With God in the Dark

Light-House-in-Darkness-591x443I’m a disciple of Jesus who gets to spend every day doing ministry, and I know how blessed I am to have this kind of life.  Truthfully, every Christian, every disciple of Jesus gets to minister within their own sphere every day.  We all have different parts to play, but sometimes we forget how important we are.

Part of my ministry involves listening to people who feel lost, alone, or broken.  I honestly don’t enjoy counseling, but it’s a significant part of my pastoral ministry, and it’s something I cherish.  Really, I understand how odd and dissonant that sounds.  I don’t enjoy it, but I do cherish it?  I don’t enjoy hearing and seeing someone who is hurt and scrambling for any hint of hope, because I don’t know how to love people without feeling the weight of their pain.  There’s no pleasure at all in watching someone drown in their grief or burn his life down in anger.  I hate that part of it.  But I do it for the same reason others have been there for me in my darker times:  I know that God is fighting for us.

The God of the Bible not only sees us and hears us and understands us, but he also walks with us and empathizes with us.  That’s all true, but it still makes him sound like a spectator.  He is much more than that.  He is a warrior.  He is a healer.  He is a counselor.  He is a provider.  He is a redeemer.  He is a savior.  He is the culmination of every good thing that we’ve ever needed and more.  And he loves you, and he loves me, like he loved his one and only Son.  We both know what that means.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of all humanity.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4, 5). 

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Lent and Liberty

Having grown up in the Church of Christ blentut having a lot of Catholic friends, I knew a little about Lent and Ash Wednesday, but I never practiced such things.  Those things were, in the terminology of my spiritual teachers and guides, “denominational.”  That meant, those things weren’t taught or authorized in Scripture.  The conclusion or application for us, then, was that we shouldn’t participate in such ritualistic behavior.  So that’s what I thought for a very long time.

Some of those same guides, however, were pretty pumped up about wearing WWJD (What would Jesus do?) bracelets back in the day.  Was that authorized specifically in Scripture?  No, of course not.  So did that make it wrong, unbiblical, ritualistic, or sinful?

Whether it’s wearing a bracelet to help you remember your dedication to following Jesus or observing a 40-day period of fasting to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus, anything that can help us grow closer to God should be considered a gift and a blessing.  Right?

And while you may not be motivated to observe the same practices or “rituals” that I or others practice, why not appreciate that God has given us great latitude in the ways we can demonstrate our devotion to Him?  It surely doesn’t help to paint others with a too-broad brush.  While some may claim every Christian must observe Lent or Ash Wednesday, I don’t make that claim at all.  And most of those I see who fast don’t claim that others have to do it the same way or at the same time or even for the same reasons.

Are Churches of Christ wrong from failing to observe Lent?  No.  It’s not commanded in Scripture.  Are individual Christians wrong from observing a practice that in no way violates the letter or spirit of Scripture?  Certainly not.  So why not respect the attempts of others to grow in their faith even if they make sacrifices that you choose not to make?

As Christians for generations have been fond to quote (including many leaders in the early days of the Restoration Movement):  “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, charity.”  Seems like wise advice to me.

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Rejoice! The Christ Has Come!

shepherds joseph mary(Almost) everyone loves babies–especially if we don’t have to change the diapers, get up for 3:00am feedings, or listen to the crying that sometimes comes with little ones who can’t talk yet. I know I love carrying other people’s babies around on Sundays. Their innocence is contagious. Their love is unconditional. And they pose no real threat or danger to us. They’re cute and cuddly and we can give them back to their parents whenever we’re ready.

That isn’t the case with Jesus.

One thing we might accidentally miss about the Christmas story, is that the people who were drawn to the baby Jesus didn’t come to see him because he was cute and cuddly. They came to see him, and worship him, and bring gifts to him, because he was announced as their Savior and their King.

So let’s not treat him as if he’s just a baby in a manger. He isn’t here to simply make us feel good and to be handed back to the Father when things get untidy. He’s here to be loved, and adored, and served, and worshipped. And followed.

God bless

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Nothing but Leaves

compadres blog tour

My wife and I have three kids between the ages of five and eight, which means life is never dull around our house. With kids you get questions. Lots and lots of questions. Some of the questions we get a lot lately start with the words “What if?” As in “What if turtles COULD eat people?” Or “What if our yard WAS big enough for a pony?” Most of the “what if?” questions thrown around at our house deal in fanciful hypotheticals and impossibilities. But I’ve got a “what if?” myself that sincerely frightens me.

In each of the canonical gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) a great climax of sorts builds as Jesus and his followers make one final trip to Jerusalem for one final Passover. We often call this event the Triumphal Entry. If you’ve read the gospel accounts, you’ll remember that Jesus rode into Jerusalem with people shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” It feels like the Son of God is about to become King of the world. The adoring crowd seems to expect something magnificent and climactic to happen as this rabbi, this prophet, this messiah rides in to the city of the king.

But Jesus didn’t call together an army or set up court or any other thing that the people expected. Instead, Mark 11:11 says, “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

That seems so strange. He’s made this climactic entry into the city and gone to the temple–the most sacred place for his fellow Jews– but he’s seen what’s going on in the temple, and he’s not happy. Imagine what all the people think–the people who threw their cloaks onto the ground for him and hailed him as the long-awaited messiah. If they were expecting a speech or a sign, they didn’t get it, at least not until the next morning.

Mark 11:12-20

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.

It seems like we have two different and somewhat unrelated events being recorded here by Mark. The first is this odd recounting of Jesus cursing–and killing–a fig tree. The second is what we often call Jesus’ cleansing the temple. We’ll start with the temple incident, but we’ll come back to the fig tree–Mark does–because they aren’t unrelated at all.

The temple was supposed to be the holiest of all places in the lives of the Jews. But Jesus arrives and doesn’t like what he finds. It looks good on the outside and has the appearance of health and vitality, but it’s dead on the inside. We know this is the case because of what Jesus does and says.

Now, commentators of all sorts draw all kinds of different lessons from Jesus’ actions here. Some say he is throwing out the money changers who are taking advantage of the poor. But notice that he also throws out those who are doing the buying! Others say he is running off peddlers who are occupying the only space in the temple courts where the Gentiles were allowed to come and pray, but that’s unlikely. This was the second version of the Temple. The temple Solomon built was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonian army. Herod the Great had enlarged and expanded the temple complex which now covered the same space as about 27 football fields [35 acres]. There was plenty of room to pray. Jesus isn’t as concerned about what is going on there as he is about who is going and coming there. Notice how Jesus interprets his own actions according to Mark 11:17.

17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

These people who wear the right clothes and say the right prayers and come to the right festivals are nothing but a bunch of crooks! They aren’t living their lives for God; they just come to the temple courts and act like it. He calls all these people a bunch of crooks who have defiled and profaned God’s house, and that’s why he disrupts what they’re doing. Notice that he doesn’t strike them down. He, instead, is doing everything he can to get their attention. They’re walking around going about their normal business as if everything is okay. This is the temple, after all. They act as if everything is fine. Everything’s good. “Peace, peace,” they would say. Which was “shalom, shalom,” which meant all is right, all is good, everything is in harmony with God’s will. But Jesus says, “Wake up!” You aren’t living for God. You’re living for yourselves! You’ve made this place a den of robbers.

He, of course, was quoting from Jeremiah 7. Listen to the text starting in verse 1…

7:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

5 “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.

8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.

12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight….

It all looked good and healthy, but it was nothing but leaves. Just like the fig tree. The temple complex and it’s people had the appearance of health, but it wasn’t godly, because godliness always bears good fruit.

That’s why Jesus was so upset with the state of the temple, and that’s why he cursed the fig tree on the way to town that day. He did it loudly enough for his disciples to hear him, because he was making a point that what God could do to this fig tree he could do to a profaned temple and a profaning people.

You may know that earlier in his ministry, Jesus told a parable about an unfruitful fig tree. It’s in Luke 13:6-9, and it says, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

See, the people were God’s fig tree, and he had given them year after year after year to produce good fruit. What do you think it meant when, on the day after Jesus cursed the fig tree the disciples find it withered to the root? It meant next year had come.

We can be pretty confident that this is the lesson Jesus wanted us all to learn from these events, in part, because he used Jeremiah 7 to chastise the religious leaders and borrowed an image from Jeremiah 8 in cursing the fig tree. Remember that Jeremiah was speaking to a people who thought they had it all together and thought they were blessed and safe and comfortable in their temple, and God told them to get their lives right or the destruction that had happened to the Northern Kingdom would happen to them, too. Jesus is doing the same thing for the Jews of his day.

Hear how Jeremiah describes it in Jeremiah 8 starting in verse 5.

5 Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They hold fast to deceit;
they refuse to return.
6 I have paid attention and listened,
but they have not spoken rightly;
no man relents of his evil,
saying, ‘What have I done?’
Everyone turns to his own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
7 Even the stork in the heavens
knows her times,
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane 
keep the time of their coming,
but my people know not
the rules of the Lord. [How well does this describe the way people have received Jesus?]

 8 “How can you say, ‘We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.
9 The wise men shall be put to shame;
they shall be dismayed and taken;
behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
so what wisdom is in them? [Didn’t Jesus find the same problems with the religious leaders of his day?]
10 Therefore I will give their wives to others
and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely. [It’s a den of robbers.]
11 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
12 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
13 When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered….” 

This is scary stuff, which brings me back to my earlier question. What if Jesus looked at us and our churches and found nothing but leaves?

God is deadly serious about having people who bear good fruit. If we don’t know how to apply this lesson, then we can start by asking if we’re living up to the expectations of these texts. Are we fruitful, or are we just a bunch of crooks playing church? Look at what God said through Jeremiah! How do we treat people when we have the power to abuse or ignore them? To apply Jeremiah 7, what are we doing for the widows, orphans, and strangers? Could we do more? Are we bearing God’s fruit? This doesn’t just mean, are we baptizing people. This means, are our natures aligned with God’s? God is not a withered branch. If we live by his Spirit, then our lives will bear his fruit, and the fruit he bears is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If we don’t bear these things, then we are not of the Spirit.  Having been baptized does not guarantee that we are God’s people any more than being born a Jew in Jeremiah’s or Jesus’s day meant that their lives were aligned with God’s covenant expectations.  Thankfully, God is patient.  God wants to bless us and gather us to himself, but he will not have unfruitful people, because godliness always bears good fruit.

 

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Lent on Loan

LentSince I grew up in Churches of Christ, which historically do not observe the “liturgical seasons,” I never formally practiced Lent.  I didn’t even know what it was for years.  Sure, I had plenty of Catholic friends who practiced things like Lent, but as kids they didn’t really seem to know what it was, either.  And I’m not slinging mud here.  Instead, I’m hoping to help us think beyond the lines we’ve sometimes drawn in the sand so that we might focus less on terminology and more on the practice of godliness. 

Lent, in this layman’s terms, is a period of roughly forty days leading up to Easter.  It usually involves prayer, fasting, self-reflection, self-denial, and penance in the Catholic tradition and in some Protestant traditions as well.  These practices are supposed to help us re-focus our lives on Christ and re-commit to our baptismal vow to pledge our life to God in Christ.  And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

In fact, there’s a lot that’s right with that.

There is no Scripture that commands a forty day period of self-reflection and self-sacrifice prior to Easter.  But there are plenty of Scriptures that commend (and command) self-reflection and self-sacrifice.  The biggest problem I see with practicing Lent is making the common mistake of ending those practices after forty days.  There are some things we may do without for forty days that could be unhealthy or unpractical to do without for the rest of time.  I get that.  But the bigger picture for disciples of Jesus should include a lifestyle that includes fasting and self-sacrifice for the honor of God and the good of our neighbors.  Lent is intended to help us get started.

But if we aren’t careful, the good intentions and noble ideals of Lent can become little more than a second failed attempt at a New Year’s Resolution.  And who needs more failure?  Who needs more guilt? 

What we need is more strength, more grace, more patience, and more endurance.  We need more of God in our lives.  Which, by the way, is really the point of the season of Lent. 

So, you ask, Should we practice Lent or not? 

Whether you choose to use the term Lent or not is up to you.  Whether you want to follow the liturgical calendar or not is also up to you.  And, I suppose, whether you want to live a life of self-reflection, self-denial, and self-sacrifice is also up to you.  But it’s only your decision because God allows you the freedom to live for yourself instead of living for him. 

So I encourage you to take the best of Lent and apply those things to your life.  In time, you’ll notice a difference in yourself, and so will the people around you. 

And may the difference be permanent.   

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Jesus & Unthrown Stones

unthrown stonesUniversity of Missouri football star Michael Sam has been all over the news the last week or so, but it isn’t simply because he’s a really good football player.  It’s because of his announcement to the world that he’s a gay man.  And a man likely to be drafted into the NFL has never openly announced that he is gay.  So that’s a big deal in our culture. 

And it’s a big deal for the church, because God’s people often don’t know how to respond when our culture makes an all-out push for something that the church has never accepted.  Yesterday at East Point, I talked about this challenge and about the responses I have heard lately regarding Michael Sam.  But more important than what society says is what Jesus would say if he sat down with Michael Sam.  If you’re interested in that, you can listen to the message here:  Jesus & Unthrown Stones

You might be surprised by what you hear.

God bless,

Patrick

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An old–but still relevant–sermon for MLK Jr. Day

Hello!  What follows is a sermon I preached five years ago about God’s dream for a nonsegregated church.  While preparing for this coming Sunday’s sermon, I ran across this one and thought I’d share it here.  God bless….

I Have a Dream

Tomorrow is a special day.  The mail won’t run.  The banks will be closed.  Many of our schools will take a day off.  All to remember the legacy of a man who was shot and killed more than 40 years ago.  Our society is very different today than it was 40 years ago—at least it is in some ways.  Whether the differences are for the better or for the worse depends on your perspective.

Women have more equality in the workforce than they did 40 years ago.  We have better healthcare and longer life expectancies than people did 40 years ago.  Chances are that we live in more comfort and have nicer things than we had access to 40 years ago.  We also have more crime, more access to pornography, and maybe even a greater hunger for more stuff than people had 40 years ago.  Again, it depends on our perspective.

Our perspective means a lot.  It colors how we think.  It impacts how we live.  It even goes a long way to influence how we worship, who we worship, and who we worship with, which brings me back to tomorrow’s holiday.

Tomorrow our nation remembers the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A Baptist preacher.  A civil rights leader.  A black man martyred for sharing in God’s dream.  I bet some of us never thought about it that way.  He’s being remembered because of his work for justice, equality, and civil rights.  Just four years before Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Here’s what part of that Act says:  “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin or sex.”

For me, this is all history—history that I’ve read about in books and seen in documentaries.  For most of you, this is history that you lived and witnessed.  Your perspective and my perspective of this history is different.  But the law we live under and the liberty it grants us is the same.

Having grown up well after the days of segregation in our nation, I and others in my generation have struggled with the unnaturally long life of segregation in our churches.  For my family in particular, this issue has gone from being a curiosity to a real concern.  We have a 3 year old daughter (she’s here with us tonight) who is neither white nor black but is biracial.  She was born to a white woman, fathered by a black man, and adopted by us.  No matter how society sees her, to us her skin tone is insignificant to the fact that she is made in the image of God.  But how will she feel about the church as she grows up?  Will she feel welcomed and at home, or will she feel alien in the white churches of her parents?  For that matter, would she feel any more welcome in a black church that has many of the same racial problems and prejudices that white churches might have?  God wants us all to feel at home in His church.

My dream is that the day will come when Dr. King’s dream for the nation becomes our dream for the congregations of God’s church.  Let’s remember a bit of Dr. King’s dream as he shared it in his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

 “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Dr. King referred to Scripture in that excerpt of his speech.  He quoted from the Declaration of Independence, which itself is referring to Scripture as it states the self-evident truth of the equality of all humankind.  But he refers directly to Scripture from Isaiah.  Here what Isaiah has to say:

Isaiah 40:1-5  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  (2)  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  (3)  A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  (4)  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  (5)  And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Here, the Jews are comforted with knowledge that captivity will not last forever.  God will come to deliver them.  He will destroy the obstacles and barriers that keep people from seeing Him, and He will come to them as their King.

Now, Christians have long remembered this passage and its use in the gospels.  It applies to our ministries today, much like it did to the ministry of John the Baptist as he prepared the way of the coming of the Lord.  Every obstacle that stands in the way of God must be torn down.  Every crooked path must be made straight.

Dr. King helped tear down barriers, but there has never been a barrier-breaker like Jesus.  He talked to the poor, he ate with prostitutes, he touched the lepers, he even healed Gentiles.  And then He died for all of us.  And since He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, He is the one foundation for God’s church.  He is the one gate through which we all find access to reconciliation with God.  He is the true bread and the true water which gives us eternal life.  He is the Good Shepherd who brought the sheep of many pastures into one fold.  We preach and proclaim these things as we should, but unbelievers don’t believe us when they look inside our church buildings.

Our racial disunity and our inability or unwillingness to worship together with people of every color and nationality is a barrier to the mission of God.  It is a stumbling block to those who don’t believe.  It frustrates the plan of God to bring down mountains and raise up valleys so that we all may find God together.  It still enslaves those who do believe and yet still have to dream about God’s desire for racial equality and brotherhood in His church even though we live in a society as open as our own.  And this is not a new problem.  This problem is older than the Civil Rights movement.  It’s older than Jim Crow.  It’s older than the Civil War.  It’s older than the slave trade.  Even the first century church shared the shame of this sin.

One of Paul’s great challenges in his ministry was to overcome racial and ethnic divides in Christ’s church.  He deals with it directly in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians,  Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.  He deals with it indirectly in other letters.  Consider three well-known examples:

Rom 1:16  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Rom 10:12  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.

Gal 3:28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

What does this mean?  Does it mean only that all nationalities can find salvation through Jesus Christ?  It means that, but it means more.  Does it not also mean that certain distinctions have been erased, that God has granted us access through one gate, and at the entry of that gate stands the Cross?  There is no back door.  No servants’ entrance.  We are all God’s children invited to sit at His giant banquet table.    We are all of one flock.  All within one fold.  All because we have one Shepherd.  The law and liberty we live under is the same.

This is a spiritual reality.  It is high time that it becomes a visible reality in the Church of Christ.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to forcibly segregate our assemblies.  Very few churches break this law today.  But very few of our churches look much different now than they did 45 years ago.

I have a dream.  I want you to have a dream.  I want us all to share in the dream that is God’s vision for a unified church that does more than just open its doors to the world.  According to His Word, God’s dream is for a church that actively invites people in as equals, as brothers and sisters.  His dream is for a church that practices hospitality and sacrifice.  It’s for a church that foregoes its comfort and normalcy so that it can find God’s blessing.  His dream is for a church where Jews and Gentiles can get along and worship and serve alongside one another.  A church where worldly status has no place.  A church where red, yellow, black, and white is seen and not just sung in the nursery.  His dream is that we can come to the table together and commune on Sunday.  His dream is that we can sing together and pray together and work together for the unified body of Christ—whether we’re red, yellow, black, white, brown, or any other pigment God has made in the image of His glory.

Tomorrow our nation celebrates the remembrance of a dream whose dreamer died more than 40 years ago.  Forty years is a long time.  It’s significant in Scripture, and I pray that it is significant for us as well.  Maybe our time of wilderness wandering is almost over.  Maybe the Promised Land is just over the horizon.

 

Patrick Barber

Preached January 18, 2009 at Harding Place

Searcy, Arkansas

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My Favorite Bible Story ?

It seems like colossae road signevery few weeks when I’m teaching a class or preaching a sermon I’ll say something like, “this has got to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible.”  And it’s always true every time I say it.  There are just so MANY of them.  So this Sunday I was able to speak on one of my favorites again–the story of Onesimus and Philemon.  Paul’s little letter to Philemon is such a fantastic piece of the New Testament that so often gets overlooked.  Maybe that’s because it’s unlike most of Paul’s letters.  There doesn’t seem to be much theology in it.  You have no long passages about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ resurrection.  You just have Paul writing a letter to a friend named Philemon on behalf of a new Christian named Onesimus.

There is intrigue, though.  Plenty.

It seems that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave.  (Slavery, by the way, was significantly different in the first-century Roman Empire than it was in early America.  But that’s another story.)  Apparently, from the information we have in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Onesimus had run away and had stolen from Philemon in the process.  Somehow Onesimus made his way all the way from Colossae to Rome where Paul was under house arrest.  While there, Paul teaches Onesimus about Christ and Onesimus becomes a Christian.

With great relief, I imagine, Onesimus learns that Paul is writing a letter to Philemon on his behalf.  To be a runaway slave in the Roman empire was a scary thing.  Your master had the legal authority to kill you once you were captured.  So to have Paul acting as an intermediary (reconciler might be the better biblical word for it) would be a great advantage for Onesimus–one that might save his life.  And then Onesimus got the bad news.

Even  though he had been baptized and had his sins forgiven (part of what makes us a Christian), even though he was now a new man in Christ, Paul insisted that Onesimus be the one to deliver this letter to Philemon.

Think about that.  There were others who could have gone back to Colossae to deliver this letter and the other letter we have in our NT called “Colossians.”  In fact, others did go back on this mission for Paul.  So why send Onesimus?  Why put him in harms way?  After all, he’s a Christian now.

Well, maybe that’s exactly why.  He’s a Christian now.  And Christians pay their debts.  Christians make amends.  Christians repent of our sins and our wrongs and we do all that we can to make things right.  We say we’re sorry.  We ask for forgiveness.  We don’t just talk the talk, but we also walk the walk–all the way back to Colossae if we must.

I don’t mean that we do this perfectly or even every time we should.  But this is how we should live.  Because we’re Christians now.

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Give Me Something to Hear

As I write this I should be working on my Easter sermon instead, but I’m stuck.  I mean, what should a preacher preach on Easter?  The Resurrection, right?  Sure, that’s a no-brainer.  But what about the Resurrection needs to be said?  Should I just retell the story?  Should I focus on how Jesus’ resurrection gives us new life?  Maybe I could talk about the kind of leadership Jesus demonstrated by submitting to the Father and sacrificing himself.  Do I tune the sermon to reach the ears of seekers, or should I focus on the faithful?  There are so many questions that I haven’t answered yet, and it’s Friday already.

So about three minutes ago, I did what I do when I get stuck like this.  I prayed.

And I prayed what I often pray:  God, please give me something to say.

Now, I think that’s a fine thing to pray for.  Nothing really wrong with it.  But as I was praying it a few minutes ago, I thought to myself, Maybe I should be asking God to give me something to hear.

As I’m typing these words I’m still working through this, so forgive what may be the rambling nature of this post.  But I’m excited to explore the difference–as a preacher–of asking God for something to say to others versus asking God to say something to me that I need to hear.

If you’re a preacher or teacher of the gospel then you know how often we feel burdened to teach God’s truth in a way that is palatable and digestible.  We want to be relevant to the needs of the people listening to us.  But I’m wondering if in the process of trying to know our congregations well enough to speak to their needs we might sometimes forget that we, too, have countless rough edges that God needs to refine.  And God has words of truth for us.  Maybe if we started our search for a sermon by asking God to speak to us, to teach us, to encourage and convict and challenge us, then we might be able to get up on Sunday and really speak as men of God with something to say.

Even if you’re not a preacher or teacher, surely this still applies, because God does have something to say to anyone who will listen.  If we will listen….

God bless you.  He is risen.

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Listening for Laughter

I’m the kind of guy who likes depth and meat and serious things.  I’ve often found myself rolling my eyes (at least mentally) at what I would call “fluff” masquerading as theology.  You know, the touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy, oh-so-cute and oh-so-annoying stuff.  No offense if that’s what you like; it’s just not me.  At least, it’s not where I’m comfortable.  But what if God is there?

One of the real hard things to deal with in our lives of faith is an awareness that while God is like us in many ways, there are at least as many ways in which he’s different.  And I don’t just mean the differences between deity and me.  I mean the differences between me and so many others who are so unlike me and yet are created in the very same image of God.

So, I’m trying new things on to see how they fit.  Some will.  Some won’t.  And just maybe some are ones I need to grow into. 

I’m three days into a personal challenge to go a full week without uttering one single complaint.  So far, so good.  And that’s pretty impressive for me.  I’m good at finding fault.  I notice imperfections.  So complaining is an easy thing for me.  The blessing of positivity, however, has been remarkable, and so I’m excited to see how long this streak can last.

But I’m also trying something else–something more fluffy and exotic.  I’m taking more time to think creatively about God.  I’m taking time–knowing full well that this is a world full of sadness, disease, and wickedness–to listen for laughter amidst the chaos.  I have close friends in the midst of grief, relationship decay, barrenness, spitefulness, even faithlessness.  When I think of all the sin and hurt and disbelief even amongst those I know and love, I often get such a heavy feeling of burden, knowing that there are so many things I cannot fix.  And so I’m learning how to stop and breathe and listen for hope.  Listen for peace.  Listen for healing.  Listen for life.  Listen for laughter amidst the chaos.  Because when I hear it I believe again with all my being that God has something better in mind than this.Image

 

 

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