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.

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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.

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.