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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.

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.’

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.

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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This Week’s Sermon – Mary Had a Baby

SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Go, Tell It on the Mountain! Sermon series
#1 – Mary Had a Baby
Luke 1:26-38
Dec. 3, 2017

Well, it’s that time of year again. Advent is probably my favorite season of the year. I love the to see the sanctuary fully decorated, as if it put on it’s best outfit to show off for God. I love the traditions that go along with this season: Christmas caroling for the neighbors, baking Christmas cookies, putting up our Christmas trees, sitting in mall traffic, cussing at the strands of lights that won’t work, complaining about how materialistic our culture has become. Tis the season to be angst-ridden!

Christmas is also the season that reminds us that we here in 21st century America have everything at our disposal. There’s virtually no luxury we can’t have, no freedom that we don’t enjoy. The irony of this time of year is that while our culture seduces us with all the things we don’t know we need but have to get, the Christmas story reminds us of what we truly need and already have: the goodness and mercy of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. When dealing with something that is both as familiar and as distorted as the Christmas story, there’s a tradition I try to live out each Advent: I try to see the Christmas story through someone else’s eyes, preferably someone much different than me. If I look at the same thing over and over, I miss the details, the nuances, the qualities that make something unique. But looking at something through fresh eyes can give you a new perspective on something you thought you knew.

This year, with the help of a book by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, we’re going to view the birth of Christ through the eyes of the people who were enslaved in this country. We have so much, and soon we’ll be getting more. What did Christmas look like to a group of people who had virtually nothing, with no promise of getting anything?

Jesus said in mission statement in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives.” That’s a passage that slaves took very seriously, and the birth of Christ each year meant the renewed promise of freedom. While the rest of their year was filled with unimaginable cruelty and oppression, the slaves had much to anticipate as Christmas approached, and they saturated their songs with the hope of freedom the Christ child brought with him.

This is true of many of the slave spirituals. There are over 6000 known spirituals; we have 27 of them in our Chalice Hymnal, like “Wade in the Water” and “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” These songs are unique in the history of music. They blend together African aesthetics and rhythms and European Christian vocabulary and musical influences. They also proclaim a resilient spirituality of survival forged in the slave ships and plantation fields. Slavery was often times justified using scripture, which forced the slaves to reinterpret basic Christian principles like obedience and freedom. How was obedience to God different from obedience to their master? What did freedom through Christ mean when you were shackled together? The theology of the spirituals gives us a clue to the slaves’ perceptions of a God of mercy, justice, and love in a world of cruelty, injustice, and racism.

For the slaves, Christ was their hope for liberation, not just physically, but spiritually, and each Christmas was a reminder that their hope was grounded in something and someone real. We hear that in today’s spiritual, “Mary Had a Baby.” The song recalls some of the basic elements of the birth story: a baby is born, given a name by his mother, placed in makeshift crib. This is not some made-up fairy tale; in fact, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it this story. Babies were born every day. In many ways, this was a birth like every other birth.

But it was also a birth unlike any other birth. There’s a call-and-response element to the song that is a prominent feature of African-American worship. We learned this last month when Chris Dorsey preached here. He told us that in African-American worship, the congregation would respond with “Amen” when they agreed with the pastor and “Lord, help him” when they weren’t sure what he was saying. I have to tell you, I’ve preached a few times in an African-American church, and I heard a lot more of “Lord help him” than I did “Amen.”

In our song today, the call goes out, “Mary had a baby,” and the response is, “Oh  Lord!” which conveys a deep sense of appreciation and awe. The legend goes that, right before he died, Steve Jobs’ last words were, “Wow. Wow. Wow.” That’s the weight that the phrase “Oh Lord” is meant to carry. It is a response of reverence to a genuine miracle.

As Christmas approaches, we may find ourselves saying, “Oh Lord” in a very different tone, probably in the direction of store clerk or disgruntled driver. But for the slaves, each and every year, this was a miracle that carried with it the hope and promise of liberation. “Oh Lord!” It’s a response of gratitude, not only for Christ, but for the miracle of birth itself. I remember vividly the first time I saw both of my daughters. Is there any response more appropriate to the birth of a child than “Oh Lord!”?

Childbirth during the time of slavery was a great danger as well as a great joy. We forget that in many parts of the world, childbirth remains a major cause of death for mothers. Birthing was dangerous for slave women because many complications could arise, and there were no doctors or medical equipment around to help. When Leigh and I were expecting our first child, we chose to be taken care of by a midwife, who encouraged us to have the baby in her home. But we were adamant about having the baby in a hospital, because you just never know what can happen. Mothers during slavery didn’t have the luxury of such choices, so each pregnancy was fraught with fear. The harsh reality was that not every pregnancy led to birth.

And even if it did, each newborn child brought with it profound but very real questions. Would they survive? Would they be abused? Would they be sold to another owner? Would they ever know life apart from being someone else’s property? The future of each child born into slavery was uncertain. But each baby that was born also fueled the hope ignited by the Christmas story. The slaves would look at each new baby and ask the question: “Is this the one? Is this our Moses, the one who will bring us out of slavery? Is this the one through whom God will bring salvation?” For the slaves, the birth of each child echoed the birth of the Christ child. Every baby born was a reminder of the promise of emancipation made by the one who came to proclaim freedom to the captives.

The last line of each verse may seem out of place with the rest of the song: “The people keep a’comin’ and the train done gone.” Trains were a new reality in the emerging industrial age of the early 1800s. This new mode of transportation connected places that had previously been isolated. In other words, trains represented a way out. For that reason, train imagery figures prominently in the history of the African-American people. There’s the Underground Railroad, which took passengers from station to station on their way to freedom. There were the real trains that ran through tunnels built by legendary heroes like John Henry. Even in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Impressions were singing, “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’. Don’t need no ticket, just thank the Lord!”

For the slaves, this line in the song was a somber reminder. Winter, and Christmas in particular, was one of the best times to attempt an escape. On many plantations, Christmas was the one time of year when everyone was allowed to relax, and their masters were preoccupied with the festivities of the season. In order to make the escape, slaves had to be on alert and at the designated meeting place on time. They couldn’t afford to be late, or the train to freedom might be gone by the time you get there. “The people keep-a comin’ but the train done gone.”

This may feel about as far removed from our lives as we can get, but I believe this is a spiritual warning for us, as well. Now, let me be clear in saying we can never, ever understand what it was like to live as a slave in this country, and so we have to be careful about equating that situation with our own. In the letter to the Romans Paul says repeatedly that we are “slaves to sin.” Mary’s baby represents freedom, salvation, and deliverance, and the hard truth of life is that every single one of us has something to which we are enslaved that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to God. Jesus Christ has come to liberate us from whatever holds us captive: negative relationships, unhealthy behaviors, our own pride or greed, the seduction of our materialistic society. What keeps you from moving closer to God? Is it a lack of time? Faulty prioritizing? Do you feel unworthy of God’s love because of thoughts or behaviors? Do you feel like you’ve moved too far away from God to return? Whatever holds you back from a full relationship with God, Christ has come to break the chains and set you free.

But if we’re not careful, Christmas will pass us by once again this year, and we’ll have missed an opportunity to worship at the manger. If we don’t pay attention, the miracle of Christmas will get buried in gift receipts and wrapping paper and our chance to truly celebrate Christ’s birth and give God glory and thanks will be gone. Is this the one? Is this the year we make Christmas about Christ first? Is this the year we let Jesus proclaim freedom for us, when we surrender our pride and follow him to a new life? Or will the true gift of Christmas remain unopened? It’s going to happen again this year. Mary is going to have a baby. It’s a birth like any other birth. And it’s a birth unlike any other birth. May our response be nothing less than, “Oh Lord!”

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We Are the Disciples sermon series – A Movement for Wholeness

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 28:16-20 – 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
#5 – A Movement for Wholeness…
Nov. 19, 2017

Today, we finish up our sermon series on who we are as Disciples. I don’t know if you have any better of an idea of who we are now than when we started five weeks ago, but I hope you at least have a greater understanding of the creative thoughts and core values that drove our founding fathers and mothers to start this movement that became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If you’re still not quite sure how to describe us Disciples…well, you’re not alone, but maybe today will help.

Our first four statements looked to the history of our denomination and why we were founded. Today’s statement looks at who we are today, and, more importantly, who we are called to be in the future. The statement, printed on the front of your bulletin, says, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” It was crafted by a group called the 21st Century Vision Team, which was called together in 2006 to help our denomination put words of definition to our actions and faith practices, so that when someone asks about us, we have something substantial to say.

The challenge in writing such a statement is putting it into action, getting it into the hands of the individual congregations who make up this denomination. Because we are not governed in a top-down, hierarchical format, we don’t have a Pope or a Bishop who can say, “Here, take this statement, this is who we are, no arguments.” Each congregation is responsible for interpreting and living out the statement in their own context. We’ll try to do that today for Crestwood by breaking the statement down into four key words: movement, wholeness, table, and welcome.

Let’s start with movement. Are the Disciples of Christ a movement? Is Crestwood a movement? Initially, I’d answer “no” to both those questions. When I think of a movement, I think of a loosely organized, somewhat unstructured collection of people who shared beliefs and come together to achieve common goals. The second part of that sentences fits: we share beliefs and we seek to live out those beliefs in common ways. But are we loosely organized and unstructured? If you think so, I have a couple Administrative Board committee sub-groups I’d like you to serve on.

That’s ironic, because when we first started as a denomination, we were exactly a movement, moving against the splintering factions and exclusionist leadership that ruled churches in that day. So, how can we recapture that fluid core of who we are as Disciples of Christ? For me, it starts with scripture. Have you ever noticed how often someone in the Bible is told to move? God comes to Abraham and says, “Go!” Abraham says, “Where?” And God says, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered.” God comes to Moses and says, “Go!” Moses says, “Where?” And God says, “I’ll tell ya, but you’re not going to like it.” So Moses heads off to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh. And after his resurrection, as he’s about to ascend to Heaven, Jesus says to his disciples (and us), “Go! Make disciples of all nations.”

Do you see the pattern here? To be a believer in God means to be moving. I’ve said before that we are not called the Standers Still of Christ or the Loiters of Christ; we are the Followers of Christ, and that statement implies movement. That’s very important to note, because what’s the opposite of movement? Stagnation. Stuckness. Complacency. I don’t remember a passage where God says, “Abraham, stand still! Don’t move! Don’t do anything!” The Bible is full of calls to go, to come, to move, to leave, to seek, to embody the promises of faith through action.

But there’s a difference between purposeful and purposeless movement. God doesn’t call Moses to walk in circles around the burning bush; that’s movement, but it has no purpose. Instead, when people in the Bible are called to move, they are called to move toward something. That brings us to our second word. We are a “movement for wholeness.” What, then, should be our goal as a movement for wholeness? What does wholeness in the kingdom of God look like?

We answer that question by turning once again to scripture, where a vision of God’s kingdom is spelled out in numerous places. I think of Isaiah 2, which says that in God’s kingdom, God will settle disputes and those in conflict will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. I think of Isaiah 65, which says that in God’s kingdom, the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more. Everyone will live out their lives to the fullest, the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and no one will harm or destroy. I think of Jesus’ many parables that start off with, “The Kingdom of God is like,” and then go on to talk about a mustard seed which grows to provide shelter for many, and a bit of yeast which causes a whole loaf of bread to rise. He says the kingdom of God is a place were lost coins are found and lost sheep are pursued and lost children are welcomed home. He says the kingdom of God is a place characterized by the innocence of little children, where sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes are all invited to eat at the great banquet table, to satisfy themselves with God’s overflowing abundance of goodness. This is what the Bible says the kingdom of God looks like, and that is wholeness for which we are to strive, one interaction and one conversation and one show of love at a time. This is not about dogma or doctrine; this is about helping make other people whole. If we’re doing something other than that, we’re working against the kingdom of God.

For us as Disciples one of the main places we experience being made whole is at the table, our third word. Obviously, the table is fairly important to us. We didn’t just put this piece of furniture here because we needed a place to set our candles. There’s a reason the table is literally central to our worship experience. Someone once said that a Disciples of Christ worship without communion is like taking a shower without turning on the water. And so, we do it weekly – communion, not taking a shower.

There’s something sacred about sharing a meal together, isn’t there? We often talk about eating with someone as breaking bread together. In fact, the word “companion” literally means “to share bread with.” When we eat together, we are not just a group of individuals gathered at a table; through the act of sharing space and nourishment, we are companions, sharing in the gift of love and grace given to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

That’s what this table does. It takes the complex divisions our world has created and breaks them down into their simplest form – one human sharing a meal with another human. That’s why we pass the trays. Don’t look now, but you may be sitting next to someone you just don’t like. I said don’t look! But when they hand you a tray of bread and a tray of cups and share this meal with you, the two of you become companions, whether you choose to live that way or not.  It’s one thing to think critically of people whose behaviors or beliefs or Facebook posts are so different than ours. It’s quite another thing to share a meal with Carlos or Stephanie or Ihsan, to hear about their struggles and their families and their faith, to put a face and a name and a story on our points of division. Through sharing a meal, our enemies – real or perceived – can become our companions.

But before we can break bread with them, they have to know they are welcomed, which is our fourth word. Notice, it’s the only significant word that is said twice, as it brackets and informs our understanding of the table. And it’s the only action verb, the only thing we’re called to do in our statement: to welcome others as God has welcomed us.  The other words say who we are, but this one says what we do.

Why do we do welcome others to the table? Is our motivation to get people to join our church? Notice, the Identity Statement doesn’t say, “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table so that we can hand them a pledge card and sign them up for a ministry team.” Hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church members. It’s not about meeting institutional goals. As the Identity Statement says, we welcome because we have first been welcomed. It doesn’t say what’s supposed to happen as a result of our welcome; that part is up to God. All we are called to do is let people know they are welcome.

But we are only getting half the picture if we believe that we are the only ones with something to offer when we welcome others. When we join together at the table, making room for the guests among us, we not only offer them a blessing, but we open ourselves to be blessed by them. I want you to think of your favorite person in this church, the person who has made a real impact on your life. Now, realize that at one time or another, that person was a first-time guest. How would this church be different if they didn’t feel welcomed here and decided not to come back? The next person who visits us may be a messenger from God, sent here to have a tremendous impact on Crestwood, and we are called to make sure they know they are welcome here. Yes, our church has something to offer guests, but I believe guests have something to offer us, as well.

We make room at the table for them because God has made room at the table for us. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said, “Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.” Some of our guests may come only once. Some may visit while they are passing through. Some may decide Crestwood isn’t the right fit for them. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to create the space and trust the Spirit of God to do the rest. Our responsibility is simple: We welcome all because God has welcomed us.

Who are we? “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” We are on the move, seeking to make connections with others as we welcome them as companions and share a life-giving meal with them, honoring their intrinsic value as children of God. As a denomination, as a church, as individuals, can this be our identity? Can we be a movement for God’s kingdom in this fragmented world? Can we throw open our arms in welcome, becoming companions with others as we make space for them? This is who we are called to be. May God give us the courage to live as if this true.







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We Are the Disciples sermon series – Christians only, but not the only Christians

We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
Christians Only, but Not the Only Christians
Nov. 12, 2017

Today, we’re continuing our sermon series on learning more about who we are as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is a challenge, even for life-long Disciples. We often define ourselves by who we’re not, rather than by affirming who we are. We’re using some of our foundational statements to help name and claim our identity. So far, we’ve talked about “unity is our polar star,” “no creed but Christ,” and “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Today’s phrase is “Christians only but not the only Christians.” In linguistics this is known as an antithesis: a statement that sets two opposites against each other. For example, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is an antithesis. So is, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And so is the sentence, “A church committee is a body that keeps minutes and wastes hours.” That one hit a little too close to home.

So, today’s phrase, “Christians only but not the only Christians” holds in tension what it means to be a Christian and how we are to think of ourselves in relation to others. Although I couldn’t find a true origin for this phrase, the conventional wisdom says it goes back to the early 1800s, as Disciples were trying to figure out what they believed and how that jived or didn’t jive with what other Christians believed. In other words, how do we claim our distinct identity over and against other Christians around us, and yet not be over and against the other Christians around us?

That challenge hasn’t gotten any easier in the last two hundred years, has it? In fact, it’s gotten exponentially more difficult for two reasons: first, churches have continued to split, with each new group believing that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. I don’t know of any new denomination that began with the premise that they could be wrong. The whole reason they split off was because those other people were straying from the true faith. There are roughly 39,000 denominations in the world today. So, either 38,999 of those are wrong and one is right, or none of us have a monopoly on the truth.

The other challenge to claiming our distinct identity is that we are so much more aware of other ways of believing. That’s what has led to so many denominations, because different people interpret and live out their faith differently. The Baptists are linked to a certain form of baptism, the Lutherans were founded by Martin Luther, the Presbyterians are governed by a presbytery, the Quakers…like oatmeal. I read that on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

But this diversity of beliefs doesn’t stop with Christianity. Think about this: there used to be only two religious symbols available for the headstones of deceased soldiers: the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David. Now, there are 39 different religious symbols offered. With so many other ways of having faith, what does it mean today to be Christians only, but not the only believers?

Let’s start with the first part: “Christians only.” This one ties directly into the statement about “no creed by Christ.” What this means is that, first and foremost, we call ourselves followers of Christ. The sole object of our worship is God as shown to us through Jesus. One of our founders, Alexander Campbell, wrote, “Who is a Christian? Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to the measure of knowledge of his will.”

Well, dang. Based on that definition, I’m not a very good Christian. How about you? I’m guilty of doubting Jesus’ identity, of not repenting of my sins, of disobeying Christ’s teaching. I wish this statement had said, “We are bad Christians only, but not the only bad Christians.” So, this part of the statement is a work in progress for me, and maybe for you, too.

What makes it even more challenging is that what it means to be a Christian in our world today has been seriously polluted since Campbell gave his definition. What makes a person a Christian today? Going to church? Giving an offering? Wearing a cross necklace? Saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” It’s hard to say. The label “Christian” has been co-opted by our culture and by some of the more boisterous mouthpieces who claim to speak for Christians. I’ve often found myself wanting to say, “I’m a Christian, but not one of THOSE kinds of Christians.” So maybe this statement should be updated to say, “We are followers of Christ only.” Still doesn’t mean we’ll get it right, but at least it clarifies who we are called to be.

The second half of this statement is most fascinating: “not the only Christians,” which I am amending to “not the only believers.” This makes sense, since unity was one of the driving forces that led to the creation of our denomination in the first place. We recognize that, while we are followers of Christ, we don’t have all the answers, and there are others out there who believe differently than us, but that are just as faithful as we are. I appreciate the humility in this statement. As a writer once said, “Always entertain the possibility that you may be mistaken.” Boy, how different would our world be if we lived by that mantra?

There would be some of our brothers and sisters who would balk at the inclusivity of this statement. Some churches feel confident that they’ve got it right, and everyone else needs to get on board with them. This was explained to me very well by one author, who said, “The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity.” In other words, I am who I am because I’m over and against who you are.

The beauty of “not the only believers” is the space it creates in our faith for the diversity of others. Think of this statement as a circle. “followers of Christ only” is the center point of the circle, the anchor that holds us in place. “Not the only believers” is the perimeter of the circle, and the space in between is where we invite into our lives those who believe differently about God, or who believe differently about their understanding of God.

So…how big is your circle? Who’s inside? Who’s outside? That’s a tough question, right? We don’t want to let so many people into our circle that we lose sight of our center point. A lot of people have that fear. If we start saying that legitimate people of faith include Muslims and Hindus and…gasp!…Methodists, then we’re going to lose our anchor, because our faith will be threatened by these other ways of knowing God. If you don’t believe like me, you’re a threat to me. Is that a legitimate fear?

Well, let’s ask an expert, shall we? Several times in the Bible, Jesus lifted up people as examples of faith who were NOT the Jewish religious leaders of the day. In fact, they were even Jewish. In one example, Jesus praises a Roman centurion, who probably worshipped the Roman gods, saying, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” In another example, Jesus praises a Samaritan woman. In another, he speaks highly of a Roman publican and a Gentile. Jesus drew a pretty big circle, and yet his center point of God was never threatened. If Jesus recognized the legitimacy of the faith of these non-Jewish believers, we’d do well to extend the same grace to non-Christian believers.

Theologian Paul Knitter puts it this way: “The religious communities of the world can and must form a ‘community of communities’ – a community in which each tradition will preserve its identity and at the same time deepen and broaden that identity through learning from, appealing to, and working with other communities.” That’s a move from saying, “I am who I am because I’m not you” to saying, “I am who I am because of you.”

The call of this statement is really two-fold. We are called to witness with confidence to our understanding of the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and we are called to experience solidarity – with-ness – with people of other denominations and faiths, worshipping with each other, honoring each other’s beliefs, and working together toward a common good. Witness and with-ness.

Far from detracting from our faith, I think this actually honors the spirit of faith that God imbued in each of us in the first place. From the very start, having faith was an invitation to believe God was at work in the wider world, beyond the parameters of denominations and human-drawn lines of divisions between believers. After all, I bet every single one of us could name a non-Christian who, through the way they live and love and serve, are more Christ-like than a lot of Christians we know! I believe the best hope for our world today – and don’t we need hope? – is to move away from dogma and right belief – what’s called orthodoxy – toward an integration of diverse religious expressions that manifest themselves in helping and serving each other – what’s called orthopraxy.

This doesn’t mean we have to give up Jesus. Quite the contrary. To celebrate the other expressions of God in this world – through other denominations and other faiths – is honoring Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, not separated by our differences, but drawn together by the common belief that we are all children of our Creator God. This isn’t watered-down Christianity; it’s a way of belief that fits the diverse world in which we live.

For us, Christ is central to our understanding of who God is, and as followers of Christ, we are called to worship him – followers of Christ only – and then follow his example of hospitality, welcome, and love – not the only believers. It starts here, in this place. As one writer said, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” So, we come here to practice love, to practice grace, to practice generosity, to practice breaking bread together, so that we can go out there and live it out. We come here to witness so we can go out there to live out our “with-ness.”

We are followers of Christ only, called to worship only the one we call our Savior. That means not worshipping all the other things in our lives that demand our allegiance. And we are not the only believers, sharing this planet with so many others who live out their faith in distinctive, authentic ways. So many people these days want to emphasize differences, drawing lines of division and exclusion. How would our church, our denomination, our world be different if we practiced drawing circles?


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