Holy Friendship

Friendship

John 15:9-17 NRSV

To prepare us for a new church year, today, I invite us to be a part of a four-part sermon series entitled: Renewing Our Mission. To be the church that God is calling us to be, the church that God needs us to be, we will be challenged to renew our mission in at least four areas: friendship, partnership, stewardship and discipleship. Today, I want us to think about friendship.

Friendship. It’s a word that we use casually, superficially. These days we call nearly every acquaintance or contact a friend. I have Facebook friends, friends who follow my blog or my Twitter, many I have never met and never will. I have ministry-colleague friends. I have teacher friends, professor friends. I have friends from high school, college and seminary. I have running friends, gym friends, and I have Ainsley’s Angels friends all over the country. I have a dry cleaning friend, a friend who cuts my hair, and just this past week, I met a new friend who repairs my automobiles. And, of course, I have some wonderful church friends.

But we all know that friendship can be experienced on another level. Genuine, long lasting friendships can be so much more profound than our more casual relationships.

A week ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two old friends. Steve is a pastor outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas. We met fifteen years ago in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Gardner-Webb University. We used to get together every year; however, this was the first time that we have gotten together in maybe eight years.

We decided to meet somewhere in the middle, so we chose Memphis. We spent one day at the National Civil Rights Museum and one day on the golf course. And spent both days, eating a lot of barbeque.

Although Steve has had a career serving with mostly Baptist churches, he now serves with an inter-denominational church. I said Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas; however, he is only a pastor for another week. His passion for serving the poor and the marginalized is prompting him to leave the pastorate to co-direct a ministry for the homeless in Longview, similar to Hope Campus here in Fort Smith. Steve and Cary are both the fathers of two children.

So, the three of us share much in common (our jobs, our religious convictions, family, golf and barbeque); however, this is not the reason we are such good friends.

One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner perfectly describes our friendship:

Basically, your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you yourselves are the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.

Only being together matters.

And although we hadn’t been together in almost a decade, although the hair on our heads were much more gray and thin, it was somehow like no time had elapsed at all. Yes, we did our best catch up one another, but we really didn’t have to. That is friendship. And the joy that is experienced in such a friendship is priceless.

Another one of my favorite pastors, Henri Nouwen, said this of friendship:

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.

This makes it all the more astonishingly wonderful when we read scripture like:

“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet Isaiah says that God referred to Abraham saying: “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).

When we consider what friendship truly means, when we consider the innate grace of friendship, the unconditional love of friendship and the immeasurable joy that is experienced through friendship, “the friendship of God is a staggering thought.”

The friendship of God—that the creator of all that is wants to be with the creatures just as they are, and that everything else is “beside the point” except for that—This privilege, this divine gift, this holy friendship is such a staggering thought, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, but I’m no Abraham. I am no Moses.”

The good news is that that too is beside the point.

Through our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus says to his disciples and to everyone of us: “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”

Notice that their relationship has changed. It has grown to another level.

The disciples are much more than acquaintances, contacts or colleagues of Jesus. They are no longer students, no longer servants of Jesus.

Jesus says: You are my friends. I love you. I want nothing more for us to be together. I want to commune with you. I want to abide with you. I want to live with you, in you and through you. Your denials, your betrayals, your lack of understanding, your fears, your faults: none of that matters. It is all beside the point. The only point is you. I want to be with you, and I want nothing more than you to be with me.

And listen, for this is how you can be with me. This is how we can be together, finally and fully. This is how you can experience a joy that will fill you, complete you, satisfy you.

You are with me when you love one another. You are with me when you love one another as I have loved you. You are with me when you look past the flaws and failures of others. You are with me when meet people with a clean slate every time, always meeting them on equal terms. You are with me when all of the usual distinctions, older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter.

You become close to me when we gather at the table, when we share the loaf and drink the cup, but we are together, when you are willing to break your body, pour yourself out, and give yourself away for others.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Do you want to be with me? Then give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothing to someone in need, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. When you are a friend to the least of these, you are a friend of mine. When we love others as I love others, you are my friend.

If we are to be the church that God is calling us to be, if our joy is ever to be complete, I believe the first thing we must do is renew our mission to be a friend of Jesus. We need to make the commitment not to study Jesus, admire Jesus, hit “a Like button” for Jesus, but to be a friend of Jesus.

We are going to take a step toward making this commitment tonight at our cabinet meeting, as we are going to talk about our church officially adopting a non-discrimination policy. I think such an official position is needed, but, doesn’t it seem like, for the church, for the body of Christ in this world, for the Body of the Christ who never excluded anyone, a non-discrimination should be the default? You would think that a vote would only be needed if a church wanted to start discriminating. But sadly, we know that’s not the case.

We know there are too many people today who call themselves Christians who are behaving more like acquaintances of Jesus, students of Jesus, Twitter followers of Jesus, even servants of Jesus, but not friends of Jesus.

You can call ourselves Christian, but if you discriminate against or denigrate anyone because of race or religion, ability or class, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or any other social identifier, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can worship God, but if you mistreat, take advantage of, or neglect the poor, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can say your prayers, even make a National Day of Prayer, but if you do nothing to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens: our children, the elderly, the differently-abled; then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can sing God’s praises, but if you are silent in the face of immorality, dishonesty and injustice, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can hear God’s truth proclaimed on Sunday morning, but if you fall for lies the rest of the time, because you’re afraid of standing for that truth, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can give our tithes, but if you do not support fair living wages, equitable healthcare, access to a quality education and affordable housing, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

You can eat the bread and drink the cup and remember a life poured out, but if you are never willing to sacrifice for anyone or anything, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.

A common phrase that we say to our friends is: “a friend of yours is a friend of mine.” But this takes on a very challenging meaning when we remember that Jesus was widely known and ridiculed for being of who? “A friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

This means we can attend church every Sunday, but if we never go out and eat and drink with those outside of the church, if we fear getting a reputation for hanging out with the wrong type of people, then we might not be a friend of Jesus.

As I speak these words, I am reminded of my response to my son who is visiting with us this week when he asked to go downtown last night to eat supper. I said, “Downtown? This weekend? With a motorcycle rally going on?” “Heck no.”

But being a friend of Jesus is risky. It is difficult, and it is costly. Being a friend of Jesus takes us places that we would rather not go and puts us into contact people we would rather avoid. However, all who have experienced the complete joy of friendship know that to be friends with God is more than well worth it.

Invitation to Communion

We believe it is the Risen Christ who invites us to eat and drink from this table. And we believe that he invites us, because he has chosen every person in this room to be his friend. Our faith or our lack of faith—it’s not the point. Our understanding or our ignorance—it’s not the point. Our deeds or our misdeeds—it’s not the point.  The Lord invites us because we are the point. Take and eat the bread, drink from the cup. Accept this friendship. All are welcome.

Love One Another

Tolerate

1 John 3:16-24 NRSV

It the Fourth Sunday of Easter, like the very first disciples we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith.  Why? There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning.  But here we are.  We are here, together as a community of faith, because like the very first disciples, we have seen the risen Lord!

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, those moments of hunger and thirst, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ showed up. He inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence, and filled us with a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as those who have seen the risen Christ, as those who have experienced the marks of his suffering. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

So here we are.  Now the question is: what are we supposed to do? How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the answer that is found in the book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that our professor had us to translate was 1 John.

Why 1 John?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct. There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simple, most direct, but at the same time, most difficult and complex words ever put together in one command. Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult and complex because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love those who look, believe, behave, and live differently than we.

So, although we have this direct commandment to love one another, we still think, “Surely God must have meant something else.” For it really doesn’t make any sense. We don’t even think it is possible. And let’s face it. There are just some people in this world that are impossible to love.

We can understand God saying something like, “You know, in this fragmented world of sinners, let us learn to live with each other.”  Now that’s a good commandment! Despite our differences, let’s just get along! Live and let live.

What about “Be tolerant.”  I like that commandment.  I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I suppose I can in someway put up with her.

What about “love the sinner and hate the sin.” Ooh, that’s a good one! I can love ‘em, and at the same time, I can hate everything about them! I am pretty sure I can handle that.

How about, “Let bygones be bygones.” I like that. We’ve got to move on. We can’t nurture our resentment forever. It’s not healthy. We need to get over it. Although that is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can obey that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than that. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command.

Unable to obey this command, many today have reduced our faith to some sort of selfish, personal and private spirituality. People are fond of calling themselves “spiritual.” And when they say they love one another, I suspect they are only talking in some spiritual sense that is never fleshed out in a tangible way. 1 John reminds us that we need to recover a love that compels us to physically lay down our lives for one another, never refusing to help a brother or sister we see in need. We need to love, not in word or speech by in truth and action.

Rev. Dr. William Barber, puts it this way: “If you say you are full of the Holy Spirit, but if your spirit doesn’t lead you to speak up against injustices and oppression, then your spirit is suspect.”

Yesterday, I counseled a couple planning getting married. I pointed out that nowhere in the ceremony will the minister ever ask you if you are “in love with one another.” As if love is some kind of spiritual thing. No, you will be asked, “Will you love? Do you promise to love?” Because love is not a feeling. Love is action.

This summer, I will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the day that I promised before God and a congregation to love Lori. Thirty years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always look at best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that annoy her, that get on her last nerve, she somehow has the ability to look past it. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That is love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to disappoint us or hurt us, we focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances or to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what’s going on in his or her life that made him or her treat me this way?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that makes her view me in this way?”

Because once we decide that love is not an option, once a war begins, once we decide that we can’t look past another’s shortcomings, we free ourselves to demonize the other. In war, all moral bets are off. Once the shooting starts, we free ourselves to only see the worst in the other. You know the old saying?  In war, we actually kill our enemies twice.  First, we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we are wronged, all moral bets are not called off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are wronged that the true moral test begins.  Elsewhere, the scriptures remind us that if we love those who show love to us, what is that?

Why are we commanded to love this way?  Why does Easter demand such a thing?

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a grace greater than our sin and a peace greater than our understanding, we realized that although we had betrayed, denied and abandoned God, God, in Christ, loves us.

God not only puts up with us, gets along with us, tolerates us, but God loves us. God doesn’t love us and hate our sin, because love doesn’t keep account of our wrong doings. God looks past our failures. God sees the very best that is about us, and then calls that best that is within us all to come out. God loves us, and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do!

When they mistreat us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they use us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they hate us, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are unlovable, we’re going to love ’em.

When they belong to another faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have no faith, we’re going to love ’em.

When they have polar opposite political views, we’re going to love ’em.

When their sexuality differs from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they are differently abled, we’re going to love ’em.

When their race, ethnicity, language or citizenship differ from ours, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re sick, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re hungry, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re afraid, we’re going to love ’em.

When they’re lonely, we’re going to love ’em.

For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, we’re going to love ’em, because we have seen the risen Lord. We’re going to love ’em, because we believe in Easter. We’re going to love ’em because we’ve experienced a divine, unconditional love— A love that demands us, compels us, and commands us to love one another in truth and in action.  Let us pray together.

O God, teach us how to love as you have loved us. Teach us to love the unloved and the unlovable. Teach us to see others as you see them; teach us to see ourselves in the light of your forgiving, forbearing love.  In the name of the risen Christ we pray.  Amen.

 

Invitation to the table

As we come to these moments of communion, none of us is “pure and blameless.” But because of the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus lavishly showered on each one of us, we can come to the table of the Lord without fear or hesitation, trusting that God’s grace revealed in Jesus creates a welcome space for all to come, confessing and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Love One Another

we do love

1 John 4:7-21 NRSV

It the fifth Sunday of Easter, and like the very first disciples, we have gathered together on the first day of the week to be with our family of faith. There are certainly a lot of other places we could be this morning. But here we are. We are here, together as a community of faith because like the very first disciples we have seen the risen Lord.

Somewhere along the way, probably during some of our weakest moments, those moments of pain and despair, those moments of great anxiety and fear, when we needed him the most, the risen Christ inexplicably came into our lives, stood in our presence and filled us with a peace that is simply beyond all human understanding.

So here we are, gathered together on this first day of the week, assembled in this place as believers. We’re here because we believe in Easter. We believe in the wonderful good news that Christ is alive and, even more than that, he is alive for us.

Now the question is: what are we supposed to do with this Easter Faith that we have?  How are we to live as Easter people?

There is no more direct answer to this important question than the one found in the little book we call 1 John.

When I was in seminary, I had to take two semesters of Biblical Greek and at least one semester of Hebrew. In my first year of Greek, the first book of the New Testament that the professor had us to translate was 1 John. Why?  Because in all the New Testament, the Greek in 1 John is the most simple and direct.  There are no complex, convoluted arguments, no long clauses or other linguistic difficulties that make the translation of some of the other New Testament books a nightmare. 1 John is simple and to the point. In fact, I can sum up the entire book in basically three words: “Love One Another.”

Three of the most simplistic, but at the same time, three of the most difficult words ever put together in one command.  Yet, this is how God expects believers in the risen Christ to respond to Easter.

Love one another. It is difficult because the “one another” we are supposed to love is not just our close friends and family, but also those who have misused and mistreated us. We are commanded to love one another, all people, including our enemies.

Every time I read or hear this command, I immediately think of that list that most of us carry, at least in our minds: that list of people who have wronged us.

Of course, none of you here in Farmville are on my list. I think of that long time member of my church in Winston-Salem who wanted me to fail so badly as pastor of the church that he actually wanted the church to fail. Although he gave very generously when the offering plate came around every Sunday, he never gave one dime to our church’s budget. He earmarked all of his money to go to the Baptist Children’s Homes.

I have in me to forgive someone who wanted to hurt me, but to hurt the church?

Then there was that lady in that same church who not only liked to run me into the ground in her conversations with others in the church, but she also seemed to enjoy taking about my family.  She told one group of ladies in the church that my son Carson, who was two years-old at the time, was one of the unhappiest children she had ever seen, implying that somehow Lori and I had made him that way by being bad parents.  “I wonder what really goes on in that home,” she said.  Because, “When I keep the nursery, he never smiles.”

It is one thing to talk about me, and it is another thing all together to talk about my children—a two year old, for goodness sake! I am pretty sure there was a very good reason that Carson never smiled around that woman. Carson wasn’t unhappy. Carson simply had good instincts.

Although we have this clear, direct commandment through the scriptures to “love one another” sometimes I think (or maybe hope) that God must have meant something else. I think: “God must not know some of these ‘one anothers’ that I know!”

I can better conceive of God saying something like: “You know, in this fallen and fragmented world of sinners, let us somehow learn to live with each other.” Now that’s a commandment that makes good sense! “Despite your differences, learn to live with each other.”

I think I would prefer God saying something like: “Respect one another” or “be kind to one another.” “Be courteous.” “Play nice.” Yeah, I like that. Sounds reasonable enough.

What about, “Be tolerant?” I really like that commandment. “I don’t have to like him, but I guess I can somehow tolerate him. I guess I can in someway put up with her.”

How about, “Let bygones be bygones”? That’s another good one. “We’ve got to move on and get over it. Get over them. Forget about them and the things they have done to hurt us. It’s simply not healthy to hold onto resentments or grudges forever.” Although it is sometimes easier said than done, I think I can live with that commandment.

But the scriptures say considerably more than all of the things I may want them to say. “Love one another.” And here in 1 John, it is a direct command. It’s not an option.

Love one another. I met Lori 29 years ago this month, and it was love at first sight. Twenty-nine years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a long time.  And I know, so before she says it aloud from the choir loft, I’ll say it for her—it’s been even longer for Lori.

When you really love another, you have this wonderful capacity to always see the best that is in that another. I know Lori does that with me, or she wouldn’t be with me today. When I do all those things that I do to annoy her, sometimes hurt her, she summons the strength to look past it all. And in so doing, my weaknesses, my quirks, and all of my shortcomings grow small, while my virtues, the few that I have, grow large. That’s love.

Love necessitates that no matter what the other has done to hurt us, we somehow focus on the positives. Love compels us to look for mitigating circumstances, to devise strategies whereby we earnestly attempt to see the other in the very best light.

If another hurts us, or if another is behaving badly, throwing stones at us or the police, love compels us to ask ourselves questions like, “I wonder what was going on in his or her life that made him or her feel the need to act out like this?” or “I have certain ways about me that antagonize others. I wonder how I antagonized him?” or “I have gotten a lot of good breaks in my life. I wonder what bad breaks she got that her to view me in this way?”

But once we give up on love, all moral bets are off. We become free to dehumanize, even demonize our enemies. They are no longer persons, no longer human. They are pigs, aliens, trash, thugs, rag heads and abominations. And are called other names that are too vile to repeat from this pulpit.

There’s an old saying, that in war, we actually kill our enemies twice. First we kill any shred of humanity in them, and then we kill them with bullets. The two go together.

But First John tells us to love one another. This means that when we or society is wronged, all moral bets are never off.  In fact, according to this ethic, it is precisely when we are used spitefully or wrongfully that the true moral test begins. Elsewhere, the scriptures note that if we love only those who show love to us, what is that?

I believe one of the reasons it is so easy for us to write people off, to write love off, is because we have been taught the false gospel of evangelicalism.

The evangelical gospel says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God has condemned everyone to hell for all of eternity…unless we repent and accept Jesus. Then, and only then, God will love us and let us go to heaven.” It is primarily a gospel of fear; not love. And as John says, fear has nothing to do with love, but has to do with “punishment.”

Consequently, it is easy for us to demonize and dehumanize one another, call another a “thug.” After all, if another is behaving badly, it probably just means they are going to hell anyway!

However the gospel of Jesus Christ is completely different. The gospel of Christ says: “All people are sinful, and because of that, God loves us even more, and God will go to great lengths to reveal that love, even to death on a cross…to get us to see that love, get that love, accept that love, share that love, so that we will not be doomed for all of eternity living apart from that love.” Unlike the evangelical gospel, the gospel of Christ is all about love.

We love one another because the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news of Easter, demands that we love one another.

Because when the risen Christ showed up, when he came to us offering us a peace that is beyond all understanding, we suddenly realized that we were enemies of God. We realized that when this one came and said things as audacious as “love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “if another slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek and let them slap you on the other side,” go the extra mile, “give another the shirt off your back,” “forgive another as many seventy times seven times,” “blessed are the poor,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” “visit the prisoner,” “welcome the outcast,” and “love one another as I have love you,” we betrayed him, and we crucified him. When the risen Christ came to us, we suddenly realized when this one preached love, lived love, shared love and commanded love, unconditional and unmerited, we were so offended by it, we killed him. And yet, God in Christ still came back to us in the resurrection and loved us even more. Even when we did nothing to deserve life, God in Christ, love incarnate, love himself, laid down his life for us to give us life, abundant and eternal.

God not only puts up with us, respects us, and tolerates us, but God comes to us, calls us by name and embraces us. God looks past our flaws, our failures, and believes in the very best that about us and calls that best that is within all of us to come out.

God loves us and therefore commands us to love one another. “If I have loved you, then you should love others.”

Theology Trumps Technology

Carson Banks is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where he is majoring in Religion/Philosophy and Film Studies
Carson Banks is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where he is majoring in Religion/Philosophy and Film Studies

The following sermon was written and delivered  by my son Carson Banks for worship at the First Christian Church of Farmville, NC on July 6, 2014.

Micah 6:6-8 NRSV and Amos 5:21-24 NRSV

Since my junior year in high school, I have written a few research papers on what I had perceived to be the inevitable demise of organized religion. In my last paper, I concluded with many others that in order for the church to survive in the 21st century, change was necessary.

Many religious leaders see my generation as the “missing link” or the “solution” to the rapid decline in congregational attendance and participation in churches today. So to pull us in and encourage us to join their congregations, they’ve turned up the volume. They’ve brought in the big screens and projectors. Many have purchased strobe lights and fog machines. They’ve brought in Starbucks, donut shops, movie theaters and bowling alleys. Some churches have weekly raffles to give away gift cards, iPods, and gaming-consoles. They give out t-shirts, car decals, and frisbees that have the churches logo printed across the front. Many pastor-search committees have sought out young, “hipster-like” ministers (who preferably have at least one ear pierced and a very visible tattoo) to lead worship in casual and trendy clothing.

Church attendance is at an all-time low. Many churches are being forced to close their doors. So BJ, let’s turn up the volume here at First Christian. Trustees, call Krispy Kreme or Starbucks and see if they would be willing to set up a shop in the fellowship hall. Building and Grounds, bring in the big screens, fancy projectors, fog machines, and strobe lights and let’s bring this sanctuary into the 21st century. Let’s draw up plans to build a movie theatre and bowling alley in the basement. And finally, let’s get rid of our senior pastor who is visibly graying, wears that overly-formal robe, and who has no visible tattoos or piercings. Problem solved.

As many of you know, I will be moving to Wilmington in August to start the next chapter of my life at UNCW. Since I received my acceptance letter back in February, I have visited Wilmington a few times to get more familiar with the area.

Last Tuesday, I packed the cooler, loaded up the beach chairs, and picked up one of my good friends to spend the day touring the city. After driving around UNCW’s campus and the historic downtown area, we headed for the beach.

While we were sitting on the beach, my friend recognized one of her good friends from high school walking towards us. She stood up and ran towards her friend to greet her with a hug. They walked back over to me, and I introduced myself. Her friend’s name was Kayleigh.

Kayleigh lives in Wilmington and attends UNCW as a sophomore. When she discovered that I would be moving down in August, she asked me where I would be living, what I intended on majoring in, and if I had any other friends at UNCW. After I answered all of her questions, I asked her to tell me her story. Little did I know that our conversation was getting ready to take a turn.

Soon after telling me that she was living with her sister, she began to talk about her family. This lead Kayleigh to jump straight into her religious views. She explained that her views often clashed with her parent’s beliefs.

I learned that she grew up in a Christian home and that her parents were strong in their conservative religious beliefs. However, Kayleigh quickly admitted that she was not too sure of her beliefs. In fact, she told me that she completely avoids talking about religion when she is with her parents to steer clear from any condemnation or rejection.

I then asked her if she had ever visited any churches in Wilmington. She said she visited one church back in November. She described this church as “theatrical”with a very large stage, flashing lights, loud (up-beat) music, and big screens. She said she visited this church two times, her first, and her last. I was intrigued. I wanted to know what made her experience so awful. So I asked.

Kayleigh said that this church was “too religious.” She said that it seemed as though everyone leading the worship service was above her. It was almost as if they had something that she didn’t. I immediately knew which church she was talking about.

Back in March, when I was visiting a friend in Wilmington, I attended the same church. On Tuesday nights, they have a special worship service for college students. Being a college student and hearing that so many other UNCW students were attending, I decided to go.

The building was massive. It looked more like a shopping mall than a place of worship. As I walked in, I looked around and realized that even the inside was built like a shopping mall. To my right there was a coffee and donut shop, and a church gift shop to my left. I followed the rest of the students who were entering the sanctuary, or worship arena.

The music was loud. So loud that I could feel the beat of the drums in my chest. Lights were flashing. The stage was huge, as was the worship band. There were three massive screens above the stage that displayed live video of the worship band. I felt like I was at a concert.

The pastor’s message focused on the story of Jonah. He stressed the fact that Jonah did not listen to God’s calling and betrayed God. The pastor then asked the congregation to respond to this story. He challenged us college students to stand up if we had ever ignored God’s calling or if we felt as though we had betrayed God at some point in our life.

Now at this time, I was expecting the pastor to step down from the stage to stand with us, reminding us that everyone has ignored God’s calling at some point, and that we all have betrayed God, even the religious leaders. Instead, this pastor chose to stay where he was high above everyone else on the stage.

Out of the nearly 700 students in the room, only 50 students or so stood up in response to his challenge. Again, instead of coming down off the stage and asking everyone to stand with him, the pastor remained there high above everyone in the room. High up on a pedestal. He then asked those who were still seated to stand and walk towards the students that were now standing and lay their hands on them. Most of the students began to look around in shock. A few stood and obeyed his request. He then began to pray for those students who stood in shame.

Kayleigh experienced something very similar when she visited this church. When describing her visit, she was enraged. She exclaimed that these kind of churches must feel that our generation does not care about the content or overall message the churches reveal through worship. Kayleigh said that the flashing lights, loud music, free food, and gifts may attract students our age to visit, but they aren’t going to encourage us to stay. She went on to say that our generation is smarter than people think. Smart enough to realize what is happening and smart enough to stay away from it.

If churches want to encourage people of my generation to join them, they should stop spending energy and resources on extravagant technology, and focus more on practicing and preaching a better theology.

But this is not a new problem, nor is it a contemporary service problem. It is a problem that is also in more traditional churches like ours. Ancient Israel even had the same problem. The Book of Amos took place during a time when the people of Israel hit a spiritual low. Their values were lost in greed and wealth. At the expense of the poor, the wealthy and elite were becoming more and more powerful.

They thought that in order to please God and attract more people to worship, they had to do all of these technical things like presenting expensive offerings, play elaborate music with expensive instruments, and offer up the right and acceptable sacrifices. But they were missing the main point. In fact, all of these technical things infuriated God who spoke through Amos saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Instead of spending their resources on technical and material things, God asked them to do one thing.

Amos spoke on behalf of God:  “…let justice roll down like waters…”In this, Amos is simply telling us to treat others equally and fairly. He then goes on by saying let “…righteousness [flow] like an ever-flowing stream.”In other words, love one another with a love that never pauses, never hesitates, never ends; a love that never gives up. It’s that simple.

We so often get caught up in the technicalities when reading scripture. Because we read into things way too much, we make scripture more complicated than it was intended to be and end up missing the main point. When Amos talks about righteousness, he’s talking about always doing the right thing on behalf of others with love. When he speaks of justice, he’s telling us to love all people equally.

Micah lists three things that God requires of us: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Do not stay where you are, but walk, be on the move. You are no better than anyone else, so step down from your pedestal and go out into the world and humbly walk with God, embracing all people with the love of God, especially the poor, outcast and marginalized.

Jesus summed up all of the laws into two: love God with all of your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Two laws, one message: love.

Many problems face organized religion in the 21st century. I have spent a few years researching these problems in an attempt to discover possible solutions. But perhaps the solution was written for us in 750 BC. And maybe my generation is the “missing link.”Although the book of Amos was written nearly 3,000 years ago, it’s possible that the millennials who grew up in an age of technology, a generation that is so advanced in education and information, will be the generation that embraces the simplicity of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

BJ, I do not believe we need to turn up the volume. Building and grounds, I don’t believe we need to bring in the big screens and fancy projectors. And no, thank God, strobe lights, fog machines, movie theaters, and bowling alleys are not necessary. Trustees, let’s hold off on the Starbucks and donut shop. We do not need to raffle off gift cards, iPods, or gaming consoles. There’s no need to order hundreds of t-shirts, car decals, and frisbees that have the churches logo printed across the front in order to bring people to Christ. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll even hold off on a having a pastor-search committee meeting and keep the old man. Hopefully, he still has a few more good years left in him.

If we the church, if we here at First Christian simply work together to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…” If we will reach out to those around us in our community and in our world by meeting them where they are and help them in their times of need in the name of Christ; without pausing, hesitating, or giving up…If we step down off of our pedestal and admit that we are all sinners in need of grace and forgiveness…and if we truly welcome and love all people as Christ welcomes and loves all of us; then the church will not only survive, but the church may finally begin to look like Jesus, not only drawing people from my generation in, but drawing all people to Christ.