The Church Is in the Clothing Business


Genesis 3 NRSV

How often have you watched a pet dog sprawled all out taking a nap in the middle of the day, and thought to yourself: “Must be nice!” Would you just look at Max or Buddy or Bella or Lucy? Not a single care in the world! No job. No bills to pay. No groceries to buy. No dishes to wash. Never has to stand in line at Wal-Mart. No knowledge whatsoever of good and evil. No knowledge of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. No knowledge of children being separated from their families at the border, of the opioid drug crises, of people living in poverty, or people living with mental illness. They know of no friends who hurt or desert them. They’re unaware of any sick family members, ambivalent to the certainty that they will one day die, unmindful even that they are a dog, and oblivious to the reality that they are sprawled all out on the living room floor completely naked. No shame whatsoever. They’re in paradise.

Sounds to me like the two who represent all of humanity, who even today, represent you and me: Adam and Eve. That is, before they ate that apple…or that orange or that peach or that fig or that banana. Whatever it was, before they ate that fruit from the tree of knowledge, they were just happy-go-lucky animals sprawled all out in a paradise with no knowledge of good and evil whatsoever: no knowledge of death and disease; no awareness of pain and grief; not even a clue that they would ever have to work hard to make a living; unaware that they were broken, fragmented, and sinful creatures; unmindful that they were even human, humans who in their self-centeredness will continually disobey the Creator’s commands and abuse the creation which that had been graciously given.

And they were also unmindful of the danger that lurked in their paradise, that crafty serpent: that symbol of everything chaotic and evil, that enigmatic, yet personal force of temptation that somehow, we have no explanation of why, was already present, preexisting and existing in the garden alongside of humanity. And because of this unholy force or presence or energy, the sordid self-centeredness of Adam and Eve, along with the knowledge of good and evil was suddenly made known. The shame of who they now knew they were was almost too much for them to bear.

For who has not said: “I wished I never knew!” “I wished you hadn’t told me that!” “I would be so much better off if I just didn’t know!”  Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Sometimes ignorance is paradise.

Paradise is lost as Adam and Eve, humanity, each one of us, live in a world where we know way too much, where we’re too smart for our own good. We live with the knowledge that all is broken, with a knowledge of pain and suffering, stress and strife, sadness and grief. Furthermore, we live in a world where we know that one day, we are all going to die.

We also live in a world where we make countless mistakes, and we know it. We are selfish, and we know it. We live to save our lives, protect our lives, look after number one at the expense of everyone else, and we know it. We know we have done some terrible things, and we know we have not done some good things, which is equally, if not more terrible. With our cursed knowledge, we can easily relate to the Apostle Paul’s words to the Romans: “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:18-19).

And because we know, we live with a lot of shame. And we spend much of our energy, time and resources trying to cover it, hide it, masquerade it.

I have always been a terrible golfer, and because of that, I really have not played much in the last few years. However, when I used to play more, I would make sure I always wore the latest styles in golf apparel and footwear. I always had a new golf glove to wear and a nice golf bag with my shiny and very organized clubs. My thinking was: “If I wasn’t a good golfer, dadgummit, I was going to look like a good golfer!”

Thus, I can easily relate to Adam and Eve who worked hard to cover up the truth of who they were with those fig leaves, when they ran and hid themselves from the presence of God whom they heard walking through the garden. Surely, Adam and Eve know by now that you can run, but you cannot hide.

God then asks a question that is as liberating as it is frightening. It is a fascinatingly miraculous question when one considers the one who is doing the asking: “Where are you? Where are you? God, the creator of all that is, loves us so much that God yearns not only to be with us personally and intimately, but desires to be with us… where we are. Where we truly and honestly are, behind the masks and apparel, behind the allusions we have created, behind acts we portray.

As the old hymn goes: God wants to know of all the sins and griefs we bear. God wants to know our pain, our trials, our temptations, our trouble, our sorrows, and our every weakness. God wants to know if we are in a place where we are heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care, in a place where our friends despise or forsake us.

God calls out to Adam and Eve, to all of humanity, to each one of us: ‘Where are you? Because wherever you are, that is the place I want to be. So, please do not hide from me. Do not run away from me. Please, do not be afraid and do not be ashamed. I want more than anything else to know you, to know you for who you really are. You don’t have to come to me. Let me come to you, find you, be with you, walk alongside of you. Let me love you.”

Adam comes out behind the trees and responds, “But God I am naked! All of me is uncovered, out in the open. My true colors are laid bare for the entire world to see. All of my failures, all of my fears, all of my brokenness, all of my self-centeredness, all of my mess is out there, completely exposed. You, O God, have created us to lose ourselves, and all I want to do is to find myself, to save myself, protect myself. God, I am a sinner, and what’s worse, now I know it. And I am so ashamed.”

Then God does for Adam and Eve something that they cannot do for themselves. They cannot deal with their shame. They cannot deal with their sin. The reality of who they had become was too much for them to bear.

As revealed in every act of Jesus of Nazareth, God responds to their shame by doing something amazing. God bends God’s self to the ground, uses God’s own hands, and creates garments of skin, and lovingly and very graciously clothes Adam and Eve.

God meets Adam and Eve where they truly are. They are naked, exposed. And what’s worse, unlike little Max or Buddy, Bella or Lucy sprawled out naked on your living room floor, Adam and Eve are naked and exposed, and they know it. All has been laid bare, and they could not be more frightened and ashamed.

And God responds to their nakedness, God responds to all of their fear and shame, by amazingly clothing them with grace.

And here’s the good news. The only thing that may be more frightening than being fully known, completely naked, exposed for who we really are, all our sins and griefs laid bare, is perhaps the prospect of never ever being fully known, the prospect of going through this life without anyone ever truly knowing us, and then accepting us, loving us, clothing us with grace. The good news is that God wants to know us, every part of us, and then God still wants to love us and forgive us.

I believe with all of my heart that this is one of our primary purposes as a community of faith. First and foremost, we are to always be a community of grace. If people cannot come through our doors, take off their masks, stop the charade, and honestly lay bare all of their sin and all of their griefs, knowing that they will never be judged, looked down upon or condemned, then I do not believe we are a church. I am not sure what type of business we are, but we are not a church, we are not a community of grace. As a church we are to always be in the business of yearning to meet people where they are, so we can be with them, so we can walk alongside of them, so we can listen to them, learn from them, forgive them and love them.

As the church, we are to always be in the clothing business. We are to always be in the business of bending ourselves to the ground, using our own hands, our resources and our talents, to clothe one another, to clothe all people, with the grace of God in the name of Jesus the Christ.












A Message to Graduates: How Low Can You Go?

Carson Graduation

Luke 14:7-11 NRSV

Today, all over this country, high school and college graduates are beacons of hope in a dark world! It has been said that they belong to a generation that is “up and coming.” They refuse to be silent. They are passionate, relentless, determined youth with high ideals and high ambitions to change the world! I look at how they are courageously standing up and speaking out, inspiring us to be a better a better people, and I ask, “My God, how highcan they go?”

They were probably taught at a very early age that up highis where it is at, and no doubt, they spent the first eighteen years of their lives trying to grow up, graduate highschool and then possibly pursue an even highereducation. All so they move upa little higherin this world, keep climbing to make sure they are always upward bound: upfor a promotion so they can move upthe ladder. For up, up high is how our society measures success.

Up high, we are told, is where we will find our life, a life that is full, complete, satisfied, and abundant.Up highis where we are able rub elbows with others who also shaped up, grownupand moved up.Up high is where we find what we call the “in” crowd. They are the “up” and the “in” as opposed to the “down” and the “out.”

So, we set goals that are high. We seek to make high marks, achieve high grades, meet high expectations.

The message of nearly every motivational speaker or life coach in America today is all about how to shape upand move up, aim high and soar high.

After all, who in their right mind would want to move in the opposite direction? Who wants to change directions from up high to down low?  As the late Henri Nouwen one of my favorite preachers, has said: “Downward mobility [in our society] is not only discouraged, but even considered unwise, unhealthy or downright stupid.”

Can I get an “Amen?” Come on now, really? Who in their right mind would want to lower themselves? What mind must you have to want to humble yourself, move to and sit at the lowest seat at the table, lower yourself to the ground to wash another’s feet, descend down the economic ladder to relate to people who are poor, be with and love people who are down and out?

I think we know what mind.

When God chose to reveal to the world a life that is full, abundant and eternal, God’s will for all people, God chose a life of downward mobility. God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, humbled God’s self, lowered God’s self and came down. Down to meet us where we are, down to earth as a lowly baby, born in a lowly stable, laid down in a feeding troth to worshipped by down and out shepherds.

The scriptures do say that Jesus grew upward in stature; however, the gospel writers continually paint a portrait Jesus’ life as one of downward mobility. He is continually bending himself to the ground, getting his hands dirty, to touch the places in people that most need touching.

While his disciples seemed to always focus on privilege and honor and upward mobility, chastising little children who needed to shape up and grow up before they could come to Jesus, Jesus argued that the Kingdom of God actually belonged to such children.

While his disciples argued about who was going to be promoted, who was going to graduate to be the first in the Kingdom, Jesus frustrated them (and if we are honest, frustrated us) by doing things like moving downto sit at the lowest seat at the table, bending downto wash their feet, stooping downto welcome small children, crouching downto forgive a sinner, reaching downto serve people who are poor, lowering himself downto accept people who had been cast out of their community. He was always always getting down, to touch the leper, heal the sick, and raise the dead.

While others exercised worldly power to graduate and move up, climb up, and advance, Jesus exercised a strange and peculiar power that always propelled him in the opposite direction. It is not a power that rules but is a power that serves. It is not a power that takes but is a power that gives. It is not a power that seizes but is a power that suffers. It is not a power that dominates but is a power that dies.

And nearing the culmination of his downward life, to save the world, Jesus went to highest seats of power in the capital city of Jerusalem, not on a white stallion with an elite army of high ranking soldiers, but riding a borrowed donkey with a handful of ragtag students who never graduated from anything. The whole scene of Jesus riding that donkey, in the words of Henri Nouwen, looks “downright stupid.”

This is the narrow and seemingly foolish way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus toward the poor, toward the suffering, the marginalized, the prisoners, the refugees, the undocumented, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless—toward all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

And what do they have to offer? Those who are down and out in our world cannot offer success, popularity, riches, or worldly power, but they do offer the way to life, full, complete, abundant and eternal.[i]

So today, as we recognize and pray for our graduates, as our hearts are filled with hope, and we ask, “My God, how high can these young men and women, these future leaders of the world go?” We are also asking, with perhaps even greater hope for the world and the Kingdom of God, “My God, how lowcan they go? How low can these young men and women, these future leaders of the world, these future leaders of the church go? How lowcan they go to fulfill the divine purposes that God has for each of their lives?

My hope is that each graduate who is being recognized in churches all across are country today is in church not to help them move up to be with the “in” crowd,” or there to find something in worship that will make them more successful, more affluent, climb a little higher. I hope they are not even in church looking to be uplifted or to be more upbeat or for some kind of upstart to get this new chapter in their life headed on an upswing.

My hope is that they are in worship because they have chosen to move in the opposite direction.

My hope is that they want to find ways to climb down, to get low, to lose themselves, to die to themselves and live for Christ. For they have heard, and they have believed Jesus when he said: “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

Spencer Allen, Jamie Pape, Jason Pryor and Kourtney Williamson, although it sounds good to be a part of the up and cominggeneration, my hope is that you will be a generation that is always down and going. May you always go down, get low, sacrificially and selflessly. And then go out bending yourselves down to the ground if you have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. May you go out and stoop down to welcome and accept and serve all children: children who are sick, children with different abilities. May you go out and crouch down to care for the sick and the elderly. May you go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower yourselves down to accept people who are marginalized, and may you get low, get down on your knees to pray for people who are grieving and the lost.

And, there, as low as you can go, may you truly find your life, your purpose in this world, one that is full, complete, satisfied, abundant and eternal. Amen.


Each Sunday, we gather around a table to get our minds right. To open our minds, focus and refocus our minds, even blow our minds wide open if we have to, to let the same mind be in us that was in

in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Commissioning and Benediction

Go out bending yourselves down to the ground if you have to, to touch the places in people that most need touching. Go out and stoop down to welcome and accept and care for all children, to love on those in hospitals and nursing homes. Go out and reach down to serve the poor, lower yourselves down to accept the outcast and the marginalized, and may you get low, get down on your knees to pray for the grieving and the lost.

And, there, as low as you can go, may you truly find your life, your purpose in this world, one that is full, complete, satisfied, abundant and eternal. Amen.

[i]The sermon is inspired by this paraphrase from Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 138-139.

Mirroring the Self-Giving Love of the Triune God

reclaiming jesus

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 NRSV

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country often struggle during the Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about playing golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-fulfilling activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about people giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

This weekend is about honoring those who died for us, and it is about praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight evil in our world, evil that demeans, devalues and destroys human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this weekend is all about or watering it down for our own selfish gain.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Christians really know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe and live differently? Is it about pure beliefs and possessing an attitude of superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others who differ from us as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about depleting our natural resources because we believe the Lord is returning and the world is ending in our lifetime? Is it all about going to heaven one day or on some other self-absorbed venture?

No, our faith is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all. It is about recommitting daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about. And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God is made known to us, relates to us, and loves us, and how God calls us to make ourselves known to, relate to and love the world.

This is where I believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can really help us—Three persons in one. Throughout the centuries, people have been trying to explain this complexity in simplistic language.

You have probably heard that God is like a pie. You can cut a pie into three pieces, but it’s still one pie. Or God is like many of us. I’m a brother, a father, and a son, but I am still one person. Or God is like water, and water has many forms: steam, ice, and liquid, but it is still water.

However, I believe each of these descriptions only scratch the surface of who our God truly is. It is only a watered-down, version of who our God is. Furthermore, it is defining God based on our understanding of the world, instead of allowing our understanding of God to define the world.

God, the creator of all that is, the power behind our universe, gave God’s self, emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out and became flesh and dwelt among us through Jesus Christ.  And Jesus Christ, while he was on this earth, gave himself back to God by becoming obedient to God even to death, even death on the cross. But before he left us on this earth, he promised not to leave us orphaned, he promised to be with us always by giving himself back to us through the Holy Spirit.

Do you see the one characteristic of the Holy Trinity which stands out?  God gave God’s self through the Son. The Son gave himself back to the Father. And God once more gives God’s self back through the Holy Spirit. God is a self-giving God. God is a God who loves to give to others the very best gift that God has to give, the gift of God’s self.

God is a giver. That means that God is not a taker. For givers are never takers.

Isn’t interesting that many Christians, often characterize God as a taker? Again, I think it is because we like to create a God in what we want our image to be, instead of allowing the image of God to define and guide us.

For example: How many funerals have we attended and heard the phrase: “God took her home or God was ready to take him?”

We have all lost loved ones to death. But the Trinity teaches us that Lord did not take them. For givers are not takers. A more accurate way of describing what happened to our loved ones when they breathed their last on this earth is that God wholly, completely and eternally, gave all of God’ self to them.

When we experience the heartache and heartbreak of this fragmented world, there is one thing of which we can be certain, God is here with us, not taking, but giving us all that God has to give, the best gift of all, the gift of God’s self.  If we don’t know anything else about God, we can know this. For it is God’s very nature.

As we renew our discipleship mission as a church, let us renew our commitment to mirror our God by living not as takers, but as givers.

For I believe with all of my heart that mirroring the self-giving love of God that is revealed to us in the Holy Trinity can help us reclaim the gospel that has been high-jacked by people who prefer to live in this world on their terms instead of on God’s terms.

Mirroring the self-giving love of God can help us recover our faith that has been co-opted by takers, by people who have used and misused the name of God for their own selfish gain

For if we mirrored the Triune God as self-giver, think of how everything would change.

Think of how our Christian faith would change. Our faith would not be about what we can take from God—healthier marriages, stronger families, deeper friendships, peace, security, comfort, a mechanism to overcome trials or to achieve a more prosperous life, or even gain an eternal life.

Our faith would be what we can give back to the Holy Giver—namely all that we have and all that we are, even if it is costly, even if it involves risk, danger and suffering, even if it involves the loss of relationships, stress on our marriages, sleepless nights, a tighter budget, even if it involves laying down our very lives.

Church. Church would not be about what we can take from it. It would not be about getting fed, experiencing some peace, attaining a blessing or receiving some inspiration to help us through the week.

Church would be about opportunities for self-giving. Church would be about feeding the hungry, working to bring peace, being blessing to our communities and inspiring the world. Church would no longer be a place that we go to on Sunday, but who we are every day of the week, the body of Christ, the very embodiment of holy self-giving love in the world. Church would not be a way to for us to get some Jesus. Church would be way we allow Jesus to get us to love our neighbors as we were created to love.

And our neighbors. We would look to our neighbors, not for what they can give us, not for what we can take from them, or how we can use them, but for what we may be able to offer them, especially those things that others are constantly robbing them of in order to support their dominance and superiority over them—their dignity, their equality, their value as human beings created in the image of God, their hope, their freedom, their justice.

We would look to our city, our state and our nation, not for what we can selfishly take from it, but for how we can selflessly give to it to make it a more just place for all.

The environment would not be something for us to take from, plunder and exploit for our own selfish wants, but something for which we sacrificially care for, respect, nurture and protect.

I believe if we would truly mirror the triune image of our God as givers instead of as takers, God’s kingdom would fully and finally come on earth as it is in heaven.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can rebuild a broken world.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can correct a distorted moral narrative.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can heal sick religion.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can bring down walls and break the chains of injustice.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers will erase racism and sexism. It will end sexual harassment and assault.

When we mirror the triune image God as givers, all hate, bigotry, and violence will pass away, and all of creation will be born again.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, liberty and justice and peace will come, and it will come for all.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled:

Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
…[Then] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:3-4).

I Pledge Allegiance

Poor People's CampaignDelivered at the Introduction Meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign at First Christian Church in Fort Smith AR, May 6, 2018


In America, I as an individual,have certain inalienable rights. As an individual citizen of this country, I have freedom. And with that freedom, I have a great responsibility. I have a voice. I have a vote, and I have the responsibility to make this country the very best that it can be. And that includes keeping our water safe, our air clean and our land pure.

Pledge allegiance

Our allegiance does not mean blindly accepting our faults, never questioning our past, and never second-guessing how current policies will affect our future. Allegiance means faithfully doing our part to “mend thine every flaw.”

It means being loyal, law-abiding citizens committed to our civic duty of voting in elections. However, it also means voicing opposition to laws that need to be changed and to elected officials who need be corrected. Civil allegiance sometimes means civil disobedience.

Like a faithful marriage, pledging allegiance means being loyal to our country in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, never giving up, never becoming complacent, never running away. It means perpetually praying for it, continually correcting it, forever fighting for it.

To the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands

The flag is not a mere sign for our country. It is the profound symbol of our country. Signs are limited as signs only give information. Signs do not have the power to stand for something. Only symbols can do that. Whereas signs invoke intellectual responses from the brain, symbols elicit visceral emotions from the heart and gut. This is the reason seeing the Confederate Battle Flag flying on the back of motorcycles this weekend turned my stomach. The flag is not a mere historical marker, label, design or brand but a powerful symbol that stands for something. Flags have the power to move us, stir us, and guide us.

One nation

Our flag stands for one nation. Although heritage and culture are important aspects of life in different parts of our country, they are never more important than the unity of our country. Abraham Lincoln and Jesus spoke truth when they said: “a house divided against its self cannot stand.”

We need to come together not as liberal or conservative, republican or democrat but simply as Americans who believe we can do better and be better.

Under God

Not under God because we are down here and God is up there. Not under God because we want some sort of theocracy like the belief of ISIS and other Islamic extremists. And not under God because we believe we were established to be a Christian nation like the beliefs of Christian extremists.

Rather, we pledge our allegiance to country under, after, second to, our allegiance to the law of God.

As people of faith, this is why our allegiance is not blind. The Commander-in-Chief is not our chief commander. The Supreme Court is not our supreme being. Our allegiance is first pledged to something that is bigger than our nation, even larger than our world.

It is an allegiance that informs our vote, rallies our civic duties, admonishes our obedience to civil law, and yet, sometimes calls us to civil disobedience. For the Christian, it is the God revealed through the words and works of Jesus who becomes our civil conscience. We believe the law of God revealed through Christ supersedes every human law.

Immediately following words from the Apostle Paul regarding good citizenship and obeying the law, we read that every one of God’s laws is summed up in just one law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it this way: “On this hang all of the laws of the prophets “…that you love your neighbor as yourself.”

And just in case some are still confused to what “love” is, Paul defines love by saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.”

Jesus said, “There is no law greater.” It is as if Christ is saying, “If you don’t get anything else from Holy Scripture, you need to get this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Yet, as evidenced by the amount of hatred, racism and violence that is in our nation today, much of it propagated in the name of God, this supreme law is widely ignored, disobeyed or rejected all together.

I believe it is when we first pledge our allegiance to this supreme law, that we have the opportunity to be a great nation. For when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when in everything we do to others as we would have them do to us, it quickly becomes “self-evident that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


When we pledge allegiance to the supreme law of God, when we pledge to love our neighbors as ourselves, we promise to work together under God to build bridges to overcome the gaps and barriers that we have created that divide us: racial, sexual, ethnic, political, economic, educational and religious. We pledge to come together, side by side, hand in hand, for the equality of all people and the inalienable rights of all people.

This does not mean that we are to never disagree with the beliefs or lifestyles of others. We can certainly love our neighbor while disagreeing with our neighbor. It is not hating our neighbor when we disagree with the flag that our neighbor flies; however, when we infringe on their life, their liberty, and their pursuit of happiness by supporting public policies or actions that treat them as second-class citizens, that do harm to our neighbor, that keep the poor poor while keeping the rich richer, it is certainly not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. As our 44thPresident said in the eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney: “…justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. [Our] liberty depends on [our neighbors] being free, too.”

With liberty and justice for all.

We pledge to work for freedom and fairness not just for our educated, rich neighbor who can afford the best attorneys, and not just for our advantaged, abled-bodied and able-minded straight, white, Christian, English-speaking neighbors. We pledge ourselves to stand for liberty and justice for all. And according to the Abrahamic faiths, “all” especially includes foreigners, minorities, the poor, the differently-abled, all those who have been pushed to the margins.

All even includes people of every nation. For our love and our mission to stand for liberty and justice have no borders.

In response to a call to include the rights of the LGBTQ community as civil rights, one of my friends raised the following question on Facebook, and to avoid being obscene, I am going to paraphrase: “They only represent 2% of the population. Why do they matter?”

This was not just one lone, ugly, hateful voice, but one that was representative of the sentiment of many.

“They only make up 2% of the population. Why do they matter?”

For the Christian who pledges his or her allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all: LGBTQ+ lives matter; Black lives matter; Poor People’s lives matter, because according to everything for which this flag stands under the supreme law of the God of love, all lives will never matter, until all finally means all.

Holy Friendship


John 15:9-17 NRSV

To prepare us for a new church year, today, I invite us to be a part of a four-part sermon series entitled: Renewing Our Mission. To be the church that God is calling us to be, the church that God needs us to be, we will be challenged to renew our mission in at least four areas: friendship, partnership, stewardship and discipleship. Today, I want us to think about friendship.

Friendship. It’s a word that we use casually, superficially. These days we call nearly every acquaintance or contact a friend. I have Facebook friends, friends who follow my blog or my Twitter, many I have never met and never will. I have ministry-colleague friends. I have teacher friends, professor friends. I have friends from high school, college and seminary. I have running friends, gym friends, and I have Ainsley’s Angels friends all over the country. I have a dry cleaning friend, a friend who cuts my hair, and just this past week, I met a new friend who repairs my automobiles. And, of course, I have some wonderful church friends.

But we all know that friendship can be experienced on another level. Genuine, long lasting friendships can be so much more profound than our more casual relationships.

A week ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two old friends. Steve is a pastor outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas. We met fifteen years ago in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Gardner-Webb University. We used to get together every year; however, this was the first time that we have gotten together in maybe eight years.

We decided to meet somewhere in the middle, so we chose Memphis. We spent one day at the National Civil Rights Museum and one day on the golf course. And spent both days, eating a lot of barbeque.

Although Steve has had a career serving with mostly Baptist churches, he now serves with an inter-denominational church. I said Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas; however, he is only a pastor for another week. His passion for serving the poor and the marginalized is prompting him to leave the pastorate to co-direct a ministry for the homeless in Longview, similar to Hope Campus here in Fort Smith. Steve and Cary are both the fathers of two children.

So, the three of us share much in common (our jobs, our religious convictions, family, golf and barbeque); however, this is not the reason we are such good friends.

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner perfectly describes our friendship:

Basically, your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you yourselves are the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.

Only being together matters.

And although we hadn’t been together in almost a decade, although the hair on our heads were much more gray and thin, it was somehow like no time had elapsed at all. Yes, we did our best catch up one another, but we really didn’t have to. That is friendship. And the joy that is experienced in such a friendship is priceless.

Another one of my favorite pastors, Henri Nouwen, said this of friendship:

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.

This makes it all the more astonishingly wonderful when we read scripture like:

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet Isaiah says that God referred to Abraham saying: “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

When we consider what friendship truly means, when we consider the innate grace of friendship, the unconditional love of friendship and the immeasurable joy that is experienced through friendship, “the friendship of God is a staggering thought.”

The friendship of God—that the creator of all that is wants to be with the creatures just as they are, and that everything else is “beside the point” except for that—This privilege, this divine gift, this holy friendship is such a staggering thought, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, but I’m no Abraham. I am no Moses.”

The good news is that that too is beside the point.

Through our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus says to his disciples and to everyone of us: “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”

Notice that their relationship has changed. It has grown to another level.

The disciples are much more than acquaintances, contacts or colleagues of Jesus. They are no longer students, no longer servants of Jesus.

Jesus says: You are my friends. I love you. I want nothing more for us to be together. I want to commune with you. I want to abide with you. I want to live with you, in you and through you. Your denials, your betrayals, your lack of understanding, your fears, your faults: none of that matters. It is all beside the point. The only point is you. I want to be with you, and I want nothing more than you to be with me.

And listen, for this is how you can be with me. This is how we can be together, finally and fully. This is how you can experience a joy that will fill you, complete you, satisfy you.

You are with me when you love one another. You are with me when you love one another as I have loved you. You are with me when you look past the flaws and failures of others. You are with me when meet people with a clean slate every time, always meeting them on equal terms. You are with me when all of the usual distinctions, older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter.

You become close to me when we gather at the table, when we share the loaf and drink the cup, but we are together, when you are willing to break your body, pour yourself out, and give yourself away for others.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Do you want to be with me? Then give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothing to someone in need, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. When you are a friend to the least of these, you are a friend of mine. When we love others as I love others, you are my friend.

If we are to be the church that God is calling us to be, if our joy is ever to be complete, I believe the first thing we must do is renew our mission to be a friend of Jesus. We need to make the commitment not to study Jesus, admire Jesus, hit “a Like button” for Jesus, but to be a friend of Jesus.

We are going to take a step toward making this commitment tonight at our cabinet meeting, as we are going to talk about our church officially adopting a non-discrimination policy. I think such an official position is needed, but, doesn’t it seem like, for the church, for the body of Christ in this world, for the Body of the Christ who never excluded anyone, a non-discrimination should be the default? You would think that a vote would only be needed if a church wanted to start discriminating. But sadly, we know that’s not the case.

We know there are too many people today who call themselves Christians who are behaving more like acquaintances of Jesus, students of Jesus, Twitter followers of Jesus, even servants of Jesus, but not friends of Jesus.

You can call ourselves Christian, but if you discriminate against or denigrate anyone because of race or religion, ability or class, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or any other social identifier, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can worship God, but if you mistreat, take advantage of, or neglect the poor, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can say your prayers, even make a National Day of Prayer, but if you do nothing to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens: our children, the elderly, the differently-abled; then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can sing God’s praises, but if you are silent in the face of immorality, dishonesty and injustice, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can hear God’s truth proclaimed on Sunday morning, but if you fall for lies the rest of the time, because you’re afraid of standing for that truth, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can give our tithes, but if you do not support fair living wages, equitable healthcare, access to a quality education and affordable housing, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can eat the bread and drink the cup and remember a life poured out, but if you are never willing to sacrifice for anyone or anything, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

A common phrase that we say to our friends is: “a friend of yours is a friend of mine.” But this takes on a very challenging meaning when we remember that Jesus was widely known and ridiculed for being of who? “A friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

This means we can attend church every Sunday, but if we never go out and eat and drink with those outside of the church, if we fear getting a reputation for hanging out with the wrong type of people, then we might not be a friend of Jesus.

As I speak these words, I am reminded of my response to my son who is visiting with us this week when he asked to go downtown last night to eat supper. I said, “Downtown? This weekend? With a motorcycle rally going on?” “Heck no.”

But being a friend of Jesus is risky. It is difficult, and it is costly. Being a friend of Jesus takes us places that we would rather not go and puts us into contact people we would rather avoid. However, all who have experienced the complete joy of friendship know that to be friends with God is more than well worth it.

Invitation to Communion

We believe it is the Risen Christ who invites us to eat and drink from this table. And we believe that he invites us, because he has chosen every person in this room to be his friend. Our faith or our lack of faith—it’s not the point. Our understanding or our ignorance—it’s not the point. Our deeds or our misdeeds—it’s not the point.  The Lord invites us because we are the point. Take and eat the bread, drink from the cup. Accept this friendship. All are welcome.

Obstacles to Church Growth

God abhors you

I believe there are two primary obstacles to church growth these days, two obstacles that prevents people from being baptized.

1)       Some believe their sins are so great, that they are outside of the boundaries of God’s love. Or, they at least they believe they will be treated that way if they go to church.

2)       Some believe no one is outside of the boundaries of God’s love, but they believe most churches today believe that some people are.

This is why I believe the 21stcentury church needs to pay careful attention when this Ethiopian Eunuch asks Phillip if there is anything preventing him from being baptized.

Which begs another question, “Are we doing something, or are we not doing something, that is preventing people today from coming to Jesus?”

I believe Acts chapter 8 has much to teach us on this subject, especially those of us who are trying to do church in 2018.

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go…:

One obstacle that I believe stands in the way of people coming to Jesus is that we have forgotten our call to “get up and go” to meet people where they are. Too many Christians these days are sitting back, expecting people to come to us.

And not only do we need to get up and meet them where they are, out on the road, even on a wilderness road, we are to meet them where they are, period.

The problem is that churches too many churches not only expect people to come to them, but they expect them to come in a manner that meets their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come to them that look like them, behave like them, and believe like them.

Let’s face it, excluding the other seems to be something that comes very naturally for us. I think if we are honest, we would admit, that we would much rather be around people who are a lot like us.

Some have said that it may be part of our evolutionary DNA. It’s some inborn, natural instinct of survival. Fear the different. Beware of the other. Trust no foreigner. Avoid the outsider. So we instinctively put up these barriers all sorts of obstacles.

But this is what fuels racism. It supports white nationalism and isolationism. It builds walls, discriminates, excludes and demeans the other.

I believe this is what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he talks about the dangers of being led by the flesh and not by the Spirit. Because we human beings can easily be led by the flesh. A false prophet or Anti-Christ-like leader can quite easily stoke the fear of the outsider that is inside all of us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a stable genius to lead us  to hate the other.

However, the Spirit leads us to take a higher road.

Notice that Luke tells us that the Spirit had to urgePhilip, the Spirit had to push Philip, pull Philip, to get up and go to this chariot to meet this Eunuch from Ethiopia.

Philip, I know this may be hard for you. I know this may be against your natural inclination. But go to this chariot and meet this stranger foreigner, this victim of bad religion who had been ostracized from the community of faith, this one demeaned and exploited for his sexuality, this one who has been clobbered by the Bible by those who arbitrarily pick and choose scripture passages like Deuteronomy 23:1 that says Eunuchs are forbidden to enter the temple, this one who has been taught his entire life that he is despised by God. Go to his chariot and meet him where he is. Do not stand above him or over him. Do not judge him or condemn him. Join him. Get into the chariot and sit beside him. Ride alongside him. Engage him. Listen to him. Learn from this other, this stranger, this foreigner.

I believe there are thousands of people living here in Fort Smith who are not here this morning, who are not worshipping in any church, because the church simply refuses to be urged by the Spirit to go out with love and grace to meet people where they are, especially those considered to be outsiders.

Philip meets the Eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah. This should not surprise us. For this is one of the most hopeful books in the Hebrew Bible for those who have been marginalized by sick religion, for those who have been taught that they are despised by God. Imagine the hope that burned in this Eunuch’s heart when he read the following words we find in Isaiah 56:

Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
…these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
beside those already gathered.

Philip heard him reading from Isaiah and asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Eunuch responded: “How can I understand it unless someone interprets it for me?

What a great question! What a better place this world would be if more people understood that the Bible needs to be interpreted.

I do not believe God ever intended for people, on his or her own, to pick up the Bible, and arbitrarily lift scripture passages out of their contexts, and try to understand it or follow it. I believe this is one of the reasons that churches are in decline today. Too many Christians are using the Bible out of context to support all kinds of hate and injustice.

And because of that, there are countless people in this world, countless people in this community, who are the victims of sick religion. They feel marginalized and disenfranchised by the church. They have been taught their entire lives that God despises them. They have no idea that God loves them and has a future for them— All because no one has interpreted the Bible pointing to the Jesus who came into the world, not to condemn the world by to save the world, to love the world.

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

Then Eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’

The Eunuch was asking: Who is this one was also ostracized and marginalized by others, as I have been? Who is this who was led like a sheep to be slaughtered? Who is this one who has been humiliated and denied justice? Who is this who had his life taken from him? Who is this one who is just like me? Who is this one who relates to me so well, who understands my pain, who knows my heartache, who empathizes with my sufferings? Is it Isaiah? Or is it someone else?

Then, Philip tells the eunuch the good news. The one who understands your pain, the one who knows your heartache, who empathizes with your sufferings is none other than Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The one who relates to you, identifies with you, and because of that, loves you, welcomes you, accepts you, and forgives you like none other, is the very one that others said despised you.

When the Eunuch heard this good news about Jesus, the words of the prophet became not only hope for the future, but good, glad, certain news for the present:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
…I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Suddenly, the barriers fell. Walls crumbled. Obstacles disappeared. And the very doors of the Kingdom of Heaven swung wide open.

It is then the Eunuch, this one who had no name and no future, but now has an everlasting name exclaims, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me then from being baptized?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

And the church grew.

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to get up and go out to meet people where they are (not where we might want them to be) meeting them without judgment, without condemnation. Guide us always interpret the scriptures in the light of Christ, sharing the good news of his unreserved love, unconditional acceptance, and unearned forgiveness with all people. And all means all. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

The bread is ready, the cup is filled, the table is set for all people.

Let all who are hungry for the love of God, come and be fed.

There are no hurdles standing before you. There no walls to climb over, no hoops to jump through, no obstacles to go around.

Let all who are thirsty for new life, come and share the cup.

There is nothing preventing you.

Let all who want to follow Jesus, come and join the feast.

Love One Another


1 John 3:16-24 NRSV

It the Fourth Sunday of Easter, like the very first disciples we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith.  Why? There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning.  But here we are.  We are here, together as a community of faith, because like the very first disciples, we have seen the risen Lord!

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, those moments of hunger and thirst, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ showed up. He inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence, and filled us with a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as those who have seen the risen Christ, as those who have experienced the marks of his suffering. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

So here we are.  Now the question is: what are we supposed to do? How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the answer that is found in the book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that our professor had us to translate was 1 John.

Why 1 John?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct. There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simple, most direct, but at the same time, most difficult and complex words ever put together in one command. Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult and complex because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love those who look, believe, behave, and live differently than we.

So, although we have this direct commandment to love one another, we still think, “Surely God must have meant something else.” For it really doesn’t make any sense. We don’t even think it is possible. And let’s face it. There are just some people in this world that are impossible to love.

We can understand God saying something like, “You know, in this fragmented world of sinners, let us learn to live with each other.”  Now that’s a good commandment! Despite our differences, let’s just get along! Live and let live.

What about “Be tolerant.”  I like that commandment.  I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I suppose I can in someway put up with her.

What about “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Ooh, that’s a good one! I can love ‘em, and at the same time, I can hate everything about them! I am pretty sure I can handle that.

How about, “Let bygones be bygones.” I like that. We’ve got to move on. We can’t nurture our resentment forever. It’s not healthy. We need to get over it. Although that is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can obey that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than that. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command.

Unable to obey this command, many today have reduced our faith to some sort of selfish, personal and private spirituality. People are fond of calling themselves “spiritual.” And when they say they love one another, I suspect they are only talking in some spiritual sense that is never fleshed out in a tangible way. 1 John reminds us that we need to recover a love that compels us to physically lay down our lives for one another, never refusing to help a brother or sister we see in need. We need to love, not in word or speech by in truth and action.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, puts it this way: “If you say you are full of the Holy Spirit, but if your spirit doesn’t lead you to speak up against injustices and oppression, then your spirit is suspect.”

Yesterday, I counseled a couple planning getting married. I pointed out that nowhere in the ceremony will the minister ever ask you if you are “in love with one another.” As if love is some kind of spiritual thing. No, you will be asked, “Will you love? Do you promise to love?” Because love is not a feeling. Love is action.

This summer, I will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the day that I promised before God and a congregation to love Lori. Thirty years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always look at best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that annoy her, that get on her last nerve, she somehow has the ability to look past it. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That is love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to disappoint us or hurt us, we focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances or to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what’s going on in his or her life that made him or her treat me this way?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that makes her view me in this way?”

Because once we decide that love is not an option, once a war begins, once we decide that we can’t look past another’s shortcomings, we free ourselves to demonize the other. In war, all moral bets are off. Once the shooting starts, we free ourselves to only see the worst in the other. You know the old saying?  In war, we actually kill our enemies twice.  First, we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we are wronged, all moral bets are not called off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are wronged that the true moral test begins.  Elsewhere, the scriptures remind us that if we love those who show love to us, what is that?

Why are we commanded to love this way?  Why does Easter demand such a thing?

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding, we realized that although we had betrayed, denied and abandoned God, God, in Christ, loves us.

God not only puts up with us, gets along with us, tolerates us, but God loves us. God doesn’t love us and hate our sin, because love doesn’t keep account of our wrong doings. God looks past our failures. God sees the very best that is about us, and then calls that best that is within us all to come out. God loves us, and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

When they mistreat us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they use us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they hate us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are unlovable, we’re going to love ’em.

When they belong to another faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have no faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have polar opposite political views, we’re going to love ’em.

When their sexuality differs from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are differently abled, we’re going to love ’em.

When their race, ethnicity, language or citizenship differ from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re sick, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re hungry, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re afraid, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re lonely, we’re going to love ’em.

For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, we’re going to love ’em, because we have seen the risen Lord. We’re going to love ’em, because we believe in Easter. We’re going to love ’em because we’ve experienced a divine, unconditional love— A love that demands us, compels us, and commands us to love one another in truth and in action.  Let us pray together.

O God, teach us how to love as you have loved us. Teach us to love the unloved and the unlovable. Teach us to see others as you see them; teach us to see ourselves in the light of your forgiving, forbearing love.  In the name of the risen Christ we pray.  Amen.


Invitation to the table

As we come to these moments of communion, none of us is “pure and blameless.” But because of the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus lavishly showered on each one of us, we can come to the table of the Lord without fear or hesitation, trusting that God’s grace revealed in Jesus creates a welcome space for all to come, confessing and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior.