For God So Loves the World

earth_heart

Luke 21:5-19 NRSV

Since the presidential election, I have heard many predict the end of the world. And before the election, TV evangelist Jim Bakker even said that if Hillary Clinton won, next month we would be celebrating our very last Christmas. I have heard Rev. Billy Graham say more times than I can count that he believed the end of the world was coming in his “lifetime.” That’s rather scary coming from a man who celebrated his 98th birthday this past Monday!

Even before this nasty presidential campaign, the Barna group found 4 in 10 Americans, and 77 percent of evangelical Christians, believe “the world is now in so called “biblical end times.”[i]

So, in spite of what we may think about this subject, this morning, perhaps more than ever, we need to hear what Jesus has to say about the end of days.

About “the destruction of it all,” in verse 7, we read where they ask Jesus: “When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

In verse 8 we read Jesus’ answer: “Beware that you are not led astray.”

Then Jesus specifically warns us to stay away from those who claim to be holy and say, “The time is near.” Jesus says, “Do not go after them.” Do not follow them. Do not listen to them. Do not pay them any attention!

Well, glory halleluiah! Because with all the troubles in this world, I really don’t want to preach about the Zombie Apocalypse today. So, Amen Jesus! Let’s move on to some more pleasant things!  Let’s get onto a happier, more cheerful subject! Enough of all this gloom and doom, misery and woe!

Ok, now let’s listen to what Jesus has to say next! Hopefully, it will be something much more uplifting than World War III! If it’s not the end of the world, perhaps he still has something to say that will turn our eyes, if just for fifteen minutes, away from the suffering of this world.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you. They will bring you before synagogues and governors.”  “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; you will be hated by all because of my name; and they will put some of you to death.”

Come on, Jesus! Are you serious?

But I guess if we have been reading and listening to Luke, we should not be that surprised. It is as if Jesus is saying:

“Do not worry so much about the tribulations that will come with the end of the world; because, if you are following me, if you are faithfully living as my disciple, if you have fully committed yourself to carrying a cross, if you are truly serving those I call you to serve, if you are working to build my kingdom on this earth by building safe communities that preach good news to the poor, and speak truth to power while defending the powerless and standing up for rights of the marginalized, welcome the foreigner while respecting other faiths, provide quality and equitable education for children so they can one day earn a fair wage, take care of the sick and advocate for those with exceptional needs, if you are working for my justice and my wholeness in this fragmented world, then there is no need for you to fret over the end of days. . . because you are going to stir up plenty of trouble to worry about today!”

“Because you are truly living for me by loving this broken and suffering world as much as I love this world, you will sacrifice much. People will try to break you, and you will suffer. Organized religion will resist you. The state might arrest you, and you will certainly be hated. You will be defriended by friends and disowned by family.”

Matthew remembers Jesus saying on another occasion: ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:34).

Then Jesus adds: “But this will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Jesus seems to be saying here: “Don’t focus so much on the end days. Don’t dwell on the impending doom and demise of it all, but instead, focus on the opportunities that you have today in this hurting world ‘to testify,’ to selflessly and sacrificially serve me by serving others.”

I believe Jesus is saying: “It might be ok to think and dream about leaving this troubled world behind one day. It is fine to have the hope that someday, somehow, some way there’s going to be no more evil to fight. It is wonderful to know a time is coming when there is going to be no more mourning, crying, pain, presidential elections, and death. However, if avoiding Hell is the only reason you are Christians, then you have missed the whole point of who I am and who you are called to be as my disciples.”

I believe Jesus is saying to us today: “Don’t go to church looking to avoid a suffering world. Go and be church bearing the sufferings of this world. Don’t go to church looking for some fire insurance. Go and be church allowing me lead you into the fire! Don’t go to church to escape a world going to Hell. Go and be church committed to loving the Hell out of this world, even if it gets you killed.”

This is exactly why I believe so many Christians are tempted “go after” those who love to preach about the end of days, especially those who say that it is coming in our lifetimes. For it is far easier to believe that God has already given up on this world.

It is much easier to look at the nastiness of this past election and believe that it is all a part of God’s divine plan, a preview of things to come! It is easier to believe that earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and poverty and war, political corruption and terrorism, amplified racism and sexism, a divided country, are all part of God’s apocalyptic will; it is easier to accept that God has already given up on the world, so we might as well give up too; than it is to believe that God calls us to selflessly suffer alongside those who are suffering.

It would be much easier to believe that Christianity is only about getting a ticket to heaven to escape this troubled world and its problems, than it is to believe that our faith is about serving those who are troubled in this world.

British scholar Lesslie Newbigin comments: “In an age of impending ecological crises,” with the “threat of nuclear war and a biological holocaust” Christians everywhere have “sounded the trumpet of retreat.” They have thrown their hands u and have given up on the world. Their faith in Jesus has become merely a private, spiritual matter. Faith is only something they possess, something they hold on to, to insulate them from the sufferings of this world and to someday use as their ticket out here.

In the meantime, they withdraw into safe sanctuaries looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. And they listen to angry sermons by angry preachers condemning the current world to Hell in a hand basket.

And giving up on this world is really nothing new. At the turn of the first century, Jews, called Gnostics, had a similar view of the world. Everything worldly, even the human body itself, was regarded as evil.

And maybe they had some pretty good reasons to believe that way, because regardless of what some may believe, things in the world did not start going bad with this presidential campaign. The truth is: things have been pretty rough in this world ever since that serpent showed up in the garden.

At the turn of the first century, Jews were a conquered, depressed people, occupied the Romans. And they were terrorized daily by a ruthless, pro-Roman King named Herod—a king who would stop at nothing to have his way, even murder of innocent children. The Gnostics looked at the world and their situation and came to the conclusion that they were divine souls trapped in evil bodies living in a very dark, God-forsaken, God-despised world.

However, the good news is that the Sunday after next begins the season of Advent, the season that we remember that it was into a very dark, and seemingly God-forsaken, God-despised world, that something mysterious happened that we call Christmas. A light shone in the darkness proving in the most incredible and inexplicable way that this world is anything but God-forsaken or God-despised!

The good news is God loves this world so much that God emptied God’s self and poured God’s self into the world. God came and affirmed, even our fleshly existence as God, God’s self, became flesh. And God came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world. For so God loves the world that God came into the world and died for the world.

Thus, the message that we all need to hear today is not that the end is near as God believes the world is worth destroying, it is that something brand new can happen, a light can still shine in the darkness, because God believes this world is worth saving. God believes this world is still worth praying for, working for, fighting for, suffering for. God still believes that this world is worth dying for.

As the body of Christ in this world, we are not called to retreat from the world and its troubles, but we are called to love this world, to do battle for this world, to even die for this world. We are called to be a selfless community of faith in this broken world. And, no matter the cost, we are called to share this good news “for God so loves this world” with all people.

And the good news is: though we might be arrested by the state and get some push back from organized religion, though we are betrayed by family and friends, though we are hated and could even be put to death, God promises that not a hair on our head will perish, and by our endurance, we will gain our souls. Thanks be God.

[i] Read more at http://www.wnd.com/2013/10/billy-graham-sounds-alarm-for-2nd-coming/#Y8RpIeMpqqHd8uRF.99

[ii] Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 113.

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Removing the Obstacles

roadblocksigns

Luke 19:1-3 NRSV

Acts 8:26-38 NRSV

Jesus was passing through Jericho where he encountered a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax-collector, and because of that, because he most certainly took advantage of the poor, he he was rich. Possibly feeling as though he was outside of the boundaries of God’s love due to his sins, he was desperately trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not….

We know the rest of the story. To see Jesus, he takes a risk, he goes on on a limb, figuratively and literally. Jesus finds him in a tree, tells him to come down, and salvation comes to not only him but to his entire house.

But what stands out for me is: “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not…”

For I believe this begs the question: “Are there people today who feel outside of the boundaries of God’s love due to their sins, who are trying to see who Jesus is, but on account of the crowd, they cannot?”

This question reminds me of another one of Luke’s stories: a story in Acts about an Ethiopian Eunuch who asks Peter if there is anything preventing him from being baptized, from truly discovering who who Jesus is.

Which begs another question, “Are we doing something, or are we not doing something that is preventing people today from coming to Jesus?”

I believe Acts chapter 8 has much to teach us on this subject, especially for us trying to do church in the 21st century.

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads: “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go…”

One obstacle that I believe stands in the way of people coming to Jesus is that we have forgotten our call to “Get up and go.” In the 1950’s, we in the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came, partly because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and to mama’s house afterwards for fried chicken and cornbread if you lived in North Carolina or chicken-fried steak and gravy if you lived in Oklahoma after church was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.

However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to get up and be on the move, on the go. Like Philip, we have to get up and go and meet people where they are out on the road.

And not only are we to meet them where they are out on the road, we are to meet them where they are, period.

The problem is that churches too many churches today sitting back, not only expecting people to come to them, but expecting people to come to them in a manner that meets their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come to them that look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”

Now, I don’t think we should beat ourselves up too bad for wanting to only mix with our type of people. It may be part of our human DNA. It may be some inborn, instinct of survival. Fear the different. Beware of the other. Trust no foreigner. Avoid the outsider. So we instinctively put up these barriers, all sorts of obstacles.

Consequently, Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urge Philip to get up and go to the chariot to see this Eunuch from Ethiopia. Go against your natural inclination but going to this chariot and meet this strange foreigner; this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith; this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality; this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says they are forbidden to enter the temple; this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go, Philip, and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

I believe baptismal pools in the church are dry today, because the church simply refuses to be urged, encouraged and persuaded by the Spirit to go out with love and grace and meet people where they are, especially people considered to be outsiders.

Philip meets the Eunuch who was reading from the book of Isaiah. This is not surprising. For this is one of the most hopeful books in the Hebrew Bible for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised by the church, for those who feel despised by God. Imagine the hope that burned in this Eunuch’s heart when he read the following words we find in Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
beside those already gathered.

Philip heard him reading from Isaiah and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Eunuch responded: “How can I understand it unless someone interprets it for me?

What a great question. What a better place this world would be if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted.

I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that churches are in decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice.

And because of that there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of bad religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

Then Eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’

The Eunuch was asking: Who is this one was also ostracized and marginalized by others, as I have been? Who is this who was led like a sheep to be slaughtered? Who is this one who has been humiliated and denied justice? Who is this who had his life taken from him? Who is this one who is just like me? Who is this one who relates to me so well, who understands my pain, who knows my heartache, who empathizes with my sufferings? Is it Isaiah? Or is it someone else?

Then Philip tells the eunuch the good news. The one who understands your pain, the one who knows your heartache, who empathizes with your sufferings is none other than Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one who relates to you, identifies with you, and because of that, loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, and forgives you like none other, is the very one that others said despised you.

When the Eunuch heard this good news about Jesus, the words of the prophet became not only hope for the future, but good, glad, certain news for the present:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Suddenly, the barriers fell. Walls crumbled. Obstacles disappeared. And the very doors of the Kingdom of Heaven swung wide open.

It is then the Eunuch, this one who had no name and no future, but now has a everlasting name exclaims, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me then from being baptized?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

What is it going to take to turn our declining membership around? What do we have to do to increase the number of our baptisms? Where do we even start removing the obstacles that prevent people from coming to know Jesus?

I believe we need to get up and we are go out. I believe we need to meet people where they are and not where we might want them to be, meeting them without judgment, without condemnation. And I believe we need to interpret the scriptures in the light of Christ, sharing the good news of his unreserved love, unconditional acceptance, and unearned forgiveness.

Keep at It

Dont-Give-Up

Children’s Sabbath, Central Christian Church, Enid, OK

Luke 18:1-8 NRSV

We are certainly a church that is on the move. And many of you have been moving, you’ve been working, praying, serving, and giving in this community for years, if not for decades. Although you might not always feel like it, you keep your head up and you keep going. Although the way is sometimes very difficult, in many of you, there is surrender, no concession, no throwing in the towel. And not only is there not any backing down, there’s no slowing down. There’s not only no giving up, there’s no easing up.

But as your pastor, as a shepherd who has been entrusted with the task to take care of the flock, sometimes I get a little concerned about you.

Don’t you ever look around at the sheer enormity of the task before you as disciples and get a little discouraged? Don’t you ever stop and think:

“You know, I have been working my entire life to change the world in the name of Christ. I have attended countless choir rehearsals. I have raised thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for missions. I have given an equal amount or more to the church through my tithes and offerings. I have sat through who knows how many committee and board meetings. I have visited the sick, tutored students, loved the grieving, fed the hungry and shared the grace of Christ with everyone I know. But when I look around my world, very little has changed. Not only has it not gotten better, I think it has actually gotten worse!

I have done so much for children. I have kept the nursery. I have taught Sunday School, worked Vacation Bible School, chaperoned church camps, and participated in more Easter Egg Hunts and Trunk-or-Treats than I could possibly count. But when I look at the plight children in our world today, there are days that I just want to give up.”

Do you ever think that? Do you ever consider that in America…

Every 8 hours a child completes suicide.

Every 3 hours a child or teen dies from a gun.

Every 85 seconds a baby is born to a teen mother.

Every 67 seconds a baby is born without health insurance.

Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected.

Every 29 seconds a child is born into poverty.

Every 17 seconds a child is arrested.

Every 8 seconds during the school year a public high school student drops out.

Every second and a half during the school year a public school student receives an out-of-school suspension.

And do you ever consider, that in Oklahoma, when it comes to childhood poverty we rank 32nd out of 50 states.

When it comes to the percentage of kids who graduate from high school, we are worse at 44th.

And if you are woman who graduates from high school, even college, don’t get expect to make as much as a man as we rank 44th in the nation.

When it comes to births to women between the ages of 15-19, we rank 49th

When it comes to the percentage of children living apart from there parents, we’re dead last 50th

And when it comes to households that use high-cost, high-risk forms of credit to make ends meet, including payday loans, automobile title loans, refund anticipation loans, rent-to-own, and pawning, we rank at the bottom at 50th

So, it is no wonder we might be tempted to believe that maybe all of this work we are doing for Jesus is just a big waste of time! After all, it was Jesus himself who said that we would always have the poor with us.”

So let’s be real for a moment.  Let’s face it. Sometimes there can nothing more discouraging that being a part of a church, especially a church that strives to follow the difficult demands of our Lord.

That’s because, as disciples, God has as commanded us to do great things in the name of Christ who taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven for all God’s children.  And where great things are commanded, there is great opportunity for failure and disappointment.

The needs of children in this world are so vast. The needs of children in this community are so great. And our resources seem so limited.

This is when I believe we all need to be reminded of the story of the persistent widow and the cold, heartless judge.

To say this judge was not a people person nor the church type would be putting it mildly. The widow had some type of opposition in her life, like we all have opposition—opposition that discourages us, tempts us to give in and give up. And every time this widow would go to this judge for help, the judge, remaining true to his character refused to help her.

However, like a small child, she kept persisting until one day the judge had had enough.

He said, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Then, Luke said, if a crooked judge honors persistence, how much more will God who has always been persistent in loving us honor it?

This story teaches us that God wants us to be persistent! God wants us to keep at it, never let up, never surrender, never throw in the towel.

And no, we may not be able to change the world, but God wants to keep trying, to keep forging ahead, keep the faith until Jesus returns to change it forever!

It is not our business to change the world. That’s God’s business. Our business is to practice charity, to do works of compassion, to give of ourselves, to love and to forgive one another, and not to worry about the ultimate good that we do, the ultimate outcome. The ultimate outcome: that’s God’s business. Our business is to simply do what we can, where we can, when we can, to witness that God’s reign is coming, bit by bit, step by step, even in us.  And our business is to be persistent in this, to keep at it.

We need to remember Jesus’ words, “In as much as you have done it unto the least of these, in the least of ways, you have done it to me.”

Elsewhere he did say, “The poor you will have with you always, (but then he said) you will have me with you always.”  That is, you will always have the poor with you, to love as you loved me.  So, love the poor as you have loved me. Do for them, as you have done for me. Keep at it even when you don’t see me. In other words, we are to be persistent in God’s work, even when we don’t see results, even when it is not easy.

No, despite all the money we raise and give to missions, we are not going to solve all the problems in Oklahoma.  But we’re going to keep giving.

Despite all of our Civitan dances for children with exceptional needs, we are not going to be able to spread joy to every child, but we are going to keep dancing.

Despite our efforts, we may not ever be able to feed every hungry person in this community but through our continued support Loaves and Fishes, Our Daily Bread and a new ministry we are calling the Enid Welcome Table, we’re going to keep feeding.

Despite our good work with CDSA and Youth and Family Services, we are not going to prevent every teenage pregnancy, but by the grace of God, we are going to working.

Despite our Suicide Intervention Classes, we are not going to prevent every suicide, but we are going to keep teaching.

Despite our proclamation of peace and love, we will not end all war or even all gun violence, but we are going to keep preaching.

Despite our gracious hospitality every Sunday in this place, we will not be able to welcome every child in our community who stands in desperate need of God’s grace, but we are going to keep being open and affirming.

Despite taking a stand for justice, there will continue to be inequality and discrimination in our world, but we are going to keep standing up and we are going to keep speaking out.

Despite all the hard work we do in and through this church, people in the church are still going to disappoint us and discourage us, but we are going to forever be persistent and never lose heart.

And then we are going to keep praying. Keep asking God to take our meager, small efforts and use them. We ask God to do for us that which we cannot fully do for ourselves.

And then we will be given the grace to keep at it.  To keep giving—to keep working—to keep trying—until that day comes when God’s kingdom will fully come for all children and God’s will will finally be done on this earth.

A Bunch of Losers

forest-gump1

Luke 14:25-33 NRSV

I have heard people say that one of the reasons that they do not belong to a church is that the church is nothing more than a “bunch of losers.” They say we are weak, and we weaklings find strength in numbers. They say we cannot handle life on our own, so we use religion, faith, and church as a crutch to help us get along in this broken world.

Now, as bad as it might be for us to hear this, these critics of faith and religion may have a point. Sadly, their critique of Christianity, especially here in North America, may be justified.

To understand where they are coming from, all we have to do is turn on our TVs at almost any time of the day. There we will find countless preachers with great hair, bright smiles and big dimples promoting a health- wealth-and-prosperity gospel offering strength to the weak. Or we only have to walk into any Christian bookstore and see the shelves that are literally full of books promoting this message of self-help and good fortune.

I believe this is the reason Jesus may have become a little irritated with the large crowds that often followed him during his earthly ministry. One day, noticing the growing number of people following behind him, like a scene in Forrest Gump, Jesus suddenly stops, turns to the masses and says something like: “Do you people really know what this is all about?” Like someone asked me when I first moved to Enid, “Do you really know what you are getting yourselves into here?”

“Because I am not so sure the crowd would be this large if you really knew!” says Jesus. “Do you really understand what you are signing up for here? Do you really get this journey called, ‘discipleship’? Because, I have a sinking suspicion that most you do not have a clue.”

I suspect that the large crowds were following Jesus that day for much of the same reasons some people attend church today. They were looking to get something out of it. Some sort of blessing, reward, some kind of direction, perhaps a better handle on things, a little attention, keys to a better, more successful and prosperous life. They were looking to strengthen their families, be a more productive businessperson, get a leg up, receive a helping hand, get a little boost, a shot in the arm, a pat on the back and maybe just a little dose of something to help feel a little bit better, at little more righteous, a little more holy than all of those people who were not following Jesus.

As the church critics and cynics say, “They were merely looking for a crutch to help them to cope with everyday living. They were a bunch of losers looking for something, anything, to help them become winners. Because after all, isn’t that what God is all about: winning?

And noticing what was going on, Jesus stops in his tracks, turns and says to them, “You people really do not get this, do you? This journey called discipleship is not about making your family stronger. In fact, this could tear your family apart. This is not about making you feel superior or more holy than the ones who are not following. This journey will humble you! It will bring you down to your knees! This is not about self-help. It is about denying self. And this is certainly not about obtaining any keys to a more successful and productive life. It is not even about helping you cope or get a better grip on your life as it is. This is about losing your life. This is not about winning. This journey called discipleship is about losing.

So if you really want to follow me on this journey, you better think long and hard about it. Because this journey is not about receiving any reward or gain. In fact, the opposite is true. This journey is going to cost you. And it is going to cost you every possession you have. And guess what, there is even a cross involved. And you, my friend, are going to carry it.  So you better do some calculations, you better do a good ol’ gut check, you better look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really have what it takes to follow me on this journey. For this journey is not for the weak, the timid or the reluctant. It is for the courageous and the heroic. Some say that it is for the crazy and the foolish.

So, if you are a loser looking for something to make you a winner, this may not be for you. But if you are an ordinary person who really wants to find true life, life the way God intends for it to be, I am looking for a few good people who are willing to take some risk and lose it all!

This church has two wonderful practices that define who we are as the Disciples of Christ. The first one is what we call Believers Baptism. One of the reasons that we do not baptize infants is because we recognize that there is some cost involved to becoming one of Jesus’ disciples. Although the gift of salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it, walking with Jesus as disciples is a risky and costly venture. So, we wait until a child is of an age where they can weigh and calculate that cost. We call it the “age of accountability.”  They have to be able to do some accounting. And that age is different for different children.

The second practice that defines who we are as Disciples of Christ is Communion. Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the cost that is involved on this journey we call discipleship. We break bread remembering that God through Jesus loved this world and all of us in it so much that he was willing was willing to suffer greatly for us. We share a cup representing the blood of Christ remembering that God’s love for us compelled God to pour God’s self out, empty God’s self through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

And we are reminded that we as disciples are called to take this same journey, carry our own crosses. We come to church not in search of some crutch to help our broken selves, but to be reminded that we are called to be willing to break ourselves for others, suffer with and for others. We come to church not looking for something to help us improve life, but for the courage and the opportunity to pour our lives out to help others.

I firmly believe that fully embracing this identity is the only way we are going to change the way the local church and the Christian faith is often perceived by those people who have all but given up on organized religion. Instead of being a bunch of losers looking for the church to help us become winners, we need to be a bunch of ordinary people who are willing to be a bunch of losers, willing to lose our very selves.

Then, we will not only have life the way God intends for it to be, we will be the witness to the world of the love that God calls us to be. And if we pay attention, there are examples of this witness all around us.

I have a friend in Raleigh who left a good paying job to become the pastor of a group of homeless men and women. He looks to the generosity from friends scattered all over the country to pay for a roof over his head and to put meals on his table. Loving God more than self, he gave up much, risked much and lost much to love a group of people who can offer him little in return.

There are people right here in this room who have given up much to not only do missions in other parts of the world like Peru and the Dominican Republic, but also right here at home. You give of yourselves constantly to minister to the poor and needy here through Loaves and Fishes or Our Daily Bread. Others here could have chosen more lucrative careers, but instead you answered a call to serve others as social workers, school teachers, nurses and other service oriented professions. Others have sacrificed much to provide for children, other family members, and even friends or employees who have exceptional needs.

Just this week, some of you gave up, lost an entire Wednesday evening, as you did yard work for people who needed it through Hearts for Care.

So to all of the church skeptics and critics, I want to say this: I understand that no one wants to be associated with a bunch of whiney losers who are always looking to get something, to find something to make their lives better or to get something just to help them cope. And I know that is why some people in the church are very attracted to the health and wealth evangelists and the always-smiling prosperity preachers.

However, I belong to the Central Christian Church of Enid, Oklahoma, a church that is full of a bunch of losers of another sort: a bunch of courageous and faithful losers who have made a commitment to always strive to love God and others more than self; a bunch of self-denying, selfless losers who are willing to risk it all to put the needs of others over their own needs and wants.

And no, we are not perfect. We all have our selfish moments. But we have decided to try our best with the help of God and each other to follow Jesus on a risky journey called discipleship— a journey of self-denial, self-giving and sacrifice, believing that it is the only journey that leads to real life, life that is truly abundant and eternal.

We believe “losing” is what “winning” really looks like. And yes, as crazy and as foolish as it may seem, we do know what we have gotten ourselves into!

For the Least of These or for the Exalted of Us?

 

Debbie Berg finish

Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV

During the three three years that I took a break from local church ministry, I had a taste of what some of you refer to as “the real world.” You might say that was pursuing the American dream, chasing the almighty dollar.

I worked in the development office for a small university which meant that my job was to raise money. I was continually seeking to locate and to build relationships with some of the wealthiest people in the area with the sole purpose of getting them to freely and enthusiastically open up their checkbooks.

And then some friends and started a small business, manufacturing and selling products to the electrical construction industry with the same exact purpose, trying to get some of the largest electrical distributors in the United States to write us some very large checks.

So, for three years, I traveled the country, by car, pickup truck and plane, on a continuous quest, searching high and low, scouring the landscape, and at all times, during an economic recession, looking for the next prospect, that next big donor, that next big customer, that new big account, all with the purpose of growing, advancing, and expanding an institution or a company.

And during those three years, driving many a mile, flying in many a plane, and speaking with many a person, I had the opportunity to talk with others about, and to reflect on, the current state of the local church, which, like our nation’s economy at the time, was in sort of a recession of its own.

It is news to no one that local church membership in North America has been in a state of perpetual decline for most, if not the entirety of my lifetime. These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. Consequently, many churches have simply given up trying to grow, advance or expand. They are just trying to survive. Hold on. Maintain. Keep the piano tuned and lights on.

And during my travels, I also had some time to reflect on the current role of the pastor of a local church, at least the way that I had always approached the role; which, quite frankly, was very similar the way that I approached business in the so called “real world.”

As a pastor, I had often been on a constant search, scouring the landscape, at all times, during a church membership recession, looking for that next wealthy prospect, that next big giver, that next new member who will come into the church, open up their checkbooks to help pay for our programs, fund some needed renovations, finance a new roof, and perhaps most imporantly, support my salary.

“What did I hear you say?  A doctor has moved into your neighborhood? Well, give me her name and address and I’ll be sure to pay her a visit! We’ll give her and her family free meal tickets to Wednesday night suppers for a month!”

“You say, ‘An attorney has opened up a new practice in town?’ Well, I need drop by his office this right away! Invite him to the next Men’s Breakfast!  I wonder if he has any children. More children with well-to-do parents will help us attract even more children with their well-to-do parents.  After all, we need to keep growing, advancing and expanding! Well, to be honest, we need them just to maintain, keep our programs going, keep the utilities paid, keep the AC on and our doors open. And we have to keep searching, keep seeking, keep inviting, keep persuading, keep trying to find people, and not just any people, people with some means, people with some resources, folks with some wherewithal!”

But then we read Jesus, and we quickly learn that he does not care too much for our real-world way of growth, expansion, and advancement, especially when it comes to building the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says when you are sending out invitations, don’t send them to the well-to-do folks that can offer you something in return. Don’t invite your friends and your neighbors, you know, the folks who look like you, dress like you, think like you, and have the same if not more income as you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite even those who can in no way pay to support the church’s budget and donate to the organ fund.

The holy wind of the Spirit is calling, says Jesus: “Invite, welcome, include and love those society considers to be the least among us: the unfortunate and underprivileged, the ostracized and outcast, the deprived, downtrodden and derelict, the poor and the pitiful. Greet, accept and receive the stranger. Quench the thirsty. Heal the broken. Feed the hungry. Protect the bullied. Care for the dying. Befriend the friendless. Forgive the wrongdoer. Love the sinner. Be the embodiment of my Holy Spirit in this broken world.”

I have told you before, and I still believe it today. People are not leaving the church because they are leaving Jesus. I believe the vast majority of people love Jesus and I believe sincerely would like to follow Jesus. The problem is that when they come to church, they simply do not find Jesus.

Where then can Jesus be found? When does Jesus appear in our churches?  One day a crowd of people asked Jesus, “When did we see you.” Jesus responded, “when you loved and cared for the least of these” (Matthew 25).

Jesus says that if you want people to see him, we must welcome, include, accept and minister to the least, to those who cannot offer us anything in return. I understand that this is very difficult to hear, especially in the midst of a membership recession.

“Forget about yourselves,” says Jesus, “Forget about self-preservation, forget about reaching folks that might be able to help us with our programs, balance our budget, pay our utilities and support salaries.”  And notice that he even says that we might have to wait to be rewarded, not in this life, but at the resurrection.” There may be nothing more difficult than hearing this. Except for maybe doing this!

But here’s the good news. I believe that there are people everywhere, some may be your friends, relatives or rich neighbors, who are still searching for a group of believers that not only hears these words of Jesus, but actually has the courage to act on them. They have all but given up on organized religion; however, they are still hoping that there is a church that exists somewhere in this broken world that looks and acts like Jesus.

If you are my friend on facebook…and if you are not, you should be. And and if you are not on facebook period, opening up a facebook right now is worth it, just to be my friend to see some the things that I have been posting lately regarding Ainsley’s Angels of America.

Ainsley’s Angels are groups of runners that includes children and adults with exceptional needs in 5k races, 10k races, or even in marathons all over the country. Welcoming and including and sharing joy with children and adults with exceptional needs is such a holy work; it is such a pure mission, such a selfless act; it’s such a Christ-like grace… that guess what? People everywhere are asking how they can be apart of this!

Listen to this, because I can’t make this stuff up. Through just a through a few posts on Facebook during the last two weeks, we have raised over two thousand dollars and recruited a team of dedicated Angel Runners. Everyday our numbers keep growing. Runners are calling. Walkers are calling. Even couch potatoes, who now, because of what they have seen on Facebook, want to be runners are calling. And of course, parents of children with special needs are calling.

We had a funeral here a few weeks ago. When the funeral director saw the chairs designed to include children with exceptional needs we had displayed in our gathering area, he walked into my office and handed me a check for $500.

I didn’t call the Enid Civitan Club. They called me. They didn’t ask me to come and be the program for them. I am not sure if they even saw the chairs in our gathering area. But they called to say they wanted to donate $1,000.

And people are calling me asking me to be their programs. During the next month I have been asked to speak at 2 Ambuc clubs, the Kiwanis Club, and even the Corvette Club. And I didn’t ask to speak at any of those clubs.

With support like this, do you know what I think? I think I could start a church!

Simply because I am involved in something that looks like Jesus: Reaching out to, welcoming, including, sharing joy with, those society considers to be the least among us.

And everywhere church people are asking, “Why does it seem that people just don’t want to go to church anymore?”

However, have you ever thought that maybe people not going to church is actually a good thing!

Because maybe church is not some place to which we are supposed to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be.

So, instead of inviting others to go to church, perhaps we should be inviting them to be the church, saying: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this broken world with a burning passion for the disabled and the powerless, for the left out and the left behind, for the poor and the bullied. Come and join us to be the body of Christ as we humbly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and care less about ‘the exalted of us’. Go and be something and do something that is truly holy, pure and selfless.”

Jesus in Vegas and Enid

Luke 13:10-17 NRSV

Many of you have not heard the story of how I made the transition from Baptist to Disciples of Christ, and why I moved to Enid, America. So, this morning, I thought I’d tell ya.

After being serving as a Baptist minister for over 25 years, I reached that point that pastors are warned in seminary about: “burn-out.” And left the ministry for a short time.

Now, because of time, I can’t give you all the reasons if felt like I needed a break from pastoral ministry. So, I will just sum it up with a statement that I made repeatedly before I left the church. I said, “For at least six months before I die, I want to do all I can to be a follower of Jesus, and I no longer feel like I can do that as a pastor of a church.

You might say that I had grown into a church cynic, someone who had all but given up on organized religion.

As the pastor and spiritual leader of the church maybe some of it was my fault, but for me, the church no longer looked like Jesus. It didn’t look like a a group of people committed to be on a mission for others, but looked more like some type of religious club created for the members, to make them feel holier and superior than others.

And of course there were other reasons for my burn-out. I was constantly getting in trouble for breaking all of the religious and cultural rules, the club rules, like refusing to re-baptize Methodists and Presbyterians as a requirement for church membership because when they were baptized in their church people in my church said they were not old enough or did not get wet enough.

Mike Huckabee, former pastor and Arkansas governor, wrote about why he resigned from the church to enter politics. He states: “I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry,” As a young minister, he said he envisioned himself as “the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But he said, what the people really wanted was for him “to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was comfortable and having a good time.”

So, like Mike Huckabee, I left the ministry. But instead of going into politics, I worked a little in Higher Education. Then a good friend of mine who was an electrical contractor asked me if I wanted to help him start a small business. He had designed a tool that can be carried in the back of a pick up truck, a tool that you could assemble in 10 minutes and take down or pick up and set up to a 40-foot light pole.

We applied for a patent and took it to National Electrical Contractor’s Association’s Convention in San Diego where we won an award for one of the best new tools in 2011 for the electrical construction industry.

We filed to trademark the name of this tool (and here is why you have never heard this story before). Because the tool enables you to lift the pole and walk with it until it is ready to be set, we called it the Pole Dancer.

So I went from being a preacher to Pole Dancer. Lori says I went from saving souls to raising poles. For three years I traveled all over the country demonstrating and selling Pole Dancers.

Now, as I was traveling, I got to meet a lot of people, and I quickly discovered that the majority of people in this country do not belong to a church. Some have never belonged to a church. But I met many who were raised in the church, but had reached a point where they had given up on the church. They said some of the same things that I said about the church, that they simply did not see Jesus in the church.

They would quote the Bible to me saying, “although Jesus said do not judge and let those without sin cast the first stone, churches are filled with some very judgmental people!” They’d say: “Churches are all about themselves. All about making money, building large buildings.”

Well one day, I got a call to do a Pole Dancer demonstration in Las Vegas. Sin city. Perfect place for a Pole Dancer, I thought. The city that people say represents everything that is depraved about us.

That’s right, your pastor traveled to Las Vegas with a Pole Dancer.

Early one morning, I went for a run on the Las Vegas 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 at once displaying a picture of a young man with words that read, “David Vanbuskirk. 1977-2013. Las Vegas Police Search and Rescue Officer.” I later read that Vanbuskirk died 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 Las Vegas strip, which just a few seconds earlier was booming with the sounds of automobiles and of people enjoying their selves, became profoundly silent. Men began to remove their hats. 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.

After the processional, people remained silent and still for several more minutes. Some bowed their heads. Others wiped tears from their eyes. Others embraced their loved ones.

This is when I believe I heard the voice of God clearly calling me to go back into the ministry. At this time the First Christian Church of Farmville had already asked me to do some pulpit supply for them and there were whispers about me becoming their interim.

And there on the Las Vegas Strip, as the casket of Vanbuskirk passed by, God was speaking loudly and clearly to me, revealing that there is something within all of us, deep within our most selfish, indulgent and decadent selves, even in the heart of “sin city,” that yearns to associate with those who love others more than self, with those who humbly, courageously and sacrificially serve, expecting absolutely nothing in return.

There is something within even the most devout church cynic, even within the ones who have all but given up on organized religion, that desires to be more like Jesus. And they are hoping that somewhere, somehow, some way, a church exists in this broken world that looks more like the self-denying mission of Jesus than some sort of religious club.

I thought about the circumstance of this police officer rescuing that stranded hiker. I am sure he did not know anything about that hiker. He didn’t know whether the hiker was male or female, rich or poor, gay or straight, documented or undocumented, Muslim or Christian, black, brown or white, English-speaking or Spanish-speaking.

He didn’t know whether or not this person would ever really contribute to society or even one day give to the Fraternal Order of the Police.

He just knew that the hiker was stranded and needed help. The hiker was probably afraid. The hiker was probably hungry, thirsty, perhaps wounded. And Vanbuskirk was called to offer peace, give food, provide food and bring healing.

Vanbuskirk wasn’t worried about breaking any religious or cultural rules. He was only worried about rescuing the perishing, saving the lost.

It was in that moment, that I made a promise to God. “God, if you give me an opportunity to serve as a pastor again, I am going to do all that I can do to lead your people to love others more than self, to serve humbly, courageously and sacrificially, 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 to their community. And I will lead them to do it with no strings attached whatsoever.

I will comfort the fearful, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the wounded, not because they might believe like I believe, contribute to the budget, or even attend one of my sermons, but simply because they need help.

And I will lead without prejudice, without judgment. I will lead the church to love all people, and all means all.”

So that’s why I am here.

Like the the Disciples of Christ Church in Farmville, North Carolina, I believe I have found here, in Enid, America, a congregation that wants to be the type of church that even the most devout church cynic can appreciate and even yearn to be a part of.

Burning Down the House

Jackson Weibling Baptism

Luke 12:49-53 NRSV

I’ll never forget what the youth minister said to me right after I bought a brand new car back in 2003. It was a time when I was not a very happy person.

My father-in-law had just died. As a senior minister, I was coming to the harsh realization that it was absolutely impossible to please everyone. The youth minister knew this.

It was during this time I traded in my pick up truck that was just a few years old. The youth minister said, “Jarrett, when most people get a little blue, they might go to the mall a buy a new outfit or get a new pair of shoes, maybe a new piece of furniture, but you go out and buy a brand new car!”

At the time I remembering justifying the purchase by saying that my truck got poor gas mileage, and it just wasn’t very practical driving back and forth to the hospital. I needed something smaller, more economic.

But the reality is that the youth minister had a pretty good point. I, like so many American consumers, thought that I could maybe buy me a little bit of happiness. I could perhaps purchase me a little bit of fulfillment.

We buy new furniture. We hang new clothes in our closet. We park a new car in the garage. And we might even buy a whole new house. But guess what? We are still unhappy. Things at home are still not right. Our spouse is still distant. The relationship with our children is still not what it should be. And our souls are still filled with discontent. On the outside our home looks beautiful and whole, but on the inside our home is broken and is in danger of falling completely a part.

So what do we do? We do what I suppose most good God-fearing Americans do. We go to church. We say: “Maybe that is what is missing in my life. Perhaps the church is the solution to building a happy home, the key to good relationships, the key to my happiness and my fulfillment.”

So we come to this place. We attend Sunday School. We come to worship. We sing and we pray and we listen, and we take communion, and we sing and we pray.

After the first week, nothing really changes in our lives. But we realize that what’s broke didn’t break overnight, so it probably wasn’t going to be fixed over night. So we do it again the next Sunday, and the next and the next. We even start having family devotions, holding hands and saying grace at our meals and praying at bed time. But, still, nothing at home changes.

We’re still struggling. We’re still lost, and the confusion is painful. We are still unhappy. Things are still not right.

Why? Why hasn’t religion worked? Why haven’t things gotten better? We got Jesus. He’s supposed to help our families. He’s supposed to be the glue that keeps us together, right? After all, you know what they say?  The family that prays together stays together, right?  Well, according to our scripture lesson this morning, not necessarily. In fact, according to Luke, Jesus may be more of a home-wrecker, than he is a home-maker.

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!”  Luke even softens this a bit for us, for in Matthew Jesus sounds downright violent: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword!”

“I will divide father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

St. Francis of Assisi became a knight in the wars with Perugia and had a promising future ahead of him. His father was proud of his son, but the problem was that Francis kept going to church and praying and asking God what he wanted him to do. Over time, he became convinced that God did not want him to be a French troubadour or a dashing knight, but rather to be a follower of Christ, a genuine disciple. God wanted Francis to serve the poorest of the poor.

Francis heard the scripture say, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and with a startling naïveté he said, “Okay.” And he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor.

But his father took exception, for what the boy gave away really wasn’t his but was given to him by his father, who had no urge to take the Bible literally.  He threw Francis in jail, then took him to court.

It was then Francis said, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father, for, from now on, my father is in heaven.”

Sometimes, Jesus sets father against son and son against father.

But that is not the same Jesus that we go to church to get. Is it?

We go to get a different kind of Jesus, a Jesus of our own making.

For many of us, our faith is just one more materialistic thing we own. Many Americans have trivialized Christianity to the point that Jesus has become just another commodity that is supposed to make our lives easier, better, more productive. That’s why we go to church. We go to get this product called “Jesus” to make us feel better. He’s like a new pair of shoes, a new outfit, a new piece of furniture, or a brand new car. He is something that fulfills our desires, our wants, our needs. He is something that helps us to do the things we want to do in life.

But as nine-year old Jackson Weibling told me about his baptism that we are celebrating this day: “Having Jesus in my life means that I can no longer do the things that I want to do, but only the things that God wants me to do.”

Rev. Marianne Williamson once said, “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything just needs a little cleaning—and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then one day you see that there a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you’re going to have to start all over from scratch.”

Our problem is that we have so trivialized Jesus, we think of Jesus as someone who comes knocking on our door with a bouquet of fresh flowers to brighten the whole house up when in reality, Jesus comes knocking with a flamethrower to ready to burn the whole house down.

We thought that all we needed was a little bit of family prayer time.  So we prayed for two minutes a day. And it didn’t work. We were still cold.  Why?  Because we can’t pray for two minutes a day, patch that prayer onto an otherwise unchanged life and expect it to be different.

Jesus does not come into our lives so our behavior will just be a little different, but so that everything will be transformed. Jesus is not some sweet commodity we can pick up at church to bring home and meet our needs and fulfill our desires. Jesus comes to change our needs and transform our desires!

And we don’t get Jesus. Jesus is not something that can be got. It is Jesus who gets us.

If Jesus is something or even someone that we get, then the church really does become just another product whose members are merely consumers. Thus, like going to a store, the spa, or the local cineplex, church becomes some place we go to get something. Some go to get fed. Others go to get nurtured and pampered. Some go to get entertained.

However, if it is Jesus who gets us, if Jesus is about us giving ourselves to the God revealed in Christ, then church means a radical, self-denying, sacrificial way of living.

If Jesus is about giving one’s life away, then the church becomes something much more than a self-help center offering self-improvement workshops.

Sunday school and Wednesday Night Fellowships become less of a time to get fed, physically and spiritually, and more of a time to pray for others, celebrate the joys of life with others, and even suffer with others. It becomes a time to build a community of selfless love and forgiveness with others. Bible study becomes less of a time to acquire more biblical knowledge than others and more of a time to consider how the scriptures inform our service to others.

Sunday morning becomes less about what God has to offer us and more about what we have to offer God. When we eat the bread, we do not consume it. When we drink from the cup, we do not merely swallow it. We allow it to consume and swallow us, every part of us. And we commit ourselves to presenting our own bodies as living sacrifices, pouring our very selves out for others in the name of the God who emptied God’s self out for us.

And every day of the week, we become much more than Christians who possess exclusive tickets to heaven in hand. We become the Light, even the fire of the world.

So for all of us who have been settling for an innocuous faith:  look out the window. The torch is lit. The wrecking ball is swinging. So let’s get out of the house!  Let it do its work. Let it bring destruction of all that holds us back form God. Let it all burn down to the ground. Then let our lives be rebuilt on the only foundation that can give us life.