God, Save Us…Hosanna…Save Us…Please…

(I am not preaching on Sunday — youth pageant on Palm Sunday here — so here is my Palm Sunday “sermon” for the year.)

Every year we read the story.

Every year people shout “Hosanna!” at Jesus while he entered Jerusalem.

Every year they shout “Save me! Save us!” in the presence of their religious oppressors while their governmental oppressors bring in military enforcers to keep them under control.

Every year they have a savior to shout to, a savior to lay eyes on and touch.

“Who will save us?” I imagine they had asked this over and over again. “Who will save us? Who will end our oppression? Who will end our suffering?” I imagine the sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days just praying to God in suffering silence, longing for any relief from the harm thrust upon them.

Jesus did not hide from their oppressors. Jesus did not do his work in silence or in private. Jesus stood up, spoke out, risked his life — and ultimately gave it, though the crowds did not know that, yet — to demand change and call out the sins of the powerful.

Jesus gave them the courage to shout their prayers for deliverance, their demands for saving, their simply need to not suffer anymore. He gave them the courage to shout in the presence of their oppressors.

Following Jesus did not end their oppression. Continuing to live as his followers after his death certainly increased their suffering and oppression for a time. But following Jesus and his example gave them hope it can be better, hope we can do better, hope in a better world without oppression and exploitation.

Jesus gave them hope, gave them courage, gave them voice to shout, “Hosanna! Save me! Save us!”

Recent weeks have made me pray, “Save us…please save us…” very quietly in dark corners and late nights. We live in a time where children die and politicians use their deaths to further irrelevant political culture wars. We live in a time where politicians declare “mental health” the cause of violence while defunding mental health care, defunding schools, and stoking hatred between groups.

We live in violent, hate-filled times, and the powerful scold us and tell us to stop demanding change.

Where can we find hope? I really do not know. Some days I feel like a fraud in the pulpit because I really do wonder how to have hope when exploitation, violence, and hatred grow like an unstoppable force — and we are not an immovable object.

Even in the church, where can we find hope? Recently leaders in my denomination made a very bad decision, and their response to the backlash was an offer of self-flagellation and wanting everyone to feel better but absolute resistance to actual change in the short- or long-term. They even acknowledged that no one can truly make any changes to our long ordination process or provide any oversight to regional bodies, basically making any true reform impossible.

And this is small. Like only a very small, small number of people can possibly be affected by this. How can we envision our churches reckoning with histories of violence against the marginalized and oppressed, histories of being oppressors and exploiters, when our leaders resist confessing and correcting the harm they cause insiders training to become leaders of those churches?

How can we expect our laws and politicians to serve the most vulnerable when our churches only do the bare minimum? Why do we expect secular institutions to do better than religious institutions? Why do we expect the world to listen to prophets from hypocritical churches demanding changes the churches refuse to do?

The worst part is, when I sit in observation of what happens on a large scale, those affected continue to suffer no matter how much I see and say. LGBTQ+ folks continue to have their humanity  and rights denied, women lose the autonomy of their bodies and the right to medical care, children still violently die due to inaction, the powerful continue to use culture wars to divide us so we do not unite to demand the exploitation and oppression and violence stop, and the cries of suffering continue to fall on deaf ears.

And so, in a quiet voice, wanting change and feeling hopeless, I pray, “Hosanna…save us…please, God, save us…”

I do not believe we have a savior coming to give us courage right now. If Jesus comes again in my lifetime (and we believe that particular understanding of the “Second Coming”), I will swallow my words, but right now I think we need to do something. We cannot wait for a figurehead to sacrifice themselves to demand change and salvation.

We need to shout, “Hosanna!” now!

I need to shout, “Hosanna!” now!

Protests and direct action are good actions, political organization is good action, but we all have a way to shout even if our skills and minds lead in different directions.

(To my activist friends, please keep doing your work because I am not built for that work. To my organizing friends, I do not fit into your world but I support your efforts and will help when I can fit in.)

I have a pulpit, and I have this small blog. I have a small circle of influence I can use to call out demands and encourage votes for certain things:

  • Stop any legislation that denies the identity or humanity of LGBTQ+ folks, including children, and provide protections so everyone has the same rights to living full lives.
  • Stop trying to make the most recent (as of today) school shooting about the gender identity of the shooter. Folks that look and live like me are much more likely to do it, and you know it.
  • Start studying the causes of mass shootings in the United States and pass laws based on that research that will protect everyone but especially the most vulnerable.
  • Stop claiming mental health is the cause of mass shootings while, in the same breath, supporting politicians and legislation that defund mental health services.
  • Restore all reproductive health rights to women in all states (trans men and nonbinary folks included), including termination of pregnancy, and stop lying about the definition of abortion to weasel out of hard questions.

And stop using the Bible to do all of this harm. It does not defend your actions, it directly preaches against harming the marginalized and vulnerable, and it certainly does not defend you against being uncomfortable or having your sins laid bare.

I still feel hopeless, I still struggle to believe we can fix the institutions with anything short of burning them to the ground, and I still do not know how to actually help, but today I say it out loud:

“Save us! Hosanna! Save us!”

Or rather,


But I do not want to confuse my place in this story. I belong with those who told Jesus to silence his followers. I live and work in their world. So, truly, my voice really does have a different purpose than the crowds. I do not live in that suffering, my life does not have the risks.

I see and feel the existential dread, but I know my circle contributes to the suffering. Today, then, I must demand something else of myself and my fellow church leaders:

  • Stop bowing to political leaders. Stop participating in their partisan game. Stop pretending anyone in political power is above reproach.
  • Stop refusing to confess your sins. Stop taking offense when you must face your shortcomings.
  • Stop acting to maintain an institution that harms anyone. Stop acting to protect your comfort and security by maintaining the institution.
  • Be very careful claiming your small part of the institution is safe for all. Be very careful claiming you are a safe spiritual leader for all.
  • Listen to the cries of those harmed, and stop demanding their silence or demanding they act appropriately. Provide opportunities for those harmed to have their voices heard, and do not put up roadblocks that require their participation in your system.
  • If you gain entry into a room of influence, immediately start demanding reform, even or especially if it risks your position in that room.

If we cannot make the church, the Earthly expression of the Body of Christ, the body of the strongest one who sacrificed himself for the weakest and most vulnerable, serve the most vulnerable and safe for everyone — or at least put ourselves at risk trying to make that happen — then we are false prophets demanding secular institutions do the same.

If we cannot confess our sins and repent, we are false prophets. We might as well scold those shouting, “Hosanna!” and tell them to be quiet.

The least and the lowest are crying out. The church should be crying out.

Even when we only have the smallest voice left.

God, Save Us…Hosanna…Save Us…Please…

– Robby

Scared to Preach

A neat thing happens when I confess my struggles to my congregation: I suddenly can write about them publicly!  When I say, in the middle of my sermon, “I am scared to preach and paralyzed every week,” no one I currently serve gets a huge surprise when I write about it for you 12-50 internet people, that number depending on random chance as far as I can tell.

I did not exaggerate or say anything close to untrue when I spoke those words a few Sundays ago.  From the moment I got back from Festival of Homiletics, I have had constant, paralyzing fear when it comes to writing and giving sermons.  I sat down on eight separate occasions – eight separate, scheduled occasions – to write my Pentecost sermon and I still, given four weeks of no sermons and nothing but time, wrote the manuscript at 7:00 P.M. the Saturday before.

To talk about this, I need to talk about the voices and “ghosts” who sit on my shoulders and make sure I constantly feel my inadequacy.  But first, let me talk about how we valiantly try to make this feeling go away when we look at and prepare for professional ministry.

We had this thing we said in seminary as we discussed our inadequacies and “being not good enough” for ministry.  The solution always came out as this answer: You aren’t good enough; get over it.

As a theological construct and encouragement, it fits the bill, more or less, kinda.  God does not have adequate and perfect people to call to ministry, so God calls the likes of you and me.  God sees my brokenness and inadequacy and calls me anyway, sometimes using that brokenness and inadequacy for holy things.

Great, wonderful, lean into that if it loosens your voice, but it does not help me a whole lot after eight years of preaching every Sunday with short interludes of every-other Sunday.  It really does not help me as I feel more fear and trepidation “stepping into the pulpit” now than I ever have.

I found the fatal flaw in that mindset: we never addressed the fact that our discouragement does not come from God – remember, God called us to this wonderful and awful task – but from other broken people who will, at the drop of a hat, make sure I know exactly how terrible of a pastor and preacher I am.

I recently wrote a post called “Not Enough” about a lot of these feelings of inadequacy, but, as I finally decided to name the voices screaming in my ears every weeks as I try to prepare for the task God called me to, I can address the voices I alluded to.

One voice from the past screams in one ear: the “ghost” of my preaching professor.  In January of 2012 I nearly left seminary.  The professor tasked with preparing me to bring the Word of God to a congregation decided to prepare me through bullying, both his own and encouraging the class to participate.

(And before any apologists come forward, loving people I trust confirmed my experience.  I have grown weary of people minimizing this experience, even nearly eight years later).

For the past few months, only his judgements and the “rules of homiletics” I break come to mind.  You ever have inspiration, only to have a ghost say you are not allowed to do that?  That defines my last few months.

But I have battled with this ghost of the past before and come out with an unhealthy but helpful chip on my shoulder.  Now, though, something else screams in my other ear, giving the fear created by this ghost additional force and power.

Christian thought leaders have put a demand on clergy to constantly preach from a prophetic voice.  A mainline leader of the church told the Festival of Homiletics to put pastoral care to the side and focus solely on preaching and prophecy.  Progressive thought leaders demand people “leave their churches” if their pastors do not speak out against [insert new, weekly travesty].

As I sat at the Festival of Homiletics, I feel encouraged and convicted to do better and try harder.  Upon arriving home, the weight of never living up to the standard these pastors and thought leaders set before us that week sat on my shoulders and has made my voice…shaky and scared.  I participated in an alter call for preachers to speak out against the evils of the world – a thing I thought I did before but, in that moment, believed I had failed at – but now have no idea how I, Rev. Robert Glen Brown, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, live up to that alter call.

Since then I have preached.  But the pit in my stomach comes every week, and every week I feel a little bit more like a fraud because I did not do something someone “smarter” or “more important than me” would demand of me – or worse, intentionally did something they would look down upon.

I am scared to preach.  Horrified, paralyzed, frozen; I have more fear today than I did that first week I preached during my first internship.

I once read something from a seminary professor – I think – confessing that he often told students that preaching gets easier when, in fact, it actually gets harder.  (If anyone reading this knows this piece, shoot me a link, please.)  When I first read that, I believed it but I could not actualize or internalize it.  Every Sunday, though, despite feeling more skilled and having more experience, it feels harder.

It gets harder.  The expectations – both real and imagined – of congregations for good preachers to always preach well, the world constantly finding new ways to cast people into the darkness, and thought leaders telling small church leaders that they need to live into the ministry and preaching models of megachurches make it harder every Sunday, every season, every year.

I do not want anyone to express sympathy or support in response to this; my people have supported me more than I realize more days, and I got a powerful and confidence-boosting affirmation on Sunday that I needed.

I just need to say it.  And, if you happen to be/know one of those thought leaders who demands small church leaders abandon their good ministries for activist, megachurch, prophet models, maybe try to remember what small church ministry looks like/spend some time serving a small church.

I am trying, and I do not need more voices condemning my efforts.  The ghosts of seminary have that job taken care of enough.

– Robby

I did this. We did this.

Note: I usually do a series during the summer, and I guess this summer’s series became “Difficult, challenging, pointed sermons preached from a manuscript.”  I do not plan to continue it, but this sermons certainly matches last week’s sermon in difficulty.

Sermon on Lamentations 3 – I did this.  We did this.

“I did this.  We did this.”  The poems of Lamentations land like a self-inflicted gut-punch, reading like a mournful and terrible confession of realization.  “I did this.  We did this.”

At what point do we admit that we broke the world?  When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?  At what point do we stop pretending we are the rain drop that did not cause the flood or slow flake that did not participate in the avalanche and finally just say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

We divided ourselves based upon our own rules.  We declared all who disagree stupid, evil, non-Christian, and burned every bridge between us that we could.

We named dissent and difference of opinion evil.  We called so much disagreement and dissent evil that evil no longer has meaning and we no longer have language to recognize the abhorrent as such.

We allowed evil to happen in the name of political party.  We ignored the failings of those we agreed with, allowing their greed and power-seeking activity to continue because we agreed with them in spoken philosophy.

We withheld love.

When do we finally say, “I did this.  We did this.”?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments God’s wrath.  The poet feels the pain of God’s wrath and cannot help but lament.

How does God express God’s wrath?

Does God actively punish the poet and his people?  Does God actively bolster and strengthen the soldiers of the poet’s enemies and actively weaken and undermine the efforts of the soldiers of the poet’s people?  Does God actively force the poet’s people into a foreign exile and actively allow the destruction of the temple?

Or does God allow the natural consequences of their sins to take root?  Do the sins of the poet’s people weaken them naturally, spread them too thin and make them too confident?  Do the natural consequences of their sins condemn them to failure without God’s intervention?

Or did the poet just feel abandoned when the sins of the poet’s people finally lead to their destruction and demise?  Did sin finally cause so much damage the poet’s people imploded upon themselves.

The specifics do not matter to the poet.  God’s wrath is pain and destructions.  The poet laments God’s wrath.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Why does the poet lament?  Why does the poet “passionately express grief or sorrow”?  What right does the poet have to lament?  The poet himself says it.  “Why should any living [person] complain when punished for [their] sins?”  What right do we have to complain?  We did this to ourselves.

Our sin condemned us.  We became complacent.  We forgot God.  We abused our resources and ourselves.  Our sin—not the sin of someone else but our sin—lead to our demise.

Why do we complain and mourn?  Why do we complain when we did this to ourselves and why do we mourn what our sin caused us to lose?  Why do we lament our world?  We did this.  We broke our world.

We did not speak out.  We saw evil and we remained silent.

We continued to participate in the divide.  We threw insults and slung mud and dehumanized the “other”—even our friends and family—because they disagreed.

We turned our backs on those in need.  We used a policy of “worth” and “true need” to determine who we did not turn our backs on.

We congratulated ourselves for our sins.  We patted ourselves on the back for deepening the divide and celebrated how much “good” we did while we withheld love from those most in need.

Why do we lament our broken world?  We broke it and celebrated the initial wreckage.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The poet laments not feeling God.  He may have no right to lament, but he laments out of pain and without anything else to do.  And the poet laments the sin that brought him and his people to this point.

In his lament, the poet sees the path to healing: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.  Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven.”

The poet calls his people to repent.  The poet calls his people to confess their sin and own it, realizing that they did this.  The poet calls his people to turn from their sin and return to the life and path God intended for them.

And the poet calls his people to lift their hearts to God.

The poet will continue to suffer even as he starts on this path.  This path of healing does not immediately relieve pain but much like rehab after tragedy, the healing this path provides will hurt.

But healing will come.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We lament as we look at our world and God appears so far away.

Suffering happens in our back yard.  Sex trafficking—the sale and abuse of human beings—happens less than three miles from this sanctuary.

Suffering happens to the weakest and the least.  I need not name specifics; we all know what happens to the least of God’s children.

Suffering happens in the name of greed and power.  I am reminded daily of the suffering and torment our sisters and brothers in Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia suffer to simply satiate the whims of power of those with guns and soldiers.

Suffering happens, and we stand in complacence or participation as the world breaks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We must repent, confessing our sin, owning our sin, and turning away from our sin.  We must do what God desires and what will heal our world.

We must speak up instead of closing our eyes to the suffering and torment the sins of our world cause.

We must bridge our divisions that have allowed politicized evil to not only happen but stand as the norm instead of the deviation.

We must vocally abhor evil from all evil doers, especially those who look and think like us.

Our repentance will not immediately relieve the pain of our sin or heal our world.  Our sin has shattered our world and the shattered world we have created will require extensive, painful healing.  Nothing will heal quickly or painlessly.

But if we lament our shattered world and our sin and we repent, confessing and turning away from our sin, healing will come.

I lament our shattered world though my sin shattered it.  I try to repent of the sin I lament.  I seek the painful healing our world desperately needs.

Please—please—do the same.  Amen.

Stand Up Against Your Allies

Beginning Notes: For the second time since starting at Grace, I used a manuscript.  I use a manuscript when the words will not come to me as I prepare or when I need to choose my specific words–and not just my thoughts–before I begin to preach.

This Sunday I needed to choose my words carefully and thoughtfully.  I only trust myself so far when anger and sadness guide my voice around what we treat as a political issue when politics should have nothing to do with it.

If I traverse a minefield, I want a very specific map drawn out for me.

Unlike most weeks, I preached exactly what you read here (with a couple of minor edits for my sanity).

Sermon on Matthew 25:34-46 – Stand Up Against Your Allies

I often need to ask myself these questions I ask you today:

“How do you respond when your friends and allies do horrific things?”

“Do you speak up when those whom you align yourself do terrible things?”

“How do you respond when atrocities become politicized and evil becomes a bargaining chip for the powerful?”

“Are you willing to provide witness when you see evil, or do you cower or, worse, justify atrocities to protect the atrocious out of loyalty?”

I chose to preach on this passage today, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, to respond to the world.  I rarely choose a passage based solely my own heart—and rarely reuse so quickly—but the spirit directs me and a phrase, “the least of these,” has not left my mind in ten days.

I believe we live in a unique and abnormal time with unique and abnormal challenges.  Today we have challenges beyond the growing pains of the progression of time and how we change the ordering society.  I sound alarmist to myself, and I want you know to know that I doubted the wisdom of including this thought of unique struggle, but I need to say it: we live in a unique and abnormal time.

Despite the uniqueness and abnormality of our current world and political climate—and the difficult challenges we stare down today—our call remains the same.  The call of the gospel does not change, and the example of Christ does not change.

I want to reflect deeply on Jesus’ words the spirit placed on my heart.  “…whatever you did for one of the least of these [sisters and] brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Whatever you do for or to the least, you do directly for or to God.

Very simple and very convicting; God judges us most strictly on our treatment of the lowest and least amongst us.

Jesus gives a list of “the least”; the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger—translatable to “the exile, the immigrant” or “the foreigner” or even just “the guy who wandered up to you on the street”—all qualify as the least.

Your treatment of them is your treatment of God.

If we do not dig below the surface of that list, I have nothing to preach about.  We joyfully and intentionally do what we can with what we have here at Grace.  We do not always know the exact right course of action—especially now as we discern the practical expression of our mission “Following Jesus . . . Serving Others”—but we strongly desire to help.  We feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, provide resources to clothe the naked, and we open our doors to the stranger.

We desire to help and comfort the least of God’s children.  I do not qualify, and I do not downplay.  I will not take that away from this congregation.

Let us start to dig below the surface of that list a little bit.  Nothing on that list immediately strikes an uncomfortable nerve.  We just fill in the blank of “Why?” that Christ left blank with “Innocent Neediness,” but Jesus makes no mention of innocence or guilt in his least.

The list feels different if we fill in the “Why?” blank with something:

  • The hungry because they gambled their entire paycheck away.
  • The stranger filled with hate.
  • The thirsty because they spent the money for the water bill on heroin.
  • The naked by choice and situation to make money.

These seem lower than the innocently struggling.  They fight losing battles—battles of sin and battles of illness and addiction—that make them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger, and they cannot claim innocence, at least in part.

Jesus did not say the innocent when he said the least and yet we condemn the guilty whose actions have made them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger.  We convince ourselves they deserve their situations and feel sinful helping them.

We can dig deeper.  Each of these make us uncomfortable but we have not politicized these pains—at least not yet.

Let us go a bit deeper.  How about these “least”:

  • The victims of violence and terror who thirst in the desert, fleeing to a place they believe will provide them hope.
  • Those in rags who hope to find a land of plenty.
  • The hungry who seek a home that does not have abject poverty.
  • The infant stranger ripped from their parents’ arms.

How do we treat these least?

Do we compassion and love for them, or do we dehumanize them and see them as animals?

Should they receive the treatment of people—as human and deserving as us, just different in situation—or the treatment of pawns in a vile political game?

Do we love them, or do we hate them?

I do not speak of immigration policy today.  I know I cannot fully discern the right policies of who can and cannot enter our boarders.  I cannot give you a Christian and scriptural immigration policy for the United States.  I believe we must not divide ourselves on political lines in that discussion, but I understand the positions of a completely closed and completely open border, and we must find a policy that does good while also providing protection.

I do not speak of immigration policy.  I speak of policies that dehumanize anyone, that treat humans worse than most dogs, that describe a people as roaches, that indefinitely inter anyone, and that do anything to separate a child from their loving and safe parents.  Those policies do these things to God because they do those things to the least of God’s children Christ spoke of—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger.

Doing harm to the least does harm to God.  Politicizing harm and insulting outrage at doing harm to the least politicizes harm and insults outrage at doing harm to God.

Do you respond in horror or do you turn a blind eye and downplay doing harm to the least of God’s children?

Sometimes we cannot directly help with resources, but we can witness to good and evil and speak out against evil, or we can turn a blind eye.  We can feel outrage toward atrocity, or we can ignore forced and intentional pain and suffering and look away.

What you do for the least of these—speak up or turn away—you do for God.

What are you doing for and to God?  Amen.

Stop Hiding

Sermon on Genesis 3:8-12 – Stop Hiding

We need to set up the scene.  This immediately follows creation.  God gave Adam and Eve one instruction—one singular rule—and this passage happens as a direct result of them failing to follow that rule.

We cannot ignore that; they broke the rule, and that indiscretion had consequences.  Remember what the passages says they did: they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, giving them awareness of everything, including sin and shame.

Actions have consequences.  They gained this knowledge and they could not unlearn it.  They suddenly had to be aware of their bodies, their thoughts, their desires, and how selfish they became.  They had to be aware of things they could desire, things that would harm them and damage their relationships.

Adam and Eve had acute and intimate awareness that they broke the one rule, that God had a reason for that one rule, and the consequences they would suffer for breaking that one rule.  Their knowledge of shame and desire and brokenness makes them feel shameful and broken.  Something changed, and they now felt the need to cover and hide themselves.

Adam and Eve sinned, permanently and irreparably breaking their relationship with God and with each other, and they had painful awareness of that.

No matter how you read the creation story—six literal days, six periods of time, or an allegory for evolution—the story ends the same: humans became aware, enabling them to sin and desire things that will destroy relationship.  Adam and Eve failed and every further relationship suffered because of it.

They hid their shame.

We do not like to fail.  When we do something bad, we often become like children.  Remember your childhood when you broke something and very carefully placed it just so appeared unbroken until someone else touched it, hopefully placing the blame for breaking the thing on them instead of you?  Or maybe for the married klutzes in the room, last week or last month when you did not want your spouse to realize the thing broke—like a knick-knack that has no real value but you cannot replace because you bought it states away on a vacation—so you just place it just so and hope it does not come up for a decent amount of time?

When things get messed up—often without true fault—we act like children and try to hide it out of shame.  When we do something wrong and stand at fault—like, say, eating from a tree that will give you all knowledge without considering if you want all knowledge—the shame usually trumps our willingness to vulnerably admit something broke, a either trinket or a relationship.

Sometimes hiding works on Earth.  The person you hide from suffers the same state of imperfection you do.  We do not always know when someone else does something wrong to us or in a way that affects us.

God knows.  Adam and Eve hoped they could hide, ignoring the fact that the creator of that Tree of Knowledge that gave them all the knowledge they wished they could erase from their minds or give back also created them and would have to know everything and see everything to create a Tree of Knowledge.

God knew Adam and Eve messed up, and they all knew Adam and Eve’s actions broke their relationship.

In Adam and Eve’s case, hiding simply exasperated the situation; they added lying and deception to the problem and did not give God the opportunity to possibly fix it.  In our relationships, hiding has the same result; it simply further breaks the relationship, especially once everyone knows the truth but even before when it remains a secret.

I believe we live in relationship with God, and that relationship facilitates the healing God gives.  God can heal everything, but God healed us not through waving his arms and making everything okay but through Jesus walking amongst us and having relationship with us before giving himself for us.  Without relationship, the healing from Jesus does not happen.

Relationship requires vulnerability and honesty.  We cannot expect healing from God if we do not lift the parts of our relationship we broke and our wounded hearts up to God to vulnerably ask for healing.  God knows all—God sees our fig leaves and sees us hiding behind the trees—but God heals us through relationship and we cannot have relationship if we continue to hide.

You cannot have relationship if you do not vulnerably admit your brokenness and weakness, either with God or with each other.

This must go beyond selfishly asking God for forgiveness to avoid condemnation.  We live in relationship with each other.  We have friendships, romantic partnerships, the guiding relationship between parents and children, and life as a family in the Body of Christ.  Those relationships cannot heal if we do not confess the actions that wound each other and address the wounds we create.  These relationships exist between broken people instead of a broken creation to a perfect creator, and we can only offer imperfect and incomplete healing apart from God, but any healing requires the same vulnerability.  We cannot heal in hiding.

We need to start confessing for real.  The liturgy feels nice and sounds nice, but if we do not lift our broken hearts to God, we cannot get the healing we need.  If we say sorry out of obligation but will not willingly and vulnerably name our misdeeds, especially when no one confronts us, the wounds our misdeeds create will not heal.

You are broken.  You have wounded multiple people.  You have broken relationships with each other and with God.

Confession and repentance can provide opportunity for heal; hiding and claiming innocence does nothing but exacerbate the wounds.

Do you want healing or bigger wounds?

Confess for healing, to God and to each other.  Amen.

Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-16 – Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Why follow the Law?  Why participate in the Sabbath?  Why rest?

These questions may seem like an attempt to circumvent the Law, but we can only benefit from understand our faith and out tradition more.  If we can answer those “Why?” questions, it can help us to improve our lives and our relationship with God.

This passage serves as a great conversation point for that question, and I think we can work toward a help answer by answering this question:

What purpose does the Sabbath serve, both for our Israelite brothers and sisters and for us as followers of Christ.

I will apologize now: we have some boring stuff to hit first at the beginning of this sermon.  Spoken this will not suffer the same tedium but written I cannot do what I will do preaching.  Just hold on for about 200 words and then I will get less boring.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath translates to rest if you go for the cleanest and simplest option.  You can also say “ceasing labor” or “bringing labor to a standstill.”  You can also say “to take a holiday.”  You do not necessarily need to remember all of that, or even care about it, but it should start to paint the picture of “rest” that defines Sabbath.

The Ten Commandments make Sabbath a proper noun, defined as a day of rest at the end of the week.  It has a simple rationale: God rested, so humans can and should rest.  The rest goes beyond just beer and football—God gave it a holy component, a focal point of God—but Sabbath means rest.  Stop laboring and rest in God.

How far should we take that?  Should we go as far as some of our Jewish brothers and sisters and not turn on a light during our holy rest?  Should we not even care about our holy rest because the Sabbath command changed after Jesus and we not longer follow a legalistic interpretation of scripture?

I do not have a rigid, black and white answer for this question—like many things, the Christian church has argued over this point for 2000 years—but we can point to what Jesus and his disciples did for guidance.

If you look at where the New Testament uses the word “Sabbath,” you have three basic things.  You have Jesus teaching in the temple, you have Mary Magdalene waiting until after the Sabbath to prepare Jesus’ body, and you have Jesus and the disciples breaking the Sabbath according to the Pharisees1.  I want to look at those times and examine what the Pharisees believed and what Jesus did.

These scenes happen in each of the first three gospels and John has many examples similar to the second.  We will use Matthew but the Mark and Luke versions would work.

Read the beginning of the interaction in Matthew 12:

 12:1At that time Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry so they were picking heads of wheat and eating them.  2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law.”

3But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those with him were hungry?  4He went into God’s house and broke the law by eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat.  5Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day and are still innocent?  6But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  7If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.  8The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”

– Matthew 12:1-8 CEB

The point of that disciples should jump out at you.  The Pharisees concerned themselves with only following the rules without any concern as to why or the consequences.  The letter of the law meant everything for them and even served as a reason to condemn others who could not or did not follow it to their frustratingly strict standards.

Hungry people need to eat.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has its problems, but he hit the nail on the head saying you must address physiological needs before other needs.  I guarantee starving people will not connect with God in prayer and strengthen their relationship with God unless they fix their starvation first.

If you view the Law as something to follow to somehow make it, then of course you cannot eat on the Sabbath no matter your hunger.  If you instead view the Law as written to benefit humans and not to enrich God or serve as the test for salvation, then you can see that God would not desire you to go hungry just to prevent you from doing some physical activity on the Sabbath like plucking grains.

God does not need human Sabbath; God desires humans to have Sabbath, but God does not need it.  The Law is for Humans, not for God.

The story goes on and Jesus broke the Sabbath again.

9Jesus left that place and went into their synagogue.  10A man with a withered hand was there. Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they asked, “Does the Law allow a person to heal on the Sabbath?”

11Jesus replied, “Who among you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath and will not take hold of it and pull it out?  12How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath.”  13Then Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and it was made healthy, just like the other one.  14The Pharisees went out and met in order to find a way to destroy Jesus.

– Matthew 12:9-14 CEB

The Pharisees interpreted the Law like this: schedule your healings on six days and if you happened to meet the healer on the seventh day, you must suffer an additional day because the time did not work out.  Suffer to honor the Sabbath.

I will not mince words: the God of love does not want you to suffer.  This does not mean you will not suffer on this broken creation but that God did not create you for suffering.  If the opportunity to end your suffering appears, holy rest can wait for your healing.  If the opportunity to end suffering for someone else appears, holy rest can wait for you to heal.

Clearly Sabbath should serve humans, but do we truly need it?

Jesus needed it.  Legalistic rest that we follow because someone told us to does nothing for our souls, but having rest in God and rest from our labors restores our souls.

One small verse from Luke:

5:16But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.

– Luke 5:16 CEB

Jesus rested to restore his soul and have time with God.  He did not get away just to follow a rule; he got away for his soul and his relationship with God.

Legalistically resting serves no purpose because you do not rest in God when you desire to simply follow the Law.  Rest, in prayer, away from your labors, worrying less about the amount of “work” you do and more about your connection to God, will restore your soul and improve your relationship with God.

You need to get away from your labors for rest.  Bankers need to get away from money, doctors need to get away from medicine, pastors need to get away from preaching, everyone needs to get away from their labors.  Jesus needed to get away and pray.

Allow yourself to rest.  Do not force yourself to rest to make sure you followed a law, but also do not allow yourself to do your labors without rest because Jesus broke a human interpretation of Sabbath.

Rest in God, however that looks for you.  Amen.

1Matthew 24 also uses Sabbath, and in a different way, but it does not really contribute to or contradict the rest of the sermon.

Am I worthy? Am I good enough?

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 – Am I worthy?  Am I good enough?

I may seem like I pigeon-holed this in, but I want us to worship in a “Season of the Spirit.”  We talk about the Holy Spirit one Sunday a year and then put her back into the little box of things we believe in but disconcert us.  Every year I want to spend more time just exploring the idea that the Spirit gives us gifts and God calls us to ministries using the gifts the Spirit blesses us with.

Those gifts come with a call from God, but our answer usually comes out as questions.  We ask those questions that make is so we never have to actually answer God’s call:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Most of us start asking the moment someone first tells us we fail the test.  Some of us get to learn that from theologies that state we cannot earn salvation but imply that we actually can as long as we do not commit “those sins” or do not rack up too many sins.

As a kid, I had a conversation once with a trust adult—the who does not impact the story much—about being “naughty” and struggling to do the same naughty thing over and over again.  He told me that my soul was a whiteboard and when I prayed to God, God wiped it clean, but whiteboards can only get so clean and eventually it would get too dirty for God to forgive me.

He told me I could sin enough for God to stop loving me.  He just said it in a really convenient package for him.

Those terrible lessons—lessons we all learn from people who we love and, in theory, love us—lead to the great existential questions of every potential seminary student asks, or potential minister, or even potential camp counselor:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Am I?  Or am I fraud?

I relate to Isaiah’s call story so well.  Even as a confirmand preaching on Confirmation Sunday, Isaiah’s call story felt more like my own than even Jeremiah’s.  God called someone broken and imperfect to a ministry beyond their ability and worth.  The man God called knew the true state of his soul, his brokenness and failings, and told God as much, and God provided the strength and redemption to do the great task.

We will talk about the language Isaiah uses to describe his brokenness in a moment, but first I need to point something out.  This scene happens in and around the temple.  According to human standard and Jewish tradition, Isaiah meets the ritual cleanliness standard.  The temple staff welcomed him into the temple without concern or problem.

Isaiah meet the human cleanliness and worthiness standard.  In all honestly, he probably exceeds human standards of worthiness.  He already served as a prophet of some success before this scene.

He passes the human tests—passes without exception—and yet Isaiah still asks himself those questions:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

He answers them with a resounding and fearful, “No!”  Isaiah looks at himself and he sees himself in an honest light.  He starts getting worried because humans cannot look upon God, and he sees himself as worse than a regular human.  He believes, in that moment, that he will die because he gazes upon God.

His description of himself speaks volumes.  Effectively every English translation uses the word “unclean” but “leprous” has the same accuracy and a certain descriptiveness “unclean” lacks.

I do not recommend doing this, but you could do an image search for “leprosy” and see what leprous skin looks like.  Imagine a mouth riddled with sores, festering and oozing, cause great pain and making one permanently unclean.

He does not have actual leprosy in his mouth, but his words make his mouth “leprous.”  Imagine the words and thoughts coming from a mouth you describe like that.

I do not believe Isaiah speaks of cussing and “blue language” here.  I believe God probably rolls God’s eyes at how much we worry about that sort of thing.  Instead, I believe Isaiah—and the Israelite people—spoke with mouths that spewed out hatred, judgement, and acting as God, doing God’s job of being judge and declaring worthiness.  I cannot back that up with specifics, but I believe that strikes God as more important than F-bombs and off-color jokes.

God hears Isaiah when he very honestly and very accurately answers those questions:

“I am not worthy.”  “I am not good enough.”

God responds.  “I will make you worthy.  I will clean you.  I will empower you.  I will make you good enough.”  God does not say, “Yup, you pass without my help.”  God does not assure Isaiah of his worthiness.  God does not scold Isaiah for making his brokenness known or expressing his fear born out of his brokenness.

God makes Isaiah worthy and good enough, God alone

God must because Isaiah nor any other human or council or committee can.  God does not use a human standard to determine who has enough worth or goodness to answer God’s call, God does not use some sort of measure of righteousness to determine who God will call, God does not use human methods to clean Isaiah or prepare him for this great task.

Isaiah did not somehow attain worthiness on his own.  Isaiah did not need to attain that worthiness on his own.  When Isaiah did not have enough as a broken human, he had God to rely on and draw from.

God answers those questions that we ask ourselves, just not in our way:

“Am I worthy?”  “I will make you worthy.”

“Am I good enough?”  “I will make you good enough.”

“I cannot do it myself.”  “Rely on Me.  Draw from Me.”

God calls you in your broken state.  God does not have a holiness and righteousness test to determine who to call.  I could tell you so many platitudes and examples right now, but I want to say this in plain language:

God called you and you are worthy of God’s call.  Period.

We have a culture of worthiness and purity, somehow believing that we must attain some sort of level or cross some sort of bar to minister and answer God’s call, a funny belief because God calls us right now, today, even in our broken and unworthy state.

You are broken.  I cannot write any words or give you any direction to make that not true.  You are broken, in need of saving, and not enough to do it on your own.

God saved you.  Jesus died for you.  The Holy Spirit lives within you and blesses you with talents and gifts.  Stop acting like the same God who saved you in your broken state would somehow decide   unworthy of God’s call in your life.

God called you, broken and wounded, to a mission on this Earth.  Answer that call.

We should celebrate the season of the Spirit.  Each of us has a gift we do not deserve but we have.  Use them to answer the call God places in your life, today.  Amen.

Sing Your Song from The Spirit

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 – Play the Spirit’s Song for You

This manuscript will miss the vital illustration from the sermon I preach.   I will do something right at the beginning that I cannot recreate on paper—either in practical reality or in emotional weight—for many reasons, not the least of which comes from my fear of doing what I will do in front of people.  I could only make writing as fear-inducing by including who I voted for in every presidential election and writing my detailed political beliefs on guns and making sure every member of Grace read it.

For those who read this away from church, imagine right now I picked up my guitar and “Come Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” as good as B.B. King would.

I did not play as good as B.B. King—more like the 31-year-old pastor who never had lessons who serves Grace—but please imagine my playing rivaled B.B. King.

Also imagine you responded in whatever way you would to the pastor playing electric guitar in church usually.  I did not plan to get up and make a fool of myself—I can play some hymn melodies in mediocrely beautiful way—but I still played electric guitar in church.

Every Pentecost Sunday I make myself do something that I have talent doing but I fear doing, especially in public.  Last year I played guitar and sang, something people bugged me to do for months.

This year I need to shake that up and take away the thing that I legitimately struggle with—try as I might, the ability to play well and sing in tune simultaneously eludes me—and add the element of probable dislike despite doing it well.

People will get mad at me for playing electric guitar in church.

We live with a difficult reality: some people hate how the Holy Spirit expresses her gifts in us, and some will try to silence our gifts.  Look at how people respond to Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rob Bell, and Timothy Keller; each has brought people to Christ, and people have attempted to silence each because they hated the style of each.  People need the message of Christ given to them by people of different styles but guided by the Holy Spirit.

People need the gifts of the Spirit we have to share.  We may have gifts that make the church or her members uncomfortable but can, and will, bring others to Christ if we have the courage to use them.

Imagining the disciples on at the Pentecost.  They had legitimate fears about the future.  Each spent three years following a man who left.  None had a life to go back to, and they had this edict to share the message of the man they followed after he left them.

In their confusion and lack of direction, this event happens.  The Holy Spirit falls upon them as a tongue, allowing them to communicate with people of different languages.

In a moment, the Holy Spirit solves a major problem of following Jesus’ command.  They could speak to everyone and everyone could understand them.

Some people rejoiced.  They heard the message and understood.  The Holy Spirit gave those who heard the message of Jesus Christ through these men.

I would hopefully shout, “Hallelujah!” but most had a different response.  The “tongues” made people uncomfortable.  A group of uneducated men could not possibly communicate with everyone in the crowd.  The crowd needed a logical reason why this happened.

They came to an almost logical but really just judgmental conclusion: They must be drunk!

This happening at 9 A.M. had no bearing on their conclusion; they had to be drunk; they had no other possibilities.

It fascinates me when the faithful completely ignore and even stubbornly refuse to believe the miraculous, instead wanting everything to fit into neat, little logical boxes.  God blessing them with language and voice does not fit into that box, but day drinking does.

A side point, but also relevant: incomprehensible drunks are incomprehensible.  Their words sound nothing like real language.  The drunken, slurred-tongued ramblings of a drunk do not sound like a holy message of love, or a message at all.  Only other drunks can sometimes understand.

They went with drunk even though it makes no sense.  “These oddballs did something, and we do not like it, so they must have drank too much wine this morning.”

This should make complete sense seeing as we do this Christians who look and act different.  Cases in point:

  • Traditional churches condemn contemporary churches as shallow and trendy while contemporary churches condemn traditional churches as dated and stuck doing evil traditions.
  • Conservative churches condemn liberal churches as not following the Bible while liberal churches condemn conservative churches for following rigid, inflexible interpretations of scripture to the detriment of love.
  • Politically active churches condemn politically inactive churches as being too passive while politically inactive churches condemn politically active churches as being too divisive.

If a Christ has a style we are uncomfortable with, we condemn them outright.  Notice, too, I said nothing about not following Jesus or visible proof of not showing loving in those examples; we just assume God does not work in the “other” who do things differently.

Be honest with yourself.  How many times have you agreed with members of Grace saying disparaging things—or saying those things yourself—about the way First does things?  “Something, something, uptight, something, something, they need to relax, something, something.”  And remember, we have a good relationship with First.  I have just as much guilt as anyone else when it comes to judging how other churches do thing.  I try not to, and I hope my work to get better helps, but, at the same time, have I really improved?  How many times this month have I said bad things about one particular non-denominational church in town?  A lot.

When we see the Spirit working through someone in a way we do not understand and do not like, do we hear refuse to hear anything but loud, offensive electric guitar, or do we list for “Come, Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” in their work?

And when confronted with those hate how the spirit works through us, do we play “Come, Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” with the Spirit, or do we allow them to silence our spirit-given gifts when they say we sound drunk or call our song nothing but noise.

Or does our fear silence out song?

Play the song the Spirit puts in your heart in the style the Spirit guides you to.  The spirit blesses you with talents and gifts; use them so others can feel Jesus’ love.  Whatever the Spirit blesses you with, whatever style God made you to use those blessings, use them so other can feel Jesus’ love.

And stop trying to silence gifts of the Spirit you do not like.  You do not need to just fall in love with me playing electric guitar during worship or any other gift of the Spirit, and you do not need to need or want to experience everyone’s gifts of the spirit in your life, but stop tearing down people trying to share Jesus’ love in a way that looks, sounds, and feels different to you.  Everyone needs something different to feel Christ; why do we not lift other paths and ministries up instead of making sure everyone knows we do not enjoy that particular thing?

Worry about Jesus’ love being felt.  Lift up ministries and missions that you do not particularly enjoy so they can reach people you might not have the ability to reach.  Sing the song the Spirit places in your heart in whatever voice you have.

The Holy Spirit gives us the path to Jesus’ love; follow it, allow others to follow it, and bring people along the path with the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives you.  Amen

Big Children in Adult Bodies

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-7, 19:13-15 – Big Children in Adult Bodies

The passage this week might seem a weird choice for the Sunday we recognize the Sunday school teachers given Jesus’ warning.  The teachers embody the exact opposite of what Jesus warns against: being stumbling blocks for children or the innocent.  Our Sunday school teachers remove the stones away and clear the path to Jesus for our young people.  They even do the exact opposite of the disciples in the second passage, encouraging the children to go to Jesus.

They exemplify what Jesus wants us to do, making them a great illustration as we talk about stumbling blocks to faith.

Think about what makes you stumble in your faith journey.  When I think about it—especially what made me stumble in youth—denying access to Jesus causes a lot of stumbling, coming from the disciples physically blocking children from Jesus or the church acting as gatekeepers to the cross and to faith.

I can almost hear the disciples’ thoughts as the people brought their children for Jesus’ blessing: “We cannot do this; we do not have time!” or “Children—with their dirty hands and lack of formal learning in the matters of faith—should not come be directly in the presence of the teacher; they can be blessed from afar!”  They absolutely believed they did the right thing, yet they had also heard Jesus describe the children as the greatest among the people.

Jesus, again, has completely flipped their beliefs and practices upside down.

But why would Jesus call the children the greatest among them?  I favor contrarian positions, but I need a why as much as anyone else.

Why are the children the greatest?

Are the children Christ spoke of polite?  Did Jesus grab a polite and proper child to prove his point?

Are the children Christ spoke of studious?  Did Jesus hear this child reading scripture in the temple and teaching a great lesson?

Are they children Christ spoke of quiet?  Did Jesus not hear this child, finding a child that knew that children are supposed to be seen and not heard?

Are the children Christ spoke of eloquent?  Did Jesus hear this child speak in complete sentences at 18 months and have helpful conversations with adults?

Are the children Christ spoke of charismatic?  Did Jesus’ heart melt because the child he grabbed smiled well and captured the room?

If you read that list and wonder where it came from, good.  That list came from my mind late at night.  That list reads like a list of things we want of children, things that make children more palatable and how we point to children being “good children.”

That list also lacks any mention of children being children, the one reason Jesus calls the children the greatest among them.

Jesus calls the children the greatest because of their strong, joyful, innocent faith, made strong, joyful, and innocent by being youthful, something adults cannot attain.  Jesus lifted the child up for everything that makes it a child.

We do good with the little ones.  Before they can really talk, when they do not know how to not disrupt the service, when they are still cute in that specific baby way, we tend to have no problem finding joy with their wonderful presence.

Once they can talk and should “know better,” we stop finding them wonderful and joyful, instead wanting them to change into something not a child.

I have a question for you to ask yourself, and I need your complete honesty when you answer this question:  Have you said any of these phrases—or something pretty close—any time in the past month:

“Kids these days…”
“Millennials are doing this [thing I don’t like]…”
“If they would just grow up…”
“When I was a kid…”

I know your frustrations, some valid but a lot just a sign that things change.  I hear these things all the time: kids spend too much time with technology, kids listen to terrible music or watch terrible TV shows and movies, kids wear weird clothes and do not dress properly for church, kids just do not know good things when they seem them.

Children should live and act like children, but we want their childhood to not discomfort for us and exist so we understand them perfect.  We do not “get it” a lot of the time, and we decide that they must be wrong if we do not understand, and we proclaim what makes them children should not live in the church.

Remember that major stumbling block for faith of preventing access to Jesus and the church, driving someone away instead of opening the doors for them.  Do your attitude and actions toward children whose childhood differs yours drive them away?  Do you want children to fit a mold of your desires and condemn any child who God made different as “immature” or “not good enough”?  Do you want children to act “normal” and “proper” to even step foot in the building?

God made the children in His image, and God does not make mistakes.  If you tell a child God made them not good enough for you, they will fall away.  Children learn who does not welcome them early and telling someone—especially a youth but anyone—they must change who God made them for you to welcome them anywhere tells them you do not welcome them.

Jesus cared about nothing other than the child living and acting like a child, filled with innocence, wonder, and joy—and unconditional love that only a child can give.  He demanded the disciples become like children, not “perfect” and comfortable versions of children but exactly children.

We want little adults in children’s bodies when Jesus demands we become big children in adult bodies.  Our selfish desires for everything familiar and comfortable and casting out everything weird, improper, and sometimes difficult makes us completely miss the Jesus point: Children have the best and most complete faith; their greatness comes from their innocence and youth.

Children are the great among us because they are children.

Today we recognize the Sunday school teachers for lifting the children up, presenting a path for them to Jesus, clearing the stones from that path, and guiding them down the path.  We thank them for embodying the message Jesus gives here: welcome the children and encourage their faith.

Thank you!  Full stop.

We need to remember that adults can do more than teach children and instruct them; we can also learn from them.  May we, as cynical, grumpy, rigid, frozen people learn the joyful love and faith of the children again and allow them to bring out our youth and make us big children in adult bodies.  Amen.

Born of God

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21 – Born of God

A revelation washed over me Friday.  Not a new revelation, but a reminder from God.

My grumpiness defined last week.  Poor communication and my desire to achieve “Super-Pastor” status came to a vicious head when Alan asked me to lead communion at presbytery and gave me two days to prepare the liturgy.

If you spent any time in the church this last week, I need to apologize to you.  I complained way more than the situation warranted.  I allowed that one request to define and ruin my week.  I felt angry, frustrated, and miserable; every day I wanted to scream at nothing in particular while I worked in my office.

Despite me and my drama, the Spirit use my labors to give me God’s reminder.  As I put together the liturgy, a verse jumped out at me and reminded me of why we do this, why I do this, and the wonder communion should give us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8a NIV) I knew immediately that verse need to lead the liturgy because it reminded me something.

That first Sunday we worshiped without Sue, nothing quite went to script but the Holy Spirit made her presence loudly known.  Tamara and Cathy played wonderfully, I remember giving a good message, we laughed with joy, a wonderful service just appeared from our struggles, and I, for the first time, fully felt the awe of leading communion.  I remember I could not stop smiling.  I worried smiling did not fit into proper communion decorum, but that worry could not stop my smiling.

I still have the new-pastor shine on me, but I know that communion will remain one of my most joyful; I truly felt like I lead our meal with Christ that day.

We over-complicate faith and church.  Good Presbyterians will rip anything apart to its smallest piece so we worry greatly about what bread we use and which kind of bread matches best with our intent when we gather around the table and how big the pieces should be cut or if we should cut them at all before the service because are we taking or giving and does it feel natural or manufactured and continue ad nauseam until the pastor bashes in head into the brick wall.

Like I said, we over-complicated faith, and frankly, I might as well stop using the plural pronoun.  Over-heady and borderline-insane Presbyterianism defines me.  Wanting perfection and high-gloss shine on my pastoral ministry defines me.  Tearing apart every action, complicating every decision, and second-guessing every step I take defines me.

I forget that God, first and foremost, called me as “Loving Pastor.”  Not “Super Pastor,” not “Perfect Pastor,” not even “‘Acts Like an Adult Over 50% of the Time’ Pastor.”

God calls me as “Loving Pastor” above all else, and I correctly and fully respond to that call 27.6% of the time.

If someone sees and recognizes a Christian, what do they recognize?  Do we—or should we—wear signs around our necks labeling us “Christian”?  Do they know our God by the ichthyses on the back of our cars and Christian radio blaring on our speakers?  Do we show ourselves as Christians by knowing what words to say in worship and what times the stand?

Do those things define a Christian?

Bubble-bursting time.  I know people who wear the label of Christian like badge of honor, have all the paraphernalia, only have the right music coming out of their speakers, and attend church every week that drive people away from God.  I have examples in my mind, but we do not need my examples; I have confidence each and every person who reads knows that person, and we each have numerous examples.

The label means nothing without love.  If someone recognizes you as a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—they recognize your love.  Your theology and ichthys means nothing without love.

I realized—or remembered—we should define Christianity by love.  Christianity as a label requires a few other things—those things often dependent on who currently fills the pulpit—but without love, those other means nothing.

We have misplaced our concern with making sure we believe the right thing and aligning our belief with the doctrines of the particular church.  Yes, belief itself gives life, absolutely—believing God in the form of Jesus Christ walked amongst us and willingly gave his life for us gives me hope in the midst of this dark and frightening world—but without love, it means nothing.

Love with doubt—even profound doubt leading to unbelief—still has God present and means something; faith without love means nothing and does not have God.

What is God?  God is love.  Period.

You cannot be Christian—even if you proclaim faith and do the proper things and know the words and have the appearance of righteousness—if you do not love.

Interestingly—and really, really obviously—the letter says nothing about theology beyond basically believing in Jesus, and absolutely nothing about orthodoxy or proper denomination or church attendance.  It does not say God requires absolute and rock-solid faith.

It does say, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

God gave birth to all who love.  Read through the rest of the passage.  It literally defines true faith as believing in Jesus and, almost more importantly to my eyes, showing love.  The author really wanted to drive that point about love home.

Love or you do not follow Jesus and do not believe in God.  Period.

Do you see Jesus as call to love, or as a weapon and path to power?  Do you see God as love, or as vengeance against those you hate?

Did God give birth to you, or did the Earthly desires of greed, power, and hatred?

You answer this with what you worry about.  Do you worry most about looking righteous or showing love?

You know the correct answer.  You know your actual answer.  Do they match?

Show love; mark yourself as born of God.  Amen.