Grace and Gratitude: Remembering Ronnie Avery

The Second Miraculous Catch of Fish

From Ronnie Avery’s Memorial Service February 8, 2004.

Luke 5:1-11 NRSV

“Grace” and “gratitude.”  The two words come from the same Latin root and belong together.  Grace is when God does something for us that God did not have to do.  And the only way to respond to God’s amazing grace is with humble gratitude.

The soon-to-be disciples were in a boat with Jesus just offshore.  Jesus asked Simon, who had been fishing all night without catching a thing, to drop his nets out in some deeper water.  When he did they filled up the boat with so many fish that the boat began to sink!  They signaled another boat to come over to help.  Then they filled that one up!  They barely got back to shore before the boats sank under the weight of the fish.

These fishermen had never seen anything like it before. It was a miracle. It was also grace. Jesus did something for these ordinary fishermen that Jesus did not have to do. That is the definition of grace. And the fisherman responded with humble gratitude as they “dropped everything” to follow Jesus. They left their old lives behind on that beach, to worship and to serve Jesus for the rest of their lives.

The disciples responded to grace the same way Ronnie Avery responded to the grace that he received.  Ronnie would be the first person to tell you that he was on a road in the summer of 2003 that was leading him to a place that he did not want to go.  When he was hospitalized in July of that year, gravely ill with congestive heart failure, he realized this, and was filled with fear.

That day in ICU Ronnie said that he prayed a prayer that went something like this: “Oh God, not now.! Please don’t let me die now!  Please save me God, and I promise I’ll get myself right and start living for you.”

He said when he opened his eyes from that prayer, he saw me standing there in front of him for the very first time.

I had a short prayer with him and said, “Ronnie, I sure am glad to meet you, but I am sorry that it had to be under these circumstances here in the hospital.”

I will never forget how he responded. He said, “You’re getting ready to see a lot more of me, because I am going to be sitting on a pew in your church the first chance I get, and I am going to be sitting on one every Sunday that I possibly can!”

Ronnie told many people that on that day, in that moment, his life miraculously changed forever.  Not only was he suddenly and miraculously healed of a disease which had plagued his entire adulthood, it was in that moment that he began to live his life like those fishermen—fishermen who one day dropped everything, left their old lives behind them, to live a brand new life following Jesus. And this was the real miracle.

The very first Sunday that he was able, Ronnie was sitting on a pew in church, just like he said. A little over a month later, Ronnie joined the church.  He came every Sunday and every Wednesday night he could.  He gave faithfully our church’s budget.  He contributed generously to the fund set up by the church to help pay the tuition for my doctorate.  He loved his wife more sincerely.  He loved his siblings more deeply.  He loved his children and stepchildren and family and everyone he knew more earnestly.  Although he was weak and tired, he spent the entire first day of 2004 loving his sister-in-law, Donna, in the emergency room of Wake Forest University Hospital in Winston-Salem.

He repeatedly told me that he wished he was well enough and strong enough to do more.  However, the truth was, Ronnie did more for the Lord in six months than most people do their entire lives.

Ronnie would tell people that I changed his life.  He even said that I saved his life. However, we all know this was not true.  And deep inside, Ronnie knew that was not true.  God saved Ronnie’s life. God changed Ronnie’s life. I just happened to be the one who happened to be standing at his beside after his fearful prayer to God.  God used me to give Ronnie something that God did not have to give Ronnie: grace. Amazing grace: free, unearned, undeserved and unmerited.  And Ronnie responded like fishermen with humble gratitude and sincere thankfulness.

God also used Ronnie’s family members the same way God used me. God used so many people through the steadfast love they had for Ronnie.  They loved Ronnie with a love that was unwavering.  Each of his siblings, Steve, Dianne and Shirley, loved Ronnie with the steadfast love of their mother, Mary.  With his faithful wife, Becky, they never gave up on him. They showered Ronnie with the grace of God—unearned, undeserved and unmerited.

At Ronnie’s funeral service on February 8, 2004, I shared something that I had never shared with anyone before.  I tried to share a little of it with Ronnie on the way back from Winston-Salem on January 1, 2004.

Ronnie told many that I changed and saved his life.

What many did not know was the extent of which Ronnie changed and quite possibly saved me.

There is a disturbing and alarming statistic concerning pastors.  After just ten years of ministry, 30% of pastors drop out of the ministry.  After ten years, many pastors wake up and just decide that being a pastor is simply not worth all of the heartache and heartbreak. Trying to please people is a very demanding and stressful job. Not to mention, impossible. Many pastors decide that the burden that is placed their families is simply not fair. And many come to a place where they feel they are ceasing to make a difference. So they drop out and leave the ministry all together. You will find many of them selling insurance or real estate.

Personally, since I have been a pastor, I have always experienced a strong call to pastoral ministry. There was never any doubt in my heart or mind that serving as a pastor is what God was calling me to do, until 2003.  That marked my eleventh year of ministry.  I was at the point where 30% give up and drop out.  The first six months of that year were the most difficult six months of my entire ministry. The heartache of trying to please everyone and the heartbreak of failing to please everyone was wearing me down. The church was taking in fewer new members, and we were failing to meet our budget.  Church attendance was down, and I was at the darkest point in ministry wondering if I was really making a difference in anyone’s life.  I was contemplating joining the 30% of my colleagues by seeking another profession.

Then came a hot day in July. I went to the hospital to visit with the family of Howard Evans and Venetia Kue. I got off the elevator on my way to see Venetia and ran into Donna Mosley. She told me about Ronnie and sent me directly to see him in ICU.  And I have never, and I will never be the same.

For you see, on that day God showered two people with grace. Amazing grace—unearned, undeserved, unmerited. God was not finished with Ronnie, and God was not finished with me.  After ten years, God was still using me and calling me to be a pastor.  God may have used me to save and change Ronnie, but I will thank God the rest of my life that God used Ronnie to save and change me–as God used Ronnie to change so many others.

Ronnie continually told me that he wished he could do more for the Lord through the church.  I tried to tell him in the car on the way back from Winston-Salem  just a month before he died, and I hope to God that God has told me now, that he did more for the Lord than he ever knew. Ronnie saved my ministry and quite possibly my life.  And I will thank God for Ronnie Avery the rest of my life, as will many others.

In that ICU room, Ronnie said, “You’re getting ready to see a lot more of me, for I am going to be sitting on a pew in your church the first chance I get and I am going to be sitting on one every Sunday that I possibly can.”

Now I hate to admit it, but deep within my sometimes cynical self, I thought, “Sure you will.”  I didn’t graduate from seminary yesterday.  I had been a pastor for eleven years.  I know how most people work.

When most of us are given a gift which is completely undeserved, unearned, and unmerited, a gift that changes our lives, at first we are grateful.  But then our gratitude begins to wane. I expected to see him on a pew one Sunday, maybe two Sundays, but I certainly did not expect to see as much of him as I did, and I never expected that he would have the impact on my life that he did.  That’s the way grace and gratitude works with most people.

But thank God, Ronnie Avery was not most people.

Like fishermen dropping their old lives in the sand to leave them behind for a brand new life, Ronnie Avery certainly dropped his old life in exchange for another.

How did he do it?  Why didn’t his gratitude wane like most people?

Because Ronnie lived everyday of the rest of his life acknowledging that God had done something for him that God did not have to do. God had showered Ronnie with grace. Amazing grace—free, unmerited, undeserved, unearned. And Ronnie was grateful.

Think of what the church of Jesus Christ could be and what the church could do, if all of us made this simple acknowledgement: That God has given us something that God did not have to give us.  The gift of life.  The gift of friends and family.  The gift of himself.  The gift of resurrection.  The gift of life everlasting.

Think of the difference we could all make if we woke up each morning with the prayer that I believe was Ronnie Avery’s prayer everyday:  “Today God has given me something that he did not have to give me, something that I did not have coming to me—something completely unearned, undeserved, unmerited.”

I believe our lives will truly bear witness to the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will be the people God is calling us to be.  We will be the church God is calling us to be. And there is no telling how many people, and even pastors, may be changed along the way.

It’s Time to Get Personal


Isaiah 49:1-7 NRSV

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 NRSV

John 1:29-42 NRSV

The season of Epiphany is the time the church traditionally talks about the revelation of God to all of humanity.

It is the time to ask some of the most difficult questions of our faith. Who or what is God? What is God like? What does God feel? What does God want? How does God relate to and interact with us and the world? How does God reveal God’s self to us?

These are very difficult questions, because with our mortal minds, I do not believe we can ever answer them completely. And as I said last week, I am okay with that. In the words of Fosdick: “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.” I am very comfortable living, as the Apostle Paul wrote, in a world where I “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor 13).

I love the way we begin each service with the Lord’s Prayer praying, “Hallowed be Thy name.” For the name of God is so above our mortal comprehension it always evokes reverence, awe, and respect.

And I believe that one of the problems with religion these days is that, for many in the church, there is no mystery. Too many people have the world and have God all figured out. They are know-it-alls and listen to a sermon or attend a Bible Study not to learn anything new, not to be challenged, but to have what they already know reaffirmed. They have all of the answers and never have any doubts.

A parishioner came to see me one day almost in tears. She was so upset that she was shaking. A friend of hers was dying. She said that she was not sure about her friend’s faith so she asked her: “Without any doubt, do you know that if you died today that you would spend eternity in heaven?”

Has anyone ever asked you that before?

The dying woman responded, “I hope so.”

Well, that response tore her friend completely out of her frame!  For she wanted her to respond: “Yes! No doubt about it, I know! I know unequivocally, for absolute certainty!”

But her friend’s response did not sound that troubling to me. She may not have responded with absolute certainty, but it sounded to me as if she had faith.  She hoped. She believed. She trusted.

To be honest, I tend to get along better with people who are honest enough to admit that they sometimes have their doubts; that they do not always know absolutely. And I am often wary of those who have no doubts whatsoever, because it has been my experience that those are the ones who are the quickest to judge and are the first to belittle, even condemn, others who hold different beliefs.

A member of a pastor search committee once asked me if I believed the Biblical account of Jonah and the whale should be taken literally. She asked, “Did it actually historically happen the way the Bible says it did?”

I responded, “I believe that God can do what God wants to do. I have no trouble believing that God can use a whale to actually swallow man and spit him out on the beach of God’s choosing. However, if I die and get to heaven and find out that it was just a fictional story to reveal a great truth about the will of God, then I am not going to get angry and ask for a transfer!”

I believe the problem with the church today is that too many church people are so closed-minded they would opt for the transfer. They are so convinced, so right, so certain about the things of God that they leave no room for mystery and thus no need for faith, hope or trust.

One of the great things about our heritage as Disciples of Christ is our individual freedom to interpret the scriptures and to understand God and God’s relation to the world. We are encouraged to have open-minds when reading the Bible. No one was more of a free-thinker or had more of an open mind than our forefather, Barton Stone. That is why I believe he was so inclusive, welcoming all people to the Lord’s table. And that is why I believe we are such a non-judgmental, non-self-righteous, accepting people today. We do not presume to have all the answers. And we are not even close to having God all figured out.

Now, I wished we could just end the sermon right here. I wished we could just stand now and sing our hymn of commitment, pat ourselves on the back, and then go get some lunch. But, we can’t do it. We can’t do it, because now, now the sermon is just beginning.

We open-minded, free thinkers have to be very careful, that while embracing the mystery of God, we do not completely depersonalize God. While we accept broad views and opinions, while we practice widespread inclusivity and acceptance, we do not make the mistake and generalize God.

In emphasizing God as mysterious Spirit, a Spirit that Jesus says is comparable to the wind, blowing when and where it wills, in stressing God as Light in our world working in mysterious ways, we must be careful not make God into some sort of generic, vague enigmatic force.

In church, we say very specifically, “May the Spirit of Christ be with you.” We do not say very vaguely say, “May the force be with you.” That’s from Obie One Canobie and Yoda; not from the Old and New Testaments.

I have noticed, especially over the last decade, how Christians, in their attempts to find common ground with other faith groups, talk more about following a general God and less about following a specific Christ. When relating to Hindus, Muslims and Jews, I have heard Christians say things like: “We have our differences,” “but we all believe in God.”  But in our attempt to find common ground and unity, I believe we sacrifice God as a distinct, particular, and very personal being.

You hear a lot of talk today about spirituality.  More and more people are calling themselves “spiritual” instead of “Christian.”  There are far more books at Barnes and Nobles on Spirituality than are on Jesus. William Willimon says he can understand why this sort of reasoning is so attractive. “The more vague, indistinct, mushy, and impersonal we can make God, the better for us!” Willimon says that if God is so mysterious, “Then we can make God just about anything we want. We can render God into a projection of our sweet sentimentality and we will never have to grow, change, or be born again.”[i]

And when we depersonalize God we ignore about almost everything said about God in scripture. Take, for instance, today’s lectionary lessons—every one of them. Each of them, in their own way, speaks of a very personal God who sees, speaks, acts, moves, feels and intrudes. In the Old Testament Lesson for the day, the prophet Isaiah recounts how, even before he was born, God knew him personally and intimately and had special plans for him.

In the Epistle Lesson, Paul, when challenged by some dissidents at one of his early congregations, defends his authority as leader on the basis that God Almighty, the creator of all that is, had reached down and touched him, personally authorizing him as an apostle. The Greek word apostle, literally means “someone personally sent from God.”

And in our Gospel Lesson that I read this morning, John the Baptist looks at Jesus and sees in him the very presence of God in the flesh, the personification of God among us.  And Jesus himself said, that if we know him, we know his Father as well (John 14:7).

I believe we should think of this hour on Sunday morning as our attempt to get personal with God, to give that word “God,” which can be terribly abstract and general, some specific concreteness. Sunday morning is the time when we tell God who we are, but more importantly, it is the time when we listen to God tell us who God is.[ii]

Our God is not distant, aloof, some indistinct concept or some abstract idea. Our God is a personal being who yearns for the most intimate of relationships with each one of us. Our God is one who continually rips the heavens wide and swoops like a bird when we least expect it, calling us by name, affirming us as God’s beloved children. God reaches out and reaches in and touches the places in us that most need touching. And our hearts, our very souls burn with love.

Let me just stop my sermon for a moment and just look at you. As your pastor, part of what I love about you is not your vague generalities, but your very personal ways: the particular ways you love, the intimate ways you care, the unique ways you act, the peculiar way you share, the specific you give, the distinctive ways you serve, the certain ways you accept, the special ways your forgive.

I love you not for your generalities, but for your personal uniqueness.

“Humanity in general” does not move me.  A congregation “in general” does not energize me, evoke me, persuade me or love me—but you specifically can. You particularly can. You explicitly and certainly can.

The same is true with God. Here in this season of Epiphany, it is time to get personal, to get down to the specifics. We believe, that in the personal specifics of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have seen God. We have seen not some general, vague idea, not some mysterious force, but we have seen a person, a person walking among us, calling us, urging us, challenging us, loving us, forgiving us, changing us, and one day resurrecting us revealing the true life of God—revealing who God is, what God is like, how God feels, and how God relates to us and our world.

No, we do not have all of the answers. And as I said, I am comfortable not knowing all of the answers. I fully embrace the mystery of all that is.  I believe that there is a very good reason that each Sunday, we unite our hearts and pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name.” For His name is so beyond our fragile minds, so above our finite understanding, so outside our mortal comprehension, so utterly mysterious, that it is a name that is to always be revered and respected and sanctified.

However, that name just so happens to be “Father”—a word that cannot be any more personal. And the good news is, we pray, not merely “Father” but we pray very intimately and very specifically and personally “Our Father.”

No, when it comes to God, we cannot know it all, but what we can know is certainly, absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly enough.

[i] William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 2006.

We Do Not Light Our Candles on Christmas Eve with Optimism


I was listening to MPR a while back and heard an interview with a psychologist who said that, according to her research, the single, biggest key to living a healthy life is staying optimistic.   In one of those voices that was so pleasant and friendly and sugary sweet that it got on your nerves, she said:

“Optimists have less stress, better marriages, and healthier diets. They tend to have a sunnier outlook on the world, which translates to positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Optimists generally believe that things are getting better, that humanity is improving, the world’s problems are being solved.”

And then, to clinch her point, she said: “We also discovered that optimists live longer than other people.”

As a Christian minister I thought: “If that statement about optimists is really true, then there is no way that Jesus could have been an optimist.  For he was dead at 33.”

While some Christians are always  a delight to be around, always cheerful and positive, Christmas hope is fundamentally different from optimism.

Christian hope has very wide and focused eyes on the devastation of the world, and Christmas hope readily acknowledges that things may not get better.  Christmas hope does not bury its head in yuletide cheer and artificial lights, but like an Advent wreath glowing stronger and brighter each week, Christmas hope pushes its way into the brokenness of this world, clearing a path in the darkness so that the true light might shine.

Christian hope has the courage to work for the Biblical vision of justice, healing and liberation, trusting that such working is a testimony, a witness to the Light: The light that came through Jesus to teach us that God loves us and God is with us and God will never leave us and never forsake us;  The Light that reveals God will stay by our side and resurrect all of our sorrow into joy, our despair into hope and our deaths into life.

Tom Long tells a story about rabbi Hugo Grynn who was sent to Aushwitz as a little boy.  In the concentration camp, in the midst of death and immense suffering, many Jews held on to whatever shreds of religious observance they could without drawing the attention of the guards.  One cold winter’s evening, Hugo’s father gathered the family in the barracks.  It was the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Lights.  The young child watched in horror as his father took the family’s last stick of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string from his ragged clothes.  He then took a match and lit the candle.

“Father, no!” Hugo cried.  “That butter is our last bit of food!  How will we survive?”

“We can live for many days without food,” his father said. “But we cannot live a single minute without hope.  This is the fire of hope.  Never let it go out.   Not here.  Not anywhere.”

It is Christmas Eve.  These days are darker, both literally and figuratively.  We are surrounded by never-ending questions of pain and sadness—a world groaning for salvation. Tonight we light our candles, hear the Christmas story and say our prayers, and wait for the coming Christ.  We wait for the Light that will never go out.

We are not being merely optimistic.  But in Christ, we possess an abundance of faith, trust and confidence that God is Emmanuel, God with us and God for us, and the day is coming when God’s Light will come and rid this world of darkness forever bringing forth a new and glorious creation!

What Is Christmas All About?


If Christmas is all about the exchanging of gifts…Then it will mean a lot of shopping which will lead to a lot of stress, debt and depression.

If Christmas is all about children…Then it will be especially painful for those who have lost children, for those who have never been able to have children, and for those whose children are estranged. Christmas will mean lost dreams which will lead to anguish, regret and depression.

If Christmas is all about family… Then it will be especially painful for those of us, including me, who have lost loved ones this past year.  Christmas will mean empty chairs at the table which will lead to grief, sorrow and depression.

No wonder Christmas is the most depressing time of the year for so many people.  No wonder suicide rates are at their highest this time of the year.

However, if Christmas is all about the Holy gift of God’s self to us through a little baby named Jesus, then Christmas will mean hope.  If Christmas is all about Emmanuel, God with us, then Christmas will mean peace.  If Christmas is all about God who came to earth to heal and forgive, then Christmas will mean love.  If Christmas is all about God, who through Jesus the Christ came to earth and died and who was resurrected, then Christmas will mean joy which will lead to abundant and eternal life.

I want to encourage all of you to avoid depression by making the worship of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ a priority this Christmas season so we can receive true life, and together, share it with others.

Christmas for the Average Joe

st-joseph-infant-jesus-344x400Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV

This past week, I went to the post office to purchase some Christmas stamps for our Christmas cards.  And this year, like every year, I am asked the same question from the postal clerk that goes something like this:  “Do you want the gingerbread house, or do you want the religious stamps?”  Last year, it was either “the snowman or the religious stamps?”

Of course I want the religious stamps! It’s Christmas, and I’m a preacher, and I’m supposed to be religious!

“What kind of religious stamps to you have?” I asked.

And every year it’s always the same. In the Christmas religious category, you always have the same number of choices—one.  Said the clerk: “It’s the Madonna and child, you know, the portrait of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.”

Have you ever wondered why there are no stamps of Joseph holding the baby Jesus?  In all of your born days, have you ever seen such a stamp?  Have you ever even heard of such a stamp?

Now, I understand that way back then, in a male dominated society, men probably didn’t do a lot of baby holding.  That was the woman’s job.  But why hasn’t there ever been a postage stamp of Jesus and Joseph hard at work in Joseph’s workshop building something together?  Why can’t we find a postage stamp of Jesus and his carpenter father building a new pew or a pulpit for the local synagogue?

And along the same lines, how many Christmas carols or a Christmas hymns have you ever heard that are about Joseph?  If you look through any traditional hymn book, you’ll find, “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child Lowly in a Manger;” “That Boy-Child of Mary.” “What Child is this, Who, Laid to Rest on Mary’s Lap;” “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary.”  Then of course there’s “Silent night, Holy Night, All Is Calm All is Bright Round Yon Virgin Mother and Child!”  Why isn’t it “round yon father, mother and child?” Why is it never “Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary and Joseph?”  The truth is: you’ve got to look high and low, do a lot of googling, to even find one mention of Joseph’s name in any Christmas carol or Christian hymn!

Now, I realize that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.  Yet, without him there would be no nativity.  Have you ever seen a nativity scene without Joseph?  Even the very small ones, the ones without all of the animals and the shepherds and wise men, have Mary, the baby Jesus and Joseph!

His role in the Christmas story is so important that he, like Mary is also visited by an angel. He is told that his wife, Mary, is going to have a baby, but he is not the father. However, he must accept the baby as his own.  And then, although he is asked to claim the child, raise the child, and provide for the child, Joseph will not even have the privilege of naming him, as he is told by the angel call him “Jesus.”

He must shoulder the demands of fatherhood. He must support Mary in her awkward situation before the child is delivered. And then, when the child is delivered, he must be born in a barn! Then, soon after, he must be protected from the horrors of King Herod. He must save the child’s life by fleeing to Egypt until it is safe to come back home. But still, Joseph has no postage stamp, no hymn, no carol.

They belong to Mary. Maybe it is because the church has traditionally called Mary “the first disciple.”  And well we should, for she was the first one to be visited by an angel, the first one to hear the call of God on her life, and she is the first one to faithfully say: “yes!”  When the angel told her that she was going to have a baby, she replied with obedient, grateful confidence with the beautiful words: “Let it be to me according to your will.”

Amen, Sister Mary! That will preach!

But what is there about our brother Joseph that will preach? Yes, he does go through extraordinary lengths to care for and protect the baby Jesus. But, really, who wouldn’t? When it comes to innocent babies, no matter who they are, most of us have a soft spot.

So what is it about Joseph that preaches, that speaks to us, that reveals something about who God is, how God acts, and who God is calling us to be?

Mary was the first to receive the good news, the first to be called by God to participate in the movement of God, and Mary was the first to say “yes,” but Joseph is the second to the get the news:  The good news, the gospel, the word that God was pouring God’s self out, emptying God’s self and becoming flesh to save all people through a child to be named Jesus. Joseph is the second to be called by God, which kind of makes Joseph the second disciple. And, Joseph was the second to say “yes!” Maybe that is what preaches about Joseph!

Well, actually, typical of Joseph, he did not say anything, at least nothing that we know of.  In all of our encounters with Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, we do not hear him utter one word.  Did you know that?  Maybe that is the reason the postmaster told me that yet again this year, that if I did not want the Gingerbread House, and wanted something in the religious department, I only had one choice.

But you know something?  Most of us are a lot like Joseph, aren’t we?  No one is going to find a postage stamp with any of our faces on it either. Most of us are a lot like Joseph in that all the news we have about Jesus is really second-hand news. We were not the first to get it.  Mary’s first-hand news was dramatic, causing her to become involved in the movements of God in the world in the most profound of ways, literally with her body and soul.

It’s just not quite the same with Joseph, and it is not quite the same with us.

And, like Joseph, most of us are not big talkers. We are ordinary, quiet folks. When Mary was visited by the angel, she burst into song, singing one of the most beloved songs in all of scripture and the church: her lovely and powerful Magnificat. But Joseph, he never sang. And as far as we know, he never even said anything.  He was a simple man, a quiet man, a rather ordinary man, an average Joe.

Now, I’m a big talker, but you have to pay me to do it! Most of you would be very uncomfortable up here doing what I do in this pulpit this morning. You have faith, but you don’t like to make a big show of it. You believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and you have committed yourselves to follow Christ faithfully, but you don’t have a lot to say about it. You are a faithful disciple, but you are a quiet disciple.

You go about serving your Lord every day, faithfully answering his call, courageously following Christ wherever he leads, albeit quietly.

And like Joseph, sometimes the call of God leads you to do things that you do not want to do. Sometimes it calls you to go to places that you do not want to go. Sometimes it calls you to accept and love people that you would rather not accept and love.

And every ordinary Joe who strives to live as a disciple for the sake of others sacrifices and suffers.  And you do it because something or someone who is greater than yourself is constantly persuading you, encouraging you, leading you. And you follow. You persevere faithfully and courageously, albeit quietly and ordinarily.

You are just an average Joe, minding your own mundane, everyday business, when suddenly your life is caught up in the extraordinary purposes of God. You wake up one day realizing that you need to serve God more by serving others more selflessly—forgive those who have wronged you, care more earnestly, love more deeply, follow Christ more closely.

You wake up with a desire to bake cookies and deliver them to the oncology floor at the hospital on Christmas Day. You awake and feel led to make a donation to the food pantry, serve a meal in the soup kitchen, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, and purchase a coat or a toy for a child.

And you don’t talk about it. You just very faithfully and quietly act.

The Bible is full of stories of average Joes minding his or her own business, and then, out of nowhere, comes a call. And usually the person being called is speechless.

Do you remember the call of Abraham?  When God called Abraham in the middle of the night, he was too dumbfounded to speak!  Do you remember the call of his wife Sarah?  When she was called, she could not talk either. All she could do was laugh!

When Moses was called, he spoke, but all he said was that he was not a very good speaker. We learn throughout the Bible, that this is simply the way God works. God specializes in calling ordinary people, average Joes, to become caught up in the unexpected and extraordinary movements of God in our world.

Therefore, we remember Joseph on this Sunday before Christmas.  And although we will not sing one carol this day about him, we thank God for him nonetheless. Because in Joseph we can see ourselves:  ordinary, average Joes.

Like him, we mind our own business. But then, into our ordinary lives, God intrudes. God comes to us, and God comes upon us. God calls us.  And even if we are not good with words, even we couldn’t burst into a hymn if we had to, even though we will never be on a postage stamp, if we will at least whisper, “yes,” then like Joseph, we will be faithful disciples, a people willing to follow the movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever it takes us.

And the good news is: that will preach!

PS: I found this poem after I wrote and delivered the sermon:

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see? 

It is important,
crucially important,
that he stand there by that manger,
as he does,
In all his silent misery
Of doubt concern and fear.
If Joseph were not there
There might be no place for us,

Let us be there,
Simply be there just as Joseph was,
With nothing we can do now,
Nothing we can bring-
It’s far too late for that-
Nothing even to be said
Except, ‘Behold- be blessed,
Be silent, be at peace.

The hardest task
The most difficult role of all
That of just being there
And Joseph, dearest Joseph, stands for that.
Don’t you see?[1]

[1] Shepherd, J. Barrie. Faces at the Manger. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

Being the Embodiment of Christ – “Forgiveness”

I want to begin a several-part series entitled: “Being the Embodiment of Christ.” I want to explore ways that our church can overcome past mistakes, the mistakes of our church as well as the mistakes of the Church (and that is Church with a big “C”). There is no doubt that many of these mistakes have not only wounded the church’s witness, but they have actually wounded the faith of many. I believe we simply must accept responsibility for some of the reasons that people are all but giving up on organized religion these days.

Therefore, I would like to begin this series with a confession and with an appeal for forgiveness. As part of the Body of Christ, we confess that we have not always modeled the life and teachings of Jesus. We have been selfish, self-righteous and judgmental. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we have often been purveyors of bad theology. We have neglected the poor “at our gate” (Luke 16:20). When God has called us to speak out for justice in our world, we have been silent. When God has called us to stand for peace, we have taken a stance for war. Although we say we believe we will go to heaven to one day to worship with every race and tribe (Revelation 7:9), we prefer a worship that is segregated.

This is by no means a complete list of our sins. However, we believe it is a good start. And we choose to start this process of reconciliation within community. Instead of giving up on the church, we commit ourselves more fully to the church. As Rev. Lillian Daniel has said, “Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask the hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach” (Going Solo). As we ask to be forgiven for our many trespasses, we recommit ourselves to being a community of grace and forgiveness forgiving the trespasses of each other.

One of my favorite preachers and authors, Frederick Buechner, has written some of the best words on the subject of forgiveness that I know:

forgivenessTo forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.”

To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.

This seems to explain what Jesus means when he says to God, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. In the first place, forgiveness that’s conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all, just fair warning; and in the second place, our unforgiveness is among those things about us that we need to have God forgive us most. What Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride that keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us do something about it.

When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.

For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence. ~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

Being a community of grace and forgiveness–I believe it is a great start to begin overcoming the mistakes of our church and of the Church. The truth is, we have to start being such a community if we ever want to welcome back those who have left the church or welcome for the first time those who have never considered being a part of the church. And we absolutely have to be such a community if we want to ever come close to becoming the church that God is calling us to be.