Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Wisdom of Foolishness

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 & Matthew 5:1-12 for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2011)

When an airliner takes off with me aboard, the same thought always passes through my mind just as the plane loses contact with the runway: “Human beings aren’t supposed to do this.” Behind the thought is the sense that leaving the ground and heading into the sky is a foolish thing for people to do; after all, it feels safer on the ground. I’m glad, though, that the pioneers of flight were not and are not afraid to see the wisdom in such foolishness; their willingness to do what can’t be done has produced some amazing results.

Still, doing what doesn’t come naturally, doing what seems to fly in the face of our natural limitations, is risky business. We were reminded of that on Friday as we reflected on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. We see reminders of it all the time.

Sometimes, to be truly wise, you have to be utterly foolish; sometimes, to do something truly wise, you have to do something utterly foolish.

No one here would want to argue over whether or not God is wise or over whether or not God’s wisdom is greater than anyone else’s wisdom. But God being God and all, we might have expected God to do things differently. We’re grateful that God wanted to give us a chance to know God’s grace and love but we can’t help but wonder if the wise thing for God to do would have been to use all that power and strength and might to make us be right and do right; we can’t help but wonder if a more helpful enduring symbol of God’s saving action would have been a sword or a storm.

What we have, though, is a cross.

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul said (1 Corinthians 1:18) and, he went on to say, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25).

When God wanted to reach down to us, God used a cross; when God wanted to provide a way for us to reach up to God, God used a cross. It is in the cross that God revealed God’s way to us; it is in the cross that God revealed God’s heart to us; it is in the cross that God revealed God’s nature to us.

We will have the God of the cross or we will have no God at all.

The very idea that Almighty God would empty God’s self and come down to earth to live among us, to suffer in ways that exceed even our ways of suffering, and to die not just like us but for us is foolish to extremes that defy description—but that is who God is; God is the God of the cross. The cross is God’s way in the world.

When we come to worship, it is into the presence of that kind of God that we come—we worship the God of the cross. When we serve God in the world, it is that kind of God that we serve—we serve the God of the cross. When we ask God to show us the way to live our lives, it is that kind of God to whom we pray—we pray to the God of the cross.

Sadly, we are prone to demand signs; we are prone to want to see or to feel something spectacular, something that overwhelms us with such good feelings that we don’t have to pay any attention anymore to the suffering that goes on in the world or in our community or in our house or in our lives—but the Church can’t offer you that because God hasn’t offered you that; all we can preach is Christ crucified and if you need more or other than that then the cross will just have to be a stumbling block for you.

Sadly, we are prone to desire wisdom; we are prone to want everything to be logical and sensible (as we define “logical” and “sensible”) and to have everything laid out in “seven easy steps to live a happy life” or in “three simple keys to overcoming adversity”—but the Church can’t offer you that because God hasn’t offered you that; all we can preach is Christ crucified and if you need more or other than that then the cross will just have to be foolishness to you.

And the cross is a stumbling block; the cross is foolishness—but the cross is God’s way of loving us and of allowing us to love God and it is God’s way of being God with us and it is God’s way for us to live as God’s children and in God’s kingdom.

The cross is God’s great wisdom seen in God’s great foolishness.

It is only when the God of the cross gets into our lives—really gets into our lives—that we can know the truth of the words that Jesus spoke when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” and “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5).

God’s way was the way of the cross; God’s way is the way of the cross. God determined that the only way to resurrection was through crucifixion and that the only way to life was through death. God wagered that through and in Jesus Christ people—some people, at least—would see that God’s way for us is upside down and backwards from the world’s way for us. God wagered that we would join with Christ in the wisdom of God’s foolishness, in the wisdom of the cross.

What a foolish risk; what a foolish gamble.

What, after all, are the chances that we will prefer God’s foolishness to the world’s wisdom and that we will prefer God’s weakness to the world’s strength? What, after all, are the chances that we will embrace selflessness rather than selfishness, weakness rather than strength, humility rather than pride, serving rather than being served, giving rather than getting, and self-sacrifice rather than self-protection?

What, after all, are the chances that we will get it?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Transformational Followship

(Sarah Holik, Children's Minister at First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, was ordained to the ministry on Sunday evening, January 23, 2011 at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth. My assignment was to deliver the "charge to the church" which I based on 1 Corinthians 1:1 and the text of which follows.)


Effective pastoral leaders are committed to bringing about transformation; that is, they want to lead individuals in a community of faith and to lead that community as a whole to be transformed more and more into followers of Jesus Christ. Effective leaders, then, are transformational leaders. Effective transformational leaders are always in the process of being transformed themselves; they recognize their own need, they never forget that they have a long way to go, and they gratefully and constantly acknowledge their reception of the ongoing and transforming grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I have no doubt, nor do any who know who and who have observed her life and her ministry, that Sarah Holik will be that kind of transformational leader.

Still, you can lead a Christian or a church to transformation but you can’t make them be transformed. One challenge for a disciple or for a group of disciples is to be willing to seek transformation, to seek growth, and to seek change. Another challenge is to seek and to find and to follow the right kind of leader, a leader who actively seeks ongoing transformation for herself and who out of her experience of transformation leads others to be transformed.

I charge the Parkway Baptist Church that is ordaining Sarah to the ministry, I charge the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald that is now actively sharing with Sarah in ministry, and I charge all other churches that are represented here today, to be transformational followers. I challenge you to acknowledge and even to celebrate your need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, to seek transformation into more complete followers of Jesus Christ, and to seek growth in Jesus Christ—and to do so with great commitment and even enthusiasm. I furthermore charge you to find and to follow leaders who understand the goal of Christian transformation and who demonstrate such understanding by hungrily pursuing it themselves.

After all, we all need models in whom we can see the way to go.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It strikes us at first read as an arrogant thing to say but, when you stop and think about it, it is the way it is with churches and their leaders. We really do look to them to show us the way of Jesus; we really do look to them to walk in that way themselves and thereby to help us to see how it is done.

Paul said this in the context of a particular discussion about some particular issues. Still, the general principle is an important one for us: we need to grow and to make progress in our following of and in our obedience to Jesus and we need leaders we can follow who have made and are making such progress in their own lives. Leaders like Sarah is and will be are such leaders—follow them! Sarah is such a leader—follow her!

We can of course follow Jesus for ourselves but, if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll know that we need all the help we can get.

We will not follow Sarah in her perfection, for she has none. We will not follow Sarah in her completeness, for she has none. We will not follow Sarah in her infallibility, for she has none.

The truth is that we will follow Sarah in her imperfection and in her incompleteness and in her fallibility because it is precisely through the ways that God works in and through her utter humanity to bring about transformation in her that we will learn better how God works in and through our utter humanity to bring about transformation in us.

So be imitators of Sarah as she is an imitator of Christ; follow her in being transformed more and more into who Christ saved, is saving us, and will save us to be.

Wanting to be transformed is the first step in being transformed. Sarah wants to be, so we can safely walk along beside her—and sometimes even behind her…

Sunday, January 23, 2011

State of the Church 2011

(A sermon for the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald for Sunday, January 23, 2011; the text is 2 Peter 3:18)

One way to summarize the state of First Baptist Church would be to observe that while we’ve come a long way we still have a long way to go. Such would be an accurate statement for our individual lives as well, of course.

We have over the past year made good progress in some important areas. Let me name and say a few words about two of them.

First, we have made progress in giving renewed focus to our ministry to children and preschoolers and their families. That progress included adding Sarah Holik to our ministry team as Coordinator of Children’s Ministries and Director of Preschool. Sarah, who as you know will be ordained to the ministry this evening, is doing an excellent job and we’re excited about coming developments in our ministry with children and preschoolers.

I’d like to highlight one area on which Sarah is focusing her attention in our children’s ministry: worship. We want to be very intentional about teaching our children about worship and about helping them to experience worship as the foundational experience for their lives that it is intended to be. On Sunday evenings our children have been learning about why we do what we do in worship. Starting on Sunday evening, February 6, we will be re-instituting a Children’s Choir; a part of that time will focus on learning a new hymn each month that the children will sing in worship. Also, you have no doubt noticed the purple “FBC Happy Club” worship bags that our children now have during the worship hour; in those bags are materials to help them (and to help their parents help them) have a meaningful worship experience.

Our effort to focus on worship in our Children’s Ministry is an effort that we need to duplicate in our overall ministry as a church. Worship is vital to the life of a Christian and to the life of the church; indeed, worship is the life of the church. Worship is our response to who God and to what God does; worship is our service offered to God in response to and in gratitude for all the God has done, is doing, and will do.

My hope and prayer is that more of the members of our church body will participate regularly in the worship of God. Now, to be frank about it, if they’re waiting for us to develop a better show before they come then they probably won’t be coming because it’s not about the show; worship is about encountering Almighty God. We are grateful for the fine work that Blane and our choirs and musicians and others, including the pastor (!) do in planning and leading in worship.

It is the encounter with God on which we need to focus more and toward which we need to make sure we gear our worship experiences and preparations. We all need to be more intentional about remembering what worship is all about and about gearing our worship toward that.

Second, we have made progress in giving more focus to our ministries and missions beyond our walls. Of particular note is our decision to upgrade the gymnasium building so as to make it more suitable as a Ministries and Missions Center (the name by which we will be referring to it now). A new ceiling has been installed, the bathrooms and kitchen have been updated, and the inside has been painted, among other things. The new gym floor will be installed during the week of February 21.

The reason for doing all of this work is so that the Ministries and Missions Center can be just that: the headquarters for our discipleship beyond these walls. We want to be very intentional about remembering that the purpose of the Ministries and Missions Center is to provide a resource for us to enhance and expand our ministry efforts in the community and around the world. The building, once the renovations are completed, will be suitable for hosting and for providing a headquarters for all kinds of ministry efforts, ranging from athletic events to church family nights to collection of items for ministry partners to community activities.

As we get ready to begin using the Ministries and Missions Center, we need to be aware of some upcoming events. First, we will soon be distributing a survey to you that will help us to learn what kinds of events interest you in terms both of participation and leadership. Second, we will hold a Dedication Celebration of the Ministries and Missions Center on Sunday evening, March 6; this will be a church-wide event. Third, we will host the first major ministry event in the Ministries and Missions Center on the weekend of March 11-13 when we welcome March Missions Madness, a weekend of missions and ministries in our community for youth from all over the state of Georgia that is organized by CBF of Georgia. Fourth, the Sunday night Youth “Hang Time” will move to the Ministries and Missions Center on Sunday, March 13. Fifth, we plan to host a luncheon for community leaders on Thursday, April 7 to get their input on how we might use the building effectively to minister to our community.

As we have previously mentioned, Tom Braziel will be the staff person in charge of coordinating the use of the Ministries and Missions Center and we have been working diligently at developing his ministry description and at figuring out how all of this is going to work. Please understand that we will be feeling our way along and that it will take many months to begin to see how things are going to develop. We are on pilgrimage together and the journey is an ongoing one; that is true of everything we are about and it is true of our efforts at Ministries and Missions.

We are committed to maintaining a strong Senior Adult ministry and our Senior Adult Committee, the ministries and membership of which we will be expanding, are and will be working with us to make sure that is the case as we transition Tom toward these other areas of responsibility.

Our church already focuses much on Ministries and Missions. A few months ago we compiled a list of ministries in which the church as a whole and various groups within the church are involved and it was a long list. No doubt groups and individuals are involved in many more ministries of which most of us are not even aware—which is a good thing. More coordination through our Mission Ventures Team and through our Ministries and Missions Center is what we are developing in order that we might worship well both inside and outside the walls of the church buildings, both on Sunday mornings and in every other moment of our lives.

Obviously there are many other things about which I could talk but I wanted to highlight those two important developments of the past year—developments that are still and will continue to be in process—that will help lead us into the future that God has for us.

I leave you with one more thought over which I hope you will pray and ponder: it’s all about grace. Everything we are, everything we do, everything we say, is all because of who God is and because of how God has shown God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. It is in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are growing and in which we want to grow ever more. It is as Anthony Robinson wrote:

Today I find that, as one woman said to me recently, “I do not need to be reminded, every Sunday, in each sermon, of my responsibilities. As a mother, a teacher, a wife, a church member, a citizen, my responsibilities are ever with me. What I do need to hear each week, what I need every sermon to remind me of, is God’s grace.” This is the first word; our response to God’s grace is the second word. In this new time, it is crucial that the church get this right [Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 69].

Indeed. In this new time in the life of First Baptist Church, it is crucial that we get grace right…

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Fellowship of the Son

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 & John 1:29-42 for the Second Sunday after Epiphany 2011)

“God is faithful,” Paul wrote to the gifted but troubled church at Corinth; “by him,” he said to them, “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

God is still faithful. And just as surely as God called the Corinthian Christians into the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord so has God called us into that same fellowship.

That is the way it is. We are the fellowship of the Son. We are the body of Christ. We are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are the family of faith.

So, you might well ask, why does the church—this church or any church—seem so often to fall so short of the ideal? Why does an individual follower of Jesus Christ—you and me or any other follower—seem so often to fall so short of the ideal?

And make no mistake about it…we do fall short.

But to fall short of our goal means that we have started somewhere—and we should not minimize our starting point. What Paul wrote to the church at Corinth is true also of the church at Fitzgerald: “I give my thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you…” (1 Corinthians 1:4-6). We too have received the grace of God in Christ Jesus; we too have been given all manner of spiritual gifts; we too have seen and shown what Jesus has done in our midst.
God has given all these marvelous things to and through the church.

To be a Christian is to be part of the Church and it is as a church that we must live and serve together. Being a family of faith, though—even a gifted family of faith—is not always easy. Eugene Peterson puts it well:

So the question is not “Am I going to be a part of the community of faith?” but “How am I going to live in this community of faith?” God’s children do different things. Some run away from it and pretend that the family doesn’t exist. Some move out and get an apartment on their own from which they return to make occasional visits, nearly always showing up for the parties and bringing a gift to show that they really do hold the others in fond regard. And some would never dream of leaving but cause others to dream it for them, for they are always criticizing what is served at the meals, quarreling with the way the housekeeping is done and complaining that the others in the family are either ignoring or taking advantage of them. And some determine to find out what God has in mind by placing them in this community called a church, learn how to function in it harmoniously and joyously, and develop the maturity that is able to share and exchange God’s grace with those who might otherwise be viewed as nuisances [Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), p. 176].

We need to be aware of all that God has already done through us, even in and through our corporate imperfections.

But we also need be aware of all that God is doing in and through us right now; hear what else Paul said to the church at Corinth: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). That was the case in their right then; it is the case in our right now. Despite the ways that we fall short and fail, God still gives us tremendous gifts for life and for ministry.

Again hear Paul: “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8). God started the Church; God continues to bless and to maintain the Church; and God will bring the Church to its full maturity when Jesus returns and makes all as it should be.

We can and should apply the same kind of thinking to ourselves and to each other as individual followers of Christ. According to John’s narrative, the first time that Jesus saw Simon he told him he was to be called “Cephas” (Aramaic) or “Peter” (Greek), meaning that he would be called the Rock. Lots of time had to pass and lots of struggle had to happen before Simon was really the Rock. Oh, there were times when he was rock-headed and there were times when the path got real rocky, but Simon had to live a lot and fail a lot and fall a lot and be picked back up by Jesus a lot before he really became the Rock.

And so it is with us. We have been followers of Jesus; we are followers of Jesus; we will be followers of Jesus. One day we will be absolutely everything that God intends for us to be. That time is not yet—but it is coming.

Meanwhile, we can be and can do better than we think we can be and do or than we allow ourselves to be and do. We can’t be more than we are and we can’t be as much as we will one day be; but, because of who God is and because of what Christ is doing, we can be more than we were and we can be moving toward what we will one day, by the grace of God, be.

The tragic killing on January 8 of six people and the wounding of fourteen others, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, has appropriately led to much soul-searching in our nation. I was struck by these words that President Obama spoke at the memorial service held in Tucson on January 12: “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents.” The President went on to say, “They believed -- they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here -- they help me believe.”

Paul was saying to the Corinthian Christians: “Because God has called you by God’s grace into the fellowship of the Son, you are already magnificent—but because of that same grace, you will one day be all you can be, and you can be better even now.” I want First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald to hear those same words.

Jesus was saying to Simon: “Because I have called you by my grace into my fellowship, you are already who I have called you to be—but because of that same grace, you will one day really be all you can be, and you can be better even now.” I want every individual Christian in this sanctuary to hear those same words.

What would it mean for us and for you to be better than we are and to do better than we’re doing?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Tucson Tragedy

[Note: I write a weekly column entitled "When You Stop & Think About It" for our church newsletter. What follows is this week's column. In the limited space available I can't go into much detail or work with much nuance. I hope to expand this into a fuller blog post.]

Being a public servant is dangerous and we should pray for those who serve.

That danger was tragically underscored again last Saturday morning when a gunman opened fire at a town hall gathering hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson, Arizona grocery store, killing six people and wounding fourteen more.

Rep. Giffords was seriously wounded.

The dead are Christina Taylor-Green, a nine-year old who wanted to learn more about the political process; Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old aide to Rep. Giffords who was recently engaged; John Roll, the 63-year-old chief federal judge in Arizona; Dorwin Stoddard, 76, who was very active in his church’s benevolence ministry and who died shielding his wife, who was wounded, from the gunfire; Phyllis Schneck, a 79-year-old great-grandmother and widow; and 76-year-old Dorothy Morris, whose husband was seriously wounded.

I offer such details to remind us that these were real people with real lives and real families and friends who were gunned down in this senseless act. Let us pray for those families and friends who are grieving; let us pray for our leaders that they will be kept safe; let us pray for the kind of progress in our hearts and in our society that will make such occurrences less likely.

Such prayers are frankly not without self-interest; after all, such a thing could happen anywhere at any time to anybody.

Some politicians and pundits have since the shootings been debating the possible role that the very heated political rhetoric in our nation might have played in the assassin’s actions. It is more likely that the mental instability of the alleged killer will prove to be the predominant factor. Still, surely we all realize that words can be inflammatory and thus very damaging. On the other hand, words can douse fires and can be constructive and helpful.

Besides, the content of our words reflects the state of our hearts which is finally the place from which our actions come.

So, whether our words are spoken in a political, family, work, or church context, we do well to remember the song: “O be careful little mouth what you say”—and the words of James: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2)—and the words of Jesus: “You have head that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

When you stop and think about it, what we all need to be really careful about are the kinds of feelings and attitudes and thoughts that we nurture in our own minds and hearts. It’s from those that come the good or bad, the constructive or the destructive, the loving or the hateful, and the helpful or the hurtful.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Feel the Water; Hear the Voice

(A sermon based on Psalm 29 & Matthew 3:13-17 for the Baptism of Our Lord)

God says the same thing to you and of you that the voice of God said to and of Jesus on the day that Jesus was baptized: “This is my beloved child.”

And you need to hear it.

Some of you just need to be reminded of it because you’ve been too busy to think about it but some of you need desperately to hear it and to believe it because you have listened to and believed other voices that have said other things to you and about you for far too long. You have listened to and believed voices that have told you that you are no good or that you are stupid or that you are worthless or that you are unnecessary or that you are unwanted or that you are a burden—and you have been unable to see and to understand that such statements say far more about the person who is saying them than they say about you.

I don’t know that Jesus heard the same kinds of negative voices that some of us hear but when we consider the unusual circumstances of his birth and the unique nature of his life, it is certainly possible he dealt with whispers behind his back if not with shouts to his face—and the latter certainly did come to him later in his life. If he did hear such voices as he was moving toward adulthood, I’m sure he had the strength of character to take them for what they were and to rest in his knowledge of his Father’s love for him.

It is vital, though, that God announced right out loud so that at least Jesus—and maybe John and the others who were there—could hear, at the baptism that was the inauguration of his ministry, that Jesus was his beloved Son.

The scene strikes us as, and is traditionally pictured as, a serene one; we imagine Jesus entering the Jordan River and being baptized following which the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God comes upon him like a dove—which certainly sounds like a gentle way for the Spirit to come—and then the voice of God speaks its reassuring and empowering words.

And that may be at least part of the right way to read the scene.

On the other hand, can the heavens being opened ever be a gentle, serene event? As Jesus is baptized, the way between heaven and earth is opened up and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus and the voice of God speaks. Does the voice whisper or does it thunder? Our Psalm reading reminds us that the voice of God is heard in the amazing power of nature; who has not gone through a thunderstorm or other extreme weather event and heard the voice of Almighty God, the God of creation, thundering in the storm? Regardless of the actual tone and volume of the voice that spoke when Jesus was baptized, let us remember that it was the voice of God—the same voice that spoke into being everything that is—that spoke.

We imagine a gentle voice speaking over gentle waters at Jesus’ baptism. Maybe that’s part of the reason that we’ve done everything we can to tame the baptismal waters; in some Christian traditions just a little water is used in baptism while in ours we put nice clean water in a nice clean tub—and we even warm it up.

Perhaps in taming the waters of baptism we’re also attempting to tame the voice of God.

Granted, water can have a calming, soothing effect; in that sense, the baptismal waters, which envelope us in God’s love and grace and community, provide calm and refuge in the midst of the storm. Similarly, the voice of God can have a calming, soothing effect; in that sense, the voice of God, which assures us of God’s affirmation and acceptance, provides calm and refuge in the midst of the chaos.

Both the baptismal waters and the voice of God, though, can and do have an unsettling effect. After all, it is Almighty God with whom we are dealing and who is dealing with us; the waters that soothe and calm can also flood and devastate and the voice that affirms and accepts can also challenge and test. The baptismal waters and the voice of God both settle wild things down and set wild things in motion.

That is because to be the beloved child of God does not mean that we will have easy or safe lives; indeed, exactly the opposite is likely to be the case—the beloved children of God will have challenging and risky lives, not despite our being the children of God but because we are the children of God.

Jesus in his baptism identified himself with those who are in need of God’s grace and such identification, to which we are also called, is very risky business, as would be most dramatically proven in the course of Jesus’ life. The Spirit of the same God who affirmed Jesus as God’s Son in Jesus’ baptism immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil (4:1). The waters of baptism and the voice of the Lord accept and affirm us in the love and grace of God, but in that same grace and love they call us to put our lives at risk—to give of ourselves in whatever ways we can and in whatever ways we must—for the sake of the kingdom and for the sake of others.

[As I said something like the following, I walked around the sanctuary with a bowl of water, touching people with some of the water.]

So this morning, as we ponder the baptism of Jesus, I want you to remember your own baptism. Remember the water that enveloped you; remember the voice that affirmed you. And let the waters sweep you and let the voice drive you out into the world where your life will be given for God’s sake and for people’s sake—and for your sake.

(The image is Baptism of the Lord by Laura James and was found here.]

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Health Insurance: a Love Story

My wife and I are responsible adult human beings—and have been for a long time.

So, when we got married in June 1978, one of the first things we did was take out a health insurance policy with one of America’s leading insurers. We paid the monthly premiums on that policy and thus kept it in effect until I entered seminary in August 1979 when we were able to take advantage of the very sweet deal being offered to seminary students back then by the Annuity Board (now GuideStone), a policy on which we paid the monthly premiums and thus kept in effect until I became pastor of my first post-seminary church in 1986, at which time the Annuity Board very kindly let us switch right over to a regular (as in non-seminary student) policy. Since then we have had health insurance, without interruption, through, in one fashion or another, our employers.

When Joshua was born in 1984 he was covered by our insurance and continued to be covered until he reached an age where he could not be any longer at which time we took out an individual policy on him with one of America’s leading insurers which was and continues to be no problem because he has had zero, zilch, nada health issues for his entire charmed life.

When Sara was born in 1987 she was covered by our insurance as well and remained covered until she finished college. She has worked consistently since graduating but has not had health insurance coverage available to her at work.

So, when she finished school we attempted to secure individual health insurance coverage for her from some of America’s leading insurers but were unsuccessful because she had made an unpardonable error during her 20th year of life—she got sick.

It was a blood clot—a massive clot that seemed to come out of nowhere and that settled in her left leg; it extended from her ankle to her abdomen. It was a very dangerous and scary condition that put her in the hospital for a week with half of that time being spent in ICU. After much treatment and much prayer the clot was eliminated; we were and are very grateful to the medical personnel and to the good Lord for her recovery.

Testing revealed that Sara has two genetic conditions about which we previously did not know, one that predisposes her to clot excessively and one that predisposes her not to break up clots. When the insurance companies say that she has a pre-existing condition, I’m tempted to give them a response that I remember from my high school days: “Duh.”

Since we were unable to secure an individual health insurance policy for Sara, we kept her covered under the provisions of COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) for which privilege we paid one of America’s leading insurers—the one that had covered Sara for years under our group policy—the very reasonable amount of around $535 per month for eighteen months. Meanwhile, we did some research into what other options might be available; in the course of that research we were told by “experts” and “specialists” that (a) under no circumstances should we allow there to be a break in her coverage exceeding sixty days and (b) under no circumstances should we, unless she got a job that provided insurance, not finish out the entire eighteen months of available coverage under COBRA.

We are responsible adult human beings. We did what we were supposed to do.

Under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (the appropriate shorthand name for the health care reform law to which mature grown intelligent people really should stop referring as “ObamaCare”) adopted by Congress and signed by the President in 2010, our daughter, whom, because of our efforts to be responsible adult human beings who try to do the right thing, with much effort and at much expense, we managed to keep covered not just every month of her life but every second of her life from the moment she was conceived until the last second of December 1, 2010, when her COBRA coverage expired, can go on our group health insurance policy until she turns 26 a couple of years from now.

So perhaps you can understand—although sadly some of you will not—why I am not filled with warm fuzzy feelings when some of our leaders so glibly boast about their upcoming effort to repeal that Act.

Oh, there is one more chapter to this love story. Sara’s COBRA eligibility expired at midnight on December 1, 2010. She could not go on our group policy until January 1, 2011. We contacted the leading insurer that had covered her under our group policy from 2004 until 2008 and to whom we had paid the very reasonable amount of just shy of $10,000 to keep her covered for the last eighteen months under COBRA to ask, very reasonably, I thought, if they might not be willing to provide her with an individual health insurance policy for just that one little month between the time that her COBRA coverage expired and the day that she could go on our insurance.

“No,” they very politely said, “we cannot.”

“But,” they very politely said, “we’ll check with our underwriters to see if they have any suggestions.”

We thanked them for that.

They called back and said, “No, they do not.”

Our daughter, you see, has a pre-existing condition for which she takes Coumadin every day and because of which she has a blood test once a month and which she has managed beautifully for almost four years now and with which she has had zero, zilch, nada problems since that frightening week in the hospital in the summer of 2007.

Please allow me to recap.

Our daughter had unbroken health insurance coverage from the day she was conceived somewhere around July 1, 1986 until her COBRA coverage expired on December 1, 2010.

Our daughter has a pre-existing condition—one with which she was born but that did not manifest itself until she had had unbroken health insurance coverage for over twenty years—for which she will have to take medication for the rest of her life but which is fairly easily and inexpensively managed.

Our daughter, for the month between the day her COBRA eligibility expired and the day that she was able, under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, to go on our group policy, was uninsured and was unable to secure health insurance coverage.

One of America’s leading insurers, the one that had covered our daughter for years under our group policy and under COBRA, was unwilling to let us purchase—and we would have gladly given them another $535 of our hard-earned money for the privilege—an individual policy for her for one measly little month (actually one day short of one measly little month, but who’s counting?)—and so you can probably imagine how much confidence I have that the health insurance industry ever would have done the right thing by people with pre-existing conditions had they not been required by law to do so.

My wife and I are responsible adult human beings. We have tried to do the right thing in terms of insuring the health of our daughter. We are not rich and we are not poor; we are solidly in the middle of the middle class. And for the month of December 2010 we ran the risk that our daughter, who had been insured for every second of her life until then, would, if she became sick—and, given the magnificent way in which she manages her pre-existing condition, had she gotten sick it most likely would have been because of something having nothing to do with said condition—or gotten injured, have had to go into the hospital without insurance.

She’s covered again now, thanks to the Affordable Health Act of 2010, but it all got me to thinking.

And mainly it got me to thinking about people who live every second of every day with the anxiety and uncertainty with which my family had to live for only thirty days.

It got me to thinking about those parents who cannot afford adequate health care or health insurance for their children. It got me to thinking about those people, who, unless the government makes it so, will never be able to get health insurance coverage because they committed the unpardonable sin of getting sick, even if they got sick like Sara did when she was covered and after she had been covered for a very long time. It got me to thinking about how blessed my family has been and how I want other families to be similarly blessed.

It got me to thinking about what’s in—or lacking from—the hearts of people who don’t think things like that—that people like that—are worth thinking about.

I am not a health care policy expert. I am under no illusion that the Affordable Health Act of 2010 as presently configured is perfect or that it should not be adjusted and improved.

But I do know this: our wonderful child, our beautiful daughter, is benefitting from it.

So you’ll just have to forgive me for being grateful.

And you’ll just have to forgive me for not joining the throngs who cheer every time some Congressperson—all of whom, by the way, have the privilege of purchasing health insurance for themselves and their families regardless of their pre-existing conditions—utters the word “repeal.”

Sunday, January 2, 2011

For the Sake of You Gentiles

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-13 & Matthew 2:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday, January 2, 2011)

January 6 is the day of Epiphany (manifestation, unveiling, revelation) on the Christian calendar; it comes twelve days after Christmas and marks the end of the Christmas season. Many churches do what we are doing which is to observe Epiphany on the Sunday before the day of Epiphany.

If you’ll stop and think about it, I think you’ll agree that Epiphany should be one of the most meaningful days of the season for us. Why? Because it’s the day on which we celebrate the revealing of the Christ child to Gentiles.

“So what?” you might ask.

Well, a Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish. We’re not Jewish. We’re Gentiles. Therefore, Epiphany is about the revealing of the Christ child to us—not to us instead of to Jews, now, but to us along with the Jews; it is about the revealing of Christ to everybody.

The Wise Men (magi, scholars) were our representatives, then, in the story of the birth of Christ. In their non-specified but definitely non-Israel home—the “East” most likely refers to Persia but we can’t know for sure and it doesn’t really matter since the point is that they were somebody else from somewhere else and thus represented anybody else from anywhere else and everybody else from everywhere else—God through a star announced to them that a new king of the Jews had been born and they followed the guidance of that star until they got to Bethlehem.

Once they got there they worshipped him and then gave him their famous gifts and went home.

(I wonder how life was different at home for them when they got back. I wonder what they did with what they had received. How will things be different for us? What will we do with what we have received?)

Remember that everyone who had been involved in the birth of Jesus to this point was Jewish; everyone was part of the predominant religion of the area and thus was an insider. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds—all were Jewish.

The Wise Men were Gentiles; they were the first concrete indication that the coming of Christ into the world was not just for the Jews who had expected a Messiah to come but was for the Gentiles—which is short for “everybody else.”

Soren Kierkegaard expressed amazement that the chief priests and scribes who told the Wise Men where to find the new king did not accompany the foreigners on their trip to Jerusalem: “What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem!” [Soren Kierkegaard, “Only a Rumor,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), p. 289]

And we say to ourselves, “Foolish scribes. Foolish priests.” “Given all that they knew that the Wise Men didn’t know,” we ask, “How could they not have gone?”

Would we have gone? Better put, would we go?

Before you answer too quickly, let me drop this news flash on you: we’re not the Gentiles anymore.

We’re not the outsiders anymore. We’re the modern equivalent of the priests and scribes; we’re the insiders who are burdened with knowledge and cursed by familiarity. You can’t be much more of an insider these days than being a Christian in America and being a Baptist in the American South; we’re covered up with Bibles and Sunday School lessons and Christian videos and music and books. We know the jargon and we’ve heard about Jesus so much that he feels kind of like our legendary uncle that never quite makes it home for the holidays.

What evidence is there in our lives that we have really gotten up and gone to see Jesus for ourselves?

Kierkegaard, still speaking of the priests and scribes who failed to accompany the Wise Men, said, “This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself.” Have we gone to see Christ? Do we know all about Christ? Do our lives reflect Christ? How are we practicing the love, grace, and forgiveness about which we should know if we know him?

We are not the Gentiles anymore; we are the scribes and priests who better watch out lest familiarity breed a neglect born of over-confidence.

There are still Gentiles, though.

Just like the Wise Men of so long ago, they might look different, they might talk different, they might think different, and they might believe different. But they just might be the ones who are open. They just might be the ones who are willing. They might be the ones who are able. They just might be the ones who are following the light that we have, as incredible as it is, developed the ability to ignore.

I’m sure that it never occurred to the scribes and priests—clutching their scrolls as tightly as they held on to their traditions—as they watched those strange and foreign outsiders head off toward Bethlehem, that the foreigners were riding off to embrace the life that could have been theirs.

There was in the early years of the church a controversy, once it became clear to all who had eyes to see that the Gentiles belonged in the church too, over whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. It seems almost that the reverse was true—everybody, Jews included, had to come to see God’s reality as revealed in Jesus with the eyes of outsiders. They all—we all—had to see God’s grace for what it was, namely, a free and undeserved and magnificent gift that came in surprising—even shocking ways.

So we’re not Gentiles anymore, but let’s try to be….