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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jesus Does it Again (John 6:1-15)


After this, Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the sings that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Phillip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sing that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

The movie Forrest Gump came out while I was in high school, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite movies. I can repeat many lines from the movie with incredible accuracy, such to the point that I am usually a source of great annoyance to those with whom I am watching the movie.

Our scripture reading from the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel reminds me of a scene from the movie. You remember the part of the movie where Forrest just started to run one day, and ending up running and running, crisscrossing the country several times over a number of years. As he ran, people began to follow him. Perhaps they thought he knew where he was going. But Forrest ran and the people followed. You all remember that scene when Forrest stopped running, turned and faced the crowd behind him, and the crowd hushed. They had been following him for years, some of them, and Forrest was about to speak. They all wanted to hear what he was going to say. Allowing the silence and drama to build, Forrest eventually says, “Well, I’m kinda tired. Think I’ll go home now.” In stunned disbelief, his crowd of followers began to wonder among themselves, “What do we do now?”

The difference in today’s Bible story is that the crowd followed Jesus because they saw signs he was doing. They followed Forrest Gump just because he was running. The difference is that Jesus never stops running. Jesus never stops healing. Jesus never says, “I’m kinda tired. Think I’ll go home now.” May we pray.

We’re told that the crowd was 5,000 people. That only counts the men, by the way, so with women and children, the crowd could easily have been 10,000 or 15,000. Don’t get caught up on these details; just realize that a whole lot of people are following Jesus.

What’s the matter with these people that they have the time to follow Jesus? Don’t they have jobs? Well, in all reality, probably not. In ancient Galilee, the unemployment rate was around 50%.

Imagine how hopeless that situation must be. Literally, never knowing where your next meal was going to come from. Wondering day-to-day how you would provide for your family. Illness was almost a certain death sentence, because you knew that you didn’t have the money to pay the doctor who might help you get better. But then along comes this traveling preacher named Jesus, with a message that brings strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, and along the way, he begins to heal the sick, and performs more signs and wonders along the journey than can be recorded in any book.

The crowd kept following Jesus because they’ve seen what he did. Wherever Jesus went, hope, healing, and changed lives were sure to follow. Jesus left evidence that he had been there – not as bait, but as evidence that he was on a divine assignment to change lives. He came to love, he came to heal, he came to forgive. This is why a large crowd followed Jesus. What he did and what he said rang true – and when they were around Jesus, people felt something stir within them that had lain dormant for a long time.

Because of Jesus, people saw a man back in Chapter 4 of this same Gospel who had been carried on a stretcher by his friends. By the time Jesus was done with him, the crowd saw the same man carrying his stretcher instead of being carried on his stretcher. Because of Jesus, even the snobbiest religious leaders came at night to see what enabled him to teach with such clarity and power. Because of Jesus, a woman got well at a well at mid-day. The crowd saw healing. The crowd saw changed lives, and they were hooked.

For some time, Jesus has been teaching and preaching, healing and loving and forgiving, and he lost track of time. I would like to point out that, on those Sundays when I preach a little long and you all are starting to get a little hungry that I’m in good company. Jesus was on the mountainside sitting and teaching his disciples, and realized that a great crowd was coming, it was a few minutes after noon, and they were hungry.

Jesus, unlike many preachers, actually glances at his watch and realizes it’s time to get something to eat. So he turns to Philip and says, “Has your committee thought about how you’re going to feed these people after the sermon? What’s your plan? Are you going to have a covered-dish supper? Are you bringing in a caterer? I see a lot of children and their families, are we having hot dogs and popcorn and ice cream?”

Philip looks around, begins to count noses and starts the math in his head – “Okay, $3 a head to feed these people, multiplied by 5000 . . . Jesus, it would take six months’ wages to feed these people! Jesus, you know we don’t have that kind of money in the budget! We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but you know what finances are like! Judas and the finance committee are never going to approve this!”

Earlier that day on the wrong side of town, a young boy was getting ready to leave the house. His mother called from the kitchen, “Don’t forget your lunch!” He grabbed the basket, not even having to ask what it contained. His family was poor. It was always the same. Five loaves made with barley flour – not the refined quality flour used in the bread of the rich, but the rough barley flour of the poor, and two pickled fish.

Andrew found this boy in crowd, looked over his meager, peasant lunch, and thought to himself, “It’s not much, especially with so many people.”

It can be tempting to look at what we have, especially if we consider it to be so little. “I have so little money – what difference does it make?” “I don’t have any skills – what difference can I make?” “I have so many personal flaws and issues – can difference can I make?” Like Andrew, we can honestly assess ourselves and our gifts, and we may consider them to be nothing, and we are left wondering, “I have so little, what difference does it make?”

And yet, something within Andrew still compelled him to bring something so little and insignificant as a peasant’s lunch to Jesus. Whether Andrew realized it or not, even what seems insignificant in the eyes of the world could become significant when it was placed in the hands of Jesus.

In the crowd are unemployed, hopeless people, people who are oppressed by circumstances of their world. But there are others – spies from the temple, curiosity-seekers, those who were for Jesus and those who were against him, those who had made up their mind about him and those who had never heard of him.

Even so, Jesus has them all sit down in the green grass in groups. In other words, Jesus organizes them into community – a place where they can face each other, where they can learn each other’s names and stories, and where together they can all face their need. Out in the middle of nowhere, this was not the time to lean on one’s status or background. Instead, this was the time to admit that they all had very basic needs and indeed yearned for the same thing, and if they were going to receive it, they were going to have to rely on a power outside themselves.

And so Jesus, who is himself the bread of life, feeds the crowd. He makes no distinction among those in the crowd – he doesn’t try to figure out who is with him and who is against him, who understands him and who has more to learn, who is a member and who is not, who tithed and who didn’t – Jesus just feeds them all. And the food keeps coming. Everyone keeps eating, and the disciples keep coming around the crowd with baskets brimming with seconds and thirds, and finally, they’ve all eaten until they’re full. Jesus sends the disciples back to collect the leftovers – not the pieces that were nibbled on and discarded, but the pieces that were never even touched – and the disciples come back with 12 baskets.

Some people have tried to explain this miracle away by saying that once Jesus started to distribute the food, other people in the crowd pulled out the food they were hiding and shared it with those around them. The miracle, they say, was that everyone shared with each other, and the result was more than enough food. I don’t buy that one. I think Jesus performed an honest-to-goodness miracle here. It’s a miracle of abundance. With Jesus, there is always enough to go around.

However, let us not forget that this miraculous feeding is a sign. The meal points beyond the meal. Bread and fish point beyond themselves, and a greater truth is being revealed through them. The feeding of the multitude is the only miracle contained in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all consider this story a family favorite for the family of God. Sharing food in community is one of the most important things we do together, because when we come together and break bread, we point to a reality beyond the meal.

Consider our fellowship dinners, our meals after worship, our meals in each other’s homes, the invitation to a newcomer to join your group for lunch, cookies and lemonade on the front lawn – why do we do these things? Is the point to have a snack? Is the meal, or the reception, or the food itself the point? Of course not. The food is a sign – it points beyond itself to what happens when we gather and share food together. Relationships happen, hearts are opened to each other, we participate in the gracious acts of giving and receiving. Food is not the point. Community-building that happens by sharing food is the point.

But when we share, we also receive. Those of you who volunteer at the Men’s Shelter, who build our Habitat Home, who go on mission trips, who do things for others know that you are blessed by those you serve in ways that are often greater than what you give. And by receiving from the very people we have gone to serve, we do something important. We allow them to be human, just as capable of giving as receiving, worthy of dignity and not disgrace. These meals reveal a greater truth than the food itself.

Or, think about what I do up here on these steps every Sunday morning. I bribe your kids with candy from the basket. Now, I realize the thing that keeps some of us coming back each week is the chance to get a piece of candy from the basket. I realize that may be what it takes to get some kids to come up. But that candy is a sign that points beyond itself. I get to tell them a truth about God, so they can experience God. I want their little heart to be touched and changed in some way – maybe not even discernible today, but I want God to make his home within them so they can celebrate the presence of God in their lives. Candy is a sign. It points beyond itself. But, my hope is that through candy, your children will have an experience with God that changes their hearts.

Back to our story, why does Jesus feed the 5000? What’s the point of this story, you’re asking? I think the key to understanding this miracle lies only four chapters later than today’s story: in John 10:10, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

When Jesus feeds the crowd, it is a sign of the abundant life God intends for us. Jesus doesn’t want the crowd to focus on one meal provided in a desperate time. Jesus doesn’t want the crowd to see him as a divine vending machine and stop there, because there’s so much more to Jesus, and this magic meal is but one sign among many pointing to who Jesus is and what he intends to accomplish in the world.

In the moment, the crowd was desperate for something to eat, and so they turned to Jesus to provide a meal for them. Sure enough, Jesus did. Many times, we are like the crowd. In our times of desperation, we call on Jesus for help, and time again, he sees us through it. But how often, once we are through the crisis, do we pull back from Jesus, go back to looking after ourselves, and know that we can leave Jesus alone until the next crisis comes along? Jesus is great in the pinch, but are we developing our relationship with him even in the good times? If we are, we are working on that abundant life Jesus desires for us all.

I have a friend from high school that I only hear from when his life is about to fall apart. He often calls at about 3am during the middle of the week – sobbing, slurred speech – classic drunk dial. But here’s the thing – he only calls during the crisis. Since high school, my relationship with him has been centered around the crises in his life. While I’m glad he has me to lean on during difficult times, I also feel like saying, “You know, I’d also love to hear from you when things are going well in your life.”

Jesus says to same thing to each of us. He’s used to hearing from us when we’re desperate and things aren’t going so well in our lives, but he wants us to keep in touch through the good times, as well. He carries us through the desperate times, but he wants to spend time with us in the good times, as well. He came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, but when we only come to him in the crisis, we deny ourselves the opportunity to develop that more abundant life.

Jesus feeds the crowd, but he wants more. He desires a relationship that is more-developed than simply meal-to-meal or crisis-to-crisis. Jesus isn’t just offering a one-time meal of bread and fish to a crowd of people on the side of a mountain, as miraculous and wonderful and awe-inspiring as that is. Jesus is offering more.

Jesus is offering himself as the bread of life, he is offering himself as a staple in our diet, he is offering himself as food that does not perish, that does not leave us hungry. He is offering himself as the key to a life that is abundant and rich, a life in which we feast on everything Jesus has to offer.

Friends, Jesus is the bread of life. He fed the crowds that day not as a one-time meal ticket, but to point to the reality that he is the one who satisfies every need of every heart. Jesus isn’t about a one-time fix, he’s inviting us to a lifestyle in which we feast on him every day, and find everything in life made richer in the process.

You are likely hungry right now, and that matters. But what are you hungry for? Spend all the time you want looking at the menu, but let me tell you about our specials. Around here, we’re known for serving up abundant helpings of the bread of life, and there’s more than enough to go around. If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Prophet and Prostitute (Hosea 1:2-3,10)


When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured or numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”

Honest question for you this morning: how many of you noticed the sermon title on the church sign when you came in this morning, or at some other point during the week? How many of you were shocked to see the word “prostitute” on your church’s sign? How many of you showed up simply because you thought we might be talking about something scandalous or scintillating today?

Hosea is one of those books in the Old Testament that I believe even the most seasoned church folk among us could count the sermons they’ve heard from this book on one hand. When’s the last time you heard a sermon from the book of Hosea? When it comes down to it, we aren’t too familiar with this section of Scripture, which gives us all the opportunity to hear it with fresh ears. May we pray.

Summer is wedding season. I have done five weddings already since March, and I have Brian Neill and Emily Dywan’s wedding coming up in October. For those of you planning to get married soon and are thinking of asking me to do your wedding, let me just get it out there that in the last year I have become a big fan of the destination wedding. I’m just saying! Last year I got to spend the week in Ocean Isle beach for Emily and Jeff’s wedding, last month I got to spend time in Texas with the Meyers for Patrick & Missy’s wedding, and in October Brian & Emily are bringing me out to Lake Lure. So, destination wedding – I’m just saying!

Let me draw an analogy for you about weddings, and for those of you whose weddings I have done and whose weddings I will do, please recognize that what I’m about to say is, in no way, even remotely based on any of your weddings. Everyone clear on that?

It’s usually a hot afternoon, and the wedding doesn’t even start until 3 or 4. The guys have squeezed into a white shirt, a tie, and a suit, and you know it takes an act of God to get us to dress up on a Saturday. Everyone is milling around in the foyer, and you get in line to sign the guestbook. A young man wearing a tuxedo escorts you to your seat, and you begin to take notice of the other guests. Everyone exchanges polite glances and little hand waves. If you’re single, you’re scoping out the other single guests and trying to determine which one you’ll be asking to dance first when the reception really gets going. Guys have noticed an attractive young lady a few rows in front, but she’s sitting with a guy, and you’re trying to figure out, “Is that her boyfriend, her cousin, or her gay friend?”

Finally, the groom walks in, led by the pastor who nobody really notices because she or he looks pretty much like normal. But the groom looks nothing like the immature kid you remember. His hair is nicely trimmed and he’s even used product in it, he appears to have shaven this morning, and he’s wearing so much cologne the guests in the first four rows are gasping for air. The bridesmaids glide gracefully down the center aisle. Then, the organ swells, and everyone rises to their feet, and the bride comes in. Her dress is dingy, and her hair slightly unkempt. Her lipstick is a little too red, and she’s wearing a little too much blush. She stops in the middle of the aisle and grinds her cigarette into the carpet. As she walks by, the unmistakable scent of cheap liquor lingers behind her. The groom is still radiant, blissfully unaware that the guests sense something is amiss. This has to be the strangest wedding you’ve ever been too, including your hippie second-cousin who got married in a cranberry bog.

It’s the wedding of the prophet and the prostitute: Hosea & Gomer. Here are two people whose backgrounds could not have come from further extremes. Hosea and Gomer: the prophet and the prostitute, the man of God and the woman of the street, the respected and the rejected. To be certain, it’s an unlikely pair.

When it came to prophets, Hosea was a big one. He was a household name, and thousands of people a week tuned into his nationwide television broadcasts. Every preacher has a hot-button issue, and for Hosea, it was sexual sin. The people were constantly violating the boundaries given to them by God – sleeping around and even having relations with ill-reputed women who hung out near the main entrance to the temple.

And Gomer? She was one of those women at the entrance to the temple. Let me offer a footnote here. Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest profession, and we find it practiced all over the world. Most begin young, and most sell their bodies for money, not because they enjoy what they do. In poor families around the world, there is no inheritance for the daughters to receive, and the daughters grow up and head off to the market for the day, and then return at night with food. Nobody talks about it, but the daughters have sold their bodies for food. I imagine Gomer was similar to these tragic people all over the world – a dejected shadow of a person for whom life had steadily gone from bad to worse. The lowest people in society used the services of such women – the women themselves were viewed as something slightly less than human.

Hosea will marry Gomer, and she will bear him a son, but it’s a tenuous relationship at best. Before too long, Gomer will desert her husband, and have two illegitimate children. Her family will beg her to stay with him, but her life will continue to sink lower and lower, down into the pits of despair, so far below rock bottom that you and I have no way of understanding her condition.

In the following chapters, we find her being sold into slavery at an auction. Can you just hear the taunts of the people around her? “She’s finally getting just what she deserves. She’s made her bed, and now she can lie in it. Her bad choices are catching up with her and her types.”

Finally, she is on the auction block. The auctioneer cries out, “Who will buy this woman as a slave?” There is silence. Nobody wants her. She’s used up. She has no value. Finally, at the back of the room, one hand came up, and a voice said, “I will buy her. I will buy her back.” It is Hosea, and he is buying her back. The tongues were surely wagging. Here is this prophet, this man of God, buying someone who they all believed to be street trash. But, she happens to be no ordinary piece of street trash – she is also his wife.

One way the preacher gets a handle on a particular text is to look at it from the perspective of the various characters and see how we might relate to the story. It would be easy for me, at this point, to say, “Therefore, let us be like Hosea, and show love to people the world has forgotten.” To be sure, this is something we’re called to do. But there is some honest soul-searching that needs to take place first.

I quickly realized that, in this story, we’re not Hosea. We’re Gomer. We’re not the prophet. We’re the prostitute! Does that make anyone here a little bit uncomfortable? It does me! If you could have chosen your role in this story, would you have chosen to be the prostitute?

But let me offer you a hint for reading the Bible that will make interpreting it so much easier from here on out. Anytime you read a story and there are two characters in it – one who is virtuous and one who is sinful, one who is wise and one who is foolish, one who is good and the other who is bad – always just assume that we’re the bad one. I realize that’s not what the Church has historically done, but trust me, we’re the bad one. We’re always the one who needs redemption, we’re always the one who needs salvation.

Whenever we read such a story and cast ourselves as the virtuous ones who are always on the side of righteousness, we repeat the sin of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – who thought so highly of themselves and so little of others that they were unable to recognize how truly distant from God they were. They were so busy maintaining the appearance of righteousness that they were unable to discern the stench in their own lives.

The Church is filled with people whose lives are messed up, who don’t have it together, who make enormously bad choices and then must live with the nasty consequences. Now, we may pretend otherwise. We may put on our smiling Sunday faces, our perfect appearances, our images of having it all together, but we are a deeply flawed people. We are not right with God and we are not right with God’s people. Yet Christ chooses us, of all people, to be his bride; we find this image of the church as the bride of Christ in the letters of Paul and in Revelation. This is not a statement that we have it all together and are somehow worthy to be counted as Christ’s bride, but quite the opposite.

In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Christ chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Christ chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Christ chooses us.

This is a story of pure grace, of pure sacrifice, of pure love. This story reminds us that God loves imperfect people. It’s a crystal clear view of God’s love and grace for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

This is a love that is patient and kind, that does not seek its own way, that endures all things.

How much more, then, will God keep his vows to us? When everyone else has given up on us, when everyone else has said that we’re worthless and are good for absolutely nothing, when everyone else is ready to throw us away, God is still faithful; and lavishes upon us a love we don’t deserve.

There is a mindset that became very popular in some Christian circles that you had to get your life in order before you could even think of approaching God. You had to clean up all that nasty stuff – the attitudes, the behaviors, the bitterness, the resentment – before you were worthy to be in God’s presence, some people would tell you. From the outside, so many churches have projected themselves little enclaves of perfect people – a place where the children are always well-behaved, and where everyone is always nice & pleasant.

Last week, we were reminded that Jesus’ driving passion was to seek and save the lost. We realized that we are all lost sheep, we are all sheep without a shepherd. This week, we’re all the unfaithful woman. The metaphor is different, but the story is still the same. God loves sinners – lost sheep, unfaithful woman, whatever image you want to latch onto doesn’t matter because the story is the same. For those of who have read your Bible, this story is told and retold so many times that we know it to be the heart of the Gospel – the grace-filled story of a God who continually reaches toward us to do for us what we cannot do on our own.

But, here’s the catch. Sometimes lost people act lost. I shared with you some of the stories of things that have happened in churches that do this – drug paraphernalia in the restrooms, people who are rude to other worshipers and staff, people who give each other the finger in the parking lot. Why do they do this? Because lost people sometimes act lost. Sheep without a shepherd act like sheep without a shepherd!

Now, it got back to me that no sooner had we gotten out of worship when someone said, “I’m not sure we want those kind of people here.” And I just thought, “Excuse me? I don’t think I heard that right.”

Because, “those kind of people” are lost people. And Jesus said he came to seek and save the lost. Those kind of people are the unfaithful woman being sold into slavery on the auction block, and those kind of people are the ones Christ chooses to be his bride called the church.

And here’s the thing – there is not distinction between “those kind of people” and “us kind of people.” We are all “those kind of people.” The lost sheep and the unfaithful woman are our brother and our sister. The lost and the unfaithful is us. We have all been lost. We have all been bound by powers and principalities of this world, we have all been the unfaithful one on the auction block, helpless to speak for ourselves, to save ourselves, to redeem ourselves.

But fortunately for us, there is a redeemer. There is one who will buy us back. Jesus comes to the auction, and when we are all up there on the auction block, Jesus starts to say, “I’ll take that one.” “And yes, I’ve been looking for him, I’ll take him, too.” “I want that one, I’ll take her, too.” And finally, Jesus stretches his arms wide in an embrace that encompasses us all, and he says, “I’ll take the whole lot.”

Church is not a place for perfect people. We need to put a sign out front – no perfect people allowed! The church is not a museum of perfect people, the church is not a showcase of saints, the church is not a place where you have to behave a certain way before you can belong. The church is a hospital for sinners. The church is a place where you belong in the loving embrace of God before you have done a thing to earn God’s favor, and you know what we call that? We call that grace. The church is a place where imperfect people are loved because God showed his love for us in this – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love toward us. Can I tell you something? People who pretend to be perfect all the time annoy the snot out of me. I am well aware of my limitations and my shortcomings, and I am well-aware that I am not perfect. I sent Pam Walker a weird email this week when I had about 13 other things on my mind, and she wrote back and said, “It’s nice to see you’re not perfect!” Trust me, I am well aware of this and am reminded of it daily.

It was the sin of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day – turned out that acting “holier than thou” just didn’t allow people to be honest with themselves, and all of that self-righteousness made it darn near impossible to grow closer to God and other people.

Here’s a simple truth: we are an imperfect people. But God loves imperfect people. That’s what this story of Hosea and Gomer – the prophet and the prostitute – so readily reminds us. Christ is the perfect groom and we are the imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on us, broken and bent and utterly unattractive, and he says, “I’ll take them all,” and immediately we know what grace is all about.

Did you hear about the church that decided to start loving people unconditionally with the love of God? It’s sad, really – just like Jesus, they’ll take anybody.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

What Jesus Wants (Luke 19:10)


For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.

Gibson Guitars make, arguably, the best guitars out there. Their slogan is “Performance is our Passion.” They are an example of a company that clearly understands why they are in business. Everything centers around making it possible for their customers to give the best performances possible.

I did a quick Google search this week on other companies that claim to have a passion. I was amazed at how many companies have as their slogan, “Such-and-such is our passion.” Here are just some of the things I discovered. “BEGO USA – Dentistry is our passion.” “Viking Athletics – Paddle is our passion.” “Heritage stone – stone is our passion.”

The list went on and on. Quality, cake, fashion, modeling, hockey, coffee, food, dance, sports, Whf protection, photography, fine chocolate, hearing, reliability, safety, paper, software, nature, snow, skiing, imaging, seafood, music, augmented reality development, scrapbooks, quality milk product development and garage doors.

There are all sorts of organizations, businesses, and companies out there who build their entire identity around the thing for which they have passion. They know what they’ve been put on the planet to do, and everything they do is built on it.

Can the church of Jesus Christ say the same thing? Does the church have a passion? I have seen churches do all sorts of things to find their passion. I have seen them debate their passion. I have seen them take a congregational vote on what their passion is going to be. I have seen complicated drawn-out processes dedicated to a church’s passion.

James Howell, who currently serves as the senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist, recalls when he was the pastor at Davidson and a top-down directive came through for every local church to clarify its purpose. He called together several key leaders in the church into a vision team, and charged them with coming up with what the church was going to do and be. After about 10 minutes of polite chit-chat, one lady said, “This is ridiculous. Let’s just do the things Jesus told us to do.” They wrote that on the form and adjourned the meeting.

I’m gonna make it real simple today. Our passion needs to be doing the things Jesus wants us to do. May we pray.

Some ground rules today. First, Jesus is Lord. Everyone in agreement on that? Jesus is Lord – this statement of belief among the early Christians affirmed that Jesus was in charge of things. Everything – all things, in fact. Bishop Ken Carder reminds that when we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re saying “Jesus is the boss.”

If Jesus is Lord, then to whom does the church belong? Until the right answer to this question is given, the church will always struggle. There is really only one right answer to this question, but let’s start with some of the wrong answers: the church does not belong to the bishop or the denomination. The church does not belong to the pastor. The church does not belong to any staff member or leader, even if that person has been in leadership for decades. The church does not belong to the council, the lay leadership, or any committee in the church, not even the trustees who handle affairs related to the property. The church does not belong to any individual or family. The church does not belong to any special interest, any official or unofficial group, and the church doesn’t even belong to the members.

The church belongs to Jesus Christ. He is its owner. He is its boss. He is its Lord.

Second, all people belong to God. We belong to God because God made all of us; we are all part of God’s creation, and we humans are uniquely formed in God’s image. So, inasmuch as God creates all of us, all of us belong to God.

We all know that there are people – inside the church and outside – who are distant from God. Being distant from God doesn’t make someone a bad person, by the way. Maybe they didn’t grow up in a family where God was emphasized. Is that their fault? Maybe the Christians they have known turned them away from God. Is that their fault? Maybe no one has ever shown or explained their faith in a way that had appeal to them. Is that their fault?

The Bible has a word for people who are distant from God – lost. It is not derision or implied inferiority to describe someone as lost. Using the word “lost” is simply a statement that though all people ultimately belong to God, there are some who are distant from God.

If Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is the boss, if Jesus is in charge of the church because he owns it – he bought it with his own blood, you know – then the driving mission of every local church must be to do the things Jesus wants us to do.

Jesus outlined his passion in today’s scripture reading: “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Jesus had a passion for lost people. The church is the body of Christ, meaning that we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Therefore, if Jesus was passionate about lost people, the church had better develop the same passion!

This isn’t up for debate or discussion. We aren’t going to take a vote on this. Jesus made it very clear.

What is the most valuable thing you have ever lost? Did you find it? How did you feel when you did?

It is an awful feeling to lose something or someone who is close to us, precious to us, valuable to us. It can be devastating, and we will go through great efforts to recover it. You know, God has lost some valuable things, too. People. People like you and me, people around the corner and people around the world.

As a congregation, we must develop a heart for lost people around us. If we claim to be a church, Jesus’ passion must be our passion. We are called beyond our walls, because people all around us belong to God and need to be returned to God, and the driving purpose of our church must be about restoring that which has been lost.

A lot of it has to do with leadership. Effective leadership develops a dynamic congregation. Pastors, staff members, and church leaders are among today’s shepherds in the church. We are all called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the chief shepherd, who demonstrates to us what shepherding is meant to look like.

Both the heart of Jesus and his ministry are summarized for us in Matthew 9:35-38: Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus went to where the people were and did not wait for them to come to him. Shepherds go to where the sheep are. Church leaders who lead with the heart of Jesus go into the community, getting to know and building relationships with unchurched people and caring for those who are hurting. Further, he saw the crowds and had compassion on them. He didn’t see them as masses or irritants, and he didn’t chastise them for being distant from God. Jesus had compassion.

Jesus leads us closer toward Biblical shepherding in Luke 15:4-7: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

What does the shepherd do when he finds the lost sheep? He rejoices! Imagine the church where all of the members celebrate every time another lost sheep comes back to the fold! This is what Jesus describes in heaven. Shepherds who follow in the footsteps of Jesus – be they pastors, staff, or church leaders – are those who have a heart for lost sheep.

Friends, if we are serious about what it means for us to gather under the name “church,” then this must be our passion. Jesus started the church to carry on his ministry and he gave us the Holy Spirit to continue that task. Jesus did not give us the church as a sort of spiritual country club, a members-only club turned inward. We are not here to teach people manners, decency, or morals. Jesus’ driving passion was to seek and save the lost, yet I am mindful that in many churches, you’d never know it.

Wondering why that is, I posed this question on facebook: Jesus' driving passion was to seek and save the lost. What keeps this from being the driving passion of a local church?

One friend emailed, “You’d be surprised at the number of churches who don’t realize that this is the sole reason they exist.” Another posted: “Complacency... everyone thinks someone else will do all the work. They feel like they fulfill their obligation by showing up at church once or twice a week, and then wonder why the body's not doing its job . . . They (we) all need a fire under our butts.” (Allison Joy Worrall) Another said, “Unfortunately, many local churches are so caught up in the money (mortgages etc.) that they have forgotten the great commission. I believe it was Billy Graham who said that the greatest mission field is in the pews of churches.” (Joseph Miller) And, one of the most influential pastors in my life said, “Some have the joy of Christ in their lives but many do not. The Church often does not show this joy because it gets distracted with program, building, finances, ...and these things become our passion.” (Rusty Thomas)

So many things that can distract us from our mission. So many things that we can make our passion when we lose our focus on Christ and doing the things he wants us to do. But when our passion and our focus is not on seeking and saving the lost and we forget that Jesus is Lord, we will always fail to meet our potential.

Adam Hamilton pastors the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection outside Kansas City, a church that was started 20 years ago with four people and now has over 16,000 members, making it the largest church in United Methodism. Church of the Resurrection has a heart for unchurched people; they have made seeking lost sheep their passion. Adam tells stories of some of the things that have happened around their church – drug paraphernalia found in the restrooms, people who are rude to other worshipers and staff, stories of people giving each other the finger as they get cut off in the parking lot. While polite churches might be horrified to hear of these incidents, Adam takes these stories as proof that Church of the Resurrection continues to reach lost people, because lost people sometimes act lost! Their lives haven’t been transformed by Christ yet, but the church continues to make room for them, loving them, nurturing them, gently offering Christ to them.

Very early on, as their brand new church was starting to grow, they raised the idea of starting a second worship service. Many members rejected the idea at first, because they wouldn’t know everyone anymore. However, they took a step back and asked the question, “What did Jesus put us here for? What does Jesus want from us? What was his driving passion?” They recalled that Jesus’ driving passion was reaching lost people. So, they asked the question about the second worship service again, this time saying, “In light of Jesus’ passion of reaching lost people, which would seem to be Christ’s will for us – maintaining only one service where a limited number of lost people can be received, or starting a new worship service to create space for more lost people to come to Jesus?”

Can you imagine what it would look like for us to make our decisions based on the same criteria? Remembering that our aim is not to do what we want, but what Christ wants, and then recalling the things that were important to Christ, can help us quickly, easily, and faithfully make hard decisions.

I’ve heard it said that a church’s faithfulness can be measured by the extent to which its members are concerned with people outside themselves. This includes our involvement in missions, inviting others into our community, the efforts to which we go to make people feel at home when they’re here, our willingness to step outside of what is comfortable and familiar to offer something new, such as teaching a new class for children, our willingness to make changes to our administrative structure, our facility, our worship times and formats, our fellowship events, our Bible studies, our Sunday School classes – we are willing to do all of these things if we realize that doing so will help lost people – the ones whom Jesus came to seek and save – be caught in the loving embrace of a Savior who is searching for them.

What does that mean for us, as a church? You already know that there are 23,000 people who sleep within 1.5 miles of this location. That’s our mission field, folks! We are not here for ourselves; we exist for them. That’s where so many churches get it wrong – everything they do and plan is for themselves, and no one has even thought about the people beyond the walls! Of the 23,000 people within 1.5 miles of our church, only 22% attend church. That leaves 17,940 people – people Jesus loves, people Jesus seeks, people for whom Jesus died – who are waiting for someone to share Christ with them and bring them back home. If everything we do isn’t somehow aimed at bridging the gap between these folks and God, then we’ve missed the point entirely.

The times I have been in London, I have been dependent on the subway, commonly referred to as “the tube,” to get around. At the edge of every train platform is this statement; “Mind the Gap,” meaning pay attention to the hole between the platform and the side of the train.

When it comes to the lost people all around us, our task is the same: Jesus wants us to mind the gap. Jesus wants us to pay attention to the hole between God and lost people in our world, and to build the bridges necessary to bring people home. We can’t be content with a job partially done, and the job isn’t complete until every sheep is back at home in the arms of the shepherd. We can’t just say, “We got a few, so I guess that’s good enough.” The goal is not a full sanctuary, a growing budget, a few new ministries and programs. The goal is lost people brought back to God.

Folks, that’s why I’m passionate about this, and stubborn about this, and frustrated when we don’t do this as well as we could. It’s what drove Jesus, and it’s what drives me as a pastor. I know that some of you think I’m a little too intense about doing this “Jesus stuff,” that I have grandiose expectations and need to settle down a bit.

I’ve got news for you: that ain’t gonna happen as long as even one of those 17,940 people who sleep within a mile and a half of this building have yet to be brought back home to Jesus. We have important work to do – I am 30 years old and will probably be dead in only 60 short years – we don’t have time to waste playing church. Jesus was clear: his passion was to seek and save the lost, and for those of us who claim to be his followers, this must be our passion as well.

The work continues as long as there are sheep without a shepherd nearby. In everything we do, we need to seek to connect people with God. And, if we realize that we have an opportunity to do something more or different that will help us reach even more people, then our work is clear: we have to do it, whatever it takes.

Jesus tells us there is great rejoicing over one lost sheep cradled in the arms of the Shepherd. There is great rejoicing over a lost son who returns to the loving embrace of the father. There is great rejoicing when what was lost is found.

I’m looking forward to some parties.