The “gods” Are on Trial

Men in cages

Psalm 82 NRSV

In March 2005, a woman contacted Florida’s Palm Beach Police Department and alleged that her 14-year-old stepdaughter had been taken to Jeffery Epstein’s mansion.

In June 2008, after Epstein pleaded guilty to a single state charge of soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14,he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. However, instead of being sent to state prison as are the majority of sex offenders convicted in Florida, Epstein was housed in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Jail. He was able to hire his own security detail and was allowed “work release” to his downtown office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. He served 13 months before being released for a year of probation. While on probation he was allowed numerous trips on his corporate jet to his residences in Manhattan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Palm Beach police chief accused the state of giving him preferential treatment, and the Miami Herald said U.S. Attorney Acosta gave Epstein “the deal of a lifetime”

Last week, Epstein was arrested in New Jersey on sex trafficking charges. According to witnesses and sources, about a dozen FBI agents broke down the door to Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse with search warrants. Two days later, prosecutors charged him with sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors. Court documents allege that at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein’s mansion.

Jeffrey Epstein has finally been brought to court for his crimes.

And at least 40 women with their families say: “It’s about time!”

Today, we’ve heard the Psalmist account of the gods who have finally been brought to court for their crimes. And the world says: “It’s about time!”

Perhaps it was Job who said it the best when he looked at the state of the world around him and observed:

The earth is given into the hands of the wicked; God covers the eyes of its judges (Job 9:24).

The truth is that Job speaks for many of us when he asks:

Why do the wicked live on, reach an old age, and grow mighty in power…Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them (Job 21:7-9).

We look at the conditions at the border that Vice President Mike Pence calls “unacceptable” and with Job we lament:

             The poor of the earth all hide themselves. The throat of the wounded cries for help; yet God pays no attention to their prayer (Job 24:4-12).

Job painfully observes that things on earth are not good. Injustice is thriving. Evil seems to be winning. Kindness is waning. Love seems to be failing. Whoever is in charge of things down here needs to give an accounting. The gods must be taken to court! The gods must be brought to trial.

Pollution has created an ecological crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. We have dishonest and greedy politicians Washington; Child abuse and inhumane conditions at the border; Drug addiction in Fort Smith; and ICE Raids in ten cities throughout our country on this the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. We have racism, poverty, homelessness, violence spreading around the world. We have perpetual war; inequality, White Christian Nationalism; Climate Change, bigotry, sexism, and sick religion.

Whoever is responsible for the pain and brokenness of this world needs to be brought to justice now!

And the Psalmist declares: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.”

The gods are on trial. They finally have their day in court.

And, with Job and the rest of the world we cry: “Well, it is about time!”

But who are these gods?

Other “gods” are mentioned throughout the Bible, and Psalm 82 is not the only Psalm to mention other gods: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3).

Idolatry is considered to be the greatest of all sins. The first of the Ten Commandments is: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”

But again, who are these gods? Who is guilty of injustice toward the weak and the orphan and who shows partiality to the wicked? What god refuses to maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute? What gods fail to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked?

A couple of weeks ago, we read where Jesus criticized would-be followers for placing people above his call to discipleship.

One man wanted to bury his father. Another wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus’ response, albeit harsh sounding, reminds us that we are oftentimes guilty of putting people ahead of our call to be followers of Jesus.

So you could say that any person that we put above God can be considered to be a god.

A week ago, we read where Jesus sent seventy disciples out on a mission trip with the instructions to travel light, to leave some things behind, reminding us that we are also guilty of placing thingsahead of our call to be followers of Jesus.

The truth is that anyone or anything that competes for our allegiance to the God that is revealed in the Scriptures and in the words and works of Jesus is false god.

Prophetic preacher and one of my favorite writers John Pavlovitz is right when he says:

Idolatry is a horrible, dangerous thing. [And] sadly, far too many Christians are so very guilty of it.[i]

There are many things and many people we put above God: Our family; Our race; our nationality; our way of life; our religion. But there may be one god that we put above all other gods. There may be one god thatshows the most partiality to the wicked and refuses justice to the weak and the orphan, that tramples on the rights of the lowly and destitute.

Pavlovitz names Fear as the god of many people today, including some in the church. He writes:

Fear has become their false god, one they worship with complete and undying devotion.You can see it in the way they complain on social media, in the way they comment on the news of the day; in the defeatist, alarmist language that they use as to describe the world.

When Fear is your God, “everything becomes an imminent threat:” asylum-seekers, Muslims, atheists and agnostics, the media, Hollywood, and anyone that doesn’t pray like you, vote like you, speak like you and love like you.”

When Fear is your God, you cling to every little bit of worldly power that you can, whether or not you agree with the morality or ethics of that power.

When Fear is your god, you worship anything that prevents you from worshipping the God who loves all people of all nations, all races and all languages.

Last Sunday, I believe you could see it in the extravagant patriotic worship services in many large evangelical churches throughout our country, but especially in the South. In some worship services last Sunday, it was not certain to whom the worshiper’s allegiance was pledged: To a nation? Or to the God to whom all the nations belong?

When Fear is your god, patriotism turns into nationalism which quickly becomes idolatry.

When Fear is your god, you turn all of your attention to the things in  

When Fear is your god, you develop a “me-and-people-like-me-first” position, and your heart becomes callous to the suffering of anyone who is different.

When Fear is your god, you can’t afford to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and care for the sick.

When Fear is your god, it is too risky to welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned.

When Fear is your god, life is about self-preservation, self-protection, and it becomes unashamedly self-serving.

When Fear is your god, dying to self is unimaginable, loving others as yourself sounds ridiculous, and carrying a cross, well, that is just foolishness.

The truth is that if Fear is the god of enough people, the entire creation suffers. We all walk in darkness, and the very foundations of the earth are shaken (Psalm 82:5).

The good news is that the gods are on trial, declares the Psalmist, and here comes the judge! The God of all nations, the Holy One who spoke the world into being and walked on the seas and healed the sick and raised the dead is having a reckoning!

The false gods are being put in their place! And it is way past time!

For when we put the true God, the God of the Holy Scriptures who we know most fully in the words and works of Jesus, above all other gods, much of the problems that our world faces today, some of the very same problems that Job observed in his world, will not only be addressed, but many of them can be solved.

Paraphrasing

I love the closing prayer of the vigil that we had Friday night for those suffering at the border. It was a pledge to the true God:

I will not fear people who don’t look like me, vote like me, worship like me, speak like me, or love like me. We are all God’s children.

I will not fear immigrants, dissenters, or troublemakers.

My country was built by immigrants, dissenters, and troublemakers.

I will not fear the false prophets who spread fear to make me hate. They are weak. They do not speak for me.

Let us stand, let us speak, and let us be heard.

Because our God has put the gods of the world on trial. Judgment has been rendered. Fear has been convicted and cast down and out by Love. And the verdict is in: Love always wins, and it will never be silenced or ever fade away.

May we share it boldly and loudly in such a way that the entire world will cheer: “It’s about time!”

 

[i]https://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/01/15/the-greatest-false-idol-of-modern-christianity/

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Seventy Disciples

Mission Possible

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV

For several years now First Christian Church in Fort Smith has adopted a little slogan that we have used to identify us as a congregation: Mission Possible. You’ve seen it on t-shirts, on our Facebook page, and on our Narrative Budget that shares our mission with others.

The slogan has more meaning for me this week in light of today’s gospel lesson.

Mission Possible has been on my mind, because, as preaching professor Karoline Lewis has pointed out, Jesus’ instructions to the seventy before they venture out on their mission sound more like orders received from central command in the series “Mission Impossible.”

“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road—Carry no provisions. Not even a decent pair of walking shoes. Danger abounds, and by all means, don’t stop and ask for directions!”[i]

And guess what? Although you are going in peace, announcing the Kingdom of God is here, not everyone is going to accept your peace or be happy with what the Kingdom of God being near entails!

Now, how many of us are ready to sign up for that mission trip? It sounds absolutely dreadful.

Yet… here we are.

On this weekend after the Fourth of July, there’s not many of us, but there’s at least, what would you say, 70?

A good 70, I’ll say; which, interestingly enough, just so happens to be the average worship attendance in mainline churches these days.

Here we are. And curiously, the mission to which we have committed ourselves through this particular church is no less daunting, dangerous, and dreadful today than the mission of these 70 Jesus sends out.

Like Jesus’ 70, we have inherited an Abrahamic faith that began when Abraham extended generous hospitality to complete strangers who just so happened to be messengers from God.

Sadly, in our current culture, sharing this hospitable faith, or even standing up for this faith is very unpopular.

Deuteronomy might say:

 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

But our culture says, “Some strangers are animals, not people.”

Leviticus might say:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

But our culture says: “We should only love and welcome aliens based on their merit which we will determine through a strict vetting process.”

Mosaic Law may warn:

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (Leviticus 27:19).

And the Psalmist may warn:

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).

But today’s culture says: “If foreigners and strangers are unhappy with the conditions of our detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved.”

The prophets may declare:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then [the true God] will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

But our religious culture says, “The God you talk about is not the true God, but some imaginary God.”

The prophets may command:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

But today’s culture argues: “But they might be drug dealers, criminals and rapists.”

So many churches today have said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Moses. Sorry Jeremiah. It’s not happening Zechariah.” What you people of God are talking about, especially in these days, is Mission Impossible.

However, the good news is that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, says, no, what the holy scriptures command us is actually Mission Possible. But how? How do we do what the Bible tells us to do when we live in a world where we are like lambs living in the midst of wolves?

For the mission we have committed ourselves to seems impossible when we consider that not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots that has been called to stand up for the foreigners coming into our land, we are a group of people who claim to be followers of Jesus, who we believe Jesus is the Christ, the way, the truth and the life. Consequently, we are a church on a mission to embrace the way of Jesus, and to call on all people, all nations, including our own nation, to embrace the same way.

On this first Sunday after the day we celebrate our nation’s birth, we implore our leaders:

  • To lose their way of greed and materialism, to follow Jesus’ way of generosity
  • To lose their way of dishonesty and deceit, to follow Jesus’ way of truth
  • To lose their way of militarism and perpetual war, to follow Jesus’ way of peace
  • To lose their way of violence and domination, to follow Jesus’ way of servanthood
  • To lose their way of putting themselves first, to follow Jesus’ way that started with: “For God so loved the world.”
  • To lose their way of bigotry, to follow Jesus’ way of valuing every human as one made in the image of God
  • To lose their way of harming children, to follow Jesus’ way of treating children as the greatest among us
  • To lose their way of suppressing the rights of women, to follow Jesus’ way of empowering women
  • To lose their way of abandoning the needs of the sick, the hungry, the foreigner and the imprisoned, to follow Jesus’ way of loving them as their very selves

And here is perhaps what makes our church’s mission seem even more impossible these days:

Not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots, and not only are we committed to following the compassionate and just way of Jesus, we are a church born out of the Stone-Campbell movement. That means, that like our foundersBarton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we have made a commitment to be on a mission to follow the inclusive way Jesus, even if it causes us to lose some friends!

We have made the decision to welcome all people to Lord’s table as God has welcomed us—graciously, generously, lovingly, unconditionally. And we do this in a culture where such welcome is socially unacceptable.

We have committed ourselves to let the first word that anyone hears from our mouths be “Peace.”  And we do this in a culture where the very first words that many hear from churches are words that denote the exact opposite of peace—Words of judgment and condemnation; words judging others as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that has been used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination since our country’s founding.

So, how do we do it? How do we transform a Mission Impossibleinto a Mission Possible? How is that our slogan?

I believe the answer is in the obvious but oftentimes overlooked detail in our gospel lesson this morning. The answer is the number 70.

The good news is that we are not on a mission to be open and affirming in a culture that is closed and condemning alone. Each one of us has at least, at least, 69 fellow disciples, 69 friends in the faith, on whom to depend. Seventy people may look small in this sanctuary that seats 400, but 70 is a lot of bodies, a lot of somebodies, a lot of disciples on which to count when the going gets rough.

Jesus did not expect any of his disciples to be alone on the difficult mission to which he was sending them. And neither does God expect us to be alone to do our seemingly impossible work.

Right now, I want you to take a moment and look around you. For what you see… no… whoyou see, is all you need to do the work Jesus is calling you to do in a world where danger and injustice abound.

You need no purse, no bag, no sandals; and not even the ones you may meet on the road. All that is necessary to carry out our mission, to transform Mission Impossible into Mission Possibleare scattered about in these pews.

And I have a feeling that is why you are here this morning. You are here, because here, in this place, is your group of seventy. You come to be reminded that you are not in this alone. You come here acknowledging that if we are ever going to be the people God is calling us to be, we need one another.

Even before moving here two years ago to serve with you as your pastor, the Mission Possible slogan caught my eye.

For it is a slogan with optimism and assurance, potential and promise, success and victory.

With God, anything is possible! Right?

With God, it will be possible for me to declare that the Kingdom of God is coming near to the River Valley.

With God, it will be possible for me to announce to Fort Smith, Van Buren, Barling, Greenwood, Roland and Spiro: “Peace!”

With God, it will be possible for me to speak up and speak out, and the demons will submit!

Well, not exactly. With God, and about 70 others!

Today, I am grateful that I found a group of 70, well, at least 70, sometimes 120-140, and more than that on Easter and Christmas Eve, whatever the number, I have found a lot of good somebodies with whom to go out and follow Jesus wherever he leads.

And together, although we seem small, and our provisions are limited, with God, we can do some big things to bring the Kingdom of God near!

Let us pray together.

Gracious God, emboldened by being apart of our 70, may our spirits be filled with joy and enthusiasm by following the way of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and Jesus, sharing your redeeming love with all people. AMEN.

[i]http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4683

No Time to Waste

 

jesus_facepalm

Luke 9:51-62 NRSV

When it comes to writing a sermon, I don’t know which is more difficult: Trying to figure out from the biblical text a message from Jesus for us today, or trying to figure out how to relay that message without being forced to leave town.

And in the case of our gospel lesson this morning, how to relay the message from Jesus without sounding like a complete jerk.

Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. He is on a mission following a selfless, self-expending, sacrificial way of love and grace. And in following this narrow and difficult way, he seems to be rather exasperated by the lack of support and understanding around him. So much so, that I almost titled this sermon: “Grumpy Jesus.”

Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem doesn’t to get off on the right foot, as he receives word that there no hospitality awaiting him in the village of the Samaritans. No room for him in the inn, or this time, even in a stable. This is not surprising considering the Samaritans and Jews mutual animosity; yet knowing Jesus’ love that has no borders, Jesus is obviously frustrated here. But perhaps he is more frustrated by his disciples’ response.

James and John, bless their hearts, ask Jesus if he wants them to reenact a scene from 2 Kings by asking God to rain down fire from heaven and wipe out the entire Samaritan village!

Really? Have they been listening to anything that Jesus, the “Peace-Be-with-You-Love-Your-Enemies” Rabbi, has been teaching them?

Rick Morley, an Episcopal Priest from New Jersey, says that this is like “one of those moments at Thanksgiving when your crazy uncle says something so ridiculously inappropriate that everyone just turns and stares with their mouths agape.”

After James and John’s outrageous question, he imagines Jesus doing one of these (face palm).

Of course, Love-Incarnate, the Prince of Peace, immediately rebukes them and their idiocy!

Then, we have a series of three encounters of would-be disciples. Interestingly enough, especially in light of what the disciples just said, the three encounters may remind us of the three passed by a man in the ditch in what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus lifts up a Samaritan as an example for all of us.

The first would-be disciple comes, and without Jesus asking him, presents himself as the perfect candidate: “I will follow you wherever you go!”

Now, what is not to like about that! I know I am never turning anyone away who comes forward during the hymn of commitment saying, “I want to follow Jesus wherever he goes!” I am signing that person up immediatly! No more questions need to be asked!

Yet, Jesus, perhaps still exasperated because he had no place to spend the night in that Samaritan village, and by his disciples’ failure to get anything he has been teaching, says: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Okaaaay, Jesus. I will check back with you when you have had your coffee!”

Jesus then encounters another and invites him to follow him. He agrees to follow, but then asks permission to go and bury his father first. A very reasonable, loving, even faithful request. It was his part of fulfilling God’s law to “honor your father and mother.”

Then, if you thought the “Foxes have holes and birds of nests” comment was snarky, Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

Now, he is really sounding grumpy.

C’mon Jesus. I know you are upset that you have no where to lay your head. I know no one in that Samaritan village welcomed you into their home. I know your disciples are idiots. They are incredibly irritating, to say the least. I know that when it comes to embracing your way of love and grace, they don’t have a clue. But the poor man just wants to bury his father! What can be wrong with that? Isn’t honoring our parents part of discipleship? Isn’t taking some time to grieve over the loss of a loved one something God would want us to do?

Then, Jesus encounters the third would-be follower, who like the first one, also volunteers without being asked. But first he wants to go and say good-bye to his family, perhaps to let his children know why Daddy wouldn’t be home for a while. Again, sounds like a reasonable request. Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say good-bye to his parents when Elijah chose Elisha to be his disciple while he was plowing his field (1 Kings 19:19-21).

But grumpy Jesus is not having it. Echoing the calling of Elisha, he says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Look Jesus. I know you are upset. I know you’re tired. I remember that just last week you were trying to sleep on that boat only to be awakened by a storm. And as soon as you stepped out on the land you were confronted by a man possessed by demons. Then, although you were exhausted, you healed him only to be unappreciated and run out of town! Jesus, I know you have no where to lay your head. I know you are frustrated. I know the disciples that you have been training to be compassionate, loving, forgiving and peaceful want to rain down fire and take out an entire village. I know you have your face set on Jerusalem and all the suffering that is to come. But come on, Jesus, take it easy. Let this man say good-bye to his family. And for God’s sake, let this one bury his father!

This is what I feel like saying. But this is Jesus. This is the eternal Word made flesh. This is the Son of God. Thus, my faith tells me that there has to be something more going on here—something more than a little fatigue, frustration and fear.

His face is set toward Jerusalem. This infers that he knows the that his time on earth is very short. And he knows that if he is going to usher in the Kingdom of God before he dies, as master preacher Karoline Lewis has said: “there is not a moment to lose.”[i]

The same is true for us. The reality is, our time here is also very short. And if we want to make a difference for the Kingdom of God while we are here, there is no time to waste.

But maybe this appearance of grumpiness is not about Jesus at all. For what we know about Jesus, he was always teaching by word and by example to deny self and to lose self. So, perhaps Jesus is not thinking about his own circumstance at all.

Perhaps he had in mind other circumstances and people who needed to know and to experience the love of God. Not next week, not tomorrow, not even later that afternoon, but at that very moment. Perhaps Jesus knew that, not for him, but for others, for many, there was not a moment to lose. Every second counted, every minute mattered.

So, this appearance of grumpiness is actually a holy urgency, a sacred stress if you will, fueled by a divine love with a height, a depth, a width and a breadth that we can only begin to understand. Perhaps Jesus knew that for God’s kingdom to come to those who need it the most, there is not a moment to lose.

Jesus knew that for those who need God’s love, for those who need compassion, healing, forgiveness, and restoration, there is no time to waste.

There is not a moment to lose –

For those who are poor, for those who hunger, for those who weep, for those who are hated, insulted, excluded and rejected (Luke 6:20-22).

There is not a moment to lose –

For those Samaritans who believe they have lost favor with God (Luke 10:25-29);

For a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17);

For a man who had been suffering with dropsy. Jesus healed him on the Sabbath in the presence of the Pharisees (he didn’t wait until the next day when it was lawful), proving, there is not a moment to lose (Luke 14:1-4).

There is not a moment to lose –

For the rich man who thought he was blessed because he was rich. For the poor man who thought he was cursed because he was poor (Luke 16:19-31);

For the ten lepers who approached Jesus in a region between Galilee and Samaria (Luke 17:11-19);

For the blind beggar sitting beside the roadside near Jericho (Luke 18:35-43).

There is not a moment to lose –

For a man named Zacchaeus who defrauded the poor;

For all of the poor people he defrauded (Luke 19:1-10);

Jesus is frustrated, because there is not a moment to lose –

For an entire world that feels rejected, cursed and lost;

For children of asylum-seekers separated from their parents;

For asylum-seekers drowning in rivers and thirsting in deserts;

For children confined in for-profit, inhumane detention centers.

Jesus is exasperated, because there is not a moment to lose –

For LGBT teens who are contemplating suicide;

For all children who suffer from neglect and abuse;

For girls who are raped and then denied healthcare;

For boys who are taught that it is okay to objectify girls;

For the person with a disability who feels like the whole world, even God, is against them.

Jesus is stressed, because there is not a moment to lose –

For the one dying in a nursing home all alone;

For those who have to make the choice every week to either buy their medication or to buy groceries;

For those unjustly locked away in our prisons because of their economic status or skin color;

For nations on the brink of war.

Jesus is grumpy, because there is not a moment to lose –

To respond to climate change that threatens God’s good earth;

To end the destructive pollution of the planet with plastics and carbon.

And Jesus has his palm planted on his face today, because many of his disciples still don’t have a clue. Some still want God to rain down fire and brimstone on those who believe and live differently. And many would-be-followers still have no sense of urgency to be witnesses of love, peace and justice.

In a sermon, Raquel Lettsome, an AME preacher from New York points out:

We tend to wait for God’s action [or somebody else’s action] rather than getting our [own] feet wet.

Are you at the Red Sea, waiting for God to do something? Or are you at the Jordan River, willing to get your feet wet so as to enter into the promised land?

Are you waiting for someone else to speak justice? To call for righteousness? Or will you embrace the moment and proclaim the promise of God’s favor?

Are you waiting for others to stand up for those our world rejects and reviles? Or will you seize the moment and say God’s love is for all?

Whatever we do, may we know that every moment counts. Every minute matters. There is no time to waste.

Let us pray.

Create in us a new heart of compassion, a new sense of urgency, as Christ has called us to be servants of love and grace in this very moment. Enable us to truly be your disciples, O Christ. AMEN.

Invitation to the Table

The needs of our world are so great, that Jesus needs all of us. That is why all are welcomed to be served and to serve from this table sharing the love and grace of God with all.

Commissioning and Benediction

Go ahead and get grumpy.

Feel frustration.

Experience exasperation.

Sense some sacred stress.

Because there is a suffering world out there that needs the Jesus that you follow,

the Jesus that is in you and the Jesus who wants to speak and work through you.

And there is not a moment to lose.

 

[i]https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4679

 

Deviled Ham

torches2

Luke 8:26-39 NRSV

Today’s gospel lesson is one of my favorite stories of Jesus. There is just so much from which to glean from all of the rich symbolism in this story.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

The opposite of Galilee. The opposite of home. The opposite of familiarity. The opposite of comfort. The opposite of sanctuary.

I believe it is important for the church today to note that the man in this story would have never had an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that brought him liberation, healing and restoration, if Jesus and his disciples stayed in Galilee.

This is one of the reasons I am so grateful for our Disciples Women Fellowship that has chosen to serve at Hope Campus twice a month. If we want to follow Jesus as his disciples, the church must be willing to leave the sanctuary to encounter people who need the liberation, healing and restoration that we know the love of God can bring.

As he stepped out on land,

Jesus and his disciples had just encountered a storm out on the lake, and now, as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat, they encounter a different kind of storm.

 a man of the city who had demons met him.

A man of the city—reminds me of another story of Luke, when “a woman of the city who was a sinner,” anoints Jesus’ feet. Right away, we get the suspicion that this man had a sinful reputation.

For a long time, he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

And here is where we begin to get the picture that this man of the city is not the only sinner in this story. He is unnamed, naked, and homeless, and he lives among the dead. He is treated as if he was no longer alive, as if he did not exist. He is fully debased, degraded and dehumanized with no rights, no privileges, no power, and no place whatsoever in society.

 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.

He has been driven to the margins of life by the Legion. Legion is a technical term for a division of the Roman Army. Thus, it is revealed that this man is a victim of the Roman Empire and its oppressive systems that do great harm to people like him.

We don’t know exactly what that means, “people like him,” but, sadly, we could make some good guesses:

Could it be that he spoke a foreign language? Was he an undocumented immigrant or refugee? Perhaps he had a different skin color? Maybe he practiced some kind of minority religion? Did he have cerebral palsy, autism, a Traumatic Brain Injury, down’s syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder? Did he suffer with seizures? Could it be that he suffered with some sort of mental illness? Might it be that he was gay or transgendered?

Not only is he a victim of unjust political systems, he is also a victim of his community. Unfortunately, that is the power of government: if the state leaders are against you, then it gives permission for society to be against you.

He’s labeled “demon possessed” which means he has been fully “other-ized.”

There is no evidence that he has ever harmed anyone, yet, he is “bound with chains and shackles” and “kept under guard.”

He is not to be counted in the census. There is no path to citizenship, no process to appeal. There is no grace.In an act of gross dehumanization, he is forced to live among the dead until he dies.

This is the evil of our world. It is not a spirit that might make us take off all of our clothes and take up residence in a cemetery. No, the evil of this world is the the chaining of this man, the oppression of this man, the dehumanizing treatment of this man, treating him as if he did not exist among the living, shackling him naked in a graveyard, is the true demonic evil in this story.

And for Jesus and his followers, this type of evil should always be brought out and driven out. Jesus is never happy when any person is demeaned, degraded, dehumanized and excluded from community. Whenever Jesus encounters chains, Jesus breaks the chains. The good news is that every time we draw a line that keeps people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.

This demonic evil, this anti-Christ spirit that possessed the state and the culture to oppress this man is further revealed in the fascinating account of the demons leaving the man and entering a herd of pigs that were minding their own business, innocently feeding on a hillside. As soon as the pigs get infected by the demons, they immediately rush down a steep bank, and they drown in the lake.

I once heard a preacher joke that it is right here in this story that we have the first recorded instance of “deviled ham.”

I know, it’s a terrible joke. Sounds like the kind of thing we might hear Jim Creekmore might say. The poor pigs. What did they do to deserve to become agents of evil? And how could Jesus do such an inhumane thing to any of God’s beloved creatures?

However, we soon discover that these poor pigs were infected with evil long before Jesus showed up.

Notice what happens when Jesus liberates this man (verse 37). When they find the man is liberated, do all the people thank Jesus? No, all the people, “all the people in the surrounding country beg Jesus to leave their presence.”

The demonic evil here is not only the oppression of this man by unjust political systems and a fearful culture, but that the people valued their pigs more than the man’s liberation. The people would rather keep their pigs, their income, their stock values, their privilege and power, rather than see this man set free. This is what made this herd of ham so deviled.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man shackled.

If it means losing some pigs, crucify the liberator.

If it means losing some pigs, succeed from the union.

If it means losing some pigs, assassinate the preacher.

If it means losing some pigs, suppress the vote.

If it means losing some pigs, oppose the minimum wage.

If it means losing some pigs, then ban foreign nationals of another religion. Separate families. Close the border.

If it means losing some pigs, then resist equality, forget fairness and defend discrimination.

If it means losing some pigs, then keep quiet. Stay silent and stay put. Learn to live with injustice.

If it means losing some pigs, then stomach the murder of children. Be okay with torture. Endure endless war.

If it means losing some pigs, then water down the gospel. Ignore evil. Neglect the poor. Send the stranger away. Don’t feed the hungry. Don’t heal the sick, and whatever you do, don’t do anything to follow the sacrificial way of Jesus. Don’t love others as you love yourselves.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man naked, chained and guarded.

The truth is, that whenever a person or a group is liberated from oppression, there is another person or group that has some deviled ham to lose, some things that they value more than another’s freedom.

So, a good question for us is, what is our deviled ham? What do we value more than another’s freedom?

Patriarchy? White supremacy? Heterosexism? Religious superiority? Homogenous cities and neighborhoods? Homogenous churches? Cheap fast food? Inexpensive coffee? Inexpensive clothing? Easy and quick access to guns?

Another question is: are we ready to leave Galilee? Leave the familiar and the comfortable in order to bring liberation, healing and restoration to another. Are we willing to leave home so others can have a home?

The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” [Restored to his community,] he proclaimed throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Desiree Adaway, a consultant, trainer, and coach who helps to build equitable and inclusive working environments in companies and organizations including: IBM, United Airlines, The Girl Scouts, and Rotary International, writes:

We are all socialized into systems that oppress.

We learn to accept oppression as normal.

We are born into a social system which teaches us to accept things as they are.

We are rewarded for accepting things as they are.

We are congratulated for accepting things as they are.

We become “model members of society” when we accept things as they are.

We gain comfort, money, connections and power when we accept things as they are. People who go against the grain, pay the price.

I know [there’s] a tiny voice deep in your heart is saying “I do not oppress people.”

That might be true, you may not actively oppress others- but here is the reality- oppression is still happening, because this cycle and the systems they support continue to run uninterrupted.

Oppression is the norm, not the exception.

Justice is the exception, not the norm.

Institutions influence individuals and individuals influence institutions.

This process is pervasive, consistent, circular, self-perpetuating, and invisible.

The simplest thing to do is nothing.

But we have failed to realize that we have become participants in our own oppression by doing nothing.

Will you take responsibility for the oppression that continues? Will you stand up and confront the systems, rules, and norms?

How, where, and when you confront injustice is irrelevant, as long as you do it.

You and I are responsible for interrupting oppression. We are responsible for dismantling it. We are responsible for creating new systems and ways to share social power.

Society will not transform itself. We have to break the chains.

We all have to pay the price, so that can happen.

Let’s get to work y’all, because freedom ain’t free.[i]

[i]https://desireeadaway.com

Let’s Dance: Joining the Dance of the Trinity

dad and children

Romans 5:1-5 NRSV

It is fascinating to read the letters between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is obvious that Stone had a more difficult time accepting the Trinity than Campbell. Stone writes:

On this doctrine many things are said, which are dark, unintelligible, unscriptural, and too mysterious for comprehension. Many of these expressions we have rejected…

I wonder if Stone’s problem was that he was trying to comprehend the Trinity in the first place. Maybe the Trinity is something to be lived, more than learned, something to be experienced more than explained, something or someone with whom to relate more than to understand.

Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses, which means literally in the Greek, “to dance.” They were suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, I don’t believe the Trinity is not a doctrine to learn. It is a connection to be enjoyed. It is to be encountered more in relationship than in religion. It is something that is unseen yet true, inexplicable yet real. It is more surreal than literal, more actual than factual.

The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle tells the following story that I believe speaks to the mystery of the Trinity. She was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. She recounts:

The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give.

The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience.

When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, ‘May I ask you something?’

‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘What about?’

‘It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand,’ I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘what their problem is,’ and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.’

So I believe it is with the Trinity. This dynamic, intimate relationship, this holy dance, shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so beautiful that it has be to true, whether it is the most accurate description of the image of God or not.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…

And that, wrote Lewis,

is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…

There it is again: a dance. The Trinity is an activity. It’s something moving, something to be experienced, something to be lived.

Lewis continues:

And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

In other words, this holy dance of self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is where we can find our holy purpose.

So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am not proposing we should understand the Trinity as much as we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and discover ways to participate in it—discover ways we can enter into the sacred dance by doing all we can, with all that we have and are, to selflessly love one another.

I believe we are given opportunities everyday to dance this holy dance during our lifetimes. The church itself, the relationships we share here, is one such opportunity.

However, for me personally, no dance has been richer or has emulated the divine dance more fully than the dance of fatherhood.

Before my children existed, I loved and was loved. And it was out of a mutual self-giving love they were both born.

I will never forget holding Carson and Sara in my arms, shortly after they were born and contemplating my love for them. Before they came to be, I thought I knew what love was, when in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea that I could ever love another so deeply, so completely, so persistently. Although I had always sought to love others as myself, as my own flesh and blood, until my children came along, I never knew I could truly love another more than self.

Consequently, it was not enough to just bring them into the world, to father them. No, my love for them demanded so much more. It demanded me to actually give all that I had give to them, for them.

I was far from perfect. At times I could be selfish, self-absorbed. It was on more than one occasion I heard their mama sing:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

‘When you coming home, dad?’

‘I don’t know when’

But we’ll get together then

You know we’ll have a good time then.

But there were times when I gladly sacrificed. There were times I gave my all. There were moments when I rose to the occasion. I protected, and I nurtured. I did my best to teach and to guide with words and through example. And I always loved them just as they were, graciously, generously, unconditionally. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them; no place I wouldn’t go.

I took them to school and I picked them up. I coached basketball and baseball. I went roller skating and snow skiing. I learned how to made cookies, waffles and doughnuts from scratch. There were football games, soccer games, carnival games, birthday parties, baptisms, orthodontist appointments, dance recitals, trips to the beach, trips to the emergency room, bicycle rides, rollercoaster rides, summer vacations, cross-country 5ks, awards ceremonies, concerts and graduations. Yes, there were graduations.

And now they are hundreds of miles away. I am no longer present physically, but I am still very much there emotionally, you might say spiritually. They are on their own now, yet they are still mine.

And just as it was not enough to bring them into the world, it is also not enough to raise them and teach them only to leave them to their own devices. No, my love still demands more. Our relationship is not over. In a wonderful way, it is a new beginning. I am no less their father. Maybe I am even more so. I know my concern, my desire to protect, my suffering, has not diminished.

A week ago, a friend of Carson’s from Oklahoma City needed help moving to Atlanta, so she bought him a one-way plane ticket to Oklahoma City. Last Sunday morning, while I was preaching, Carson and his friend passed through Van Buren heading East on Interstate 40. Unable to see him, the pain I experienced was indescribable. And my heart broke this past Thursday, as Sara celebrated her first birthday in 22 years without us.

My desire to be there for them, to do anything for them, to even die for them is now as great as it has ever been, if not more so. They will always be a part of me. I am in them and they are in me. I will always be there for them. My love for them is forever.

This is probably as close as I will ever come to knowing the height, depth and width of the love of the God who created me, became flesh and taught me how to live and love, and whose Spirit is always with me.

The good news is, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, if we who have have a tendency to be selfish know how to love our children, how much more does God love us? (Matthew 7:11)

No wonder the Apostle Paul was able to share such confident hope with the Romans in the midst of his suffering! If God’s love for us that we experience in the dynamic dancing relationship that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is anything like an imperfect father’s love for his children, surely we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

If we have peace with God who not only graciously brought us into the world, but sacrificially showed us the way to life, and promises to never leave nor forsake us, surely we can boast in our sufferings.

If we know that the love that God has for us always demands for God to love us more, then surely our hope will never disappoint us.

Thus, when we feel like falling apart, we can keep it together. When we feel like giving up, we can keep going. When we feel like fighting, we can forgive. When we feel nothing, we can love. And when we feel like doing nothing, we can dance.

Yes, Barton Stone, this dance is a mystery. But it is a mystery that has happened and is happening to us. We can’t comprehend it. But we can join it. We can live it. Today and forever.

This Old Man Has a Dream

robed

Acts 2

Mark 6:6-13

Last week, I talked about how the church, as an institution, seems to have lost its focus and purpose in the world. These days, it is an understatement to say that it’s floundering more than it’s flourishing. The model and structure of the church that baptized and made numerous new disciples of Jesus in the 20th century seems incredibly inept here in the 21st century.

If we want to fulfill the great commission to make new disciples, many believe we must come up with a new model, or new models, new expressions of doing and being the church, the gathered and sent people of God in the world.

I believe that what the institutional church needs more than anything else is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We need the same Spirit that gave birth to the church at Pentecost in the first century to give it a rebirth in the 21st century. That’s right, you heard me, I am saying that I believe the church needs to be born again!

On the day of Pentecost, Peter described the movement of God’s spirit by quoting the prophet Joel:

These are the days God says:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17).

During our graduate recognition service a few weeks ago, I talked about the importance of listening to young people who have essentially given up on the institutional church. I said we need to listen to the visions of these young people who believe the church, in the form that it is in today, is actually doing more harm in the world than good.

But I also believe we need to listen to the dreams of older folks, those who were raised in the 20th century church, introduced to Jesus in the 20th century church, raised their children in the 20th century church, but today are frustrated by the fact that their children have no interest in being a part of it.

Well, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

This old man who has been attending church for nearly 53 years, and has served churches on staff for 33 of those years has a dream!  And I believe today, Pentecost Sunday, is the perfect opportunity for this old man to share it.

When I dream about how the church needs to be born again today in order to recover its purpose in the world (which Jesus said was to baptize and to make disciples who follow his teachings), I am constantly drawn to Mark 6:6-13, the account of Jesus sending out his disciples into the world for the very first time—on the first mission trip—to do the very same things in the world that Jesus was doing.

Mark 6:6 reads:

6aAnd he was amazed at their unbelief. 

I wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief today. Having been a part of the church my entire life, I know I am often amazed how many in the church today really do not seem to believe that we are called to live, love and serve in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus. Many just believe we’re supposed to accept Jesus, receive Jesus, study Jesus, and worship Jesus; not actually follow Jesus.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the number of people who believe the Kingdom of God is just some place we go after we die, instead of something we are supposed to work at, to give of ourselves to, to pour ourselves out, to create here on earth.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and then don’t do a thing to make it happen!

I also wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit—the belief that although we cannot go back to the good old days when our church pews were filled with people, we can be led by the Spirit forward into good new days. We can be led out into the world baptizing and making new disciples, doing more than we ever dreamed we could to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.

I wonder how many people in the church truly believe that our best days of doing church, being church in this world are not behind us, but before us?

6bThen he went about among the villages teaching.

Notice that Jesus never stayed in one place. He was constantly on the move, going from village to village teaching, healing and restoring. He never set up shop in one building, or on a campus with five buildings, and expected people to come to him to get fed, receive a blessing, or be restored. No, he always went out to them to feed, bless and restore. And he expects his disciples to do the very same thing.

7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 

Jesus never intended to be on a mission to transform and save the world by himself. He called and gave authority to disciples to join him. He sent them out doing the very things that he did, some very big things like: challenging the unclean spirits of greed, materialism, poverty, sexism, racism, sickness, exclusion, and oppression. Jesus gave his disciples the power and the authority to change the world!

I wonder how many in the church today, sitting in their half empty sanctuaries, truly believe they have the power and the authority to change the world?

8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out to be the church in the world, he ordered them to travel light, to keep it simple, and to stick to the basics. Disciples should leave behind all of their baggage: anything that might slow them down, deter their mission, or enable them to get too comfortable in one particular place. Jesus said that if they want to be his disciples in the world, they must leave some things behind.

And notice that Jesus said that they are to take no bread. Could that mean that Jesus wants them to go out and share a meal with others? Could that mean that he wants them to share a table with others, with perhaps strangers, and break bread?

10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Jesus said disciples who are sent out to encounter and love the world can expect failure. If disciples are following Jesus, and if they are taking his inclusive and unconditional love and grace out to the people, they will not be received by everyone. But they should never let that discourage or stop them. They should peacefully keep moving and keep doing what they have been called to do.

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 

Disciples go out and proclaim that all should repent of their selfish, self-centered, self-preserving ways. However, proclaiming such repentance is impossible if the disciples are not first willing to repent of their own misguided ways, ways that are about preserving old structures, old traditions, ways that are solely about serving some institution rather than serving all people.

13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

As I said, disciples have the power to do some pretty big things. They stand up and speak out against evil forces. They restore, and they heal, and they forgive. They are a literal movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

This is my dream for the church in the 21stcentury. It’s right here in this simple account of Jesus sending the disciples out into the world.

Yes, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

I have a dream – that the church would once again believe that its main and only purpose in this world is to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to go out into all the world to make, not new church members who want to serve the church, but new disciples who want to follow the selfless way of Jesus to serve a world in need.

Yes, this old man has a dream.

I have a dream – that the church’s annual Mission Trip—you know, the one of which the participants said was the highlight of their year, the very best thing they did all year long through the church— I have a dream that the church’s annual mission trip was not just one week a year but was actually 52 weeks a year! I have a dream that church itself was a Mission Trip!

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day truly leave its buildings to move from place to place, village to village, to teach the selfless, restorative, healing love of God to all people with words and deeds. I have a dream that one day the church will stop talking about getting outside of the walls of the sanctuary and actually get outside of them!

Think of how much better our worship would have been on the Sunday before Memorial Day, if we set up a tent and worshipped near the edge of the rising flood waters. Perhaps had a cook-out after the service, and then helped residents in the area by feeding them lunch and filling sandbags.

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day leave behind all of its baggage—anything that is not about loving this world as Jesus loved it, being people of grace and kindness and mercy and justice, and making new disciples who do the same thing.

I have a dream – that the church will leave behind its love for the nostalgic memory of the way things used to be, its pining to return to the good old days and will get together to dream new dreams and embrace a new vision, and move forward into good new days.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will somehow learn to keep the faith simple by sticking to the basics, like simply loving others as Jesus loved others.

This old man has a dream – that the church will be a courageous, risk-taking, peace-making, justice-creating movement that’s never afraid to go to new places, even to those places it is not welcomed.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will one day finally repent and change its ways selfish ways that focus on going to heaven, receiving a blessing and being fed, to embrace a selfless way that focuses on being in, blessing and feeding the world.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will catch a new vision of how to be church, how to be a mission of selfless love following Jesus wherever he leads.

This old man has a dream – that the church will truly be about baptizing and making new disciples, teaching them to do the things Jesus did, instead of spending all of their energy and time trying to keep its old members happy.

This old man has a dream where the church no longer has any members.

It only has disciples.

This old man has a dream – that the church, the Body of Christ, God’s gathered and sent people, will be born again by the Holy Spirit to be a literal movement for wholeness transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.

Now, do you want to hear the good news?

The good news is that when this old dreamer looks around the room, I have hope that, as a prophet named John Lennon once sang: “I’m not the only one.”

 

Get Your Heads Out of the Clouds

River Valley Strong

Acts 1:6-11 NRSV

The risen Christ had been telling his disciples for months that he would one day leave them, and in today’s lesson, the read where time had come. But before he departed, they asked him: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

With those words, he ascended into heaven and left them standing there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes show up. They said: “You Galileans, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, because one day, God’s kingdom would fully come, and day would come when love would finally win. The disciples did not know when, but they didn’t need to know.

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that the Kingdom is coming. Love will eventually win, and here’s the thing, you are going help to make that happen! That is, if you get your head out of the clouds and keep loving this world as Jesus loved this world, keep being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story has much to teach today’s church that seems to have its head in the clouds. I hear it almost every day: that the church seems to have lost its focus, its vision and its purpose in our world.

And there are several clouds that our heads seem to be stuck in these days.

First, there are still too many Christians today whose main, and really only focus as a Christian, is going to heaven. The faith in Jesus that they profess is nothing more than a ticket to escape this world. Thus, their faith is private, something they possess, hold on to, not something that is actually lived or shared with others.

I believe our scripture lesson this morning is a direct command from God to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off going to heaven, and come back down to earth and to do something for this world. Give something, create something, be something that will make a positive difference in the world.

Come back down to earth and go to Jerusalem. Go all the way to Little Rock and Washington DC and be moral witnesses. Why are all of you hunkered up in one place? Don’t close yourself up in a sanctuary of comfort and security. Go into all of Judea. Go all over the River Valley, and even into places that you do not want to go, like Samaria. Go into the muddy, flooded neighborhoods along the Arkansas River. Be witnesses to the ends of the earth to the good news of the love of God that Jesus revealed to you.

Another cloud that Christians have had their heads into ever since the Emperor Constantine wed Christianity with the Roman Empire is the cloud of worldly power and control. But perhaps it started right here at Jesus’ ascension into heaven: “Tell us Jesus, when are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”

The desire and temptation to gain worldly power and control is strong. Today, we see the minds of Christians clouded and their souls corrupted in their embrace of greed, materialism, dishonesty, pride, all kinds of bigotry, even a little Nazism, in order to gain some dominance.

Being in a cloud is perhaps the best way I can describe what is happening today—A follower of the Jesus who emulated love and commanded love, must have their heads in some kind of deep demonic fog for them them to believe that religious liberty in this country gives them the license, not to love their neighbors, but to discriminate against some of their neighbors and cause them harm.

Many are shocked that followers of Jesus think this way today, but I suppose this is nothing new. Our nation has seen this ugly cloud before. It’s the same evil fog that not that long ago blanketed this nation that made it possible for followers of Jesus to believe that religious liberty was a license for them to not only demean and dehumanize people, but to actually own people as slaves..

“Get your head out of the clouds,” said the angels. Stop focusing on any power of this world that dominates, discriminates and divides; and instead, focus on the peculiar power of Jesus, the power that the Holy Spirit will give you, the power that gives generously, serves selflessly and loves graciously.

And there’s another cloud that I fear many Christians have their heads stuck in these days. And when I say stuck, I mean really stuck. And it is perhaps the darkest, most sinister cloud of them all. It is the cloud of the institutional church.

We are stuck in the pipedream of the way things used to be. Our minds are clouded by some hazy sentimental memory of church. And we have fully accepted the delusion that if we put all of our focus on serving the church the way we used to and getting others to join us to serve the church in this same way, then we can somehow get back to the way it was.

Consequently, our focus is on being what we believe is good member of a church, rather than on being a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Our focus is on maintaining and preserving structures, systems and traditions, rather than on following Jesus without any limitations, restrictions or hesitation.

Our focus is on serving the institution, rather than on serving people.

Our focus is on trying to figure out how to get people to come to us and support us, rather than on creating new ways we can go out to them and support them.

Thus, our focus has been on building attractive buildings and on maintaining those buildings, rather than building the kingdom God and expanding that kingdom.

This week, I have heard more than one person say that this historic flood has brought out the best in Fort Smith. I believe that is because, for at least a week, we got our heads out of the clouds.

We left behind our focus on going to heaven by literally and figuratively bending ourselves down to the earth to love our communities affected by the flood.

We left behind our lust for a power that dominates, discriminates and divides by embracing the sacrificial power of Christ that unconditionally and unreservedly gives, serves and loves.

We left behind our churches, temples and mosques. We got outside the walls of our religious institutions, traditions and beliefs, and we went out into our neighborhoods to simply love others as Jesus loved others.

Yes, this week, the focus of Fort Smith couldn’t have been more unclouded. It couldn’t have been sharper, clearer or purer.

The good news is: I believe that the week that has brought out the best in Fort Smith has something holy to teach us about how to bring out the best in the church. It won’t take us back to the good old days when our sanctuaries were full on Sunday mornings, but it will take us forward, out of our sanctuaries, into good new days.

It is the lesson to get our heads of the clouds. It is a challenge to leave behind some of the things that we thought were important, even sacred, to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

Here’s our challenge:

Are we willing to leave behind our focus on going to heaven? Are we willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, not for some future reward, and certainly not to avoid some form of punishment, but simply because we believe Jesus is the most unclouded, the most clear and the most pure revelation of God’s love?  I heard someone once say: “If the fear of eternal damnation is the only thing keeping you from being a bad person, you are already a bad person!”

Are we willing to leave behind our focus for worldly power? Are we willing to transform this world not by imposing our beliefs on others, legislating our morality, but through selfless and sacrificial love— by loving, living and serving the way Jesus loved, lived and served? Are we willing to work alongside, not only those who believe like us and dress like us, not only the pretty and the powerful, but also those who believe very differently, those who are rough-around-the-edges, and those who are poor?

And here’s perhaps our most difficult challenge: Are we willing to leave behind focus on institutional church? Are we willing to leave behind the way we have always done things: old polities of how to be good church members that may be obstructing our focus on how to good disciples of Jesus? Are we willing to leave behind every part of church that is preventing us fulfilling the great commandment to love our neighbors and the great commission to make new disciples?

In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

The good news is that I believe we can regain our holy vision and our divine purpose when we redirect our gaze from the heavens, from worldly power, and even from the way we’ve always done things inside the institutional church, and focus on serving people and the meeting the needs of the world.

When we understand that faith in the love of God is not some ticket to heaven, that it was never intended to be coerced or used to control, or to only be experienced inside these walls, but faith is something that is to be lived everyday and shared with all, to the ends of the earth, starting right here in the River Valley with our neighbors who need us right now, then I believe we will regain the power of the Holy Spirit which can transform the world.