Becoming…Sermon Series – #4: From God of Violence to God of Love

SCRIPTURE – John 16:25-33 – “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”

29 His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

SERMON
Becoming…Sermon Series
3 – From God of Violence to God of Love
Jan. 28, 2018

For the first time in several years, Crestwood has a men’s basketball league. Each Sunday afternoon, a bunch of us gather for fun and fellowship and doing our best Rex Chapman impressions (kids, ask your parents who Rex Chapman is). But I’ve noticed something interesting the last few weeks. A person’s demeanor changes when they cross that line onto the court and the game starts. Guys who are super-nice off the court take on a different persona. For instance, last week one guy was throwing elbows, shoving other players, and even cursed at the refs. Granted, it was me, but the guy completely missed a foul call. It really brought home to me that, for many of us, the idea of competition and an “us vs. them” mentality is a part of our DNA. Has that spilled over into our faith, as well?

For this sermon series, we’re looking at the way we’re becoming better followers of Christ. What steps are we taking on our spiritual journeys to be more faithful, more connected to God? So far, we’ve talked about moving from believing to belonging, from being organized to being organizing, and from being judgmental to being gracious. You can find all those sermons on our website.

Today, we’re looking at moving from a God of violence to a God of love. Now, you could make the argument that we are already there. No one is posting on Facebook that God should smite a certain group of people or calling for God to rain down fire and brimstone on whatever team the Wildcats are playing this week. We might think that a God of violence is so Old Testament and that we’ve moved way beyond that in our cultured, developed society. Have we? Or does that mindset still exist?

Let’s get to know that God again, shall we? While the God of the Old Testament exhibits much grace and creativity and compassion, that God is mostly known for tendencies toward violence, vengeance, and judgment. One of the best-known examples is the story of Noah’s Ark. If we dig a bit deeper into that story, once we get past the fuzzy bunnies hopping onto the ark, we realize that God killed everyone by Noah and his family in the flood for their disobedience. Makes you think twice about making change in the offering plate, doesn’t it?

That disturbing behavior from God continued once the people had God’s law to follow. Take, for example, the different offenses in the Old Testament that are worthy of a penalty of death. For example, worshipping other gods was punishable by death. Should that be punishable by death? No! Should you enforce the death penalty on someone who worked on the Sabbath? No! How about someone who committed adultery? No! What about a rebellious child? (Pause) No! But that’s what God calls for in the Hebrew scriptures.

The image of a violent God doesn’t end there. In Deuteronomy, God calls for the Israelites to invade the surrounding towns and to annihilate every person who lived there. And if you think that’s bad, here’s one that’s even worse. King David wanted to do a census, so he does it, but without consulting God first. God gets angry and sends a pestilence on Israel. Seventy thousand people die. As it reads in the Bible, God kills 70,000 of God’s own people because God was angry that David took a census. Are you rethinking signing the attendance pad earlier? Did you consult God first?

How do we make sense of this portrayal of God? For me, I chose not to believe those scriptures. I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to kill all those people. I just don’t. That’s not the God I worship or have come to know through Jesus Christ. I actually think this passage tells us more about the people writing it than it does about God. The Israelites existed in a tribal culture, in which taking land and defeating enemies with the blessings of the gods was commonplace. If you won a battle, it was God’s will. If you lost a battle, you were being punished by God. If the flu broke out in your tribe and a bunch of people died, then you must have somehow angered God to cause this punishment.

Back in the days before medicine and science and meteorology, God got the credit for good things and the blame for bad things. I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to do those things. And I also don’t believe God killed people for David taking a census. I believe a disease swept through the Israelites, and the only way they knew to explain it was God’s wrath. The authors of the Bible wrote what they knew, and so they portrayed God as a warrior who led them into battle and punished them when they did wrong. I’m sure if we were writing the story of God today, we’d do it much differently.

Or would we? We’d like to think that our culture has purged itself of this “God Of violence” perspective, but I’d argue it’s more prevalent than we want to admit, and it shows up most in the “us vs. them” mentality that dominates how we relate to people and cultures different than us. I experienced this while living in Chicago. I was riding the subway one day and was eavesdropping on a group of guys who were discussing the two local baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox. They were each saying which team they liked and why. When it got to one of the guys, he said, “I actually root for both teams.” His friends almost enacted the death penalty right there. “You can’t root for both teams! You have to pick one or the other or else you’re a traitor!” Thankfully, nothing like that happens with college basketball teams around here.

There is still a prevailing sense in our society that if you are not for us, you are against us, even if you’re not really against us. We have to be willing to admit that Christians have used that mandate down through the centuries to commit heinous acts of violence against other people. The Crusades, the oppression of Native Americans, and the Holocaust all had deep roots in a warped mindset of Christian superiority, that you if weren’t for us, then you were against us. I love being a Christian, but I understand why some folks in the world hate Christians. We have to be willing to name that the God of violence still lives. We have to be willing to own our complicity in the wars and violence that have taken place in the past. As Brian McLaren writes, “The less aware Christians are of how dangerous Christianity has been, the more dangerous Christianity will be.”

Where the ice gets decidedly thinner is when we link our faith and our country so closely that our patriotism, which is love of your country, turns to nationalism, which is the belief that your country is better than all the other countries. Before you accuse me of being a flag-burning infidel, let me say I love America, and I do believe it is the greatest country in the world. But I also believe there are other great countries filled with great people, and just because I love America doesn’t mean I have to hate some other place, even if they choose to hate me.

This is how the tribalism of the Old Testament is still alive today. Back then, the Israelites would conquer a nation, kill their people, and take their land because they believe God called them to do that. Doesn’t mean that’s what God did, but that’s how they interpreted their victory. “We went to war and won, so God must have ordained it.” So God got a lot of credit for commissioning violence that I believe God never called for in the first place. That was simply how the tribal culture operated.

Fast-forward to today. If we believe we are the best country in the world, and we believe God blesses us over and above any other country, then it’s not a big leap to claiming a divine mandate for asserting our supremacy over others. The more this is perpetuated at the national level, the more it trickles down to the interpersonal level, and suddenly everyone who is from one of those other countries is a potential enemy.

I’ve told you all that in Chicago I frequented a local 7-11 for my beloved Slurpees. The store was owned and run by a Muslim man who always wore his turban and robe. I went into the store a few days after 9-11 happened. The owner was wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, looking as un-Muslim as possible. When I asked him how he was doing, the frightened look in his eyes was haunting. At a time when our nationalism had been dialed up to the extreme, he was experiencing in a new and frightening way what it felt like to be a “them.”

As cultured and sophisticated as we would like to think of ourselves, we have to admit our violent impulse is still alive today. I’ve seen it on the basketball court, I’ve seen in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas and countless other cities, and we saw it this past week with the school shooting in Marshall County. As human beings, we still believe a primary to work out our differences is by strapping on the gloves or loading a gun, and in our world today we have way too many means at our disposal to enact violence, from easily accessible guns to nuclear weapons. At some point, we have to stop making it easier to kill each other.

So how do we move from the God of violence to the God of love? Well, Jesus. That’s always a good answer, right? The coming of Jesus Christ brought to us a new understanding of grace and love we’ve never seen before, and it replaced any notion of God as vengeful or violent. But here’s the problem: When it comes to “the enemy,” we live like we conveniently forgot that Christ ever existed. We revert back to an “us vs. them” mentality, with God blessing us over and against anyone who’s not like us. The irony is that we become obsessed with winning when we worshipped a savior who very clearly lost, being crucified like a common criminal.

McLaren says we need to evolve our understanding of a gracious, expansive God from “the God of us” to “the God of all of us.” Yes, God blesses us. But God blesses others, too, not in ways that favor one person or group or nation over another, but in ways that affirm the value of all people and groups and nations. Because when you get right down to it, no matter to whom you pray, 99.9% of us are good people just trying to do the best we can. By seeing God this way, we are not demoting God to a weaker, lower level. Instead, we are rising to a higher and deeper understanding of God. That feels counterintuitive to us in a world where might makes right and the country with the most weapons wins. But I’m pretty sure the Bible says something about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s the work we are called to do.

The God of violence we meet in the Bible will continue to live on as long as we believe our tribe is favored above all other tribes, and that the only way to bring God glory is to eliminate the “them” to protect the “us.” But if we remember that Jesus came to show us a better way, we’ll move from “the God of us” to “the God of all of us,” recognizing the dignity and worth of all people, even those who we believe pose a threat. Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” Sometimes I wish he didn’t. It would be easier to hate them. In fact, we’ve tried, over and over and over again. Did it get rid of our enemies? Or did that just make us more enemies? As Dr. King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

 

 

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Becoming…Sermon Series – #3: From Judgmental to Gracious

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 7:1-5 – “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Becoming…Sermon Series
#3 – From Judgmental to Gracious
Jan. 21, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

We continue our sermon series at the start of the new year looking at the kind of Christians we are becoming. This is a great time to make resolutions about losing weight or getting our lives together. I made a resolution not to shovel any snow in 2018. Already broke it. How about resolutions for our spiritual growth? Are we making progress on our journey of faith, or are we standing in one place? So far, we’ve looked at the move from an emphasis on believing to an emphasis on belonging, and at shifting our church’s focus from maintaining the organization to organizing for service.

Today, we’re looking at the move from being judgmental to being gracious. This is a tough one because I can’t imagine anyone would self-identify as judgmental. That’s not a desirable quality these days, is it? “You should meet my friend, Kory. He’s so judgmental!” And no one likes to feel judged, either. At my house, if I’m wearing something that isn’t aesthetically pleasing, I’ll hear, “Where did you get THAT?” To which I respond, “Geez, why so judge-y? This Members-Only jacket still fits!” No one likes to be on either side of judgmentalism.

And yet, that is a primary way our culture defines the church. In an extensive survey of non-Christians, the Barna group found that 87% of them said the church was judgmental. That was the second only to “anti-homosexual,” which 91% of people said described the church. Interestingly, the third-highest descriptor was “hypocritical.” If 87% of non-Christians think the church is judgmental, then almost nine out of ten non-church goers you meet assume you are judging them.

And, to be fair, you are. Judging other people is a part of our human nature. It’s in our DNA to draw conclusions about a person based on what we know about them. And the more information we gain about them, the more we judge them. We form opinions on their looks, how they dress, their family, where they live, what they do for work. We can’t not judge. The challenge is what we do with this information, how we keep our judging from turning into judgmentalism.

Here’s a story I’ve told before but that’s too funny not to repeat, and is supposedly true. An elderly lady was gambling in Las Vegas and hit it big on a slot machine. With a bucket overflowing with coins, she got on the elevator, realizing too late that there were two large black men on there with her, standing at the back of the elevator. She was incredibly nervous as the doors closed, waiting for the elevator to move. But it didn’t move. And the longer she stood there, the more nervous she got. Finally, she heard a deep voice behind her say, “Hit the floor!” She threw the bucket up in the air, got down on her knees and screamed, “Please don’t kill me!” There was a long pause, and then the voice said, “No ma’am, I mean you have to hit the button for a floor before the elevator will move.” As the amused men helped her pick up her coins, she recognized them as former basketball players Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

We all judge, don’t we? But there’s a difference between judging and being judgmental. I’d articulate the difference as this: judging is drawing conclusions and forming opinions about someone based on the information you have. “That person is tall; I bet she is a basketball player.” Being judgmental is drawing conclusions and forming opinions about someone that criticizes or condemns them. “That person is tall and black, I bet they are dangerous.”

Where the church gets into trouble with this is in how it is perceived in dealing with behaviors we label “sins.”  The church is notoriously famous for letting people know when they have crossed a line and sinned. For example, the church has long had a reputation for labeling activities like drinking, smoking, dancing, and watching movies as “sins,” because we all know the famous Bible passage where Jesus warns against evils of doing the foxtrot and binge-watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The church has a reputation for being judgmental, and every time some of our self-appointed religious spokespeople open their mouths on TV, that reputation is solidified.

Of course, we Christians don’t call it judgmentalism; we call it “telling the truth in love,” which we then use as a license to point out the sinful speck in the other person’s eye. A great example of this is the phrase, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” which, by the way, is not in the Bible. It might sound like a harmless, grace-full statement on the surface, it really carries with it an air of judgment. It’s the ancient version of our modern-day “Bless his heart.” You can get away with saying the meanest, nastiest, most gossipy things about a person as long as you end it with, “God bless his heart.” “Did you hear about Johnny? That two-timing, Bible-stealing, no-good son of a biscuit eater lost his job again. God bless his heart.” Christians think spraying a little love on their judgment will make it smell better, but apparently 87% of non-Christians still smell the stink.

But wait! Isn’t condemning sinners a part of who we are called to be as Christians? The Bible is very clear that there are behaviors that are sinful, and if we don’t point them out to people, who will? The problem with that is we don’t have a standardized definition for what counts as a sin. As our society becomes more individualized, we’ve developed a kind of do-it-yourself morality. I’ll decide for myself what’s a sin, which means a sin is usually something someone else does that I don’t approve of. When we do that, we ourselves are committing the sin of pride, putting ourselves above someone else, but you don’t hear about people being excluded from the church for being too prideful

You might be surprised to know that Jesus did very little judging himself, but had a lot to say about judging others. Our passage today about the log in our eyes is a good one. So is the story where he says to a group of people ready to stone an adulteress woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” How do you hate the sin and love the sinner in that situation? “We love you, Gertrude, so just remember that as we’re hurtling these boulders at you.” Although Jesus was surrounded by sinners, he never judged them.

So, what did Jesus do with sinners? He ate with them. Partied with them. Spent time with them. He didn’t act like they were sinners. They weren’t a project or a mission field. They were his friends. People with names. Defined as beloved children of God, not defined by their sins. The only people he judges are those who think they’ve got all their stuff together. He judges the righteous for being self-righteous, for spewing hate speech about the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in their own.

So, what can we Christians learn from Jesus about how to exercise judgment? How do we overcome the earned stereotype that Christians are judg-y people and become something more gracious? It starts by acknowledging that we are all guilty of the sin of judgmentalism, and that our judgmentalism isn’t based on the Bible, but on our own desire to feel superior to someone. One of the ways we lift ourselves up is by putting someone else down, and when we do that, when our pride takes over, we are guilty of judging. We all have that relative, right? The one who can’t quite get their lives together, who gets spoken about in hushed tones at the family reunion, the one who makes everyone else’s life difficult. And, if we admit it, there’s a part of us that feels good about ourselves because at least we’re not like them. More often than not, our judgmentalism is not about helping the other person get better, but about making ourselves feel good.

And yet, by doing that, we’re committing our own sin. Paul says it this way in Romans, addressing a group of people who were criticizing others for their behavior: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” So, the first part of becoming more gracious is recognizing and repenting of our own judgmentalism.

We also have to own our own sinfulness, even if we find our sins the more acceptable kind. We may not be really bad sinners like murderers or adulterers and people who don’t use their turn signals, but, as Paul reminds us, we have all fallen short of God’s glory. C.S. Lewis says it this way: “There’s someone I love, although I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept, although some of his thoughts and actions are disappointing. There’s someone I forgive, even though he hurts the people I love the most. That someone is me.”

And for that reason, we deserve judgment. And we have gotten it because our God is a judging God. That’s one of God’s primary roles. God called us to be God’s people, to act a certain way, to live a certain way, and every single one of us has fallen short of that. So we have been judged. And we have been found innocent. Wait, what? What kind of “Law and Order” twist is this? Because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, all of us have been found “not guilty” of the very sins that condemn us to punishment. Christ’s death on the cross has set us free from that judgment and replaced it with God’s grace.

Why, then, is the church not known for its grace? Why aren’t 87% of non-Christians saying the church is too gracious instead of too judgmental? Because too many Christians still believe that it’s better to shame someone into having faith than love someone into having faith. Shaming them allows me to stand above them, but loving them requires me to get down in their mess with them, to eat with them, to party with them, to spend time with them. It’s so much easier to shout at someone, “Stop doing that!” than it is to show them there’s a better way, a way that we have found, a way that has changed our lives.

Will Rogers noted that before a Native American would criticize another person he would walk all the way around him. He would look carefully to see what the view was from that person’s perspective before condemning him. I want you to think about someone, or a group of people, whom you are most tempted to judge. It could be based on their looks, their lifestyles, their beliefs, their behaviors. Who is that for you? Now, what would it mean for you to walk all the way around them, to see things from their perspective?

Here’s my resolution for 2018: I’m going to try and be known for being too gracious. Granted, I might bet to Heaven and God might say, “You know, Kory, in 2018 you loved people too much. You went too far. You should have been more judgmental.” I guess I’ll have to take that chance. Because this world is not going to be made better by exercising more judgment. But it could be made better by exercising more grace. Or maybe not. Maybe replacing judgment with grace will only help one other person accept the gift of Jesus Christ. But that would be enough, wouldn’t it?

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Light’s Out?

I heard a sermon today at church. But it wasn’t from a preacher. In fact, no words were involved. But believe me when I tell you it was a sermon.

During our opening hymn each week, we have an acolyte come forward to light our Christ candle. This youth, typically an elementary-aged kid, puts on a robe (usually a size too short for them) and carries one of those church-y candle-lighter things with the wick that comes out the top and a snuffer bell hanging below it. They march solemnly down the aisle while we sing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” or some such, doing their best to keep the flame from blowing out before they reach the front.

Image result for extinguished candle

But sometimes, in their haste to get this nerve-wracking experience over with, they walk a bit too fast and the flame goes out, usually accompanied by a taunting wisp of smoke. If I see the smoke, I grab a lighter and relight the wick so the acolyte can step on a stool to reach the Christ candle and proclaim, “Mission Accomplished.” Remember this fact: no smoke, no light.

 

Today, our acolyte was Rachel, one of my favorite kids with a heart-stealing smile and a wide-eyed innocence that is inspiring. Rachel is young enough to still think she can change the world, and creative and head-strong enough to do it. One of the reasons I love Rachel is that she takes acolyting seriously, striding purposefully down the aisle as if she were carrying the most important thing in the world. Which, I would say, she is.

As Rachel was coming down the aisle today, I kept my eye on the wick. The light flickered precariously a few times, then completely disappeared. But there was no smoke, so I knew it was still lit. Rachel, however, couldn’t see the light anymore, so she assumed the wick had been extinguished. I could see the disappointment on her face, but being a professional, she was determined to carry out her assigned task like the loyal foot-soldier she is. So, so made her way forward, came up the steps, and held out her candle-lighter to me, waiting for me to reignite it.

I hesitated because I knew the light was still there. She looked at me with a mixture of anxiety and perturbance, as if to say, “Dude, it’s OUT! Do your job!” But at that moment, while she was looking at me, the wick sprang back to life and the light reappeared. I looked at her and said, “Rachel, look at the wick. The light is still there.”

And now, for the sermon, and a moment I will never forget. Rachel looked back down at the candle-lighter, saw the flame, and let out an audible gasp that you could hear in the back pew. She hesitated for a moment, pausing to make sure this really happened, and then broke out into a huge smile. She stepped on the stool, lit the Christ candle, and walked away with this look of joy and wonderment on her face.Image result for extinguished candle

How is your light shining today? Maybe it’s burning brightly, giving off enough energy to warm your soul and spill over to those around you. Maybe your light is shining, but it’s only bright enough to light your next step. Maybe your candle is flickering, blown about by the winds of life. Maybe the fast pace of your life has made your light temporarily disappear. Or maybe, just maybe, all you see of your light is a taunting wisp of smoke, and you feel as if your hope has been extinguished.

Don’t give up. The light is still there. You may not see it, you may not feel it, but just when you think it’s gone, Jesus will show up – maybe as a hug, or a helping hand, or a timely word – and your light will spring back to life. If you’re not looking for it, you may miss it, or dismiss it. But my prayer is that you see it, in the midst of the darkness of life, that little light that stubbornly, faithfully shines. And then you gasp and audible gasp, the same kind of gasp we heard from the women at the tomb, and Thomas the disciple, and Rachel the acolyte.

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Becoming…Sermon Series – #2: From Organized to Organizing

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 10:5-15 – These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

SERMON
Becoming… Sermon Series
#2 – From Organized to Organizing
January 14, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

So, how are you doing on those New Year’s resolutions? We’re only two weeks in, and I’m noticing some people are already starting to slip. I especially see it at the gym, because I notice the parking lot is a much emptier when I drive by on my way to Denny’s. How about your spiritual resolutions? Did you keep them? Did you make them? In our first sermon series of 2018, we’re talking about how we can continue to make progress in our journey of faith. We’re talking about who we are becoming…

Last week, we talked about the shift in emphasis from believing to belonging. It no longer matters as much that you believe the “right” things, because who’s to say what those right things are? Instead, we focus on accepting that we belong to God and committing ourselves to belonging to a congregation and getting involved so that we can figure out what we believe. We belong, we behave, and then we discover what we believe.

Today’s journey is from organized to organizing. Now, I can tell you right away that I don’t like this topic, because I love being organized. I alphabetize my to-do list items. I separate my M&Ms by color before I eat them. There’s nothing wrong with being organized…unless it gets in the way of living out our faith. And for a long time, that’s been one of the church’s biggest problems.

Of course, it didn’t start out that way. At its conception, the church wasn’t an organized institution; it was a movement. The early church didn’t have boards and ministry teams, and you didn’t do pledge campaigns so the finance team would know how many denarii they’d have to work with. No, in the early church, people showed up, they gave what they had, and the ministry got done. Jesus didn’t start his ministry by forming a committee; he simply called twelve folks to follow him. That right there is the difference between organized and organizing, between an institution and a movement.

So, what happened? Well, as a movement evolves, one of two things happen. Either it fulfills its mission and disbands, or it decides to keep going and turns into an institution. As the church grew, the leaders realized it needed some structure to function. When that happens, two things usually take place: someone calls a meeting, and there’s a disagreement at that meeting. Check and check. That, in a nutshell, is the history of organized religion as an institution. Acts 19 actually describes an early church meeting. It says – no kidding – “Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusing, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” Anyone else ever attended a Board meeting like that?

The church as institution became most pronounced after World War II. Once the boys returned from fighting and got regular jobs in the business world, they decided that the best way to run the church was to run it like a business. So, they formed administrative boards and divided responsibilities into departments. In other words, they institutionalized the church. And it worked! Until the late 60s, when the authority of institutions began to crumble. Oh, by the way, guess what year the Disciples of Christ decided to institutionalize into an official denomination? 1968. Talk about bad timing.

So for the last 40 years or so, the church has been fighting a losing battle to preserve its organization, sometimes at the expense of doing God’s work. Here’s an example that I hope you find funnier than sad. At my last church, we decided we needed to revise the constitution and bylaws, which hadn’t been done in over a decade. And if you want to argue that the church isn’t an organized institution, go read that last sentence a few times. So we had an open meeting where we invited anyone in the congregation to come and suggest changes and updates to the constitution. Let me tell ya, if you really want to draw a crowd, put that meeting notice in your newsletter! We decided we’d go line-by-line through the constitution, letting people chime in when that had a question.

The Board Chair started with Line 1. “The name of this church shall be Community Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).” “Stop!” someone said. “Do we have to have the Disciples of Christ part on there?” Ten minutes of discussion ensued. The Board Chair read line 2. “The purpose of this church shall be to bind together followers of Jesus Christ.” “Stop!” someone said. “Bind sounds too constricting. How about “joins together”? Ten minutes of discussion ensued. I don’t know what happened after that because I resigned.

And before we start laughing at the expense of other churches, let’s not forget that when I started here in 2009, there were 60 people on our Board. And up until last July, there were 39. We’re in the midst of experimenting with a 15-person board for the exact purpose of moving from an organized church to an organizing church. I’ll be the first to admit we’re not there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

Why is that important? What’s wrong with being organized as a church? Nothing, in its most ideal form. But how many churches does that describe? Here’s what happens when a movement becomes an institution. A structure is put into place with the initial purpose of sustaining the passion and purpose of the movement. But the more the structure takes hold, the less it focuses on perpetuating the ideals of the movement, and the more it focuses on perpetuating itself. The best example for that is the perennial conflict in almost every church – this one included – between funding the outreach committee and funding the property committee. Do we take care of others, or do we take care of ourselves?

Well, ideally the answer is both, and you can do both when you have enough money. The church has 99 problems, but too much money is not one of them. And what happens when the money gets tighter? Do you give more of it away or do you keep more of it for yourself? Self-preservation is human nature. So, when someone comes up with a new ministry idea, the first question is, “How much is it going to cost?” When a church leads with that question, you can start digging the cemetery plot.

The challenge for churches today, Crestwood included, is to continue to stay organized for the purpose of organizing, because you do need both. Just as you can’t be only organized, you can’t be only organizing. A church that eschews organization so that they can focus all their energy on praising Jesus will do great until the electric company tells them they’re gonna have to praise Jesus in the dark because they can’t pay their bills. A healthy church today is organized for the purpose of organizing.

What do I mean by organizing? I mean finding out the greatest needs in our community and organizing to meet them. An organizing church is much more like a movement, calling people together to share God’s love in this world, like Jesus sending out his disciples in our passage today. I made fun of my last church, so let me brag on them a bit. Built into our budget was what we called our Seed Fund. Anyone with a new ministry idea could come to the Board and ask for Seed Fund money to start their project. Brian McLaren calls this a “forward-leaning church,” and I love that image. How can we be a forward-leaning church, filled with forward-leaning followers of Christ?

It starts by looking around you. What needs aren’t being met? One of our church members, a local teacher, noticed that the boys on a local middle school football team had to stay after school for practice, sometimes until later into the evening, without any food. So she organized a bunch church members to provide dinner for these kids for several weeks. Didn’t require a committee vote or board action. She just did it, and hungry kids got fed. That is the organizing church at its best.

I recognize the irony of preaching this sermon a year after we renovated and expanded our Children’s Wing. Bricks and mortar are one of the primary ways an institution invests in itself, right? But it only becomes a hindrance to our purpose if we stop using it to organize our service to God. Look, I like a good church meeting as much as anyone, and I’m serious because a good church meeting is one in which we connect to God and we connect to each other for the purpose of doing God’s work. But people don’t join churches to go to meetings. They join churches to experience God, to learn about their faith, to make a difference. A good church structure facilitates that, cultivating leaders and inspiring members to follow Jesus out into the mission fields and middle schools around us. Remember, Jesus came to overthrow stagnant, life-draining systems. We have to be intentional about not becoming one of those ourselves.

So, what does this mean for us, as individual belongers and as a church? It might mean de-institutionalizing our own perspectives. As we continue to seek volunteers for our blossoming children’s ministries, our language needs to move from “I’ve already served my time” to “our kids need us to help them grow in their faith.” As our social action team looks for ways the church can serve the community, the boundaries that this world has so thickly drawn may need to come tumbling down, so that we are pulling together with our brothers and sisters of other churches and other faiths, converging and collaborating in ways that make this world a kinder, more compassionate place.

Here at Crestwood, we’ll always have some level of organization. It’s who we are. But the minute the organization keeps us from organizing to do God’s work, then we’re in trouble. If one of you has an idea for doing ministry, but feel like there’s not a place for it here at Crestwood, then we’ve failed in our mission. Our responsibility, as stewards of God’s good news, is to help people organize in ways that feed hungry kids and provide hats and gloves for the homeless and throw open the doors of this building in order to welcome all to this table. Let’s covenant together not to get so caught up in maintaining the institution that we forget that Jesus called us – and calls us – to be a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world. That world doesn’t need one more committee meeting. It needs the love and grace of Jesus Christ. And guess what? That’s us. The world needs us.

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Becoming…Sermon Series – #1: From Believing to Belonging

Being a follower of Christ is a life-long journey of faith. What we believe and how we live it out changes as we grow and mature. For example, when our childhood faith no longer fits, we question and study and seek a new understanding of faith that works for us as adults. On this spiritual journey, We never actually “arrive” at a destination (at least not on this side of the grave). Instead, we are continually moving, evolving…becoming. If we are being true to this faith journey, then we are always on the move from who we were to who God is calling us to be. In this sermon series, we’ll be looking at some of the ways we are called to grow in our understanding and practice of our faith.

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 7:15-23 –  “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

SERMON
Becoming Sermon Series
#1 – From Believing to Belonging
Jan. 7, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I remember vividly the first time I realized that I didn’t have this faith thing figured out. As a side note, I get daily reminders of that now that I’m older. I was in my teens, playing basketball at a church with a group of friends when the pastor came through and struck up a conversation with us. I think he was looking to convert us wayward youth from our evil basketball-playing ways. He asked me if I believed in Jesus, and I said, “Yes,” although at that point I wasn’t really sure if I did or not. He asked me why I believed in Jesus, and, drawing upon my Sunday School lessons from a decade earlier, I said because he was the son of God and was raised from the dead. I thought, “That should shut this guy up.” And then he looked at me and said, “That’s a good answer. So what?” Uh oh. I remember thinking that maybe there was more to faith than having the right answer.

The beginning of a new year is a great time to take stock of where you are in life and make some resolutions about where you hope to go in the next 365 days. We do that with our health, our finances, our jobs…but do we do that with our faith? Faith is not a stagnant thing; it’s not a possession; it’s not something you either have or don’t have. Instead, faith is dynamic, it’s evolving, it’s a living part of us. We understand our faith as a work in progress, but that statement assumes progress is being made.

For this sermon series, we’ll be talking about the ways we are growing and evolving in our faith. The series title, “Becoming…” implies that we are on our way toward something, even though we probably won’t ever get there. I doubt any of us will get to a point in life where we feel like we have this faith thing figured out, and if we do, then someone needs to look at us and ask us, “So what?” For these sermons, we’ll be looking at the different ways our collective faith has changed over time, and how we as individuals and as a community can continue to change and grow as people of faith.

The journey for today’s conversation is the one from believing to belonging. Let me say right at the start that this doesn’t mean we should no longer believe, or that our beliefs aren’t important. As we’ll talk about, they are essential to our definition as followers of Christ. This is less an either/or than it is a shift in priority. The church is in the midst of a major paradigm shift, moving away from an emphasis on believing the right things and becoming…well, that’s what we’ll talk about.

Having the right beliefs, also called orthodoxy, wasn’t always the focus of the church. When Jesus came to earth, he didn’t say, “This is my command, that you believe the right doctrines.” The angels didn’t say to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of a great systematic theology.” And when speaking to his potential disciples, Jesus didn’t say, “Learn about me” or “figure me out.” He said, “Follow me.”

But somewhere along the line, following Jesus became defined as believing the correct things about him. In the second and third centuries, councils of religious leaders gathered to argue whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, whether Mary was really a virgin, what Jesus’ relationship to God was. These councils produced creeds which gave us the “right” answer to these questions so that we could know definitively who had real faith and who didn’t. If you assented to the right beliefs, you were in. If you didn’t, you were burned at the stake. As you can imagine, there were a LOT of converts during those days.

The importance of correct beliefs was heightened with the Protestant Revolution and the invention of the printing press. Suddenly, not only did a person not have to do what the Catholic church told them to do, but they could now read the Bible for themselves! Throw in the period called the Enlightenment, which empowered people to use their brains to their fullest potential, and you have a real religious mess. You could put three people in a room with a Bible and come out with four different translations, five different interpretations of those translations, and six church splits. And everyone was convinced that their way of believing was the right way. No one ever said, “You know, I might be wrong about this, but I’m going to go ahead and start a new church anyway.”

So, for centuries, faith was defined as having the right beliefs, which of course meant having the same beliefs as the people in power. And for the most part, that worked, because no one wanted to challenge the authority of the church or risk sharing that they had serious doubts about their faith. But they did, and when they started to articulate them, the church didn’t have a good answer. Someone would ask, “Why is my wife dying of cancer?” And the church would say, “Well, it must be God’s will!” That’s a horrible answer to that question. Jesus said in our passage that just because a person says “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean they are a follower of Christ. When people started perceiving Christianity as a religion of rules and regulations without any substantial response to the challenges of life, they began to drift away, and they are still drifting away. Just having the right beliefs wasn’t good enough anymore.

The “before” picture of organized religion for so long was that a believed the right things, they behaved the right way, and then they could belong. Behaving and believing were prerequisites to belonging to the church. But at some point, many churches – but not all of them – reversed that pattern. Now, for those churches making that shift, the emphasis is put in a different place. A person belongs, they behave, and then they come to belief. Christianity is moving from being a religion about God to an experience of God.

If that doesn’t make sense, think about it this way. Over Christmas, I spent some time with my Dad’s family, and they taught me how to play dominoes. I’d never played before, so I had no idea what I was doing. First, I tried reading the instructions. It was a lot of rules and “dos” and “don’ts,” and I didn’t quite follow. Next, my cousin Scott tried to explain the rules to me, but I still wasn’t getting it. “Wait, what happens when you play a double? What do I do with my train?” He patiently answered my questions, and then finally said, “Look, why don’t you just pull up a chair and get into the game and you can learn as you go.” And I did.

If we’re honest, isn’t what faith is like? We can try to learn all the rules, the right doctrines and the correct beliefs. We can intellectually assent to what we think is correct. We can have someone else tell us what we should believe. But the only way we can really learn what we believe is by getting involved and playing the game. We belong (OK, I’ll sit down at the table), we behave (I’ll start playing the game), and then we figure out what we believe (ah, I get how this game works!). We belong (OK, I’ll start going to church), we behave (sure, I’ll go to a Sunday School class or help with an outreach project), and then we believe (hey, I’m starting to see how this faith thing works!). There’s a reason that, when a person joins Crestwood, I ask them if they trust that Jesus Christ is the son of God and if they promise to spend the rest of their lives figuring out what that means. Let’s be honest, if having the right beliefs is a prerequisite to belonging, should any of us be here?

Like I said at the beginning, that doesn’t mean that our beliefs aren’t important. They are incredibly so. Part of what defines us as Christians and as a church is the peculiarity of what we believe, specifically that Jesus is the son of God who came to earth to make God’s kingdom real. There are some of us who are as certain of this as they are of their own existence. There are others of us who have serious doubts about whether or not this is true. And there are some of us who have our good days and have our bad days. The historical church’s problem isn’t that we’ve had the wrong beliefs; it’s that we’ve thought having the right beliefs is what mattered most.

We already know about the importance of belonging in other parts of our life, right? A few years ago, when I was walking down the street of tiny Talkeetna, Alaska, a guy on the other side hollered at me, “Hey, nice shirt!” I was wearing a UK shirt, and when I look at him, he pointed to his UK hat. We shared a common bond that you could argue is its own religion. There’s another community I’m a part of that makes me feel very important, because every time I swipe my membership card, I’m told, “Welcome, valued customer!” We’re a part of a lot of communities. So what makes belonging to a church different than belonging to a gym or to Costco?

As a church, what bonds us together is our belief in Jesus Christ…but is that enough? I would say that it’s not, because we can all say really nice things about Jesus and then go out into the world and make a real mess of things. I would say that what makes a church community unique is how we live out our belonging, how we contribute to the well-being of this community of which we’re a part, and how we help this community contribute to the well-being of the world. I know plenty of people who join a church, attend for a few months, and then never darken the door again. Do they truly belong? Belonging doesn’t happen to you; belonging is something you do by the way you contribute to the sense and purpose of community.

You don’t have to believe before you can belong, because we may never fully believe. And yet, I have found some of my greatest epiphanies of faith have come in the midst of living out my belonging. While I was a seminary student struggling to figure out what I believed so that I could lead others, I made a hospital visit to an elderly lady dying of cancer. I was nervous going into the room, because I had never been in that situation before, and I was afraid she would ask me a theological question I couldn’t answer. We made small talk for a few minutes, and then she said, “Kory, can I ask you something?” Oh no. Here it comes. Why am I dying? What’s Heaven like? Does God still love me? Instead, she asked, “Could you feed me my tapioca pudding?” So I grabbed a napkin and spoon and fed her tapioca pudding. And I realized at that moment that faith wasn’t about having the right answers; it was about belonging to each other and to God.

I know what I believe…most days. Then there are other days, when my faith is challenged by cancer and divorce and my whole understanding of God topples over like a row of dominoes. I’m thankful to belong to a church that doesn’t kick me out because I don’t always get this faith thing right. If you’re like me, I want you to know you still belong. You don’t have to swipe a card or pass a test. If you belong to God, you belong with us, and you are welcome at this table. Our denomination was founded because people were putting believing over belonging when it came to communion. They were denying people the right to come to this table because they didn’t believe the right things. But through his death and resurrection, Jesus says to us, “You belong to God. You belong at this table.”

But, please hear me, don’t stop there. Having the right beliefs isn’t enough, but neither is just signing the attendance pad. Belonging means being a part of each other’s lives in ways that reflect, no matter how dimly, the light of Christ in each of us. Belonging means continuing to ask questions and voice concerns and articulate doubts until, maybe when you least expect, maybe even over a dish of tapioca pudding, God pulls back the curtain just a bit and your faith is affirmed, maybe even strengthened.

We will never experience the presence of God if we wait in our mind to understand it. We will never find the transformation so many of us are looking for if we don’t pull up a chair and get into the game, finding ways to connect, to relate, to give, to serve. Our faith is not a system of beliefs. Jesus didn’t say, “This is my command, that you believe the right doctrines.” Do you know what he said? “This is my command, that you love one another.” If you’re not sure what you believe, just pull up a chair and start with that.

 

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Christmas Sunday sermon – Go, Tell It on the Mountain!

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-20 – In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

SERMON
Go, Tell It on the Mountain!
Luke 2:8-20
Dec. 24, 2017
Kory Wilcoxson

We finish up our sermon series today on Christmas-related spirituals by looking at probably the most famous one of all, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” This hymn had a special meaning for me when we lived in Chicago, because there were many Sunday mornings in winter when I felt like I had to move a mountain of snow to get to my car, so I could drive to church and go tell it. I remember one snow was so big that when I finally found where my car was buried, I planted a flag and yodeled.

Like the last spiritual we considered, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” this one is also based on Luke’s story about the shepherds being visited by the angels. We learned a little bit in that last sermon about the shepherds and why the slaves felt a strong sense of connection with them. The shepherds have been immortalized in our Christmas hymns and nativity scenes, but not always in a historically accurate way. We picture them with their flowing robes and their shepherd’s crook, taking their place alongside the animals and Mary and Joseph at the manger, as if they actually belonged at the bedside of a baby king. But in reality, shepherds would not have been welcomed there, or anywhere else. They were seen as untrustworthy vagabonds and nomads; much like the slaves, they were social and religious outcasts who had no place to call home and who occupied the lowest rungs on the societal ladder. The shepherds, like the slaves, were seen as less than human.

Which makes what happens in today’s passage all the more incredible. Our scripture this morning is God’s version of a birth announcement. Nowhere else in the Christmas story in Matthew or Luke does God announce to anyone that Jesus has been born. This is it. This is God’s one announcement. “The shepherds feared and trembled, when lo, above the earth, rang out the angel chorus that hailed our Savior’s birth.”

Imagine for a second you don’t know this story, and I told you God went to someone to announce the birth of Jesus. To whom do you think God would go? How about Caesar, the emperor of Rome? You would think so. Why not start at the top, right? Or what about telling King Herod, who ruled over the region? That makes sense. Maybe God should go to the High Priest in Jerusalem, the religious elite. All of these people would be logical recipients of God’s birth announcement, wouldn’t they?

The palace doesn’t hear. The Temple doesn’t hear. Jerusalem doesn’t hear. The most important birth announcement in history goes to a group of shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem – shepherds! These people didn’t even come to church on Christmas and Easter – to be fair, there was no Christmas and Easter yet – and smelled like a sheep sty, and yet God chose them, above everyone else.

Because the slaves felt a connection with the shepherds, you can begin to see why this story in Luke was so important to them. If God chose to work through shepherds, then God could work through the slaves, as well. If Christ was born for people as lowly as the shepherds, then Christ’s birth and the meaning behind it was a gift to the slaves, as well. “Down in a lowly manger, the humble Christ was born.” Both the shepherds and the slaves knew something about being lowly and humble. And yet, through Christ, “God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn.” That’s part of the reason “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is such an energetic tune. This was a song of celebration, of the promise of salvation and freedom being fulfilled, even for – especially for – those who were in bondage.

But there’s more going on here than just acknowledging Christ’s birth. Such a magnificent event, such a world-changing happening, requires more than just a celebration; it requires a proclamation. The shepherds heeded the angel’s words and went to Bethlehem to see the baby born in the stable. And Luke tells us that afterwards, “when they had seen him, they spread the word what had been told them about this child.” After receiving the birth announcement, they became the birth announcements. Any of us who have children can relate to this excitement. After my two daughters were born I was just itching for a reason to tell everyone the good news. At the grocery, the clerk would say, “Do you have a Kroger card?” And I’d say, “I do have a Kroger card…and a new baby!”

Because of the significance of Christ’s birth, the shepherds were as excited as if Christ was their child and they just had to tell everyone about him. Now, notice how people responded to this. The Bible says, “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” I bet they were! This is not the kind of information to which a shepherd is usually privy. The going rate of wool, yes; the number of sweaters you could make one from sheep, maybe; but not good news of great joy about the birth of the Messiah. Why would shepherds know that? Because God chose them, the lowest in society, to be the ones to proclaim the good news. As the angel told Mary, nothing is impossible with God.

For the slaves, the birth of Christ and each opportunity to celebrate it was a reminder of the impossible gift Christ brought: the promise of release for the captives. Those promises were sometimes the only hope the slaves had. But it WAS a reason to hope. When you are enslaved, Christ promises freedom. When you are in a hopeless situation, Christ provides hope. When you’re banging your head against a brick wall, Jesus opens a window. We’ve all experienced the grace of Christ providing a spark of hope, leading us out of spiritual captivity. Therefore, how can we do anything but climb the nearest mountain and shout about it? When we think about the blessings Christ has brought to our lives, how can we keep from singing?

There’s an interesting passing of the torch that takes place in this scripture and continues every time this song is sung. The angels in our story bring the message to the shepherds, and then after seeing the baby Jesus, the shepherds begin to spread the word concerning what had been told them about Jesus. They become the messengers. They become the angels. And then the slaves sing about what the shepherds shared, and the slaves become the messengers, the angels. And then we sing this song.

We have to realize this song is not an invitation: “If you have the time, you may want to consider finding a high place and sharing a little bit about what you’ve heard.” This song is an imperative: “Go! Tell it on the mountain!” There’s a sense of urgency in the words. Christ is being born again this year, and there is a world out there that desperately needs good news. What was passed onto the shepherds and passed onto the slaves is now being passed onto us: there is a birth taking place that brings with it life-changing promises if we are willing to believe, and we are called to, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain!” so that others may hear the good news. This song gives us homework to do on Dec. 26.

I love how the song itself helps us make that climb. The last note of the last word of each verse is held a few seconds, as if those who originally sang the song wanted to give us that time of anticipation – that Advent moment – before launching upward into the chorus. Vocally, we climb the mountain to proclaim the good news. The melody dips down on the word “mountain,” starts its rise with “over the hills” and reaches the peak with “everywhere.” Just as we sing about climbing mountains, the melody invites our voices to start the ascent, making the proclamation from the highest peak about Christ being born. The song models for us what we are called to do as Christians.

This is one of my favorite Christmas carols to sing. But…so what? The message of the song only matters if we live it, not just sing it. What does that look like in our lives? Does that mean setting up your soapbox on the corner of Main Street and reading from the prophet Zephaniah? You can if you want, but I don’t recommend that. Most people don’t respond to God’s word that way. The best way we can tell about the good news is to show it in the way we choose to live our lives as followers of Christ. We live as Christians first because each year the birth of Christ means something to us. Does it mean something to you? How will anyone know on Dec. 26 and beyond? Let your life be the proclamation; let your life become the birth announcement, showing everyone that God’s goodness and love and forgiveness has broken through into our world. Christmas only means something in our world if we live like it does. It’s going to be easy to forget about the meaning of Christ’s birth when life returns to normal. Will you forget?

A visit from the angels changed the lives of these shepherds. The celebration of Christ’s birth transformed the slaves’ outlook on their situation. What difference will the coming of Christ make in our lives? If the slaves, who had nothing, were inspired by Christmas to sing this joyous proclamation, what will Christmas inspire us to do this year in Christ’s name? We have been given the good news. It’s now been passed onto us, from the shepherds, from the slaves. We are now called to be messengers. We are the living birth announcements of Christ. Say it with words, but better yet, shout it by the way you live and give and love: “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, the Jesus Christ is born.” Merry Christmas!

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This Week’s Sermon – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-16 – In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

“Mary Had a Baby” Sermon Series
#2 – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Luke 2:8-16

We continue our sermon series this morning looking at a few Christmas-related African-American slave spirituals, and listening to what they can teach us, people on the other end of the spectrum, about celebrating Christmas. How can looking at the birth story of Jesus through someone else’s eyes help us appreciate that magnitude of what happened on that holy night? During a season in which the Christ child easily gets buried under piles of wrapping paper, what did this story mean for people who didn’t take it for granted?

One of the things that makes spirituals so fascinating was the role they played in communication among the slaves. This was a group of people who didn’t have the freedom to talk openly with each other, so they had to come up with creative ways to share information without alerting their masters. The slave owners underestimated the spiritual and intellectual gifts of the slaves, which let the slaves’ imaginations run free even while they were in servitude. Realize that Christianity wasn’t the slaves’ chosen religion; it was forced upon them by their Christian masters. But the slaves were incredibly resilient. They devised songs that on the surface appeared to be solely about their newfound faith in Jesus, but were actually a type of Morse code, where the words carried double meanings. The slaves tricked their owners into thinking they were harmless and happy, easily adapting to their new religion, when they were actually planning their escape.

In the “Death and Eternal Life” section of our hymnal, number 644 is the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, I ain’t got long to stay here.” That song may sound like it’s about going to Heaven, but it was actually used as an announcement, like a conductor calling “All aboard!” for a departing train. When the slaves were in the fields singing “I ain’t got long to stay here,” they were preparing for an escape attempt.

Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” were signal songs, which communicated that a certain event, like an escape attempt, was about to happen. There were also map songs, which gave specific directions for the escape. The most famous of these is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Now, if I heard that song, I would have no idea what the drinking gourd was, much less how to follow it. For the slaves, the Drinking Gourd was the Big Dipper constellation, which had as a part of it the North Star. This song is a travel itinerary, telling the slaves that when winter arrives it’s time to follow the North Star to freedom.

One of the purposes of our song today, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was to remind the slaves to follow the star that would lead them to freedom. Listen to the verbs in the song: Rise up, follow, take heed (or listen), and leave. It’s a call to action for the slaves embedded in the biblical story of Christ’s birth. But the song has several other layers of meaning that helped the slaves celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ.

For the most part, slaves were not allowed to read, especially not the Bible. Plantation owners feared that if the slaves read about how Christ promised salvation from sin, the slaves would also want salvation from slavery. So, instead of passing on the tradition by reading the Bible to each other, the slaves told the stories, much like the Israelites orally passed down stories for centuries and centuries before the Bible was written as a way of preserving their religious history.

“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was one of the ways the slaves would pass down the Christmas story. The singer would sing a line of the story, “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,” and the rest would respond, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Then the next line of the story would be sung, and the crowd would respond. This could go on for awhile as the full story of Christmas was told. That’s how the story of Christ’s birth survived and provided hope to a group of people without access to the Bible.

But did you notice there’s something a little off about this story? When I was in seminary, my grandfather liked to tease me by testing my biblical knowledge. Every time he saw me he’s said, “Let’s see what you’re learning in that school. How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” I would play along and respond, “That’s an easy one. He took two of each animal.” And he’d smile and say, “Nope, nope, nope. Moses didn’t take the animals on the ark; Noah did!” And I’d smile and say, “You got me again, Paw Paw!”

We have the same kind of mashup taking place in the retelling of the Christmas story in this song. As we know the story, who followed a star to find Jesus? It wasn’t the shepherds. It was the wise men who saw the star in the East and followed it to the Christ child. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories.

This was not caused by biblical confusion. There’s a strategic repositioning taking place here that would have been empowering to the listeners and singers of this song. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bring lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom the slaves could relate. If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. The shepherds themselves were often indentured servants of a landowner, hired or forced against their will to care for the livestock. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they didn’t really have a home, and they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion.

The slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves. This song is not only sung by them, but about them: “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Through the juxtaposition, the slaves became the wise seekers looking for the gifts Christ had to offer, following the star to the place where salvation and freedom could be found.

Of course, on any journey that leads to the Christ child, things have to be left behind. For the shepherds, it meant leaving their sheep to go to Bethlehem. The Bible is full of these kinds of stories. Abraham is called by God to leave his homeland and start out on a journey to an unknown destination. When Jesus called the disciples, they left behind their homes, their families, their traditions, their land, and followed him. The slaves knew what this was like, except they were forcibly removed from these things in their home countries and sold into bondage. They knew that the cost of freedom might be leaving behind parents, children, people who were too young or infirm to make such an arduous journey to freedom. The slaves knew that in order to find freedom, they would have to take heed of the angel’s word and leave some things behind.

The song called the slaves to take their place in a long line of people who gave up things to follow God. The reality of faith is that there is a cost associated with following Jesus, or at least there should be. If you find having faith to be easy, you’re probably not doing it right. True Christianity constantly calls us to leave that which is familiar, to move to a new place spiritually as we follow Christ. “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is a rallying cry for the slaves to move faithfully from the familiar to freedom.

There are two commands that are repeated over and over in this song. The first is to “Rise up.” When I picture the slaves at work I see them crouching or stooping or bent over in the fields. This song is a call to rise up, to stand up, to take a stand against their oppression and to actively pursue freedom, no matter the cost.

What would it mean for us to “rise up” this Christmas? For the slaves, rising up was a dangerous move that could cost them their lives. Thankfully, we don’t face such extreme consequences…and yet, are we still afraid to rise up? I give so much credit to those who are now rising up against sexual misconduct. Real change is happening because of it. What could we accomplish if we chose to rise up against predatory lending, against scams aimed at the elderly, against systems that perpetuate racist policies or seek to keep people divided? When we as Christians choose to rise up against something, we make a difference. But it starts with having the courage to rise up in the first place. How could you let your faith rise up this Christmas? Who needs you to rise up for them in our world today?

The second command is to “follow.” It’s sung five times in the chorus alone. “Follow.” For the slaves, it meant following the North Star to freedom. What does it mean for us to follow? It doesn’t mean you have to pack up your house and move. But it does mean we may have to pack up some negative thoughts or behaviors that separate us from God. Following Christ means walking in his footsteps, even when it means we walk away from comfortable, familiar situations into the great unknown of faith.

A few weeks ago I followed Christ, in the form of my friend, Liz, to the Hope Center at lunch time. We donned our stylish hairnets and spent an hour serving chicken noodle soup and mac and cheese to the clients that came through. I had about 100 other things I could have been doing at that moment, things that really needed to be done. But people also need to eat and, I would guess more importantly, be looked at in the eye and treated with respect. Where will you follow Christ this Christmas? If it’s somewhere you’ve already been, somewhere you feel completely comfortable, then it may not be far enough.

This Christmas, my prayer for us is that we learn from this song about the importance of courage in a life of faith. We have been given a star to follow, but we can only follow it if we rise up, take our eyes away from our immediate surroundings, and see ahead of us where God is calling us to go. It probably won’t be a place that’s familiar. It may not even feel safe. But it’s where we’re going to find Jesus in this world.

Rise up, shepherds, and follow.

 

 

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