Sheep Without a Shepherd

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

— Mark 6:30-34

When I was associate pastor in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, one of several hurricanes missed us and crossed the state a few miles north of us. One Sunday, a very weary woman came into our service. She introduced herself as a Disciples minister, then broke down crying. She was from San Diego and had come here to help with the destruction from the hurricane.

She told heart-wrenching stories about people living in their storage sheds, with plastic tarps for roofs and wood fires for cooking. She told us about her work with the physical needs of the people she met, but also about the extreme emotional toll the storm had on the people. She was from out of town, so she did not represent an area church.

We discussed ways that we could help in an already crowded field of volunteers. She suggested that if we volunteered, we might be able to recruit people into the church.

I’m sure you know that Disciples churches aren’t exactly evangelical. My senior pastor and I had a sense that although there were no Disciples churches in the affected area, there were plenty of churches where people could and perhaps should attend. Besides, we were too far away. We just had a sense that it would be taking unfair advantage of a natural disaster if we used it as a platform to gain members.

Her response was, “Well, SOMEBODY should bring them in!”

I will never forget that event. We were convicted of finding an excuse to avoid recruiting new church members. Our excuse sounded legitimate – that there were other churches closer, that the people probably had a different denominational background, and so on. But while we were making excuses to not evangelize, apparently so was everybody else. In the midst of the destruction, the people were like sheep without a spiritual shepherd.

I bet we have excuses for not evangelizing. There are a lot of churches in Guyton. A lot of people have backgrounds and families in other denominations. We aren’t big enough for some people. We don’t have a big singles group. We are too liberal for some people and too conservative for others. But the lesson I learned is that if we are not shepherding people into the kingdom of God, they are likely to be sheep without a shepherd.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus has taken His disciples by boat to a solitary place. Jesus had sent them out two by two to evangelize, and they had returned to report on their success. Jesus was suggesting that they all take a break in a solitary place. But the people figured out where they were going, and when they landed the boat, that place was not so solitary. It was full of people looking for answers, looking for a teacher, looking for a shepherd. Jesus and the disciples needed a break, but the people needed a shepherd. So Jesus forgot about his needed break and started teaching the people.

This story comes just before the feeding of the five-thousand, which comes before the event of Jesus walking on water and calming a storm. Between those two events, Jesus was praying alone on a mountaintop. That was His time to recharge.

The story says that Jesus had pity on the people, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The same phrase is used in Matthew. Let’s look at that, in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” There were plenty of people working the field after the hurricane, but there was nobody harvesting those who were ripe for spiritual revival. In John 4, Jesus has so impressed a Samaritan woman that she brought the whole town out to hear him. It was another time that Jesus needed a break.

The disciples had gone to get food. “Rabbi, eat something,” they said. Jesus answered, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest.’?” How is that a saying? It must have been that when one person says, “We can’t take a break,” or “Why are you doing nothing?”, the person resting might say, “It’s still four months until harvest.” It’s kind of like saying, “What’s the hurry?”

Jesus goes on to say, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

We all tend to make excuses for why we aren’t out inviting people to church, or testifying about the Kingdom of God. There’s lots of time, we say. What’s the hurry? The people aren’t ready. Somebody else will do it. Our barns are not big enough.

Meanwhile, lost and hurting people are looking for a shepherd. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t good enough, big enough, rich enough, loud enough, contemporary enough. It doesn’t matter if we need a break. No excuse matters, because we are not the shepherd; Jesus is.

Here’s the question: Are we going to go another week without inviting someone to church? Why? Do we really think everybody has a church, or are we just afraid to ask? Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest! There are workers in the field who really have their hands full, and they are asking the Lord of the Harvest to send more workers.

Guess what? We are more workers. We are those who are too often sitting on the sidelines, waiting for instructions or for the ideal opportunity. Meanwhile, there are people who are lost and confused – Matthew says they are harassed and helpless – and they are like sheep without a shepherd.

You can be an answer to prayer. We can be workers in the field, gathering the harvest, bringing in the sheaves. We may need rest, we may be few, we may be busy, and none of that matters. Look! The field is ripe for harvest! Pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send workers into His field! I pray that when He sends us, we will go into the field, harvest the grain, and introduce those harassed and helpless sheep to the Good Shepherd who leads this church.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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2018 Sonnet 53

I hear both sides, but neither speaks of peace,
It’s always “what we give; what we don’t get.”
The squeaky wheel is crying for the grease,
“I must defend my own side. I can’t let

It matter that we share the same chassis.”
It matters that we share a common load,
It matters the field is just as grassy
On both sides of the fence, and of the road.

I long to hear, “What can we give to make
This work out best for them, ok for us?”
I long to hear, “What can we give to shake
This conflict into song instead of fuss?”

I want more love than conflict. I confess.
Who cares what I want? Jesus does, I guess.

Revive Us Again

You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered all their sins.
You set aside all your wrath
and turned from your fierce anger.

Restore us again, God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.

— Psalm 85

The English sonnet is a rigorous poetic form. Every English sonnet contains three four-line stanzas called “quatrains” and a two-line stanza called a “couplet” for 14 lines. Every line contains 10 syllables. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is “ABAB”, and the rhyme scheme of the couplet is, of course, “CC”.

Because it’s such a rigorous form, the language can become a bit stilted. The sonnet becomes even more stilted if it aims too much to a commercial intent. All this considered, I still wrote a sonnet for our church:

If you are looking for love and respect
Where people welcome you just as you are,
Then join in our prayer to God to protect
This gentle oasis, this crowning star

In the Kingdom of Christ attracting all
Who are weak and weary, lonely and blue.
If you think God’s not there or does not care,
Guyton Christian Church wants to welcome you.

If you want to live with Jesus as Lord,
If you cry for the Holy Spirit’s power,
Join brothers and sisters of one accord
And visit us once, just for an hour.

The table of Christ is where we would share
God’s love. Please join us. We welcome you there.

Some day I’ll write a better one for Guyton Christian Church. But my point here is just to explain my particular affection for the Psalms. They’re all hymns, and many are prayers. Just as rhyme and rhythm are poetic devices in English, ancient Hebrew has other poetic devices that don’t translate into English. However, most modern translations evolved from the King James Version, which was written in Shakespeare’s lifetime and heavily influenced by his poetry. The result is something new and beautiful, and something that shows the fingerprint of God.

Today’s psalm, #85, is a prayer an a hymn. As with many such psalms, it acknowledges God’s favor to God’s people Israel, the people’s sin and God’s resulting anger, and a celebration of a love so strong that it lets God forgive us and turn from wrath. Before the resettling of Israel, the Christian church put itself in Israel’s place in all of scripture. Today, Israel is again a land and a people, so we’ve lost that personal sense of scripture. But we lose nothing of what the psalm says about the loving, merciful nature of God. We are right to call ourselves children of God, just as Israel did. And, importantly, we are right to admit that we are just as fickle and sinful as were the children of Israel, and indeed all nations throughout history.

Psalm 85 comes up on the lectionary for this week, and it is particularly significant to me. It teaches us about God. It tells us something about prayer. And the ideas expressed are in and of themselves very creative and poetic.

The first four verses are a stanza. They refer to a time when God brought Israel out of exile and restored the land. “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins,” verse two says. The original Hebrew then includes the word “selah”. We don’t know what that means, but it’s probably something like “amen”. I can imagine the thought of God forgiving and hiding the sins of the people would make them want to shout, “Amen!”

The next four verses seem to be another stanza. In them, the people are asking God to repeat that act of forgiveness. “Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.” Verse 6 says, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

This is common throughout the Hebrew Bible, and especially in the psalms. It goes something like, “O God, we cannot rejoice in our affliction. If you restore us, if you forgive us, we will survive to sing your praises.” It’s a plea that God seems to answer again and again.

Verse 8 makes a deal with God. “I will listen to what God the LORD says; He promises peace to his people, his faithful servants – but let them not turn to folly.” In other words, I’ll read God’s promises and instructions. I’ll take the peace that God promises, but I understand that obedience is part of the deal. Peace comes to doers of the word, and not to hearers only.

Verse 9 describes what I like to call “proximity blessings.” “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” In other words, if his salvation is near those who fear him, then it is also near to everyone else in the land.

Paul taught that a Christian spouse should stay with a non-Christian spouse if possible so that the spouse and the children could also be sanctified –in other words, so that they would receive that proximity blessing. People who come into the church without believing are still receiving the blessing of God, because God’s hand of blessing is on the whole church. That’s a good thing, because when one of us falls, the rest of us are there to pick them up.

The last four verses are so poetic! “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteous and peace kiss each other.” What a beautiful picture! It is also meaningful. The next verse explains: “Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.”

That’s a very Christian view of our relationship with God. Think about it. What comes from us? What springs from the earth? Faithfulness! Belief in God, or, more likely, loyalty to God. And what comes from God, or down from heaven? Righteousness! Think about the Genesis verse that Paul quotes in Romans: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not righteous, and neither are we, so righteousness has to come from God. He credits us as if we were righteous, and he teaches us to be righteous. Our part can only be faith.

People think the message changed from “old” to “new” testament. It did not. The entire Bible makes clear that we are not righteous. The entire Bible makes clear that only God can make us righteous. And the entire Bible makes clear that God will credit us with righteousness if we provide faithfulness.

Psalm 85 is a prayer for revival! “Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us.” “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

I think you know what our part is here: Faithfulness. Believe in God, and be loyal to God. I often pray for revival at Guyton Christian Church, and that this community will receive a proximity blessing.

I have to confess something. I personally have found revival at Guyton Christian Church. In so many ways, you have restored my faith. I have received a proximity blessing, and because you are faithful, I am blessed to be a part of this church.

But we want more, don’t we? Don’t we want God to forgive our sins and give us reasons to rejoice? Don’t we want the entire land, all of Guyton and Effingham County, to see the glory of God?

My fervent prayer is that God will revive us again, individually and as a church. I pray that we will receive God’s righteousness through our faithfulness, and that the entire community will see the glory of God.

I hope that you will all join me in a prayer for revival at Guyton Christian Church. Please, let us pray:

“Restore us again, God our Savior. Revive us again, so your people may rejoice in you. Show us your unfailing love, and grand us your salvation. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.”

 

Breath of Life

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

— Ezekiel 37:1-14

A lot of people think Ezekiel is talking about the end times, and that may very well be. He talks in detail about the Temple even though it has been destroyed and the people have been taken captive. He talks about Israel possessing the land when that honor belongs to whichever army is winning at the moment. In Ezekiel’s time, Israel was the battlegroundfor Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Egyptians and Persians. Jerusalem fell in 586 BC, about halfway through Ezekiel’s ministry. He writes about the restoration of Israel and Jerusalem while he is still exiled into Babylon. In that way, he teaches that God is sovereign and with God’s people even when they are not in Jerusalem or running the Temple.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones is a story of resurrection, not just of Israel, but of all God’s people. The dead are not just dead – they are skeletons, dried bones, beyond repair and redemption. So when God asks if the bones can be brought to life, Ezekiel says, “LORD, only you know.” The story is a setup for God doing the impossible with people.

The interesting thing about scripture is this word “wind” or “breath”. In the Hebrew, he word for both is “Ruach”, so that translators just have to pick one based on the context. In the Greek, it’s “Pneuma”, and translators have the same problem. It’s no accident, and I think God invites us to try both out in this passage.

Ezekiel preaches his heart out to the bones, and it does a little good. They come together, regain their moisture, take on flesh and start looking like people. But they are still not alive. So God tells Ezekiel, “Prophesy to the breath… ‘Come from the four winds, o breath, and breathe into these slain, that the may live.” Or, is he preaching to the Spirit? Jesus said the Spirit will come when we ask for it. Jesus said the spirit was like the wind, coming and going in a mystery, and on the day of Pentecost, the disciples heard the sound of a rushing wind before the Holy Spirit came into the room.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were maybe a few dozen in a room. Before the day was out, they had won 3,000 converts. Peter said it was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” That’s all inclusive; all ages, all genders, all peoples, slave and free. And if Peter was in the last days, what days are we in now?

Sometimes preachers think they’re talking to dry bones, pouring their hearts out and nothing happens. Sometimes our prayers don’t seem to go past the ceiling. But sometimes the bones rattle and come together, take on flesh and start looking almost alive. The last step is for God to pour out his Spirit. That is what we pray for.
Have you ever heard your sons and daughters prophesy? I have. They have a great understanding of scripture, and some great ideas about how to spread the gospel. I’ll try to encourage them to share that with you.

I’ve heard the visions of your young men, and the dreams of your old men. I don’t know which side of that divide I fall, young man or old man, but it doesn’t matter. Young and old alike, men and women, EVERYBODY has a dream, a vision, a prophesy when God pours out the Spirit on all flesh.

I suppose I’m wearing the mantle of Ezekiel at the moment. The bones have come a long way, coming together and taking on flesh. The discouragement that swept over Israel after so much was is starting to fade. The smoke is clearing from the field of battle. The only ingredient we need to become a vast army for the Kingdom of God is the wind, the breath, the Spirit. We have the words of life, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who says that God will generously give the Holy Spirit to all who ask for it. Well, I’m asking. I invite you to be asking, too. Let’s pray:

Gracious God, we have spent too much time in the valley of the dry bones. We have been tossed about by conflict and confusion. But you are not the author of confusion. You have been rebuilding us, putting flesh on the bone, and now we cry to you to breathe on us with that life-giving Spirit. Make us an army for your Kingdom, winning souls for Jesus Christ by sharing the Good News of salvation, forgiveness and love. Fill us with your Spirit, Lord, as on the day of Pentecost so long ago.

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Blowing in the Wind

 

The police dropped Eric on the doorstep of the church. He immediately set himself to work cleaning Hurricane Irma debris from the yard. He speaks with a slur, thinks out loud in rambling sentences, and suffers lapses in short-term memory. And, of course, he is homeless.

The police officer was matter-of-fact when he dropped Eric off. Eric weathered the storm in a Red Cross shelter and needs to be off the streets before curfew. “These are his knives,” the officer said. “You might want to keep these for him.”

As I type, Eric is using a leaf blower to clear the driveway and sidewalk. He’s a nice guy, very industrious, confused but harmless, courteous and grateful.  If he lived nearby, he’d be a great church member. But homelessness is an overwhelming burden on churches and individuals. Even if I could convince the church to house this one, they would soon be overcome by the cost of all those who follow.

Why did the police so nonchalantly drop him off? We housed 35 people during Hurricane Irma. The police dropped off one homeless person who was being released from the hospital. Of course, we took him in. Another — this one having one leg amputated, another he cannot stand on, and a battered wheelchair that he propels backward with his toeless foot — slept outside the church the next morning, knowing that somebody would eventually find him and help him get back in his wheelchair.

“You have to do something!” Go ahead, scream it. I certainly do. I scream it to hospitals, police officers, church members, homeless assistance agencies and the homeless themselves. It is the height of cruelty that our society would leave the mentally ill and physically helpless on the streets, but guess what, America: That’s what we do!
Here in South Florida, every shelter is full and all affordable housing is taken. Communities pass laws making it illegal to sleep outdoors or to feed the homeless en masse, because doing so attracts more.

I spent hours after the hurricane shuffling these two homeless gentlemen to locations where they perceived they could survive. Then the police dropped off Eric and Bob came begging for money, swearing that his death is imminent and that I am his absolute last hope. And at midnight, the police called me again. I hoped they were taking Eric off my hands, but no such luck: “Are you still housing homeless people?”

What would you do? During the hurricane, We provided housing for a couple of days — though, to be clear, most of my guests were not homeless, just storm-shelter challenged. We accepted two homeless strangers from the local police into that mix. In the past, I have maxed out personal credit cards trying to get people on their feet, only to see the investment frittered away on the complexities of homeless life. I’ve heard a dozen suggestions on what I should do, and I’ve seen a dozen well-meaning volunteers throw up their hands and surrender the assignment. I don’t want suggestions: I want an address of where to drop them off, or the number to call that gets them picked up and taken to the help they need.

I have no idea what Eric is going to do when he finally leaves. I still don’t know what to tell Bob when he comes by. I’m not taking any more suggestions, but I’m completely willing to surrender the assignment. That sounds arrogant, but the point is, I can’t spend more time pursuing another suggestion. Instead, I’m accepting volunteers who will themselves spend that time and pursue that solution.

I know how people can become homeless because I’m usually just a few paychecks away from the streets myself. Most of us are. I have seen church members evicted from substandard housing and spending a fortune on hotels or staying with relatives and friends, spending many months looking for more substandard housing to start the cycle all over again.

Land of the free. Home of the brave. We ignore homeless dignity and crush homeless pride, and they’ll know we are christians by our cross, by our cross! Yes, they’ll know we are christians by our cross!

I can here people saying “Aw, that’s so sad!” “Who is this guy to guilt us like this?” “But doesn’t he know about Lewis Center? The Salvation Army? Children & Family services?” A day on the telephone does not solve the problem, no matter who you call. I dread seeing the homeless. I loathe the prospect of spending the day walking them though basic services or nagging them for being uncooperative. They have used me up — my patience, my money, my good graces with the church. The best I can do is to treat them with dignity, offer such food as I can find in the kitchen, let them use the shower and ignore them when I find them sleeping in the church yard.

What do you think? Greatest nation in the world? You bet! Land of opportunity! Grab those bootstraps, work hard, and pull yourself out of the gutter and off the streets.
Greatest religion in the world? You bet! Love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, lend to those who ask of you, defend the poor.

Is this a Christian Nation? You bet! More churches and Bibles than any nation in the world! Great health care facilities, and no one is turned away — though they are absolutely dumped to the curb when the crisis has ended.

I don’t want this ministry! I don’t want to be the only church in town who gives a tinker’s dam about people on the streets! I don’t want to spend so much on so few for so little return! Feel free to take this cup from me, to take over the homeless ministries at Tropical Sands Christian Church! You can’t use all the rooms, or spend all the money, or neglect other assignments, but if you deal with homelessness, I’ll deal with addiction and spiritual growth. Please, show me how it’s done! Because there are far too many homeless — and they do not want to be homeless! — and far too few resources addressing the problem — even in this Christian Nation.

Follow the Servant-Leader

When Jesus says the same thing over and over, I have to think He wants to make sure we understand it.

A lot of what Jesus says goes against of human nature. Some of it is not what we would call common sense.

So, as you’ve heard, there’s balls, there’s strikes, and there’s scripture. I’d like to say I calls em like they is, but we all know the best I can do is to calls em like I sees em. The good news is they is what they is no matter how I calls em.

Let us hear for ourselves the word of our Lord:

” You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I AM. I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do what I have done for you. “

–John 13: 13-15

There are still churches that have foot-washing ceremonies. It really is a humbling experience. But

Jesus was not performing a ceremony on clean feet with warm water and a clean towel. The disciples did not buy clean socks for the occasion.

Jesus actually washed, as in removed the dirt from, at least 24 dirty feet. That included the feet of Judas Iscariot, just before Judas left to betray Him.

If we have trouble taking Jesus at his word, then we must be as human as the people in His days on earth.

He came unto His own, but His own just could not accept a humble Messiah. They wanted a Warrior Messiah, the Lion of Judah, not the Passover Lamb. Some of them thought Jesus was a poor excuse for a Messiah.

Some thought he was no better than a foot-washing house slave.

In that day, a foot-washer was the lowest of the household slaves. No job more degrading than washing feet. Nobody puts foot-washing on their resume under leadership skills. A foot-washer doesn’t fit our image of a leader.

Some of us, especially us guys, think a good leader is more like an action hero.

We really like the part where Jesus trashes merchandise in the Temple and chases the merchants out with a whip. Now there’s a Scripture for Guys Who Like Scripture.

So who is this foot-washing story for?

At the Last Supper, John tells us that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, like a lowly house slave. Jesus tells them, “I have set an example for you, so that you will do what I have done for you.”

Don’t you wish He had said that when He cleared the Temple?

He goes on to say, “No slave is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, you will be happy if you put it into practice.”

I have a friend who made a big mistake. He was caught in such a scandal that his name was stricken from the roles of his church.

That was many years ago. Some of those people still can’t forgive my friend. But the weird part is that he still goes to that same church!

This guy volunteers for everything, always mopping floors, cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash. It is just so degrading to see him cleaning up after people who dispise him. He ought to have more gumption than that.

My friend has the gall to think he can actually do what Jesus tells him to do. He repented and turned from his sin. Now, he actually loves those who hate him, and physically blesses those who curse him.

Some people call him a wimp, cause he’s just such a servant.

But a lot of Christian work gets done in his church because good-hearted people see his work and follow his example.

Jesus says that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. That must be why they say Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

But aren’t we supposed to be proud? You got to stand up for yourself! You just can’t turn the other cheek these days.

If you don’t stand up for yourself in this world, you’ll get crucified.

In Matthew 20, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, he must be your slave like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life to redeem many people.”

If that is the price to pay, then some of us don’t want to be first, or great.

In Matthew 23, Jesus says, “You must not be called Teacher, because you are all brothers and sisters of one another and have only one Teacher. Nor should you be called ‘Leader,’ because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant.”

I read a book by a former pastor on building leadership in an organization. He told step-by-step how he built mega-churches by replacing meek and humble servants with strong, dynamic leaders.

He never said so directly, but the author seems to think that Jesus is out of date. Now this guy is no longer a preacher; instead, sells his advice in business seminars across the country.

I’d say that that ex-preacher has found his true calling at last.

He said the church needs strong leaders. By faith I say he is wrong. The church already has a strong leader, and that is Jesus Christ. What the church really needs is strong followers.

Jesus is the Head of the church; what did Jesus say we should do?

Wash feet?

Take the low seat?

Turn the other cheek?

Humble ourselves?

No one can rise to a leadership position with that attitude! At least, not in any worldly organization.

But Tropical Sands Christian Church is not a worldly organization. I thank God that this church is run by servant-leaders.

I know they don’t care about titles, because they get the job done when they have titles, and when they don’t have titles. So we put those people in charge, of course.

But we give them a title, or two, or sometimes three, because we want to pin them down on a job, or two jobs, or maybe three jobs.

I just thank God that those men and women keep rowing the boat. Without em, we’d be dead in the water.

If they don’t accomplish enough, let’s just say the field is ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. A handful of people can only do so much.

Now some of us have figured out that the leader really is the servant. If nobody follows the leader, the leader gets to do all of the work. We may or may not want the title, but we surely don’t want to do all that work. We don’t have to be leaders, or servants.

On the other hand, there are some good-hearted people in this world who are called to teach, but they don’t want to be called “Teacher.” There are some who are called to preach, but they don’t want to be called “Preacher.” There are even some who are called to sweep, but they don’t want to be called, “Sweeper.”

The world needs all that talent and service. How do we bring it out without saddling someone with a label she or he doesn’t want? What do we call these people?

The apostle Paul called himself a servant of Christ. In closing his letter to the Romans, Paul writes “I commend our sister Phoebe to you, being a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord, as is worthy of the saints, and may assist her in whatever thing she may need of you.”

Sounds like Paul gave this woman a lot of authority.

Our English Bibles sometimes translate the word as “minister” when it describes a man, especially a male leader, and “servant” when it describes a woman. But the word for both “minister” and “servant” used by Jesus and Paul is usually “diaconia”, or “diaconos.”That’s where we get the term “diaconate.”

Paul calls Sister Phoebe a “minister” of the church, just as surely as he called himself a “minister” of the Gospel.

So it matters what we call you. “Minister” makes you puff out your chest, square your shoulders, watch your P’s and Q’s. “Servant” makes you feel sorry for yourself.

But in most of the New Testament, it’s the very same word; a minister IS a servant.

Maybe you are not a leader because you don’t feel worthy to be a leader. Maybe you are not a servant because no leader has asked you to serve. If so, then please mark this date in your calendar.

On this date, the sixth day of May, in the Year of Our Lord 2001, I, Joel Tucker, duly licensed lay preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Florida, hereby proclaim you a fellow minister of the Gospel.

I hereby proclaim you empowered to share God’s love with all the world with all the talent and strength God gives you.

I proclaim you empowered to preach repentance and forgiveness.

I can proclaim this as true because God’s word says it is true.

With Christ Himself, I bestow upon each and every one of you the grandest human titles I know: Sister. Brother. Minister. Diaconos.

With the Apostle Paul, I bestow double honor on those who serve as Elders and officers, past and present. You are the voice of experience.

And I salute the Deaconate, past, present and future. You are the voice of Christian service.

We are a family, and as a family we have been called to serve the Living God. Christ calls us Brothers and Sisters, fellow servants in the body of Christ.

Even if you’re humble, even if you’re meek, even if you just want to be a servant, this family is responsible for helping you find ways to serve the Living God, as a member of this family.

I bet you already know our servant-leaders. You can see who is pulling the plough. I say follow the servant.

Our servant-ministers would actually enjoy helping you find ways to serve the Lord. Think about it. Talk to them.

The question is not are you a minister; the question is, what is your ministry?

What is your calling?

Maybe you are called to teach, to preach, to visit the sick, or to balance the books. Or maybe you are already there, already serving the Lord.

If so, Jesus says you are blessed. Now that you know this, Jesus says, you will be blessed, or happy, if you put it into practice.

Let’s get happy, shall we? Let us learn to follow the servant. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you would like to join this church, we will be happy to elevate you to the position of servant. You can join us in ministry to the world, in the name of Jesus Christ.

You may come by baptism and confession of faith, by transfer or for dual church membership. You may come forward to join this church, or to rededicate your life in service to Christ.

If the Lord leads, please come forward as we sing our Hymn of invitation, “The Servant Song”.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
 – May 6, 2001.

Bent Reeds, Flickering Lamps

The disciple Matthew was a flickering lamp. As a Roman tax collector, Matthew was banned from synagogue and Temple, so he could not read the Sacred Scrolls in Hebrew. But Matthew’s gospel quotes the Septuagint, a Greek translation of his day. After Jesus healed a man in the Temple, the Pharisees started looking for a way to kill him. So Jesus and his disciples were hiding in the wilderness. Jesus healed all who came to him, but he told them not to tell anyone where he was. Those days reminded Matthew of this Old Testament prophesy.

Let us hear the Word of GOD:

The LORD says, “Here is my servant, whom I strengthened — The one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly wait for his teachings.”

–Isaiah 42:1-4 (CEV)

I stand in the pulpit today with fear and trembling. I know that a good word can turn your life around. It can draw you closer to God. And I know that the wrong word might be the last straw that turns you away from the church. I have great respect for the pulpit.

My respect for the pulpit goes double for THIS particular pulpit. Pastor Jim Burton is one of the most consistently loving pastors I know. I wish that he were here now. I can only dream of matching his love for this church, and his skill with the word of God. I stand before God in Brother Jim’s pulpit. I am eager to hear him again. I’ll say for Jim something that I am not quick to say about anyone: Jim Burton is my pastor.

My Grampa, the Rev. Roy Tucker, has graced this pulpit as well. You can’t inherit 50 years’ experience in the pulpit. Grampa, I wish I had been a better student. We have real preachin in the Cabin every Saturday night. You’ll be blessed if you come hear him speak. We’ll get Grampa back up here in May, if not before.

I had the pulpit one Sunday evening at Shady Grove Church in Alabama, back in 1993. We did some singing, and I did some preaching. When it was all done most folks agreed that we should have just kept on singing. I shook hands with one of the elders on my way out, and he said, “Well, I’m gonna pray for you.” I think that was less than a glowing endorsement.

I haven’t done much preaching since then. I wanted to, but a funny thing happened while I was looking for a church home.

My wife and I tried to fit in at one church, but it was tooooooo soft. Then we tried another church. That church was tooooooo hard. Finally, we tried Tropical Sands Christian Church. This church was just riiiiiight.

That soft church was a big church. They had classes and trips and apple pies, but trying to get involved was like trying to hop a freight train while it roars past. There was so much going on that we just got lost in the shuffle. By the time they finally had us on the mailing list, we had long since shuffled out the door. They still don’t know that we left.

The hard church was a brand new church. We were ready to take on the world. I put a few miles on the standup bass in the praise band at that church. We started in a living room and moved to an auditorium. Eventually, I started playing saxophone, and everything about that church started changing. The heat was on to get better musicians, to pick the right people, and to line up on the doctrine.

A lot of good people got shuffled aside while I was blowing saxophone, center stage. I did not want that spotlight. I made some very dear Christian friends in that church. Most of them left before I did. It was like the love for the worship got stronger than the love for people.

I knew about Tropical Sands because of the Christian music coffee house here the first Sunday of every month. The coffee house all about fellowship; nobody knows or cares what church you come from. It’s live and let live, let’s jam and have some coffee. That’s how I knew a lot of the people here.

That first Sunday morning I came to this church, I was hiding out. I could not stand the thought of blowing one more note on that Brass Idol of a saxophone. I just wanted to worship in peace. So I came in here that Sunday morning, just to hide out.

People, I was so tired. I don’t remember what Brother Jim preached on that day – I’m not even sure if he was speaking that day. I just remember how sweet it was to be out there, and not up here. The choir and organ made the most beautiful music. They looked like they really loved doing it. In the lobby after church, I remember everyone was so civil. I mean civil! Friendly and polite. I was so impressed to find old fashion friendliness, everywhere I turned.

I came back a couple of times, and I decided it was safe to bring my wife, or my Grampa, or my children. I don’t worry that somebody I invite to church might be shunned, or ignored, or put on the spot. When I want people to meet my Christian friends, I invite them to This church.

Some of you know we have an informal worship gathering every Saturday at the Log Cabin, across the parking lot. That gathering was started by a bunch of hard church dropouts. We just wanted to worship like we used to, when we kept things simple and everybody got to play. We were so tired of rules that we made three rules right away. No rehearsals. No collection plates. No amplifiers.

Anyone who wants to sing or play with us is invited to do so. No experience necessary. No skills required.

We felt like religious refugees, and Tropical Sands Christian Church let us use the Cabin. This church never once tried to steer or restrict the Log Cabin service, in any way. It has never once tried to recruit me or any other member from that group. This church gave us encouragement, love and freedom to worship however we pleased, for no payback.

What an incredible testimony that was.

Let’s see if that arrangement has done any good. People who swore they would never again set foot in a church sing and pray with us every Saturday night. Grampa pulls the Gospel plough right straight down the middle every week. People who were afraid to sing in public two years ago are now worship leaders at other churches, thanks to the Log Cabin. As far as I know, we have not brought any members into this church. But we have sent a lot of people back to church somewhere. I say that knowing that you care more about the role up yonder than the roles on the church computer.

Nearly 200 years ago, this denomination — The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — was founded on an official rejection of all man-made creeds and doctrines. Our constitution is the New Testament, and our battle cry is the prayer of Christ for Christian unity.

Think about that name – The Christian Church – PARENTHESIS – Disciples of Christ – CLOSE PARENTHESIS. That’s the official name. We couldn’t agree on which one to use. We just decided it wasn’t worth fighting about. That’s how deep this goes.

Think about how this church encourages non-denominational worship. Think about the cabin, and the coffee house. That’s what Jesus prayed for, that we might be as one, not as many. This church is serious about Christian unity.

Our Elders and Deacons really lead this church. Most of us don’t know who they are. When they think nobody is looking, they patch the roof, paint the walls, cut the grass and balance the books. They like to give in secret, and they don’t like to take any credit. That something else they got out of the Bible, that humble servant thing. They’ve got it down to a science.

A lot of those people are shaking their heads and saying what’s the big deal? Isn’t church SUPPOSED to be a nice, safe place? Tropical Sands, you don’t even know how precious you are. You’re so used to loving each other, and anyone else who walks through the door, that you don’t even know how weird that is. Praise God, you are a peculiar people.

It is said that the times are changing, and the church has to change with ’em. I speak for more than one new member of this church when I say, We don’t want you to change. We’ll have more of the same, please. Nobody’s perfect; we understand. Everything humans touch, including this church, falls short of God’s plan. But you are proof of what the disciple Peter meant when he said in his letter, “Above all, practice fervent love, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

The church is told get ready for change. Brace yourselves for Mohawks and nose rings. Meanwhile, meek and lowly people are looking for a safe place to worship God, and they don’t all wear Mohawks and nose rings.

Meek is a funny word. Children are meek. Kittens are meek. Jesus is meek. Some people don’t like that; they want a savior who is as loud, brash, and forceful as they are. We are bombarded with shouting and violence. “In your face” is the buzzword for intrusive, forceful communication.

Some people think it’s OK to get in your face for God. But to a meek and lowly person, “in your face” is an assault, and they won’t fight back. They just leave. To the poor in spirit, “in your face” is poison. They won’t fight back either. They just give up.

I know a lot of you have been praying for me, and maybe occasionally biting your tongues. Thank you for not getting in my face.

This church will change. Everything changes. We will grow, and we will grow even closer to God. We will see new faces, and we will hear new songs. Never be afraid to invite people here; this church will do you proud. Just remember, we are not interested in how the world would change us, but how can we change the world. We are in the world, but we are not of it.

We met at [a congregant]’s house a few weeks ago to discuss small group meetings. That would be Bible studies and fellowship circles in our homes, during the week. That fits the New Testament pattern, and it fills a spiritual need that the larger service might not provide. That is exciting, but it is not new to this church. This church began as a small group, and it has sponsored many small groups. [Elders] are heading up that effort, and now is a good time to get small groups going again.

Many of our Elders are also Prayer Warriors. A few weeks ago my wife received a prayer card from the Christian Women’s Fellowship. Ladies, that was good medicine. At a deep, personal level, God wants to be intimate with his children. He loves it when we talk to him.

I had the privilege of giving chapel service for our preschool this week. Have you ever been surrounded by tiny children who really want to talk to you? If you have, you might know some of the joy that God feels when we pray.

Next Sunday [02/18/01], at 9 a.m., we’re starting an eight-week study on prayer in the cabin, across the parking lot. If you don’t have a Sunday school class, or if you want to learn more about prayer with us, you are invited to attend. Please don’t get upset if we run out of books; just show up, and we’ll work it out.

Prayer and fellowship are nothing new to this church. Like I said, we’ll have more of the same, please.

To the new members, and to those who may not be active in the church, let me point out how difficult it must be to make nice to all these people. We see so many new faces now that the last visitor might slip away without a courteous greeting. We need to help make sure that does not happen.

We are free to come and go as we please, but we have found a church home. Let’s move in. Let’s get behind all the do-ers in the church and see if we can learn to show the love of God like they do. Let’s all read the bulletin, get involved, and keep up with each other. This is your church, too.

To the visitors, let me say you are always welcome here. I was a visitor once, myself. There is never any pressure to join this church. Please, worship with us to your heart’s content. This is God’s church, and you are God’s child, so this must be your church, too. This church was loving to me and my family long before we joined. That’s just how they treat people here.

If you ARE looking for a church home, this is the only one I can recommend. No one here wants to hurt you, or even to change you. Changing you is not our job. Like I said, you can trust these people.

Now it might be that some of the Elders, deacons and members of this church still don’t get what I’m saying, or why I’m so excited. What’s the big deal? The deal is you did something right, over and over, dependably, every time.

Here’s what you did:

  • I was hungry, and you fed me.
  • I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.
  • I was a stranger, and you received me into your homes.
  • I was naked, and you clothed me.
  • I was sick and you took care of me.
  • I was in prison, and you visited me.

I am also impressed by what you didn’t do:

  • A bent reed you did not break.
  • A flickering lamp you did not snuff out.

You remind me of somebody else I know …

Thank God, you look familiar.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) – February 11, 2001