Monday, November 13, 2017

Keep Jesus Out of This Mess

(This was an artist's rendering of the Anglo-Saxon Jesus 
which was a popular in Nazi Germany.)

One of the terrible things about religion is that we keep trying to drag Jesus in to prop up our pet heresies. Every age has done this. We proved slavery by the Bible. After all--didn't Paul talk about slaves and Jesus said nary a word. Then we dug around in the Bible until we found justification for putting women in their rightful place. They were supposed to keep silent in the church and walk ten steps behind their men. They couldn't hold but certain offices in the church like cooking dinners and arranging flowers. They certainly could not be Deacons and, perish the thought, surely not Pastors. The Bible after all could not be wrong. Hitler and his crowd painted Jesus as a blue-eyed blond--forgetting somehow that he really was a Jew. And with that promise of Anglo- Saxon supremacy they killed millions and millions of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses.  And on Sunday many in Germany went to church to hear their preachers underline it all with Jesus talk. I can still remember my college where there were no black faces except those that swept the yards and cleaned our toilets. Nee-groes rode in the back of our buses--and we proved it all by the Bible. Selectively.

And if that was not enough in 2017 the Evangelicals are lining up in droves around Mr. Trump. It doesn't matter how many he would deny health care to, how many immigrants he would send back to unsafe places they fled. He would lie continually, changing his words from one day to the next--and nary a peep out of the Evangelicals. How in the world can Christians do this? This isn't a Democrat-Republican fight--it is a human fight. What kind of a country do we really want to be? Whatever happened to character. I can understand how Germany got in the mess they did when I see so many church-going Christians standing up for Mr. Trump. This man--thrice married-- who never goes to church--sounds as pious as some TV preachers. Mr. President--please leave Jesus out of all of this.

All this brings me to Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. He has been charged with sexual abuse toward more than three young women. One fourteen year old. He pulls out his black Bible and assures us that Muslims should be denied a place in the Senate and would dismiss the man that is. He has proclaimed homosexuality as bestiality and saying their sexual acts were the same as having sex with a monkey or a cow. He quotes Jesus continually. And one of his fans who is the Alabama State Auditor has said, in responded to the charges.  32-year old Roy Moore charged with having sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl--the state Auditor said:  "Take Joseph and Mary...Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There's nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual."

Jim Wallace, by the way an Evangelical, took a Bible one day and clipped out all the passages about poor people and poverty. And when he was finished he would hold it up in churches and say: "This is an American Bible--filled with holes where we have taken out what Jesus really said." This is exactly what is happening when we church-people ignore the whole message of the Bible.

You might take the "whosoever will" out of your Bible--but it is still there whether we like it or not. We might mis-interpret the John 3.16 passage: "For God so loved the world..." but the Book is not up for revision. We are.

This whole debacle reminds me of a poem the poet, Carl Sandburg once wrote in response to a prominent Evangelist in his day.

"You come along...tearing your shirt...yelling
about Jesus.
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few
bankers and higher-ups among the con men of
Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus
around because he never made any fake passes
and everything he said went and he helped the
sick and gave the people hope."

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   

"I don't want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my 
I won't take my religion from any man who never
works except with his mouth and never cherishes
any memory except the face of the woman on
the American silver dollar.
I ask you to come through and show me where you're
pouring out the blood of your life.
I've been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha, 
where they nailed Him, and I know if
the story is straight it was real blood ran from
His hands and the nail-holes, and it was real
blood spurted in red drops where the spear of
the Roman soldier rammed in between the ribs
of this Jesus of Nazareth."
                                                     --Carl Sandburg, excerpts from 
                                                           "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter"

Religion is having a hard enough time today without mis-using it to prop up our sins, our lies and our deceptions. We must keep Jesus out of this mess.

--Roger Lovette /

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guns (Out Of) Control

photo by Julie Ellis / flickr

Well, here we are again. Another shooting. And another. And another. And yet another. How many of our citizens have been snuffed out just in the last year or so? How many funeral have been held? How many families have been torn asunder?

Nobody in their right minds would even advocate getting rid of all of our guns. It isn’t going to happen. But can’t we do something about this problem. We Americans have always been a Can-Do people. Have we changed? I thought after Sandy Hook when 20 school children and 6 adults were mowed down that something would be done. I thought when eight of our citizens were killed in a church in Charleston that something would change. And this was followed by Orlando and others. No change. Then there was the worst shooting in our history in Las Vegas when 58 of our brothers and sisters lay dead and 500 others hurt or wounded. Still no change.
photo courtesy of KUTAustin-90.5FM
And now—this little tiny church in Texas that will never be the same again where 26 of their members were killed and 20 others wounded. Eight members of one family gone forever. And our response? We wring our hands and mutter that must do something. But we don’t act.

Our President barely mentioned guns when he talked once again about the grief of these shootings. We needed more mental health facilities, he said. He said this was a mental problem period. Tell that to the counselors and psychologists that have found their funds whittled down and down. Tell that to all the Mental Health Centers scattered across the nation. They open their doors to help everybody. They tell us their funds are drying up. Read this new proposed budget.

 KUTAustin / flickr
Two suggestions. You’ve heard these before. We need more gun control. We need to know who buys a weapon. If a man is dismissed from the service, has assaulted his wife and almost killed his step-child should he buy a gun. Our President recently signed a proclamation allowing people with mental problems to buy guns. We need gun registration that tighten the restrictions in those who buy guns. Why can’t we stop the buying of weapons on the Internet. 

We need legislators that have enough courage to do something besides mouthing: “our thoughts and prayers are with you..” If these that serve us were really serious about the common good and genuinely cared for all those who have been killed and their loved ones—this sad picture could change. Let’s quit giving the NRA such power.  They and their cadre of lobbyists do not represent the health and well-being of our country. More than a few of our legislators have sold their souls for yet another vote and another four or six years. Every 15 minutes someone in  our nation will die of gun violence. So why can’t we do something about these dangerous weapons that were designed for war. We don’t allow citizens to buy tanks or flame throwers. 

photo by Julie Ellis / flickr
We need to do something about gun dealers. Background checks should mean something. We need gun owners—good decent people—to stand with all those who have lost someone through gun violence. We need to change our laws to say that every gun salesman will be held responsible for those he/she sells guns to. They should be charged with accessory to murder when they have not followed even the barest of restrictions today and sell weapons to those who have no business handling a gun. I wonder if any of these who sell weapons have any idea that they have contributed to the blood bath in this country.

What we do not need is the foolish idea that cleverly citizens should be armed. We have fine policeman whose salaries we pay to help keep us safe. If we don’t have enough—we should hire more. We do not need guards standing at church house doors and we certainly do not need Pastors who claim to follow the Prince of Peace packing on Sunday while they preach. Arming teachers in our schools? Ludicrous. 

Our crisis reminds me of something the Russian Poet Yevtushenko wrote years ago. Knowing the injustices and inaction of the leaders in his homeland he wrote: “Remember how in so strange a time common integrity could look so much like courage.” Common integrity—this is the great need of our time from all of us.

We seem to have forgotten common integrity these days. We need a recommitment to the values that our forebears dreamed just might be possible in this new land. Let’s quit this crazy notions that if we restrict some of our gun laws that we will be turned into a jungle. We are not far from that now. We really have been a can-do people. Let’s do it once again as we tackle this most serious of problems: gun control.

photo by KUT Austin /flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, November 3, 2017

All Saints Day--Remembering Time

photo by dvdbramhall / flickr

I remember reading the story of the great New York preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. A troubled woman came to see him one day. And when she left she turned to the secretary and said, "He put the stars back in my sky."

That remark sums up how I feel about All Saints Day in the church. Somebody out there put stars in your sky or you wouldn't be around. At the church where I attend on this special day last year there is a time in the service when people could come forward and call out the name of someone who had been a saint to them. And a long line stood by the microphone and mentioned some name. They covered the waterfront. Name after name. There were mothers and fathers. There were teachers and husbands and wives. There were friends that had stuck by them through it all. I remembered an old gracious lady who made my days bearable during some hard days in the church. Again and again she made me laugh.

If we are wise this day can make us all remember. And remembering might just be a healing and perspective thing for us all. There is so much that weighs us down. In this chaotic time in which we live it is hard to keep the car on the road. Bitterness, anger, rage, depression and hate are everywhere you turn. The old Psalmist raised this query one day during a terrible time. "How long, O Lord--how long?" We've all asked that question from time to time. 

And so we come to church on this day and sing, "For all the saints who from their labor's rest..." I can't sing it without a lump in my throat. Because there have been so very many along the way who helped put the stars back in my sky. Still do. 

Tim Madigan wrote this wonderful little book about his friendship with Mr. Rogers of TV fame. He called his book, I'm Proud of You. I recommend it. Mr. Rogers changed Tim's life. And the book tells that story. Tim tells that when his brother was in his final days dying with cancer, Tim and his four brothers sat up all night with the dying Steve. After that night vigil Steve stirred and Tim told him how much he loved Steve and said, "I have loved you longer than anybody else." Steve replied, "I love you, too. But you look worried. Are you worried about me?" Tim nodded that he was. And Steve said, "Don't worry about me, I have a great supportive cast."

We all have a great supportive cast if we are honest. And this All Saints Day gives us the opportunity to think once more of all those along the way that put stars back in our skies. Maybe turning away from this day we might just help put the stars back in somebody else's sky. Everybody needs a supportive cast. Everybody.

(You might want to  read the book about Mr. Rogers that I mentioned, I'm Proud of You, by Tim Madigan [New York: Gotham Books, 2006] It's great.)

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, October 29, 2017

It's Not About Us--A Sermon

photo by Christos Tsoumplekas / flickr

You may have read this poem. It was called “How to Live With Your Dash.” A man spoke at the funeral of a good friend. He talked about the year of her birth and the day she died. These two dates would be etched on her tombstone. But he said between the birth date and the date of her death there was this dash. What made this woman the person she was, was the dash. Those years in-between her birth and death. And so it seems to me that the challenge for all of us is to learn how to live with our dash—this time between yesterday and tomorrow.

 So the church has a dash, too. After eight interims I have learned first hand that this in-between time that can be one of the most important times in the life of your church.  It can be a time of learning, of growing, of hammering out the kind of church you want. And, in learning that, you will be pretty sure of the kind of person you want to serve as your next Pastor. 

One prominent church consultant has said that it doesn’t matter if the church is conservative or moderate or liberal. It doesn’t matter what kind of worship you have—overhead projectors and guitars or a mighty pipe organ. He says if you hammer out your identity—know who you are—fly that flag—serving God and the congregation here and the community around you—you will never go out of business. And one of the important questions for you ask yourselves and the person you hope to call as Pastor Is; what is God calling you to be and to do in 2017 and the years that follow.

So we come to our text. It is found in First Kings. It’s really an aside comment and if you don’t read it very carefully you will miss it. In Kings 5.5 Solomon early in his reign as king told the people he would do something that his father never did—and that was to build a temple for the Lord God. Not just any temple—but it would be the finest temple the world had ever seen. And all of the fifth chapter and part of chapter six deals with the details of recruiting workmen, getting the finest material available, taxing the people and going to work. And so, by the end of the sixth chapter Solomon has kept his promise. The Temple is finally finished. But we don’t stop there—we move on to the first verse of chapter seven... And this is what I Kings says: “In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid…in the eleventh year…(and) the eighth month, the house was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications. He (Solomon) was seven years in building it.” (And now we come to the seventh chapter—listen closely.) “Solomon was building his own house thirteen years, and he finished his entire house.” (I Kings 5. 37-38. 7.1)

Do you hear what the text says? It took Solomon seven years to build God’s house. It took thirteen years to build his own house. Isn’t this interesting? It took the King almost twice as long to build his own house as God’s house. And the size of the house he built for God could not compare with the mansion he built for himself.

Walter Brueggemann, a very fine Old Testament scholar has said: “The Lord did not hold as large a place in the heart of Solomon as he did his father David. The spiritual eclipse had begun.” And before Solomon’s reign was over it would all come crashing down and the kingdom would be split forever. Why? Because Solomon thought it was about him—that was his primary purpose. And he forgot it really was to be about God.

Photo by Peter Coughlan / flickr
Does it sound just a little familiar? It used to be that we looked out on the horizon of any town and you would see the steeples,  steeples dotted everywhere. The tallest buildings in any town would be the steeples. But no more. The tallest buildings are the Banks, the Savings and Loans. Driving down the road I have said, “What a beautiful building.” And they say: “Oh, that’s our new bank.” It’s a parable really.

What about us—our purposes? Many of our epitaphs could read: “Born a man—died a grocer.” Or we could add: died a preacher, a teacher, a doctor. But these labels we wear and the roles we assume are not near enough. I had a teacher in Seminary one time who was just brilliant. But outside that school very few people knew him. He hadn’t written any books or spoken at any great churches. He was just a good teacher and a good man. His wife walked out on him one day and left him with a little redheaded girl. He was just devastated. And I heard him say one day: “When I die I want them to say about me: I was a good father.” What a great epitaph. 

Wouldn’t it be great if they could say of us: She was a decent human being or the light of God shone through him or you could always count on her or he was a good husband. In every church I have ever had there was that little handful that kept it going. They were always there. They came with their offering and their Bibles to teach a class or give out bulletins or just support their church. Without them those churches would not have survived. But they had found out something that Solomon, in all his wisdom, would never know. It wasn’t about them. They had found a larger purpose. And that’s my dream for every church I know today.

But we can’t do this unless we get ourselves off our hands? Remember the old song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” We find this vision in worship. Real worship saves us all from selfishness, from smaller purposes, from living in the basement of a great big house where there are so many, many rooms upstairs.

photo by Dieter Weinest / flickr
I don’t know if you ever saw the movie that came out several years ago entitled, “Grand Canyon.” In the movie, Danny Glover a black man lived in the slums of his city. And the only thing that kept him going was that once in a while when it all pressed in on him he would make a trip to the Grand Canyon. And he would just sit there looking, looking at the colors and the majesty and the sheer size of that wonderful chasm. And somebody asked him why he did that? And he said: “There ought to be a place where you can see something a whole lot bigger than you are.” And after his visits he would turn around and travel back home to a little bitty house and a job that did not pay enough, but he would make it. 

With all the stuff that is going on in our world—it is really hard for any of his to keep a healthy perspective. With so much news coming at us every single day—we can’t escape the breaking news. One lady who works out at the same gym I do stopped me the other day and said: “You know, I wish they would turn off the TV’s here.” And I said, “Me too.” We cannot escape the news whether it’s the doctor’s office or some restaurant—Breaking News is everywhere.

Fred Craddock who was one of our greatest preacher told that one day he went to the hospital to see a member who was having very serious surgery the next day. And when he entered she had something like: “As the World Turns” and there was a stack of reading material by her bed. Fifty Shades of Grey…a couple of tabloids like we see at the Grocery Store. Will Angie Jolie and Brad get back together? Where's Melania?Or what outfit Ivanka wore to her father’s dinner last night. The woman in the bed was facing serious surgery the next morning and she was reading all this stuff—and Craddock said there wasn’t a calorie in the whole stack. Nothing to help her get through the night and face her surgery.

Once when I was Pastor a little couple with two children knocked on my study door one sad afternoon. They sat down and said: “Our house just burned down. We lost everything. We didn’t know what to do and so we came to the church.” They needed something in that hard time that they could hang on to. 

We all need something bigger than ourselves when houses burn and husbands die and you find this lump or you lose your job. One woman writers: “Many of us are juggling so many things that we run by our lives rather than living them as gifts from God. What if we could learn to stop for a moment many times a day? What if in those moments we could decide to notice the sheer miracle of being alive? We would then be taking awe breaks instead of coffee breaks.” We all need some Grand Canyon where we can stand on tiptoe and just say: “Ahhhhh.”

photo by Esther Gibbons / flickr
What we are talking about is genuine worship. Meeting God. Real worship is putting down all that heavy stuff you carry for just a few minutes and whispering: “Help me! Help me—I don’t know what to do.” It’s asking forgiveness or just sitting there in the silence. It’s looking around you at people just like you. Remember Paul called us treasures in earthen vessels.  Mrs. Jones who had a breast removed and is worried about the future. There is Henry over there in the shadows who lost his wife. And there is dear Elaine, sitting there on the front row of the choir; she buried her twenty-two year old son Friday who committed suicide. Mrs. Johnson is there worried that she may have to go to some nursing home. And all of them under the same roof—singing and praying and opening their Bibles and sometimes even finding something in a sermon or a hug or a handshake or just a smile after church.

It doesn’t happen every Sunday. Carlyle Marney a great Baptist preacher used to say, half-kiddingly. You know, God does not come to church every Sunday. Sometimes the Lord God just sleeps in.  When you’re God you don’t have to go every week. But every once in a while God will open those doors back there and come into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. And he will walk down this aisle and stop at your pew. And if that happens you will never be the same again. You will be turned inside out. Marney ended that story by saying no, God does not have to come to church every Sunday—but you better be there because one day when you least expect the Almighty—he may just decide to drop by. 

Solomon, with all his wisdom missed it. He spent more on himself that he did the Lord God that had called him. He never really knew who he was. He got lost in the folds of money and women and success and power and greed and selfishness. The King, with all that promise, never did find out that it really was not about him after all.

I hope here on some Sunday when you least expect it the Lord God himself might just walk down that aisle and sit down next to you. For when that happens you will take whatever comes and somehow it will be enough.

photo by Justin Kern

(This sermon was preached at the Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC.)

--Roger Lovette /

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Boy Scouts Should Have No Barriers--Nor Should the Church

Photo by Artbyheather / flickr

Reading today’s The Greenville News about the new scouting program—my mind traveled back 70 years. Could it have been that long? In the little cotton mill village where I lived three blocks from my house, overlooking the river was the Scout Cottage. And, like most of the boys in my neighborhood I signed up first for the Cub Scouts and later the Boys Scouts. I learned a lot. How to fish, how to swim, —I learned how to put up a tent and camp out. I learned how to cook outdoors on an open fire . And I would lie on my back some dark nights outside a tent—and look up at the stars and the mystery that surrounded me. 

I learned the Scouting Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” I read the Scouting Manual like it was the Bible.

I remember how proud I was when I first put on that dark blue Cub scout uniform and later that olive/beige Boy Scout outfit. The only barriers to admission that I remember were that we had no girls in our group and no blacks. We never even gave these restrictions a thought. We lived in a tight, insular 1950 world of white, hard-working Georgians. There were no atheists and if there were they kept quiet back there. There were no Jews, no Muslims and no African-Americans. We knew no Catholics. We had no unearthly idea what Transgender meant.

But we welcomed all the boys that looked like us, took the Oath and came regularly. So when I read in this week’s front-page story about an alternative scouting program for Christian boys—I find myself troubled. Reading further down the article it clarified its admission policy. Atheists, non-Christians and even gay boys could participate. But not fully. You had to be a church-going Christian to be a first-class scout. I wonder how those other boys must feel.

The group calls themselves Christ-centered. I have no doubt they are well-meaning and  must help a lot of boys to maturity. But after more than 40 plus years as a Preacher I have slowly learned that to be Christ-centered is not the easiest thing in the world. The real challenge is inclusiveness and not exclusion. Sure there were churches through the years that turned away blacks, that were suspicious of even groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses,  Mormons, Christian Scientists and Catholics. No gays were allowed. And if they were—they would be made to feel guilty. Jews would have felt most uncomfortable. Jesus opened his arms to all: Samaritans, women, even with shabby reputations, sinners, the hated tax collectors, Gentiles and outsiders of every stripe. Jesus himself was a Jew. There was no pecking order and I have learned that there were no second-class categories in his outfit. Nobody would ride in the back of his bus.  Jesus stretched his arms and said whosoever will to everyone.

I wish this new group would change the word: Christ-centered. For the Christ I try to follow “there is no east or west, no north or south but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world.” And under that banner nobody would feel uncomfortable.

used by permission of flickr

(This article was published in The Greenville News and Anderson Independent, October 28, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /

Monday, October 23, 2017

General Kelly, President Trump and Us All...

I took these photographs over a year ago the United States Military Cemetery at Luxembourg, tiny country near France and Belgium. The names of those killed in the battles there are listed one by one. General Patton liberated Luxembourg and the people of that village were so grateful that they wanted to erect a large stature of the General in their town. Patton's widow said No. Bury him with his fellow soldiers. And even though this grave stands apart--he is buried with that band brothers he served with. He is surrounded. 

I was moved terribly by those rows and rows of crosses and the names of those buried there. And the crosses that represented those whose names have been lost to history. 

General Kelly spoke to the nation the other day in words that touched most of us. Having lost a son in the service he knows what those crosses mean. He also attempted to cover his boss's words and actions yet again. The bruha over this whole matter of the four servicemen that died in Niger has gotten lost in the media mess. 

I feel this is simply a sad illustration of how we as a nation have ignored the sacrifices of those that still serve in far away places. It took our President weeks to acknowledge those that died in Niger. And when he finally did speak he horrified so many of us by piously taking yet another swipe at President Obama and George Bush and others who he said, probably had not reached out the families of those service people that died, as he had. It is hard with families awash in grief to even fathom the insensitivity of our Commander in chief. Whatever happens it is all about him. 

No it isn't. It is about all the fallen. It is about widows and children and parents who grieve hard and long. We go about our business every day hardly thinking of all those who serve in the longest war in our history. So many of them come home in little flag draped boxes. Many of those caskets cannot be opened--those bodies are too mangled or crushed or burned to be seen. And there besides them we have all the broken, those with PTSD--whose lives are terribly shattered. 

I do not think we need to glorify war or battles. But I often wonder if we still had a draft if maybe more of us would not go about our daily tasks so casually while somebody way off dies for us. 

It isn't only our President who is insensitive. Somehow we have moved too far from the greatest generation. Maybe this whole sad week when we cannot ignore the faces of those four soldiers that died--we will begin once again to really find appropriate ways to honor our dead. And also one another.

Funny we spend hours and days ranting about some football players that will not bend their knees. Maybe the larger scandal is a nation that uses those that serve us--and never in all our days truly honor them. We just go about our lives with business as usual. There is more to patriotism than standing at attention with a hand over our hearts. 

Maybe we need to send Mr. Trump to Arlington or the Vietnam Memorial again and again. And maybe we need to send all the Congressmen and Senators along too. And maybe we all need to realize there really is more that should unite than divides us. Look again at all those crosses scattered in Arlington and in countries around the world--attention needs to be paid by all of us. This is the real patriotism. 

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Where, O Where, is the Church?

photo by Kevin Baird / flickr

One of my favorite stories is a story by Carlyle Marney who was one of our great preachers. He served a church in Austin, Texas and after many years he was called to the Myers Park Church In Charlotte, N.C. After he moved, people would come up to him and ask him how he liked living in Charlotte and how he liked his new church. And he would say, “Well, I like it just fine, but I’m having just a little trouble.” They’d perk up their ears, “Trouble?” “Yes, I having trouble finding the church. It’s just really hard to find. You know, I just keep looking and looking. I know it’s here somewhere, but I’m having a little trouble finding the church.”

So one of the things I have been doing all my ministry is trying to find the church. One of the great passages of scripture is in Matthew 16. It is one of the hinge-turning moments in the ministry of Jesus. It’s the watershed that makes all the difference in the story. Scholars call it the Confession at Caesarea Philippi.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do others say that I am?” And they began to give the appropriate answers, right out of the book: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. But Jesus zeroes in and says, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon, who always had an answer said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” 

What we have here is one of the most controversial passages in the whole of the New Testament. Whole books have been written on these verses. Churches have debated their meaning. Whole denominations have started on the interpretation of what the foundation of the church really is. Is the Church built on Simon Peter, the first Pope? What is the foundation of the church. What is this rock? Is it on Jesus? The testimony of Simon? Or do we build the church on anybody and everybody that bows a knee and says deep in their hearts: “We do believe Jesus is Lord.”

If I had to pick and choose I think I would pick the last theory: Jesus built his church on the testimony of all those who respond to him and love him and follow him.

After I retired we began to visit churches—looking for a new church home. I could tell you some horror stories of what we found. Terrible music. No mystery in many of the churches. Lousy preaching. Some as cold as a refrigerator. Why, you would have thought we were invisible. One woman turned around to Gayle during the Passing of the Peace and welcomed her. After the service she said to Gayle: “Margie we are glad to have you here…won’t you stay for Sunday School, Margie.” I have been calling her Margie ever since. But let me tell you what I was looking for in a church. Three words, really. Rooted in the heart of the New Testament. Without these three words there is no church. 


The first thing I’m looking for when I come to church is the word, kerygma. Gospel—Good news. Mark was the one who wrote the first Gospel, and his book would blaze a trail for all those that would follow. He began his remarkable work by saying, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “The beginning of the good news…” This is what gospel means. It was a proclamation. It was a good, good news of great joy. It was good tidings that the angels sang about that first Christmas. Without this good news there would have been no church. And this good news is for everybody.

photo by JJ / flickr
Old cripples lying by muddy pools for years, and little children who had little to live for, and prostitutes that all the good people hated, and tax collectors that were despised by their own kind and even the “beggars in velvet” discovered that they could find a place and they could find a power in their own empty lives. It was an inclusive message that took all in and changed all who came.

So the first word I look for is kerygma—good news. And this is one of the essences of church. In every church I have ever served, there have been people there who are having a hard, hard time with church. For, you see, all their lives they have heard bad news, not good news. They have had something crammed down their throats and somehow they still have indigestion from it. They were forced to sit on those hard benches for years and years. And they got scared of hell and the devil and punishment and feeling that God would never, ever accept them. They heard only half the message. They understood, like most us, the guilt. Most of them never heard the grace. 

The church lost one of its finest writers when Elizabeth O’Connor died several years ago. In one of her books she said: “Go ye into all the world has two meanings, It is a missionary word—to do evangelism. The church is to take the good news to those who do not know. But Miss O’Connor said that this go ye is also an inner word. That “Go ye” means that this gospel, word is to penetrate every part of our beings also. For she says there are places that yet have to be addressed in our lives by this good, good news. That deep down within us there are parts of us that need to be converted still. There are lost territories in all our many selves. So this good news says we can face the old sins and old habits of self-destructiveness that have haunted us all our lives. 

Now I don’t know what your broken places or lost territories are. Those parts of you that have never heard the gospel.  It might be unresolved grief or guilt or not being able to let something go and forgive someone. It could be sex or an obsession with money or things or bitterness or rage or guilt or the black dog, depression. Everybody in this room has some lost territory—most of us more than one. But we need to  remember this morning that the good tidings and the good news is for all of us. That’s the first word I’m looking for in church—kerygma—good news.


The second thing is that when you find the church you will always find this second word, diakonia. Simon made the great confession and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He learned it’s meaning later in that Upper Room when Jesus knelt with a basin and towel and began to wash their feet. And Simon protested, “Get up Lord. Get up. That’s servant’s business. You will never ever wash my feet.” But that night Jesus just took Simon’s sandals off and with a basin of water and towel taught him about the essence of the gospel. The word, Diakonate comes from this serving word.  

Diakonia is where the word deacon comes from. Servant is another meaning. For, you see, church is the place where you wash somebody else’s feet. And church is the place where you have your feet washed as well. And, like Simon, we don’t like that. 

Several years ago a book came out called, The Search for Excellence, which became a best seller. It told of some of the most successful corporations in America and how they got that way. And the bottom line is that those companies that will last and make it into the future will give good quality service. 

There is no real church without this word, diakonia. We really are foot-washing people. We really do touch the wounds and heal the broken spots and we really do hug and lift one another up and bring casseroles and pray and pray and pray. And so, if I find the church there will always be a little group of foot washers with an apron and a basin and towel.  Jesus said, “You save your life by losing it.” And I put that down beside, “I’m leaving because I am not being fed…” or “I’m leaving because my needs are not being met.” But Jesus said, “You save your life when you lose your life…”

Let me tell you a secret about loving this church. It’s simple. Begin to serve. Give your money. And this church needs the money right now. Give something that represents you and not just a tip. But don’t just stop there. Volunteer to work with the three year olds, sing in the choir. Tell somebody else about your church and meet them in the foyer next Sunday. All those that study growth in church say that word of mouth is the best publicity any church can have. How long has it been since you invited someone to visit your church?  Serve on a Committee here. Work for peace and justice. Get involved in making South Carolina a better state. If enough of the Christians in this state would do this—we could turn this state around. Make Mount Zion a better place. When you find the word, diakonia you will find the church.


But there is another word: koinonia. Fellowship. Why has the church sung, “Blest Be the Tie that binds our hearts in Christian love” since it found its way into an English hymnbook in 1782? Why do we keep singing it decade after decade? Because without fellowship there is no church. 

I love the way someone expressed it:

photo by Sean Choe / flickr
We meet awkwardly at first…eyeing each other…then we begin to talk about the weather…safe subjects…then family sizes: How many brothers and sisters do you have. Are you the eldest? We talk about what we have in common. As we spend more time we begin to learn how each of us has come to where we are. We are amazed at our capacity to understand one another’s pasts…fascinated by each other’s stories…human stories…of crying and growing and laughing and sighing. A strange thing happens. It is no longer us and them…but we the way God meant it to be. 

So we find the church when we find this word, koinonia, fellowship. It is a place that lets us be who we are and cares for us and gives us room and helps us grow. Sometimes, like in a family, we will be told we are off the beam when we are. Sometimes we get off track and the lines get tangled—but we have to untangle those lines because without this intangible thing called fellowship—love for one another—we don’t have church. We don’t have church at all.  It keeps on enlarging the circle. Taking in. And forgiving one another—which may be the hardest part. And slowly, sometimes very slowly putting all the hurt behind you and moving on. 

I heard this wonderful story about an older woman whose husband had died and she lived a long way off from her only daughter. The daughter was worried about her mother. Her house was getting old and needed a lot of repair. Her neighborhood was changing and not as safe as it used to be. So the daughter kept talking to her mother about moving to the town where she lived. The woman just shook her head. But one day she decided to move. And she did. When Sunday came she put on her finery and went to the church down the street. She called her daughter that afternoon and said, “Guess what I did this morning? I joined the church.” The daughter said, “You did what? Don’t you think it is too early? You don’t know those people. Mama, you should have waited.” And you know what her mother said? “Land sakes, honey when you join the church you never have to be lonesome again.” Do you think she found the church? I think she found the church.

photo by Matt Baume / flickr

(This sermon was preached at Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC October 22, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /