Words Create Worlds

words have power

James 3:1-12

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

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

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

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

He asked: “What do you mean?”

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

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

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

Words indeed have great power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible clearly says…

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

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

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

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

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

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

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do that this morning.

Let us pray.

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

 

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

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

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

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

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

A Transfigured Church

Barrett Finish FS

Mark 9:2-9 NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Do you want to be a great church?

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

Then Jesus comes, and he asks:

“What are you talking about?”

We are silent.

But Jesus heard us. Jesus always hears his disciples.

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

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

In other words, Jesus said:

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

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

Jesus is saying remember the voice of Moses who commanded:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the voice of the Psalmist…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mc2

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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