Monday, July 14, 2014

Cracks in the Sidewalk (A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower.19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
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The scripture lesson this morning is one of the most popular stories in all of the Bible. Jesus tells a parable, a short story of a farmer who goes out with a satchel full of seeds and scatters them all around. Some of the ground is covered up with a path, so the seed gets eaten up by birds. Some of the ground is rocky, so the seeds sprout and are scorched.  Some of the ground is thorny, so the seeds are choked out and die. And some of the ground is good soil, so the seeds grow and thrive and produce, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. And the point is that you should be good soil for the seeds of faith so that they grow and thrive and produce in you.

None of this is earth-shattering news, so let’s get past the surface level and call a spade a spade. We know this story as the parable of the sower. I’d call it the story of the terrible farmer. I mean, this guy is SO wasteful! He takes handfuls and throws them everywhere, which is a terrible way to farm. I’m a little bit of an amateur gardener, and even I know that you don’t just throw seeds everywhere. First you find the good soil and THEN you put the seeds in the ground. You don’t throw the seed all willy-nilly all over the place. That’s a waste of perfectly good seeds. A farmer who threw his seeds around like that would be out of business in a year, his family starving while the birds ate their fill.

And maybe this is a terrible way to farm, but I will be honest that as a Christian, as somebody who is just trying to follow Jesus, this story resonates with me. It’s not as easy as finding the good soil and then planting your seeds. These days, it seems that the good soil is awfully hard to find, and it is no surprise. You turn on the television and see kids, ten deep, piled up at the border. Children! If you live to be a thousand years old, will you ever understand that sort of thing? It can be enough to make you throw up your hands and let the seeds go where they may. Or you hear about increased violence in the West Bank, as Israel and Palestine race to see who can be the first to completely annihilate the other. Or you read about Syria, or Egypt, or this famine, or that violence, and you try to figure out how to raise your kids in this mess, and you almost want to just give up. The good soil is awfully hard to find, which is one reason we come to church, to this particular garden on this particular corner.

This isn’t to suggest that we have it all together, church, that we’ve got it figured out while the rest of the world is screwed up. I hope this isn’t too offensive to you, but I’ve met some of the most screwed up people I’ve ever met inside the doors of the church, which is exactly right because what we are is not a high horse but rather a hospital for sinners. We’re supposed to be people who acknowledge our own brokenness, who know that we aren’t good enough on our own, that we can’t save ourselves. That’s why we’re here, because we need Jesus, because we’ve encountered a love so much larger than ourselves that we can’t pretend we haven’t seen it.

And yet. And yet when we try to share that love in specific ways, when we try to invite people to church, or to tell them about Jesus, well, you may have had some of these conversations. You know how it goes. Oh, we’re not really church people. We are so busy we like to spend Sunday mornings together as a family; I am sure God understands. Church is just so judgmental; why would I bother with it? Or you know, I see God in the trees and the sunsets. My church is outdoors.

Do any of these ring bells? Have you heard them before? I have heard all of them, as I have had conversations with folks. It is funny. My wife, Stacey, is also a pastor as you know, and we have this game we play sometimes at cocktail parties, where we get in a conversation with somebody and when it is time to exit the conversation, one of us will say to the person we’re talking to, “So what do you do for a living?” and they will tell us that they are lawyers, or teachers, or whatever, and then they will inevitably ask us the same question, and then at the end of the night Stacey and I compare notes to see how quickly people high-tail it from the conversation when we tell them that we are pastors. It works every time! They’ll either sort of say, “Oh,” and then walk away slowly, or they will stammer something about needing to go back to church and then walk away in shame. It happens without fail. The good soil is awfully hard to find.

And I wish it weren’t so, but so much of the fact that it can be so hard to find the good soil is because the earth has been scorched by the church. If we were all as gracious as we’re supposed to be, as generous as we’re supposed to be, as kind and loving and open-minded and all the rest, I’d venture to say we would have more luck finding places to sow seeds. And this isn’t fair, because around here, we really are those things, I think, at least as much as people who have checked into a hospital for sinners can be, but that’s the world. It’s the way it is, for we live in a world with televangelists and sexual misconduct among the clergy and flashy displays of power by the church, and fair or not, this is the ground we’ve been given to plant. The soil is thorny with those who seek to do us harm. It is rocky with religious baggage. It’s been covered up by the well-worn paths of those who have walked away from the faith, deciding it’s just worth it anymore.

The worst part is that I wish these folks who look down on the church could see North Decatur United Methodist Church! I wish they could see Jesus at work in a church that has people who are rich, people who are poor, people who are black and white and gay and straight and young and old, people who are so conservative they are mad about almost everything, so liberal they barely believe anything, and everything in between! I wish they could see this: you! But it usually does not get that far, because the good soil is hard to find.

And yet the parable doesn’t say “a sower saw that some of the ground was rocky, and some was thorny, and some was shallow, so he decided to limit his efforts to the good soil, wherever that was.” It says, “a sower sowed seed, and he sowed it in all of these places.” Maybe he was a bad farmer, but it turns out that he was a pretty good Christian.

I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but I have been in church settings where people have said, “we don’t need to reach out to those people. They’d never come to church.” I mean, says who? Who gets to decide that sort of thing? The sower sows where he will, and some of the seed lands on fertile ground.
This is all well and good, but those of us who have invited people to church know that it can be a demoralizing experience, for we’re much more likely to discover that the ground on which we’ve planted our hard earned seeds is not the fertile ground for which we’d hoped. It can be embarrassing to discover that what you thought was miracle grow was in fact concrete, hard as a rock and no place to grow crops. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of busing up concrete with a sledgehammer, but if the concrete cracks, and it gives, it is hard enough, but if you swing the hammer and it doesn’t crack, you feel it in your teeth. You feel it in your toes. And this can be what it feels like to open yourself up to share the deepest things in your heart, your love for God, the amazing community you’ve found by being part of the church, and then to learn that it turns out you’ve thrown seed on the path, where it will get eaten by birds. You feel it in your teeth.

And yet. Someone, somewhere along the way, must have taken a chance on you. Somebody—a parent, a friend, a stranger even—must have been willing to take a chance, to open up, to swing at the concrete on the off chance that maybe, maybe this time it will take. Maybe this time, I will have discovered fertile ground.

Somebody, somewhere along the way, must have thought that even though the good soil can be hard to find, even though the paths of those who have left the church are well-worn, there are sometimes cracks in the sidewalk. And sometimes, cracks in the sidewalk are wide enough, deep enough for seeds to sprout. We may not be surrounded by farmland, but there are enough cracks in the sidewalk around this church, around our lives that if we are willing to plant even where it seems hopeless, some seeds will take root and the Kingdom of God will sprout from the most unexpected places, which keeps things interesting after all.

I will acknowledge that it takes a lot of faith to do this work. More seeds get eaten by birds and choked out by thorns than take root. And it’s awfully easy to become jaded, to say, oh, it’s just not worth it, the world just doesn’t care and I am so tired of spinning my wheels. As a pastor, I see it all the time, and I find it to be among the saddest things I know, to watch someone who buys into this love thing we talk so much about lose hope in a difficult world.

And that’s why what we are doing here, in this place, is so important. It is why I am so pleased we are a diverse church, and why we need to become even more so, I think, for it is the case that if the church is the body of Christ, the more diverse the congregation, the fuller the picture of the face of God. It’s why what we are doing here on this corner matters so much, for it is not a game, but rather deadly important, for we are a witness that all people, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white, sinner, saint: all people are children of God. And I don’t know of anything more hopeful than a baptism, than a claiming of a child by God, a child who isn’t even old enough to choose for himself, which is the point, because you don’t achieve grace; you receive grace. It’s hope that baptizes that child. It’s hope that sends him out into a difficult world to be an agent of love. It’s hope that helps him grow, that serves as wise counsel and a holy example. It’s hope that sends him out with a satchel and seeds and says go plant in the name of Jesus Christ, not where you think respectable society wants you to plant, but all over, because even the hardest concrete cracks, and in those cracks grows the kingdom of God: bearing fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold.

After all, this is who we are as children of God, broken like busted-up concrete, recognizing that we can’t do this by ourselves, acknowledging the incredible power of love, love that takes root in the cracks in our souls and pushes up toward the sky. This is who we are as God’s beloved, sowers of God’s love in the world and proof that even when it seems like the earth is scorched, God is at work. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 7, 2014

July 6 Sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 11:28-30
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
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Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Oh, what sweet words those are and how prone we are not to believe them. Those of us in the church spend so much time trying to make Christianity harder than it is, trying to earn God’s favor, working our fingers to the bone in order to achieve God’s grace. What a strange problem this is for those of us who live in the world today: to feel like we’ve got to earn God’s love. Of course, this is not how love works, so why do we feel like we have to work and work and work, give more and give more, desperately wanting approval from the God who created us and who wants to save us? We spend so much energy trying to achieve grace rather than allowing ourselves to receive grace!
Now, this is just my opinion, but I think a big part of the reason we spend so much time trying to achieve God’s favor is that it can be hard to tell the difference between those who want to achieve grace and those who want to receive grace. You probably assume everybody else is doing whatever it is that you are doing.
For example. If you want to achieve grace, you’ll likely throw a little more money than usual in the offering place, hoping that God will bless you and give you that which you seek. But if you want to receive grace, well, you probably do the same thing out of gratitude for the gift of grace you’ve been given. Now, if you look at the giving statements of these two people, they will look the same. But if you look at the heart of each of these people, you’ll see a distinct difference. The one who thinks that grace is something that we’re supposed to achieve doesn’t sleep well, has trouble being satisfied, never feels good enough. And the one who understands that God’s grace can only be received, that there’s nothing we can do to achieve it, that person has a deep peace. That doesn’t mean there’s never trouble. It doesn’t mean that the life of faith isn’t difficult. Quite the contrary: we follow a savior, remember, who was crucified for his sins. But peace doesn’t mean that we never have hardship. It means we understand there’s a grounding deeper than whatever is happening to us right this moment. It means we aren’t held hostage by the immediate, but given freedom by our ultimate trust in God.
It seems to me that as I survey the state of Christianity in the world, and in particularly the United States of America, there are a lot more people trying to achieve grace than who are willing to receive it, and that’s not a huge surprise. Trying to achieve grace is a lot easier than being willing to receive it, even if it is never successful, because being willing to receive grace involves admitting that you, with your gifts and talents and expertise, you are not good enough. You can try and try and try and you’ll never reach the heights of achieving the acceptance you are looking for. To receive grace is to admit that we’re each broken, broken by our pasts and our sins and our ultimate trust in ourselves above all else, and to allow God to fill those broken places. You can’t achieve that kind of healing, that kind of wholeness. You can only receive it.
Now, there’s a danger for the church here, and I’m just as susceptible to it as anybody. You come to church, week after week, and you hear sermons about what you need to do better, or what God expects of you, or how to be a good Christian, and it’s subversive, that kind of message, because while it is true we ought to all be better Christians, while it is true that we have work to do in the interest of following Jesus, it is also true that none of these things will help you achieve grace. Grace is a gift. You can’t earn it. You have to receive it.
So even though sometimes it can seem like the church wants you to earn it, because the pastor keeps saying you need to follow Jesus ever more closely, the fact of the matter is that you can’t earn grace. It’s free. This is what Jesus means when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A yoke, of course, is the thing you put over the neck of oxen to bind them together and keep their heads down. And Jesus is clear that while there are limits to the Christian life—we are certainly bound together by it—the yoke is easy. It doesn’t keep our heads down; it lets us raise them, in fact. Our burden is light. You need not walk around like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders. Jesus already took care of that burden for you. He offers grace to everyone, for each person—even you!—is a child of God.
You can’t earn grace, for in our United Methodist tradition we believe that it goes before us pulling us towards God even before we know who God is. Maybe it is grace that drew you here this morning. I don’t know. But it is an incredible gift, grace, and as you have heard me say, I refuse to lead with grace, as if it’s the most important among other things. I think leading with grace isn’t a strong enough witness to the power of grace. Grace is all there is. It’s the way God interacts with us, and yes, there are expectations, but don’t let those expectations trick you into thinking you can earn grace. Grace isn’t karma. It’s different. As Thomas Merton, that great Roman Catholic theologian of the last century has said, grace is “God’s own life, shared with us.” John Wesley, the founder of our rich theological heritage as United Methodists, talks about grace as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” You don’t achieve it. You receive it.
This can be hard to understand in a world and an economic system centered on earing your keep, of getting what you deserve, of achieving greatness. But it is the fundamental promise of the entire Bible that God loves you and there’s nothing you have ever done or nothing you could ever do to fully deserve that love. That’s grace, that gift of love.
And I will admit something as your pastor. I struggle with this kind of thing just as much as the next person. I like to excel. I am pretty good at it, in fact, and it turns out that my own sense of self-worth is pretty largely predicated upon the things that I do well. And maybe this resonates with you as a church that does mission really well, that takes seriously God’s call to serve the poor, but I think that if I am honest, I have to admit that even my serving in God’s name is sometimes influenced by my own need to excel, to earn God’s favor, to achieve God’s grace rather than to receive God’s grace.
You have probably heard me talk about some of the mission trips I’ve had the chance to participate in. I spent three years on staff at United Methodist Volunteers in Mission so I’ve had the opportunity to serve in some pretty remarkable places. Come down to my office some time and I will show you some of my relics from those trips, batiq paintings from Mozambique, a coal-dust nativity set from Kentucky, some wood crafts from Cuba. But the most meaningful thing I’ve ever brought back from one of my mission trips was something I did not buy. In fact, if I’d been given the chance to buy it, I never would have. Let me explain.
Stacey and I led a mission trip to Uganda in 2012, I think it was. We were working with a school for kids whose families had been affected by HIV and AIDS, the Humble school, which is a great name. I wonder what it would be like to serve the Humble church. We could do worse than that.
But we were there to work with the school, to teach the kids a little bit, and to do some work on a dormitory for the girls who were a part of that school, putting up some bricks, doing some light construction in the hot African sun.
I will admit to you that I had a little bit of an ulterior motive. As somebody who has been involved in denominational mission efforts, I wanted to make sure to use the trip to teach the people who were with us about the importance of mission, to sort of whet their whistle on the work of loving God by loving people. Maybe this is a little shocking, I don’t know, but some people sign up for these trips just because they want an adventure, so you have to sneak in a little relationship work, a little teaching about the importance of serving God’s people. And I’ve seen it as a big part of my calling to ministry, and especially my job as the head of that team, to teach people about mission, to excel, to have a great team who would go back and, because of my work, you know, change the world or whatever.
We had a good trip, and people were starting to open up about the things they were experiencing, and I started to feel pretty good about myself. I was thinking, you know, great, this is what I wanted, to bring these people here and to have them experience God in a new way. I’m thinking, I’m something else. I’m pretty good at this. In fact, I had the added pleasure of sharing something with one of the Ugandan pastors we were working with. I had this little pocket book of worship I’d picked up at the denominational bookstore for 8 or 9 dollars or something insignificant. I use it for funerals and weddings and the like, and I had it with me to use during our evening team devotionals. And the Ugandan pastor we were working with saw me reading it one day and his eyes got really big and he told me that the thing he’d always wanted was a United Methodist Book of Worship. I guess I should mention here that he wasn’t just any pastor. He was a district superintendent, and his district was the Sudan. Not, you know, this little stretch of the Sudan, or that swath of Sudan, but Sudan. The whole thing. This guy has almost nothing—his family is two countries away and he’s been wearing the same clergy shirt every day with a rip in the chest, and I figured, you know, this thing cost me 8 or 9 dollars, so I gave it to him and felt awfully good about myself, having given this great gift that he’d always wanted.
Well, it was the very last day of the trip, and as a sort of treat for the team, we went to Victoria Falls, which is the start of the Nile River, and then we drove to a little African zoo, which wasn’t as exciting as a safari but still pretty amusing, especially when a monkey stole the sunglasses off the head of one of our team members. And at the end of the day, we were standing around just at the inside of the zoo, where there was a little stand where a guy sold little trinkets, sort of a miniature flea market, with some fruit, and some housewares and the like. And I saw the District Superintendent walk over the stand and exchange a little money, and I sort of wonder where he got the money to engage this guy, but I figure he’s getting a snack or whatever.
Well, we get back to the bus and are headed to the airport to head back to Atlanta, and we’re sweaty, and dirty, and we smell like a fraternity house after a long weekend, and the district superintendent sits down next to me and pulls out a plastic bag and hands it to me. And I ask him, what is this? And he says, “It is a presentation.” It took me a minute to realize that he meant he’d given me a gift, and I open it, and I pull out the kindest thing I’ve ever received. It was a Nike watch, and it didn’t work, but that didn’t matter. If that thing could have run on love it’d be running an hour fast. I would have never, never bought that watch, but then, I really couldn’t have, for the power was in the giving, in the gift, in the sacrifice.

You know, I could work my entire life and never make enough money to buy that kind of love, to achieve that kind of grace. But having received it, I can’t shake the feeling that it is incumbent on me to share it with everybody I meet. Amen.

Monday, June 30, 2014

June 29 Sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 10:37-42
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
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I want to talk this morning about hospitality, which is one of those buzzwords we throw around a lot in the church, and it sounds lovely, like we’re offering a full-service experience here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. But hospitality is more than a buzz word, more than a simple offering of a cold cup of water.
I was doing some reading this week and I came across something I want to share with you from the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary here in Decatur. And she talks about a student who serves at the Open Door Community, which is an organization we’ve been involved with here at North Decatur for probably thirty years. So I thought I would share it this morning.
She says, “The Open Door is a community of hospitality that serves the homeless with meals, clothes, showers, and other services that are hard to come by, on the street. But the main thing The Open Door does is to offer these things in a way that is more like a family than an assembly line, and in that respect, it gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on how we participate in ministries of hospitality: how we offer, or receive, that cup of cold water.[Now, there are a slew of churches and organizations] in Atlanta who serve meals to the homeless—thousands of meals, every day. There’s nothing wrong with this, but these organizations often divide the giver and receiver by placing a physical barrier between them: the buffet table. The only encounter between the parties is the moment when the server’s spoon touches the diner’s plate; there is hardly any need for touch, talk, or even eye contact. One could feasibly stand on either side of this barrier all day long, and never communicate with another soul.Breakfast at the Open Door is different. There are only 120 tickets available each morning. At 6:00 a.m., the door opens, and the person standing at the door begins calling numbers. As your number is called, you enter the dining room and sit family style. Servers bring platters of food, and then they bring refills, as many as you like. There is space and time for conversation, and because the same faces tend to show up day after day, week after week, friendships form. These kinds of relationships are possible because the space is created for them. The Open Door is committed to offering the cup of cold water, yes—but it has also thought long and hard about how to offer it. It may not sound all that practical, but they have decided that offering a smaller number of cups around a table is preferable to offering a thousand cups in a line.”
So this is Dalton talking now, and I will be honest; mostly I like this story because much of what the Open Door does is because of your generosity, as there’s a group here that gets together each month and sits around the table making sandwiches for the Open Door. And so, North Decatur, you already understand that one of the fundamental themes of scripture is that hospitality matters. The work of God cannot just be measured in the number of cups of cold water you offer, but in the hospitality you offer in Jesus’ name. This is why Jesus says, in more than one place in the Gospel of Matthew, that whenever you welcome the stranger, you welcome Jesus.
Which brings us to the cup of cold water. You can go through the motions of hospitality, but unless you are offering hospitality in the spirit God calls you to offer it, unless you are actually welcoming rather than offering lip service to the new people you meet, even if they drive you crazy, the Gospel says, you aren’t worthy of the reward of Jesus Christ.
So rather than talking about the great gifts of hospitality, about how wonderful it is to welcome new people, about how fabulous it makes you feel to invite new people into the fellowship, let’s get real. Hospitality stinks. More often than not, welcoming people is really hard, because the people we are called to welcome are often people way different than we are. I mean, if I were invited to author the people who walked through the door, they’d all look and act and believe like me, and maybe that sounds like hell to you, but it sounds awfully nice to me. But then there’s the point, if everybody looked like us, we’d all look the same, too, and we’d miss out on a whole number of dimensions of what it means to be God’s church made in God’s image.
Hospitality is hard, and that’s part of why Jesus talks about it so much, why there is such reward associated with it. So rather than talking about hospitality as some pie-in-the-sky thing, let’s get real and talk about the three people Jesus calls us to welcome. It would be helpful, if you’d like, to turn to your Bible at this point as we’re going to be looking at this scripture a little more in depth. Jesus specifically names three people to whom we are to extend hospitality, and none of them is particularly easy to welcome.
The first person that Jesus wants us to welcome is the prophet. He says that whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, which sounds great until you remember that a prophet is not somebody on late night television who you can call now for a free tarot card reading. A Biblical prophet doesn’t predict the future, at least not in the way we’d like. Rather than saying that, oh, this card means that you’re going to come into great wealth, a prophet says, unless you change your ways, you are going to have big trouble. That’s the person Jesus wants us to welcome, a prophet, a person who predicts big trouble for us if we don’t change our ways.
Now, let me ask you this. If we had somebody walk in the back doors of the church, right in the middle of the service, who stood in the aisle and wouldn’t leave until he or she had the chance to tell us that we’ve got to change or the church is in trouble, how would you feel about that? Would you feel particularly hospitable? Or would you call the police? I’m not saying we want disorder in the church. I am just saying that if we want to do as Jesus says, we’ve got to remember that the kind of people we are supposed to welcome are the kind of people who walk in and tell us what we are doing wrong, which is not exactly the most fun thing in the whole world. But if we can just welcome and listen, we might just hear a word from God, which is the point, right?
OK, the second person that Jesus wants us to welcome is the person who is righteous. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous. And listen, if you thought it was hard to welcome the prophet, just try spending quality time with a righteous person. Maybe it is just me, but righteous people drive me crazy. You know me, I’m all about authenticity, being who you are, not getting caught up in being holier than thou, but some people really are righteous. They are more generous than I am with the church, they are better about keeping their language in check while they are in traffic, they are more successful at bringing people together and doing the work of God in the world and raising their families and saving the whales, and I will be honest, it drives me crazy! And you know why it drives me crazy? It’s jealousy, of course. As much as I want to pretend it’s all about those righteous people being holier than thou, it’s really about my own sense of inadequacy, about my own jealousy towards people who seem to have it all together. I can blame it on other people all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s about me and my jealousy towards people who seem to have it all together.
It is not as easy as it sounds, to provide hospitality, to welcome those people into our lives. But it is what Jesus calls us to do, and with good reason, because if we can get past the ridiculous jealousy that sometimes rules our lives, we can see that there is much we have to learn about what it means to live in the fullness of God’s love, of God’s call on our lives. To welcome the righteous is to allow them to rub off on us a little bit, to be called to something better, something greater, something bigger, and isn’t that why we are all here anyway?
The third person Jesus wants us to welcome is probably the easiest to agree upon and the hardest to actually do. Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” He’s talking about the most vulnerable among us, which of course is children. He’s talking about welcoming children. It seems like it would be easy to agree on this, but you’ll note that the church as a whole doesn’t have such a great track record of welcoming children. We hear awful stories of abuse—and some of us have lived these stories—and we understandably recoil. And it is easy to say we want to be the church that welcomes children, at least until the budget cycle rolls around and we’ve got to decide whether children’s ministry gets the money or we fix the sink or we buy ourselves something nice or give the pastor a raise. You understand, these things might all be good in theory, but if they stand in the way of welcoming these little ones, Jesus says later in the Gospel of Matthew, you might as well tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself in the river. Welcoming children is hard, and you’ve heard me talk time and time again about God’s vision for North Decatur as being the church that welcomes and loves children, but we’ve got to do more than just sign up once in a blue moon to help teach or give lip service to it. If we are going to welcome children, we’ve got to welcome these little ones, and we have to do it in such a way that we aren’t putting a barrier between us and the families who need to hear the Gospel, who need help raising their kids. Just like those people who say, we want to give out as many cold cups of water as possible as long as the buffet table keeps us from having to build relationships with the people who are homeless, the church sometimes says of children, we want to advertise that we love kids because it sounds nice, or so that we can rope new people into joining the church. That’s not good enough, because when Jesus talks about welcoming, he really means welcoming. He means focusing on the things that lead children into a journey of faith that can sustain them for their whole lives long. Maybe you don’t particularly love children, but if you want to receive your reward, you’ve just got to get over it, because when we serve children, when we serve the vulnerable, we see a glimpse of the God who so identifies with those who are the least of these that he was willing to die as a criminal on a cross.
So. Those are the three people Jesus calls us to welcome. We’ve got work to do, church, so let me leave you with one final thought. In this passage, there’s actually a fourth person Jesus talks about welcoming. There’s actually a fourth. If you have your Bible out, take a look at what he says in verse 40. He says, “whoever welcomes . . . you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Whoever welcomes . . . you. That’s a helpful reminder, because the three people Jesus calls us to welcome aren’t the easy to truly welcome, but maybe dealing with us isn’t always peaches and cream, and maybe that’s precisely the point. There is no us versus them. The traditional walls that keep us from one another has to come down. The metaphorical buffet table that stands between those of us in this room and everybody else gets turned over by Jesus Christ who reminds us that hospitality is not just any other buzz word. It’s a recognition that we’re all in this together. It’s a call to welcome the stranger, because it is the case that whether they realize it or not, people need Jesus. People need the church. People need us, and we need them.

Whoever welcomes . . . you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. So let us open our hearts to new relationships, new ways of being. Let us open our minds to new expressions of Jesus in new people. And, my God, somebody throw open the doors, because even if it makes practical sense, if it stands between us and other people, it’s not of God. In the name of the one who calls us to welcome one another just like he first welcomed us, Amen, and Amen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sin and the marriage debate

Just a quick post with a single thought. I had a conversation recently with a colleague who sees the issue of marriage equality/ordination of lesbians and gays differently than I do, and as usually happens in holy conferencing, our conversation helped me gain better understanding of his perspective.

It's a common belief that the ongoing conversation about unity in the church is deeper than the presenting issue of same-sex marriage. Adam Hamilton, among others, has said that the difficulties surrounding our conversation about sexuality stem from our different understandings of Biblical authority. I resonate with much of Hamilton's reasoning, but I am starting to think that in some ways, this line of argument misses the mark. Let me explain.

One of the lines of discussion in the same-sex marriage debate is related to God's design for humans. The argument goes this way: God's design is for a man and a woman to be united in marriage. So, too, are children part of that plan. Anything other than this arrangement is contrary to God's plan.

I could say, all right, perhaps this is God's plan, but things happen. Infertility happens. Differences in sexual orientation happen. These things are not necessarily the result of sin. They are simply the result of being human. Things just happen.

And yet many of those who see same sex marriage as inherently sinful do not buy the "things just happen" line. Instead, some would argue that original sin cannot be separated from issues like infertility. So while infertility may not be God's plan for marriage, the argument goes, it is ultimately the result of human sin. Same-sex attraction, then, would likewise be a result of original sin, compelling Christians to stand against it.

I don't mean to cast aspersions; I am just trying to understand the dynamics of the conversation, and if you think I'm being unfair, feel free to comment below. But this is all to say that the difference in perspective may not simply be about different understandings of scripture, but rather different understandings of sin.  Maybe this is obvious to everybody but me, but I found it to be something of a revelation.
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update, 6/24: I have been thinking about this post and want to make sure that I am fair. This is not a line of argument I ascribe to, so I am obviously not the best person to defend it. That said, maybe a fairer way to talk about the original sin argument is to say that it presumes that God's plan for marriage is that it be between a man and a woman. If the man and woman choose not to have a child, that's a value-neutral decision. If the man and woman choose to have children but cannot, the resulting infertility can be traced back to original sin. Like I said, not an argument I buy. I am just trying to understand the dynamics involved.

June 23 Sermon

Matthew 10:24-39
24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
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Mike Anderson, who is graciously coordinating extended session for our kids six and younger, does a really good job of finding ways to connect the scripture we read in worship with the activities the kids do at the same time downstairs in the fellowship hall. He likes the kids to share what we do up here. And so Monday of this week, as we were preparing for Vacation Bible School, Mike asked me what I was preaching on this week. And I told him that the lectionary passage appointed for today, the scripture we are scheduled to engage this morning, is a very random series of statements from Jesus that don’t make much sense and when they do make sense, they are pretty much universally disturbing. At which point he said, “never mind. We’ll do the mustard seed or something.”
I want to acknowledge that this is difficult material, that it is dense, that it reads like a weird list of uncomfortable things, so it’s an unusual passage to be reading on a day like today, when we’ve welcomed so many of our Vacation Bible School families to worship for the first time. If you want to share the love of Jesus with people you’ve just met, maybe it is not such a great idea to skip straight to the part where Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law,” although if my own family is any guide, the last one is already pretty obvious.
But the context is important; you’ve got to look at the context, and here, Jesus is talking to his Disciples, giving them instructions for how to be his followers, and earlier in Matthew chapter 10, just before the verses we read this morning, he says this: Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. Don’t take any money. Don’t take luggage, not that you need it, because to be a disciple is to not even take extra clothes, extra shoes, a staff to defend yourself. They are to go out totally vulnerable, like sheep, he says, in the midst of wolves.
You can imagine the looks on the disciples’ faces as they start to understand that the life Jesus is asking them to take on as his followers is inherently vulnerable, as they start to realize that they will likely be killed in service to God, which is pretty much with happened to all of them. The church sometimes pretends that the work of following Jesus is all cupcakes and unicorns, and we do have great joy in Christ, but this passage reminds us that the sacrifices of the Christian life are real. Following Jesus isn’t about trying to get something. It’s about trying to give something, and for the disciples, that meant their lives.
But do not fear, because I, for one, am absolutely convinced this is all good news. It is easy to read something like this, about Jesus coming to bring the sword instead of peace, about how he will turn households against one another, and just take it at face value, which, as I’ve said, is disturbing. It’s enough to make you want to say Never mind, let’s just talk about the mustard seed or something.
But the context! The context is bigger than Jesus predicting bad things. If you take a step back, you’ll see that Jesus is not predicting bad things. He’s promising good things. He’s not predicting bad things; he’s looking at the world, acknowledging the difficulties of being human, and promising good things. It is an acknowledgement that the world’s most powerful force—fear—is no match for the power of God.
I think back to the most successful social movements of the past century, and you see how this plays out. You look at the civil rights movement, for instance, and you see just how powerful fear can be. Fire hoses are about instilling fear. Lynching is about instilling fear. I am serious when I say fear is the world’s most powerful force, and that’s because we are taught to fear from an early age: fear of strangers, fear of people who are different, and some of this teaching of fear is helpful—I won’t pretend that there aren’t scary people who seek to harm children. And the way you protect children is by instilling a little bit of fear. And politicians do it all the time: warning us of dire consequences if we don’t do this or accept that. It’s the whole point of terrorism, to selectively and decisively spread terror, to spread fear, and affect billions of people by killing a much smaller number of people. It’s why Bull Connor ordered the fire hoses to be used against African Americans in the civil rights movement. It’s why Emmett Till was murdered, Emmett Till, an 11 year old black kid who was accused of talking insolently to a white woman, Emmett Till, a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire before his body was thrown in the river. J.W. Milam, one of the murders, later said that the reason he killed Emmett Till was that it was time a few people got put on notice.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but the world is run by fear. To be human is to be scared of something. Scared of being found out. Scared of failure. Scared of sticking your neck out too far. Scared of losing your security.
This is why I think three of the most powerful words in all the Bible are Do. Not. Fear. Do not fear. The world is predicated on keeping us in line, on maintaining homeostasis, on not disrupting things too much. We tend to look at people who are different, who are not so bound by fear, as freaks. To those advocating change, we say, be patient, don’t upset the apple cart too much, just stay between these narrow boundaries and mow your lawn and care for your own and don’t pay too much attention to the problems in the world because who are you to do something about them anyway? Who are you?
I’ll tell you who you are. You are a child of God, a Disciple of Jesus Christ, an heir of the King of Heaven who did not come to leave things as they are but to disrupt the things that stand in the way of love. Those things that stand in the way are powerful, and they are held in place by powerful people protecting powerful interests, but though some days it may not seem like it, because we get so frustrated by the way things are that we are blinded to the way things could be, the agents of fear are no match for love.
You are a child of God, made in God’s image, and while it may be hard to believe in a world that uses violence as if it were just any other tool, you don’t need an extra cloak. You don’t need extra spending money. You don’t need extra shoes or a staff. In fact, those things actually obscure what it means to be a child of God, because they signal that being made in the image of God isn’t enough, as if you sort of trusted in the salvation that comes from God but needed to carry a big stick just in case.
You see, it is no coincidence that Jesus told the Disciples to leave everything behind and follow him with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a song in their hearts. That kind of vulnerability—that kind of loving trust in something beyond the fear that surrounds us—that kind of thing has power. I mean, it is true that without armor—emotional or otherwise—you can be mortally wounded. And while there are those who can kill the body, to follow Jesus is to acknowledge that nothing can kill the soul, and that perhaps the vulnerability of being an agent of hope in an awfully cynical world is more powerful than anything the world can throw at you. You understand why the world is so intimidated by vulnerability, because when you refuse to give in to fear, the world loses its best weapon.
Now it is not easy message, I will acknowledge, but it is one of the most important messages I know. It is a message that has been proven time and time again. You see pictures of students, black and white, sitting at segregated lunch counters together with nothing protecting them from the wildly thrown punches and incoming projectiles other than a blouse or a polo shirt. You hear stories of forgiveness in your own life, your own sphere, that make no logical sense, considering that which is being forgiven, but then, love does not work according to logic anyway, and it changes you, being in the presence of that kind of forgiveness. Or you remember that picture in Tianamen square, of the unknown protestor standing in front of a line of tanks. Time Magazine did this thing in 1999 where they listed the 100 most important people of the entire 20th century and Tank Man, as he came to be known, is on the list despite nobody actually knowing who he is. And what makes that picture so moving to me, so iconic is that the lone protestor is wearing street clothes, no armor, no extra tunic, no extra pair of sandals, no staff. If he’d been dressed in armor, it wouldn’t be so meaningful. There is power in vulnerability.
It’s a fundamental element of the major social movements of the last century that nonviolence is key to social change. And this is exactly why. It’s why Jesus told the disciples to go out without extra clothes, with no money and no staff. When all you have to rely on is the kindness of strangers and trust in God, you have power. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been killed, Gandhi may have been killed, but my God, if I do not hear the words of Jesus from this morning’s Gospel passage echo in my head every time I think of their faithful witness: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.” That’s not just about Heaven, y’all. That’s about power. It’s about acknowledging that when we devote ourselves to following Jesus, our lives go on beyond our bodies. You cannot kill the soul. There is power in that kind of witness, and it is a witness that lives beyond you.
Now I’m nearly done, and this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with me in my life? We can talk about the great social movements of the last century, but it makes me feel sort of feel inadequate about my little piece of the kingdom here, my own life. I mean, maybe this will change, but I don’t feel God pulling me toward any great movement. I don’t feel God telling me to stand so far out in front that my life is in danger. I have a small child, a family. I don’t think that’s what I am called to. And I don’t know about your private prayer time with God, but I think it’s unlikely you feel called to that sort of thing, either.
But you know what I do think I am called to? You know what I think we are all called to, individually and as a community? Vulnerability. Vulnerability. Carrying our hearts in our hands and offering them freely to one another and to those outside these doors. Not hiding them behind walls of bulletproof glass and hardened steel, but in front of us. That kind of thing can be painful, for when you offer your heart, you open yourself to being wounded. But there is strength in numbers, and it is why we bother getting the kids dressed and out the door in time for church. It is why you can’t sit at home and claim to be church. We need each other.

And the world needs us. The world is so full of fear that it is liable to collapse in on itself. And there’s only one antidote to fear. It’s Jesus. It’s the God who sends us out without armor to do the work of vulnerability in a world so full of fear that armor is almost standard issue at birth. It’s the armor that gets in the way of truly being in relationship with one another, so let us endeavor to take our hearts in our hands, leave behind the extra cloak and put on Christ instead, for while it is scary to go forth without armoring our hearts, it is the case that those who go forth in vulnerability, who go forth in Jesus’s name will find abundant life, for fear is no match for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 15 Sermon

Matthew 28:16-20
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I want to center my remarks this morning around the theme: “If you aren’t making disciples, you are doing it wrong.” If you aren’t making disciples, you are doing it wrong.
Well, let me again acknowledge that today is Father’s Day. I know not everyone has or has had good relationships with their father, and that makes today a difficult day for some, so let’s be sure we honor those complicated feelings. But each of us has had father figures in our own lives, whether they are biological or not, and I am thinking of many of the men who have mentored me, who have taught me things, who have given me advice.
A couple of weeks ago, I told you that my wife Stacey and I took Emmaline to Memphis to visit my family. One day that week, my wife, Stacey, my dad, my brother, and I put the car seat in my dad’s truck and took my daughter Emmaline about three hours outside of town to Lexington, TN to meet my 94-year-old great uncle. My grandfather, my dad’s father, was killed in a car accident while my dad was in medical school, so I never got to meet him, but Uncle Dick, my grandfather’s brother, never was married or had any children so he sort of stepped into that role for my dad.
And we took Emmaline out to see the old home place my grandfather and great uncle built when they got out of the army in the 1940’s, and it’s fallen into disrepair so we sat on the porch and ate sandwiches. And my brother asked my great uncle, Uncle Dick, how is it that you have lived to be 94? Do you have any advice for living a long life?
And Uncle Dick, being a very particular man, said, why, yes, I am glad you asked, there are three steps to living a long life. So I am going to share them with you.
First, he said, don’t eat too much meat. I thought, I can do that. I mean, I love barbecue but I don’t eat it regularly. Uncle Dick said that on most days, he’d rather eat bad vegetables than good meat, and I would agree with that. You might not know it, of course. But I try to only eat meat once a day or so.
Second, he said, don’t smoke dope. I thought, ok, great, maybe this isn’t going to be as hard as I thought.
Finally, he said, don’t work a job in which you will have any stress. At this point, my father the doctor, and I, the preacher, looked at each other and realized we were never going to live to be 94. My brother, who is an upper- upper- upper- upperclassman in college, will probably live forever.
The scripture lesson today is sort of like the advice from my great uncle about how to live a long life in that it is instructions about how to be a follower of Jesus. In the church, we call this passage the Great Commission. And unlike my uncle’s three pieces of advice—which is good, because I’m likely only going to make it two/thirds of the way there, the great commission says that if you want to follow Jesus, there’s one non-negotiable command: making disciples. If you aren’t making disciples, you are doing it wrong.
That’s not to say that there aren’t other important parts of being a Christian. I want to affirm that when you encounter someone who is hungry, just giving them a Bible doesn’t help very much because a Bible does not taste very good. You feed them, for when you offer them food, the Bible says, it is as if you are offering food to Christ himself. This kind of thing is important. But just feeding people is not uniquely Christian in and of itself. I hope Jesus leads you to feed people. But you don’t need Jesus to feel a tug on your heart when you encounter a hungry child. That’s just part of being human.
And if this sounds obvious, like it’s not that revolutionary, let me say this. It is VERY good to feed people. But if you are feeding people without making Disciples, you are doing it wrong. This is the central piece of being a Christian. Yes, we’ve all seen how this stuff is done poorly, the emotional manipulation, the difficulties involved in relating across cultures and talking about something as sensitive as your faith in Jesus Christ. But if you aren’t making disciples, you are doing it wrong.
I mean, we can quibble about the various parts of being a Christian, but surely the church ought to be taking this seriously. I’m just wondering, what would it look like to use this litmus test to test every single thing we do here at North Decatur United Methodist Church? That’s the mission of the United Methodist Church, to make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we applied this test to every single thing we did? What if the people who made decisions about the facilities didn’t start with the question, how much will this cost, but rather, how will this make disciples? What if when we plan ministries, we don’t ask, how can we pull this program off AGAIN this year, but how can we best use this opportunity to make disciples? And if it won’t, they why in Heaven’s name are we doing it? Because it is an effective use of the resources we’ve been given here, on this corner, that will lead us to make disciples? Or because we’ve always done it?
If you aren’t making disciples, you are doing it wrong. And I know it is difficult. But so are most of life’s most precious gifts.
It’s difficult, so let’s talk for just a few minutes about how it is that we make disciples. There are three easy steps. I don’t know if you’re big on taking notes during the sermon. I’m usually not. But I want you to take notes if you can—just write down the three steps. Here they are: say hello, grow, and go.
Alright. Number one, you’ve got to say hello. You’ve got to welcome folks on behalf of Jesus. This happens in a few different ways. Folks may wander in on Sunday mornings—because of our great location, that happens fairly regularly around here. And when they get here, they need to be greeted by you. If you’re able to get around on Sunday   morning, your first priority has got to be looking out for somebody you don’t really recognize and welcoming them here. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure if you know them or not—if you aren’t sure, then you need to welcome them even if they’ve been here before! Ask about their families. See if they have any questions. If it’s raining, look out the door and run out with an umbrella. Show them where the nursery is, introduce them to your friends.
But saying hello on behalf of Jesus does not just happen on Sunday morning. You’ve got to invite people here if you expect them to experience a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. Let me ask you this. This is a serious question. Do you like it here? Do you think God is glorified here? Do you think we’ve got something special? Then invite somebody! Here’s another question. When is the last time you invited somebody to church? Called them the night before to see if there is anything you can do to help them get here? Followed up after they visited? I am glad you think this place is special—I do too! But until we each make an effort to constantly invite new people into the life of this incredibly special place, we aren’t making disciples, and if we aren’t making disciples, we aren’t doing it right.
The second easy step is to grow. Becoming a Disciple doesn’t mean saying, oh, I’ve joined the church, I’ve read the Bible, I even went to annual conference one year, I’m all set. Discipleship requires growth, and growing’s got to happen from the moment you take your first breath until you take your last. You don’t graduate from church! Now, I will acknowledge that growth is hard. It involves stretching yourself to see new things in new ways, to encounter new people with new perspectives, and so here’s a helpful little test. If you are comfortable all the time, you aren’t growing! If you aren’t in a Sunday school class, I hope you’ll find one! We will have some new options in the fall for young parents and young adults, and for those who want to go a little deeper in their study of the Bible and Christian theology. Find a class and get plugged in. And just because you are in a Sunday school class doesn’t give you license to slack off. Discipleship means growth! So you’ve got to grow, and you’ve got to help others grow as well! You all have been so wonderful about embracing our children’s ministry, but it is going to take even more of us than we have now, because we each have a role in helping others grow. And if we aren’t growing, if we aren’t helping others grow, we aren’t making disciples, and if we aren’t making disciples, we aren’t doing it right.
The third and final step is to go. Notice that when Jesus talked to his disciples, he didn’t say, “wait around for opportunities to make disciples.” He didn’t say, “sit in the church until they show up.” There’s nothing in here about a building at all. He didn’t say “if it is convenient, or if you feel like it, or if you have some free time.” He said, “GO!” Get up out of your well-work pew and go be the church. Now, if most of us found ourselves in the presence of the living God, and we got instructions as clear as “GO!” I don’t think we’d argue too much! And yet this is what we do, at least in our own minds. We say, oh,  that’s not my gift. I am too old, or I’m not good enough a Christian to go out and wear my faith on my sleeve, or I’m just too shy,” and yet while I am convinced that Jesus loves us no matter what excuses we make, that’s what they are—excuses. Jesus says Go! There’s no argument necessary. When the son of God says Go, we should say, how far?
I know it is not that easy, believe me. It’s all well and good for the minister to stand up in the polyester robe and the stole and talk about the importance of going out to make disciples, but let me tell you that while I am, in fact, a professional Christian, I really do get it. I am an introvert. I am also painfully shy. This may surprise you—I don’t know—but the fact that I am who I am and I am in the business I am in is proof positive to me that God calls each of us—painfully shy or not—and that God equips us for ministry. The last word here—in fact, the last word in all of the gospel of Matthew—is not just the command to go, but a promise: Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age. There is nowhere you can go that God is not. Yes, the responsibilities of a life of faith are difficult. But we worship a God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. God is here, with you. God will sustain you, if you will just go along with God’s mission. It’s a promise.

I will end with this. This week, I want to invite you to think about what I think is a simple question: What is God calling ME to do to make disciples? I don’t mean, is there a program at the church that needs my help. That’s well and good, but Jesus did not tell us to go and make programs of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to make Disciples. And he said he’d be with us to the end of the age. That pretty much covers it I think, and on days when I feel inadequate, I am reminded that there’s really no good argument against any of this stuff. It’s pretty clear. If you aren’t making Disciples, you are doing it wrong. And so when the service is over, and the prelude is done, and you’ve shaken hands and said hello to your friends, I don’t think Jesus would mind one bit if you left your dignity sitting right here in the sanctuary to run out the doors and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And if you can’t run, walk. And if you can’t walk, pray. For each of us, each of us in our different lives and different circumstances and different cultures and different ages, each of us has one common mission: to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So let’s go.    

June 8 Sermon (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-21
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
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John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
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All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
If ever there were a day made for North Decatur United Methodist Church, it is Pentecost, this story of the Holy Spirit coming down like a rush of wind and tongues of fire and the disciples speaking in different languages. This is one of the things I love at NDUMC: this is a multicultural church. We’ve got folks from the far reaches of the globe, and people who grew up and lived their whole lives in Decatur. And we’ve got this in common—this place, on this corner, in which we worship this God and carry out this mission.
And it sounds lovely, almost poetic, this idea of us all coming together around this one mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I wish it were that easy. Certainly there is more that unites us than divides us, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell that, when you turn on the news and see pundits and politicians who think of themselves as perfectly rational people screaming at each other like children.
It must have felt like that to the disciples, to have this glorious experience of the holy spirit, this experience of God’s own spirit rushing in like a mighty wind and then to find themselves surrounded by flames, which are nice to look at if you ignore all the other properties of fire, like the fact that it is hot, that it consumes, that it burns.
And then they had to figure out how to continue to be a unit when each of them spoke a different language, and it makes me think back to the last General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our every-four-years denominational gathering, in which there were so many people who spoke so many different languages that business almost ground to a standstill. People had to speak so slowly as to allow all the different translators to translate that just about nothing got done. It’s difficult living in a diverse community, but you knew that already, because if there were ever a day made for North Decatur United Methodist Church, it is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. From the very beginning, diversity was God’s plan.
You know what my best argument is for the existence of the Holy Spirit? That we are still here. That the church still exists. That two thousand years after the ascension of Christ, despite our differences and despite the crusades and the shady politicians masquerading as clerics and the human sides of things, we are still here, still worshiping after all these years.
It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, on this birthday of the church, that we’re still at it, that we’ve reached the point where there are nearly 2000 candles in our cake, and we’re still alive. I don’t know of anything but olive trees and the church that can live that long. I mean, we may have division, and we may argue, but you’ve got to give the Holy Spirit some credit for smoothing out the fine lines and wrinkles and keeping the joints working at the ripe old age of two thousand.
It’s why I get so frustrated when I hear of people who say that the business of being church is too difficult: that they’d rather go experience God in the sunset, or whatever. And while I like sunsets, too, because my heart is not, in fact, three sizes too small, I’m just bored by the whole spiritual but not religious thing, because while God is in the sunset, sunsets aren’t really testament to the work of the Holy Spirit. The church is. It may be difficult, but that’s why I find the work of being the church so exhilarating: because we’re doing something difficult that God sustains even though we’re sometimes apt to act a fool.
And it’s why I get frustrated when people dump on the church, like we’re some antiquated organization for people with nothing better to do. You’ve heard all of this before: why bother with a place that asks for 10% of your money, takes up lots of your free time, and makes you go to meetings about things like whether to allow guns on campus. It’s much easier to NOT be the church than to be the church. And yet even though the body of Christ is populated by humans, it still exists. We haven’t killed each other yet. That’s proof of God, in my mind.
And I’ll tell you what really gets me. It’s why I get frustrated when the agents of division hide behind the banner of faithfulness to say that the Holy Spirit is not enough, that we really need to divide the church. This is the argument that real faithfulness requires purity rather than breadth of love, as if instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to speak in many different languages, it had been the case that the Holy Spirit made everyone to speak the same language. That’s not the story, of course, but you’d be hard-pressed to know that when you hear some of the craziness that comes out of church life today.
I mentioned this in the email I sent out earlier this week to the church’s email list, so if you got it, you know about this already, but there is a group of 80 United Methodist pastors from across the country, including a couple here in North Georgia, that has released a statement saying that the things that divide us are too strong for the things that unite us. The issue they pointed to is the issue of homosexuality, which we all know can be a really contentious issue. This group of 80 influential pastors says, you know, we’re hopelessly divided, so we might as well just split into two separate denominations, one liberal and one conservative, just claim irreconcilable differences and figure out who gets the kids and then go on our way.
This is dangerous business, sowing division. So a few of my clergy colleagues decided to put together a statement of unity in response to those calling to split the church. We figured, oh, surely, this won’t be too difficult. Let’s write a unity statement.
Let me tell you. While it is the case that there is much more that connects us than divides us, it is likewise the case that it is much easier to talk about the things that divide us than the things that connect us. Our divisions in the church tend to mirror our political discourse, which is a problem because we’re supposed to be people not of earthly kingdoms, but of the Heavenly kingdom. In this room, of course, we’ve got folks on all sides of the debate, and it’s not even really a debate. It’s a family matter, because we’re not talking about some ethereal issue, some hypothetical thing. We’re talking about people, so maybe we ought to take a deep breath and talk to each other, which is all well and good but for the fact that it’s the talking that’s difficult. It would be much easier if the Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire and made us all agree with one another. But that is not what happened.
What happened was that the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire and made everybody speak in different languages, speak in different tongues, and so the vision of the church we get in scripture is not of being of one mind, but of diversity, of tension, of different perspectives and people, for the more diverse the group, the fuller the picture of the face of God.
I mean, if agreeing on everything is the point of being a Christian, why go to church at all? Why be about the business of disagreeing and struggling and figuring out how to live together? It is much easier to sit at home and agree with yourself. And yet it is the case that if we leave out the voices of those traditionally considered conservative or the voices of those traditionally considered liberal, we are missing out on part of the face of God. We are reminded in living together that the focus on social action and community work is to be balanced by evangelism, by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in a world that desperately needs to hear it.
I want you to know that the senior pastors of well over 110,000 United Methodists here in North Georgia have united to stand against division. Living together under the same tent may not be easy when there are many issues over which you disagree, but I’m convinced that it’s what the Holy Spirit would have us do, because we were not given the gift of the spirit so that we could all agree. We were given the Spirit so that we could represent the diversity of God’s kingdom, so that we could speak in different voices of the same savior.
I mention this all to you for this reason: it is one of the Bible’s great messages that we are stronger when we are together. When you get fed up with those conservative people or those liberal people, remember that God loves each of us and calls us each to be true versions of ourselves, in community with one another. But it is not just about going along for going along, unity for the sake of unity. That would be enough, but there is more at stake, because Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson that when we work under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, when we serve God as the church, the very authority to forgive sins will be given to us. Did you catch that little bit at the end of the Gospel lesson? Jesus tells the disciples that if they—if we—will live in the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if we will model the Body of Christ, we will accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
I will end with this. North Decatur, you’ve got a lot to teach the world, because you do this better than most. You understand better than most the fact that our differences give us resiliency, that our disagreements are evidence of passion in the same direction and not proof of fault lines in the church’s tectonic plates. And you know what? I think this very thing is key to who God is calling us to be. This isn’t my vision—it’s God’s vision, for it was in the works long before I got here. I don’t think God is calling North Decatur United Methodist Church to any one way. I think God is calling North Decatur United Methodist Church to be proof that the Gospel is strong enough to overcome our divisions, and in fact, it is strong enough to NEED those differences to give expression to the depth and breadth of God’s love. We have a unique opportunity here on this corner, with the North Decatur suburbs on one side and Clarkston on the other, to offer God’s love to all kinds of people because we are, at the core of this church, all kinds of people. Some of us are wealthy, some of us are poor, some of us are young, some of us are old, some of us are gay, some of us are straight, some of us are black, some of us are white. And what a witness to declare that despite all those differences—and, indeed, become of them—we are the Church of Jesus Christ, created by God and sustained by the Holy Spirit. On days when it feels like the dividers might win, remember that rushing wind and those tongues of fire, because I don’t know of any better evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit than the fact that all of us—Parthians and Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, men and women, young and old, rich and poor—all of us are still here after all these years.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability, and thanks be to God for that. In the name of Creator, Christ, and Holy Sustaining Spirit, Amen.

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