Sunday’s Sermon: Who is Christ?: Living into a Prayer

When certain songs come on the radio, we all get excited. These are certain songs we enjoy hearing and are memorable to us in some way. When that song comes on the radio we’ll probably sing along, even if we are off key..

If you’re like me, when these songs come on not only do I get excited, but the radio gets turned up just a little bit louder. Because, obviously, good music can only be enjoyed if it is loud.

One such song is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” It’s a great and powerful song of a young couple attempting to make it in a troubled economy. As Tommy and Gina wonder how they are going to make it, we get the iconic riff and lyric that they are “halfway there” and are “livin’ on a prayer.”

There’s a lot of reasons why it’s a great song. There is the powerful music. There is the fact that it is Bon Jovi’s greatest hit. It could be it’s a song that is easy to remember. But I think it is also because this song is one we can relate to. We’ve been Tommy and Gina, where the only thing keeping us together is our prayers.

There are times when we really are just “livin’ on a prayer.” It is those times when things are stressful, difficult, or unbearable. When things are so desperate that there is seemingly no hope, we cling to a prayer that will help us in these difficult times.

“Livin’ on a prayer” is something we all do. This is a good thing. We must cling to our need to pray and seek God’s guidance in the most delicate and tender aspects of our lives. When we pray, Richard Foster says, we “begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.” In our prayer, we attempt to align ourselves with God’s will for our lives. We desire to hear the voice of God in the depths of our soul, so that we may be obedient to the love of God in our lives.

Each of us need prayer in our lives. We cannot live a day without our need of God and our need to align our lives with God’s purposes and will for us. What if we didn’t just live on a prayer, but we live into the prayer. By living on a prayer, we are saying that we are going to pray, but we are going to continue to do things our way. It’s a prayer life that is like playing the lottery. We’re not sure it is going to work, but we are going to take the gamble that it will.

To live into a prayer means we are living into a prayer that has been prayed before and continues to be prayed over us this day. Living into a prayer means to live into the reality that Jesus prayed and seeks for his followers, both his immediate twelve Disciples and those of us today. It’s a prayer life that aligns our hearts and will with the Father’s will for us, our church, and our communities.

Today, we will look at a specific prayer from Jesus to see how this idea looks. After a discourse where Jesus called the disciples to remain in a relationship with him and promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus turns his attention to a time of prayer. It’s appropriate. Jesus has an intense and powerful prayer life, where he is in constant communication with the Father. His entire ministry on Earth is surrounded and wrapped in prayer.

When we think of Jesus and prayer, we don’t often think of the prayer found in John 17. Often, we turn to the prayer that Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount, which we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.” It is a prayer that gives a formula and structure for our prayer life, and it is important for us to understand. This prayer of blessing, glorification and sanctification in John 17 is also important for us to understand. In this prayer, Jesus sets a vision for the church then, and the church today, regarding what he desires us to live into.

In the first eight verses of the prayer, Jesus gives honor to the Father, mentioning that the time of the crucifixion has come. Jesus is praying over the mission that is ahead and the mission that has transpired. In all, he is speaking of a time of glory, a time of high honoring of the Father that will come when Christ offers himself as a sacrifice. In that moment, Christ will be glorified out of the Father’s love.

Beginning with verse 9, we see something different. Jesus begins praying for his disciples. Here, he prays for the disciples who have been under his care during his three year ministry. Their ministry is part of the ongoing work of Christ, and they will remain in the world to proclaim the love of Christ, even though Christ will soon be with the Father. In this moment, Christ desires the Father to protect these disciples in their mission and ministry, just as Christ has protected them. But, how are they protected? It is by the Father’s name. Jesus prays for the Father to protect the disciples due to his character. It is out of God’s holiness, his perfect love and care for all, that God the Father will protect those who remain to proclaim the name of Christ.

There is a reason they need protected. They are going to remain in the world. This protection is so that their mission and message does not get infected by the world. That’s not to say the disciples, both then and today, are to remove themselves completely out of the world. Instead, Christ is praying that the Father will protect his children as they engage the world in his name. Even more, that they will remain in a relationship with the Father, through faith in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as they seek to proclaim the name in a lost world. This prayer is important for the disciples, and it is important for us today. Christ has prayed over the mission of this church, and is inviting each of us to participate in this mission.

Christ doesn’t just pray for the disciples then, but he also prayed for us today. Think about this: on the night before Christ was crucified, we were on his heart. You were on his heart. Beginning with verse 20, Christ begins to pray for each and every one of us – that we will remain in our relationship in Christ. This is a carry forward of the words and teachings we see in John 15. We are called to remain in our relationship with Christ as we go out into the world to proclaim through our giving, our words, and our actions. This prayer is Christ seeking the Father’s protection over us. There is never a moment when Christ is not in prayer for us, and interceding on our behalf to the Father. Each moment of our lives is surrounded by a prayer from Jesus to the Father in Heaven.

There is a specific type of protection that Christ prays for us. He is praying that we will be in perfect unity with each other, as the Father and Son are in perfect unity. How will this be? How are we to be in unity with each other, and share in this with the Father and the Son? This is by love. The love of the Father shared with the Son is what unifies the Father and Son together. It is the Father’s love that we receive through faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that we share with one another. We are called to reflect the Father’s love for humanity by being people who are defined and known by love.

In the last portion of the prayer, beginning with verse 24, Jesus prays for the church to come. It is the kingdom of God, that glorious place that we will be in unity with the Son. Christ’s thoughts aren’t just on the disciples then and now, but also on the kingdom to come. His desire is that we will all gather together with Christ and share in the place that he is creating. This is Heaven, when we can be together with the Father, just as the Son is today. Christ desires this for all who would seek after him. We should seek after this and pray for this as well.

So, what does this all mean for us? How can we live into this prayer, as we live in this world today as disciples of Christ?

The first thing we can take from Jesus’ prayer is that we are never alone. Even when we think we are without hope and without anything to hang on, we can live into this prayer knowing that Christ is continually praying for us. There is never a moment that Christ is not praying over us, the church, and the world. We are called to follow after that prayer by trusting in Christ’s provision and protection. When we have the confidence of knowing that Christ is with us, it changes our perspective. Things will be better, because Christ is with us.

We also live into this prayer by living out the words that Christ is praying over. We are called as a church to abide and live into the vision that Christ sets forth in this prayer. These are not nice little statements just to keep in black and white, or red even. These are actionable statements that Christ has prayed over and desires for his followers to live into. The call for us to abide in a relationship with the Father, through faith in the Son, by the power of the Spirit, is real for us all. Each of us are called to grow in our personal faith, so that we might engage the world by our gifts, words, and actions. The call to be a disciple is not a call for some; it is a call for all. As well, this prayer is actionable for the church. The church abides in Christ, by keeping Christ as the center of our worship and affection. When we get distracted by the things that do not matter, it takes us away from what does matter – our obedience to Christ. Christ prayed over us, as a charge, when he prayed this prayer for us to live out our call to be obedient to Christ, by our giving, actions, and words in our communities. How can we live out this prayer today and tomorrow

Christ desires us to live into this prayer, so let us. Let these words be real and actionable. There is a place that Christ has prayed over and is inviting us to participate in and care for. It is up to us to be attentive to God’s voice and be willing to go where God is sending us, and be the church that God is calling us to be, no matter what that might look like, no matter the cost it might take, no matter the obstacles that might be before us.

We have been blessed by a great prayer of protection, now let’s live it out.

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Sunday’s Sermon: Who is Jesus?: The Healing Touch

A woman sits along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

It was a warm day. The sun was shinning. There was a light breeze in the air. The sound of the water hitting the rocks along the shore was soothing to the ear. Fishermen could be seen up and down the shore carrying their catch of fish for the day. Children were laughing and enjoying a simple day by the sea.

But she was not laughing. There she sat on that rock, amid the laughter and the normalcy of a warm day, full of despair and without hope. She was in pain. She was hurting. She was deeply sick.

For 12 years, she had suffered from a deep hemorrhage, an unspeakable kind of hemorrhage. Each day for 12 years, she would wake up feeling gross and dirty. She felt the pain of constantly bleeding. She felt the hurt of being cast aside by her friends and family. Ceremonially, she was considered unclean. She would not have been allowed in the synagogues, which was the central place of worship and community fellowship. Anything she touched would have been considered unclean, so she would not have been able to be with a husband or her family. She was alone.

She was broke as well. In trying to find an answer to her sickness, she went to every doctor she could find. She spent what little she had on her desire to be well. Unfortunately, no one had any answers. The only thing that came out of these visits were more pain, more bleeding, and financial ruin.

On this beautiful day, there she sat on the rock. Completely alone. Completely broke. Fearful that her bleeding might never stop. She was tired and discouraged. Where could she turn for help?

In the distance, there was a sense of excitement in the air. A crowd was forming. Everyone had stopped what they are doing and were moving toward where a small boat has just docked. She looks at the boat and notices that a man gets out. He was not alone. There are several other men with him – about 12, she counts. She can’t really make out who it is and why the people are gathered around him. Her eyes stays focused on him until she can figure out who he is and why everyone was so excited he had arrived.

As the crowd came closer, she noticed this man was in the center of the crowd. He was smiling and talking with the people. Eventually, she begins to recognize him. It was Jesus. She had heard so much about him. Even though she had never laid eyes on him, she knew who he was. His reputation in the community went before him. She had heard the stories of his powerful teaching and the love he shared with those the religious leaders said were unworthy of being loved. She knew the powerful acts he had done and the people he had healed. Even though it happened on the other side of the lake, she had heard people talk about how he cured a man who had been demon-possessed. She remembered the claims people made about Jesus. They said he was the long expected Savior. Even more, that he was the living Son of God who was filled with the power that comes from God, because he is God.

Her despondency begins to turn into hope. She recognizes she is in the presence of the Living Lord. She stands up from her rock and goes to join the crowd. As she takes her first step, she feels the brush of a man running past her. It was Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. She wondered why he was in a hurry. Was he another member of the Pharisees who wanted to challenge Jesus on his teaching? As soon as she thinks this, she notices Jairus do something unusual for a leader of his stature. He falls at Jesus’ feet. He had come to seek mercy from Jesus. Why? Jairus begins to tell Jesus about his daughter. She is sick and dying. The woman sees the compassion and concern of a desperate father. He doesn’t want to lose his daughter. He needs Jesus to bring her back to wholeness. He places his hope, his faith, that Jesus is able and willing to do just that.

Jesus agrees to go with Jairus. The first stages of healing are initiated. There are two main elements we can see simply in the fact that Jesus decides to go with Jairus to see his daughter. First, there is an opening of a relationship between Jairus and Jesus. A relationship is central to any healing. It sets the framework for Jesus and the Holy Spirit to bring healing in an individual, as Brad Long and Cindy Strickler write. Many of the healings Jesus did has this introductory element of establishing a relationship. Often, it is someone coming to Jesus to seek healing, as is the case here, and also the blind men in Matthew 9. The second is that Jesus has compassion for the child and the father. Compassion and love, which flows out of Jesus’ nature as the very Son of God, is prominent in every healing. One of the most powerful verses of Scripture is John 11:35, which we find in the middle of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. After seeing the tomb, “Jesus wept” in a powerful expression of his love and compassion for all people. It is with that same compassion and desire for all to come into a relationship with Him that Jesus goes to see Jairus’ daughter.

Jesus doesn’t go alone. He is followed by the large crowd that had circled around him. The woman is there in the crowd. She’s seen everything that has taken place. She wants that same healing that she knows the girl will soon receive. She doesn’t want to take away the girl’s healing. She just wants to be whole and healed too. She thinks if she could just get close enough to Jesus to touch his robe, then she would be healed. She knew others had simply touched him and were healed.

So, she pushes her way towards Jesus. She’s not concerned about making others unclean by touching them. She just wants to get close to Jesus. After pushing her way through the crowd, she gets close enough to touch him. With a sense of desperation, hope, and excitement, she quickly reaches out and touches the edge of his robe. Immediately, she is healed. The bleeding stops. Imagine her joy in that moment. See the tears flowing from her eyes. Experience the overwhelming sense of relief in the depths of her soul. For the first time in 12 years, she felt free and pure.

As she is feeling this sense of joy, Jesus stops his journey to Jairus’ daughter. He felt that healing power had gone forth from him and touched someone. Jesus begins to look around to see who might have touched him. The Disciples are looking around at a loss. They knew Jesus had been touched by multiple people. In fact, they were a little frustrated, because they knew the mission was to go to Jairus’ daughter. There was no time to sit around trying to figure out who among the hundreds had touched him.

But, Jesus wanted to talk with the person. He needed to. He had to put the healing in its proper perspective. There was a quasi-magical reason why the woman touched Jesus’ robe. In those days, there was a belief that touching the clothes of a religious leader, who had power from God, would bring healing to the individual. Paul has the same experience in Acts 19, when people were healed of diseases merely by their handkerchiefs touching his skin. Jesus wanted to make sure the woman knew the real reason for her healing. It wasn’t because she touched him. It was because of God’s compassion and desire for her to be healed. It was a free gift of God’s grace given in response to her faith. Healing is an expression of compassion, but it is also an expression of God’s power and the authority given to Jesus as the Son of God. Together with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is able to heal the sick, raise the dead, and give sight to the blind. On this day, the power that is in his nature as the Son of God comes out of him and touches the woman in the area of her greatest need and brings healing to her body. In that moment, she experienced the fullness of the Kingdom of God and felt the promise of a time of no illness, tears, or pain, all of which came to her through the power of God, expressed freely through Jesus’ love.

Hearing that Jesus was looking for her, the woman begins to walk back toward him. The joy she felt just moments ago has been replaced with a sense of fear. She is trembling. She has no idea what Jesus is going to do. Will he be mad at her? Will he put the sickness back on her? Will she never be healed now? She had no idea. Courageously, she walks forward and falls at Jesus’ feet. With a sense a humility and an act of confession in her faith in Christ, she tells Jesus why she touched him. She tells him her story and the pain of 12 years of being sick. She merely wanted to touch him, because she knew that within him was healing, within him was grace, and within him was hope and love.

Jesus then looks at the woman and tells her why she was healed. It was her faith in him that he is the Son of God. God honored her faith by giving her the gift of healing. Healing is an act of compassion, as an expression of the power of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and it is put in its proper context for a future relationship. In these words, “Daughter your faith has made you well,” Jesus invites the woman into a journey of faith. He calls her a daughter, a child of God. She is no longer abandoned and alone. She is now adopted in God’s family, because of her faith in Christ.

Not only this, Jesus starts her new life with a blessing. She is sent away with a command of peace. Jesus is telling her she is now whole. She will never suffer again. Christ, through her faith in him, has made her whole. We don’t know what happens to her from this moment on, but we know her life is never the same. Her life is a new journey from that day forward.

On this day, in these few moments, this woman felt the depths of Jesus’ compassion to freely give of himself so others might be healed and free from their diseases. We do not worship a God who sits on the sidelines while the world hurts. We worship a God who is right there in the midst of our pain and our hurts to bring forth healing. Sometimes it is instantaneous and other times it happens over the course of a lifetime. No matter when or how healing comes, it expresses God’s compassion, and his power, and points us back into relationship with him so that he will receive the glory and praise.

Today, we have been touched by this powerful story. Maybe you have seen yourself in this story. Maybe there is something in your life that you need Christ to touch and bring healing. Maybe you know something about someone else who needs healing that only comes from Christ. I don’t do this often, but I want to encourage you during our final song to find yourself at the altar. Spend time with God in prayer and seek his face in an act of faith and dependency on Him in our lives.

May today be the day that healing comes to us all, no matter our need and no matter our situation, just like it came to that woman so long ago.

The Perplexing Nature of Social Media

We live in a social media world.

In the last few years, our forms of communication have been dominated by Facebook and Twitter. We are inundated with status updates, tweets, friend requests, and follows. So much so, that our traditional forms of media will report on a tweet or a Facebook status from a celebrity, politician, or athlete as if it is major news. Case in point, was yesterday’s tweet from Rob Lowe suggesting that future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning would retire.

The evolution to a social media world is to be expected. In the last 100 years, we have seen a gradual progression in mass communication that has led to this point. What was once an industry, and a culture, dominated by the written word, we are becoming more and more engaged by the visual and the instant.

Now, this has some advantages. We can get information out quicker to people than in previous generations. We also have more freedom and flexibility in sharing. This comes as a great advantage in marketing and getting the word out to people about events and ideas, especially in the life of the church. The social media platforms gives the church more access to the people it desires to reach. This is a positive that cannot be understated.

However, social media and our technological world comes at a cost. Whether it is blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or other forms of communication, we have lost the personal interaction that is important in social relationships. While social media does well in bringing people together, it can also bring people apart. So often, we can see people on the Internet not as an individual but as a blank avatar. This allows for us to say things to someone who we likely would not say in a face to face conversation, especially if we disagree with something they say. Because we cannot see the individual we feel we have more freedom in criticizing or denouncing one’s views. It’s not the person we are writing against, but their representation on the Internet. This type of approach reduces the humanity of the other. It’s not just being done by those outside of faith, but also by those who are leaders in the church as well. We have all fallen victim to seeing profiles on social media as formless representations instead of a human interaction.

Our social media world also interacts with our personal world. We are becoming a people who struggle with face-to-face interaction. Our dinner conversations are more wrapped up in looking at our iPhones than seeing the face of the individual who is sitting next to us. We are all guilty of this, and I put myself in that category as well. Personal relationships must be fostered through things that social media cannot give. Relationships need eye contact, touch, and personal emotion, all of which we ignore if we focus only on technological forms of expression and communication.

This is not a new development. The past few decades have been a slow decline in the amount of personal face-to-face interactions we share with others. Social media only enhances what has been a growing problem of seeing the self as more important than the other.

Each of us must be willing to place boundaries on how we use the Internet. Some of us have not, and it causes severe problems, especially among our teens with cyberbullying. Parents must teach their children how to set proper frameworks for being on the Internet and monitor their children’s use of Social Media. As adults, we must be mindful of what we would say and be willing to stop ourselves from saying things we would not say in a personal and public setting. In the church, we must balance our engagement with the Internet with our promotion of humanity. If our engagement with social media, or other forms of communication, hinders our call to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ then we must question our motives and our actions on these platforms.

Social media is important and will play a role in our communication forms for years to come. We must engage this platform better than we are, today, and teach the proper usages of this important communication tool. If we do not, we run the risk of continuing the downward slope in personal communication. We cannot lose the personal in our quest for technology. If we do, we must just lose ourselves in the process.

Are we the Church in Sardis?

On some Wednesdays, I have the opportunity to speak at a local community luncheon. It is one the highlights of my week. Today, it was appropriate I had the opportunity to speak, because I felt something wrestling in my soul.

Earlier this morning, some friends and I discussed the future of the church. We all have ideas and solutions to what is going on in the church today. It was a great conversation, and it inspired me to think more about the issue facing the church. We live in an ever-changing world, and an increasingly post-Christendom world. Some have accepted this, but some have not. But, all in the church recognize there is something different about the world we live in.

This recognition requires a response. For too long, our response has been like the church in Sardis. In Revelation 3, we see that the church in Sardis has a great “reputation for being alive,” but the opposite is true. It is actually dead. Even though the church does a lot of great things in the community and has the looks of being alive, it is spiritually dead.

We do not have to look hard to see this is the case for the church. There are several concerns we can touch on.

Too often, the church is more interested in being the United Way than the body of Christ. We want to be known by the good deeds we do in a community. The United Way is a great organization and does a lot of good to help strengthen our communities. But, something is missing. The United Way is great, but it is not about sharing the Gospel.

We cannot disconnect good deeds from our faith and proclamation of Jesus Christ. The two go hand in hand. We must serve the poor and less fortunate, but it should flow our of our relationship with Christ. Acts of mercy and justice should not ignore the proclamation of the hope that flows from Jesus Christ. What good is it to give someone a blanket if we are unwilling to share the hope of Christ with that person? The only thing we have to offer is our hope in Jesus Christ, and everything else flows out of that hope, including our acts of mercy and kindness. Our mission and ministry must be a both/and not an either/or.

Another prevalent response is to ignore the true Gospel, which is the message and hope of Jesus Christ. We’ve replaced the Gospel with a personal feel-good message that places the individual in the role of God. Our sermons, our teachings, and our music is directed at a personal focus to faith. When we do so, we are offering a psychological focus that is merely a self-help guide to life. There is no true and everlasting hope in self-help and self-glorification models of faith.

We need the Gospel and we need to share it with our people. The Gospel is the true message and hope of Jesus Christ. To proclaim any other story above this runs counter to our purpose of worship, which is to offer God praise and glory. If we are unwilling to tell the story of Christ to someone, then the question should be asked of us of why not?

Another response the church has, today, is we have a protectionist mode of ministry. We are that because the world is different, we must hide in the church. There it is safe and we can strengthen the people. Because we can’t relate to the world, we are going to focus on ourselves and be content.

The church should be about making disciples and equipping the saints for ministry in the church. It is an important to ground men and women in their faith so they may be rooted in the love of Christ. As a pastor, it is something I take seriously. However, we cannot stay only where it is safe. We must be sent out into the world to serve God. We must be willing to engage the world. This means going to where the people of God are and purposely be the witnesses of Christ to them. They will not come to us, so we must go to them just as Christ went to the people.

This means, most likely, being adaptable in our worship practices (not our beliefs or teachings) to reach people. If holding a contemporary service is the best way to reach the people, then do it if that is where God is calling your church. The same with sports ministries, or adapting the time of corporate worship, or, even, have church in unusual places like a park. The church that is creative will be the church that is reaching people for Christ.

Finally, we have to stop fighting amongst ourselves. Another aspect of the protectionist model is to argue that only people with similar beliefs about Christ are maintaining the true Gospel. Doing this denounces the church’s ecumenical call in favor of holding up one’s own understandings above others. Sadly, in this area we look a lot like the world. We will stomp, kick, and call others names if they do not share the same beliefs about Christ that we do. We will claim heresy on things that are not heresies, because we cannot stand not having the “real truth.” Heresies are not differences of opinion. They are teachings that go against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can have differences of opinion in the church, which means different theological perspectives. We cannot have heresies, which proclaim falsehoods about Christ.

If we cannot get along with each other, how do we ever expect people to reach out to us? That is something for all of us to think about.

I believe we are called, as a church, to be the global representation of the body of Christ. The church is the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are all one body together. As a Wesleyan, there are areas where I have a difference of opinion with Calvinists. However, this does not prevent me from working together with my Calvinist friends to share the message of Christ. More than ever, we must work together to share the love of Christ.

As a church, both locally and corporately, we must be spiritually alive. What I offer are merely suggestions on how to improve. Ultimately, it will only happen when churches, and its members, are willing to be led by the Holy Spirit, and are grounded and rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ, and being obedient to the Father in all things. That is what makes us alive, both personally and church universal.

I hope and pray for a revival in the church, a revival that spreads across denominations and faith traditions. It is needed. Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Sunday’s Sermon: Who is Christ? The Servant Leader

Today, we begin our winter preaching series, which will take us up to the Sunday before Lent. Together, we will focus on several aspects of Jesus’ character. We will take a look deep inside the many facets of Christ’s character, which will help us understand what these mean for us in our communities, our churches, and our personal lives.

There is much we could focus on, but we will limit ourselves to a few topics during these next five weeks. We will look at his role as a teacher. His work as a healer. The counter-cultural nature of his ministry. We will examine the fullness of Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine.

There are multiple purposes for this series. First, it helps us prepare for the season of Lent. As we understand the fullness of Christ, we will better understand and appreciate why Christ died for us, and we’ll better understand the full impact of the resurrection.

As well, when we are grounded in our love and understanding of Christ, it helps us to not be swayed by bad teaching and theology. There is much in the way of bad theology and teaching today when it comes to the Son of God. We have made Jesus be what we want him to be to fit our needs. We place Jesus in a box, so to speak, to make him more comfortable and approachable. We want Jesus to be more Republican or Democratic. We want Jesus to be nicer. We want Jesus to be cool. We want Jesus to be our “boyfriend.” By doing this, we’ve separated Jesus from the Gospel and used him as a tool to promote our own understandings, ideas, and desires.

We must never disconnect Christ from the Gospel, for the Gospel proclaims the truth of Christ’s love – why he came to earth, how he points us to the Father, and how he is present today through the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Today, we begin to wrestle with the fullness of Christ. We do so with one of the most difficult aspects of Jesus’ ministry – the call to be servants. It’s a difficult call. This isn’t because we haven’t heard about Christ’s servant nature. We have, and those stories are central to our faith. It is difficult, because it runs counter to our basic human nature and it is uncomfortable. To be a servant means we must deny our own wishes, ideas, and desires and see others as more important than ourselves. To be a servant means taking on the posture of humility so that we might share the love of Christ with others.

We all want to be servants in our lives, but, to be honest, each of us struggle daily with being servants in the name of the Lord. This is because to be a servant is to run completely counter to the world’s message. The world has unique ideas about service. Its message says we do things so that we can receive the honor and glory. In other words, we do things so that we can receive accolades and respect from others. We give money to causes, because we can receive a tax break or because someone told us it is what “good people” must do. Service and helping the world is not about our neighbor. It is about us.

Our culture has even given us an unique perspective on leadership. Those with true power and influence are those in the highest positions of authority – politicians, teachers, and pastors. Because these people hold an area of influence, we look to them for guidance and direction. We should. Unfortunately, this trust is misused by those who are more authoritarian in their approach. We have a leadership problem. It occurs when leaders, whether it is by their place of authority or by the position given to them by culture, such as celebrities, consider themselves as the helpers of the “little people,” without having true concern for those whom they desire to help.

With the world’s ideas of service and leadership so prevalent in our midst, it is no wonder that we in the church struggle with being leaders who are servants. We have little understanding of true service and true leadership, and we struggle to put these concepts together our life and in our witness of Christ’s love and desire for the world.

Fortunately, we are not alone in struggling with being leaders who are servants. The Disciples struggled with it as well, and they were right next to Jesus, who is the greatest example of a servant leader. The Disciples struggled with placing these concepts of service and leadership together, just as we do in our own lives. Many of the questions between the Disciples and Jesus centered on this idea of how to truly live out our call to be leaders who are servants.

In our passage today, the Disciples are, once again, trying to understand this idea of being leaders who are servants. This time, they do so in the Upper Room during the Last Supper with Jesus. They were attempting to figure out who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. It’s a scene that is much similar to Mark 10:34-35 when James and John ask Christ to give one of them the privilege of sitting at his right hand. Here, however, the disciples knew that Jesus was inaugurating the Kingdom God on Earth. They knew someone had to be in charge, so why not one of them? The Disciples wanted the authority of leadership and wanted to be seen as great among their fellow people.

Jesus doesn’t give into their wishes. He desired something different from them, and desires something different from us. Jesus wanted them, and wants us, to be great, but not by the world’s standards. That is what the Disciples, and perhaps we as well, were attempting to do. Jesus explains a contrasting situation that we see in our world today. To follow Jesus’ line of thinking, leadership to the world is about lording our acts of charity and good will to others because they are the “little people” who “can’t help themselves.”

Jesus says the world sees greatness as what we can do for them, because the world needs us to live better lives. It is a self-focused way of living and leadership that says we are the answer to the world’s problem, and without us, others would have nothing. When we say this, we place ourselves above the needs of others and remove any potential for relationship and sharing of life with others. Servant leaders share life in humility with others in order to bring the hope and the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all.

True leadership, and true greatness, Jesus points out, is about something else. To be truly great, to be true leaders, we must be willing to lay down our lives for others. We must see others as more important than ourselves. We must share our faith in acts of love, kindness, and mercy out of our common humanity that comes from God and love for one another. We must be leaders who are servants.

This means we must live our lives as servants in the name of the Lord. It is a style of leadership, and a way of life, that says it is not about us. It is not about our glory or having our name proclaimed. Being leaders who are servants is about humbling ourselves by taking on the lowest position. This is so others might be cared for and see Christ’s love working in us to impact the lives of others. We are servants who give Christ the glory, for he is worthy of our honor and praise.

Please do not think that I believe the call to be a servant is only for those in places of leadership. It is for all of us. Jesus’ call for us to be people who are humble isn’t limited to those in places of authority. Our entire life is to be wrapped up in this idea of serving others out of the basis of our faith in Christ. We are called to be servants in all aspects of our lives, whether it is in our homes, our schools, or our careers. We are all called to be leaders who are servants.

Thankfully, Christ shows us the way to this type of leadership. The entire New Testament is filled with Jesus’ interactions with the people of that time that highlights this servant nature to leadership. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Christ did not see his divinity as something to be handled as a prized trophy. Instead, he took the position of a servant and came into the world. We are called to imitate Christ by being servants who are obedient to the call of Christ to see others as more important.

Servant leadership, Christ shows us, is about taking on the position of a server in order to care for the needs of others. He does this so beautifully in John 13. Before the Disciples enter the Upper Room, Jesus washes each of their feet. He cares for them in the most humblest of ways, because of his love for them. No one would expect the leaders of this world to get on their hands and needs to do the most menial tasks. They would consider it beneath them. Yet, Christ says it is his honor to humble himself, to care for the needs of others, to show his love by caring for them.

Christ shows that being obedient to God is not about us. It is about taking on the lowliest of positions in order to serve the needs of others and share the message of Christ’s love to all people. Those who have done just this are truly remarkable people who are worthy of our admiration and respect. I can think of Mother Theresa, who took on the position of a servant to help the poor in her native India. Even parents who were less concerned about their own needs in order to provide for their children.

For us, we are called to do those things that no one would expect us to do so that we might share the Gospel of Christ’s love with others. Where are the places we might be called to humble ourselves? Where are the places we might walk in a posture of humility? Who are the people who need to see a dedicated group of believers truly practice and believe that Christ called them to serve instead of to be served?

The call to be servants may seem like a high and lofty goal. It may seem impossible to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ’s path of obedience, even to the point of death on a cross. Yet, when we deny ourselves and take on this posture of humility, some great things can happen. It is not about anything we did, but about God simply working in us and through us to inspire others to the cross.

There are some final points we should make regarding this nature of servant leadership.

We cannot do this alone. Leaders who are servants are not lone creatures. When we are out on our own, we can easily take the message about being humble in life and in service to others and make it a point of separation and bragging. Instead of being concerned about the needs of others, we can become more concerned about having others “look at me” and distancing ourselves from people who “are not doing it like I would do it.”

We must be servants together in community. There is a reason Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to serve others. We need partners who will help us and guide us. We also need the encouragement of others to help us, especially in discouraging times. Henri Nouwen writes that “We cannot bring good news on our own.” We need each other. This is one of the great strengths of our connectional system in the United Methodist Church. We are not alone in ministry and service to others. As we go out to serve, how can we partner with each other in our church, our charge, and also with the greater witness of believers throughout our community? This is a question for all of us to think about.

This must be an act of mutuality. This is probably the hardest aspect of serving. We must see the other as valuable, because they are created in the image of God. So often, we have the problem of seeing the person we are serving as “less than.” Instead of taking this posture, we must see them as someone of value and as our friend. This means forming relationships with the people we are serving, so that we might learn from them and share life with them. What good is it to serve if we are unwilling to share our lives with one other? The life of Christ is about relationships, and we must follow into that as we serve and interact with others.

As we go forth today, we will each have opportunities to inspire others and to make an impact in someone’s life. How will we do so? My hope is that we will do so as true witnesses of Christ’s character, who are servant leaders. When we do, I promise you true opportunities will be created and true sharing of life will take place.

Faith and Politics, Part II

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of an amazing moment of bipartisanship in our ever partisan country. Legislators from both major political parties gathered to form the Kentucky Legislative Prayer Caucus, a nonpartisan group aimed at promoting religious freedom in our country and commonwealth.

An estimated 300 people, including members of the Kentucky Legislature, were in attendance filling several levels of the historic Capitol’s Rotunda. The attendance was higher than expected, according to event organizers.

It remains to be seen whether the new caucus will remain true to its purpose of protecting religious freedom in Kentucky. Yesterday’s event was a powerful beginning to the caucus that saw legislators sign a pledge to protect religious liberties. That pledge can be found at the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation’s Website. Legislators should be applauded for joining together and affirming the country’s values and religious traditions.

While I am in support of this organization, and others like it, I do have a bit of caution. We must all make sure we are not merely fighting symbolic battles, but are wrestling with what it meaning to live out our faith and to be led by God’s grace and will for our lives.

It is easy for all of us, myself included, to be caught up in the symbolic battles of faith. Those battles include displaying the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, the words “Under God” being in our Pledge of Allegiance, or our nation’s motto remaining “In God We Trust.” Each of these have led to passionate discussions among the faith communities, and led some to believe that our Christian faith and heritage is under attack. I do believe our faith is under attack in our country, but I question if merely fighting symbolic battles are the way to address the larger issue.

In other words, we must be more concerned about the meaning behind the symbol than the symbol itself. What good is it if a legislator desires to protect religious freedom, but is unwilling to treat someone on the opposing side with respect and decency, which are core values of the Christian faith? What good is it if we proclaim with our words to submit to God’s leading and authority in our lives, but are more concerned about our own needs and own agendas?

Our symbols are important, but what is more important is how we live out the meaning of our faith. That is the most important battle that we face. We must make sure that we are living lives in complete obedience to God in love and adoration for all that God has done for us. We must give our entire lives over to God, because that is what God demands of us. We are called to be holy, because God, our God, is holy.

If we live out our faith in love, and exhibit our faith and dependency on God in our lives, then maintaining our symbols will be a secondary issue. As we are living out our lives in faith and obedience to God, we are participating in the greater and most important struggle of faith – making disciples in the name of Jesus Christ who are transformed by the Holy Spirit to live lives for Christ. When that happens, the battles over symbols becomes unimportant because people are living out their faith in adoration for all God has done for them.

Yesterday, I met legislators who were concerned about this very issue. It was reaffirming to hear legislators who understand the importance of living out their faith and bringing others to the cross. My hope is we that we all believe that for ourselves.

The struggle to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ is the ultimate struggle we must all be engaged in. It requires us to reverse the question of symbols from “Why are the symbols being removed,” to “how can we live out the meaning of the symbol.” It is a harder challenge, yes, but so is the path of following Jesus Christ.

Sunday’s Sermon: A State of the Pulpit Address

If you haven’t figured out by now, I am fascinated by the political world. As a child, I was more interested in watching the news than cartoons. I remember a time in elementary school that highlights this fascination. We had a dress-up day where we dressed in apparel from the 1950s. Most of my classmates came in white T-shirts, slick back hair, or, for the girls, poodle skirts. I came dressed as President Harry S. Truman.

One of the things that captivates my interest in politics are the major speeches politicians make from time to time. These speeches serve multiple functions. Sometimes, the speeches are used to inspire people to the cause of liberty and freedom. At other times, they are tools to promote one’s ideas for the country, especially in an election year. As well, sadly, these speeches are often attempts to console a grieving nation after a time of loss.

The speech I am the most interested in is the “State of the Union” address. Even though the speech preempts our favorite television programs, it is an important speech. It acknowledges the previous year’s accomplishments. It makes comments regarding the country’s current condition. Finally, it sets a vision for the future and announces plans to reach those goals. Often, it is the most important speech a head of government gives each year.

On this the second Sunday of 2012, I believe it is appropriate, and perhaps fun, to use the basic principles we find in a “State of the Union” and apply them to our two churches. Today, is our “State of the Pulpit.” What follows will be an honest dialogue about the state of our two churches as we move forward in 2012, which I firmly believe will be an exciting and prosperous year for our churches. I hope these words are met with the same love and encouragement that they are given. Today, I want to begin casting a vision for us as a charge, which sets the tone of how we will proclaim the loving and gracious name of Jesus Christ in our communities in 2012 and beyond.

First, I want to take a moment and look at where we’ve been, both historically and in the past year. This is important for us. Looking at who we are and where we’ve been is our act of remembering what God has done in us and through us. This idea is a central theme in our understanding of communion. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says we are to remember all that Christ did and continues to do through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a great reminder for all of us that the activity of the church, both locally and globally, is the ongoing ministry and representation of Jesus Christ.

There is much history between our two churches. We are familiar of the stories of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s raid, which came through Mackville and interrupted the plans of a convocation dinner the church was preparing. We know Antioch served as a hospital during the Battle of Perryville, and some who fought in the war are buried on our grounds. But, there is more to our history than these stories and many like it. The story of Mackville United Methodist and Antioch United Methodist are filled with memories of life changing moments where God transformed the lives of many people through the ministry and mission of our two churches. We could spend hours talking about the many blessings God has poured out on our two churches. We should praise God, today and always, for what has transpired in the history of our charge and how God has used us to serve the “least of these” and to proclaim the truth of God’s love to all.

As we think back on the past year, God has worked in us and through us to care for the poor and needy in our communities and world. We have been used by God to proclaim the truth of Christ’s love to all people through our generosity. I am always humbled to share with others the many ways you give of yourselves for others. At Christmas, Mackville provided a major blessing to a family in need by providing a Christmas they will never forget. When I took the gifts to them, they were blown away by an entire trunk full of gifts. I’m always blessed by the compassion the people of Antioch show to all people. At both churches, we have formed a relationship with Harvesting Hope that will carry forward in this new year. We have lived out Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:34-36 to see the least of God’s children as an opportunity to serve Christ himself.

However, we cannot live on past accomplishments and blessings alone. We are called to be forward thinking. We must continually discern God’s desires and how God wants to use us as messengers and servants of God’s love for all people. This means we must make an honest and loving assessment of where we are today, so we may move forward in sharing the grace of God. When we do this, we are able to be a witness of God’s love and participate in the ongoing mission of the Spirit in Mackville, Perryville, Danville, Harrodsburg and all corners of the earth.

In order to grow numerically and spiritually, we must be honest about our current condition. The glaring challenge before us in 2012 is our worship attendance. This is not a new challenge. While we have a consistent number of worshipers each week, we have reached a critical point where the decline in numbers must be discussed seriously and openly. As we look ahead to the next five or ten years, our attendance could lead to potential issue that are all too common for small churches. At both Mackville and Antioch, we have a generation gap. That means, we have a gap in the worship participation and the membership between various generations. This gap exists, for the most part, between those over the age of 60 and those between the ages of 20 and 35. In other words, we are not reaching young adults and their families. A thriving and stable church should be able to reach people of all age ranges and demographics.

Part of this has to do with the changing natures of our communities. More people, especially younger families, are moving away, which makes it harder to retain and reach new members. But, that should not stop us. As I have said before, there is a vast mission field all around us of people who are waiting for the church to come to them. This is why I believe worship attendance is not a problem, but a challenge. It is a challenge that, in 2012, will require the work of all of us to address and work to reach out to people in new ways. We have shown the ability to fill our churches on special occasions, but let us show our willingness to fill our congregations each time we are gathered to worship and glorify the Lord.

I firmly believe our two churches can be like the dry bones that are found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Ezekiel is taken to a valley of dry bones, which represented the people of Israel. They had lost their focus and obedience to God as their first love. They were worn out, exhausted, and, because of that, there was no energy arising from God’s Spirit living within them. Ezekiel is looking around, when God asks him a question. It is a question that, perhaps, God is asking of us today. “Can these bones become living people again?” For us, “Can this church, and charge, be alive with the Spirit of God again?” As we see in Ezekiel, when God’s Spirit blows it creates an energy that can bring life to what was once dead. The is true for the church. When God’s Spirit is alive and manifested in the life of a community, a new energy is prospered that can transform and bring to life a community with new people, new ministries, and new opportunities to proclaim God’s love.

“Can this church and charge be alive again?” I believe the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Together, we can be a church that is like the dry bones that came to life. We can be renewed and revitalized for a purpose of serving God faithfully in our communities. For this to happen, we must look forward and set the course for this process to begin.

There are two comments I want to make. As we move forward, we must follow Christ’s words in Matthew 10:16. When sending the Disciples out on their first mission, he calls them to be like “sheep among wolves” and “shrewd as snakes.” What Christ is saying is we must be wise and make thoughtful decisions about how best to serve our communities. We must understand the changing culture, and our changing communities, and understand how we might adapt to reach our people. We must be gracious and compassionate towards all people. As well, we must be willing to go where our people are and engage them. The people who are not in church on Sundays will not come to us unless we are willing to go to them. This will require us to ask serious questions of how best to reach and engage our Jerusalem of Mackville, Perryville and Harrodsburg, as we go out to the Judea of Springfield and Danville, the Samaria of our many counties and to all the ends of the earth of the entire Commonwealth, nation and world. This is Christ’s call, from Acts 1, of how we are to go out into the world, and it is our call as a church as well.

Also, we must be passionate about Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:14-21. These words will guide us as we enter this time of visioning and revitalization. In verse 17, Paul calls us to be “rooted” in God’s love. As individuals and as a charge, our vision and purpose should be rooted in God’s grace. This grace has its core in the life of Jesus Christ. The grace that appeared on Christmas morning, was seen by the Wise Men on this Epiphany Sunday, and redeemed us all on Easter should be our focal point. Everything we do and desire to be should be formulated in the love of Christ, which knows no end. God’s love, which we receive through the Holy Spirit, must be at the center of our church, our charge, and our lives. It must be our guiding light at all times.

The love of Christ strengthens us in times of discouragement and in times of challenges. There are multiple forms of love. There is the love God shows us, which is expressed in God’s grace and mercy. It builds us up to a point where we can reach the mountains of all God has for us in our communities. Christ strengthens us as we remember all the blessings that has occurred in the past, but also as we set a path for the future. As we are strengthened, we come to seek a deeper dependency on the love of Christ. There is also the love that is our respect and adoration for all God has done in us, through us, and in spite of us. This is the love that we are called to share with others. As we meet people and invite them to church, we are telling our love story of God’s grace that redeemed us and gave us a purpose to be witnesses who share the width, depth, length, and heights of God’s love to all people.

The story of Mackville United Methodist and Antioch United Methodist is not finished. Our story is not complete. There are more chapters to write. God is at work writing the story, and we are called to participate in the story by participating in the mission of God here in our communities through the actions of our church and charge. This year will be a time of visioning and revitalization, but more importantly it will be a time of hope and new beginnings. My hope is we will look back on 2012 as the year that the bones came to life, energy was fostered, and a new vision and hope came forth.

May that hope, and, most importantly, the hope of our love in Jesus Christ guide us each day as we seek to live as witnesses of Christ in our lives and in this charge.