and grandchildren, and they grieve for them. But because Jesus knows that love will win, and evil will be overcome, Jesus calls them blessed and promises comfort.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones on whose behalf the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). This is everyone who have been marginalized by society, even by communities of faith. They have suffered grave injustices just for being different.

They have been bullied so badly by the world that they hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness like a wanderer lost in a hot desert thirsts for water. Jesus says that they are blessed, and they are the ones who will not only be satisfied, but will be filled, their cups overflowing.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Not the pure, but the “pure in heart.” Not those who look like you do on the outside. Not those who share your skin tone. No, God blesses those who dream with Rev. Dr. King for a world where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. God-blessed eyes have the grace to see others as the Lord sees them, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God sees them for who they truly are, beloved children of God, created in the image of God, and they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Not the ones who have necessarily found peace for themselves. But God blesses the tormented: the discriminated and the victimized, who, because their lives are so continuously in chaos, seek to make peace whenever and wherever they can. Blessed are those who live with no peace, but seek it, because they will find a home and a peace that is beyond all understanding, within the family of God.[i]

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Not the proud, the boastful and the arrogant. Not the ones who never admit any mistake, those who say they are “the least racist person” or that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” But God blesses the ones who are fully aware of their prejudices, the ones who have made mistakes, terrible mistakes, and they know it. Thus, when they encounter others who are also suffering from this fragmented world, they have mercy and compassion. In their hearts there is always room for others. They give mercy, because they need mercy for themselves. And Jesus says, they will receive it.

Do you see what Jesus wants us to see? Are your eyes God-blessed?

What’s the one thing we mortals need in order to see?

We need light.

The good news is that the Lord announces: “I have come as light, as the Light of the World!”

And not only that, Jesus says: “You who seek to be my disciples, you who have answered the call to be my hands and feet in this world, are not only holy seeds in a burned-out stump. You are also the Lights of the World. And you are called not to hide your light, but to shine your light so all may see this world as God sees it.

We are to shine our lights by Stanley with, lifting up, and caring for all people, especially those who are left behind. We are to light it up by defending and caring for those whose spirits have been broken, those who mourn and need mercy, the marginalized who hunger and thirst for justice, the discriminated who seek equity, and the troubled who yearn for peace.

So, as lights of this world, for the sake of this world, may First Christian Church of Fort Smith light this our city up:

So crushed spirts can have new life.

Light it up,

So the despairing can have hope.

Light it up,

So that those who ache for fairness will be satisfied.

Light it up,

So that victims of all kinds of discrimination will see God.

Light it up,

So that those who yearn for peace will receive justice and know peace.

Light it up,

Until the day comes when the eyes and ears of all are finally and fully blessed and the entire human race be reconciled as one.

[i] Inspired by Frederick Buechner. Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 18.     

 

 

The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

flounder

Sermon delivered at Providence Baptist Church, Shawboro, North Carolina for their 190th Homecoming Celebration.

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

Everything that I ever needed to know about how to be a minister, how to love my neighbors, how to preach, how to lead a congregation, how to administer pastoral care, how to pray for others, and how to have a covered-dish luncheon, I learned from my church family at Providence Baptist Church and from my family that raised me in Shawboro.

My fondest memories include Bill Dawson and Steve Saunders taking the youth group to Caswell. After seminary, I continued to take youth to Caswell, and in the early nineties, Kyle Matthews taught us a song at Caswell that continues to inform my understanding of what church is all about.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Growing up in this very special corner of the world surrounded by water, I learned that the main thing that the church should keep the main thing has a lot to do with going fishing.

I guess you could say that because I enjoyed going fishing so much with my Nana and Granddaddy in Oregon Inlet, all of those stories Mr. Wellons taught us about Jesus going fishing with his disciples really had an impact on me.

Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Oklahoma dreams of having some church, right on the beach. The congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.

Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.

After the benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.

Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”

It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. The nets begin to break. Filled with so many fish, both boats begin to sink.

Now, notice Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”

Nope, not even close.

Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”

Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. This is really not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard. It is a story about the main thing.

And, like Simon, it is this main thing about being church that scares us to death.

Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine, taking in the salt air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”

And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work!  At the end of the day, these fishermen reel in their line to discover that their bait is long gone. As my Granddaddy used to say, the poor souls were out there “fishing on credit.”

I am afraid this is the problem with many of us in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”

So, the main thing about our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.

Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.

On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!

Mr. Wellons also taught me a little phrase that continues to inform my ministry today. I remember him saying it every time I would go to his house. Which we would almost always do around this time of the year to see their Christmas tree. Mr. Wellons would proudly call my parents to let them know that he and Mrs. Wellons were one of the first in Shawboro to get their Christmas tree up, and we would head on over. Every time before we left, Mr. Wellons would always say the same thing: “Come back when you can’t stay so long!”

To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.

In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and to Grandmama’s house afterwards for chicken pot pie and cornbread was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.

However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to get up and intentionally be on the move. We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality. And when we meet them where they are, we need to seriously meet them where they are, not where we may want them to be.

The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them. But if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”

I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

I remember measuring a flounder: “Ah man! This flounder is a half inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”

“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say with her English accent and a savvy British giggle. “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”

Last week, I called to share this story with mama, to which she responded: “Jarrett, you better not tell that story!”

But as I told my Oklahoma congregation last week, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”

The reality is that as a pastor, I am constantly getting into trouble. And what’s crazy is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love. People in my congregations have become livid when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.

I once heard someone say that he was downright ashamed to be a member of his church, because it was becoming a church for “those people.”

Here’s the thing, this person he truly believes that the main thing that the church is about is making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that the main thing is actually about bringing others aboard without discrimination and leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

And God help us when the church embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!”  What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.

I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”

And the sad truth is: when a church begins discriminating, denigrating, and alienating others, when a church starts running away others because they are so “other,” then I believe that church also runs the Spirit of Jesus away, as it ceases being the church. It ceases being the body of the Christ who loved all, welcomed all, and died for all, and it becomes the worst kind of club.

As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, the main thing is to make sure that we are only excluding those whom Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.

Before Jesus left this earth, I believe his final words were to remind us that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, how to be a church where the Lord is never sent away, but always present.

In Matthew 28 we read what we call the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go (be on the move) therefore and make disciples of all nations, (All. Without discrimination.) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of a local church that functioned more like a club. They failed to understand that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.

“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!”

About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.

Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.

Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”

I thank God today that all I ever need to know about how to lead a congregation to be the church, I learned not in the hallowed halls of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but right here in the Providence Baptist Church of Shawboro and in a boat on the waters of Oregon Inlet.

Well, Providence, it has been 190 great years, but the question before us today is: “Do we want this church to still be sharing the good news of the gospel, still making disciples who will love all people, still baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit 190 years from today?”

If we do, we must never forget, and teach our children and their children to never forget, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

[i] I heard my friend Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Disciples of Christ Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.

Renewing Our Hearts for a Mission of Fellowship

consolation

Last week the sermon challenged us to renew our discipleship mission. We were asked to prayerfully reflect on the words of Jesus: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” I hope you are as excited as I am, and maybe a little nervous, about being a part of a church that is seeking to be on a mission that is self-denying and cross-bearing, a part of a church that is not about creating programs that will benefit your life, but is about creating opportunities for you to give your life away.

Today, the sermon is going to give us something else to think about. Today, I want to challenge us to prayerfully consider renewing our fellowship mission.

Now, I know some of you may be thinking: “Oh boy, fellowship! Now, this is a sermon of sermon I can relate to!” Others of you are thinking: “I might actually pay attention today!  Because when it comes to church, I am all about fellowship. In fact, it may be the one thing about church that I am actually really pretty darn good at. Denying myself? Carrying a cross? Giving my life away? I don’t know about all that. But fellowship? Coffee and Doughnuts? Fried chicken and sweet tea?  Now, that is what I am talking about!  Do you know what my favorite place in the church is? It’s the fellowship hall! It’s the room with a kitchen. So, brother, preach on, preach on, you have my full attention today!”

That’s good, because we all really know that when it comes to following Jesus, nothing is really that simple.

Fellowship—while it may sound like an easy and fun-cake-filled venture, is actually one of the most difficult, self-denying, self-expending, cross-bearing parts of being the church.

The Greek word for fellowship, koininia, means something much deeper than coffee and doughnuts or fried chicken and sweet tea. koininia, biblical fellowship, means a radical and profound commitment to share all of life with others. Acts chapter 2 describes what this commitment looks like:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

This type of personal sharing, this type of intimate communion, having “all things in common” is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote that members of the church were members of but one body. We are to share such an intimate bond with one another, we are to be so personally interconnected and interrelated, we are share such a fellowship with each other, Paul writes: “If one member rejoices, all rejoice. And when one member suffers, all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).

Do you remember the story of Job? After Job loses all of his possessions, all of his children, and is stricken with a painful illness that has affected every part of his body from his head to his toes, three friends come to Job to “console” him. Console—it is a powerful word in the Hebrew Bible.

Like the Greek word koininia, the Hebrew word translated console has a much deeper meaning than the way we commonly use the word. It means much more than sending a card or flowers, patting someone on the back or even giving a quick hug. The word literally means “to move back and forth with grief,” to show physical signs of empathy and compassion. The friends of Job came to him in his darkest hour and had fellowship. They did not share coffee. They shared pain. They did not share fried chicken. They shared grief. They did not share cake. Their shared their very lives.

And it is this type of fellowship, this type of profound sharing, that is our mission as a church.

Last week, I said that the reason many have given up on the church is because the church simply does not look like Jesus. It does not look like a group of people who have decided to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus. They see churches that promote programs to benefit the lives members, instead of seeing churches that create opportunities for members to give their lives away.

Another reason I believe people are leaving the church is that they see within the church a group of people who fail to see the importance of true fellowship, of suffering with others.

Today, this can most obviously be seen on social media, especially facebook. Someone will post a tragic circumstance: the loss of a job, the loss of their health, or even the loss of a child. Then come the God-awful comments: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” “God has a purpose.” “God has a plan.” “God knows best.” “God needed another angel.”

For some reason or another, some Christians think it is their mission to help others avoid suffering, as they think suffering somehow means their faith is weak. They believe they must say something to fix the problems of another, to say something theological to make everything better. However, their trite comments are seen as uncaring, unsympathetic, distant, and cold. And people everywhere read those callous comments and think, “If that is the church, then I want no part of it.”

Henri Nouwen has written: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those, who instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

In the story of Job, we are told that Job’s friends consoled him and then sat silently with him for seven days and nights. They sat silently and simply cared. They sat silently and fellowshipped.

And this is the type of fellowship that we recommit ourselves to today. When life is difficult for others, when their world turns dark, they will need their church. However, they will not need religious advice from us. They will not expect from us an easy solution or a cure. And they will need much more from us than a cup of coffee or a bucket of chicken. They will need for us to be there with them, for them, beside them. They will need us to silently hold their hand, shed a tear, and truly fellowship. And through our fellowship, through our consolation, with the help of God, true healing will come.

Because when we do that, when we stay with someone in their pain, when we acknowledge their pain, when we suffer with another, when we truly fellowship with another, Nouwen writes that we are led “right into the center of the mystery of God.” He continues: “When we look at Christ, we see him as one who has suffered all human suffering; all human suffering has flowed through him. On the cross, all history is concentrated there, and all evil is overcome there. People are saved by that knowledge, when they realize that suffering is suffered by God, embraced by God, and overcome.”

I believe this is one of the reasons that communion around this table is so powerful, so holy, so healing. We eat bread and drink from a cup acknowledging that in our suffering God did not remain distant, cold, callous. God did not simply give us a book of advice of how to deal with our suffering. God entered our suffering, God’s body broken, and God’s very life poured out. Around the table, we are reminded that God, the creator of all that is, wants to have fellowship with us.

And the good news of all of us this day is that after we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion, all are invited to eat and drink from this table and share in the personally profound and intimately radical fellowship of God.

Renewing Our Hearts for a Mission of Discipleship

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Matthew 16:24-26 NRSV

Good things are happening at Central Christian Church as our church is on a mission.  As we say every Sunday around this table, we are on a mission to be a church of extravagant welcome. We want to live up to the identity statement of our denomination and truly welcome all people to the Lord’s Table as God has graciously welcomed us. Because we believe when we graciously and generously welcome others, we welcome God. When we compassionately and lovingly include others, we include God. And when we welcome and include God in our lives, in our church, good things happen.

Here at Central we believe God is here with us. The spirit of the Risen Christ is here moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming. Central Christian Church is on a mission, and we are on this mission with none other than the Risen Christ himself.

Thus, I believe it is the Christ who is calling us today to be faithful disciples, and I believe he is calling us in the same way he called the first disciples, with the simple, yet powerful words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus says that the first thing we need to do is decide if we want to follow him. He said: “If any want to be my followers…”

I have said in recent weeks that I believe the reason many churches are losing members today is because, for many, the does not look like a group of people who have decided to follow Jesus. Church members do not look like people on a mission for others, but look more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.

This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.”  This thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It is not about achieving a good, happy and successful life or even an eternal life. It is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing others. It is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry. It is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outcast and the homeless. It is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving everything away to the poor. It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by. It is not about winning. It is about sacrifice. It is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to self.

There is a reason that we do not make a habit of clapping in church after the choral anthem or after a solo. Because the music being offered is not for us. It is for God. It is not about sharing music to bless or uplift us. It is about sharing the best of what we have to praise God.

I believe the reason that churches struggle today is because, in our attempt to entice new members, excite new members, gain new members, we have made the church about us. We have said, “Come, and join our church where we have services and programs that are certain to benefit your life. Instead of saying: “Come, join our church, where you will be given opportunities to give your life away.” “Come, join our church, where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and serve and to deny yourselves.”

Jesus said, “Let them deny themselves, and take up their crosses.”

I don’t know how it happened, or precisely when it happened, but I can understand why it happened. At some point we have interpreted taking up and carrying our crosses to mean something completely different than what Jesus intended. Somehow, the crosses we bear have become synonymous with the pain and sufferings that we involuntarily put up with in life.

We say: “Diabetes: It’s my cross that I have to bear.” “Arthritis: It’s the cross I carry.” “Migraine headaches: It’s the cross that I have take up.” Anything from High Blood Pressure, heart disease and C.O.P.D. to a bad back, cold sores and varicose veins: “It’s the cross that I bear in this life.”

However, when Jesus is talking about cross bearing, he is talking about something completely different. He is not talking about some kind of involuntary pain and suffering that we are forced to put up with. He is talking about pain and suffering, the giving way of our lives, that we voluntarily choose for the sake of others.

On this fifteenth anniversary of 9-11, we remember a day of great tragedy for our nation, but also a day of great heroism. With much pride, admiration and gratitude we remember the first responders who gave their lives trying to rescue those trapped inside of those towers.

We also remember the men and women who, loving country more than self, gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting the war on terror. Every September 11, I think of my friend Christopher Cash, who did not hesitate to report for duty when his National Guard Unit was summoned to go to Iraq. And in Iraq, Chris carried a cross, meaning that he gave all that he had, as he lost his life in an ambush.

And of course, we do not have to be a first responder or join the military to carry a cross.

Adopting a resident in the nursing home to visit when the nursing home is the last place on earth you want to go may be a cross Jesus is calling you to bear.

Deciding to forgive someone who has wronged you and has caused indescribable pain in your life may be a cross you Jesus is calling to carry.

Electing to serve on the youth or children’s ministry team when you already have little or no time for yourself, may be a cross Jesus is calling you to pick up.

Agreeing to volunteer to feed the food insecure when your own cabinets are almost bare, may be a cross Christ is calling you to take up.

Picking a less lucrative career because you feel called to serve others might be a cross Jesus wants you to pick up.

Choosing to love someone when you know that loving that someone will inevitably bring enormous grief may be a cross Jesus wants you to bear.

Resolving to make a generous pledge to the church’s annual budget when your own budget is tight is a cross Jesus is calling you to carry.

Standing up for the rights of minorities when the majority is against you is cross that I believe Jesus asks us all to take up.

I believe churches are struggling today, because they only encourage their members to do what makes them happy, what is comfortable for them. “Do you love kids? Do children make you happy? Then serve on our children’s ministry team!” “Do you love going to the hospital to visit sick people? Have you always wanted to be a nurse? Then serve on our hospital ministry team!”

As a leader of this church, I want to ask you to sign up for, not only what may be uncomfortable for you, but those things that actually might cause you great pain and grief. Because, more than anything, I want to lead a church of committed disciples who have intentionally decided to deny themselves and take up their crosses to sacrificially serve others.

Finally, Jesus says, “After you decide to follow, after you deny yourselves, and after you pick up your crosses, then I want you to follow me.”

Jesus wants us to “follow;” which denotes moving; not sitting in a pew.

Our faith, our discipleship, our church is to never be complacent, stationary or constricted. It is not an inert, static thing. It is not something that we can hold or withhold. It is a dynamic, moving, changing, progressing, dancing, advancing, all-embracing energy of sacrificial, selfless love.

As we say every Sunday, we need to make this place a place of welcome for all people. Because, when we welcome others, we welcome God. However, our church, our discipleship should never be limited to any place. Yes, I do believe that the doors, walls and ceilings of our buildings should be warm welcoming; however, they should never constrain our true mission.

We are a church that meets in a place, but we are also a church on the move, following Christ, sacrificially denying self, courageously taking risks, wherever Christ leads in our community, throughout the region, into all the world.

Central Christian Church is indeed on a mission. And we believe we are on a mission with none other than the Spirit of the Risen Christ himself. We believe he is here today, right now, moving, working, stirring, calling, prodding, pulling, transforming.

Take a Vacation


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 NRSV

Since I have been your pastor, one might argue that I have essentially been preaching one message.

And that is: “Jesus is calling.” Jesus is calling you, and Jesus is calling you to be his disciples, to be the church, to spring into action to be his ministers, to be a savory salt, a shining light, even a holy fire in this world.

I have said that God does not work alone in this world, and God has never worked alone in this world. Since the beginning, God has always used human beings, very ordinary people, folks like you and me, to accomplish the divine purposes for this world: God’s work of healing and justice, grace and love, mercy and peace. God uses people like you and me and the unique gifts that God has given us to respond to the needs of a hurting world.

To practice what I have been preaching, we have been very busy disciples here in Enid.

In response to several suicides in our city, we started a support group for grieving survivors.

In response to a heinous attack on the LGBT community in Orlando, we helped to lead a community prayer vigil.

In response to the needs of foster children, we hosted a back to school bash, giving out school supplies, hotdogs, and free haircuts to foster kids.

In response to a veteran of the Korean war who finds his home in poor order, we are sponsoring our third work day with Hearts for Care this coming Saturday morning. And that comes right after we work hard all week at Vacation Bible School!

And in response to people in our community who have nothing to eat on Sundays, many are talking about having a first-century style worship service that literally takes place around a table and begins with a meal.

Like I said, we have been busy disciples. And I expect us to be even more busy in the coming months as we will encourage every member of our church to serve on a ministry team.

In this morning’s scripture lesson, we notice that Jesus and his disciples have also been very busy.

They had just returned from a mission trip where they were busy using their gifts for ministry. They came back and reported to Jesus “all that they had done and taught.”

And notice how Jesus responds. “Good, don’t stop! Let’s keep working!” No, he says: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”  In other words: “It’s time to take a vacation.”

Mark says that Jesus commanded this vacation because “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” So they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Getting away on a boat, on some cruise to some far-off peaceful place!

But when they get there, it is anything but peaceful, and Jesus and his disciples are forced to spring into action once more to meet the needs of others.

Later, when they cross over to the other side of the lake (perhaps in one more attempt to get away from the crowds), the “people at once recognized him,” so Jesus and his disciples had to go right back to work.

Hopefully, as we continue to answer the call of Jesus to do ministry here in our community, as more and more people continue to recognize us as a church that is truly on the move, being the salt and light and fire of Christ in this city, loving kindness and doing justice while walking humbly, we are going to be a very busy people.

But, here in this text, if we are truly going to be the people Jesus is calling us to be, I believe we must hear another call of Jesus. And I believe in this call from my own very recent personal experience. It is the call to relax, slow down, take it easy, take some time off, turn the cell phone off, forget your worries, and go somewhere and get away from it all. It is the call to take a vacation.

Now you are probably thinking: “Finally, something that Jesus commands me to do that I might be actually good at! Jesus says, ‘Relax, take a break, take a vacation.’ Eezy Peezy! Sign me up right now!”

But I’m not so sure this is as easy as it sounds. For it has been my experience that it is the most sincere, dedicated, and earnest disciples who are the worst when it comes to honoring the Sabbath, taking time off to just rest.

But I believe honoring the Sabbath is something that is absolutely essential, not only for our bodies, but for our salvation.

I’m sure that we do not intend to do this, but our disregard of the Sabbath, our busyness and ceaseless activity, might give the impression that we believe that it is up to us to do good, or good will not be done. It is up to us the set the world right, or the world is lost. Behind our busyness may be the blasphemous belief that we are the saviors of the world; we are the solution to what ails the world, because we have all the answers.

This is the type of narcissistic thinking that breeds triumphalism, racism, bigotry, and fear of anyone who believes differently.

The truth is, not taking a Sabbath and trusting that God is God and we are not, can be very dangerous, not only to ourselves, but to the world in which we live.

Thus, I hope that in my sermons these past six months that you did not hear me say that God created the world, but then has left it entirely all up to us!

For our God not only created the world; God is still creating. Our God not only sent and resurrected Jesus, but our God is still resurrecting, and is still sending God’s self to us through God’s Holy Spirit. Our God is not dead, inactive or ineffective. Contrary to our Deist founding fathers, our God did not create the universe and then go on some cosmic vacation.

And because of that, the good news is that we can go on vacation. Because God is continually acting, we can relish times of inactivity, reflection, and the good grace of doing absolutely nothing.

Now, I am by no means inferring that it is okay to sleep in on Sunday morning and skip church. For I believe here in this place, our Sunday worship should actually be a sacred time of rest.

While we do a lot of activity during this hour, little of it is useful, productive, or essential as the world defines these matters. We call this place a sanctuary. It is a safe-haven from our worries, an escape from the rat-race of life. We are here relaxing, resting, simply enjoying being with one another and with God.

Some of you, who I see nodding off when the sermon begins every Sunday may even relax here a little too much!

But I believe that’s okay. Because Christians have always believed that these Sunday mornings are a foretaste of eternity when we shall have nothing better to do but to rest from our labors, to relax, and enjoy being in the presence of God, not just one day a week on Sunday, but forever. Our destiny is rest in in the hands of God: Sabbath-rest forever.

Sabbath rest is a great tribute to God. For it declares that our ultimate destiny is not in our hands. Our ultimate salvation is not the result of our vigorous, hard work, or even what we think is our good, holy work. The significance of our lives is in what God is doing, never in what we are doing.

Now, I know that this flies in the face of what I often preach. For I often say that church is where we come to find out what we’re doing wrong and to get motivated to do right. Church is where we come to get encouraged to make a commitment to pick up our crosses to serve God in this world. That’s why the last hymn we sing is called a hymn of commitment or a hymn response. It is a hymn of action. That’s why we end our services with a commissioning, as well as a benediction.

But church should also be a place of rest. We come here to celebrate not only what we have done, but to glorify what God has done in Christ, to rest assured in the grace of Christ.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, reminds us that the commandment about the Sabbath is the longest of all the commandments. More is written about the Sabbath in the Hebrew Scriptures than any other commandment.

And she points out that the Sabbath is the only one of God’s creations called “holy.” Everything else is called “good.” Only the Sabbath is called “holy.” She points out that the sanctification of time preceded the sanctification of persons or the sanctification of places. People were not sanctified until they became the chosen people. Places were not sanctified until the Tabernacle was built. The Sabbath, however, was the first and truest medium of God’s presence and holiness.

This is why after Jesus’ disciples report to him all the good things that they have accomplished as his ministers in the world, Jesus invites them, permits them, commands them, to get away from the press of the crowds to relax, rejuvenate, and be restored.

We stress the other commands of Jesus: Love your neighbor, pray for your enemies, feed the hungry, heal the sick, do not judge, forgive sin. Why not equally stress this command?

The good news we need to stress this day is that Jesus commands us to take a vacation!

Do you know what would be a good idea? While we are encouraging every member to serve on a ministry team, we need someone to start a Sabbath ministry team that will help us all take vacations! Seriously, let’s start a ministry team to plan a Caribbean cruise, or a week-long stay at an all-inclusive resort in Cabo!

Thank God that the world is not in our hands. The future is not solely ours to determine.

We can do God’s work as it is entrusted to us. We can work hard to be salt and light to the world. We can do justice. And then we can take a Sabbath, resting secure that the most important work is God’s work.

So, if you have not yet taken a vacation, gone some place to get away from it all, experienced a change in scenery, seen the ocean or climbed a mountain, taken a break from all of your work and worries, I hope that you will do it soon. After all, Jesus permits, invites, and commands us all to rest!

Patriotic Dis-ease

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Matthew 22:15-22 NRSV

Most preachers that I know are on vacation this week. One reason, of course, is that it the Fourth of July Weekend, a time when many Americans take a vacation. The other reason is that is the the Fourth of July Weekend, a time when preaching the gospel of Christ can be more than a little tricky. For isn’t this the one topic that we are supposed to try to avoid, religion and politics? I tried to be gone today. Let Shannon worry about preaching. But the beach house that we wanted was already rented this week.

Because what preachers would like to do on this day is to preach a feel-good, God-bless-America-baseball-hot-dogs-mama-and-apple-pie sermon. We want to stand beside the stars and stripes and deliver a sermon that will make us want to go home and set fire to some sparkers and sing I’m Proud to Be An American with Lee Greenwood.

However, despite our efforts, despite our studying and despite our praying, if we are to be true to the gospel of Christ, while at the same time trying to deliver a sermon that is culturally, socially and politically relevant, we know that it is simply impossible to preach such a sermon.

One day, Jesus was facing his critics. They asked him a question in order to entrap him.

“Jesus should we pay taxes to Caesar?”

Jesus says, “My pockets are empty. Who’s got a coin.”

Someone pulls out a drachma, with the image of Tiberius stamped on it.

“Whose picture is on it?” Jesus asked.

“Well, it’s Tiberius Caesar.”

Jesus says, “Well give it to him.  But you be careful.  Don’t give to Caesar that which belongs to God.”  End of lesson.

Here’s the frustrating part for me when I’m studying this: “End of lesson?” Did I miss something? Did Jesus ever really answer the question?  Should we pay taxes or not?

What belongs to Caesar? And what belongs to God? And wait a minute, doesn’t everything belong to God?

Do you feel the frustration?

Here’s the only conclusion that I can draw. And believe you me, it’s the one conclusion that preachers who want to preach a God-bless-the- good-ol’-U-S-of-A sermon do not want to draw this weekend. That is, when it comes to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, when it comes when it comes to faith and politics, perhaps we are supposed to be frustrated. When it comes to matters of church and state, God and country, prophets and politicians, gospel and government, maybe Jesus wants us to be uneasy. When it comes to patriotism, maybe Jesus wants us to be at dis-ease.

As a follower of Christ, have you ever placed your hand on your heart and said, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands,” and felt a little uneasy, a little uncomfortable?  During that pledge, have you ever thought, “wait a minute, my heart, my soul, my allegiance belongs to God, not Barak Obama!”

Have ever held out your hands and said the pledge to Oklahoma, and thought, “hold on a second, my fidelity is to Christ, not Mary Fallin!”

My hope is that is why some Christians got so riled up a few years ago when a judge ruled to take “under God” out of the pledge. The government is under God, a step below God. God and only God has our ultimate allegiance.

And maybe this dis-ease, this angst, this tension between heaven and earth, is exactly what Jesus wants to us to experience this weekend.

Let me give you two great examples of great patriots who experienced this patriotic dis-ease.

Thomas Jefferson never did possess the moral courage to liberate slaves, even though he knew that slavery was evil. Yet, before he died, as he considered the institution of slavery, as he thought about the slaves he owned, Jefferson said, “I tremble every time I remember that God is just.”  At least Jefferson had enough moral and ethical insight to be able to tremble.

Abraham Lincoln also trembled when he considered the paradox of war: using evil to end evil and the problem of God in the midst of it.  Speaking of the two sides of the Civil War in his second inaugural address, Lincoln said:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the seat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

Jefferson and Lincoln both understood something about patriotic dis-ease. Their service to their country was undeniably loyal. However, their loyalty, to their country in the light of God made them incredibly uneasy.

A Jewish Rabbi was speaking one day defending the Jewish position against hunting. “A good Jew never hunts,” said the Rabbi. We are permitted to kill animals, but never for joy, never out of pleasure. We can kill, but we only kill with regret.”

Someone responded to the Rabbi, “Regret?  Isn’t that a bit weak to serve as a basis of morality?”

“Don’t knock regret,” said the Rabbi.  There are some things that are not so much right or wrong as deeply, unavoidably, regrettable.”

So, maybe the message that Christian Americans need to hear, more than anything else, is that when it comes to patriotism, the most Christian response is one of regret or dis-ease.

Perhaps the greatest sin is not to care, to never tremble, to never regret, to be completely at ease, entirely comfortable when we are saluting the flag, singing the national anthem, or watching our fireworks. Perhaps the greatest sin is to be completely comfortable when we pay our taxes with the knowledge of the waste, the immorality, the injustice, and the inequality that is so much a part of our government.

Aushwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who passed away yesterday, once reminded us, “The opposite of love is not hate. it’s indifference.”

Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus should never be indifferent. We must always be willing to speak out when we think our nation is wrong, and do what we can to rectify those wrongs, because our love for Christ is stronger than our affection for our country.

The prophets who spoke out against the injustices wrought by Israel and the disciples who were imprisoned for disobeying Rome, teach us about this uneasiness. Our allegiance to country never means blindly accepting our faults, never questioning our past, and never second-guessing how current policies will affect our future. Allegiance means faithfully doing our part working to “mend thine every flaw.”

It means being loyal, law-abiding citizens. However, it also means working to change laws that need to be changed. It means honoring our civic duty of voting in elections. However, it also means correcting elected officials who dishonor our nation.

As Christians, the Commander-in-Chief is not our chief commander. The Supreme Court is not our supreme being. Our allegiance is first pledged to something that is bigger than our nation, even larger than our world. We don’t give to the government that which belongs to God.

It is an allegiance that informs our vote, rallies our civic duties, and yet, sometimes calls us to civil disobedience. For the Christian, it is the God revealed through the words and works of Jesus who becomes our civil conscience. We believe the law of God revealed through Christ supersedes every human law.

Immediately following Paul’s words regarding good citizenship and obeying the law in Romans chapter 13, we read that every one of God’s laws is summed up in just one law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it this way: “On this hang all of the laws of the prophets “…that you love your neighbor as yourself.”

And just in case some are still confused to what “love” is, Paul defines love by saying: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

This is the law of God. Jesus said, “There is no law greater.” It is as if Christ is saying, “If you don’t get anything else from Holy Scripture, if you don’t get anything else out of going to church, you need to get this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Yet, as evidenced by the amount of division, hatred, racism, and bigotry that is in our nation today, in government policies, even in the American church, this supreme law is widely ignored, disobeyed or rejected all together.

There is much talk today about Christians standing up and speaking out to take our country back, to reverse the moral decay of our society. I believe there is still hope for us to be a great nation; if we would only pledge our allegiance to the supreme law of God, giving to God that which belongs to God.

For when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when in everything we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, it quickly becomes “self-evident that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

So, when the flag passes us by tomorrow, or when we pay our taxes, or vote, when we are asked to support some government policy, when we are considering the future of our nation, state, and city, our councils and agencies, schools and prisons, military and police, may we never be so comfortable that we  give to the government that which we ought to give to God!

Let us pray together.

When it comes to patriotism, O God, may we always tremble, may we always have some regret, may we always be at dis-ease, lest we give to the state that which we ought to give to you. Amen.