Thank You Enid, Oklahoma

img_5529-1
Boomers or Sooners, it doesn’t matter. The people of Enid, Oklahoma possess the same boundless spirit today that settled the Cherokee Strip in the 1893 Land Rush. It is a spirit of possibility, opportunity and welcome.

Soon after I staked my claim here, I inquired about the possibility of bringing an Ainsley’s Angels’ Ambassadorship to Enid. Ainsley’s Angels is a non-profit running group that shares joy and acceptance by including children and adults with special needs (Athlete Riders) in endurance events. However, I was told that the small population of Enid would not be able to support it, and I would need to incorporate a larger city, like Tulsa. They said that I would not be able to raise enough money or recruit enough runners.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I introduced Ainsley’s Angels to Enid with a 5k in August. Three Angel Runners pushed two Athlete Riders. In September, twenty-one Angel Runners pushed nine Athlete Riders in the Great Land Run 10k.

When our church learned that Sunday was the only day of the week that the food-insecure were not served a free meal in Enid, we suggested recruiting 52 businesses or organizations to prepare and serve one meal a year on Sunday in a nice sit-down restaurant atmosphere from our church’s kitchen. However, some responded by saying that doing this weekly would be unachievable, and we should perhaps aim for once-a-month.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

Today, groups from our high schools, businesses, civic organizations, Vance Air Force Base, and even a group from an assisted-living facility, have volunteered to prepare and serve a Sunday meal to hungry men, women, and children with grace, dignity and love.

When some of my colleagues heard that I was going to publicly stand up and speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ community after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, I was told that the people of Enid, who live in the conservative Bible Belt, were going to run me out of town.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

After I helped lead a prayer vigil on Enid’s town’s square, the leaders of our church had a meeting and reaffirmed our church’s commitment to be a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children though differing in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective. They said they wanted their pastor to love all of our neighbors, and all means all.

When I told people that I wanted to serve and worship with the African American churches in Enid, someone told me that this would be very difficult, because Enid was still somewhat segregated.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I have been honored to preach at St. Stephens AME Church on two occasions and to be the Master of Ceremonies at Enid’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. On World Communion Sunday in October, our church was led in worship by the African-American voices of the Southern Heights Community Choir and of the First Missionary Baptist Church. On that day, we renewed our commitment to partner with the larger Church to overcome barriers of race and ethnicity, and we renewed our commitment to social justice by being an anti-racism, pro-reconciling church in our community.

Thank you Enid, Oklahoma for still being a place of boundless possibilities, opportunities and welcome!

I thank God that I got a chance to know you!

Advertisements

Get Your Heads out of the Clouds

Acts 1:6-14 NRSV

I have had more than my fill of end-of-the-world Sunday School lessons and doomsday sermons. In the sixth grade, I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about the end of days and the imminent return of Christ every Sunday for a year. She clouded my head with charts and graphs, all indicating that Jesus was certainly going to come back before my high school graduation.

In seventh grade, our youth minister took us to see the movie The Late Great Planet Earth. Like the recent Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage, it was about all these people disappearing in the rapture. Planes, trains and automobiles were all of sudden without drivers. I watched in horror as planes crashed into crowded cities, trains derailed, and automobiles collided on every street.

And if that was not enough to permanently scar me for life, it seems like every revival preacher I ever heard would preach that the Lord was going to return in their lifetime. This always bothered me, especially since most of these revival preachers were retired, and to me, looked like they only had two, maybe three good years left.

Today, you can find preachers on TV who are still preaching the imminent return of Christ. They point to world events—ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia—as signs that the end is near. If you took some of these preachers to heart, you’d never plan anything a week in advance. You sure wouldn’t be freezing strawberries, and you’d never buy green bananas!

This is where today’s scripture lesson offers us a little bit of sanity.

For months, the risen Christ had been warning his followers that he would one day leave them, but he had reassured them, “I will not leave you orphans.” He told them that when he left they were to return to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s lesson, the time that they had been dreading for weeks had come. But before he departed, they asked him what my Sunday School teacher and those revival preachers seemed to already know: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

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

After those words, he ascended into heaven, vanished from their sight, and left them standing there, gazing into the sky. They just stood there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they were gazing up toward heaven, while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, for Jesus would one day return to them. They don’t know when, but they don’t need to know. In the words of Jesus, “It’s not for them to know the time or the period.”

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that he is coming.” It’s a certainty; he’s coming, so you can stop looking into the clouds, and start living for him by doing what he has commanded, and being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story teaches those of us who are obsessed with the second coming of Christ, that we need to stop obsessing. We need to get our heads of the clouds and start living the way Jesus commanded us to live.

There are too many Christians who regard faith as some ticket to heaven. Their salvation is something to be possessed, held on to, not actually lived, or shared with others.

I believe this scripture reminds us to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off of heaven, and come back down to earth. Come down and go to Jerusalem. Come down and go into all of Judea and even into places that we do not want to go, like Samaria. Go and be a witness to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere. Don’t go to church for the assurance that you possess something spiritual that others lack. Go and be the church by giving yourself to others who are the very image of God.

The story also teaches us that if we truly want to see God, if we really want receive the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of looking up in the clouds, all we have to do is to look around us.

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

The truth is that we find God when we redirect our gaze from the heavens toward people, and toward the world around us. We find God when we understand that grace, salvation, and the love of God are not mere tickets to heaven, but something that is to be shared with all people every day here on earth.

And we find God through mirroring God’s love, a sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love from a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self. Thus, our faith is about honoring a God who died for all.

Here in Enid, Oklahoma, our heavens are blessed with the roar of aircraft piloted by men and women who possess this same sacrificial, self-denying, self-expending love—a love that is willing to give all, for these men and women we see in the skies above us love their country more than self.

Tomorrow, we remember those who did give all, as they paid the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom, but we also honor all who are willing to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice. And in Enid, living in the shadow of Vance Air Force Base, named for Leon Vance Jr. who heroically gave his all during World War II, all we have to do is walk outside and look toward the heavens to be reminded of these men and women.

But as our eyes are focused upward, we need to pay attention to the voice of angels: “Men and women, boys and girls of Enid, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? Get your heads out of the clouds and share this love—the love that you see in the jets flying overhead—share this love throughout Garfield County, across Oklahoma, and even into those places that you may not want to go.

This is the reason it has been such a wonderful blessing to welcome members of the 3rd and 33rd Flying Training Squadrons into our church the past two weeks to prepare and serve a hot meal to some of the the most impoverished men, women and children living in our community (last they week they served 60). The sacrificial love we hear and see in our skies literally came down to earth.

For when I walked into our church’s kitchen the last two Sunday afternoons, I saw none other than the very presence of the risen Christ. He had not disappeared into the clouds, but was right here in our church through the love of these service men and women who sacrificed a Sunday afternoon to feed the hungry. And there was no doubt that the risen Christ was also there sitting around those tables. You could see him clearly in the smiles, in the sincere gratitude of the ones who were being fed, accepted and embraced by selfless and unconditional love.

This is why the angels told the disciples to redirect their gaze, to get their heads out of the clouds. Stop looking for Jesus in the heavens. The angels said to them and says to us: “Look around you. In Jerusalem and Judea. But also look beyond you, even into Samaria, even in places that you may be afraid to go, places that may make you uncomfortable, places that may be painful, risky, dangerous.  Look, go, and live for Jesus, and you will find him.

Moshe is a prophet in Elie Wiesel’s book entitled The Oath.

Moshe was speaking with Azriel, the narrator of the story one evening after a meeting at the synagogue.

“You go to school?”  asked Moshe. “To what purpose?”

“To learn,” said Azriel.

“To learn what?”

“Torah,” the boy said uneasily (That’s the first five books of the Old Testament).

“Torah is life,” said Moshe, “and life must be lived; it cannot be learned from books, between four walls.”

“I thought,” said Azriel, “that Torah is more than life, since God himself submits to its commandments.”

“God too must be lived, my boy,” said Moshe. “You must live God, not study God in books, between four walls.”

Let us pray together.

God, help us to get our heads out of the clouds,

out of books,

out from these four walls,

and go out into the world to live Christ,

around us and even beyond us.

Help us to go and be the body of Christ,

be a community of grace,

of self-expending love,

and wholeness in our fragmented world. Amen.

Easter People

Welcome Table

The Easter Sunday timing of the Enid Welcome Table’s debut could not have been more appropriate.

The front doors of the church building swung open wide, as guests, some homeless, some extremely impoverished, all hungry, were greeted with smiles and words of welcome. As they walked into the fellowship hall, a host guided them to a table that was beautifully decorated with an Easter-themed table cloth and a spring flower bouquet centerpiece. Soft jazz  played from the sound system adding to the welcoming ambiance.

After the host fulfilled the guests’ drink orders, a waiter approached the table to read the menu that was displayed on the TV monitors in the front of the room. Guests had a choice between pork tenderloin, peel-and-eat Cajun jumbo shrimp, and baked chicken. Sides included sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, a medley of roasted vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and deviled eggs. Desserts included lemon cake, cherry pie, apple pie and chocolate cupcakes.

The attentive wait staff promptly served the guests with generous portions and while keeping their drink glasses full.

Volunteers who had come to serve, some members of our church, some members of other churches, some members of no church, joined the guests at the tables to share dinner and conversation.

Upon experiencing the extravagant welcome, a genuine welcome devoid of any agenda, strings, or ulterior motives, one of the guests said to a volunteer: “You have made me feel human again.”

“You have made me feel human again.”

Let that sink in.

It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she felt alive again. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she experienced new life. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that they felt resurrected.

Christians often like to call themselves “Easter People.” However, I am afraid that what that means to many is that they, like Christ, will one day be resurrected to live eternally in heaven. I am afraid the reason some church pews are so full on Easter Sunday is simply because “Easter People” want to remember Jesus’ resurrection and look forward to their own.

However, what if being “Easter People” means something more?

What if the resurrection is not just a gift to remember or a gift to look forward to, but a gift to be experienced now? What if resurrection is a gift to be shared with others today? What if being “Easter People” means that we are people who offer the gift of resurrection to those whose lives have been diminished by the sin and evil in our world? What if being “Easter People means we are called to resurrect those who have been de-humanized by poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia?

What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to do much more than sit on a pew on Easter to thank God for the promise of God’s kingdom that is coming after the resurrection? What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to get off of those pews to bring the promise of God’s Kingdom that is coming now to those who need resurrection today? This Easter Sunday at Central Christian Church, that is exactly what being “Easter People” meant.

The First Easter Word

 

Easter Welcome

Sermon delivered at the 6 PM service  following the first Enid Welcome Table Meal, Easter, 2017

John 20:19-23 NRSV

The very first word that the risen Christ brought to his fearful and anxious disciples who denied and abandoned him was: “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels: “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!” And it was the last word that came from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“PEACE!” It is the word that every human being living in this fragmented world needs to hear from our risen Savior.

Thus, after Jesus pronounced the word to his disciples, he said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The Church has been commissioned by none other than the risen Christ to share this word with others. “PEACE!” It is the word people need to hear from the church more than any other word, and it needs to be the very first word that they hear from the church.

However, sadly, even after nearly 2000 Easters, churches all over this world have ignored this commissioning. And tragically, the very first words that many hear from the church are words that denote the exact opposite of peace.

The first words they hear from many in the church are words of judgment and condemnation. They hear loud, angry, hate-filled rants and protests. They hear words judging them as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they are condemned by those who justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that was used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination.

They may hear reserved words of welcome to come in and sit on a pew, but they clearly get the message right away that they are not to expect to truly become a part of the church. They are not to expect to be able to use their gifts to serve with and alongside those who have been deemed worthy for service. They are not expected to be truly accepted, forgiven, and loved.

However, I believe the Risen Christ still speaks to his disciples today. He is still saying to us that first word of Easter, “PEACE;” and is still saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

For God knows that there are people in every town, at every crossroad,  who hunger and thirst for a community of people in our world who have the audacity to truly live as followers of Christ who take the commission of their Risen Christ seriously to share “PEACE” with all people.

They are yearning for a church that seeks to be, not an institution or club of moral and devout people with right religion, right beliefs, right color and right lifestyles, but a church that seeks to be the living embodiment of the Risen Christ in this world, serving, loving, accepting and embracing the poor, the lost, the broken, the fearful, the grieving, those riddled with guilt and shame, and those whom society has rejected as outcasts, offering them the unlimited hope, unfettered grace and unreserved love that is in that first beautiful first Easter word, PEACE.