Below is the sermon I preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Longview, TX based on the scripture John 3:14-21.
My latest for the Longview News-Journal.
Of all the emotions that humanity processes, there is one that with fills our hearts or makes us cringe thinking about it: love. If you ever speak to children about love they will equate it being surrounded by worms or snakes. It is not something that they want to talk about. Love is that mysterious emotion that is hard to describe yet we know it when we see it or feel it. We throw the word around in everyday conversation: “Oh I love that!,” “I love carrot cake!,” or “I really do love you.” English is not very helpful with the notion of love. There is just one word to encompass love for our children or spouses to really liking something. To complicate the issue further, Christianity has love as one of its foundational tenants and beliefs. Christian love is a completely different notion of love. In the Gospels, Jesus states that the summary of all the laws and the teachings of the prophets is to love God and to love your neighbor as much as you love your own self. Christians, for the most part, are excited to proclaim that they love God; they want to be on God’s side and have felt the goodness and mercy found in God’s powerful, perfect love. It is the second part of Jesus’ statement that causes some discomfort for us. Loving our neighbors is not as easy as it sounds; we like to think that we are as loving as Jesus was or we are really close. No one likes to believe that they are not loving or kind; we are called live out the ways of Jesus and that includes loving others. Unfortunately, we redefine love on our terms, setting up condition after condition that must take place before we grant someone our love. The general thought is if you are mean to me, then I have the right to remove my love; if you make choices that I don’t approve of then I have the right to remove my love. Love in this scenario becomes a commodity, something that can be bought or sold or traded whenever we deem it necessary or beneficial to us and our wellbeing. We begin to rationalize our actions and even look for obscure theological rational to make our case.
We think that we are right and justified for not loving people. We believe that we can tell God our reasons, layout for God our case and God will say “you make a valid point. Sure go right ahead stop loving that person. I grant thee permission.”
However, if we can make that proclamation, doesn’t then God have the right to do it back to us? Thankfully, that is something outside the nature of who God is, what God is capable of. Scripture reminds us that God is love, the source of love, the ground upon which we love.
Christians say it to each other, we sing it on our hymns, we place it on our billboards, t-shirts, bumper stickers and marque signs; we proclaim it boldly and triumphantly: God is Love! However, we don’t like the scripture that reminds us that we are called to love each other. It goes against the model that we have set up for ourselves. Throughout all of human history, there have been conflicts between groups of people, races, classes and social status. Often when one group gets power they tend to look down on the other deeming them inferior or lacking in the requisite social capital to contribute to society. Jesus’ mission and ministry were based on the notion that all people were worthy of love and welcomed by God, all people were to be seen as a brother or a sister. Sure, people will mess up or make mistakes but so does everyone.
Jesus’ teachings were radical. They called for the ending of division, the breaking down of barriers that separate each other. Today we find more and more barriers in our world and sadly our churches. Many Christians do not model inclusive, radical, counter-cultural love. For change to happen in our community, state, and nation, the insider/outsider mentality must stop. God’s love has no bounds and neither should ours. God’s love is transformative and so should ours be. I John 4 poses the question, how can we say we love God who is unseen when we fail to love our brother and sister who is seen? If we say we have God’s love in us then it should be evident to all people, in all places and at all times.
Below is a sermon I gave at First Christian Church, Longview, Tx on April 29, 2018, based on I John 4:7-21.[audio http://traffic.libsyn.com/fcclongview/20180429-110428.mp3|animation=no]
My latest for the Longview News-Journal
In life, we are taught or socialized to believe that there are two areas in which we should refrain from speaking about during dinner conversation: politics and religion. This sentiment comes from the notion that these two areas are quite divisive. Broad-ranging opinions are found on both sides of either argument. Instead of trying to learn and hear one another, we have taken up the position of avoidance. This tactic will ensure that no one will have their feelings hurt or having a shouting match at the dinner table. In the 21st century, this idiom has long been ignored thanks to the internet and social media. The internet was advertised as a place for people with like-minded thoughts, and beliefs could share and learn from one another. It was heralded as an open forum full of opportunity for learning and discussion. While this is a grand, almost utopian, idea, it is far from evident today.
Today, social media are hot spots for people to share their believes and opinions. In 2017, a study found that 67% of Americans get some part of their news from social media. As the popularity of these platforms has grown, so have the boldness of the rhetoric that people are propagating. Sadly, there is little to no tolerance of conflicting viewpoints or opinions. The quest for learning and shaping one’s thoughts is gone; all that is left are tweetable one-liners and half-truths.
As a minister, I am called to proclaim the message of God and Jesus. The Church as a response to faith enacts ministries and activities so that God’s love, mercy, grace, and justice can be shared. What happens then when the lines of politics and the religion blur? I have heard in every church I have ever served “I don’t want politics preached from the pulpit.” What they are truly saying is “I don’t want to hear politics that I disagree with preached from the pulpit.”
There are prohibitions against non-profit organizations endorsing or contributing to any political candidate or campaign. This is known as the Johnson Amendment. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump and some of his supporters spoke out against the amendment. After the inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order rescinding the amendment.
I have wrestled with this idea of politics and church. How involved should a church be in its community, state and nation’s politics? As a citizen, I participate in the election process, but most people would never know which particular candidates I am supporting. I have made a choice not to put a bumper sticker on my car or a sign in my yard endorsing a party or candidate. Why? As a minister, I am called to serve my congregation regardless of their political affiliation. I never want a yard sign or a bumper sticker to be a barrier for someone. I know many ministers who do not practice this, and that’s fine. We all find different ways to share our views and outlook on life and theology.
Faith is political; it is countercultural, and at times it is radical. The problem that a lot of Christians have today regarding the interplay of faith and politics is the recognition that faith is not partisan. Some ministers across this country have stated that Jesus would have been a Republican or a Democrat or even a Socialist. Thousands of people each year write in Jesus’ name on the election ballot. Once I heard a minister try to get around the Johnson Amendment by listing the ways that his congregants should “Vote Christian.” The only issue with that particular angle is which branch of Christianity is the one I should align my vote?
Too many people believe that since they identify with the Republican or Democratic party that they must adhere to the primary issue stances and talking points. They then take these political ideals and superimpose them on to a religious structure. This is a gross misuse of faith. Our faith in God and Christ should not be used as a weapon to prop up some political devices and schemes. By carefully examining our theological positions we then should make decisions as people of faith not as a member of a party.
I believe that churches should provide opportunities for listening and learning from different perspectives and understandings of God and how it drives them to act in the world. These conversations and interactions will give those gathered a fuller view of who God is and how God is working in other’s lives. If we can erase the labels that we place on each other and remove the prejudices we assign groups of people, then we then will come to the conversation with listening ears and open hearts.
Having conversations about “hot topic” issues are difficult because they can be profoundly personal or emotional. This does not, however, mean that congregations should not speak about them. Instead, the community should wrestle with what it means to live a faithful Christian life in the face of evil and destruction. It is too easy to externalize the problem and blame “society” or “social media” or some other group; it takes the pressure off us and assigns to blame to a situation too large for a church to handle.
Christian Piatt, a Disciples of Christ author, once wrote, “If we can’t ask the tough, keep-you-awake-at-night questions within our faith communities, then what good are they?” Piatt’s question is a tough one and one that many churches do not want to hear. Are we willing to wrestle with the concerns that people are struggling with? Are we willing hear people out and listen to their concerns and feelings? Is the Church ready to have these vitally essential conversations? I hope so.
Let us come to together united under the banner of Christ and God’s restorative justice. We can have differences about taxes and immigration, but we need to be unified in the message that Christ’s call for all of us was to love God and love each other.
I was honored to be asked to give the invocation at the Unity and Diversity Awards Luncheon in Longview, Texas. Below is the prayer that I gave. May we continue to hear the call of unity now and forevermore.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Many churches today have fallen into a mentality of “us verses them.” This idea influences the way congregations do ministry and serve. In the back of many people’s minds is the notion that while we are working for the good of God’s word, we hope that someone, anyone, will take notice and will come be a part of our community of faith. This has led to more separation between congregations than ever before.
While Christians worship the same God, read the same gospels, follow the teachings of the same Christ, there can be division in the way that communities enact their faith. One group will state that they have the true and proper way of understanding God and another will reject it and proclaim their authority in the matter. If Christians do in fact serve and worship the same God, why are Christians finding more and more ways to separate themselves? In the denomination I serve, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we do not have a creed or hardline stances on many things. The only essential of faith that all must be in agreement with is Jesus is Lord and Savior. Anything outside of that statement is up for conversation, discussion, studying, learning and growing. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a bad theology, but we are given liberty to learn together as a community.
Christianity today is seen as too fragmented, too isolated, too self-centered. Working together for a common cause is becoming a thing of the past; what is happening is duplication of services, resources, and ideas all in the name of growing a church’s name and brand. Once, I organized a day of service in a small Southeast Texas town where I was serving a small congregation. The idea was to get churches together to do mission work, not as a recruitment tool, but as a way to share the gospel and live into our commands to serve one another. I called several churches and got a decent response. I called one of the biggest churches in that town and spoke to the senior minister. He told me that he liked the idea, but he wanted to pass out pamphlets about their church and their ministries. I told him that I understood his desire, but the organization team had decided that we would work together in unity of Christ, so that meant no advertising, just work. He then told me that if he couldn’t promote his church, then his congregation would not participate.
I was deeply saddened. The minister was willing not to work in the name of Jesus the Christ because he couldn’t use it as a way to get more people in his sanctuary on Sunday mornings. And we wonder why the Church universal is shrinking.
As minister, I struggle with this notion. On one hand, I want people to experience God in their own way, but on the other, I have been transformed and changed and I want people to understand my way as well. I have to understand that my theology might not be someone else’s or that their view of the Bible is not the same as mine. They have their reasons and I have mine, but these differences should not keep us apart.
Unity in Christ should drive the congregations together. While we may sing different songs, proclaim different ideas of God, ministry and social justice, we are all one in Christ. If the church is going to the place where lives are changed and love is shown to the community, then why are we limiting God’s movement within us?
The church needs to be that place where people can come with all of their faults, insecurities and even doubts about the world, themselves, Jesus, the Bible and God and find a place of acceptance, warmth, welcoming, grace and peace.
Churches every day serve countless numbers of people around the world through hospitals, hospices, medical missions, homeless shelters, food pantries and so much more.
These fly under the “radar” of popular culture but they are vitally important. These ministries are not for accolades or attention rather they are the response to the gospel’s message of loving God and loving neighbor.
The Church’s core foundation of love, joy, hope, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation are still there, and they will never go away. The ministries that we promote, the gospel that is proclaimed and the mission of the Church must not change. We can change its transmission or function, but the core ideas and tenets are still in place.
Let’s hold on to those as we venture out into this world that is in desperate need of a Savior. We might not agree on theology, doctrine or even ways to have communion, but at our core, the Church is still trying to serve the same God and the same Christ.
There is so much work to be done and the workers are becoming fewer and fewer. Let’s come together united in Christ, seeing difference in theology and interpretation as a way to get a fuller, richer, deeper picture of who God is. The church needs to be the model of unity in a time where we are so easily divided over issues and politics. The church cannot model the same “us verses them” mentality that is being propagated in the news media and by politicians. Let us pray that one day our unity might one day be restored.
Today is a special day in North East Texas: SNOW DAY!
I was asked to give the invocation at Stars Over Longview. This event recognizes 12 women in the Longview area who have made an impact on the community.
The keynote speaker was Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Below are the prayer and some pictures.