Category: Preaching (page 1 of 18)

Where He Leads

For the past several years it’s become clear that the word “evangelical” has very little, if anything, to do with Christianity or religion. It’s not a Christian term anymore. It’s been misused and redefined by the politicians and media in the United States for so long now that it’s become a purely secular word. A national political term.

One of the more obvious manifestations of this is in the way African Americans are left out. Have you noticed that the media will not refer to African Americans as “evangelicals?” Christians of color may have a high regard for the Bible, they may focus on the atonement of Christ through the cross, they may be committed to proclaiming the Gospel, they may believe the Gospel changes lives and changes the world — they may embody every facet of the classic definition of “evangelical.” But because African Americans vote heavily for Democratic candidates, the media will not call them “evangelicals.” The term is strictly political now. “Evangelical” means Republican. “Evangelical” means guns and lower taxes and immigration reform and repealing Obamacare.

There are a lot of reasons this matters so much. One of the main reasons is that our young people now identify traditional Christianity with right wing American politics. This development has been analyzed and discussed in every “unchristian” and “You Lost Me” type of book that’s been written in the past twenty years. Young people are not leaving the Church because they reject Christ Jesus as Lord, they’re leaving the Church because they reject the national politics that appear to go with it.

That’s a problem for all of us. Whatever our national political beliefs and practices — left or right, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal — they shouldn’t be wrapped up in God’s Church because they all eventually come into conflict with God’s ways. And our young people see right through it.

I was privileged to be in attendance at Hope Network’s Preacher Initiative in Dallas last month when Dr. Mallory Wyckoff delivered a powerful sermon on the disconnect between what we teach our young people in our churches and what they actually experience in and through us who do the teaching. Her sermon was gut-level honest and penetrating. Eye-opening. Inspiring. The language soared and the message cut straight to the heart of the Gospel.

Mallory has graciously provided me with a manuscript of her sermon, “Where You Lead I Will Follow” from Matthew 23. You can find the entire sermon posted to her website here. But I’d like to share a couple of excerpts in this space.

Mallory began by praising the church and the church people who raised her in the faith. She expressed her admiration and love for those men and women who shaped her as a child of God.

“To be sure, I was loved. I was loved really well. I was made to believe that I had worth, that I could pursue the dreams that surged within, that God would guide me as I took each clumsy step. I was nurtured in the Christian faith from the womb, loved and cared on by my community, educated in their schools, formed in their churches. I attended their youth groups and summer camps, wore their T-shirts and sang their songs. These people invested in me, gave of their time and resources to help me grow into the woman I am now. For all of this and for more, I am grateful.”

Mallory then moved to unashamedly hold the mirror up to the troubling inconsistencies she noticed when she actually began to read the Bible her church told her to read and follow the Christ her church told her to follow.

“[I] observed that Jesus seemed to care an awful lot about the poor and marginalized, giving them food and dignity, binding their wounds and healing their bodies. But when I named the gross inequities between the rich and poor in our country and asked what we might do to overcome this, they called me a socialist…

They told me about the cross of Christ and insisted this was a central feature of our faith. So I spent time reflecting on the cross and observed it as the culmination of Jesus’ consistent refusal to employ violent means. I took to heart his teachings that the swords we live by surely are the ones by which we will die, that we are to love our enemies and, perhaps, this might mean to not kill them. I wondered how I could follow this Christ with any integrity in my heart if I also carried a gun in my hand or on my hip. But when I asked my church about these things, they told me this was unrealistic, that Jesus’ teachings are for individuals but have nothing to say to nation-states, and that I should fear the nation-state taking from me the very weapons Jesus warned against.

They took me to the baptismal font and buried me with Christ beneath the waters, calling on me to live into the newness of life in Christ, proclaiming that my identity is found therein, and I swore my allegiance to Christ. But when I began asking about all of the myriad allegiances we seem to hold in conflict with the lordship of Christ, that perhaps nationalism is the most dangerous kind of idolatry, they told me I was not a good patriot.

They taught me about the early church, a marginalized sect seeking to live into the Kingdom in the midst of empire. They told me stories of the church’s courage, even in the face of persecution and death, and of their commitment to the way of Christ. But when I began wondering about how the empire in which we find ourselves dehumanizes black and brown bodies, they told me I didn’t show enough respect for the flag and for country and for every other symbol that bears Caesar’s image even while the body count for image bearers of God keeps climbing…”

Mallory’s critique comes straight out of Scripture, directly out of the prophets’ mouths and our Savior’s heart. She articulates so well what stirs my own soul and what burdens my shoulders and my mind, but what I have such difficulty describing. She perfectly says what I’m thinking.

Our priorities are out of whack. Our identities are compromised. We’re seeing issues to be argued instead of people to be loved. We think first as Republicans or Democrats, as political conservatives or liberals, and not first as disciples of Jesus. Our positions are solidified and our decisions are made through the lenses of our race, our zip code, our political affiliations, and not first and foremost by our identity as baptized followers of the Christ.

The younger generations coming up behind us see it. And they feel it.

You already know my position on all this. The United States is not going to be changed by votes or parties. It’s not going to be saved by force of numbers or force of rhetoric. It’s going to be saved, along with the rest of the world, by Christ Jesus. And his way is about love and forgiveness, sacrifice and service. And peace. Our Christianity should be defined by those things. Our congregations should be characterized by those things. Our young people need to see that in us first. And last. And every place in between.

Mallory ends her sermon with a genuine humility and grace that are sometimes missing from mine. She expresses her deep love for the ones who’ve gone before and she confesses that she is no better. She sees the hypocrisy and duplicity in her elders, but is self-aware enough to know she’s capable of the same missteps.

“I am neither different from nor better than the ones who taught me to follow Christ and dismissed the places he took me. Like them, I say one thing and do another, unaware of the ones who suffer because of my ignorance. I tell [my daughter] to follow Jesus no matter where he takes her, even and especially when it’s a path I reject or dismiss. I tell her that she will have to differentiate between the heart of God and the ways I do or do not reflect this God. I tell her to follow Christ, wherever he may lead. May we have the courage to follow him, too.”

Thank you, Mallory, for these challenging words. Thank you for your boldness and your grace. May our God bless us all to see more clearly and to follow more faithfully.

Peace,

Allan

For Preachers Only

I thank God for the annual Preachers Initiative at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas. I thank God that Pat Bills and the people at Hope Network limit this yearly experience to preachers only — no elders, no youth ministers, no executive pastors. I need these three days with my fellow proclaimers of the Gospel. The Initiative soothes my soul, re-ignites my spirit, and reminds me why we do this very hard thing we all do.

It’s a unique setting there at Highland Oaks the first week of November. It’s preachers only. And it’s desperately needed by all of us — the ones who freely admit it and the ones who won’t.

Because there are some jokes only preachers get.
There are some experiences only preachers share.
There are some blessings only preachers receive.
There are  some burdens only preachers carry.
There are some heartaches only preachers understand.
There are some doubts only preachers have.

I needed to hear Chris Seidman remind me why preaching matters. I needed to hear Bryan and Mallory‘s powerful sermons from Matthew 23. I needed to listen as five of my brothers and sisters shared sermon prep strategies and delivery decisions. I needed to be there when John Alan Turner talked to us about Tri-Perspectivalism and the divinely ordained diversity required to faithfully lead a church of God’s people. And, oh brother, did I so need to hear William Willimon. What a blessing and a joy to meet and listen to this faithful teacher of preachers. It was incredibly encouraging and deeply satisfying to hear in person the heart of this great man who gave us Peculiar Speech and The Intrusive Word and Resident Aliens. I needed all of that.

But the main reason I take three days and drive six hours to and from Dallas each year is to spend the time with preachers only.

Thank you, Pat and Liz and Jon and Grady and everybody at Highland Oaks and Hope Network. You bless me. You bless all of God’s preachers.

Peace,

Allan

God Has Spoken

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” ~Hebrews 1:1-2

We live in a confused world. Our culture is bowing down to the relativism of postmodernism. There is no ultimate truth. Whatever works for you is great for you. Discover your own truth. Whatever is working for them or for that part of the world is fine for them. There can’t be just one truth.

Christians are buying into this, too. It’s everywhere. Truth is whatever you need it to be, depending on when it is and where you are and what’s going on. We’re more bewildered and unsure and trapped than we’ve ever been. And the answer to all that chaos and uncertainty is this:

God has spoken!

He has spoken through the exalted Jesus. Jesus is the only one who can purify us from our sins. He is the only way to draw near to God. Only Jesus can give us help in our time of need. He alone can deliver us from death and lead us to ultimate glory. Only Christ Jesus! He who has ears, let him hear!

But we are so tied to the practical. We want pragmatic. We want real and immediate benefits from our Bibles and our faith. If the Bible study doesn’t address “real life” issues, we’re bored. If the devotional time doesn’t have immediate implications, we neglect it. If the sermon doesn’t help me with a problem I’m having right now, we ignore it.

Listen, God is speaking to us! God is revealing himself and speaking to us in Jesus! That’s the most exciting thing that’s ever staggered the human imagination! It’s everything!

In Jesus, God’s only Son, we have the ultimate solution to all the world’s problems. God has acted and spoken once for all in Jesus. And it changes everything. Without Jesus, yes, we should all sleep in on Sundays. But with Jesus, we never miss a gathering of his holy people. Without Jesus, yes, we should despair. But with Jesus, we persevere. We keep going. We keep running. Because God has spoken to us by his Son.

That’s why I preach. That’s the reason I pray all week and I read and I study and I prepare so hard. That’s the reason I climb those four steps every Sunday morning and read the Word of God out loud in the Central worship center and proclaim the words of God to all those ears — I really believe those words can change lives. I really believe the words of God have transformative power. They can change your life. They can change our city. And they can change the whole world. That’s why I preach. I believe it.

God has spoken to us by his Son. Jesus Christ is not just the first word and the final word; he’s also every word in between — and the dictionary that defines all the words! He is the ultimate Word of God. And nowhere does the Word say this is easy or painless. Nowhere does the Word tell us this is going to be socially acceptable or quick. But everywhere the Word tells us this is real and it is true and it is certain.

Peace,

Allan

Hearing and Speaking the Word

“We are God’s house if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” ~Hebrews 3:6

We don’t know exactly how it happens. But we do know that, when all is said and done, the goodness of God is going to prevail over evil. The love of God is going to win in the end, not hate. The beauty of God is going to overcome and transform everything that’s ugly. And the risen Son of God will be on the throne, not the powers of darkness and death.

God wins in the end. Right? God wins!

How do we know that? Because we have heard his Word. We have heard God’s voice. We have heard the words of Jesus. We have the Word proclaimed by faithful witnesses and preserved for us in the holy Scriptures.

If we trust only what we see, we’re lost. We’re going to fall asleep at best, and quit the story altogether at worst. But if we hold firmly to what we have heard, if we live and believe what we have heard, then we enter the rest of God and we increase in confidence and courage and hope. And we boast. We start talking with great confidence.

We all turn into preachers.

Think about the way we talk. Think about the way hearing the Word and believing the Word causes us to speak. Why else would we say the things we do?

At the waters of baptism, we’re dealing with very risky and very unpredictable human beings. We can be baptizing a 12-year-old child we know nothing about or a 35-year-old adult we know way too much about. But when that human being comes up out of the water, we say,” All your past and future sins are forgiven! You are now sealed for eternity by God’s Holy Spirit who now lives inside you! You belong to God in Christ Jesus for all eternity!” We say it because we have heard the Word. And we believe it. It’s bold.

Around a hospital bed we say, “The Lord is my rock and my salvation; I will not be afraid!” Why? Because we have heard the Word.

In the cemetery at the graveside we say, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Death has been swallowed up in his victory!” Why? Because we have heard the Word. It’s courageous.

To people who pollute the air, the water, or the land we say, “Stop it! The earth belongs to the Lord and everything in it!” To those who want to construct walls between people and do hateful things and use hateful words and forward hateful emails in Virginia or in Amarillo we say, “Every single man, woman, and child on this planet is created by God in the image of God and is loved deeply by our God! Cut it out!” And in moments of personal or even national crisis, we can proclaim, “We are not afraid! We’re not worried! We have been to the mountain top! We have beheld his glory! We have heard his Word!”

That way of talking boils up from a deep conviction and confidence in the promises of our God.

We’re not jumping into the dark here, we’re stepping into the light. We know what to do and what to say because God has spoken to us by his Son. He is still speaking to us by his Son! And we do hear that faithful Word.

Peace,

Allan

Giving Central a Break

I know when I’m out of town or on a vacation and somebody else preaches for me, it’s good for Central. I figure the church needs a break. The same can be said as it relates to our church staff and probably the elders: when I’m not there, it’s probably good. I think I can be overly intense and loud. I think I’ve mainly only got one speed and only one volume. And a lot of me for too long of a time is probably too much.

So I haven’t preached at Central in two weeks. We were so blessed to have Rick Atchley preach for us two Sundays ago and then my family and I were gone last Sunday visiting Valerie in Edmond. We missed Central’s annual baby blessing, but, again, I think our church needed a break.

As a church, we’ve also been blowing and going pretty hard since October with our Ignite Initiative. I’ve preached lots of sermons on giving, we’ve talked a lot about vision and mission. It’s been challenging. We’ve all been stretched. God has been faithful and our church has been fabulous. But, in a lot of ways, it’s been tiring. For me, for sure and, I’m assuming, also for Central.

So, my plan has been to start this Sunday on an eight or nine week expository series through 1 Thessalonians. I thought it would be good for all of us to dive into 1 Thessalonians and just relax in it together. I think I feel about Central the way the apostle Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. When I read this ancient letter to that little church that was meeting in Jason’s house in Thessalonica, I think I could write a similar letter to Central.

1 Thessalonians is different from all the rest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. In every one of his letters, Paul is responding to a crisis in some church. He’s correcting a false teaching or fixing a bad practice or criticizing some ungodly attitude or behavior. Except in 1 Thessalonians. Instead of rebuking and correcting, Paul writes to these Christians in Thessalonica: Keep doing exactly what you’re doing!

“We instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.” ~1 Thessalonians 4:1

This is a very encouraging letter. It’s very positive. It’s inspiring. And I figure it’ll be good for our church to just relax for a couple of months with this easy letter.

But after studying it for the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed it’s not going to be that easy.

The opening ten verses are all thanksgiving and praise, but every sentence is loaded. I have found myself writing a sermon that’s as much challenge and stretch as it is attaboys and praise. What’s wrong with me? I can’t read words like “power” and “deep conviction” without wondering if we feel that in us. I wonder about how well we imitate Christ under the threat of suffering. What does it take to be a “model” church? Have we turned from our idols? What’s wrong with me?

I can’t help it.

I’ll say it again: I feel about Central the way Paul feels about this church in Thessalonica. Central, I believe, is a model church. And we’re serious about this church. We’re reading the Scriptures and we’re fasting and praying. We’re paying more attention to formation. We’re focused on the vision the mission. I’m taking it seriously. And so is the whole church. We’re all walking together.

I just don’t want us to ever settle for surviving — let’s get to thriving! Let’s challenge “what is” for the sake of what could be and should be! If we dig deeper and climb higher and live better and serve others in faith, hope, and love, hell can’t put up gates big enough or strong enough to stop us!

I promise you, Central, this sermon series from 1 Thessalonians will be a bit of a break. Just not as much of a break as I had planned and that you probably deserve.

Peace,

Allan

The Johnson Amendment & The Church

SteepleCityYou would be so proud of me. I’m showing such tremendous restraint in my old age. Yesterday’s Amarillo Globe-News published a front page story on U. S. President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated promise to abolish the Johnson Amendment with this accompanying headline: “Many local faith leaders support president’s vow to ‘destroy’ political ban for churches.” The same issue’s editorial contained an over-simplified analysis of the amendment that more or less argued that, since we all know which churches are politically conservative and which churches are politically liberal, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter. So why are we making such a big deal about it?

Steady… Calm… Serenity now… Serenity now…

I did not write a letter to the editor. I did not call the Faith reporter. I did not send out an email to my fellow Gospel preachers who are quoted in this story as being in favor of abolishing the amendment because our religious liberties are under siege.

I slept on it. And I’m responding with this post.

This will be short.

SilencePreacherFirst, there has never been and isn’t currently any kind of threat in this country against any pastor or church preaching and practicing the politics of the Kingdom of God which, by the way, are the only politics Christ’s Church should be concerned about. Love. Forgiveness. Mercy. Grace. Gentleness. Helping the helpless. Healing the sick. Worshiping in spirit and truth. Obeying the Law to love God and love neighbor. Would somebody please explain to me how any Christian is being told he or she cannot do those things?

Some of my fellow preachers in Amarillo are quoted in the paper as saying it’s an “overreach of the government’s authority to restrict what a pastor says from the pulpit on any subject, including politics” and that “freedom of speech shouldn’t stop at the local church doorsteps; The church… needs to be a voice to the community.”

So you think we should preach Christian values and Christian ideals and Christian beliefs and morals to the Christian members of our Christian churches? Me, too. Big time. What does that have to do with this country’s political parties or candidates? Our King tells us that bigotry and inequality and violence and discrimination and oppression — SIN! — are solved by love and grace and forgiveness, not politicians and votes and laws. Salvation from God in Christ is the only answer to what’s wrong with you and me and the Church and this country. The only thing a preacher can’t do in his or her pulpit is advocate for a particular party or candidate. My question is, as a preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ, why would you ever? Touting somebody or some thing other than Jesus as the solution for sin would seem to disqualify one as a proclaimer of the Gospel.

MoneyBagBurlapSecond, Christians come across as really petty and small when they complain about government interference. Churches in this country don’t have to pay taxes!!!! Everybody knows churches don’t pay taxes. You knew that, right? Don’t these faith leaders know it? We stand out as arrogant and entitled when we say, as one local preacher did in the AGN story, the Johnson Amendment “should not keep the church out of matters of the state, but rather should keep the state out of matters of the church.”

We don’t pay taxes!!!! The state is very much “in the matters of the church.” I don’t think totally removing the state from church matters — doing away with the tax breaks — is what he has in mind. It would be the best thing that could happen to the Church in the United States; but something tells me that’s not what he’s advocating.

FistThird, the last thing God’s Church in America needs is any kind of political “victory” delivered in the name and manner of Donald Trump. Can you just imagine the misguided ways in which that would be interpreted and then used? Abolishing the amendment would not only compromise the voice of Christ’s Church, it would bring out the worst in the people of Jesus. We would lobby and petition, boycott and campaign, write letters and print posters and stump for particular candidates in a specific party. And then we’d get offended or angry if someone pointed out how unfair it is that U.S. taxpayers are forced to fund our political group but not anybody else’s political group. Yuk.

I’m so grateful for my brother Burt Palmer of Polk Street United Methodist Church, the lone voice of reason among the Amarillo preachers responding in print to Trump’s pledge. Burt told the Globe-News that the total repeal of the Johnson Amendment “may lead to religious organizations being consumed with advocacy for a specific party or platform. He adds that the Church’s role is “to rise above [party] affiliations… sharing the message and love of Jesus Christ.” Burt warns about Christians and churches “slipping and sliding into serving the god of a political party.”

Finally (this is longer than it should have been), a response to the paper’s position itself.

The AGN editorial piece claims that repealing the Johnson Amendment is inconsequential because most Christians already know which way their church leans politically. By extension, I suppose, the community, too, knows whether a specific congregation of God’s people is politically conservative or liberal. Because of the preacher’s sermons on social justice issues, because of the political candidates the church may choose to invite to speak, it should be clear, so the editorial argues, how the pastor or the church feels politically. So, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t really matter.

I pray that after listening to me for only a short while, my parishioners at Central have a clear understanding that my political beliefs line up first with our King Jesus. I pray that my sermons and my statements about current issues are completely confusing to anyone trying to peg me or our church to a specific party or a particular candidate. I am aware of no party in this country that is pro-life to the max: anti-abortion, anti-war, and anti-death penalty. I don’t know of any politician who is both opposed to gay marriage and for welcoming refugees. Is there any candidate who will denounce both the killing of unborn babies in abortion clinics in this country and the killing of born babies in war efforts in other countries?

Jesus Christ does not fit neatly into a nationalistic political party. God’s Church cannot be defined by the platform of a power-seeking coalition of politicians.

Survey after survey shows that young people and millennials are turned off by the Church’s affiliations with the political right. We’ve somehow aligned ourselves with a worldly party in a worldly kingdom with worldly goals and worldly means of accomplishing those goals, and it’s nauseating to lots of people who are conditioned to see right though it.

We are beyond this. We are above it. We do not want to be associated with it.

You’re right, Amarillo Globe-News, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t matter at all. But not for the reasons you believe.

Peace,

Allan

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