Room in the Inn

Coming in and out of the office today, several people said to me and I said to them, “Keep warm today!”  I said that knowing the people I was talking to would stay warm, and I would stay warm, and if we got cold it was our own fault.  Keeping warm isn’t much of a challenge for most of us, but on days when temperatures drop below freezing, keeping warm can really be a matter of life and death.

A few weeks ago, temperatures in Hickory dipped below freezing.  With our town’s day shelter, the Grace House, unable to house people past 4pm and the Salvation Army’s normal rules preventing them from letting in people other than their clients before 10pm, there was a 6hr window in which several of our homeless neighbors were without refuge from freezing temperatures.  Hickory is blessed to have the Grace House and the Salvation Army.  Both do a tremendous amount of good in this community, but still there was a gap in the continuum of care for several homeless men and women.

During the day leading up to the coldest night of that week, several of us at church nervously asked one another, “What are we going to do?”  Austin Pearce, Director of the Hickory Soup Kitchen, initiated a conversation among local pastors to come up with a solution that would provide shelter to these men and women between the hours of 4pm and 10pm on days when temperatures dropped below freezing.  In response, a small handful of churches have committed to opening their doors to share their warmth on a rotating basis, and offer rides from the Grace House and to the Salvation Army.

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Tonight is the second night of sub-freezing weather in Hickory this week.  Although the Salvation Army shelter is mercifully suspending some normal policies and allowing anyone to come in from the cold, some are still left in the cold.

Last night, First Presbyterian opened their doors.  Tonight First United Methodist Church took our turn.  Tomorrow night Corinth Reformed Church is on.  Yesterday, at our regular Wednesday fellowship meal, our Senior Pastor announced that Thursday (today) our church would be offering our homeless neighbors shelter from the cold from 4pm-10pm, and said we need 4 volunteers to commit to 2hr shifts. We would be providing a meal, hospitality, and a warm, comfortable place to get out of the cold.  People responded immediately, putting down their names for 4-6, 6-8, 8-10.  We had more than enough volunteers.

It was a beautiful thing tonight to see so many people from our church chatting around tables, serving, and helping our homeless neighbors feel comfortable and stay warm.  There was grace in the hands that cleaned tables and washed dishes, in the laughter and conversation around tables, and in the quiet presence that assured our guests “We’re here because we care about you.”  I’m especially proud of my church tonight.

I’m reminded of the time James wrote to his fellow Christians and said to them, “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”  (James 2:16).  James was talking about how our faith in God manifests itself in works of love and mercy.  Earlier this week I was writing for the page on our church website titled, “What We Believe.”  Those words–the words of the Apostles’ Creed–are important.  Read them and you’ll see what we believe.  And watch the ways we love, and there you’ll also see what we believe.

Our churches have hundreds and thousands of square feet of heated space.  We have homeless neighbors in our town who desperately need a place to stay warm.  I’m grateful to live in a city where our agencies and churches have said with one voice, “There is room in the inn.”

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How to Fish

            We’re in the middle of a sermon series on fishing.  Two weeks ago we opened the series with the same story I just read.  Pastor Craig talked about how when Jesus calls us to follow him, Jesus says, “If you come follow me, I will turn you into something you’re not already.”  When we follow Jesus, we get trained in how to fish for people.  We heard from Scripture, followers fish.

            People who follow Jesus want other people to get caught in Jesus’ net of love and grace because when you come to know Jesus and his liberating love, you want others to know him too.  When you experience the freedom of forgiving and being forgiven, you share that good news.

            Followers fish, all because the love of Christ compels us.

Followers fish.  “Fishing” is a really interesting metaphor we Christians use.  When I was in middle school my youth group partnered with several other youth groups and we had a big rally.  We called it “Rock the Block.”  We had a parking lot full of big inflatable games like the jousting ring or the Velcro wall, where you put on a special suit, then run and jump on a wall.  Oh it was great.  A couple hundred middle and high schoolers hopped up on snow cones, popcorn, and cotton candy.  And the whole thing ended with a big concert by a local Christian band.

The theme of the event was “Mission Fishin’.”  I still have the shirt.  The logo we used was an image of the world cradled in the crook of a fishing hook with Matthew 4:19 underneath it: “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  Our block party was a big fishing expedition.  We were hoping to catch a few new kids, let them know our church was a safe place where they could have fun and hopefully meet Jesus, and that Christians were cool.

Here in Western North Carolina we’re steeped in the legacy and work of the great Billy Graham.  Billy Graham is the most well known Christian evangelist in the world.  His website says, he’s “preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories” (http://billygraham.org/about/biographies/billy-graham/)!  Some of you may have been impacted by one of Billy Graham’s crusades or his radio hour or one of his books.  He is, no doubt, an expert “fisherman.”

I think of fishing, and I think of big rallies and Crusades.  I think of knocking on people’s doors, or of ways to cleverly attract people to worship on Sunday morning.  And when I think that that’s what Jesus wants me to be, I get more than a bit nervous.  Is that what it means to fish for people?  Those are great things, but I wonder, is that all of what Jesus had in mind for Peter, for me, for us?

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            A week ago Saturday, I went to my first KAIROS team training event with 50 other men including Jim Chandler, a member of our church and the leader of this upcoming weekend.  KAIROS is a Christian ministry designed to share the transforming love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to impact the hearts and lives of incarcerated men.  I’m excited to be participating in my first KAIROS weekend coming up in February.  We opened the training the way any newly formed group would: introductions.

Well, one of the first guys stood up, said, “Hi, my name is Scott.  I worship at this church.  I’m here because Jo drug me here.”

Someone else stands up: “Hi, I’m Jeff.  I worship at such and such church, and I’m here because Charlie brought me along.”

Then Jim Chandler stood up and said, “Hi, I’m Jim, and I worship at First United Methodist Church.  I’m here because several years ago I had a drug problem.”  See, I thought, I knew Jim!  I though,  oh boy, things are getting real interesting.  “I had a drug problem:  Bill drug me here.”

They kept going:  “I got drug here.”  “I was brought here by….”  “I don’t remember saying ‘yes,’ but I got here somehow.”

One after another, it became increasingly clear that many of the guys who were there for this ministry training event weren’t there because they initially volunteered, but because they were recruited, they were enlisted.

Now hear me, there’s a difference between truly dragging someone kicking and screaming to do ministry, and it’s all together different when the Holy Spirit gets to pushin’ and pullin’ you, with the help of your Christian brothers and sisters.  And the latter is the sort of enlisting I saw going on in that room: men whom the Spirit drug to this holy work, and who keep coming back because the Spirit caught ‘em.

I’ve been thinking that and about our story this morning, and realized that’s what Jesus is up to.  He doesn’t ask if he may come aboard Peter’s boat.  He doesn’t inquire with interest about the make and model, you know, just for small-talk’s sake.  Instead, he basically commandeers the boat.  I guess Peter could have said, “No.”  We can always say, “No,” to Jesus.  But Jesus hops aboard and says, “Put out a little way from the shore.  I’ve got some teaching I need to do.”  Peter obliges Jesus’ request.

Jesus teaches the crowd.  I’d love to know what he taught them, but apparently that’s not as important as what’s going on between Jesus and Peter on the boat, because as soon as Jesus finishes teaching he makes another request of Peter: “put out into deeper water and let down your nets…”

He lets down the nets, and they get a huge catch of fish!  They were amazed; they were terrified; they didn’t know what to do.  And Jesus makes another request.  “Come follow me.”

There is something to be said for enlisting others in the work of the kingdom.  As part of the Changing the Conversation process, one of the things we’ve collectively identified as crucially important for our church is having clarity of and commitment to our purpose.  The purpose our leaders have crafted with input from many of you and that the Church Council will be considering adopting is this: The purpose of First UMC, Hickory is to invite all people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, growing together in love and service to God and neighbor.

There are lots of important words in there.  One of the first ones is “invite.”  Of course, that means “invite” people to worship and youth group and Sunday school and choir, because we believe in those places we have opportunities to experience the love and real presence of God, and I want others to have that same opportunity.  That “invite” word also means invite people to join in God’s work in the world.

When Jesus came to the lakeshore, he needed a boat.  Peter had a boat.  Jesus enlisted Peter and his boat in the ministry of God’s mission.  boat

Jesus has come to your lakeshore, and he needs your boat…whatever your boat is.  And Jesus isn’t going to be shy about enlisting you in spreading the good news that God’s free grace is available to all.

In the end, I think, we’re grateful for Jesus’ insistence, for the way he commandeers our home, our kitchen, our time, our pickup truck, and sewing machine because we’re desperate for meaning, for a purpose.  If the resources we have and the gifts we possess are all about making a living or our own gratification, friends it’s all for naught.  If they’re for showing people something wonderful, then we find a deeper meaning, a purpose.

Peter’s first lesson in fishing is this: fishing is about enlisting.

Now don’t go down to the marina at Lake Hickory and snag someone’s boat while they’re cleaning the deck, and say, “My pastor said I should.”  Hopping in a boat and telling its owner to go out into deep water is the sort of thing only the Son of God incarnate can get away with.  We have laws against that sort of thing.

Enlisting someone means something like, “You bake really well.  Jim Chandler and Pastor Wil need 200 dozen homemade cookies in order to show the love of Christ to inmates at the prison.  We need your oven.  Christ needs your oven.  Let’s get baking.”  It’s an invitation and an opportunity for someone to join in God’s work in that prison for someone who otherwise would never darken the door of prison.  It’s about joining, and sharing in a movement of God.  And maybe that invitation brings some relief to know that my oven isn’t just for baking; it’s for showing Christ’s love to someone.

Maybe that’s how you got involved with some ministry here.  You were enlisted, conscripted.  You got caught, and the love of Christ keeps you coming back.

Austin Pearce, is the director of the Soup Kitchen down the road from us.  When I first met him, he said whenever someone comes to the Kitchen and asks if they can help, the answer is always, “Yes.”  Our answer here is always, “Yes, we need you.”  And more importantly, you need this.

We need you, and you need this because as an early pastor and theologian, St. Augustine, prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  Bringing someone along to worship and to share in God’s mission isn’t an imposition, it’s an opportunity to experience the grace and love of God…maybe the opportunity that person has been waiting their whole life for.

If Peter’s (and our) first fishing lesson is Jesus needs you!, Peter’s second fishing lesson comes in the next story, the last part of this morning’s Scripture lesson:

“Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him.”

Most of us have experience with the sort of fishing where we put an attractive little lure on a hook, cast it into the water, and make that lizard dance so a fish will chomp down on it and we can reel it in.  Then the Bible talks about the cast net method.  We spread a large net, and some get out, but we may catch a few, and that makes it worthwhile.  You can imagine how those methods of fishing help us think about how we share the love of Christ.  There’s merit to both of those ways of “fishing for people”—to casting a wide net, to attracting someone to church, but…

There’s safety in casting a net or a line.  The net may get torn on the rocks, the line broken, but the fisherman is safe in the boat.  There’s nothing at stake for the fisherman.   In these few concluding verses, Jesus shows us what it means to fish.  It means holding your breath and going to the deep waters yourself.

We Christians don’t fish from the safety of a boat or even with the convenience of a rod and reel.  Fishing starts when you get out of the boat and go to work.  Fishing happens when the interruptions in your life become moments of grace.  Fishing, in the way Jesus teaches us, is always personal, always relational.  It’s about people, and being the love of Christ for them, to them, walking with them.  That’s how Jesus came to catch us.  That’s how to fish.

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The Beginning of the Good News

            The nice thing about Advent and Christmas is we generally know how things are going to turn out.  The angel is going to visit Joseph and Mary, announcing the birth of Jesus.  We’ll sweat it out for a moment with Joseph until he is convinced by the angel to remain faithful to Mary.  Our hearts will sink once again when we hear the distressing news, “there is no room in the inn.”  Our sadness won’t last for long though because a baby is born, and we’ve got a barn turned bar mitzvah on our hands.  Shepherds, magi, a heavenly chorus, and adorable farm animals all join in…adoring and worshipping the newborn king. 

            We know the familiar story, as well as the enduring admonitions to welcome the stranger, to trust God (even forsaking our reputation), to bring our gifts before Jesus.  Even though we know the story so well, we also find ourselves being surprised by God each Advent with the retelling. 

            That’s one reason I love the way Mark begins this gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.”  More than the first clause in a long introductory sentence, it works like the title of the book: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son,” as told by Mark the evangelist.

What this means is that “the beginning of the good news” isn’t just the first events that happened at the front end of the story—like his birth and John preparing his way.  Mark is telling us that everything that is about to follow—Jesus’ birth, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection—all of that is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.  It is the beginning of something entirely new, a new world, new possibilities, a new way of living in the world.  The whole world is changing, and this is just the beginning!

For the same reason I love Mark’s beginning, I love John’s ending: “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written” (John 21:25).  God can’t be summed up or contained.

The point we get from these writers is, we are living the continuation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Theologian N.T. Wright describes the Bible as a drama unfolding in 5 Acts: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the church.  The first four Acts are recorded for us in Scripture, and we, actors in the 5th Act, rely on Scripture as our script.  The story is still being written as we live it out.  We’re living in the 5th Act now, when Jesus’ good news keeps unfolding.  Jesus keeps changing lives, working miracles, calling ordinary people to extraordinary things.

Which begs the question: What’s the good news you’ve been hearing from Jesus lately?

When Craig and I went to the Leadership Institute in Kansas City, we were picking up the rental car and the employee quickly sized us up as pastors.  He said, “Ok, guys, I’m going to put you to the test.  Here’s what I want to know, keep it plain, no theology talk: What’s the good news of Jesus Christ?  You’ve got 10 seconds.  Go.”  I froze, choked, deer in the headlights, thinking, “How am I supposed to answer this in 10 seconds, I need time to nuance the various theories of atonement as well as our doctrines on justification and sanctification?!  If only I’d been raised Baptist!”

Thankfully, our inquisitive car rental employee’s soul wasn’t depending on my quick thinking; he had already surrendered his life to Christ.  But he’s kept me thinking since then, “What is the good news?  What sort of good news I’ve been hearing from Jesus lately?

Two nights ago a few of us from our DISCIPLE I class went to Catawba Valley Correctional Facility to celebrate a Christmas party with our brothers who are also taking DISCIPLE I and III while serving their sentences.  After dinner, we had an open time of sharing how God has been moving in our lives through our participation in the study.  In listening to folks share, the thing that was clear was that Jesus Christ is good and is good news.

Jesus is good news because he offers us second chances.

Jesus is good news because he shines a light in the dark places in our heart and lives.

Jesus is good news because his love for us is eternal and ever new each day.

Jesus is good news because he shows us that the only body image we have to worry about is the body of Christ and our restoration to the image of God.

Jesus is good news because he helps pick up the pieces of our brokenness.

Jesus is good news because he is more than a reason for the season or a convenient ploy for retail stores to get our business from Black Friday through New Years Day…Jesus is the savior of all the world; he’s my savior and yours.

What’s the good news you’ve been hearing from Jesus lately?

What came upon that midnight clear was not the whole story; that was the beginning.

At our wedding reception, Lea and I danced to Michael Buble’s rendition of that classic Sinatra song, “The Best is Yet to Come.”  “The best is yet to come, and won’t that be fine.  You think you’ve seen the sun, but you aint seen it shine.”

Marriage is just a beginning.  A baby is a beginning.  The best is yet to come.  The good news keeps coming in.