Sermon: "How Can the Church Care?"

Fourth in the "Sent by the Father" series,
as part of Central's 2006 Missions Week Event: Focusing on HIV/AIDS.
Delivered October 1, 2006 by Rev. Kent Crawford Sr. and John Hamilton.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

Rev. Kent Crawford, Sr., is pastor at Westside Fellowship Church, Santa Monica, CA; and co-founder and board member of Partners in Malawi.

John Hamilton is in transition from the position of Assistant Provost to the Vice Chancellor of UCLA to a position with the UCLA Program in Global Health to direct an initiative, Partners in Hope, in East Africa.

Theme: Caring is not always something we can plan out in advance. God brings us surprises that we need to handle with grace and truth.

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: John 1:14

Rev. John Schmidt speaking: I want to introduce to you Kent Crawford who is the senior pastor at Westside Christian Fellowship in Santa Monica, California; working there in West Los Angeles. And he is a guy who has a Young Life background. He went to Fuller Seminary and has been ministering in this same community since 1981 and God has interrupted life as usual. Remember Derek was talking, well actually it wasn't in this service, Derek preached three different services, but in one of his sermons he was talking about we walk around in a certain pattern of life and we think that this is our ministry, but sometimes God speaks and interrupts and leads us into something different and Kent and Westside Church have had that experience. So I would like to invite Kent to come up and share with us from the word today. Thank you.

Rev. Kent Crawford speaking:

Thank you. It's always nerve-racking to get the clapping at the beginning and then you have got to live up to it. Well it is a delight for me to be here with all of you this morning and you don't know our congregation in Santa Monica, but there is definitely an affinity and I feel very much at home here and it is quite easy to be with you and have enjoyed just meeting many of you over the last few days. I wish I could meet more, but you are blessed here in this church and with the pastors that you have and the leadership here it is compelling to be here in your midst and I am thankful for the opportunity.

The direction for this morning is how can the church care. It's a good question and this morning I am going to address that in the way that I know and understand, out of our experience and who I know God to be, but also we are going to weave into that some of our experience as a church and how God has led us to care for our world and specifically in the area of HIV/AIDS and whenever you talk about HIV/AIDS here, at least in the states, very often you are also talking about the gay community. So that's our direction for the morning.

Our story is rather a long one. It spans over 10 years and so it will have to be brief and very much compacted, but it's really not the point ultimately our story. It's really God's story. We are all a part of God's story of saving. Each of us and entering into a relationship with him and as individuals and as a church call to extend into our world his goodness and so that's the story that we are really going to be telling even though we are talking about our individual stories.

If there is a text that defines our church more than any other perhaps and it's always hard to pick one, but this one is key in my life and it's key in our church. This is from John 1:14:

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."

These words really do define the gospel, the good news of what we receive and what we also give. Listen to it in Eugene Peterson's translation, the message: "The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." I love that. "We saw the glory with our own eyes. The one of kind glory like father, like son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish."

Father, let us hear your word this morning and bring it into our lives. Bring it in a way that fills us more with your glory, with your grace and with your truth and give us direction. Help us to understand a bit more how we are to live it out in our neighborhoods and in our world. In your Son's name we pray, Amen.

You know our lives, as Christians thank goodness are very simple. It has to do one with receiving the grace and truth of God as deeply into our lives as we possibly can, with passion and with joy and that's the first commandment; Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. I always like to talk you know love is a word that we use all the time and it's hard to get a handle on it sometimes what it actually means. I like to speak of it in terms of delight. If you can take delight in someone, you are loving them. And God calls us to take delight in himself. First commandment; love me. Love me with everything you are worth. And then the second command is like it, of course, extend that same love, take that same grace and truth that we receive deeply into our lives from him and extend it into your world, into our world. That is the second command. And we have again Jesus' example in doing that. Dale Bruner says it is very easy to understand Jesus' ministry and what he did. He (Jesus) spoke formally and informally to big crowds and intimately to his disciples and followers in the ebb and flow of their life together and he touched, he touched people's lives and healed them and restored them, and cared for them and loved them, physically and spiritually. That is our example and that is what we are called to do to give and extend God's grace into the world.

Our propensity as a church, however, and it's true of our church and it's true of me, perhaps its true of yours and your experience in Christ as you follow him, that it's easy for us to get lost in the giving part. It's easy for us to sort of come up with plans and programs and techniques and how-to kind of stuff and launch off into our grand plans and then by the way God just give us what we need and bless it as we go, which really is launching out on a trip with absolutely no resources basically, no capacity to do what we think we have been called to do. I think it's a problem with the church today and responding to God and following his lead is really quite a skill. It's a knack if you will. It's wisdom to know how to respond to his direction as a quote from Bono said earlier, "Define where God is at work and then join in with that." And you have probably have heard that before. It's sort of easy to say and hard to do, but that is what we are called to. And so it's not what we find in this text in John, Verse 14. It's not a program. It's not a technique. It's not a plan. What it is is relationship, knowing and being known, visiting, hospitality and befriending. That is what Jesus has done for us; extended his life into ours, he moved into our neighborhood, in o our lives and there is intimacy in it and that's where things happen. That is where God creates things in us and that's how our service and our call to serve finds legs and life in moving into relationship with others.

The big theological words are incarnation and the kingdom of God, but they are really just about relationship. Incarnation, Jesus moving into our neighborhood. The kingdom of God, not about a realm or a place first, but rather Jesus Lord in our lives. Jesus Lord in our lives and that's just about relationship. It's about presence. It's about him and us and we and him. So, in a word ministry is never really sort of a how-to, step 1, step 2, step 3 affair. It's not a technique. It's a living relationship. It's dynamism and God is in control and we are not. I love the words that describe us as Christians; we are receivers, we are followers, we are responders. I like to talk at Christmastime about the fact that it is not a time to give. You hear that all the time. Christmas is about giving; it's not. It's about receiving. It's a gift that we have been given by God and it's a time to celebrate it specifically this great gift, but it's every day of our lives; this reception, this taking in as deeply as we can his grace and truth.

This is essentially how we as a small church, Westside Christian Fellowship, got involved with the AIDS pandemic and the gay community in West Los Angeles. We didn't go looking for it. We were in the process of responding to the people who came into our church as we always have been and extending ourselves into the community in relationship and low and behold God brought over the last 10 years, even more than that 15, two individuals into our church and their stories became interwoven with ours and we with them and I want to tell that story now.

One of these individuals is Perry Janson and his wife Brenda who came to our church in the early 90's and they were very much a part of our church. Perry was doing his residency at UCLA. They were with us for about 3 years or 4 and then they left and went off to Seattle and we still had a relationship, but they were gone for a while and then about 7 years later an individual named John Hamilton walked in the front door with his friend Bruce and I want to have John come now and he is going to tell his story of his encounter with us and also our encounter with him.

John Hamilton speaking:

Good morning. Kent asked me to come and share my testimony. It's actually not really possible to share how I became a Christian without sharing the testimony of Bruce Horowitz who Kent mentioned. Bruce was a gay man living in West Los Angeles who was HIV positive. He was also my partner and Bruce called me one day and I was at work and said, "I just got a call from doctor saying that I essentially have no T cells left." And in the mid 1990's that was basically saying that you are going to die and you are going to die quickly. Bruce said, "You need to come home." So I got in the car and I was headed home. I knew this was going to be a very difficult conversation. I reached back to a time in my life when I was going to church, when my family was a so-called Christian family and I pulled out of the recesses of that memory the fact that I did believe there was a God and that I did believe in some respects that God was good, although I really did not know what that meant. I said, "God, if you really are a good God, I need you to help me. I need some help."

When I got home, Bruce and I started to talk about what this was going to mean, the fact that he was going to die, what happened after someone died. Bruce was Jewish and so he really didn't have a concept of Jesus or of heaven even as part of his Jewish faith. One night God said very specifically to me, "You need to find someone who is Jewish to talk to you guys." And working on the UCLA campus I was aware of an organization that had a presence there called Jews for Jesus, which is a group of Messianic Jews and I walked into their office and basically laid this out. I am not quite sure how the receptionist was going to take this story and she said, "You know, I have the perfect person who can help you." And there was a woman who had just come and joined their organization and her name was Carol and she had come from a medical background and she had a heart for people with AIDS. She came to our home and she actually did a Passover seder in our home, which was something of course was from Bruce's family growing up celebrating Passover, but what she explained to us was that each one of these things; that when a Jewish person celebrates Passover, each one of these things had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

A few weeks later I was again in my office and I got a phone call. Carol had continued to meet with Bruce and talk to Bruce following up on that night. I got a call from Bruce saying I'm calling to tell you that I believe in Jesus and I have become a Christian. I did not know what that meant. I am not sure that he knew what that meant, but I said, "Well, that's interesting." And then over the course of the next couple of weeks, it was very interesting for me to watch what was happening in Bruce's life. He was very dogmatic about his decision and, of course, in the condition he was in, he wasn't making decisions idly. I remember I was on the phone with his mother who was not very happy that he had become a Christian and she was talking to me over here and he's over there and he says, "Just tell her that I believe in Jesus and that's that." Now looking back I still appreciate remembering those things that he said. We didn't know about church or what we were going to do about church. Carol said, these two guys need to be in a good church and one night she brought Kent over and he sat down in the living room with us and said, "We would really like to two of you to come to our church." So we went that next Sunday and we sat in the very back row, in the very corner so we could slip out if we had to get out of there real quickly and we knew instantly that this is where God wanted us to be. It was an opportunity for us to hear about God in a way that neither one of us had ever really experienced before.

As Bruce began to grow as a Christian, unfortunately his illness also became more severe. He had viral pneumonia PCP for about a year and then he began to; there was an onset of AIDS related dementia that unlike most people who suffer with that condition ended up to be a very long and protracted illness lasting almost 2 and a half years where Bruce was slowly dying, was essentially an Alzheimer's patient at the age of 30, 31, 32 and died at the age of 33, where he needed almost round the clock care. He could not feed himself, was wearing diapers, was not able to walk without assistance and not able to speak. But during this time this was very interesting, this was a real incubator for me and my walk and my faith growing and depending on God nightly taking care of Bruce for 6 or 7 hours every single night and then laying down on the floor and just praying to God to help me get through the next day. I relied heavily on the people at Westside Christian Fellowship and their support during all of this time. There were many instances during those years when even in his fate, Bruce was able to communicate things that he wanted. He wanted for example to take communion, which for someone who is Jewish is pretty significant that someone understands what communion is. A year after he became a Christian he asked if he could be baptized and I remember Carol and I sitting there saying, "Now what, you want to be baptized?" He goes, "Yeah, I want to be baptized." We go, "Do you understand what that means?" He goes, "I understand what this means." So Kent actually was able to baptize Bruce in one of our services at Westside.

Bruce, during the day we had a nurse who was in our home 8 hours every day to be with Bruce who could not ever be alone, so that I could go work. And when I would come home then she could leave. She told us, and although she had been with us for almost 2 years that she was going to have to leave to go do something different and I was just devastated. I didn't know what I was going to do without this trusted nurse and I said this to Kent and he said, "Well, let's have the elders come over to the house and we will pray about it." So after church one Sunday all the elders came over to our home and we all sat in the living room and we prayed. One of the elders said, "I really feel that God is asking us to pray about something else, and that is that it is time to take Bruce home and that we would be ready for that." And so we did, that is what we prayed for that day.

The next day again at work, I got a phone call this time from this nurse saying that something was wrong and Bruce was having some type of a seizure. I rushed home and discovered that, in fact, that the virus had reached a place in his brain where he was going to have continual ongoing painful seizures and Bruce's doctor said to me, "This is the beginning of the very end of this long illness." A few nights later I was sitting next to Bruce in his bed and he was actively dying at the time and I didn't know quite what to do. I decided that I would just read the Psalms. I would start with Psalm 1, Verse 1 and just kept reading until I stopped. I got to Psalm 16 and some of you know Psalm 16 and the last few lines of Psalm 16 are as follows: "You will make known to me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever." And I knew that God was about to take Bruce and I looked up and Bruce's breathing had started to slow and slow and slow and within about 2 minutes Bruce had passed away.

In the Jewish tradition a year after someone dies you actually do what is called an unveiling ceremony, where you go to the cemetery and you actually uncover the headstone and we decided to honor that. We put those actual words that I just read on Bruce's headstone and rather than hold it on the anniversary of his death, we held it on April 23rd which was the anniversary of the day that he became a Christian, which that year just happened to fall on Easter and in our church on Easter Sunday morning we all go down to the beach, on Santa Monica Beach, some of you may have been there and we have a water baptism actually in the ocean and that morning I was baptized as a Christian and came out of the water professing that I was turning my life over to Jesus Christ to do what he would like done with my life and then we went to the cemetery and had this unveiling ceremony, where we really celebrated Bruce's life and all that he had meant to us.

A few things just in closing, Bruce's testimony is so significant for me because Bruce really didn't do anything for God. He never witnessed to anybody. He just believed and he just professed his belief and I am standing here today largely because of his confession of faith. The other is that God continues to demonstrate his compassion in the face of this disease and in the face of AIDS. Ken is going to talk to you a little bit about Malawi and I have shared bits of my testimony with churches before. I have shared it to rooms of hundreds of UCLA students and there is always a little measure of uncomfortableness sometimes as I share this testimony and if you were feeling that at all while I was speaking, I want you to take that and I want you to multiply it by 100 or 200 and you know just a little bit about what a Malawian feels or someone in Africa feels when they know they are HIV positive and they need to go somewhere and get care. I have seen it on their faces early in the morning at dawn as they hover around the clinic wondering whether or not they can go there and get help; whether anyone will see them go in there, what are they going to do. In many cases they turn around and go home because they are scared to come in and when they come back they are usually brought back on a stretcher and they usually die within a very short period of time. The amazing news is that God is taking the world's greatest health crisis ever and actually turning lives around and having people recognize him in it. My life is testimony to that and we are seeing that happen in places like Malawi.

Rev. Kent Crawford speaking:

You know it's one thing to take the grace and truth of God out into our world, sort of out of the church and it's out there, it's another thing when those out there come in that are extremely challenging for the church to respond to. This shouldn't be really, but they are and that's the way it is and that was the case with Bruce and John when they walked in our door. It's really HIV/AIDS, gay community walked into our congregation and in crisis and in need and fortunately we had the good sense to respond first with God's grace, but it's hard to know grace and truth, which is first. Jesus and those who were described as sinners that he encountered; it was always grace first, truth was present, but it was grace sort of the first step out. It's interesting that when he encountered the religious elite in the Pharisees it was truth first most of the time. It's a good example for us as well and so we tried to respond the best we could to John and Bruce, but it was hard.

I knew what was coming inevitably was the truth part, as we were dealing with a crisis and just trying to care for them the best we could. I knew the truth was coming and there would be a day where I would have to sit down with John and true to form he initiated it; he came up to me after service one Sunday and said, "Is there anybody who can talk to me?" And I said, "Well John, I am willing to talk to you and I would love to sit down with you", which was really a lie, because I was dreading it, but I was a pastor and what else could I say, you know what I mean, that is what I am supposed to do. But no, I meant it to a degree but I was kind of afraid of it and I didn't know what to expect. John came into my office at the appointed time, sat down across the table and he said, "I just want to know how to live a holy life. I just want to live a righteous life." I never expected that, that had never happened to be before in ministry, never had somebody walk into the office and say that and it was a showstopper. I was sort of dumbfounded. I probably just paused for a few minutes trying to respond, but was so delighted to hear it and John and I then met for about two years every week working through his issues, working through his past and his lifestyle and helping him, coming alongside him and helping him move into a new lifestyle and really it's not a lifestyle, it's life in Christ. That is what has transpired over the years and what a delight it has been. What a myriad of things God has done as a result of bringing these issues actually into our community and it really has transformed our church in a lot of ways in these relationships.

I want to just give you as I conclude just a framework for what has transpired and what is happening now both in Perry and Brenda Janson's life and John Hamilton as well. As I said, the Janson's were with us in the early 90s and then in 1996 Perry and Brenda had a daughter who from birth had a congential heart defect. She had a heart transplant. I think it was in 1995 and in 1996, about a year later, she contracted a virus and died just like that. We were sitting at the Janson's home after the services and the hard grace was expressed by I think Brenda right away and she said, "Well I guess now there is no reason why we can't go overseas and serve." They had always felt that call, but unable because of Mallory's illness and that was if you can even call it that a silver lining and so that transpired and they began thinking and praying about what God would have for them next. You heard the story about John and Bruce and then in 2000 Perry and Brenda and their family indeed moved to Malawi, Africa. Perry occupied a clinic there existing, he started to serve the people in that community, but outside the walls of that community as well and very quickly he began to see and realize that people with AIDS was his passion. He was treating all kinds of diseases, but of course in Malawi with a number of people infected, he saw a lot of cases and he became convinced that that is what he was called to do.

About 2003 they began to hit the wall a little bit and burned out and struggling and not sure what the future held for them and a group of us from Westside went and traveled to meet with them, kind of realizing that they were struggling and encouraged them and in the midst of that formed an organization called Partners in Malawi. This is a nonprofit organization largely out of our church. That same year an individual on that board had a business contact with an individual in the city of West Hollywood, it happened to be the mayor and if you don't know that is a gay community. He shared Perry's story with that mayor and the mayor was so moved that he said, "We need to get together with you guys and talk about how we can help." Sort of another thing that I didn't necessarily want to hear, but we moved ahead feeling as if God was moving us in to just exploring this potential for a common cause with the city of West Hollywood. And sure enough one thing led to another and we ended up hosting and putting on an event in the West Hollywood House of Blues, benefiting Perry Janson's ministry in essence with the city of West Hollywood and many gay organizations in Los Angeles and believe me that was a challenge and fraught with difficulty all the way through. In fact, we lost members out of our church over it. But through it all we did not compromise at all who we are and our life in Christ and what that means and what we understand about sin, but yet we recognized with them that we are all sinners and their sin is no greater than ours. And as a result, they were taken with us I think. They saw Christ in a way perhaps that they had never seen him before, thank God and we put on this event together and the relationship continues to this day.

Fast forward to 2005, late last year in November, Perry outgrew his existing clinic and the Partners in Malawi purchased a new building. We built it out and he is now in a place that can serve not 250 patients on ARV drugs, but 3,000 and he is quickly moving in that direction to be able to care for that many. He currently has a staff of 50, 4 physicians now and so things have really taken off.

And fast forward to just last week; September 28 John Hamilton served his last day as the assistant provost at UCLA and as far as I can tell, he basically ran the place. It has a budget of what is it? 3 billion dollars. It's ten times the budget of Malawi and God has been moving over the last 4 or 5 years in John's life as John's life became intertwined with Perry and the work in Malawi to the point where he has now responded to God's call to go and serve there. So this next Thursday he flies back to Malawi with Perry and will serve as the chief administrator of this clinic.

And so we are so excited about how God has brought this about and another sort of part of the story I have asked John about this; he is actually going on UCLA's dime. It's actually more than a dime; it's a half a million dollars and they basically have gotten involved like West Hollywood has with Perry and recognized the quality and significance of his work and they want to be a part of it. Now I would have never dreamt this up in a million years, but UCLA now is willing to send John Hamilton essentially on their grant money to work for Perry and they are going to pay for a lab that will service all of Perry's patients and service his work; all they want to be able to do is to send students over on occasions and do studies on the AIDS issue in Africa. So it's pretty amazing what God has done and but yet it's our story and I will tell you; I am going to preempt you a little bit John, I am amazed that this sheet that hopefully all of you have, the yellow sheet, because I have only been here a day and a half or 2 days and I have already met people in this church that are involved in most of these ministries. They are very involved in them. This church has a relationship with all of these areas of service and that's what we are talking about; that is how God works is through relationship and through our response to those relationships as they sort of develop and come about and he brings things together and he provides opportunity and he opens doors and this is just an incredible open door for this church and I am actually jealous of all of these opportunities, because not only are there opportunities here overseas, but there is also opportunity right here in this city and so I encourage you to just take a step. You don't have to make a wild commitment, that's very often what we think. God only calls us to really take a step; that's all we really can do, one step at a time towards what we think he is doing in us and how he is leading us.

Well as we close, let me give you this summary. It's not first about programs, technique or even our plans. What we are about is the church; it's about the grace and truth of God received and worked deeply into our lives and the fruit, the eternal effect depends on following Jesus and responding to him, not leading him or asking him to sponsor our plan and finally our program, if you will, or our technique is incarnation and it's the kingdom of God. It's about relationship, it's about moving into the neighborhood, it's about befriending and through it all doing good. Amen.

© 2006, Rev. Kent Crawford Sr. and John Hamilton
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145