Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

Poetry in Motion: Remembering Mary Jane Tyler

mary-tyler-fort-smith-ar-obituary

When a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit life, Jesus responded my telling the story that we call “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” After he tells of the one who selflessly acted like a loving neighbor to one in need, Jesus then tells the lawyer: “If you want to inherit eternal life, then go and do likewise.

I have always found it interesting that the Greek word for “do” in this text is poiei.  Jesus says to go and poiei.  I find this interesting because this wordpoieiis related to our English word, poem.  It means poetry. 

            Poetry is something that that has been fashioned, something beautiful made by human creativity.  A poem is something beautiful that has been made with words, something “done” with words that has deep, lasting meaning.

To be with God, Jesus said, “You must go and poiei.” You must go and poieilike this Samaritan. You must become a poem. If you want to experience life abundant and eternal, says Jesus, you must become poetry in motion.  You must fashion your life in such a way that the way you live, the way you work, the way you serve, the way you love, all that you do, becomes a living poem, becomes a beautiful hymn of praise to God—one that lifts up the fallen, pours expensive oil on their wounds, bandages their hurts, gets them more help if needed, and pays their debts.

Do you want to experience life that endures forever? Then go and live a beautiful poem of selflessness and sacrifice.

This is how many of us will remember Mary Jane Tyler. She was poetry in motion.

Most are aware that the Bible contains a collection of beautiful poetry that we call the Psalms. Thus, it should not surprise us to learn that Mary Jane’s favorite Bible verse was a Psalm.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100).

This was not only the favorite scripture of Mary Jane’s life, but I believe it is fair to say that this was Mary Jane’s life. Her life was no less than a living Psalm of praise to God.

The joyful noise that Mary Jane shared with the First Christian Church in Fort Smith still rings in this sanctuary every almost every Sunday through our hand bell choirs that were at one time under her direction.

Because her life was a living Psalm, Mary Jane gave this world many good gifts.

When I asked Steven to send me an email naming the one special gift that he received from his mother for which he is most thankful, he couldn’t name one. He sent an email naming FIVE special gifts! And not surprisingly, each of the gifts he listed are the subject of numerous Psalms.

In that email, Steven wrote:

“I will always be grateful for her love of nature and for the natural beauty of the world: whether it was birds in the backyard, sunsets on the beach, hikes to a waterfall or flowers in the garden.”

Mary understood with the Psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:4-5).

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small (Psalm 104:24-25).

With the Psalmist, Mary Jane’s life on earth was a continual song of praise:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96:11-12).

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens… When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1, 3-4)

Secondly, Steven writes that he will forever be grateful for her love of learning something new and the value of being a lifelong learner.

Again, it is the Psalmist who reminds us:

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90).

Joel Dorman has written:

When we are lifelong learners, we keep the wonder of the moments. [Thus, we are able to see the world through fresh eyes every morning. Sunsets and sunrises are more strikingly breathtaking. We are pilgrims in a journey called ‘existence,’ and we operate in an intentional and purposeful manner to slow down, look up, and show others the hope inside of us.

Mostly, when we “number our days” we keep God in God’s rightful place: [and that is] first.  There is an active, continuous recognition that these seventy to eighty [or 90] on Earth is not all there is.  There is a conscious connection to our eternal destiny.  When God is first, we can fully understand the words of our Lord’s half-brother, James, who wrote, ‘Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’

Thirdly, Steven writes that he will always cherish Mary’s love of travel and the kind of experiences that change you and how you see the world.

It was Mark Twain who wisely said:

            Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

No wonder in Psalm 10, we read these wise words:

From now on every road you travel will take you to God. (MSG)

Mary Jane understood that to celebrate the diversity of humankind is to celebrate divinity, as each person on this planet was made in the image of God.

Therefore, it does not surprise any of us who knew Mary Jane that Steven says that the fourth gift of his mother that he will always be thankful for is how she modeled the importance of being a volunteer in social justice causes, [through her involvement] in local organizations, and her church.  

As the Mary Jane observed the injustice and inequality of this world, with the Psalmist, she lamented:

How long will you defend the unjust

and show partiality to the wicked?

Defend the weak and the fatherless;

uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82).

Lastly, Steven writes that he will forever cherish the reality that his mother had the kind of love inside her that enabled her to be a peacemaker.

“We need more peacemakers in this world,” she would say.

“That’s a gift I’m still working on,” says Steven.

In a world fraught with so much so much fear and division, violence and hate, oh, isn’t this a gift we all should work more on? For what this world needs perhaps more than anything else is more peacemakers like Mary Jane.

Of course it was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”Peace it what was proclaimed at his birth by the angels: “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”

And it what he proclaimed every time he talked about leaving them:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

It was the first blessed word that he spoke to his disciples on Easter morning:  “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

But long before Jesus, it was the Psalmist who declared:

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace (Psalm 29:11).

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:14).

Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace (Psalm 37:37).

Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble (Psalm 119:165).

And the good news is:

Because Mary Jane sought peace, when she needed peace the most, she received it. Because Mary herself was a Psalter of peace, because she followed her Lord who said that if we want to be with God we must go and poiei, because she fashioned her life in such a way that all she did became poetry in motion, a beautiful hymn of praise to God, as I visited with her in the nursing home under hospice care about a week before she died, it was obvious, that although she was in the valley of the shadow of the death, she feared no evil. It was obvious that she knew her Lord with with her. Her good Shepherd’s rod and staff were comforting her.

After we prayed together, she thanked me. She then closed her eyes and slept, no doubt dreaming of green pastures and still waters.

And today, her cup surely runneth over with goodness as she dwells in the house of the Lord forever.

I would like to conclude the service this morning with a note written by Mary Jane, as I believe she may have written it for each one of us who are here today.

As I’ve thought about the meaning of life, many scriptures and writings have influenced me through the years, there are two that have accompanied me:

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

And this verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much;

to win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;

to earn the appreciation of honest critics’

and endure the betrayal of false friends;

to appreciate the beauty,

to find the best in others,

to leave the world a little better,

whether by a healthy child,

a garden patch or a redeemed social condition,

to know even one life has breathed easier

because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

Church or Club

Sad day for United Methodists…

A Movement of Selfless Love

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

A Movement of Selfless Love

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.