Who Is Your King?

paris

John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his actions and his teachings and has already been questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. Because the sad truth is, that in this world, when you love all people and teach others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you. It is now Pilate’s turn to question him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus is the King. But as he told Pilate, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We prefer “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “I hear you, and the ones who knocked down these buildings will soon hear from all of us!”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe in fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas; we speak English, and if you don’t like it, get the heck out.”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love and help only those who we believe deserve our love and help.

We prefer a kingdom where people know their places and have earned those places.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we love ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus is implying that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And Jesus is asking Pilate and Jesus is asking you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers safety and comfort;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king offers security;

One king demands risk.

One king endorses greed and prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king rules by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

So, of course the powers that be, the kings of this world, arrested the king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course they tortured this king, spat on this king, mocked this king and crucified this king, this king from a foreign realm. Of course they tried to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate could not defeat this king. Bigotry could not stop this king. Religion and patriotism could not overthrow his throne. This king would rise again. But not the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there was no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There were no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There was no shock and awe or violence of any kind.

For this king understood what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king arose from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe in him or to doubt him, to reject him or to follow him. This king drove out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king drove out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these dark days of November 2015?

It all depends on who your king is.

This past Monday, Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in the attacks in Paris, proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.

The good news is that our king does not have to be Pat McCory and our King does not have to be Barak Obama.

If we choose, our king will never be Donald Trump or Ben Carson, and our king will never be Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they offer is temporary. Their reigns are fleeting.

If we choose, our king is and will be the one whom the prophet Daniel speaks:

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousand served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgement,

and the books were opened. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Gone out of the Religion Business

GoingOutOfBusinessHebrews 10:11-25

This morning, I wonder how many of you could answer the following question if you were on television playing for one million dollars. You’ve already used all of your lifelines. You can no longer poll the rest of the congregation or use your friends at AT&T to telephone a friend.

Which of the following is not a religion?

a. Running Marathons

b. Investing in the Stock Market

c. The Atkins Diet

d. The Christian Faith

Again, you can only choose one. All life lines have been exhausted. Which is not a religion?  If you said, “d. the Christian faith,” and that was your final answer, you just won one million dollars!

The wonderful truth about our faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what some may tell you, the church is not in the religion business.

While I was pastoring a church back in 1993, a deacon asked me where I saw myself in twenty years. I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere, or playing a college professor in a TV commercial. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”

“Why do you say that?”

He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not in the religion business. The truth is, the last thing a Christian pastor should be, is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  This comes from Robert Capon. 

Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.

William Willimon has said: 

Religion is the human attempt to get a handle on the key to life, to plug in to power, to find the program that leads to happiness, meaning, self-esteem, or whatever it is that gives a person life.

And the strange thing is: that key, power or program may have absolutely nothing to do with God. Before my knee surgery, Lori used to say that I ran religiously. She has said that I read Runner’s World magazine like I read the Bible. I read it religiously every month, trying my best to run faster, achieve good health and look better so I can enjoy the good life!

We have all observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the Wall-Street Journal religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows the Atkin’s diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

The truth is many of us are doing all we can do, working out, eating right, studying, going to work, following a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! We do it for ourselves, but we also for that something which is beyond ourselves: low blood pressure and cholesterol, smaller hips, a house on the river, for that something which will grant us fulfillment and satisfaction. So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some of us, religion is all about God. There are those of us who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. Religion is viewed as something that people work at in order to have a correct relationship with God. If we can say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then we can be right with God. If we can conduct our lives based on high moral and ethical standards, we can place ourselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

Willimon says that the bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion. No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right. For years I had been following the advice of Runner’s World magazine by eating salmon every chance I can got for those omega three fatty acids for my heart. I used to eat the stuff all the time. Lori once said she thought I was going to turn into a salmon. Well, in an issue not that long ago, I learned that if the salmon is not caught wild, straight from the ocean, it will probably give you cancer. Turns out, the farmers who raise the fish feed it these food pellets which are laced with cancer-causing chemicals. No matter how hard we try, we can never get it right.

They used to say that eating bacon and eggs every morning will make you fat and kill you. Now, they say it is that bagel which is going to make you fat. They used to tell us we could get thin by snacking on rice cakes, now they tell us its best to snack on pork rinds. We can’t win! Religion is always a one-way ticket to failure.

Take the religion of golf. You master your irons and start slicing with your woods. You drive long and straight with your driver, hit your iron and land on the green in two, and then you three-putt. That is part of the reason golf is so addicting. It is a one-way ticket to failure. You make a bad shot and it makes you mad. You make a good shot and it makes you mad, because you wonder why you can’t hit it like that every time!

The truth is: at religion, the harder we try, the greater we fail. We can eat all of the right foods and exercise every day of the week and still need knee surgery.

We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.

And when you finally arrive at the place where you think you have it right with God. You finally believe you have got it right in the ethics and morality department, guess what? It usually leads to pride and arrogance. I had a church member tell me one day, “I am the most humble person in this church!”

Sure you are.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to religion.  Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies. Think about it: I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly have to be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my sin is still going to get the best of me before I can get back to my car. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

In contrast to the posture of the priest who is always standing, notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. In this great gift of God’s self, God put religion out of business. And now, Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God. We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ. This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing this set of principles or that set of ideals, that biblical interpretation or this style of worship. It is about believing and following the Christ.

That is why we call it the gospel. It is good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged. Praise God, in Jesus Christ, this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God the church has gone out of the religion business!  If it hadn’t, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

This is why extremist or fundamentalist religion is wrong and dangerous, whether it is fundamentalist Muslim religion or fundamentalist Christian religion. Religious extremists believe that their salvation and the salvation of the world is dependent on the laws they believe, the laws they teach and the laws they obey. That Is how they can justify shooting people in a marketplace, in a school, or in a church, or blowing up a plane, a restaurant, a theater, an abortion clinic or a building with a daycare center. And this is how they can justify creating a fuss if others do not believe as they believe. They believe it is their God-ordained, religious duty to force their beliefs on others to keep themselves right with God.

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, creating a fuss, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. The work of religion is out of business. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us.

Think about that. Because I know that are some of you who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. You have never professed faith in Christ through baptism because you are waiting until you somehow get it right yourselves. You’re busy running back and forth to altars of good heath, right conduct and correct thinking. I invite you to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invited you to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

[i] Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.

The Jug Did Not Fail

Cornucopia by Joyce Lethworth- A symbol that with God, there is always more than enough.
Cornucopia by Joyce Letchworth symbolizing that with faith in God, there is always more than enough

1 Kings 17:8-16 NRSV

“The word of the Lord came to him” (1 Kings 17:8).

Whenever I read a text like our scripture lesson this morning, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people and worked miracles today like God did back in the Old Testament.”

I usually respond: “I believe God still speaks to people. The problem is we’re not listening. And I believe God still works miracles. The problem is we’re not paying attention.”

Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive (1 Kings 17:9).

Notice that Elijah is listening. 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 called to her and said, “Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a morsel of bread.”

But she said, ‘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.’

See, like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her to feed Elijah when he arrives. Or perhaps she heard the command; she just doubted the command. She questioned the command. She feared the command, for she knew that she only had enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her son. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, they would surely die.

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid” (1 Kings 17:13).

Old Testament 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 and the wadis run dry. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.”

Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it 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 bread, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own child? 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 the 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.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as 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).

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you not been listening?

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you doubted it? Have you questioned it? Have you feared it?

I thank God that many of you have not only heard it, but you believe it. And not only do you believe it, you live it. And today you are a living testimony to the miracle of that word.

One day, you lost your child in a tragic accident. Years later, you needed open heart surgery. A year later, you fell and broke your hip. Then just a few weeks ago, you fell again, this time breaking several ribs. But yesterday, you got up, got dressed, and in spite of some who did not believe you had the enough energy to leave the house, you not only came to the Fall Festival, but you came to decorate this sanctuary with this beautiful fall cornucopia, symbolizing abundance, symbolizing that with faith in God, you not only have enough, you have more than enough, symbolizing a jar that will not empty and a jug that will not fail.

A few years ago a failed marriage destroyed your business, your financial worth and your self-worth. For years, you struggled for enough sticks to survive. And today, your business is back, your debts are being paid, and you are using your gifts to make a difference in the world. All because, although your jar got low, it never emptied, although your jug almost ran dry, it never failed.

You woke up one morning with blurry double vision. You later discovered that you suffered a stroke. Unable to work, unable to see, unable to live without assistance, you never lost your sense of humor or your sense of gratitude. In the face of your suffering you continue to worship God, praise God, and thank God for the gift of life. Somehow, some miraculous way, your jar never emptied and your jug never failed.

Several of you made decisions in life that landed you in the hospital or in jail. It was not that long ago that people were saying that you were all but out of sticks. But here it is, just a short time later, and you have a new lease on life. Your jar never emptied. Your jug never failed.

You were taking out the trash one day when you fell and broke your leg. And when you needed him the most, your husband abandoned you. People said that you were too old to get back up, too frail to start over. They said you only had a few good sticks left. But miraculously and mysteriously, today, you are as strong as ever. Your jar was not emptied and your jug did not fail.

A few years ago, a church found itself without a pastor. An interim pastor was even hard to find. Attendance was down, the budget was behind, morale was low, sticks were about to run out. They could see the bottom of the jar and squeezing mere drops from the jug. But the church was listening, and the church heard the word of the Lord. The church followed and the church risked. Their jar never emptied and their jug never failed.

Some in our culture complain that following Jesus is too much risk. Some say that it brings too much discomfort, too much pain. They say that the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus is too generous, and the love of Jesus is too abundant. The light he commands us to shine is too bright. They fear such light, and they say it would be better for business if it is kept under a bushel.

They say they can tolerate the church preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and it is ok to believe that all means all; just as long as the church doesn’t actually practice what it preaches.

But when the culture tries to control you, when it tries to hold you back, when it uses fear to tempt you to preach and practice what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to preach and 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; behold, you miraculously receive the word:

“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!”

Pricilla, a dear friend of mine from Louisville, Kentucky, called me one day to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two more children from Ukraine.”

They had already adopted two the previous year, one is two and the other is three years old. They both have lived in an orphanage since they were born.

As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You 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.”

The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources. So, do not be afraid. There is enough.

No, in God’s abundant mercy, there is more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

On the Way

Our Missions Trailer that was recently purchased to help our church get moving on the Way.

Mark 10:46-52 NRSV

The first thing we learn from our scripture lesson this morning is that Jesus and his disciples are with a large crowd, and they are on the move. They were on the way. Jericho was not the final destination. There is one last stop to make. Jerusalem: Where furious religious leaders offended by the good news of the gospel, ashamed of the grace of the gospel, have been plotting to put an end to it all. Jerusalem: Where a selfless Jesus is prepared to sacrifice his very life for the sake of others.

It is on this way, this way of self-denial and self-giving, that Jesus is confronted by a man in great need. His name is Bartimaeus. He is not only blind, he is also a beggar. He is helpless, and he is poor. He is disabled, and he is marginalized. Because many believed there must be some purpose driven reason for his blindness, he has been judged and he has been demonized. And, in desperation, he is waiting for Jesus on the side of the road. He is waiting for justice, and he is waiting for grace.

He jumps up and pleads: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And notice the actions of the crowd. They try to silence him. They simply don’t want to hear his cries.

Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever been on the way somewhere, met someone, nodded your head and asked: “How you doin’?” It’s a stereotypical pleasantry, an informal greeting. You expect them to nod back, and say something like, “Good, how you doin’?”

But then, to our surprise, the person doesn’t answer the way we expect them to answer, the way we want them to answer, the way we believe they should answer. No, this person decides to unload on you. She has all of these aches and pains, all of these troubles and frustrations, all kinds of maladies that you label as TMI, too much information.

We don’t like that TMI, especially when the TMI has to do with suffering.

I believe this is one of the reasons why we do not eagerly visit someone who has some sort of disability. We might go, but we don’t want to go. Perhaps it threatens us to be around people who are suffering. Because their circumstances are a reminder of how vulnerable all of us are. We know that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us, or to one of our loved ones. So, we prefer to keep the sick, the troubled, the unfortunate, and the disabled out of sight, thus out of mind.

I admire companies like Target and Whole Foods who make it their mission to hire disabled persons. Fortunately, there are many advocates today for the disabled and others who have been marginalized by society who are urging them to come out, to come forward, to speak up, and to seek equity and equality.

This blind beggar does just that. Despite the crowd who “sternly orders him to be quiet,” the man keeps yelling at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the good news is that Jesus hears his voice. Jesus stops. And Jesus calls him to come over.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Not surprisingly, blind Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

And Jesus does just that. He says, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Then Mark says something that he does not say when recounting any other healing story. Out of all the folks that were healed in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is the only one who chooses to follow Jesus “on the way.”  Out of all the people who were healed by Jesus, Bartimaeus is the only one who becomes a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem; on the way to the cross; down the road of sacrifice and self-denial and suffering; down the road of grace, mercy, justice and eternal life.

Thus, what we have here in this text is not just another miraculous healing story, but a wonderful story of discipleship. And guess what? It’s not just a story about one blind beggar. It is a story about you and me.

For I believe we have a tendency to come to Jesus asking him to heal us, solve our problems, fix what’s wrong with us. We come to Jesus saying: love me, feed me, and make me happy. Give me some sense of fulfillment. We come to church hoping that we might get something out of Jesus, that he might give us a semblance of peace and joy. We come to Jesus seeking help, security and spiritual bliss.

But how many of us come to Jesus because we are truly willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, especially to those places that we know Jesus is heading?

After restoring Bartimaeus’ sight, Jesus tells him that he can go on his way. And who would blame Bartimaeus if he turned around right then to go on his way? Think of all the places he might want to go! Think of all the sights that he might want to see with his new eyes!

Bartimaeus could have gone home with his new found faith in and love for Jesus. He could have been content knowing that Jesus heard his cries, restored his sight, and gave him salvation.

But no, Bartimaeus doesn’t go his way.

Bartimaeus goes Jesus’ way.

Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus. Where? Toward Jerusalem. Toward suffering. Toward rejection. Toward a mission of love, mercy and justice. Toward the cross.

The irony here is that Bartimaeus is introduced to us in this story as a blind man. However, if we are honest, I believe we would have to admit that, in many ways, Bartimaeus may see Jesus better than we do.

Bartimaeus teaches us that this thing we call Christianity, this thing we call church, is about following Jesus. Jesus is not looking for people who merely want to be healed, made stronger, see more clearly and fed by him. Jesus is not looking for people who simply want to agree with him, believe in him, or admire him. Jesus is not looking for people who only want to read about him or study him or even worship him. Jesus is looking for people who truly desire to follow him.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Screwtape Letters, the devil advises an apprentice demon that the main way to keep people from the Christian faith is to prevent the potential convert from doing anything.

The devil says that the main thing “is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it…. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition, but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able to ever act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

To the dismay of the devil, Bartimaeus put his faith into action and followed Jesus, even toward Jerusalem.

In just a few moments this church is going to have what we call an invitation. Some churches call it an altar call. It is a practice that was started in many protestant churches during the turn of the 20th century. Those who wish to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ or become a member of the church are invited to come down to the front as a public sign of their commitment.

Sometimes, this practice has been emotionally manipulative. Preachers have used guilt and other forms of pressure to get people to walk the aisles. Sometimes the act has had little substance or consequence. Because of this, the invitation or the altar call has been dropped in many churches and is very rare in most denominations.

Well, I’m not ready to drop it, because I believe, despite its misuse, the invitation keeps reminding us that it is not enough for us to come together on Sunday morning to get something out of Jesus: a sense of well-being, as sense of peace, a feel-good feeling of spiritual bliss. It reminds us that the point of it all, the point of Christianity is to follow Jesus, to give our lives to Jesus, to stumble after him along the way, even to Jerusalem.

Some of us are doing just that. We are here today because we have been encountered by Jesus and we are trying our very best to follow him along the way. And that’s good. Some of us are going to be going to West Virginia this week to do some of the things that Jesus commanded us, namely to provide shelter for some of our poorest neighbors. Others are making the commitment to go to South Carolina next month to do what we can to help victims of the recent record flooding. Jameson Cowan is following by literally picking up his cross to defend the cause of freedom through service in the United States Marine Corps. And many more of us have committed to serve on various ministry teams through the church.

But some of us have yet to commit. We have yet to follow. The question then is: will those of us who have not quite yet been on the way with Jesus, will we, like blind Bartimaeus, summon the courage, stand up and not be ashamed, be willing to give and to sacrifice and follow him on the way?

On the way down the selfless, self-giving road of discipleship;

On the way to hear and answer the cries of the disabled and the marginalized;

On the way to defend liberty on the behalf of the oppressed;

On the way to speak words of healing to the sick;

On the way to offer grace to sinners;

On the way to put our arms around the troubled and offer hope to the despairing;

On the way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned;

On the way to Jerusalem, where resistance, and even a cross awaits.

Come Home

prodigal_son

Hebrews 4:12-16 NRSV

A huge issue facing the church today is authenticity, or more specifically, a lack of authenticity.

People say that churches are full of people who pretend like they have it all together. Churches are full of fake smiles and phony piety. Churches are full of folks who act like they have all of the answers, have everything on earth and even in heaven all figured out.

Almost every week, I will hear at least one person ask: “Why can’t Christians just be real?” Someone once asked: “Why can’t people act the same way in church that they act at home?”

I believe the reason many Christians are so fake is that we still have a problem with the good news of the gospel we call grace. We have a difficult time believing that God truly loves us, accepts us, and welcomes us just as we are.

Because, it seems too good to be true.

I believe we Christians have a difficult time being authentic, making ourselves at home, because we have a difficult time accepting that the extravagant, amazing grace of Christ that welcomes us to be real; and because of that, we also have difficult time sharing grace. So, not only do we hide or deny our sins, we are quick to point out the sins of others. Consequently, we have gotten this reputation in the world for not only being fake, but also judgmental.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:13-13).

Indeed, but sadly, I believe this is where most folks in the church stop reading the Bible. We cannot even think about laying all of our sins bare before the Lord. So we cover it up, hide it, deny it and try to justify it.

And it is obvious to our friends and to everyone we encounter that we phony.

So listen again to the good news:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

But it sounds too good to be true. Doesn’t it? It is almost difficult to hear.

Let us hold fast to our confession. In other words, let us get real and be real. Let us lay bare our sins and authentically approach the throne of judgement.

Wait minute, it doesn’t say that. Does it?

Let us lay bare our sins and authentically approach the throne of grace.

That’s what it says.

And let us do it fearfully.

No, that’s not what it says.

Let us do it with boldness.

That’s what it says.

So, that we may receive our punishment and find correction.

Nope.

So that we might receive mercy and find grace in the time of need. It’s like coming home. Coming home where we can be real, authentic, yet still be accepted and loved.

But it is sounds too good to be true. Doesn’t it? It is all so extravagant, so amazing. It is difficult for us to read, hear and comprehend.

I believe Jesus knew that we would have a hard time with this. That is why I believe he prepared us for it by telling so many stories.

There was a father who had two sons. The youngest had the amazing gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home. As the youngest, this disrespectful son had no claim to anything of his father’s. Who did he think he was?

Then the truly amazing part: The father takes his “whole living;” (notice how extravagant this is) the scriptures say that he takes all that he has, and gives it to the boy who slips into the “far country” where he wastes every red cent on selfish living. It is only when he finds himself in the time of his need that the boy decides to go back home.

This is where the story gets even more amazing.

“And while he was a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.”

Think about this for a moment.

How did the father see him “a long way off?”

Because the father had been looking for him.

Every day this father sat on his front porch gazing down the road, grieving but hoping and praying that his child would one day come home.

And when he finally came home, he ran to him and cried out: “Come and celebrate with me. My child who was dead is now alive!”

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming. I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you almost hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his preacher, telling him: “Old man, it’s time for you to move on. Old Man, you’ve got to get past this. You’ve got to face the facts. He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. Concentrate on your older boy who is still here with you.”

But the father, amazingly, still waited. Most of his friends probably thought he was crazy. Such excessive, extravagant waiting was hard for them to believe.

After all, he really did not know that his son was ever coming home. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home was an easy target to any would-be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?

Still the father patiently, amazingly waited. Every day he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see his son coming home.

We call this the story of the prodigal son. But William Willimon says that if the word “prodigal” means “extravagant” or “excessive” or “amazing,” it should be called the story of the prodigal father. For when the boy left home, the father extravagantly gave him his entire savings. While he was gone, his friends and neighbors would say that the father excessively waited. And when the boy at last came home, the father extravagantly threw a huge party, holding nothing back. The father loved his son prodigally when he left home, he loved him amazingly while he was away from home and he loved him extravagantly when he returned home with a fatted calf, a new robe and sandals, a ring, and festive music and dancing.

It all seems too good to be true

It is a story of extravagant, excessive, prodigal love. It is a story of amazing grace.

And the good news is that Jesus’ story of the prodigal father is the story about his prodigal Father. And it is the story about our prodigal Father. Our God is a God who, when it comes to grace and love, holds absolutely nothing back.

I know, the truth sounds too good to believe, but it is the truth.

Our God waits, with confidence that the far country of sin and death shall not be the last word. Our God waits, ready to welcome us home with a celebration that is more than we deserve, not because of who we are, but because of who God is, namely a prodigal father.

One of the greatest things about this story told by Jesus is that it does not have an ending. Have you ever noticed that? We wonder if the younger boy ever learned from his mistakes and grew up to be more responsible. We wonder if the older brother ever let go of his resentment. We don’t know. All we know is that both boys are finally safe, at home with the father.

Willimon suggests that perhaps the reason the story does not have an ending is because this story is eternal. We know when the party began. But for all we know, the party never ended. Maybe this is a scene of what we all have to look forward to. An eternal homecoming celebration for those daughters and sons who once were dead but are now alive, who once were lost but now are found.

After our service this morning, you are invited to a homecoming celebration that has been waiting for you that Joan Smith, once called “a true vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

When you see the large amount of food that has been prepared for you this day, it may cause you to pause. It is so excessive, so extravagant, you may have trouble believing it. It will seem too good to be true.

But before this service is over, you are invited to another homecoming celebration that has also been waiting for you. In fact, this homecoming celebration is waiting for you each week. The meal is small. It’s just a tiny cracker and a sip of juice; however, when you understand the meaning of it, the truth of it, the love and grace of it, the extravagance and the excessiveness of it, it may also give you pause. For you may have trouble believing it. It will seem too good to be true.

But the good news is that it is true. For it is the truth. It is the good news of the gospel. It is amazing grace, and it is for you.

So, come home and hold fast to your confession.

Come home and be as real and as authentic as you can be.

Come home with all of your sins laid bare.

Come home and approach the throne of grace with boldness.

Come home because you will not be turned away from it.

Come home because nothing in heaven or on earth can separate you from it.

Come home, because this celebration has been prepared for you, even while you were still a long way off.

Come home, because this table has been set for you even while others have judged you, have condemned you, have given up on you, and even have written you off for dead.

Come home, because your God has not given up on you.

Come home, because your God has been waiting for you.

Come home, because his body has been broken for you.

Come home, because his blood has been shed for you.

Come home, because Christ has died for you.

Come home, because Christ has been raised for you.

Come home, because the baptistery has been filled for you.

Come home, because the Word of God is alive and active for you.

Come home and receive extravagant and excessive mercy.

Come home and find amazing and prodigal grace…

this day and forevermore.

This at Last!

My Children
My Children
Genesis 2:18-24 NRSV

We Americans have always had a high regard for independence. We believe in a staunch individual ethic that leads people to step up, step out, and stand on their own two feet. We look up to those who are able to look after themselves, to take care of number one, to be responsible, to be independent. And we tend to look down on those who are dependent on others for their survival.

This is arguably the greatest virtue of our society, the aspiration of every boy and girl. Study hard, grow up, move out on your own, and get a good job, so you can become self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-supporting. And bookstore shelves and YouTube videos labeled, “Do-it-yourself” and “Self-help,” are filled with books and videos to help us keep our independence. Anything else and you are considered to be a failure, worthless, no count, lazy, good-for-nothing. Yes, in our society, independence is what it is all about.

Many grocery stores now have “self-checkout” lines that are almost always available with no waiting. If you are smart enough to check your own groceries, if you have good ol’ American wherewithal and work ethic, if you are responsible and have learned to really be independent, if you have elevated yourself to a place where the assistance of a Wal-Mart cashier is truly beneath you, then you’ve earned the right not to wait in line.

Independence. It is what makes turning 16 and getting your driver’s license so wonderful, and it is what makes the day the doctor or your children take the car keys away from you so dreadful.

Perhaps more than any other day, we fear the day we lose our independence. It is the reason we save for retirement, eat right, take our vitamins and exercise; so we can avoid the nursing home and remain independent to the bitter end.

This is why coming to church can sometimes be confusing, and oftentimes, challenging. We come to church and open our Bibles only to discover that God’s ideals and virtues are oftentimes very different from our own. We come to church to reaffirm our beliefs, only to have God call those beliefs into question.

On the very first pages of our Bible, we learn that the first thing that God said was “not good” was, guess what? Our independence.

“This is not good,” says the Lord, “I will have to keep working, continue creating, to make you a partner, someone on whom you can depend to help you be the person that I have created you to be.”

So out of the ground, the Lord formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.

And then the man searched high and low. He became acquainted with each creature so intimately, that he was able to give a name to each one. But out of all of the animals that he encountered, and out of all of the birds that he watched, he could not find a single suitable companion, a partner on whom he could depend, with whom he could share a mutual relationship and an intimate communion.

But God did not give up. God was not finished. God was intent on helping the first human be the person he was created to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. However, this time, not from the ground; but from the man himself.

As the man slept, God removed one of his ribs and used that rib to make a woman. Instead of forming another human being from the ground, God split the first human being into two beings and then presented her to the man. It was then that the man said:

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

This at last is the relationship for which have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which I have been longing.

This at last is my partner, my companion, my confidant, my sister.

This at last is someone with whom I can be mutually connected.

This at last is someone on whom I can depend.

This at last is what I have needed to be the person that God has created me to be.

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

But this is not the good news. This is not why we are here this morning, mutually connected, depending on one another, communing with one another.

The good news is God was not finished with God’s new beloved community. God knew that an even greater communion was needed if we were ever going to be the persons that God has created us to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. And, this time, God took it one step further.

God looked at God’s beloved community, and God, God’s holy self, decided to join the community! God came to be with us, and God came to be one of us. God became flesh. God became bone. And God’s beloved community called him “Jesus.”

And one night, as Jesus sat with his beloved community at a table, he took bread and broke it, and blessed it, saying, “This is my body.” Then he took the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

And here we are today. We have gathered here this morning at a table with Christians all over the world, mutually connected, depending on one another and communing with one another, signing in one voice:

“This at last is bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.”

This at last is the relationship for which we have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which we have been longing.

This at last is our partner, our companion, our confidant, our brother.

This at last is someone with whom we can be mutually and eternally connected.

This at last is someone on whom we can truly depend.

This at last is what we have always needed, all we will ever need, to be the persons that God has created us to be.

This at last is the one who reminds us that we are all interconnected by the love of our God who never gives up on us, who keeps working and keeps creating until the whole creation understands that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

One day, I was talking with someone who was dying with cancer. He told me that his illness had demonstrated to him the things that were truly important in life. He said, “And the funny thing is, that they are the opposite of what I always thought was important.”

He said: “I never knew how many friends I had until I got sick. And I never realized just how important they are. Jarrett, the truth is, ‘We really do need a little help from our friends.’” Before his illness he admitted that what he had valued more than anything in the world was his independence, “but no more,” he said, “no more.”

Then he said: “Maybe that is why God created us to depend on one another. It is like a kind of training.”

“Training?” I asked.

“Yes, training,” he said, “because the most important thing in this life is to reach a point where we learn to be dependent on God, to reach to a point sometime before we die, where we have truly put our lives into the hands of God.”

It was as if he was saying: “No more! Because, now I see it. Now, I get it. In my most vulnerable, most dependent state, now, I know it. This at last is what life is all about!”

This at last is why several of you went out in the pouring rain on Friday to cook and serve a meal in the community soup kitchen.

This at last is why we have purchased a missions trailer and are stocking it with tools to help people renovate or repair homes.

This at last is why many of us are planning to go back to West Virginia and Nicaragua.

This at last is why we are having a meeting tomorrow at Noon to talk about truly being the body of Christ in this world, protestant and catholic, black and white. Because despite their beliefs, despite the color of their skin, they are bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. We are all mutually connected, equal partners, dependent. We are one body serving one Lord.

And this at last is why I held Emmit Brinson’s hand this morning in the hospital and prayed the following words:

O God,

Thank you for those you have placed in Emmit’s life on whom he depends.

Thank you for the love, the care and the prayers of his church family.

Thank you for the love and care of his children and grandchildren,

for the faithfulness of his partner, LaRue.

Thank you also for the love and care of this hospital,

for the wonders of medical science on which we depend;

for we know they are gifts from you.

Thank you also for Emmit’s faith and trust in you,

and for the way Emmit depends on you, daily.

And please let him know that you are not finished with him.

You are still working with him.

You are still creating.

Remind him, and remind all who love Emmit,

that he is in good hands,

for he is in the hands of the Great Physician.

He is in your hands.

Work through all of these relationships

to bring him healing, strength and peace,

especially through the special relationship he has with you through Jesus Christ. Amen.

This at last is why we are here: to be in relationships; to learn to depend on one another; to care for one another; to understand that at last we are all related; we are all united.

And as we depend on each other, we learn to depend on the One on whom we can depend forevermore, the One who came to us at last, the One who came to be with us and for us, the One to show us how to be the people God has created us to be: This at last, our Christ, our brother, our Lord and our Savior, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.[i]

[i] Inspired from: This at Last!, An Intergenerational Liturgy for World Communion Sunday, Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost year B, written by the Rev. Dr. Laurel Koepf Taylor, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Prayer Works

Quilting Bees 1

James 5:13-20 NRSV

For perhaps too many weeks now, maybe too many months, our scripture lessons have been pointing out the things that are not right within the church. They have been pointing out the sins of the church. They spoke about disciples being ashamed of the gospel: ashamed of the extravagant grace and unrestricted love of the gospel. They pointed out the hatred, bigotry and racism that is present in society, but also in the church. They talked about the temptation to do what is popular instead of what is holy. They spoke about the dangers of following the laws of culture instead of the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves. And last week, the scriptures said to be a consecrated church, to be a blessed church, we need to stop worrying about how to be the greatest and start worrying about the least, the poor, and the marginalized.

Well, today, it appears that we may finally be off the hook, as our scripture lesson this morning focuses on some things that I believe are very right within the church.

“Are any among you suffering?” James asks. “Then you should pray.”

Hallelujah, we got that, James!

For this is one thing that we are actually pretty good at doing! We will certainly pray for one another, especially if we hear that another among us is suffering.

One of the comments that I hear frequently from church people who have experienced some form of suffering is: “I just don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.”

You say that, because you truly mean that. You say that, because when you needed your church the most, people in the church prayed for you. People in the church cared for you. When you suffered, people in the church came to your side and suffered alongside you, offering you mercy and compassion, love and grace.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer” (1 Cor 12:26).

James continues: “Are there any among you cheerful? Then sing songs of praise.”

Amen, brother James! We got that too!

This past Wednesday night, when we heard Ann Byrd and Myrtle Sugg had turned another year older, we cheerfully put our voices together and sang “Happy Birthday!”

For as Paul also said, “When one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice!”

James goes on: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Oh, we are quite good at that too, brother James!

One of the first things we do when we hear someone has been hospitalized, has become ill, has lost a loved one, or has been bitten by a dog, is to email the Elders.

Then, although we may not use olive oil like it was used in the first century, we do participate in other acts of “personal touch,” other forms of “laying on of hands,” to bring healing, to foster wholeness and peace. And we do it the name of the Lord.

As most of you know, we have a wonderful prayer quilt ministry here. We have a group that meets monthly to make the quilts that we pass around to the entire congregation, so each member of the church can prayerfully lay their hands on each quilt, before we present it to the person who is suffering. It is a truly wonderful ministry.

Then, James reminds us that prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer brings healing; sometimes physical; always, always spiritual. Prayer, says James, helps us to forgive one another. Prayer “saves.” And the Greek word translated “save” here, is sozo, the same word that we use when we talk about “salvation.”

And then James tells a story to back it up, a wonderful story about Elijah and the power of prayer.

James, we are with you 100 percent! Preach it brother! For we also have our stories.

Just last Sunday afternoon, I visited an elderly widower in his home. He shared his joys with me. I shared mine. Then, the shared some of his sorrows. He shared his sufferings. He talked about his failing health and his frail body. He talked about a new medication that the doctors were trying. Dr. Barrow, we laughed together, when he said, “You know doctors, though. They only practice medicine.” I said, “Just like preachers: “we only practice faith.” Then he got serious, as he said, “So, only God knows if I am going to get any better.”

After we talked a little more, we joined hands, we bowed our heads, and we prayed together. After we prayed, he took out a handkerchief, removed his glasses, and wiped tears from his face.

Then, with a grin that emitted pure joy, he said, “I know I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine. I am going to be fine one way or another. Whether I get better, or whether I go to be where my wife is. God knows, either way, I am going to be fine.”

Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer raises people up. Prayer saves people. Sometimes physically; always, and most importantly, spiritually.

And, all of us inside the church have countless stories to back it up.

So, Amen again brother James! Preach it! As Bobby Jr. says, “You got that right!”

But brother James…oh, he’s not finished with us yet.

Listen to how biblical scholar, Eugene Peterson, puts it:

My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God. (James 5:19-20 MSG).

Hmmm, not only does prayer work, prayer is work!

So, maybe, we are not so much off the hook this week after all. For we would all confess that this is an area that is not always right within the church.

Most churches are pretty good about being a community of care of concern. We are good about praying for one another and rejoicing with one another. The bad news is: we are also good about sometimes writing people off. Where we sometimes struggle is working to bring others into our community.

For churches generally have programs and ministries that are geared to meet the needs of primarily whom?

They have shepherding programs, prayer shawl or prayer quilt ministries, prayer meetings, Bible studies, hospital visitation teams, homebound ministries, bereavement care, youth and children’s programs for whom?

For folks outside of the church?

Or for folks inside of the church?

Do you remember one of the first things that I led us to do as the pastor of this church? I said that we really needed to fix our stained glass windows as soon as possible. The Plexiglass that protected our beautiful stained glass windows depicting the good news of Christ were tarnished so badly on the outside, that our windows could only be seen by those of us on the inside the church.

I said, “aesthetically speaking,” it was “horrendous;” but “theologically speaking,” it was a “disaster.” I said that we needed to make sure that we were always working to share the good news of Christ with those who are on the outside of the church.

Do you remember what one of the first things we heard from folks who questioned us having a community garden?

Someone asked: “What if someone who doesn’t belong to the church comes by and steals your tomatoes?”

And we responded, “Isn’t that the whole point?”

One thing that I love about our church, and one of the reasons that I believe we continue to grow, is that we are moving well past a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the membership and moving toward a ministry model that focuses on the needs of the community.

The good news is: when I ask for a prayer quilt, no one asks me: “Well, pastor, is this for a member of the church?”

The good news is: when we get a request to build a handicap ramp, no one asks, “Is this for someone we know?”

The good news is: when I ask the outreach ministry team for some money to pay someone’s utilities, no one questions: “Does this person really deserve our help?”

The good news is: when I ask you to pray for someone, no one asks: “What church do they belong to?”

The good news is: no one here batted an eye when the town wanted to have a meeting in the fellowship hall to discuss Pitt Community College coming to Farmville. And, as far as I know, no one even raised an eyebrow when they asked us to serve them a meal.

The good news is: I know of no one who got upset when the Methodist church in town borrowed our van to go on a mission trip. And no one even flinched when money was allotted to send a mission team from our church back to West Virginia.

And, the good news is: I know of no one who criticizes me for spending time ministering to those outside of our church, like the elderly widower with whom I spent part of last Sunday afternoon.

Because you get it.

Prayer works. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes people. Prayer heals. Prayer raises people up, and prayer saves.

And we have stories to prove it.

And, as James reminds us, prayer is not just for us.

Prayer is for all.

And all means all.

Prayer works, and prayer creates work. Prayer generates selfless and sacrificial efforts. Prayer fosters acts of extravagant grace and unrestricted love. Prayer encourages generous mercy and boundless compassion. Prayer creates risk. Prayer creates responsibility. Prayer creates a church with wide open doors and a wide open table.

Yes, you are right. I don’t know how people who do not have a church family make it in this world.

So, let’s keep praying and let’s keep working. Let’s keep sacrificing. Let’s keep giving, and let’s keep risking to invite and to welcome them into our church family, showing them by our extravagant grace and unrestrictive love, through our generous mercy and boundless compassion, that prayer works.

Prayer works, indeed.