Month: May 2009

If God were GM, He would close a lot of dealerships

Chrtsler_Dealership_C_4400A_full

Both General Motors and Chrysler have announced that up to 25% of their dealerships will not have their franchises renewed.  Reasons cited were:

  1. Some dealers did not carry the full brand lineup. Chrysler wants dealers who carry their entire line from trucks to cars to Jeeps.
  2. Some dealers also carried competitors’ brands. That’s pretty common in smaller communities where one dealership might carry brands and models most suited to their market.
  3. Most of these dealers under-performed. Chrysler said that 25% accounted for only 15% of its total sales.
  4. Some brands are being discontinued. Wouldn’t want to be a Pontiac dealer right now, would you?  Also, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab are on the chopping block one way or another at GM.

But what if we applied that same criteria to churches?  Would your church be in business next week?

Some churches don’t carry the full lineup.  Many prefer to emphasize only the spiritual side of the faith, while leaving off any attempt at physical ministry.  Others are just the opposite, with lots of social programs, but little in the way of evangelism and discipleship.  You get the picture.  Should these churches keep their doors open?

Some churches carry the competitor’s brands, too. Okay, we’ve got to tread carefully here, but I’m thinking particularly about Fred Phelps’ church, Westboro Baptist.  They spew hate and venom towards any and everyone at any opportunity they can get.  They would be the extreme example, but other churches also help the “competition” by either not living the difference Christ makes or by taking a stand in an unloving manner.

Some churches under-perform. GM and Chrysler use an objective criteria to weed out the under-performing dealers — sales numbers.  But, some churches also under-perform in attendance, missions, programs, and outreach.  What should happen to these churches?  I have often contended here that we need to measure more than attendance, especially in small churches; but, even when measuring other factors some churches aren’t cutting it.  What should they do?

Some brands are being discontinued. Denominational identity is fading, as are a host of other emphases that once were very popular.  Remember the 1970s charismatic movement, or spiritual gifts surveys?  Lots of “brands” come and go, and if a church is heavily invested in one narrow perspective, it may find itself out of business in a changing culture.

Fortunately, God is not GM or Chrsyler and churches aren’t dealerships.  Churches tend to rise and decline in an organizational life cycle which can be accelerated by forces outside the church.  But even if we aren’t automotive dealership managers, it might help us to take an inventory of effectiveness periodically.  We might be either surprised or horrified at the result.  What do you think?

Sermon: The New Commandment

This is the sermon I ‘m preaching on Sunday, May 17, 2009.  I hope your Sunday is a glorious one!

The New Commandment

John 15:9-17
9“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

Remaining In Jesus’ Love

Last week we explored the idea of abiding in the Vine, from the lectionary passage from last Sunday, John 15:1-8.  We discovered that abiding in the Vine meant abiding in Jesus, or remaining in Jesus.  We also looked forward into the passage for this week and discovered that abiding in Jesus meant abiding or remaining in his love.  Jesus explained that we remain in his love by obeying his commands, which is the statement he makes in this week’s scripture lesson.

We also noted last week that the commandment of Jesus, which we are to obey, is to love one another.  Jesus, of course, was speaking to the disciples, but he did not limit this love to those within the disciple band.  He did not mean for the 12 to form a circle, join hands and sing Kumbaya.  He meant for them to abide in Jesus’ love by obeying his command, his new command, which was to love each other.  That love would produce fruit, a result, a tangible by-product that would be obvious to both those who were acting in loving ways, and those who were being loved.

But this idea of remaining in Jesus’ love bears closer examination.  For while it sounds like an easy and obvious thing to do, let’s look at it more closely.

You Can’t Stay Where You’ve Never Been

The first and most obvious point I want us to consider today is that you can’t stay where you’ve never been.  In other words, you can’t remain in Jesus’ love if you’ve never received that love yourself.  Jesus was talking to his closest followers, the 12.  He had called each one walking by the sea shore, or strolling by the tax collector’s booth, or from other settings now lost to us.  But he had called each one personally.

To Peter, Andrew, James, and John, he had called to them while they were mending fishing nets.  Right in the middle of making a living, of carrying on the family tradition involving boats and nets and hard work and fish, Jesus called them to leave what they were doing and follow him.  And they did.

To Matthew, Jesus called while Matthew was seated at the tax collector’s table, extracting painful sums of money from his neighbors.  Some of the money Matthew could keep, most would be passed on to the Judean government, and then to Rome.  Matthew, we are told, left the table of the tax collector to follow Jesus.

For many of the other disciples we have only legend, or no record of the circumstances from which they came.  Judas, of course, is the most mysterious of all.  And yet even Judas had personally been asked, and had personally accepted the invitation issued by Jesus to Judas.  “Come and follow me.”

So each of these disciples to whom Jesus now speaks has made the decision to follow Christ.  At first, they must have wondered what they had gotten themselves into.  They had followed this Nazarene, this self-styled prophet from the wrong side of the tracks — if they had had tracks back then — and had spent almost the entirety of three years with him.

While some might have followed him at first out of curiosity, or political ambition, or nationalistic fervor as Simon the Zealot might have, during this three years something has happened to them.

They have watched Jesus perform wondrous signs and miracles, confirming that the kingdom of God is indeed very close.  They have seen lives changed, heard strange new interpretations of Levitical law, and have witnessed Jesus weeping at a friend’s death, weeping over the city of Jerusalem, and struggling to present the invitation of the kingdom to God’s people.

They have seen Jesus rejected, ridiculed, targeted by the religious elite of their day.  But they have also seen little children, old people, sick people, poor people, hungry people, and hopeless people as they are drawn to Jesus in a mysteriously wonderful way.

So when Jesus tells them to remain in his love, they know what that feels like, what it looks like, what happens when that divine love is revealed.  When the love of Jesus is apparent the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the hungry are fed, the blind can see, the lame can walk.  When the love of Jesus is revealed the multitudes are fed with one small lunch and 12 basketfulls are collected one for each disciple, to remind them that in the Kingdom of God there is always an abundance.

All but one will remain in Jesus’ love by being obedient to him.  Judas, of course, will not.  Judas will depart from Christ’s love, but Judas had at least been there once.

But Jesus command to remain in his love reminds us that we cannot stay where we have never been.  So, the first thing we must ask ourselves today is, “Have I made the choice to follow Jesus, to experience his love.”

That choice is still a personal choice.  Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Jesus still calls people today.  He still offers the opportunity to walk with him, to follow him, to obey his commands.

In the first century, not everyone who had the opportunity to follow Jesus took it.  I’m thinking especially of the man I first learned of as a child, called “the rich young ruler.”  Apparently this man had everything going for him — youth, wealth, and spiritual sensitivity.  He was a seeker.  And so he came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Keep the law.”  The rich young ruler said, “I’ve done that.  What else?”  Then Jesus’ invitation to him was striking — “I’m inviting you to give all you have to the poor and come and follow me.”

Because Jesus knew wealth stood in the young man’s way.  Wealth was the barrier to following Jesus.  Wealth would keep him from Christ.  And it did.  So, this young man, this rich young ruler, cannot abide in the love of Christ, because he’s never been there to start with.

The invitation still comes today.  It is not an invitation to join the church, although that is one result of following Christ.  It is not the invitation to be baptized, although that is another result of following Christ.  No, the invitation is to follow Christ, the son of the living God, as Peter confessed.  To follow Jesus not just to the wedding at Cana where he performs his first miracle.  To follow Jesus not just to the hill upon which the Sermon on the Mount is preached, or the valley in which 5,000 are fed.  There were many who followed Jesus when food was free, or healing was available.  No, the invitation is to follow Jesus to the Garden where he prays “Not my will but thine be done.”

The invitation is to follow Jesus to the passover supper, where he breaks bread and pours wine and says, “This is my body broken for you, this is my blog shed for you.”

The invitation is to follow Jesus out into the night.  To stand with him while Judas betrays him, to protest when the high priest’s guards seize him.  To follow Jesus to the headquarters of the religious court, then to Pilate’s hall, then to the scourging and mocking of the Roman soldiers.

The invitation is to follow Jesus as Simon of Cyrene does, who then carries the cross for a bruised and bloodied Jesus.  The invitation is to follow Jesus up Calvary’s mountain “one dreadful morn” as the hymn writer says.  The invitation is to stand at the foot of the cross, to be the trusted companion to whom Jesus commends his own mother.  The invitation is to weep at the death of Jesus, the king of the Jews.  To beg for his body, to anoint it for burial.  The invitation is to witness his death in our place.

But the invitation is also to follow him to the tomb.  To lose all hope, to despair for life itself.  But there is one more place to follow him, and that is on the morning of his resurrection.  To follow him to the tomb, where the stone is rolled away, where angels rejoice, from which the empire of Rome has fled in fear.  To follow Jesus into a new era, an era where death has given way to life, where hopelessness has been replaced with hope, where Satan has been defeated, where the evil empire has seen the worst it can do sloughed off like yesterday’s clothes.

The invitation is to follow Jesus — the Lord of the universe — as he walks the path that love has plotted.  A path that saves the world God so loved.

No, we cannot stay where we have never been, so we must be sure we have said, Yes to Jesus.  What would the rich young ruler have said, if he had been at the empty tomb?  Would he have realized that all the wealth in the world would have been a small price to pay for life eternal?  Would he have then gladly given all he had to the poor, and followed Jesus?  But you can’t stay where you’ve never been.

You Stay in Jesus’ Love By Living for Others

This week Debbie and I were at The Cove, the Billy Graham Training Center near Asheville, North Carolina.  I had heard of The Cove for years, had passed the sign at exit 55 on I-40 just outside of Asheville numerous times in trips back and forth to Tennessee, but I had never been there.  Tom Bledsoe, who for 39 years had been director of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, asked me to lead two seminars during the week.

We arrived on Monday evening in time for the evening worship service where Dr. Robert Smith preached a powerful sermon about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  By the time that service was over, I knew we were in for a treat.

The next day the guest speakers for the week gathered for a special luncheon in a separate dining room.  Cliff Barrows and his wife joined us for lunch that day, and Debbie and I sat across a rather large table from them.  But that night we had the privilege of eating at the same table with the Barrows in the magnificent dining room with walls of glass overlooking the majestic Blue Ridge mountains.

Cliff Barrows is 86, and macular degeneration has taken most of his eyesight.  As we sat down, he said, “I know somebody’s over there, but I can’t see who it is.”  His wife Ann, said, “It’s the Warnocks, we ate across the table from them at lunch.”  We, of course, introduced ourselves and enjoyed the pleasure of eating with them and several Billy Graham Association staff members as well.

Of course, you remember that Cliff Barrows was the voice of the Billy Graham Crusades.  He not only led the mass choir each evening, but he would introduce Billy Graham both during the crusades, and on the radio and TV programs that the Billy Graham association produced.  Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea — who is 100, and Billy Graham, who is 90, started their ministry together and stayed together for all of these years.

At the table that evening, Cliff Barrows commented that he was going to speak the next evening on “How we got together, how we stayed together, and when we’re going to quit.”  But then he began to tell a story that I found fascinating.

Cliff Barrows said that in 1948, the team was conducting a crusade near his hometown of Modesto, California.  By then, they had become pretty well-known, although the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has not been set up yet.  They were still ministering under the Youth for Christ organization, and had not yet conducted the Los Angeles Crusade which would be extended again and again until it ran for six weeks.  That was the crusade that brought the team to national attention, and got the nation talking about this young man, Billy Graham.

But even then, Cliff Barrows said that Bill, as he calls him, was concerned that their ministry not get caught up in the problems and scandals that plagued other evangelists.  So, Billy Graham had asked each team member — Cliff and Bev Shea — to write down the issues they thought they would face, and how they should deal with them.

Cliff Barrows said the next morning they all met and compared notes.  Each man had written the same four items.  They were:

  1. To be men of integrity.
  2. To live lives of purity.
  3. To be accountable to God and others, including each other.
  4. To live with humility.

Mr. Barrows said they then prayed over these four items, asking God for guidance and confirmation, and upon ending their prayer agreed that these would be the four principles that would guide their ministry from that point on.

Cliff Barrows said he suggested they call their agreement “The Modesto Manifesto.”   The name stuck and those principles governed the way they lived their personal lives, and conducted their ministry from that point forward.

Sixty-plus years, 419 crusades, 210-million people, and over 2-million professions of faith later, the principles still hold. Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows, and George Beverly Shea decided to live their lives for others, obeying Jesus, abiding in his love.  And as a result of that, they did indeed bear much fruit.

So, this morning, there are two very simple questions we need to ask ourselves:

“Have I decided to follow Jesus and remain in his love?”

And, “Am I living for others as an expression of that love?”

That’s it.  God will take care of the fruit.  Jesus said,

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.

A new commitment to the old story

photo5I led a couple of seminars at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism this week, but we’re the ones who received a blessing by being there.  Everything about the week was encouraging to the participants, including Debbie and me.

The School of Evangelism staff was wonderful.  This was Tom Bledsoe’s last SOE, and he’s been directing these schools for 39 years.  Tom’s gracious hospitality and gentle spirit set the tone for the staff team.  From the housekeepers to the restaurant hostesses to the program personalities, gracious hospitality was the hallmark of the event.

The Cove setting is magnificent — perched on the side of a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina — with postcard views of Blue Ridge Mountain vistas.  The design of each building blends appropriately into the natural scenery.  Wood, stone, glass, and ironwork give you the sense of rustic luxuriousness providing the perfect backdrop for relaxation and reflection.

The soaring chapel steeple punctures the blue Carolina sky, drawing your attention to the glory of God’s natural creation.  But under all this beauty, The Cove is equipped with the latest in video, audio, and internet technology which facilitates teaching and learning.

We learned that the SOE staff and other BGEA staff members pray for each presenter and each participant by name, before and during the School.  The setting, the surroundings, the facilities, and the staff all blend to produce a content-filled, encouraging and inspiring three days.

I was challenged again to give new energy to telling the Old Story.  Our church has done a good job of engaging with our community in several large projects.  But, we also need to bring alongside our social engagement, a renewed commitment to the good news that Jesus brings.  Heaven knows our community needs some good news, and we have it.  We just need to tell it in ways and on occasions so others can hear it and receive it well.  I’ll be sharing more about how we’ll go about that in the next several weeks.  Stay tuned.

Cliff Barrows, A Living Legend

BarrowsCTonight Cliff Barrows concluded the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at The Cove.  In the auditorium filled with pastors and their spouses, Cliff Barrows spoke from the heart.  He has to speak from the heart these days because macular degeneration is robbing him of his eyesight.  His hair is white, and he walks with a cane, but his heart is as strong for the Lord as it has ever been.

His memory is keen, and for half an hour he told stories about the Billy Graham team, and shared the commitment they made to God and each other as team members.  It was 1948, and the team was leading a crusade in California, near Modesto, Cliff Barrows hometown.  Even then evangelists were not immune from public and moral failure.  Billy Graham asked each member of the team to come up with a list of things that might threaten their ministry, and what they could do about each one.

Cliff Barrows recalled they each listed the same concerns: integrity, accountability, purity of life, and humility.  Together the team prayed and committed to living according to those four principles.

They agreed to live lives of integrity being truthful in their speech and conduct; being consistent at home and on the crusade platform.  They agreed to be accountable to God and to each other, and to those overseeing the ministry, particularly in finances.  They each agreed to maintain personal calendars of where they were going, the purpose for their trip or activity, and who they were with.  They also agreed to lives of purity, vowing never to be alone with a woman and to have the company of others in the presence of women not their wives.  Finally, they agreed to act in humility, to speak carefully about the success of their meetings, and to be careful to give God the glory. They called this agreement the Modesto Manifesto, and it has guided their lives and ministry since that day.

With 419 worldwide crusades, hundreds of evangelistic meetings, countless media appearances, and impeccable financial and moral accountability, the Billy Graham team and ministry has seen over 210-million people attend crusades and over 2-million profess faith in Christ.

To see Cliff Barrows tonight was to see a living legend whose heart still beats for God, and whose life is a continuing example of how ministers should live before God, each other, and the world.  Cliff Barrows is 86; Billy Graham, 90; George Beverly Shea is 100; we shall not see their like again.  This week has been a blessing to us, and we thought we were here to minister to others.

Great Day at The Cove

Debbie and I are at The Cove this week.  Today I led “Keys To Thriving in the Smaller Church” during two sessions this afternoon.  I was told that we had the highest attendance of any of the afternoon seminars, which was great!  Lots of small church pastors here this week getting revived and refreshed.  And, lots of them already doing great things in ministry.

Cove051209Tomorrow I’m leading “Outreach Ideas to Help Your Church Change Your Community,” plus a session on using the internet in outreach.  Should be another great day.  Tonight Bishop J. D. Wiley of the Life Center Cathedral of New Orleans preached on “The Name of Jesus.”  It was another powerful message on using the name of Jesus.  I’m exhausted, so I’ll try to post quotes from Bishop Wiley’s sermon tomorrow.

If you ever have the chance to come to The Billy Graham School of Evangelism at The Cove, please do so.  A beautiful setting, wonderful staff, delicious meals, and great speakers (I’m the lone exception this year). More tomorrow.

From The Cove: ‘An Exegetical Escort’

image329I’m at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina for the next three days.  This is the first Billy Graham School of Evangelism for 2009, and I’ll lead “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church” tomorrow afternoon.  But tonight we feasted on the preaching of Reverend Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Alabama.

His text was Acts 8:26-39, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Here are some particularly delightful quotes:

“The exegetical escort — the preacher — escorts the hearer by the inspired Word of God, into the presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of transformation.”

“The game is not played in the huddle.”

“It took persecution (of the church) to get them to a particular place.”

“To be a Christian then meant more than raising your hands.”

“Christ was not, in terms of Calvary, Plan B.  He was Plan A.”

“God writes the Bible backwards.  Revelation is about what happened, Genesis is about how it happened.”

When Moses and Elijah come to the Mount of Transfiguration, they did so because “they knew they were in heaven on credit.”

“God does not have an inexhaustible vocabulary. Once God has said ‘Jesus,’ He can’t say anything more.”

The Samaritans were of the “canine community — mongrels.”

“If every reference to the Holy Spirit was taken out of the Bible, we would still try to operate the church.  But there are some moves that will not happen in the church just because you write a big check.”

“It’s not what you have, it’s whose hands you put it into.” (referring to the loaves and fish)

“Don’t despise the small things.”

“God is the only one who knows how to multiply by dividing.  And he knows how to promote by demoting.”

“Prepare carefully but preach freely.”

“God is waiting on the church to declare its ignorance.”

“The best theologian I ever sat under was my Mama.  She can’t pronounce the word ‘omnipresent’ to this day, but she just says, ‘God is so big that everywhere He moves, He bumps into Himself.”

Regarding racial reconciliation: “If we can’t sit together (like Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the chariot) then we can’t go down into the water together.”

“We are cleansed by the Word and clothed by the righteousness of God.”

“When you start in the Bible, you have to go to Jesus.”

So, you can see we were in for a treat.  The 300 preachers and spouses here were standing, applauding, amen-ing, and shouting by the time Dr. Smith was finished.  You had to be there.  I’m glad I was.  More tomorrow.

‘Jesus, Interrupted’ Neither Offends Nor Convinces

Jesus interruptedWhen I made the announcement a couple of weeks ago that I would only review books I had purchased myself, I forgot I had one more review copy on the way — Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.   But, to keep faith with my promise, I am donating the Amazon price of $17.15 to a local missions project to repair fire damage to a home just outside Chatham.  Now, on to the book.

Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, about an hour’s drive from our town.  In the book’s introduction, Ehrman tells the story of leaving his conservative evangelical upbringing, ala Wheaton and Moody Bible College, when he came face to face with the historical critical method at Princeton University.  At that point, Ehrman is not unlike other seminarians who have moved from a devotional view of the Bible to a more detached, scholarly viewpoint.

Ehrman identifies himself currently as an agnostic because he cannot come to grips with the problem of suffering and pain in this world.  Again, not a big surprise as one of the age-old questions is the problem of evil.

But, Ehrman is not content to leave the great gulf between the academic world and the local church unbridged.  He comments more than once in this book, “But most people in the street, and in the pew, have heard none of this before.”  This being the finding of the school of historical criticism.  It seems to be Ehrman’s mission to right this egregious wrong in his newest book titled, Jesus, Interrupted.

For those of us who are familiar with the historical critical method, there is not much new here to get excited about.  Ehrman contends —

  1. That each book of the New Testament should be allowed to speak for itself.
  2. That some books and accounts contradict others.
  3. That ascriptions of authorship are not reliable.
  4. That the Bible is replete with errors and contradictions.
  5. That Jesus may have been an historical person, but his legend has been reinvented by followers.

Okay, that’s a lot to deal with, but let’s get started.  For Ehrman the differences in the Gospel accounts and the different emphasis of each Gospel is a big problem.  For him, these differences are not just differences of points of view or emphasis, but huge contradictions with massive amounts of editing, redaction, and other manuscript chicanery.  Then, after saying all of that, he wonders why pastors don’t tell their flocks that the Bible is basically a totally-human, error-ridden fabrication.  It’s obvious that he’s not a pastor.

When it comes to Jesus, Ehrman dismantles C. S. Lewis’ apologetic of ‘liar, lunatic, or lord’ simply by saying that Jesus never claimed to be God, therefore Lewis begins with a faulty premise.  Seems very neat and academic, but Ehrman contends that the stories of Jesus were spread by oral tradition, much like the children’s game of ‘telephone’ (we called it ‘gossip’).  In other words, the Jesus stories went from one source to another orally with no controlling corrective voice.  But, the New Testament itself seems to contradict Ehrman.  Some very prominent voices like Peter, Paul, John, and others loom large in the telling of the stories of Jesus.

Ehrman dismisses these as being forgeries, or wrong ascriptions.  Matthew did not write the gospel attributed to him, and so on.  But, even if Ehrman is right about the exact authorship of the gospels (which I don’t think he is), logic would indicate that the leaders of the early church would be the authorities for the stories of Jesus.  But Ehrman says, “Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game…?”  He goes on to say that the stories of Jesus get told “for forty or more years, in different countries, in different contexts, in different languages.  What happens to the stories? They change.”  But he totally ignores the strong possibility that the early church leaders like Peter, Paul, John, James, and others would have been the central source for the Jesus stories, and not comparable to the game of “telephone” he describes.

The book for all its claim to be the academic truth is obviously written for a popular audience.  Ehrman offers no footnotes or citations, relying instead on 4-pages of “notes” at the end of the book to provide both verification and explanation for some of his more difficult points.

In short, there is not much new to Ehrman’s book.  If you are familiar with the historical critical method, then you don’t need to read Jesus, Interrupted.  If you are not, there are insufficient references and notes to fortify the author’s argument and point the real student toward his primary sources.

Just because Ehrman cannot understand why the average person in the pew hasn’t heard this stuff before doesn’t mean this is the book they should hear it from.  If you want to engage on a scholarly level Ehrman’s book fails.  If you want a popularization of historical criticism, then Ehrman comes close.  But his sweeping generalizations (everyone teaches this, all pastors have heard this, the Bible is full of contradictions, etc) leave one wanting to know more about each allegation.

In the end, Ehrman is neither compelling enough, nor scholarly enough to turn Jesus, Interrupted into the next status-quo-shattering book when regarding biblical study.   I wasn’t offended by Ehrman, but then neither was I convinced that all his statements were sound.  Jesus, Interrupted is an interesting attempt to popularize a difficult subject.  Ehrman only gets part-way in his attempt.

Sermon: A Lesson from the Vineyard

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 10, 2009, on Mother’s Day.  I hope your day is a wonderful one as you gather with your church family.

A Lesson from the Vineyard

John 15:1-8
1″I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes* so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean (pruned)* because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5″I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

*John 15:2: The Greek for “to prune” also means “to clean.”

Pruning for New Growth

We’re in that season of the year when some plants in the garden get pruned back so that they will produce new growth and blossoms. Crepe myrtles come to mind. We have several in our yard, and not long ago Debbie went about with her red loppers, whacking off branches. She reminded me that crepe myrtles bloom on new growth, and new growth comes when you prune the branches some.

Butterfly bushes get the same treatment, only more so. Debbie cut those almost to the ground, leaving only about 4-5 inches of the old plant. But, sure enough, new growth is coming up from the base of the plant. We’ve had most of these butterfly bushes long enough to know that they will get to be pretty large, and the bees and butterflies really do like the blooms they will produce.

We don’t have a grape vine yet. I have some grape plants that Carson gave me, and they’re doing fine, but we don’t have them situated yet. The blackberries are doing well, but that’s another story.

The Gardener and The True Vine

But, back to the grape vine. I imagine Jesus and his disciples were walking by a vineyard one day and he pointed over the wall of the vineyard at the rows and rows of grape vines with their branches snaking along wooden fences. Perhaps the grapes were already forming in clusters on the branches, and Jesus could point to the fruit that the vines were producing.

As he did so, he said, “I’m the true vine and the Father is the gardener.”

Now, this illustration had special significance because a giant gold grape vine with clusters of grapes adorned the front of the Holy Place on the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, famous historian of the Jews, the grape clusters were as tall as a man, which probably came from the Old Testament account of the bounty of the Promised Land. When the 12 spies, which included Joshua and Caleb, went to check out the promised land before the Israelites were to enter it, they brought back stories of a land flowing with milk and honey. As an example of the bounty of that land, they brought back a grape vine with a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended between two men to be carried back.

So, when Jesus says, “I’m the true vine” he is conjuring up images of the Temple, the promised land, and of the nation itself. Some scholars believe that Jesus was saying, “I’m the true Israel.” That’s too deep for us to explore today, but my point is his statement was loaded with meaning that his disciples instantly understood.

And, he said, “My Father is the gardener.” They understood that as well, for even though they were not farmers, they lived in an agrarian society. Olive groves, fig trees, fields of grain, and vineyards were mainstays of the agricultural system in Jesus’ day. The disciples understood well that vineyards required tending, and that tending included cultivating and pruning.

But Jesus goes further, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Those that bear fruit get pruned expertly so they will bear more. The point Jesus is making, and will make again in the following verses is — branches are supposed to bear fruit. That’s what a grape vine does.

If there is no fruit, the problem is not with the vine, for Jesus is the vine. And, the problem is not with the gardener because God is the gardener. If the branch is not bearing fruit, it’s because the branch is not properly connected to the vine. Healthy branches produce fruit; unhealthy branches don’t, and get cut off.

So, Jesus says, “Remain in me” — meaning “stay connected to me.” That staying connected to Jesus, abiding in Jesus as the King James puts it, is so that the lifegiving love of Christ can flow through him to us. And when it does, we produce fruit.

The problem is that the Gospel of John is such a mystical book, such a spiritual gospel, that we tend to spiritualize everything John says. Rather than give us an account of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a reimagined opening with shadows of the book of Genesis —

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Pretty mystical stuff. Much more so than shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, John writes of the life of Jesus like this throughout his gospel account. So, when we come to this business of the vine and the branches, we get all mystical.

“What does it mean to abide in Christ?” we ask. “What is the fruit we are to produce?” “How do we know when we’re abiding properly?”

These are all good questions, and our answer comes just a few verses down.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

In seminary, one of the ways we were taught to interpret scripture, especially difficult or puzzling passages, was to let scripture interpret itself. So, let’s look around and see if we can find any clues that might help us with all this vine and branches stuff.

Sure enough, we do. Just a few verses down from this passage, Jesus seems to re-state what he has just said. Perhaps the disciples had really funny looks on their faces, like “we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” They often did that, it seems. And, so Jesus restates in very plain language what he has just told them in the illustration drawn from the vineyard. Look at verses 9-17:

9″As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

So, here the language is plain and straightforward:

* Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love.
* How do we remain in Jesus love? By obeying his commands.
* What is his command? Love one another as Jesus loved the disciples.
* What does that love look like? It looks like Jesus willing to die for his friends.
* Who are Jesus’ friends? They were and we are.
* What has he chosen us to do? Bear fruit.

So, we’re right back to the vine, branches, and fruit, only this time in plain language.

What Does This Mean To Us?

Okay, so far, so good. But the big question is “How do we do this?” As you can imagine, lots of folks have taken a turn at explaining what all this abiding, loving, and bearing fruit that lasts means.

Some have suggested that “remaining in Jesus” means to believe the right doctrine. Of course, those are usually the folks who think they have the only right doctrine, and there is no shortage of those people. Which then brings us to the question, “Which doctrine is the right doctrine?” and here’s where things get really complicated.

I finished reading two interesting books this week. The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins; and, The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer. In The Lost History of Christianity Phillip Jenkins expounds on the very colorful history of the Christian church of the East, meaning Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Africa, and even Japan and China.

To make a long story very short, apparently as the church in Rome with the help of the Roman empire, took charge of Christianity, many eastern Christians churches decided to go their own way. Rome declared most of them heretics at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and so the Eastern churches, who traced their lineages back to Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Thomas who travelled to India decided to operate on their own.

The amazing thing was that these Eastern churches were larger, had more bishops and priests, more churches, and more adherents than the Western Church.

In The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of these same Eastern churches sending a formal delegation led by Bishop Aleben of Syria who was accompanied by 24 priests. This delegation traveled the ancient Silk Road, the eastern trading route connecting China to the Middle East. I grew up hearing the story of Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission in the mid-1800s. But Bishop Aleben and his monks reached what was then the capital of China in 635 AD, 1200 years before Hudson Taylor set sail for China.

Amazingly, the emperor of China, Taizong, embraced Christianity, which he called the “Religion of Light” and decreed that churches should be built. He also decreed that the Chinese should also turn to the One Spirit, their name for God, and leave behind the pantheon of lesser gods of Chinese culture. Christianity thrived in China for almost 200 years, and a stone monument was erected in 781 AD commemorating the coming of Aleben and the Religion of Light to China. Martin Palmer also discovered the first Christian monastery built by Aleben and his monks, and work continues at that site near Xian, China.

My point in all of this is that there are lots of doctrines that have divided the Christian church over the centuries. Some of the adherents were actually named heretics by the Western Church — Bishop Aleben was one of them, from the Nestorian church of Syria. But, they worshipped God, believed in Jesus, celebrated communion, gathered for worship, and baptized converts to the faith just like we do. And, some of these “heretical” groups were actually more faithful, more evangelistic, and larger than the so-called orthodox groups of their day.

So, it’s not in following one doctrine or another that we abide in Jesus. It’s by loving others as Jesus loves us.

What Did Jesus Do?

You would think that loving others would also be a simple concept to grasp, but here too we have problems. In its checkered history, the church has more than once been guilty of expressing its love at the point of a sword or gun. “We love you so much we’re going to kill you if you don’t convert.” Happened much more frequently than you might think. So to understand what “loving others” really looks like, we have to ask, “What did Jesus do?”

Fortunately, Jesus gave us lots of examples of loving others. He announced his ministry by saying —

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ ministry was to be focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and his intention was to declare a year of Jubilee — that’s what the Lord’s favor means. In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all property went back to the original tribe or family which owned it, all debts were cancelled, and everyone started off with a clean slate. Unfortunately, the nation of Israel quickly figured how to get around the year of Jubilee and it’s intent, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from declaring his intention to reinstate it.

Then Jesus goes about to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and all the other marginalized people of society in that day. He eats with them, goes to their homes, heals their diseases, feeds them, cleanses them, forgives them, restores them, and saves them.

Then, when someone asks him which commands are the greatest, he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Looking for a way out of that requirement, they ask, “Who is my neighbor?” At which point Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan was the lowest form of life there was, according to the Jewish social norm of the first century. Samaritans didn’t worship in the right place, didn’t believe the right doctrine, and didn’t observe Jewish dietary laws. But Jesus says that the Good Samaritan acted like a neighbor.

It’s pretty clear from both what Jesus did and what he said that loving others means helping them, caring for them, being a neighbor to them. Oh, Jesus also had a little bit to say about helping people.

It’s interesting that there a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell us to go to church. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to commemorate his resurrection and to worship God, but not because Jesus told us to. Jesus doesn’t tell us to study the Bible, either. As a matter of fact, his followers couldn’t have studied the Bible if they wanted to because the scrolls were kept in the synagogue and not owned by individuals. But, we do study the Bible because it’s a good thing to do. So, you would think if we do good things that Jesus didn’t even tell us to do, we’d sure do the things he did tell us to do.

So, in Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “34”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And then concludes by saying, “37”Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Jesus concludes by saying —

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

That’s pretty clear — Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. By implication, Jesus is saying, “Help those who need help.”

That is how we love others. That is how we abide in Christ. That is how we obey Jesus. It is very simple, very straightforward, but we miss it everyday, just like the Pharisee, and the priest, and the Levite who passed by the man who had fallen among thieves.

An Opportunity to Help Here in Chatham

Let me make this more real. Last week, Debbie and I met Mr. Melvin Hodnett. Mr. Hodnett came to our house to ask Debbie for some flowers, but I think that was not the real reason for his coming. During the conversation they had, Mr. Hodnett told Debbie that his house had burned, and he was trying to find some help to fix it. The next day, he came to the church and I met him and heard the same story. I told him I would come look at his house, but I asked if he had been to Community Action, and other social services agencies. He had, he said, but they couldn’t help him.

I made a few phone calls to inquire if he had sought help and the response. Sure enough, there are no programs to help people whose houses burn. Everybody is supposed to have insurance.

On Monday, Mr. Hodnett came to the church and I went with him to see his house. I had mentioned it to Sterling, and as Mr. Hodnett and I were pulling into his driveway, Sterling and Tommy Craddock, and Eugene Hodnett, Melvin’s cousin, were about to pull out.

The house was pretty badly damaged, almost everything inside is ruined. Furniture, clothes, books, decorations. All ruined. Most of it is lying in wet, soggy piles on the floor, right below where the ceiling and roof caught fire and burned.

But the worst part is that Mr. Hodnett is now living in the shed behind his house. He has no water, no electricity, no house, and no one will help him. But in the midst of all that he has planted two gardens.

Our deacons voted last Monday night to figure out how we can help Mr. Hodnett. It will cost less than $2,000 to repair the damage and get him back in his home. There are some details to work out, volunteers to line up, and lots of work ahead.

When I told Mr. Hodnett this week that we were going to try to help him, he said, “I’m raising some greens and if they do well, I’ll bring you some and maybe you can find someone who needs them.”

If we want to abide in Jesus, bear a lot of fruit, love others, and do what Jesus told us to do, then we can start with helpin Mr. Hodnett. He is certainly one of the least of these. Jesus said that when we helped others, it’s like we are helping him. So pretty soon, we get to put a roof on Jesus’ house located right here in Chatham.  Sometimes abiding in Christ means we don’t have to leave home.

I’m alive!

Sorry to be away so long this week, but it’s been a busy week.  I’m leading two seminars at The Cove near Asheville, North Carolina next week for the May 11-13 School of Evangelism.   If you’re going to The Cove, I look forward to seeing you there.  I’ll be leading “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church” on Tuesday; and, “Outreach Ideas to Help Your Church Change Your Community” on Wednesday.  Plus, I’m doing an interactive seminar on using social networking in outreach.  Should be fun, and I’m looking forward to being there.  I’ll post the powerpoints of both seminars when I return.

In the mean time, here’s a clip from the old 1931 Frankenstein movie.  Seems like I’m not the only alive.

Sermon: The Difference in the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 3, 2009.  I hope your day is a wonderful one!

The Difference Between the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand
John 10:11-18

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

A Real Live Encounter with a Sheep

When we lived in Lilburn, Georgia in 1974, we had a wonderful family in our church named the Eidsons.  They lived on Beaver Ruin Road, which is where the original Beaver Ruin Baptist Church was located.  I suppose at some point some beavers had ruined the creek, or the ruins of a beaver dam became a landmark — “Go two miles down the road and when you see the beaver ruin, turn at the next right.”  Kind of like our Tightsqueeze.

But, back to the Eidsons.  John and Margaret lived on a few acres with their three children — a boy and two girls.  John was a deacon in our church and grew up in the country, and still kept his hand in on the acres he owned in that part of Gwinnett County.  The Eidsons always had a garden, and they had a cow.  For awhile, we got milk from them and it was wonderful.  The cream separated and floated on top, and you had to shake the bottle before you poured a glass.  At church when the lesson called for the preschoolers to make butter by shaking a jar of whole milk, Margaret always brought the milk straight from their cow.

The Eidsons also had a sheep.  I think they just had one, at least I only remember one.  Now back in 1974, I was a young preacher boy all of 26 years old, and I had about a much interest in farming and gardening as I did in going to the moon.  I may have actually had more interest in going to the moon, now that I think about it, because we had just landed on the moon.  But back to the sheep.  We were over at the Eidsons one day, and John and I were talking about the church and walking in his yard behind the house.

We walked up to the fence, and the sheep came over to him.  John rubbed the sheep’s head, and asked me if I had ever felt the wool on a sheep.  “No, I don’t think I have,” I replied.  He said, “Put your hand in her wool.” This sheep had not been sheared for awhile and she was quite woolly.  “Feel the lanolin?” John asked me.

I had pulled my hand back and felt the kind of soft, oily substance on my hand. “That’s lanolin,” John said.  “It’ll keep your skin soft.”  Come to find out, it’s the lanolin that helps shed water off of sheep — a kind of waterproofing for all-weather flocks. Well, that was my first, and I think last face-to-face encounter with a sheep.  But even as disinterested as I was then, I was taken with John’s way with the sheep, and the sheep really seemed to like John.  He knew his sheep, even one, and the sheep knew him.

Jesus Echoes the Words of A Prophet

That story brings us to our passage today, from John 10.  Jesus has just come from healing a man by spitting on the ground and applying the mud to his eyes.  Of course, Jesus did this on the Sabbath, which incurred the wrath of those watchdogs of the faith, the Pharisees.  All that takes place in John 9, and John then records Jesus talking about the sheep and the shepherds.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”  Those words imply that there are bad shepherds, too.  And there were, both in Jesus’ day and in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.  In Ezekiel 34, hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

1Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,

2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?

3“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock.

4“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.

5“They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered.

6“My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”‘”

7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:

8“As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock;

9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:

10‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”‘”

So, when Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd” and implies that there are bad shepherds, too, those who hear him instantly recognize he is indicting the religious leaders of his day — the Pharisees, Saduccees, and the chief priest — for spiritual corruption.

Jesus’ accusation is that the “hireling” in the King James, or the hired hand, does the shepherd’s job for personal gain, and not for the sake of the sheep.

And, when the hired hand sees a threat to the flock, he runs away leaving the sheep defenseless.  It was a poorly kept secret that the chief priest was in cahoots with the Roman occupation of Judea, and that the Pharisees enjoyed special treatment because they remained silent in the face of the outrages perpetrated by the presence of Roman troops in Jerusalem.

The description of the bad shepherds by the prophet Ezekiel surely came to mind when Jesus invoked the shepherd imagery.  Ezekiel says that the bad shepherds:

  • Fed themselves, but not the flock.
  • Slaughtered the fat sheep, dressed in fine woolen garments, but did not feed the flock.
  • Did not care for the sick, diseased, or broken sheep.
  • Did not seek the lost or scattered sheep.
  • Dominated the flock with force and severity.

Then Ezekiel speaks the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.’

The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

But Jesus says there is a different kind of shepherd, a good shepherd.  As interested as the bad shepherd is in his own profit, the good shepherd is interested in his sheep.  There are three reasons Jesus gives for being a good shepherd:

  1. “I know my sheep and they know me.”
  2. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
  3. “I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.”

“I know my sheep and they know me.” That’s a picture of relationship, of time spent together, of trust, of care, of interest in those under his watch, and of personal knowledge of them.  This is no long-distance relationship.  This is not a cold professionalism.  This is an intimate understanding of which sheep likes to run ahead, of which lambs are the most playful, of which ewes the most attentive, of which rams the most defensive.  This is a shepherd who knows his sheep, calls their names, counts their heads when they enter and leave the sheepfold.  This is a shepherd who loves his sheep.

This is not just a job, not just a meal ticket, this is the shepherd’s life because these are his sheep.  And this shepherd knows that you can shear the sheep a couple of times a year, but you can only skin them once.  These sheep exist because he protects them, guards them, searches for them, and brings them home each night.

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” This quality of the shepherd really has a double meaning.  Jesus, in this same chapter, refers to himself as the sheep gate.  When the sheep were out in the pastures, the custom was for the shepherd to usher them into the sheepfold each night.  The sheepfold was typically a stacked stone compound, high enough for keep out predators, but without a door.  The shepherd then lay down in the opening to the sheepfold, and literally became the sheepgate.  Nothing went in or came out unless it came by the shepherd first.

But then, of course, Jesus really does lay down his life for the sheep.  We have before us today the symbols of that sacrifice.  And, Jesus makes it clear here in John 10 that he is laying down his life of his own accord — he’s choosing to give his life for the sheep, and that is why the Father loves him so.

“I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.” Finally, the good shepherd is concerned for all the sheep, for sheep in general, not just the ones in his sheepfold.  Scholars have often interpreted this statement of Jesus to mean that the Gentiles would also hear the Gospel.  Which they — we — did and responded.  But, I think Jesus is saying something much bigger than that.  I think he’s saying “there are some unlikely sheep — the unclean, the poor, the diseased, the lame, the weak, the oppressed — these are my sheep, too.”  Not just the upright, the righteous, the powerful, the ones like us.  One preacher said if Jesus were making his “good shepherd” statement today, he would say, I am the “good migrant worker.”  Why?  Because shepherds were among the lowest classes of their day.  They were ceremonially unclean, and therefore could not worship God with the assembly of Israel.  They were the marginalized, the ones who did the dirty work, who lived with the herds out in the pastures, who did the jobs no one else wanted to do.  The good shepherd cares for all sheep, not just the ones who are currently in his sheepfold.

An Example of a Good Shepherd

In El Salvador in the late 1970s, the country was rocked by political turmoil and violence.  Death squads, under the direction of the Salvadoran political leaders, roamed the countryside kidnapping and killing all who opposed their policies and regime.  Archbishop Oscar Romero was an unassuming figure in the midst of his countries chaos.  Selected as the compromise candidate, Archbishop Romero had stayed clear of politics, and had even harshly criticized Catholic priests in the country who had embraced the new and radical liberation theology.

But one night as his assistant, a priest named Rutillio Grande, a 7-year old boy, and an old man, were all gunned down by one of the death squads.  Archbishop Romero went to the tiny village to claim the body of the slain priest, and to comfort the families of the little boy and old man.  That night the Archbishop of El Salvadore stood in a small parish church looking out at the crowd gathered to hear him speak.  Fear gripped the countryside, and Oscar Romero promised them that the violence would end.  That peace would come to El Salvador.  That he was with them in their fear and in their struggle.  One of Romero’s biographers wrote later “The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one.”

At this point in El Salvador’s sad history, 3,000 people were being killed per month.  Bodies were dumped in streams, and in the garbage dump of San Salvador.  75,000 people would die, thousands more vanish, and 1,000,000 people leave the tiny country of El Salvador during this reign of terror.

Oscar Romero took to the airwaves, and in his weekly homily, promised that he would not rest until all the violence was ended, until peace came to El Salvador.  He refused to attend the inauguration of El Salvador’s latest president, which further inflamed the opposition against him.  All the bishops of El Salvador turned on him, complaining to the Vatican that he had become “politicized.”  But Romero continued to speak out.

He not only spoke out, he made frequent trips to the massive garbage dumps, accompanying families who were searching for the bodies of their loved ones.  He spoke at funerals for the murdered; stopped the construction of El Salvador’s majestic cathedral until the killing stopped; and, refused to hold communion during a period of particular violence.

The final straw came when Romero, in a radio address to the El Salvadoran troops, urged them to stop killing their fellow citizens, and told them that ” No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . ”

The next day, while saying a public mass, Oscar Romero was shot in the chest by a man standing at the back of the church.  Romero fell behind the altar, at the feet of the massive crucifix of Jesus, who was shown bleeding from the wound in his own side.  There Romero died, a martyr for God, a good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.  Just before Romero was shot, he said, “”One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The passage he had just read was,

“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26)