Sermon preached at REACH Summit
Troy, Michigan, October 14, 2016
Thank you for welcoming me here tonight. I am new to this whole bishop gig, but one of its joys is that I get to be in places like this with all of you who are committed to helping the church be its best as it seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So thanks for being here.
As I said, I am pretty new to this whole bishop role. They even sent me for a week of training with other newly elected bishops. We were at a United Methodist Retreat Center on St. Simon Island, Georgia – and I don’t know if it says anything but a week after we were there a hurricane blew through the island. I am glad we had left, but my heart grieves for all those who were not so fortunate, particularly in Haiti.
It was while I was traveling to this new bishop training that I heard about the death of Arnold Palmer. Before Arnold Palmer was pitching heart medication, or selling his patented combination of ice tea and lemonade, Arnold Palmer was a golfer, a really good golfer. When I was a child, Arnold Palmer was a golf legend. He is credited with almost single-handedly making golf a popular sport in the United States. Television was becoming popular, now that was before my time, and Arnold Palmer was photogenic. He was followed around by people who called themselves “Arnie’s Army.” His golf battles with Jack Nicklaus were legendary.
So when I was a kid, learning to play golf, you wanted either to be like Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. Well, I never quite made it. I still golf some, but usually pretty badly. I brought one club with me tonight, a trouble wedge, and it usually lives up to its name. Nearly every time I use it I get into more trouble. I have found, though that golf is quite a prayerful sport. On summer Sunday mornings I think there is a real competition between churches and golf courses as to which place you hear “Jesus Christ” more. And that’s often an awkward moment, if you have been paired with some other people on the golf course, and you’ve played a few holes and the other golfers have been using some of that golf course slang, and then they get around to asking you what you do. “Pastor.” Blustery grown men offer quiet excuses for their language. Maybe next summer I will have to see what happens when I say “Bishop.”
So Jesus gets invoked on the golf course, and some might get quite exorcised about that – Jesus as a four-letter word. But here is my deeper concern, that sometimes the church makes Jesus a kind of four-letter word.
Many of you are aware of research done by the Barna group on young people’s perceptions of the church: that the church is too narrow, anti-science, too rejecting of popular culture, simplistic, judgmental, homophobic, unsafe for asking questions. I think of what one writer penned: Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow…. What was true once upon a time can be true again and should be true always: curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion) When “Jesus” seems to become too narrow, isolating, rejecting, irrelevant he seems to become something of a four-letter word. We are here precisely to prevent that from happening.
So what does that look like? It is in the name of the summit – REACH. I want to paint with some broad brush strokes tonight. What does a church that wants to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word look like? It reaches.
Our first reach is to reach out. We know well the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. We know it so well we have a short-hand for it – the great commission. It ends with great news. We don’t go alone. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
We have good news to share about a God who is with us in Jesus Christ. We have news about a God who is near in Jesus to offer life – full, rich abundant life… wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around, curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure. With the God of Jesus Christ there is healing for our wounded souls. With the God of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness for our broken lives. With the God of Jesus Christ there is hope and joy. We are here because we believe that. We are here because we know that in the depth of our souls. We are here because we want to reach out and share that good news.
But how we reach out with this good news matters. Do our methods match the good news that we have? In the early flourishes of my Christian faith as a teenager I engaged in street witnessing – passing our Christian newspapers on street corners trying to engage people in conversation. To be honest, I was young, and hoped that someone might take a paper, but not really want to talk much. But sometimes we get the idea that we have to, as quickly as possible in our conversations with people get to the question, “Are you saved?”
I have been thinking about this kind of response to the great commission, and thinking that asking someone we don’t know all that well “are you saved?” might be a bit like asking someone we don’t know all that well, “how’s your sex life?” or “how are things going with your husband or wife or parents?” Isn’t salvation about what is happening in the depth of our hearts, minds, souls and lives? Isn’t God’s saving love in Jesus something that makes a difference to all that we are and the way that we live? Maybe we need to earn the right to ask such a deep question, earn that right by being good friends, by listening to the heartaches and joys of others, by paying attention to their deepest hope and dreams and hurts and disappointments, by walking with people.
There is a bit of a tension - a sense of the importance of the good news we have to share, but also a sense that maybe, just maybe, Jesus is already present in that person’s life. Jesus promises to be with us, and maybe Jesus arrives ahead of us. The great commission begins with the line that all authority in heaven and on earth is Jesus’s. Sounds like Jesus might get around. Maybe we can let our questions about being saved and one’s relationship to Jesus flow out of caring relationships we develop, trusting that Jesus might be present in some ways before we ever ask about someone’s relationship to him.
We keep Jesus from being a four-letter word by reaching out in ways that are kind, caring, gentle and loving and not intrusive, reaching out with some emotional intelligence rather than being emotionally obtuse.
There is another dimension to reaching out that is also vitally important – reaching out in caring and compassion to a hurting world in ways that meet human need and build structures of justice. I chose three Scripture readings for tonight very intentionally. We are used to hearing about the great commission, and often that is paired with the great commandment – to love God and others. I would like to suggest a third part to this – the great kingdom. We are given a great commission, to be lived in the spirit of a great commandment, all in the service of a great kingdom, or kin-dom – a way of life where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness (or justice) and peace will kiss each other.
We are here because we love Jesus, and we love the church and we want our churches to be alive, vital and vibrant. All good. Alive, vital and vibrant churches, in turn, are the building blocks for a newer world where love and faithfulness meet, where justice and peace embrace and kiss. And we need to be living that. Our churches need to be places that care about human hurt and human need outside our doors as well as inside our walls. No church can do everything, but every church can do something for compassion and justice. While we do this in the name and Spirit of Jesus, and we should let others know that, our giving of ourselves in compassion and justice should be a genuine self-giving. I will never forget being on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and hearing that the churches at one time made church attendance a prerequisite for the Native people to receive food aid. I am sure it was well-intentioned, but it broke my heart. You can guess what happened. When food aid became uncoupled from church attendance, church attendance among the native peoples dropped dramatically. Jesus had become something of a four-letter word to them.
And some of what we do for the kingdom or kin-dom, happens inside our walls. If we are about a great kingdom, we should feel challenged to have our congregations look a bit more like places where steadfast love and faithfulness meet and justice and peace kiss. We should struggle a bit with church growth methods that only emphasize our “target market.” I was never very comfortable with church growth models that put too much stock in “Joe Saddleback.” I’m not saying not to pay attention to lifestyles and all, but if we begin to think that we are only here as a church for certain people we may be limiting God’s kin-dom work. There may be limits to the variety that can live in any congregation, but I think the Spirit always pushes our pre-conceived limits. Reaching out is not simply about who we can attract it is also about who is in our neighborhood and who is in need.
To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, reach out with God to build a world where justice and peace embrace and kiss.
There is another important direction to our reach as well. If our churches are to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to be helping people reach in. One of the joys in life for me is stumbling upon an author whose work moves my life forward in fresh ways. I look at footnotes when I am reading because that’s where I have found some wonderful writers. Aren’t I just an exciting sounding person – I golf badly and I read footnotes!
Anyway, a few years ago I stumbled across an author named Michael Eigen in a footnote in a book on pastoral counseling. Eigen is Jewish and a psychoanalyst, but he has done a lot to help me in my Christian journey. One of the things I love about Eigen is that he is eminently quotable. Here are a couple of wonderful thoughts from his book Faith. I don’t think that religious or spiritual people are immune to inflicting their personalities on others (95). You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society (96).
I truly believe the love of God in Jesus is powerful, powerful to heal our brokenness, to redirect our attention and energy, to reach into the deepest places in our hearts and minds and souls. The great commandment to love, in important ways, directs us inward to being formed in love. But to be formed in love inwardly, we need to be honest about the wounds we carry, the disappointments and grief that mark us. How often seemingly vibrant churches grind to a halt when a charismatic leader loses his way and violates important relational boundaries. Some inner work of love was not done. How unattractive too many of our churches become when they are unable to help each other work with differences and conflict. Some inner work of love was not done. In our baptismal covenant we promise to surround persons with a community of love and forgiveness. That requires inner work – engaging the spiritual disciplines with sufficient psychological wisdom to let God’s Spirit transform our hearts in love.
To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help people in our churches reach in.
Finally, to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help the people in our churches reach up. One could use that image to speak of loving God and connecting with God, and that would be good. I assume that all this reaching out and in and up have to do with connecting with God in love. What I have in mind with reaching up is this, we need to help people discover and use the wonderful gifts God has given them. We need to help people reach up to be all that God would have them be.
Think again of some of those words young people associate with the church – narrow, judgmental, anti-science, unsafe for questions. Don’t they all sound like being pushed down? There is so much in our culture that pushes people down. The entirety of our advertising industry exists to tell us we are not enough. We don’t need our churches to be places whose primary language pushes us down instead of lifting us up.
We need to be telling people that God has given them gifts, gifts for loving, caring, sharing, leading and we want to help them reach up into them. People have different gifts, but all matter, all have a place, all have value. Helping people reach up is another way we keep Jesus from becoming a four-letter word.
I want to tell you tonight that it is good that you are here. This sermon has painted with broad brushstrokes, but you have people who have come who are making all this happen and they have come to share their stories and their experiences and their hard lessons with you. There are workshops on reaching out – understanding your neighborhood, sharing good news with emotional intelligence, building multi-cultural ministry; there are workshops on reaching in – small groups for making disciples, leading yourself; there are workshops on reaching up – helping people clergy and lay know they have gifts for God’s work in the world.
We are a people who in and through Jesus have a great commandment to love, have a great commission to share, have a great kin-dom to build. We want Jesus to be good news, not a four-letter word, so we are committed to reaching out, reaching in and reaching up. God’s love embrace us, God’s vision of the kissing of justice and peace inspire us, God’s Spirit energize us for the work ahead, and remember the words of Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end.” Amen.