Let’s Get Hollerin’

Let’s Get Hollerin’

In the past two and a half weeks my wife and I crossed eleven state borders and travelled over 5,000 miles as we journeyed around the United States. Our travels took us up the Rocky Mountains, down through the desert of Utah, and the oil fields of Texas. We hiked on snow-capped mountains in Colorado and through tent rock formations in 95 degree temps in New Mexico. Mountains, rivers, and deep ravens created natural boundaries for state and county lines.

Photo taken on our recent road trip somewhere in San Antonio, Texas

The whole time we were crossing borders I was paying attention to the tragedy happening down on our southern border. Children being separated from their parents. Families seeking safety from violence ripped apart violently. Politicians say, “Zero tolerance” and those seeking asylum say, “We can’t go back.”

This is not a political speech. It is a sermon. This is not about being Democrat or Republican. There is plenty of blame to be had by all. It is not even about being American. It is about the kingdom of God. It is about following after a savior who puts people loyalty above party loyalty.

I won’t say it isn’t political. The moment we claim Jesus is lord, we make a political statement. If we say we follow Jesus, we follow the way of one who teaches us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and who says the way of forgiveness is the way to eternal life. If Jesus is king, then our citizenship is the kingdom of God.

Our current politics can be defined as border politics. The situation at our southern border is just one example. We separate and divide ourselves to the point that border control defines all our relationships. We have established clear boundaries between our political parties. Our economic system has created a separation between the rich and the poor. The United Methodist Church has drawn a line in the sand over sexuality and made that our boundary line that we are willing to divide the church over. Wherever you find racism, sexism, and ageism you will find a border wall. If we are honest with ourselves, Christians have built some of the biggest walls.

And yet, we follow the One who was all about breaking down walls. Jesus spoke to people that he shouldn’t have been speaking with, he touched the untouchables, he ate with the outcast, and he invited into his fellowship the unwelcomed. He spends his life violating clearly defined boundaries.

Jesus lives without regard to the established walls that separate, rules that categorize people, and borders that define national loyalty.

In his first message, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.

“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)

The pain of poverty, the horror of oppression, and the brokenness of the body and soul know no boundaries. If Jesus is savior of one, he is savior of all. If his kingdom has come, it has come for all. If the politics of Jesus is boundary breaking, then shouldn’t it be the same for his followers?

It is not so easy. In the account of Jesus meeting a woman from Canaan, we discover that before we can be about the business of boundary breaking we must confront our own prejudices. It is impossible to follow the boundary-breaking savior while building our own border walls of discrimination.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

She is called “woman.” Gospel of Mark calls her a Syrophoenician. Gospel of Matthew claims she is a Canaanite. The point is that she is not Jewish. But what she is, is persistent. A woman with the audacity to get in the face of the Son of God and demand healing for her daughter. A no-named, no-status woman who was not afraid to walk through a group of men and ask for mercy for her daughter. A foreigner calling out the Messiah of her people’s enemies. Here we have a boundary-breaking, change-maker woman who is not afraid to tear down some borders.

In a world where the demons of sexual exploitation and slavery are destroying our children, we need bold witnesses like the Syrophoenician woman. In a world where the demons of racism are claiming some to be less than human, we need change-agents who won’t stop until justice is for all. In a world where kids are being driven to suicide because of the judgment put on their sexuality, we need ground-shakers to disrupt fear and prejudice. In a world where children are separated from their parents, we need transform-tripping adults to stand in the gap.

When I see Jesus’ response, it looks, well, not like Jesus. Her plea for help was met with a boundary of cultural prejudice. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says (Matthew 15:24). Or as John 3:16 might be translated, “For God so loved the United States, not the world; for God so loved my people, not your people.”

She continues to beg for his mercy. He gets more insensitive, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). Dogs! Did Jesus just call this woman and her daughter a dog? When was the last time you heard someone called a dog and it meant as a compliment? Here is the second person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh, the I AM, and he is calling someone created in His image a “dog!”

Throughout the gospels Jesus shows a boundary-breaking presence but here we have a boundary-shaping reality. I believe what Jesus is doing, he is doing on behalf of his followers. He knows he has in front of him a woman who is not afraid to shake hell and run off demons if needed. Other words, he knows what type of faith she has.

When she starting crying out for Jesus to help her daughter, he remained silent. His disciples encouraged him to tell her to keep quiet. “She keeps shouting after us” (Luke 15:23), they said. He gave her the response that his disciples wanted him to give. He replied with a cultural response that they would have been familiar with – you dog! But when she persisted and refused to back down, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table” (Luke 15:27), he responded in a way that would have dumb-founded the disciples. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Luke 15:28).  

Jesus plays the cultural bias, religious prejudice part and by doing so he highlights the absurdity of exclusion.

There are many voices in our world that are silenced, lives that are oppressed, hope that is devastated, and situations that are simply demonic. As Dr. Brian Blount put it in a sermon to seminary students at Princeton, “It’s the kind of world Marvin Gaye sang about in his song entitled “Inner City Blues,” where he sang the line, “It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands.” Like the woman in today’s passage, when our children are being robbed of their life, it ought to make us wanna holler. When man-made barriers keep people from experiencing their God-given freedom, it ought to make us wanna holler. When borders stand in the way of someone’s safety, it ought to make us wanna holler. When children are abused, it ought to want to make us wanna holler. When the poor are taken advantage of, it ought to make us wanna holler. When someone is judged based on the color of their skin, it ought to make us wanna holler. When church traditions keep someone from experiencing the grace of God, it ought to make us wanna holler. When authority figures stand in the way of reconciliation, it ought to make us wanna holler. When healing is restricted, it ought to make us wanna holler.

Dr. Brian Blount continues in his sermon, “I think this is why Mark (and Matthew) kept this story in their gospels. They wanted us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation……If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us, we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet. ‘You want change?’ he seems to be telling the woman. ‘Then you’re gonna have to fight for it. You’re gonna have to raise your voice.’”

It is time for the church to recommit itself to hollering. It is time we show our compassion through our actions and with our words. May it be said that kids are safe, families are together, and bullies have been silenced because we hollered for justice. May it be said that country club neighborhoods are not places of loneliness because we hollered for community. May it be said that homeless shelters are empty because we hollered with our actions. May it be said that every person knows they are loved by God and the church regardless of race, sexuality, or disability because we hollered for love.

May it be that in our hollerin’ and the actions that follow, Christ hollers back and every demon is cast out and the world is more beautiful than ever before. Let’s get to hollerin’ church! Amen.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville Ga on Sunday, June 24, 2018)
(References taken from: Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 134)

In The Beginning Was Relationship (Trinity Sermon)

In The Beginning Was Relationship (Trinity Sermon)

11499_13951_The_Trinity_series“Holy, holy, holy, Merciful and Mighty, God in three persons blessed Trinity…….”

What comes to mind when you think about God? There was a time when people in North America took for granted what we thought about God. It was assumed when you said the word “God” that everyone was talking about the same thing. But now “God” is one of the most contested ideas we have. Political parties are divided over the concept of God and the worldview that God – or lack of God – defines. Churches split based on what is meant when they say “God.” We shape the habits and rituals of our lives around our concept of “God.”

Is God this big parent in the sky? Or some judgmental being who wants us to walk around in fear and guilt? Is God a distant watchmaker who set the world in motion and is letting it tick away on its own? What comes to mind when you think about God?

A.W. Tozer in a small book entitled The Knowledge of the Holy wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Our religious traditions are shaped in large part based on how we have come to define God. Religion is no greater than its idea of God.

If you were to ask most church-going people about their vision of God, they would paint for you this vision of God as an isolated ruling monarch who sits up in the heavens. He/she might be a benevolent grandparent or judgmental tyrant based on how your particular religious community has spoken about God. But most of us have this vision of God that is static.

Unless you read the novel The Shack or watched the movie.the shack The character in The Shack encounters God as Trinity. In the next few minutes we will discover how the teaching of the Trinity helps us understand how God is in relationship with us and how we are to be in relationship with one another. We will be challenged to live out our Trinitarian faith through community shaping love.

The language around our faith and our beliefs about God come through our experience with God. Our encounter with God shapes our beliefs about God. This is why the Christian faith is an experiential faith.

Like the Jewish people, Christians believe that God is one. The confession of faith in the Old Testament is “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4). Without abandoning this tradition, the early church attempted to make sense of their encounter with Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit as an experience with the same God. They engaged with God in particular ways throughout their shared experience.

The biblical writers of the first century didn’t have a Trinity doctrine but what they did have was a way of writing and speaking about God that was Trinitarian in experience. It took the church 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus to formulate a doctrine around the concept of the Trinity.

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine convened a council in the city of Nicaea, located in what is now northwest Turkey. It is there that the church formulated a historic statement of belief that has become known as the Nicene Creed. The creed set forth the key affirmations about the Christian belief on God and served as a guide in combating false teaching. It is the second oldest creed of the church.nicene creed

Why is it important that we understand the Trinity? How do we understand the Trinity? The Trinity teaches us that God is a relational being. God is a community of persons – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. If God is relational in God-self, then it demonstrates how God has chosen to deal with us – through relationship.

This is what Paul is telling us in Romans 8: 14 – 17.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:14-17 NRSV

The God of infinite time and space is eternally personal. Through the Spirit of God, we are invited to call the God of the galaxies “Daddy.” Jesus came to change our minds about God. Through his life, death, and resurrection we discover a God who will go to whatever length – even death on a cross – to show us that He longs for relationship. And when we didn’t have the faith to believe, God gave God’s Spirit to us. God’s love sees us as no different as Jesus. We are co-heirs with Jesus in God’s family.

The Trinity seen through Romans 8 and the rest of the New Testament, reveal to us a God who is passionately determined to be present with the world. Seeing God as Trinity is a reminder that God’s disposition toward the world is love. John 3:16 tells us “For God so loved the world…..” and in case we don’t get what he means by love, John 3:17 says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Relationships are not built on condemnation.

Love implies relationship. A relationship is love in action. To say that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is to affirm that God creates something; God redeems something; God sustains something. The something is us. We are the object of God’s love. The goal of that love is relationships.

If we are made in the image of God, then we also find our identity in relationship. We are social creatures. Scientist and mystics alike are discovering that the energy of the universe is not found in the material of the universe but in the relationship between all things. The foundational reality is relational. Everything is in relationship with everything else. This makes sense when we understand that our Creator is a relational being.

This also means that sin is best viewed in terms of broken relationships. Relationships between God and humanity, us and others, and us and creation have been damaged through sin. Salvation is restored relationship.

To confess that God exists in relationship is to acknowledge that God’s desire for humanity is restored relationships. This is the purpose of the church. The church exist as the restored goal of God’s design. The Trinity means that the church is fundamentally about relationship. The church is not a building. It is a way of being in the world.

Reverend John Buchanan, retired Presbyterian pastor, recounted one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a little boy. After the child had been baptized with water, Pastor Buchanan, following the liturgy of the church, put his hand on the little boy’s head and addressed him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, “Uh-oh.”

The “uh-oh” was a recognition that everything had changed. He no longer belonged to just his biological family, he now belonged to the family of God. He was now being called to live out his life reflecting the self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I hope this message has been an “uh-oh” reminder that being made in the image of a relational God means we are to be intentional in our relationships.

My challenge for you this Summer is to focus on your relationships. Like our Trinitarian faith, there are three relationships we need to be purposeful with: our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our relationship with ourselves. Make corporate worship a priority, pick a section of scripture and read through it, go on prayer walks. Be engaged with one another. Be in the moment. Step away from social media and focus on who is in front of you. Take care of yourself. Create space for silence and self-reflection.

Follow the example of the Trinity and live your life through self-giving love. Amen.

Sermon preached on Sunday, May 27, 20118 @ Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville GA

Divine Fire (Pentecost Sermon)

Divine Fire (Pentecost Sermon)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:1-4

38307_Divine_Fire (1)Have you ever had the need for something supernatural? A physician tells you that she is concerned with the x-rays. You need peace that passes all understanding. The phone rings in the middle of the night and desperate voice comes through the line. You need words of wisdom. You become the target of a personal attack. You need a love that restrains revenge. You are faced with a life-changing decision. You need to know God’s will.

When the boat is rocking, we need a God that can calm the storms. When the enemy is at our back, we need a God that can part the waters. When the pain is too much, we need a God that can heal the hurt. When our strength is gone, we need a God that can conquer enemy armies. When we feel inadequate, we need a God that is more than adequate.

For three years, some of Jesus’ closest friends walked by his side. They got a front row seat on the blind given sight, the lame made to walk, and the dead raised. For three years, they traveled with Jesus along the dusty streets of Galilee.

And now, they witness as his bruised and beaten body hangs from a cross. They watch as a spear is thrust into his side. They see his lifeless body wrapped in burial clothes and placed in a tomb.

But before all this, he gathered them in an upper room. He tells them not to fear his leaving because he says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). He says this is all part of the plan. “If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 16:7).

Three days after his death, Jesus is resurrected. It is after his resurrection that Jesus says, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:40). So, they wait. Under a cloud of suspicion from the religious leaders, they wait. As Roman guards roam the streets trying to put an end to the Jesus movement, they wait. They wait in fear and trembling. They wait, not sure what exactly they are waiting for, but they wait.

Then it happens. A mighty rush of wind sweeps through the house bringing with it the gift of new languages. They didn’t hear Yanny or Laurel. They heard the sound of a mighty rushing wind. The witnesses describe it as divine fire resting on each person. The Holy Spirit shows up and the world is turned upside down. Jesus is proclaimed with boldness through the lips of a man who just days before had cowardly denied him. When the crowd of people heard the message, they were cut to the heart and asked, “What should we do?” (Acts 2:37). This from the same crowd who days before stood as witnesses to Jesus’ violent death.

Peter saw all of what was happening through the lens of the Old Testament prophet Joel who envisioned a time when God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). For the early church, this was that time.

Two years after we moved to Canton, Georgia we had a big storm come rolling through the neighborhood. The tornado sirens went off and we headed to the basement to our designated spot behind the stairs. In my stupidity I went and opened the side door that leads to outside. I looked up and saw the rotating clouds. I stood in awe of the power. I stood there until my wife brought me back to my senses and I joined the family under the stairs. It is said when a tornado passes it sounds like a freight train coming through. We didn’t know what to expect.

When the divine fire fell it was unexpected. The disciples were in awe of the Spirit’s power. What they discovered is that when the Holy Spirit shows up life gets unexplainable. After Pentecost, they were determined that their life would not be explainable without the Holy Spirit.

When the divine fire fell on the early Jesus followers, they took it to mean that they were loved deeply and they were to love widely. They spoke truth to power. They sided with the vulnerable. They spoke with conviction. Love replaced fear.

Two thousand years later and we are once again in need of that divine fire. We need a divine fire that will consume hate, a divine fire that will bring bigotry to ashes, and a divine fire that will stir up the holy imaginations of sons and daughters, young and old, to dream new dreams and see visions of a better future.

If truth be told, we need more divine fire and less gun fire. Our hearts were broken once again this past week when a student opened fire on his classmates killing nine students and one teacher at Santa Fe High School in Texas.

We need the divine fire to stir our imaginations to consider that there is another way. Jesus carried a cross, not a gun. He is the Prince of Peace in a world of violence. When he told Peter to put away his sword, he told all his followers that violence would not be the way of His kingdom. We need the divine fire of God’s Spirit to show us another way. We need the courage to protect our children.

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

We need a divine fire that turns political cowards into courageous leaders. We need a divine fire that sets preachers on fire and sends the world to watch them burn. We need a divine fire that unsettles the settlers and disrupts the comfortable. We need a divine fire that shakes the complacent and humbles the arrogant. We need a divine fire that sends us forth from the church to show the world what divine love is all about.

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

We need the divine fire to re-ignite hope. We need the divine fire to spark joy. We need the divine fire to burn away the hardness of our hearts and turn us into healers, forgivers, and peacemakers.

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

We need the divine fire that gets us off church pews, sets our feet in motion, and sends us out into the world with a divine boldness proclaiming the redeeming work of God.

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

The story of Pentecost takes us to the heart of the church that Jesus envisions. A church that turns the world upside down with His mission of love. As Bishop Michael Curry said in the sermon at the Royal Wedding, “If humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

Imagine what would happen if the divine fire gave us a vision for a better future. Imagine a time when our children no longer fear for their lives. Imagine if our lust for violence was transformed into a passion for peace. Imagine if we had the courage to not waver in the struggle for justice, to be relentless in the pursuit of peace, and fearless in speaking to power. Imagine God’s people set ablaze with divine fire!

O come Holy Spirit, set your people on fire!

Father to the Fatherless

Father to the Fatherless

26761_40465_Girl_with_Heart_Balloons210 million orphans exist in our world. This number does not include children who have been forced into being child soldiers or children sold into slavery. In order to put this in perspective, if all the orphans were grouped together, they would be the tenth largest country in the world.

14.5 million orphans will age out of the system by the age of sixteen every year. Roughly ten percent will commit or attempt to commit suicide. 1.2 million will be trafficked into slavery. 2 million, mostly girls, will be sexually exploited. Atlanta, Georgia is the number one location for the sexual exploitation of underage girls in the United States.

In the gospel of Matthew, we have this story of parents bringing their children to Jesus. The disciples saw it as a disruption to the real ministry that Jesus was doing. They tried to stop the parents and Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19: 14).

Who will step up to see that the vulnerable children in our world are brought to the feet of Jesus? If they have no adult in their life, who will bring them? Who will tell them that the kingdom of God belongs to them?

I recently read an account of a war reporter covering a conflict overseas where he witnessed a little girl get shot by a sniper. He dropped his equipment and joined another man who ran straight into the line of fire and both men grabbed the little girl and put her in the back of the car. As they arrived at the hospital the reporter assumed that the man who risked his life for the little girl was the father but soon discovered that he was a stranger responding to the need of a child.

Who is going to step into the line of fire and rescue the orphan?

There are sixty-six books in the bible. Thirty of those books make some type of reference to orphans. Psalm 68:5 speaks of God as “a father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5).  It is safe to say that God’s heart is for the orphan. The care we are asked to give comes in different ways but what is clear is that we are to make room in our hearts for some of the most vulnerable people in our world.

The letter of James helps us redefine our faith in terms of serving others. It is a letter written not to bring its readers to faith but to advise its readers on how to live out their faith. He argues faith without works is dead. He says, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). The author knows it is easy to define the Christian life by the absence of bad things. We become known for what we are against more than what we are for. But James makes it clear what practicing our religion is to look like when he says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). True religion is a life lived for the sake of others.

I read a few years ago a story of a woman who explained that her favorite spot at the local zoo was the “House of Night,” where nocturnal creatures crawled and flew. She said, “one very bright day, I stepped into total darkness. Almost immediately, a small hand grabbed mine.” “And who do you belong to?” she asked. A little boys voice spoke through the darkness, “I am yours until the lights come on.”

There are a lot of little hands reaching out in our world. There is an average of 205 kids in foster care each month on average in Hall County. This is the reason we have a Foster Care ministry at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. This is the way we live out our values of authentic faith and healthy relationships. We believe that by connecting our church to the foster care needs of our community we are demonstrating an authentic faith as described in the book of James. We also believe that we have a purpose to ensure healthy relationships are developed between the children in foster care and those in our community who can assist them. 40152

Not all of us can foster and not all of us should be foster parents. But all of us can be involved in the foster care ministry of Gainesville First United Methodist Church. We need more folks to serve on our leadership team, we need folks to take an interest in the foster care closet, and we need folks to come alongside foster families and offer support in meals, grass cutting, transportation, etc.

This vision of developing authentic faith and healthy relationships in the life of vulnerable children can also be seen in our relationship with Orphanage Emmanuel in Honduras. We have scheduled a trip to Orphanage Emmanuel for December 29th through January 5th. If you would like to be a part of that trip, I would love to discuss it with you.

Here is what I want to say to each of you: Do not underestimate the capacity of love that God has poured into you. Don’t underestimate the potential that you have to be a vessel of God’s love.

One of my favorite Old Testament stories is the story of Esther. Her people, the Hebrew people, were under the threat of genocide. Haman, a political and military leader of the Persian king, resented the fact that the Hebrews were living within the Persian empire. He comes up with a plan to have them massacred. In the midst of this, through a chain of events, a Hebrew named Esther was made queen. Her uncle, Mordecai, gets word of the evil plot being created by Haman to destroy the Hebrews. He challenges Esther to do something. She doubts herself. The king is powerful. No one can go into his presence without being asked. Her uncle tells her it is a risk that she must take to save her people. He says, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)?

Esther confronts the king and the plot is revealed and she saves her people. But consider this: Esther was adopted. This is the part of the story we sometimes skip over. The scripture says, “Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful. Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died” (Esther 2:7).

Mordecai found room in his life for Esther. She was raised in an environment where she was nurtured and found strength as a young lady. Eventually, when she was called upon to act, it was the words of her adopted father that encouraged her. He found room in his life for an orphan. Will you?

It doesn’t mean that you have to be a foster parent or go the route of adoption. It could mean that and for some, it is the next step for you. What it does mean for all of us is that we are to make room in our hearts for vulnerable children because children are in the heart of God. Amen.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, GA on Sunday, May 6, 2018)

Next week: Next week we are going to talk about the fact that we have been adopted by God is the foundation of our work with vulnerable children.

Distracted: Driving Distracted

Distracted: Driving Distracted


What is the purpose of a vehicle? Is it not, to get us from point A to point B? It seems every year car manufacturers come out with more bells and whistles. We need to keep our kids distracted while driving from point A to point B so we throw a movie into the DVD player. We need to keep ourselves distracted from interstate traffic so we have satellite radio and Bluetooth audio.

I was travelling with a group coming back from a meeting when we decided to have some fun with the guy in the passenger seat. He had never ridden in a car with heated seats. Without him noticing, we turned the knob to full heat and watched as he wiggled and shifted. He kept asking, “Is anyone else hot?” while requesting the A/C to be turned up.

We can all enjoy the benefits of a vehicle with all the bells and whistles but now that I have child that is getting close to driving, I would rather him not have all those distractions. I want him to focus on getting safely from point A to point B with as less distractions as possible. According to the NHTSA, in 2016 alone, 3,450 people were killed. 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015. They define distracted driving with any activity that diverts attention from driving, including texting, eating, messing with the radio, etc. It is anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.

Driving distracted is not our only threat in life. Our daily lives are filled with distractions. Information comes at us faster, louder, and brighter than ever before. Everyone is begging for our attention. Our phones stay in front of our eyes. More wealth brings more stuff which equals more clutter. Each distraction comes with the goal of gaining control of our attention and resources.

What is your biggest distraction? What is keeping you from reaching your potential? What is keeping you driving through life distracted?

Most of us can name our distractions. We know we spend too much time on Facebook or on our phone. We know we watch too much Netflix or spend too much time on the internet.

But there are other distractions that are more difficult to see. They are difficult because it seems like good work. Distracted not by laziness but through busyness. At work we find ourselves working on projects that don’t really have any benefit but make us look busy. Parents do this with their children. They sign their children up for every sport and every club. They come to define busyness with successful parenting. Busy work doesn’t always translate into important work. Busyness can be a distraction from the important.

In the bible we have a story of where busyness becomes a distraction from the important. It is the story of two sisters. It is a story of both doing good. It is the story of one doing important work but not seeing the heart behind it all. In the story Jesus visits the home of Martha where she lives with her sister, Mary.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-42

Let’s start by talking about what this story is not telling us. It is not saying we must choose between serving and sitting at the feet of Jesus. As far as Jesus’ own culture was concerned, Martha was in the right. According to the scripture, it was her house. She was the host. She had the responsibility to serve her guest. Culturally speaking, she also understood her place in a patriarchal society was in a role of service. Her place was in the kitchen preparing a meal for her guest. When she asks Jesus to rebuke her sister it is not just that her sister is being lazy but that her sister has forgotten her place in society. Sitting at the feet of a rabbi and learning from him was not the place of a woman. This is a story about the fact that even Mary, even those who are considered outside of God’s grace can imagine themselves as disciples. Placing herself at the feet of Jesus allows her to see herself as God sees her and better positions her to serve from a place where she is grounded in God’s image.

When Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha……..” it is not from a position of rebuke more than it is an invitation for her to see herself as God sees her. What this story is telling us is that serving without grounding ourselves in our identity as disciples of Jesus leads to anxiety. We can all identify with Martha. She is trying to respond well to her position as a host. She seeks to provide a welcoming environment. We want to provide for our families, we want to give our children every opportunity, we want to be a good neighbor and lend a hand when needed, we want to be a faithful church member and volunteer when asked. What is our motivation? What drives our activity?

Activity as competition, activity as striving to meet expectations, activity in response to a scarcity mentality can all drive us to a life of distraction. Activity without centeredness on Jesus drives us to a distracted life. Martha’s distracted busyness prevented her from being truly present with Jesus. It caused a wedge to be driven between her and her sister. If we are not careful, our distracted busyness can also drive a wedge between us and the people we love.

In Matthew 6:25-27 Jesus says, “I tell you not to worry about your life……Look at the birds in the sky! They don’t plant or harvest. Yet your Father in heaven takes care of them. Aren’t you worth more than birds? Can worry make you live longer?”

And we are like, “I don’t know let me busy myself or my family with distractions and see if it makes me live longer.” It doesn’t. It won’t.

How do we keep from living a life of distracted busyness? We discover it in Jesus’ response. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” What is the one thing needed? What was Martha missing?

The 1991 movie “City Slickers” is about three friends who are approaching mid-life. The plot of the movie revolves around their decision to spend vacation together going on a cattle drive. They would travel across the West on horseback with some cowboys in the hopes that in the process they might discover something about themselves and the meaning of life.

The boss of this cattle drive is a leathery old cowboy named Curly, who lives up to all of our stereotypes about cowboys. He’s mean and he’s tough, and he can do anything with a rope or a whip or a knife. But in his tough and rugged way he’s also very wise.

Against the backdrop of an open sky and big mountains and clear streams, Billy Crystal’s character turns to Curly and says with longing, “Your life makes sense to you.” To which Curly replies: “You city folk. You worry a lot. How old are you? 38?”

“39,” the man says.

“You all come up here about the same age. You spend fifty weeks getting knots in your rope and you think two weeks up here will untie them for you. None of you get it.”

He pauses a minute and then he goes on, “You know what the secret to life is?”

“No, what?” says the man.

And then Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean nothing.” Curly-Whats-the-One-Thing

“That’s great,” says his companion, “but what’s the one thing?” Curly looks at him for a minute, and says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

Like Curly, Jesus’ response is open-ended. What is the one thing that Mary has chosen that makes it the right thing? Some of you are going to leave hear thinking Jesus said, “I don’t have to clean my house anymore. I just got to go to a bunch of bible studies.” Or, “I don’t have to love my neighbor. I just have to go to church and pray.”

The issue is not between serving and sitting. It is between the many things and the one thing. If we are going to ensure that our life doesn’t get distracted by busyness and filled with anxiety, we need to ask the question, “What is the one thing that holds everything together?” When it comes to my career, “what is the one thing that holds everything together?” It could be integrity, professionalism, or vision. When it comes to my marriage, “What is the one thing that holds everything together?” It could be honesty or selfless love. When it comes to being a parent, “What is the one thing that holds everything together?” It could be being authentic or vulnerable. When it comes to being a good citizen, “What is the one thing that holds everything together?” It could be volunteering. The one thing is different for different people. The important thing is to take the time to pray through what is the one thing that holds everything together?

The Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:17 says of Jesus, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” When you place yourself at the feet of Jesus you are placing yourself at the feet of the one who holds all of life together. The one thing needed for Martha was for her to sit at the feet of Jesus to hear that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God. This is the one thing we all need to do. This is the one thing that will hold everything together for you as a parent, as a spouse, in your career, in your place as a student, as a friend, and as a good neighbor.

You are going to leave here and what you are going to hear is your worth can only be found in the value you bring to society. If we let that voice drive us it will drive us to a place of distracted busyness trying to find our worth in what we do and how well we do it. This is why placing ourselves in worship, taking up the spiritual disciplines of prayer and scripture reading are so important. When we place ourselves at the feet of Jesus we hear that our value is found in being a child of God. This is the difference between eating the bread of anxiety and the bread of heaven. This is the difference between serving the bread of anxiety and serving the bread of heaven. Jesus simply wanted Martha to find her value in him so that she could go back in serving not out of a place of anxiety and worry but from a place of peace and grace. Jesus wants the same for us. Jesus is the one thing that holds everything together. Chose the one thing today. Amen.

Sermon preached on Sunday, April 22, 2018 at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Ga. Go to gfumc.com for more info.

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

I am Not Myself“From dust you have come, to dust you will go.” If you had the courage to come to an Ash Wednesday Service, you would have heard those words spoken over you as you were marked with a cross. I say courage because it takes a certain amount of audacity to come to a worship service where you are reminded of your own mortality.

My family was unable to attend the Ash Wednesday Service this year. Maybe that was for the best. I have always found it challenging to place ashes on the forehead of my children while reminding them of their own death. It is difficult to places ashes on any child. If your child came to my station during Ash Wednesday, I placed the cross on their forehead with the words, “You are loved by God.” On this Ash Wednesday, because of recent events, I would have found it even harder to tell them, “Remember you are dust…” It seems they get that message loud and clear from the world.

You are loved by God. If there is any week that our children needed to be reminded of that truth, it is this week. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are broken but we are not unloved.

The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” It is not in the bible but the theme of Lent as a season of devotion and self-reflection is found throughout the pages of scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days when he talked with God on Mount Sinai[i]. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb.[ii] After his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led into the wilderness and for 40 days he was under intense temptation to become something other than what his heavenly Father intended.[iii]

Ash Wednesday is the starting point into Lent. The purpose of Lent is to give us an opportunity to clean out the clutter in our lives, rearrange our priorities, and find space for new life when it comes at the end of the forty days. A lot of people give up certain things – chocolate, caffeine, social media, fatty foods, or negative talk. Fasting is the religious way of talking about it. Another way of understanding the spiritual discipline of Lent is rediscovering the power of “no.” “No” stands in the way of immediate desires. It is disruptive to our wishes and dreams. “No” means withholding something that we want.

We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those wants and desires.

During Lent we practice saying “no” so that we can enjoy a greater “yes.” So, what do you need to say “no” to today in order to enjoy a greater “yes” tomorrow? Think about it this way: Give up what is necessary so that something good may be added.

It is so easy to say “yes.” It is easy because we like our lives full. We like to be busy. It makes us feel important. It drives us to be successful. “Yes” feels the vacuum of loneliness. “No” creates space. The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar saw the work of Jesus as remaking the self by unselfing it. Jesus opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us.

If our lives are filled with to-do lists and projects and deadlines and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to work on renewing us in His image. Lent is giving permission for God to “unself” us and create space for the Spirit to work on renewing our self in the image of Christ.

A self full of itself is a conflicted self.

You may not realize it but you need this. How many times this week did we say, “I decided to do good, but I didn’t really do it; I decided not to be bad, but then I did it anyway?” I know I need to exercise, but I was too tired when I got home. I know I shouldn’t go over to his house, but I went anyway. I know I should not have gossiped, but I said it anyway.

The Apostle Paul understands your pain. Listen to the way he describes it:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20)

Why do we find it so hard to live up to our own expectations? We want to do good, but we fail to do it. We desire to live right, but give us a week and we have slipped.

At the end of his life Jesus is praying in a garden. He knew that soldiers were on the way to come and arrest him. He tells Peter to stay awake and pray. Peter falls asleep. Jesus gets upset with him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?  Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[i]

I get it. Don’t you? I am willing but find myself weak when it counts. We are driven to despair by our conflicted self. We come to church and make promises and then we fail to live up to those expectations. The gap between willing and doing is universal. It not only affects us as individuals. It has damaging consequences on a society.

God created a garden for humanity but we have turned it into a war zone. We talk a good talk but we take no action. We say this will be the last one but we do nothing to ensure that it really is. We send our kids off to school with words like, “Remember your lunch money, remember your mama loves you, and remember to turn in your homework.” But if we keep talking without acting, we might as well add, “And remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return – possibly today.”

When the people of God talked about offering prayers and fasting, God replied, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[i] The prayers God hears are those that beat to the rhythm of justice. The fast God notices is the ones that gives up hate and violence.

As a society we seem stuck in the gap, the gap between knowing what is right and actually doing what is right. Violence disrupts. Lives are taken. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. Hands are washed of blood. And the cycle of death gets put on repeat. Are mass shootings a gun problem, a mental illness problem, a public safety problem, or a heart problem? The answer is “yes!” As long as we continue to remain divided and refuse to move the conversation past heated debates, it will remain a pride problem and we are all guilty.

As followers of Jesus, we are to be about living the ways of the Prince of Peace. Our moral framework is loving our neighbor.  As Jesus followers we make decisions that seek the welfare of my neighbor. When it comes to mass shootings in the United States what decisions need to be made that respect the sanctity of life and show love to my neighbor? In other words, what actions do I need to take that will demonstrate that I am living out the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We are not going to get it perfectly right. We will fail. But the good news is that Jesus has come to meet us in the gaps, the gap between what we know is right and not living up to it. Jesus has come to meet us in the gap between our failures and God’s desire for our life. Amen.

Next week we will discuss how Jesus is in the business of redeeming failures.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church)

[i] Isaiah 58:6-7

[i] Mark 14:37-38

[i] Exodus 34:28

[ii] I Kings 19:8

[iii] Matthew 4:1-11


The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

tale of two brothersYou can stay home and still be lost. You don’t have to squander love on wild living to create distance between those who love you. You don’t have to get locked up to live your life behind bars. Jealousy can do it. Pride can do it. Anger can do it. Fear can do it. Bitter self-righteousness is as nasty as sleeping in the mud with pigs. Dining on resentment is no better than dining on pig slop.

Last week we looked at the youngest brother. The one who squandered his father’s love and then wanted to return it broken. What we discovered last week is that God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost. If you haven’t listened to the message, I want to encourage you to go to gfumc.com and listen.

Have you ever had to welcome a loser back home? Have you ever had to go to a promotion party for someone who you weren’t sure deserved it? Have you ever had to say welcome home when what you really wanted to say was get the heck out of here?

No one asked the older brother what he thought about having his pig-loving, family betraying sibling back home. No one asked what it felt like wearing the second best robe because the best one had been given to the younger brother. No one asked what it was like to pick up the slack while the younger brother was wasting his life at binge parties. No one asked him how it felt to watch his father have sleepless nights staring through the blinds hoping for his son to come home. And now, you want him to sit down at the same table with this self-centered, reckless-living, careless brother and have a feast? You want him to join a homecoming party?

Preacher and scholar, Fred Craddock told a story about the time he was teaching Sunday School at a small rural church. On this particular occasion he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In his lesson he invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In Craddock’s version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”

Craddock let the ending sit silent in the room. Suddenly there was a loud thud in the back of the room where a woman had smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around and said, “And that’s the way it should have happened!”

Most of us love with a calculated love. We consider the sacrifice. We weigh our options. We love by putting our heart on a scale and calculate the benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then we will share our love. But if the risks are greater than the benefits then we give out measures of love.

The father in our story refused to love this way. He risked public shaming. He chanced getting mocked. He opened himself up to getting hurt. The father taught that sometimes it is more important to be reconciled than it is to be right. Sometimes you have to hike up your skirt and run through town as an embarrassment to embrace a son who just wants to come home. Sometimes you have to put down the ego and give out vulnerable love. Sometimes you throw caution to the wind and love courageously.

The older son counts. You can hear it in his voice, “All these years I have been working like a slave…….you never given me even a young goat……..when this son of yours came back.” I have brought you home nothing but straight “A’s.” I have top performed in my class, in my sport, in my career. I have done everything to earn your love. The father says you can’t love this way. Unconditional love does not exist on the scales of calculated devotion.

In 1668, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It now hangs in a hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the painting as you move down from the father’s face, you notice the dirty and ragged rags of the returning son’s clothes. The bottom of his feet are visible with one sandal lying on the floor. The son’s bald head is being embraced in his father’s lap. It is as though the son has just walked in and falling at his father’s feet. The son has come home, let him be embraced. Rembrandt Prodigal Son

But just off to the side you will notice the older son. He is draped in a red robe and standing with his arms crossed. The light shines on the older son’s face and the look of condescension is written all over it. The son has come home, let him be kicked out.

The power of Rembrandt’s painting is found in the distance between the father who is embracing the wayward son and the older son who stands off to the side. It’s hard to enjoy a reunion party when your heart is full of resentment. Gratitude and resentment cannot occupy the same heart. It doesn’t take running away from home and living a reckless life to find yourself far away from home. It only takes letting resentment take root in the heart. Love cannot be found at home when resentment lives in the heart.

Forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Unconditional love can be hard to wrapped our minds around. Grace can seem so careless. That is until we realize whether we stayed home or not, we are all sinners. We are all in need of being loved.

Dr. Tom Long, one of my professors at seminary, tells a story of the time one of his students went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone booth – before the days of cell phones – a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into his pockets of his coat and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a phone call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

If the prodigal son story teaches us anything, it demonstrates to us that somedays we have opportunity to show grace and others we are begging for grace ourselves. And no matter where we find ourselves coming home depends on grace.

If any story deserves a happy ending, it is the tale of two brothers. The father does for the older brother what he does for the younger brother. He goes out to meet him. This is where the story drops off. How does it end? Shall we put aside our resentment and go to the party? Will we keep denying grace even when it keeps us from coming home? Will we sacrifice our own wholeness to simply prove a point? You tell me, how does the story end? Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)