The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

Advertisements

Our Values: Foundational Principles for Ogden Memorial

Today is the first day of school in Caldwell County. This has been a day, personally, I’ve been looking forward to for some time since it is Noah’s first day in kindergarten.

The fact schools are back in session reminds me of my educational experiences in Raleigh County Schools in West Virginia. Each of my teachers invested in my life. They sought to teach me how to write, read, and understand the world we live in. I am who I am because of the teachers who invested in me.

Most importantly, though, my teachers tried to instill within me values that would define who I am. Values like treating my classmates with respect, living with kindness, and being patient. Those values are still important to me some 30 years later.

When we think of values our minds go to the core foundational principles that define who we live and interact with others. They are what inspire our words and actions even when we are not aware of them.

Christ calls us to claim values in our journey together. Values that serve as an outflow of our relationship with the Lord and define how we live out our love of God. We see our values being expressed through the Beatitudes, Jesus’ prayers, ministries, and common life with his believers. Jesus often called us to go and do likewise. We follow in the footsteps of Christ by taking on the same values and core principles we see reflected in Jesus as an aspect of who we are in Christ’s love.

Throughout 2018, our vision team has been working with me in prayerful conversations about the values that define our common life at Ogden Memorial. I am appreciative of Sara Brown, Jae Englebright, Elaine Overhults, Mary Rohrer, and Emory Spradlin for their dedication and work. They have blessed me with their prayers, laughter, and desire to see the church come alive.

We began our work with a focus on our values, first, because we wanted to set our mind on common principles that define who we are at Ogden. Values that are unchanging. We recognize that leaders may change, ministries may change, pastors may change, but the values of a community are constant. They define our work and how we live out our purpose of loving God and making disciples.

Together we discerned five core values that will define our work moving forward at Ogden Memorial. They are: love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community. We believe these are values best described how God is leading us forward at Ogden Memorial. Each of the values have statements that were written by members of the team in collaboration with one another.

Beginning September 2, you will hear more about how these values will shape our mission together during worship. Members of the vision team will share about the values and the sermon will reflect on their meaning and purpose for our shared life together. We will celebrate our values on September 30 with a potluck following worship.

Our values. That is what they are. These are the values God has blessed us with to define our relationships with one another and ministry with our community.

I believe, as I have always, that Ogden Memorial is sleeping giant waiting to come alive with fruitful and vibrant ministry. These values and the work of the church coming together to get to this point are a positive step towards that direction.

I’m excited about what is next for Ogden Memorial. I hope you are, as well.

Turn Out the Distractions

Every Sunday before the sermon, I try to gather us together with a centering prayer. What this prayer does is it gives us space to catch our breath, collect our thoughts, and to prepare ourselves to hear what God wants us for us today. I know, for some, the sermon is a time for a nap, but this time is truly a time of deep discipleship where we are encouraged and challenged to grow closer to God’s love. This is the most important time of the worship service.

The importance of this time is why I try to include this phrase in the pre-sermon prayer each week: Turn out the distractions of our days and of our lives so that we may be attentive to your voice and what you have for us this day. Sound familiar? These words are important for all of us, because I recognize we often come to worship distracted by the concerns, worries, and moments in our lives. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: Run the Race

Today’s sermon will be a little different than normal. This morning, I want to specifically speak to our five youth who were confirmed today. In doing so, I hope I might say something that will impact each of our lives, and that includes my own.

This is a momentous day in each of your lives and in the ministry and life of this congregation. What each of you have done is to make several public proclamations. By your presence, you have proclaimed your thanks for those who have walked with you through the years and have taught you about faith, about Jesus, and about what it means to follow the Lord. You have proclaimed your desire to live for Christ with your every word and breath. Finally, you have proclaimed your intent to be a witness of Jesus Christ through your example and actions in this world.

It is a huge responsibility and blessing you have committed yourselves to today. It is not something to be taken lightly. For as all of us can attest, living for Christ and seeking to be his witness every day are some of the hardest things we will ever attempt to do. That is why stories like the rich young ruler, who wanted as little of Jesus as he could without the Lord wrecking his life, speak to us. We want to proclaim our faith in Christ without the life Jesus desires for us ever messing with the life we want. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: What Sustains You?

This has been a very difficult week. One of those weeks where the events of the past seven days cannot be ignored.

It began with the images that came out of Nepal as the people there began to look for survivors after a devastating earthquake and aftershock. Nearly 7,000 people lost their life in this tragedy, and it is expected that the number will grow.

As the week progressed, we were met with the images from the events in Baltimore. We watched as the city burned and people protested – many peacefully and some less so – the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray.

The question that I keep thinking about after this week is: what sustains us? What keeps us going? We look at these events and it is easy to allow them to overwhelm us or even to lead us to the perspective of “is the world even worth it?” What keeps us focused on the main thing when we are overwhelmed by so much hurt, pain, and sadness in our world?

It is a question that I think about when we think about the news of our own lives. What sustains us when life gets overwhelming, or difficult, or challenging?

All of us know what it means to experience the difficulties of life. We have faced the loss of close friends and family members. We have experienced the break-up of friendships. We have experienced the pain of financial struggles and other difficulties. What keeps us going in these moments? Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: By Growing in Faith

Growing up many of my classmates and friends wanted to “be like Mike.” They tried to soar in the air like Jordan. They tried to play defense like him. They mimicked everything about him. 

Not me. I wanted to be like Mickey … Mickey Furfari. Now, that name will mean nothing to you, but back in West Virginia, he is a legend. Mickey is known as the dean of sports writers and has been covering West Virginia athletics for longer than any other journalist. I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to cover the same sports as him. I wanted to be in the same interview rooms like him. I wanted to be just like him. 

Now, I am sure many of you have people in our lives that you admired and who you wanted to emulate your lives after. We all have had people who we thought lived a life worthy of modeling our own life after. Maybe it is a family member. Maybe it is a friend. Maybe it is someone we worked with. Whoever this person may be, they have something about them that we want to be known by. Continue reading

Sunday’s Sermon: Resolution 2015: Follow

Since moving to Kentucky in 2007, there is a lot I have learned about our great commonwealth. I have learned that a Derby Pie is a unique combination that must be tasted to be appreciated. I have learned that Lexington is not only the “horse capital of the world,” but also the “traffic jam capital” as well. I have learned that you can tell when someone is new to the state by how they pronounce “Louisville.”

Yet of all the things I have learned about Kentucky, probably the most significant is this: we love our sports. Sports is part of the culture in Kentucky. From the youth basketball courts to the college basketball games, we love to take in sports and talk about them daily. Go to McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg on any morning and you are guaranteed to hear people either talking about the next Kentucky game or a recent high school contest. 

We love to get involved in sports. We love to watch the athletes and cheer for our favorite team. We get excited when our team wins and we get frustrated, for example, when a certain team dressed in Gold and Blue decides not to make a basket against Texas. We love our sports.  Continue reading