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Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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C babySome parents give babies names that sound nice, and some parents choose names because they’re unique. Other parents live in countries that have laws about naming children.

In Germany the first name must make obvious whether the child is a boy or a girl, and the name “must not negatively affect the well-being of the child.”

If you live in Denmark, you can’t give your child the name Monkey.

If you live in New Zealand, you can name your child Violence or Number 16 Bus Shelter, but you can’t name your baby Fish and Chips.

In Sweden you can’t name your child Metallica or Superman or Ikea or Elvis, but you can call your baby Lego or Google.

This might seem strange to you, and it seemed strange to one couple in Sweden. They didn’t like all these restrictions, so they submitted this as a name for their baby: “Brfxxccxxmnpccccllllmmnprxvclmnckssqlb111163.” How do you say that? It’s Albin. The authorities rejected that name, so the parents submitted another name: A. (It’s not pronounced A. It’s Albin.) Authorities rejected that one, too.

In Genesis 41 we find some baby names. A dad named Joseph chooses the names for their meanings. He’s been beaten, sold, abandoned, resold, trapped, and imprisoned. He knows suffering, and the names he selects tell us something about his suffering. He names his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.

If you look up the meaning of Manasseh, you might find that it means “making forget” (G. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary ). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.”

“God has made me…” God has empowered Joseph, equipped him, strengthened him. God has empowered Joseph “to forget all [his] trouble and [his] father’s household.” Joseph certainly has suffered trouble, some at the hands of his brothers and some at the hands of Egyptian authorities. God has empowered Joseph to forget his trouble and his family of origin. This forgetting is more than just forgetting, but it’s less than total forgetting. It’s more than just a slipping of the mind, but it can’t be a complete forgetting because Joseph mentions the trouble and the household. (He can’t mention something if he’s forgotten it.) This forgetting is a strong forgetting. Joseph’s trouble and family no longer bother him. They don’t hold him back. He still remembers them. They’re still part of his identity and always will be. But they don’t block what God wants to do in his life.

If you look up the meaning of Ephraim, you might find that it means “fruitful land” or something similar (summarized from Wenham). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Again we see that God has empowered Joseph: “God has made me fruitful.” Fruitful means productive. The Bible uses it in relation to producing children, and Joseph probably has that in mind here. God has given Joseph two sons, but Joseph is fruitful in more ways than having children. He’s fruitful, or productive, in several areas. In chapter 39 we see that in Potiphar’s house “The Lord is with Joseph so that he prospers” and that “the Lord gives him success in everything he does.” Then we see that in prison “the Lord is with him; he shows him kindness and grants him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden puts Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he is made responsible for all that is done there.” Joseph is fruitful in Potiphar’s house. He’s fruitful in prison. He’s fruitful when Pharaoh tells him to interpret his dream. He’s fruitful when he gives Pharaoh unsolicited advice. He’s fruitful in his role as prime minister. He’s fruitful as a family man. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful.

Notice where this takes place – “in the land of [Joseph’s] suffering.” Joseph’s literal land of suffering is Egypt, and that certainly applies here. But it’s also more than literal. It’s his context of suffering, his world of suffering. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful, to be productive, in the midst of his suffering. Suffering doesn’t have to separate us from God. God can empower us and make us productive even when we’re suffering.

Whatever your suffering, God can empower you to live productively. No matter what you’ve been through, God wants to use you. No matter how dark your story, God can equip you to do good.

joseph

This blog post is a modified portion of my sermon for Park Avenue Church of Christ, Memphis, TN, December 1, 2013.

I modified the Bible quotations from past to present tense.

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“Jesus is Lord!” The phrase maintains a prominent place in Jesus-followers’ identity.

This morning my ministry teammate, Dana Baldwin, ended his message with a rousing exploration of the statement, applying it to our lives and letting it challenge our hearts.

In Mark 11:27-33 we find questions of Jesus’ authority. The next part of the story (Mark 12:1-12) creatively presents Jesus as the Son of God.

Followers of Jesus today must ask more than “Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus has divine authority, that he is Lord?” We must ask ourselves, “Do our lives show that belief?” Do our co-workers, neighbors, family members, and neighbors see that faith lived out in our interpersonal interactions?

Good questions, Dana! Thanks for the challenge.

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This is a modified version of a message I presented today at the chapel of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee.

How we worship is important. God cares about it. We care about it. When we gather to worship God, how we pray and sing and preach and give and take communion matter.

That’s why Amos 5:21-23 seems strange to me. There we find these words from the Lord:

I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (ESV)

Why would God hate a worship assembly? It was God who commanded those acts of worship, so what’s the problem? Aren’t the feasts and assemblies done well? Aren’t the offerings good enough? Aren’t the people singing the right songs? Why the anger? Why isn’t the Lord happy that the people are doing their “acts of worship?”

We find the answer in the next verse:

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Righteousness and justice are common themes in the Old Testament prophets. Righteousness happens when people fulfill relational responsibilities that others expect of them. Justice is the maintenance or a proper order in social relationships; it involves protecting people in need. Justice can be different things in different contexts, but it always has something to do with social relationships. Justice is the opposite of injustice; and injustice happens when people mistreat other people, often influenced by prosperity and power.

We find this kind of abuse in Amos. The rich oppress the poor, cheat the poor, get drunk at the expense of the poor, sexually abuse the poor, sell the poor. They rest secure in their mansions and vacation houses and gourmet meals and exotic furniture and lavish entertainment. When they’re so enamored by these luxuries, the rich don’t have to notice the poor. The powerful can ignore the powerless.

And they come to worship and do the right actions and say the right words and give the right amounts of money, and they brag about their offerings. They pretend that nothing is wrong. They act like they don’t know that people are dying under their feet. Maybe they really don’t know because they’re too caught up in themselves. Even when they come to worship God, they’re eyes are closed to the reality around them.

Sound familiar?

On my last Sunday in South Carolina, church leaders laid hands on me and prayed over me. One of them announced to the congregation that my family was moving to Memphis, “the third most religious city in the nation.” I leaned over and whispered to him, “It’s the third poorest too.” Our numbers might have been a little off, but they were close. The Huffington Post reported about a year ago that Memphis was the fourth most religious city in the country. And the latest U.S. census discovered that Memphis is the poorest metropolitan area in the nation, with one in five people living in poverty. That’s one in five in the metro area. According to the 2012 Poverty Fact Sheet published by the University of Memphis, about one in four people live in poverty in the city itself.

Have you seen how many churches are around here?

Have you seen how many homeless are around here?

Have you seen the shacks that some families call houses?

Have you seen the beggars on the corners?

Have you seen the teenage mothers?

Have you seen the absent fathers?

Have you seen the children destined to continue cycles of violence and neglect?

If we ignore the social problems around us, God doesn’t want our chapel worship, doesn’t want our songs, doesn’t want our prayers, doesn’t want this sermon.

So let’s take our eyes off the books once in a while and leave the campus and see the city, see the poverty, see the pain. Let’s work for justice, wholeness, healing, rightness… one little step at a time, with whatever God has given us.

I’m not asking us to change the city all by ourselves, but we can play small roles in the bigger work that God is doing. And there are several ways to get involved. The webpages of local organizations like Agape and HopeWorks provide opportunities to serve. Local congregations, like the one on Park Avenue that I represent, can give you ways to serve the community.

But before we act, we have to open our eyes. The first step is simply to see, to see the injustice around us.

Let justice roll down like waters,

righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Righteousness is a stream. Wherever it is, there’s water – flowing water, nourishing water, life.

Justice is an ocean. And if you look at the city around you and the ocean of justice seems rather dead, jump in anyway. Because God is making some waves, and even bigger waves are coming.

We see that hope in Amos – at the end, chapter 9. Restoration is coming. Reconciliation is coming. Better days are coming – for ancient Israel, for the world, for Memphis. And we get to experience the journey, at least part of it.

So let’s ride the waves of justice!

Let’s open our eyes to see the brokenness.

And let’s praise God for the hope of healing.

Sources:

Barooah, Jahnabi. “Most and Least Religious Cities in America.” The Huffington Post. May 18, 2012.

Charlier, Tom. “Census Calls Memphis Poorest in Nation.” The Commercial Appeal, September 23, 2011.

Delavega, Elena. 2012 Poverty Fact Sheet. Department of Sociology. School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. University of Memphis.

du Preez, Jannie. “’Let Justice Roll On Like…’: Some Explanatory Notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 109 (March 2001): 95-98.

Hartman, Anna Marie. “Census Data: Memphis Ranks as Poorest City in United States.” AMCTV. September 23, 2011 (Updated September 24, 2011).

Mays, James L. “Justice: Perspectives from the Prophetic Tradition.” Interpretation 37 (1983): 5-17.

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Life in God’s mission doesn’t let us just hang out in our homes or offices or church buildings with people who talk and act like we do and make us feel good about ourselves.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see him spending time with people. We see him touching people’s lives. We see him talking with social outcasts and eating with people who are despised by the religious establishment. When he’s asked about the greatest commandment, he says basically, “Love God and love others.” And Jesus does more than say it; he lives it—a love that rescues individuals and revolutionizes societies and redefines realities.

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was going around ‘doing the kingdom’, healing the sick, cleansing lepers, feeding the hungry, he was celebrating at a party with all the wrong people, transforming people’s lives and saying cryptic things such as: ‘Let me tell you what the kingdom of God is like.’”

That was a radical way to live. Imagine the people’s shock when they heard Jesus say, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That life might seem strange, but it’s the life Jesus calls us to. And it’s still radical today.

This post is a modified part of my sermon, “The Immediate Kingdom,” in Memphis, TN, on Sunday, January 13. You can click here to listen to it.

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FindingOurWayAgainThe organizer of a large conference invited Brian McLaren to introduce a guest speaker. At least that’s what Brian thought. You should have seen the shock on his face when he learned at the last moment that his task wasn’t just to introduce the famous author and speaker Peter Senge. He was about to interview him!

Brian welcomed Dr. Senge, who helped the conversation begin by posing a question of his own: “I thought I’d begin by asking you all a question: why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?”

Brian stumbled and then recovered to let the guest respond to his own question: “I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life…”

Christianity began as a way of life to which Christ called his disciples. Still today, following Jesus involves more than just adhering to a set structure of propositional doctrines. While those can be important foundations, the teachings of Jesus emphasize how we should live.

The theme verse for Park Avenue Church of Christ this Sunday morning contains these early words of Jesus: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Kingdom, nearness, repentance, belief, good news — we’ll explore these as we rediscover the life to which Jesus calls us, and you’re invited!

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When we come together to follow Jesus despite our cultural differences about things like political parties and body piercings, we prepare ourselves for Christ to be formed in us. Jesus will touch and transform our lives, but in different ways.

Those words came out of my mouth this Sunday in a sermon from Galatians 4:8-20. In that text we find a community of people who follow Jesus, and some Christians are telling other Christians that they have to do certain cultural behaviors to be real Christians. My main point Sunday morning was that no cultural group should define how Christian spirituality is to be lived, that there is no authoritative Christian stereotype.

My point was NOT that we should all get our eyebrows and lips pierced. Such actions don’t disqualify us from being Christians, but we should be sensitive to the people in our lives. If piercings, tattoos, and so forth are disobedient or disrespectful to your parents or harmful instead of helpful in living the gospel in your community, you might want to abstain. When considering these and other cultural practices, ask yourself, “Will this help me live as God’s representative among the people in my life?”

That being said, let me add that we welcome everyone. Park is and wants to be a family where you can belong no matter who you are. Jesus calls all people, even ones who aren’t like me.

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