Let’s Dance: Joining the Dance of the Trinity

dad and children

Romans 5:1-5 NRSV

It is fascinating to read the letters between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is obvious that Stone had a more difficult time accepting the Trinity than Campbell. Stone writes:

On this doctrine many things are said, which are dark, unintelligible, unscriptural, and too mysterious for comprehension. Many of these expressions we have rejected…

I wonder if Stone’s problem was that he was trying to comprehend the Trinity in the first place. Maybe the Trinity is something to be lived, more than learned, something to be experienced more than explained, something or someone with whom to relate more than to understand.

Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses, which means literally in the Greek, “to dance.” They were suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, I don’t believe the Trinity is not a doctrine to learn. It is a connection to be enjoyed. It is to be encountered more in relationship than in religion. It is something that is unseen yet true, inexplicable yet real. It is more surreal than literal, more actual than factual.

The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle tells the following story that I believe speaks to the mystery of the Trinity. She was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. She recounts:

The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give.

The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience.

When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, ‘May I ask you something?’

‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘What about?’

‘It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand,’ I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘what their problem is,’ and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.’

So I believe it is with the Trinity. This dynamic, intimate relationship, this holy dance, shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so beautiful that it has be to true, whether it is the most accurate description of the image of God or not.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…

And that, wrote Lewis,

is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…

There it is again: a dance. The Trinity is an activity. It’s something moving, something to be experienced, something to be lived.

Lewis continues:

And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

In other words, this holy dance of self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is where we can find our holy purpose.

So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am not proposing we should understand the Trinity as much as we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and discover ways to participate in it—discover ways we can enter into the sacred dance by doing all we can, with all that we have and are, to selflessly love one another.

I believe we are given opportunities everyday to dance this holy dance during our lifetimes. The church itself, the relationships we share here, is one such opportunity.

However, for me personally, no dance has been richer or has emulated the divine dance more fully than the dance of fatherhood.

Before my children existed, I loved and was loved. And it was out of a mutual self-giving love they were both born.

I will never forget holding Carson and Sara in my arms, shortly after they were born and contemplating my love for them. Before they came to be, I thought I knew what love was, when in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea that I could ever love another so deeply, so completely, so persistently. Although I had always sought to love others as myself, as my own flesh and blood, until my children came along, I never knew I could truly love another more than self.

Consequently, it was not enough to just bring them into the world, to father them. No, my love for them demanded so much more. It demanded me to actually give all that I had give to them, for them.

I was far from perfect. At times I could be selfish, self-absorbed. It was on more than one occasion I heard their mama sing:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

‘When you coming home, dad?’

‘I don’t know when’

But we’ll get together then

You know we’ll have a good time then.

But there were times when I gladly sacrificed. There were times I gave my all. There were moments when I rose to the occasion. I protected, and I nurtured. I did my best to teach and to guide with words and through example. And I always loved them just as they were, graciously, generously, unconditionally. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them; no place I wouldn’t go.

I took them to school and I picked them up. I coached basketball and baseball. I went roller skating and snow skiing. I learned how to made cookies, waffles and doughnuts from scratch. There were football games, soccer games, carnival games, birthday parties, baptisms, orthodontist appointments, dance recitals, trips to the beach, trips to the emergency room, bicycle rides, rollercoaster rides, summer vacations, cross-country 5ks, awards ceremonies, concerts and graduations. Yes, there were graduations.

And now they are hundreds of miles away. I am no longer present physically, but I am still very much there emotionally, you might say spiritually. They are on their own now, yet they are still mine.

And just as it was not enough to bring them into the world, it is also not enough to raise them and teach them only to leave them to their own devices. No, my love still demands more. Our relationship is not over. In a wonderful way, it is a new beginning. I am no less their father. Maybe I am even more so. I know my concern, my desire to protect, my suffering, has not diminished.

A week ago, a friend of Carson’s from Oklahoma City needed help moving to Atlanta, so she bought him a one-way plane ticket to Oklahoma City. Last Sunday morning, while I was preaching, Carson and his friend passed through Van Buren heading East on Interstate 40. Unable to see him, the pain I experienced was indescribable. And my heart broke this past Thursday, as Sara celebrated her first birthday in 22 years without us.

My desire to be there for them, to do anything for them, to even die for them is now as great as it has ever been, if not more so. They will always be a part of me. I am in them and they are in me. I will always be there for them. My love for them is forever.

This is probably as close as I will ever come to knowing the height, depth and width of the love of the God who created me, became flesh and taught me how to live and love, and whose Spirit is always with me.

The good news is, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, if we who have have a tendency to be selfish know how to love our children, how much more does God love us? (Matthew 7:11)

No wonder the Apostle Paul was able to share such confident hope with the Romans in the midst of his suffering! If God’s love for us that we experience in the dynamic dancing relationship that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is anything like an imperfect father’s love for his children, surely we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

If we have peace with God who not only graciously brought us into the world, but sacrificially showed us the way to life, and promises to never leave nor forsake us, surely we can boast in our sufferings.

If we know that the love that God has for us always demands for God to love us more, then surely our hope will never disappoint us.

Thus, when we feel like falling apart, we can keep it together. When we feel like giving up, we can keep going. When we feel like fighting, we can forgive. When we feel nothing, we can love. And when we feel like doing nothing, we can dance.

Yes, Barton Stone, this dance is a mystery. But it is a mystery that has happened and is happening to us. We can’t comprehend it. But we can join it. We can live it. Today and forever.

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This Old Man Has a Dream

robed

Acts 2

Mark 6:6-13

Last week, I talked about how the church, as an institution, seems to have lost its focus and purpose in the world. These days, it is an understatement to say that it’s floundering more than it’s flourishing. The model and structure of the church that baptized and made numerous new disciples of Jesus in the 20th century seems incredibly inept here in the 21st century.

If we want to fulfill the great commission to make new disciples, many believe we must come up with a new model, or new models, new expressions of doing and being the church, the gathered and sent people of God in the world.

I believe that what the institutional church needs more than anything else is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We need the same Spirit that gave birth to the church at Pentecost in the first century to give it a rebirth in the 21st century. That’s right, you heard me, I am saying that I believe the church needs to be born again!

On the day of Pentecost, Peter described the movement of God’s spirit by quoting the prophet Joel:

These are the days God says:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17).

During our graduate recognition service a few weeks ago, I talked about the importance of listening to young people who have essentially given up on the institutional church. I said we need to listen to the visions of these young people who believe the church, in the form that it is in today, is actually doing more harm in the world than good.

But I also believe we need to listen to the dreams of older folks, those who were raised in the 20th century church, introduced to Jesus in the 20th century church, raised their children in the 20th century church, but today are frustrated by the fact that their children have no interest in being a part of it.

Well, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

This old man who has been attending church for nearly 53 years, and has served churches on staff for 33 of those years has a dream!  And I believe today, Pentecost Sunday, is the perfect opportunity for this old man to share it.

When I dream about how the church needs to be born again today in order to recover its purpose in the world (which Jesus said was to baptize and to make disciples who follow his teachings), I am constantly drawn to Mark 6:6-13, the account of Jesus sending out his disciples into the world for the very first time—on the first mission trip—to do the very same things in the world that Jesus was doing.

Mark 6:6 reads:

6aAnd he was amazed at their unbelief. 

I wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief today. Having been a part of the church my entire life, I know I am often amazed how many in the church today really do not seem to believe that we are called to live, love and serve in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus. Many just believe we’re supposed to accept Jesus, receive Jesus, study Jesus, and worship Jesus; not actually follow Jesus.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the number of people who believe the Kingdom of God is just some place we go after we die, instead of something we are supposed to work at, to give of ourselves to, to pour ourselves out, to create here on earth.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and then don’t do a thing to make it happen!

I also wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit—the belief that although we cannot go back to the good old days when our church pews were filled with people, we can be led by the Spirit forward into good new days. We can be led out into the world baptizing and making new disciples, doing more than we ever dreamed we could to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.

I wonder how many people in the church truly believe that our best days of doing church, being church in this world are not behind us, but before us?

6bThen he went about among the villages teaching.

Notice that Jesus never stayed in one place. He was constantly on the move, going from village to village teaching, healing and restoring. He never set up shop in one building, or on a campus with five buildings, and expected people to come to him to get fed, receive a blessing, or be restored. No, he always went out to them to feed, bless and restore. And he expects his disciples to do the very same thing.

7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 

Jesus never intended to be on a mission to transform and save the world by himself. He called and gave authority to disciples to join him. He sent them out doing the very things that he did, some very big things like: challenging the unclean spirits of greed, materialism, poverty, sexism, racism, sickness, exclusion, and oppression. Jesus gave his disciples the power and the authority to change the world!

I wonder how many in the church today, sitting in their half empty sanctuaries, truly believe they have the power and the authority to change the world?

8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out to be the church in the world, he ordered them to travel light, to keep it simple, and to stick to the basics. Disciples should leave behind all of their baggage: anything that might slow them down, deter their mission, or enable them to get too comfortable in one particular place. Jesus said that if they want to be his disciples in the world, they must leave some things behind.

And notice that Jesus said that they are to take no bread. Could that mean that Jesus wants them to go out and share a meal with others? Could that mean that he wants them to share a table with others, with perhaps strangers, and break bread?

10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Jesus said disciples who are sent out to encounter and love the world can expect failure. If disciples are following Jesus, and if they are taking his inclusive and unconditional love and grace out to the people, they will not be received by everyone. But they should never let that discourage or stop them. They should peacefully keep moving and keep doing what they have been called to do.

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 

Disciples go out and proclaim that all should repent of their selfish, self-centered, self-preserving ways. However, proclaiming such repentance is impossible if the disciples are not first willing to repent of their own misguided ways, ways that are about preserving old structures, old traditions, ways that are solely about serving some institution rather than serving all people.

13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

As I said, disciples have the power to do some pretty big things. They stand up and speak out against evil forces. They restore, and they heal, and they forgive. They are a literal movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

This is my dream for the church in the 21stcentury. It’s right here in this simple account of Jesus sending the disciples out into the world.

Yes, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

I have a dream – that the church would once again believe that its main and only purpose in this world is to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to go out into all the world to make, not new church members who want to serve the church, but new disciples who want to follow the selfless way of Jesus to serve a world in need.

Yes, this old man has a dream.

I have a dream – that the church’s annual Mission Trip—you know, the one of which the participants said was the highlight of their year, the very best thing they did all year long through the church— I have a dream that the church’s annual mission trip was not just one week a year but was actually 52 weeks a year! I have a dream that church itself was a Mission Trip!

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day truly leave its buildings to move from place to place, village to village, to teach the selfless, restorative, healing love of God to all people with words and deeds. I have a dream that one day the church will stop talking about getting outside of the walls of the sanctuary and actually get outside of them!

Think of how much better our worship would have been on the Sunday before Memorial Day, if we set up a tent and worshipped near the edge of the rising flood waters. Perhaps had a cook-out after the service, and then helped residents in the area by feeding them lunch and filling sandbags.

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day leave behind all of its baggage—anything that is not about loving this world as Jesus loved it, being people of grace and kindness and mercy and justice, and making new disciples who do the same thing.

I have a dream – that the church will leave behind its love for the nostalgic memory of the way things used to be, its pining to return to the good old days and will get together to dream new dreams and embrace a new vision, and move forward into good new days.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will somehow learn to keep the faith simple by sticking to the basics, like simply loving others as Jesus loved others.

This old man has a dream – that the church will be a courageous, risk-taking, peace-making, justice-creating movement that’s never afraid to go to new places, even to those places it is not welcomed.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will one day finally repent and change its ways selfish ways that focus on going to heaven, receiving a blessing and being fed, to embrace a selfless way that focuses on being in, blessing and feeding the world.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will catch a new vision of how to be church, how to be a mission of selfless love following Jesus wherever he leads.

This old man has a dream – that the church will truly be about baptizing and making new disciples, teaching them to do the things Jesus did, instead of spending all of their energy and time trying to keep its old members happy.

This old man has a dream where the church no longer has any members.

It only has disciples.

This old man has a dream – that the church, the Body of Christ, God’s gathered and sent people, will be born again by the Holy Spirit to be a literal movement for wholeness transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.

Now, do you want to hear the good news?

The good news is that when this old dreamer looks around the room, I have hope that, as a prophet named John Lennon once sang: “I’m not the only one.”

 

Pride and Pastors

 

sorry

Pride is especially painful for me as a pastor, as I realize that pastors are one of the main reasons that people who identify as LGBTQ need Pride. Throughout my ministry, I have witnessed more hate from pastors directed towards people who identify as LGBTQ than from any other group of people.

I cannot begin to count how many pastors I have heard say: “It was Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve,” and use the word “abomination” to describe persons who are LGBTQ.

I once attended a convention of pastors that voted to excommunicate an entire church from their denomination for baptizing persons who were LGBTQ.

I have attended meetings with pastors who said they believed the biggest threat to Christianity and to America were LGBTQ people.

I have attended other meetings with pastors who said that they must “fight like hell” for their rights to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

I have welcomed new LGBTQ persons into the church who were told by their pastor that they were not longer welcome in their church.

I have officiated funerals for LGBTQ persons after their pastor refused to be a part of their funeral.

I have officiated weddings for LGBTQ people whose pastors would not even consider attending the ceremony.

And here’s what may be the most painful part: From the year I graduated from seminary and became a pastor in 1992, until 2013, for fear of upsetting or losing church members, I was egregiously silent. Today, I realize my silence has made me complicit in the harm that has been directed towards the LGBTQ community. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel has warned us: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Now, there were a few times during my first 20 years of ministry when I spoke up in defense of the LGBTQ community in informal conversations, briefly in a sermon or a Bible study, and in some posts on social media; however, during that time I never “spelled it out” in “black and white” in a manner that was fully visible to the public.

So, to all of my LGBTQ friends, I sincerely apologize.

Please know that I remain committed to be a vocal ally of the LGBTQ community for the rest of my life, because I believe (here it is in black and white) that GOD LOVES ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN, AND TO CELEBRATE DIVERSITY IS TO CELEBRATE DIVINITY!

 

For more on this subject see: Issues of Homosexuality and the Church

Get Your Heads Out of the Clouds

River Valley Strong

Acts 1:6-11 NRSV

The risen Christ had been telling his disciples for months that he would one day leave them, and in today’s lesson, the read where time had come. But before he departed, they asked him: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

With those words, he ascended into heaven and left them standing there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes show up. They said: “You Galileans, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, because one day, God’s kingdom would fully come, and day would come when love would finally win. The disciples did not know when, but they didn’t need to know.

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that the Kingdom is coming. Love will eventually win, and here’s the thing, you are going help to make that happen! That is, if you get your head out of the clouds and keep loving this world as Jesus loved this world, keep being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story has much to teach today’s church that seems to have its head in the clouds. I hear it almost every day: that the church seems to have lost its focus, its vision and its purpose in our world.

And there are several clouds that our heads seem to be stuck in these days.

First, there are still too many Christians today whose main, and really only focus as a Christian, is going to heaven. The faith in Jesus that they profess is nothing more than a ticket to escape this world. Thus, their faith is private, something they possess, hold on to, not something that is actually lived or shared with others.

I believe our scripture lesson this morning is a direct command from God to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off going to heaven, and come back down to earth and to do something for this world. Give something, create something, be something that will make a positive difference in the world.

Come back down to earth and go to Jerusalem. Go all the way to Little Rock and Washington DC and be moral witnesses. Why are all of you hunkered up in one place? Don’t close yourself up in a sanctuary of comfort and security. Go into all of Judea. Go all over the River Valley, and even into places that you do not want to go, like Samaria. Go into the muddy, flooded neighborhoods along the Arkansas River. Be witnesses to the ends of the earth to the good news of the love of God that Jesus revealed to you.

Another cloud that Christians have had their heads into ever since the Emperor Constantine wed Christianity with the Roman Empire is the cloud of worldly power and control. But perhaps it started right here at Jesus’ ascension into heaven: “Tell us Jesus, when are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”

The desire and temptation to gain worldly power and control is strong. Today, we see the minds of Christians clouded and their souls corrupted in their embrace of greed, materialism, dishonesty, pride, all kinds of bigotry, even a little Nazism, in order to gain some dominance.

Being in a cloud is perhaps the best way I can describe what is happening today—A follower of the Jesus who emulated love and commanded love, must have their heads in some kind of deep demonic fog for them them to believe that religious liberty in this country gives them the license, not to love their neighbors, but to discriminate against some of their neighbors and cause them harm.

Many are shocked that followers of Jesus think this way today, but I suppose this is nothing new. Our nation has seen this ugly cloud before. It’s the same evil fog that not that long ago blanketed this nation that made it possible for followers of Jesus to believe that religious liberty was a license for them to not only demean and dehumanize people, but to actually own people as slaves..

“Get your head out of the clouds,” said the angels. Stop focusing on any power of this world that dominates, discriminates and divides; and instead, focus on the peculiar power of Jesus, the power that the Holy Spirit will give you, the power that gives generously, serves selflessly and loves graciously.

And there’s another cloud that I fear many Christians have their heads stuck in these days. And when I say stuck, I mean really stuck. And it is perhaps the darkest, most sinister cloud of them all. It is the cloud of the institutional church.

We are stuck in the pipedream of the way things used to be. Our minds are clouded by some hazy sentimental memory of church. And we have fully accepted the delusion that if we put all of our focus on serving the church the way we used to and getting others to join us to serve the church in this same way, then we can somehow get back to the way it was.

Consequently, our focus is on being what we believe is good member of a church, rather than on being a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Our focus is on maintaining and preserving structures, systems and traditions, rather than on following Jesus without any limitations, restrictions or hesitation.

Our focus is on serving the institution, rather than on serving people.

Our focus is on trying to figure out how to get people to come to us and support us, rather than on creating new ways we can go out to them and support them.

Thus, our focus has been on building attractive buildings and on maintaining those buildings, rather than building the kingdom God and expanding that kingdom.

This week, I have heard more than one person say that this historic flood has brought out the best in Fort Smith. I believe that is because, for at least a week, we got our heads out of the clouds.

We left behind our focus on going to heaven by literally and figuratively bending ourselves down to the earth to love our communities affected by the flood.

We left behind our lust for a power that dominates, discriminates and divides by embracing the sacrificial power of Christ that unconditionally and unreservedly gives, serves and loves.

We left behind our churches, temples and mosques. We got outside the walls of our religious institutions, traditions and beliefs, and we went out into our neighborhoods to simply love others as Jesus loved others.

Yes, this week, the focus of Fort Smith couldn’t have been more unclouded. It couldn’t have been sharper, clearer or purer.

The good news is: I believe that the week that has brought out the best in Fort Smith has something holy to teach us about how to bring out the best in the church. It won’t take us back to the good old days when our sanctuaries were full on Sunday mornings, but it will take us forward, out of our sanctuaries, into good new days.

It is the lesson to get our heads of the clouds. It is a challenge to leave behind some of the things that we thought were important, even sacred, to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

Here’s our challenge:

Are we willing to leave behind our focus on going to heaven? Are we willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, not for some future reward, and certainly not to avoid some form of punishment, but simply because we believe Jesus is the most unclouded, the most clear and the most pure revelation of God’s love?  I heard someone once say: “If the fear of eternal damnation is the only thing keeping you from being a bad person, you are already a bad person!”

Are we willing to leave behind our focus for worldly power? Are we willing to transform this world not by imposing our beliefs on others, legislating our morality, but through selfless and sacrificial love— by loving, living and serving the way Jesus loved, lived and served? Are we willing to work alongside, not only those who believe like us and dress like us, not only the pretty and the powerful, but also those who believe very differently, those who are rough-around-the-edges, and those who are poor?

And here’s perhaps our most difficult challenge: Are we willing to leave behind focus on institutional church? Are we willing to leave behind the way we have always done things: old polities of how to be good church members that may be obstructing our focus on how to good disciples of Jesus? Are we willing to leave behind every part of church that is preventing us fulfilling the great commandment to love our neighbors and the great commission to make new disciples?

In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

The good news is that I believe we can regain our holy vision and our divine purpose when we redirect our gaze from the heavens, from worldly power, and even from the way we’ve always done things inside the institutional church, and focus on serving people and the meeting the needs of the world.

When we understand that faith in the love of God is not some ticket to heaven, that it was never intended to be coerced or used to control, or to only be experienced inside these walls, but faith is something that is to be lived everyday and shared with all, to the ends of the earth, starting right here in the River Valley with our neighbors who need us right now, then I believe we will regain the power of the Holy Spirit which can transform the world.

Go and Get You Some Glory

Class 2019

John 13:31-35 NRSV

During a recent concert here in Van Buren, in between songs, the musician interacted with the audience with some back and forth exchange. It must have been obvious to the musician that one group was there to celebrate an occasion. Perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. So he asked: “What are you guys here celebrating tonight?”

A young man sitting at the table shouted out, “It’s my graduation!”

The musician responded: “Oh, your graduation? Well, congratulations! Where are you graduating from?”

“UFAS!” shouted the graduate.

“That is wonderful! Now, it is time for you to go and get you some moneeeeeeeeey!”

Of course, everyone laughed, clapped and cheered! I even leaned over to my son Carson and said, “That’s right! You go get you some money, Carson!”

For that’s what parents want of our children do we not? We want them to get a good education so they will not only be self-sufficient, but they will be successful. We want them to be able to afford nice things and live in nice places.

But almost as soon as I said it— “Go out and get you some money”—before the cheers and the clapping had time to die down, I knew there was something wrong with those words. And then, I could almost hear the words of Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).

Yeah, I am certain there’s now way Jesus would have shouted out: “Now, go out and get you some money!” And am even pretty certain he wouldn’t have laughed, clapped or cheered.

Now, I realize that there are some preachers you see on TV who would disagree with me here. Sitting on their opulent gold sofas, I have heard them point to scripture like our gospel lesson this morning to justify their prosperous and luxurious life-style.

“Look,” they say, “Jesus himself said: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified…’ That means Jesus came to earth and was ‘glorified.’ And if Jesus was glorified, then that means that God want us to be glorified too!”

Then they point to their mansions and their private jets and their gold watches and rings of every finger as signs of God’s glory. And I have seen them look into the camera and say something like: “And God wants you to go out get you some glory! And if you send me some of your money, you will get it!”

Although the word “glory” might suggest worth and value, I believe Jesus’ had something very different in mind.

The Greek word “glory” is doxaa, whichliterally means “reputation.” It is the root word of our word “doxology.” When used as a verb, it means to enhance one’s reputation. To glorify is to praise, honor or recognize someone to the extent that they have a reputation for greatness. It means to assign honor, prestige and fame to someone. So EVERYONEwill know who they are.

And while the world may glorify the rich and the famous, Jesus was talking about another kind of fame and glory. This reputation has nothing to do with having a lot of money and material possessions.

Jesus says, “Here’s the reputation, here’s the glory, I want you to have:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Listen to this) By this EVERYONEwill know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In other words Jesus says: “I want you to be famous! I want you to be recognized. I want you to be renowned the world over. I want you to be glorified. I want EVERYONE to know that you have the reputation of being my disciples. And you do this by simply loving others as I have loved you.

St. John of the Cross wisely wrote:

In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.

My hope for the class of 2019, and I believe God’s desire for you, is that you will get up and go out and get you some glory. I want you to get up and go out and love others in such a way, the very same way Jesus loved others, so that EVERYONE will know that you are his disciples.

Because today, what this world needs now more than anything else is for everyone to know the transforming love of Jesus. What this world needs now is change. What this nation needs now is change. And it is a change that you have the power to bring. For our reputation as a nation has certainly been diminished in the world these days. Our glory days seem to be over.

My Disciples of Christ friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, has made this challenge to the class of 2019:

I’m here to tell you, if you graduate and get up and get together and get involved, love can take on hate, mercy can take on meanness, justice can take on injustice, truth can defeat lies. You cannot merely get a job and a car and quarantine your life. Your graduation is more than just getting another slice of materialism. You must stand against injustice and be part of reviving the heart of this nation.

There are too many people in this world who are living their lives without any glory, without any reputation at all. Well, for the very few who know them, they have the reputation of keeping to themselves, minding their own business, being self-centered or just too afraid to step out and step up. Some would like to see the world change, but they are sitting safely back, waiting for someone else to go get the glory.

Yes, Class of 2019, what this world needs is more people who want to some glory!

We need more people who are willing to step up and step out, to put themselves out there, to put their reputation on the line, to run for office, to start a non-profit, to speak truth to power, to serve selflessly, to love this world as Jesus loved this world. We need more people to be the change, be the solution, and be the church this nation needs.

I am now going to address something that may be a very sensitive subject, especially here, in this place, during this hour. It is the subject of church.

It is no secret that the majority of high school and college graduates today and church do not mix.

According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (that’s 22-35 year olds) who were raised in church have since dropped out of church completely. Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending a church is worthwhile. And here’s what might be the most frightening statistic: 35% of Millennials believe the church today does more harm in the world than it does good.

Nearly all church growth experts agree that this means that church as we know it today, in the form that it is in today, will slowly cease to exist in 50 years.

I had an opportunity to have lunch with Nadine Burton our Regional Minister this past Wednesday. When I asked her how she has been doing, she responded: “On most days I feel like a real estate agent more than I feel like I am a minister.” I was afraid to ask, but asked anyway, “Because so many churches are closing and selling their property?” She said: “yes.”

Now, here’s the sensitive part that I was warning you about. I do not blame the Millennials for the church’s decline. And I don’t blame Millennials for dropping out of church. For I believe the church today has a long way to go to prove that it is a worthwhile venture. Much has to change in the church today if it is going to look like the the authentic embodiment of Christ in this world. The church today has undergo a drastic and dramatic transformation to love like, give like, and live like Jesus.

I think we need to face the hard and painful truth that the church, in its current form, does not have a very good reputation in the world. The church today has lost much it’s glory. And I believe that is the reason the heart of this nation is so very sick today.

But here’s the good news. Although our glory days have greatly diminished, I do not believe our glory days are over.

So, here’s what I am here to say to the class of 2019 on behalf of the church: “I want you to go and get you some glorreeeeeeee!” I want you to get up, stand up and speak up to transform the church. If the church is not what you think the church should be, I want you to do the work to reshape it. I want you to teach us how to love others as Jesus in loved others in such a radical way, EVERYONE will know we are disciples of Christ.

Now, I am aware that not all churches will listen to you. Not all pastors want to hear from you. I understand that. That is why you are dropping out. That is part of the reason you believe attending church is a waste of your time. And that is why our regional minister can continue to expect to be in the real estate business.

But I believe that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, wants to hear from you. I know this pastor wants to listen to you. I want to work with you to help bring glory back to the church, to help restore the church’s reputation in the world.

And I believe with all my heart that your generation will one day have the reputation, the glory, of saving the church, and thus, quite possibly, saving this nation.

I Don’t Know Much About Theology

Racel Held Evans doubt

John 10:22-30 NRSV

I recently read that a pastor in Fort Smith is going to begin a Bible Study series entitled:“Answers to Your Toughest Faith Questions.”  The article listed a small sampling of the theological questions that he would be giving answers to—

How did the Father send the Son if the Father and the Son are one?

How could God, the son, die?

Why was it necessary that Jesus’ body be resurrected?

What does it really mean when we say that Jesus died for our sins?

Now, I was raised going to church every Sunday. I hardly ever missed Sunday School class, attended every Vacation Bible School and went to church camp every summer. In college, I minored in religion. I went on to get a Masters of Divinity Degree and then a Doctorate in ministry. I did some math and deduced that I have written over 1,300 sermons. You would think I would know a thing or two when it comes to theology. But guess what? The truth is: I don’t know much.

The only thing that I really know about theology is that the more I know, the less I seem to know.

Some of you are probably thinking about right now, “if this local pastor is really going to give some answers to those tough theological questions, maybe our pastor, bless his heart, should show up a learn a thing or two!”

But here’s the thing. I know just enough about theology to know that there’s many different ways one can answer those types of questions. In our theology classes in seminary, we studied several different answers to those tough theological questions from several different theologians and then we worked to form our own opinion.

This may surprise you, but that’s about all I’ve got—opinions.

This is part of the reason I could not be happier today to be a Disciple of Christ. With the late, wonderfully honest and thoughtful Rachel Held Evans, I have always “longed for a church to be a safe place of doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”

I believe First Christian Church is that type of church. We call ourselves “Christians” because we have have decided to follow Jesus as our Lord, not because we have figured out the tough questions of faith.

Have you noticed the words that I use more than any others when I am preaching?  Besides “God” and “Jesus” and “good news” and “all means all” and “inclusive love.” The two words that I use more than any other is: “I believe.”  “I believe this to be true…I believe that God works this way…I believe that God desires this…I believe that God wants that….  “I believe God is calling us to…”

I had a parishioner in one of my churches who made an appointment with me so he could tell me that saying “I believe” so much really frustrated him. And he said if I didn’t stop saying it, he might have to find another church!

I asked him, “What would you rather me say?”

He said that I needed to be more authoritative. He wanted me to say: “I know,” “I’m certain,” “I’m confident,” “I’m convinced,” “I conclude…”; not “I believe.”

But, like I said, that’s all I got. When it comes to theology, I theorize. When it comes to faith, I think.  I consider, I ponder, and I wonder.  I lean “more towards.” I surmise, I guess, I deduce, I speculate, estimate and contemplate.  I hope, which, by the way, infers that I also doubt.

And if that exasperates any of you who come to this place Sunday after Sunday in search of concrete, black and white answers, I am really sorry, because if I frustrate you, I know Jesus does.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ critics have just about had it with Jesus. It’s the gospel of John and according to John, Jesus can be fairly evasive, ambiguous and hard to figure out.

They come to Jesus, and they ask, “who are you?” And Jesus answers the same way he always answers according to John. He says things like: “I am the vine, and you are the branches;” or “I am the bread;” “I am life;” “I am the way;” “I am the Good Shepherd.”

What is any of that supposed to mean?  It’s all so symbolic, so metaphorical, so figurative.

In exasperation, they demand: “Jesus, show us plainly, directly, and clearly who you are!”

Then, it’s Jesus who begins to get exasperated. “I have been teaching you, telling you, over and over, but you haven’t seen and you haven’t heard. Then Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”

Sheep?  Now we’re back on the metaphorical, the symbolic, the figurative.

But you know something? I may not know much about theology, but I think I almost get what Jesus is talking about here. And I have a strong hunch that some of you who are here today know exactly what he’s is talking about!

In fact, I do not believe that the majority of you are here today looking for clear answers to the tough questions of the faith. I think you are here this morning because, despite all of your lack of knowledge and misunderstandings, you have heard the voice of Jesus, and you are trying your best to follow him.

Thus, most of you are not going to get upset with me for speculating, because that’s the best you do, speculate.

Like me, you don’t know much about theology.  But you know Jesus.  Maybe not as clearly as you would like, but you know him clearly enough, for you to follow him.

In some inexplicable but certain way, the Risen Christ has come and revealed himself to you. Jesus has broken through and spoken to you. And you have heard his voice as the very voice of God.

Thus, Jesus says in our Gospel, “I and the Father are one.”  In other words, what you have seen and heard Jesus, is as much of God as you ever hope to see and hear on this earth. And that’s why you are here today.

Jesus says: “My sheep know me.” Not everyone knows him. His critics and enemies may not know him. But here’s the good news: by the grace of God you know him. And yes, that in itself is a miracle. But it’s a miracle that has happened to you.

You were sitting all alone one day after your tragic loss, and this peace came over you that was beyond all understanding. And although could never explain it, you knew, you were convinced, and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

Out of nowhere, a memory popped into your mind that brought a smile to you face and a joy in your heart—and you can’t figure it out, but somehow, some miraculous way you knew, you were convinced and certain and confident that it was Jesus.

You were sitting on your sofa feeling sorry for yourself, when a knock at the front door came. When you opened it, in walked your good friend with a smile and an encouraging word. How in the world did they know you needed to hear that word? You can’t put your finger on it, but somehow you knew, you were convinced and certain that it was Jesus.

You thought about spending time doing something you wanted you to do, but something persuaded you to do something for somebody else, and you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt you knew, that it was Jesus.

You decided to visit the nursing home, or you decided to serve a meal at Hope Campus, or you decided to visit someone in the hospital, or you decided to volunteer with Ainsley’s Angels, and while you were there, while you were looking in the faces of the tired and weak, the broken and poor and the differently-abled, you knew, you were convinced, and you were absolutely certain that you were looking into the face of Jesus.

This is the good news behind this rather exasperating episode in John’s gospel for people like you and me who do not have all the answers, who do more pondering than knowing and more wondering than concluding:

Christ is risen and he has come out to meet us, in our doubts and our misgivings, in our misunderstandings and our unanswered questions, in our sin and in all of our brokenness, because he loves us. He loves us more than we will ever comprehend. And he knows us. He has called us by name.

And somehow, some miraculous way, we have heard his voice. And although will never figure it all out, although we will never be able to wrap our minds around him and all he claims to be and promises to give, we are nonetheless following.

And here is some more good news.  I KNOW, yes even I, one who doesn’t KNOW much about theology— who some say might not know much about anything, from a science book or three years of the French I took— BUT I KNOW, without a doubt, with absolute certainty that the risen Christ is here, and he is calling you and me, and if we answer this call, what a wonderful world this would be.