19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Sunday Funday! I’ve never been to one of these before. Have you? How fun is this? I think Kool and the Gang and barbershop quartets should be a part of every worship service. We need Fundays in our lives, don’t we? “Life is hard.” How many times have you heard that statement? It seems to be readily on the lips of most everyone. Why? Because we have all experienced it to be true. Life is hard and… we were never promised that it wouldn’t be. It may be for precisely this reason that we need moments set aside to simply remind us to celebrate the very things that help us traverse life’s challenges: faith, friends and fellowship. We are all about that today and I’m loving it! And here we are, just coming off the big 30th Anniversary of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and you’re all pumped up (or a little scared even though you can’t stop watching). I thought to myself this week amid all this hype, how do you start a Sunday Funday sermon? I decided I was just going to go for it. Puppies. I couldn’t think of anything more fun than puppies so I’m just going to throw this picture up on the screen and see what happens.
We didn’t wake up last Saturday thinking, “Let’s get a dog today!” but how often does any given day turn out like you expected it would? But this day threw us such a curve ball that I was afraid Tommy John surgery might be required. [baseball joke; my apologies]. Anyway – we were hanging at Fort Gibson lake for the day with some of our dear friends. My wife Carrie was floating out in the lake on an inflatable turtle while the kids were jumping off the dock into the water over and over and over again. Out of nowhere, this little Dorkie (dachshund/yorkie mix) comes swimming out into the lake and jumps up on Carrie’s inflatable turtle. Kids thought it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to them and they all played together for quite a while until it was time for a little boat ride. The kids took this little pup down the path a bit to some folks who were near their own dock to see if she belonged to them. One thing leads to another and my youngest son comes running as fast as he can back my direction. I couldn’t tell if he was terrified or if it was the best moment of his life. His cheeks were flapping in the wind like a dog with its head hanging out of a speeding car’s window. He shouts, “Dad, dad! The owner is looking for a good family to take the pup home! Dad! Dad!” I could tell he was wondering, “Are we a good family? Do we qualify?” He followed that statement up quickly with these huge hand gestures to accompany his next shout: “No money! No money! Totally free!” A couple of trips to Pet Smart and the Vet this week have proven otherwise but… All to say, my kids are now dog owners for the very first time in their lives and I’m now that guy that collects stool samples in plastic sacks to drop at the Vet’s office.
While we’ve learned many a life lesson this past week as a family, I’ve been a bit stuck on Hayes’ pondering, “Are we a good family?” and I’ve been amazed by the advice that comes out of the woodwork from other dog owners – which I’ve appreciated but also found somewhat overwhelming. People have hugged me with excitement finding out we added a dog to the family. It sort of felt like the time I professed my faith in Jesus and was baptized. People were that excited! “Must love dogs” is no joke for some. But then it’s the list of – “What are you feeding her? Is she spayed? Are you going to puppy training school?” You need to do this, go there, choose that vet… all sort of like we’re church shopping and people are telling me how to be disciplined in my faith. This new kingdom of dog ownership has me thinking again about what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God – and what it means to be a good family of faith. Is our church a good faith family?
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that the amazing part of this life is to remember what God has done for us in Jesus and then living our lives as a response to that gift. This writer, who scholars note is a bit of a mystery as to who deserves to have their name on the work, is driven to help the Church focus on the pure simplicity of Jesus. We are prone to supplement and embellish with what we call religion but in so doing we often dilute the purity, clutter the simplicity of the love and grace of Christ. In the process, we become fussily or even anxiously religious and that’s not what we’re after. When we find ourselves in such a state, it’s good to pray through this letter to the Hebrews again. This particular passage we’re looking at today is a call to persevere – to not let the many things that tend to drag us down get in the way of being the Church – celebrating God’s gift in Christ, worshipping together, and encouraging one another not to lose sight of the simple joy that holds us together as a good faith family. What’s that simple joy? The Hebrew writer says Jesus has carved a new path forward for us – one not lost in religion but freed in relationship.
We had a “Be Here” event at the home of Roy Peters last Monday night. These Be Here gatherings are for folks newer to the church who are thinking about membership and interested in meeting other folks in a similar boat. Twenty-five folks signed up to come and all twenty-five showed up – a miracle in and of itself. It was a beautiful night of vulnerable storytelling and honest questions about who we are as a church – sort of the “Are we a good faith family?” test. I got a beautiful note from someone who was there that said quite poignantly, “It is so good for the soul to take time, slow down and listen to other people’s stories and life journeys. Those experiences help keep us grounded and empathetic and more able to connect with God’s love and His work in our lives.” Yes! I thought. It was raw and real and the kind of sharing that builds connection.
We all want to be liked and accepted for who we truly are but seldom, it seems, do we slow down enough to present our authentic selves to each other. Andy Stanley has noted that there is often a gap between who we really are and who others think we are. That gap represents the amount of space in which we have to pretend to be something we are not. Wouldn’t you rather not pretend? The Church was never intended to be a community of stained glass perfection. The Church is to be a place where burdens are shared, wounds are healed, and all are encouraged toward love and good deeds in Christ’s name. How can such be done if we aren’t open and vulnerable with one another? The Hebrew writer invites us to get real, be real, and love each other and the world into its full and beautiful potential. That’s what we’re trying to do as a good faith family.
“So let’s do it,” the text says in the Message version of this passage. “Let’s do it – full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on to love and good deeds.” I love the line about not avoiding worship [as has been the habit of some] he adds. There’s something about being together that matters. Shane Ash, Chaplain and author says it like this: “Church attendance matters… and not for the growth of the organization itself… but more importantly, for the formation of the people. Why? Church is participation. It is our submission into the body of Christ. It is part of our salvation… transforming us from the idolatry of self into worshipers of God. Church is formation. It is an identity. It is practice. It is a dress rehearsal of how to be Christian. As we partake in sacrament, we are accepting the grace of God. As we sing praise, we are aligning our minds and bodies in worship. As we listen to the Scripture being read aloud, we are practicing hearing God speak. As we anoint and pray, we are practicing a faith beyond our own reason. As we fellowship, we are practicing hospitality. Church is participation. And being a Christian requires practice. It is a discipline not an experience. It requires apprenticeship in order to be lived. To be a Christian requires the body of Christ… the Church.” Another writer said this about the process of good faith: “I witnessed how words become thoughts, and thoughts become beliefs, and beliefs become passions, and passions become the music by which we live.” Where do we pick up these words that become beliefs and passions and ultimately a symphony? The news? Our friends? At work? In the neighborhood? At church?
We have choice in this reality. Our choice should center around what we ultimately value. We tend to make choices about what we want right now more often than what we ultimately value. Human nature perhaps. Ultimately, I value good health but that peach cobbler is something I just want right now! Our wants are fleeting though, often without much substance. Giving into each and every want over holding to what we value most typically ends with regret. Jesus, easily argued as one who shaped the world we live in more than anyone else – and I’m not just saying for Christians, but just as a revolutionary, said when it comes to values – the top is love – love of God and love of everyone other person on the planet who happens to be made in God’s loving image. You may say, “Well that’s soft.” Then there was this guy, the Apostle Paul, he was a big deal, ladder climber in his field – walk over anybody in his way. But he flipped the script on his life and said the same thing as Jesus (who’s only call was to “Follow me.”) and Paul did. In 1 Corinthians 13 he comes to the same value statement. “Nothing else matters,” Paul says. “It’s all stuff for the junkyard except faith, hope and love and,” he says, “the greatest of these is… love.” And you may say, “Yeah but what about this rule and that doctrine and those practices.” That’s normal. The Hebrew church was saying that very thing. But what does the writer say, “Jesus changed the game, shifted the focus, made the access to God a relationship, not a religion.” And I look at Jesus and I look at Paul and I think, they shaped the entire world on that idea. Am I really going to fight about some of the other details? Not that they aren’t important, right, but let’s keep some perspective.
I’ve done enough funerals in my life, attended a few as well, and I suppose you have too. I’ve never reached that moment with a person or their family where these values – faith and love – weren’t tops on their list of what comes out as most central and important. Even the ones where life was a real struggle and there was lots of tripping here and there along the way, the desired value was faith and love – what one gave away, not what one owned. If that’s the value, then how do we work toward it? We hold that in front of us over all that we want now so that value is most fully lived and experienced. We don’t neglect to come together to worship as can easily become a practice but we stick in it together. Your faith strengthens mine. Your story deepens mine. Your vulnerability helps me not only know you more but helps me desire to be known more fully as well. This is Church. Come as you are – anything less is intellectually dangerous and psychologically harmful. Only when we’re accepted in that way can we also say, “Now what?” “Who can I be now?” Not hiding in shame. Not feeling fake about who we are. We want to be a part of something, but we need it to be real – not conditional or fake or constantly up for negotiation. We want to feel a genuine desire to say, “Because I’m a part of this loving family, accepted and embraced, I can place my sights on love and faith that will carry me to the end with what I value most.”
This must be in place if we are realistically going to spur one another on to love and good deeds. We can’t make people do anything. A parent of a teenager said this very thing to his son when the son was complaining about doing something his dad asked of him. Dad said, “I can’t make you do anything.” The son thought this was the greatest news ever and freedom to get out of the things he didn’t want to do. The dad says, “Totally true. Nobody can make anyone do anything. We can, however, make people not do something – that’s called prison,” he says. The son got the point. The truth is, if we want influence, we have to demonstrate some good self-leadership skills. Everyone wants some authority it seems; power, a chance to make people do what they demand but there’s nothing ultimately valued in authority. Yes, you have to listen to your boss or your teacher or whatever and there’s a place for respect in that regard. But life change comes from influence and influence does not come attached to authority. If you’re going to have influence, you have to show up, be consistent, lead yourself well (the hardest person you’ll ever have to lead by the way). You want to witness to your faith, to the value of love, then you’ve got to live that example. And if you do and I do and we do, our influence will expand exponentially. That’s when we find ourselves getting inventive about encouraging love and helping out, spurring one another on to our greatest potential. And when we’re in that zone as a church – we’re a good faith family, making a difference in the lives of others. There’s nothing more fun than that. Every Sunday we gather is a chance to be new all over again.
Each spring we hold a Pastor’s Class for fifth graders and older which culminates, if the student so chooses, in baptism. We have a great experiential season of learning about Jesus, who he is, what he teaches… we serve together, talk about Church and why it matters. At the last class, I have a brief one-on-one time with each student to hear them express where they are with things, answer questions they have, see if they feel they want to be baptized. Every student has a different approach to that time – some are super quiet, others have a ton to say; each one marvelously unique. One student, this past season, walked down the long hallway in our administration wing to take his turn in the swivel chair across from my own. The students, awaiting their turn with me, remain in the conference room working on their part of the service they will lead later that afternoon. And… as is the case of any good endeavor, snacks are involved. Most leave their snacks in that room but this student came through my office door totally silent, dead pan look on his face, carrying an opened bag of potato chips in his hand. I invited him to sit down across from me and I started in with my usual appreciation for his involvement in the class and the gifts he brought to the group. He sat speechless with the occasional push of his right hand into that bag of chips with the slow raise to his mouth of that greasy goodness followed by the slow crunch of said chip in his mouth. I would ask some questions and was fortunate a few times to get a small, vocal utterance of acknowledgment of the question. I love this young man. A fun, witty and brilliant mind but he didn’t have much to say in this particular moment. I finally got to the question about baptism and asked him, “What does baptism mean to you?” His blank stare met my own and I decided I’d see if I could wait out the silence. He was contemplating the question. His gaze moved beyond and around me, the steady rhythm of chip to mouth the only thing breaking the stillness of the space we shared. He finally rested his eyes on my own and he says rather casually but clearly with deep and reverent thought about baptism: “For me, it means a whole new start.” I just sat in that truth for a moment. We didn’t break the holy silence until his hand rattled again in that sacred chip bag to find another gift which as he partook, became as much as anything could be, the gift of holy communion. I had nothing more to say. And the privilege of stirring those waters of baptism with him among the most holy of my life.
Are we a good faith family? A place where people looking for a good home for their souls might settle in and call us theirs? I think so. And it has everything to do with our willingness to show up, be vulnerable, ask questions, sing the faith, pray the prayers, serve one another and urge each other on to love and the deeds that are spurred on by that very love. The real us is a mystery still being worked out day after day. Don’t take the journey for granted. Sunday Funday is one thing. Showing up to God and each other’s lives every day – well, for me, that means a whole new start again and again. And this life? Well… I guest you could say, “It’s all that… and a bag of chips.”
 A description as noted by Eugene Peterson in the “Introduction to Hebrews” found in The Message.
 I am unsure of the source of Ash’s quote here. I discovered this piece from a friend’s Face Book post some time ago.
 Offered by Tony Kriz in his work, “Neighbors and Wise Men.” Thomas Nelson Publishing. 2012.