Sunday, December 24, 2017

Remember the Manger

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that on Christmas, he preferred to go to a church where there was no sermon, only music, art, and drama.  "Words just aren't up to it," he said.[1]  Niebuhr’s right.  Words aren’t up to it.  That’s why we’ll keep our words to a minimum today.  But there is good news in Christmas worth telling.  A few of those words are found in Luke 2:8-12.  Mary has just given birth and laid Jesus in a manger.  They were ready for visitors, and God invited some shepherds to come visit the baby Jesus.  Fitting, huh, because Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is also a lamb.  Hear the word of the Lord … 

8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”

Near the end of November a few years ago, I was driving up Higdon Ferry and noticed the message on the sign at what was then Roland’s Barbecue.  (Hated to see that place close.)  I wasn’t sure what the sign meant.  So the next time I was in there, I asked the lady who waited on me, “What’s up with the manager?”

“What?” she asked.

“The manager—is everything okay?”

“You want to see the manager?”

“No, I just was concerned that something was wrong because of your sign.”

“Our sign?”

“Yes, your sign.  You know, it says ‘Remember the Manager.’  So I figured the manager needed prayer or something.”

“Our sign doesn’t say ‘Remember the Manager.’  It says, ‘Remember the Manger.’”

No wonder she looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.  And you’ll be glad to know that I neglected to tell them that I was the pastor of First Baptist Church.  (I told them I was Methodist.)  You’d think if anyone would be able to read that sign it would be a pastor.  Trust me, my antennae are usually pretty honed in to anything of a spiritual nature I see in our secular world.  But boy, did I miss that one!

Well, I’m not going to miss it today.  It’s Christmas Eve.  It’s time to remember the Savior who is Christ the Lord and that his first bed was a manger.  Remember the manger.

We’ll remember a lot of other things today: to pick up that extra gallon of milk, our favorite eggnog recipe, to purchase a couple of more stocking stuffers, the words to the familiar Christmas song on the radio, to make up the bed in the guest room.  There’s a lot on our minds today.  And not just adults either.  Kids too: “What’s in that big box?” “How much is in that envelope on the tree?”  “Will Christmas morning ever get here?”  Lots of things on our mind, lots of things to remember.

Just don’t forget to remember the manger.  Eternal word putting on human flesh and making his home among us.  Deity in a diaper.  Creator in a cradle.  Lion of Judah a helpless cub.   Feeder of multitudes nursing at his mother’s breast.  Eternal Word unable to speak a word.  Sinless perfection trusting himself to human beings broken by their sins.  Remember the manger.

Remember the depths to which God would stoop.  Christ has always existed, eternal in the heavens, the Word was with God and was God.  When Christ emptied himself to come down and save us, he didn't just do it halfway.  Jesus checked his pride at the door on the way down to earth.  He didn't say, "I'll go so far and no farther."  He didn't say, "I draw the line at a manger."  He didn't say, "I refuse to be born in that dump."  No, Jesus was willing to do whatever it took, willing to stoop as low as he had to go, willing to make his beachhead on the earth in a musty stable in Bethlehem.  Jesus came all the way down.  Now, no one can say, "Jesus, didn't stoop low enough for me."  No one can say that—not the poor, not the outcast, not the man without a home.  Born as he was in a stable, Jesus demonstrated total commitment to go as far as he had to go to seek and to save lost humankind.  Remember the depths to which God stooped.  Remember the manger!

Remember the lengths to which God would go.  We’re not talking a mission that takes him from Hot Springs to Dallas, or Little Rock to Paris, or even Pine Bluff to Siberia.  We’re talking heaven to earth, eternity to time.  We’re talking safe house to danger zone, holy habitat to Sinville, sure thing to risky business.  We’re talking about going from being the subject of worship to being subject to abuse and scorn and murder on a cross.  But God’s love was so true, his promise so sure, his commitment so deep, that no length was too far to go on his mission to rescue us from our sins.  James Irwin was part of the crew of Apollo 15 that landed on the moon in 1971—one of only 12 men in history to have walked on the moon.  He did a lot of speaking in churches after that moon flight.  And the tagline for his talk and for the autograph he signed on a picture of him standing on the moon was this: “It is more important that God walked on earth than man walked on the moon.”[2]  Irwin’s right.  Irwin and his crew traveled 238,900 miles to walk on the moon.  Jesus traveled way longer than that on so many levels to walk on the earth.  And his was no triumphant landing in some exotic place like the moon, televised for all the world to see.  Jesus landed in obscurity, in a podunk town where few eyes would see him.  Jesus landed in a stable there.  Jesus was laid in an animal’s feeding trough.  Remember the lengths to which God would go.  Remember the manger.

And remember the price God was willing to pay.  You think Christmas costs you a lot?  Consider what it cost God.  The price of condescending to the likes of us, the price of emptying himself, taking on flesh, humbling himself—the Lord becomes the servant—the price of subjecting himself to the care of sinful, broken people in a sinful, broken world, seems steep enough price already.  But the price ratcheted even higher when, as a man, he gave himself to be broken on a cross to save us from our sins.  The sinless one died for sinners, taking our sins on himself so he could kill sin’s penalty and power for those who put their trust in him, for those who come to him for salvation and life.  God sacrificed his only Son.  Jesus gave everything thing he could give so that we could be saved, so that we could enjoy abundant, eternal life on earth and beyond the grave.  Crucified.  Dead.  Buried.  And raised from the dead on the third day.  That’s the price of our salvation.  Jesus refused to sit on his throne twiddling his thumbs and let you die in your sins.  No!  Jesus was willing to stoop lower than you can imagine, travel farther than you can chart, and pay a price so high only God the Son could pay it.  Now, if you die in your sins and spend eternity in hell, it’s on you.  It’s not because God stood by and did nothing to save you.  He paid it all.  I know: it’s not Good Friday; it’s Christmas Eve.  But hulking over the manger on that dark night was the shadow of the cross.  It’s why he came.  It’s why he was born to die that we may have life.  So even here at Christmas, remember the price God was willing to pay.  Remember the manger.

John Shea tells a story he calls “Sharon’s Christmas Prayer.”  It was about a little girl—she was five-years-old, sure of the facts, and recited them with dignity, convinced that every word was revelation.  This is what she said:

“They were poor, they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and then went a long way from home without getting lost.  The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady.  They had to stay in a stable with an ox and a burro but three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof.  Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.  Then the baby was borned.  And do you know who he was?”  Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars.  “The baby was God.”

And Shea says she jumped in the air, whirled round, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion—which is the only proper response to the Good News of Christmas.[3]

Don’t impoverish yourself in the face of such good news.  Even in the hectic busyness of today and tomorrow, take time to remember the manger.  And when you do, it’s okay to whirl and twirl and fall on your face in worship too.  It’s Christmas: God is with us.  God has come to save us.  Remember the manger.

[1]Cited by Leonard Sweet, Giving Blood: A Fresh Perspective for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 212.
[2]Cited by Mark Galli, The Galli Report, Jan 16, 2015
[3]John Shea, “The Hour of the Unexpected,” Christianity Today (Dec 6 1999), 48.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanks, First Baptist, Hot Springs

So, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday and came across a post from a pastor that I follow, Sam Rainer.  He linked to one of his recent blog posts: "Ten Reasons I’m Thankful for West Bradenton Baptist Church."  That got me to thinking about the church I serve.  God has given us more than 22 years together.  There’s a lot to be grateful for!  Here are the blessings I’m counting this Thanksgiving.

You love my family and me the way we are.  In 22 years a church gets to know its pastor.  A pastor and family could put up a pretty good front for three or four years maybe but not for 22.  Real life, real issues, and real struggles that unfold across two decades break down any fa├žades and reveal what is really in the heart of a pastor and family.  They know we’re not perfect.  They don’t expect us to be.  They have loved us at our best and at our worst.  They have loved us on the mountaintop and they have loved us in the valley.  Never have they asked or insinuated that we should be anyone else than who God created us to be.  When a minister’s family is loved as they are, they find a freedom to grow and to thrive.  Thank you, FBC, Hot Springs.

You love the Scripture.  The Bible is our textbook at First Baptist, and our people wouldn’t have it any other way.  It provides our game plan for ministry.  We teach the Bible in multiple venues.  We give a lot of Bibles away.  “Is it in the Book?” is a question we ask a lot.  Thanks, FBC, Hot Springs.

You are good listeners.  The church has grown a lot over the years, but there are still a good number of folks in the church who have had to listen to my sermons and my teaching for since my first Sunday in June of 1995.  And they keep coming back.  I don’t know how they do it.  In 22 years, I’ve never stood up to preach or teach thinking, “How am I going to get and keep their attention?  Will they stay awake today?”  Never.  Not once.  I’m sure we’ve got some sleepers—every church does.  But most of our folks are right there with me, engaging, thinking, considering what they are hearing.  Some engage me in conversation or via email after sermons.  Knowing I’m not preaching to a brick wall every Sunday is critical for me as a preacher.  But what makes them good listeners is that plenty of them try to put what they learn into practice.  I do not take that for granted.  It makes me a better preacher.  Thank you, FBC, Hot Springs, for being good listeners. 

You value unity.  We realize we can do more when we do it together.  It’s also a lot more fun.  Our people work at unity.  We tackle controversial matters rather than sweeping them under the rug.  That's why our unity is more than skin-deep; it’s heart deep.  Unity provides an image to our community of the unity in our Triune God.  Thanks, FBC, Hot Springs.

You surround me with a great staff team.  All of them are as committed to the church as I am.  All of them are gifted and devoted to Jesus and the Great Commission.  I wouldn't be near the pastor I want to be without their hard work and dedicated service.  We love each other and we love the church.

You have an incredible volunteer spirit.  We rarely have to beg for volunteer leaders.  Hundreds of you serve in areas in which God has called you to serve.  You're not just doing a job in the church; you're fulfilling God's calling in your life.  And you make a difference for the kingdom in Hot Springs and around the world.

You aren’t afraid of change.  No pastor can stay at a church as long as I have if the church isn’t willing to change along the way.  Our church is 181 years old but if you were to visit, you’d never guess we were such an old lady.  Old churches like ours are often on their last legs by now.  They are slow to change.  They prefer the old to the new, the known to the unknown, the sure thing to the big risk.  Churches as old as ours are often bed-ridden or even on life-support, spending time reminiscing about days that were never as good as we remember them.  Not us!  Our folks embrace change because they worship a God who does new things, a God on the move, a God on mission.  This is not to say we haven’t had to work through some crankiness when we have made some large changes.  We have.  But people come along.  They get it over time.  And they get behind it too.  Thank you, FBC, that you aren’t afraid of change.

You practice grace.  Our people cut each other a lot of slack.  We take sin seriously, but we take repentance and forgiveness and holiness seriously too.  We are not what one person once called a Miranda church where anything you say or do can be held against you.  Our people practice grace.  My family has been on the receiving end of that grace many times.  We love restoration stories.  We love second chances and more.  We practice grace.  Maybe that’s why there so much joy in the church family.  Thanks, FBC, Hot Springs, for practicing grace.

You give generously.  We are a people of the open hand: glad to receive God’s blessings, glad to share them with those in need.  We make budgets.  We exceed mission offering goals.  We support three church plants.  We help those in need.  We pay our ministers generously.  This is a church of extravagant givers.  Thanks, FBC, Hot Springs, for being a church that gives generously.

You love the nations.  Put a stethoscope to the heart of the church and you’ll hear the Great Commission beating in our chest.  Our people pray, give, and go.  Hundreds of our people have traveled at their own expense to work in our strategic mission partnerships around the world.  The nations start across street, and our people work there too.  We love missions.  We love missionaries.  We love Hot Springs.  We love the nations.  Thanks, FBC, Hot Springs.

There is so much more I could write.  This is already longer than I intended it to be, so I’ll stop here.  Dayna and I are so grateful God sent us here and has kept us here across the years.  There are days when I lose sight of how blessed I am, but that sight returns quickly.  In fact, most days, I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s not just a dream that I get to pastor this congregation.  So in this Thanksgiving week, I want to say thank you, First Baptist, Hot Springs.  We love you!  

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

St. Jack

On this All Saints’ Eve, I want to say a word about one of the saints in my life.  His name is Jack Enloe.  In February 1974, in my senior year in high school, I got serious about Jesus.  I had been in church all my life, but Jesus was more an add-on to my life than the very core of it.  Not long after I made that commitment to Jesus, I met Jack Enloe.  He was the Minister of Music and Youth at First Baptist Church, Branson, Missouri—my girlfriend’s church.  

I attended that church now and then so I could sit with my girlfriend (who later became my wife).  Okay, I’ll admit it, my attendance was more about glands than God, but God can even use glands to get us where he wants us.  He wanted me there.  He wanted me under the mentorship of Jack Enloe.  I am the better for it.  Jack was the first person I told about my call to ministry.  Jack taught me how to share Jesus with others.  Jack taught me how to minister to youth.  He modeled the Christian life for me.  He taught me how to do basic car maintenance on the junker I was driving at the time.  Mostly, Jack just made time for me.

Jack and his wife Carol spent last weekend at our house.  We hadn’t seen them in 40 years.  Dayna and I were thrilled to host them.  And we were thrilled to have them as guests in the church.  I wanted him to see how God had used his investment in me to impact the kingdom because his fingerprints are on every life I touch, every ministry accomplishment God brings to bear through my life.

I tried to tell him one more time how deeply I appreciate his investment in me so many years ago.  He just sort of dropped his head, not sure what to make of my comments.  And that’s when it hit me.  I said, “Jack, you don’t get it.  I understand that.  I’ve been at this ministry gig long enough to have been for some others what you’ve been for me.  And when they tell me how much I have blessed them, I don’t get it either.  It never seems like I did much of anything.  But it sure seemed like much to them.  And Jack your investment in me means more to me than I can say.  Thank you for being God’s person in my life when I needed you.”

I still don’t think he gets it.  But I do, and I will never forget it either.  So on this All Saints’ Eve, 2017, here’s to St. Jack.  I’m a better Christian and a better pastor because God put Jack in my life.  And, because Jack took time to invest in me, the kingdom of God is wider and broader too.  Thanks, Jack.  The impact of your ministry is so much larger than you thought it was.  Your ministry was not in vain.

Who invested in you that you’d honor on this holy day?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

So Long to a Praying Friend

I buried another friend on Saturday.  I miss him already.  His name is Dick Wilkerson.  Yes, he was a great servant in the church.  He taught the Bible for more than 50 years, beginning preparations for the next Sunday on the previous Sunday—no Saturday night specials for Dick or his class.  He was also the Property Director at the church—a volunteer position that comes with an office and a generous budget.  He oversaw matters of maintenance and remodeling on the church property.  I will certainly miss his service in these important areas, but that’s not why I miss him.

I miss Dick because for years he and another man, Bob Deist, joined me every Wednesday evening in my study to pray.  We prayed for church matters and church people.  We prayed for the lost.  We prayed for our nation and world.  We prayed for each other.  In recent years, we did a good bit more of the latter because both Bob and Dick were stricken with nagging illnesses from which they could get no cure.  Across the years, Dick went from striding into my study to hobbling in, steadying himself on the furniture as he made his way to the chair.  But it didn’t keep him from praying.

And you know what he prayed?  Sometimes through tears he prayed, “Lord, you are a good God and so very good to me.”  He meant it.  No bitterness over his condition.  No doubting God's love for him in spite of his situation.  Dick had walked with God for so long and at such depth that broken down health couldn't shake his faith in God's love for him.  The man walked well through adversity.  He prayed in the spirit of Job whose prayers included lines like these: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”  And, “Even though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Dick taught me a lot about walking through adversity.  This is what I learned: pray honestly; keep the faith; lean on friends; keep serving God in the places he puts you; leverage your suffering to point others to Jesus and give him glory.  If God ever puts me in that level of adversity, I pray that I will be able to live through it like Dick lived through his.

Well, no more adversity for Dick.  All is well.  He is with Jesus.  No more suffering for him.  No more walker.  No more limp.  No more struggle for breath.  No more pills to take.  No more oxygen through a nasal cannula.  Dick is just fine.

I am so glad for him.  But I’m going to miss him.  I’m going to miss those seasons of prayer.  I’m going to miss his prayers for me.  Sad, yes.  But it gives me something to look forward to: that day on the other side when we join hearts again and pray around the throne, that day when we will get to see the ways God answered the prayers we prayed in that study, that glorious day when all our petitions and intercessions give way to nothing but praise.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

40 Years Later

On October 8, 1977, way back in the last century, Dayna Vanderpool became Dayna McCallum, I and became a blessed man.  Two children and seven grandchildren later, I’m still a blessed man.  Forty years is a long time—a lot of joy, plenty of sorrow, victories, defeats, seasons when the love is strong, seasons when it’s not.  But 40 years later, we’re still making a life together. 

If a person is paying attention, he or she can learn some things in 40 years.  Here is some of what I’ve learned …

A large part of a long-term marriage is just showing up every day—good days, bad days, hard days, fun days.  Just keep showing up bringing whatever you can of yourself to your marriage that day.

Keeping Christ at the center of the marriage is the rock that never crumbles, the glue that never loses its stick, the peace that finds a way to prevail, and the promise that our entwined lives have a kingdom impact far beyond our address and our years.

Having a lot in common helps but it is not necessary.  Dayna and I don’t have a lot of common interests.  We don’t have much in common recreationally or even when it comes to the kinds of TV shows and movies we prefer.  She’s a night owl.  I’m an early bird.  Lots of differences.  But what we do hold in common is strong: faith in God, love for one another and our family, love for the church, and dogged commitment that marriage is for a lifetime.

Love grows.  Married love looks different 40 years later than it did on that October day in 1977.  There’s a maturity and a comfort to it that can only be shaped by years of living together.  Love grows wider and higher and deeper over time.

Marriage will make a Christian out of you.  You can’t have a 40-year marriage without practicing patience, forgiveness, compassion, service, mercy, perseverance, and sacrificial love.

Sometimes it only takes one.  Ideally, marriages take two to make them work—ideally.  But in the whirlwind that is a sinner married to a sinner trying to make a marriage in a broken, sinful world, sometimes it only takes one—one to hold the rope, one to keep the faith, one to stay emotionally invested.  Two is always better.  But sometimes it only takes one.  Dayna has usually been that one in those seasons of our marriage.

Words matter.  Words carry the power of life and death.  Hurtful words stick with the recipient a long time, corroding the soul like a slow-working acid.  Life words renew, build confidence, and bring joy.  Words matter.  Season them with grace.

Actions matter maybe a little bit more.  Over time, words without actions ring hollow.  They lose their meaning.  A spouse quits listening.  Actions matter.  Do for the other.

Promises are worth keeping.  Because of childhood issues, I brought more baggage into our marriage than a diva on a two-week trip to the South of France.  I had no dad to provide a model.  I had to make it up as we went along.  Dayna could have done better.  Certainly, she could have had it easier.  But she hung in there with patience and mercy.  She was determined to keep her promise.  So was I.  By keeping our promises in a Christian marriage we bear witness to a faithful Savior who keeps his promises to the church.  We bring him glory in spite of our imperfect marriage.  Promises are worth keeping.

There you go—some of what I’ve learned in 40 years of marriage.  I wish I had learned these things sooner.  I wish I had learned them better.  But I couldn’t wish for a better partner in the process than my wife Dayna.

In his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost wrote these memorable lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

I don’t know how many miles or years we have to go in our marriage—certainly way less than we did 40 years ago—but this I know, we will continue to keep our promises for the glory of the one who keeps all his promises to us.  Happy Anniversary, Dayna.  I love you.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Pam Bland: Difference-Maker

Hot Springs said goodbye to Pam Bland today.  For 34 years Pam Bland gave direction to First Step, Inc.  First Step develops resources and provides care and opportunities for special needs individuals from birth through adulthood.  When Pam started her job First Step had 11 employees and a handful of clients.  When she retired a year ago, First Step had 1100 employees a couple of thousand clients and has spread to other counties in Arkansas.  Four of her friends and colleagues spoke at her funeral and described something of the incredible person Pam was.  By all means, Pam was a difference-maker.  I want you to know her too, so I’m attaching some of my comments from the funeral service.


At the 2013 commencement speech at MIT, Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox said:

When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don't just love what they do, they're obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them.  They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball:  Their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way …  So it's not about pushing yourself; it's about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you.

Pam found her tennis ball.  And if she hadn’t been willing to snap the leash and chase it down relentlessly, if she hadn’t been that bulldog that grabs hold of your pant-cuff and won’t let go till you noticed her and heard her out, the lives of so many people and our whole community would be diminished.  She saw a need.  She felt it on a visceral level, and she took it on with the ferocity of a mama-lion protecting her cubs.  There’s just something about people like that, isn’t there?  There’s something that causes us to take note of what they are doing.  I read about a small town church burning to the ground one night.  Most of the community were there watching it burn, watching the volunteer fireman do their best to save the foundation.  A prominent church member noticed his neighbor next to him, sort of looked down his nose, and said, “Hmm.  First time I’ve ever seen you at this church.”  The neighbor replied, “First time I’ve ever seen it on fire.”  Pam was a woman on fire for the disabled.  A lot of us watched her burn for a long time.  And her passion set fire to many of you for the same cause.

And here’s the deal: Pam didn’t just see the cause; she saw the individual.  She saw the individual that many would rather ignore.  These people matter.  These people are not accidents, not mistakes, not rejects or factory-seconds.  Our disabled brothers and sisters are people of worth, created in the image of God, with all the dignity and meaning that goes with it.  God gives them to us to bless and to be a blessing.  That’s why Pam always steered First Step away from only taking care of the disabled to providing them the training, the resources, and the tools to take care of themselves to the upper limit of their capacities.

Pam saw the disabled as Jesus sees them.  In Jesus’ story of the judgment in Matthew 25, he describes the hungry, the thirsty, the inmate, the impoverished, the stranger, the sick, as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”  Not the least in Jesus’ eyes but the least in the eyes of most of us.  Many of us view such needy people as helpless and even a burden.  In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is asked for a donation to help the poor at Christmas.  “Don’t we have poor houses for such people?” asks Scrooge. The solicitors reply, "Those who are badly off must go there.  Many can't go there; and many would rather die."  To which Scrooge declared, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."  Though most would never say it, that’s the way many look at the poor, the needy, and the disabled.  We are too quick to evaluate people not in terms of being but in terms of doing.  That’s not the way Jesus looks at the them.  They are his little brothers and sisters.  And Jesus said in that parable, “When you love and help them, you love and help me.”  Whether she thought about it consciously or not, Pam saw Jesus in those she served.  And every time she served them, she served Jesus.

Pam has set a wonderful example for us all.  My prayer is that all of us will look at the needy and the disabled through Jesus’ eyes, through Pam’s eyes.  And maybe we could be difference-makers too.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Wall Came Tumbling Down

On Saturday, August 19, three protest groups descended upon Hot Springs.  Putting these groups together is like making a bomb.  Thanks to much prayer, God's mercies, and excellent law enforcement, no violence erupted.  I attended a couple of prayer gatherings that morning, and during those gatherings, the Holy Spirit nudged me to address racism in my sermon the next morning.  It was a Communion Sunday, so we were coming to the Lord's Table.  This is where the Spirit led me.  This is longer than my typical blog, but a number of people encouraged me to get this out there where more could read it.  I did not print the biblical text, but I encourage you to read it before you read this sermon.  The fact that this is almost a week later shows my hesitation, but here it is.  I hope it helps those who take time to read it.


I had planned to go a different direction today as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table.  But in light of Charlottesville, the event that happened in our own city yesterday, and a couple of prayer meetings I attended on Saturday morning, the Lord changed my direction.  I invite you to open your Bible this morning to Ephesians 2:11-21.          

Grace Thomas grew up in Birmingham, married in the 1930s, and moved to Georgia.  She was an office worker for state government but decided she wanted more.  She took night classes and got a law degree.  And then, in 1954, she had the nerve to run for governor.  Unlike the other eight candidates, Grace argued that the just rendered verdict in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was a just ruling.  That desegregation and equality in education opportunities for black children was a good thing.  On election day, she came in dead last.  Her family hoped she got that out of her system.

She didn’t.  She decided to run for governor again in 1962 as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up.  One day in that campaign, Grace made an appearance in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and evil place where human beings had once been bought and sold like cattle or cotton or any other commodity. Grace chose the slave market as the site for her campaign speech.  As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come." Gesturing to the market, she said, “This place represents all about our past over which we must repent.  A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

This was provocative talk in 1962 Georgia.  Her talk riled the crowd.  “Are you a communist?” a heckler shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she said softly, “I am not.”

“Well, then, where’d you get those blankety-blank ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”[1]

Apparently, these ideas haven’t been taught in enough Sunday Schools and churches.  Even though it’s always been at least under the surface, racism is making a comeback in our culture—even among some who claim to be racist in the name of Jesus.  In case you’re not sure what Jesus and the Bible teach about these things, let’s briefly review this morning before we come to the Lord’s Table.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).


Paul was dealing with a kind of racism in his day.  It wasn’t a black-white thing; it was a Jew-Gentile thing.  When Paul planted the church in Ephesus, the church began with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  But like most churches in the Empire, the Ephesian church was predominantly Gentile.  Jews referred to themselves as "the circumcision," and, in an ethnic putdown, referred to the Gentiles as "the uncircumcised."—probably employed in the same spirit of today's racial slurs.  It was not a descriptive term, it was an insult.  It was name-calling.  It was a putdown spoken from one who thinks he’s superior to one he considers inferior.  “We’re the circumcised.  They’re the uncircumcised.”  You have to look down your nose to say it just right.  Paul felt the need to address this barrier to fellowship in the church—this barrier, this wall between Jew and Gentile Christians who both claimed Christ as Savior and Lord.  The animosity worked both ways.

The Jews considered the Gentiles to be pagans.  Gentiles would bow down to anything as a god.  Gentiles lived by a very loose moral standard in areas of sexual conduct.  Gentiles had little concern over all the cleanliness issues that were important to Jews.  The Jews looked down their noses at Gentiles.  They believed the Gentiles were an inferior race.  That didn’t go away when Jews became Christian.  One of the earliest questions the newly birthed church had to resolve when God started adding Gentiles to the church was this: Does a Gentile have to become a Jew before He can become a Christian?  An entire chapter of Acts is devoted to a conference designed to answer that question.  Of course, the answer was no.  But many Jewish believers still considered Gentiles their inferiors in matters of religion and culture.  It had been bred into them.  That’s the Jews.

On the other hand, Gentiles viewed the Jews as weird, odd, bizarre even.  Jews worshipped a God they couldn't see and couldn't reproduce in the form of an idol.  They were morally strict.  They were very picky about what they would eat.  They carried a religious chip on their shoulders.  Who are these people?

There was an “us against them” mentality on the part of both Jews and Gentiles.  Racism had them by the heart.  A huge wall stood between them—a wall built by a sense of racial superiority and racial hatred.  That’s the way they were.  Those are the attitudes they brought with them when they came to Christ and the church. 


But Jesus changes things.  Jesus knocks down the wall that divides the races.  He pushes against that wicked wall with those nail-scarred hands until it fractures and comes tumbling down.  Paul is writing to a church where racial tension was palpable.  And according to Paul, Jesus says, “Not in my house!  No racial walls in my house.”

People who don’t know Christ, those who are still dead in their sins and slave to their sins, some of them may well be racist and think little of it.  Usually it’s passed down from their parents.  They are blinded by their bigotry.  They are too blind to see that all of us are made in the image of God, too blind to see that basic human kindness and decency trumps racism.  They don’t know Christ.  The wall of racism may still stand firm in their hearts.

But when we are in Christ, the wall comes tumbling down.  It must.  There is no other option.  Jesus demands it.  Jesus won’t stand for racism among his people.  It’s a sin against God, a sin against one another, and a sin against love.  If you are in Christ and you harbor racial hatred in your heart, you need to repent.  Why would you want to rebuild a wall that Jesus has destroyed?  Why would you want to work against the very Savior you profess to believe and love and follow?

Don’t you realize that we human beings are more alike than different, that we all share a common made-in-the-image-of God-humanity?  And among the things we have in common, two are central.

We are all sinners.  There is no racial supremacy or superiority.  Every race is comprised of sinners.  History makes that clear.  From unspeakable atrocities to intentional discrimination to arrogant smugness, every race has done their part to build walls and hurt others.  No race gets a pass. No race is better than another.  We are all sinners.  We all hold that in common.    

And we all hold this in common too: Jesus saves us all the same way.  He saves Jews and Gentiles the same way.  He saves black people and white people the same way.  He saves Hispanics and Asians the same way.  We are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.  There is no black Savior, no Hispanic Savior, no white Savior.  There’s just one Savior.  His name is Jesus, and he loves us all the same and gave himself for us all.  Do you think it takes more of Jesus’ blood to save people from other races than it takes to save you?

Jesus came to tear down the dividing wall.  Don’t try to rebuild something that Jesus tore down.


Do this instead: do what you can to love all people like Jesus loves people.  Be kind.  Build friendships.  Serve one another.

Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm.  The twister damaged some of the farm buildings.  And when the storm was over my grandfather, Samuel Tucker McCallum, went to check on the black families who lived on the place.  When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was wailing in grief. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried.  Granddaddy did his best to comfort her.  He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.

And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house.  He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt.  My granddaddy scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into an ear to ear grin.  Mourning was turned to dancing.  And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot.  She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.”  Get it?  That's my grandfather's name.  And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’

Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson.  He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family.  Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago.  When Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie went his funeral.  When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful meal and visit with them after the service.  No wonder my dad, a southern man raised in Mississippi and Lake Village, Arkansas, taught his sons that since everybody is equal in God’s eyes, they ought to be equal in ours.  That’s what his daddy taught him.

And this truth wasn’t taught through protests and demonstrations.  It was taught by word and example.  Good old Cyclone Sam.  It’s amazing how simple acts of compassion, love, and friendship open doors of relationship that transcend the color of one’s skin or ethnicity.  And what my granddaddy did on a small scale …


Jesus did on a cosmic scale.  And I pray he keeps on doing it.  A cyclone of racism is sweeping through our land again.  It’s tearing apart lives and families and our nation.  God hears the cries of his people.  And he sends a Jewish Messiah named Jesus to find us and save us and get us home.  Jesus came.  He ministered to anybody and everybody—Jew and Gentile and Samaritan, every outcast, sinner, and tax collector.  He loved them all and he loved them the same.  But in order to complete his salvation mission, he had to express his love in more than healing and teaching and kindness; he had to die.  And all the powers that be got into the act of killing him.  The Jewish leadership pushed for crucifixion.  The Gentile Romans pounded the nails through his hands and feet, all in the Passover presence of people from all over the known world of the day: many colors, many languages.  You may be thinking, “How could they kill Jesus?”  They?  Just because we weren’t in Jerusalem that day, we all took part in the lynching and the killing.  Our sins killed him.  Jesus was no victim here.  He could have said no to the cross at any point.  But he didn’t.  Our need is too great.  His love is too strong.  The cross was the only way to save us.  Jesus had to die—to die for our sins by taking our sins, including racism, on himself, bear their penalty, and break their power.

At the end of that dark Friday, it looked like sin won.  On Saturday, it looked like sin won.  But on Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead.  The penalty and power of sin was finished.  The walls that separate us came tumbling down.  Jesus won.  Truth won.  Love won.  And when Jesus comes again even the presence of sin will be banished forever, and as brothers and sisters in one big happy family, every nation, tribe, and tongue will sing Christ’s praise around his throne: “Worthy, worthy is the Lamb who was slain to save us all!”

Until that day, Jesus is still moving about the earth, finding lost children and bringing them home to a Father who changes their name: from dead in sin to alive in Christ; from lost and condemned to saved and justified; from sinner to saint; from wall-builder to bridge-builder; from racist to one who loves like Christ.  He changes our name to Christian—little Christ.


That’s why we come not to the Lord’s wall but to the Lord’s Table.  Walls divide.  Tables bring us together.  Walls say, “You belong on one side, I belong on the other.”  The Lord’s Table says, “There is a place for everyone at the same table.”  That’s right.  There is no Jewish Table, no Gentile table.  There is no black table, no table just for white people.  There is only one table for us all—the Lord’s Table.  And regardless of your skin color or your heritage, if Jesus has changed your name to Christian, there is a place at the Table for you.

[1]As told by Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 19-20.