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

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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.

I Smell Smoke

Pentecost fire

Luke 3:15-17 NRSV

Let’s be honest. Church, even as Christmas approaches, can be a pretty boring experience. Each Sunday we sit in the same pew, follow the same order of service, look at the back of the same ol’ heads, sing the same hymns, say the same prayers, and hear a sermon that we’ve already heard before.

I remember as a child doing all kinds of things to do to pass the time. I remember counting the number of times the preacher would wipe the sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief. I also remember holding mama’s hand and playing with her jewelry, turning the rings on her fingers, messing with her bracelets. And when she would get tired of all of that, I would just sit there and twiddle my thumbs, while secretly hoping and praying, begging for something, anything to happen.

Lord, if you love me, why don’t you send mouse running down the aisle, or through the choir loft? And Lord, if you really love me, maybe a cat chasing the mouse! How about bird swooshing through the front door!  Please, Lord, let something happen, something, anything!

I’ll never forget that Sunday my prayers were answered. In the middle of the typical, predictable service, while we were singing the offertory hymn, we began to smell this smell. It was hard to tell what it was, a burnt, smoky kind of smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy whisper, “I think I smell smoke.”  Mama whispered back, “Gene, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Then, in the middle of the half-hearted singing and murmuring, someone in the congregation, shouted: “Fire!”

We then did what most folks do when someone yells, “fire,” in a crowded building. We got out.

We evacuated the sanctuary, but only to discover, there wasn’t really a fire. The furnace had simply over heated or something.

It was one of the best worship services that I’d ever attended!

As a pastor, there have been many a Sunday I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it would somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have thought, what we need is somebody, anybody to stand up in this place and yell “fire” to just to create a little bit of excitement.

Well, this week, we’re in luck, because somebody is coming that is going to do just that! In the middle of our order of service that hasn’t changed in decades, comes this shocking introduction by John the Baptist:

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I believe we really need to hear these words, because of how these words cut across the grain of why most of us, especially us grown-ups come to this predictable place to worship Sunday after Sunday. Children may still pray for something exciting to happen at church, but we adults, we know better. We know that nothing ever really happens here. Nothing ever changes. If we’ve never done it that way before, then we’re not going to be doing it anytime soon. And you know something? We like it that way.

We come here seeking a place of comfort and quiet consolation. Because after all, our lives are always on fast-forward, a real-rat race, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to sit down, to stop, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with that which is stable and dependable, even if it issometimes boring.

In our fast-paced world where we have grown accustomed to burning the candles at both ends, especially during these weeks before Christmas, we like to come to this place Sunday after Sunday to slow down, cool down, quiet down and settle down. In a world ablaze with constant change and ceaseless activity, we need a place, if just for an hour, to just chill out. So here we are. The problem is: here comes someone who does something as audacious as yelling “fire” crowded building!

When we least expect it and perhaps least desire it, John the Baptist stands up and says, “Someone who is more powerful than me is coming, and he is coming with fire!”

Moses had just killed a man in Egypt. He’s a fugitive, a sinful human being floundering in the middle of nowhere without a purpose. Then, out of nowhere, comes, you guessed it, fire!  A bush bursts into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “I’m sending you Moses to stand up to the Pharaoh, to the powers that be, to give liberty to the oppressed!”

And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you. I intend for you to rise up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of refugees and migrants, to proclaim with your words and actions liberty and justice for all.

The children of Israel were freed by Moses from Egyptian slavery.  But shortly thereafter, in the wilderness, they began complaining, “You know, at least as Pharaoh’s slaves, we had three meals a day. At least the status quo gave us some stability, some sense of security. But now, here in the dangerous wilderness, we don’t know where we are going or what we are doing.”

Do you remember the response of God?

God said, “You poor, poor babies. I’m so sorry. Let me slow things down a bit and let you build a comfy and cozy sanctuary from the wilderness. Let me give you some nice padded pew cushions, so you can sit down and take a load off. I’ll send you a good preacher to sooth your spirits, ease your minds.”

No, God said, “I’ll give you fire, a pillar of fire leading you out into the darkness, driving you towards your purpose, pulling you into my future. I’m giving you fire to lead you to be the people I am calling you to be out in the wilderness.

And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “Jesus is coming and he is kindling that same Exodus fire. And he’s going to light you up and show you gifts you never even knew you had, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”

When the prophet Daniel describes the throne of God, he doesn’t describe a reign that is stationary and static, immovable and immobile. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne with wheels, active, on the move, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.

And here comes John saying to all of us who prefer to be set in our ways, secure in our beliefs, Jesus is coming on a chariot with those same wheels of fire to change your ways, challenge your assumptions and move you to take action.

The disciples were gathered together after Jesus had left their presence. They were just following the order of worship, going through the motions. The ushers were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone’s comfortable and seated, doors shut, typical boring service, then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, the building began to rumble, the windows started rattling, the doors swung open, and somebody shouted, “fire!”

We call that day the day Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit showed up as fire. William Willimon says that on that day, “the church was born in the crucible, in the furnace of God’s fire.

[And here comes Jesus, saying to those of us today who have come to this place to check out and chill out], My Spirit is ablaze with that same Pentecostal fire and I’m looking for a few good men and women here who are combustible!’”

The truth is, when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing ever changes, where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as the children of a dynamic, moving God. We are not the incendiary force that Jesus ignites us to be. And we are one boring sight—to God as well as to the world.

Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, disrupted, when we allow ourselves to be engaged by the Christ, when we truly decide to not just worship Jesus in here but to follow Jesus out there, to not just go to church but to be the church, when we move our church out of the sanctuary into the world, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve him, to truly love all people as we love ourselves, to meet the needs of our community; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the movement of God, we become a purifying and warming blaze, and it is, I promise you, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.

The question today is: Will First Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. For today, here in this place, the good news is:

I smell smoke.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

its the end of the world as we know it

Luke 21:25-36 NRSV

December is here. The Advent Season has arrived. As Luke says, it’s time to “be on guard.” “It’s time to be alert.” “The Son of Man is coming!” It’s time to get ready! It’s time to make some preparations! It’s time to get our homes, this church and this city looking more like Christmas!

In just a few weeks, wherever we are, standing in line at Wal-Mart, sitting in the office or sitting in church, people will start asking us the question, “Are you ready?” “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Of course, what they mean is: “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping? Have you purchased all of our groceries? Have your wrapped all of your presents? Is your house decorated?”

But the question that we probably should be asking, and especially be asking here in church is: “Are we ready for Jesus?” “Are we really ready for the Advent of the Messiah? Are we really ready for the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ?”

“The gospel”—that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

The problem is that it is this word, “gospel,” is one of those words that we have heard and used so much as Christians, that it’s meaning has been distorted, diluted and even lost.

For some the word “gospel” only means some kind of individual, private relationship. It means the forgiveness of personal sins. It’s an individual’s ticket to heaven. It means that a personal transaction can be made with Jesus to avoid going to hell.

For others, the word “gospel” means the “right thinking about the Christian faith.” When some say “gospel,” they mean the body of doctrine that a person is expected to believe to be a true Christian. It’s a list of things we are supposed to be against as Christians, and most of it is individual, personal things.

However, the truth is that if we take the Greek word, evangelion, the word we translate “gospel,” many theologians agree that the word would best be translated as “revolution.”

In Jesus’ day, it meant “good news.”  But evangelionwas not just any good news. And it was never understood as individual, personal good news. But was good news that had political and social significance.

When one nation was at war with another, fighting for its civic freedom, evangelionor “gospel” was what was the report that was brought to the General. “Good news, the battle has been won!”

Or when a son was born to the king, ensuring the political stability of the kingdom, evangelion or “gospel” was what they announced to the public.  “Good news! A child has been born to the king. Our reign is secure.”

Mary’s gospel song at the news of Jesus’ birth is an example of such good news proclamation. “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” The good news, the evangelion continues: kings are being cast down from their thrones, the hungry are taking over, and the rich are being sent away empty.”

Her song is nothing less than a battle cry!

The song of her kinsman Zechariah at the birth of his and Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, is a similar gospel song: “as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…”

And when that baby grew up, when John began his own preaching in the wilderness, Luke literally described it as “gospeling.”  And what was the nature of his gospel or` good news? “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.”

“And the crowds asked him, ‘what then should we do?’  In reply he said to them, ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food, must do likewise.’”

In his very first sermon, Jesus proclaimed, in terms almost identical to John’s, that “the kingdom of heaven is near,” and then more precisely, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And by the way, this year of the Lord’s favor, this acceptable year, is what is called in Leviticus “the year of Jubilee.”

According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.

It would involve turning the world upside down, the redistribution of wealth and power.

Do you detect a pattern to this good news?  When God comes into the world, when God moves against the present order, it is always good news for the poor and the oppressed, and bad news for the proud and the powerful—it’s political, economic, social good news, much more than individual, personal good news.

Evangelion means the end of the world as we know it.  Evangelion is what is described in our scripture lesson this morning: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations.” Our Savior is the one who saves the world by disrupting the old order of things and bringing a brand new order. And his reign, his dominion, is going to be so adversarial toward dominion of the powers-that-be, that his work among us is nothing less than a revolution.

No wonder that there were many in Judea that thought that good news really didn’t sound that good news at all.

No wonder John the Baptist ended up dead shortly after his sermon.

No wonder Jesus himself found himself hanging on a cross between two thieves just three years after first announcing this good news.

This is the good news of the gospel. This is the good news that John and Jesus, Mary and Zechariah proclaimed. It is not individual, personal good news that changes our hearts saves our souls. It is revolutionary good news that changes everything and saves the world!

Which begs the questions: Is this our idea of good news?

I suppose that the main difference between good newsand bad newsis where you happen to be standing when you get the news.

Here I stand. My life, my world is not too shabby. It’s a pretty good world, a pretty good life. I’m benefiting fairly well from the present order. I am pretty well-fixed, fairly secure, quite cozy. I have warm clothes, a warm home, a warm car, and warm food to eat and drink. I have never felt oppressed, hated, or discriminated against. I don’t need a revolution. And I don’t really want a revolution, especially if that revolution will come cause me to sacrifice something in my life, if it is going to mean the end of my world as I know it.

No wonder the meaning of the word gospel has been changed over the years from revolutionary good news to merely individual, personal good news.

“Good news!  The Messiah’s coming and he’s going to finally set right what’s wrong with this world!  He’s going to do justice where injustice has been done!” “He is going to change everything! He’s turning this world upside down. “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

“Well, please forgive me for not rushing over to Bethlehem for the party!”

When Jesus was born, according to Luke, people like me missed the whole thing. The angels’ heavenly message of evangelion came to none of them. Rather, the heavens split open, songs filled the air, and an angelic army appeared to who?  To lowly, poor shepherds out in the fields working the night shift.

And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.” Did you know that this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus, one of the world’s most powerful and ruthless dictators?

When Augustus made some imperial decree to support Roman occupation of the Near East, the following were the words which opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”

Do you see what’s going on here? Christmas angels now sing the Emperor Augustus’ imperialist words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest. There’s a new king on the throne, and Jesus Christ is King!” Therefore, Augustus is not.

Love is King. Selfishness is not.

Generosity is King. Greed is not.

Humility is King. Pride is not.

Social justice is King. Inequality is not.

Mercy is King. Putting yourself first is not.

Grace is King. Judgment is not.

Selflessness, sacrifice and self-expenditure is King. Self-protection and self-preservation is not.

Being a church that is about feeding the hungry is King, coming to church to get fed ourselves is not.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

It’s good news.  I guess.

Let us pray together.

Come Lord Jesus. Expectantly, eagerly, we await your advent among us.  And when you come, give us the courage to receive you, to open our doors to you, and to open our hearts.  Give us the grace to receive you as you are, not as we would imagine you to be.  Give us the strength to step up, to let go, to move out, and to become citizens of your reign.  Amen.

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.

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.