Gifts of God

At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon. The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, “How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

— John 10:22-30 NASB

Some of us want to impose our own conditions on God’s grace. Some people say it is available only to the select few, or to those who don’t sin, or to those who are baptized. We want to say that salvation belongs to some particular set of denominations and not to the others. Some people have even gone so far as to say that those who speak in tongues or faint at church, those who are “slain in the spirit”, are the only ones who are truly saved.

And I assure you, for everyone whose salvation we question, there is someone out there who questions ours as well.

I think that everyone here is walking the road to God. Some of us might be farther down the road than others. Some of us might be just getting started. And there might be some of us who are tempted to leave that road and go another way. But I think the very fact that we are in a Christian church and that we are intentionally listening to the gospel message means that we have each been called by God to be here.

In our scripture today, Jesus says that those who don’t believe are simply not the sheep of His pasture. We here the Good Shepherd’s voice, and we follow, because we recognize that voice. We are the sheep of His pasture.

How did we get here? How did we get so lucky? Most of us were raised in a church, maybe even in this church, and we’re here because we recognize the songs, the liturgy, the scripture, and the people. It’s just where we feel at home. We belong here. We didn’t earn the right to be here; it’s a gift of God. We were raised hearing that Voice of Jesus., We recognize that Voice. Others may have come to faith later in life, but something about that Voice, that message of love and forgiveness, rang true to us.

In today’s scripture, Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” I’d say we’re here because we want to follow Jesus. We know that voice. The next statement should give every one of us the confidence to face anything life throws at us. It should make us bold in our faith: “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We can debate whether you can give up your salvation, but this verse tells me that no one can steal it from you. You won’t be lost by accident, an no one can take your salvation away. It’s a promise from Jesus Himself, and you can take it to the bank.

Now, consider what comes next: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all”. Do you realize that God has given us to Jesus? We’ve considered before that the ability to believe in Jesus is itself a gift of God, and that no one can just decide to believe. So God has given us that gift of faith. But in our scripture today, we learn that we are God’s gifts to Jesus. We follow Jesus because God has put us in the Good Shepherd’s pasture.

There are other places in the gospel of John where Jesus makes the same point. In John 6:37-30, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given me I lose nothingh, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

And at John 17:6-10, in what we call Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, Jesus says, “I have manifested Your name to the men [and women] You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I have been glorified in them.”

We talk a lot about the gifts of God – the gifts of tongues, of healing, of prophecy and such. But in another sense, each of you is a gift of God. God the Father has given each of us to Jesus Christ. We have been intentionally placed in Jesus’ care. I don’t look for another shepherd because I know that I was given to Jesus by God Himself. I don’t reject anyone who tries to follow Jesus Christ, because they were given to Jesus by God as well.

In the Old Testament, the original covenant, we learn that God set a nation apart for Himself, so that they could carry the message that there is but one God over all, a God who cares, and loves, and forgives. Now, God has set us apart as well, not by making us all members of one race, or one nation, but as sheep of one Shepherd, as followers of Jesus Christ.

Peter, who spent most of his life thinking his family and his country were the chosen people, said about all believers in Jesus, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light”. And we know Peter was talking to Christians, and not just to Israelites, because he also said “for once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

So don’t keep looking for the gifts of God proof of salvation. If you’re looking for the gifts of God, look around you. Look in the mirror. WE are the gifts of God, and we were given to Jesus Christ, who will not let us go, and who will give us eternal life. He will raise us up on the last day.

This knowledge gives us the power to live joyously, confidently, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. We fear no one. We don’t even fear death itself. We will never perish. Hallelujah!

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

High and Lifted Up

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3:13-17

How do you get people’s attention when you want it? In a classroom, you might raise your hand and wait for the teacher to respond. In a burning building, you would scream at the top of your lungs. If you were stranded on a desert island, you might light a fire. On the battlefield, they used to blow a trumpet or raise a flag. If one signal doesn’t work, you try something else.

So how would God get our attention? You would think that God would have our attention with every breath, every sunrise. It might take the miracle of a flower or a baby. Some people need the fury of lightning or an earthquake.

Today’s scripture refers back to an Old Testament story about the children of Israel in the wilderness. They had disobeyed God the first time they reached the Jordan, so God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years till that generation died off. Moses’ brother Aaron had already died. But God was still providing manna to keep the people alive. In spite of their rebellion, God was still taking care of them. So imagine how God must have felt when the people kept complaining.

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

–Numbers 21:4-8

After all God had done, the children of Israel were still complaining. That is what we mean by “tempting the LORD thy God”. This “miserable food” they talked about was the manna that God sent down every day to feed the people – and they detested it!
God could have destroyed them all then and there, but instead, he sent snakes into the camp to bite them, and many of them died. Then they saw their sin. They said to Moses, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.”

What does it take to get people’s attention? Do you have to part the Red Sea? Squeeze water out of a rock? Drop manna from the sky? Like it says in Psalm 78:32-33, “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror.”

“He ended their days in futility.” We don’t get much done without God’s help. “…and their years in terror.” Without God’s protection, the world is a scary place.

God didn’t give up on the people, but he had to get their attention. “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that the Most High was their Redeemer (Psalm 78:34-35).”

So Moses prayed to God, and God told him to make a serpent and lift it on a pole. When the people were bitten, they could look at the serpent and not die. And here’s where Jesus fits in. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

How is Jesus on the cross like Moses’ bronze serpent on the pole? What does it take to get our attention? When the children of Israel were bitten, they remembered why – because they had sinned against God. When they looked at the bronze snake, they remembered that God is merciful. Psalm 78:38 says, “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.” God got their attention, and they did not die.

What does it take to get our attention? We’re surrounded by snakes, and our sins bite us. Does that get our attention? We look at how Jesus suffered, in a manner so visible it gets our attention 2,000 years later. Does that get our attention?

Paul referred to the snake story as well. In 1 Corinthians 10:9-11, he wrote, “We should not test Christ, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.”

What does it take to get our attention? I would love to say that this story is about the sin of grumbling and complaining. Personally, I think that internal complaining is a sickness in any organization. We forget where the manna comes from and complain because God doesn’t send us quail and T-bones every day. When we grumble, we show that we are not grateful – which means we aren’t paying attention to the blessings God pours out on us.

But there were other sins that the people of Israel committed, and God lifted his hand of protection to get their attention.

1 Corinthians 11:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can endure it.”

In Luke 10:19, Jesus says, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.”
When you’re bitten by snakes, God lifts up the bronze serpent, to get your attention. When you’re bitten by sins and trouble, God lifts up his Son on a cross, to get your attention. When we’re tempted, God provides a way out. Jesus is that Way.

What does it take to get our attention?

When times are tough, we turn to Scripture. And even if we don’t have a Bible with us, we all remember at least one verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s in today’s scripture. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

What does it take to get our attention?

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

Trust in the LORD

Praise the Lord!
My soul, praise the Lord!
I will praise the Lord all my life.
I will sing praises to him as long as I live.
Don’t depend on your leaders for help.
Don’t depend on people, because they cannot save you.
People die and are buried.
Then all their plans to help are gone.
It is a great blessing for people to have the God of Jacob to help them.
They depend on the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth.
He made the sea and everything in it.
He can be trusted to do what he says.
He does what is right for those who have been hurt.
He gives food to the hungry.
The Lord frees people locked up in prison.
The Lord makes the blind see again.
The Lord helps those who are in trouble.
The Lord loves those who do right.
The Lord protects strangers in our country.
He cares for widows and orphans,
but he destroys the wicked.
The Lord will rule forever!
Zion, your God will rule forever and ever!
Praise the Lord!

— Psalm 146 (ERV)

Psalm 146 was not written this year, or two years ago, or even two hundred years ago, although it could apply to every leaders elected official in U.S. history. It was not even written 2,000 years ago, although it could apply to King Herod, Pilate or Caesar. It well describes the relationship between Moses and the Children of Israel when he failed to live up to their expectations. It talks about the king of Egypt, King David, King Cirus, and every other leader in history.

Don’t depend on your leaders for help. Don’t depend on people, because they cannot save you. People die and are buried. Then all their plans to help are gone. That describes the plight of every leader, even the most qualified, most powerful, most intelligent, most benevolent, etc. It explains why every leader has both admirers and critics. It explains why all leaders fall short of expectations.

People want a savior. The children of Israel wanted Moses to give them a safe and easy life, and when things looked bad, they were willing to go back to the brickyards in Egypt for safety.

But people die. The incidence of death in humans is 100 percent. And while they live, all humans sin, and make mistakes, and fall short of perfection. In a democracy, we choose our leaders with high expectations, then hold them responsible when they fall short of those expectations. So we start looking for the next big thing, the next leader who can get us out of this mess.

It goes for all leaders. Popes, bishops, ministers, elders, deacons – there is not one who can do all the things we want them to do. We have such high expectations, don’t we? Since I entered ministry, I have been put on a pedestal by people who think I can solve every problem.

People ask me to save marriages, solve homelessness, rescue churches and turn sinners into saints. That’s great as long as the problems are small, and when God solves the problem, sometimes the preacher gets the credit. But preachers are just people, and somewhere down the line, there will be problems too big for the preacher to solve. Somewhere down the line, most preachers retire, and all preachers die.

Here in the Word of God, from the pen of a poet, writing three thousand years ago, we are given a heads up that humans can’t save us. But that same book, that same psalm, gives us hope for the savior we need.

It is a great blessing for people to have the God of Jacob to help them.
They depend on the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth.
He made the sea and everything in it.
He can be trusted to do what he says.

How many times do we think that a problem can be solved by committees, meetings, contracts and bylaws? It helps to work together; two heads are better than one, as they say. But we should never start any project, or tackle any problem, without first going to the LORD in prayer and depending on God for guidance.

“If it is not the LORD who builds a house, the builders are wasting their time. If it is not the LORD who watches over the city, the guards are wasting their time.” That’s what Psalm 127 says.

We all know about success stories where a dynamic new preacher causes tremendous growth in a church. You might notice that it usually is a new church, and not just a new pastor. But unless the LORD builds the house, the builders are wasting their time!

If a church grows because of that one great leader, then it will also fall when that leader fails, or leaves, or dies. Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders are wasting their time!

One of the first songs of David is recorded in 2 Samuel 22. “There is no Rock except our God,” David sang. “God is my strong fortress. He clears the path I need to take. He makes my feet as steady as those of a deer. Even on steep mountains he keeps me from falling.” (2 Samuel 22:32-34)

David was a great leader as long as he relied on God, and when he stopped relying on God, things didn’t go so well. The same was true of his son Solomon, and of every king of Israel. God makes clear in the history of Israel that it is God’s influence, and not the skill of any one person, that makes the difference between success and failure.

Psalm 62:9-11 is a good summary of my point:

People cannot really help.
You cannot depend on them.
Compared to God, they are nothing –
No more than a gentle puff of air!
Don’t trust in your power to take things by force.
Don’t think you will gain anything by stealing.
And if you become wealthy, don’t put your trust in riches.
God says there is one thing you can really depend on, and I believe it:
“Strength comes from God!”

I don’t mistrust people for dishonesty. Some are dishonest, but most people try to tell the truth. I don’t mistrust people for incompetence. We are a successful society because most people are pretty good at what they do. If I mistrust people, it is because they are people. I don’t expect people to do what only God can do.

Keep It Simple

I own a lot of Bibles. I especially like the simplified versions, like the New Century Version or the New International Readers’ Version. These Bibles use short sentences and common words to make scripture easier to understand.

This is nothing new. The King James Version was a simpler version than earlier translations. Our New International Version is easier to understand than the KJV. Then there’s New King James, New American Standard, The Message, the New Living Translation and the Good News Translation. Every Bible translation was meant to be simpler and more accurate than he one before it.

No translation is perfect. If you are doing a detailed study on history, ancient languages or deep theology, the simpler versions are probably not enough. But they work for most purposes because the Gospel is, at its core, simple.

Jesus made Jewish Law simple. The Law fills four books of the Old Testament. Jesus summed it up with two verses. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” Jesus said in Matthew 22:37 – quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:’ Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (from Leviticus 19:18) All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Paul made the Gospel message simple for Gentiles. “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified,” he said. (Galatians 2:15-16)

It might take a scholar to understand a complicated message, but even scholars appreciate plain English. If we take something simple and make it complicated, we are just showing off. We don’t talk and write to show off; we talk and write to share information. The best way to do that is to keep the message simple.

Churches fight over complicated details of the Bible. Like all Disciples of Christ churches, our church tries to keep the message simple. That makes it available to more people and gives us less to fight about.

Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and do you receive Him as Lord and Savior? It’s a simple question. I ask it every Sunday. Agreeing on that simple statement joins us all in one church. Accepting that statement inspires us to serve others and glorify God.

Invite your friends to church. Keep it simple. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by complicated explanations. Hearts and minds change when we accept the simple truth that God came to Earth as a human because God loves all humans. God made Jesus the Way back to the Father, not because we are good, but because God loves us. That’s why God keeps it simple.

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.

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.