Hope in the Midst of a Pandemic

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For thousands of years, when people in the world found themselves in a crisis, they have turned to the Psalms for words of hope and peace.

About one-third of the Psalms are called “Lament Psalms.” I especially love these Psalms for their sheer honesty. These Psalms are unashamedly real, straight-up authentic. They speak to the reality of the pain of our world: the plight of the poor; the despair of the displaced; the evil of war; the scourge of disease; and all kinds of injustices.

Psalm 6 is perhaps my favorite “Lament Psalm.” For here the Psalmist honestly pours out his heart before God like none other:

2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
   O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 
3 My soul also is struck with terror,
   while you, O Lord—how long? 
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
   deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   in Sheol who can give you praise? 
6 I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping. 
7 My eyes waste away because of grief;
   they grow weak because of all my foes. 

We do not know why the Psalmist is languishing so, why their bones are shaking and their soul is struck with terror. We do not know exactly what is causing them to grieve. What was lost. What made them so weary, so afraid of dying. Why their bed is flooded, their couch is drenched with tears. We do not know what great change happened in the world of the Psalmist that caused them to experience so much fear and uncertainty, lamenting, how long, O Lord, how long?

But we can certainly relate. Perhaps more now than ever.

Notice that the Psalmist is not afraid to reveal their grief. There is no holding back. There is no spinning the facts, denying the science. There’s no masking the pain, no pretending to be strong because others will think they are weak. Things are about as bad as they can be. Their eyes are wasting away with grief. And they are brutally honest about it.

I believe this is a great reminder for us that is okay to grieve what we have lost. It is okay to grieve the uncertainty. And its is alright to grieve openly and honestly.

However, as the Apostle Paul once said, we grieve, but we do not grieve without hope.  And here, it is the honest, grieving Psalmist who also reminds us that even when our eyes are wasting away from grief, our souls are struck with terror, there is hope.

Notice the change in tone beginning with verse 8:

8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
   for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
   the Lord accepts my prayer. 
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
   they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.

Somewhere between seven and eight, something happened in the life of the Psalmist. New life is experienced. One could say that Easter comes. Pentecost arrives. Blessed assurance, amazing grace, and a peace beyond all understanding are received.

Now, like we do not know what exactly happened in the Psalmist’s world that caused them to express their grief so openly in verses 1-7, we do not know what exactly happened between verses seven and eight that turned their life around. We just know that something happened, and that something was miraculous. Somehow, someway, new life, inexplicable, yet certain, came. Somewhere between verses seven and eight, Divine Love and hope showed up. The Psalmist does not say exactly how God showed up, but we can certainly take some good guesses.

Perhaps people from all over the Psalmist’s world came together, realizing that despite their differences, they were all connected, they were intrinsically dependent on one another. Perhaps they came together to truly love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have others do unto them. They came together and sacrificed much, valuing people more than anything else.

Yes, the workers of evil were still working. Some people, I am certain, behaved selfishly, hording essential supplies. Some behaved fearfully purchasing more weapons. Some, I am sure, even in the name of God, struggled to put the well-being of the most vulnerable ahead of their self-interests and greed.

However, most of the people were workers of good and not evil. They shared neccessities. They chose people over politics. They chose their neighbors over money, as they chose the way of love over the way of fear.

And when they chose the way of love, poor people who could not afford to pay their bail bonds were released from jail cells. Homeless people were taken off the streets and placed in hotel rooms. Hot meals were prepared and delivered to people who were food insecure. Food banks and blood banks received generous donations.

Liberals and Conservatives put aside their differences. Households of faith finally began to realize that their buildings were not that important because what the world needed was people to worship out in the the community with their service more than it needed people worshipping behind four walls in services.

Healthcare professionals risked their lives to heal all who were brought to them. People out of work and out of school made made masks for hospitals. Breweries and Distilleries made hand sanitizers and automobile and vacuum manufacturers made ventilators.

Teachers found creative ways to love and teach their students. Police, firefighters and first responders continued to faithfully serve and protect. People everywhere picked up and delivered medications and groceries to their neighbors.

And the rich and the famous, heroes like Drew Brees and Zion Williamson, gave millions of dollars and immeasurable hope to their cities.

So, maybe we do know what happened between verses seven and eight after all. The Holy One showed up. In different ways through different people, God came. Selfless, sacrificial, united love came.

This is how we can grieve honestly, but grieve hopefully in this uncertain and frightening time.

I have heard many people say that when this pandemic is over, we will never be the same again.

Let’s pray that this is true.

Let’s pray, that despite our differences, we will never forget that we are all connected and dependent on each other regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, politics and religion.

And having witnessed that it was selflessness and not greed, that it was love and not fear, that saw us through this crisis, we will continue to love our neighbors in such a way that the entire world will not only be healed of this virus, but it will be more kind, more just, more forgiving, and more unified—

The most vulnerable among us will be protected more. Science will be respected more. Truth upheld more. Those who produce, deliver, stock, prepare, check-out and serve our food will be valued more. Gratitude and graciousness will be expressed more. Mercy will be shared more.

And when we face another crisis, when we face any adversity, we will always remember that it is okay to be afraid. It is okay to grieve, confident that being afraid and grieving does not mean we are a weak. Because we will be as strong as we have ever been, never allowing, even for one minute, our fear to shut out love, and our grief to diminish hope. Amen.

Be the Light

shirt backA Christmas Charge to the Congregation of First Christian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Before I depart as your Senior Minister, I just want to say:

“I’VE SEEN THE LIGHT!”

And no, that is not why I am leaving!

For two and a half years, I have seen the light of Christmas shining through this church.

I saw the light the first Sunday a transgendered woman walked through these doors, and you welcomed her with open arms. I saw it again you when you showed up to support the LGBTQ community at a rally during Pride Week. I saw it yet again when you voted to be an Open and Affirming Congregation by placing an extravagant statement of welcome in your bylaws.

I saw the light when you collected Christmas gifts for the families of undocumented workers following an ICE raid in Alma. I saw it again when you gathered for a prayer vigil to protest the mistreatment of our southern neighbors at the border.

I saw the light when the first African-American woman was ordained in our church. I saw it again when you showed up at the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast and parade to stand against racism and for the sacred value of every human being..

I saw the light when you shared a pot-luck meal with members of a Muslim mosque. And I saw it again when you attended a worship service in that mosque to stand in solidarity with them and with Muslims all over the world after the massacre in New Zealand.

I saw the light when you committed yourself to be a Green Chalice Congregation. I saw it yet again when you marched for environmental justice in Little Rock with the Poor People’s campaign.

I saw the light when you enveloped Lori and me with your love during her sickness and surgery. And I saw it again and again and again when you did the same for others.

I saw the light each time you left the sanctuary to praise God in a brew pub with beer and hymns. And I saw it again just a few weeks ago when you sang carols and served cookies and hot cocoa in Creekmore Park.

I saw the light when you stuffed backpacks with food for poor children at the Clearing House, prepared and served meals to the homeless at Hope Campus, served people who are food insecure a sack lunch, and supported the mission of Antioch Youth and Family that no child should go to bed hungry. I saw it again when you gave Christmas gifts through Earthbound Angels, and I saw it yet again when you helped to repair a porch and did everything you could to help someone clean their cluttered home.

I saw the light when you supported the inclusive mission of Ainsley’s Angels, a spark that started right here and then spread like wildfire throughout Arkansas. I saw it again when you removed some pews to make this place of worship more accessible for those with different abilities.

I saw the light when you freely offered Disciples Hall to other groups, expecting nothing in return, when you used the holy space God has given you to bless our community.

But as we have learned, we live in a dark world where the light of Christmas can be painfully bright. The intensity of the light is just too much for some. It is too inclusive, too encompassing. We have also discovered with Jesus that although the Light has come into the world, some people will always love the darkness rather than the Light.

Thus, there is a great temptation to dim the light, to tone it down, or to adjust the light in such a way to make it more pleasing–to soften the light to make it less offensive, less embarrassing. There is a temptation to even hide the light, to put it under a bushel. Then, there’s always the temptation to keep the light to yourself, to conserve it, to protect it, to save it to warm yourselves instead of sharing it to warm others.

But on this Christmas Eve, I want to charge you to resist these temptations, and shine on! Shine on graciously. Shine on generously. Shine on selflessly, courageously and liberally.

And don’t just shine the light. Be the light. Be grace and mercy. Be inclusion and acceptance. Be empathy and kindness. Be justice and peace. Be joy. Be hope. Be love. Be Christmas! Be the enfleshed presence of Christ in this world!

And do not be afraid. Although there will be those who will abandon you, deny you and betray you, if you faithfully shine the light in the darkness, the darkness will never overcome it. Faith will not be dimmed. Hope will not fade. And love will never die.

A Future Vision Story

Message BearersSermon delivered at the All Assembly Banquet of the 2018 Regional Assembly of the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

1 Kings 17:8-16 NRSV

When Dr. Burton first presented me with the honor of speaking this evening, my initial thought was to talk to you about my journey from being raised a Southern Baptist and pastoring  Baptist churches for over 25 years before getting to a point where I became so discouraged with church ministry that I left the church all together. I will never forget telling some colleagues before I left: that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to follow Jesus for at least six months before I die, but I can’t do that pastoring a church.

I was going to talk about my three-year hiatus from ministry until I discovered a new calling with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) five years ago. I was going to talk about the new hope I possess for the church as the pastor First Christian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

However, if I am to be honest with you this evening, I need to confess that I am once again becoming discouraged.

For these are some very difficult days to pastor a church. They are difficult days to be the church. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I began serving churches in 1986. And I have a feeling that you know what I am talking about.

So, what I need tonight, and I am supposing you need tonight, is not a word from Jarrett Banks about where I came from, the story of my past, but what I need, and what you need is a word from the Lord, about where we are all going, our future story together as the church.

Yes, what we need tonight, is a word from the Lord.

If we turn in our Bibles to 1 Kings 17:8 we will read:

“The word of the Lord came to him.”

Whenever I read a verse like this one, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people today like God did back in the day.”

The good news is, as our UCC kinfolk love to say, I believe “God is still speaking.” The problem is we’re usually not listening.

The passage continues:

“Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive.”

Elijah is listening. For he sets out and goes immediately to Zarephath.

And when he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He then calls out to this one who has been commanded by the Lord to extend some gracious hospitality to him: “Hey! Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a slice of bread.”

But she answers: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.”

Like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her extend hospitality to a stranger when they arrive at the gate.

Or perhaps she heard the command. She just doubted the command. She questioned the command. But maybe she didn’t so much doubt the command as she feared the command.

Several years ago, she had plenty. Things were a lot better. Money was coming in. She never worried about meeting her budget. Her pews, I mean her cabinets, were full. She could afford to be generous. She had enough to extend grace without reservations, show hospitality without restrictions, and to love without conditions. But now, after watching so much dwindle away, she had become fearful of the commands of the Lord. She was afraid of grace. She was afraid of love. She was afraid of the risk that love always demands.

The last time she she took an inventory, she saw that she had only enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her family. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, she knew that they would surely die.

Elijah then says: “Do not be afraid.”

Hebrew Scripture Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.

“Elijah says to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13).

“How dare this man of God ask me for cake, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own? There is simply not enough to go around. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There is not enough. And Death waits at my door.”

Then the good news:

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’

Do you know what we call that? We call that “a future vison story.”

If you follow the difficult, risky commands of the Lord to give generously and graciously, if you dare to step outside your comfort zones to follow the steps of the Lord, which will probably lead you to places you’d rather not go, “Your jar will not be emptied, and your jug will not fail.”

She went and did as Elijah said. And he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).

So the question for churches of the Great River Region in 2018 is this: Have we heard the word of the Lord?

Are we listening?

Maybe we’ve heard it, but we doubt it. We question it? Maybe we fear it.

How dare the Lord command us to give so generously, when God knows we have so little?

How dare the Lord expect us to risk so much? To take such a leap of faith? To step so far outside our comfort zones?

 

We’ve heard the treasurer’s report. We’ve been to that board meeting.

 

Every week we see it. Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Income is shrinking. We simply do not have enough.

Following the commands of Jesus these days is just too dangerous, too radical, too much, too hard. We need to play it safe. We cannot afford to make anyone who gives a dollar to our church the least bit uncomfortable!

As the Lord your God lives, we cannot feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty when we barely have enough for ourselves.

We can’t welcome the stranger, give shelter the homeless or care for the sick, when we can barely pay our own bills.

As sure as the Lord God lives, we do not have enough to speak truth to power. We can’t call out their lies and their deceit, their stoking the fires of fear, their fanning the flames of bigotry and hate, their sowing the seeds of vulgarity, division and violence.

As sure as the Lord God lives, we cannot defend the rights of women who are doubted by men and mocked by the crowds, the rights of immigrant children who are separated from their parents and orphaned, the rights of refugees who are dehumanized and threatened with military force, or the rights of transgendered people those in power wish to erase.

Have you been outside? Have you heard the news? Do you know what is going on? Why, there’s an anti-Christ spirit gripping our land!

We cannot afford to love our neighbors when it is more popular to judge them.

We cannot afford to identify with the least when it is more popular to be the greatest.

We cannot think about being last when it is more popular to be first.

We cannot share our wealth with the poor when it is more popular to hoard our wealth and scorn the poor.

We cannot be peacemakers when it is more popular to buy a gun.

We cannot preach love our enemies when it is more popular to cry: “lock ‘em up.”

We cannot break down the barriers that divide us when it is more popular to build a wall.

We cannot call Muslims and Jews our “sisters” and “brothers.” We cannon ever hashtag “Black Lives Matter” or even mention the words “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” when it is more popular to hate.

We cannot care for our environment, protect wildlife, or be a Green congregation. We do not have enough to even talk about our responsibility to support renewable energy and to be an example to the world by reducing our carbon footprint when it is more popular to scoff at science.

We cannot support affordable healthcare, fair living wages and access to a quality, equitable education when it is more popular to do the exact opposite.

We can’t follow Jesus when it is more popular to worship Jesus.

We simply do not have enough to follow the risky commands of the Lord.

We do not have enough sticks to lose ourselves.

There’s not enough meal in the jar to deny ourselves.

And there’s not enough oil in the jug to even think about picking up a cross.

When attendance is down, the budget is behind, morale is low and sticks are about to run out, when we can see the bottom of the jar, and we’re squeezing mere drops from the jug, the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus too generous, and the love of Jesus too gracious. The light Jesus commands us to shine, well it’s much too bright!

We doubt such light. We question such light. We fear such light, and truth be told, we are ashamed of such light.

Common sense tells us us that it would be better for business to keep that light hid, out of sight, under a bushel or locked in a closet.

People might squint their eyes and tolerate us preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and they might shade their eyes with their hands and let us say that “all means all”; but some folks might go blind if we actually practice what we preach!

But then comes the good news.

Are you listening?

When the culture tries to control you,

when an anti-Christ spirit pushes back and tries to hold you back,

when this unholy spirit uses fear to make you preach what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to practice what is socially acceptable instead of what is the Word of God,

when the culture tells you that you do not have enough sticks,

that you need to retreat into the sanctuary, look forward to leaving this world and going heaven and stop worrying about bringing the kingdom of God to this world,

that you should run from new ideas, close your minds to new ways of being the church,

that you need to try to relive the good old days instead of following the Lord into good new days,

that you need to accept a personal, private Jesus, keep him deep down your heart and out of the public square.

that you need to embrace an alternative gospel, some fake news religion that is the opposite of the good news of Jesus,

that you need to be tightfisted with grace, scrimp on mercy, and be stingy with love;

behold, a message bearer shows up and you receive a future vision story. And that story goes something like this:

“Do not be afraid. Because your jar will never be emptied and your jug will never fail, and as long as you are following Jesus, you will always have a great big pile of sticks!”

There’s not enough nails in Jerusalem or anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh or racism in Louisville, or pipe bombs sent through the mail, or troops sent to the southern border, or bullies in your church that could ever empty your jar.

There’s no amount of Russian interference or American voter suppression or Gerrymandering that will ever cause your jug to fail!

There is no new policy, no executive order, no tweet and no political rally that will ever void or erase any of your sticks!

One day, Pricilla, a dear friend of mine, called me to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two morechildren from Ukraine.”

“Two more children!?!” I responded.

They had already adopted two the previous year, one was two and the other was three years-old. They both had lived in an orphanage since they were born and suffered with PTSD and other issues.

As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You’ve already have two adopted children. And I know what a handful they are. Pris, I know you are a great mother, and I know Brad is a good father, but don’t you think there are limits? Aren’t there limits to how much you can give?”

Pricilla responded by saying something like: “When it comes to love, I have not yet found the limits. You know, Jarrett, I really don’t believe one can ever run out of love. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give… the more love you seem to have.”

Once again, do you know what that’s called?

That’s called “a future vision story!”

In the Second chapter of Kings, we read about a man who brings the prophet Elisha a prophet’s tithe: Twenty loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain in a sack.

Elisha accepts the tithe, but says, I want you to take this food and give it to 100 people who who are very poor.

The man responds: “But there’s just no way. There is not enough food here to set before a hundred people.”

But Elisha assures the man and assures him with a future vision story: “Because of your great faith in giving to the Lord during this time of scarcity, I have this feeling that there’s is going to be more than enough.”

The man set the food before the people, and sure eough, there was not only enough, but it was more than enough, as they had leftovers.

They had leftovers.

Just like they had after the disciples fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and a couple of fish.

Just like I am sure they had had after Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into all of that wine!

Just like I am sure they had after the father welcomes the prodigal son home with that extravagant dinner party!

The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, the sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources!

So listen up! Do not doubt, and do not be afraid! And whatever you do, do not be ashamed!

Love generously! Love extravagantly! Love graciously! Deny yourself. Put the needs of others ahead of your own. Take a risk. Take up a cross. Go ahead and make some folks uncomfortable. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and include the differently-abled. Be kind, do justice, walk humbly, speak truth to power, go vote, preach good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.

Because, there is enough. There will always be enough.

No, in God’s abundant mercy, we have a future vision story that assures us there will always be more than enough.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Ten Things to Keep in Christmas

keep christ in christmas2014

Every year, we hear it: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!”  Well, if truth is to be told, there are many things Christians need to put back in Christmas. Here’s a list of ten things:

  1. Put the infant Jesus back in Christmas.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus (Luke 1:31).

The good news of Christmas is that for our weakness, God became weak. For our vulnerability, God became vulnerable. For our salvation, God became an infant.

God became a new-born baby dependent on humans to teach humans to become dependent on God.

As a church, let’s keep the infant Jesus in Christmas by always depending on God as infants depend on their parents. When we gather for communion each Sunday, we come not because we’re strong; but because we’re weak. We come, not because we have a lot faith, but because we have some doubt. We come, not because we are saints in need of affirmation, but because we are sinners in need of grace. We come, not because we are invincible and immortal, but because we are vulnerable and mortal.

  1. Put Quirinius, the governor of Syria, back in Christmas.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2).

When God chose to to reveal God’s love for the world, God chose to enter into a part of the world that has been demonized by Islamophobic Christians. I have heard people say that 9-11 taught them all they need to know about Middle Eastern people. The story of Christmas teaches me all I need to know. The people living in this part of the world are created in the image of God. When Jesus said, “For God so loved the world,” the was talking specifically about their world. They are God’s beloved children.

As a church, let’s keep the governor of Syria in Christmas by never dehumanizing or denigrating any person based on race, religion, or ethnicity and by courageously correcting people who do. Islamic extremists who run over and kill people in Central Park do not speak for all Muslims or all Middle Eastern people anymore than Christian extremists who run over and kill people in Charlottesville speak for all Christians or all Americans.

  1. Put Mary back in Christmas.

All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:3-5).

It is ninety hilly miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. New Testament and biblical archaeology professor, James Strange, notes: “It was a fairly grueling trip…most traveled 20 miles a day.”

He continues: “Mary, as pregnant as she was, would have endured freezing temperatures, the constant threat of outlaws on the trade route, and harsh terrain. [And] when Mary finally reached Bethlehem, she and Joseph were turned away.”

As a church, we need to keep Mary in Christmas by always keeping risk in Christmas, by keeping adventure, sacrifice and selflessness in Christmas. Because the truth is, when the church becomes nothing more than a snug, safe, and static sanctuary, it ceases being the church.

  1. Put the manger back in Christmas.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

In our minds, the Nativity is majestic. It is glorious. There is no crying, no fussing, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear. Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. But that was not the reality of Christmas. The reality of Christmas was not beautiful, and it was far from perfect.

We don’t sing AWAY in a Manger for nothing, as Jesus was born far, far away from home among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.

So, as a church, let’s keep the manger in Christmas by always being authentic, real people living in the real world, concentrating on real problems, comforting real pain, confronting real evil. The last thing this fragmented world needs are more fake, sanctimonious, pretentious Christians.

  1. Put the shepherds back in Christmas.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:8).

Like the Nativity, there is a tendency to romanticize the shepherds. After all, we have been raised in the church with our innocent children depicting shepherds wearing bathrobes in adorable Christmas plays. However, the reality is that shepherding was a despised occupation. New Testament Scholar Alan Culpepper writes: “In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.” They were considered to be among the outcasts of society.

Fred Craddock wrote that the shepherds belong to the Christmas story “not only because they serve to tie Jesus to the shepherd king, David, but because they belong on Luke’s guest list for the kingdom of God: the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.”

As a church, let’s keep the shepherds in Christmas by always standing on the side of all those those that society marginalizes.

  1. Put Joseph back in Christmas.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

Because he was a righteous man, Joseph promised: “I will not harm her, ridicule her, expose her, shame her, or do or say anything that will demean her dignity, worth or personhood. I will protect her.”

Fred Craddock once said, “If the Bible causes you to hate anyone, you are reading it wrong.”

If your righteousness, your theology, your faith, causes you to shame, degrade or harm anyone, you are doing it wrong.

As a church, let’s keep Joseph in Christmas by always doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

  1. Put King Herod back in Christmas.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3).

King Herod was not frightened because a child was born to help people get through a trying week at home, school or work.

Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to help people have healthier relationships, healthier bank accounts, or even healthier spiritual lives.

Herod wasn’t frightened because a child was born to make a way for people to go to heaven when they died.

The king was frightened because the birth of that child meant that a political and social revolution was coming! And no amount of lying, deceit and collusion was going to stop it.

As a church, let’s keep King Herod in Christmas by understanding that following the way of Jesus always has political implications. Let us keep fighting systems of injustice and any policy or legislation that does not protect the liberty and justice of all.

  1. Put the gold, frankincense and myrrh back in Christmas.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). 

This part of the Christmas story has always bothered me. I could never figure how that little baby was going to be able to play with his Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh!

As a church, let’s keep these foreign Wise Men and their gifts in Christmas by always being receptive of new gifts, new ideas, new ways of doing things, even if they come from folks who did not grow up around here. Always remember the seven last words of a dying church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” 

  1. Put the refugees back in Christmas.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:13b-15).

This part of the Christmas story bothers many of us, but we need to remember that Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus fled for their lives into Egypt where they lived in exile for years. Who knows what it must have been like for them to be forced out of their home under the threat of death and travel across nations through unwelcome terrain? Who knows how they must have felt to be so unwanted and threatened and unprotected? Who knows?

800,000 DACA recipients know.

A friend of mine moved to a new church during the Syrian refugee crises a couple of years ago when many state governors were giving executive orders denying sanctuary for Syrian refugees. During a sermon, he shared some statistics and pointed out that if every church in America would adopt just one Syrian refugee, there would be no refugee crisis. The next day, he said that “a contingent” showed up in his office.

“Pastor,” the contingent said, “we are here to tell you that your sermon yesterday about the refugees was out of bounds!”

A contingent. Every church has them. There are positive contingents, and there are negative contingents. The problem is that the negative ones are often more vocal.

As a church, let’s keep the refugees in Christmas by regularly sending a different kind of contingent into your pastor’s study to encourage him or her saying:

“Pastor, we want you to keep boldly preaching the good news of Jesus, and we want you to preach it without boundaries! Because if you ever start watering down the gospel because of a few negative contingents, if you give in and start preaching a love with restrictions, a hope with constraints, and a grace with limitations, you will no longer be preaching the good news!”

  1. Put the angels back in Christmas.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). 

New Testament scholar Culpepper writes: “The familiarity of these words should not prevent us from hearing that, first and foremost, the birth of Jesus was a sign of God’s abundant grace.” The birth of Jesus is a sign that God is on the side of ALL people—even the most despised, the most lowly, the most immoral, the most outcast.

As a church, let’s keep the angels in Christmas by always being a community of grace heralding good news of great joy for all the people, and all means all.

Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for Christmas. Now help us share Christmas by being Christmas, all of Christmas, for all of the world.

Invitation to Communion

Today we remember and celebrate the birth of Christ, God who came to us in human flesh, as a helpless baby. Those first invited to witness this event were a group of poor shepherds. They were not highly educated. They had no gifts to bring. They did not have fancy clothes. But an angel proclaimed to them, “A Savior has been born to YOU.” Today we come, as unworthy as those shepherds, to witness and receive God’s amazing grace and love.

This table is Christ’s table. It is not my table or the table of this congregation. It is the table of Jesus. And all who wish to know and love him are welcome here. Whether your faith is strong or wavering, whether you come to church often or have never been before, you are welcome here. It is Christmas and a Savior is born for YOU, and that same Savior welcomes you to this sacred meal.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now and keep being the church and sharing the good news of Christmas in this community and in our world.

Go now into the world and keep humbly depending on God as infants depend on their parents.

Go into the world and keep keeping it real.

Go and keep preaching that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Go and keep doing justice on the behalf of the poor and marginalized.

Go and keep taking risks, serving others selflessly and sacrificially.

Go and keep doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Go and keep accepting gifts from others, even from outsiders.

Go and keep speaking truth to power, even if it gets you into trouble.

Go and keep preaching a love without restrictions, even if a contingent says you are out of bounds.

Go and keep heralding the good news of great joy for all the people. All the people. And all means all.

 

And always go in the name of the Savior who was born in the City of David who is Christ the Lord.

The Baptisms of Lydia and Jamie

img_6863Acts 16:9-15 NRSV

I believe the baptism of a certain woman named Lydia and the baptism of a certain woman named Jamie have much to teach us this day.

The story of Lydia begins with Paul and Silas sharing the good news of Jesus in Troas, a town located in across the Aegean Sea from the European district of Macedonia. Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia pleading: “Come on over and help us!” Convinced that God was calling them to go and proclaim the good news in Europe, they sailed to Macedonia, went through Samothrace and Neapolis, eventually settling in Philippi.

While in Philippi, Paul and Silas heard about a group of women that had been gathering for worship down by the river outside the gate. So when the Sabbath came, they went and found the women, sat down and engaged them in conversation.

Luke says it was obvious that one woman in the group, a woman named Lydia was closely paying attention to what Paul had to say.

It is then that Luke points out some very remarkable things about this woman. First of all, she is a foreign business owner from Thyatira, a town located in Asia minor in what is now Turkey. Secondly, because he says that “she and her household” were baptized, it’s evident that she was the head of her household.

Now, remember, this is the first century. It’s not a period known for women working outside of the home. Females were treated as second-class citizens, even as “property.” Males were the leaders, the heads of business and the heads of households. And yet, here is a woman who is the head of both.

And since she is the only one who is pointed out to be really paying attention to what Paul was saying, she also appears to be the head of that community of faith which gathered there each week by the river.

And this, says Luke, this baptism of a foreign woman who shatters all cultural expectations, this baptism of a woman who lived life two-thousand years ahead of her time, the baptism of this woman as the first European Christian, is the result of a vision from God that came to Paul.

So, what in the world was God trying to say to Paul and Silas through that vision of a man saying, “Come to Macedonia, because I need some help!”

Could it be that God was saying: “Paul and Silas, I know you are clear across the sea on another continent, but I need you to get in a boat right now and set sail to Macedonia. I need you to come over here to Europe, make your way through Samothrace and Neapolis, all the way to Philippi, and help me!

I need you to help me, to show the world once and for all that through my love revealed in Christ Jesus, through the one who continually lifted up the status of women, elevated the foreigner, accepted the Eunuchs, and did something almost daily to shatter all cultural expectations, destroying the stigma of status, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, that in my kingdom, there no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. Help me clearly make the statement that in Christ all are one.”

It is as if God is saying: “I know people have heard the stories of Jesus calling women to be counted among his disciples. I know the word is out that Mary and Joanna were the first ones to proclaim the good news of Easter. I know many have heard about my disciple Tabitha and her works of kindness and gifts of charity. And I know that folks are hearing about the good work of sister Phoebe leading the church at Cenchreae; however, I am still afraid I am going to need some help over here in Europe.

Because I have this bad feeling that even if I do something as radical as making the first baptized Christian on this continent a strong woman like Lydia, some of these Europeans, and the descendants of these Europeans, are still going to argue, even two-thousand years from now, that a woman has no business being the head of a state, being at the head of a communion table, or being the head of a household, or even being the head of her own body. And I have this terrible notion that even in the year, let’s say, 2017, there will be still be reports of men with money, fame or political power molesting, even raping women and young girls.

And then people will have the audacity to defend such actions by blaming a 14-year-old girl for ‘not making good decisions’ or by trying to explain the illegal and immoral behavior with the relationship of Jesus’ earthly parents!

And I know people have heard the story of the Good Samaritan, that despised foreigner who proved to be a holy neighbor to the Jewish man who who was beaten and left dead on the side of the road, but I have this terrible inkling that even if I make a foreigner the first European convert, some Europeans, and the descendants of these Europeans, even two-thousand years from now, may still harbor all kinds of prejudices against those who are not of European descent.

So, get yourself over here to Macedonia as fast as you can and help me baptize this certain woman named Lydia! Because although not all churches will get it the message I am sending through this baptism, maybe, just maybe, there will be some churches who will get it.”

I believe Paul may have Lydia in mind when he penned the following words to the church at Ephesus: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; …and has broken down the dividing wall… So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2).

Then, there is the baptism of Jamie.

Like Lydia, Jamie is also a certain woman; however, fortunate for her, she has joined a church that has learned a thing or two from Lydia. For, here at First Christian Church in Fort Smith, the gifts of women are valued just as much as the gifts of men. Jamie will be encouraged here to use her gifts to freely follow Christ wherever the Spirit leads.

Jamie is not a foreigner. However, since she was not raised in our church, she was a stranger, an outsider to most of us. And sadly, Jamie has been and continues to be treated like an outsider by many in this town. Therefore, I believe the baptism of Jamie reminds us that we have been called by God to reach out beyond our walls and embrace others like Jamie who did not grow up in this church, or who have been marginalized by society, so that they will no longer be strangers, no longer outcast.

It is as if God is saying: “I know people have heard the Great Commission of the Risen Christ to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” making “…disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…”

But I have this bad feeling, that if I do not stir the hearts of people like Jamie, and draw them into the renewing waters of the church, enlarging and changing the congregation, then the church might be tempted to become so comfortable with the status quo that they grow apathetic, uninterested in reaching out to welcome the stranger.

A few years ago, my wife Lori visited a Bojangle’s Chicken and Biscuit restaurant in North Carolina. The sign out front reads: “Famous Chicken and Biscuits.” She went through the drive-thru to get her some chicken. However, after she placed her order in the drive-thru, she was told that they were out of chicken.

Lori came home and said: “I am so mad! Bojangle’s Chicken and Biscuits told me that they were out of chicken. She said, “I can understand if they run out of the mashed potatoes. I can maybe even sympathize a little with them if they run out of biscuits. But a Chicken and Biscuit Restaurant, has got no business runnin’ out of chicken!”

The baptism of Jamie reminds us what the church is all about. If a church is not continually working to break down dividing walls, working to build bridges and relationships with those outside the church, with the goal of having several baptismal services a year, if the church is not a safe place of grace, love and mercy, then the church is like a Sweet Bay Coffee Shop that has run out of coffee! They might as well close down and put a chain on the doors!

After Lydia is baptized, notice the first thing that she does. She extends a gracious welcome to Paul and Silas inviting them stay at her home. Her words following her baptism remind me of our identity statement as Disciples of Christ, “We welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”

I was on facebook Monday night, and I read these words from Jamie’s timeline that are so so reminiscent of Lydia’s words: “I want to invite all my friends to come to First Christian Church Sunday the 12th. We will be having a thanksgiving meal.”

Lydia and Jamie remind us that each person in this room who has been baptized, who has been welcomed by God through the gracious hospitality of Christ, should feel compelled by the Holy Spirit of Jesus to go out from this place and welcome all people.

Through the baptisms of a certain woman named Lydia and a certain woman named Jamie, I believe God is saying to each of us: “Go out, reach out, tear down a wall, build a bridge, connect, engage, get on facebook, get in a boat if you have to, travel through the streets of places like Samothrace and Neapolis and Philippi and Fort Smith and Van Buren and Greenwood, because I need some help! I need some help sharing the good news that at my table, all are welcome, and all means all!” Amen.

Invitation to Communion

As we sing our hymn of communion, please know that whoever you are, wherever you came from, whatever you bring with you, you are welcome to be served from this, God’s wide and inclusive table.

How God Responds to Death

cemetary sunsrise

Luke 7:11-15 NRSV

All Saints’ Sunday gives us an opportunity to reflect on a topic that we all like to avoid. Though it occurs to every living person, we do everything we can to distance ourselves from it.

Just a century or more ago, people seemed to be more comfortable with death. There was less distance between the living and the dead. Instead of dying in a hospital or a nursing home, people usually died in their own house.

And their bodies were not sent off to the funeral parlor, but kept at home, prepared there by family members for visitation and burial.

Today, death usually occurs in isolated places where where we have these specialists who deal with it. When families make funeral arrangements, we have more specialists step in to maintain a margin of protection around the grieving.

When I was growing up, I remember being shielded from death. Visitation with the family always occurred in the home of the deceased without the body being present. It stayed at the funeral home.  Although one had the opportunity to privately view the body at the funeral parlor, most people chose to only visit with the surviving family members in the home.

I remember my parents teaching me that there was no need to go to the funeral home to see my Great Granddaddy, because Great Granddaddy was not at the funeral home.

“That’s just his body, an empty shell. He is in heaven with God,” they’d say.

My parents were only doing what they could do to protect me, to keep me at a safe distance from death.

There’s a growing trend to revert back to a more acceptable view of death, to an understanding that death is a natural part of life. After all, at some point, everybody’s doing it. Hospice Homes have been built to accommodate entire families, so everyone can be included in someone’s final moments.

I believe this is a better approach to death. To face it. Accept it.

However, if we are not careful, I believe Christians can take acceptance of death too far. For I believe it can become very problematic when every death, no matter how tragic or horrific, is accepted as the will of God.

In fact, I believe we misconstrue who our God is when, upon hearing of someone’s untimely death we say things like: “Well, it must have been his time to go.” “The Lord called her home.” “Another flower was needed in God’s garden.”  “This is just God’s will, and we just have to accept it.”

By having an understanding that every death is God’s will, I believe some Christians encourage the grieving to move on too quickly with their lives. They infer that spending too much time grieving over a loss means their faith in God is weak and shallow.

“You need to accept that this is all a part of God’s plan. So dry it up. Get yourself together. Get on with your life.”

Thus, many people who still find themselves grieving over a loss they experienced as little as six months ago begin to feel guilty for lacking faith.

People today even try to naturalize the death of children. I do not believe there is anything more unnatural than the death of a child. It is a break of the natural order of things. Our children are supposed to be there to take care of us when we grow old and die.

But I’ve heard people try to limit the tragedy, naturalize the heartbreak. At the funeral of an infant, I one preacher said: “Some children have always died before their parents. The only reason that it seems so tragic is because, today, people are having fewer children.”

He then told the story of Johann Sebastian Bach who had 20 children by two wives. He said, “Only ten of his children survived to adulthood.  What nature took away in the form of untimely death, nature made accommodation by the fruitfulness of human union.”

It was as if he was saying to the grieving parents: “Your grief today is your fault for not having more children! Don’t blame death for your grief, for death is a natural, God-willed process.”

I believe our scripture lesson this morning encourages us to have a better-informed theology when it comes to death.

Jesus and his followers encounter a funeral procession while traveling through the town of Nain. Nothing unusual. A very common occurrence, even today. However, instead of ignoring and isolating himself from death, instead of distancing himself from or denying death by calling it a natural part of life, Jesus confronts death. Jesus stops, recognizes the harsh reality of death

And when Jesus learns that the funeral was for a widow’s only son, Luke tells us that he was moved with compassion. The Greek word used here is a “visceral” verb. It literally means that Jesus was moved from deep within his inner bowels. Jesus had a gut-wrenching reaction to this widow’s loss.

Jesus recognized the tragedy of this death, the unnatural pain and heartache that this death had caused. Jesus recognized that sons should bury mothers. Mothers should not bury sons. Jesus recognized that this was not the will of God.

This is how I believe our God always responds to death. God does not will death. God is not sitting on a throne pushing buttons calling people home.

No, Luke teaches us that when someone dies, God is moved and moved deeply. God has a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction. God is flooded with compassion and overcome with grief. God does not accept death as a natural part of life, but on the contrary, God recognizes the unnatural aspect of it, and God is moved from the very depths of who God is.

Remember Jesus’ response when his friend Lazarus died. It’s the shortest but perhaps most hopeful verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  When a loved one dies, our God does not say: “Have some faith. Move on. Get over it and get on with your life. Stop cying.”

No, our God grieves. Our God cries with us.

With compassion, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the casket and speaks to the one within it: “Young man, I say to you, get up!”

And then (listen to these wonderful words): “When the son arose, Jesus ‘gave him back to his mother.’” Isn’t that beautiful?  This young man’s life was restored, but so was the life of his mother.

Thus, Jesus demonstrates what our God is all about. God is and has always been about bringing life to all people.

Genesis says that the first act of our God was to breathe the breath of life into creation. God’s breath, God’s Spirit, swept over the face of the waters. God breathed into the human the first breath of human life. And it was in the same manner, God, in Jesus breathed new life into the young man from Nain by speaking the words: “Young man, I say to you, arise,” demonstrating that God’s business is always to give life, not death.

Therefore, I believe it may be questionable theology to say that “God wills death,” or “calls people home,” “or takes our loved ones.”

For our God is always giver. That means God is never a taker.

Thus, it’s more accurate to say that when any death occurs, no matter the age, no matter the circumstance, God confronts it. God is moved with compassion by it. In that moment someone takes their last breath, God is not there taking, but God is there giving, giving all that God has, pouring God’s self out into that person, fully, completely and eternally.

God does not ignore death, demean death, or simplify death saying: “This is all part of my plan.” God does not let any funeral pass by like it is somehow meant to be. No, God is moved with compassion and sees death as a force contrary to God’s will and takes action to overcome it, transform it, resurrect it.

It could be said that God’s whole life in the story Jesus is about this one thing: overcoming the power of death. As Jesus spoke life to this young man from Nain, God speaks life in the resurrection of Jesus and accomplishes not a resuscitation of one, but the redemption of all.

Through Jesus, God restores the natural order of things. God may not keep all children from dying before their parents, but God does restore the power of life over death, and the power of God over everything else in all of creation.

This is the good news for us on All Saints’ Sunday. We worship the God of life. We worship the God who has brought life to the ones we have lost this year, and who is even now bringing life eternally to us.

And this is the challenge for us this day. Because we worship the God of life, we are called even now to do what we can do to bring life, restoration and hope at the graveside of grieving parents and grandparents, as we will do this afternoon, at a Hospice Home or a funeral home, but also wherever there is degradation and dehumanization, wherever women are harassed and objectified, wherever children are neglected and victimized, wherever outsiders are scapegoated and demonized, wherever people are oppressed and demoralized, or wherever anyone is made to feel like they might be better off dead.

I will never forget the response of a homeless woman after our church served her a hot meal this past Easter Sunday.

She said, “Today you have made me feel human again.” T

hink about that. On Easter Sunday, because of the actions of a church, a woman, demoralized and dehumanized by the world, just didn’t learn about resurrection, she actually experienced resurrection.

Thank you for being the God of resurrection, the God of life and restoration. As we follow the Christ wherever he leads us, may we always be your resurrection people who make it our business daily to bring life and restoration wherever it is needed.

Invitation to the Table

Now, may the God of life breathe upon these gifts of grain and grape that they might be for all of us the live-giving presence of the living Christ, that we might be reflections of God’s likeness in a hurting world, so that others might know the blessings of life, abundant and eternal.

We remember all who have gone before us into God’s eternal splendor and now join them and all the angels and all of the saints of heaven as we continue to sing our praises to God together.

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.