Who Is Your King?

christ the king

John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his words and deeds and has already been questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. Because the sad truth is, that in this world, when you love all people and teach others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you.

It is now Pilate’s turn to question him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus is the King. But as he told Pilate, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in our response to the threat of terrorism that is in our world today.

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “I hear you, and the ones who knocked down these buildings will soon hear from all of us!”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas; we speak English, and if you don’t like it, get the heck out.”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love and help only those who we believe deserve our love and help.

We prefer a kingdom where people know their places and have earned those places.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we love ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus is implying that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And Jesus is asking Pilate and Jesus is asking you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers safety;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king offers security;

One king demands risk.

One king endorses greed and prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king leads by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king demeans and mocks women;

One king elevates women as an equals.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

So, of course the powers that be, the kings of this world, arrested the king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course they tortured this king, spat on this king, mocked this king and crucified this king, this king from a foreign realm. Of course they tried to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate could not defeat this king. Bigotry could not stop this king. Religion and nationalism could not overthrow his throne. This king would rise again. But not the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there was no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There were no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There was no shock and awe or violence of any kind.

For this king understood what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that,” said the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king arose from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe or to doubt, to reject him or to follow him. This king drove out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king drove out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these dark days of November 2018?

It all depends on who your king is.

Three years ago this week, Antoine Leiris lost his wife in a terrorist attack in Paris. ISIS claimed responsibility. Days following at the attack, Antoine proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.

The good news is that our king is not Donald Trump and our King is not Nancy Pelosi. Our King was never Barak Obama or George W. Bush.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they may offer is temporary. Their reigns are fleeting.

If we choose, our king is and will be the one whom the prophet Daniel speaks:

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousand served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgement,

and the books were opened. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14)

Advertisements

Remembering Naomi Hatley: Things Are Not What They Appear to Be

Naomi Pic
Naomi Hatley
April 17, 1924 – November 16, 2018

Esther 9:20-23

John 16:20-24

The late Reverend Warren Carr, a friend of mine and mentor, once said that a person’s eulogy in a Christian memorial service should be limited to those aspects of a person’s life that proclaimed the gospel, proclaimed the message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that we have much to say about Naomi today for she proclaimed the message of Jesus in ways that Rob and I never could.

When many think about proclaiming Jesus, they might first think about preachers. However, as those words attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” teach us, you don’t have to be preachy to preach.

Naomi was anything but preachy. Her faith was quietly practiced but deeply felt. Always self-effacing, she never imposed her faith on others.

However, her faithfulness was clearly evident to all. Many witnessed her faith through her active participation with this church as she led worship by singing in the choir and playing bells with the Primetime Ringers. She was an active member of the Christian Women’s Fellowship and possessed the heart of a servant, always enjoying potluck dinners and other fellowship occasions. When she could no longer drive to church, she had the church van pick her up at Butterfield Place so she could be here to faithfully worship and serve with her family of faith.

However, this was certainly not the only way that Naomi proclaimed the gospel.

It could be said that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to teach us that things are not always as they appear to be. Sometimes reality is the exact reversal of actual appearances.

For example, Jesus said that those who appear to be last are actually first. And those who seem to be first are actually last.

In his first sermon, he said that it is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is the not the strong who inherit the earth, it is the meek. The Apostle Paul said it is not the wise who shame the foolish, but it is the foolish who shame the wise. It is the weak who shame the strong.

The gospel continually teaches us that things are not what they appear to be.

Of course, Naomi, first taught us this reality with her name.

It is not Nayomey or Nyomi.

It is Nayoma.

No matter how it is spelled, or what you’ve heard, or what you’ve read, no matter what you’ve seen or think you see and hear right now, things are not what they appear to be.

Naomi taught us this gospel truth in many other ways. Perhaps the the ways we will most remember, and for which we are most grateful, are the ways Naomi taught us, in the words of Ralph Sockman, that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

If you thought Naomi was gentle and quiet, then you probably never watched a Dallas Cowboy or Arkansas Razorback football game with her.

If you thought Naomi was a non-athletic spectator, someone who sat serenely on the sidelines of life, you probably never saw her slalom waterski, which she did until the age of 69 when she fell and cracked three ribs.

If you thought Naomi was this prim and proper Southern Belle, you probably never saw her play in the waves of the ocean. You never heard her laugh like a child as the waves would crash over her head knocking her off her feet.

If you thought Naomi only enjoyed soft church music, the chimes of handbells, the harmonious sound of a choir, a piano and organ reverently praising God, then you’ve probably never been to an Eric Clapton concert with her.

If you thought her husband of 66 years Pete, with his large, confident personality was the rock of the family. Then you probably didn’t know Naomi as well as her children knew her, as one with an iron backbone in a fluffy coating.

If you thought Naomi might be a pushover, a softy, a patsy you were probably not raised by her and as one of her children never did anything or said anything that would make her chase you with a fly swatter.

And you probably did not do or say anything that caused any harm to any of her children, because you would have quickly discovered that, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, you simply do not want to mess with Naomi.

Naomi was soft as a pillow, but she was hard as a rock.

Naomi was tenderly ladylike, but she was a tough old broad.

Naomi was humble and unassuming but the sound of her laughter, the melody of her heart, and loud reverberations of her spirt can still be heard today.

Like the good news of the gospel, things are not always what they appear to be.

Of course Jesus taught us this reality to lead and to guide us down a certain path, on a specific journey, on a particular and peculiar way:

A way where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty;

A way where those who mourn are comforted and the meek inherit the earth;

A way where those who are hungry and thirsty for justice are satisfied;

A way where those who show mercy because they know they need it for themselves receive mercy;

A way that those who may not be pure, undefiled and unbroken on the outside will see God.

It is a particular and peculiar way where peacemakers are called children of God, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and outcasts are included.

It is way that always graciously extends hospitality, always asking if you need anything to eat, something to drink, a time to rest.

Her children tell me that had to stop visiting their mother when it was mealtime at the nursing home. Because she would always try to share her food with them. No matter her circumstance, the needs of others came before her own. Whenever it appeared that you were the one being hospitable to her, being a blessing to her, she was actually being a blessing to you.

This is a way that sets a high bar in a culture that seems to have no bars, that offers a righteous morality in a culture influenced by a distorted morality, that teaches ethics rooted in a selfless, self-expending, self-effacing love for this world and every human being in a culture with ethics rooted in greed and self-interest.

Jesus also taught us that this particular, peculiar counter-cultural way is the way to life everlasting. To save ourselves, we must lose ourselves. To truly and fully live we must die. And all who embrace this way, live this way, though they are dead, live.

The good news is as Jesus and Naomi taught us, things today are not what they appear to be.

Four years ago, when Naomi broke her hip, and then suffered a stroke during surgery becoming wheel-chair bound and unable to communicate clearly, it appeared that her life was over. She had no reason to live, no reason to smile, and certainly no reason to play the piano.

However, this tender soul made even more tender by the difficulties of life was a tough old broad, under the fluffy and frail coating, an iron backbone was as strong as ever. Thus, Naomi continued to play that piano. She continued to live her life and she continued to be grateful and always found a reason to smile.

No, nothing in this world is what it appears to be. Nothing this hour is what it appears to be.

Naomi appears to spell her name Naomi yet it is Naomi.

Naomi appears to be buried in the National Cemetery, yet her music is still filling this sanctuary.

Naomi appears to be gone from our presence, yet her gifts live on through her children and grandchildren.

Naomi appears to be dead and no longer in our presence, yet those of us with faith know that she is alive and is in the presence of the Lord.

It appears to be a cold, dark, rainy day, but somehow, some miraculous way, the sun is shining.

When some learned of her passing, they may have thought about how losing someone during a holiday week makes it all the more heartbreaking. Families are supposed to be gathering together this week to celebrate life and to give thanks for the blessings of life. They are not supposed to be gathering for a memorial service.

But the good news is, things are not what they appear to be.

In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”

There is no doubt in my mind that on this day after Thanksgiving with Advent and Christmas approaching this family is going to be alright. Pray for them, but don’t despair for them. Console them, but don’t pity them. For if Naomi taught them anything, it is that these days are not as they appear. What is going on right now, today, this very hour, is not what it may appear.

Sorrow has been transformed into gladness. Pain has been turned into joy. A day of mourning has been transformed into a holiday, and everyday are becoming holy days. And because we believe what Naomi proclaimed with her life, this week of Thanksgiving will always be for her family days of feasting, gladness and celebration. Thanks be to God.

Grateful to Be Done with Religion

done

Hebrews 10:11-25 NRSV

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

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

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

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

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”   I asked.

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can religiously follow a diet and still gain weight.

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

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

Sure you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

Thanks be to God.

Invitation to the Table

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

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

 

 

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

Unless the Lord Builds It

grandaddy
My grandfather, Eugene Gaston Banks, Sr., served in the US Coast Guard patrolling the North Atlantic during World War II.

Psalm 127 NRSV

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

This is definitely true in marriage.

If a couple does not incorporate some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith into their marriage, their attempts to build a happy home will be in vain. Ephesians 5:20 reminds us that mutual submission in marriage should exist: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

If there is not some mutual sacrifice, self-giving and cooperation in a marriage, then there’s a pretty good chance that the minister who officiated that wedding wasted his or her entire weekend. Randy could have gone to that TCU – Arkansas football game! Howard could have played in that golf tournament!  And we don’t even want to think about what the parents of the couple could have done with all of that money they spent on the wedding!

Furthermore, as a Christian who seeks to be guided and defined by the love of God fully revealed in Christ, here’s the verse from Ephesians that means to most to me: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

If I do not love Lori with a self-giving, self-expending love that is revealed to us in the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross, then all the effort we put into our marriage is in vain. 

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

 This also applies to the church.

Like marriage, I believe the church should be built on the foundation of God’s love that was revealed on the cross.

One day, a very wealthy church member approached the new pastor after he preached a sermon on the inclusive love of Christ. He asked: “Pastor, we’re not going to be the kind of church that welcomes and accepts those people, are we?

By “those” people, I am certain he was referring to anyone who does not look like, live like, love like or think like him.

The new pastor answered, “Of course we are going to be that kind of church. For we believe that the love we are to model to others was fully revealed in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross reaching out to all people.

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

This story, which by the way is a true story, a very personal story, begs the question: “Can a church practice exclusivity and continue to be a church that the Lord is building?”

I believe the answer has to be “no.” For the inclusivity that is revealed in those outstretched arms of our Lord on the cross is foundational to who we are as the church.

A church that does not love and welcome all people in the name of the Christ who died for all is not a church at all, but is only the worst kind of club. And every member of that club is wasting their time. They worship in vain.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

I believe this most certainly applies to our nation.

If the Lord is not building our nation, if our security and foundation is not in the Lord, then those who labor for this nation and those who guard this nation do so in vain.

Where this becomes the most serious, of course, is when we consider our veterans, especially our veterans who have not only guarded this nation, but gave their lives for this nation.

At one point during the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC, we ran along the scenic Potomac River and what’s called “the Blue Mile.” This is a mile stretch of the marathon where fallen service members are commemorated in photographs along the roadway decorated with American flags.

As I ran the Blue Mile, I tried my best to read each name and their ages when they made the ultimate sacrifice. I did not see an age over 39.

As Americans, we owe it to them to do all that we can do to ensure their lives were not given up in vain.

We also owe it to every veteran who survived but nevertheless sacrificed much in service to our country, to do all that we can to ensure that they did not serve in vain.

In the 1930’s Henry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of Riverside Church of New York, once talked about the seriousness of the Lord building and shaping this world.He prophetically proclaimed:

For myself, I shall try to stand for Jesus Christ as the interpreter of… life. In this world with its cynicism, its disillusionment, often its disheartenment, how men and women are needed to stand for him with the intellectual, personal, and social implications of his gospel. And it is going to be serious business standing for him in this generation.

Fosdick then tells a story:

It is said that a man once came to [the great artist James Abbott] Whistler, and asked his help in hanging a new and beautiful picture. The man complained that he could not make the picture fit the room, and Whistler, looking over the matter, said, ‘Man, you’re beginning at the wrong end. You can’t make that painting fit the room. You will have to make the room fit the painting.’

Fosdick says:

So when we carry into this modern world the picture of [the] life that Jesus Christ brought, we cannot make it fit the room. Put it over against our private morals, our disintegrating family life, our economic system… it will not fit the room. We must change the room to fit the picture. [And] that is serious business.

It is important to mention that since Fosdick inferred that we the need to renovate of our nation to fit the portrait of Jesus, Christian “Reconstructionists” have sought to rebuild or reconstruct America to fit their personal interpretation of biblical morality. You need to know that I am not talking about doing that. I am not advocating transforming our democracy into some sort of theocracy. And I am certainly not advocating dismantling the First Amendment.

I am talking about building upon that foundation that was laid in 1776 with these powerful words found in our Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Although I do not believe our nation is or was ever intended to be a Christian nation, I believe these words found in our Declaration of Independence, like the words inscribed in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are rooted in and influenced by the love of God revealed in that selfless, inclusive portrait of Jesus hanging on the cross with outstretched arms.

And for me as a Christian, it is this foundation that I believe should be preserved and built upon. This is what it means for the Lord to build the house and guard the city to ensure that the veterans who guarded this nation, did not do so in vain. And more importantly, that those who gave their lives for this nation, did not die in vain.

So, more than anything, what I believe our nation needs today is some Jesus!

I believe that means we must work to ensure that every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, tax bracket, ability, and religion, is valued equally. That means we must stand against racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and Christian White Nationalism. We must speak out against Islamophobia, Xenophobia, trans and homophobia, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must work to ensure that every vote counts in our democracy. That means we must fight all tactics of voter suppression, voter intimidation and partisan gerrymandering, or else those veterans who served this country did so vain.

I believe we must work to preserve our fragile freedoms: the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must defend the rights of every person to live, to work, to love and to have equal protection under the law. We must work for affordable healthcare, access to quality education and to fair living wages. We must do more that send our thoughts and prayers in response to the mass shooting epidemic in this nation, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must be relentless in the difficult work of peacemaking, of reconciliation, of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. That means we must stand against tribalism and the politics of vulgarity, vitriol, and violence. We must agree that words do matter, and we must be willing speak up against words that stoke the fires of fear and fan the flames of hate, speak against any word that seeks to divide us rather than unify us. We must work with other nations to end perpetual war and the profiteering from war, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must care for our environment, to do what we can to reduce the number of wildfires on the West Coast and the number of hurricanes on the East Coast and the number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

I believe we must continuously work for, march for, fight for, and vote for the liberty and justice of all, especially for the most vulnerable among us, or else those veterans who served this country did so in vain.

This building-of-a-more-perfect-union was stated most beautifully in a poem written during the First World War by Canadian physician, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in action.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place, and in the sky,

The larks, still bravely singing,

Fly, Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.  Take up our quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high!

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Let us pray together…     

Dear Lord, please keep our veterans in your care and grant them the peace that they sought to safeguard for others. As we continue honor our veterans, we also pray for peace everywhere. O God, teach your children of every race, creed and faith, in every land, the ways of peace, freedom and equality, so that those who have sacrificed so much for peace and freedom will not have sacrificed in vain. It is in the name of Christ Jesus, the prince of peace we pray, Amen.

Why I Am Voting

2018midtermelection

As an earthling, I am voting for the environment.

As a human being, I am voting against vulgarity, division, deceit and violence.

As a white southerner, I am voting against white nationalism and racism.

As a straight person, I am voting against homophobia, transphobia and bigotry.

As a man, I am voting against sexism and misogyny.

As a runner, I am voting against ableism.

As a person of faith, I am voting against fear.

As a Christian, I am voting against Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism.

As a pastor, I am voting for freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

As an employee, I am voting for fair living wages.

As a husband, I am voting for marriage and family.

As a father of two children, I am voting for public education.

As an American, I am voting for liberty and justice for all.

As a follower of Jesus, I am voting for people who are sick, poor, imprisoned, hungry, naked, and outsiders.

As a person who tries to love my neighbor as myself, I am voting against anyone and anything that harms my neighbor.

As a voter, I am not voting Republican, and I am not voting Democrat. I am voting for right over wrong, love over hate and good over evil.

A Future Vision Story

Message BearersSermon delivered at the All Assembly Banquet of the 2018 Regional Assembly of the Great River Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

1 Kings 17:8-16 NRSV

When Dr. Burton first presented me with the honor of speaking this evening, my initial thought was to talk to you about my journey from being raised a Southern Baptist and pastoring  Baptist churches for over 25 years before getting to a point where I became so discouraged with church ministry that I left the church all together. I will never forget telling some colleagues before I left: that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to follow Jesus for at least six months before I die, but I can’t do that pastoring a church.

I was going to talk about my three-year hiatus from ministry until I discovered a new calling with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) five years ago. I was going to talk about the new hope I possess for the church as the pastor First Christian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

However, if I am to be honest with you this evening, I need to confess that I am once again becoming discouraged.

For these are some very difficult days to pastor a church. They are difficult days to be the church. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I began serving churches in 1986. And I have a feeling that you know what I am talking about.

So, what I need tonight, and I am supposing you need tonight, is not a word from Jarrett Banks about where I came from, the story of my past, but what I need, and what you need is a word from the Lord, about where we are all going, our future story together as the church.

Yes, what we need tonight, is a word from the Lord.

If we turn in our Bibles to 1 Kings 17:8 we will read:

“The word of the Lord came to him.”

Whenever I read a verse like this one, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people today like God did back in the day.”

The good news is, as our UCC kinfolk love to say, I believe “God is still speaking.” The problem is we’re usually not listening.

The passage continues:

“Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive.”

Elijah is listening. For he sets out and goes immediately to Zarephath.

And when he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He then calls out to this one who has been commanded by the Lord to extend some gracious hospitality to him: “Hey! Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a slice of bread.”

But she answers: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.”

Like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her extend hospitality to a stranger when they arrive at the gate.

Or perhaps she heard the command. She just doubted the command. She questioned the command. But maybe she didn’t so much doubt the command as she feared the command.

Several years ago, she had plenty. Things were a lot better. Money was coming in. She never worried about meeting her budget. Her pews, I mean her cabinets, were full. She could afford to be generous. She had enough to extend grace without reservations, show hospitality without restrictions, and to love without conditions. But now, after watching so much dwindle away, she had become fearful of the commands of the Lord. She was afraid of grace. She was afraid of love. She was afraid of the risk that love always demands.

The last time she she took an inventory, she saw that she had only enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her family. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, she knew that they would surely die.

Elijah then says: “Do not be afraid.”

Hebrew Scripture Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.

“Elijah says to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13).

“How dare this man of God ask me for cake, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own? There is simply not enough to go around. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There is not enough. And Death waits at my door.”

Then the good news:

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’

Do you know what we call that? We call that “a future vison story.”

If you follow the difficult, risky commands of the Lord to give generously and graciously, if you dare to step outside your comfort zones to follow the steps of the Lord, which will probably lead you to places you’d rather not go, “Your jar will not be emptied, and your jug will not fail.”

She went and did as Elijah said. And he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).

So the question for churches of the Great River Region in 2018 is this: Have we heard the word of the Lord?

Are we listening?

Maybe we’ve heard it, but we doubt it. We question it? Maybe we fear it.

How dare the Lord command us to give so generously, when God knows we have so little?

How dare the Lord expect us to risk so much? To take such a leap of faith? To step so far outside our comfort zones?

 

We’ve heard the treasurer’s report. We’ve been to that board meeting.

 

Every week we see it. Membership is declining. Attendance is decreasing. Income is shrinking. We simply do not have enough.

Following the commands of Jesus these days is just too dangerous, too radical, too much, too hard. We need to play it safe. We cannot afford to make anyone who gives a dollar to our church the least bit uncomfortable!

As the Lord your God lives, we cannot feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty when we barely have enough for ourselves.

We can’t welcome the stranger, give shelter the homeless or care for the sick, when we can barely pay our own bills.

As sure as the Lord God lives, we do not have enough to speak truth to power. We can’t call out their lies and their deceit, their stoking the fires of fear, their fanning the flames of bigotry and hate, their sowing the seeds of vulgarity, division and violence.

As sure as the Lord God lives, we cannot defend the rights of women who are doubted by men and mocked by the crowds, the rights of immigrant children who are separated from their parents and orphaned, the rights of refugees who are dehumanized and threatened with military force, or the rights of transgendered people those in power wish to erase.

Have you been outside? Have you heard the news? Do you know what is going on? Why, there’s an anti-Christ spirit gripping our land!

We cannot afford to love our neighbors when it is more popular to judge them.

We cannot afford to identify with the least when it is more popular to be the greatest.

We cannot think about being last when it is more popular to be first.

We cannot share our wealth with the poor when it is more popular to hoard our wealth and scorn the poor.

We cannot be peacemakers when it is more popular to buy a gun.

We cannot preach love our enemies when it is more popular to cry: “lock ‘em up.”

We cannot break down the barriers that divide us when it is more popular to build a wall.

We cannot call Muslims and Jews our “sisters” and “brothers.” We cannon ever hashtag “Black Lives Matter” or even mention the words “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” when it is more popular to hate.

We cannot care for our environment, protect wildlife, or be a Green congregation. We do not have enough to even talk about our responsibility to support renewable energy and to be an example to the world by reducing our carbon footprint when it is more popular to scoff at science.

We cannot support affordable healthcare, fair living wages and access to a quality, equitable education when it is more popular to do the exact opposite.

We can’t follow Jesus when it is more popular to worship Jesus.

We simply do not have enough to follow the risky commands of the Lord.

We do not have enough sticks to lose ourselves.

There’s not enough meal in the jar to deny ourselves.

And there’s not enough oil in the jug to even think about picking up a cross.

When attendance is down, the budget is behind, morale is low and sticks are about to run out, when we can see the bottom of the jar, and we’re squeezing mere drops from the jug, the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus too generous, and the love of Jesus too gracious. The light Jesus commands us to shine, well it’s much too bright!

We doubt such light. We question such light. We fear such light, and truth be told, we are ashamed of such light.

Common sense tells us us that it would be better for business to keep that light hid, out of sight, under a bushel or locked in a closet.

People might squint their eyes and tolerate us preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and they might shade their eyes with their hands and let us say that “all means all”; but some folks might go blind if we actually practice what we preach!

But then comes the good news.

Are you listening?

When the culture tries to control you,

when an anti-Christ spirit pushes back and tries to hold you back,

when this unholy spirit uses fear to make you preach what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to practice what is socially acceptable instead of what is the Word of God,

when the culture tells you that you do not have enough sticks,

that you need to retreat into the sanctuary, look forward to leaving this world and going heaven and stop worrying about bringing the kingdom of God to this world,

that you should run from new ideas, close your minds to new ways of being the church,

that you need to try to relive the good old days instead of following the Lord into good new days,

that you need to accept a personal, private Jesus, keep him deep down your heart and out of the public square.

that you need to embrace an alternative gospel, some fake news religion that is the opposite of the good news of Jesus,

that you need to be tightfisted with grace, scrimp on mercy, and be stingy with love;

behold, a message bearer shows up and you receive a future vision story. And that story goes something like this:

“Do not be afraid. Because your jar will never be emptied and your jug will never fail, and as long as you are following Jesus, you will always have a great big pile of sticks!”

There’s not enough nails in Jerusalem or anti-Semitism in Pittsburgh or racism in Louisville, or pipe bombs sent through the mail, or troops sent to the southern border, or bullies in your church that could ever empty your jar.

There’s no amount of Russian interference or American voter suppression or Gerrymandering that will ever cause your jug to fail!

There is no new policy, no executive order, no tweet and no political rally that will ever void or erase any of your sticks!

One day, Pricilla, a dear friend of mine, called me to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two morechildren from Ukraine.”

“Two more children!?!” I responded.

They had already adopted two the previous year, one was two and the other was three years-old. They both had lived in an orphanage since they were born and suffered with PTSD and other issues.

As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You’ve already have two adopted children. And I know what a handful they are. Pris, I know you are a great mother, and I know Brad is a good father, but don’t you think there are limits? Aren’t there limits to how much you can give?”

Pricilla responded by saying something like: “When it comes to love, I have not yet found the limits. You know, Jarrett, I really don’t believe one can ever run out of love. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give… the more love you seem to have.”

Once again, do you know what that’s called?

That’s called “a future vision story!”

In the Second chapter of Kings, we read about a man who brings the prophet Elisha a prophet’s tithe: Twenty loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain in a sack.

Elisha accepts the tithe, but says, I want you to take this food and give it to 100 people who who are very poor.

The man responds: “But there’s just no way. There is not enough food here to set before a hundred people.”

But Elisha assures the man and assures him with a future vision story: “Because of your great faith in giving to the Lord during this time of scarcity, I have this feeling that there’s is going to be more than enough.”

The man set the food before the people, and sure eough, there was not only enough, but it was more than enough, as they had leftovers.

They had leftovers.

Just like they had after the disciples fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and a couple of fish.

Just like I am sure they had had after Jesus turned 180 gallons of water into all of that wine!

Just like I am sure they had after the father welcomes the prodigal son home with that extravagant dinner party!

The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, the sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources!

So listen up! Do not doubt, and do not be afraid! And whatever you do, do not be ashamed!

Love generously! Love extravagantly! Love graciously! Deny yourself. Put the needs of others ahead of your own. Take a risk. Take up a cross. Go ahead and make some folks uncomfortable. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and include the differently-abled. Be kind, do justice, walk humbly, speak truth to power, go vote, preach good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.

Because, there is enough. There will always be enough.

No, in God’s abundant mercy, we have a future vision story that assures us there will always be more than enough.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Listen Up Nation! Seth’s Got Something to Say

SETH SMILE MCM TRAINING 2

On Sunday, during the Marine Corps Marathon in our nation’s capital, Seth Allen, who has Cerebral Palsy and Autism, will not recognize the White House, and he doesn’t have a strong opinion about who currently occupies it. When we roll by the US Capitol, Seth will not think of his Representative or his Senator from Oklahoma. The Supreme Court will be just another large building. When we pass by the monuments on the National Mall, Seth may not recognize them or understand who or what they memorialize. When we pass by the WWII and Vietnam Memorials, and when we start and finish near Arlington Cemetery, Seth will not grasp the significance.

For Seth, it will be just another race with Ainsley’s Angels, one that he participates in every month. I am sure he will notice that the course is much longer and has more runners; however, for Seth, the joy he experiences may be no greater than the joy he receives from participating in a small local 5k.

So, why spend all the money? Why travel all the way to Washington DC from Roland, Oklahoma? Why roll 26.2 miles?

Seth’s father George perhaps answered these questions best when he said: “Because this land is his land too.”

Seth’s inclusion with over 30 other Athlete Riders with Ainsley’s Angels in what is called “the People’s Marathon” powerfully proclaims the words inscribed in the granite of the Jefferson Memorial:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The inclusion of Ainsley’s Angels in the Marine Corps Marathon declares to the occupant of the White House, to each lawmaker at the Capitol, to the judges seated on the Supreme Court, and to the entire nation: “Regardless of ability, difficulties, individual differences, unique characteristics, and different needs, ALL are created equal. ALL have a right to live. ALL have a right to love. ALL are worthy to be free. All are worthy of respect. ALL deserve to be happy. ALL deserve to be included.”

And if we continue to vote for this principle in two weeks, Seth’s smile at the finish line near the sacred grave markers of Arlington will reveal to the world that those who sacrificed their lives for this nation did not do so in vain.

And this will certainly not be “just another race.”