Guest Speaker: James Barnett
June 14, 2015
As temps go up this week the challenge of the gospel is getting hot, hot, hot! This summer might be your very best time to get into some holy mischief with a challenge to carry out the subversive kingdom project launched by the cross of Christ. Let's gather this weekend in worship with open hearts as guest speaker and entrepreneur James Barnett shares a word of challenge and invitation... A Divine Adventure.
Isaiah 58 / Amos 5:21-25 / Matthew 25 / Luke 14:15-24
Introduction by Pastor Mike Slaughter
Thank you for joining us this weekend in worship as we welcome guest speaker, James Barnett.
Ginghamsburg, every summer we have a tradition of bringing in some really great Jesus followers from somewhere in the country, and we are having three different speakers during this summer. We do this between series. We finished the Holy Spirit series last week; and I’m going to start a new series next week.
We talk about Christmas in July around here, because we have a heart for Dayton and a hope for Sudan. One of the things we have done in Sudan is to build a women’s vocational school that creates uniforms for our 277 school kids. What we do there is so important. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into “compassion fatigue.” Since we keep talking about Christmas in July, because Christmas is coming and so many people depend on us; we thought that a great speaker would be James Barnett.
James is young; he was born in 1985. When you were born in 1951 that sounds like a hundred years! My youngest was born in 1981. James is a real Jesus follower, so much so that at age 24, this graduate of Florida State (he lives in Atlanta) took Jesus seriously when he heard him say, “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”
For the next two years, James lived with the poor on the street. But, he did not waste his college education. After that two-year experience, he started a non-profit corporation called Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself. This is a great word from a real Jesus follower. Let’s give some love to our brother, James.
Good morning, Ginghamsburg! Hi. I’m honored to be here with you guys today. Really, really, really, really, excited to be here because I’ve already heard of your faithfulness to Christ and His Kingdom, by how you’ve gotten your hands dirty, like we have talked much about this morning. But, in a lot of ways I feel like I am “preaching to the choir.” But even the choir needs to catch a glimpse of the God whose ways are so infinitely higher, and whose thoughts are so infinitely higher than ours. So, if by a “good Jesus follower,” Mike, you meant a guy who is just staring up to Jesus and walking into walls, that’s exactly what I am. Just to catch a glimpse of this God. If he is that much higher, my greatest hope is to get 1% of Him. To see, just a brief glimpse of Jesus; and my hope this morning is that’s what we’ll get into.
As I share my story, my hope is not to inspire anyone to go homeless, but to give an invitation. You see, in 2009 I was 24 years old with a lucrative job with JP Morgan Chase, I had everything I could ever want. I was going to get a second car for the weekends, because God was obviously blessing me. Well, Jesus woke me up from the American Dream. He asked me to sell everything that I had, to quit my job and to go live with the poor. Five months later, I was eating out of dumpsters and sleeping in cardboard boxes with the greatest in the Kingdom of God. My hope is to invite you this morning to get into “holy mischief,” whether you are on Main Street or under a bridge; and to challenge us to carry out the subversive Kingdom and scandalous restoration project launched by the cross of Christ; and to simply ask these questions… “What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to follow Jesus?”
I’ve been going to church most of my life, since I was a fetus actually. As you can see here in my church directory “glamour” shot—you know you’ve got one these hiding somewhere, too. You’re welcome for that! Somebody said, “AW!” Somebody is dressing their kid like that—poor kid. I just can’t get over it, that’s me! Even the last photo you guys had up, the one you’ve been promoting, was the one where I didn’t have a crazy haircut, about five years ago when I looked better. What you don’t know is that I Photoshopped the mullet off of that picture, I was rocking a mullet at the time—like five years ago!
Somehow, growing up in church after 23 years, I somehow failed to follow Jesus entirely; or at least the real Jesus. Because, early on, I became disillusioned with the church that seemed to reduce the Biblical commands that Jesus made to all of his followers, into radical callings; just for the few missionaries.
Instead of sacrifice, we glorified scholarship. Our church traded “Jesus-crazy, come and die” invitation to a more marketable and seeker sensitive “free coffee and doughnuts.” That’s only if you got to church early enough, right? Because otherwise, that would be gone, you don’t even get a coffee or a doughnut.
I grew up in the Methodist Church. We zealously proclaimed that we believed that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, then suffered under Pontius Pilate, then was crucified, dead and buried. Somewhere in there, we completely omitted his life, and failed to ever mention that he even lived. As if the way he lived was nothing more than a volunteer opportunity in our free time. In our Bible studies, we contextualized the words of Jesus that were a little hard to hear; you know what I’m talking about— where we would be like, ”Oh so take everything you have and share it with the poor.” Well, what Jesus probably meant was ___________, and then we would conjure up some sort of euphemism, turning Jesus’ teachings into something we could swallow; a little more palatable, a God we could believe in.
We isolated and detached ourselves from the demand the Gospel places on EVERY ALLEGIANCE. Yes, I am aware that God made us in his image, but I was so satisfied to twist and distort him back into mine to avoid the things that made me uncomfortable about his. I think others were happy to just do the same thing to because each week on Sunday, billions of us Christians would put on our expensive clothes, get in our expensive cars, and drive past homeless shelters, orphanages, prisons, feeding programs and hospitals, all to find that Jesus who said that THOSE were the places we would find Him.
Now, the new church and communal worship was Biblical and necessary; but I wondered, why would we do it to the neglect of seeking out Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor, as he suggested? I mean, the God of the universe, the one who flung from his fingertips the stars across the sky; who scattered the sand across the shore; the maker of bananas—and the Aurora Borealis, no less. The one who fashioned the pinecone, and fashioned the people. Scripture says in Philippians that he put skin on, took the posture of a servant, humbled Himself, and “made Himself nothing.” He became obedient even to the point of a brutal death on a cross; therefore, God gave him the name above every other name, that at the name of Jesus—YES, JESUS—every knee will bury itself deep into the dirt, and every tongue will inevitably confess that he is LORD.
The God who hung the sun in its place, hung on a cross for you and for me—and my best response was to pray a prayer and to go to church. The God who created it all could descend into the dirt; and me, who was so closely related to the dirt, I couldn’t even kneel in it. I knew something in my life had to change; because from the outside, it would appear that Christianity had really nothing more to offer the world than a country club membership, or a tried assurance to the poor and suffering in the world that things would be better when they died. But what about life? Jesus said that he came to offer us abundant life, that’s why he came, right?
In Greek, the word abundant there actually means an obscene amount of life, unquantifiable life. Yes, Jesus died on the cross so that we could have eternal life, but also so that we could have life while we live. I wanted to see it, I wanted to feel it, I wanted to breathe it in and out in the here and the now. I began to ask, is what I’m seeing even Christianity? If so, why would anyone want to be a part of it? I mean, except for the potlucks—I mean those are great, right? But, if it’s not Christianity, what is? What does a Christian look like? What does it mean to follow Jesus? Who is Jesus, really? There is this painting in my home church of a blond haired, blue eyed, Swiss Jesus, rockin’ his American flag muscle shirt under his church attire, probably, right? You know the Jesus I’m talking about? I was worshipping that guy. Where was the real Jesus?
So, after 23 years of sitting in church, I went on a search to find the guy. It began for me in May of 2009, I took some time off from my job at JP Morgan, and I went to a place called La Chureca, where people lived and survived among the waste—in this dump. They live their lives on the trash, survive on the trash; it was a picture of hell on Earth. It was so sad, I saw kids playing hopscotch next to used syringes. These same kids whose parents might sell their 5-year-old girl to a garbage man for first pick of the trash when they come through. This was desperation; I had never seen evil like this in my life. It broke me.
I thought nobody would actually choose to live in this dump, right? But, it turned out, there was one woman who did—her name was Ruby. She was a 73-year-old woman, who at the age of 23, gave up her life to live and to bring love to the hurting people there in the dump. She was living out this Gospel narrative of the God who made himself nothing. She spent so much time praying on her knees for people, because she was a prophetess, that her knees were hard as a rock; calloused, legend has it. I had to meet this woman, I needed to know this woman—she sounded so cool.
I went to her home, and when I arrived there, she welcomed me in. She asked me to sit on the floor in front of her, she put oil on my forehead and she began to pray in tongues—it scared me to death! I wasn’t used to that yet, you know I was in the Methodist tradition; we don’t usually talk about that stuff. People started pouring in from the community, coming in and reaching their hands out, starting to pray over me. There was a guy in the background spinning around in the street, kicking up dirt; he was speaking in tongues. I don’t know what he was saying, but I knew that I was about to experience this massive thing; I had never been out of the country before, I had never seen real, true poverty. I wanted to know whom Jesus was talking about; and here I was, right in the midst of it, being prayed over by a prophetess in the middle of a city dump. I knew I was going to get goose bumps because things were about to get serious, you know? I was ready for the Holy Spirit to come, maybe see an angel or something and levitate—I don’t know.
I was ready; and the first thing she said to me was, “The Lord wants you to know that you haven’t been obedient.” Buzz kill! So, I stopped listening, didn’t hear the rest; I don’t know what she said. But, I do remember that, and later I came back to her and said, “Hey, I am obedient.” I started frantically listing all the sins I’ve never committed. Then she said something that changed the trajectory of my life, she said, “My child, your obedience isn’t defined just by what you don’t do, but by what you do with the world your God so loves.”
Your obedience isn’t just defined by what you don’t do, but by what you do for the world your God so loves. I didn’t do anything for the world that God so loves. At 12 years old, I laid my life down at the cross, but I walked away empty handed. I knew I was saved from something, but I hadn’t ever been told that I was saved for something, too.
On the plane ride home, I was reading The Irresistible Revolution, a book by Shane Clayborn. I suggest you pick that up. In it, I started being pointed to different scriptures, like Isaiah 58, where God says, that no, holiness isn’t a derivative in inaction, no, but go and feed the hungry, spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry—is what it says—and to welcome in the wanderer in for shelter—this is what God wanted.
Amos 5:23, where he says, I don’t want your religious gatherings or your solemn assemblies. Away from me with the noise of your song, I won’t even listen to it anymore! What I want is justice to roll like the river in righteousness, like a never-ending stream. That is a Christianity I want to be a part of—a stream I’m ready to jump in. And then I read Matthew 25 once again, where Jesus says that however much we love the poor is really how much we love him. That’s got to be the most profound thing for us to hear in the western world today. I realized, folks, that I didn’t follow Jesus; I merely admired Him.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard from the eighteenth century wrote this; “To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it’s more an invention by people who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance.”
That’s when it clicked, the follower does what the leader does—ask any kid on a playground. The follower does what the leader does. I’m not any more one of The Avengers by sitting in a movie theatre, eyes glued to the screen, than I am a Christian by sitting in a pew and studying Jesus. Author Bob Goff says, “Jesus doesn’t want stalkers.” That’s exactly what I was—I was singing songs about Jesus, putting his name on my t-shirt, getting the wristband, putting his name on the back of my car and on my notebooks. I was sitting in circles on a weekly basis to talk about Jesus, what he said and where he said it, and even to memorize it. I’m not saying any of these things are bad things—these are great things—but if that’s where it ends, if that’s all it is then well, we are stalking—and Jesus should get a restraining order on us. Right?
It didn’t take an angel or a mysterious voice or a sign from Heaven for me to figure out if I wanted to go be like Jesus, I would join him. I think that’s one of the greatest misunderstandings that plagues the western Church, is that we think that Jesus would have us know him to the neglect of joining him. This is, though, the difference between religion and Christianity—a Christianity that Jesus invites us to participate in. A new Jesus didn’t come to donate to the poor, but to really join the poor, to move into their neighborhood, to put skin on. So I decided I would do the same; most folks, obviously, thought I was crazy. I knew I was crazy, they were right. My family and friends, and most people just encouraged me to go and volunteer at a homeless shelter to get it out of my system. It didn’t quench the fire in my bones.
When I went into my boss’s office to tell him what I wanted to do and quit my job, of course he was a little skeptical—thought I had a better offer somewhere else. I told him that in a way he was right; but instead of climbing the corporate ladder, I decided I would follow the God who descended his. Over the next few months, my parents showed their support by hosting frequent garage sales at their house to help me sell off my stuff. In January, I began my two-year journey of homelessness. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t close my bedroom door when I went to bed at night. I’d go to bed like this and halfway through the night, I’d wake up with three people surrounding me, packed in like sardines in front of a church somewhere. It was terrifying. I was so scared. I actually got really depressed right in the beginning cause I had everything, and then I had nothing. It was very hard—very hard. People always ask me, where did you sleep? How did you eat? Where did you go to the restroom? Where I slept was sometimes with my friends Tony and Judy. When I first went through a city in Florida, they invited me to stay in their ‘guest tent’ in their tent community—which was beautiful. They had a garden growing green beans and the first night I was there, we ate those green beans. They had a swamp nearby where we would boil the water in the morning and make swamp-water lattes. I suggest you don’t try that.
Where I ate? Sometimes people would show up, and I’d wake up to a sausage and egg McMuffin right next to me. One morning, there was a homeless man that brought me something like that, because he empathized with me. If I were to tell you where I went to the restroom, I would have to tell you the story of how I got kicked out of Canada, and we don’t have time for that.
When I was in Florida, I met a homeless prostitute who would forever change how I read Jesus’ words. The night I met her, she was buried under a pile of rags trying to stay warm. She asked to bum a cigarette, and I said, “I don’t have a cigarette, but I got lots of time. Let’s be friends!” That’s how I make my friends—I’ve got two.
I sat down with her on this bench, and we talked about her life. She even mentioned that her birthday was coming up in a couple days. My gears started turning. I read Luke 14 that night, where Jesus says when you have a party, invite the poor, bring them all in—all the outcasts. I was like, okay, what if you meant this stuff—what if these red letters mattered? What if Jesus really meant for us to do that? What could that look like? I said I think I’m going to throw this lady a party! So, the next day, with some money somebody donated to me, I printed up some flyers and started inviting all the homeless people in the community and the business folks and the poor college students!
Everybody is welcome; the only requirement is that you would bring something you had to share with somebody in need because everybody—no matter who you are—has something important to offer the world. So, of course, the morning of her party, I doubted that anybody would show up to my utopian dream of party. When I got there an hour early to set up, there were already over 100 people there to celebrate this woman’s life, who they didn’t even know. The picnic tables were covered with everything, from clothing to hygiene products to textbooks to personally written poems; all to share freely with anybody who needed them—and we need more poems. People were blowing bubbles, dancing and playing broken guitars. It was beautiful. We had this cake with the word LIFE written on it, because Jesus said that he came to give us that—to bring that to us. We cut that cake, I sang her a song I wrote for her, and I gave her this new pair of shoes. I had asked her what she needed and she said shoes. So I got her this new pair of shoes because that’s how homeless people get around, that’s their tire. Their shoes are very, very important—it is definitely a need on the streets. I gave her these shoes; she didn’t even look at them. She just kind of looked at me with tears in her eyes, and just squared off with me. She grabbed my shoulders, and she said, “I have never seen anything like this.”
I carry that with me because I believe now that Christianity, when lived out, when it looks like Jesus; will leave the world scratching their head and wonder saying, “I have NEVER seen anything like this.”
In another city, I met Joseph—and this is kind of the turning point in my story—and when I met Joseph, he was homeless and trying to overcome homelessness for years. He was recently offered a job on a construction site, but for liability reasons needed a pair of steel-toe work boots before he started work. We scraped together some money and bought him the boots, and he got off the streets a few months later—because of a pair of boots!
That was it! And I thought, oh my gosh, maybe there is something to this. So, that’s when I decided to start an organization called Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself. It’s a non-profit clothing brand, and we give away 100% of the profit of our clothing sold to empower people through the use of clothing, just like Joseph. I printed up a shirt with our name on it, it’s Hippy James with an Amish looking beard, there, from about five years ago. I printed them up, and started shipping them online. My parents shipped them from their guest room of their house, and with the very first profits—and I’m giving up my man-card in telling you this—I had to buy yarn and a crochet needle to start crocheting hats for my friends when they were cold.
Then we started seeing that we were giving a lot of stuff away, but what about empowerment—what about dignity? How do we give in such a way that it helps set somebody up for the next thing that God has for them? We started providing interview attire and work attire for people who were homeless, trying to get jobs. As God has challenged our understanding of who our neighbors are, we’ve also started providing uniforms to orphans in developing countries so that they can go to school to get an education, because sometimes uniform is the only barrier to getting that education. This means that one day they won’t have to live in poverty, and that is because if you buy anything while we are here at this event, you are actually sending a kid to school. That’s insanity, that’s really cool! Never before has the shirt off your back or on your back been so important. We’ve provided seamstress training and jobs to women rescued from sex trafficking in New Delhi, India. We have provided knitting machines to women in Karagoto, Kenya to have work and to start to provide for their families. In fact, much like your church is doing, we actually employ these women to make the uniforms for the kids so we don’t deflate the economy by just giving a bunch of stuff away. And because it’s not justice, of course, to enslave one person to save another, we start the process by manufacturing all of our products sweatshop free. That’s why they cost more because we take a stand to say that falling prices and cheap prices are not worth the cost of human dignity. Ultimately, we are not asking you to buy more stuff. I don’t think materialism in the western world is the answer to poverty in the global community. We simply ask that you buy stuff differently, as we all strive to live on our daily bread.
You see, we really do believe another world is possible, and in a Christianity that lives at the intersection of hands up and hands out, and that we can creatively become the answer to the prayers another is praying. That’s what we believe, we just happen to sell clothing. I‘ve been called a radical Christian before because of these decisions that I’ve made. To be honest with you, radical Christianity exists and can exist, probably more fully here, in this community, in your homes, in the suburbs surrounded by a white picket fence and apple pies, while still remaining faithful to Jesus call to invite the homeless in past the white picket fence, through the security system and down at the table, to eat the apple pie as friends and family.
I long for a Christianity that looks like Jesus again, one where we trade our safe havens of mediocrity for the dangerous and uncertain way of Jesus. Where our love for Jesus comes across like a foolish dance in a world full of disapproving spectators who secretly wish that they were dancing too. They are simply waiting on us to show them the moves, the city on a hill begins by removing the plank from our own eye in such a way that it liberates, and irresistibly invites others to begin to do the same. It will be so attractive, because they’ll have never seen anything like it. When confronted with poverty, we’ll give what it takes instead of stopping to figure out what ten percent is. Jesus paid it all, ten percent to him I owe—is not how the song goes. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, nor is it how we are going to really change the world; and we’ll not just care for the poor, but we will ask, “Why are they poor?” Disrupt the systems that create poverty knowing that, yes, it’s good to teach a man to fish, but as author Shane Claiborne says, but what about the fence around the pond? Why does a fishing license cost so much?
We’ll reject any theology the prevents us from loving absolutely everybody, no matter what—with radical boundary smashing, to good not to be true, make them scratch their heads, can’t believe this is happening kind of love—because that is what the church should be known for, love. By this, they will know you are my disciples, Jesus says. We’ll make no apologies that we’re saved only through Jesus’ death, but dismiss no part of his life as a volunteer serving opportunity in our free time. We’ll laugh at billboards that teach us happiness is a thing that you could buy, because we’ll be free from the chains of materialism, living on our daily bread; living now what we know the end of the story already is.
In Revelations 18:11, it says that the merchants of the earth are going to be weeping because no one is buying their goods anymore. Why? Because the church—the people of God—have led the charge and have pulled out of the great prostitute of materialism and decided to live simply on their daily bread. Just like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, we’ll learn to live simply so others can simply live. We’ll claim nothing as our own, but ours; because if God not only made us but purchased us as well, what can we claim to really own, when we don’t even own ourselves? Everything we have is a gift for the good of all. We’ll figure out what we’re passionate about, and then love to the most extreme version of it. Not waiting around for a sign from Heaven to begin, because we’ve already got one, his name is Jesus, amen? And, sure, yeah, we might end up changing the world; we talk a lot about that. We’ll start small disciplining ourselves to do the dishes, knowing that world change really begins in the discipline of the sink. And knowing that every drop in the ocean is what makes it an ocean, we will not feel too small or insignificant to make a difference because it is according to the Spirit at work within us. God will do immeasurably more than all we could ever ask, or all we could every even imagine.
I believe that Christianity will begin to look like Jesus once again. Friends, when the followers do as the leader does, and when we are as obsessed with his ways as we are with his name. Romans 8:19 says, that all of Creation is waiting in breathless anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and his daughters. Did you catch that? ALL of Creation is waiting for the Revelation of you and me. God made his move, now he waits—Creation waits. It’s our move.
Let’s pray. If you would put your hands out as if to receive something, as a sign of vulnerability—I want to pray the prayer of St. Francis over you in this church.
Lord, make us an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is discord, harmony. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. Oh Divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled, as to go console. To be understood as to understand. To be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning, that we are pardoned. And it is in dying, that we are born to eternal life. Amen. Thanks for having me.
Conclusion by Pastor Mike Slaughter
Isn’t it good to be reminded of why we do what we do? “Heart for Dayton; Hope for Sudan.” Let’s give our brother some love—that was a powerful, prophetic word.
Next week, I’m going to start a new series. You are going to have me for a whole month on this series called Core Strengths. We are going to do a whole study on I John; five simple chapters. Here is your assignment for next week: read those five simple chapters of I John before you come. I’ll see you for the whole month on I John. God bless you; see you next week.
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