Sunday, October 29, 2006

We're Growing in Grace

Psalm 116:12-19
"There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty."
(F.W. Faber, Chalice, 73)

This is good news. We serve a God who is gracious and compassionate and we get to celebrate that grace and compassion, that mercy and kindness, as we come together for worship.

The ancient Israelites held great Fall festivals to give thanks for God’s wondrous bounty and sing songs like the one in Psalm 116. They thanked God for the bounty of the harvest and for hearing their cries when they were going through difficult times, like when death and anguish were their lot in life. These songs remind us that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. And so, we join the Psalmist in asking: "What can I give back to God, for the blessings he’s poured out on me?" (116:12 MSG).

Growing Faith and Giving Thanks

Giving back to God takes faith, and faith, as Hebrews says, is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). Abraham left Haran and headed for a new home trusting that God would provide that home. Moses did the same. They acted in faith because they believed that God had promised them a share in the inheritance of the saints.

Paul prayed that the Colossian church would "be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power," but he also prayed that this church would be prepared to "endure everything with patience" (Col. 1:11). Paul understood that faith is about growth in the Spirit. It calls on us to take difficult steps into the unknown, trusting that the God who has been with us in the past, will also be with us in the future.

Growing Faith and A Testimony to God’s Grace

Because we don’t know the future, walking by faith holds great risk. The stock market could collapse or a disaster could strike. And so the choice is simple: Do we live in fear or by faith? As individuals and as a church, we grow spiritually when we step out in faith and accept the risks involved. As we grow in faith and give of ourselves, that fear that plagues us begins to dissipate, and we’re able to take another step forward.

As we look forward into the future as a congregation, much remains unclear. And yet there are patterns and possibilities already taking shape. Maybe you can envision with me that new sanctuary full of people, both young and old. Your ideas might be different than mine, but we can share the vision. Perhaps you see an active youth ministry or a tutoring program that touches the lives of children throughout the community. Perhaps you see a Hispanic congregation forming. The patterns are there because we’ve talking about them.

As we talk about dreams, we discover that these dreams are related to our vision of stewardship. We ask: what can I return to God? How can I be a good steward of what God has given me? You see Stewardship isn’t about duties or even support to church ministries. Stewardship is about being faithful with the good gifts God has given us and then giving thanks to God with a grateful heart. Yes, stewardship is about taking care of the things of God, which means we act on God’s calling. The Spirit is leading, are we willing to take the step of faith to embrace that call? When we walk by faith we discover the spiritual wisdom that enables us to "lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work." (Col. 1:10-11).

Knowing that God is gracious and merciful, the Psalmist calls us to do three things: pray, keep our promises, and offer a thanksgiving sacrifice. So, in response to this call:

1. I’ll Pray

Paul said: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:17-18). Jesus prayed in the Garden and on the cross and found strength in God’s presence. Prayer doesn’t happen only when we address God in words; prayer happens whenever we stop to acknowledge God’s presence and listen for his voice. It can happen in formal settings or on the run. It can happen at work or at play. Prayer is that constant conversation we have with God, even if we can’t seem to find the right words to say. When we can’t find the words, Paul says, the Spirit will pray for us, with groans too deep for words (Rom. 8:26).

2. I’ll Keep My Promises

As we grow in faith, we find strength to keep our promises. It’s easy to say, I’ll do this or that, but in the doing there’s difficulty. When we live in a community of compassionate faith, however, we find strength to keep our promises. This is the message of the Psalmist who writes: "I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people." When I made my baptismal vows, I promised to love and serve God, with all my heart, soul, and mind. That’s a difficult promise to keep, but with the community standing with me it’s possible.

3. Finally, I’ll offer the Thanksgiving Sacrifice

In ancient Israel, the thanksgiving sacrifice was a grain offering. Leviticus directed the pilgrims to bring unleavened loaves, cakes and wafers made of grain mixed with oil. These gifts were products of their hands, of their labor, and they brought them to God, like we bring our tithes and offerings, as a way of saying: Thank you for giving me life. It might not be easy, but it is good.

Our offerings to the church are more than simply dues paid to support the work and ministry of the church. They are expressions of faith. They stretch us and remind us that what is ours is really God’s. We’ve been entrusted with good things. Our giving through the church is an expression of that trust. And the congregation as it stretches itself to enter into new forms of ministry, which happen to be supported by these gifts, takes a step of faith and offers thanks to God. Let’s offer a testimony of thanksgiving to the God who hears our supplications and inclines his ear unto us.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA

21st Sunday after Pentecost

October 29, 2006

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Opening the Bible

2 Timothy 3:10-17

Books are meant to be read, and if we read the Bible we put ourselves in a position to hear God speak from its pages. Although the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, it may also be the least read best seller of all time. People buy Bibles for all kinds of reasons. I’ve heard they make nice decorations and good gifts. Back when I was in seminary, working for a Christian bookstore, I sold Bibles. Now, selling Bibles was easier twenty-five years ago than it is today. That’s because there were fewer translations and fewer editions of those translations to offer people. Now there are probably thirty or forty different options for the New International Version alone.

While I enjoyed selling Bibles, I’ve been known to talk people out of buying them. It’s not that I don’t want people to own Bibles, I’d just like them to get a Bible they’ll use. On one occasion a lady came into the store looking for a white Bible. I asked her why she wanted a white Bible, and she said that she wanted to give it to a baby girl. I told her that all our white bibles were King James Version and that they weren’t all that easy to read, especially if you’re a baby. I tried to convince her to get a Bible the little girl would use when she got older, but she insisted on a white bible, because well it was for a girl.

Psalm 19 and 2 Timothy 3 celebrate the usefulness of Scripture. They say that Scripture has a purpose and that it "shapes us for the tasks that God has given us" (2 Tim. 3:17 MSG). These Scriptures help revive the soul, make wise the simple, enliven the heart, and enlighten the eyes. But if the Bible is going to make a difference in our lives, we must read these words with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts. In other words we must read them reverently but critically.

Receive the Living Word

In Genesis 2, God took a lump of clay and breathed life into it, creating humanity. In 2 Timothy 3 God takes human words and breathes life into them. Scripture carries with it the life-giving breath of God, so that when we read these seemingly human words reverently but critically, we can hear God’s voice declaring to us: I love you and this is how I want you to live.

Scripture doesn’t answer every question under the sun, because it’s an ancient book that addresses ancient issues. And yet, in its pages we read about the wonders of a Creator who created us to be in a relationship. This God then became incarnate in Jesus so that we could more readily experience that relationship. Scripture also calls us to be a faithful community of compassion, mercy, and of service. If we hear and receive this Word then our hearts and our minds will be revived and enlightened and we will discover the wisdom of God.

The Useful Word

Some people read Scripture as if it were a jumble of theological and moral propositions that need to be organized. But others find in this collection of poetry, songs, stories, sermons, essays, and commandments a call to celebrate the God who created humanity for a reason. The Biblical story begins with the creation of something wonderful and goes on to tell the story of why God’s crowning achievement chose to go it alone and then how God, like a shepherd, went looking for the sheep. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the shepherd who draws the lost sheep back into the fold. Scripture also shows us how God’s people ought to live in relationship to each other. James Dunn says that Scripture is designed "to produce well-instructed and disciplined adults, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society." In other words, Scripture shows us how to love God and how to love our neighbor. It also gives us plenty of examples of what not to do! Consider for a moment Cain and Abel!

And so we read in 2 Timothy that:

  1. Scripture is Useful for Teaching
    How will you know about God if no one teaches you? We believe in Jesus, and declare him to be our Lord, but how do we know this unless we hear a word about him. Nature may declare that God is glorious and skillful in creating. Experience may suggest that there’s more to life than what we see. But there’s so much more to know, and when we read Scripture with open hearts we find answers to our questions. We discover that God wants to be our guide, our redeemer, and the sustenance of our lives. Scripture brings to our minds and our hearts the truth that sets us free, a truth that lays bare our anger and our bitterness, and points us to a better way, a way of service to others. Jesus says: Even as you do to the least of these, you do to me. And we know this truth from Scripture.
  2. Scripture is useful for Reproof and Correction
    Now I don’t really like this aspect of Scripture. I’d rather not be disciplined and have my rebellions exposed, but, Jesus calls us to be his disciples, and like a parent will do, Scripture reminds us that when we’ve moved away from the things of God, God will correct us
    When we get lost, we need a map and directions to get back on track. The Law is like that map. It’s a means of correction, even though it doesn’t make us right with God. It reminds us of the way we’re supposed to be going when we’re walking with God. Though the Scripture this passage is talking about is the Old Testament, it’s the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, his death and his resurrection, that guide us on our way back into the fold.
  3. Scripture is Useful for Training in Righteousness
    According to this letter, Scripture teaches us how to live God’s way. In Romans Paul says, God has made you right with himself in Jesus Christ. But he also says: "don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind " (Rom. 12:1). James says, the way we show our love for God is through the way we treat the widow and the orphan. It’s the way we welcome the stranger, and the one who is poor, that shows us how much we love God. James asks: Do you show favoritism to someone because he or she seems wealthy or powerful? Well, not if you’re in Christ! How’s your tongue? Does it destroy with criticism and gossip? Or does it build up and encourage?

As the Psalmist says: "The Revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together." As I heard spoken yesterday, "we should take the Bible seriously, but not necessarily literally." There is great value to be gained from reading its pages, but we must do so both reverently and critically. So let’s open the Bible and see what it has to say, so that we might be proficient in the things of God and equipped for every good work so that together we might enjoy the glory of God.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2006

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Eye of the Needle

Mark 10:17-31

Time magazine recently ran a cover story that asked the question: "Does God want you to be Rich?" Apparently a growing number of preachers are giving this question an affirmative answer. Houston’s Joel Osteen is just the latest preacher to promise prosperity to those who will just believe. But, the question is: What am I supposed to believe in? God or money? I remember going to a rally at a church many years ago for a certain unnamed soap distributor. The organizers hoped to get us all jazzed up to sell and buy products by promising us more material blessings. And so we shouted out words of praise to money.

So what does God want for us? Apparently 61% of us think God wants us to be rich and prosperous, which may be why Osteen and his fellow preachers are so popular. Just believe and you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Now, I believe that attitude is important and that a positive attitude will take you a long way in life, but that’s different from equating belief in God and material prosperity.

God wants good things for us. Why? Because that’s God’s nature. God isn’t some kind of despot sitting on his heavenly throne looking for ways to spite us. The problem with prosperity teaching isn’t the promise of happiness or blessing. The problem is the assumption that if we believe the right things we’ll be healthy and wealthy. My experience tells me that it takes hard work, some natural ability, and a whole lot of breaks along the way to achieve success in life.

There’s another problem with this message and that’s the message it gives to the poor and marginalized of society. What it says is simple: Because things aren’t going well for you, God is either punishing you or God doesn’t care about you. During Katrina did God care less about the people who lived in the 9th Ward? Did God care more about the patients in the upscale private hospital who were airlifted out, while the poor patients in a neighboring public hospital were left behind?

Though the Time poll says that most people reject the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, if God want’s me to prosper then poverty must say something about God’s priorities. Although I’ve heard prosperity teachers tell people they didn’t get what they wanted because they didn’t have enough faith, I don’t remember hearing Jesus say that.

The Rich Man’s Question

Jesus dealt with this issue of prosperity, but I don’t think you’ll like his answer. One day a devout but wealthy man came up to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered by pointing him to the commandments, and more specifically the commands that deal with the way we deal with family and neighbors and not the ones that deal with our relationship with God. I don’t know about you, but I find that interesting.

The man answered: I’ve kept them all from childhood. Just when he thought he was safe, Jesus dropped the other shoe: "Well, you lack just one thing, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor." Now, I don’t think that’s what he expected to hear, because it’s not what we expect to hear. This seems a bit drastic – to inherit eternal life you have to become poor. Jesus isn’t just saying that you can’t take it with you, he’s saying you can’t have it now if you want to be his disciple. When the man heard this, he realized that the demands of following Jesus were more than he could accept. Turning around, he sadly walked away, his head hung low, all because he had so many possessions.

The Hold of our Possessions

Though the pharaohs thought they could take it with them, I think most of us know we can’t do it. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying.

Although 61% of us believe that God wants us to be prosperous, I think many of us have a suspicion that this might not be true. It seems that 48% of us recognize that Jesus wasn’t rich and that Jesus wants us to follow his example. It seems that many of us are a bit conflicted about this question. We want it all, but we realize that our material possessions tend to get in the way of following Jesus. Still, like the rich man our possessions have a strong hold on us.

The Eye of the Needle

The disciples were dumbfounded when they heard Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. If the rich can’t make it, who can? I mean, if God want’s us to be rich what do we do with Jesus?

There have been many attempts at explaining this difficult saying away. One story suggests that there was once a gate in Jerusalem called the "eye of a needle" gate. It was said that a camel could only get through it if it was relieved of its burden and then crawled on its knees through the gate. In other words, you can have everything you want in this life, but you can’t take it with you. Unfortunately that gate never existed, so we’re left with a message about rich people not making it into the kingdom. Now, fortunately for me, I’m not rich, so I should be safe. Or am I?

I may not be rich by Donald Trump standards, but I sure have a lot of possessions. If you don’t believe me, ask Cheryl and she’ll tell you all about the boxes of books in the garage. If only I had a bigger house, I could put in more shelves and have room for them and more. Though I want to believe that I’m part of the kingdom of God, am I ready to give it all up for him?

Are there any Practical Implications?

And yet, there are some important practical implications to this call to poverty. In fact, there's a huge flaw in Jesus' argument, because if we take Jesus at his word and give everything to the poor, then we’ll be poor and that will make us a burden on society. St. Francis took this literally and gave up everything and became a beggar, but if everyone becomes a beggar, that could be a problem!

I don’t know how to cut through this Gordian knot, but I think Jesus is reminding us that where we put our treasure, we also put our hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about "costly grace," and maybe this is what he was talking about. God’s grace does come at a cost, to God and to us. The passage softens all this by promising blessings in this life to those who give up everything and follow Jesus. I appreciate this promise, but I’m still wrestling with this other issue about giving everything to the poor. Does that mean that God wants me to do something about poverty? Is there something to Jesus’ statement that where we put our treasure we also put our hearts? Muhammad Yunus just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to set up a micro-lending bank that has lifted millions of poor out of abject poverty. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 15, 2006

Monday, October 09, 2006


Mark 10:2-12

We’re broken people living in a broken world. That’s not a message we like to hear, but it’s true. Marriages, families, relationships, communities, nations, the world itself, seem to be broken. Like a virus that eats away at our inner being, every aspect of human life is vulnerable to this malignancy of the human spirit, including the most intimate of human relationships.

It’s no secret that marriage is an institution in distress. Divorce rates continue to rise, while young people either delay marriage or give up on it entirely. By today’s standards the twenty-three years Cheryl and I have been married is a long time. Of course, that’s nothing compared to those of you who’ve been married fifty years or more. I doubt I have any words of wisdom to offer anyone about how to keep a happy marriage, but I do know that every relationship, even the best ones, have their bumps in the road. I wish I could tell you with a straight face that Cheryl and I have never argued or disagreed, that we’ve never hurt or disappointed each other, but if I said that, none of you would believe me!

Divorce might not seem like an appropriate subject for a sermon, but it’s a subject Jesus dealt with, and so here we are! It seems that even back then divorce was a touchy subject, and the local religious authorities were divided on how to deal with it. Some of them took a hard line, and others were more lenient, but both groups wanted to know where Jesus stood on the issue. But, instead of getting involved in their debate, Jesus decided to focus on the ideal. He basically said, the Law might allow divorce, but that’s not God’s ideal.

Jesus reminded them of what it says in Genesis; that "from the beginning of creation `God made them male and female'." And, "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." One flesh, for life, that’s what marriage is supposed to be.

This is a wonderful ideal, but what does it mean? I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t mean that we should go find that perfect soul mate who will fulfill our every need. That search tends to get people in trouble, because we quickly discover that our partner isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t stop people, especially since the coming of the internet. If you go to or E-harmony they’ll help you find that perfect person. You know, it’s funny how people got along pretty well before the coming of the computer. I guess we just didn’t have such high standards back then!

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a perfect match, and even if there is, it still takes hard work. A marriage relationship is a living thing. It is, Walter Wangerin says, like a baby. It starts out small, weak, and cuddly, but in time it grows and becomes stronger. A couple’s oneness demands everything from them, but marriage is more than a merging of two people. That relationship itself is a distinct entity, which is God’s gift to a couple. That’s why Jesus says: "What God has joined together, let no one separate." If you’re in a relationship, invest yourself in it. Nourish it and respect it. Because it’s a living entity, just like a baby.1

When Cheryl and I got married in 1983 we promised "to love and to cherish [each other] from this day forward -- in times of poverty and times of prosperity, in times of sickness and times of good health -- to love and to enjoy until death shall separate us." Now that promise is easier to make than to keep, because reality often clashes with the ideal.

Every couple that stays together for the long haul has to work through difficult times. Because we’re broken, we bring our brokenness into the relationship. Walter Wangerin tells how his own marriage was touched by brokenness. He wasn’t unfaithful or anything, but in trying to be a good pastor he neglected his relationship with his wife, and as time passed she became angry and bitter. After carrying this bitterness inside herself for months and letting a wall of silence develop, she let him know what was going on. This didn’t end the silence. They continued living together, but without either love or forgiveness. Wangerin confesses that his wife couldn’t forgive him, because his "sin was greater than her capacity to forgive, had lasted longer than her kindness, had grown more oppressive than her goodness." His sin, he writes, was the "murder of her spirit, the unholy violation of her sole identity -- the blithe assumption of her presence, as though she were furniture."2

This relationship experienced rebirth and she found the strength to forgive him, but unfortunately there are relationships that become so distorted that there is no way to repair the damage. The only option is divorce, and when this happens, it’s kind of like a death. Except that in this case it’s not the couple that dies, it’s the relationship. The only thing you can do at this point is grieve the loss of something precious and then let God's grace heal you.

Though I strongly believe that marriage is for a lifetime, I also recognize that things don’t always work out the way hope. Maybe that comes from being the child of divorce. I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic. Our brokenness can so badly mess up a relationship that it can’t be put back together, and when that happens, all we can do is trust in God’s grace and receive healing and newness in Christ.

Jesus’ words sound kind of harsh, but I think he offers couples a word of encouragement. He calls on them to take their relationship seriously and to nurture it. Never take it for granted, because this relationship is a gift from God. And to those who have experienced the brokenness of divorce, Jesus offers a message of healing. It’s not the way things are supposed to be, but sometimes that’s the way it is, and God’s grace is sufficient to bring wholeness to our lives. It might not undo the past, but it does offer a way forward that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

1. Walter Wangerin, As for Me and My House, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), 44-46.

2.Story told in passim in Wangerin, pp. 65-91.

Preached at First Christian Church, Lompoc
18th Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2006

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Broadening the Circle

Mark 9:38-41

Cheryl grew up a Giants fan, but during college she succumbed to the ways of darkness and became a Dodger fan. I don’t know how this happened, but it did. After we started dating, we went to a Giants-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium and each of us wore a different cap. She wore her Dodger cap, and I wore my Giants cap. It’s amazing that a relationship could blossom in such a situation. I mean, how can a Giants fan and Dodger fan live together in peace? Now I must say that in time Cheryl repented of her sins and returned to the fold and now she’s once again a Giant fan. But in the beginning, who would have thought that I could fall in love with a Dodger fan?

After 9/11 President Bush drew a line in the sand and said: "You’re either with us or you’re against us." Apparently the President of Pakistan took that to mean. If you’re not with us, we’ll bomb you out of existence. Whatever the truth is in that exchange, it seems true that in the war on terror there isn’t any middle ground. You are on either the side of good or the side of evil. There’s no being neutral. Now, this message resonates with a lot of people. It seems to make sense, because it’s clear and to the point. It lets everyone know where you stand, and with everyone on board you can accomplish your goal of ridding the world of terrorism. At least that’s the idea. >I see the value of such a clear cut, black and white perspective, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. It’s a vision of the world that can easily lead to fanaticism and violence. It’s what Robert Jewett and John Shelton call "zealous nationalism." [Captain America and the Crusade against Evil, 2003] And, it’s the same message that Osama Bin Ladin preaches to Muslims. You’re either with us in our struggle with the West or you’re on their side. There’s no middle ground.

When we see the world in such black and white terms, we draw our circle of relationships very narrowly. Birds of a feather, as they say, flock together, but is this the way that Jesus looked at the world?

If they’re not against us, they’re for us.
Jesus' disciples said much the same thing when the Spirit fell on some men who had begun to prophesy. Joshua told Moses to make them stop, because they weren’t part of the leadership team, but Moses said: "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" (Num. 11:29). It seems that God sometimes has a bigger picture in mind than we do.

World Communion Sunday
Today is World Communion Sunday. It was established decades ago by the Federal Council of Churches as a call to Christian unity at the Lord’s Table. Though we celebrate communion every Sunday, this isn’t true of every church. But today churches from around the world gather at the table to remember Jesus and his call to unity. One loaf, one cup, one body of Christ.

I think it’s also appropriate that we’re receiving the Reconciliation Offering this morning. This offering helps fund ministries that are designed to overcome racism in America. Since World Communion Sunday is a call to build bridges and tear down walls, this seems quite fitting.

Time for Cooperation
There are lots of barriers to cooperation. Some are theological and some are political. Some are cultural and others are ethnic or gender related. When we look at other churches in the community, we sometimes see them as our competitors rather than as our partners in ministry. But, maybe we’d be more successful in our ministries if we were working together.

In this morning’s scripture we hear Jesus reminding us that God doesn’t operate territorially. God doesn’t favor any one country or any one church. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it: "The power of the divine realm does not operate only in sectarian circles."1

We’ve been learning about this in some of our recent activities. We held our retreat at the Presbyterian Church, and we shared in an annual picnic and worship service in the park with Valley of the Flowers Church. We’ve invited Valley of the Flowers to join us in our ministry at the Convalescent Care Center and in the anti-graffiti effort. And assuming the Board approves, we’re going to co-sponsor a City Council Candidates forum with the Presbyterians And this is just the beginning! We could try to compete with other churches, but I think more good will get done this way. And besides the world is looking at us.

Jesus offers us a new model of living together that challenges our tendency toward exclusivism. Instead of closing the circle, he calls us to broaden it by living graciously and generously with one another. The model he uses is a simple one, but it’s ingrained in ancient society. If someone offers you a cup of cold water, they will be blessed because they’ve blessed you. We’re called to do the same as we share the bread and the cup with any who would come and dine at the Lord’s Table. No barriers, no boundaries, just an open circle of God’s love.

1.Ron Allen and Clark Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, (WJK, 2004), 529.

Preached at First Christian Church of Lompoc
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2006

Who’s the Greatest?

Mark 9:30-37

Who’s the greatest? Is it Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens or LeBron James? Muhammad Ali said: "I am the Greatest; " But, hockey fans called Wayne Gretzky "The Great One."

History calls leaders who aren’t content to live within inherited borders "the Great." They go out and risk what they have to get more. Alexander the Great was only twenty-one when he became king of Macedonia, but before he died of malaria twelve years later he’d built the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Along the way he defeated the mighty Persian empire and marched to India, planting cities and spreading Greek culture as he went. So, whether on the field of battle or on the floor of the stadium, the great ones are winners. If we’re honest, we want to be great too.

Fame can be intoxicating and we love it when people tell us how great we are. It won’t do any good to deny it – we love the applause! Unfortunately fame can be fleeting. You can win the Super Bowl one year and fall to last place the next. Alexander was defeated not by an army but by a bug.


Heading home to Capernaum, Jesus began telling the disciples about their future together. He warned them that death lay in his future. For some reason they didn’t hear the warning, because as the Phillips translation puts it, they were "completely mystified by this saying." And so, instead of asking Jesus what he meant they moved onto a more fruitful argument, that is, who’s the greatest?


In reading about this conversation, I can’t help but think about the football player who celebrates a good play even though his team is down by three touchdowns. It’s clear that the disciples didn’t understand who Jesus was. They had their own ideas about what the kingdom of God would be like, and it didn’t involve anybody dying, especially Jesus.

Like most of us, when we hear things that don’t fit our way of thinking, they ignored Jesus and began to argue about who was going to sit next to him when he got his throne. Everyone, it seems, wanted to be Prime Minister, even though Jesus wasn’t taking any applications.


When they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about. It was kind of like a parent asking the kids why they were fighting in the back seat of the car. And, like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the disciples became totally quiet. They quickly realized that their argument didn’t fit with what Jesus had been talking about.

Now, Jesus didn't reprimand them, but instead, like a good teacher, he gathered them together and offered them a different definition of greatness. The kingdom of God, he told them, isn’t like a human kingdom. In this kingdom greatness is defined by servanthood. The first will be last and the last will be first, which makes the kingdom of God the polar opposite of human kingdoms. It’s really a matter of apples and oranges, because in the kingdom of God there are totally different categories for defining winning and losing, success and failure.


To get his point across, Jesus grabbed a child and placed her in the middle of the circle. Though, we don't know anything about the child, for some reason I think Jesus chose a little girl, maybe one about five years old. Now we think Jesus did this because as Art Linkletter said, "Kids say the darnedest things.” But, things were different back then. First century teachers didn't use children to illustrate their points, because children were nonentities, especially girls. You see, until a person reached maturity, they didn't count. At best they were ignored and at worst they were little more than slaves. Childhood was often horrific, with 30% percent of children dying at birth and 30% of those who did survive dying by age six. By age sixteen 60% of the children who survived birth had died of famine, disease, or dislocation. You see, it wasn't fun being a kid back then! And so, kids weren't the best examples of innocence. I mean, to call someone a child was considered a "serious insult."*

The reader of the gospel would have expected Jesus to put the little girl away, annoyed at having been bothered. But, Jesus took the child into his arms and said, "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." Jesus didn't say, isn't this child just wonderful, isn't she so cuddly and loveable? That’s how we hear it. Oh God loves us because were cute and cuddly. But that’s not how the disciples heard it. What they heard was: when you receive the lowest of the low, you’re receiving God. Now, this isn’t the way we think of children. At least in principle we value children and we react in horror at stories of abuse and neglect. So, maybe if we’re going to hear Jesus’ point, we need a different illustration. Could Jesus be talking about a homeless person? Or, maybe an undocumented immigrant? Jesus says, how we treat such a person is how we treat him, and the way we treat him is the way we will treat God.

So, what does it mean to be great? Does it mean succeeding at football or business? Are Alexander the Great, Douglas MacArthur, Muhammad Ali and Barry Bonds exemplars of true greatness? Or, perhaps someone else would be better, someone like Mother Theresa, Father Damian, or Mahatma Gandhi? We’ve grown accustomed to equating greatness with power and strength, but Jesus offers us a different paradigm. In the kingdom of God, the one who wants to be great will be a servant. Of course if you’re a servant you won't be concerned about greatness. You’ll only be concerned about the other person. And that’s the mark of greatness according to Jesus!

*Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh quoted in Tom Long, "Why a Child?" in Pulpit Resources. (July, August, September 2000): 51.

Preached at First Christian Church of Lompoc
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2006

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

All Are Welcome! or ?

James 2:1-10

Punctuation makes all the difference in the world. A period says one thing, a question mark says another. That’s why English teachers will ding you for poor punctuation. They know how important punctuation is to good communication.

This morning’s sermon title, includes two different forms of punctuation. It’s not that I don’t know which one to use. I did it to make a point. The meaning of the sermon title changes depending on which form of punctuation I use. An exclamation mark says something like: Come on in and enjoy the water. A question mark says something like: "I’m not sure you should join us. Someone might not think it proper." One message is inclusive and the other is not.

In search of safety, human beings tend to be exclusive. We like boundaries. But James says: don’t show partiality. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, a mansion dweller or a street person, if you come to church, you’re welcome. That’s because everyone has equal value in the eyes of God.

Once upon a time churches rented out their pews. I guess they forgot to read James, because the more you paid the better the pew, and if you couldn’t pay the rent you sat in the back, or in the balcony. Of course, this practice solved the age-old problem of coming to church and finding someone sitting in your place. But, James wasn’t the only one to deal with this problem. Paul had to deal with potluck dinners in Corinth. Now you ask: how can you mess up a potluck? Well, what happened was the rich people brought a feast but didn’t share with the poor. That meant that some of the people went away stuffed and others went away hungry. Paul told them it might be better if they didn’t have potlucks if they couldn’t share.

Now, Jesus preached a message of inclusion, but it took an encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman for him to see Gentiles in a positive light. He met the woman while dining in the Syrian city of Tyre. This woman barged into the house and pleaded with Jesus to come and heal her daughter. Now it took a lot of guts to do this and Jesus’ response seems absolutely cruel. He basically told her to get at the back of the line, because "the children get fed first. If there’s anything left over, the dogs get it" (Mk. 7, MSG). I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know and love. As harsh as it might sound, that’s the way Jews saw Gentiles and Gentiles saw Jews. Despite his words of rejection the woman persisted, and she convinced him to heal her daughter. By doing this she helped break down the barrier between Gentile and Jew. Paul later summarized this principle in Galatians 3:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28).
This is a message of welcome. There is no question mark here. Unfortunately Christians have been slow to learn the lesson. Too often we listen more to our culture than to Jesus. This is even true in America, where Christianity has had a significant influence on culture and society. Remember that it took a Civil War to abolish slavery, and a lot longer before African-Americans got the right to vote in a large part of this country. Women didn’t get to vote in federal elections until the 1920s. Even today most churches refuse to ordain women and many keep them from having leadership in the church. So, I guess we’re still learning what it means to be a place of welcome.

A Different Sort of Church
Two thousand years ago the church was born as a Jewish sect., but Jesus broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It took a lot of pushing and shoving on God’s part, but in time people caught on. From Peter’s encounter with Cornelius to Paul’s journeys, the Spirit broke down walls and invited the world into the church. At first the church spread north and west, following those famous Roman highways, and more recently the church has spread east and south. Many experts say that by mid-century only 20% of Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. I think Paul would be pleased to see all this diversity in the modern church. But, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can say that all the walls have been torn down.

Becoming a Welcoming Church
We decided at our retreat that our church should be a place of welcome, and it’s now one of our five core values. But what does it mean to be a place of welcome? I think it means more than we’re a friendly place where everyone knows your name. Being a place of welcome starts with warm hospitality, but it’s more than that.

The call to be a welcoming place begins at the Lord’s Table. Because it belongs to the Lord it’s not our place to decide who eats and who doesn’t. But, that’s only the beginning. The reason I put in the question mark is that I wonder if there are any limits to our hospitality. Does it matter which language a person speaks, or the color of their skin? Does age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status matter? When we say with Paul that we’re all one in Christ, what does that mean?

It’s going to take time for us to truly understand what it means to be a welcoming place. And just because we put out the welcome mat doesn’t mean everybody is going to come knocking on our door. Not everyone will be comfortable with our message of inclusion or with the freedom we give to interpret the Bible. Some will be offended because we have women elders and the president of our denomination is a woman. They may want us to be clearer about what we believe on certain political and even theological issues. Still, I believe that God wants us to put out the mat and then learn what that word means.

As we learn what it means to be a welcoming church, it will be good to remember one of the foundational principles of our Disciples heritage: "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." Because our unity is rooted in Jesus Christ, we needn’t break fellowship over matters of music, worship style, politics, social class, or even our interpretation of the bible. This can make things kind of messy at times, but that’s what it takes to be an exclamation point kind of church!

Preached: September 10, 2006
15th Sunday after Pentecost
First Christian Church of Lompoc