Lifted up for Service

 

cialis

Mark 1:29-39 NRSV

These few verses found in the end of the first chapter of Mark paint a beautiful portrait of who our Lord is, how our Lord acts, and what our Lord desires. Listen to them again, carefully, prayerfully…

“As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.”

Do you hear the urgency in this passage? “As soon as they left…” “…at once.”

I hear a lot of people talk about God’s timing. They say that God will bring healing or restoration in God’s own time. They say that God’s time is usually not our time. And they say that God has reasons for God’s delay. I believe this passage teaches us that the Lord wants to heal us and restore us now: not tomorrow, not some day or one day, but today, right now, “at once.” It is not the Lord’s will for any of us to ever be sick, broken, or even have a fever.

Therefore, if we are sick or broken, if we are suffering in any way, we must understand that it is not because God has some twisted reason or some purpose-driven plan for it. And since suffering is not the will of God, and since we are loved by God, we can know that when we suffer, God suffers with us and is doing all God can do to bring healing, wholeness and restoration.

“He came and took her by the hand…”

Perhaps more than anything else, I believe it is the will of our Lord to come to us and take us by the hand. When I was a child I learned a wonderful song:

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee

Our problem is that we put our hands in so many other places to receive wholeness.

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord we put our hands to work. We believe that if we can somehow work hard enough, serve diligently, industriously, thoroughly, and persistently enough, then we can achieve or earn wholeness or peace.

This may be the greatest sin of most of us.

We put our hands, our trust in our own selves instead of in the hands of the only one who can save us. Ephesians chapter two teaches us: “For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put our hands in the hands of others. My granddaddy was not a pastor, preacher, or a scholar, but he was sometimes quite the theologian. One thing that he said, and said often was: “There’s only one man that you can trust in this world, and that is the Good Lord.”

However, many of us put our trust in the hands of so many others. We put our hands in the hands of the government, we put our hands in the hands of our friends and neighbors, even in the hands of the church. Then we become disillusioned when they sooner or later disappoint us. The 118th Psalm reminds us:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in mortals.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in princes.

 

And instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put them in our own pockets. We put our trust in our wealth and our material possessions. Our sense of well-being, wholeness and security comes from our bank accounts, 401-k’s, our homes, automobiles and clothing. In chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew we read the warning:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

The good news for all of us this day is that Jesus, the Son of the God of Heaven is coming to us, and he wants to take us by the hand and give us a peace that the world simply cannot give (John 14:27).

“Jesus came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up.”

When we put our hand in the hand of the Lord, the Lord lifts us up. Preacher and Princeton Theological Seminary professor Nancy Gross says this is good news because “There is no shortage of “down” from which people need to be lifted up.”

Down today are all those things that the young people in the Scouts of America seek to emulate:

Trust and loyalty are down. Helpfulness and politeness and kindness are down. Respect for the law is down. Fiscal responsibility, a clean environment, courageous leadership and reverence are all down.

And in the middle of one of the worst flu seasons on record, many are down with sickness.

The good news is when we are down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease, down with a fever, when we put our hand in the hand of Jesus, Jesus always lifts us up!

Now, as much as we might like to do so, now is not the time to sing a hymn, break some bread, sing another hymn and go home. Because our scripture text doesn’t end here.

“Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31).

When we put out hand in the hand of Jesus, we are lifted up. We receive wholeness. We receive peace. We receive salvation. Then, we serve. We are lifted up for a specific purpose: to serve.

Jesus makes us whole not only for ourselves alone, not soley to help us feel better, more hopeful, more happy, more peaceful and more alive, not solety to help us get through a hard week at school, at work or at home. We are lifted up for service to others.

I believe a major problem with the Christian faith today is that many have a very selfish understanding of salvation. Our faith has been reduced to some kind of ticket to heaven, some sort of divine stamp of approval, or some kind of new drug to make our lives better, fuller, richer.

Have you noticed that every other television commercial that comes on the air is an ad touting the benefits of a new prescription drug? There is a new drug available for whatever it is that might ail you!

Are you tired of being tired? Do you have trouble going to sleep? Do you have difficulty waking up? Is your hair falling out? Do you have a going problem or a growing problem?  Are you overweight but love to eat?  Do you need to put some excitement back into your relationships? Do you read the story of the the three little pigs and wolf who huffs and puffs only to have your granddaughter say, “That sounds like you grandpa!” No matter what you’ve got, there is a new pill created just for you.

And then, in nearly every commercial, after the person begins taking what they asked their doctor to prescribe, there is all of this exuberant celebration: dancing in the streets; jumping up and down; digging for clams; running around in the yard with their dog and your water hose; even sitting outdoors and watching the sunset while holding hands with their significant other in separate bathtubs!

I oftentimes wonder if this is not how we oftentimes promote our faith. If you channel surf through the religious channels, you will find that there is no shortage of preachers who sound like they are spokespeople for some new drug. “Are you down and out?  Are you drowning in a sea of debt? Are you empty inside? Does your love life need a boost? Then pick up the phone and make your pledge, send in your check, and sit back and wait for God to pour out God’s blessings!  Wait for God to give you a reason to celebrate!”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were thinking when they were following Jesus throughout Galilee. Listen to how the Sermon on the Mount begins: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”  Folks had come out from all over to follow Jesus with these expectations that Jesus was going to somehow make their lives better

And listen to what Jesus says:

Are you 40 years old and wonder where your life is going? Are you feeling blue?  Do you need help raising your children? Does your marriage need a boost?

No, instead, Jesus says things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he?  I thought Jesus was all about making things easy. What’s he talking about?

And he’s not finished. “Love everyone, including your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself.”

I am afraid that churches are so desperate to attract people that they have been willing to trivialize and water down the gospel. So much so that the salvation that many churches are preaching is no different than the salvation that is being preached by the prescription drug industry.

May God forgive the church for implying that we need Jesus in our life to lift us up… period. Just lift us up. And implying Jesus will make our lives easier, fix everything that is wrong with us, put a little lilt in our voices, a little sunshine in our souls.

Because the chances are very good that when we put our hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, our lives will become even more difficult than they were before.

It is the will of the Lord to come to us, and to come to us immediately, without delay, with as sense of divine urgency, to take us by the hand, lift us up, and make us whole, for one purpose and for one purpose only: service, self-denying, self-expending, sacrificial service.

Let us pray together.

O God, as Christ took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, take our hands. Make us whole. Lift us up to be the church you are calling us to be in this world. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Do you need to be lifted up? Are you down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease? Have you been down with a fever? If so, gather around this table and put your hand in the hand of Jesus. He will lift you up. But he won’t stop there. The bread which he says is his body given is going to lift you up to selflessly give your own bodies as sacrifice. As he pours and lifts the cup he is going to lift you up to sacrificially pour yourself out for others.

Let us prepare to be to be lifted up for service as we sing together.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

He’s coming to you. He’s coming without delay. He’s coming immediately, with a divine urgency. He’s coming reaching in and reaching out his hand.

So, go ahead, right here and now, put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee. He will lift you up. He will make you whole. For service.

As you go and serve, may the Lord bless you and take care of you; may the Lord be kind and gracious to you; may the Lord look on you with favor and give you peace.

Come and See

Statue of LIberty

John 1:43-51 NRSV

What are we doing here this morning? How did we get to this place? Why are we here this morning sitting in a worship service? How does faith happen?

Well, according to John, it all started one day when John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking by and said to two of his disciples: “Look.” “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”

When the disciples heard him say this, they immediately, almost enthusiastically, began to follow Jesus, spending the entire day with him.

The disciple named Andrew went out and found his brother, Simon Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah.” He then brought Simon to Jesus so Simon could see for himself.

This is how church happens. This is how we got here. We are here this morning because one person told another person who told another person who told another person about Jesus.

This is how our faith got started. It is the way our faith happens today. It is the way that faith has always happened. It is the way it is intended to happen. It is to be shared personally, person to person to person.

Our scripture text continues…

The next day, Jesus went out to Galilee and found a man named Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Then Philip, much like Andrew who went and told Simon about Jesus, went out and found his friend Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

And here’s where the story really gets interesting. Nathanael doesn’t respond with the eagerness and enthusiasm of Andrew or Simon when they first heard about Jesus. In fact, Nathanael responds much like we expect people to respond to Jesus today. He seems cynical, skeptical, dismissive, and even rude. We can picture him arrogantly rolling his eyes asking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

We can picture this, because we have seen it. We’ve heard this before.

We heard it put in vulgar words this week referring to Haiti, El Salvador and nations on the African continent”

And we’ve also heard it if we’ve invited anyone to church lately, and I am hoping that all of you have invited someone, are inviting people! Because that is how our faith works. It is how church works. It is shared personally, person to person.

Do you remember hearing the cynicism? “Can anything good come from the church these days?” “Does anything good ever come from organized religion?”

Nathanael responds the same way most people respond to us when we bring up Jesus or the church these days.

However, notice how Philip responds to the cynicism of Nathanael. Philip does not respond in any of the ways I would respond. He doesn’t snap back, get defensive, or walk away disappointed or angry. I am sometimes tempted to start preaching a little sermon, defending God and the way of Jesus, making the case for following Jesus, arguing that the things that he had heard about Jesus, Nazareth, and organized religion, are not all true.

No, Philip doesn’t do any of those things. He lets Nathanael’s criticism roll off his back and simply answers: “Come and see.”

What is interesting is that this is exactly how Jesus one day answered Andrew and his friend when they asked Jesus where he was staying. Jesus said, “Come and see.”

Andrew went and saw, and he saw that Jesus never really stayed anywhere. He saw that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). He saw that Jesus was continually on the move, on a journey, teaching, leading, touching, healing, forgiving, feeding, giving, welcoming, accepting, restoring.

Jesus simply said, “Come and see,” and when Andrew went and saw, he saw that he had indeed seen the Messiah.

And when Nathanael dismisses Philip, Philip simply responds: “Come and see.”

Professor of preaching Michael Rogness points out that our task is “not to prove the truth of the Christian faith” to a skeptic or a cynic. It is not even to persuade others to become Christian. Our task is simply to say to others: ‘Come and see.’”[i]

And Nathanael came. And Nathanael saw this one who surprisingly knew him by name, this one who saw the good that was in him, this one who loved him and promised to open up heaven for him.

Seminary president David Lose remarks: “Such simple…and inviting words.” “Come and see.” Words, he says sum up “not only the heart of the Gospel of John, but the whole Christian life.” Because the Christian faith, he says, is “all about invitation.”

“It’s not about cramming your faith down someone else’s throat. After all, nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to ask anyone: ‘Have you given your life to Christ?’” Nowhere does the Bible tell us to go up to our neighbors and ask: “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” “Have you been saved?” Or worse: “If you died this very day, do you know where you will spend eternity?” Or even worse: “God loves you and wants a personal relationship with you, but if you reject God, then God will send you straight to hell.”[ii]

No, we’re just asked to say (not to push, guilt or scare) but to say: “Come and see.” “Come and see for yourself what Christ means in my life.” “Come and see what Jesus has done for me.” “Come and see how Jesus informs my thinking, guides my life, gives my life meaning.” “Come and see for yourself the good things our church is doing in the name of Christ.” “Come and see.”

It is not our job to convert or to save; only to invite.

And here’s the thing. When we first bring up the subject of church, if they can see that we are truly being sincere, if they can see in our eyes that we are being honest and genuine, if they can see we are sharing from our hearts, we should expect them to be skeptical and cynical. We can fully expect them to dismiss what we are saying, or even make some smart-aleck response like: “I didn’t know anything good could come from church these days!”

And when they do, when they hesitate or smirk, we need to understand that that’s okay. In fact, in this world, it is to be expected. Because this good news that we are sharing—the good news that God, the creator of all that is, not only knows us by name, but loves us, sees the all of the good in us, gives God’s self to us, and promises to open up heaven for us—this good news does seem too good to be true.

Thus, we should completely understand if they pause at our invitation, if they look unsure, or even if they walk away. All we can do, all God wants us to do, is just say, “Come and see.”

Come and see a church that never stays put, but is always on the move. Come and see a church that does not invite you to come to church but to go and be the church, be the embodiment of Christ in this world.

Come and see a church who strives everyday to keep the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr alive by being a pro-reconciling, anti-racism church.

Come and see a church that supports and works with local law enforcement and the community to build relationships and provide a safe place to converse about behaviors that adversely affect people of color.

Come and see a church that believes in religious freedom for all religions, not just Christians. And come and see a church that does not believe religious freedom gives us a right to discriminate or to do harm to another.

Come and see a church that invites and welcomes a Muslim leader of the local mosque to speak at a Men’s dinner to break down the walls that divide us, to build bridges and create friendships will all our neighbors.

Come and see a church where you brain does not have to be checked at the door. Come and see a church that believes science is real and caring for this planet is a God-given, moral responsibility.

Come and see a church that believes all people are created in the image of God, male and female. Come and see a church that values the leadership of women, ordains women, and believes women’s rights are human rights.

Come and see a church that is deeply rooted in the American dream, a church that was conceived by immigrants in the early 19th century, a church where the words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved in the foundation of the Statue of Liberty are engraved in our historical and spiritual DNA:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Come and see a church that hosts Christmas parties for the poor and the marginalized and purchases Christmas gifts to give to impoverished strangers.

Come and see a church that regularly sends care packages to widows and remodels apartments for the orphaned and is committed to the Word of God, and, with the prophet Isaiah, isn’t afraid to speak truth to power:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,

who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice

and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,

and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isaiah 10:2)

Come and see a church that serves its community by feeding the hungry, volunteering in the hospitals, tutoring the illiterate, and caring for those who are homebound or in nursing homes. Come and see a church that sends supplies and volunteers to give hope to survivors of natural disasters.

Come and see a church that seeks to be a place of grace, believing that none of us are better than others, and all of us, each one of us, including the pastor lives in sin.

Come and see a church who, without condemning or judging, genuinely welcomes all people to join their mission to be the Body of Christ in this world, and all means all. Come and see a church that believes we are all called to be ministers; we are all disciples called to build up the Body of Christ by inviting others to join us.

Come and see a church that believes that the grace of God extends to all and that there is nothing in heaven or on earth, or in all of creation that can ever separate any of us from the love of God through Christ our Jesus Lord.

What’s that you say? You don’t believe it?

Of course you don’t. We don’t expect you to. It sounds too good to be true.

So why don’t you just come and see!

O God, to all cynics who believe that nothing good can come out of the church these days, help us to say, “Come and see.” Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Now, I invite you to come and see a table that has been prepared for you.

Come and see bread that was broken for you

Come and see a cup that was poured for you.

Come and see the very life of God, the creator of all that is that has been given for you.

Come and see this love, this grace.  Touch it, taste it, consume it, for it has the power to change the world.

 

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION 

Go forth as a church that is on the move,

A church that is committed to using all of our gifts

To work for peace and justice to flow like a mighty stream.

Go forth to share your faith, person to person to person.

Go forth and invite someone to come and see a church that

seeks to become the radiant hope that is needed in our world.

And as we go forth,

may we experience our God rejoicing over us and with us.

And let us go forth confident that

                        unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word!

 


 

[i] Michael Rogness, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2314

[ii] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2314

Ripping Open the Heavens

Mark 1:4-11 NRSV  Dove

If you were to ask me what my favorite part church is, I would say that it the service of Christian baptism. I have always said that it is a good day when the preacher comes to church on Sunday with a Bible in one hand and a bathing suit in the other.

Thus, I love this day on the Christian calendar that we call The Baptism of the Lord. Although I would much rather be getting wet this morning, and getting some of you even wetter, this day at least gives me the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful service of baptism.

Baptism is about is essentially about grace. Baptism is about new beginnings, fresh starts, and clean slates. Baptism is about dying to the old, broken self and rising to a new, better self. Baptism is about the confession, forgiveness and washing away of sins. It is about coming to know that there’s nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever separate us from the love of God. Baptism is about knowing God is with us, not away from us, for us, not against us.

Baptism is about initiation into the Kingdom of God. Baptism is a commissioning to be the body of Christ in this world, the hands, legs, feet and mind of Jesus on this earth. There is a reason that baptism is often called a sacrament. Baptism is sacred. It is holy. It is grace, free and unfettered.

There is perhaps nothing in the church that is more beautiful than baptism. How ironic is it then that some in the church have taken baptism and have created something very ugly. Throughout church history, baptism has created more controversy, schisms and arguments than perhaps any else.

Throughout my own ministry, I have seen people angrily walk out of church meetings over it. I have even seen people who have transferred their membership to another church over it. I know people who have written nasty emails, made harassing phone calls, and started vicious rumors—all over arguments about baptism. I know of churches that have even split over baptism.

I have had staff members threaten to resign if we changed our church’s bylaws to accept members who were baptized by sprinkling. In their eyes, they simply did not get wet enough to join God’s Kingdom. I have heard people argue that some were not old enough, mature enough, good enough, sincere enough, or even married enough to be baptized.  A pastor friend of mine from Concord, North Carolina, was kicked out of the Baptist State Convention because a couple of folks he baptized were not straight enough. I even know people who have gotten upset, because the people being baptized in their church were not white enough.

The irony is that we have taken something beautiful that is essentially about God’s free and unfettered grace for all people, and created something incredibly ugly by placing restrictions, limitations and conditions on it. There have been more rules and regulations written in the bylaws of churches about baptism than any other service of the church.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize in a flowing creek or a river (the water has to be moving) because that was how Jesus was baptized. A stagnant pond, lake, and of course, a baptismal pool will simply not do. Some people believe you can only baptize when the church is gathered for a worship service. And most people believe that a baptism can only be performed by an ordained minister, who is, of course a male.

And once a person’s baptism has been accepted and approved, sanctioned by church officials as worthy of the grace of God, then one can use his or her baptism as an admission ticket to become a full-fledged member of the church. They can take communion, serve on a committee, become a voting member of the church board, and of course, one day, go to heaven.

Pastor Karoline Lewis once preached a sermon to her congregation emphasizing that baptism is not something that we do, but something that God does. She said that when we baptize someone in the name of God, we believe that it is God who is actually doing the baptizing. And she insinuated that when we make baptism something that we do, that we control, then we pervert the very intentions God has baptism.

After the sermon, a woman who was in her nineties approached her. “Karoline,” she said, “Is that really true?”

“What?” the pastor answered.

Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.”

“Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?”

Hazel then told her about her sister who was born several years before she was born. Her sister was born very ill in the home and never left the house because she was so sick. The family knew she would not live long. She only lived two months. Right before she died, Hazel says that her mother took her sister into her arms and lovingly baptized her.

When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of their church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.

Hazel, almost a hundred years later, then asked her pastor, “Karoline, does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?”

“Yes,” she said. “Your sister is OK.”

There was Hazel standing in front of her pastor, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace.

This is what happens, says Karoline, this is the ugly consequences of placing limitations on the grace of God.

Of course, such restrictions and limitations on God’s grace is nothing new. The Jewish law was full of rules and regulations controlling who can and who cannot have access to God. Throughout history people of all cultures have sought to control and tame the grace of God.

This is why we need to be reminded of Jesus’ baptism. First of all, it did not occur in a controlled environment such as a baptismal pool or font in the confines of a religious building, but out in the untamed, wide-open wilderness.

And we are told that when Jesus came up out of the water the heavens were suddenly “ripped” or “torn” apart. The imagery describes a God who cannot take the separation any longer. God has had all that God can stand and rips the heavens apart.

The question for us this morning is: If the heavens were closed, whod do you think closed them? Who placed the restrictions and limitations on God’s grace? Who placed the barriers between God and people? Who created systems and structures to mediate God’s presence? Who is it that has insisted on certain rituals and beliefs to regulate God’s grace, to control God’s love, not for the sake of good order (like we tell ourselves and those we wish to exclude), but for the sake of our own power?

As a minister, I could write a book about the trouble I have gotten myself into over the years for baptizing people outside the controlled confines of the church’s bylaws. I have baptized people on days other than Sundays in places other than church buildings. I have baptized people in rivers, in swimming pools, in small ponds, even in the Atlantic Ocean. I baptized one man with his head laid back in the basin of a sink at a nursing home, trusting that it is God, and not me, who is actually doing the baptizing. It is God, and not me, who rips the heavens apart to shower God’s people with grace.

This is why I honor, respect and accept all baptisms—sprinkling, dunking, pouring, infant, adolescent and adult. And I believe baptisms can be performed by any Christian, clergy or laity, male or female. I do not believe people ever need to be re-baptized because some self-appointed or otherwise-appointed baptismal authority believes their baptism somehow did not “take,” failed to meet certain clerical requirements, or was not sincere enough or wet enough. There is but one Church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.

This is of course the reason why I welcome all people to the Lord’s Table, because, well, the last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. While some ministers only extend the invitation to those who have been baptized a certain way, I cannot, nor can I imagine Jesus turning anyone away.

When we take a something as beautiful as the service of baptism as it was performed in the wide-open wilderness, with God ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s Son, to get to God’s people, to reveal God’s love and grace to the world, and we turn it into something that is restrictive, legalistic, divisive and exclusive, into some sort of qualifying test for membership, communion, and salvation, then we have missed the whole point of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s Church.

However, when we begin to understand that at our baptisms, whether we were a tiny infant or a grown adult, whether we were sprinkled, dunked or poured upon, whether by clergy or by laity, by male or by female…

When we begin to understand that God, the creator of all that is, ripped open the heavens at our baptisms to come close enough to us so we could feel God’s breath and hear God say: “I love you. I have always loved you. And there is nothing that can ever limit, restrict, tame or constrain this love. There is nothing in heaven or on earth that will ever separate you from this love. I know all of your shortcomings, and I forgive you. I am with you, and I will always be with you. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. You are my Church. You have the grace and the power to be my hands and feet in this world!” …

When we understand this good news, then our baptisms become what they were always intended to be: free, unfettered, abundant grace, and then we can begin to be the people we were intended to be.

Thank you, God, for blessing us with memories of Jesus’ baptism and ours. Thank you for removing all of the things we have created to separate us from your grace. Help us to go forth with your calling, direction and blessing to share this grace with all people. Amen.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now into the world remembering that God, the creator of all that is, has ripped the heavens apart to shower all God’s people with grace. Go and share this good news with all people. May the abundant love of God, the unfettered grace of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.

 

Halloween Masks and the Church

Some more Halloween thoughts…

A Movement of Selfless Love

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As a child, I had my share of nightmares.  The wicked witch from the “Wizard of Oz” would fly through my bedroom window to get me. Ronald McDonald and a gang of clowns, including Bozo and the Town Clown from Captain Kangaroo, would chase me down the road as I ran for my life. Even today, clowns still sort of freak me out. It might be why I prefer Wendy’s over McDonald’s.

However, the most frightening dream I ever had was the one where I was standing in the school cafeteria line. As I was on my way to the cash register to pay my 10 cents for my lunch and a carton of milk, I looked down to discover that I had somehow forgotten to dress myself that morning. I was as naked as I could be.

Now, I am not a psychiatrist, and I do not presume to…

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Halloween: O Holy Night

Some thoughts about Halloween…

A Movement of Selfless Love

peanuts halloweenHalloween is sometimes called an evil or even a demonic holiday. However, I believe when we narrowly define demonic evil as fictional ghosts, goblins, and vampires that come out one night of the year, we may miss the true demonic evil that surrounds us every day—Greed, hate, racism, sexism, and all kinds of bigotry haunt our world day and night.

Furthermore, when one takes a close look at how our society observes All Hallows Eve, I believe one can reach the conclusion that Halloween may be the most holy night on the calendar. For example:

On what other evening of the year do we turn on our porch lights to welcome, not only friends and family, but all who may pass by?  All are welcomed and greeted with smiles and laughter, and “all” even includes witches, monsters and little devils. It does not matter who they are or from whence…

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What Does Heaven Look Like?

Heaven

Sermon written and preached by Dr. Jarrett Banks and Rev. Shannon Speidel for All Saints’ Sunday, Central Christian Church, November 6, 2016 to remember church members who died since our last service in May, 2016.

Revelation 22

To be honest, the promise of going to heaven one day, as heaven is often stereotyped, to live forever and ever and ever has not always appealed to me. Floating on some celestial cloud playing a harp for all of eternity does not sound like good times.

Furthermore, I have always been leery of Christians who seem to make going to heaven one day the whole point of what it means to be a Christian. It sounds rather selfish to me. And when I consider the selfless mission of Jesus, that type of theology seems to miss the whole point of what Christianity is all about.

I have also never desired to live in a mansion or walk on streets of gold. Again, because of what I know about Jesus’ identification with the poor, such opulence seems contrary to the words and works of Jesus.

However, there is one description of heaven in the Bible that I do find rather interesting, even attractive.

The most vivid and perhaps the best description of heaven may be found in the last chapter of our Bible.

What does heaven look like?

Although the description is certainly symbolic, it is nonetheless beautiful. There is a holy city, and in the middle of the city’s main street, there is a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

What does heaven look like?

On both sides of the river, there is the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, and the leaves on the trees have the power to heal the nations.

What does heaven look like?

Nothing accursed will be there. There will be no more hate; no more bigotry; no more ugliness; no more racism and misogyny, no more poverty, no more war, no more politicians and no more elections, no more of anything that is vile, foul or evil.

There is nothing accursed in heaven, because the throne of God, the compete rule of God, and the Lamb, who is Jesus the Christ, will be there.

And here’s my favorite part. There is nothing accused in heaven, because all of the servants of Christ will be there; together, gathered around the throne worshipping the Lamb face to face,

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Ed Wedel.

Paul urges the Christians in Galatia to take responsibility for doing the vey best that they can with their life” (Gal 6:5).

In Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation we read that for this generation, “responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on.” Responsibility was something that was what really got ‘em going.”

This is why I believe we will remember Edwin Wedel the epitome of the “The Greatest Generation.” Responsibility and faithfulness was his juice. Ed was responsible to his country, serving in WWII in the United States Navy, to his family, especially to his widowed mother who needed his care, and to this, his church he was so very faithful.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Delcea Batterman.

In the story of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings, coming into a struggling woman’s world and asking her to have faith, so that she may be given all that she needs, Delcea had faith. We can never deny the steady and firm faith of Delcea Batterman.  Delcea, didn’t just hear the word of the Lord in her life, she acted on it.  Delcea shared her gifts with others and uplifted all those she met. Delcea found herself in a blessed life because of all she was and all she believed and did.  She practiced an active faith, one of sharing, giving and presence.  Heaven must indeed look like Delcea Batterman. (1st Kings 17:8-16)

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Iris Butts.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God loves a “cheerful giver.” The entire creation speaks to the generosity of God. Iris Butts certainly had the heart of a cheerful, generous giver as she was continually looking for special projects here at Central Christian Church to support. Worth Bracher remembers being constantly contacted by Mary Beach calling to relay a message from Iris to find another project for her some of her money.

What does Heaven look like?  Heaven looks like Ray Feightner. 

The apostle John said: Love is of God, for God is Love.  And in this sense we can see the light of God in the life of Ray.  We can see the love he had for God’s people when he saw a man in his nursing home cafeteria, who happened to be black, and he had multiple people walking away from him because they refused to sit with him at a table.  Ray, having seen this, sought out this man’s table, shared his meals alongside him and they became fast friends.  Ray was willing to seek out what was right and act on it in welcoming ways.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Bob Shaw.

Jesus said there is no greater love than this, that one is willing to lay down their life for their friends (John 15:13).

After serving in the United States Army, Bob worked as a lineman for an electric company. One day, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Bob was on the ground while a fellow lineman was high in a bucket truck working on an electric line. Not knowing that the line was live, his co-worker grabbed the line. The electricity immediately grabbed him, not letting him go until Bob says he could see smoke appear to come from the top of his head. Without hesitation, and putting himself at risk, emulating the sacrificial love of his Lord, Bob climbed the pole and pulled his co-worker off of the line, saving the man’s life.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jane Adams.

In first Peter, we are told to… “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, Service on another with whatever gift each of you has received.  Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ”.  These beautiful words so accurately paint the picture of Jane Adams.  Jane was a faithful servant of Central Christian Church, but also for all of God’s people in all areas of life.  Jane’s generosity of spirit spread throughout the lives of those who surrounded her.  Jane was passionate about the work of God, often serving silently without recognition and without complaint.  She opened her heart wide upon marrying her husband Paul and becoming a mother to his six children.  And this is definitely not shocking to anyone… they became hers and she became theirs.  Jane had a way of doing that in all her life, she became ours and we all became hers.  Heaven must indeed, look like Jane Adams.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Karolyn Bruner.

In Colossians we read that we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-17).

Karolyn will always be remembered by those who knew her for her kind and beautiful spirit, her big heart and generous attitude, for her talents in serving others, and as a very caring and compassionate person.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Johnny Matthews.

The Psalmist declares for us “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the god’s I sing your praise.”  And very few people had as much thankfulness as Johnny Matthews.  Johnny lived a life borrowed, having survived a bus accident as a young adult, he became keenly aware of the gift of life and the thankfulness for more days to enjoy before finally being called home.  Because of these things Johnny lived life to the fullest extent.  His family, was a highlight of his life, always expressing a willingness to do anything for them.  Johnny was graciously thankful, never letting the truest fulfillment of life, escape him.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Gayle Lewis.

Isaiah prophesied:

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:30-31)

We will never forget and always be inspired how Gayle kept the faith, persevered to fight the good fight, even in the midst of adversity, pain and suffering. Although the great storms of life—death, divorce, and disease, would come and sometimes knock her off her feet, Gayle’s faith in God would always propel her to get back up and continue with perseverance the race that was set before her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jan Newkirk.

The Apostle John writes these words “believe in God, believe also in me.  In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also”.  Jane Newkirk was rocking in a cradle in the church nursery of Central Christian Church and treated this church as her home.  She treated it as a special welcoming body that existed in the midst of God’s loving care.  Jan would actively prepare the worship space for God, even making sure the candles for communion were freshly bronzed or silvered out of respect for its reverence.  And just as she prepared a place for us all in this experience of worship, we can be assured she is in a place especially prepared for her.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Phyllis May.

The Psalmist declares that the steadfastness of the Lord endures forever. We got a glimpse of this steadfastness in Phyllis. As part of the Caregiver ministry team, she continued to telephone people in our community who needed calling on even when she was unable to physically visit with them.

Call it pride. Call it a strong will. Whatever you call it, Phyllis had it. She had this steadfastness, this relentless persistence about her. Yet, one hesitates to call it stubborn or obstinate, or hardheaded, because, with Phyllis, it was more aptly described as a gracious persistence, a steadfast love.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Helen Chisum.

The apostle Paul writes that we are to Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Helen Chisum embodied all of these attributes through the many mountains and valleys in her life.  Helen always persevered through the lose of spouses and raising her seven children throughout the immense lost and grief that accompanied her pain and struggle.  Helen was steady and present.  She was someone who was flexible with her dreams, always willing to walk the paths afforded to her and relying always on an ever-present God, who never gave up on her strength and always encouraged her perseverance for the journey.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Joan Ingmire.

When Jesus sent his disciples into the world to be his hands and feet, welcoming little children and caring for the sick, Jesus sent them out without a purse, without money, as examples of selfless self-giving. As a faithful disciple of Christ Joan volunteered over 6,000 hours at St. Mary’s hospital caring for the sick. And while she was a member of the Christian Church in Billings, more than anything, Joan loved teaching children about this sacrificial love in Vacation Bible School.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jim Butler.

In Genesis we are taught very clearly about hospitatlity.  In Chapter 18 we hear this story The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks[b] of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  This story of humbling oneself before God is followed by Abraham giving him the best of everything he had in true hospitable fashion and there has been such hospitality offered here, in the life of Jim Butler.  There wasn’t a time when a visit with Jim wasn’t started by seeing the biggest smile and “Boy am I glad to see you!”.  And you know what, he truly meant it!  Jim was a beacon of hospitality and welcome in a world that often struggles to find it’s way.  Jim knew what it meant to welcome others as the lord welcomes us all and made you feel it each and every time you were together.  Jim’s genuine love and welcome for all people has to be what heaven looks like.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Inez Fisher.

Jesus said that when we give, not to sound trumpets and call attention to ourselves, but we should give in secret, and our God who sees what is done in secret will reward us. Inez was one of those ‘behind-the scenes” church worker. For years she could always be counted on to put mailing labels on the Visitor the church newsletter. She was the reason that many of you received your newsletter, and you never knew it. Several of you were bothered that she did not have a memorial service. But that was who she was. Full of humility, she never wanted to call attention to herself.

What does heaven look like? Heaven looks like Jimmy Johnson.

The gospel of Luke shares with us all that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  No greater words can be said in regards to Johnny Johnson.  Johnny was a man who was bigger than life.  He lit up a room with his joyous personality and his humor.  He was a jack of all trades and kept busy, but as a family member states, he will be most remembered for is unconditional love for all people.  Johnny was a man who truly loved his neighbors, near and far.  He sought out the opportunity to help people who needed it, showed up for people, and held them all within a caring heart that he carried with him everywhere he would go.  As a man who embodied Jesus’ only commands to the fullest, it is without a doubt that Heaven must look like Johnny Johnson.

What does heaven look like?

Heaven looks like a river of life, bright as crystal. Heaven looks like a tree of life with branches of healing. Heaven looks like the rule of Christ, the Kingdom of God. And the good news is that heaven looks like the servants, of God, members of this family of faith who have gone before us, who are now and forever worshiping the Christ.

They all taught us that heaven looks like the words and works of Jesus. Heaven looks like who God is calling us to be as the church. Heaven looks like extravagant grace and unconditional love. Heaven looks like the selflessness of Jesus, the mission of Jesus.

So, maybe living forever is not so bad after all.

 

Thank you O God for the way the saints who have gone before us still teach us how to live, how to serve, how to follow our Lord to be the church you are calling us to be. Amen.

Renewing Our Hearts to Partnership: Embracing Diversity

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Ephesians 4:1-16 NRSV

There is but one body and one Spirit—just as you were called into one hope when you were called.

Unity. It is the theme of World Communion Sunday. But when we talk about “unity” in the church, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about everyone believing the same thing, thinking the same way, being on the same page when it comes to matters of faith and practice? Are we talking about sharing the same set of values and moral principles? Are we talking about one particular style of worship? What does “unity” in the church really mean?

I believe the ancient story of the Tower of Babel can help us with this.

In the eleventh chapter of Genesis we read:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The whole earth was one. One language. One people. One tribe. One race. And they all came together to live in one place. They all came together to build something special, something great, something wonderful that would be a symbol of their unity.

Unity, oneness, togetherness, harmony, people of the same minds living in one accord. Isn’t this the will of our God, God’s great purpose for humanity?

So what’s not to like in this seemingly perfect picture of unity in Genesis chapter 11? As it turns out, according to God, the creator of all that is, not very much.

Let’s look at God’s reaction to this oneness in verse 7 of our story: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…”

What? Are you serious? What is wrong with this great portrait of human unity, of one race of people, one nation, one language, all of one mind, coming together, to build something great, to celebrate the pride of one master race?

The truth is that the builders of the great tower in Shinar had accomplished not what God wants for humanity, but what many throughout history, including the likes of Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, have wanted for humanity: One master race of people coming together to form one supreme social order, one culture, sharing the same ideals, values and moral principles.

For so many, diversity is a threat. Diversity is something to fear. Diversity is something to segregate and discriminate. Diversity is something to scapegoat. Diversity is something to send to the gas chambers, lynch in the trees or shoot in the streets.

I am not sure if anyone in my lifetime has articulated the thinking of the people of Shinar better than Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker back in 1999. Some of you may remember his response when he was asked by Sports Illustrated if he would ever play for the New York Mets or New York Yankees.

Rocker said:

“I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the number 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there.”[i]

The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that what John Rocker said “racked his nerves” in the world is exactly what God wills for the world. In verse 4 we read that the purpose of building the tower was to avoid what depressed John Rocker on the No. 7 train leaving Manhattan for Queens, and to avoid what John Rocker heard in Times Square.

The purpose of settling in Shinar and building that tower was to live in a world with no foreigners, no confusing babbling in the streets, no queers or kids with purple hair to encounter on the way to work, no eating in the marketplace with people on strange diets, no rubbing elbows with people wearing weird clothes, head coverings or dots on their foreheads.

No sitting in the same pews at church with people dress differently than we do on Sunday morning and definitely no people who think differently, believe differently, or worship differently.

The people in Shinar said: “We will be truly unified! We will look alike, think alike and believe alike. We will sing worship alike, sing alike and pray alike.”

So they came together and said, let’s build a tower of unity “to not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

And God’s reaction to this kind of unity? Let’s “scatter them over the face of the whole earth,” to create a world of diverse languages and cultures, to create a world of foreigners.”

God was only accomplishing what God had always willed for the creation: diversity. In chapter one of Genesis, we read that the original plan for creation was for humankind to “multiply and fill the earth.” And after the flood in chapter ten we read where God sanctions and wills all nations to be “spread out over the earth.” (Gen 10:32). Simply put, from the very beginning of time, in spite of our will, in spite of our fear and our racial or cultural pride, God wills diversity.

Therefore, if we ever act or speak in any manner that denigrates or dehumanizes another because of their race, gender, language, beliefs, dress, nationality or ethnicity, we are actually disparaging the God who willed such diversity. According to Genesis, diversity is not to be feared, avoided, prevented, lynched or shot. If we want to do the will of God our creator and redeemer, diversity is to be welcomed and embraced. In other words, if we love God, we will also love our neighbor.

And this is what should unite us as Christians!

It is the love of God for all of us, a love that God wants us to share with others that unites us.

I believe it’s why Jesus called it the greatest commandment. Loving God and neighbor is what should unite us; not race, not correct doctrine, not a set of beliefs, not one style of worship, but love.  It was Disciples of Christ forefather Thomas Campbell who said: “Love each other as brothers [and sisters] and be united as children of one family.”

And the Apostle Paul wrote: “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

The story of God’s displeasure with the Tower of Babel is God’s gracious stamp of approval, of blessing, on every race, every tribe, and every language in every land. It is the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creation. The song we learned as little children cannot be more true: “Red, yellow, black and white, they are all precious in God’s sight.”

God is not color-blind, as I hear some say, for God creates, wills, blesses, and loves color. And it is this love that unites us all, as we have all been created to harmoniously see humanity as God sees it: as a beautiful, diverse, colorful rainbow created by, sanctioned by, and graced by God.

As Bible-believing Christians, our nerves should never be racked on Sunday mornings, [as my mama used to say, we should never get in a tizzy!) if we look around the congregation and see some diversity—see some folks who not only dress differently and look differently, but see folks we know believe differently, live differently, worship differently, interpret the Bible differently, and yet they still choose to partner with us through this church, united by a commitment to share the love and grace of Christ we have all received with the world.

And it should rack our nerves all to pieces on Sunday mornings, if we look around the congregation and only see a bunch of folks who look just like us.

And if we are not immensely bothered by a lack of diversity in this sanctuary, if we are not partners in ministry with those who differ from us, if we would rather remain homogenous by remaining divided, I believe we need to remember not only this story in the first book of our Bible that describes a beautiful and diverse creation willed by God, but I also believe we need to think about a about a passage in the last book of our Bible that describes a diverse eternity willed by God.

And we must as ourselves the question: If diversity bothers us now, what are we going to do when we get to that place we think we’re are going after we die to live forever and ever.

Because guess what? According to Revelation, heaven looks more like Times Square and that No. 7 train on the way from Manhattan to Queens than some affluent suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

In Revelation 7, we read these words:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures [each representing the diversity of all creation], and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.

Let us pray:  Thank you O God for the diversity that is in this place we call Central Christian Church. Help us to accept it, embrace it, love it, as we partner together to be the church you are calling us to be in this city and in our world.

[i] Read more: John Rocker – At Full Blast – York, Braves, City, and League – JRank Articles http://sports.jrank.org/pages/4014/Rocker-John-At-Full-Blast.html#ixzz39oVUCEtA

Fear and Compassion

Great sermon from my colleague Rev. Speidel. I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside her at Central Christian Church in Enid.

Where are the Christians?

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Luke 7:11-17

One of the ways I try to take care of myself physically and emotionally is by practicing yoga. I used to take yoga classes consistently when I was in college, but have picked it up again in the last few months after about 10 years. The encouragement to start again came from a good friend who moved here, to Enid, and is an instructor.

I am not that fabulous. But I try really hard. I have learned not to concern myself with the advanced yogi in the back row who can throw himself into a handstand whenever he is so moved. I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with taking breaks when needed and sneaking a sip from my water bottle, when my body is saying “that’s about enough of that Shannon, we don’t want to pull EVERY muscle we have”.

In one of our recent classes, our…

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Between the Verses

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Psalm 6 NRSV

About one-third of the Psalms are called “Lament Psalms.” I love these Psalms for their sheer honesty. These Psalms are unashamedly real, straight up authentic. They speak to the reality of our pain, frailty, and failures. They also speak to the reality of the pain of our world: the plight of the poor; the despair of the displaced, the evil of war, the scourge of disease, and all kinds of injustices. And they speak of the reality of what sometimes seems like God’s apathy or even absence in this world.

Psalm 10 reads:

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—

7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;

8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9   they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Walter Brueggemann says that the Lament Psalms “break the force of denial” teaching us that the truth of our pain must be told. They teach us the importance of declaring out loud that things are bad. Things in our lives are bad. Things in this world are bad. And even things about our relationship with God are bad. The Psalms teach us to honestly say out loud that when it comes to God, even on our best days, we have our doubts.

However, that is not our tendency. Is it? We have this notion that any amount of crying, complaining, protesting or “lamenting” means that our faith is weak. And to ever doubt God, well, that is simply out of the question!

To be a positive witness to the world to the saving acts of our God, we believe we should always wear a victorious guise. Thus, this morning, there are churches everywhere full of smiling, happy, clappy Christians casually dressed singing simple, repetitive songs devoid of any semblance of reality. And there are churches full of serious, somber Christians in suits and dresses, preachers robed with stoles, monotonously singing the old hymns of faith without any real concern for the suffering of others.

Christians everywhere have a tendency to retreat into sanctuaries and cling to denial, ignoring the suffering of this world. We cover it up with a smile or hide it with our Sunday best. We deceive ourselves by pretending that with our faith everything is good, everything is working; when in fact, everything is far from good, and nothing is actually working. Confession of sin, acknowledgement of pain, and doubting God is something that is done sparingly and always privately, if it is even done at all.

However, the Lament Psalms move us in the opposite direction. They persuade us to not only tell it like it is, but to publically tell it like it is to God.

And these Psalms teach us it this kind of honesty, this kind of truth-telling, that is the only way we can experience new life and salvation.

Those of us who have read the stories of Jesus should not be that surprised. For whenever Jesus encounters people in need whether it is blind people, poor people, or in the case of Jarius’ daughter and Lazarus, dead people, it is always the needy person, or the family of the dead person who summon Jesus to come into their life or into their house. It is always the one who is in great need, the one who is suffering or grieving who takes the initiative to invoke the help of Jesus.

When Bartimaues, the blind beggar, hears that Jesus is passing by, he cries out, over and over, until Jesus hears his lament, a lament that sounds much like a Psalm: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” It is then, and only then, after the man honestly cries out in need to Jesus, publically voices his desire to change, that Jesus stops and heals him.

Psalm 32 speaks clearly about the power of our honest cries. The Psalmist writes: “While I kept silence,” in other words, while I was in denial, while I was pretending to be a happy, clappy person of faith or a stoic, serious religious person, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” In other words, when I pretended everything was working, that all was good, my body wasted away.

“Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not hide my iniquity.” I stopped playing religious games, stopped pretending, stopped faking my faith, stopped trying to appear like I had it all together with my fine wool suit and silk tie, or with my long robe and stole. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (and guess what happened next!), and you came, “and you forgave the guilt of my sin,” the guilt that was eating my life away. “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you,” fully, sincerely, honestly.

Thus, Psalm 6 is one of my favorite Psalms. For here the Psalmist honestly pours out his heart before God like none other.

1 O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
3 My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Here the Psalmist tells the truth, the whole truth, to God. There is no holding back, no masking the pain, no masquerading behind a Bible and a hymn book, no pretending to be strong because others will think he is weak. There is no denial. This Psalmist takes the initiative, goes to God, and keeps it very real. And notice what happens next. Look at what happens somewhere between verses seven and eight.

Somewhere between seven and eight, God shows up. New life, inexplicable, yet certain, comes. Easter happens. Pentecost arrives. Blessed assurance, amazing grace, and a peace beyond all understanding are received. Thus in verse eight, the Psalmist confidently continues:

8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.

Now, we do not know what exactly happened between verse seven and eight. We just know that something happened and that something was God. Somewhere, somehow, someway, God breathed on the Psalmist new life, inexplicable, yet certain. God came, and God resurrected, restored, and revived. When the Psalmist was honest saying “this is not working,” “this is bad,” God came and worked all things together for good.

Somewhere, somehow, someway between verses seven and eight God showed up. Perhaps through a still small voice. Perhaps through a quiet warmth that mysteriously erased the terror from his bones and soul.

Or perhaps through love expressed by a friend. Perhaps God came through a visit from a concerned neighbor. Perhaps someone cooked supper and brought it over, or simply offered a listening ear or an empathetic embrace. We just know that somewhere between verses seven and eight, God, in some inexplicable yet certain way, came.

I see this all the time in the church. People come to me and tell me that their life is over. Nothing is working. There is no way.  Some are grieving a loss: either a job loss, a lost opportunity or the loss of a loved one. Some are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. They come to me honestly, pouring themselves out. In their life, it is verse 7, and they are languishing.

Then a short time later, I see them again. And suddenly, it is verse 8. They tell me that life has never been better. How losing that job was the very best thing that happened to them. That although they still grieve over the loss of their loved one, God not only brought them great comfort and peace, but God has made them a stronger, better person. They say that although they thought their life was over, they realize that a new life is only just beginning. There is now a way when there was no way.

The good news is that this is how our God loves to work in the world. It is the very nature of God. However, as the Psalters remind us, when we are languishing, if we ever want to experience what is between verses seven and eight, it is up to us to take the initiative. It is up to us to come honestly before God, confess our sins, confess our brokenness, confess our weakness, confess our need of God. It is up to us to tell God the whole truth. And then I promise you, somewhere there between verses seven and eight, God will inexplicably, yet certainly show up.

And as people of faith, when verse 8 comes, I believe God continually calls us to go back to live in between the verses. God calls us to service somewhere in between verses seven and eight keeping our minds and our hearts open to the cries, to the pain, and to the needs of others.

And who knows, even today, you may be that inexplicable, yet certain something that happens for someone living between seven and eight! It may be through preparing a meal, sending a card, making a phone call or making a visit, or by just being present to listen to someone’s cries. God is calling each of us, every person in this room, and God is counting on us to be there for others between the verses, so all of God’s children can get to the verses where they are able to confidently sing:

“The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication. The Lord accepts my prayer.”  “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Amen.

All I Really Need to Know, I Learned Playing Baseball

David-Allen1
David Allen Ball Park, Enid, Oklahoma
Message delivered to players and coaches of the Junior College World Series at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Breakfast in Enid, Oklahoma 5-27-16.

In Robert’s Fulgum’s best-seller, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten, Fulgum says: “All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten.”

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat.  Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon.  When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

I believe every person who has every played baseball could say the same thing; that is, all you really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, you learned playing baseball. Since we are talking baseball, here are a list of nine things:

  1. Pray Before Every Game

But don’t pray for God to protect you from injury. And please don’t pray for God to help you win the game. Instead, thank God that you are physically able to play the game. Thank God that you are healthy enough to run, and slide and swing to risk injury. And then ask God to forgive you for seeing people in wheelchairs and feel no remorse. Each morning when you wake up to the gift of a new day, pray that God may help you not to take it all for granted or to act as if you somehow deserve it or have in someway earned it.

  1. Back Each Other Up

This is perhaps one of the first things that you learned about playing this game: the importance of leaving your position to back a brother up. What a better world it would be if we all practiced this simple principle and had each other’s backs.

  1. Step Outside the Box

In baseball, you step outside the box to take a deep breath, kick the mud off your cleats, and relax. But you also step outside the box to refocus.

Let me see how focused you are this morning.

You are driving along on a Oklahoma Highway on very stormy night You pass by a bus stop, and you see three people waiting for the bus:

  1. An elderly woman who will die if she is not rushed immediately to the hospital.
  2. An old friend who once saved your life.
  3. The perfect woman you have been dreaming about your entire life.

Which one would you choose to pick up, knowing that there could only be one passenger in your car?

Why wouldn’t you give your car keys to your old friend who is good at saving lives and let him take the elderly woman to the hospital? Then stay behind and wait for the bus with the woman of your dreams!

Sometimes we gain more in life when we step outside the box and refocus (from (drrobertbrooks.com).

  1. Don’t Be Embarrassed to Spit or Scratch or Make Other Necessary Adjustments

There is only one requirement to become a Christian. And that is to confess that you are not perfect, you’ve got some problems and you need some help. The trouble with the church today is that we have too many people in it who simply do not meet this basic requirement. They think they are better than others, more holy, more righteous. So much so that they are very quick to judge others who are not like them. So go ahead, spit and scratch, be human, be real, let people know you have problems and you need some help.

  1. Watch for the Signals

What happens if you fail to look down at your third base coach? What happens if you look down at the coach, but ignore his signals? It’s not good.

Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite preachers and writers, has written:

If you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even in the most limited situations, God through life itself has something to teach you.

In other words, every day God is giving us signals.

He continues:

Taking your children to school, and kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace that God is not present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.

 6.  Keep Your Head in the Game

It was the great Yogi Berra who once said: “Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.”

If you understand Yogi’s wisdom, you know that what you focus on and think about before and during the game can make or break your performance.

Without the mental toughness to handle pressure, to bounce back after making an error, striking out, falling behind, or suffering an injury, without the ability to focus on what’s important and to block out everything else, you will never win at anything.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way: “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus….”

Each day, before I encounter someone, my neighbor, a co-worker or a stranger, before I face any obstacle or make any decision, I try to get my head together. And as a Christian, I do that keeping my mind on the words and works of Jesus: “Love everybody, including your enemies.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Feed the hungry.” “Do not judge.” “Forgive those who have wronged you.” “Remember, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

  1. Be Willing to Sacrifice

Many a game have been won with a well executed bunt or a sacrifice fly. This principle is the very heart of the of the Christian faith. This coming weekend, Americans will pause to remember those who have sacrificed their lives defending their country and freedom around the world. Jesus once said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus says that if we are not willing to sacrifice in this life for the sake of others, we will certainly lose our lives. 

  1. Someone Is Depending on You to Get Them Home

Although they might be able to steal home, it is much easier to score if someone has an RBI.

American Journalist George Will once wrote:

Baseball is a sport that thrives on personal accountability. Every day, fans, sports executives and ball players alike can check the box scores to determine how well certain players performed in the previous game. Whether a player struck out three times or went 5-for-5 with a pair of home runs, the information is easy to access and provides people with the numbers necessary to formulate their own assessments about a particular player or team.

Imagine what type of country we would be if everyday America’s doctors and teachers, lawyers and preachers, firefighters and police officers, every business owner and every worker, says Will, had to “read in the morning’s newspaper a box score measuring the caliber of their previous day’s work.”

  1. Play the Game, Not the Clock

One thing that is unique to baseball is that it is played without a clock.

Just as we have no idea how long a baseball game might last, none of us know how many years we have on this earth. Therefore, life is not so much about how long we live, as it is how we live.

In his Pulitzer-Prize-Winning musical, Rent, author Jonathan Larson wrote the following words:

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

Five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred moments so dear,

Five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure—measure a year?

In daylights—in sunsets

In midnights—in cups of coffee

In inches—in miles

In laughter—in strife.

In five-hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes

How do you measure a year of life?

How about love?  How about love?

How about love? Measure in love.

Seasons of love.  Seasons of love.

When it is all said and done, none of us can control the number of days we will have on this earth. No one knows how many minutes or even how many innings will be played. We can, however, control the love that we offer to others. And in the end, others will truly know what kind of life we lived.

Yes, the truth is, all you really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, you learned playing baseball.