Accepting a Topsy-Turvy Gospel

Brett Medal

Mark 10:35-45 NRSV

We live in in some very dark times. These are difficult days to be a minister. These are difficult days to be the church. These are tough times to raise children. It is more than evident that the spirit of the anti-Christ is in this world. The spirit of the anti-Christ seems to have a grip on this nation, and it has even infiltrated the church. False prophets are everywhere.

Of course, this is nothing new. John put it in words 2,000 years ago:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

As Disciples of Christ were creating a movement to return to the simple teachings of Jesus in the 19thcentury, German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietsche were denigrating those teachings calling them “a slave morality.”

Nietshche noted that Christianity seemed to be most popular among the people in his day who were at were at the bottom— the poor, women, children, people with disabilities, people of color, and slaves. He accused Christianity of giving hope to those at the bottom and offering very little to those at the top.

His criticism served as a warning to the church: “If you are not careful, if you keep teaching the Gospel of Jesus, you might fill your churches up with the wrong type of people.”

So, the false prophets went to work. Rejecting the gospel of Jesus, they began to preach and teach the antitheses of Jesus. “God only helps those who help themselves,” they declared. “Women should be submissive to men, at home, in the work place, in government and in the church,” they asserted. “Children should be seen and not heard and can be exploited for their labor,” they affirmed. “Jesus was a white man,” they pronounced in artistic portrayals. “God’s Word sanctions slavery,” they argued.

Today, an anti-Christ spirit still haunts this land. “They are lazy and entitled,” they tweet. “Her voice is too shrill” they post. “They are too young to have a voice!” they shout. “We need to stop the caravan!” they clamor. “God calls them abominations,” they preach.

When Jesus first predicts what would have to suffer and die, the disciples immediately reject it.” Simon Peter pulls Jesus aside and strongly rebukes him. When he makes his second prediction, the disciples “jostle for position” arguing with one another: “who is the greatest.” And now, after a third and more detailed prediction of what was going to happen to him, James and John approach Jesus “on the sly” and say: “[Do us a favor and grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Jesus had just laid all of the cards out on the table—the condemnation, the mockery, the spitting, the flogging, the death—and James and John seem to accept none of it. The two of them had no clue that the ones who would end up on Jesus’ right and his left would be hanging on crosses!”

When the ten become angry with James and John for making their request, Jesus realizes that they are still confused about the nature of God’s Kingdom.  So as New Testament Scholar Martin Copenhaver has said, “he does a little remedial work with them.”  Changing the subject from the ultimate act of self-giving love on the cross, Jesus talks about other forms of self-giving.  Once again, Jesus reverses our expectations, and says that to be great is to be a servant, even as he came himself to be a servant.

 

Last week, I said Jesus’ teachings turns our word upside down.

  • The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
  • To save ourselves we must lose ourselves.
  • To live we must die.
  • To get back at you enemies, love them.
  • To obtain riches, give everything you have to the poor.
  • A woman’s two copper coins, worth only a few cents, has more value than large bags of money that others put into the temple treasury.
  • The eyes of the blind see more clearly than the eyes of those with 20/20 vision.
  • The poor are filled with good things, whereas the rich are sent away empty.
  • A poor beggar named Lazarus is resting by Abraham’s side, whereas the rich man is begging for mercy.
  • A tax collector leaves the worship justified, whereas the Pharisee does not.
  • The grown-up religious leaders are like poisonous snakes, whereas little children are like the kingdom of God.
  • Foreign Samaritans are role models, whereas a priest and a rabbi are not.
  • The prodigal son gets a pair sandals, a ring, a fatted calf, a big party with music and dancing, whereas the responsible son gets nothing.
  • Religion is condemned, whereas sin is forgiven.
  • The female disciples are the first to proclaim: “He is risen!” whereas the male disciples are cowering behind locked doors.

Copenhaver observes: “The lesson [in Mark chapter 10] bears repeating, because we are continually trying to straighten up the order of things that Jesus turned topsy-turvy.”

I have experienced this on more than one occasion working with Ainsley’s Angels. I believe that the Ainsley’s Angels’ mission of radical inclusion mirrors the topsy-turvy teachings of Jesus. And because of that, the mission is sometimes rejected.

I have been told by race directors that our children and adults who are differently-abled are not welcomed at their races. We “create too much angst to be in their race,” they said. “Only the physically-abled and the physically-fit should be in a marathon,” some runners grumbled. Others have said that we are what is wrong with this nation, that “not everyone deserves a trophy or deserves to be in a marathon.”

The good news is that there are many people who have accepted the radical, topsy-turvy Gospel of Jesus. They have stood firm and have rejected the spirit of the anti-Christ that is in our land and are following the radical way of Christ.

There’s a church and a community that is helping to send a young man with Cerebral Palsy, Epilepsy and Autism to the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. This is a marathon in our nation’s capital called “The People’s Marathon.” And it’s a marathon that is more than happy to include him.

There is a church that begins their worship service uplifting and dedicating small little children, because they know they are the keys to the Kingdom of God. And there are parents and grandparents who are willing to sacrifice everything for those children.

There is a church that has ordained both men and women as ministers, ministers who have never lorded over their congregations, but selflessly served alongside their congregations.

The good news is there are several churches in this city that are open and affirming to all people regardless of race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.

The good news is there are people everywhere who have heeded Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger.

There are volunteers who have left the comfort of home to help survivors of recent hurricanes.

There are teachers, social workers, and childcare workers, who sacrifice much to educate, protect and care for the children of this world.

There are people with empathy who are marching and organizing and giving all that they have to create a nation with less racial, social, economic and environmental injustice.

There are people who believe Black Lives Matter, and of course, they also believe Blue lives matter, as they have created an organization called PACE, Police and Community Engagement that creates safe place for conversation.

There are law enforcement officers and firefighters who are willing to lay down their lives to protect and serve their communities.

There are artists who are imagining a more just and equitable world.

There are women refusing to be kept silent by patriarchal powers of oppression.

There are children speaking truth to power by saying “enough is enough” to violence.

There are soldiers still willing to sacrifice their lives for liberty and justice for all.

There are elderly who spend their well-earned retirement volunteering at the hospital.

There are voters who care about the things Jesus cares about who are going to the polls.

Dan Rather has noted: “[There’s] the city bus driver who waits patiently for an elderly rider, the crossing guard who gives the children a bright smile, the doctor who volunteers to treat the homeless, the ranger in a national park who introduces a city kid to the wonder of tall trees.”

In other words, although many have surrendered to the spirit of the anti-Christ, rejecting the teachings of Jesus for possessions, position, privilege and power, there are many who have accepted this Topsy-Turvy Gospel—And because of that, a light shines in the darkness.

Thanks be to God.

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For the Least of These or for the Exalted of Us?

 

Debbie Berg finish

Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV

During the three three years that I took a break from local church ministry, I had a taste of what some of you refer to as “the real world.” You might say that was pursuing the American dream, chasing the almighty dollar.

I worked in the development office for a small university which meant that my job was to raise money. I was continually seeking to locate and to build relationships with some of the wealthiest people in the area with the sole purpose of getting them to freely and enthusiastically open up their checkbooks.

And then some friends and started a small business, manufacturing and selling products to the electrical construction industry with the same exact purpose, trying to get some of the largest electrical distributors in the United States to write us some very large checks.

So, for three years, I traveled the country, by car, pickup truck and plane, on a continuous quest, searching high and low, scouring the landscape, and at all times, during an economic recession, looking for the next prospect, that next big donor, that next big customer, that new big account, all with the purpose of growing, advancing, and expanding an institution or a company.

And during those three years, driving many a mile, flying in many a plane, and speaking with many a person, I had the opportunity to talk with others about, and to reflect on, the current state of the local church, which, like our nation’s economy at the time, was in sort of a recession of its own.

It is news to no one that local church membership in North America has been in a state of perpetual decline for most, if not the entirety of my lifetime. These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. Consequently, many churches have simply given up trying to grow, advance or expand. They are just trying to survive. Hold on. Maintain. Keep the piano tuned and lights on.

And during my travels, I also had some time to reflect on the current role of the pastor of a local church, at least the way that I had always approached the role; which, quite frankly, was very similar the way that I approached business in the so called “real world.”

As a pastor, I had often been on a constant search, scouring the landscape, at all times, during a church membership recession, looking for that next wealthy prospect, that next big giver, that next new member who will come into the church, open up their checkbooks to help pay for our programs, fund some needed renovations, finance a new roof, and perhaps most imporantly, support my salary.

“What did I hear you say?  A doctor has moved into your neighborhood? Well, give me her name and address and I’ll be sure to pay her a visit! We’ll give her and her family free meal tickets to Wednesday night suppers for a month!”

“You say, ‘An attorney has opened up a new practice in town?’ Well, I need drop by his office this right away! Invite him to the next Men’s Breakfast!  I wonder if he has any children. More children with well-to-do parents will help us attract even more children with their well-to-do parents.  After all, we need to keep growing, advancing and expanding! Well, to be honest, we need them just to maintain, keep our programs going, keep the utilities paid, keep the AC on and our doors open. And we have to keep searching, keep seeking, keep inviting, keep persuading, keep trying to find people, and not just any people, people with some means, people with some resources, folks with some wherewithal!”

But then we read Jesus, and we quickly learn that he does not care too much for our real-world way of growth, expansion, and advancement, especially when it comes to building the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says when you are sending out invitations, don’t send them to the well-to-do folks that can offer you something in return. Don’t invite your friends and your neighbors, you know, the folks who look like you, dress like you, think like you, and have the same if not more income as you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite even those who can in no way pay to support the church’s budget and donate to the organ fund.

The holy wind of the Spirit is calling, says Jesus: “Invite, welcome, include and love those society considers to be the least among us: the unfortunate and underprivileged, the ostracized and outcast, the deprived, downtrodden and derelict, the poor and the pitiful. Greet, accept and receive the stranger. Quench the thirsty. Heal the broken. Feed the hungry. Protect the bullied. Care for the dying. Befriend the friendless. Forgive the wrongdoer. Love the sinner. Be the embodiment of my Holy Spirit in this broken world.”

I have told you before, and I still believe it today. People are not leaving the church because they are leaving Jesus. I believe the vast majority of people love Jesus and I believe sincerely would like to follow Jesus. The problem is that when they come to church, they simply do not find Jesus.

Where then can Jesus be found? When does Jesus appear in our churches?  One day a crowd of people asked Jesus, “When did we see you.” Jesus responded, “when you loved and cared for the least of these” (Matthew 25).

Jesus says that if you want people to see him, we must welcome, include, accept and minister to the least, to those who cannot offer us anything in return. I understand that this is very difficult to hear, especially in the midst of a membership recession.

“Forget about yourselves,” says Jesus, “Forget about self-preservation, forget about reaching folks that might be able to help us with our programs, balance our budget, pay our utilities and support salaries.”  And notice that he even says that we might have to wait to be rewarded, not in this life, but at the resurrection.” There may be nothing more difficult than hearing this. Except for maybe doing this!

But here’s the good news. I believe that there are people everywhere, some may be your friends, relatives or rich neighbors, who are still searching for a group of believers that not only hears these words of Jesus, but actually has the courage to act on them. They have all but given up on organized religion; however, they are still hoping that there is a church that exists somewhere in this broken world that looks and acts like Jesus.

If you are my friend on facebook…and if you are not, you should be. And and if you are not on facebook period, opening up a facebook right now is worth it, just to be my friend to see some the things that I have been posting lately regarding Ainsley’s Angels of America.

Ainsley’s Angels are groups of runners that includes children and adults with exceptional needs in 5k races, 10k races, or even in marathons all over the country. Welcoming and including and sharing joy with children and adults with exceptional needs is such a holy work; it is such a pure mission, such a selfless act; it’s such a Christ-like grace… that guess what? People everywhere are asking how they can be apart of this!

Listen to this, because I can’t make this stuff up. Through just a through a few posts on Facebook during the last two weeks, we have raised over two thousand dollars and recruited a team of dedicated Angel Runners. Everyday our numbers keep growing. Runners are calling. Walkers are calling. Even couch potatoes, who now, because of what they have seen on Facebook, want to be runners are calling. And of course, parents of children with special needs are calling.

We had a funeral here a few weeks ago. When the funeral director saw the chairs designed to include children with exceptional needs we had displayed in our gathering area, he walked into my office and handed me a check for $500.

I didn’t call the Enid Civitan Club. They called me. They didn’t ask me to come and be the program for them. I am not sure if they even saw the chairs in our gathering area. But they called to say they wanted to donate $1,000.

And people are calling me asking me to be their programs. During the next month I have been asked to speak at 2 Ambuc clubs, the Kiwanis Club, and even the Corvette Club. And I didn’t ask to speak at any of those clubs.

With support like this, do you know what I think? I think I could start a church!

Simply because I am involved in something that looks like Jesus: Reaching out to, welcoming, including, sharing joy with, those society considers to be the least among us.

And everywhere church people are asking, “Why does it seem that people just don’t want to go to church anymore?”

However, have you ever thought that maybe people not going to church is actually a good thing!

Because maybe church is not some place to which we are supposed to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be.

So, instead of inviting others to go to church, perhaps we should be inviting them to be the church, saying: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this broken world with a burning passion for the disabled and the powerless, for the left out and the left behind, for the poor and the bullied. Come and join us to be the body of Christ as we humbly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and care less about ‘the exalted of us’. Go and be something and do something that is truly holy, pure and selfless.”

Ashamed of the Gospel

ashamed of the gospelMark 8:27-38 NRSV

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday. It is the Sunday that we are asked to prayerfully commit ourselves to the 2016 budget of this church and to serve on a ministry team, and it is the Sunday that we will ask God to bless those commitments. Members will receive a pledge card in the mail. If you are not yet a member, if you wish, you will be able to pick one up from an usher.

We are doing this, because for almost two years now, I have been preaching that, perhaps more than anything else, the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. As Christ, we are to continue his ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: offering healing to the sick, hope to the despairing, comfort to the troubled, grace to the sinners, love to the hateful, and life to the dying.

Now, if this is like any church that I have ever known, there may be more than a few of you who are thinking: “I just don’t believe I am ready to make such a commitment. I have some things that I need to work out first in my life. My faith needs some work. I have my doubts. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And I have some very personal issues to deal with. I have this problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my act more together, learn a little more, I think I will pass on this pledge card thing.”

Well, here’s my response to that: “Have you ever met Peter?”

You know, Saint Peter. The one Jesus called a “rock” and said, “on this rock, I will build my church.” The one Roman Catholics recognize as the first Pope. Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter: the one whom Jesus loved and trusted to carry on his ministry in this world.

Well, let me tell you a little more about this Peter fella.

One day, he is out on boat with the other disciples. It is the middle of the night, and there’s this big storm. The wind is howling. The waves are crashing against and into the boat. And as you could imagine, they were all scared to death. But then, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them to have courage and fear not.

But Peter…Peter has some doubts. Peter has some questions. Peter needs to work some things out: “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come out on the water.” And Jesus responds, “Peter, you of little faith.”

Later, Jesus is instructing Peter about discipleship. Jesus talks about being humble, lowering one’s self, even pouring one’s self out. Jesus talks about selfless, self-expending, sacrificial love, being with and for the least of these.

But Peter…Peter has some issues. Peter has some things to learn. Peter gets into an argument with the other disciples about which one of them was the greatest.

After Jesus prays in the garden, surrendering himself to the will of God, offering himself as a sacrifice, Jesus does not resist arrest. Jesus practices what he teaches and turns the other cheek.

But Peter…Peter loses it. Peter acts before he thinks. In a fit of anger, Peter fights back. Peter draws his sword and begins swinging it Jesus’ captors, cutting the ear off of one.

And in our text this morning, Jesus foretells that garden event. He talks about being rejected by organized religion. Jesus is essentially saying:

“When you preach the word of God that cuts like a sword; when you love all people and try to teach others to love all people; when you preach a grace that is extravagant and a love that is unconditional; when you talk about the need to make room at the table for all people, even for folks called “illegal” or “aliens”; when you stand up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized; when you proclaim liberty to the oppressed and say that their lives matter; when you defend, forgive and friend sinners caught in the very act of sinning; when you tell lovers of money to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor; when you command a culture of war to be peacemakers; when you tell the powerful to turn the other cheek; when you call religious leaders hypocrites and point out their hypocrisy; when you criticize their faith without works, their theology without practice, and their tithing without justice; when you refuse to tolerate intolerance; when you do these things that I do,” says Jesus, “then the self-righteous-powers-that-be will rise up, and they will hate. They will hoist their colors, and they will grab their guns. They will come against you with all that they have, and they will come against you in name of God. They will do anything and everything that is in their power to stop you, even if it means killing you.”

But Peter…Peter has some serious issues with that. Peter says to Jesus: “No way! Stop talking like that. This is not right. You are crazy. We will not let this happen!”

Then, having had about all that he could stand of Peter and his nonsense and excuses: his doubts, his questioning, his anger, his lack of faith, his personal issues, all the mess that he needs to work out, Jesus responds to Peter with some of the harshest words ever recorded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

And yet, that did not stop Jesus from loving Peter, from using Peter. Jesus kept teaching Peter, kept calling Peter, and kept leading Peter to do his work in the world. In fact, that did not stop Jesus from calling Peter to start his church in the world.

So, if you are not ready to make a commitment to Christ and his church, and if your excuses are: that you have doubts; or you have questions; or you are just not ready; or you have some issues to work out; or even have days you feel unworthy, even have days you know you resemble Satan more than God; then you are going to have to come up with another excuse, because as Peter teaches us: with Jesus, those excuses simply don’t fly!

So, what is it that is really keeping us from committing ourselves to Christ and his church?

After Jesus is arrested, Peter goes into the courtyard of the High Priest. It is a cold night, so he gathers with some folks who had started a fire to warm themselves. A servant girl begins staring at Peter and says: “This man was with Jesus. He traveled around with him doing the things that Jesus did, saying the things that Jesus said.” But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not even know this Jesus.”

A little later, another saw him and said: “You are a disciple, a disciple of Jesus who defended, forgave and friended sinners. You welcomed strangers, visited prisoners, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, and fed the hungry. You restored lepers, elevated the status of women, gave dignity to Eunuchs, and offered community to lepers. But, again, Peter denied it.

About an hour had passed and another man began to insist saying: “Certainly this man was with Him, for he is a Galilean too. You called out hypocrisy on the behalf of widows. You challenged the status quo on the behalf of the sick. You disobeyed the laws of God on the behalf of the suffering.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”

Perhaps Peter’s denials had nothing to do with his lack of faith. Perhaps his denials, his refusal to take up his cross, had to do with shame.

Peter’s failure to pledge his commitment to Christ and his church had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, because, as Jesus pointed out over and over, those excuses simply don’t cut it. Peter’s failure was shame.

Peter’s failure to start his own ministry team had nothing to do with his personal issues or poor anger management. Peter’s failure had to do with shame.

Peter failed to make a pledge; Peter failed to commit himself to Christ and his church, because he was ashamed.

Peter was ashamed of the gospel: What the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

Peter was ashamed to love, because living among voices clamoring to take their country back from foreign invaders, it was more popular to hate.

Peter was ashamed to turn the other cheek, because it was more popular to draw a sword or get a gun.

Peter was ashamed to identify with the least, because it was more popular to identify with the greatest.

Peter was ashamed to share his wealth, because it was more popular to hold on to it.

Peter was ashamed to side with the poor, because it was more popular to ridicule them for being “lazy” and “entitled.”

Peter was ashamed to welcome immigrants, because it was more popular to dehumanize them by calling them “aliens.”

Peter was ashamed to defend sinners, because it was more popular to throw rocks.

Peter was ashamed to stand up for the marginalized, because it was more popular to call them “abominations.”

Peter was ashamed to visit those in prison, because it was popular to treat them as animals.

And Jesus said: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So, are we ready to commit? Are we ready to give sacrificially and serve graciously? If not, what’s our excuse? We must remember, with Jesus, a lack of faith, having a lot of questions and some serious issues, or not having ourselves together simply doesn’t cut it!

Could it be it is because we are somewhat ashamed? Are we ashamed of the gospel? Are we ashamed of what it stands for, and for whom it stands?

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter made his commitment. Peter turned in his pledge card. Peter joined one ministry team and started another. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church and has been named by the Church as its first Pope.

And the good news for us this morning is that we still have a little time to deal with our shame.