We Must

mosque fort smith
Vandalism at a Mosque in Fort Smith, AR

Luke 13:31-35 NRSV

It’s one of the greatest sentences Luke attributes to Jesus: “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” Notice, Jesus didn’t say, he might, he may or he’ll try. Jesus said, “he must.”

I love to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands upon thousands of people in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Some estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up. That’s 10% of the entire population of Kentucky.[i]Can you even imagine that?

Today, I believe a good question we should ask ourselves is: What in the world were these folks preaching? How did they start a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

I believe they simply had the audacity to fully commit themselves to following Jesus at all costs.

Following Jesus was not something that they did casually, haphazardly, timidly, or reservedly. They followed Jesus passionately and fervently, eagerly and urgently. And following Jesus was not something that they did privately. They followed Jesus very publically. And they didn’t care who they offended, or if those with political or ecclesial authority opposed them for it.

They unashamedly imitated Jesus who said: “Oh, King Herod, wants to kill me? Well, you tell that fox that I mustkeep doing the business of the one who sent me.

I must keep liberating people from demonic evil, systemic, cultural and personal.

You tell Herod I must keep bringing people healing and wholeness today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And you tell them that I must take this mission all the way to Jerusalem.

That’s right, you tell that fox for me that I must do these things. Not that I mightdo these things,not that I am going to try to be on this way, but that I mustbe on this way.”

I believe Barton Stone simply put the word “must” back into a Christianity that had grown apathetic, moderate and mainstream.

He preached that Christians must put God’s word over the words of the culture, the way of Jesus over the way of the world.

We must denounce all man-made creeds and confessions, and we must commit ourselves to following Jesus at all costs.

“Oh, the presbytery thinks we’re going against the doctrinal grains of the church, do they? Oh, the government thinks we are bucking the unjust political systems, do they? Well, you tell those foxes that we mustkeep following Jesus today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Wemustkeep fighting for the inclusion of all at the Lord’s table. We mustkeep preaching against the demonic evils of slavery, white supremacy, and anything else that does not jive with Jesus! You tell those foxes that we mustbe on this way.”

I do not believe we can overemphasize how committed our forbearers were to the gospel even when the gospel was directly opposed culture. At Cane Ridge, during a time when Presbyterians believed only like-minded Presbyterians could receive communion, Presbyterian Barton Stone invited an African-American slave, a Baptist pastor, to not only receive communion, but to actually serve communion. And if you could ask him why he included this man, I believe he would simply say, “As a follower of Christ, I mustinclude him.”

And later, when Stone inherited two slaves, he immediately emancipated them. Trouble was that they were living in Kentucky long before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. So what does Stone do? He tells his family and his two former slaves, “Pack your bags, because we mustmove to Illinois, because our new friends must be free!”

And thousands of people from all over the then expanding United States responded to Stone by saying, “We mustjoin this movement!” And by 1960, the movement they started exploded into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

Now here’s the troubling news. In 2012, we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[ii]

There are many complex reasons for this decline. Other so-called “mainline” denominations have experienced similar declines. However, this morning, I want to suggest that one of the reasons the church seems to have lost its way is that Christians have removed the word “must” from our vocabulary.

We have lost our passion to follow Jesus at all costs.

We have lost our drive to place the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, over any other law for fear that it might cause some opposition.

We have lost a sense of urgency to be a courageous movement for wholeness that boldly speaks truth to power.

Our faith has become more of something that privately changes our souls instead of something that publically changes the world.

Consequently, our faith intends to mirror the culture instead of transforming the culture. Watered down by peer pressure, greed, and a lust for power, our faith has become mainstream, mainline and moderate.

In fact, when you look up the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Wikipedia, you will discover that we are described as a “mainline denomination in North America.”

Barton Stone would roll over in his grave! For Stone followed a Jesus who was far more upstream than mainstream, more radical than moderate, always swimming against popular currents of culture. He followed a Jesus who must be on a way of selfless, sacrificial, inclusive love, even if it upset folks along that way.

Do you remember the story of twelve-year old Jesus when he did the unthinkable by leaving his parents behind? When his upset parents finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked, “Did you not know that Imustbe in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?

After healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds used all of the peer pressure they could muster to prevent Jesus from leaving them, but he replied, “I mustproclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Warning the disciples who resisted suffering and persecution, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

When he encountered a man who needed to stop stealing from the poor, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

Right before his arrest on the Mount of Olives Jesus describes his death by saying: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Jesus selflessly and sacrificially travels to Jerusalem, to the city that is known to kill the prophets, not casually, haphazardly, timidly or reservedly. But with passion. With eagerness. With urgency in his steps, conviction in his heart, and the word “must” on his lips: “You tell that fox that I must be on this way.”

Now, tell me, when it comes to your faith, when is the last time you have ever said aloud or silently: “I must!”

“I must share the love and grace of Christ with someone who needs it today!”

“I must find a way to include this one who has been demeaned and dehumanized for being different, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

I must find a way to forgive this person who has hurt me today, the next day, and the day after.”

“I must feed someone today who is hungry.”

“I must share hope today with someone who is hopeless.”

Truthfully, as a pastor, I don’t hear many folks use the word “must” very often in the church. I hear the word “might.” “I might, if nothing else comes up.” “I might, if everything else goes alright this week.” “I’ll check my calendar, and then I might think about it.”

And I often hear the word “try.” “I’ll try to help out, if I don’t have somewhere else to be.”

And I often hear “maybe.” “Maybe I’ll be able to work a little on that project. Maybe I will be able to give some of my time this week.

And sometimes I hear all three: I might try to be more faithful, maybe.”

But think about what kind of church this would be if we all had the same type of urgency and passion as our Lord. “Can you help with our youth group on Sunday night?” “I musthelp with our youth group!”

“Can you serve on this mission project? “I must serve on it!

Will you follow Jesus at all costs?” “We must!”

The good news is that I believe this urgency and this passion can be as contagious in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.

I believe First Christian Church can bring revival to our city and encourage many others to say with us:

We must join this movement for wholeness in our fragmented world!

We must join this mission to use the gifts God has given us to bless our community!

We must speak up and stand against Islamophobia, racism, and hate in all of its forms—a terrorist attack in New Zealand, bigoted comments from friends and family, a vote from delegates in the United Methodist Church, even ugly Tweets from the White House!

We must take a stand for the Word of God, even if it gets us into some trouble.

We must do what we can to transform this this city, our region and our world with the inclusive love of God, even if it goes against the powers-that-be.

We must follow Jesus by loving our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, even when it is not culturally popular or socially acceptable.

We must do unto others as we would have them do unto us, even if our friends forsake us and our enemies wish to do us harm.

We must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and carry it wherever our Lord leads, even if it means losing our lives.

Let us pray together.

O God, put conviction in our hearts, urgency in our steps and the word “must” on our lips as we serve selflessly and sacrificially all the way to Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.

[i]Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.

[ii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Church_(Disciples_of_Christ)

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Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed

Life is short

Luke 9:28-36 NRSV

One day, mama called me to tell me that her favorite first cousin had passed away.  He was only 63.  I then shared with her that I had just received news that a good friend who was in my class from college died very suddenly that week. I then proceeded to offer my sincere empathy.

It was then that mama started preaching as only my mama can.  There is never any sugar-coating with mama. It is always and only the truth and that truth comes at you so hard, sometimes is like getting hit upside the head!

Mama said, “Jarrett, your life could end any day just like that.”

I then heard this clicking sound. I said, “Mama, what is that.”

She said, “That was me snapping my fingers.”

“Jarrett, life is just a vapor, so you better be sure they make the most the little time you have left.”

As much as it pains me to admit it, the truth is, mama could not be more right.  She always speaks the truth whether or not she thinks I can handle the truth. This journey, this trip, this ride we call life is a relatively short one. And it would be a shame for any of us to miss it.

A preacher tells a story of sitting on airplane waiting to take off.  His seat number was 14D. The woman next to him sat in 14E.  No two seat mates could have ever been more different.

From her dress you could tell she was far from sophisticated. His finely pressed suit and shining shoes reflected affluence and sophistication. From her talk you could tell she was but a simple country woman.

He sat there beside her with his leather brief case and laptop computer.  She was surrounded by all kinds sacks and bundles.

It was obvious that she hadn’t had much experience with flying. “I don’t do this much,” she grinned. “Do you?”

He politely nodded a “yes.”

“Well, aren’t you lucky, that must be a lot of fun,”  She said.

He groaned—for he knew that it was going to be a long flight.

She volunteered that she was going to Dallas to see her son. And she filled in all the blanks—the boy has had the flu, a stomach virus really.  He’s had stomach problems every since he was a baby.  He has a back lab. The dog’s name was Wilbur. Wilbur is such a good dog. A little hand-full when he was a puppy, but now a lot calmer. As the plane climbed, she looked and pointed out the window. “Ooooooh—would you look at those trees down there; they look just like peat moss.”

People turned around in their seats and stared.  The preacher next to her wanted to crawl under his seat.

The flight attendant came by asking what they’d like to drink.  He quietly asked for a coffee.  His seat mate asked a second time about the choices. “Now tell me again what you’ve got.”

When her drink came she said she didn’t know that apple juice came in cans, but it sure was delicious. “I thought it only came in a great big jug.  I wonder if they got these little cans at the Winn-Dixie.”

And when the sandwich came by she said in way too loud a voice: “Why there’s even a little packet of mayonnaise in here.  Isn’t that cute?”

This went on the whole flight. The little woman did not miss a thing.

The preacher said that the men in front of them were discussing a business trip to Japan. The fellow behind them must have been a nervous wreck for he kept ordering two beers at a time. The woman across the aisle had important-looking papers stacked all around her. And as he opened his laptop and began to work, it occurred to him that the only person on the whole plane who was truly enjoying the trip was the crazy woman sitting next to him.

When the plane finally landed, she turned and said, “Now wasn’t that a fun trip?”  And as he watched her head down the aisle and leave the plane, he began to wonder: What was it that she had that he didn’t have?  What was it that she knew that he didn’t know?  Why had she enjoyed the whole trip from beginning to end while he was absolutely miserable?

Jesus took three disciples up to the top of a mountain. It was the midpoint in Jesus’ journey. The clouds were hanging over his ministry. The Pharisees and Saducees were making it increasingly difficult for him.  His disciples were constantly bickering with one another. Jesus was beginning to talk to them about suffering, Jerusalem and the cross. He talked about saving one’s life by losing it. He talked about dying to self to live forever.  And the disciples didn’t really understand any of it.

And then Jesus took Peter, James and John to very top of a high mountain, and there on the mountaintop something happened.  We’re not sure what occurred, but they called it transfiguration, which means transformation, change, metamorphosis. They began to see things that they had never before seen; more importantly, they began to see Jesus in a way that they had had never before seen.  Even Jesus’ clothes were transformed.

Then God spoke, saying, just as he did at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the beloved…Listen to him.”  Listen.

This encounter turned the disciples inside out. It changed their lives and they were never quite the same again.

Now, you may be wondering what this story of Jesus has to do with the woman and the preacher on the airplane.  The answer is: Absolutely everything.

Roger Lovette has said that there comes a time when all of us need to disengage. From time to time all of us need to stop, look and listen.  We need to quit doing and just be. That’s very difficult for most of us living in the 21st century. For most of us believe we always gotta be busy doing something.

Robert Fulghum tells about a woman who was so stressed out she went to see a psychiatrist. After listening to her for a long time, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. She read the words the doctor had written: “Spend one hour on Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in the cemetery.”  Against her better judgment she followed the advice. One Sunday morning, as the sun came up, she stood in a cemetery, listening to the birds and watching the world come alive all around her. On that morning, she found herself back in touch with her life again.

We need to open our eyes to truly see the miracle of this wonderful journey we call life. On her journey, the woman on the plane saw. And the preacher sitting beside her missed the whole experience.

2 Peter 1:16 reads: “We have been eyewitnesses to majesty.”  What a wonderful thing to say about the Church!  One paraphrase says: You do well to pay attention. For when we pay attention, everything changes.  We may see things that we’ve never seen before.

Frederick Buechner has said in one of my favorite quotes:

if you really keep your eyes peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even in the most limited situations, God through life itself has something to teach you.”  “Taking your children to school.  Kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace that God is not present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.

Buechner continues:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say as a novelist and a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness:  touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

When we pay attention to life, everything changes. We are given a brand new perspective. The transfiguration text says that when it was all over the disciples saw only Jesus.  The disciples were able to see the big picture. They remembered God had said, “This is my beloved Son.”  Thus, even when Jesus suffered, they would later understand that God was in it.  Even if it did not work out the way they thought it would—God was in it.  Not causing the pain, not willing the suffering, but present, working in it, transforming it, changing it, resurrecting it.

Very slowly they began to see this was a large thing, —this Jesus, this thing called discipleship, this thing called the church, this glorious thing called life.  And it was all sheer grace—unmerited, undeserved.  And everything changed.

Before I started running with Ainsley’s Angels, I would play golf with a group of retired men from my church. Most were in their mid to late-seventies, some in their eighties. One was ninety.

One sunny morning, as I walked up to join the group at the tee box, I remember making as casual remark: “It sure is a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

One of the men said, “Preacher, every day I wake up is a beautiful day.”  The other retired gents were quick to respond by saying, “Amen.”

Like the woman on the plane, the woman in the cemetery and the disciples on the mountain, those retired golfers saw it, they saw it.  My prayer is that all of us will be able to see it too. May we take some time to stop, look, and listen. May we slow down and pay attention. Open our eyes to see the sheer grace of it all. And then thank God for it. And live our lives being eternally grateful for it. Taking nothing for granted.

Life is short.  Life is a vapor. Our lives are going to be over before we know it.  Just like that (snap fingers).  I pray that none of us miss it.

The Real World

Walter Cronkite

Luke 6:17-26 NRSV

Dishonest, greedy politicians. Drug addiction. Gun violence. Russian collusion. Racist public policies. Perpetual war. Poverty. Haitian protests. Homelessness. Immorality. Inequality. White Christian Nationalism. Child abuse. Climate Change. Bigotry. Mental illness. School shootings. Sexism. Suicide. Sick religion.

Billy Joel once sang: “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

In other words, this is the way it is, and this is the way it has always been. This is reality. As Walter Cronkite used to sign off after talking about

Watergate, Vietnam, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and the murder of John Lennon: “That is the way it is.” In other words: This is the real world.

Which raises a very important question: What is reality? And who gets to define reality. Who gets to say what is real in a world where, in the words of Plato, there is obviously “more shadow than truth?”

The world is forever telling hopeful, progressive Christians like myself to “get real.”  “Bleeding heart preachers like you are out of touch with the real world.” “Things are not getting any better.” “He’s never going to change.” “She is not going to ever be able to take care of herself.” “Preacher, you are wasting your time.”

“You know, I think faith in God is fine and all, belief in a higher power of love and justice is okay, but sometimes you just got to get real.”  “You say what now? That selfless, inclusive love can change the world? That love wins?” “Preacher, it’s like you are living in another world.” “You need to come off of all that progressive idealistic thinking and hoping and believing and face the facts!”

The world is forever telling people like me: “Wake up ‘cause you must be dreaming.” “Open your eyes man.” “Hello?!” “Get your heads out of the clouds, and get real.”

All of which begs my prior question: “What is real? What on earth is reality?” “What are the real facts of life?” And “Who gets to say what is real?”  Who gets to define reality?” “Who gets to name the facts of life?”  “Who is ultimately in charge of this world in which we live?” “Who gets to say the reason we are all here and the direction the world is heading?”

Do we really come into this place Sunday after Sunday to escape from the real world? After all, we do call it a “sanctuary.” When we enter this sacred space where all are welcomed, accepted and loved equally and unconditionally, are we entering into some sort of never-never land? What are we really doing here in this hour with all of our singing and hoping and praying and preaching and eating and drinking from this table?

Maybe it would help us to listen again to one of Jesus’ very first sermons. Now, you might think that Jesus would use his first sermon to tell us what to do. For isn’t that the purpose of a sermon? To learn what we must do in order to live a better life? You come to this sanctuary every Sunday to get some advice on how to survive out there in the real world.” Right?

But this doesn’t seem to be the purpose of this sermon in Luke. Jesus is not telling people what to do out there in the real world. Instead, Jesus is defining the real world. Jesus is telling the crowd what’s what. “Here are the facts” says Jesus. “This is the way life is.” “This is the real world.”

Jesus begins his sermon by pointing out the people in the world who are blessed. Jesus doesn’t tell people what they must do in order to be blessed; rather, he simply announces that certain people in this world are blessed. The entire first half of Jesus’ sermon is simply a list of facts.  He’s simply stating the facts of life. He’s telling us the way things really are in the real world.  In one of his very first sermons, Jesus is defining reality.

And it was as obvious to his first hearers as it is as obvious to us today, that according to Jesus, the way things really are in the real world is nowhere close to the way we thought they were. In a few simple statements, Jesus turns the whole world completely upside down. If you thought God was in the business of damning the sinner and rewarding the saint, Jesus says: “You better think again!”

Blessed are the poor—the same people whom we overlook, disregard, despise and consider failures, worthless. Blessed are the mothers who can barely take care of themselves, much less their children. Blessed are the fathers who are doped up and locked up and all together messed up.

Blessed are the hungry—the same hungry people who we know must be lazy or inept. Blessed are the ones who we think are always looking for a hand-out instead of a hand-up. Blessed are the unwaged and unemployed who we believe are solely responsible for most of their misery.

Blessed are those who weep—the same whiners and complainers who are always acting like they’ve had it worse than everyone else. Blessed are those who think they are the only ones in the world with problems. Blessed are those self-centered crybabies who believe the whole world should stop and join their little pity party.

Jesus says, that reality is, the God’s honest truth is, that God blesses those in the world whom we tend to curse.

I expect it was a shock for all the good, church-going, Bible-believing people of that day when Jesus completely shattered their old image of God and the world by introducing them to a brand new world. A brand new way of seeing things. A brand new reality.  A new creation.

Perhaps this is why Jesus begins his sermon by healing everyone who came forth and touched him. The mass healings were a sign that a new world, a brand new reality, was breaking into the old world where those on the bottom are brought to the top. In this new reality, those who are poor and those who are weeping are put at the center of what God is up to in our world.

No, in defining reality in this sermon Jesus does not tell us to go out and do anything. However, by implication, Jesus’ words lead all of us to think of some things that we need to do, to think of some places that we need to go, to think of some people that we need to see.

But we do not do these things or go to these places or see these people because Christ commands us to in his first sermon. We do not visit the nursing homes or the hospitals, we do not feed the hungry, we do not help a stranger clean-up her house, we do not give generously to the mission and ministry of the church because Jesus tells us to.

We do these things and go to these places and give of ourselves, because of the way we now know the world to be.

We rebuke dishonest, immoral, and greedy politicians who hurt the poor so we can get in line with what’s what.  We stand against racism and all kinds of bigotry to get real. We detest division and seek unity to get in step with the facts of life.

We deplore the worship of guns and all apathy towards war and all violence to get grounded in the truth.

We welcome and include children, we fight mental illness, and all sorts of addiction, we support healthcare for all, and we are good stewards of this earth, not merely because we believe Jesus leads us to do those things, but because we want our feet planted deep in the real world, in the new reality that Christ has revealed to us. We love our neighbors as ourselves, because we believe God’s got the whole world in God’s hands.

William Willimon tells the story of nurse who works with seriously ill cardiac patients. Most of her patients were born with defective hearts. She assists in the surgery and the care of people whose hearts have all but given out. Many of her patients do not make it through the very delicate and risky surgery. And most of the ones who do pull through the surgery have a very difficult time in recovery. They are prone to infection and a host of complications. It can be a depressing and very draining job.

As her pastor, one day Willimon asked her, “How do you do it? How do you keep going?”

Without hesitation the nurse replied: “Walks in the park.” She then explained, “I take an hour off for lunch every day and go for a stroll in the nearby park. And there I see people everywhere who are happy and healthy. I see children laughing and playing, and I see older people sitting on benches enjoying being with one another. I am thereby reminded that this is how things are meant to be. This is the real world. And this is what keeps me going day after day in hospital.”

Are her walks in the park an escape from reality? Some trip into never-never land?  No, they are for her, a realistic engagement with the reality of the way things are supposed to be. And these engagements keep her going in an oftentimes shadowy world where it is easy to forget what’s what.

That is, of course, one of the main reasons we come to this place Sunday after Sunday—to be reminded of what’s what, to get a grip, to capture a vision, to receive a picture of reality now that God through Jesus Christ has reached out to us. We come to this place, to this sanctuary, not to escape from reality, but to get real.

We come as shameful, sinful human beings who are unable at times to look ourselves in the mirror, and we receive grace and forgiveness.

We come feeling loathed and despised and lonely, and we find acceptance and love.

We come broken and sick and tired and weak, and we are given healing and wholeness.

We come with pain and grief and despair, and we are offered assurance and hope.

We come floundering and meandering, and we receive a purpose.

We come to this place failing and fading and dying, and we are gifted with life abundant and eternal.

That, my friends, is the way it is.

This is reality now that God through Jesus Christ has come into our world.  May we all have the grace this day and every day to get real, to live in this reality and to share this reality with all people.

  O God, grant us the grace to see the world as it really is, the world as you intend it to be, the world you are working to create for us. Keep revealing to us your intent for the world and for our lives. Then, help us to live in the light of that vision. Help us to align our lives with the true shape of reality, this day and always. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Far from the Shallow Now

over your head

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

Early one morning, Jesus is standing on a beach preaching to a large crowd of people. The crowd that had gathered, and were probably still gathering, is so great, Jesus felt like they were about to push him right into the lake.

As he is preaching, he sees two boats left on the beach by some fishermen who were washing their nets. He gets into the boat belonging to Simon, and asks Simon to anchor the boat a little way from the shore, where Jesus continues his sermon to the crowds from the boat.

Luke doesn’t record the words to Jesus’ sermon, but from his sermon in the very next chapter, we could probably take a good guess: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Love everyone, even your enemies…” –a sermon of a abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love that can change the world.

After Jesus finishes his sermon, he suggests that he wants to do a little bit of fishing himself. He to says to Simon: “Let’s leave these shallow waters and let down the nets.”

Simon responds, “Master, with all due respect, I, along with my long-time business partners, James and John, have fished these waters all night long, and we haven’t caught a thing.  Yet, if it will make you happy, I will go out a little deeper and put down the nets.”

It is then that a miracle happens.

As soon as the nets hit the water, they catch so many fish that the nets begin to break. They quickly call out to James and John to get the other boat and offer them a hand.  And when they come, they fill the boats with so many fish that both boats begin to sink.

And as Simon takes in the overwhelming scene— nets breaking, boats sinking, fish everywhere, a scene of failure and scarcity transformed into triumph and abundance, a scene of what can happen when you leave the shallow for something deeper, what can be experienced when you obey the commands of Jesus—Simon is overwhelmed, and falling down at Jesus’ knees, he says: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “Go away, get out of here!  Leave me alone!”

It was as if Simon suddenly realized that he had only thought that Jesus was finished with his sermon. Jesus is fishing, but he is still preaching. Jesus is still revealing God’s abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love. Believing he is underserving of God’s love, how unworthy he is of such abundance, Simon asks Jesus to go away.

But Jesus never goes away easily. “Simon, not only are you worthy to receive this miraculous love, you are worthy to share it with others, so do not be afraid; for you are no longer going to be catching fish, you are going to be catching people!”

“I am asking you, Simon, along with your business partners James and John, to leave your shallow, contained, little world to venture out with me into a deeper, revolutionary, larger reality. The truth is, Simon, I need you to go deeper. I need as many people as I can get to go deeper. The problems of the world are too great and your lives are too short to waste any time wading in the shallow. And the grace of God is too extravagant. The mercy of God is too abundant. The love of God is too boundless for you to keep it all to yourselves!

I need you to leave your shallow, safe world of spending all of your time making a living, meeting the needs of your immediate family, and I need you follow me into the deep, risky reality of sacrificing your time to make a difference in the lives of others, meeting the needs of the human family.

I need you to leave your shallow life that feeds you and your children, and accept a deeper life that feeds every child of God.

I need you to move beyond your shallow, narrow mission of mowing and watering your own lawn, and accept the deeper, wider mission of caring for the entire planet.

I need you to lose the apathy towards issues that do not concern you and your limited of circle of family and friends to possess a deep empathy towards all who experience injustice.

I need you to move beyond your shallow understanding of success. Simon, no matter what you have been taught, success is not defined by the amount of fish you catch, the size of your bank account or even how many children or grandchildren you have. Your success is not defined by the size of your budget or the number of people sitting in the pews of your synagogue. It is so much deeper than that!

Your success will be measured by how many people you helped to know the love of God.

I need you to go deeper, Simon. You too, James and John, and be my disciples and fish for people. Do the hard, messy, oftentimes frustrating work for meeting the needs of people, caring for people, loving people. I need you to move far from the shallow now to do the deep work of grace.

I believe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summed up what Jesus was trying to say to Simon, James and John, when he said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Now, here is what I believe is the real miracle in this story. It’s verse 11. After Jesus invited them to leave the shallow for something deeper, to leave catching fish for catching people we read: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

This is miraculous because when it came to accepting the extravagant grace and love of God revealed in the large catch of fish, Simon, seemed to have some difficulty: “Get out of here, Jesus! I am a sinful man!”

However, when it comes to following Jesus to a deeper life, to love others, to live selflessly and sacrificially, he, with James and John, leave everything and follow.

This seem even more miraculous when we consider it is the exact opposite of how most of us work. We seem have no problem accepting the grace of God. We have no issues receiving the love of God. But we prefer to keep it shallow. We prefer to keep it safe, keep it contained, keep it to ourselves.  We are reluctant to go deeper.

Because going deeper can be dangerous. Going deeper can be costly. Going deeper can be overwhelming. In the deep, fish will break your nets, and people will break your hearts.

Eddie Donavan from the Fort Smith Boys Home illustrated this when he spoke to our Kiwanis group this week. He said several people say they would like to help at the Boys Home, but when they come to the home and begin to interact with the boys, boys who have a plethora of needs, they immediately realize that they are in way over their heads.

So here is the real miracle:

Jesus says: “Simon, from now on, you will be catching people.”  And Simon drops everything and follows.

And the good news is, I am blessed to witness this very same miracle today. For you are also following this Jesus. Not only have you accepted the grace of Christ, but you are making an effort to share it with others. For you are here, with First Christian Church, part of a movement for wholeness in our fragmented world.

My friends, you are in deep.

Some might say that you are in over your head.

You are far from the shallow now.

You have gathered here this morning with a group of people who are called Disciples of Christ, disciples who have decided to go on a journey to share the abundant mercy, extravagant grace and miraculous love with all people. And we know this journey is not an easy one. This journey is not a comfortable one. And today, this journey is not a popular one. This journey is a risky, and it is costly.

You have decided to go on a journey with a church that has several members who are committed to the deep and difficult work of recovery through Alcohol Anonymous.

You are on a journey with other members who do the deep and oftentimes discouraging work with persons addicted to narcotics;

With others who do the deep and demanding work of leading a summer camp for troubled boys;

With others who do the deep and daunting work of with people who are homeless;

With others who do the deep and draining work of being Court Appointed Special Advocates for children in the court system;

And with others who do the deep and disturbing work with foster children.

You have decided to go on a journey with a church that is committed to following the deep, difficult and sometimes dangerous way of Jesus.

We know, we could just to Disciples Hall after worship and enjoy a shallow plate of spaghetti together. Enjoy what we call some good ol’ christian  fellowship. Share a laugh or two.

But we are going to go deeper than that.

We are going to listen Gary Udouj from the Adult Education Center and Heather Edwards from the Literary Council as they share opportunities for us to give of ourselves, sacrifice some of our time, to do some very deep work with people whose lives are literally hanging in the balance.

We know, we could just send checks to ministries that feed the hungry, but we are going deeper than that. We are going to work with organizations like Antioch Youth and Family, and movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, and we are going to work alongside our elected leaders to do the deep work of rooting out some of the causes of hunger and poverty and come up with solutions right here in Fort Smith.

Yes, my friends, today, you are in deep.

But I believe it was John Shedd once said: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

We are on a ship with Jesus. He is the captain who has navigates our journey out of the harbor. And we are far from the shallow now.

A Word from the Lord

medicare-coverage-helpline-make-sure-featuring-joe-namath-large-5

Luke 4:14-29 NRSV

Tom Long tells the story of an incident that occurred in a church one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. The minister had just finished reading the scripture lesson and was taking a deep breath before launching into the sermon when suddenly, a man, a complete stranger, stood up in the balcony and startled everyone by proclaiming in a clear, loud voice: “I have a word from the Lord!”

Shoulders tensed and heads swiveled around and upward to see the source of the interruption.

What “word from the Lord” did this man possibly have to bring to the people on that day?

Well, no one will ever know, for the ushers, says Long, “bounded like gazelles” up to that balcony, and before the man could utter another word, they had escorted him down the stairs and out the front door.

Now, with Long, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said we ought to do things with some semblance of order, and his was way out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit.

Isn’t it strange? Sunday after Sunday countless preachers in innumerable pulpits spread out their sermon notes, clear their throats, and begin their sermon, saying, or at least implying, that they have a word from the Lord. And nobody tenses. No heads swivel in alarm. No ushers leap into action. Instead, people sit back in their pews, crease their bulletins, silently check their watches, and settle back for the sermon. For that is what you came here for, right?  A sermon. Not a word from the Lord.[i]

This is exactly how it was on that Sabbath day in Nazareth. Joseph’s son Jesus was home for the weekend and had been asked to read the scripture lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew Jesus well. They knew his parents and remembered him as a little boy. They were no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his preaching and teaching. So, they settled back in their pews to hear what this articulate young man had say. What were they expecting? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.

Part of the reason I believe we expect a sermon instead of “a word from the Lord” is that as much as we do not like admitting it, we really would prefer not to hear such a word. We prefer a simple sermon. We prefer some nice religious words, some nice sweet thoughts to help get us through the week. What we expect is a little “chicken soup for the soul.”  Some good advice to help make our lives run a little more smoothly, some encouraging words to help get us through the week.

A word from the Lord is completely different. A word from the Lord is disruptive. A word from the Lord is uncomfortable. A word from the Lord can be painful.

A sermon can be can be easily forgotten and even completely ignored. But, a word form the Lord must be heeded. A word from the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For a word from the Lord is news, real news. It is news that turns our whole world upside down. A word from the Lord changes everything and forces us to adjust our lives to that change.r

It has been said that most people who pick up the newspaper every morning or watch the evening news are not so much interested in the news as they are in confirming that the world is pretty much the same as it has always been. “Democrats are still not cooperating with the Republicans and vice versa.” “Politicians are still lying.” “The New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl, again.” Yep, that’s the way the world is, it’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be.”

I am afraid that is why many of us come to church. We do not go to church to hear any real news. Instead, we go to church to have the things that we have always believed about God confirmed. We listen to the sermon to have the way we have been practicing our faith all of these years affirmed. We’d really prefer not to hear anything new. We’d rather not hear anything that challenges our beliefs, calls the way we practice our faith into question or creates any urgency to change. We are really not interested in hearing any real news.

For real news is unexpected. Real news is surprising. Real news is disturbing. Real news means the world is not the same as it was yesterday; therefore, I cannot live my life in the same way. A word from the Lord is real news.

It is news that demands change. It is news that demands a complete reordering of priorities. It is news that causes us to see the whole creation in a brand new way. It is news that moves us and mobilizes us to take some kind of action. It is news that often requires sacrifice. It is news that necessitates us doing things that we do not want to do and going to places that we do not want to go.

So, thanks but no thanks. Preacher, I think I’ll be just fine with a simple sermon instead. Either say some words to reaffirm what I already believe or maybe give me a little antidote that might help me live a happier, healthier life. Give me some good ideas that might fix some of the things that are ailing me.

I am afraid that, for some people, going to church is like heeding the advice of Joe Namath by calling the Medicare Coverage Helpline. People go to listen to the preacher tell them about all of the benefits they deserve, benefits they are eligible for as a Christian.

By the way, “Does anyone really believe Joe Namath needs rides to  medical appointments?”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were probably expecting when they showed up to hear Jesus’ first sermon back in hometown Nazareth. They came expecting a sermon, to have what they already knew reaffirmed or to find out some benefits God offers them that they didn’t know about, maybe to get a little pat on the back, a little stroke of the ego, a little feel-good-pick-me-up to get them through the week, not a word from the Lord.

So, when Jesus stood up and began to speak, no shoulders got tense. No ushers tried to muscle him out into the street. People smiled and whispered to one another how proud they were of this their product, and how Mary and Joseph must be tickled pink to have such a fine son.

They came expecting a little sermon. But instead of a sermon, they got a word from the Lord. Jesus began to say things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he? I thought God was all about making things easy! I thought sermons were about making us happier.”

Jesus continues:

“Love your neighbor, including your enemies. Be a blessing to the poor and to all who hunger and thirst for justice. Stand up for the liberty of those oppressed and bullied by culture. By the way, people will persecute you for that, utter all kinds of evil against you for that, but pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself. Don’t just hear these words, but do these words.”

And then, his words began to sink in. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today.Not yesterday, not in times gone by, not someday, but today.  Fulfilled.  Not read nicely, heard sweetly, or barely remembered, but fulfilled. In yourhearing. Not in somebody else’s. Not just in Abraham’s, Moses’, Elijah’s, and Deborah’s, but in you.

And the Word of the Lord was also not just for them. Jesus said it was for all people. It was also for outsiders, foreigners, those marginalized by society, widows and lepers and others who were not a part of their synagogue, their faith, or even their culture.

And it then became obvious that this was not just another simple sermon. This was a word from the Lord. This was news. Real news. God had come. God is present. Here. Now. Today. God is here, and God’s love is for all people, even for the lepers of Syria in and the widows in Sidon.

The world was now changed, for the Word of God had come, and the Word had come for all people. The Word of God had been made flesh and was now present in all its demanding fullness. And you could fight it, you could try to hurl its presence off a cliff, or you could accept it, you could follow it, but there was no way on earth you could ignore it.

Each Sunday morning, our worship should be about the gospel truth, the amazing good news, that God is alive and present to us this day, as alive and present here as Jesus was to those worshippers in Nazareth. Thus some shoulders here this morning should be a more than a little tense, for God has work for us to do!

God is here! God’s kingdom is now! God speaks words of love and of grace, of mission and of purpose, of vocation and of duty, that are fulfilled in our hearing. Words that, if we listen and respond, will send us out from the pews into the public square to transform our world.

[i]https://www.cathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/tl080601.shtml

 

Church Growth Epiphany

empty pews

Ephesians 3:1-12 NRSV

These days every civic organization, every service club and every church is talking about it. Every week when they meet together and look around the room at the empty chairs and pews that were once filled with people, it is obvious to everyone that something needs to be done.

“We need to do something to reach more people.” “We need to change something increase our numbers.” “We need to expand our club.” “We need to grow our church.” And sadly, we need to grow not so we can do more things, change more lives, make more of a difference in the world; no, we need to grow just so we can maintain what we have. We need to grow so we can just keep doing what we’ve always been doing. We need to grow to just prevent us from dying.

This was the focus of our weekly Kiwanis meeting this past Thursday. And it will be the focus of our church meeting tonight, as it is the focus of countless churches across America today.

Yes, these days, the church has a lot in common with civic organizations and service clubs everywhere.

However, there is one main difference. And we have a word for that difference, and that word is “Epiphany.”

By the sixth day in January, the culture has moved well past Christmas.People have returned to work. Kids are back in school. And Wal-Mart has replaced Christmas decorations with gas grills and lawn mowers.

The church, on the other hand, insists on a full 12 days after Christmas Day to remember the visit of the Wise Men, gentiles from a foreign land, to the young Jewish Christ Child.

First recognized in the fourth century, Epiphany celebrated the revelation that the wall that was thought to divide humanity from divinity has been torn down. Epiphany celebrated what we call the incarnation, the mystery of the Word becoming flesh, of God becoming human, the revelation that Jesus was God and God was Jesus, the revelation that in Christ, God became one with humanity, the revelation that no wall, no barrier, no temple curtain, no obstacle in all of creation can separate us from God.

The revelation of this unity prepared the way for another unity, that is Gentiles, as represented by the Gentile Magi, should be one with Israel. This made it clear: Along with the wall that separated God and humankind, any wall of religion or politics that separated Gentiles from Jews, or separated anyone from the promises of God, should be torn down at once.

This is what Paul is proclaiming in our Epistle lesson this morning, and it is the revelation he began proclaiming in the first two chapters of Ephesians as he declares to his Gentile readers and hearers that they have been chosen by God for adoption.

“Adoption”—it is a wonderful word Paul uses to make the point that we do not have to be born into the people of God to be the people of God. It means that all are God’s chosen people. Although Gentiles thought they were separate from God, Christ reveals that they are not. As the Divine and the human became one in the incarnation, the entire human family is one in Christ.

Paul points out that it is because of his proclamation of this Epiphany that he is now a prisoner. We read in Acts that Paul is locked up because his inclusive message breached the walls erected by the religious powers-that-be. They accused him of teaching “against the law” and “bringing Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:28).

Can you imagine a preacher being accused today of teaching against the law by bringing a certain group of people into the church?

I think you can.

I believe this is the reason that Paul says that in former generations this revelation was not made known. No one had the courage to preach such radical inclusion.

Notice that Paul not only has the courage to preach it, but he seems undaunted by his circumstances in prison. That is because, for Paul, Epiphany is not just one day, or even a season, but Epiphany is his very purpose. He preaches and doesn’t mind being imprisoned because God has revealed this revelation to him giving him a holy purpose to share it with the world!

Through Paul’s courage, the Spirit has revealed what has always been the eternal plan of God, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, fellow participants in the promises of the gospel.[i]

When the church tears down the the walls that divide us, when we welcome and include all people, and all means all, then the church proclaims the creative diversity of God’s eternal wisdom. As we welcome and include and add to our membership different races, classes, and genders, we proclaim the mystery of God who brings all of God’s creation together by becoming human, by becoming a Jewish baby worshipped by Gentile kings from the East.

So, although we have much in common with civic organizations and service clubs these days that need to grow, that need to add to their memberships in order to survive, there is a major difference, and we call that difference “Epiphany.”

We should grow as a church. We should intentionally work to add to our numbers. We should all do all that we can do to fill these pews; however, it is not so we can pay our bills. It is not so we can keep up our property or care for our buildings. It is not so we can keep the staff we have or even pay the preacher. We should grow as a church, because this is our holy purpose, this is our divine calling. And it has always been a part of God’s eternal plan.

As a pastor, I have been to many church growth conferences and seminars. In almost everyone, the leader points out the number of churches that are closing their doors for good and selling their property. And the point is usually made that most churches are not willing to change anything, not willing to do the work they need to do to grow the church, until they wake up to the reality that if they don’t change, if they don’t grow, they too will soon die.

However, I pray this is not our motivation for concentrating on church growth in 2019. Avoiding shutting down the church like the government should not be our reason for welcoming, including, adopting more people into our church family. The fire that needs to be lit under us to do the work to grow our church must come from another place.

What I believe we need is a church growth Epiphany.

We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to what has always been the eternal plan of God; that is, the promise of the gospel, the unconditional love of God, is for all people.

We need a church growth Epiphany that wakes us up to the radical inclusiveness of God’s love, especially for people who have always felt outside of God’s grace.

We need a church growth Epiphany, an awareness that this revelation has not always been taught, and in many churches today, is still not being taught, so it is up to us who have received this revelation to proclaim it boldly and loudly.

We need a church growth Epiphany that reminds us we are on a courageous mission trying to selflessly follow the way of a brown-skinned, Jewish Palestinian refugee who gave his life trying to tear down the political walls of hate and bigotry and to put an end to the divisiveness and exclusivity of religion.

We need a church growth Epiphany that refuses to build any wall that separates us from people who do not look like us, dress like us, or even believe like us.

We need a church growth Epiphany that this inclusive work is not for the fearful or the cowardly as this work has put many apostles in prison and has gotten many preachers fired. We need to be willing proclaim the inclusive good news of the gospel even when our neighbors and members of our own family ridicule us, try to shame us and shun us.

We need a church growth Epiphany that is continually and courageously reaching outward, beyond, as far away as the Wise Men were from Bethlehem when they first saw the star, to welcome and adopt all people into our family to join our mission of inclusive love and grace, mercy and justice.

We need a church growth Epiphany of the eternal plan of God to love, include and save all people. Because if we try to grow for any other reason, if we try to fill these pews in order to pay the bills, to keep up the property or to compensate the staff, we will die as a church. We will surely die.

Even if we add 1,000 new members, even if we begin ending each church year with a budget surplus, if we grow only to maintain and preserve what we have rather to fulfill our mission as bold proclaimers of the promise of the gospel of Christ for all people, we may live on as a club, but we will be dead as a church.

May it never be so.

[i]http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1507

Unto Us, a Child Is Born

Good news from North Haven

Luke 1:39-45 NRSV

It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. All of our waiting and expectation is almost over. We have gathered here this morning, and will gather here again tomorrow night to receive once again the long-expected baby Jesus.  Like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, something inside of us is leaping for joy!

Our anticipation standsin sharp contrast to that first Christmas, when this baby was not received by everyone. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” in response to the good news. But not everyone thought of this birth as good news.

The shepherds were filled with fear. King Herod, despite all his soldiers guarding him at the Palace, was sore afraid as he saw this baby’s birth as a threat to his empire. Even Joseph, the man engaged to Mary, didn’t readily receive the baby. In the beginning he spent many a sleepless night questioning, “Who’s really the father of this baby?”

Jesus was conceived by a woman who was not married to anyone. We have given ugly names to such babies. Thankfully, I don’t here many children called the “b-word” anymore. It is such a sad name to describe a child, I find it inappropriate to say aloud from this pulpit. I do, however, hear the word, as I am certain Mary and Joseph heard the word, illegitimate, to describe such children.  And that, too, illegitimate, is a sad, ugly term for anybody, much less the very Son of God. Today, we also use other sad and ugly terms for children: “illegal,” “alien,” “abomination.”

In contrast to that very first Christmas where very few received this baby they called illegitimate, we will gather with the Church around the world to welcome and embrace this baby. With triumphant voices we will sing, “Come let us adore him!”

And there is a counter miracle occurring here. We are receiving the baby, but this baby is also receiving us. In the birth of Jesus, God came to us because we could not come to God. So, before we congratulate ourselves on our willing and eager reception of this baby, let us wonder at this baby’s reception of us.

Knowing that we cannot reach up to God, God reaches down to us.  God takes on our humanity so that we might assume some of God’s divinity. God came to show us that we are all children of God.  Think about that this morning.

You are a child of God. I am a child of God. We have divine value, sacred worth, a holy purpose.

We need to wonder at this reception, because we Christians have come to speak almost casually of this miracle when we say, “I am child of God.”

As someone who has been in the church for over fifty years now, and a minister for over thirty years, people often tell me that I should write a book.  A wonderful book of church stories filled with stories about you.

A Presbyterian minister from Northhaven, Minnesota did just that. In his book entitled, The Good News from Northhaven, Michael Lindval writes about his Presbyterian congregation.

It was his first Thanksgiving as pastor of the church. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving they were having an infant baptism. Dr. Angus McDonald II, (he sounds Presbyterian doesn’t he?) and his lovely wife, proudly presented their new son, Angus III, otherwise known as Skip, to be baptized.

When it was time for the baptism, Rev. Lindval turned to the congregation and asked what is traditionally asked in many churches that baptize infants. He addressed the congregation and asked: “Who stands with this child?”

Immediately, the grandparents, aunts and uncles and an assortment of relatives and friends, stood up and joined the parents at the front as they held the baby, presenting the baby for baptism.

When the service was over, after the congregation shook the minister’s hand upon exiting the church, Rev. Lindval, walked back through the sanctuary and noticed that one person had remained. He recognized her as someone who always sat on the back pew, closest to the back door. She was a social worker, he remembered. She seemed to be at a loss for words.

After an awkward silence, she commented on how lovely the baptism was, and then, fumbling for words, said to the pastor, “One of my clients, her name is Tina, has had a baby, and well, Tina would like to have the baby baptized.”

The pastor suggested that Tina should come to see him, along with her husband, and then they would discuss the possibility of baptism.

The woman looked up at the pastor and said, “Tina has no husband.  She is not a member of this church but attended the youth group some when she was in Junior High School. But then she got involved with this older boy.  And now she has this baby.  She is only 17.”

The pastor awkwardly mumbled that he would bring the request before the next meeting of Session, their church board meeting.

When the pastor presented the request before the Session, there was a lot of mumbling?  “Who was the father?”  The pastor said that he didn’t know.  “Does Tina have any other family?” “I don’t know,” the pastor said. Heads turned.

“How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises that she was making in the baptism?” was a concern brought by more than one elder.

The pastor only responded by shrugging his shoulders, but thought to himself, “How could they really be sure about anybody’s promise?”

With a lot of reservations, the Session reluctantly approved the baptism of Tina’s baby for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

When the Fourth Sunday of Advent came, the sanctuary was full as children were home from college and many of the members had invited guests. They went through the service singing the usual Advent hymns, “O Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and so forth. Then, it was time for the baptism.

The pastor announced, “And now would those to be presented for baptism come forward.”  An elder of the church stood up and read off the three-by-five card, indicating that he did not remember the woman or the child’s name, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.”  The elder sat back down with an obvious grimace on his face.

Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month old James in her arms. A blue pacifier was stuck in his mouth. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be.

Tina seemed so young, so poor, so alone.

But as she stood there holding that baby with poinsettias and a Chrismon tree shining brightly in the foreground, they could not help but to think of another poor mother with a baby, young, alone, long ago, in somewhat similar circumstances.  Yes, in another place and time, Tina and Mary seemed like sisters.

And then the pastor came to that appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?”  He looked out at the mother of Tina dressed in her meager way, and nodded toward her.  She, almost hesitantly, awkwardly stood and moved toward her daughter and her grandson.

The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed with the questions to be asked of the parents when he became aware of movement within the congregation.  A couple of elders of the church stood up.  And many, on the same row, stood up beside them. Then the Junior High Sunday School teacher stood up. Then a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustered around the baby.

Tina was crying.  Her mother was gripping the altar rail as if she were clutching the railing of a tossing ship, “which in a way she was”—a ship in a great wind.  Moving forward this day so much closer to her ultimate destination. And little James, as the water, touched his forehead, grew peaceful and calm, as if he could feel the warm embrace of the entire congregation. Every person in the room stood as if this was their child, as if they were all family.

The scripture reading was, as it often is during this time before Christmas, 1 John 3:1, “See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Tomorrow night, a baby will be born into our family. But it is by this baby we have been made family.

Maybe you came to this service this morning and plan to come tomorrow night all by yourself.  Maybe you do not have much family, maybe you lost the family you had, or perhaps your family is far away.

But on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, here, right now, do you hear that rustling in the pews? Listen. That’s the sound of your family, the whole human family, taking shape around the manger. And in a few moments, as you gather around this table and prepare to break the bread and drink from the cup, strangers become sisters and brothers.

Christmas means the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us.

And what is that word?

“See what love the Father has given to us so we should be called children of God. And so we are” (1 John 3:1).

For unto us a child is born.

So no child born should ever be called “illegitimate,” “illegal,” “alien,” or an “abomination.”

For unto us a child is born.

So we will stand up to stand with all God’s children.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will be welcomed, loved and affirmed; every child will know their divine value, their sacred worth, and holy purpose.

For unto us a child is born.

So all children will receive the hospitality of a cold cup of water, a hot meal, and warm shelter.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will have access to equitable education, a fair living wage, affordable healthcare, equal protection under the law—everything they need for a future full of promise, potential and peace.

For unto us a child is born.

So every child will know freedom, justice and salvation.

For unto us a child is born

So every child will experience life: abundant and eternal.

For unto us a child is born,

So blessed is the fruit of every womb.