A Devotional for Our Mission

It seems that there is one thing of which we can be certain: we live in a time of uncertainty.  We live in a time of great change. We live in an age where the Christendom paradigm, that structure which presumes that the vast majority of people around us share our faith and our values, is changing.  I agree with Roberts and Meade that the changes have been coming for some time and we have just been unprepared for the changes that come with the paradigm shift.

Our folly, I fear, is that our reaction to these changes has been the wrong reaction.  It seems that the loudest “Christian” voices have reacted with a shrill voice shouting out in the language of persecution.  Now, I will concede that in some areas of the world, especially in the Middle East where ISIS seems hell-bent on destroying anything and anyone that does not fit into their extremist worldview, persecution is real.  However, and you can disagree with me on this point, but, claims of persecution in the United States are, at best, a gross exaggeration.

In the midst of the changes that we see happening around us, we should be standing true to what Jesus identified as the “greatest commandment”: “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 12:29-31 New Revised Standard Version).  But, in too many instances, it seems to me, we react to the changes that we see happening around us in a manner that demonstrates anything but love.

In his sermon, “On Love,” Wesley addresses the passage in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (NRSV), and he points out that our motivation means everything:

There is great reason to fear that it will hereafter be said of most of you who are here present, that this scripture, as well as all those you have heard before, profited you nothing. Some, perhaps, are not serious enough to attend to it; some who do attend, will not believe it; some who do believe it, will yet think it a hard saying, and so forget it as soon as they can; and, of those few who receive it gladly for a time, some, having no root of humility, or self-denial, when persecution ariseth because of the word, will, rather than suffer for it, fall away. Nay, even of those who attend to it, who believe, remember, yea, and receive it so deeply into their hearts, that it both takes root there, endures the heat of temptation, and begins to bring forth fruit, yet will not all bring forth fruit unto perfection. The cares or pleasures of the world, and the desire of other things, (perhaps not felt till then) will grow up with the word, and choke it.” – (http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-139-On-Love#sthash.WcqgUtXC.dpuf)

It seems that we have let perceived power and status get in the way of our true mission as given to us by Christ.  And I contend that, in a time when others advocate that we climb into our bunkers and hole up in our silos to separate ourselves from the world, that we should reject those calls to isolation and step boldly into the world to share “a more excellent way,” a way based in the love of Christ.

During the Easter Season I was preaching a series based upon the lectionary readings from the Epistle texts of 1 John which, along with the Gospel texts, focused primarily upon an attribute of God that challenges us as we attempt to live into the life that God calls each of us to live through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit… a life that is centered in the love of Jesus, the love of God, and the capacity of the Holy Spirit to give us the strength that we need to embody that love to a world that has no idea what love is.

John tells us that God is love.  He tells us that we love because God first loved us.  It is a message that the church needs to hear, because, to be perfectly frank, we haven’t been so good at this crazy and unruly thing called love.

And the wonderful, crazy thing about God’s love is this: God loves us whether we want God’s love or not – and it makes no difference whether we are worthy of God ’s love because, as I hope every one of us knows, we are most assuredly, most definitely un-worthy of God’s love and grace.  That might not mean a lot to those of us sitting in this classroom on a Monday morning in Atlanta, but it can make all the difference in the world to a person who has been beaten down by the stress of trying to be worthy of God’s love… something that is preached by too many of our brothers and sisters, but mostly brothers in denominations that are more about rules than they are about grace.  That’s the message that way too many of the people that we serve at the Tri-State Food Pantry have heard their entire lives… a message telling them that “you’re not good enough” and “if you don’t follow the narrow rules that we set out for you and use against you in our effort to define who’s in and who’s out then all you can look forward to is damnation to the eternal fires of hell.”

Now tell me, where is the Gospel in that?

The overarching story of God, personified in Jesus Christ and told to us in the fullness of Scripture is a message of love.  All of humanity is created in love, created in the imago Dei, the very image and likeness of God.  Paul reminds us in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Think about it: Christ died… for us… so that we might live and so that we might share that love with others in the name of Jesus.

We are the body of Christ.

We are a body that exists for one purpose: to love God with everything that we have and to love our neighbors as God loves us.

We are the body and we are Christ’s representatives to the world.  And those of us who claim the faith of Jesus must make our stand in the world to proclaim Christ to everyone in every corner of the earth. Just like the song by Casting Crowns says:

Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the Body of Christ 

But if we are the Body
Why aren’t His arms reaching
Why aren’t His hands healing
Why aren’t His words teaching 

And if we are the Body
Why aren’t His feet going
Why is His love not showing them there is a way
There is a way.

Jesus IS the way.

Jesus calls us to throw aside our prejudices and our fears and to go into the world and engage the world with his message of love to all people… period.

The work won’t be easy, but if we give our all to the honor and glory of God, then the rewards will be plenty.  And the best part is that we won’t be there alone and on our own, because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit will be by our side as we go about His work – the work not of a kingdom that is yet to come, but a kingdom yet to be revealed in the here and now.

We are the body of Christ and it’s time for us to get to work.

Thanks be to God.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sermon June 28, 2015

We continue our adventure with David, who, as you recall, has been anointed by God to become the new King of Israel to replace Saul. Last week, we watched as he found victory over Goliath of Gath. Now, this week we enter a new phase of David’s life as he prepares to ascend to the throne as the new king of Israel.

It has been a long, and dangerous journey. When David killed Goliath, he was hailed far and wide for his heroism, and this was a threat to Saul. In the meantime, David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, became very close friends. In fact, they became inseparable, almost like twin brothers from different mothers. They became closer than family… as close and dear friends can become… and their closeness bothered Saul too.

Saul wanted to keep David close at hand in order to keep a watch on him as his popularity with the people of Israel continued to grow. So, he brought David into the royal household to keep an eye on him. But Saul’s plans went awry very quickly. For one thing, Jonathan’s fondness for David grew quickly, and Jonathan could sense that his father did not have the best intentions for his friend.

Long story short, David ended up running for his life once Jonathan got wind of what was up with his dad. Jonathan did his best to protect his friend.

In the meantime, the Philistines regrouped and attacked the army of Israel and in the battle, Jonathan and his brothers were killed and Saul was gravely injured. His injuries were so great and his fear of being killed by the Philistines was so strong that Saul ordered his armor bearer to kill him so that he would avoid the indignity of death at the hand of his enemies. When his servant refused to kill him, Saul took his sword and committed the first act of suicide recorded in the Bible.

That is the backstory leading to our Old Testament text for this morning.

Once David has received word of the death of Jonathan and Saul, he leads the nation in mourning and lament over their death.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a prescribed period of mourning… it is the minimum amount of time that is expected for propriety sake, but it serves as the official time of mourning for all of the family and friends of the deceased. There is nothing that limits the time of mourning for as long as it may take, but the minimums are designed to give the family time to process their grief and hopefully work through their loss.

One of the problems that we have in our society today is that we have forgotten how to grieve. When a loved one is lost, there are many who try to comfort the survivor with platitudes that, all to often, don’t bring comfort, but bring more pain and sorrow upon them.
One of the best ways that we can help someone who is grieving is to give them the space to grieve. Give them the space to be angry at God, if necessary, and stand by them and support them in their grief.

I remember my Aunt Vola Mae and my Uncle Mac. They were married for 52 years. From what I understand, they argued incessantly for about 50 of those years. Imagine if you will, that Aunt Vola was Aunt Esther to my Uncle Mac’s Fred Sanford. If you get that picture, then you can understand what I’m trying to describe here.

When Mac died in 1986, it was after a brief illness, I seem to recall that from diagnosis to death was only about 2 weeks. And during those 2 weeks, Vola never left his side. Constantly caring for the man that I had only heard her refer to as “that old fool”… and that was when she was being nice to him.

I will never forget very early in the visitation at the funeral home, a long time neighbor of theirs told my Aunt Vola, “well, he’s in a better place” and my Aunt Vola lit into her “And you think that is supposed to make me feel better? Right now there is a hole in my heart that he filled ever since Olivia died (Olivia was their daughter who died shortly before her first birthday). All of the fussing that we did over the years was our way of coping with the death of our baby. You don’t know squat and I wish you’d just leave.” My aunt Vola died less than 2 weeks later… from a broken heart that had been held together for all those years by “that old fool.”

The book of Lamentations and the Psalms give us a window into the human condition. Alternate readings from Lamentations and the Book of Wisdom remind us that “God didn’t make death” that “God takes no delight in the ruin of anything that lives” and that “death entered the universe only through the devil’s envy” (Wisdom 1:13, 2:24 CEB). We are also reminded that in hardship and in death, “certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through” (Lamentations 3:22 CEB). Psalm 130 reminds us that God hears us when we cry out from the depths of our despair and our anguish, in the midst of our pain and our sorrow, and delivers us from all of that if we seek his face and rest in his amazing grace.

We are reminded that in the midst of our grief, God is with us. Ready to hold us. Ready to allow us to rest in God’s presence. Ready for us to rage and cry out and exhibit our grief in whatever way that we must so that healing may begin… so that wholeness may once again be ours. Our God is our help in ages past. He is our shelter when the stormy blast of life’s struggles and heartaches threaten to consume us in our grief, our anger, and our despair… and God in Jesus Christ is our hope for things to come.

Jesus tells us “I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died and behold I am alive forevermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.”

David placed his hope in the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When we are faced with uncertainty, when we are faced with a changing culture, and when we begin to face tremendous change in our lives and in the society surrounding us, we don’t need to fear… we don’t need to hunker down in our silos and act like we’re under attack… we don’t need to waste our time lamenting the fact that things have changed and perhaps not to our liking. In times like these we need to get to our knees, seek God’s will in our lives and then step boldly into the world, not to condemn the world… even Jesus didn’t come to do that (cf John 3:17), but to engage the world with the love of Christ… a love ordered by God, exemplified by Christ and enlivened and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Instead of getting on our soapbox and crying woe is me and woe to you who disagree, we should be bearers of Christ’s love to all people. And we should show them that we are Christians by our love, not by shouting out what we are against.

For too long, the church has been in a comfortable position. It was pretty much accepted that people were Christians, whether they were part of a church family or ever even attended church or not. Ever notice how many times you see in an obituary that someone was of the “Methodist faith” or the “Baptist faith”… pretty much a declaration that the last time that person set foot in a church was well beyond anyone’s memory and probably beyond several folks lifetimes.

For too long, we’ve had it easy, whether folks were in the pews or not. And for too long we have let cultural hot button issues as defined by the folks with the biggest and loudest mouths, especially here in America, define what was or wasn’t Christian… what sins were important and what were not. We’ve had too many voices shouting out about the unborn while turning a blind eye to those who are born, not caring about poverty, or justice, or mercy.

We’ve singled out homosexuality to be a major sin while ignoring the other things that Paul lists like gossip, slander, gluttony, and divorce. And in the process of all of this, we have made the church look hateful, intolerant, and irrelevant in the lives of too many people.

We have emasculated our witness by shouting about what we are against instead of lifting up what we are about. We have forgone the love of Christ and the idea of doing unto others as we would have them do to us, to become nothing more than crybabies who throw tantrums if we don’t get our way. It’s been our way or the highway, instead of pointing to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life for far too long and it has got to stop.

We are called to love… period. Jesus declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, but we have abandoned the message of Jesus for a message of condemnation and the world has seen the hypocrisy that is evident in such a stand.

So, as society changes around us, we don’t need to abandon Christ, we need to hold on closer to Christ with both hands and boldly share with others the risk taking love of Christ. We need to look to Christ for our inspiration and we need to love others as he loves us.

It might not be easy. It might even be painful. But no one has ever said that following Christ would be easy or painless. We may not agree with someone’s lifestyle, but that has never given us permission to act in a hateful way toward them.

Friends, if we live out our lives seeking to exemplify Christ’s love in all that we say and do, we will do more to change lives and hearts than we can ever begin to imagine. Our protests against what we see as another’s sin will never lead that person to Jesus. Our living as though Christ makes a difference in our life can make all of the difference in the world. Thanks be to God…