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Monday, October 19, 2020

"Embraced and Named" (Luke 15:11-24)


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Sunday, October 18, 2020


            What’s your favorite story about Jesus?  If I just said, what’s your favorite Bible story, you might say, Noah and the Ark, or, David and Goliath, or Paul on the Damascus Road.  These are excellent stories, but for this morning, let’s narrow it down.  What’s your favorite Jesus story? If you’re watching on Facebook Live, type your favorite Jesus story into the comments.  If you’re here in person, just shout out your favorite Jesus story. 

            When I was starting out in ministry, I heard a professor of preaching say the passage from the Bible preached more than any other is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.  The professor did not offer data to support this claim, so I don’t know if what he said is accurate.

            I do know that the story is extremely popular, even among people who have never read the Bible.  Some might know the story and not even know it’s in the Bible.  It is!  And Miroslav Volf, the theology professor from Yale Divinity School I mentioned last week, cites the Prodigal Son in his explanation of his idea of Exclusion and Embrace.

            Volf uses the term ‘exclusion’ to encompass all the ways human beings hurt and objectify each other.  Racism; genocide; betrayal; unfaithfulness; deception; bullying; in countless we dehumanize our neighbors and ourselves.  We offend God with each injury we cause, including injuries to ourselves, because each person is made in God’s image and is loved by God.

            If ‘exclusion’ is the summation of humanity’s sin against itself and individuals’ sins against one another, ‘embrace’ is the posture of love.  Embrace is when we make space in ourselves for the other, and we simultaneously enter the space the other opens in themselves for us.  It is a literal hug; it is also more than that.  Embrace means, ‘I see you.’ ‘I care for you.’  ‘I love you’; and, ‘I receive the love and care you extend me.  In embrace, we obey what Jesus calls the greatest commandment – to love our neighbor.  In loving our neighbors, we love God. 

            Take a close look at Jesus’ story, the Prodigal son.  First, we see exclusion.

            The son requests his portion of inheritance, normally to be received upon the Father’s death.  In the ancient near east, this young man’s identity would be tied to his family; he was known by whose son he was.  “Younger brother;” that title told us part of his story.  He severed this identity, turning his back on his family. 

            A father receiving such an audacious and disrespectful request would have been in his rights to offer his son a backhanded slap.  But in Jesus’ story the father simply complies.  Where discipline might be called for, he just goes along with the younger sons’s outlandish plan.  What kind of father it this? 

            The son then earns his name, ‘prodigal.’  He goes to a distant country where he has no support system.  Sometimes people, especially during the season of young adulthood, can be a little irresponsible with money; or a lot irresponsible.  I know I was at times.  This young man spent everything.  His savings were gone when the famine hit. 

            A famine hits everyone, like a hurricane striking all residents on the coast, or a wildfire consuming all in its path, or a global pandemic with a virus anyone can catch.  This young man, with no savings and no support system wasn’t ready.  Verse 16 says no one helped him.

            We have seen, in the current crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, the layered, devastating effects.  First of course is health and possibly even death if you contract the disease.  Second, fear of spread has closed down the economy and cost people jobs.  If someone was barely making it before they lost their job, they’d be like this young man, hungry and desperate.  A lot of people find themselves in this situation. 

            The catastrophes humans face are worsened by our tendency to cut ourselves off.  Famines were common in ancient life, something to prepare for.  And that preparation is communal.  You don’t prepare by yourself but as a part of a community.  The same is true today.  We know hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast where millions and millions of people live.  When they come, if we prepare and cooperate with one another as neighbors who care about one another, even the worst storms aren’t as bad as those we try to face on our own.  The lost son’s fall was directly tied to his cutting himself off from his foundation.

            He excluded himself from the family that gave him name, identity, and wealth.  Volf says he “un-sonned” himself. [i] If you read the genealogies in the Bible, you see people are named by who their family is.  Luke 3:23 tells us Jesus was (as was thought) the son of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat,” on the genealogy goes all the way back to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God” (v.38).  How do we know who Joseph was?  He was the son of Heli? 

            We do it differently, but we do this too.  How do you know who Igor is?  He’s a Tennant.  And Henry, what of him?  He’s a Tennant.  Who is this young woman, Merone?  She’s a Tennant.  Much more could be said of each of us, but we start with a name.  The name says we are part of a family.  We belong.  The Prodigal cut himself off.  He un-sonned himself.

            Where in life have we seen this, or ourselves, done it?  Where have we been cut off, or intentionally cut ourselves off from God, friends, and family?  And having been cut-off, have you faced the desperation he faced, or desperation within your own experience?  Do you know what it’s like to take stock of your own life and feel like all is lost?  What do you do?  He remembered the character of his father.

            Jesus says he “came to himself” (v.17).  Despairing, starving, longing to eat pig slop – the refuse humans reject and feed to animals who will literally eat anything, he remembered.  My father.  My father’s heart is so big, his servants eat and live well.  Embarrassing as it will be, serving there will be better than dying here.

            In his mind, he’s still excluded.  He remembers his father, but only now will he understand the depth of grace, the fullness of embrace.   He thought his name, ‘son’ was done.  He had ‘un-sonned’ himself.  But, with the true father, we don’t choose our name.  We don’t tell God who we are.  He tells us who we are.

            Think about someone you know who is deeply wounded.  It might be you, or someone close to you, or someone you’ve observed.  Maybe the injury is the person’s own fault.  The injury results from a series of mistakes that beget more mistakes.  Maybe the injury is something that happened to the person.  He’s a victim of terrible acts.  Most of time, it’s a combination.  The longer he has lived as one injured, lived in a far country away from support with savings gone and disasters piling up, the harder it is to remember.  ‘Broken,’ becomes his name, ‘lost’ his identity. 

This is why hurt people cause so much pain and why it is so hard to come back.  It’s a failure of memory.  We forget who tells who we are.  We forget our names: ‘son;’ ‘daughter;’ ‘beloved.’

What happened when he went back?  While he was still far off, the father who never accepted exclusion and never believed his son was completely lost, saw him.  He saw him because he never stopped looking.  He saw him and ran to him and then the literal embrace enveloped the one not worthy of it. 

Give me inheritance; you are dead to me.  Embrace!

I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Embrace!

No longer worthy?  It was never a question of worthiness.  The day we look into the loving eyes of Jesus, the Holy Spirit awakening our hearts, we are called ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ not for our worthiness but out of God’s grace and love. 

“He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20).  As the Father is pouring his love onto the son, the prodigal is stumbling through his lame exclusion speech.  The father doesn’t even acknowledge the young man’s words.  “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one!  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Kill the fatted calf.  We must celebrate.” 

It’s not that the father ignore the son so much as they are telling and living two different stories.  The father determines his story of embrace is the one that will win out.  The son, ‘un-sonned,’ comes with a story of a desperate man willing to live as a servant, even a slave, but the father reconstructs his identity. 

Do actions speak louder than words?  The son is delivering his prepared remarks.  The father is weeping, hugging, kissing, robing, instructing, and celebrating.  The identity he gave that this son rejected, is still there, given again, with even more love and passion.

As we walk through Jesus’ well-known story and see what embrace looks like, I have to ask.  Have you experienced embrace?  It’s as wonderful as Jesus depicts it.

Do you need to experience it?  Do you need Jesus to reconstruct your identity?  Do you need help remembering that you are loved?  You are made in the image of God?  You are a blessed child of God.  There’s no country so far that God will stop looking, ready to run to you kissing, hugging, robing, celebrating, and naming. 

Bask in the joy, remembering a time you received God’s embrace.

Or, are you hurting, and in that far country?  Turn to God now, confessing your sins with bare naked honesty; turn into the arms of the loving God.

Or, you’re walking with God, you know your name, but you also see into the world.  With patience and an abundance of grace, help a lost soul find her way to the arms of the father.

Jesus began the parable saying, “There was a man who had two sons.”  We will look at the older brother as we continue learning about embrace next week.


[i] M.Volf (2019), Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation: Revised and Update, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.164.

Monday, October 12, 2020

"The Posture of Embrace" (Mark 10:32-45)


Sunday, October 11, 2020

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            The truth is I want to be great.  I want to be seen as great what I do, a person of exemplary character, a great man.  This is very important, and I really want it to be important to you too.  I want my exaltation, the recognition of my greatness to be your top priority so that you’ll be working nonstop to promote my greatness. 

            How does that sound?  If I were sitting where you are and heard a preacher spew such self-serving nonsense, I’d turn off the livestream or maybe walk out of the building.  It’s self-promotion on steroids, the very opposite of what Jesus says makes a person great.  We see pastors, politicians, and people in other arenas talk themselves up.  Has anyone ready Mark chapter 10?  To promote one’s self and seek one’s own glory is the opposite of what Jesus says makes a person great.  Do we want to go in the exact opposite direction of Jesus?

            As Hillside Church, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope.  The following and the loving parts demand that we reject promoting ourselves and instead seek to give of ourselves and even give sacrificially to serve people.

            In Mark 10, Jesus told the disciples something they could not hear.  “We are going to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:33-34). 

            Immediately after hearing Jesus say this, the brothers James and John, say, “Teacher … grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:35, 37).  They blindly skip right over the mocking, spitting, flogging, and killing Jesus has just described.  As if he never said it and it will never happen, they jump right to glory.   Three crosses?  They see three thrones, James, Jesus, and John. 

            The other 10 disciples get angry at the request from Zebedee’s sons.  I get angry at it too.  Every time I read this, I am appalled.  I imagine approaching these guys in Heaven someday and asking, “James!  John!  What were you thinking?” 

            The idea of sitting thrones on either side of Jesus is exclusionary.  If James and John get those seats next to Jesus, no one else does.  They’re fine with that.  Jesus predicts his death for all people, his giving of himself for everyone.  These two seek what they can get for themselves at the expense of everyone else.   Jesus wants to share himself with the world; they want to keep him to themselves, to keep him from everyone else. 

            Jesus sees their folly, and he sees the misplaced anger in the other ten disciples – and in me.  My self-righteous fury at James and John masks something ugly.  I’d want one of those seats next to Jesus.  I want to be his right-hand man and I’d want everyone to see it.  Hey!  There’s Rob and he’s so important, Jesus needs him right there, close. 

            Jesus speaks to his disciples and to us, his church.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”  The one who shovels the snow, delivers the food to the sick, eats last, comes in early and stays late, and never once seeks recognition.  “Whoever wishes to be first,” Jesus says, “must be slave of all.”  That word, ‘slave,’ is loaded and dangerous in the tension-packed black/white world of America.  Yet that’s the word Jesus says.  Whoever wishes to be first must be so committed to serving his brothers and sisters and fellow humans, he slaves away at it.

            In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who saw his home country endure one of the worst wars of the 1990’s explores the dynamic of self-giving Jesus teaches in Mark 10.  Serbians who are Orthodox Christian, Croatians who are Catholic, and Bosnians who are Muslim were the groups that fought the ethnic, religious war in the former Yugoslavia.  The powerful Serbians committed genocide against their countrymen.  In that environment of seething hate, Volf, following, Jesus, developed his imagery of embrace.

            The request of James and John was an exercise in exclusion.  They wanted to be close to the victorious, glorified Jesus who sat on a king’s throne.  They wanted no part of suffering. Turn to Mark 14 and read of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane.  Verse 50 tells us all his disciples fled.  James and John wanted thrones for themselves, but they left Jesus to deal with the trouble himself.  When what he predicted would happen actually happened, they weren’t ready because they hadn’t been listening.  They wanted to be close to Jesus, but they bailed out when the going got tough. 

We’re just as guilty any time we seek our advance at the expense of others.  We are James and John asking for our own thrones.  When we turn a deaf ear to the cries of the hungry and a cold shoulder to those who have suffered injustice, we become the excluders. 

Volf uses ‘embrace’ as a metaphor for the serving, self-sacrificing love Jesus demonstrates and expects from his followers.[i]   Clearly, we miss literal hugs in this season of worldwide pandemic that requires that we socially distance.  However, following his prompts, we can adopt the emotional posture of embrace in the way we relate to others.  We can show relational hospitality to our neighbors.

First, we open the arms.  This is a gesture of reaching for the other in a way that express desire for the other’s presence and closeness.  “Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in” (p.144).  And, I enter the space the other has created for me.  Jesus did this with fishermen, tax collectors, and revolutionaries.  He did it with respectable council members like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.  And he made space for the lowest of people. 

In the next passage, after this talk about service, he is walking toward Jericho when he meets blind Bartimaeus who loudly, desperately calls out to him.  The crowd sternly tells the poor beggar to “hush” (10:48)!  Stop bothering Jesus!  But Jesus steps to the poor man in a posture of embrace.  He’s going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world, but that doesn’t mean he can’t stop his journey to show God’s love to a blind man.  He restores his sight.

The second movement of embrace is waiting.  I am standing here, arms wide open, and at that point, in self-giving service, I must wait for the other’s reaction.  This is not an invasion.  We cannot force the other to receive the love we offer.  This is where embrace feels risky.  Maybe we get rejected.  So crushing!  But, we step out with our arms open, and then we wait.  We do this again and again, no matter how many rejections come because our self-giving is not dependent upon the other’s reaction.  Completing the embrace is dependent on the other.  Adopting a posture of embrace is not.  We open our arms because we follow Jesus, the one who died on the cross for us.  He has made space for us and we want to live like him.

Third is the closing of the arms.  Our gesture of embrace has been received and we have received the neighbor’s gesture of open arms.  Volf writes that in a true embrace, a host is a guest, and a guest is a host.  If everyone in Jesus’ circle did what he said when he was chiding the 12 for their self-promotion, the love would overflow, and all needs would be met with extravagant abundance.  “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all,” Jesus said.  When everyone stands ready to embrace, everyone is welcomed, and everyone is held, then all are included, served, and loved.  We give of ourselves and receive the other.

Finally, the fourth step is opening the arms again; release.  The embrace is entered voluntarily.  The embrace is given and received.  In the embrace the other becomes a part of me and I of him or her, but I do not lose myself.  She does not lose herself.  Our joining does not obliterate our individuality or negate all the ways we are different. When we let go, our arms are still open, ready for another embrace and ready to embrace additional people. 

Christ models this posture when he goes to the cross.  Hanging there, he shows he wants us.  He wants us – he wants me – with him so badly, he’ll die for it.  He’ll die for you.  He’ll die for me.

The Holy Spirit, dwells in us, prompting in us God thoughts and God longings.  We choose to follow Christ, the Holy Spirit takes us residence us, and when we live in active, attentive responsiveness to the Spirit within us, we are constantly ready to give ourselves for the sake of others.  We are always ready for embrace. 

You and I – we’re no better than James or John were when they asked that terrible question about sitting next to Jesus’ throne.  If we follow the shameful path these disciples trod abandoning Jesus, we see the horror of crucifixion.  We have to look, but we don’t stay there.  We move to the new day of resurrection.  James and John did not remain set in that self-aggrandizing posture.  From their master, the crucified, risen Lord Jesus, they learned to serve.   They became ready to embrace.

We can learn that too.  We look to Jesus.  We open our hearts to the Spirit.  We decide we will be the servants Jesus describes.  And then we open our arms to one another, and then, to the hurting people of the world God puts in our path.  We serve them because we know Jesus has died that we might have life.


[i] Volf, M. (2019), Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation: Revised and Updated, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.143-146.

Monday, October 5, 2020

"Everybody Drink" (Matthew 26:26-39)


October 4, 2020

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            I hate the sound of silence at the dinner table.  Several people sit together, but the only sounds are the clinking of silverware and the crunching of croutons and lettuce.  No one talks.  In this tension-filled quiet, you can hear someone’ gulping throat as they swallow their drink.  Much more pleasant is the loud intimacy of us chatting as we eat.  We talk, maybe about important things, maybe about nothing.  Either way, the meal is sacred time we share with one another. 

            “Drink with me.”  It could be a coke, a coffee, a beer; “with me” is the important part.  “I want you with me.”

            “While they were eating,” we read in Matthew 26.  The “we” is Jesus and the 12 disciples.  Having stayed with Matthew for 26 chapters, we know something important is coming.  Jesus has spent three years showing that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this present reality. 

            At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 28, the resurrected Jesus instructs the disciples he has trained to go to all nations.  Last week, we stressed, from John 3:16, that God loves the world; that’s all people.  Now, we see, as Matthew closes, Jesus send his hand-picked disciples to all nations. 

            In this supper, where he breaks bread, “while they were eating,” he indicates what the disciples will do when they go to the nations.  They will grow communities of disciples.  Across the globe, they will multiply what Jesus has built because God so loves the world.

            He broke the bread and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  They could see him, the bread in his hands.  They weren’t eating his actual body.  He did not say he would turn himself into bread which they would eat.  Yet, somehow in future meals, when they ate bread, they would remember that he lived in them and they in Him. 

            A mystery, to be sure; these disciples would always be individuals made in the image of God.  Yet in Christ, they and we become one.  We talk about dying to self, dying in sin, being born again, becoming new creations; we pray that others would see Christ in us.  Eating that bread, we remember.  We are a part of Christ.  We affirm that He is in us and we are in him. 

            Next, he pours that dark red wine.  He calls it his blood, and he mentions covenant and forgiveness.  God made covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and David.  Each covenant affirms that God is the Lord and that humans are invited into relationship with God; God is master, Lord, Father, Savior; we are sons and daughters, forgiven and redeemed, new creations. 

            Jesus’ blood, the “blood of the covenant” as he calls it, is “poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”  To sin means to miss the mark.  When we sin, we reject God as Lord of our lives.  We put ourselves in God’s place.  We declare ourselves to be masters of our own destiny.  We hurt others because we see our own desires as more important than another’s wellbeing.  Sin takes countless forms, but generally speaking our sins can be categorized.  In some way, we violate one of the 10 commandments.  When we sin, we fail to love God and love neighbor.  It is a disruption in relationship. 

Forgiveness acknowledges that the relationship has been disrupted, but the acts of disruption, the sins, will no longer be held against us.  Forgiveness means relationship has been restored.  Our sins no longer count against us and community is possible once again.

Jesus then makes the point that the promised harmony is eternal.  “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (26:29).  They watch him die on the cross, remember his words, and all seems lost.  But then, he comes to them, resurrected, and breaks bread with them, and drinks wine with them.  The risen Lord is with them in a tangible body, takes in food, and touches them.  His resurrection is the sign!  The eternal kingdom is inevitable and imminent. 

The promised unity of “while they were eating;” the removal of sin and restoration of relationship; the new era where death is defeated; it all comes to this.   Jesus dies out of faithfulness to God and our of love for us.  He is raised in the power of God.  And we know we can count on him.  What he promised will come to pass.  We will eat and drink with Him in the Kingdom.  He says to us, “I want you with me.”

Take another look at verse 27.  Jesus says, “Drink from it all of you.”  We hold these words from the Bible in our hands and in our hearts.  “All of you” meant the disciples.  “All of you” includes the people the disciples would meet when they went out into the world.  They made disciples who in turn passed the faith on to the next generation and then the next, continuing on down to us.  “All of you” includes all of us and all the people who will come to faith in Jesus through our witness.

The Lord’s table summarizes the entirety of the Gospel and encapsulates the narrative of salvation, yours and mine.  The Lord’s table is an instrument of unity.  Every person sins, causing a rip in the relationship with God and with neighbor.  The Lord’s table holds the promise of forgiveness and new life.  The Lord’s table is open to everyone.  “Drink from it all of you.”  Humanity comes together in Jesus. 

I don’t know if you watched the presidential debate this past Tuesday.  I don’t know if you read the reporting or commentary following the debate.  One conclusion I take from it is an image of a hard, unmovable line drawn right down the middle of America, and you have to fall on one side or the other.  You have to be red or blue.  Moreover, you have to demonize those opposite you.  This hard line dictates that we hate all those not on our side.

The air we Americans breathe fills us with tension and anxiety.  We’re set on edge, pushed into conflict.  Nothing could be further from Jesus’ command to love our neighbor than the current political climate in America.  We’re defined by what we’re against.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers another way of seeing and another way of living.  We are invited to take our seat at the Lord’s table and to love whomever sits down next to us.  Whoever it is, we have the freedom to say to that person, “I want you here with me.  Drink with me.”  There’s no enmity at this table; that which disrupts relationship – sin – has been forgiven.  Jesus said so.  There’s no exclusion at this table.  God so loved the world.  Drink from it all of you.  All are made in God’s image, all are welcomed, and all are loved. 

At this table, it’s not my job to judge anyone else.  It’s not for me to even judge myself.   We come to the table receiving from God.  We sit as forgiven sinners among forgiven sinners, and we are invited to love those on our left and right.  I believe Jesus offers the solution to every human problem, relief for every struggle.  More specifically, I believe a dangerous threat faces America right now: political polarization.  It is tearing us apart.  Jesus brings us back together.  Jesus unites us.  The only thing Jesus destroys is death.

“While they were eating;” you are invited to the Lord’s table.  “Drink from it, all of you.”  You are invited into the covenant, to be the people of God, sons and daughters of God living in relationships of peace and good will with God and with your neighbor; your Asian neighbor and Arabic neighbor, black and white; Latinx and Native American; red and blue. 

When the anxiety and tension of our times start to engulf you like choking smoke, and you feel your heart tremble and your courage fail, remember.  You are God’s child.  God’s got you.  God’s makes you new.  Our Lord Jesus tells us who we are.  He wants us at his table.  He says to us, “Drink with me, sit, laugh, talk.  I want you.”

We know God wins.  So, have hope and good cheer.  At this table, you have a place and nothing gets in the way of peace.




Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Living Church


The Living Church, 9-30-2020

             “Tell the older women to be reverent in behavior … so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, … to be good managers of their households. … Urge the younger men to be self-controlled.  Show yourself in all respects a model of good works” (Titus 2:3-6).  In this short New Testament letter, Paul instructs Titus how to lead the church in Crete.  Paul wants to see a church that is called by Christ, loyal to Christ, and functions in an organized, ordered way.  

            Is the church organized?  Does the church have direction, and a sense of mission?  We must be discerning in reading Titus!  We do not abide by 2:9, “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters,” because we have read Philemon.  We know Paul himself subverted the institution of slavery when he commanded Philemon to receive the runaway slave Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother (Philemon 1:15-16).  We know Paul’s sense that in the church of Jesus, no one is a slave (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).  Thus, we take Titus 2:9 as a word set in first century Crete, but not applicable to us today.  The overarching spirit of Titus, though, most definitely speaks authoritatively to how we, as a 21st church, must function if we are to be the body of Christ.

            We must be a living church.  In a living church, ministries happen.  People meet Jesus.  The good news is proclaimed by the pastor in sermons and by the members and worshipers in everyday life. 

            Are you a woman in the church?  Are you mentoring younger women, as Paul prescribes (Titus 2:4)?  It’s not as if Paul says, ‘go ahead and do this if it fits your calling and is in your comfort zone and is aligned with your gifting.’  This word from Paul is for all women in the church.  Are you mentoring a teenaged girl or a college-aged girl, or a young woman?  If not, why not?  Are you contributing your time, experience, and knowledge to the church’s children’s, youth, or young adult ministries?

            Men, there’s a word here for us too.  “Show yourself a model of good works,” Paul tells Titus (2:7).  Are you doing that?  If so how?  Would you respond, “Well, I am not a role model or mentor, because I don’t know how to do that”?  Fine.  What are you doing to learn how to do that?  Men, how are you pouring your faith and your life into boys, teenaged young men and college-aged young men? 

            We, and by “we” I mean the people of the church, have to want this.  We cannot say, “Oh that’s not a priority for me.”  The Bible doesn’t give any space for saying we don’t value active ministry.  God’s word doesn’t give the option of not passing our faith onto the next generation.  We have to value an active, difference-making approach to living our faith, and this includes discipling each other and especially our younger members.  We all have to be part of ministry.  In a living church, there is no sideline nor are there any wallflowers.  Everyone is dancing.  Everyone is in the game.  Every worshiper, member, and attendee are involved in some way. 

            The only exception might be newcomers, visitors, and seekers.  Part of being involved in ministry is recognizing who the newcomers are and gently inviting them to become involved.  We want those who come for the first time to be loved, to see Jesus, and then to get active in church life.

            Not knowing how to mentor or disciple is not a reason to avoid mentoring and discipling.  The follower of Jesus learns how. 

            The pandemic is not a reason to avoid being involved in ministry.  The church has survived plagues, wars, and severe persecution throughout its history.  In the Roman era, the church met in tombs – the catacombs.  The church, persecuted by the most powerful empire in the world, grew holding worship in mausoleums.  We can grow, even if we stay home to avoid getting sick or wear masks and hold our meetings under “social distancing” protocols.

            In an era of texting, countless forms of social media, and good old-fashioned phone calls, we have constant connection.  We just need to use it to spread the Gospel, encourage each other, and grow in relationships with fellow church members.

            If upon reading this, you want to become more involved in ministry, check in with Dina, or Pastor Rob.  Our college/young adult group has started back up, in-person.  So has our youth group.  We continue to do our food pantry and we continue to need volunteers.  We have a small group (via Zoom call) starting October 8.  You can be involved in any of the ministries.  Women, you can attend Dina’s Tuesday morning women’s Bible study, which is also now meeting in person. 

If you want to be involved in a one-on-one relationship of spiritual mentoring, we can help you do that.  Pastor Rob or Phil Partin can assist you. 

If you read this and don’t feel the need to be involved in ministry in any way, I urge you to read Titus 2, prayerfully and discerningly.  How does this word of God speak into your life?  What does it mean, in your life, to live an active faith?  What, in your sense of things, does an active, mission-directed church look like, and what’s your part in that? 

I know what I’m saying here is direct and challenging.  When we follow Jesus, we find that he’s direct, and he challenges us.  I don’t presume to be Jesus, but I think what I wrote here is something he wants all of us to think about.  Church should be comforting, but not too comfortable.  We need to be prompted and sometimes even prodded by the Holy Spirit.  Read Titus and the other passages referenced here.  Read, pray, and then get involved in living an active faith and helping Hillside be a living church.

Monday, September 28, 2020

"Great Commandment Politics" (Mark 12:28-34)


Watch it here -

Sunday, September 27, 2020


            Our politics must be tied directly to the great commandment.  The Great Commandment only makes sense if we understand God intends to say everyone.  Jesus went to the cross because “God so love the world;” not part of the world but all of it, everyone. 

            What is the ‘Great Commandment?’  From the mouth of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  He’s quoting Deuteronomy 6:4. This has been God’s top priority for us from the beginning.  Next, quoting Leviticus 19:18, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). 

            Wait, wait!  Time out, Jesus.  We wanted 1 – the greatest commandment.  You gave 2!  He’s allowed to do that. He’s Jesus.  He gives them together, because we can only understand them together.  We can only truly love God when we love our neighbor.  It is impossible to truly love God if we fail to love our neighbor.  So, racism, conscious or unconscious, makes it impossible to love God because it is a failure to love our neighbor.  Holding others in contempt, for whatever reason, makes God-love impossible.  If you hold someone in contempt, you have elevated yourself above him; you have failed to love him.  Loving God means loving people.  The way we approach politics shows whether or not we truly love people. 

            I don’t mean the American political scene.  It is abhorrent when churches and pastors align with one party or the other, or a third party.  Many in our church family and many listening to this have strong political convictions which may lead you to hear this message and conclude I am against your party or for your party.  It’s not so.  I am not advocating for or against any candidate or party. 

Partisan politics have no place in church.  This is God’s time.  We have to contemplate how God calls us, His church, to relate to each other and to the world.  Politics refers to people.  So, as Christ-followers, our politics have to be love-based.  It’s the only way Christ allows.  Of the many significant obstacles to love, I will briefly touch on 3, using as a source chapter 4 of the book Crossing the Lines we Draw by theologian and pastor Matthew Tennant. 

First: fear.  Fear drives us to objectify others.  Fear prevents us from seeing others as people – people God calls us to love.  Fear leads me to hoard resources and prevents me from sharing.  I forget that we all need food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, and community; instead, I make sure I have enough.  I even store extras to make sure I’ll have more than enough in the future.  Fear turns my generosity into greed as I ignore everyone else and look out only for myself. 

Tennant uses the example of terrorism to illustrate the way fear distorts our perspective.  He quotes an American politician who, a few years ago said, “We will … unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth” (p.41).  It’s a patently absurd statement because terrorism is a technique, not an individual or even a group.  Most Muslims are not terrorists.  Many terrorists are not Muslim; some are white American.  But fear leads us to demonize radical Islamic terrorists, whoever they are.  Fear leads us to objectify groups of people or regions of the world. 

In Matthew 5 Jesus says,  “I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:44, 39).  That’s the Jesus, red letters!  His teaching and his commands get drowned out by the illogical noise our fears produce.  So, who do you fear?  Protestors or looters?  Political liberals or conservatives? Submit your fears to God. Ask Him to give you the courage to love those you fear or hold in contempt.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we overcome fear by, loving those we would never love.  The ‘other’ is no longer an object of our judgment, but instead a recipient of our love.

A second obstacle to Great Commandment politics is the sense that life is a zero-sum game.  Tennant points out a zero-sum game requires winners and losers (p.49).  For you and I to be winners, we have to beat others.  We advance at the expense of others.  A zero-sum game favors individual advancement over cooperation and mutual gain. 

Picture it.  Five thousand people on a hillside have listened to Jesus for hours.  His words are so rich, no one will leave.  Practical-minded Philip, one of the 12, wants to know how they’re going to feed this crowd the size of a small town (John 6:5).  Andrew, the matchmaker of the 12, sees a kid munching a loaf of bread. 

“A lot of hungry people here,” he says to the kid.  The kid nods.  “You going to eat all of that?”  Andrew asks. 

The kid nods yes. Then he says to Andrew, “At least I got mine!”

That’s not how the story goes!  The kid offers to share his lunch, and we get to see the way God multiplies our small offerings; Jesus miraculously feeds 5000 people with one boy’s meal.  We give what have to support each other and help those with nothing, and God multiplies it.  This is not socialism; this is Great Commandment politics.  Share.  Give.  Make sure everyone is included, cared for, and empowered.  Guided by love, we reject the zero-sum game approach and instead look for ways we can give of ourselves for the good of others.  Jesus gave his all for us on the cross.  We imitate Him, our savior, by giving of ourselves.

So far, in connecting love with politics, we have seen two movements.  We reject fear by seeing the “other” whomever we mean by “other” as someone to love, not someone to despise.  Second, we reject the competitive idea of a zero-sum game in favor of cooperation and mutual blessing.  We do this by sharing and trusting God to take what we give and bless others with it.  What’s third obstacle to love we need to overcome?  False narratives. 

Tennant refers to a couple TV shows from the 1950’s, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver.  Both are fine shows that depict an idealized America, if idealized America is a 1950’s white, working class nuclear family: mom, dad, two kids.  Sometimes this era is referred to as The Greatest Generation.  This is the generation of my parents and my grandparents.  However, the picture is of a particular type of family situation; but that’s not the only picture from that time period.

America back then was great, for some people; not for all.  Read the history of how stridently white people all over the country, not just the south, but all over resisted integrating public schools.  If you have a conscience and you’re willing to honestly read the history, you’ll be horrified.  Read about the racism against Asians coming to America during that time.

Tennant also points out that these beloved old shows fail to delve into the depths of Appalachia and the Southern literary tradition, a white cultural heritage that went ignored.  What makes America “great” is in the eye of the beholder.  As followers of Jesus, we have to tell the truth in the face of distorted narratives. 

The 1950’s, the 1980’s, today – none of it is a golden age.  Until Jesus returns, the world is a fallen place where women and men of every nation are lost and dying in sin, cut off from the love of God, cut off by their own choices.  The politics of love drive us to tell the truth about sin.  The politics of love compel us to help people find their way to the Savior, our Lord, Jesus.

We overcome fear by committing to love, even love our enemies.

We reject the zero-sum game in favor of cooperation and mutual blessing.

We expose false narratives by speaking the truth in love, even when the truths we expose are inconvenient and uncomfortable. 

Love of God and love of neighbor comes to full fruition in the most quoted of Bible passages, John 3:16-17.  Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“The world” means everyone.  That so-called radical Islamic terrorist; Jesus wants to be with him for eternity.  That person in Portland you saw on the news, the one throwing a Molotov cocktail at the police; Jesus loves him.  That Aryan white supremacist advocating for the purity of the white race; he’s shouting, red-faced, at an antifa protestor, who shouts right back, louder.  Jesus died for them both.  Jesus died for George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  God so loved the world, means everyone.

The cross shows that Jesus is for everyone.  Do you want to stand with Jesus?  You can stand against racism, against terrorism, and against hatred.  We are for people – black people, Arabic people, southern whites, Yankees, Canadians, Republicans and Democrats, everyone. 

Jesus gives the Great Commandment to love God and love people in the midst of a series of contentious public debates.  He debates with Pharisees, Sadducees, and a group called Herodians.  Each group attempts to outsmart Jesus and catch him in some inconsistency.  Like today’s political reporters, they try to trip Jesus up, but they always fail and end up with egg on their own faces. 

One guy though, described as a “scribe” (Mk 12:28), most likely a Sadducee, asks Jesus a legitimate question.  Which is the greatest commandment?  Jesus tells him he must love God and love neighbor.  A light goes on in this Sadducee’s mind.  “You’re right, teacher,” he says.  Jesus can see that unlike the others, his heart is true and Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

That’s where I want to be, close to the Kingdom.  I want you there with me.  Commitment to the Great Commandment puts us on the path.  Right now, our country is mired in the worst of political seasons.  It’s an opportunity for us to bear witness to the goodness of God by sharing the love of Jesus, in our thoughts, our words, and our actions.  May we do that.  May we obey the command to love, answer the call of love, and win people over to Jesus with hearts, words, and deeds of love.