Monday, August 6, 2018

FOCUS: Dismantling Racism

Aug. 4/5, 2019          Dismantling Racism
Galatians 3: 23-29

            This week we’re concluding our sermon series on Five Areas of Focus that can change the world. I hope you’ve been inspired by this series, and the ways in which we’ve lived it out. We’ve taken some time to think through what it means to be in ministry with the poor, to develop principled Christian leaders, to create renewal and revival, and to work toward global health. And these are all faithful ways we can live out of our faith. But we have one last area of focus that needs to be addressed, a conversation that’s as old as time, and a conversation that’s dominated the headlines over the last several years, and that’s the area of dismantling racism. (Before I read the Scripture, I invited us into a time of humility and vulnerability by showing a brief Peanuts comic strip) I invite you to read with me…

            Last August I had the privilege of officiating at my cousin’s wedding. It was held in a beautiful Virginia winery in a little town known as Kilmarnock. And even though there was a threat of rain, there were no raindrops. But it was awfully muggy. The mugginess didn’t stop us from having fun though. We danced the night away, celebrated all the goodness of life and genuinely enjoyed the joining together of two people. When I was able to catch a break, I stopped to fill my cup of water and looked around, and what I saw was a beautiful sight: a diverse crowd, filled with different cultures and different races singing, dancing and celebrating together. I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures because I thought, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is how things are supposed to be.” And it filled my soul. It was not lost on me, however, that earlier that very day, just 2 ½ hours away in Charlottesville, a different kind of gathering was happening. It wasn’t one of celebration, but one of anger and hatred and fear. And at the end of the day, because of an angry man who drove his car into a group of protestors, a young woman had lost her life. In that juxtaposed moment, between the reality of what is and the promise of what will be, I knew I could no longer stand on the sidelines of this conversation about race.

            Friends, this is the reality of our current culture. Whether we’re ready or not, the conversation about racism is here. It’s all over the place! And I believe Jesus has invited us to respond. Like any important conversation, talking about racism has the potential to touch our deepest nerves. For some, there are hopes of a better world, a dream of what could be. For others, there are emotions that look like fear and anger, even rage; others experience grief and confusion. I’ve watched people embrace this conversation and say, “Tell me more.” But I’ve also seen others take up a defensive posture, and refuse to acknowledge this growing tension. This is one of the reasons I’m preaching from a posture of sitting today. Sitting down is one of the way we can dismantle defensive tones and mindsets.

To be quite honest, I don’t know how you’ve respond to the issue of racism, nor do I know how you’re responding today, but I know that we as the people of God have to address it. Because if we don’t respond, we’ll be leaving the world to form their own responses. And that’s a dangerous and scary proposition. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. So if we remain silent and let the world do our thinking, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. So what I’d like to do today is share with you a little bit of my personal journey. It’s the only journey I know, and although this is deeply personal, I believe I can offer something worthwhile to the dream of dismantling racism.

Most of you know that I grew up in a small village outside of a town very much like Blairsville. Arriving in this area was a lot like coming home. Good folks. Small town feel. But very little diversity. Over 95% (this is probably too small of a percentage) of my school was white. I can count on one hand the number of students who would not have identified as white in my senior class. That’s the only world I had ever known. And so like make people, I grew up with the naïve assumption that racism wasn’t an issue for us. My argument sounded like this: Racism isn’t a problem because we don’t have any Black people or Latino people. So how could we possibly be racist? For me, racism was a city thing, a southern thing, a radical thing. Out of sight, out of mind. Racism was just a word in a larger vocabulary that meant very little to me. But then one day I had a conversation that stuck a pin in my comfortable bubble.

            I was home on Christmas break, spending some time with a former employer. He would often call me when he needed a helping hand, and every year he would give me a nice Christmas bonus. He was one of the hardest-working men I had ever known. I was 25, he was 70 and he could outwork me any day. I had spent time around his kitchen table, eating home cooked meals. And they were good! He was a leader in his church. He never missed a Sunday, knew his Bible, and made sure to help out wherever was necessary. He wasn’t the warmest man around, but he was nice enough, and the more time I spent with him, the more I respected him. But on this particular day, something was different. He started to ask me my thoughts on the next presidential election (it was 2007) and we talked about the differences between a fellow by the name of John McCain and a senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama. After the conversation was over, I started to make my way to the car, when my friend made one last casual remark: “Brett,” he said, “Don’t worry. If that guy gets elected, there are still enough people like me around. We’ll take care of it.”

            I got in my car that day, and my insides began to churn. For the first time in my life, racism had shown up at my front door. My little world was thrown into a tailspin, and whatever assumptions I had were shattered by words my friend thought would comfort me. My friend was trying to tell me that people like him would always ensure people like me would be just fine. But instead of comfort his words angered and confused me. This wasn’t a news anchor reporting on an inner city shooting. This wasn’t a drug deal gone awry. Those were the only pictures of racism I had at the time. No, this was someone I respected uncovering a reality I didn’t believe existed in my corner of the world. But here it was, right under my nose, embedded in people I knew and loved. On that day, racism became more than a word to me; it put on flesh and became real. And that’s when my journey with racism began.

            I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know how to tackle such an important conversation in 20 minutes. But yet I feel I must say something. I know I don’t have the answers to dismantling systems and mindsets that have been around longer than any of us have been alive. But I know I can do my part. That’s all any of us can do. And if we take the time to do our part, then unjust systems will eventually come crashing down. That’s what I see Jesus do in Scripture. One by one, person by person, Jesus helps people understand how they can play his or her part and in doing so, they bring forth the Kingdom of God. And so if you are interested in dismantling racism, I’d like to offer you three steps I’ve made in my life, which I hope they’ll be beneficial to you. To help us navigate these three steps, I’d to like to invite you to picture yourself entering a new home for the very first time.

*At this point, I began to show three pictures to help frame the conversation ( a door, a hallway with a mirror and a kitchen table).

            The first step any of us can take is to enter the front door. In other words, we have to decide to enter the conversation. For me, that was the first step. When I got back into my car after visiting with my friend, I had to make a decision. Would I ignore what I had just heard and pretend it didn’t happen? Or would I engage it? Would I walk away and convince myself that his thoughts weren’t reality, or would I allow my heart to wrestle with a shocking discovery? That’s a big question to ask and big conversation to consider. But it’s an absolutely necessary step. Healing doesn’t happen unless we enter the fray. Struggles cannot be overcome without meeting the struggle firsthand. I watched people make their way to an altar at church camp last week and find healing in Christ because they were finally ready to take a step and enter a larger spiritual conversation. And the same is true with racism. Racism cannot be dismantled if we are not willing to open the door and say, “I’m willing to talk.”

            Once we’re in the door, we’re ready for our next step. Once we’ve agreed to have the conversation, we’ve essentially said, “Open my eyes, that I may see.” Now we don’t have to look to hard to find ways in which racism permeates our world, but what’s frightening is discovering the ways we might’ve played a role in it. When I was first learning about the term racism, I was deeply offended. To me, a racist was someone who intentionally harmed others, someone prone to act in evil ways toward different racial groups, and I never wanted to associate with those words. I understand I’m not perfect, but I also wouldn’t characterize myself as evil. I had never used derogatory words or purposely shunned others or participated in white nationalist rallies, but over time I began to learn that racism isn’t always explicit; in more ways than I realized, it can be implicit. This is what we see when we walk through the door. We see how racism can be hidden in mindsets and embedded in systems.

I began to learn about things like bias and power, authority and opportunities, and I started to notice the awkward ways I behaved when I was around people who are different than I. And I didn’t like what I found about myself. I would walk a little faster around certain people. I would stiffen up in certain classes and walk out of the room shaking my head, denying everything my professor was trying to teach me. I would have conversations after class with people who thought like me, ready to take on any opinion that even remotely suggested I was somehow part of someone else’s problem. But the truth is, I was, and I am. And coming to that conclusion was a big step for me. I believe healthy discipleship involves the willingness to look deep inside of the soul, to pull back the veneer and see hidden realities. It’s self-awareness. And when I’ve examined myself, I’ve found mindsets and characteristics and traits that I didn’t know existed. And they needed to be brought to Jesus. Are you willing to look inside yourself? Are you willing to ask those tough questions and maybe discover some answer you won’t like? That’s part of dismantling systems like racism, but the good news is that Jesus can take those traits and crucify them, and give us new ways to live and see the world… if we’d like.

            Finally, once we’re ready to have that internal conversation, we’re ready to take one of the most important steps we will ever take: sitting down at the kitchen table and listening. I’ve had to repent of the idea that what is true of me is true of others. It’s not. My experience cannot be grafted on to somebody else’s life, nor can I expect to fully understand somebody else’s reality. That’s why, for me, the table is a place of holy work. Along with the cross, the dove and the empty tomb, I think the table is one of our forgotten spiritual symbols. Jesus does so much redemptive and restorative work around tables. The table is a place where we truly get to know someone else. It’s a place where we listen and share, where walls are brought down and bridges are built, and it’s a place where news reporters cannot distort reality. Great things happen around tables. Relationships are formed and truth is explored. And I believe it’s the place where you and I can begin to dismantle racism one at a time. It’s been around tables where I’ve learned to see what I could not see, to hear the stories others needed for me to hear, and to open my heart to the pains and dreams of others.

            So, that’s my dismantling racism journey. On this journey, I’ve made some great friends, I’ve grown in faith, and I’ve experienced God in new and fresh ways. But this journey is not over. Not for me, not for you. We’ve got work to do. Until there is no more suffering, no more injustice and no more inequality, we’ve got work to do. May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts that are full of courage and unconditional love. Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2018

FOCUS: Creating Renewal

Creating Renewal

            This past week I had the privilege of leading the music time at Vacation Bible School. And let me tell you, what a blast! I left for home every night completely exhausted, but also completely refreshed in my soul. Spending those nights singing and dancing with young disciples renewed my faith and replenished a joy that I didn’t know was even missing! But that’s what happens when faith catches fire. Vitality happens. New life happens. You might even call it revival! And that’s what we’re discussing today: how to seek vitality and renewal in our congregations. It’s one of our five areas of focus, five areas that we believe have the capacity to change the world. And I remain convinced that if we seek renewal and revival in our churches, the world will be drawn in to the magnificent and life-giving work of Jesus Christ. Would you read with me…

Acts 2 is sort of like the gold standard for church life. When Jesus told the disciples to stay and Jerusalem and wait for the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, they had no idea what was in store for them. But when that day arrived, it was as if heaven came down on earth. And it changed everything. Immediately the disciples understood that they had received a new mission in life- to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and carry out his ministry into every corner of the world. It meant evangelism, which is simply sharing the news of Jesus in different ways. It meant renewal, in the form of helping the faithful Jewish people understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of their long-awaited hopes. And in many cases, it meant starting from scratch, offering the world a beautiful vision of vibrant faith communities that people couldn’t wait to be apart of.

Now, it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that we live in different times. We know the statistics out there, and even if we don’t know the statistics, all we need to do is look around to realize that church isn’t a compelling option for many people today. But then again, maybe the times aren’t so different after all, because church wasn’t a compelling option in first century Jerusalem, either. Yet that’s precisely where Jesus begins to offer the world a better vision for life through His Spirit-filled disciples. In the middle of a city where everyone has their own thoughts and there own way of doing life, the Spirit gives birth to the Church, and it’s fascinating.

Let’s look at some of these godly characteristics that defined the first church. And they’re godly because only God can do this. Only the Spirit of God can produce a life that looks like this, and the desire to be apart of it. They were devoted to the spiritual life, eating together and praying. Are you devoted to the beauty of a prayer-filled life? Or is it just an “I’ll do it when I need it” type of thing. Renewal happens when we devote ourselves to the work of pray. Everyone was filled with awe. When’s the last time you were filled with awe at the works of God? When’s the last time you believed that God could and WOULD do all that God says he can do? All were together and have everything in common. That’s a pretty radical concept these days. They were together. They were common. I’m sure they had their differences and didn’t always get along, but they moved toward each other instead of pulling away. They sold possessions and property and gave to people in need. Now that’s REALLY Holy Spirit work. To give something up that isn’t life or death for YOU, but might be for someone else…that’s Holy Spirit stuff. And guess what happened? More people came. Revival happened. Lives changed. Every day people were being saved! And here’s the really awesome news: It can happen again. Acts 2 wasn’t the last time God initiated a world-changing renewal movement. God’s also done it with the Methodists; it’s part of our DNA.

A few years ago I stood on the riverbanks of a little community in England known as Pill. It was here that John Wesley would commission some young Methodist preachers to set sail and go start new churches in America and spread the fire of England’s revival to a young country still trying to find its way. The riverbanks were filled with mud, and American was an ocean away, which for me was a clear reminder that bringing renewal and revival isn’t easy, but when we give ourselves over to God, it’s a beautiful mission. To tell you a little more of the story, I wanted to show you on quick video from my childhood. Show Claymation video.

That’s a classic video, isn’t it? Haha. Now be honest with me. Do you think something like that could happen today? Do you believe God could bring about spiritual vitality in today’s culture? And if so, how many of you would love to see that happen today? Count me among those who long to see God usher in a new day of vital churches and vital discipleship. I believe God has rooted us in this particular place and time to start new ministries, to reach new people, to renew our faith and grow the Kingdom of God. And if we believe that God can do this through us, and if we willingly and sacrificially give ourselves over to the One who says, “I’m sending you to the ends of the world,” then generations of people will be saved. But here’s the catch: the work starts in us. If we want our world to change; if we want our communities to know the power of Christ; if we desire our churches to be filled with vitality for generations to come, we must first give the Holy Spirit permission to transform us. And we can begin to do that through a prayerful process known as HOPE.

H is for Hospitality, which is about making room in our lives for others. And the first person we need to make room for is Jesus. When we receive Jesus into our lives, when we make room in our hearts for His presence, we are given new life. The old part of us is thrown out and new life takes over. And we are set free from the power of sin. But we are also set free so that others might find this life. As we continue to make room for Jesus, we’ll quickly discover that Jesus has a knack for putting people into our lives who think, believe and live differently than we do. And in the midst of that discomfort, we’ll have to decide to either shut our doors or swing the gates wide open. Jorge Acevado, a successful pastor was once asked how he grew such a large church. His answer? He prayed for God to send him the people nobody else wanted. And God did! Jesus was so good at welcoming into his life the losers, loners and misfits of the world. And when they were with Jesus, they felt at home. Could people different than us feel at home with us? Could we feel at home with them? What would happen if that prayer of hospitality became our desire? God send us the people nobody else wants. I think God would answer that prayer.

O stands for “Offer them Christ.” This is what sets us apart from other really good, community-based organizations. Our singular purpose is to offer the world what the world truly needs- Jesus. But to offer Jesus to the world, we have to cultivate the type of life that permits Jesus to offer himself to us on a daily basis. In other words, we have to buy what we’re selling; we have to eat the same food that’s been prepared for others. Connecting with Christ on a daily basis is a key to renewing the world. If we’re not growing, if we’re not healthy, then we can’t be trusted with the Gospel. But if we’re growing and listening, God will open up doors for us. A former Bishop used to tell a story of an experience he had in Africa. For years, they tried to start churches and proclaim the good news of Jesus in a particular area, but to no avail. Then they changed their game plan. They started to care for the physical needs of the village, just like Jesus did, offering healthcare and other means to a healthier life. And at long last, they were able to do the soul work of offering Jesus will happen. What was different? The head of the village put it this way: “You took care of our bodies, now we’ll let you take care of our souls.”

P stands for Purpose. With purpose, we’re not talking about a calling or a career, we’re talking about becoming more like Christ. Ultimately, that’s our purpose. In the church, we’re often good at taking first steps, but then we stop. If we want to see revival and renewal, the posture of our lives must be a constant moving in a Godward direction. Bishop Rueben Job speaks to this in a devotional when he says, “Conversion is going on all the time within us and within the world. While the change of turning toward God may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it is in reality a continual process. We may think that we have turned fully toward God; then we discover another dimension of God, and we know immediately that more conversion is possible and necessary if we are to move Godward in all of life.” Would you characterize your life as moving constantly in a Godward direction? That’s your purpose, and I believe it will lead to renewal.

Finally, we come to E, and E stands for Engagement. God won’t bring about renewal and revival if we are a cloistered people hanging out with only people like ourselves; our living faith should make a living difference in our world. Mark Twain once implied that we have to get out of comfortable positions if we want to see true transformation take place. He wasn’t talking about faith, but his point is clear. Here’s what he writes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” We have to be engaged WITH the world to initiate change IN the world. And it’s only when we engage with the authentic reality of our world that our hearts begin to yearn for a renewed hope that is found only in Jesus.

HOPE is what the world needs. HOPE is what we need. And HOPE is how we’ll get there. Hospitality. Offering Christ. Purpose. And Engagement. These are the birth pangs of revival, the seeds of new birth, and the spark in God’s heart ready to set us ablaze. In the words of the popular refrain, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.” Amen.

*To learn more about HOPE, visit

You Don't Have to Be God

July 22, 2018                         You Don’t Have to Be God     
Jonah 3

            If there’s one story from my childhood Sunday school classes that never failed to attract my attention, it was the old story of Jonah. I was mesmerized every time I heard that God could produce a fish begin enough to swallow a man (and you better believe I thought about that story every time I dipped my feet into the ocean). But as I’ve grown older, I think I appreciate this story even more. Not because of what it says about Jonah, but what it proclaims about God. Now, today’s text begins with chapter 3, which is sort of an odd place to start when you’re reading a book. But for Jonah, and maybe for us, it’s the perfect place to start…because this is his new beginning. Would you read with me…

            Ever since God spoke to Jonah the first time, Jonah has been on the run. And I’m sure that could describe many of us. God called him to go to Nineveh, a city known for its wickedness and evil, a city no good person in his or her right mind would ever go. Nineveh was the last place a Hebrew like Jonah wanted to spend his days. So he ran.  He went down to a place called Joppa, hoping to flee this crazy request from God, hoping to escape to a new reality, one that he could control and manipulate. But we also know that Jonah was hoping to flee from God. He is the picture of disobedience. He wants to carve out his niche on his own terms, spend his days where he wants to, live the way he’s always envisioned. So when told to do one thing by God, he puts on the rebellious hat and does another.  And we know how the story goes. He gets on a ship, the storms whip up and Jonah and the lives of his traveling companions are put at risk. Even so, we read these powerful and hope-filled words: The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

            If we have in our minds that God only calls and uses certain types of people with certain characteristics that we would deem worthy of holy callings, then Jonah presents us with a holy conundrum. If God requires obedience, then we must recognize Jonah’s initial disobedience.  If God requires faithfulness, then we must come to grips with Jonah’s lack of faithfulness.  And if God requires a heart to be as passionate as His, then we really have a problem. Because Jonah might be passionate, but whatever he is passionate about, it is certainly not Nineveh. God may have a heart for those people, but Jonah does not.  Yet, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. And this is really the heart of the story.

            No matter how far Jonah strays from God, he’s not out of the realm of God’s good grasp. Regardless of how Jonah has spent the first part of this story, God just keeps on writing new chapters. And no matter how far Jonah runs, God keeps chasing, waiting for that moment to offer a new opportunity. This “second time” word God gives to Jonah is good news for all those who believe we’ve strayed too far.  If Jonah were talking to us, he would sit us down and say,  “you better think again.”  Because over and over again, the Bible shows us examples of people who are called by God to do something, yet none of these people fit into the box labeled “Perfect.”  And many times, God uses people in spite of their obvious flaws, shortcomings and weaknesses. There was Abraham, who was seemingly too old; Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho; and David, who couldn’t hold a candle to the giant Goliath. And now we have Jonah, the disobedient prophet, who doesn’t want to go where God wants him to go. Yet, the word of the Lord comes again.

            When this word comes, God tells Jonah to share a message. But the message to be proclaimed will not be Jonah’s message; it will be the message God gives to Jonah.  There is no one in this service who does not know the danger of speaking the wrong word, or even the right word at the wrong time. The word we are each called to proclaim is not our word; it is God’s.  As soon as we blur these lines and mistakenly believe that this word is our word, we run the risk of proclaiming a message that God does not intend. Every responsible preacher knows that it is not the preacher’s job to somehow “work up a message.”  It is the preacher’s job to show up Monday morning with the expectation that God will give a message throughout the week. 

            Much of our faith can be boiled down to three simple words:  “Just show up.”  But simply showing up is not natural for most of us.  Most of us would rather plan out our steps so that we can avoid obstacles and distractions.  Jonah had no idea how Nineveh would respond to God’s message.  He had now way of knowing whether or not they would accept him, pay attention to him or take his life.  But Jonah wasn’t called to figure any of this out.  He was just told to go. 

            One of the struggles we have is the assumption that somehow we are called to take Jesus into the world. And there are a lot of stressed-out Christians in the world who buy in to this belief.  That’s a burden no human can shoulder and a mission we simply cannot fulfill.  We don’t take Jesus into the world.  We don’t take Jesus anywhere. He’s already there. Before we have the conversation, before we enter in to the tense meeting room, before we go to the mission field, we can breathe a huge sigh of relief- Jesus is already there! And the same is true in Nineveh.  Long before Jonah arrives on the scene, God has already been at work.  Jonah isn’t asked to take God to Nineveh or figure out how to reach the people; he’s simply told to show up and meet God in this foreign land.  

At long last, Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh.  After all the running away, he finally enters the city he desperately tried to avoid and begins to preach: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  It’s a sermon that leaves a lot to be desired.  There’s not a lot of hope in his message, no option of choosing another way or going a different direction. Jonah simply proclaims the message God gives him:  “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”  And it was all he needed to say because Nineveh was ready to hear. From the common citizen to the King, this wicked city called Nineveh, was ready to believe God.  Jonah’s sermon isn’t much, but it gets the job done. The King declares a royal proclamation of fasting, of crying out to God and of ceasing from violence. The hope is that God might take notice, that he might have compassion on them and that he will not do what he had set out to do.  And that’s exactly what happens. God sees the changed ways of Nineveh, hears their cries, and shows them mercy.

            That’s really what the story of Jonah is all about. It’s about mercy and second chances to those who really don’t deserve. It’s about God doing whatever it takes to call back a wayward prophet or a wicked city. In the final six verses, Jonah quietly fades from the picture. That’s because in this story, Jonah is, as Mother Teresa described herself, “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”  This story, as well as yours, is all about God. It is God who calls Jonah and says, “Get up.”  It is God who sends Jonah and says, “Go.”  It is God who gives Jonah a message to preach and doesn’t make Jonah rely on his own creative abilities. It is God who sees in Nineveh a people worthy a second chance; and it is God who hears their cries and offers them mercy. It is God and not Jonah.

What is it about Jonah that makes him the ideal candidate to go to Nineveh?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  For various reasons, Jonah looks nothing like the person God would send to turn the hearts of a dying city, but this just might be the point. Only God would have the muster to stick with a disobedient prophet.  Only God would have the courage to send a Hebrew into foreign land.  And only God could have the type of unrelenting compassion on a people so prone to wickedness.  And ultimately this is why Nineveh believes. Though the sound echoing through the air is the voice of Jonah, it is God whom the Ninevehites hear. 

The success of every ministry, every calling and every life can be answered with one question: Was God made known?  Or as John the Baptist once implied, “Did you decrease so that Christ could be increased?”  This is, of course, why Jesus sends us out into the world- not to be Christ, but to make room so that Christ may increase.

To complete the work God calls you to do, you don’t have to be God.  And this is a good thing, because I don’t think any of us would make a very good God. And as Jonah proves, you don’t even have to be very proficient at following God to successfully complete the mission. You don’t have to turn your office into a platform or your lunch break into a Bible Study or make your neighbor into your evangelism guinea pig.  You don’t have to do any of that. You just have to show up, meet God there and believe that in you, through you and maybe at times even in spite of you, God will fulfill His mission of revealing the tremendous depths of his love to the world. Amen.