Friday, April 22, 2011

My review of Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins"

Following the pattern occurring all throughout the inter webs, I'm doing my own review of Rob Bell's new book Love Wins

Forget any discussion of theology or biblical interpretation, I want to share the most awe-inspiring observation that Rob made in his entire book.  It comes from page 145 of the chapter entitled, "There are Rocks Everywhere."

"Why does my lawn have brown patches where I can't get the grass to grow, while five feet away grass grows through the cracks in the concrete in the driveway, grass much like the grass I wish would grow in those brown patches?"

Folks, it's for that kind of thoughtful viewing of the world around us that I read Rob Bell's books and subscribe to his podcasts

Of course, if you'd like a more serious review, you can read the reviews done by Zach Pogemiller and Greg Boyd

And here's a review from the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. 

Finally, for those of you reading this blog post that think Rob Bell falls somewhere outside the teachings of orthodox Christianity, well you need do know that there is a call waiting for you - a call on line one of the clue phone!  :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Shane Claiborne's Letter to the IRS

Check this out. 
And to read the entire blog post, click here. 

Dear Internal Revenue Service,

I am filing my 1040 here. As you will see, I made $9600 this past year, and found that according to the 1040 form, I owe $324.44 of that to federal taxes. While I am glad to contribute money to the common good and towards things that promote life and dignity, especially for the poor and most vulnerable people among us, I am deeply concerned that 30 percent of the federal budget goes towards military spending, with 117 billion going to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Further, when we include the 18% that goes towards past military costs, such as the 380 billion in debt payments, 80% of which are military related debts, that number goes up to a total military budget of 1,372 billion dollars — nearly half of the federal budget). My Christian faith and my human conscience require me to respectfully reserve the right not to kill, and to refrain from contributing money towards weapons and the military.

For this reason, I am enclosing a check for $227.11, which is, according to the form, 70% of what I owe. The remaining $97.33 represents 30% of my tax payment, the amount that would go towards military spending. I will donate this remaining 30% to a recognized US nonprofit organization working to bring peace and reconciliation. My faith also compels me to submit to the governing authorities, which is why I am writing you respectfully and transparently here. I am glad to discuss this further if you have any questions. I can be reached by phone at 215 423-3598 or by mail at 1838 E. Allegheny Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19134.

May we continue to build the world we dream of.

–Shane Claiborne

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

All of the Gospel

If you grew up in an evangelical church, like I did, you often heard the phrase, "I presented the gospel." What the person meant in saying that is, "I explained to the person that Jesus died for their sins on the cross and that if they repented of those sins and gave their life to Jesus, they would be forgiven and spend eternity with Jesus in heaven."

"I presented the gospel."

And that is Gospel. At least part of the gospel.

Before I go on, I need to define the word gospel. It comes from a Greek word that means "good news." It was originally a military / empire term. Representatives of the Roman government would go from town to town across the empire, proclaiming the good news of the current Roman Emperor's victory over their enemy. A preacher would preach the gospel of Julius Caesar.

As they often did, the early church borrowed from the culture around them to explain the message of Jesus. Jesus' life, death and resurrection was given the title gospel - good news of Jesus' victory over all that opposes God. Gospel means Jesus has conquered sin, death, hell, the devil, the grave - you name it.

So for evangelicals to proclaim the gospel of Jesus' victory over our personal sin and physical death, they are proclaiming gospel. Most evangelicals however, don't believe that we can be set free from sin in this life - that we must keep sinning until the next life. Wesleyan evangelicals however, proclaim a gospel of Jesus' victory over sin in this life. Often Wesleyan churches call this the full gospel.

But when our proclamation of gospel is only about the defeating of personal sin and our own resurrection, we're not proclaiming the entire gospel. In a nutshell, evangelicalism got caught up in the individualism of the American culture, reducing it's gospel proclamation to having my own sins forgiven and getting my own butt out of hell.

But sin is more than personal and Jesus' gospel is a story of victory over more than personal sin and our personal grave. It's also about victory over systemic sin, institutionalized injustice and evil. The type of sinful oppression often called out by the Old Testament prophets. They type of systemic sin that keeps the privileged wealthy and the underprivileged poor.

And a biblical view of heaven is not just about the next life. In fact, when the word "heaven" is used in the gospels, it isn't referring to the next life at all - it's referring to life right now, on this earth, in our present life. Not the "sweet bye and bye" nor the future glory to which we'll all "fly away." The word "heaven" was referring to the reign of God. Jesus came to establish that reign. Not in the distant future, but right now.

There is a day coming, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets called it The Day of the Lord when Heaven will have complete reign. Evil will come to an end and all of God's desires for this world will become a reality. Pastor John in Revelation 21 gives us a picture of Jerusalem coming down and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

But our role as followers of Jesus is to proclaim the gospel - right now. To work to help people realize that God's will for the world can start becoming a reality now. That all the powers of sin that both mess up our lives and destroy entire groups of people were defeated on the cross and can be overcome by those living out gospel.

And while this gospel is about the reality that we can be set free from personal sin and that we have a resurrection to which we can look forward. Another huge part of the gospel is that the poor no longer have to stay poor. That God's will for this world is that the powerful and privileged care for the weak and voiceless. Gospel says that all of God's creation can be taken care of in this life. Jesus' victory on the cross has set us free from the need to be concerned only with ourselves, to keep our wealth to ourselves and to continue to prop up an unjust system that guarantees that that haves continue to be the haves on the backs of the have-nots. Gospel says that there don't have to be any more haves and have nots. Through a Holy Spirit empowered, Resurrection reality - the haves make room for the have nots.
The gospel is good news for the poor. For the outsiders. For the have nots.

And that victory over systemic sin is just as much gospel as the forgiveness of personal sin.

But don't take my word for it, listen to Jesus' first public speech in the gospel of Luke, the 4th chapter.
14 Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit's power. Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region.15 He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures.17 The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:
18 "The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
19 and that the time of the LORD's favor has come.*"
20 He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently.21 Then he began to speak to them. "The Scripture you've just heard has been fulfilled this very day!"

But the haves didn't like this talk of the have nots having equal access to God and to justice, so they tried to do to Jesus what they did to the Prophets centuries before - kill him. And the heaven that Jesus came to establish has continued to be pushed back and rejected by those who felt threatened by the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God. Those who had the most to lose didn't feel comfortable knowing that the gospel of Jesus was good news for the poor.

This summer, I'll begin my training to help bring in a little more heaven (through the education that will help them succeed) to some have not children deeply loved by Jesus but spurned by a sinful system.

And even in moving from a pulpit to a blackboard, I'll still be living out the calling I was given as a 15 year old kid. A calling to preach the gospel, especially to those who have never heard it.

And for a little more reading, check out this post

Monday, April 18, 2011

Waiting For Superman

I just finished watching an incredible documentary on the public school system in our nation; what is wrong and how we can fix it.  It was quite inspiring, to say the least.  And yet one more confirmation for this new path I'm taking. 
You can check out the website here,
While the people in this organization don't claime to have all the answers, their motivating philosophy is summed up in a line from that documentary:  "We know what works - great teachers.  And we know what doesn't work - bad teachers." 
That is, of course, the same philosophy guiding Teach for America

When I logged into my TFA website today, I watched a highlight video from their recent 20th anniversary celebration.  And to my excitement, though not really to my surprise, I saw in the highlight video several of the same leaders prominent in "Waiting for Superman." 

20th Anniversary Highlight Video from TFA 20th Anniversary Summit on Vimeo.

What you've just watched is what I'm about to be joining!

Friday, April 15, 2011

A New Calling - teaching in the inner city

Two years.

I've spent two years thinking and praying about this.

Two years asking God, "is this really where you want me to go?  This seems like the right path.  If not, please, please stop me."

Not only did God not stop me, but with my job offer to teach through Teach For America, He pretty much laied it all out for me.  More on that in a future post 

About two years ago, several different strands began to come together.  The first was my desire to do ministry in a non-traditional setting.  Some missional writer whose name I can't recall wrote (Although this seems like something Reggie McNeal would say) wrote in a place which I can't remember something along these lines, "pastors of the future need to find a profession beyond regular pastoral ministry." 

When asking myself what I'd like for that other career to be, I thought back to my days in college when I'd joke with some friends preparing to teach and coach, "if I wasn't called to preach, I'd be doing exactly what you're doing."  I'd always said that teaching and coaching would be my second choice, if God was okay with it.  Well, now with my new teaching job and my possible role at Indian Creek Gardner, I might be able to do both - though those details still need to be worked out.  That strand had lain dormant for awhile but came back to life after reading that quote and through my coaching experience in 2007.

My 2007 coaching experience was wonderful.  I'd forgotten how much I'd missed football until being back on a practice field and listening to the pop of shoulder pads.  I took an immediate liking to the sound of being called, "coach."  It was such a great experience that  I almost cried when leading the team onto the field for our first game.  As the head 7th grade JV coach, I was able to touch the lives of some kids while also helping them to improve and even win some games.  Due to how well the kids responded to my coaching and the feedback from the school's administration, I assumed I'd be rehired that next fall.  But the head coach, a former college teammate of mine, was required to give hiring priority to a teacher over me.  A conversation with a friend in the District's administrative department, however, inspired me to seek out educational certification.  That search lead to Rockhurst University, where I've been accepted into their Masters of Education program.  Coincidentally, Rockhurst is one of the KC partners with TFA. 

Another strand in this new calling is my growing desire to serve the people Jesus' modeled and taught us to serve, "the least of these." 
To summarize this, here's a part of my initial letter of intent from my TFA application:
I grew up on an Iowa hog farm; far removed both culturally and economically from the under-resourced school districts of America’s inner cities.  It was during my graduate studies at Nazarene Theological Seminary that I became aware of the systemic injustices existing in our nation.  While studying the Old Testament Prophets I realized that governments and institutions can be just as guilty as individuals in committing acts of oppression against the more vulnerable groups and individuals of society.  I came to understand that while the destructive choice of an individual is one cause of poverty, systemic oppression is another.  This was a big change of perspective for a conservative, Iowa farm kid.   

This change of perspective has come from some reading I've been doing over the past few years.  Here's who this strand turned into a calling to serve the inner city.
- In 2008, I read Jesus for President (all these books are linked on the side of this webpage) by Shane Claiborne.  One line in particular has stuck with me,  Claiborne's challenge to go into the places that the Empire has forgotten.  In our Empire, that's the inner-city. 
- In reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, I learned how our nation's educational system is set up to help affluent students succeed while poor students are robbed of those resources while at the same time being told the reason for their failure is their own lack of a work ethic.  Our educational system teaches some kids that they're worthwhile and other kids that they're worthless, then backs up that teaching through the inequal distribution of educational funds.
- Last summer I read Savage Inequalities.  That book stocked the fires of righteous indignation first set ablaze by Shane Claiborne.  One line idea from that book sticks with me (and I paraphrase), "Of course some people will be generals while others will be soldiers, but we can't continue to designate some people as those with the chance to be generals while others are given only the option of being soldiers due simply to the economic status into which they were born."
- In January I read Generous Justice by Tim Keller. 
Post 1  Post 2  That book provided a good biblical foundation for this new calling to teach in the inner city.  Keller reminded me of what I already knew, Jesus spent time with the poor and those ignored by the rest of society and then he expected that his followers would do the same.
Finally, Crazy Love challenged me to be willing to give up everything to serve the poor.  At that time, I made a commitment to invest all that we'd saved into the Masters of Education program at Rockhurst in order to get a teaching job in an inner city school.  With TFA, that process has gotten less expensive and much quicker.  But I needed to be challenged the way Francis Chan challenged me. 

During my TFA interview, my interviewer asked me, "Am I sensing a strain of social justice in your desire to work with TFA."  I laughed out loud then explained everything I wrote above. 

Finally, the TFA strand.  You can read about Teach For America
here.  Basically, this organization is all of the above strands come together.  Their motto is, "that one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education."  TFA selects and trains proven leaders and put them in under resourced school districts, which also giving their teachers money for their educational degree.  I had heard bits and pieces about TFA before, but until the episode of The Office  "IT Guy" walked away from his job saying, "I'm going to each computers for TFA, " I hadn't actually researched the organization.  When I went to their website, I realized "this is it."  And as I explained in this post, it was quite a coincidence the way it all came together.  And my next post will be some even more non-coincidental coincidences that lead to this new position and new form of ministry.

When I was called to preach at the Iowa District Church of the Nazarene teen camp in June of 1994, I was given the distinct calling to preach the gospel, particularly to those who had never heard it before.  And while this new endeavor feels a bit like a new calling, I think it's actually just a new take on the same calling.  My methods will certainly change but the calling to proclaim (or "preach") the good news (i.e. gospel) that my life is still guiding my life. 

Teach for America

Sitting in the interview room on KU's campus on a snowy March Monday, tears almost came from my eyes as I was hearing the news from the Teach For America recruiter.  She told our group that in January, the Superintendent of the KC, MO schools had approached TFA with a request to increase the number of TFA corps members teaching in the school district from 50 to almost 200.  I honestly couldn't believe what I was hearing.  That same January, I felt a 'nudge' to check out an online informational seminar from TFA regarding their application process.  While chatting with a TFA recruiter during that seminar and explaining to him my leadership background, he encouraged me to not wait to apply next fall for the 2012 school year (as I'd originally planned) but to go ahead and apply this spring, for the 2011 school year.  This recruiter thought I had the leadership background necessary to get accepted into TFA.

This was interesting news and quite an encouragement.  I had been thinking that 1) I had very little chance of getting accepted into TFA, due to the 48,000 applications they received this year and 2) My educational background didn't qualify me for any secondary content level, so I needed to finish my French work before applying.  As it turns out, I'm already close to being qualified to teach Social Studies.  But due to this recruiter's encouragement and in response to a 'nudge' to participate in this informational seminary, I submitted my application.  I had also been thinking that 3) Even if I got into TFA, the odds of me being assigned to a KC, MO classroom were pretty slim. 

Almost two months later, sitting in that KU classroom, I was blown away to realize that at the exact moment I was getting a coincidental 'nudge' to apply to TFA, Dr. John Covington was making plans to more than triple the number of TFA corps members in KC, MO. 

If you've been paying attention to the news here in KC, you've noticed that there has been a bit of controversy regarding the non-renewal of some teacher's contracts and the hiring of about 150 TFA corps members.  Though I won't go into all the details, it's not surprising that the news media isn't telling the complete story - all those details make the news story's too boring and uncontroversial.  But here's an interview with Dr. Covington, explaining what he's doing.  link

Last week, the new KC, MO TFA corps members had a conference call with Dr. Covington.  Again, I almost had tears in my eyes with the realization of what I'm about to do, while also pumping my fist with excitement.  Dr. Covington explained the changes being made in the KC, MO schools and how he went from being skeptical of TFA to tripling the presence of TFA in the KC, MO classrooms.  Basically, the students of TFA teachers outperformed the 'classically trained' teachers.  He said, "I don't care what organization they come from, I want to hire the best people who will make the best teachers."

Dr. Covington also told us three things about our experience teaching in KC, MO:
1) He's going to make it "very difficult" for us to leave the district after we've completed our two year commitment
2) They are creating a leadership track to prepare TFA teachers for administration
3) We could teach in any inner-city, but if we want to be a part of the transformation of a community, we needed to teach in KC, MO. 

Yesterday, I bought my round trip plane tickets for the Summer Institute in LA, from June 26th to July 30th.  It's going to be really difficult to be away from my family, but I'm ready to start the adventure of TFA.  And this fall, at a KC,MO High School yet-to-be-determined, I'll be teaching middle school social studies. 

And there will be some more blog posts coming, too...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Story Continues

The Story Continues
Our theme for today is that the story continues. Yes, this chapter is closing but the story of Trinity Family really will continue. As one example, on Friday, I received this email from a pastor in Oklahoma.

“I am a pastor of a church in Oklahoma City, OK (Antioch) and I am starting a series this week called "Love Wins". I am dealing with Judas and Peter and how Jesus loved them even though they betrayed and denied, and how Peter chose to be restored to that love. I am also going to preach about how Love Won on the cross and through the resurrection and how Jesus used and uses imperfect people to spread his message.

When I went to Google to find pictures to use for promotion, one of those pictures led me to your web site and your "Love Wins" ministry. I am planning to use your video about the Gentlemen's Clubs this Sunday (if that is okay with you). I have just completed a series challenging our people to get outside our walls and to take the church to the streets, and your story moved me. I wanted you to know how much I appreciate what you are doing for the Kingdom! Jesus is very pleased with your heart and your mission. Keep up the good work.
Nathan Tate

The story continues…

- As the Michael and Elizabeth Palmer welcome their baby into the world this September

- As Joe Kumor finishes up his ministry degree and continues to preach at teach at his home church. The guy who once told me he’d rather be shot at in battle then preach before a congregation.

- As I get to take what I’ve learned here at TFC about God’s love for the poor into a KC, MO classroom. Sharing God’s love with the kids the rest of society has forgotten.

- As Josh and Ashley Vance help lead a missional church in St. Petersburg, Florida.

- As we join our outwardly-focused mindset and energy with Indian Creek Church. A church who shares our heart for those outside the church.

- As people in Ethiopia continue to draw fresh water from the well we helped dig.

- As orphans in Bangladesh continue to eat food from the garden we helped create.

- As the kids of people like Travis, Brett and Lindsay grow up with parents who know Jesus. They know Jesus because of this church.

- As Jamie Raymo continues to learn how to do life without chemical dependence.

- As Zach Pogemiller helps more and more people understand Jesus’ message of nonviolence.

- As the “three amigos” of the TFC nursery grow up together and keep fighting each other.

- As Erin and I guide Dawson’s spiritual development, following the example set by Noel and Dawn Forrester.

- As we get to be daddy and mommy to a child we thought we might never have. A child so many of you prayed for, even before he was conceived.

- As our “miracle baby”, Noah Pride keeps celebrating one more birthday.

- As Ben and Irene Delong get to live out the calling they’ve had since we became friends 6 years ago. A calling to share Jesus’ love with the gay community. The story continues as they get to live out that calling in Midtown.

- TFC Midtown will continue TFC’s legacy of reaching the people that other churches ignore through methods that other churches would never dream of trying.

- The story of TFC will continue. In all of you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

TFC Photostory

Here's almost 7 years worth of pictures condensed into about 20 minutes. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It's Been a Wonderful Life (or at least a wonderful 7 years)

The final scence of the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life always gets to me. George Bailey has spent his entire life trying to juggle two almost competing desires: 1) to provide financially for his family and 2) to serve the town he loved. Of course, when George feels like a failure at both of these endeavors, as well as compared to the standards for success for his profession, he tries (in vain) to end his life. And at the end of the movie, when all hope seems lost, the whole town comes and bails him out. But what gets me is how George is helped out and even praised by all the people he's been helping; people he didn't even realize he was helping. As George's living room fills with people, he is able to see a reality much greater than the small and frustrated perspective he'd been having.  Whenever I watch that scene, I think, "that's what I want my life to be about - giving my life away for others." And I usually cry thinking about it.
Well, as our last worship gathering for the church I began and pastored, I had an It's a Wonderful Life Moment. Honestly, I don't know if there will ever be a moment in my life in which I have more praise and thank-you's poured over me than hour of open sharing that happened this morning.

Mostly, that hour was a blur of tears, hugs and 'thank-you's'. But I remember a few lines, many of which were forced out between tears.

"Thank you for leading my daughter to Christ. For speaking at my wife's funeral. For helping me celebrate her first post-mortem birthday."

"I was so lost, but you, Erin and this church found me."

"This is the only church I've ever known.  I've been sober for six months because of this church."

"You and the church changed my paradigm for what church is to be about. My understanding of the Kingdom has expanded.  For awhile, I wasn't being obedient to God.  But your obedience inspired me to be obedient."  And the growth I saw in this friend over the period of about a year was the most dramatic change I've ever seen in a Christian. 

"I never thought I'd care anything about God or the bible. But now I know Jesus. Thank you.  We've been through a lot together.  Thanks to you and Erin for always being there for me."
That guy wanted to talk longer but he just couldn't get the words out.  But I knew what he was trying to say. 

In response to my sermon about going after the lost sheep - "Donnie, I was 'the one.'  I could be real around you.  You accepted the real me."
This guy wanted to say more but couldn't choke back the tears. His wife said that was one of the few times she's ever seen him cry.

"I've been a Christian my whole life, but this church gave me a vibrancy I'd never experienced before.  Donnie has a unique and fresh way of explaining God."  This friend is now preparing for full-time ministry
"Donnie and Erin, you really helped me see the truth."

From a teenager who gave me a tearful hug, "Thank you for doing that bible study with me last summer."  I was starting to drift in the wrong direction but you nudged me back toward God."
"This church has helped my family know what it means to love people the way Jesus loved." 

It has been anything but easy. But it has been more than worth it. I've always had a gift for words but I have no words to describe the awe and thankfulness at having been such a significant part of the spiritual journey of so many people.  Maybe we should all just gather around the piano and sing, "Auld Lang Syne."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Thank You

This is the final thing I shared with my congregation as pastor of TFC.  I thought maybe I'd make it through without crying, but I wasn't even close. 

Thank You
I haven’t wanted to end our time together this morning. Because as soon as we’re done with this morning’s worship, my role as pastor will come to an end. I’m still around, here to help people with the transition - for as long as necessary. But officially, the role of lead pastor transfers to Andy. And I’m glad. I could think of a few better people to pass you over to – but not many… I think I was God’s man for the past seven years but Andy is certainly God’s man for the future.
But the last thing I want to say to all of you is “thank you.” There’s nothing more appropriate than that.
- Thank you for letting me be your pastor. For trusting me. For rebuking me. For praying for me. For listening to me preach. For putting up with me. For believing the best about me. For taking care of my family financially. For challenging me to love Jesus more. For choosing yourselves to love Jesus more. For living out the Kingdom in front of me. And for loving me. And my wife. And my son. Being your pastor has been a privilege that words can’t do justice. It’s an experience that has forever changed me – mostly for the better. And one that I’ll never, ever forget. Thank you.

I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you...

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
Because I knew you

I have been changed for good

And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for

But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share

And none of it seems to matter anymore

Because I knew you

I have been changed for good

And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for

But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share

And none of it seems to matter anymore

Because I knew you

I have been changed for good

And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for

But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share

And none of it seems to matter anymore

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a bird in the wood

Who can say if I've been
Changed for the better?
I do believe I have been
Changed for the better

And because I knew you...

Because I knew you...

Because I knew you...

I have been changed for good...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Last Sermon at TFC

This is my final message. I want to start with a video we used to show as we travelled around the area, gathering support for our new church.

I still get kind of pumped watching this video. But that line, “Gardner shows no signs of slowing down” is a bit embarrassing now. I didn’t know it would all slow down. I didn’t know that from the time we shot that video until the time we launched TFC, three other churches would open in town. You know what, I’m glad I didn’t know about the challenges. If so, I might’ve wimped out. But with a church composed of myself, my wife and Jeremy, Tonya and Mason Pride, we bought a house and moved to Gardner, KNOWING this new church was going to help people find a new relationship with Jesus.
I’ve learned to let a lot of this go, but for a long time I was really caught up in numbers, specifically the number of people in worship. I’d beat myself up over it, honestly. When one day, while hanging out at my parents over Christmas I remember asking God (again) why we didn’t have more people in our church. It’s only happened a few times in my life, but that was one of the few times God has answered with an almost-audible voice, “Donnie, I promised you you’d reach unchurched people in Gardner. And you are. I didn’t however, promise you how many.” So I started counting up the people who called TFC home who hadn’t been in a church before, and I realized, “yep,” God had come through on his promise. In a little bit, those of you who have come to faith in Christ at TFC will have a chance to share your story.
In addition to that video, whenever I’d speak at other churches I’d also preach from Luke 15. Luke 15 is all about Jesus searching out people who were lost. Luke 15:1-7
I want to share a couple observations. Some things I learned when I first preached from this passage, 7 years ago. And what I’ve learned during the almost 7 years of leading this church.

The love of Jesus is costly A lot of us have an extra-biblical view of what is happening here. We have this picture of the shepherd, at the end of the day, leading his sheep into the safety of the sheep pen. We see the shepherd counting each sheep as it comes through the gate, “96, 97, 98, 99…” Until the shepherd realizes that one of his precious sheep is missing. So the shepherd wisely locks the other 99 in the pen and then bravely goes out to find the lost sheep. It’s a great image. An image of the love of Jesus that warms us. The only problem is that that image, isn’t in this passage.

I’m not sure where we get that image. In my case, I think it was some songs we’d sing in church. Or maybe because my dad was a farmer and we actually had sheep. Maybe some pictures I saw in a children’s bible. But wherever that idea came from, it’s not in the passage. Vs 4 Jesus is asking a rhetorical question. Of course you don’t leave the 99 in the wilderness just to find one. In farming, it’s just a reality that you’re going to lose the occasional animal. Animals wander off, die giving birth or die from some sickness. It’s just a cost of doing business. But what you don’t do as a farmer is risk the entire herd on the off chance that you might rescue that one lost sheep. While the shepherd is off looking for that one lost sheep, a lot of bad stuff could happen to the other 99. A wolf could attack some. Another shepherd could steal a few. They could walk off a cliff. Sheep are herd animals. If one walked off the cliff, the other 98 would follow. I’m not exaggerating. Sheep are dumb. I don’t know this for sure, but that might be why Jesus compares us to sheep. We all do some pretty dumb stuff.

But that’s not the point of this parable. The point is that the Good Shepherd risks the safety of the other 99 on the off chance that he just might find that one lost sheep. In a bit, we’re going to celebrate communion. It’s a meal that reminds us that we are people of the cross. And nowhere do we get a better picture of how much Jesus’ love cost him than when we look at the cross.

But as people of the cross, we are to be living out that same costly love. GS risked the other 99. So we have to ask ourselves, what is it costing me to share the love of Jesus with other people? Are we risking anything? If it isn’t costing you anything, you’re probably not sharing the love of Jesus. You may be sharing a worldly kind of love – a love toward those who we like or who are kind to us. You may be being nice, polite, friendly, a good neighbor. And those are all great. But unless what you’re doing for other people in the name of Jesus is actually costing you something – it’s not Christ-like love.
Loving people the way Jesus loved costs us our time. Changing our schedule so we can be around people who need the love of Jesus. Loving people the way Jesus loved will cost you some money. We see it all throughout the NT, that one of the most Christ-like ways we love other people is by sharing our money with them. And if we’re not sharing our money, the love of Jesus isn’t in us. Money becomes an idol that replaces Jesus.

And if we’re loving people the way Jesus loved them, it’s going to cost us our reputation. At least among good, upright religious folks. People who are so busy looking down on others, they can’t see their own sin. As our church has gone into strip clubs and gay bars, engaging people in the same way Jesus did in the gospels, some people couldn’t handle it. In various different ways, myself and our church has felt the backlash on that. But you know what? It was worth it. In every single way, it was worth it. No pricetag for Sharon’s commitment to Christ. Or for the people who show up at Andy’s every Thursday night to study the scriptures and encounter the life-transforming love of Jesus. Billy Graham once said, It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to forgive and our job to love. But leaving the comfort of the 99 to go after that one that is lost – it’s costly. Building relationships with outsiders – costly.
The love of Jesus is scandalous vs 1-2 The titles “tax collectors” and “sinners” is almost cliché for us. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten the scandal. We think, “of course Jesus loved the tax collectors.” But who are the tax collectors of today?

I remember a line from another sermon I was preaching before this church launched, “If Jesus were here today, he’d be hanging out downtown at the gay bars. Showing God’s love to those rejected by the religious community.”

I knew this in my head. But what I didn’t know was that one night, there would be a baby shower in strip club, that as we were given gift after gift, the manager of that club, with tears running down his face, would tell us “no one has ever loved us the way you’ve loved us.” And when the head bouncer warned me, “Donnie, don’t turn around, that girl didn’t follow our request to put on more clothes,” I knew I was taking a risk similar to the risk Jesus took.

Neither did I know at the time I delivered that sermon, that one night I’d be singing karaoke at one of those downtown establishments. But the time that our people spent in that bar would eventually result in people coming to faith in Christ. Whatever that cost our church – it was worth it.

The love of Jesus is scandalous. Even more so when we realize that it meant for Jesus to share a meal with “sinners.” Eating with someone wasn’t just a way to hang out. It was a theological statement, a statement about God. Whenever a rabbi, like Jesus, ate with someone, he was saying, “God loves you and accepts you. There is a place for you in his kingdom.” Exactly why we see this response – vs 2

And you know how Jesus responded to those self-righteous religious leaders? These religious leaders could quote the entire bible. They knew God didn’t accept those people. But here is Jesus – God-in-the-flesh, eating with these “notorious sinners”, therefore declaring, “God accepts you.”

You know what seems like a bigger scandal, at least to me. Jesus ate with the religious leaders, too.

“God loves and accepts you, too.” Jesus’ love is scandalous.

Jesus responded differently to different groups. To the religious people who believed they had it all figured out, looked great on the outside and thought they should tell others how to live. He got in their face, challenging their fake-ness, telling them to stop ordering others around and to focus on getting clean on the inside.

But to the non-religious, the ones whose weren’t faking it, who were clearly messed up. With them, Jesus took a more gentle approach. Assuring them of God’s love and acceptance and then letting the love of God serve as the motivation for change.

Jesus knew what he was doing. In the gospels, we see the religious and non-religious, Pharisees and sinners both choosing to leave their sin and follow Jesus. We also know that a lot of people turned away and some religious zealots eventually got him crucified.

We also see in Jesus’ example that hanging out with people and assuring them of God’s unwavering love is not a condoning of sinful behavior. And getting in the face of religious leaders is not necessarily a condemnation of sincere intentions, even though the judgmentalism was clearly misguided. Rather, Jesus pushed past the bad behavior, past the sinful judgmentalism – all the way to the heart. If the heart could just meet the scandalous love of God, the behavior would take care of itself. We don’t need the addictions of sin when we’re getting our acceptance from God. We don’t need to condemn others when we’re getting our value from God’s love for us.

Churches are great at loving the people who think like us, act like us, believe like us, vote like us, look like us cheer for our sports teams – whatever. Which is why most churches are culturally homogeneous. As author Ann Lamott said, You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do. Unfortunately, a lot of churches are great at creating an “us vs. them” mentality. “God is for us and against them.” But you can know that the love of Jesus is transforming a church when people of different cultures and opinions can live together in community within the same church. Jesus’ love destroys the “us vs. them” mentality. We’re all in this together. We’re all broken and in desperate needs of God’s powerful love.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the years of leading this great church, it’s that unless we’re being shocked by its scandalous nature, we don’t really understand the love of Jesus.