Another Point of View

Callie Anne

Philippians 3:4b-14 NRSV

There are many things that happen to us that make us look at the world in a brand new way. Things happen, and our whole world changes.  We see things differently, have a new perspective, see things from another point of view.

Oftentimes, this new perspective comes to us by way of tragedy or pain. Sometimes, when someone suffers a heart attack or another life-threatening illness, they can experience such a radically new perspective that their entire personality changes.

Our world changes every time we lose someone we love. “Without them, the world is just not the same,” we say.

Our world changed when we woke up on Monday morning and learned of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. We were reminded how vulnerable and fragile life is, how evil human beings can be. We were given a new sense of humility. We appreciated life more. We cherished our loved ones more. We were given a brand new perspective for living.

Likewise, something very good can also bring a new perspective. Love can do that. When we are with someone we love, the sky seems bluer, the sun shines brighter. Love makes us more grateful, more giving, more kind. When we fall in love, the whole world changes.

And of course, having a baby changes everything. It brings a whole new perspective. A brand new point of view. There’s more responsibility, more worries, and more fun, and there’s less sleep, less time, and less fun. Parenthood: it’s a brand new world.

In this morning’s scripture lesson, the Apostle Paul is writing about the miraculous change that has been wrought in his life because of the change that has been wrought in the world through God in Jesus Christ.

The things that used to matter to him no longer matter: being religious, having religious parents, observing all of the religious rituals, obeying and defending all of the religious laws. It’s all “rubbish,” says Paul. He is saying: “In the power of the resurrection of Christ, I have a brand new faith, a brand new way of relating to God and to the world!”

In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he puts it this way:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

In the life, death and resurrection of Christ, a new age has dawned, the whole world is different.

This is what the great theologian Moltmann was trying to point out when he wrote:

We have attempted to view the resurrection of Christ from the viewpoint of history. Perhaps the time has come for us to view history from the viewpoint of the resurrection.

Paul believed that when God raised Jesus from the dead, the whole world shifted on its axis. All was new.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that when we read the gospels, we discover that Jesus doesn’t tell us how to have abundant life through our religion, but tells us how to have abundant life through our sight. Perhaps Jesus figures, in his stories and actions, if he could just get us to see the world through some new angle of vision that is larger than our limited “human point of view,” then we will know how to live that vision.

Maybe that is the purpose of every Sunday morning in this place. Sunday mornings is less of a time to get some religion, be religious, learn some religious laws, and more of a time to help us to no longer see the world “from a human point of view.”

And let’s be honest, from a human point of view, church can be depressing. The forces of evil are so strong, hate is so commonplace, our political system is so corrupt, religion is so crazy; everyday, I know clergy who feel like throwing their hands up in the air and just giving up.

But we keep at it. We keep going. We keep working. We keep preaching, hoping and praying that somehow, someway, someday, someone’s going to catch a new vision. Someone’s going to gain a new perspective. Someone’s going to start seeing the world in a brand new way. Someone’s is going to start giving more generously, speaking more courageously, serving more compassionately, loving more unconditionally. Someone is going to open their eyes and answer the divine call to do something, anything, to make this world more kind, more just and more peaceful.

This is not wishful thinking. This is not a failure to come to terms with reality. This is a staunch faith that when people truly experience the life, death and resurrection of Christ, there is a whole new creation, a brand new world.

When he was told that he was going to be laid off from work, he thought his life was over. He believed he had no other possibilities, no other options. He could see losing his house, his insurance, his pension, and so many things that he had worked so hard for.

However, that was just his narrow-minded, limited, human point of view. What he couldn’t see was losing that job was going to be the best thing that ever happened to him. He couldn’t see that a new job awaited him that would utilize his gifts more fully, thus giving him greater fulfillment.

After the doctor’s diagnosis and the decision was made to place her under the care of Hospice, some said that it was just not God’s will for her to be healed. Some grieved for they knew her last days would be a time of sadness and pain.

But that’s just a narrow-minded, short-sighted, restricted, human point of view. They failed to remember that in Christ there’s a whole new creation. A new creation where spiritual healing is greater than physical healing.

Can you see it?

Of course, she would be feeble, and she would be tired, but she would be more alive, more whole, more blessed, and more engaged; she would possess more hope and share more love than the most physically fit person anyone knows.

Before she was born in 2012, she was diagnosed a rare genetic disorder called Apert Syndrome. The bones in her skull, hands and feet fused together prematurely. Two surgeries to split the bones of her skull would be required, along with surgeries to split the bones in her hands and feet. To survive, she would need to be fed through a feeding tube for two long years.

“Oh, how tragic,” the people said. “How horrific,” they cried. “How is she going to ever be happy?” they asked. “How will her parents afford her costly surgeries, attend to her special needs? How will they ever survive the stress? It’s difficult enough to raise a healthy child in this world? How are they going to raise one with so many challenges?”

But that’s only seeing the world from a limited, incomplete, dimly-lit, narrow-minded, human point of view. What they failed to factor in is that in Christ there is a brand new world, a new brand new creation.

Can you see it?  I think you can.

Despite her many challenges, she will be one of the happiest, spirited little girls that you’ll ever know. Fundraisers and generous donations by God’s people would help pay for the enormous medical expenses. Like raising any child in this world, there will stress, but the strength and courage and peace that flows out of a relationship with Christ will be more than enough to see this family through each day. And they will never be alone.

They will be surrounded by families of faith that care for them, prays with them and vows to help Callie Anne and her family see their world with brand new eyes—to see life with a new vision, with a fresh new perspective.

A terrorist thug shoots and kills 58 people, injuring over 500 more.

“The world is going to hell!” they say. “God has given up on us!” they bemoan. “This is the new normal. There’s just nothing we can do to prevent this from happening again!” they quibble.

But that’s only a narrow-minded, limited, shallow, shadowy, defeated, and very ignorant human point of view.

There was only one cowardly terrorist, but did you see the countless brave men and women who were willing to lay down their lives for strangers, forming human shields, carrying the wounded to safety? Did you see the police officers risking it all by running towards the gunfire, courageous men and women bearing witness to the truth that God still loves this world, God has not given up on this world, God still believes this world is worth fighting for, sacrificing for, dying for!

The good news is that we will not allow the personal evil of a single killer affect our sight, cloud our vision, and shape our worldview.

No, with faith in Christ, we will continue to see our world from the viewpoint of the resurrection. We will see a world where when there seems to be no way, God is always making a way. We will see a world where no matter how bad things sometimes get, God is always working those things out for the good. We will see a world where no matter how distant God seems, God is always present resurrecting, recreating, reforming and transforming sorrow into joy, despair into hope, and death into life!

Let us pray,

Lord Jesus, in whose light is our life, we pray that you will give us eyes to see your work in the world, eyes to see your presence moving among us, and eyes to gain a new vision of who we ought to be. Release our grip on the old, familiar world of death and defeat. And help us thereby live out your resurrection everyday of our lives. Give us grace to see.  Amen.

 

 

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Unity in Christ

lincoln

Philippians 2:1-13 NRSV

This week, my friend, the Rev. Bob Ballance, made the following observation on social media:

Our divisiveness across this country, so it seems to me, at least, is like a cancer spreading throughout the body. We just keep finding new ways to attack one another. National tragedies like hurricanes used to pull us together, but reports on the destruction of these storms is already old news, seemingly powerless to jolt us back to our collective senses. What was it President Lincoln said so eloquently? “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” A century later, Khrushchev said the same: “We do not have to invade the United States. We will destroy you from within.” Where on earth are the prophets in times like these, those rare voices who have the gift and courage to rise up from the fringes with the right words at the right moment for the right reason? We used to could count on them to shout out the truth, hoping on a wing and a prayer to find a listening ear–any ear at all–to force at least a small nucleus to THINK and CHANGE, and then begin the work of pulling society back from the madness. This division has spread like wildfire into political parties, elections, the White House, the workplace, our stadiums, congregations, communities, families, even…into our playgrounds.

As a church that encourages inclusion and reconciliation, I believe we have a grand opportunity to be a shining example of harmony and unity to a divisive nation.

Do you know how to tell if your church is unified? It’s not by the number in attendance on a Sunday morning. And it’s not by what is put in the offering plates.

I believe that one way is by how long people linger in the building when worship is over. For when people find genuine love, acceptance and belonging in a place, they tend to want to stay in that place. I noticed last week how some of you hung around after the service like you didn’t want to leave. And that was good to me. A unified church is a church where people find love, acceptance and belonging.

A unified church can be a respite from the chaos and hurt that is in our world. It can truly be a sanctuary, a place to receive peace beyond understanding.

As I mentioned last Sunday, after Bruce Birkhead spent a difficult week in the hospital his wife Kaye, unaware of what would transpire this week, when Bruce needed some peace and rest, when Bruce needed to recharge is soul, I loved that he came here to this place.

So, I believe we have a wonderful opportunity to be a leader bringing peace to a divided nation. We have the opportunity be the rare prophetic voice that Rev. Ballance says our nation needs, those who posses the gifts and courage “to rise up from the fringes with the right words at the right moment for the right reason.” With our example of how to be a united blessed community we have the opportunity to “shout out the truth” to “pull society back from the madness.”

Let’s look again to the words of the one who seems to be speaking directly to us this morning:

Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

We can be the prophetic voice that is needed to heal our nation with the humility of Christ.

And as First Christian Church in Fort Smith I believe we have a unique opportunity, as we are a people with diverse beliefs, different views, assorted experiences, various interpretations of the scriptures; yet we still come together each week with mutual respect for one another, in grace, in love and in humility around this table, united as one.

However, as good as our church is, I am afraid we still have some work to do, some obstacles to overcome. Because the truth is, that when many people today think about church, the word “humility” is not something that comes to their minds. In fact, it is the exact opposite that comes to their minds: words like “haughty,” “judgmental” and “uppity.”

Sadly, sometimes the church has been the cause of some of our nation’s division. So, when I say we have some work to do, I am saying that we need to go full-steam in the other direction.

Think of what a powerful witness we would be to our divided nation, if everyday, we literally and figuratively practiced humbly bending ourselves to the ground in the way of our God!

For when God wanted to reconcile the world unto God’s self, when God wanted to unite the world, God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, as a humble servant. God bowed down, down to meet us where we are, down to earth through a humble baby, laid down in a humble manger, worshipped by humble shepherds.

The gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus as one who is continually lowering himself in humility.

When his disciples chastised little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they be a part of God’s Kingdom, Jesus bent down down and welcomed them saying that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples bickered about who was going to be promoted to be first in the Kingdom, Jesus taught them another way by doing things like stooping down to wash their feet, moving down to sit at the lowest seat at the table, crouching down to forgive a sinner, reaching down to serve the poor, lowering himself down to accept the outcast, touch the leper, heal the sick, eat and drink with the sinner, and raise the dead.

And nearing the culmination of this downward life, Jesus, the savior of the world, made his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion that made its way up the equestrian ladder, but on a borrowed donkey. And he rode into Jerusalem not with an elite army that had advanced up the ranks in some up-and-coming militia, but came in with an army of rag-tag followers who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

While people exercise worldly power to move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a prophetic power that always propelled him in the opposite direction.

In the wilderness when he was tempted with worldly power, we watched Jesus embrace another power.

It is not a power that rules. It is a power that serves.

It is not a power that takes. It is a power that gives.

It is not a power that seizes. It is a power that suffers.

It is not a power that transforms stone into bread to feed his body. It is a power that transforms his body into living bread to feed the world.

It is not a power that commands angels to save himself. It is a power that gives himself away.

It is not a power that dominates from some high place in glory. It is a power that dies in a low place called Golgotha.

This is the narrow, humble, downward, descending way of Jesus toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless–toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

And the good news is that as I look around this room, I see people who are committed to traveling this same downward path.

I see people who have chosen to be here this morning, not to get ahead, not to feel more righteous or superior than others, not to get something here in worship that will make you more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. You are not even here looking to be uplifted, or to be more upbeat. I see people here who have chosen to move in the opposite direction.

I see a room full of people who are here not to get something, but to give something, not to be served by programs, but to serve on a mission.

Because you have heard, and you have believed Jesus when he said: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

May this always be who we are as a church.

May we come here each Sunday morning to embrace a mission of humility, sacrifice and selflessness. And then may we go out on a mission, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May we go out and stoop down to welcome all children. May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the outcast. May we go out and get down on our knees to pray for and suffer with the sick and the despairing.

And by our humble example, may our divisive nation be inspired come together, be united as one, and together see our Lord “highly exalted…”

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

 

Invitation to the Table

As part of the world-wide community of Christians, we remember Jesus’ meal with his disciples.

The different languages you will hear today are symbols of the diversity of Christian experience, both close to us and around the world.

Jesus sets the table and his welcome extends to all of humanity.

People of all ages, of all genders, of all cultures, of all economic conditions are welcome here.

No one can earn a place at this meal. Come of your own choice. You need only desire to follow the downward way of Jesus.

Bring your hopes and your history. Bring your deliberations and your doubts.

Come with those who differ greatly from you and be reconciled as one.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Although it sounds good to be an up and coming church, I commission us to be a church that is always down and going.

May we go out in humility, bending ourselves down to the ground if we have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching.

May we go out and stoop down to welcome and accept all children. Crouch down to a child in a wheelchair who has been told their entire life: “No You Can’t!” and tell them: “Yes You Can!”

May we go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower ourselves down to accept the marginalized, and may we get low, get down on our knees to pray with all who suffer.

And, there, as low as we can go, may this church be a shining example in a divisive nation of harmonious humility and revolutionary reconciliation.

And now may the communion of the Holy Spirit of God who came down to us in a stable and the grace of the Christ who knelt down to pick up his cross, be with us now and forevermore. Amen.

 

 

Sunday School of Math

math equation

Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV

Early estimates of the combined damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could reach $300 billion—that’s a quarter of the total costs of all natural disasters in the United States since 1980.

I don’t own a calculator that can compute that. My phone doesn’t do billions.

I was never very good in math. One day, I remember someone asking me, “Jarrett, what made you decide to go into the ministry?”  I responded, “No math in seminary.”

It is interesting that math is not the forte of most ministers I know. Someone told me that they once played golf with a pastor who always insisted that he keep score. He said: “At first, the other golfers and I didn’t mind the preacher keeping score, because surely a man of the cloth would never cheat. However, one day after looking over the scorecard, I had to speak up: “Preacher, I don’t question your theology, and I don’t question your honesty, but I do question your mathematics.”

Now, I’m not a total idiot when it comes to math. I can do simple math, good ol’ common sense math. One plus one equals two. Two plus two equals four. Three strikes and you’re out. But, if it starts to get more complicated than that, I tend to have some trouble.

Like our gospel lesson this morning:

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.”

Sounds like a fourth grade math word problem that used to stress me out!

Unfortunately for me, there is, even in the gospel, a sort of mathematics.[1]  It appears that when Jesus entered the world, he brought us a new way of making calculations, and this math of Jesus is oftentimes very difficult for us to figure.

I am thinking about that woman who took nearly a quart of fine perfume, costing over a year’s salary, and poured it all over Jesus’ feet.  On his feet! The woman wastefully pours all that perfume, 40, 50 thousand dollars worth all over Jesus, and then, Jesus has the audacity to praise her.  What kind of mathematics is that?

I am thinking about that time Jesus praises a shepherd who left behind 99 sheep, “in the wilderness,” in order to look for one lost sheep. What kind of math is that?

If you leave 99 sheep alone, vulnerable, in the wilderness, what do you think is going to happen when you are gone? When you get back from finding the one lost sheep, if you find it, common sense says you’re certain to return to far fewer sheep!

Jesus watched the rich making a big show dropping their bags of money into the temple treasury. Think about that: “A bag of money.” When’s the last time you’ve seen “a bag of money?” That’s a lot of money! But when Jesus saw a poor widow come and drop one penny into the temple offering, he said that she had given more than all the others put together.

Get out your calculators and try figure that one out.

And then there was a farmer who hired people to go to work in his vineyard. Some arrived at work just as day was dawning, others came mid-morning, others at mid-day, some in the afternoon, and then some slackers showed up just one hour before quitting time.

At the end of the day, this eccentric farmer called everybody together and paid everybody the exact same wage. Now, how on earth do you figure that one hour of work is worth the same amount that 12 hours of work?

Do you see the common theme which runs through all of these parables? It’s an entirely different kind of math. In our mathematics one plus one equals two—one plus one always equals two, only two. But here in this new math, the value of 1 may be equal to the value 99, depending on who’s doing the counting.

And one little coin is said to be worth more than several big bags of money, depending on who’s keeping the books.

When Jesus tells us the story about the farmer who hires servants to work in his vineyard, I suppose most of us hard-working, tax-paying, responsible citizens of the vineyard immediately identify with the servants who worked in the vineyard all day. To be told that somebody shows up in the vineyard just one hour before the end and gets the same as those who labored all day, well, that just doesn’t add up. And it doesn’t sit too well with us.

However, if we could hear this parable from the standpoint of those workers who showed up late—the person who because of a disability, because of a family crisis, because of lack of training, lack of language proficiency, lack of education, or for whatever reason only got hired at the end of the day but received the same wage as those who had been there the whole day—if we could hear it from their vantage point, I guarantee you, we’d be ok with it.

Yes, there’s a common theme running through these parables.  And maybe it is not so much math as it is grace.

And if we are honest, this thing we call “grace” is sometimes difficult for us to figure.

We think to ourselves, “As far as God is concerned, if I do this, then I will get that.”  But the truth is that our relationship with God is not a matter of what we do, or the way we figure it, but a matter of what God does and the way God figures it.

Peter came to Jesus wondering how often he should forgive someone who had wronged him. “Seven times?” That number seems perfect, more than reasonable. It’s hard enough to forgive someone one time, much less seven times.

But Jesus said, “You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That’s a huge number, whatever it is.

It does seem that, built right into the heart of the gospel is an extravagant graciousness which refuses to be calculated.[2]  And with our pencils and our formulas, we have a difficult time figuring it out.

Perhaps that is why many of us love the passage of scripture that comes right before our gospel lesson this morning.

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…if you are not listened to [STRIKE ONE], take one or two others along with you…If the member refuses to listen to them [STRIKE TWO], tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [STRIKE THREE, YOU’RE OUT OF THERE!].”

Finally, something that makes some good common sense!  Some simple math—One plus one equals two. Be good and be rewarded. Three strikes and you’re out. Be bad and be punished.

But here’s the problem. When we place this mathematical calculation in the context of Jesus’ mathematics of grace we get another result.

As Eugene Boring has commented, Jesus’ “context is not of self-righteous vindictiveness, but of radical caring for the marginal and straying, and of grace and forgiveness beyond all imagining.”[3]

We like to think, “Yes! Treat them like tax collectors. Three strikes, they’re out.” But have you thought about how Jesus treated tax collectors?

Last time I checked, Jesus called them to be his disciples. And when they deserted him and denied him, he said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, he died on the cross for them.

The truth is, in our self-absorbed, self-centered, oftentimes vindictive little world, God’s math just doesn’t not add up.

On one of the news channels, someone was making the comparison between the damage in Florida and the damage to Barbuda. They actually said that the damage was worse in Florida, because the poor who lost everything in Barbuda, really did not have that much to lose. They said that the wealthy living on the coasts of Florida had much more to lose. And if you think about it, the numbers add up.

But, that’s our math. It’s not God’s math.

United Methodist Pastor William Willimon would say that what they failed to calculate is that “small, insignificant numbers like one sheep, or one insignificant person,” one little coin, one hour of labor, “become very large in God’s mathematics.”

Willimon continues: “On the other hand, the impressive accomplishments and wealth of the rich and powerful are seen as nothing.  As the prophet says, God’s ways are not our ways. God’s measurements are not our measurements.”  What we think adds up, doesn’t add up.

And, here’s the really good news. Because of God’s amazing grace, what we think doesn’t add up— adds up.

We look at something and say, “That just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care how many times you count and recount, check and double check, that just doesn’t add up.”

And God responds: “O, yes it does! In the mathematics of my grace, it adds up!”

Pushing a child with special needs in a 5k 3.1 miles is greater than running a marathon by myself 26.2—adds up.

Giving a $100 to a flood survivor; expecting not one cent in return; yet feeling like someone gave you a million dollars —adds up.

Volunteering an hour to help someone in need when you do not have five minutes to spare only to discover that you had plenty of time—adds up.

Going to a nursing home to give a blessing to someone, but leaving the nursing home having received a greater blessing—adds up.

Coming to church with this incredible peace in their heart and a smile that lights up the entire room, just a couple of days after the death of her beloved husband of 69 years—adds up.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, yet he still has reasons to worship and to praise God in the sanctuary—adds up.

Facing one’s own imminent death, yet feeling more alive than a newborn and more hopeful than a newlywed—adds up.

With the meager full-time ministerial staff of one, a congregation that is much smaller than it used to be loves the people in their city so unconditionally, offers grace to others so unreservedly, and extends mercy so extravagantly, that it transforms not only their church, but their entire city, the region, even other parts of the world in ways beyond their calculations—adds up.

Go figure.

Lord, continue to take us to school. Lead us each week to this Sunday School of Math. Keep teaching us, keep training us, keep instructing us to count as you count, measure how you measure.  Amen.

 

Invitation to the Table

The Lord prepared a table for Christ in the presence of disciples who didn’t deserve it.

Yet, when Christ lifted the cup, it overflowed;

When Christ broke the bread, it multiplied.

So let us hold fast to our hope, that by grace all of us have been counted and are welcomed to this table. Let us prepare our hearts to receive this grace, as we remain seated and sing together.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

God has done accounting, gone over the figures, kept the books.

And by grace, each one of us here today has been counted.

Let us go and share the good news that in God’s mathematics, all people count, and all means all, in the name of the Christ our Teacher and Savior.

Amen.

 

[1]Idea for “Mathematics of Jesus” in the Matthean Parables was derived from William H. Willimon, The New Math (PR (33/3; Inter Grove Heights, Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2005), 49.

[2]Bruce Metzger, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 27 NT.

[3]Leander Keck, ed., New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 379.

Wake-Up Call!

Romans 13:8-14 NRSV

It was the summer of 2013. It had been three years since I served my last church. At the time, I didn’t think I would ever serve as a pastor again.

I was on a business trip in Las Vegas, the city that’s said to represent everything depraved that is within us.

Early one morning, I went for a run on the Strip. The streets were already crowded with people. Some were shopping. Some were on their way to another casino. While others were on their way to do who knows what to fulfill their most selfish desires.

As I ran along, I noticed that all of the electronic billboards suddenly changed displaying a picture of a young man with words that read: “David Vanbuskirk.1977-2013. Las Vegas Police Search and Rescue Officer.” I would soon learn that Vanbuskirk was killed while rescuing a hiker stranded in an off-limits area of a mountain northwest of Las Vegas, when he fell from a helicopter hoist line.

I ran a few more blocks, until I noticed that the people walking up and down the busy sidewalks began to stop and peer down the street that was suddenly empty of traffic. The entire Strip, which was booming with the sounds of automobiles and of people enjoying themselves a few seconds earlier, became profoundly silent.

A man removed his hat. A woman covered her heart with her hand. A little boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders, saluted. I stopped running. And with everyone else, my eyes turned toward the street where we watched and listened as a very long police motorcycle motorcade produced the only sound on the hushed strip. The motorcade was followed by a white police pick-up truck carrying a flag-draped casket.

People remained silent and still for several more minutes. Some bowed their heads. Others wiped tears from their eyes. Others embraced their loved ones.

Here are some questions I believe the church needs to ask today:

What was it that stopped the traffic on one of the busiest streets in the country?

What was it that got everyone’s attention?

What was it that made people cry?

What was it that got even the most indulgent and decadent one, in the heart of sin city, to believe in something greater than thenself?

What was it that turned eyes away from reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and toward selflessness and sacrifice?

What is it that has the power to change the world?

It’s the very power that is the heart of our Christian faith, or should be the heart of our faith.

It’s the power that caused firefighters, police officers and first responders to run into the Twin Towers on 9-11 when everyone else was running out of them.

It’s the power that has sent John Mundy and hundreds of volunteers back to Texas this weekend. It’s the power behind our prayers for Florida and the Caribbean.

It’s the power that gives generously to disaster relief funds like Week of Compassion.

It’s the power that can unite our government to save the lives of the Dreamers.

It’s the force that created the universe, this good earth, and every living thing in it (Genesis 1-2).

It’s the source of all life (John 1:4).

It’s the burning compulsion to liberate God’s people from the evils of oppression and slavery (Exodus 3).

It’s the fire in the prophet’s voice to welcome the foreigner, defend the orphan, stand up for the poor and take care of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It’s the drive that sent Emmanuel into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17).

It’s the energy that continues to pour out the very Spirit of God on all flesh to overwhelm evil and overcome death (Romans 12:21).

It’s the power of love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting —passionate love that propels action, deep love that compels sacrifice.

Jesus said there is no greater power in the world than the power of love compelling one to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13). And there is no greater commandment than to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:40).

To the Corinthians, Paul writes about faith, hope and love, but says that the greatest of these is love. And if love is not in our words, even in our confessions of faith, then we are only making noise. If love is not the heart of all that we do, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

To the Romans, Paul echoes the words of Jesus:

You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:9-10).

Paul writes that “now is the moment” we need to “wake up” and understand that what the world needs now is love (Romans 13:11). And as Dionne Warwick sings, “not just for some, but for everyone.”

When it comes to loving all people, we have too many Christians who keep hitting the snooze button. They pull the covers over their heads, close their eyes, and selfishly sleep. For whatever reason: self-preservation, control, greed, to protect their privileged positions, they seek darkness over light, judgment over grace, exclusion over acceptance, and hate over love.

John calls them “false prophets” who possess “the spirit of the anti-Christ” and “a spirit of error” (1 John 4:1-6).

Stressing how essential it is for Christians possess a spirit of love, he then pleads:

Love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us (1 John 4:7-12).

I began to think about the rescue of that stranded hiker. Vanbuskirk probably didn’t know anything about that hiker. He didn’t know whether the hiker was male or female; rich or poor; Democrat or Republican; gay or straight; documented or undocumented; Muslim or Christian; black, brown or white.

He didn’t know if this person would ever contribute to society, or ever give a dime to the Fraternal Order of the Police.

He just knew that the hiker was stranded and needed help. He just knew the hiker was afraid. The hiker was hungry, thirsty, wounded. And Vanbuskirk was called to protect and serve.

Vanbuskirk wasn’t concerned about breaking any religious, cultural or political rules. His only concern was rescuing the perishing, saving the lost.

It was in that moment that something inside of me woke up. It was like an alarm went off inside my soul. Love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting. Passionate love pierced my heart. Deep love roused me from a self-absorbed slumber. And there, in the middle of the Miracle Mile, I began to pray:

“God, if you give me an opportunity to serve as a pastor again, I am going to do all that I can to lead your people to love others more than self, to serve and protect courageously, graciously, expecting absolutely nothing in return.

God, I will lead your church with great worship services, but more importantly, I will lead your people to worship you with great service. And I will lead them to do it with no strings attached, selflessly, sacrificially, always lovingly.

Lord, together, we will comfort the fearful, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the wounded, not because they might believe like we believe, contribute to our budget, or even attend one of our services, but simply because they need help.

Lord, we will serve without prejudice, without judgment. We will love all people, and all means all.”

Before I came home from that trip to Vegas, I received a phone call from the search committee of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Farmville, North Carolina, asking me if I would consider being their pastor.

And four years later, I stand before you today believing that what the world needs now more than anything else is for the church to wake up to rediscover what is the very heart of our faith: love, not just for some, but for everyone.

I love the quote from German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius that is usually printed in our order of service: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, diversity. In all things, love.”

When thinking about what is essential to our faith, we might say that it is our confession of faith, “Jesus is Lord.” But we can say “Jesus is Lord” all day long, but if we don’t have love, we are only making noise, says Paul. We can say we love God, but if we don’t love our neighbors, we are liars, says John. This is why Jesus says: “Many will call me Lord, yet I will have to say to them, depart from me, for I never knew you.”

Love is our essential. And it is in this essential that we must be unified. Then, we say, “In non-essentials diversity.” And just in case you didn’t get it the first time, we are going to say it again, “in all things, love.”

I have heard the term wake-up call many times in the short-time I have been your pastor. The white nationalists’ march on Charlottesville has been called a wake-up call. The “Nashville Statement” put out by Christians to further marginalize the LGBT+ community has been termed a wake-up call. I heard the solar eclipse and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma referred to as wake-up calls.

I don’t believe the Apostle Paul cares what we use for an alarm, because we already “know what time it is. How now is the moment to wake up. For salvation is coming near. The time has come to lay-aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

So, let’s wake up and love our world.

Let us love our city so purely that it stops traffic on Rogers Avenue.

Let us love our neighbors so unconditionally that it gets everyone’s attention.

Let us love people so unreservedly that it brings tears to the eyes of strangers.

Let us love so relentlessly that it gets even the most selfish, indulgent and decadent one in this city to believe in something greater than self.

Let us love so passionately that it turns people’s hearts away from indifference and toward justice, away from reveling and drunkenness and toward self-denial and selflessness, away from debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and toward empathy and compassion, sacrifice and generosity.

Let us love the creation so deeply that it changes the world!

Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

This table has been set with the power that created the universe, the source of all life that liberates the oppressed, overwhelms evil and overcomes death. This table has been set with love—pure, unconditional, unreserved, unrelenting—passionate love propelling action, deep love compelling sacrifice.

And it is love incarnate, the living Christ, who invites all to receive this power and share it with the world.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

You know what time it is!

The time is now! This is the moment!

Having awakened from a self-absorbed slumber,

go and love the creation so deeply that it changes the world.

Go and stop some traffic.

Go and get somebody’s attention.

Go and make somebody cry.

Go and help somebody believe.

And may the God who is love, the Christ who exemplified and commanded love, and the Spirit who empowers love, be with us all.

On a Self-Denying, Self-Giving Mission

Time Magazine

Matthew 16:21-28 NRSV

As our facebook profile picture suggests, the First Christian Church of Fort Smith is on a mission.

We are on a mission to be a church of extravagant welcome. We want to live up to the identity statement of our denomination and truly welcome all people to the Lord’s Table as God has graciously welcomed us. Because when we graciously and generously welcome others, we welcome God. When we compassionately and lovingly include others, we include God.

And when we say we include God here, we are saying that we believe the spirit of the Risen Christ is actually present, moving, working, stirring, prodding, pulling, pushing, and calling us to be on this mission, and I believe he is calling us in the same way he called the first disciples, with the simple, yet profound words:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

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

You have heard me say that I believe the reason there are so many empty pews these days on Sunday mornings, is because of the perception that many have of the church. Instead of seeing a group of people who have made a decision to follow Jesus, they look at the church and see some type of religious club created for members to make them feel holier and more superior than others.

This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.” This thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It’s not about making us feel spiritual, righteous, enriched or blessed. It is not about achieving a good, better, happy or successful life, or even gaining an eternal life. It’s about dying to self.

Church is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing.

It is not about having our souls fed. It is about feeding the hungry.

It is not about finding a home. It is about providing shelter for the homeless.

It is not about prosperity. It is about giving everything away to the poor.

It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by.

I recently saw a church billboard inviting people to their church by saying: “Help people win.”

The problem with that is that our faith is not about winning. It’s about sacrifice.

I believe the reason some churches fail to look like Jesus today is because, in our attempt to entice new members, excite new members, gain new members, we have made the church about us. We say: “Come, and join our church where we have sermons, music and programs that are certain to enrich your life.” Instead of saying: “Come, join our church, where you will be given opportunities to give your life away.” “Come, join our church, where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and selflessly serve.”

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

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

We say: “Diabetes: It’s my cross that I have to bear.” “Arthritis: It’s the cross I carry.” “Migraine headaches: It’s my cross.”

However, when Jesus is talking about cross bearing, he is talking about something completely different. He is not talking about some kind of involuntary suffering that we are forced to endure for being human. He is talking about the suffering that we voluntarily choose for the sake of our mission to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

Jesus is talking about living a life so transformed by the love of God that we cannot remain comfortably complacent while others are suffering from disease, grief, disability, poverty, a catastrophic flood, abuse, addiction, discrimination, or even from bad choices they have made.

Forgiving someone who has wronged us and continues to cause indescribable pain in our life, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to carry.

Visiting residents in a nursing home when a nursing home is the last place we want to be, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to bear.

Spending our time mentoring a young adult raised in foster care when we already have little or no time for ourselves, may be a cross Jesus is calling us to pick up.

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

Choosing a less lucrative career path because we feel called to serve others might be a cross Jesus is asking us to carry.

Loving all of our neighbors as ourselves knowing that loving some of our neighbors will inevitably cost us something is a cross Jesus wants all of us to bear.

Donating to the Week of Compassion Mission fund to help hurricane victims when our own budgets are tight, or making plans to go rebuild a flooded home when our own homes need some work, is a cross I believe Jesus is calling us to carry.

Standing up for the dignity and rights of minorities, of the poor, of those marginalized by the culture and by bad religion, is a cross that I believe Jesus commands all of us to take up.

I believe the reason some churches are failing to look like Jesus is because they only encourage their members to do what makes them happy, what brings them satisfaction, what makes them comfortable. “Do you love kids? Do children make you happy? Then help us with children’s church!” “Do you love going to the hospital to visit sick people? Have you always wanted to be a nurse? Then serve on our hospital ministry team!”

However, as a leader of this church, I am going to lead you to do things may not only be uncomfortable for you, but I am going to lead you to do some things that actually might cause you to suffer.

Because, you called me to be your pastor. You didn’t call me to be your activities director.

That’s because we are a church. We are not a club. We are far from perfect, but we have intentionally made a decision to follow Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up a cross.

This is what makes being a pastor so difficult, especially being a new pastor. Because, like most pastors that I know, I want you to like me.

Seriously, right or wrong, that is perhaps the most stressful part of my life right now. Does my new congregation like me? After all, I like them. And besides that, they pay my salary, and I have two kids in college!

However, because I am called to be your pastor and not your club president, and because this mission we are on together is not about what either one of us like, it is my calling to lead us to do things we may not want to do, to go to places we may not want to go, to love people we don’t want to love, to include people we would rather exclude. And I realize how difficult it is to always like someone who is leading you in that direction. Jesus’ disciples certainly did not like Jesus leading them in that direction.

I suppose it’s a cross that I have been asked to carry. But may God forgive me, may the Spirit convict me, and may the elders of this church have a special meeting and call me out, if I ever succumb to the temptation to be your pastor without carrying a cross.

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

Notice he doesn’t say to walk down a church aisle and publically confess he is our personal Lord and Savior. Notice he doesn’t say: “Have a personal relationship with me.” And notice he doesn’t say to “worship me” or “study me.”

Jesus says to “follow,” which denotes going, moving, action; not sitting in a pew or in a Sunday School classroom. Jesus wants us to go and do the things that he does, share the same radical grace that he shares, go and do what we can to lavish this world with his revolutionary love even if it costs us everything.

It’s important to make this sanctuary, our narthex, our chapel, Disciples Hall, and every Sunday School room, even every restroom, a place of welcome every Sunday morning. Because, when we welcome others here, we welcome God. And if we don’t welcome God here, then I am not sure what we are doing here. We’re certainly not doing church. It’s important to come together in this beautiful place to worship and to study together each week; however, church should never be limited to any place or time.

We are a church that meets in this place, but we are also a church that is on the move. We’re on a mission 24/7, following the risen Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves, sacrificially denying ourselves, courageously taking risks, generously giving our gifts, leaving behind family and friends if we have to, as we feed the hungry, fight for the marginalized, stand against the haters, care for the elderly, include the disabled, befriend the stranger, provide shelter for the down-and-out, restore shelter for the flooded-out, give hope to the despairing, bring to life the aspirations of the Dreamer. Whether or not people like us for it, we’re going follow wherever Christ leads us, throughout the River Valley, into eastern Oklahoma, across our entire region, down to Lake Charles, then maybe over to Beaumont, Port Arthur, and in and around Houston. Though none go with us, we still will follow. Our cross we’ll carry forward together, not one step back. Until we see Jesus, no turning back, no walking it back, no dialing it back, no turning back, no turning back.

 

 

Invitation to the Table

When we share the bread and the cup from this table, we remember that for our sakes, Christ denied himself and carried a cross, Christ gave himself, poured himself out for us.

We also remember that this is the one we have decided to follow. We remember that we have been called to deny ourselves and to carry a cross. We are called to give ourselves, to pour ourselves out for the sake of others.

As we sing our hymn of communion may we pray for the courage to follow the Christ wherever he leads us. And may we remember that he invites all of us who have gathered here to follow him.

When All Heaven Breaks Loose

hatewall

Matthew 16:13-20 NRSV

Jesus understands the importance of perception and identity.

He asks the question about himself: “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say I am?”

It is Peter who answers correctly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Then Jesus shifts the conversation from his identity to the identity of the church, which is very important for us to consider today.

How do people perceive the church? Who are we? What is our purpose? What makes the church special?

Of course, we love part of Jesus’ answer: “The Gates of Hell will not prevail against it” (King James Version).

In a world where all hell seems to be breaking loose, this is some very good news indeed.

The forces of death, despair, and darkness, no matter how great those forces seem to be in our world, will not prevail.

Sickness, disease, divorce, terrorism, war, hate, any power of Hades, which literally means “the power of death” will not have its way with us.

That might be one of the reasons we call the place the church meets each Sunday morning a “sanctuary,” a term, by the way I prefer over “worship center” or “auditorium.”

Death is moving and hell is coming. Evil is barreling toward us like a category 4 hurricane. It threatens us. It frightens us. It slams into us. But together, gathered in this sanctuary as the church, we are reminded that we are safe and secure from all alarm.

There’s no way I can count members of my congregations who have told me that they don’t know how people make it in this world without the church.

Because, when we are gathered in community, assembled in our sanctuary with people who are praying with us and for us, worshiping together, singing hymns like Leaning on the Everlasting Arms together, when we hear evil knocking at the door demanding to come in, threatening to do us harm, with nothing to fear and nothing to dread, we respond with utmost confidence:

“What’s that you say? You say it’s darkness and despair out there knocking on our door? You say it’s ‘hell’ out there trying to get in here?”

“Oh, not no. But heaven no!”

“In the name of Jesus, heaven no, you’re not coming in here! Heaven no, you’re not taking away our blessed peace! Heaven no, you’re not getting any of our joy divine!”

The good news is, and those of us who are the church know it, despite the constant onslaughts of Hades, despite the powers that seek to destroy us, the church hangs on, because we know that ultimately we will emerge victorious.

We hang on.

We hang on.

We. Hang. on.

How many times have you used that expression to describe the church? “How are things going there at First Christian Church in Fort Smith?”

“Oh, we’re hanging on.”

“It’s tough being church in today’s world, but we’re making it.”

“We’re surviving.”

Unfortunately, that describes both the perception and identity of many churches today. They’re in survival mode.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For who doesn’t want to be a survivor, especially when all hell is breaking loose?

“It’s a struggle, but we’re holding on. It’s tough, but we’re paying the bills. It’s a fight, but we’re keeping the lights on. Not sure what we think of him yet, but we got a new preacher, so we’re making it. We’re surviving.”

But wouldn’t you like to be more than a church that is just hanging on and getting by?

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about making a difference out there and less about maintaining the status quo in here?

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about bringing some heaven to earth and less about hanging on until we die and go to heaven?

Although we love the term, shouldn’t the church more than “a sanctuary?”

Wouldn’t you like to be a church that is more about bringing some heaven to earth and less about hanging on until we die and go to heaven?

Let’s look again at this passage. About the church, Jesus says: “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Do you hear it? Do you see it?  Jesus says it’s the gates of Hades, it’s the gates of death, it’s the gates of despair, it’s the gates of darkness that will not prevail.

Notice that he’s not talking about the gates of the church, the doors of the sanctuary, prevailing against an onslaught from Hades. He’s talking about the gates of Hades that will not prevail against an onslaught from the church.

When Jesus describes the identity of the church, when Jesus talks about who we are and who we are called to be in this world, he doesn’t talk about a host of evil rounding us. He doesn’t say death is coming and hell is moving. He says it’s the church that is coming, and it’s heaven that is moving.

It is the host of good that is rounding the host of evil.

By talking about the gates of Hades, Jesus is expecting the church to be on the offensive. Jesus is expecting the forces of truth, light, grace, justice, mercy, love and life to be on the move tearing down the gates of death, darkness and despair.

Jesus isn’t talking about all hell breaking loose in our world. Jesus is saying that when we embrace our identity, when we answer the call, when we claim our authority, when we fulfill our mission to be the church in our world, all heaven will break loose.

Sadly, the perception of the church is often the other way around. We are the ones cowering behind the gates, behind the walls, behind the stained glass. We are the ones on the defensive. We are gatekeepers and wall builders. For our own protection and preservation, we decide who can come in and who must stay out.

But Jesus warns us: “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. And what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.”

Sadly, the church— by taking a defensive posture, with our gates and our gatekeepers, with our walls and our barriers, with our obstacles and our hurdles—the church has been guilty of preventing all heaven from breaking loose in our world.

However, Jesus says we possess the keys, the authority to open doors, remove barriers, and get rid of obstacles. As the church, we are not gatekeepers, deciding who’s in and who’s out; we are gate-destroyers. We are not wall builders; we are wall-demolishers!

And when we do that, when the church swings wide its doors, when God’s people leave the safety and security of the sanctuary, when we boldly go out into our world to confront the gates of death, darkness and despair, Jesus says, the gates of hell will not prevail, and all heaven will break loose.

It should be said that with Rev. Dr. King, I do not believe Jesus wants us to use darkness to defeat darkness or use hate to defeat hate.

I believe Jesus wants God’s people to use the authority entrusted to them to overthrow deep darkness with illuminating light; overwhelm racist hate with revolutionary love; overcome deliberate deception with Biblical truth; overtake fearful prejudice with empathetic mercy, override uncalled-for meanness with called-for kindness, and overrun white nationalism with non-violent determination for liberty and justice for all.

I believe what our world needs more than anything else is for all heaven to break loose!

There are many ways I am looking forward breaking loose some heaven with this congregation here in Fort Smith.

Along with our financial support of the Week of Compassion mission fund, a mission trip to East Texas may be in our future to help remove the hurdles to restoration. And if we do that, if we leave the comfort of our own homes to help repair and rebuild the homes of strangers, all heaven will break loose.

With Ainsley’s Angels, the organization that includes the special needs community in endurance events, we are going to tear down walls of disability that has prevented people with special needs from experiencing the joy of inclusion, acceptance and accomplishment that one receives after completing a 5k, 10k, even a marathon. And when we do that, when we reach out, accept and include, all heaven is going to break loose.

By being a church that is committed to the prophets’ proclamation to take care of the orphan, we are going to do what we can to remove any obstacle to success that stands between a young adult who grew up in foster care and a promising future. We have plans to remodel more apartments for them. We have plans to to mentor them. And when we do that, when we love them selflessly and sacrificially, all heaven is going to break loose.

By being an anti-racism, pro-reconciling church, we are going to demolish the barriers of bigotry that are dividing our nation and do all that we can to work together with all churches, all faiths, all races, to stand up for the equality, the dignity and the worth of all people. And when we do that, when we come together as Americans to fight for social justice, all heaven is going to break loose.

By having a Harvest Festival, not only for our kids, but also for kids who are not members of our church, kids in foster care, kids in shelter care, all kids, we are going to bust down any door that may prevent anyone from being a part of our fellowship. And when we do that, when our focus is not only blessing our children, but the children of our entire city, all heaven is going to break loose.

And as a church committed to the inclusive love of God, the extravagant grace of Christ, we will continue to destroy any gate, remove any hurdle, break down any barrier that anyone tries to erect to keep people from coming to this table and being a part of our mission to be the church in this city, a movement for wholeness in our fragmented world. And when we do this, when we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us, all heaven is going to break loose.

So, let’s embrace our identity! Let’s claim our authority! And let’s answer the call to fulfill the mission to be the church in this world, until all people know who we are and whose we are: disciples of the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!

Amen.

Invitation to Communion

Notice that there are no walls around this table to climb over. There are no barriers to get around, no doors to unlock, no hurdles to jump over and no hoops to jump through. For the Messiah and Son of God has overcome every obstacle for us and has given us the authority to tear down any gate that anyone might try to erect.

So, after we sing our hymn of communion, please know that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from this morning, no matter what you bring with you, you are welcome, here, at this table, in this community.

Responding to Their Cries

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Matthew 15:21-28 NRSV

This week, someone made an observation about me as a preacher. He said: “You seem to be biblically conservative. You have certainly preached the Bible these past two weeks.” Then he added: “I find it interesting that someone who is as conservative as you can be so inclusive.”

I said that’s because the entire biblical witness commands us to love inclusively—from Abraham who graciously welcomed the strangers by the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18) to John’s great portrait of heaven that we find in Revelation:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, [all] peoples and [all] languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).

I believe Jesus said it best: “On this hangs all of the laws and message of the prophets, ‘you should love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:40). It is as if he was saying, “If you don’t get anything else from the Bible, you need to get this: “Love your neighbor and love your neighbor empathetically—as yourself, put yourself in the shoes of another.” In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Now, of course people have always tried to use the Bible to support their hate and exclusivity. For centuries, the Bible has been used to support sexism, racism, even slavery. It is being used today to support all kinds of bigotry. But to support hate with the Bible, I believe one has to arbitrarily lift verses of scripture out of their contexts.

But that is not how the Bible should ever be read. One must always look at the entirety of its message.

I believe the point could be made that this morning’s gospel lesson is a microcosm of the entire Bible. If one arbitrarily lifted verses from this passage, one might argue that Jesus was a selfish, sexist bigot. But when we look at the whole story, a very completely different message emerges, a message that cannot be more relevant for us today.

Just then, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 

We hear this cry everyday. Yet, we really don’t hear this cry. We don’t understand this cry, nor want to understand this cry. We don’t like this cry. Thus, we never truly listen to the cry. To our privileged ears, it’s just shouting. Strange, foreign shrieks that, frankly, we find offensive.

They are cries of mercy for a child tormented by demonic evil.

They are hopeful cries for a safer, more loving and just world.

They are moral cries for equality.

They are cries for equal access to a quality education, for equal protection of the law, for fair wages, for access to equitable healthcare.

They are prophetic cries against injustice.

They are cries against racism, against discrimination, against predatory loans, against voter suppression, against Gerrymandering, against oppressive government legislation. They cry out that their black lives matter.

Jesus’ first response the cries is the most common response: it’s one of silence.

We know that response all too well. Silence, just silence.

If we ignore their cries, maybe they’ll go way. Responding will only stir things up, make things worse, uncover old wounds. And responding might cost us something. We may have to give up something, change something.

The second response comes from the disciples. It’s shocking, but not surprising. For it’s as familiar as silence: “Send her away.”

It’s the response of fear: fear of the other; fear that causes defense mechanism to go up; fear that breeds selfishness, anger, and hate.

Then, they blame the victim.

“What about her shouting?” “She keeps shouting.”

“What about the way she is behaving?” “She needs to be more respectable.” “She’s only making things worse.” “She needs to go away, get a life, get a job, go volunteer somewhere.” “She needs to learn some personal responsibility, stop begging for handouts and learn that God only helps those who help themselves.”

“She is what is wrong with this country.” “These girly girl snowflakes need to grow up, toughen up and shut up.” “And they need to learn that all lives matter.”

Jesus breaks his silence, but like the disciples, with words that are all too familiar. Words that are culturally popular; not biblically informed.

 ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

“We have to put our people first. We have to look after our own interests. We need to do what is fair for us. We can’t include you, especially if you have needs. If you don’t possess the skills to help yourself, how can you help us?”

She continues to protest. In an act of defiance, she kneels down.

He answered (again with language culturally-accepted; not biblically inspired), ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

But the good news is that is not how the story ends.

The foreign mother from Canaan persists. She keeps shouting. She keeps fighting. She does not lose heart or hope. She believes that justice will come, truth will prevail, and love will win. She speaks truth to power saying: “Lord, at my house, the dogs eat at the same time we eat. Lord, at my table, there’s room and enough for all, especially for those tormented by evil.”

And here is the really good news. Jesus listens to this outsider, and although he was neither Canaanite, female or a parent, Jesus empathizes with this mother from Canaan.

Jesus is able and willing to do something that many are unable or unwilling to do these days; that is, put ourselves in the shoes of the other. Jesus is able to see the world as she sees it, bear the pain of it, experience the brokenness of it, sense the heartache and grief of it, feel the hate in it.

And because he is listening, because he is paying attention, I believe Jesus is outraged. I believe Jesus begins to suffer with her, offering her the very best gift that he has to offer, the gift of himself, which is breaking before her and for her.

Jesus loves her. He loves her empathetically, authentically, sacrificially. He loves her unconditionally, deeply, eternally.

And loving like that always demands action.

After hearing her cries, listening to her pleas, empathizing with her pain, becoming outraged by the demons that were tormenting her child, Jesus announces that her daughter will be set free from the evil that was oppressing her.

However, she will not be liberated by his love alone. She will be liberated from her oppression, both by the love of Jesus, and by the persistent faith of this mother, this mother who will not give up, back down, shut up or go away.

Now, I could pick and choose and lift verses out of this passage and twist words to say some hurtful and evil things. But if I allow the overall message of this story to speak to me, inform me, guide me, this is what I believe:

When we hear the cries of people our culture considers to be outsiders, instead of responding with typical silence, instead of criticizing their shouting, their protesting, their marching and their kneeling, instead of blaming them for their situation, if we will follow the biblical mandate to love them as we love ourselves, if we will listen to them and allow their cries to penetrate our hearts, if we will empathize with them, if we will put ourselves in their shoes, walk in their steps, experience their plight, feel the sting of the hate directed toward them, then a place will suddenly become open at our table for them.

Outsiders become family. The underprivileged become equals from whom we can learn, be led, and change. They will become sisters and brothers.

And then, together— together, because the miracle we need today can not happen unless we come together— together, with the one who is no longer a foreigner, no longer feared, no longer ignored, no longer ridiculed— together, in community, side by side, hand in hand, with faith in God and with faithful persistence— we will stand up, we will speak out, and we will fight the demonic evil that torments God’s beloved children.

Of course, there will be great cost involved, for the Bible teaches us that love is always costly. But the cost of refusing to love is greater.

I love reading what happened next (“the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say). It’s the story of justice coming, truth prevailing, and inclusive love winning.

Beginning with verse 29…

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet and

without asking any questions about where they were from, what they believed, or what they had to offer,

he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:29-31).

Hallelujah. Amen.

 

Invitation to the Table

The good news from our sister from Canaan is that there is room and enough at the table of the Lord for all. Thus, all are invited to share this load and this cup.

As we prepare to eat from this table with our sisters and brothers, may we pray that the love demonstrated in this meal will give us the strength we need to stand up, speak out and fight the demonic evil that is tormenting the children of God in our world today.