A Bunch of Losers

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Luke 14:25-33 NRSV

I have heard people say that one of the reasons that they do not belong to a church is that the church is nothing more than a “bunch of losers.” They say we are weak, and we weaklings find strength in numbers. They say we cannot handle life on our own, so we use religion, faith, and church as a crutch to help us get along in this broken world.

Now, as bad as it might be for us to hear this, these critics of faith and religion may have a point. Sadly, their critique of Christianity, especially here in North America, may be justified.

To understand where they are coming from, all we have to do is turn on our TVs at almost any time of the day. There we will find countless preachers with great hair, bright smiles and big dimples promoting a health- wealth-and-prosperity gospel offering strength to the weak. Or we only have to walk into any Christian bookstore and see the shelves that are literally full of books promoting this message of self-help and good fortune.

I believe this is the reason Jesus may have become a little irritated with the large crowds that often followed him during his earthly ministry. One day, noticing the growing number of people following behind him, like a scene in Forrest Gump, Jesus suddenly stops, turns to the masses and says something like: “Do you people really know what this is all about?” Like someone asked me when I first moved to Enid, “Do you really know what you are getting yourselves into here?”

“Because I am not so sure the crowd would be this large if you really knew!” says Jesus. “Do you really understand what you are signing up for here? Do you really get this journey called, ‘discipleship’? Because, I have a sinking suspicion that most you do not have a clue.”

I suspect that the large crowds were following Jesus that day for much of the same reasons some people attend church today. They were looking to get something out of it. Some sort of blessing, reward, some kind of direction, perhaps a better handle on things, a little attention, keys to a better, more successful and prosperous life. They were looking to strengthen their families, be a more productive businessperson, get a leg up, receive a helping hand, get a little boost, a shot in the arm, a pat on the back and maybe just a little dose of something to help feel a little bit better, at little more righteous, a little more holy than all of those people who were not following Jesus.

As the church critics and cynics say, “They were merely looking for a crutch to help them to cope with everyday living. They were a bunch of losers looking for something, anything, to help them become winners. Because after all, isn’t that what God is all about: winning?

And noticing what was going on, Jesus stops in his tracks, turns and says to them, “You people really do not get this, do you? This journey called discipleship is not about making your family stronger. In fact, this could tear your family apart. This is not about making you feel superior or more holy than the ones who are not following. This journey will humble you! It will bring you down to your knees! This is not about self-help. It is about denying self. And this is certainly not about obtaining any keys to a more successful and productive life. It is not even about helping you cope or get a better grip on your life as it is. This is about losing your life. This is not about winning. This journey called discipleship is about losing.

So if you really want to follow me on this journey, you better think long and hard about it. Because this journey is not about receiving any reward or gain. In fact, the opposite is true. This journey is going to cost you. And it is going to cost you every possession you have. And guess what, there is even a cross involved. And you, my friend, are going to carry it.  So you better do some calculations, you better do a good ol’ gut check, you better look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really have what it takes to follow me on this journey. For this journey is not for the weak, the timid or the reluctant. It is for the courageous and the heroic. Some say that it is for the crazy and the foolish.

So, if you are a loser looking for something to make you a winner, this may not be for you. But if you are an ordinary person who really wants to find true life, life the way God intends for it to be, I am looking for a few good people who are willing to take some risk and lose it all!

This church has two wonderful practices that define who we are as the Disciples of Christ. The first one is what we call Believers Baptism. One of the reasons that we do not baptize infants is because we recognize that there is some cost involved to becoming one of Jesus’ disciples. Although the gift of salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it, walking with Jesus as disciples is a risky and costly venture. So, we wait until a child is of an age where they can weigh and calculate that cost. We call it the “age of accountability.”  They have to be able to do some accounting. And that age is different for different children.

The second practice that defines who we are as Disciples of Christ is Communion. Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the cost that is involved on this journey we call discipleship. We break bread remembering that God through Jesus loved this world and all of us in it so much that he was willing was willing to suffer greatly for us. We share a cup representing the blood of Christ remembering that God’s love for us compelled God to pour God’s self out, empty God’s self through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

And we are reminded that we as disciples are called to take this same journey, carry our own crosses. We come to church not in search of some crutch to help our broken selves, but to be reminded that we are called to be willing to break ourselves for others, suffer with and for others. We come to church not looking for something to help us improve life, but for the courage and the opportunity to pour our lives out to help others.

I firmly believe that fully embracing this identity is the only way we are going to change the way the local church and the Christian faith is often perceived by those people who have all but given up on organized religion. Instead of being a bunch of losers looking for the church to help us become winners, we need to be a bunch of ordinary people who are willing to be a bunch of losers, willing to lose our very selves.

Then, we will not only have life the way God intends for it to be, we will be the witness to the world of the love that God calls us to be. And if we pay attention, there are examples of this witness all around us.

I have a friend in Raleigh who left a good paying job to become the pastor of a group of homeless men and women. He looks to the generosity from friends scattered all over the country to pay for a roof over his head and to put meals on his table. Loving God more than self, he gave up much, risked much and lost much to love a group of people who can offer him little in return.

There are people right here in this room who have given up much to not only do missions in other parts of the world like Peru and the Dominican Republic, but also right here at home. You give of yourselves constantly to minister to the poor and needy here through Loaves and Fishes or Our Daily Bread. Others here could have chosen more lucrative careers, but instead you answered a call to serve others as social workers, school teachers, nurses and other service oriented professions. Others have sacrificed much to provide for children, other family members, and even friends or employees who have exceptional needs.

Just this week, some of you gave up, lost an entire Wednesday evening, as you did yard work for people who needed it through Hearts for Care.

So to all of the church skeptics and critics, I want to say this: I understand that no one wants to be associated with a bunch of whiney losers who are always looking to get something, to find something to make their lives better or to get something just to help them cope. And I know that is why some people in the church are very attracted to the health and wealth evangelists and the always-smiling prosperity preachers.

However, I belong to the Central Christian Church of Enid, Oklahoma, a church that is full of a bunch of losers of another sort: a bunch of courageous and faithful losers who have made a commitment to always strive to love God and others more than self; a bunch of self-denying, selfless losers who are willing to risk it all to put the needs of others over their own needs and wants.

And no, we are not perfect. We all have our selfish moments. But we have decided to try our best with the help of God and each other to follow Jesus on a risky journey called discipleship— a journey of self-denial, self-giving and sacrifice, believing that it is the only journey that leads to real life, life that is truly abundant and eternal.

We believe “losing” is what “winning” really looks like. And yes, as crazy and as foolish as it may seem, we do know what we have gotten ourselves into!

Ten Reasons Victoria Osteen Was Wrong

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God calls us to love all people. The reality is that if we love all people, and persuade others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious people, who will want to kill us.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God beckons us to act like fools. While the world continually beckons us to look up and get ahead, Christ beckons us to look down and get with those who have been left behind.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God drives us to bear the suffering of others. We are to offer others genuine care, not a simple cure; compassionate empathy, not a quick-fix; and an understanding presence, not some happy religious advice to make everything better.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God encourages us to help those who cannot help themselves. Furthermore, not only can they not help themselves, neither can they help us.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God challenges us to love unconditionally. We are to lift up, embrace, and accept those who in no way deserve our love and that seldom makes us happy.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God demands that we forgive those who have wronged us. We are to forgive those who do not deserve our love and have done things to earn our hate. Happiness is revenge. It is not forgiveness.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God leads us to places that we would rather not go to do things we would rather not do. It propels us to dark, dangerous and dreadful places to do unpleasant, uncomfortable and unsafe things.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God requires that we put the laws of God over human laws. There is a reason that much of the New Testament was written from a prison cell: God’s greatest commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is oftentimes illegal.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because our faith in God costs us our lives. A god that wants us to live long, happy lives is attractive. However, the God of Christ continually urges us to give our lives away.

Victoria Osteen was wrong because the symbol of our faith in God is a cross. We tend to forget that the cross is not a pretty piece of jewelry or a cool tattoo. It is an emblem of suffering and shame. It is an instrument of death to one’s self.

The Rainbow and the Cross

rainbow crossThe Ebola virus is spreading throughout the world, recently killing a top doctor. Financial turmoil has seized Argentina. A Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, and fierce fighting has broken out around the wreckage. The death toll rises in Gaza as deadly violence occurs every day. Israel attacks a UN school killing 20 evacuees. Mobs of Islamic militants kill dozens in China. An unprecedented crisis at our own border continues. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Kidnapped Nigerian girls for whom churches all over the world prayed are still missing. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the state of the world last week in one simple sentence: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

I am not the only preacher to point out that the state of the world today is reminiscent of a story found in the early chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 6 we read: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” In other words, the state of the world caused God great suffering. Other translations read that the state of the world “broke God’s heart.”

We know the rest of the story. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” and in Genesis 7, we read that for forty days and nights the rains fell as God intended to start the whole thing over with Noah and his family. However, just one chapter later, the futility of God’s intentions became obvious, as the state of the world had not changed. After the flood “…the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” In the following chapter, we read where the rainbow is forever a beautiful reminder of this great promise.

Sadly, I believe we tend to forget what this promise truly means. Perhaps it is due to a selfish inclination that we have had since our youth that we only remember God will never again try to “blot us out.” However, this promise means so much more. This promise means that our God has chosen a path of suffering. The rainbow means that the state of our world continually breaks the very heart of our God.

There is a reason the prophet Isaiah moves us when we read about “a man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53). There is a reason Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things…”(Mark 8)  There is a reason at the death of Lazarus we read, “Jesus wept” (John 11). There is a reason Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt 27). There is a reason the soldier who was standing at the foot of the cross of our crucified Lord exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27).

Furthermore, there is a good reason that, living in a world which, “putting it mildly, is a great mess,” we sing: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Good News in the Disappointment of Holy Week

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It is two-thousand years later, and we are still surprised, confused, and even somewhat disappointed. Shattering our expectations of a Savior, King Jesus enters the city this week to liberate his people riding a borrowed donkey with an army of rag-tag students who have no idea what they are doing.

God’s throne is not made of silver and gold. God’s throne is made of wood and nails. God wears not a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns.

When God chose to save the world from sin and evil, Jesus exercised a peculiar kind of power. It is not the type of power that we are accustomed to or desire. It is not a power that rules but is a power that serves. It is not a power that takes but is a power that gives. It is not a power that seizes but is a power that suffers. It is not a power that dominates but is a power that dies.

And we are still surprised, confused and somewhat disappointed.

“O God, though I attend and support my church every Sunday, why do my prayers seem to go unanswered? Why do I still struggle with life?”

“Dear Lord, We have been serving you our entire lives, faithfully giving you all that we have! I do not understand why you have not brought physical healing to my wife who suffers daily with a chronic disease.”

“Heavenly Father, we try our best to respect and love all people. That is why I am somewhat dismayed that you allow others to call us names, ridicule us and cause us pain.”

“And yet, Lord, in my astonishment, bewilderment and disappointment, you come to me nonetheless. Although I have no idea I am doing, you envelop me with your grace. You come to me in all of your glory and with all of your power. You come serving, giving, suffering and dying. You come offering me the very best gift that you can possibly offer—the gift of your peculiar holy self.”

And the good news is: that is more than enough!

Carrying the Cross

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Philippians 3:17-4:1 NRSV

If there was anything good about seeing the movie, the Son of God , it was how it reminded us of the extreme heinousness of the cross. For two thousand years later, I believe many of us have forgotten the excruciating pain, the shame, and the horror of crucifixion on a cross. Our society has turned the cross into a hallowed symbol, a pretty piece of jewelry. We are no longer appalled at the nature of Christ’s death, and we no longer grasp the significance of what it means to share his sufferings and to imitate him in death as the Apostle Paul admonishes us to do.

So we live as what Paul calls “enemies” of this cross. We see our religion only in terms of benefit and advantage and are not prepared to share the humiliations and suffering that commitment to Christ  involves.

In thinking about the cross in relation to other world religions, the symbol for our faith is indeed a curious one. The cross is a symbol of suffering, shame and death. It is like having the electric chair as the symbol for our God. Think for a moment about other religions. Most have us have visited Chinese restaurants and have seen a statue of Buddah in the foyer. There he is, fat and happy: arms crossed; eyes closed; serene; peaceful; introspective; contemplative.  Compare that with the cross: cruel; painful; degrading, humiliating; lonely.  This is who our God is, and it is who we are called to imitate.  This is who we are called to be, and this is where we are called to go.

The good news is that you do not need to live long in this broken world to become grateful that our God is the God of the cross. For the world in which we live is not a serene, peaceful world where we have the luxury to cross our arms and close our eyes introspectively, contemplating it all. We live in a world where 15 year-olds take guns to school kill their classmates. We live in a world where the hearts of 44 year-old men stop beating as they sleep at night. We live in a world where malignant tumors grow inside of us and we are often unaware until it is too late. We live in a world where our automobiles crash crushing the life from us.  We live in a world where tornadoes and earthquakes and floods strike without warning.

Yes, thank God that our God is the God of the cross— A God who knows what it is like to suffer as we suffer;  A God who knows humiliation, who has experienced loneliness, who knows pain; A God who has entered our broken world to participate with us in our suffering.

In this season of Lent, may this be the God we imitate.

May we regard our religion as an opportunity to lose ourselves instead of an opportunity for advantage. May we through our church, with the help of our God, give of ourselves to others.  May we go to those places of suffering and shame of heartache and heartbreak and even death and participate in it. May we suffer with others, as God suffers with us.  May we imitate Christ and pick up and carry our cross.

Lent: A Time to Tell the Truth

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A few years ago an Episcopal church in a coastal South Carolina town created a ruckus as when it placed three crosses on the lawn adjacent to their church. They draped them in purple for Lent. After a week or so, the church received a call from the local Chamber of Commerce.

They called complaining, “We hate to cause any trouble, but Spring Break is right the corner, and the tourist season is starting to crank up. And we think those crosses that you’ve erected are just sending the wrong message to visitors on the beach. People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.  On vacation, people want to be escape from all of the unpleasantries of life and relax, be comfortable.”

Well, after much debate, the church stood its ground, and the three crosses stayed.  “It’s Lent,” said the church. “People are supposed to be uncomfortable.”  William Willimon calls Lent “the season of unpleasant uncomfortability.”

Willimon says that one of the reasons this season we call Lent is so unpleasant is that it forces us “to confront so many of those truths about ourselves that we spend much of the rest of our lives avoiding.” Here, during this Lenten season, “we try to tell the truth about ourselves, and sometimes the truth hurts.”

Lent is a time to honestly say, “I am a rotten scoundrel. I do things that I ought not do. I know they are wrong, yet I do them anyway.  I don’t do things that I know I should do. I think way too better of myself than I ought. Even my best deeds are tainted with pride and selfishness.  Sin is so much a part of my life that I cannot escape it.”

Yes, this is the season of telling the truth, even if it pains us a bit.  But here’s the good news.  The truth will set us free! No matter how hideous, disgusting, and abominable our sins are, the God’s honest truth will always set us free, because in Jesus Christ, we have been loved, forgiven and accepted.

On Ash Wednesday, we will gather together to worship. During this special service we tell the truth, and then, we will hear the truth.  We could not do right by God, so God, in Christ, did right by us.