It’s Not Complicated: Don’t Be Terrible

love it or leave it

People asked the prophet, “What is the one thing the Lord requires?” He responded: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Is that all? Really?

People asked Jesus, “What is the one thing, the one commandment that is above all other commandments?” He responded: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Seriously? That’s it?

Micah and Jesus say: “Yes!”

Could it be that they understood when we make life more complicated than justice, kindness, humility and love, then terrible things tend happen?

When we make it more complicated than kindness, then we might excuse racist chants of “send her back.”

When we make it more complicated than justice, then we may ignore the harm done to the brown children of asylum-seekers who have been separated from their parents.

When we make it more complicated than humility, then we could overlook and perpetuate racial privilege.

When we make it more complicated than love, then we might defend hate, bigotry and discrimination.

When we make it more complicated that the main things that the prophet and Jesus said that it was all about, then we may be apathetic and silent when the President imitates the Ku Klux Klan by saying: “Love it or leave it.”

So, let’s stop making it so complicated.

Let’s be just. Let’s be kind. Let’s be humble. And let’s love all our neighbors.

And then, maybe, we will stop being so terrible.

Let’s Dance: Joining the Dance of the Trinity

dad and children

Romans 5:1-5 NRSV

It is fascinating to read the letters between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is obvious that Stone had a more difficult time accepting the Trinity than Campbell. Stone writes:

On this doctrine many things are said, which are dark, unintelligible, unscriptural, and too mysterious for comprehension. Many of these expressions we have rejected…

I wonder if Stone’s problem was that he was trying to comprehend the Trinity in the first place. Maybe the Trinity is something to be lived, more than learned, something to be experienced more than explained, something or someone with whom to relate more than to understand.

Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses, which means literally in the Greek, “to dance.” They were suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, I don’t believe the Trinity is not a doctrine to learn. It is a connection to be enjoyed. It is to be encountered more in relationship than in religion. It is something that is unseen yet true, inexplicable yet real. It is more surreal than literal, more actual than factual.

The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle tells the following story that I believe speaks to the mystery of the Trinity. She was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. She recounts:

The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give.

The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience.

When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, ‘May I ask you something?’

‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘What about?’

‘It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand,’ I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘what their problem is,’ and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.’

So I believe it is with the Trinity. This dynamic, intimate relationship, this holy dance, shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so beautiful that it has be to true, whether it is the most accurate description of the image of God or not.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…

And that, wrote Lewis,

is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…

There it is again: a dance. The Trinity is an activity. It’s something moving, something to be experienced, something to be lived.

Lewis continues:

And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

In other words, this holy dance of self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is where we can find our holy purpose.

So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am not proposing we should understand the Trinity as much as we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and discover ways to participate in it—discover ways we can enter into the sacred dance by doing all we can, with all that we have and are, to selflessly love one another.

I believe we are given opportunities everyday to dance this holy dance during our lifetimes. The church itself, the relationships we share here, is one such opportunity.

However, for me personally, no dance has been richer or has emulated the divine dance more fully than the dance of fatherhood.

Before my children existed, I loved and was loved. And it was out of a mutual self-giving love they were both born.

I will never forget holding Carson and Sara in my arms, shortly after they were born and contemplating my love for them. Before they came to be, I thought I knew what love was, when in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea that I could ever love another so deeply, so completely, so persistently. Although I had always sought to love others as myself, as my own flesh and blood, until my children came along, I never knew I could truly love another more than self.

Consequently, it was not enough to just bring them into the world, to father them. No, my love for them demanded so much more. It demanded me to actually give all that I had give to them, for them.

I was far from perfect. At times I could be selfish, self-absorbed. It was on more than one occasion I heard their mama sing:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

‘When you coming home, dad?’

‘I don’t know when’

But we’ll get together then

You know we’ll have a good time then.

But there were times when I gladly sacrificed. There were times I gave my all. There were moments when I rose to the occasion. I protected, and I nurtured. I did my best to teach and to guide with words and through example. And I always loved them just as they were, graciously, generously, unconditionally. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them; no place I wouldn’t go.

I took them to school and I picked them up. I coached basketball and baseball. I went roller skating and snow skiing. I learned how to made cookies, waffles and doughnuts from scratch. There were football games, soccer games, carnival games, birthday parties, baptisms, orthodontist appointments, dance recitals, trips to the beach, trips to the emergency room, bicycle rides, rollercoaster rides, summer vacations, cross-country 5ks, awards ceremonies, concerts and graduations. Yes, there were graduations.

And now they are hundreds of miles away. I am no longer present physically, but I am still very much there emotionally, you might say spiritually. They are on their own now, yet they are still mine.

And just as it was not enough to bring them into the world, it is also not enough to raise them and teach them only to leave them to their own devices. No, my love still demands more. Our relationship is not over. In a wonderful way, it is a new beginning. I am no less their father. Maybe I am even more so. I know my concern, my desire to protect, my suffering, has not diminished.

A week ago, a friend of Carson’s from Oklahoma City needed help moving to Atlanta, so she bought him a one-way plane ticket to Oklahoma City. Last Sunday morning, while I was preaching, Carson and his friend passed through Van Buren heading East on Interstate 40. Unable to see him, the pain I experienced was indescribable. And my heart broke this past Thursday, as Sara celebrated her first birthday in 22 years without us.

My desire to be there for them, to do anything for them, to even die for them is now as great as it has ever been, if not more so. They will always be a part of me. I am in them and they are in me. I will always be there for them. My love for them is forever.

This is probably as close as I will ever come to knowing the height, depth and width of the love of the God who created me, became flesh and taught me how to live and love, and whose Spirit is always with me.

The good news is, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, if we who have have a tendency to be selfish know how to love our children, how much more does God love us? (Matthew 7:11)

No wonder the Apostle Paul was able to share such confident hope with the Romans in the midst of his suffering! If God’s love for us that we experience in the dynamic dancing relationship that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is anything like an imperfect father’s love for his children, surely we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

If we have peace with God who not only graciously brought us into the world, but sacrificially showed us the way to life, and promises to never leave nor forsake us, surely we can boast in our sufferings.

If we know that the love that God has for us always demands for God to love us more, then surely our hope will never disappoint us.

Thus, when we feel like falling apart, we can keep it together. When we feel like giving up, we can keep going. When we feel like fighting, we can forgive. When we feel nothing, we can love. And when we feel like doing nothing, we can dance.

Yes, Barton Stone, this dance is a mystery. But it is a mystery that has happened and is happening to us. We can’t comprehend it. But we can join it. We can live it. Today and forever.

Go and Get You Some Glory

Class 2019

John 13:31-35 NRSV

During a recent concert here in Van Buren, in between songs, the musician interacted with the audience with some back and forth exchange. It must have been obvious to the musician that one group was there to celebrate an occasion. Perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. So he asked: “What are you guys here celebrating tonight?”

A young man sitting at the table shouted out, “It’s my graduation!”

The musician responded: “Oh, your graduation? Well, congratulations! Where are you graduating from?”

“UFAS!” shouted the graduate.

“That is wonderful! Now, it is time for you to go and get you some moneeeeeeeeey!”

Of course, everyone laughed, clapped and cheered! I even leaned over to my son Carson and said, “That’s right! You go get you some money, Carson!”

For that’s what parents want of our children do we not? We want them to get a good education so they will not only be self-sufficient, but they will be successful. We want them to be able to afford nice things and live in nice places.

But almost as soon as I said it— “Go out and get you some money”—before the cheers and the clapping had time to die down, I knew there was something wrong with those words. And then, I could almost hear the words of Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).

Yeah, I am certain there’s now way Jesus would have shouted out: “Now, go out and get you some money!” And am even pretty certain he wouldn’t have laughed, clapped or cheered.

Now, I realize that there are some preachers you see on TV who would disagree with me here. Sitting on their opulent gold sofas, I have heard them point to scripture like our gospel lesson this morning to justify their prosperous and luxurious life-style.

“Look,” they say, “Jesus himself said: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified…’ That means Jesus came to earth and was ‘glorified.’ And if Jesus was glorified, then that means that God want us to be glorified too!”

Then they point to their mansions and their private jets and their gold watches and rings of every finger as signs of God’s glory. And I have seen them look into the camera and say something like: “And God wants you to go out get you some glory! And if you send me some of your money, you will get it!”

Although the word “glory” might suggest worth and value, I believe Jesus’ had something very different in mind.

The Greek word “glory” is doxaa, whichliterally means “reputation.” It is the root word of our word “doxology.” When used as a verb, it means to enhance one’s reputation. To glorify is to praise, honor or recognize someone to the extent that they have a reputation for greatness. It means to assign honor, prestige and fame to someone. So EVERYONEwill know who they are.

And while the world may glorify the rich and the famous, Jesus was talking about another kind of fame and glory. This reputation has nothing to do with having a lot of money and material possessions.

Jesus says, “Here’s the reputation, here’s the glory, I want you to have:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Listen to this) By this EVERYONEwill know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In other words Jesus says: “I want you to be famous! I want you to be recognized. I want you to be renowned the world over. I want you to be glorified. I want EVERYONE to know that you have the reputation of being my disciples. And you do this by simply loving others as I have loved you.

St. John of the Cross wisely wrote:

In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.

My hope for the class of 2019, and I believe God’s desire for you, is that you will get up and go out and get you some glory. I want you to get up and go out and love others in such a way, the very same way Jesus loved others, so that EVERYONE will know that you are his disciples.

Because today, what this world needs now more than anything else is for everyone to know the transforming love of Jesus. What this world needs now is change. What this nation needs now is change. And it is a change that you have the power to bring. For our reputation as a nation has certainly been diminished in the world these days. Our glory days seem to be over.

My Disciples of Christ friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, has made this challenge to the class of 2019:

I’m here to tell you, if you graduate and get up and get together and get involved, love can take on hate, mercy can take on meanness, justice can take on injustice, truth can defeat lies. You cannot merely get a job and a car and quarantine your life. Your graduation is more than just getting another slice of materialism. You must stand against injustice and be part of reviving the heart of this nation.

There are too many people in this world who are living their lives without any glory, without any reputation at all. Well, for the very few who know them, they have the reputation of keeping to themselves, minding their own business, being self-centered or just too afraid to step out and step up. Some would like to see the world change, but they are sitting safely back, waiting for someone else to go get the glory.

Yes, Class of 2019, what this world needs is more people who want to some glory!

We need more people who are willing to step up and step out, to put themselves out there, to put their reputation on the line, to run for office, to start a non-profit, to speak truth to power, to serve selflessly, to love this world as Jesus loved this world. We need more people to be the change, be the solution, and be the church this nation needs.

I am now going to address something that may be a very sensitive subject, especially here, in this place, during this hour. It is the subject of church.

It is no secret that the majority of high school and college graduates today and church do not mix.

According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (that’s 22-35 year olds) who were raised in church have since dropped out of church completely. Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending a church is worthwhile. And here’s what might be the most frightening statistic: 35% of Millennials believe the church today does more harm in the world than it does good.

Nearly all church growth experts agree that this means that church as we know it today, in the form that it is in today, will slowly cease to exist in 50 years.

I had an opportunity to have lunch with Nadine Burton our Regional Minister this past Wednesday. When I asked her how she has been doing, she responded: “On most days I feel like a real estate agent more than I feel like I am a minister.” I was afraid to ask, but asked anyway, “Because so many churches are closing and selling their property?” She said: “yes.”

Now, here’s the sensitive part that I was warning you about. I do not blame the Millennials for the church’s decline. And I don’t blame Millennials for dropping out of church. For I believe the church today has a long way to go to prove that it is a worthwhile venture. Much has to change in the church today if it is going to look like the the authentic embodiment of Christ in this world. The church today has undergo a drastic and dramatic transformation to love like, give like, and live like Jesus.

I think we need to face the hard and painful truth that the church, in its current form, does not have a very good reputation in the world. The church today has lost much it’s glory. And I believe that is the reason the heart of this nation is so very sick today.

But here’s the good news. Although our glory days have greatly diminished, I do not believe our glory days are over.

So, here’s what I am here to say to the class of 2019 on behalf of the church: “I want you to go and get you some glorreeeeeeee!” I want you to get up, stand up and speak up to transform the church. If the church is not what you think the church should be, I want you to do the work to reshape it. I want you to teach us how to love others as Jesus in loved others in such a radical way, EVERYONE will know we are disciples of Christ.

Now, I am aware that not all churches will listen to you. Not all pastors want to hear from you. I understand that. That is why you are dropping out. That is part of the reason you believe attending church is a waste of your time. And that is why our regional minister can continue to expect to be in the real estate business.

But I believe that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, wants to hear from you. I know this pastor wants to listen to you. I want to work with you to help bring glory back to the church, to help restore the church’s reputation in the world.

And I believe with all my heart that your generation will one day have the reputation, the glory, of saving the church, and thus, quite possibly, saving this nation.

The Prodigal Parent

Dad wrestle

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 NRSV

One day, Jesus is confronted by some grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do we keep hearing these stories about you hanging out in some very shady places? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and hanging out with known sinners!”

“And you claim to be a man of God!”

“Rabbi, if you are a Rabbi, let me tell you something, our God is an awesome God who will punish not only the sinner, but the sinner’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. God will strike you down with a lighten bolt, and if not that, send a cancer, a heart attack or maybe a stroke.  And, Jesus, you better watch out, because if you get too many sinners in one place, too many sinners at one local restaurant or pub, or in one city or in one nation, God might send a tornado or an earthquake, and take out everyone!”

When Jesus is confronted by these religious people who thought they had all the answers, he responds as he usually does—by telling a story.  Here, he tells three stories—one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.  The parable of the lost boy has been commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  And he is called “prodigal” for some pretty good reasons.

Growing up in church, my home pastor would often use the dictionary when he came to a point like this in his sermon.  I think he defined a word for us every Sunday!  He would say, “Now, Webster defines ‘prodigal’ as…”  In that spirit, but with a 21stcentury twist, allow me to do the same. Dictonary.com defines prodigal as…

1.wastefully or recklessly extravagant

2.giving or yielding profusely; lavish

3.lavishly abundant; profuse

4.a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance.

The youngest son had the gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home.  Demanding his inheritance meant that he had come to this point in his life where he did not mind regarding his father as being deceased.  “I want my inheritance!”  “Daddy, I want to live my life as if you were dead!”

Then the surprising part, the father hands it over to the boy who slips into a “distant country” where he wasted every red cent on selfish, wild living—thus, the designation “prodigal”— reckless, lavish, wasteful, extravagant.

After he spends all that he has, there is a famine and the young boy found himself in great need so found a job feeding pigs…

“Of course there is a famine,” says the religious leaders! That is what we are trying to tell you!  A famine! That is brilliant!  Oooh. God is soooooo good. I bet that boy starves to death! Or at least gets a bad case of salmonella from eating with the pigs. And serves him right! A just punishment for a prodigal—one who had everything only to recklessly lose everything. Death from lack! Death from scarcity! What wonderful irony.”

Jesus continues… “But there in great need, desiring to eat and drink with the pigs, the boy decides to goes back to the father and beg forgiveness…”

“Yeah, good luck with that!” the religious leaders howl, laughing at such a ridiculous scenario!

However, we know the rest of the story…

“And when he was “a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.  Think about this. How did this father see him “a long way off?” It is certainly not because this father was busy going on with his life.  But because the father had been looking for him.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting on the front porch of our home with my brother and my sister, waiting and watching for Daddy to return from work. We would position the chairs on the porch at just the right angle so if we squinted and strained hard enough, we could see through our dogwood trees and our neighbors’ crepe myrtles to get a glimpse of Daddy’s Green Ford LTD almost a half a mile away. Then we would be ready to run to pounce on Daddy to welcome him home.  As soon as he got out of the car I would jump on his back, while my sister and brother would grab his legs. On a good day, if we could muster just enough leverage, Daddy would fall into the grass where we would lavish him with hugs and kisses like three little puppy dogs.  Mama, used to to get on us. She’d remind us how tired Daddy was from working all day, and how one day when he drove up and saw us running and screaming towards the driveway, he was going to just keep going down the road! I think she was just jealous.

Every day this father sat on his front porch, gazing down the road, watching and waiting, hoping and praying, grieving for his boy to return home.  And while he was still a long way off, he was filled with compassion, and he started running! He ran and ran to meet his child, throw his arms around him and kissed him profusely.

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming.  I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you just hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his pastor telling him: “Old man, its time for you to move on. You’ve got to get past this.  Face the facts.  He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. You have to go on living your life. Concentrate on your older boy who’s still here with you.”  But the father still waited and watched, hoped and prayed and grieved.

And he really did not know that his son was still alive. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home traveling alone was an easy target to any would be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Still the father patiently and you might say recklessly waited. Everyday he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see, his son coming home.

Then the reunion! The biggest, most extravagant homecoming party you’ve ever seen! The sandals, the ring, the robe, the best one! The calf, the fattest calf! All of the stops pulled out, for this son who was thought to be dead is now alive, lost and is now found.

And the religious leaders are left scratching their heads. Still grumbling and complaining, ranting and raving, now with the older son.  Listen how the older son talks about his brother: How can you do this for “this son of yours?”  “How can you do this, not for ‘my brother,’ but for this one, as far as I am concerned is still in some distant country?”

This is when it dawns on us. We thought this was a story of a prodigal son, when in reality, it turns out to the story of a prodigal father.  It is a story of a very “reckless” “profuse” “extravagant” and “excessive” love. For when the boy left home, the father recklessly gave him his inheritance.

And while the boy was gone into the far country, his friends and neighbors would say that the father recklessly waited. And when the boy at last returned, the father recklessly threw a huge party, holding nothing back for himself. The father loved his son recklessly when he left home, he loved him recklessly while he was away from home and he loved him prodigally when he returned home.

The good news is that is how our God loves each one of us. Our God is a God who, when it comes to love, holds nothing back. God’s love for us is extravagant, excessive, relentless, even reckless. The one thing that this story reveals is that God’s love for us is profusely prodigal.

This is why I will never apologize for loving others in a way that some religious folks would characterize as “excessive.” For my God is profusely prodigal in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. God is relentlessly radical to have us in God’s arms so God can shower us with divine kisses. As the ranting of the religious leaders and the anger of the older brother reveal, it was this prodigal love that sent Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps the most prodigal statement ever made was made from the cross… “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Then, like a father, turning over his property before he dies, giving away his life, to children who are undeserving, to people who are known sinners, Jesus died.

And the watching and the waiting and the grieving continues…

Let us pray…

God forgive us for the sin of the older brother, the sin of Pharisees and Scribes, forgive of our desire to distant ourselves from those in our family, in our community, in our world we consider to be sinners.  And forgive us for yearning that you somehow distant yourself, turn your back on, and forsake some, forgive us of our racism or classism or simple arrogance that hopes with the Scribes and Pharisees that you are an unforgiving God who punishes your wayward children and their offspring. Forgive us for believing that your love is anything but profusely prodigal.

We Must

mosque fort smith
Vandalism at a Mosque in Fort Smith, AR

Luke 13:31-35 NRSV

It’s one of the greatest sentences Luke attributes to Jesus: “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” Notice, Jesus didn’t say, he might, he may or he’ll try. Jesus said, “he must.”

I love to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands upon thousands of people in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Some estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up. That’s 10% of the entire population of Kentucky.[i]Can you even imagine that?

Today, I believe a good question we should ask ourselves is: What in the world were these folks preaching? How did they start a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

I believe they simply had the audacity to fully commit themselves to following Jesus at all costs.

Following Jesus was not something that they did casually, haphazardly, timidly, or reservedly. They followed Jesus passionately and fervently, eagerly and urgently. And following Jesus was not something that they did privately. They followed Jesus very publically. And they didn’t care who they offended, or if those with political or ecclesial authority opposed them for it.

They unashamedly imitated Jesus who said: “Oh, King Herod, wants to kill me? Well, you tell that fox that I mustkeep doing the business of the one who sent me.

I must keep liberating people from demonic evil, systemic, cultural and personal.

You tell Herod I must keep bringing people healing and wholeness today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And you tell them that I must take this mission all the way to Jerusalem.

That’s right, you tell that fox for me that I must do these things. Not that I mightdo these things,not that I am going to try to be on this way, but that I mustbe on this way.”

I believe Barton Stone simply put the word “must” back into a Christianity that had grown apathetic, moderate and mainstream.

He preached that Christians must put God’s word over the words of the culture, the way of Jesus over the way of the world.

We must denounce all man-made creeds and confessions, and we must commit ourselves to following Jesus at all costs.

“Oh, the presbytery thinks we’re going against the doctrinal grains of the church, do they? Oh, the government thinks we are bucking the unjust political systems, do they? Well, you tell those foxes that we mustkeep following Jesus today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Wemustkeep fighting for the inclusion of all at the Lord’s table. We mustkeep preaching against the demonic evils of slavery, white supremacy, and anything else that does not jive with Jesus! You tell those foxes that we mustbe on this way.”

I do not believe we can overemphasize how committed our forbearers were to the gospel even when the gospel was directly opposed culture. At Cane Ridge, during a time when Presbyterians believed only like-minded Presbyterians could receive communion, Presbyterian Barton Stone invited an African-American slave, a Baptist pastor, to not only receive communion, but to actually serve communion. And if you could ask him why he included this man, I believe he would simply say, “As a follower of Christ, I mustinclude him.”

And later, when Stone inherited two slaves, he immediately emancipated them. Trouble was that they were living in Kentucky long before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. So what does Stone do? He tells his family and his two former slaves, “Pack your bags, because we mustmove to Illinois, because our new friends must be free!”

And thousands of people from all over the then expanding United States responded to Stone by saying, “We mustjoin this movement!” And by 1960, the movement they started exploded into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

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

There are many complex reasons for this decline. Other so-called “mainline” denominations have experienced similar declines. However, this morning, I want to suggest that one of the reasons the church seems to have lost its way is that Christians have removed the word “must” from our vocabulary.

We have lost our passion to follow Jesus at all costs.

We have lost our drive to place the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, over any other law for fear that it might cause some opposition.

We have lost a sense of urgency to be a courageous movement for wholeness that boldly speaks truth to power.

Our faith has become more of something that privately changes our souls instead of something that publically changes the world.

Consequently, our faith intends to mirror the culture instead of transforming the culture. Watered down by peer pressure, greed, and a lust for power, our faith has become mainstream, mainline and moderate.

In fact, when you look up the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Wikipedia, you will discover that we are described as a “mainline denomination in North America.”

Barton Stone would roll over in his grave! For Stone followed a Jesus who was far more upstream than mainstream, more radical than moderate, always swimming against popular currents of culture. He followed a Jesus who must be on a way of selfless, sacrificial, inclusive love, even if it upset folks along that way.

Do you remember the story of twelve-year old Jesus when he did the unthinkable by leaving his parents behind? When his upset parents finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked, “Did you not know that Imustbe in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?

After healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds used all of the peer pressure they could muster to prevent Jesus from leaving them, but he replied, “I mustproclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Warning the disciples who resisted suffering and persecution, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

When he encountered a man who needed to stop stealing from the poor, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

Right before his arrest on the Mount of Olives Jesus describes his death by saying: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Jesus selflessly and sacrificially travels to Jerusalem, to the city that is known to kill the prophets, not casually, haphazardly, timidly or reservedly. But with passion. With eagerness. With urgency in his steps, conviction in his heart, and the word “must” on his lips: “You tell that fox that I must be on this way.”

Now, tell me, when it comes to your faith, when is the last time you have ever said aloud or silently: “I must!”

“I must share the love and grace of Christ with someone who needs it today!”

“I must find a way to include this one who has been demeaned and dehumanized for being different, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

I must find a way to forgive this person who has hurt me today, the next day, and the day after.”

“I must feed someone today who is hungry.”

“I must share hope today with someone who is hopeless.”

Truthfully, as a pastor, I don’t hear many folks use the word “must” very often in the church. I hear the word “might.” “I might, if nothing else comes up.” “I might, if everything else goes alright this week.” “I’ll check my calendar, and then I might think about it.”

And I often hear the word “try.” “I’ll try to help out, if I don’t have somewhere else to be.”

And I often hear “maybe.” “Maybe I’ll be able to work a little on that project. Maybe I will be able to give some of my time this week.

And sometimes I hear all three: I might try to be more faithful, maybe.”

But think about what kind of church this would be if we all had the same type of urgency and passion as our Lord. “Can you help with our youth group on Sunday night?” “I musthelp with our youth group!”

“Can you serve on this mission project? “I must serve on it!

Will you follow Jesus at all costs?” “We must!”

The good news is that I believe this urgency and this passion can be as contagious in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.

I believe First Christian Church can bring revival to our city and encourage many others to say with us:

We must join this movement for wholeness in our fragmented world!

We must join this mission to use the gifts God has given us to bless our community!

We must speak up and stand against Islamophobia, racism, and hate in all of its forms—a terrorist attack in New Zealand, bigoted comments from friends and family, a vote from delegates in the United Methodist Church, even ugly Tweets from the White House!

We must take a stand for the Word of God, even if it gets us into some trouble.

We must do what we can to transform this this city, our region and our world with the inclusive love of God, even if it goes against the powers-that-be.

We must follow Jesus by loving our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, even when it is not culturally popular or socially acceptable.

We must do unto others as we would have them do unto us, even if our friends forsake us and our enemies wish to do us harm.

We must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and carry it wherever our Lord leads, even if it means losing our lives.

Let us pray together.

O God, put conviction in our hearts, urgency in our steps and the word “must” on our lips as we serve selflessly and sacrificially all the way to Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.

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

[ii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Church_(Disciples_of_Christ)

Bread from Heaven

 

Bobby Hodge
Bobby Hodge, Jr and Bert Warren. Bert is an Angel Runner an pushes Bobby in races today.

John 6:25-35 NRSV

With the newspaper article that came out on Monday, and with our One-Year Anniversary Dinner and 5k coming up next weekend, many people have recently asked me, “How did you get started with Ainsley’s Angels?”

I know this may seem strange to many, but there’s perhaps nothing I like more than waking up at 4:30 am to lace up my running shoes and run 5 or 10 miles.

I love the way running makes me feel. I love the endorphins that it gives me. I love the way it keeps me relatively thin. I love the way running allows me to enjoy nature. I love the way it gives me opportunities to see some glorious sunrises. I love the way running gives me opportunities to make new friends. I love sense of accomplishment completing a race gives me.

Do you notice a common theme here?

“Me, me, me.” “I, I, I.”

I must confess. I run for many selfish reasons.

Running for all of these physical benefits might be what Jesus called: “working for bread that perishes.” This bread might help me endure temporarily, but not eternally.

However, thanks to a wonderful organization called “Ainsley’s Angels,” three years ago, I was given the opportunity to taste a slice of bread from another loaf. Another runner, and a member of our church, Bethann Wilkie, was contacted by Ainsley’s Angels inquiring if she knew anyone who was differently-abled who might enjoy riding in a race. She called me and asked me if I thought Bobby, a member of our church with Cerebral Palsy, might be interested.

I will never forget my response: “Bobby? He’s 48 years old! Why in the world would he want us to push him in stroller! Naw, I don’t think he would be interested.”

She said, “Would you at least go over to his house, show him some pictures and videos, and ask him.”

I said, “I will, but I cannot imagine him being interested.”

I went over to his house, showed him some pictures and a video. This was late November of 2015. I told him there was a race coming up on December 6 that we could be in.

Then Bobby, who has never taken one step in his life, looked at me with this indescribable expression of excitement and said, “Jarrett Banks (Bobby always calls me by my first and last name), Jarrett Banks, you mean to tell me that I can be in a race!?!”

Shocked by his response, I remember grinning from ear to ear, shaking my head saying: “Yes, you can!

“Okay!” he shouted, “I never thought I could be in a race!”

After talking it over with his parents, I told Bobby that we would get a chair and take him on a training run before we register him for a race that was coming up in about three weeks. Ainsley’s Angels delivered Bobby’s chair at church the following Sunday. It was a cold and rainy day, so we ended up pushing him up and down a hallway in the education building though. Bobby loved it.  After checking the weather forecast, Bethann and I we made an appointment to meet Bobby in his home the following Thursday at 3pm to take a 3-mile test ride.

Bethann met me at the church, and we ran with the chair to Bobby’s house which was just a few blocks away. We rolled right up into the carport and found him sitting on the floor inside the door.

He hollered out, “Mama, Jarrett Banks and Bethann are here!”

His mother came to the door and said, “It is about time you got here!”

I said, “We’re not late, are we?”

She said, “No, but he has been sitting here on the floor waiting for an hour! You would think it is Christmas morning! This is all he has talked about!”

We loaded Bobby in the chair and started out. I don’t even think we got a block down the road when Bobby spoke up, “Jarrett Banks, my neighbor who lives right here doesn’t know about this. We need to tell her.”

I said, “Okay, when we get back from our run, we’ll tell her.”

He said, “Jarrett Banks, I think we need to tell her right now!”

For you see, whenever one is included, whenever one is accepted, whenever one is empowered, whenever one is loved, they cannot wait to tell someone about it!

So we pulled up on the sidewalk that led to her front porch and rang the door bell. As soon as she came to the door, Bobby started telling her all about it: “Hey, you will not believe this, but I am going to be in a race! This is my preacher Jarrett Banks and Bethann. I never thought I could be in a race before, but now I am!”

She graciously responded, “That is amazing Bobby! I am so happy for you!”

“Maybe you can come and watch me in the race!” Bobby said.

“Jarrett Banks, when is the race?”

Thrilled that I Bobby was so excited I smiled and said, “It is December 6.”

She smiled and said, “Well, I will have to see if I can be there!”

Bobby said, “Okay!”

I said, “Bobby, we have to go if we want to finish this run before it gets dark!”

He said, “Okay!” So off we went.

I think we made it two more blocks, when he said, “Jarrett Banks. My neighbor who lives right here does not know about this either.”

So, up on the side walk we went. I rang the door bell. She came onto the porch. Then Bobby started, “You will not believe this, but my preacher and I are going to be in a race!”

“That is wonderful Bobby! I love your new chair.”

“You need to come and watch us in this race? And so on and so on.

It was then I said, “Bobby, we really need to finish this training run before the sun goes down and it starts getting cold. Let’s wait until later to tell others about it.”

Bobby said, “Okay!”

For about two miles, Bobby laughed at every bump we went over. He waved at every passing car. And he pointed out all of the places the sidewalks needed ramps in the curbs at the end of a block. Every time we passed someone’s house he knew, he would tell me that we were going to have to come back and tell them, “’cause they don’t know about this.” I think he told us umpteen times “Jarrett Banks, Bethann run faster.”

After about two miles, Bobby got quiet. For about a quarter of a mile he didn’t make a sound. Bethann and I were quiet too. Running a little faster pace, we were just trying to breathe!

Then Bobby broke the silence, “Jarrett Banks, I know you are going to be mad at me.”

I said, “Bobby, I will never be mad at you.”

“Okay!” Then he said. “My Nanny does not know about this. We need to show her.”

Assuming he was talking about one of his caregivers, I asked, “Well, where does your Nanny live?”

He said, “Okay! I will show you!” We went about a block when he said, “Turn right here.” A few moments later he said, “Turn right here.” We did. Then he said, “Turn left.”

We pulled right up into a cemetery. We didn’t go very far, when he said, “Jarrett Banks, stop right here.” Bobby then pointed to the headstone of his grandmother who passed away in 1989.

As soon as we pulled up to the headstone, Bobby said, “Nanny, you will not believe this! But I am going to be in a race! Nanny, I never thought I could be in a race before! But this is my preacher, Jarrett Banks, and this is my friend Bethann, and they got me this chair, and Jarrett Banks, when is that race?”

Overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak, “It’s December 6th.”

It was then he said: “Nanny, please tell God to tell the Angels watch over me and my preacher Jarrett Banks and Bethann in this race and keep us safe, and take care of my dog that died.”

And I believe that was the moment I tasted it: holy manna, true bread from heaven that endures for eternal life.

And once you have tasted this bread, once you have allowed this Holy manna to feed your soul and fill your heart, there is just no going back to any ordinary bread that perishes.

This was the day Bethann and I both became Ainsley’s Angels. For how could we ever lace up our shoes and run for any selfish gain again? Bethann currently serves as the Ambassador for Ainsley’s Angels in Greenville, North Carolina.

And the good news is that you don’t have to run and push a full grown man in a stroller to receive this bread from heaven.

This bread is offered each time we love our neighbors as we love ourselves, every time we meet someone’s need, every time we forgive someone who has wronged us, every time offer grace, extend mercy and show kindness.

We can taste this bread when we feed the hungry.

We consume this bread when we give drink to the thirsty.

It fills us when we welcome the stranger. It feeds us when we defend the rights of the oppressed.

It satisfies us when we accept and empower the differently-abled.

It nourishes us when we love others the way Jesus loves us, selflessly, sacrificially, graciously.

And once you have tasted this bread from heaven, there is no going back. Our tastes change, our thirst is transformed, and we experience a different type of hunger all together. Our temporal hungers fade away.

Money and possessions no longer matter. Spiritual wholeness becomes more important to us than physical healing. The needs of others become more important than our own needs.

The way we measure success also changes, even in the church. The number of people that are serving the community every day becomes more important than the number of people attending the service on Sunday morning. The number of people who are out in the community doing what Jesus taught becomes more important that the number of people who are sitting in Sunday School studying his teachings. Following Jesus becomes more important than worshiping Jesus.

And we become convinced that this bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, to a world that doesn’t even know that this bread exists. The world hungers, yet knows not what it hungers for.

And we are given this holy sense of urgency.

As Bobby would say, “They don’t know about this! And we need to tell them, and we need to tell them now.”

We need to tell them that Jesus is the bread of life. We need to show them that the way of Jesus is the way to life, abundant and eternal, and whoever comes to Jesus, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty. Amen