Church or Club

Sad day for United Methodists…

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

inclusive church 2

One day, a long-time, very wealthy church member approached a new pastor and asked: “Pastor, are we going to be the kind of church that welcomes and accepts those people?

By “those” people, I am sure he was referring to people of color, people who do not speak English, people from other faiths, poor people, people covered with tattoos, undocumented people, mentally-ill people, LGBTQ people, people with police records or anyone who does not look like or think like him.

The new pastor answered, “Of course we are going to be that kind of church.”

The wealthy man replied, “I suggest that you do everything in your power to prevent that from happening, or I am going to take my family and my money and find another church!”

The new pastor responded: “Well, you are in luck. Because you will not have to search very long to find another church…

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Why This Christian Pastor Is Pro-Choice: It’s Personal

Downward, Upward, and Forward Behind Jesus

abortion-debate

Introduction

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor who was raised in the rural South as an evangelical Southern Baptist, many are quick to make many assumptions about me.

The most prevalent assumption is that I am on the Pro-Life side of the abortion debate, as many assume that one simply cannot be both a Christian and Pro-Choice. Many believe it is a black and white issue, a simple decision between good and evil, life and murder.

As a married, father-of-two, Christian pastor, I strongly support the 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade. And, of course, I do not believe I am making a decision to choose evil. My convictions about abortion are strong, because my convictions are personal.

My Personal Story

It was the summer 1993. My wife Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary…

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Grateful to Be Done with Religion

done

Hebrews 10:11-25 NRSV

I am done. I give up. I have nothing left. I just can’t do this anymore. It’s over. No matter how hard I try, nor how much I put into it, I can never get it right.

And I know that I am not the only one. In fact, do you know what the fastest growing “religious” group in America is called?  They are called “the Dones.” At one time, they tried religion. But now they are done.

But here’s the good news—here’s what may be the best reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving: The wonderful truth about the Christian faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what anyone may tell you, the church is not a religious organization.

While I was pastoring a church right out of seminary back in 1993, a deacon in our church asked me where I saw myself in twenty-five years. Although I didn’t mention Arkansas, I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”   I asked.

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not a religious organization. And the last thing a Christian pastor should be is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  It comes from the late Episcopal Priest Robert Capon: “Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.”

Now, for some people religion has absolutely nothing to do with God.

For example, some say that I run religiously. I have heard my wife tell me that I read Runner’s World magazine like the Bible. I read it religiously to reach beyond myself, to run faster, achieve good health so I can enjoy the good life!

We’ve observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the stock-market religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows a low-carb diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

We work out, eat right, study, go to work, follow a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some, religion is all about God. There are those who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. The main reason they go to church is to work on their relationship with God. They believe if they say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then they can be right with God and God will bless them. If they can conduct their lives in a certain way, they can place themselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

The bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion.  No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right.

We can read all about running and how to run fast, but we will probably get injured.

We can study the Wall-Street Journal religiously and still make a bad investment.

We can religiously follow a diet and still gain weight.

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

And when we finally arrive at the place where we think you we have it right with God. When we finally believe we’ve got it right in the religion department, guess what? It only leads to pride and arrogance. A church member once told me, “I am the most humble person in our church!”

Sure you are.

In his wonderful book Unafraid: Moving Beyond a Fear-Based Faith, Benjamin Corey writes about a strange encounter with someone who was religious.

Upon meeting the gentleman, he wondered whether he could ask me a few questions to determine what kind of Christian I was. For some reason, I agreed—and ended up quickly regretting my decision, because the two questions out of his mouth were: “Do you spank your kids? And “Do you think gays are going to hell?”

I was like, “Wait…what kind of survey is this?” I should have known that this True Christian Surveywasn’t going anywhere, but in that moment I was foolish enough to answer his questions.

When I answered “no” on both counts, and answered another question to indicate that I did not believe in the rapture, the gentlemen told me that the reason why I was an adoptive father instead of a biological father was because God was refusing to bless me with children.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to such nonsense, to put an end to religion.

Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Well, of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies.

And I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my shortcoming as a fragmented human being are not going to disappear. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and offers again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

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

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. And through this great gift of God’s self, God revealed to the world that we should be done with religion.  Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right beliefs, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God.

We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ.

This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing in this set of principles or that set of ideals, in that biblical interpretation or in this style of worship. It is about trusting and following Jesus.

That is why we call it the gospel. That is why we call it good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged.

This Thanksgiving, I thank God that through Jesus Christ this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God that the church is not a religious organization!  If it hadn’t, as irreligious as I am, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, working hard, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. Religion is finished. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us. Our relationship with God has been made right through him.

So, instead of spending holy moments working on our relationship with God, we can spend some sacred time working on our relationships with others, loving others as we love ourselves.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We don’t need religion, but we still need church. However, we don’t need church to get right with God. We need church to discover ways we can get right with our neighbor. Because what this world needs is not more people who say they love God, but more people who love their neighbor with the unconditional, unreserved love of Jesus. We are free. We are free from fear. And we are free to love.

I know that there are some who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. They have never stepped out to follow Christ, to share the love of Christ with others, because they are waiting until they somehow get it right themselves. They are busy trotting back and forth to the altars of right beliefs, right thinking and right praying.

But this morning I am inviting all to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invite all to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

Thanks be to God.

Invitation to the Table

Each one is now invited to be served the bread and the wine of this table representing the broken body, and outpoured life of God.

There is absolutely nothing you can do to earn a rightful this table. There are no right words, right actions, or right beliefs. The good news is that when we could not make things right with God, God, through the sacrifice of Christ, revealed to the world that things have been made right. May we reflect on the sacrifice of God as we remain seated and sing together.

 

 

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

Accepting a Topsy-Turvy Gospel

Brett Medal

Mark 10:35-45 NRSV

We live in in some very dark times. These are difficult days to be a minister. These are difficult days to be the church. These are tough times to raise children. It is more than evident that the spirit of the anti-Christ is in this world. The spirit of the anti-Christ seems to have a grip on this nation, and it has even infiltrated the church. False prophets are everywhere.

Of course, this is nothing new. John put it in words 2,000 years ago:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

As Disciples of Christ were creating a movement to return to the simple teachings of Jesus in the 19thcentury, German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietsche were denigrating those teachings calling them “a slave morality.”

Nietshche noted that Christianity seemed to be most popular among the people in his day who were at were at the bottom— the poor, women, children, people with disabilities, people of color, and slaves. He accused Christianity of giving hope to those at the bottom and offering very little to those at the top.

His criticism served as a warning to the church: “If you are not careful, if you keep teaching the Gospel of Jesus, you might fill your churches up with the wrong type of people.”

So, the false prophets went to work. Rejecting the gospel of Jesus, they began to preach and teach the antitheses of Jesus. “God only helps those who help themselves,” they declared. “Women should be submissive to men, at home, in the work place, in government and in the church,” they asserted. “Children should be seen and not heard and can be exploited for their labor,” they affirmed. “Jesus was a white man,” they pronounced in artistic portrayals. “God’s Word sanctions slavery,” they argued.

Today, an anti-Christ spirit still haunts this land. “They are lazy and entitled,” they tweet. “Her voice is too shrill” they post. “They are too young to have a voice!” they shout. “We need to stop the caravan!” they clamor. “God calls them abominations,” they preach.

When Jesus first predicts what would have to suffer and die, the disciples immediately reject it.” Simon Peter pulls Jesus aside and strongly rebukes him. When he makes his second prediction, the disciples “jostle for position” arguing with one another: “who is the greatest.” And now, after a third and more detailed prediction of what was going to happen to him, James and John approach Jesus “on the sly” and say: “[Do us a favor and grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Jesus had just laid all of the cards out on the table—the condemnation, the mockery, the spitting, the flogging, the death—and James and John seem to accept none of it. The two of them had no clue that the ones who would end up on Jesus’ right and his left would be hanging on crosses!”

When the ten become angry with James and John for making their request, Jesus realizes that they are still confused about the nature of God’s Kingdom.  So as New Testament Scholar Martin Copenhaver has said, “he does a little remedial work with them.”  Changing the subject from the ultimate act of self-giving love on the cross, Jesus talks about other forms of self-giving.  Once again, Jesus reverses our expectations, and says that to be great is to be a servant, even as he came himself to be a servant.

 

Last week, I said Jesus’ teachings turns our word upside down.

  • The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
  • To save ourselves we must lose ourselves.
  • To live we must die.
  • To get back at you enemies, love them.
  • To obtain riches, give everything you have to the poor.
  • A woman’s two copper coins, worth only a few cents, has more value than large bags of money that others put into the temple treasury.
  • The eyes of the blind see more clearly than the eyes of those with 20/20 vision.
  • The poor are filled with good things, whereas the rich are sent away empty.
  • A poor beggar named Lazarus is resting by Abraham’s side, whereas the rich man is begging for mercy.
  • A tax collector leaves the worship justified, whereas the Pharisee does not.
  • The grown-up religious leaders are like poisonous snakes, whereas little children are like the kingdom of God.
  • Foreign Samaritans are role models, whereas a priest and a rabbi are not.
  • The prodigal son gets a pair sandals, a ring, a fatted calf, a big party with music and dancing, whereas the responsible son gets nothing.
  • Religion is condemned, whereas sin is forgiven.
  • The female disciples are the first to proclaim: “He is risen!” whereas the male disciples are cowering behind locked doors.

Copenhaver observes: “The lesson [in Mark chapter 10] bears repeating, because we are continually trying to straighten up the order of things that Jesus turned topsy-turvy.”

I have experienced this on more than one occasion working with Ainsley’s Angels. I believe that the Ainsley’s Angels’ mission of radical inclusion mirrors the topsy-turvy teachings of Jesus. And because of that, the mission is sometimes rejected.

I have been told by race directors that our children and adults who are differently-abled are not welcomed at their races. We “create too much angst to be in their race,” they said. “Only the physically-abled and the physically-fit should be in a marathon,” some runners grumbled. Others have said that we are what is wrong with this nation, that “not everyone deserves a trophy or deserves to be in a marathon.”

The good news is that there are many people who have accepted the radical, topsy-turvy Gospel of Jesus. They have stood firm and have rejected the spirit of the anti-Christ that is in our land and are following the radical way of Christ.

There’s a church and a community that is helping to send a young man with Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy and Autism to the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. This is a marathon in our nation’s capital called “The People’s Marathon.” And it’s a marathon that is more than happy to include him.

There is a church that begins their worship service uplifting and dedicating small little children, because they know they are the keys to the Kingdom of God. And there are parents and grandparents who are willing to sacrifice everything for those children.

There is a church that has ordained both men and women as ministers, ministers who have never lorded over their congregations, but selflessly served alongside their congregations.

The good news is there are several churches in this city that are open and affirming to all people regardless of race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.

The good news is there are people everywhere who have heeded Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger.

There are volunteers who have left the comfort of home to help survivors of recent hurricanes.

There are teachers, social workers, and childcare workers, who sacrifice much to educate, protect and care for the children of this world.

There are people with empathy who are marching and organizing and giving all that they have to create a nation with less racial, social, economic and environmental injustice.

There are people who believe Black Lives Matter, and of course, they also believe Blue lives matter, as they have created an organization called PACE, Police and Community Engagement that creates safe place for conversation.

There are law enforcement officers and firefighters who are willing to lay down their lives to protect and serve their communities.

There are artists who are imagining a more just and equitable world.

There are women refusing to be kept silent by patriarchal powers of oppression.

There are children speaking truth to power by saying “enough is enough” to violence.

There are soldiers still willing to sacrifice their lives for liberty and justice for all.

There are elderly who spend their well-earned retirement volunteering at the hospital.

There are voters who care about the things Jesus cares about who are going to the polls.

Dan Rather has noted: “[There’s] the city bus driver who waits patiently for an elderly rider, the crossing guard who gives the children a bright smile, the doctor who volunteers to treat the homeless, the ranger in a national park who introduces a city kid to the wonder of tall trees.”

In other words, although many have surrendered to the spirit of the anti-Christ, rejecting the teachings of Jesus for possessions, position, privilege and power, there are many who have accepted this Topsy-Turvy Gospel—And because of that, a light shines in the darkness.

Thanks be to God.

Sharing the Suffering and the Glory – A Commissioning Service for Elders and Congregation

commissioning

1 Peter 5:1-4 NRSV

This morning, I want to us to take a careful look at these words from 1 Peter.

Now as an Elder myself,

Did you know that as the pastor of this church, I am considered to be an Elder? I am. Thus, the responsibilities of Elders in the church are very similar to my responsibilities as the Senior Minister. I have often said that the Elders of the church are best described as “co-pastors.” The pastor and the Elders form a wonderful ministry team of the church.

And did you know, that as a church that has always believed in Martin Luther’s doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, we believe that every member of our church is a co-minister? When a minister laid his hands on you in baptism, we believe you were ordained or set a part for ministry. We call ourselves Disciples of Christ. We believe we have been called to be disciples just like Peter was a disciple. Thus, this passage in 1 Peter regarding Elders is applicable to every member of this church.

and a witness of the sufferings of Christ.

Now, Peter actually witnessed the sufferings of Christ; however, as Elders and ministers of the church today,

we also bearwitness to the sufferings of Christ, by becoming suffering servants with the congregation.

With the Apostle Paul, we believe when one member of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. We grieve with those who are mournful. We worry with those who are anxious. We are afraid with those who are fearful. We cry with those who are despairing.

as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed,

but at the same time, we share the glory that is coming.

As Paul also says, we grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope.

We suffer, but we know all things will work together for the good.

We are worry but we know that nothing in all of creation will separate us from the love of God.

We are afraid, but we know we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

We cry, but we know that love will win.

Therefore, we are in all times and in all places encouragers.

We possess a spirit of positivity, reassuring others that although we cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are always ahead.

We always work out bring out the best that is in others.

We work to embolden the image of God, the spiritual gifts, and the holy purpose that is within all people.

I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge,

 Elders, ministers, and all disciples are best described as shepherds.

After asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Now, we might hear this in a very individualistic way as it seems like Peter is being sent out on a lone, heroic mission.

However, when Jesus speaks of shepherding, he does not want us to think about a brave, lone shepherd who his sent out to bless the world.

No, with Jesus, ministry is always a communal experience.

Mark’s Gospel informs us that when Jesus commissioned the disciples, when he sent them out into the world, he sent them out in pairs.

Jesus does not intend for us to bear the good news on our own. We are called to proclaim the gospel, to tend to the flock, to meet the needs of others, together, in community.

exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it

Elders and other church members in some churches (not this church of course) only read part of this verse.

They exercise oversight. Which they interpret as being in control.

They believe the congregation should be submissive to their leadership. They act as if they are the bosses of the church.

However, the verse continues: “exercising the oversight…willingly, as God would have you do it.”

In speaking about his own his own shepherding ministry, Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus is describing a ministry that is not only a communal experience. It is also a mutual experience.

In the book that has perhaps influenced my ministry the most, Henri Nouwen writes that Jesus wants us to minister as he ministers (In the Name of Jesus).

“He wants us to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are forgiven, who love and are being loved.”

Somehow we have come to believe that ministry requires a safe distance from those we are called to serve. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which ‘service’ takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves. Someone else is being served. [And we best not confuse the two!]

But how can anyone lay down their life for those with whom they are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship?

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, your own hope and despair, your own joy and sadness, courage and fear available to  [all] as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.”

Nouwen continues:

“We are not the healers. We are not the reconcilers. We are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.

The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

Therefore, ministry they way God would do it, shepherding the way Jesus would do it, must be mutual.

—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge,

We do this not for power or control, but because we are eager to follow the way of Jesus, the good Shepherd.

Nouwen points out:

When another cannot know someone who is caring for them, “shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.”

The ministry and leadership of Jesus is radically different.

To use Robert Greenleaf’s term, it is a “servant-leadership,” in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as the people need her or him.

but be examples to the flock

We are to live as mentors to one another. When we see something that needs to be done, we do not wait for others to act. We do not sit back saying, “I wished the pastor would do this or address this.” But as servant leaders, as shepherds, as a priestly people, we take the initiative.

We model for others what the prophet Micah calls the requirements of our God. We love kindness. We do justice. And we walk humbly.

This is especially important as we live in a culture where the exact opposite is often modeled, and oftentimes modeled in the name of God.

I cannot think of any other time in my ministry where the words of another prophet have been more applicable:

Ah, you who call evil good

and good evil,

who put darkness for light

and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

 

We must model for the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

We give sacrificially. We serve selflessly. We love our neighbors. We confess our sins. We trust in God’s grace. We offer grace to others. We liberate people who are oppressed. We welcome children. We proclaim the gospel, and if necessary, we use words.

And when the chief shepherd appears,

When we proclaim the gospel with our words and deeds, we have the hope that we will see Jesus, our chief shepherd, our chief Elder.

In Matthew 25, we read a parable where people are asking Jesus when they saw him: “Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

He answered:

“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.  

When we shepherd, when we tend to the sheep, when we minister to God’s children, when we love our neighbors as ourselves, not only do we see Jesus, but we participate in something divine that is eternal, something holy that has no end, something sacred that is forever.

Words Create Worlds

words have power

James 3:1-12

I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.

The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well. Allow me to read it again:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).

Nathan Parrish, a friend of mine and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that one Sunday after worship, he asked a father how football practice went that week for his son who was playing Middle Football for the first time. He said that his son came home after the game Thursday night really upset. He said that the coach said that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”

He asked: “What do you mean?”

Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”

Laura Johnson, the former pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, an area that has been devastated this weekend by hurricane Florence, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”

The message starts early, and it is pervasive. The words are heard in school and in many churches. Through patriarchal language, through the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, the insinuation is made that men are somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, as women are pushed to a more subservient place in the church.

Words indeed have great power.

This is why alarm bells should go off in our moral consciences when we hear people with power use words like “infestations,” “animals,” “aliens,” “dogs,” and “illegal,” to describe groups of people. Words have power to degrade, demean and dehumanize those made in the likeness of God. Adolf Hitler knew this when he referred to Jews as “rats” in Nazi Germany.

As we read this scripture in James, we can realize that James is making a fascinating connection between speech and creation. In verse nine, we reminded that we were created according to the likeness of God as revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. James is making the comparison that as God created the world with speech, we, like God, also have the power to create with our speech.

In verse seven we read that the “beast and bird, reptile and sea creature” are tamed by humans. This echoes Genesis creation account where human beings are given the power of speech to name all of the living creatures. James reminds us that the first and most important gift distinctive to humans is this power to name, this power to create language.  James is saying that with language and speech we are given to power continue God’s own creative activity in our world.

The truth is, with speech and language, we possess a world-creating power. New Testament scholar Luke Johnson put it this way: “the world as it emerges moment by moment from God’s creative energy…is reshaped and given its meaning by human language, whose symbols enable us both to comprehend the world as meaningful and to interpret it.”

Thus, I believe a very important question for us is this: How are we as the church creating, how are we reshaping and how are we giving meaning to our world with our language?

What about when we say:  We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” There was a great book written nearly forty years ago that many churches that are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”

The Bible clearly says…

Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous, especially when I hear it from politicians who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. They want to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land.

While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

 These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

When we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some reward instead of some punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

God will not put any more on us than we can bear.

It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

This language has probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any other spoken words. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, if God send this hurricane, if God is sending these flood waters in my house then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to follow Jesus while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we we do that, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers.God is not seated on some throne far removed from the creation sending hurricanes to North Carolina or blowing up houses in Massachusetts. God is not pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Our language has the power to paint a Christ-like portrait of God, and our language as the power to paint an anti-Christ portrait of God.

Our language has the power to create a world where people are oppressed and cursed, and our language has the power to create a world where people are treated with equity and are blessed.

Our language has the power to create a world that dishonest, deceitful, and despairing, a world that is mean, cold and dark. And our language has the power to create a world that is honest and sincere, a world that is kind, empathetic and hopeful.

Let me illustrate this. Joyce Williams was a member of one of my churches who used to always greet me with the following words: “I love you Jarrett Banks.” She would always say it just like that. When she passed away, almost everyone who knew her said the same thing, that she would extend the same greeting to them: “I love you…” and then said their first and last name. So, that is how we concluded her memorial service. I had everyone who was present to turn to the person next to them, introduce themselves if they did not know them, and then say, “I love you,” followed by saying their name.

Let’s do that this morning.

Let us pray.

O God, help us all to realize that like You, we have the power to create worlds with our words.  We thank You for this gift, but ask that you help us to always remember that with this gift comes a great responsibility.  As Your sons and daughters, may we use our language to create a world of peace, justice, love and respect. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

There is a word that I always use at this time to invite you to share the meal from this table. That word is “all.” Sometimes I even define that word by saying, “all means all.” It is my hope that this simple word, all, is helping too create a brand new world: a world of acceptance, a world of grace, a world of inclusion, and a world of love. May we prepare to live in such a world, to eat and drink in this world, as we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion.

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world remembering that every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

So go and speak only wonderful words of life that point others to the love and the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And may the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.

A Transfigured Church

Barrett Finish FS

Mark 9:2-9 NRSV

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Here, we find the disciples arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest.

And who could blame them? For it is in this same chapter that we witness Peter, James and John had just witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus. They watched as the appearance of Jesus, his face, even his clothes transformed before them. Mark uses the word “dazzling” to describe the scene.

So, of course they are arguing about greatness. For they too wanted some glory. They too wanted to “dazzle” the world. They wanted to be great.

But what does it mean to be a great disciple of Christ? What does it mean to be a great church?

Well, we really do not have to ask, do we?  For all we have to do is listen, and we will hear countless voices from our culture telling us exactly what we need to do in order to be great.

Do you want to be a great church?

As the pastor, don’t ever be too real. Don’t let people know that you are a sinner. Don’t let it slip out that you sometimes have doubts. Make them believe that since Jesus came into your heart you no longer struggle, you never question your faith, and you have all of the answers.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t make people think too much. Don’t give them too much to ponder. Don’t make them question those things they have always believed. Don’t ever challenge them. Allow folks to check their brains in the logia. Tell them exactly what they need to believe to be a good Christian. Keep it simple. Make it black and white.

Do you want to be a great church?

Make church a little more entertaining. Do you really need to have communion every Sunday? That’s a lot of work. And besides, come on, no one wants to hear about sacrifice, shed blood and a broken body every Sunday! Trade the bread and juice for some coffee and doughnuts, or, on special Sundays, some biscuits with gravy. Make church a little more fun.

Forget about this Ash Wednesday thing. No one wants to talk about sin and mortality.

Do you want to be a great church?

Just skip the whole season of Lent and jump straight to Easter.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t ever criticize or challenge folks inside the church to change. Instead, criticize folks outside the church for they are the ones who really need to change. Create a “we-verses-those” mentality, an “insider-verses-outsider” way of thinking. And remind the congregation every Sunday that we are “in,” and those who disagree with us are “out.” Make them feel righteous, holy, superior, knowing that while we are on their way to heaven, those who are unlike us are on their way to hell.

Do you want to be a great church?

Look, it’s fine to welcome all people to church. And I guess it is ok to say that all means all. But you don’t have to say it every Sunday! Don’t over-emphasize it. Don’t over-broadcast it, because that is only going to attract those who are bad for business.

And don’t use words like “inclusion” and “diversity” so much. Because, the truth is, we like to be with folks who think like us, act like us and look like us.

Do you want to be a great church?

Don’t let babies, small children, or folks with disabilities disrupt the service. And don’t talk about helping the poor so much. Don’t talk so much about helping the marginalized of society so often. Because, if word gets out, you know what will happen. They will take advantage of us. They will use us until all of our funds run dry!

Do you want to be a great church?

Have more programs that are uplifting and edifying for the members. Don’t you know that people come to church to be spiritually fed. So keep everyone filled, satisfied, happy and comfortable. Don’t pressure members to do things that are outside of their comfort zones like sitting like sharing a meal at the same table with the homeless; developing a close friendship with a self-proclaimed atheist or a person of another faith; volunteering at a prison or regularly visiting nursing homes.

Do you want to be a great church?

Preach what is popular. Embrace the culture over the Word of God. Instead of preaching extravagant grace, preach “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Instead of preaching social justice, preach “God only helps those who are willing to help themselves.”

Then Jesus comes, and he asks:

“What are you talking about?”

We are silent.

But Jesus heard us. Jesus always hears his disciples.

It is then that Jesus goes into the nursery and brings out a little baby; and taking the child in his arms, he says:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Luke 9:47-48).

In other words, Jesus said:

“Stop worrying about being a great church and start worrying about the least. And when you do that, when you take care of those who cannot care for themselves, when you feed those who cannot feed themselves, when you clothe those who cannot clothe themselves, when you welcome those who usually feel unwelcomed, especially by organized religion, then you will be welcomed, and you will be blessed by the one who sent me. And like me standing on that mountain, you will be transformed, and you will be transfigured.”

Holding that baby in his arms, it is as if Jesus is asking: “Do you want to dazzle the world? Do you want to be transformed and transfigured as you saw me standing with the prophet Elijah and the law-giver Moses? Then listen to my voice and listen to the voices from the law and the prophets.”

Jesus is saying remember the voice of Moses who commanded:

“If there are any poor…in the land…do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. …Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need” (Deut 15:7-11).

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. …True justice must be given to foreigners living among you…” (Deut 24:14-16).

Jesus is saying to remember also the voice of Proverbs, as we learn exactly who’s dazzling to the eyes of God:

“…blessed are those who help the poor… Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him” (Proverbs 14:21, 31).

“If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord— and he will repay you!” (Proverbs 19:17).

And listen to who are not so dazzling in God’s eyes:

“Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need” (Proverbs 21:13).

“A person who gets ahead by oppressing the poor or by showering gifts on the rich will end in poverty” (Proverbs 22:16).

“Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed” (Proverbs 28:27).

So, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9 NRSV).

Remember the voice of the Psalmist…

“Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute. Rescue the poor and helpless;” (Psalms 82:2).

Do you want to dazzle the world? Then remember the voice of the prophet Isaiah:

“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool” (Isaiah 1:17-18).

“In other words,” says the Lord, “when you help the least, when the mission and ministries of your church side with the poor, I will transform you. I will transfigure you!”

“Do you want to know how to be a transfigured church?” asks Jesus. “Then listen some more to Isaiah:”

“Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains of injustice. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. The Spirit of God will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply, ‘Remove the heavy yoke of oppression…Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon’” (Isaiah 58:6-10).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want First Christian Church to be a great church. I want us to be a transfigured church. I want us to be a transformed and a transfigured church. I want us to be a Christian Church that is welcomed and blessed by God. I want us to be Disciples of Christ who are led forward by the Lord’s Spirit like the dawn, a light shining forth into the darkness. I want us to be a church that radiates love and light. I want us to be a church that dazzles the world!

I love talking with Charlotte Tidwell, the founder of Antioch Youth and Family, about the work that she does serving the impoverished in our city. It is hard to describe, but when Charlotte talks about mentoring children who are at risk, caring for the elderly and feeding the hungry, it is as if her face changes, transfigured if you will.

And as I stand before her, as I see the compassion in her eyes, the love of Christ in her smile, as I experience the warmth radiating from her heart, I am simply dazzled her presence!

It’s the same thing I witness every time I run a race with Ainsley’s Angels. You can see it in the eyes of the children we push. They look up at the Angel Runners who are pushing them, who are transformed, transfigured in their presence, and they are simply dazzled by them!

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. However, the transformation and transfiguration of our church will depend on what we do throughout the year. It will depend on how we serve. It will depend on where we serve. And it will depend on whom we serve. Let us pray together.

O God, we don’t want to be great. We just want to be transfigured. So, come O God, go with us as we serve selflessly and sacrificially, in places that we may not want to go, with people we would much rather ignore. Go with us and help us dazzle this city, our region and our world in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.