The Way

ultrasound

John 14:1-14 NRSV

It was the summer 1993. Lori and I had been married five years and were expecting our first child. I had graduated from seminary the previous year and was serving with my first church as a pastor in rural Northeast Georgia. At our first OB/GYN appointment in Athens, we were told that our baby was due to be born on November 25. On Mother’s Day 1994, we were going to have some special reasons to celebrate.

During the last week of July, we were scheduled to have an ultrasound that would hopefully determine the gender of our child. I remember being more excited than anxious about this appointment. The baby was already moving and kicking quite a bit. Lori would call to me from another room in the house asking me to rush over to her. She would grab my hand and place it on the exact spot the baby was kicking so I could share her excitement. Lori was clearly showing at this time as strangers were beginning to approach us in public to offer their congratulations and to inquire when our baby was due.

As the doctor moved the ultrasound wand around on Lori’s abdomen and the black, white, and gray images of our baby appeared on a computer screen, I remember feeling like a wide-eyed child at Christmas getting a glimpse of the best present I could ever receive. We immediately heard a very strong and fast heartbeat. We then saw the outline of a head and a face. We saw arms, hands, legs, feet, even toes. After a minute or so, I remember growing impatient and asking the doctor if he could tell if it was a boy or a girl.

Following my question, my anticipation heightened as there was a brief period of silence in the room with the exception of the loud echo of a rapid heartbeat. Finally, the silence was broken as the doctor said, “It is really difficult to tell sometimes with our outdated equipment.” He moved the wand around for another minute and said, “The equipment that they have in Atlanta is far more advanced than mine. We probably need to make an appointment for you.” But before I could express any disappointment, he added: “There’s also something else going on that needs a better look.” He then handed the wand to the nurse and asked for us to come to his office where he would make an appointment for us to go to Atlanta. It was at that moment that my excitement was completely replaced by anxiety.

Suddenly, I no longer cared if it was a boy or a girl.

During the appointment in Atlanta, the doctor, who had been attentive yet quiet during the entire exam, spoke for the first time by pointing out a curvature in the spine. He called it a “neural tube defect.” This was the first time I had ever heard the term “neural tube.” However, upon hearing it one does not need to be familiar with it when the word “defect” is attached to it, as that word is more than enough to cause any parent-to-be’s heart to sink, especially when it is spoken to describe the spine of your unborn child’s spine.

Immediately following the ultrasound, we met with a team of doctors, nurses and genetic counselors in a large consultation room. In a compassionate, yet straightforward way, we were told that our baby’s spine “twisted,” probably during the early weeks of the pregnancy, and prevented the formation of an abdominal cavity. We were told that although our baby seemed to have healthy organs, there was nothing to contain those organs. Surgery was not an option. Our baby had absolutely no chance at life. A counselor put her hand on Lori’s shoulders and handed her a tissue to wipe the tears from her face.

After counseling and prayerfully considering all of our options, two days later, the pregnancy was terminated in the hospital without complications.

When we came home from the hospital, Lori went to bed where enormous grief she experienced kept her for days. She did not feel like talking to anyone, not even talk to her mother, who called several times a day, every day.

When Lori finally decided that she was ready to talk to people, the support from Christians came. However, some of the support came in ways that were more hurtful than helpful. It came in religious, pious, and judgmental ways. Almost everyday it came in ways that left us cold, empty, even resentful.

Now, I am sure it only came in these ways because these perhaps well-intended religious people understood it was their Christian duty to bring life, resurrection, restoration where there is death, despair and brokenness. And, maybe this was just the only way they thought they could bring it. Maybe this was the way they were taught on some church pew or in some Sunday School class. This was simply the only way they knew how to share the good news, proclaim the gospel, to be “a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world,” as we Disciples like to say.

But it came in ways that, for us, made the world even more fragmented. It came in preachy, accusatory ways, demeaning us for terminating the pregnancy. It came in the way of a theology lesson suggesting that we perhaps should have possessed more faith, that with prayer, God could have created a new body for our baby before he or she was born.

It came by the way of an ethics lecture insinuating that we were somehow “playing god.”

Then, came the support in ways that are all too familiar but never too helpful, all too religious-like but never too Christ-like. It came in the way of words that would have been best left unsaid.

“God knows best. God has God’s reasons. God does not make mistakes.” “God must have known you were just not ready to be parents.” “God must have needed another flower in heaven.” “You are young and can always try again.” One even said, “Perhaps God knew that your child was going to be a bad person or have a difficult life, so God, with the ability to see a future that we cannot, intervened and took your child.”

For some reason, Christians just feel compelled to say something, anything, even if it is hurtful.

We tried not to be angry with them, not to resent their ways of being religious. We defended them by saying, “Well, that is just her way, bless her heart.” We said, “Well, everyone knows the way he is.” It was just their way of doing what they thought would bring us some hope, their way of bringing us some wholeness, their way of bringing peace to our troubled hearts; and people, well, people have their ways.

Jesus, however, said that he was the way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

As Frederick Buechner has reminded us:

He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything [or saying anything] in particular that you could “come to the Father.”

Jesus didn’t say the Bible-Belt-culture evangelicalism manufactured for the self-interest of the privileged was the way. He didn’t say some alternative gospel created to ignore God’s will for social justice was the truth. And he didn’t say that the fake good news made up to cheapen the grace of the irrefutable good news was the life. He said that he was.

Buechner continues:

He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied. That was his way.

And thank God, that others came to us in his way. People from our church came to us with silent but empathetic embraces. They came bringing nothing with them but their tears and their own broken hearts. Some came bringing a home-cooked meal or a homemade dessert. One came with a vase of freshly-cut flowers from their garden. They came graciously. They came faithfully. They came intentionally with the love and in the way of the Christ. They came with the face of God.

Andrew King poetically reflects on this love, this way and this face:

We thought you wore the skin

of thunder, spoke in verbs of stormwind,

majestic and mighty as lightning

upon summits,

unreachable

as the cold and silent fire

of distant stars; hidden behind

a curtain in the temple,

an untouchable invisibility approachable

by the highest priest only,

hands freshly bloodied

from an altar.

And then somehow the veil was parted:

we gained glimpses of the glory

of the nearness of your love

as the hurting were healed,

the outcast befriended,

the lost restored,

and everywhere the powers of death

had their dominion challenged,

by the son of a Jewish carpenter

from Galilee.

If you have seen me,

said Jesus, you have seen the Father.

And we do see you there,

in the Gospels,

healing in synagogues

and in houses,

feeding the hungry on hillsides,

embracing the lepers and the sinners,

turning over the tables

in the temple,

nailed to a cross of injustice

but risen,

greeting women at

the graveside,

sharing bread with your friends,

the dominion of death

overturned.

Approachable, reachable,

the accessible God,

visible in the skin of Jesus.

But you are not done,

not content to wear

such skin only in the pages

of the Gospels.

The many-colored, multi-shaped

body of Christ – the Church

wide as the nations of the world –

bears your image where it acts

in your love:

still feeding,

still healing,

still teaching mercy,

making you visible

not in great

structures nor

in high saints alone,

but in the ordinary

persons in the pews,

as here, on a day like any other,

a woman making dinner,

and packing it,

knocking on the door of a neighbor

newly home from surgery for cancer:

the face of the one receiving it

lit with thankfulness,

the face of the one freely giving

like the face

of God.

When our hearts were troubled, because of the many faces of God that came to us in his way, in the visible skin of the body of Christ, although we were without child, on Mother’s Day in 1994, we still had special reasons to celebrate.

And on Mother’s Day in 2017, I can stand here today confidently proclaiming that Jesus—not religion, not ethics, not any doctrine—Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Let us pray,

God, embolden us to live, participate in, be caught up by, the way of life embodied by the Christ. Amen.

Invitation to the Table

The way to this table of communion this morning is not religion. The way to the bread of life is not ethics. The way to the cup of salvation is not any doctrine. The way to the life and to the truth that is represented here is only Jesus. And since Jesus lived and died to make a way for all, all are invited.

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Light It Up!

beatitudes-1

Matthew 5:1-20

I believe one of the reasons that some Southerners yearn to see some snow, at least once a year, is because of the sheer magic of it. In an article for the Farmville Enterprise I quoted J.B. Priestly: “You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”

Then I wrote:

One day Stantonsburg Road was littered with empty Natural Light cans, leftover trash from Bojangles and McDonalds, and the carcass of a possum or two. The next day it was a majestic, untarnished pathway through a winter wonderland.

One day my lawn was brown, covered with ugly winter weeds and strewn with fallen tree limbs and dog droppings that I have been too lazy to pick up. The next day it was glistening white, void of a single blemish.

One day the flaws and faults of this fragmented world were all too apparent. The next day everything seemed to be forgiven, blanketed by grace. And although the world was still a very dangerous place to drive and to even walk, the hopeful wonder and potential beauty of the world was obvious (from: Snowflakes from Heaven).

Snow in the South is like a fairytale. But a few days later, the sun comes out, the rains fall, and it quickly melts away bringing us back to the real world, where we see the harsh, uncovered reality of it all. And the winter wonderland that once was seems to be a distant magical dream.

Have you ever considered that we might have it all backwards?

What if the fairytale is the littered highways and the brown lawns with ugly winter weeds?

What if the magical dream is the uncovered, unforgiven, graceless, and fragmented existence?

What if reality is the winter wonderland? What if reality is the world that has been blanketed by grace? What if reality is the world where hopeful wonder and potential beauty always exist?

I know what you are thinking…“Oh my goodness! Somebody call 911 ‘cause the preacher has lost his mind!”

But what if I have not lost my mind, and in fact, right now, my mind is as sane and as sharp as it has ever been?

I have said before that Jesus spoke less about sin and more about our inability to see. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see…” (John 9:39).  He continues throughout the gospels:

Do you have eyes and fail to see (Mark 8:18)? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:3)?  Blessed are the eyes that see what you see (Luke 10:23)! Prophets and kings desired to see what you see but did not see it (Luke 10:24)!

Over and over, Jesus talked about importance of seeing something that most have difficulty seeing. I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Not to get rid of it, but to bring it back into focus, to help us to truly see the purpose within it.

This is why I believe he said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

To see anything, light is needed; thus, one of the main purposes of Jesus is enabling people to see, to see the real world, to see reality.

And what is reality? What is it that we have so much trouble seeing? What is it that God wants us to see?

I believe the answer is in Jesus’ first recorded sermon. Jesus went up on a mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

God favors the “poor in spirit.” Not the religious, the devout, the pious or even the spiritual. Not the pastors, the elders and the deacons, not even the church member who serves in the soup kitchen. No, God favors the ones who have come to be served at the soup kitchen. They are not the ones with something to give. They are the ones with nothing to give. Jesus says the ones who are blessed, the ones who are blessed by God are those who, spiritually speaking, are completely destitute and needy. Their very spirits have been broken. And notice that Jesus uses the present tense. Not will be blessed. Not might be favored. They are, right now, right here, blessed. This is reality. And their future is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

God favors the mourners. Not the faithful who can understand what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he said we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), or “rejoice even in the midst of suffering” (Romans 5:3-10), but the ones who are not just complaining about the pain in their life, but they actually in mourning over that pain. They look at who they are, and who they have become, and they grieve. They look in the mirror in utter despair, and Jesus calls them blessed and promises comfort.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

The meek, the gentle, the shy and the timid are favored. Not the strong. Not the ones with the personalities or the confidence to overcome all sorts of adversity and somehow still make it to the top. Blessed are the ones who have never conquered anything, not even their own fears. It is the weak, says Jesus, not the strong, who survive and inherit the earth.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones on whose behalf the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). These are the ones who have been unjustly judged, mistreated, shunned and bullied by society, even by communities of faith. They have suffered grave injustices because of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental and physical ability, socioeconomic level and political or theological background. They have been beaten up so badly by the world that they hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, like a wanderer lost in a hot desert thirsts for water. Jesus says that they are blessed and they are favored and they are the ones who will not only be satisfied, but will be filled, their cups overflowing.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

Not the perfect and the proud, the boastful and the arrogant. But God favors the ones who are fully aware of their imperfections, the ones who have made mistakes, terrible mistakes. Thus, when they encounter others who are also suffering from unthinkable errors in judgment, they have mercy and compassion, and in their hearts, there is always room for forgiveness. They give mercy, because they need mercy for themselves. And because they are favored by God, they will receive it.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).

Not the pure, but the “pure in heart.” Not the ones who, on the outside, appear to be straight and narrow, the ones who seem to have it all together, whose characters appear to be flawless. No, God favors the ones viewed by the world as abominations. We are reminded of the words of 1 Samuel “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God will see the hopeful wonder and the potential beauty of who they are and they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).

Not the ones who have necessarily found peace for themselves. But the tormented, disturbed and restless, who, because they are so continuously in chaos, seek to make peace whenever and wherever they can. Blessed are those who are without stability, but seek it, because they will find a home, a place of security, rest and a peace that is beyond all understanding, within the family of God.[i]

This, Jesus pronounces, is not a prescription of how things should be or how things could be. Jesus asserts that this is how things are! This is not some enchanted dream or magical fairytale. This is reality. This is truth. And Jesus announces: “I have come as light, as the Light of the World, to help you see it, to give all who are blind to it, sight to really see it as it really is.”

And not only that, Jesus says, you, who seek to follow me, you, who seek do the things that I do, go to the places that I go, you, who want to be my disciples, are also the Lights of the World. And you are called not to hide your light, but to shine your light on what is reality, what is true, so all may see it the way God sees it.

And we are to light it up in the same manner Jesus lit it up.

In Matthew 4 we read after James and John, Peter and Andrew left their fishing nets to follow Jesus, they proclaimed “…the good newsof the kingdom by curing every disease and every sickness among the people…those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matthew 4:23-24).

We are to shine our lights by lifting up, accepting and caring for all people, especially those the world leaves behind. We are to light it up by loving, accepting, and caring for the least among us: the poor, the weak, those who need mercy, the marginalized who hunger and thirst for justice, the obviously flawed but pure in heart, and the troubled who yearn for peace.

Will we look like fools? You bet. Will people say that the way we accept and love and affirm others is socially and even theologically unacceptable? It’s likely. Will we be demeaned and even persecuted by others in the community, even other churches? Perhaps.

But here is the good news: Jesus also said,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you [notice the change in person] when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-11).

So let the rest of the world live in their enchanted, dreamlike, fairytale existence where the rich, the prosperous, the powerful and the strong are blessed and favored by God.

And let us commit ourselves to living in reality, in the world created by our gracious God, in the world that Jesus, the Light of the World, came to help us see, in the world where the Holy Spirit reveals the hopeful wonder and potential beauty in all things and in all people, in the world that has indeed been blanketed by grace, like a 4-inch snowfall in the South.

And let us, as lights of this world, for the sake of this world, keep lighting it up, until the day comes when the eyes of all are finally fully opened. Amen.


[i] Words on the Beatitudes were inspired by Frederick Buechner. Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 18.           

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world and light it up!

So the poor will know that they are blessed.

Light it up!

So that the weak will know that they are favored.

Light it up!

So that those who ache for justice will be satisfied.

Light it up!

So that the obviously flawed but pure in heart will see God.

Light it up!

So that those you yearn for peace will know security as God’s beloved children.

Light it up!

Knowing that if you are persecuted, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Light it up!

Until the day comes when the eyes of all are finally fully open, and all may know love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Actin’ a Fool

Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone
Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 NRSV

As some of you know, I am taking an online class on the history of our denomination. It has been exciting to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands of people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with their writings and sermons.  Some people estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up—10% of the entire population of Kentucky at the time. [i]

What were these folks preaching that started a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

They simply had the audacity to preach messages that called for a return to taking the message of the Bible seriously. They denounced all man-made creeds and confessions and committed themselves to following Jesus at all costs. And in so doing they were continually bucking the system, going against the doctrinal grains of the Church.

They preached against slavery, preached for the inclusion of all Christians at the communion table, stood against the power of the clergy over the laity, the power of Bishops over the clergy and anything that did not jive with Jesus. And for doing so, many were excommunicated, labeled heretics, radicals and fools. In fact, The Fool of God is the title of a novel based on the life of our forebear Alexander Campbell.[ii]  

But here’s the thing, people responded to these fools. And by 1960, the movement they started had grown into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

Now here’s some troubling news. In 2012 we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[iii]

There are many complex reasons for this decline. However, this morning, I want to suggest what I believe is at least one of the reasons, and here it is: We stopped actin’ a fool.

In fact, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been labeled by many as “a moderate, mainline, mainstream protestant denomination in North America.”[iv] Did you hear that: moderate, mainline, mainstream! 

Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell would roll over in their graves!

token

While Alexander Campbell was studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the time had come for communion at his Presbyterian church. Communion was only observed a couple of times a year, so it was a pretty big deal. His church had a custom, like many Presbyterian churches of that day, to pass out these “communion tokens.” You would line up, present yourself to the minister. If the minister believed that you were worthy that day to participate in communion, he would hand you a token, a little coin. This was your ticket to the table. When you arrived at the table, you would present your coin, and then and only then, could you receive communion. If the minister did not think you were worthy, he would not give you a token, and thus, no communion for you. It also implied there may be no heaven for you either!

With his communion token in hand, Alexander Campbell approached the communion table. When he was handed the plate where he was to place his token, it is said that Campbell, “threw” the coin onto the plate, publically refused the bread and the wine, and then walked out of the sanctuary as a “free man” in Christ.[v]

Now, does that sound mainstream, mainline and moderate to you?  

Alexander Campbell was anything but a mainstream Christian. He would say that he was an upstream Christian, swimming like a salmon against the mainstream currents of his day. And many said he acted a fool.

This is what I believe we must regain as a church. We need more people like Alexander Campbell who are willing to humbly walk with Jesus, kindly love all people and do the justice of Jesus even if it makes them look foolish.

The Apostle Paul very clearly and outrageously writes:  “The way of the cross is foolishness” to the world.  We proclaim “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

But this is a hard message for us to get. Because there is a part of all of us that does not want to look foolish. When I was trying to help a family at Christmas, someone asked me, “Are you sure they are a deserving family?” She didn’t want me to do anything foolish.  And it did make me pause, because I didn’t want to do anything foolish either.

A recent survey by Bill McKibben reveals that three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”[vi]  However, that statement is from deist Ben Franklin; not the Bible.[vii] “God helps those who help themselves” is in fact one of the most unbiblical ideas. It is Jesus who made the dramatic counter assertion: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But, deep down we prefer Ben Franklin don’t we?  Doesn’t sound so foolish.

There is a large part within all of us that yearns to be moderate, mainline and mainstream. However, when we stop actin’ the fool in the eyes of the world, I believe we stop being Christian, we cease being disciples.

Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, writes: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry.” He goes on to name a few of Jesus’ shocking and absurd assertions: “Blessed are the meek; love your enemies; go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.”[viii]

And you know the others: “forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek; someone takes your coat, offer them your shirt, pray for those who persecute you; blessed are the poor; visit the imprisoned; to save your life, you must lose your life, take up your cross and follow me.”

And then there is the entire foolish story: The foundation of his arrival was laid by a murderer with a speech impediment and a bad temper named Moses; his advent was promised by prophets who did not deserve to be prophets; he was born to ordinary peasants in a cattle stall and laid in a feeding troth; worshipped by loathsome shepherds; his family on the run in Egypt like illegal immigrants; a triumphant ride into Jerusalem to liberate the world on the back of a donkey—and then there is the most foolish part of it all—the arrest, the trial, the desertion of the his friends, the cross and those shocking words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then to add audacity on top of audacity, foolishness on top of foolishness, Jesus is resurrected by God and given right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

There is nothing moderate, mainline or mainstream about this thing we call ‘Christianity,’ this thing we call ‘church.’ It is all so radical, so reckless, so shocking, so undeserving, so unconditional and so inclusive. It is a love that is so socially unacceptable, that it can only be described as foolish.

Henri Nouwen was a priest and brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. However, wanting to truly follow Jesus before he died, many say that he did something absolutely foolish. He left the Ivy League to spend the last decade of his life serving as a chaplain within a community of people with severe emotional, mental and physical disabilities.

L'Arche Community
L’Arche Community in Edmonton

In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor, a man in that community who was dealing with such severe mental and emotional challenges that he had to be sent to a psychiatric facility for an evaluation. One day Henri wanted to visit him, so he called the hospital and arranged for a visit.

When those who were in authority found out that it was Henri Nouwen, the renowned author and teacher from Yale and Harvard who was coming, they asked if they could have lunch with him in the Golden Room—a special meeting room at the facility. They would also invite doctors and other clergy to the special luncheon. Nouwen agreed.

When he arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, he asked about Trevor’s whereabouts.

“Oh,” said an administrator, “Trevor cannot come to lunch. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. Besides, no patient has ever had lunch in the Golden Room.”

Henri Nouwen with another resident
Henri Nouwen with Linda Slinger

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was very meek and gentle—much unlike Alexander Campbell—but so like him in many ways. Being guided by the Spirit, here was the thought that came to his mind: “Include Trevor.” Knowing that community is about inclusion, Henri thought: “Trevor ought to be here.”  So, Henri swallowed hard, turned to the administrator and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”

The thought of missing an opportunity for lunch with the great Henri Nouwen was too much, so they quickly found a way for Trevor to attend. When they all gathered together, something interesting happened. At one point during the lunch, Henri was talking to the person to his right and didn’t notice that Trevor had stood up and lifted his glass of Coca-Cola.

“A toast. I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group.

Everybody in the room got nervous. What in the world was he going to say?

Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and esteemed clergy, started to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass…”

No one knew what to do. It was awkward. Here was a man with a level of challenge and brokenness they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming. He was thrilled to be there. So they started to sing. Softly at first and then louder and louder until all of the doctors and clergymen and Henri Nouwen were practically shouting, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.”

Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon, but the moment everyone remembered, the moment God spoke most clearly, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely to speak for God.[ix]

This is what the entire Bible is all about. This is what the cross, the gospel and our faith is all about. God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

This morning, after the hymn of commitment, we are going to install our officers that you have elected for 2014. We are going to ask them to commit themselves to following Jesus. And as Frederick Buechner writes: “In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.”[x] So we are going to ask them, in the name of First Christian Church, in the name of God, to act a fool, to shock this community with the grace of God revealed in the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  And then we are going to promise them our support which makes us just as foolish.

Are you ready? I hope you are. If this church is to continue to grow and thrive in this community, continue to make a difference, continue to be the church God is calling us to be, I pray you are.


[i] Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.

[ii] Louis Cochran, Published October 18th 2002 by Wipf & Stock Pub 

[vi] Bill McKibben, “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine, July 7, 2005.

[vii] Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by the application of reason and observation of the natural world.  Deists generally reject the notion of supernatural revelation as a basis of truth or religious teaching.

[ix] John Ortberg, in the sermon, “Guide.” Preachingtoday.com.

[x]Frederick Buechner, as quoted by Joe Roos, Sojourners Magazine, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Aug. 2007.

Christmas in the Weeds

nativity

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 NRSV  A sermon delivered to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, July 13, 2008

Have you ever noticed that whenever we romanticize, glamorize, sentimentalize life, even faith itself, whenever our expectations are too great, we are usually greatly disappointed?

Our family vacation was coming to an end.  It was our last day at the beach.  I had looked forward to spending the entire day on the beach, swimming in the crystal, Caribbean-blue water with my children.  In my mind, it was going to be the perfect day.

But on our last day, the Caribbean-blue water was not so Caribbean-blue.  It was seaweed green.  Sometime during the night, the weediest seaweed you’d ever seen had drifted into the waters in front of our condo.  The water was green, the beach was green, and if you swam in it, you’d be green too.  I had never seen so many weeds.

So, I spent the rest of that day that came with such expectation working on this sermon—which ironically happens to be about Jesus’ parable of the weeds.   No matter what kind of expectations we may have for our garden, weeds are always bound to appear.  Allow me to give you another example.

The previous day, I was reading a book on the beach when my eye caught notice of a young family playing in the surf.  A father was helping his eight-year old boy ride a wave on his boogie board.  A mother was holding the hands of her six-year old daughter who was standing in front of her, lifting her up to hop over the incoming waves.  In spite of a little envy and jealousy, I managed to smile as I watched them, for it was a beautiful picture of a perfect family vacation.

But as they came out of the water to take their seats next to me, something happened—you might say that these weeds began to appear.

“Daddy, a jelly fish stung me,” whined the little boy.  “Mommy, I’m hungry,” moaned the daughter.    “Son, stop shaking that towel, you’re getting sand all over everybody!” griped the father.  Exasperated, the mother yelled:  “Why can’t we just have one day on our vacation without all this fussin’?”

And as I watched them, I smiled once more, but this time, even bigger than before, because this time, this Norman Rockwelian family looked more real, like, say the Banks’ family on vacation—because regardless of my high expectations for a perfect vacation, somehow, someway these weeds would always appear.

It’s not so different from the expectations I had before moving to Baton Rouge.  Whatever I had envisioned about my transition—answering the call of God, following my savior on a wondrous adventure into the deep, antebellum South, embarking on a brand new journey with the Lord—No, whatever my expectations were, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with what actually transpired.  Lori becoming ill.  Our health insurance denied.  My car vandalized in the night.  Throwing out my back while moving a garden hose.  A constant battle with seasonal allergies.  No, no matter what my great expectations may have been, weeds were bound to appear.

And the weeds on my beach, in my garden, have been and are a lot more manageable than some of your weeds.  Thus far, my weeds have been merely a nuisance.  Other weeds have been bent on entangling and even strangling all that is good.

An unforeseen accident tragically claims the life of the innocent.  Someone falls and fatally breaks a hip.  The doctor says the tumor is malignant.  A mother dies very unexpectedly.  One faces two surgeries in a month; both are unsuccessful.   Chemotherapy treatments make some deathly sick.  And that’s just scratching the surface here in our family of faith.  Elsewhere, a  U. S. consulate is attacked by terrorists.   Tornados ravage entire communities.  Wildfires continue to destroy homes.   And the Mississippi River continues to rise; levees continue to break.

No, as much as we try to romanticize, glamorize or sentimentalize our vacations, our families, our lives, despite all of our high expectations for the perfect day on the beach, the perfect family, the perfect vocation, the perfect life—the weediest weeds always appear.

So the slaves complain to the householder:  “Where did all of these weeds come from?”  This is not what we were expecting. “What are we to do with them?  Do you want us to pull them up, try our best to get rid of them ourselves?”

“No, says the Master.  But have hope.   In the meantime, we have to live  alongside the weeds, but the time is coming, at the end of the age, when the weeds will be collected and destroyed forever.  And there will be no more mourning.  No more crying and pain.  Death will be no more.”

This is, of course, the hope all of us have in what we call the second coming of Christ.  It is the hope we have that Christ will somehow, someway, someday come again and defeat evil and destroy the weeds that entangle us, that have sought and that may even prevail to strangle the very life out of us on this earth. It is the hope that one day we will reside in the Kingdom of Heaven where weeds simply do not exist.

But wait a minute.  Notice that this parable begins with the customary parabolic prefix, “’The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…’  Someone who sowed good seed; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is not only that eternal weed-free place that is part of our future.  The Kingdom of Heaven is something we can also experience in the present, among the weeds.  It is not something  that we only  look forward to after the second coming of Christ, it is something we can somewhat experience today as a result of the first coming of Christ.

I believe one of the reasons we often miss this truth is because of our aforementioned propensity to romanticize, glamorize and sentimentalize life.  And I’m afraid we have a tendency to do this even with the incarnation, the first coming of Christ.

Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus.  A brilliant star rising in the East.  A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals.  A glorious baptismal scene with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.   Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow.  Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck.  In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect garden completely devoid of weeds.

But the truth is and the good news is that it was not that beautiful.  It was not that perfect.  It is the story of God being born into the weedy existence of humankind.

We forget “Like, a root out of dry ground,” says the prophet Isaiah” he was born among weeds in a stable and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.  We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism.  We forget he was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him.   He made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies.  And in the end, those enemies got him.  His best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him.   And in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.[1]

There is nothing glamorous, sentimental, or romantic about it.  God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and died a very real death.   And the irony is: we call this story good news.

Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary.  I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day.  He said, “Although I can not explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”

I believe that is because through the first coming of God through Christ into a very real and broken world, God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery.  God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments in life when the weeds are the thickest.

The good news is somehow, someway, someday, Christ will return and defeat evil and destroy the weeds of this world forever.  However, the really good news is that we do not have to wait.  We can experience a taste of the kingdom of heaven even among the weeds, maybe especially among the weeds of this world today.

This is how, although I know things are not going to be perfect, although I realize that my family, my vocation, and my life, my path ahead of me, will be strewn with weeds, this is how I still manage to have some great expectations.  And I know I will never be disappointed.  Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for the hope that we have that one day there will be an eternal life in a garden completely devoid of weeds.  However, until that day comes, thank you for the hope we have that today we can experience life abundant even among the weed, maybe especially among the weeds, because we know you are with us in the most real and intimate of ways.


[1]Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark  (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.

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.