Tag Archives: ministry to needy

What We MIss in the Magnificat….

As we near the Christmas Season,   we read he words of Mary, the mother of Jesus,  as she reflected on the blessing that had been given her to be the mother of the Messiah.    We seem to always  concentrate on the opening words:   “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.   Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”   But we somehow have missed what she then said about the coming Savior:   “He has show strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.   He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…

In case we missed what Mary said,  Luke also reports Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry:   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”;  and he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.   The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.   Then he began to say to them,  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   (Luke 4:18-21)

Jesus life and ministry was a mission dedicated to carrying out the above.    How have we as Christians through the centuries failed to see what Jesus was about?   How have we missed the major thrust of his ministry?     Why have we utterly failed to continue this mission?    

As I approach the celebration of the birth of Jesus, I look out on my own state (Kansas) which is supposed to governed by professed Christians.    I see poverty that is growing worse each year.   I see adults working two and three jobs to provide for their children and not being able to do so because of low wages and part time employment with no benefits.  I see a state legislature and governor who have refused to extend Medicaid to thousands who have no health insurance who are suffering needlessly because of that. I see a governor and legislator who have refused to raise the minimum wage so that working people can live on what they earn.    I see children and adults who are homeless.   I see thousands of children going to bed hungry each night, if they have a bed.   AND I ASK—-WHERE ARE THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS?   Why have they not stood up to the powers that cause all of this suffering?   Where is the voice of “the crucified one” demanding that those who have the power to change this picture do so?    Where are we?

We are sitting in comfortable churches.   We have joined the “powers that be” rather than bringing them down to deal with the desperate condition of many in our state.    Not a single voice has been heard from the church and Christians demanding that Medicaid be extended.   Not a single church has demanded that the minimum wage be raised.   The church and Christians have remained silent in the face of the poverty and suffering all around them.

The Magnificat speaks of the change that the society will experience because of the birth of the Messiah.   Centuries later, we who claim to be the “body of Christ” have not brought that change about.    Rather we have joined the forces of the powerful that are causing those conditions of poverty and helplessness to continue and to grow.

WE’VE MISSED JESUS’ ENTIRE POINT, FELLOW CHRISTIANS!!!

 

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Get Out of the Boat

Text:  Matthew 14:22-33

Theme:   The church needs the passion of Peter to risk leaving our safe boats to walk on the water with Jesus. 

            “Crazy Simon Peter is doing it again!”   I wonder if that is what the disciples in that boat thought about the events that were unfolding before their eyes.    Peter was known for being impetuous.   He was known for speaking before he thought about what he was saying and doing things on the spur of the moment, without thought.   He was known for his passionate nature.   He was the disciple, re remember that drew his sword the night the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and cut off the year of the servant of the high priest.   Jesus told him to put away his sword that time and healed the ear of the servant.   Peter was the disciple who at one moment was saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (what we refer to as the Good Confession) and the next moment he is being told by Jesus to “get behind me, Satan” for what he said.           

            Peter was passionate.   He was the kind of person who took risks.   And the story we read in the text today is another chapter in the saga of this passionate and impetuous man.   Let’s take another look at it…..

 Jesus had left the disciples to go pray alone and sent them on ahead of him in the boat he had used to speak to the crowds.      The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden, fierce storms; and the disciples had been caught in one of those storms and it was blowing them out to sea.   They had been rowing all night trying to keep the boat from capsizing by rowing into the wind towards the shore.   They were  exhausted.   They were frightened by the ferocity of the storm.    Then they saw something that frightened them even more—-they saw a man walking on the sea towards them!   Who was it?  Was it a ghost?  Were they hallucinating?   And then the man spoke to them and said:   “Take heart, it is I?”   Was it Jesus?   Was it really him?

            That’s when impetuous Peter said—-“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!”   Good old crazy Simon Peter!!! He’s done it againf!    And Jesus said one word to him:   “Come”.   

            So Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk on the waves that were tossing the boat to and fro.   He’s not just walking on calm water—he’s on a stormy sea!    Suddenly, he had second thoughts—what in the world is he doing here??

What made me do this crazy thing? 

            And he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink!   He cried out:  “Lord, save me!!”  And immediately Jesus reached out to him and pulled him back up, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 You have probably heard many sermons given on this story.   While Mark and Luke also have the story of the calming of the sea, the story of Peter trig to walk on the water to Jesus is found only in Matthew’s gospel.    Some sermons may have emphasized that we must keep our eyes on Jesus and when we fail to do so we sink.   And they are right!    Other sermons you may have heard have been on the faith that is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus   And they are right!

            I would like for us to consider this story, however in terms of an allegory about the church.    

We must remember the Gospel of Matthew was written late in the first century—probably around 90 A.D.,  and it was written to a church that was suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.   Think about the disciples on the boat as being like the church.   They are on stormy seas.  The wind is against them.  But note several things:

            First, when Jesus comes walking toward them they don’t recognize him!  The church doesn’t recognize Jesus???  Whoa!!

            Note secondly, that they do not give  up—they keep on rowing.   But with Jesus not being with them in the boat, they seem to not be getting anywhere, but are just surviving.

Sound familiar?    Do you ever feel that way?   Do you feel like you labor and strain in working for the progress of the church and nothing much happens?     Might it be because we don’t have Jesus in the boat with us?

            Note thirdly, that only Peter is willing to get out of the boat.   The rest of the disciples keep rowing and stay in the boat.   

            Next note   that it is when Peter, in faith, stepped out of the boat that he reaches out to Jesus who saves him!!              

Finally, note a that it is only when Jesus is back in the boat that the storm abates and the seas become still!!

 How very much like the church today are those disciples  in the boat!   Most churches are like a bunch of Jesus’ disciples that are battling to stay alive in an increasingly hostile environment.   Small groups of Christians are rowing like crazy into this life’s  storm that is beating on their church,  and are getting worn out; and it seems like all they are doing is holding their own against a stormy world or worse, they are losing ground.

And it is a stormy world.   It is a world that threatens to enguls us.   To swallow us up.

A world that is in direct competition with the church for the lives and time of Christians.    That schedules events on Sunday mornings to entice Christians away from worship of God.

A world that schedules sports events for children on Sunday and tells us that is more important than children being in church and Bible Study. 

A world that pushes an immoral way of life as being “fun” and the “in thing” to do in movies, TV, music and rap.

A world that is full of violence and hatred.  One in which terrorists kill innocent human beings in behalf of their political and religious agenda.   A world where rulers kill peaceably assembled protestors of their regimes.

A world that threatens large numbers of adults and children with starvation and violence at the hands of their own governments.

 A world where disease threatens and takes lives on a daily basis—-disease that is curable if the cure was available to those who are dying of the diseases.

 A world where drugs are pushed on our children; where our children are not safe from the attacks of child molesters and child pornographers.

 A world where families are split apart by governments”getting tough on immigration, by divorce,  and by poverty and whre families are dysfunctional , with children drifting and lost.

A world where poverty leaves children and parents hungry and without adequate medical and dental care because Kansas will not expand Medicaid

 Richard Hamm, former General Minister of DOC and now retired described the world of today in these words in his book From Mainline to Frontline.  Written 10 years ago, sadly it is still very true.   If things have changed, it is only that they are probably worse!   He writes….

 “See that mean-spiritedness is everywhere, impatient automobile drivers, who seem more bent on making a point than getting somewhere; parents in the supermarket who slap their children around; politicians who deliberately belittle and lie about those who oppose them;  radio talk show hosts who do not simply differ from the ideas and positions offered by others, but who seek to assassinate the character of those with whom they differ;  people who want to win and will crush their opponents in any and every way possible to do so.

            The world is a greedy place….The world is a place where racism is part of everyday life;  where sexual orientation becomes more important than one’s humanity in defining a person’s value.

Hamm continues

            The world is a place where certain people are expendable.   A world fueled by consumerism.  To be attractive or to have value, you must buy this product or that product.  You must have this car.  You must use this toothpaste.  You must wear this designer label.

{End of Quote}.

The world is also a place where our governments try to balance  their budgets with cuts that adversely affect children, the elderly, the poor, and the sick…while giving huge subsidies to oil companies that net billions of dollars each year in profits that they pay little tax on.  This is a frightening world.  It is a world that desperately needs the church to take a stand on the above issues and to be there to heal and help those who are being tossed about or being thrown away.

 The church in this world needs to listen carefully to the words spoken by the prophet Micah long ago:       

“With what shall I come before trhe Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?   Will the lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has showed you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,  and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

 And where is the church in this stormy world?

I fear the church is too often fearful and  cowering in the boat, being buffeted by the storms of this world, and trying to row by themselves instead of getting out of the boat and taking risks with Jesus by their side.   

I fear Jesus is not in the boat with us and we are afraid to get out of the boat and go and meet him on the stormy seas of this life.   We feel safe in the boat, rowing hard, but getting nowhere.  Nowhere is something that we are familiar with.   Better not to take a risk by getting out of the boat and going toward Jesus.

 But Jesus comes to us on life’s stormy seas and says“Come”.  Are we willing to answer that call?   Are we willing to look Jesus in the face and climb out of our safe boat and take risks in walking in the storm that surrounds us with him?

The church needs the passion of Peter to leave  to leave our safe boat and walk on the stormy seas of this world with Jesus!!

Passionthat is what we are missing.   We like to play it safe.   Jesus words “Do not be afraid” mean more than “rest easy”.   They mean something like “take heart”; “have courage”;  “be open and willing to receive what is coming”;  get ready for a new thing that God is about to do in your life.”   It is an invitation to welcome rather than retreat from walking with Jesus and the new future that goes with that for us and our world.

It is not always easy.

It is easier to complain than to try a new way of living that heals and forgives and reflects God’s mercy and love to others as Jesus did. 

It is easier to live with disappointments than to venture changes leading to unknow possibilities.

Easier to keep fighting the battles that we know than to undertake an entirely different approach to living by walking with Jesus the Christ in His Way.

 So what does the church need to do to survive the storms they are battling?   I would suggest three things:

FirstWe need to be passionate about what we are doing. We are too comfortable.   We must be willing to take risks.   We need to get our of our safe boats and walk toward Jesus, believing and trusting that he will keep our heads above the stormy waters if we do so. 

 Secondly, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  We need to invite Him into our church and into our hearts in a transformative way.   We need to sit at his feet in the Gospels and learn of His Way.   

 Finally, we need to trust that God will help us if we risk much.   That God, through Jesus will be there for us if we falter  

 

There is a story about musicians at a nightclub who complained about an old piano.   The keys would often stick and the sounds was truly hideous it was so out of tune.   After months of listening to the grumbling, the nightclub owner finally decided to do something about it­—he sent the piano out to be painted.

 Painted???  Painted????  What good would that do???

 I think that is something that we Christians in our churches often settle for—-a paint job when we need a full tune up and overhaul.      It is so easy to play church without actually being one.   But what people too often see and hear from the church is like the old piano that just had a paint job—we need a tuneup and an overhaul, not just a paint job.  And so many turn away from the church like the musicians did from the old piano. We are out of tune with the world around us that has changed dynamically in the last 50 years.  We don’t need a paint job as a church—we need a full tuneup and overhaul of the way we go about being church. It is so easy to  seek comfort instead of challenge; to want rest, not responsibility.

            We too readily accept complacency and the status quo and surrender our passion for God.  If we look for a paint brush rather than a tool box to fix our churches we will find that we will not solve our problems.

 Remember one thing:  Jesus is here with us as we face the storms of life that beat upon us as Christians and upon our church.   He will walk with us and reach down and pick us up if we stumble—-if we reach out to him as Peter did and say:  “Lord save me!”  

But first we have to get out of the boat and take the risk of walking with Jesus on the stormy sea!!

 

What’s in our Tear Bottle?

Text:   Mark 9:38-50

Those of us who are parents have always wanted to meet some characters called:   They, Them, and their cousin Everybody!    You know how it goes—“They” said it was o.k., Dad—-or it’s o.k. with “them”——or “But Mom, Everybody is wearing this or doing that!”

They” are everywhere, and we even find “Them” in the church.   “They” and “Them” make all the decisions.  And usually cousin “Everybody” doesn’t much care for the decisions “They” made!  They, Them, and Cousin Everybody!!   We have a fundamental tendency, it seems, as human beings to divide the world into “Them” and “Us” .

That’s what the disciples are doing in the text above.   We can almost hear the panic (and the pride also) in the disciples voices when they say:   “Jesus!  Jesus!  We saw Them.   They’re out there.  And They are doing miracles and curing people of demons, and maybe even preaching in Your Name!    And Jesus, we’re sure—we’re absolutely sure—they’re Them.   We know they’re Them, because they are not Us.   And so we stopped them!!!”

If the disciples were expecting a pat on the back from Jesus for this they were very disappointed.   Jesus was not happy about what they had done.   On the contrary, he probably was driven to tears of anger at their shortsightedness and pride, because he gave them one of the sharpest rebukes ever given to his disciples.   “Don’t stop them! He says.  “There is not Them.  There’s only Us!   And no one who does any good work in the power of my name should be thwarted from doing so.   Whoever is not against us is for us!”

Jesus continued by stating that those who willfully erect “stumbling blocks”,   whose actions hinder the progress of the “little ones” (read believers),  are better off at the bottom of the sea with a millstone around their necks!

There is a verse in the Psalms—Psalm 56:8—-that says:  God, you have kept count of my tossings;  put my tears in your bottle.   Are they not in your record?   (NRSV)

This Psalm is referring to the ancient practice, according to scholar James Fleming, of collecting one’s tears and preserving them in a “tear bottle” made of glass, many of which had a bulbous bottom and a long neck flared at the top to facilitate collecting the tears.

Some say that the woman of the streets (read prostitute) who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears at the house of Simon the Pharisee may have actually been pouring out her own bottle of tears on his feet.

I see Jesus as a man who felt deeply!!   As we just celebrated Father’s Day,  I would suggest that he is a model for  fathers today showing what a  man should be and do as a father. .  Jesus is a man who cried tears of compassionof grief, of love, of anger.   Jesus loved deeply, just as God loves deeply.    And those who love deeply express deep emotions.      

Jesus wept over many things

After his Triumphal Entry, he wept tears of compassion over Jerusalem, as they rejected him and the way of peace that he brought and chose instead a way of a military messiah that would result in the utter destruction of Israel by the Romans.   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it.   How often I have desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings—and you were not willing…”

Jesus wept tears of grief as he saw the grief of the family of his friend Lazarus at his death.

He wept tears of anger, I’m sure, at the sight of those who took advantage of the “little ones”—-the poor, the weak, the young, the elderly, the sick, the lepers, the outcasts of society. As always, Jesus’ anger is for any one who took advantage of or failed to help the “others”, the “little ones”—-the poor, the weak, the young, the old, the sick, the outcast.

He wept tears of frustration, I’m sure, at the failure of his disciples to grasp what His mission was about as the “suffering servant” Messiah. and their failure to grasp the significance of the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed.

He wept tears of anguish in the Garden of Gethesemane, as he prayed that “this cup might pass”, but nevertheless promised to do God’s will.

We have pointed at some of the tears that may have been in Jesus’ tear bottle.    But today the question is:   What is in my tear bottle?  what is in yours?

When I was a child it was widely taught to young boys that “Men do not cry!”   I was lucky to have a father who didn’t teach me that.   He didn’t cry often, but one of the times I do remember seeing him cry was over the way the church was treating the present minister.   He was an Elder in the Christian Church in Abilene, and came home from a board meeting and cried as he told my mother about it.    So, I learned a different lesson as a boy—that there is nothing wrong about crying in compassion with other human beings.

But the question is:  “ What makes us cry??”  What turns on our eye faucets and tear pumps?   What makes our eyes tear up and our cheeks get damp?    Is it crying tears over injustice to others?   Crying tears of compassion for others?  Crying genuine heart-and –soul tears over the plight of the world and our fellow human beings?   Is that it?    In other words is our crying based on the kinds of attitudes and activities that brought tears to Jesus’ eyes?

What makes you sad?   What makes me sad?  What makes me glad?   What makes you glad?    What makes you angry?   What makes me angry?   Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves.

What tears are in your tear bottle, Christian?   What tears are in my tear bottle, pastor?

As I thought about these questions I decided that I would “go first” in answering them.   But I invite you to think about what is in your tear bottles as I share what might be in mine as I look at my life and ministry…..

I have often cried tears of grief, as I conducted funerals and saw the deep grief of those who have lost a loved one.  I share that grief and their tears.

I have cried tears of frustration when I left the room of an elderly person in a nursing home whose family seldom visits and whose life is being “warehoused” by the system.

I have cried tears of anger  when I read about how the elderly and the poor are forced to choose between paying for medicine and a doctor or pay for food.   Or when I read that those who have worked hard all their lives and saved are rendered bankrupt by their inability to pay medical bills because they can’t get health insurance.   A life-threatening and very expensive illness strikes and they must choose between life and bankruptcy!   Something is terribly wrong with a faith community that keeps quiet about that!!   Those who decry health care availability for all makes me  cry for the church  and those who call themselves Christians who do not seem to feel their pain and strive to alleviate it.

I cried tears of grief, I remember, when I first saw the Vietnam Wall—grief for the loss of all those young men and women whose names are recorded there and for what their lives might have meant to their families and to our society.   And I cry tears of grief today as I read about those who die in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine.  So much human life squandered and human potential not allowed to develop!

I cry tears of compassion with the one who is facing end of life and being placed in hospice and who feels frightened about what is happening to him or her.

I cry tears of compassion, but also of anger,   when I see pictures of children in Africa who have bloated bellies and sticks for limbs due to hunger while the adults of their country spend the money meant for food to buy arms to kill each other!  And the same for children in America who have no health care, not enough to eat, and when they come into the Lord’s Diner for a meal cannot respond normally but look at me with dull eyes and no expression.

I cry tears of frustration as I watch a mind being wasted by Alzheimers Disease, or a body wasted by cancer and then read of cuts in funding for research for cures for those problems while millions go the oil companies.   I cry tears of anger  when I hear of the terrible prices exacted for cancer drugs by the drug companies that force those suffering with cancer to choose between life and bankruptcy.

I cry tears of —what—Frustration?  Compassion?   Grief?   When I look out on this sanctuary on Sunday morning and see all the empty pews that could be full of people praising God and going forth to serve him this week—if we would but get on fire for Jesus Christ and invite and bring them here.   Most people come to church the first time, research shows, when someone in the congregation invites them.   When have you done that?   Why not?

I cry tears of compassion  when I see children growing up outside the church, without its teachings and without a knowledge of Jesus Christ, because their parents just don’t care!

I cry tears of joy  as I dedicate a baby and its parents to bring it up in the church and teachings of Jesus.

I cry tears of joy when I baptize someone.

I cry tears of joy as I pronounce a couple husband and wife at their wedding.

Those are some of the tears in my tear bottle?   So what do you cry for Christian?   Now it is your turn!!

What makes us cry, church?   Is our crying based on the kinds of things that brought tears to the eyes of Jesus?   What makes us cry, Church?   Fellow Christians, what makes you cry!

I have come to believe that there is a linkage between suffering and love.   They inhabit the same deep place in our souls.  If we did not love there would be no suffering and grief, there would be no crying.

We suffer and hurt and weep for our children late into the night because we love them.

Our children get homesick when they go away to school or camp, because they love their homes and their parents.

We shed tears over someone’s death, because we loved them and loved being with them.

To not cry is to never deeply and fully love  !!

 

Jesus wept because Jesus loved..   Does the church of Jesus Christ weep because they love?    What makes you cry, Church?

Frederick Beuchner, in “Whistling in the Dark” says:   “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention to them.   They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where you should go next.”

Some of you will remember the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary that was popular during the 1960’s.   Paul wrote a song entitled “For the Love of it All”.   I’d like to quote some of his lyrics in closing:

Long ago on a hilltop where now the curious crawl

A man on a cross paid the ultimate cost

For the Love of it all.

For the Love of it all, we are gathered by grace.

It is still not too late to come and celebrate.

The Love of it all.

Eli, eli, lamina sabakthani!   The Love of it all!!

WHAT’S IN YOUR TEAR BOTTLE, CHURCH?????!!!

Mercy or Retribution?

It’s true!   People do some terrible things to each other.   Many of us have been harmed by words and actions of others.  Words can assault us and injure us as much as physical blows and others actions may cause harm or death to our loved ones.  Those who harm us are often the victims of our  hatred, our wrath and our retribution. .  We ourselves often strike out  with words that hurt towards those we love, even if they are short of actual body blows!   We want to get even. We want Retribution!

If we are hurt we want to hurt back as much or more as we are hurt.   When we or a loved one are hurt, the adrenalin hits our bodies and prepares us for “fight or flight”.  Our blood pressure goes up.  Our breathing increases.  Our heart rate increases.  and the desire for retribution is very strong!   And yet as Christians we are faced with a problem.   Jesus taught his disciples that we should  forgive and not get even. That we should “love God and our neighbor as ourselves, and makes he makes it very clear by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan immediately after that teaching that our neighbor may be someone we hate and has treated us badly and hates us also.   Loving God  and hating our neighbor is therefore not an option according to Jesus.  If we follow what is often called the Great Commandment  to love God and neighbor (because it sums up all “the law and the prophets” including the Ten Commandments) then  love and forgiveness is the only option for a follower of Christ.   It is a simple but difficult command.

And how do we go about loving God anyway?    Love is relational.   We can say  “I love you God”—but how do we show our love to God in action?   Love is an action word!   Again we go to the great commandment and find out we show our love for God by loving our neighbor no matter how much he or she has hurt us!   That’s tough!   But we are commanded to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves!   Even tougher!  If we are to show our love for God in a concrete way the choice between retribution or forgiveness, mercy or getting even, is obvious.  The choice is love and mercy and forgiveness.

In my Sunday School Class we have been studying the Beatitudes. We have been aided in our  learning by a book written about Mother Teresa and the Beatitudes.   You guessed it!   I have to teach the class about the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” this coming Sunday.

As you know, Mother Teresa and her sisters worked in the worst part of Calcutta in India.   They opened a House for the Dying among other things they did there.     People were dying in filth and squalor covered with their own feces on the streets of Calcutta every day. At first she borrowed a wheelbarrow to get them to the house where they could be cared for and loved and cleaned up and as she put it “at least die a human death”.   She viewed what she did as following this Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful” and as showing her love for God by showing love and care to those who were dying alone, in their own feces, on the streets of Calcutta.  According to Mother Teresa you show love to God by loving God’s children—and that includes what Mother Teresa called “the least of these.”

She took to heart the Parable of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 35-40,  where Jesus is assuming the personhood of those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, suffering, in prison, etc.   To those who reached out to him in God’s love he says “You did it to me”.

Listen to Mother Teresa’s own words:   “Whatever you do to the least of these my brethren, you do it to me.”  (Matt. 25:40)   “If in my name , you give a glass of water, you give it to me.  If in my name, you receive a child, you receive me.  (Mark 9:37)   He has made that a condition also, that at the hour of death we are going to be judged on what we have been and what we have done.   He (Jesus) makes Himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the sick one, the lonely one, the unwanted one, the rejected one.

He says “I was hungry and you gave me to eat.”  Not only for bread, I was hungry for love.  “I was naked” not only for a piece of cloth, but I was naked for that human dignity of a child of God .  “I  was homeless”  not only for a home made of brick, but I was homeless, rejected, unwanted, unloved, a throw-away of society, and you did it to me”.  (end of quote)

Mercy is what you show when you don’t have to!   Mercy is unearned.  Mercy is forgiveness and love and care when you don’t deserve it.   Richard Rohr says “you don’t know what mercy really is until YOU need it.   God shows you mercy every day as God forgives for the many actions we take that drag the name of Jesus in the mud.   God loves us even as unloving and unlovely as we can be.   God shows us mercy and God’s love  in that forgiveness.  God does not demand retribution.  And as we follow Jesus and  forgive others who hurt us and do not practice retribution against our neighbors we become capable of receiving God’s mercy.   It is as simple and as difficult as that.   “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”    Amen.

“Go to the world” not just “Go to Church”

 

Why should we go to church?   Do we go to seek healing from our “brokenness”?  Do we go to seek God’s will for our lives together with others who are searching for the same thing?    Do we go there to worship God?   Do we go for the beautiful music and the good feelings we have as we listen to it?   Do we go because it is a requirement for salvation?  Do we go to learn together with fellow Christians how to be disciples of Jesus?   Bingo!   You’ve got it!!

What is it that the church does that we should support it?   Are we discipling people so that they can go into the world and fulfill Jesus’ commission?   If we are not doing that, then perhaps we should support it as a nice social club, but not because it is the Church of Jesus Christ—because it isn’t.

In my opinion,most churches have things all turned around.   In our selfishness and our conceit we think that the church is a building or group of people that exists somehow for our benefit.    Isn’t that what all of the above, except the last statement,  is saying?

Instead of “going to churchhave we considered thechurch going to the world?”

Jesus, the itinerant preacher, early in his career visited his home synagogue of Nazareth. It was the equivalent of “going to church” today.   As he was already gaining fame, he was asked to read from the scrolls..  He read a passage taken from Isaiah 61,  and he so infuriated them with his remarks after the reading that the synagogue as a body rose up in rage and took him and tried to throw him off a cliff outside the town.   (Read Luke: 4:14-30 for the details!)   Clearly the synagogue wasn’t in agreement when Jesus read his job description:   The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.   They especially weren’t impressed when he told them he (Jesus) was the one that Isaiah was talking about.  I can almost hear them say:   “What is all this claptrap about the poor and the oppressed and the blind?  Who does this simple carpenter’s son think he is anyway?   What does all this stuff have to do with our church (synagogue)”?

If you read the gospels that tell of Jesus, it had everything to do with what churches should be doing.    Jesus never founded a church.   He never taught that people should go to church.   Jesus committed the “good news of the gospel”to those who were his disciples.  The church should be the gathering of those disciples today.    You can read his commission to his disciples  several places in the New Testament:   In Matthew 28: 19-20 he commissioned them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.   And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

A similar commission to his disciples is found in Acts 1:7-8 :   It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.   But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The purpose of the church is to make disciples If you are one of those disciples then your commission is to “GO INTO THE WORLD” , not just to  “go to church.”   

There is a world that is hurting outside the doors of our churches.   There are children that are hungry.   There is massive poverty.   There is lack of medical care.   There are people who are mentally ill not getting help.   There are oppressed people.   There are people in prison.   There are people trying to turn their lives around.   There are hopeless people that need a word of hope.   There are people in despair.   There are people in mourning over the death of a loved one.   There are people who are warehoused in nursing homes with no family.  There are people who are victims of human trafficking.   There are people dying alone.   There are people with no housing, living on the streets.

All of these are people to whom Jesus send us as his disciples, his church, when we “go into the world.”

All of these are people who need to hear and see in the lives of Jesus’ disciples the “good news” that God loves them and will care for them through Jesus’ disciples—that’s us!   We need to go to church to prepare to be disciples, but we need to then go to the world and fulfill the commission given to Jesus’ disciples—-the church.

Churches Stuck in a Rut, or Transformed?

 

I once preached a sermon called “Stuck in Schadenfreude”   Schadenfreude?    What does that mean?   It’s a German word that says in one word that “we find satisfaction and pleasure in the troubles of others”!   For mainline churches today who are dwindling in number Schadenfreude is found in such statements as this one that we often hear in our churches:   “Well, our membership may be shrinking but the same is true for all mainline churches and evangelicals and Catholics and Jews and megachurches.   Our numbers are down but their membership numbers are worse!   Schadenfreude.   Instead of seeking to get out of the rut, we just say, well others are in the same rut. It can’t be us, because they are worse than we are in numbers  and we take some pleasure that other churches are suffering like our church and argue that it is not our fault and that it must be attributed to this “new generation” of millenials who have no sense of dedication or commitment.  Our refusal to get out of the rut we’re in as churches is what the new generation is seeing.

Yes, it IS due to the new generation.  They see institutional religion as hypocritical, negative, uncaring, focused on membership and not reaching out to others in the community,  not spiritual,   anti-homosexual,  anti-abortion, but not really pro-anything except supporting right-wing Republicans;  and therefore irrelevant to their generation and to our society in general.  .    We may disagree with their definition of us as a church, but poll after poll after survey shows that is the thinking of our new generation.

We see this thinking also  in a rising majority of other than young  people who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”   They are really saying that the present institutional church does not offer what they feel they really need—-a connection with God and with other people that we would call a spiritual connection to God and neighbor.    Most surveys show that what people are longing for is “community”  and “spirituality“.   They have heard that the church is supposed to be made up of followers of Jesus Christ who model their lives and actions after his love for people, for the outcasts.  for the sick and lame, for the poor.   Instead they see an institution that sits on soft cushions in air conditioned sanctuaries once a week and say they are disciples of Jesus.

These people are telling the churches something and churches need to listen carefully to what they are saying.   What they are saying is that churches need to be transformed into the image of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Looking back at recent history of the Christian Churches in the U.S. we see that in the middle of the 20th century Christianity boomed  and the churches were full after World War II.  Mainline churches, out of necessity, needed to become better organized institutions to deal with the large numbers.  We chose to   pattern our churches in a similar way that the business model of General Motors was patterned.   Our churches grew corporate headquarters with program divisions, church development, professional marketing departments, professional development and career paths, executive guidance,  and layers of staff and committees to make decisions all reporting to a Board of Directors. The same patterns were copied by local churches with Boards of Directors, a complicated committee system, professional leaders of worship and music and Christian Education, etc. etc. that reported to the committees who were responsible to the  Board.   We still try to maintain this pattern even though it no longer works.

And just like General Motors became bloated with all its organizational structure, local and national churches became bloated with committees that stifled creativity and began to focus on maintaining the institution, building large churches, expanding, expanding—-and in the midst of all of this, the churches forgot what their mission was.   The mission of being disciples of Jesus was lost.   As Diana Butler Bass says in her book Christianity after Religion      ” the business of the church replaced he mission of the church.”

When customers of General Motors began to become discontented with the high-priced and poorly engineered  gas hogs being produced at the time of the first gasoline crisis, they quit buying General Motors Cars and went in droves to Japanese  car-makers.   General Motors over-organization caused them to not be able to keep up with the creativity of competing auto manufacturers because of all the layers of organization  they had to go through before changes could be made—-and GM lost much of their market share, so that they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy by the time the Great Recession hit in 2007.  They had to transform themselves in order to become competitive.

When the first decade of the 21st century hit, religious institutions found themselves with the same problem.   After 9/11 people flocked to churches in droves, but they did not find what they sought and quickly became disillusioned.  Because the business of the church had  replaced the mission of the church, people began leaving and numbers dwindled and the big business model of GM was no longer what was needed.   There was rising discontent with what the institutional churches were offering people.  People registered that discontent by walking away from the institutional church in ever larger numbers or went church shopping and found no improvements, so were in and out of churches, looking for what they needed but not finding it.   The discontent is reflected in the summary of many surveys found in  the first and second paragraphs of this post,  and resulted in the decline of the institutional church—all institutional churches.

What to do?    Churches must get out of their rut and  transform themselves.   They  must redefine their mission as not being that of maintaining church buildings but of working for social and economic justice for the poor and the outcasts of society.   They  must seek and provide ways of connecting people to God in spiritual  communities that are not over-organized institutions but are communities of faith where people can find God and can seek to help each other live in a spiritual community that seeks to carry out the mission that Jesus carried out in his ministry.   As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:  Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—-what is good and acceptable and perfect”.  (Rom. 12:1-2)

If  the institutional church remains stuck in the rut of “but we have always done it this way” (the seven deadly words of the church) , it will slowly  die.

Diana Butler Bass tells of receiving a New Year’s greeting in 2010 from a friend, with the greeting wishing her “the gift of discontent”.  Enclosed with the greeting was this prayer:

O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life.   Make me noticed the stains when people get spilled on.   Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women and youth behind bars.  Jar my complacency, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world.  Give me integrity once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.”

Perhaps we need as a church to pray often this prayer of discontent.

 

Throw-away People

 

On the northwest side of Wichita, just as you are leaving the city is a site known by the natives as “Mount Wichita”.     It has several “peaks” and on one side of the highway it is covered with grass, with pipes sticking out in various places to vent the gas.   On the other side it is a “work in progress” as daily it continues to grow higher and wider as trash trucks make their way to the top of it and discard our “throw-aways.”.

We are a “throw-away culture” in America.    Our landfills expand almost exponentially and our factories put out items that are meant to wear out in a few years so we will buy new ones.    A sign of this is the offer of an extended warranty when we buy such things as dish washers and clothes washers.   If the items were made as we know how to make them they would not need such warranties.

If our present equipment does not wear out soon enough, then advertisers are always there, on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, on TV and the internet,  to convince us that we must have the newest and the latest gizmo—whether it be a new iPhone or a kitchen gadget.  We feed this highly productive machine with the lives of people who are paid low or sub-minimum wages, part time, and with no benefits.   They are essential to the production, either here or abroad, but they reap none of the benefits.   When they wear out they have no healthcare available and so we discard them just like the products and services they help produce.     

In increasing numbers these “throw-away people ” can be seen on the streets of our cities, under the bridges of our metropolitan areas.   They are carrying everything they own on their backs.  Their eyes are dulled by alcohol or drugs or just by loss of hope and the resulting despair.   They trudge from one place to another in our cities because they have no real place to go—-to call home.     Thus we let them hide from us on the streets and under bridges, because really seeing them makes us feel guilty—-we throw away more food in a day than they may have had to eat in a week.  We try to feed them and care for them, but we don’t address the real reason they are there.  Increasingly we let our government and our economy discard them by not addressing the problems in our government and economic system that keep them on the rubbish pile of our civilization.  Problems such as much higher minimum wages, health care, education, etc.    These people are “throw-aways“.   We say that they are just trying to “use the system“, but in reality they are victims of a system that keeps them in poverty in so many different ways.   Until we do something and address the ways that they are kept in poverty by our government and our economic system working in concert against them, they will remain “throw-aways.”

Pope Francis said it well in these words:   “I can say, we can all say, that the main cause of poverty is an economic system that has canceled the person from the center and set money in its place; an economic system that excludes, always excludes:   excludes children, the elderly, young people, the unemployed…and that creates the throw-away culture we live in.   We are becoming accustomed to seeing people discarded.”

In Kansas we also have a state legislature and governor who work together with businesses to make sure these people stay where they are—-that they remain “throw-aways”.    God forgive us!  Christians have forgotten that it was to the “throw-aways” of his culture that Jesus ministered  to on a daily basis.