The Church Is in the Clothing Business

welcome-1024x493

Genesis 3 NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Obstacles to Church Growth

God abhors you

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 26 of chapter 8 reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eunuch then began to read from chapter 53:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the church grew.

Let us pray together.

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

Invitation to Communion

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

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

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

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

There is nothing preventing you.

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

Going Fishing

flounder

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV

The gospels are full of great fishing stories.

Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Arkansas dreams of having some church, right on the beach. Luke tells us that the congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.

Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.

After the Benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.

Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”

It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. Filled with so many fish, the nets almost break.

Do you remember Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch?

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”

Nope, not even close.

Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”

Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. As our scripture lesson in Mark reminds us, this is story in Luke is not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard.

And like Simon, this scares us to death.

Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina surrounded by water, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”

And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work!

I am afraid this describes many in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”

So, our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.

Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. My Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.

On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!

To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.

In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and maybe to Grandma’s house afterwards for Sunday dinner was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.

However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to be on the move.

We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, not where we might want them to be, but where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality.

The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them, but if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”

I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

I remember measuring a flounder: “O no! This flounder is an inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”

“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say, “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”

Here’s what you don’t know, Nana’s son, my uncle, my mama’s brother, at the time, was a North Carolina Game Warden. Nana risked getting into trouble not only with the state, but with her own family.

I have heard it said, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”

The reality is that as a pastor I am constantly getting into trouble.  And what’s crazy to me is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love, when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.

I once heard a member of one of the churches I pastored say that he was downright ashamed and embarrassed to be a member of our church, “because it was becoming a haven for those people.”

This person truly believes that the sole purpose of the church is about making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that Jesus calls us all to fish for people, Jesus calls us to bring others aboard without discrimination, leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

And God help us when the church is embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!”  What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.

I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”

As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, we are called to only exclude those Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.

Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of one local church. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.

“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!

About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.

Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.

Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”

O God, help us to be fishers of people, without conditions, without limitations, without judgment, without embarrassment, but always with the grace of Christ. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

No matter your size, color or lack of color, beliefs or lack of beliefs you are welcome here. Because here, around this table the only ones who are excluded are the ones Jesus excluded. No one.

Commissioning Benediction

Now as we depart this blessed place to be a blessing to every place we go, let me leave you with these words of commissioning and benediction:

Let’s go fishing

by loving all of our neighbors— Actively, Intentionally, unconditionally,

And may the One who is faithful to all

be with us all as we depart this blessed place,

And help us to be a blessing to every place we go,

until we gather again. Amen.

 


[i] I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.

A Radical Cup of Water

waterhose

Matthew 10:40-42 NRSV

Matthew Chapter 10 is perhaps one of the most demanding chapters in the entire Bible.

Early in the chapter, we read that the discipleship business is a risky business. We are to go out into the world and encounter the sick and the dying. We are to engage those possessed by pure evil. We are to be willing to leave behind our families, our homes, even our clothes! Persecution is not only to be accepted. It is to be welcomed!  To save one’s self, we are to practice denying one’s self, pouring one’s self out, losing one’s self.

And when read it, we think, “You know, I don’t think I am really cut out for this discipleship business. I don’t have the gifts, the time, the energy, the courage, and quite honestly, I don’t have the desire.”

So thanks for the invitation, but I prefer to just keep my place safe and comfy on this padded pew.

Then, we reach the end of the chapter and we read these words: “Whoever gives even a cold cup of water to one of these little ones—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

And we say: “Hey now.  Wait just a minute. You know, I think I might be able to handle this! I can’t heal the sick—I hate hospitals, and I do all I can do to avoid nursing homes.

I don’t have what it takes to minster to the poor. They make me nervous, make me feel dirty, stress me out.

I can’t be with the dying. That is what Hospice is for. And I dread going to funerals. I never know what to say or what to do.

And I can’t leave my family behind. I can’t give up my possessions. And I don’t want to even think about losing my life. But hey, I am all about sharing a cold cup of water!

Finally! Something I can handle. So, Jesus, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. As soon as I get home from church this afternoon, I am going to hook up my water hose to the spigot out in front of my house.  Then I am going to I make a sign and put it out by the road that reads: ‘Free cold drink of water for all who are thirsty!’ And to make the preacher happy, since it is his last Sunday, I will even add: “And all means all.”

Maybe I am cut out to be a disciple of Jesus after all!”

For most of us, this seems like some good news! We who generally fail at casting out demons (even when they show up in church), we who would rather stay in our pews than take the gospel out to the dying, we who take care of our own children while others starve in the streets, and we who find praise far more satisfying than persecution, even we can open the doors of the kingdom through a simple act of hospitality, as small as giving a thirsty stranger a cold cup of water.

“Praise be to Jesus!” we say.

“So, I am going to just forget about all of that other stuff Jesus talked about, that big prophetic stuff, that demanding stuff, that risky and radical stuff. I’m just going to take Jesus at his word in Matthew 10:42 and run with it!  In fact, is going to be my new favorite scripture verse. This is my new calling. This is my mantra and my ministry. Cold cups of water for all God’s people!

But you have to wonder if we aren’t missing something. For deep inside, we all know we can do a lot better than that. We all know a cross or two we could bear. We all know a neighbor we could love. We all know someone we could help out. We all know ways we could be a little less selfish, less materialistic, more generous.

True discipleship really cannot be as easy as passing out a few cups of water, can it? Are we really supposed to forget all about everything else that Jesus talked about? All of that hard stuff about “turning the other cheek,” “loving our enemies,” and selling everything we have to give to the poor?”

Surely those are the marks of true discipleship. Those are the keys to the kingdom of heaven. There’s just no way a small act of inconsequential hospitality can compare to the risky and radical business of battling the demonic, coming into contact with the sick, ministering to the dying and enduring persecution.

But Jesus seems to disagree. For in a fragmented world such as ours, a simple act of kindness, a small gesture of welcome to a stranger, a little genuine hospitality is never an easy, inconsequential act. In fact, it can be very risky business with very radical consequences.

A short time ago, I replied to an email from a complete stranger who wrote to thank me for something that I had written on my blog. By the way, I ended that article, “And all means all.”

I replied to his email with a simple, hospitable, what-seemed-to-be-inconsequential, “Thank you.”

A few days later we are friends on Facebook.

A couple of weeks later, I get a telephone call asking me to pray for him about a job opportunity in the City.

A week later, I am asked to meet this stranger at a restaurant.

Before I left the house, I told Lori exactly where I was going. I called her when I arrived and told her that if she did not hear from me in a couple hours to call the police.

During dinner, he shared with me some his burdens, some of his pain, some of fears. He told me how he had often been condemned by the church for being different. I made myself vulnerable by sharing some of my own burdens. Before we departed, we embraced, no longer as strangers, but as brothers who had made a covenant suffer with and to pray for one another. I drove home wondering: “What on earth have I gotten myself into?”

In this fragmented world, a world of walls and barriers, a world where there is so much division, so much hate and loneliness, replying to a simple email, a small gesture of hospitality, becomes a risky, radical and prophetic act that has the power to change your life, and perhaps the world.

And Jesus says to go and do this. Go out, move out, seek out, and reach out to strangers. Love your neighbors.

And yes, this world is frightening beyond our walls. Our neighbors can be so different. And the truth is some of our neighbors can be downright scary.

But our neighbors are also thirsty.

So, welcome, engage, touch. Share a drink with someone. Make yourselves vulnerable to another. For there is no other way to fulfill the purpose for which you were created—to seek and make genuine peace in this world.

This is discipleship. This is following the way of Jesus. It is done face-to-face, side-by-side, hand-to-hand, person-to-person.

We cringe. Because we know that this kind of hospitality involves risk. It involves radical openness and intimacy with another.

Offering a cup of water to another involves the risk of rejection, but also the risk of laughter; the risk of tears, but also the risk of love.

I’ve heard it said that the problem with others is that they are just so “other.” Others can quite often be different. Others may not like us. Others might refuse our kindness. Others might wound us. Others might crucify us. And worst of all, others might change us.

The truth is that putting a welcome sign in the front yard beside the water hose is a downright dangerous activity.

Nearing the end of my ministry in North Carolina before moving to be with you here in Enid, I went into the church kitchen to get a cup of coffee. A woman from the cleaning service the church had hired was in there preparing to mop the floor. Although I had seen her almost every week nearly three years, I am ashamed to say that I did not know her name.

But that day, before I really thought about it, considered the dangerous consequences of it, I asked this stranger, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Somewhat shocked by my simple act of hospitality, she responded, “Yes, I would.”

She then introduced herself to me over that cup, as she introduced all of her children, a sick grandchild, a sister battling cancer, a brother who lost his job, and an absent husband. I filled a bag with squash and cucumbers from our community garden, and I hugged this woman who I had hardly spoken to in three years—this stranger that I had all but ignored—this woman who was no longer a stranger. She was my sister. And acknowledging the change, the miraculous transformation that had occurred, I thought, or maybe I prayed, “Good Lord, it was just one cup of coffee!”

Paraphrasing United Methodist Pastor William Willimon: This is the way of the good Lord. For Jesus, oftentimes through the smallest and simplest of ways, is always trying to change us, challenge us, move us. He welcomes and accepts us only so we will welcome others, for not only their sakes, but for our sakes.

This is the gift of community. This is why we were created. It is the answer to our own sadness, to our own loneliness and to our deepest desires. Jesus knows we were not created to live in isolation, but created from the heart of a God who lives in a self-giving, loving communion with the Son and the Holy Spirit—A heart that is so full of love that it cannot help but offer grace and redemption to all and call all into this communion.

And this communion grows. It grows when we offer kindness, gentleness, and mercy, when other lonely lives become wrapped up in our own, when the grace of God that was given to us is freely given to someone else.

And before we know it, the small cup of water we offered to another becomes a cup of salvation as fear fades, barriers fall, walls come down, hands touch, hearts connect, eyes open, lives become entwined.  Creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter.

Doing business with this kind of God, even when it seems small, safe and inconsequential, is always a risky business with radical consequences. And Jesus wants us to know that these consequences are eternal. Whether we are fighting demonic evil, healing the sick, caring for the dying, leaving behind our homes, our possessions, our friends and family, being persecuted for taking a stand for social justice, or simply offering meager acts of hospitality to a stranger, we always risk receiving salvation.

This is the great wonder of the gospel. When we reach out, accept, and welcome others, when we take the hand of another, when we embrace another, when we offer the unconditional love of God to another, even in the smallest of ways, even in sharing a glass of water or a small cup of coffee, or in responding to an email, God welcomes us.

When we encounter another, we find communion with God and receive the overflowing hospitality of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[i]

[i] Inspired by William Willimon. “Risky Business,” Clergy Journal, Jun 26, 2005, vol 33, no 2, pp 53-56.

Cliques and Churches

 

clique

John 10:11-18 NRSV

When I first moved to Enid, I was immediately told that Enid could be “a cliquish town.” They told me that within this town, there exist these “cliques,” these small groups, circles or factions of close knit, tight, cohesive people. I have also heard this said about every church that I have ever served with, and this church is no different.

However, this may not be as bad as it might sound. I believe there may be something good, even redemptive in the cliques of Enid and in the cliques of the Central Christian Church.

Jesus differentiated himself as a shepherd as opposed to a hired hand. He said that when the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. Jesus says that the hired hand runs way because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. The good shepherd, however, knows the sheep and loves the sheep and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

Along life’s journey, all of us have encountered shepherds and hired hands haven’t we? Perhaps it was when we, or our loved ones, were admitted to the hospital. The nurse on duty during the day was loving and caring and compassionate. He called us by name. It was apparent that he loved his job. He acted as if he had been called by God to be a nurse. Being a nurse and caring for others was his Christian vocation. He checked on us frequently and did things for us that he really did not have to do. He was a shepherd who cared for his sheep.

Then the 7:00 shift change came. The night nurse took over. And he was night and day different from the day nurse. We asked him politely for some medicine to help us rest. He rolled his eyes and walked out of the room. We only saw him one other time during the night. We never got the medicine we requested. It was obvious that he was only there to earn a pay check. There was no sense of call, no sense of vocation.  He was truly a hired hand if there ever was one. Not a caring bone in his body. He never once called us by our name.

Jesus said that he is the good Shepherd and he knows his own, and his own know him. Jesus is describing a type of inexplicable, intimate relationship. The Greek word translated “know” in this verse is the same word used to describe the intimate relationship between a married couple.

The relationship Jesus is describing is rooted in the most intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. It is a relationship which is so intimate that Jesus later says, “the Father and I are one.”

Thus, when Jesus speaks of the flock, Jesus is describing a close knit, tight, cohesive, caring, supportive flock of people. There are no strangers in this flock. Each person in the flock knows and is known, intimately, personally, profoundly. You might say that Jesus is describing a type of clique.

This knowing is much more than mere recognition. This knowing in this clique includes a deep involvement in the life of the other. It is an involvement characterized by self-giving, sacrificial love. Where folks, Jesus says, are willing to lay down their lives for one another. Jesus was describing what should characterize the life of this church, and every church.

This is what I believe makes this installation service, three and a half months after I began serving with you as your pastor, so meaningful. If we had this service in January, or even in February, many in this flock would be like strangers to me, and I might feel more like a hired hand. I told the group Wednesday night that I was glad we are having this service in April, because now, three months in, because I have come to know you, I have really come to like you folks, in fact, I have grown to love you. I think we have a pretty good clique going on here.

However, Jesus reminds us that such mutual knowing and intimacy, which is characteristic of cliques, should never become so warm, safe and cozy that it becomes exclusive. Such intimacy and caring should never be turned inward. Listen again to verse 16. I think it may be the most important part of our lesson this morning: “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”

Jesus reminds us that although a clique may represent a loving and caring, intimate community, a clique should never be closed. A clique should always be open-ended. The flock is not yet finally fixed. There are always others who recognize the shepherd’s voice and need to enter the fold.

I believe failing to remember this is the downfall of churches. We must always remember that communities of mutual caring and intimate knowledge should never be closed.

Someone asked me if we were an open and affirming church. I thought to myself, “What a sad day it is when someone feels like they need to ask that question!” Because as a church, we have absolutely no business being closed and condemning.

However, it is important to recognize that all of us possess a tendency to exclude those who are different from us: those who did not grow up in the church; folks who have no idea what it means to be Christian; folks who have questions and doubts; those who are burdened by all types of struggles; folks who are broken, physically, spiritually and socially; those who look, live, believe and speak differently. Comfortable with our clique, we may tend to avoid inviting and embracing the other.

But if a church gives into this tendency to shun and exclude others, then it ceases being a church. Because if a church is not, first and foremost, a place of grace for all people, then it ceases being Christian.

In Acts, chapter 11, we read that when Barnabas arrived in Antioch to visit one of the first churches, the first thing that he witnessed was “grace.” In verse 22 we read:

“…and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion… and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. I believe it is important to remember that the first clique to be called to be called Christian was called a community of grace.

As Mother’s Day approaches, our thoughts will almost certainly turn inward toward family. There is no doubt about it, a family is a clique; it is a close knit, tight, cohesive community of mutual knowing and caring. But, do you remember what Jesus reminded us about families? In the 12th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew writes that as Jesus was speaking to the crowds, someone told him, “Look your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  And Jesus replied: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mothers and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus had a very broad understanding of family, didn’t he? The clique is never closed. The flock is never finally fixed. Jesus yearned for deep, personal, intimate relationships with all who try to do the will of the Father. Jesus desired to be in a community of mutual knowing and caring with a broad range of people, with, in fact, all people.

They tell me that Enid is a cliquish town and Central Christian is a cliquish church. And I for one am grateful that they are absolutely correct.  Within our city there exists communities of mutual knowing and caring. The same is true with this church. There are Bible study classes and small groups who genuinely know one another and care for each another. They are not hired hands but are shepherds to one another.

However, during this installation Sunday as our thoughts turn inward as we commit ourselves to remain faithful to one another with steadfast devotion, may Jesus remind us that those thoughts should also be turned outward to the world. May Central Christian Church reach out and invite and embrace others, embrace even those who are different from us, realizing that the clique is never closed and the flock is never finally fixed.

May we go out and remembering the words of Jesus, “I have others who do not belong to this fold. And I must bring them also.”  And may we remember that we are not hired hands; we have a vocation and a high calling… We are the body of Christ.

Teresa of Avila described it this way: “Christ has no body on this earth but yours…Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world; yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”  Right now. Right here.  Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, even though we crucified you, you rose from the dead and returned to us. Even though we forsook you and denied you, you returned and sought us out, as a shepherd seeks lost sheep. You called us by our very own names, and you summoned us to follow you as sheep follow their good shepherd. So here we are. We are together because you have called us to be together.  However, there are many others who you have also called and summoned who are not here, not yet a part of this flock.  May we have the grace and the courage to bring them in also.  Amen.

All Means All

all means all

Someone recently asked, “When a church says that it welcomes ‘all’ people to worship and to serve, who exactly are ‘all?’”

“All.”  Perhaps the only time this simple word is ever ambiguous is when it is used in a sentence with the word “church.”  For some very bad reasons, the most inclusive and encompassing word in the dictionary becomes exclusive when religion enters the syntax.

“All.” Ever since the Apostle Paul used the word when he said “And Christ died for ‘all,’ that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5:15), the word has been thoroughly questioned by those who are offended by such grace.

However, when a church says that it welcomes “all,” I believe that church is saying…

If you are the wealthiest business owner in town, we welcome you. If you have sold your food stamps to purchase alcohol and pot, we welcome you. You are welcome here if you consider yourself  “a church person,” “religious” or “spiritual,” or if you are one of those who believe organized religion is a crock. The color of your skin, your gender identity and your sexual orientation does not matter as you are welcome here with open arms. If you grew up in the church, you are welcome. You are welcome if you have never attended church and have serious doubts that God even exists. If you believe in a literal Hell, and you can name people who are going there, you are welcome. If you hope to God there is no Hell, you are welcome. If you believe in God only because you want to go to heaven, you are welcome. If living forever really does not interest you, you are welcome. We especially welcome you if you are Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, atheist or agnostic. If you are married you are welcome. If you have never been married, been married many times or don’t even believe in marriage, you are welcome. Pro-life, pro-choice, pacifist, soldier, documented, undocumented, illegal, legal, you are welcome here with us because we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

When a church says that it welcomes “all” people to worship and to serve, I believe “all” means “all.”

–Inspired by Rev. Dr. Kyle Bennett, St. Mark’s Episcopal, Marco Island, FL