In a Foreign Land

church in decline

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 NRSV

I often think of Rev. David Brooks. He was the first pastor who suggested that God may be calling me to be a pastor. I had the opportunity to serve with him as the youth director of a church during the summer of 1986.

I will never forget the day that he called me into his office and shut the door behind me. I thought I was in some kind of trouble. For this was the first time I had ever served on church staff, and I wasn’t too sure I knew what I was doing.

Well, I soon found out that I was in trouble, albeit a different kind of trouble. For he asked me: “Jarrett, have you ever considered that God may be calling you to be a pastor?”

“Me a pastor? No way I will ever be a pastor!” I said.” He then went on to point out the pastoral gifts that he saw in me and to encourage me to prayerfully consider that God may be calling me to pastor a church. Out of respect for him, I told him I would.

Well, five years later, as I was getting ready to graduate from seminary to be a pastor, I was sad to hear that Rev. Brooks had passed away.

I think about him often today. For, as we are studying on Wednesday nights, the church and the culture has changed so much since that day he called me into his office, and I think of how shocked he would be if he could witness what we are experiencing today.

I must confess that I also wonder if he would still believe I possessed the necessary gifts to pastor a church. Because the truth is, although I now have over 30 years of experience serving with churches since that day I was called into his office, I still have moments, especially here in 2019, when I am not too sure I know what I am doing.

In the 1980’s, if a pastor loved the members of their church, if a pastor showed up on Sunday morning with a sermon (it didn’t have to be an awe-inspiring or even a good sermon, just a sermon that was based on scripture and had an appearance that the pastor had put a little work into it), then the church pews on Sunday morning would be full of people to hear the sermon.

Parents with young children came without hesitation, although the only children’s program consisted of a nursery and a simple Sunday School lesson. Young adults even found the music meaningful, that consisted only of a small choir, organ and piano.

Today, the only churches that seem to be full of people are expected to have elaborate children’s centers that rivals some amusement parks, a Chuck-E-Cheese or a Playland at McDonalds. The music must be on par with the music that entertains us at concerts. There’s disappointment if there is an absence of video screens, smoke machines and concert lights. The pastor needs to wow us with their charisma, and just make us feel really, really good.

He also never experienced 9-11 and the rise of religious fundamentalism that came out of it. He never witnessed the election of the first black President, and as a response, the resurgence of the religious right and the rise Christian white nationalism. He never witnessed the anti-Christ spirit that is in our nation today: the greed, the vulgarity, the selfishness, the fear of the other, and the further marginalization of those who are different.  And he never knew that many churches today would support, even seem to worship these anti-Christ sentiments.

And Rev. Brooks died before some people started walking away from the church for good. He knew that many churches in Europe were in delcine, but he never saw it here. He could not ever imagine that an entire generation of young adults would reject the church.

From the vantage point of 1986, it is like we are living in a strange, foreign land, in a completely different world. Churches that were once the insiders of society are now the outsiders. And many of us in churches like ours today are afraid, and we are not too sure if we know what we are doing.

This is exactly where the Israelites find themselves in today’s Hebrew lesson. They have just been exiled into Babylon, finding themselves in a foreign land.           .

It is into this strange and fearful reality, that the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter of hope.

Jeremiah writes that they can find their hope in the willingness and the courage to let go of their past.

Jeremiah insists that the people who have found themselves in a foreign land must surrender its old identity and accept its new situation not only to survive, but to eventually flourish.

He encourages them to begin working towards building a new way of life. They needed to accept that Babylon was where God has planted them and where God wants to work through them.

When Jeremiah says, “Pray to the Lord on their behalf,” the prophet is affirming the truth that God can be found even in this strange and foreign land. God has never left them. God is still working among them and wants to use them to make their new world a more just and peaceful place to live.

Jeremiah wants them to know God is present everywhere, even at the margins, even among the broken, the dejected, the afraid, and the subjugated, in other words, even among outsiders like them.

Jeremiah assures them that they can call on the Lord even without the temple, and the Lord will answer.

Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, the exiles are embittered and vengeful. And Jeremiah writes: “Seek the welfare of the [foreign] land to which God has banished you.” In other words, “Seek the well-being of the land of your enemies. For their well-being is also you well-being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.”  This is an illustration of the social and political significance of praying for and loving one’s enemies.

Jeremiah encourages them to accept their situation in exile, but not to regard it as hopeless or unchangeable. As he mentions in a later verse, we have the promise from God: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I believe Jeremiah’s letter has much to say to churches in 2019 who find themselves in a foreign land.

Churches today who find themselves living in a foreign land respond respond in several unhealthy ways.

The most popular response is to just give up and walk away, to give in to defeat and scarcity, to succumb to the lie that God is no longer present, no longer working in the land, that God no longer has anything for us to do, that church today is just a waste of time.

Another popular response is to just be in denial about it all and to just ignore it. “Yes, the world may be different, but we really don’t need to do anything differently to live in this new reality. So we just need to keep doing the same things that we have always done.”

Another response is to adopt a defensive, self-protective posture. Paralyzed by fear, having no idea what to do, we retreat into our safe sanctuaries to comfort one another while loathing our enemies, for those we blame for this new reality.

Another response is to join the new culture. “People crave entertainment? We will give it to them. People want to feel good about themselves today? Let’s make that happen. The culture has embraced an “us vs. them” mentality? Our leaders resort to name-calling and bullying and work to further disenfranchise the other? To survive in this new world, we will join them and do the same thing. Everyone around us has forgotten that the greatest of God’s commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, we’ll just forget that too. To survive in this new culture, we will simply blend in with the new culture.”

I believe Jeremiah’s prophetic words call churches today to respond in a better way.

The prophet reminds us that God is still here, and God is still working in this world. And God still wants to work through us. And God still has a lot of work for us to do!

And God is specifically pressing us to move away from the private walls of the church and into the world, into the public space, to do what we can to fulfill our calling as people of faith to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly.

And because churches that embrace love, kindness and humility now find themselves living in a world of hate, meanness and greed, because churches that embrace the inclusive, counter-cultural way of Christ, are now the outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized of society, I believe we are to especially go out and address the needs of others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized, all those who suffer from political, social and cultural insecurity and discrimination.

For one thing that our faith teaches us is that God is always most discernible and most present in the margins. Jesus called his disciples to leave their old lives, their old worlds behind, to drop their nets, to journey out to the fringes of society to experience God in new ways and in new forms.

So, what does God want us to do in this foreign land? What do we do when we are not sure what to do?

We need to first make sure that our theology is not a private theology, but that it is a very public theology. It is one that presses us to pray for the welfare, not for our church, but for our city and nation.

It pushes us to commit to work for shalom, for peace, for well-being, for healing, for wholeness, and for justice, not just for the members of our church who feel like they are now living on the margins of society, but for those who have always lived on the margins, for those who have always felt like outsiders…

…while remembering the great promise of God:  “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Let us pray together

O God, in this strange time and place, help us to be strong and courageous as we share the good news of gospel out to the margins of society. Knowing that you are with us and with you is our hope and our future.

Seventy Disciples

Mission Possible

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 NRSV

For several years now First Christian Church in Fort Smith has adopted a little slogan that we have used to identify us as a congregation: Mission Possible. You’ve seen it on t-shirts, on our Facebook page, and on our Narrative Budget that shares our mission with others.

The slogan has more meaning for me this week in light of today’s gospel lesson.

Mission Possible has been on my mind, because, as preaching professor Karoline Lewis has pointed out, Jesus’ instructions to the seventy before they venture out on their mission sound more like orders received from central command in the series “Mission Impossible.”

“Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road—Carry no provisions. Not even a decent pair of walking shoes. Danger abounds, and by all means, don’t stop and ask for directions!”[i]

And guess what? Although you are going in peace, announcing the Kingdom of God is here, not everyone is going to accept your peace or be happy with what the Kingdom of God being near entails!

Now, how many of us are ready to sign up for that mission trip? It sounds absolutely dreadful.

Yet… here we are.

On this weekend after the Fourth of July, there’s not many of us, but there’s at least, what would you say, 70?

A good 70, I’ll say; which, interestingly enough, just so happens to be the average worship attendance in mainline churches these days.

Here we are. And curiously, the mission to which we have committed ourselves through this particular church is no less daunting, dangerous, and dreadful today than the mission of these 70 Jesus sends out.

Like Jesus’ 70, we have inherited an Abrahamic faith that began when Abraham extended generous hospitality to complete strangers who just so happened to be messengers from God.

Sadly, in our current culture, sharing this hospitable faith, or even standing up for this faith is very unpopular.

Deuteronomy might say:

 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).

But our culture says, “Some strangers are animals, not people.”

Leviticus might say:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

But our culture says: “We should only love and welcome aliens based on their merit which we will determine through a strict vetting process.”

Mosaic Law may warn:

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (Leviticus 27:19).

And the Psalmist may warn:

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).

But today’s culture says: “If foreigners and strangers are unhappy with the conditions of our detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved.”

The prophets may declare:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then [the true God] will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

But our religious culture says, “The God you talk about is not the true God, but some imaginary God.”

The prophets may command:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

But today’s culture argues: “But they might be drug dealers, criminals and rapists.”

So many churches today have said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Moses. Sorry Jeremiah. It’s not happening Zechariah.” What you people of God are talking about, especially in these days, is Mission Impossible.

However, the good news is that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, says, no, what the holy scriptures command us is actually Mission Possible. But how? How do we do what the Bible tells us to do when we live in a world where we are like lambs living in the midst of wolves?

For the mission we have committed ourselves to seems impossible when we consider that not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots that has been called to stand up for the foreigners coming into our land, we are a group of people who claim to be followers of Jesus, who we believe Jesus is the Christ, the way, the truth and the life. Consequently, we are a church on a mission to embrace the way of Jesus, and to call on all people, all nations, including our own nation, to embrace the same way.

On this first Sunday after the day we celebrate our nation’s birth, we implore our leaders:

  • To lose their way of greed and materialism, to follow Jesus’ way of generosity
  • To lose their way of dishonesty and deceit, to follow Jesus’ way of truth
  • To lose their way of militarism and perpetual war, to follow Jesus’ way of peace
  • To lose their way of violence and domination, to follow Jesus’ way of servanthood
  • To lose their way of putting themselves first, to follow Jesus’ way that started with: “For God so loved the world.”
  • To lose their way of bigotry, to follow Jesus’ way of valuing every human as one made in the image of God
  • To lose their way of harming children, to follow Jesus’ way of treating children as the greatest among us
  • To lose their way of suppressing the rights of women, to follow Jesus’ way of empowering women
  • To lose their way of abandoning the needs of the sick, the hungry, the foreigner and the imprisoned, to follow Jesus’ way of loving them as their very selves

And here is perhaps what makes our church’s mission seem even more impossible these days:

Not only are we a church with Abrahamic roots, and not only are we committed to following the compassionate and just way of Jesus, we are a church born out of the Stone-Campbell movement. That means, that like our foundersBarton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we have made a commitment to be on a mission to follow the inclusive way Jesus, even if it causes us to lose some friends!

We have made the decision to welcome all people to Lord’s table as God has welcomed us—graciously, generously, lovingly, unconditionally. And we do this in a culture where such welcome is socially unacceptable.

We have committed ourselves to let the first word that anyone hears from our mouths be “Peace.”  And we do this in a culture where the very first words that many hear from churches are words that denote the exact opposite of peace—Words of judgment and condemnation; words judging others as not only sinners, but as “abominations.” In the name of God, they justify their hate with the same type of Christ-less scriptural interpretation that has been used to support sexism, slavery and racial discrimination since our country’s founding.

So, how do we do it? How do we transform a Mission Impossibleinto a Mission Possible? How is that our slogan?

I believe the answer is in the obvious but oftentimes overlooked detail in our gospel lesson this morning. The answer is the number 70.

The good news is that we are not on a mission to be open and affirming in a culture that is closed and condemning alone. Each one of us has at least, at least, 69 fellow disciples, 69 friends in the faith, on whom to depend. Seventy people may look small in this sanctuary that seats 400, but 70 is a lot of bodies, a lot of somebodies, a lot of disciples on which to count when the going gets rough.

Jesus did not expect any of his disciples to be alone on the difficult mission to which he was sending them. And neither does God expect us to be alone to do our seemingly impossible work.

Right now, I want you to take a moment and look around you. For what you see… no… whoyou see, is all you need to do the work Jesus is calling you to do in a world where danger and injustice abound.

You need no purse, no bag, no sandals; and not even the ones you may meet on the road. All that is necessary to carry out our mission, to transform Mission Impossible into Mission Possibleare scattered about in these pews.

And I have a feeling that is why you are here this morning. You are here, because here, in this place, is your group of seventy. You come to be reminded that you are not in this alone. You come here acknowledging that if we are ever going to be the people God is calling us to be, we need one another.

Even before moving here two years ago to serve with you as your pastor, the Mission Possible slogan caught my eye.

For it is a slogan with optimism and assurance, potential and promise, success and victory.

With God, anything is possible! Right?

With God, it will be possible for me to declare that the Kingdom of God is coming near to the River Valley.

With God, it will be possible for me to announce to Fort Smith, Van Buren, Barling, Greenwood, Roland and Spiro: “Peace!”

With God, it will be possible for me to speak up and speak out, and the demons will submit!

Well, not exactly. With God, and about 70 others!

Today, I am grateful that I found a group of 70, well, at least 70, sometimes 120-140, and more than that on Easter and Christmas Eve, whatever the number, I have found a lot of good somebodies with whom to go out and follow Jesus wherever he leads.

And together, although we seem small, and our provisions are limited, with God, we can do some big things to bring the Kingdom of God near!

Let us pray together.

Gracious God, emboldened by being apart of our 70, may our spirits be filled with joy and enthusiasm by following the way of Abraham, Moses, the prophets and Jesus, sharing your redeeming love with all people. AMEN.

[i]http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4683

Called to Ministry

MISSION TRIP 2018

Mark 6:6B-13 NRSV

I think we sometimes need to be reminded of the peculiar way that the Kingdom of God was started in this world, to be reminded how Jesus began his ministry on this earth ushering in the reign of God. As the Son of the Most High, the Alpha and the Omega, the eternal Word who became flesh, the one through all things came into being and the Messiah of the world, do it all by himself?

He certainly could have. But instead, he goes out, finds, and calls together a group of some of the most ordinary people in the world to do get the Kingdom started. And not only were they ordinary, they were also

imperfect. They stumble, fumble and bumble behind Jesus proving over and over that they have very little idea of who Jesus was and where Jesus was taking them. Yet, this is how God works in our world. It is the way God has always worked.

In Genesis, we read that God creates the world: the mountains and seas; the valleys and streams; every animal, every living thing in the water, in the air and on the land; the sun, moon, stars and all that lies beyond. Then, God creates human beings, gives them a garden, telling them to look after it and tend to it.

It is as if God says, “You know, I have really enjoyed creating all the beauty and order in this world. Of course, I could take care of it all myself, but I want to see you do it.”

Likewise, Jesus comes into the world making all things new, creating, recreating, reordering; ushering in the Kingdom of God. He touches and heals, welcomes and includes, defends and forgives, turns water into a lot of wine and a small basket of food into a great feast, all as a sign of that Kingdom of God was coming. He redeems and restores the lives of the lost, the poor and the marginalized. He chastises judgmental religion and exorcises demonic forces.

And then it is as if he says, “You know, I’ve enjoyed doing the holy work of God, demonstrating the reality of God’s reign, but now I want you to do it for yourselves. Now, it’s your turn. I am commissioning you to do my work in the world.”

Today’s scripture lesson is this commissioning. I believe it’s important to notice here that Jesus sends them out to do exactly what he himself does: to preach, teach, heal, and to overcome evil.

And Jesus chooses people who to these things who, as far as we can tell in Mark’s Gospel, have no apparent qualifications to do these things. Their only qualification is that they are chosen and commissioned by Christ. And that is enough.

If we are to be the church God is calling us to be, it is imperative for us to recognize the fundamental truth that God does not work alone. Our God is in the business of calling disciples, calling ordinary folks like me and you, and commissioning them to be his ministers in this world.

It’s important for us to realize that all of us are ministers—those to whom Jesus has delegated the work of God. My job as senior minister, at best, is a coordinator, and an encourager and an equipper of you, the ministers.

After finding out that Lori was going into the hospital this past week for a procedure, someone came up to me this week and said, “Jarrett, as our minister, you come and pray for us when we have surgery, but who comes and prays for you when you have surgery?” I said, “I’m lucky, for I have an entire congregation of ministers who pray for me.”

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, has written a wonderful meditation on ordination and preaching, stressing the importance of the preaching of all Christians.  It’s called The Preaching Life.  In it, she writes:

Somewhere along the way we have misplaced the ancient vision of the church as a priestly people—set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, made manifest in service to the world. That vision is a foreign one to many church members, who have learned from colloquial usage that ministermeans the ‘ordained person,’ in a congregation, while lay personmeans ‘someone who does not engage in full-time ministry.’ Professionally speaking that is fair enough—but speaking ecclesiastically, it is a disaster. Language like that turns clergy into purveyors of religion, and lay persons into consumers, who shop around for the church that offers them the best product.

Taylor writes of the need to revive Martin Luther’s vision of the priesthood of all believers, who are ordained by God at baptism to share Christ’s ministry in this world.

Nowhere in the scriptures do we find God saying: “Go into the world and make nice Christians out of people. Bring them into the church so they can sing some hymns, pray and listen to a sermon that will make them feel like they are good, religious, moral people who are on their way to heaven. Form a type of club. Hire a full-time club president to be there for the comfort, security and entertainment of the club members.

No, what we do find in scriptures is Jesus instructing us to go forth into the world and make disciples. And what do disciples do? Sit on a pew every Sunday? Sing, pray, and dream about heaven? No, they do what Jesus did. They preach, and they teach. They welcome, and they include. They accept, and they forgive. They clothe, and they feed. They heal, and they fight injustice. They love, and then, they love some more.

But you say, “I can’t do those things. I can’t preach. I am no preacher. That’s why we pay you to be the “preacher!”

Barbara Brown Taylor continues writing: “

While preaching and celebrating the sacraments are two particular functions to which I was ordained, they are also metaphors for the whole church’s understanding of life and faith…Preaching is not something that an ordained minister does for 20 minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.

We are all preachers, and whether or not you realize it or not, some of you have been preaching all week.

Our mission team has been preaching the gospel of Christ every day this week in New Mexico with hammers and nails and screws and saws, helping to add on a room to a church building in addition to leading a Vacation Bible School.

Some of you preach the grace of Christ every week by working with recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Some of you preach the love of Christ mentoring young people as a Boy Scout leader or camp director.

Some of out preach good news of Christ to the poor by making distributing sandwiches to the food insecure through the sack lunch program.

Some of you are physicians who preach the healing of Christ to people who are suffering. Some preach the hope of Christ to people who are homeless. And some preach the comfort of Christ my volunteering at the hospital.

Although you do not get paid by your employer to preach, some of you preach every day at work and at home. Many of you preach a sermon of unrestricted grace to a co-worker, a sermon of unconditional love to a customer, a sermon of undeniable hope to a friend, to a neighbor, even to a stranger.

And many more of you; although you had other places to go, other things to do (some of you no doubt even felt like staying home), you got up this morning to come to this place of worship. You didn’t know it, but your smile this morning made someone else smile. The handshake that you offered was heartfelt. The hug you gave was sorely needed. Your simple words of greeting brought someone encouragement and another peace.

Mark’s gospel teaches us when you do all these things in the name of Jesus, then you are ministering. Yes, I’m happy to say that some of First Christian Church’s best preaching does not come from this pulpit on Sunday mornings. But it comes from the people in the pews who have answered their calling to be preachers every day of the week.

These are serious times, and Jesus is calling. He is calling ordinary people like me and you everyday to do ministry. Where has Jesus called you to ministry?  What is the work you are equipped and called to do? There is perhaps no more important question. For it is simply the way our God works, the way God has always worked in this world.

Let us pray:

O God, you do not work alone in this world. You reach out and call ordinary folk to be your disciples. We thank you for your graciousness in calling us. Give us what we need to be faithful disciples. You have given us good work to do. Keep giving us the gifts we need to keep doing your work. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Invitation to Communion

As we sing our hymn of communion, may we open our minds and  hearts so that we may hear the voice of Jesus—calling us and commissioning us to be his disciples, God’s representatives, God’s ministers in this world. All are invited to receive these elements representing the body of Christ because all are called to be the body of Christ.

Absent Thomas

More togeter

John 20:19-31 NRSV

On the very first Easter Sunday, John tells us that the disciples had gathered together in a house. The doors of the house were locked underscoring the great anxiety they were experiencing. Peter had probably reported to the disciples that Jesus’ body had apparently been stolen. So, they were all probably afraid that the ones who had stolen the body of Jesus would soon be coming after them.

The disciples are not only fearful, they were also despairing. The Jesus for whom they had left their families and all forms of security to follow was gone. The one in whom they placed all of their trust had been crucified. The one for whom they all vowed to even give up their very lives was dead, and now his body is missing.

It is then, as they were gathered together as a community of faith, Jesus shows up and speaks to them great words of comfort and assurance: “Peace be with you.”  Jesus, wanting them to know that he was the very one who was crucified, showed the disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And suddenly, the disciples fear and trembling was transformed into rejoicing.

I believe this speaks volumes about the presence of the risen Lord. First of all, the presence of the resurrected Lord is always transforming. When Jesus shows up, despair is transformed into hope, fear into rejoicing, and as the wounds on his hands and in his side testify, death into life.

John also tells us that Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is why this glorious event is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost Story.”  For John, this is where the Church is born and commissioned.

However, in the middle of all of this rejoicing, we get our first inkling that something is wrong. It is here we read that sometimes dreaded conjunction: “but.”

ButThomas, who was one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  All of the disciples were gathered together in community with their family of faith—all of them, except Thomas.

We can only guess where he was—somewhere perhaps out on his own; someplace withdrawn, somewhere isolated, in some private sanctuary. We just know he was absent from his community of faith.

Later, when the disciples find Thomas and tell him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas responds with those infamous words that has given him the nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.”

We like to call him “Doubting Thomas.” However, when you think about it, that is really an unfair designation, because Thomas is really no different from the other disciples. Thomas is not asking for anything more than the other disciples received on that first Easter. The only thing that makes Thomas different from the others is that he was not present with his community of faith when they gathered on Sunday morning. He’s not so much a “doubting Thomas” as he is an “absent Thomas.” The risen Christ showed up as the disciples gathered together in community, and absent Thomas missed it all!

No, we really don’t know why Thomas was absent on that Sunday. But those of us who have been a part of the church could certainly guess, couldn’t we?

Have you ever been tempted to stay home on Sunday morning? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t need those people down at the church to experience God! After all, there are people there who have hurt my feelings. There are people there who get on my nerves. I can experience God better on my back porch, taking a walk in a park, or watching the sunrise all by myself.”

Maybe Thomas was tired of the politics, tired of being around people who were all about power and control. Maybe he was tired of all the self-absorbed arguments about who was going to be seated where in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe he was simply sick of being around people who were constantly disappointing Jesus—people who could never follow through with their commitments, keep their promises, fulfill their obligations. Maybe he was tired of all of the back-biting, manipulation, resentment, and jealousy. And perhaps he was sick and tired of the way he personally kept failing, kept making mistakes, kept falling short.

So when Sunday came around, Thomas stayed home. Thomas decided that he could worship God better on his back porch with a cup of coffee and a sunrise. And who could blame him?

But here’s the problem.

In staying home on Sunday, in avoiding community, in missing church, Thomas not only missed the transforming presence of the risen Lord and missed his commissioning to be the church in this world,

but in verse 26 we read, that Jesus did not appear to Thomas until “a week later.”

Think about that. A whole week later. Thomas, the only disciple who missed seeing Jesus, the only one who missed the transforming power of the risen Christ, the only one who missed the commissioning of the Holy Spirit, did not receive a personal, private visit from Jesus on Monday morning. He didn’t get a phone call on Tuesday, or a card in the mail on Wednesday letting him know he was missed. There was no text message on Thursday, no email on Friday or facebook post on Saturday.

Thomas had to wait an entire week—until when? When the disciples were again gathered together in community. For it is in community where we experience the Risen Christ.

Listen again to verse 26. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.” I bet he was!

And just like the week before with the other disciples, Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to experience the fullness of his transforming presence. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” And this time, not so much because Thomas had stopped questioning, stopped doubting, but because Thomas was present, because he was in community, the risen Lord gave Thomas what he needed to exclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

One of the biggest problems with the church today is not doubt, but a belief that the gospel can be lived a part form community.

The Christian faith today is that it has been moderated to a private, personal transaction between the individual and God. The community-organizing, campaign-building, forward-marching, culture-challenging gospel of Jesus that hast the power to face and transform the world and it’s troubles has been reduced to an individual’s personal ticket to leave this world and its troubles behind.

Our faith has become more about a personal relationship with God and less about a going on a public mission with God. It has become more about worshiping Jesus in the heart and less about following Jesus in the world.

But it was Jesus who announced the gospel by saying:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18).

As follower of Christ, this is our mission. And there’s is just no we can accomplish this mission alone, by ourselves, watching the sunrise or walking our dog in the park.

Because the gospel of Jesus is not good news to the individual. It is good news to the poor.

The gospel of Jesus is not about the release of an individual’s soul. It is about speaking out to release all who are held captive, physically, systemically and spiritually.

The gospel of Jesus is not about an individual closing their eyes in thoughts and prayers to the troubles of this world. It is about possessing eyes that are wide-open to the world’s problems and having the power to come together to do something about it.

The gospel of Jesus is not about individual freedom. It is about coming together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, leaning on one another and on God, while working for the liberty and justice of all.

It is only by coming together as a community that we become who we were created to be as human beings and called to be as disciples of Christ. Our faith in the risen Christ is personal, but it is never private. It is through our coming together, that we experience the fullness of the presence of the risen Lord and are given the power transform the world.

The church is far from perfect. There can be power plays, accusations, denials and desertion. There’s apathy, jealousy, resentment and failure. There’s cowardice, compromise, manipulation, selfishness, intolerance, and malicious words. This is the way it has always been, even with the first group of disciples.

However, when we come together in the name of Christ, something miraculous happens that we call Easter. In spite of all of our imperfections and sin, the risen Christ shows up. He gives us what we need to believe. And we are transformed. And then we are commissioned to transform the world.

The God Who Rides a Donkey

March for our lives.jpg

John 12:12-16 NRSV

I have a confession to make. I got more than a little down dejected last Sunday morning. Looking at the empty pews last when so many were out on Spring Break got me thinking: “What in the world are we going to do to get more people to come to church here?”

And planning for this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant march into Jerusalem also got me thinking: “Everybody loves a parade!” Maybe that is what our church needs. A good parade!

Now, some may argue that many churches these days already look like some type of parade.

Some churches look like a parade they have down in Southern Louisiana where they throw candy, beads all sorts of fun things from the float. People go to parades like some people go to church: to get something, to receive something, to catch something that is thrown their way, something sweet, pleasant, something that is going to make their lives better, make their family happier.

Then there are other parades. Although no candy is thrown, these parades just have a way of making us feel good. They put us in a good mood. Nothing gets some of us in the Holiday Spirit like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

There are people who go to church to get in a particular mood. They go to hear something that moves them, stirs them. They go to see something that wows them. They go to ooh and ahh. They go to get a good feeling that will hopefully last them the rest of the week.

Then there are military parades. They show off a well-trained, well-conditioned army marching in step with tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads to show the world who’s the strongest and the greatest, whose citizens are the safest, most protected, most secure.

Just like some people go to church to get something that makes them feel a little more superior than others. They also go to be protected from all sorts of evil. And they go for some eternal security.

If we pay attention, we discover that each of these parades has the same drum beat. It is a beat of pleasure. It is a beat of comfort. It is a beat that is easy for us to march to. It is a beat of self-preservation, but also self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. It is a beat of pride. It is a beat of greed. It is beat that entices us.

And, although we know this beat has an innate tendency to be depraved, although we know this beat often stirs the darker, most selfish places within us, we love this beat. We live by this beat. We work by this beat. We relate to others by this beat. We vote by this beat. We even worship by this beat.

But on this Palm Sunday, we are reminded that there is another kind of parade. And it’s a parade that marches to the beat of very different drum.

Nearing the end of his life, Jesus, the savior of the world, paraded into Jerusalem to liberate God’s people, not on some white war stallion, but on a borrowed donkey; not with a well-trained, well-conditioned army, but with a gang of rag-tag students who had no idea what they were doing or where they were going.

The late Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors and pastors once said, that to much of the world, this parade looked “downright stupid.”

For Jesus marched to a difficult beat that pushes against the status quo, that pulls us out of our comfort zones, that challenges our instincts.

While others marched to the beat of a self-serving, self-seeking, self-preserving drum, Jesus rode a donkey and marched to the beat of a self-giving, self-denying drum.

As the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! God save us!” Jesus answered their cries by marching to a beat of sacrifice. Although he knew he would be killed for it, Jesus kept marching forward with a scandalous love and an offensive grace.

Yes, bouncing in on the back of a donkey, Jesus marched to the beat of a very different drum.

During the Fort Smith Marathon, several of you made and held up signs to cheer on the runners who made their way down Free Ferry. Some of your signs were very creative. One read: “You Are Running Better than the Government.” One of my favorite signs that I see people holding in nearly every marathon reads: “Worst Parade Ever.”

If we are honest, this is our initial reaction to this Palm Sunday parade. The people cry “Hosanna! God save us!” And here comes God, riding in on a donkey!

This is not a parade of pride. It is a parade of humility.

It is not a parade that entertains. It is a parade that suffers.

It is not a parade of pleasure. It is parade of agony.

It is not a parade of self-preservation. It is a parade of self-expenditure.

And although the route of this parade brought Jesus to the capital city, this parade was not good news for the rich and the powerful, the self-important and the self-sufficient.

This parade was good news for the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners—for all who thirst and hunger justice and compassion.

This march was good news those who had been left out and left behind: For sinners condemned by bad religion; For women, children and minorities silenced by the privileged; For the broken cast aside by society; For all those who are unable to march: the blind, the disabled, the mentally ill, the wounded and the sick. For all who realize that they need salvation.

I have heard it said that what America needs right now is a good parade. On this Palm Sunday, I agree.

However, we do not need a parade led by tanks and missiles with nuclear warheads asserting that military might is the answer to our problems.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey asserting that selfless love is the answer.

We need a parade that emphasizes that what this nation needs is more humility and less arrogance, more respect and less name-calling, more empathy and less callousness, more acts of kindness and less talk of preemptive military strikes.

We need a parade led by one riding a donkey showcasing not those who sit in the highest seats of power, but school children who just want to be safe, teachers who just want a living wage, women who just want to be heard, persons with different abilities who just want to be included, the sick who just want to see a doctor, the poor who just want to eat, the oppressed who just want to be free.

We need a parade led by our savior who rides a donkey!

And if we are honest, we would confess that this parade is not easy for us accept. Look at verse 16: His disciples did not understand these things…” The truth is: neither can we.

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes: “We wanted Jesus to come to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to march up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine. We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday from noon until three, with hardly a word.”

Jesus didn’t come fixing all of our problems. He didn’t come offering us health and wealth, an easy life or even a better life. He didn’t come showering us with treats to make us feel good good. And he didn’t come showing us his power and might. Jesus came riding a donkey.

For God so loved the world that God came and emptied God’s self. God came and poured God’s self out. God came and bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in the way that we wanted—but, the good news is, God came in the way that we need for life—abundant and eternal.

Those great theologians of our time had it right: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might just find, you get what you need.”

I may want these pews to be full every Sunday morning, even during Spring Break. However, for us to be the church that God is calling us to be, worship service attendance on Sunday morning will never be as important as how we are worshiping God with our selfless service the rest of the week. How we march through these doors today is not nearly as important as how we are marching outside of these doors tomorrow.

To determine if we are being the church God is calling us to be, what we need is a new gauge. We need a new benchmark to determine if we are marching to the beat of a different drum, a new indicator to tell if we are marching in the steps of the One who rides a donkey. For it’s not how many of us are coming to church that is important to this One. It’s what we are doing in the world to be the church.

Spending an entire day with our youth, teaching them how to use power equipment for a mission trip that you plan to lead them on this summer, is a sign that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Making sandwiches for college students who are building affordable housing for the working poor is evidence that we are marching in the steps of the one who rides a donkey.

Selflessly giving our time, our resources, and ourselves marching downtown to feed the hungry; marching across town to sit down and share a meal with a group of another faith; marching to the capital to stand up against gun violence, to cry out against injustice and corruption, to speak up for the care of God’s creation; marching down the road to extend mercy to someone who is broken; marching across a room to perform a small act of kindness to a stranger, marching out in the darkness to be a friend to someone who is afraid, marching everywhere we go to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves—

These are the markers that we are the church God is calling us to be.

May God give us the grace and the strength to keep marching forward to the beat of a different drum, to keep following in the steps of the One who rides a donkey; to keep marching a march of suffering, but also a march of joy; a march of sacrifice, but also a march of hope; a march to lose our lives, but also a march for our lives.

Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, as you entered Jerusalem, you did not look like the Messiah that we expected, bouncing in on the back of that donkey,

Lord Jesus, when you stood before Pilate and his inquisition, you did not sound like the Lord of Lords.

Lord Jesus, as you hung in agony on the cross, you did not look like the Kings of Kings.

Lord Jesus, help us to see you, even when you do not look like the God we wanted.  And make us realize through your strong presence that who you are is all we will ever need, now and forever.  Amen.

INVITATION TO CHRIST’S TABLE

Come. Come and find your place at this table.

All are invited, and all means all.

Come and share a very humble meal that in the eyes of many looks downright stupid.

But this is the feast God imagines –

where peace and salvation can be experienced in a simple loaf of bread and in one cup.

Ashamed of the Gospel

not ashamed

I believe the church needs to re-discover its mission to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to be the very embodiment of Christ in this world. We are to continue his ministry in this world, doing the very same things that he did while he was on this earth: offering healing to the sick, sharing hope to the despairing, giving comfort to the troubled, bestowing grace to the sinners, showing love to the hateful, speaking truth to the powerful, and bringing life to the dying.

Now, if this is like any church that I have ever known, there may be more than a few of you who have been thinking: “I just don’t know if I am ready to make such a commitment.”

I have some things that I need to work out first in my life. My faith needs some work. I have my doubts. I have questions. I have so much to learn, so much to figure out. And I have some very personal issues to deal with. I have this problem with anger. Sometimes I act or say before I think. So right now, if you don’t mind, until I can get my act more together, learn a little more, I think I will pass on this following Jesus thing. I have enough trouble just believing Jesus.”

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

You know, Saint Peter. The one Jesus called a “rock” and said, “on this rock, I will build my church.” The one Roman Catholics recognize as the first Pope. Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter: the one whom Jesus loved and trusted to carry on his ministry in this world. You may think, there’s no way I can be like Saint Peter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, calls Peter, “Satan.”

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

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

So, what is it that is really keeping us from following Jesus?

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

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

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

Peter’s denials had nothing to do with his lack of faith. His denials, his refusal to take up his cross, his failure to follow in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus had nothing to do with his doubts and his questions, his personal issues and poor anger management because, as Jesus pointed out over and over, those excuses simply don’t cut it. Peter’s failure was shame.

Peter had trouble following Jesus, because he was ashamed of the gospel.  He was ashamed of what the gospel stood for, and for whom the gospel stood.

Which raises the question: “Could this be our failure to follow in the way of Jesus?”

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

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

Peter was ashamed to be last, because it was more popular to be first.

Peter was ashamed to tell the truth, because it was more popular to embrace a lie.

Peter was ashamed to embrace a way of humility, because it was more popular to be arrogant, proud, condescending and self-important.

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

Peter was ashamed to side with the poor, because it was more popular to call them “lazy.”

Peter was ashamed to include foreigners, because it was more popular to dehumanize them by calling them “aliens” or “snakes.”

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

Peter was ashamed to welcome and elevate children because it was more popular to put them down.

Peter was ashamed to visit prisoners, because it was popular to treat them as animals.

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

Peter was ashamed to respect women as equals, because it was more popular to treat them like objects.

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

Peter was ashamed to pick up and carry a cross, because it was more popular to pick up and carry a weapon of war.

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

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

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

The good news is that Peter dealt with his shame. Peter repented. And, this one Jesus called “Satan,” helped start the church and has been named by the Church as its first Pope.

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

Let us pray together.

O God, help us to deal with our shame and openly commit ourselves to following the way of Christ, his gospel, his mission in this world. Help us to pick up our crosses and courageously follow Christ, unreservedly, confidently and unashamedly wherever he leads. Amen.

Lifted up for Service

 

cialis

Mark 1:29-39 NRSV

These few verses found in the end of the first chapter of Mark paint a beautiful portrait of who our Lord is, how our Lord acts, and what our Lord desires. Listen to them again, carefully, prayerfully…

“As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.”

Do you hear the urgency in this passage? “As soon as they left…” “…at once.”

I hear a lot of people talk about God’s timing. They say that God will bring healing or restoration in God’s own time. They say that God’s time is usually not our time. And they say that God has reasons for God’s delay. I believe this passage teaches us that the Lord wants to heal us and restore us now: not tomorrow, not some day or one day, but today, right now, “at once.” It is not the Lord’s will for any of us to ever be sick, broken, or even have a fever.

Therefore, if we are sick or broken, if we are suffering in any way, we must understand that it is not because God has some twisted reason or some purpose-driven plan for it. And since suffering is not the will of God, and since we are loved by God, we can know that when we suffer, God suffers with us and is doing all God can do to bring healing, wholeness and restoration.

“He came and took her by the hand…”

Perhaps more than anything else, I believe it is the will of our Lord to come to us and take us by the hand. When I was a child I learned a wonderful song:

Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water

Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea

Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee

Our problem is that we put our hands in so many other places to receive wholeness.

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord we put our hands to work. We believe that if we can somehow work hard enough, serve diligently, industriously, thoroughly, and persistently enough, then we can achieve or earn wholeness or peace.

This may be the greatest sin of most of us.

We put our hands, our trust in our own selves instead of in the hands of the only one who can save us. Ephesians chapter two teaches us: “For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put our hands in the hands of others. My granddaddy was not a pastor, preacher, or a scholar, but he was sometimes quite the theologian. One thing that he said, and said often was: “There’s only one man that you can trust in this world, and that is the Good Lord.”

However, many of us put our trust in the hands of so many others. We put our hands in the hands of the government, we put our hands in the hands of our friends and neighbors, even in the hands of the church. Then we become disillusioned when they sooner or later disappoint us. The 118th Psalm reminds us:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in mortals.

It is better to take refuge in the Lord

than to put confidence in princes.

 

And instead of putting our hand in the hand of the Lord, we also put them in our own pockets. We put our trust in our wealth and our material possessions. Our sense of well-being, wholeness and security comes from our bank accounts, 401-k’s, our homes, automobiles and clothing. In chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew we read the warning:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

The good news for all of us this day is that Jesus, the Son of the God of Heaven is coming to us, and he wants to take us by the hand and give us a peace that the world simply cannot give (John 14:27).

“Jesus came to her, took her by the hand, and lifted her up.”

When we put our hand in the hand of the Lord, the Lord lifts us up. Preacher and Princeton Theological Seminary professor Nancy Gross says this is good news because “There is no shortage of “down” from which people need to be lifted up.”

Down today are all those things that the young people in the Scouts of America seek to emulate:

Trust and loyalty are down. Helpfulness and politeness and kindness are down. Respect for the law is down. Fiscal responsibility, a clean environment, courageous leadership and reverence are all down.

And in the middle of one of the worst flu seasons on record, many are down with sickness.

The good news is when we are down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease, down with a fever, when we put our hand in the hand of Jesus, Jesus always lifts us up!

Now, as much as we might like to do so, now is not the time to sing a hymn, break some bread, sing another hymn and go home. Because our scripture text doesn’t end here.

“Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:31).

When we put out hand in the hand of Jesus, we are lifted up. We receive wholeness. We receive peace. We receive salvation. Then, we serve. We are lifted up for a specific purpose: to serve.

Jesus makes us whole not only for ourselves alone, not soley to help us feel better, more hopeful, more happy, more peaceful and more alive, not solety to help us get through a hard week at school, at work or at home. We are lifted up for service to others.

I believe a major problem with the Christian faith today is that many have a very selfish understanding of salvation. Our faith has been reduced to some kind of ticket to heaven, some sort of divine stamp of approval, or some kind of new drug to make our lives better, fuller, richer.

Have you noticed that every other television commercial that comes on the air is an ad touting the benefits of a new prescription drug? There is a new drug available for whatever it is that might ail you!

Are you tired of being tired? Do you have trouble going to sleep? Do you have difficulty waking up? Is your hair falling out? Do you have a going problem or a growing problem?  Are you overweight but love to eat?  Do you need to put some excitement back into your relationships? Do you read the story of the the three little pigs and wolf who huffs and puffs only to have your granddaughter say, “That sounds like you grandpa!” No matter what you’ve got, there is a new pill created just for you.

And then, in nearly every commercial, after the person begins taking what they asked their doctor to prescribe, there is all of this exuberant celebration: dancing in the streets; jumping up and down; digging for clams; running around in the yard with their dog and your water hose; even sitting outdoors and watching the sunset while holding hands with their significant other in separate bathtubs!

I oftentimes wonder if this is not how we oftentimes promote our faith. If you channel surf through the religious channels, you will find that there is no shortage of preachers who sound like they are spokespeople for some new drug. “Are you down and out?  Are you drowning in a sea of debt? Are you empty inside? Does your love life need a boost? Then pick up the phone and make your pledge, send in your check, and sit back and wait for God to pour out God’s blessings!  Wait for God to give you a reason to celebrate!”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were thinking when they were following Jesus throughout Galilee. Listen to how the Sermon on the Mount begins: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”  Folks had come out from all over to follow Jesus with these expectations that Jesus was going to somehow make their lives better

And listen to what Jesus says:

Are you 40 years old and wonder where your life is going? Are you feeling blue?  Do you need help raising your children? Does your marriage need a boost?

No, instead, Jesus says things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he?  I thought Jesus was all about making things easy. What’s he talking about?

And he’s not finished. “Love everyone, including your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself.”

I am afraid that churches are so desperate to attract people that they have been willing to trivialize and water down the gospel. So much so that the salvation that many churches are preaching is no different than the salvation that is being preached by the prescription drug industry.

May God forgive the church for implying that we need Jesus in our life to lift us up… period. Just lift us up. And implying Jesus will make our lives easier, fix everything that is wrong with us, put a little lilt in our voices, a little sunshine in our souls.

Because the chances are very good that when we put our hand in the hand of the man from Galilee, our lives will become even more difficult than they were before.

It is the will of the Lord to come to us, and to come to us immediately, without delay, with as sense of divine urgency, to take us by the hand, lift us up, and make us whole, for one purpose and for one purpose only: service, self-denying, self-expending, sacrificial service.

Let us pray together.

O God, as Christ took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, take our hands. Make us whole. Lift us up to be the church you are calling us to be in this world. Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Do you need to be lifted up? Are you down in the dumps, down with despair, down with disease? Have you been down with a fever? If so, gather around this table and put your hand in the hand of Jesus. He will lift you up. But he won’t stop there. The bread which he says is his body given is going to lift you up to selflessly give your own bodies as sacrifice. As he pours and lifts the cup he is going to lift you up to sacrificially pour yourself out for others.

Let us prepare to be to be lifted up for service as we sing together.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

He’s coming to you. He’s coming without delay. He’s coming immediately, with a divine urgency. He’s coming reaching in and reaching out his hand.

So, go ahead, right here and now, put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee. He will lift you up. He will make you whole. For service.

As you go and serve, may the Lord bless you and take care of you; may the Lord be kind and gracious to you; may the Lord look on you with favor and give you peace.