Friday, June 23, 2017

Installing a New Pastor: Planting Seeds in Earnest

Installing Rev. Perdue
FBC Cooperstown, NY
Special occasion preaching is part of the call to ministry.  We preach at life transitions most frequently (weddings and funerals) as well as for civic holidays (woe to the preacher who skirts a Mother's Day sermon too many years in a row!).  Also, we preach for occasions rare yet wonderful:  when a person is ordained to ministry or going into a new ministry call.  
 
It was my pleasure earlier in June 2017 to offer remarks at the installation of the Rev Joseph Perdue, recently called as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cooperstown, NY.  Brevity is a virtue (and I am chief of sinners), so I decided to use a shorter scripture text that I think works well at the outset of a hopefully long and fruitful season of ministry for Joe and the congregation.
 
Hear now the Good News in brief---two verses to be exact!
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mark 4:26-27)
 
Two verses, and yet so much to unfurl and explore!  On one hand, we have the image of the Kingdom, the very crowning glory of Jesus’ vision of God made known in the world and yet it is like seed, to be tossed around willy-nilly. Jesus gives an image messy and unpredictable, far removed from the “cut and dried” understandings about following Jesus we often presume.
Worse, contrary to our churchly habits and sensibilities, Jesus presents us with the image of a farmer who goes out, plants the seed liberally, and then saunters off until the end time.
At this point, I hear from Kansas my old farmer father’s voice calling out:  “Son, what sort of fool does that?”
 
Admittedly, I have never met a non-anxious farmer, including my father. For farmers, something is always worrying you at the back of your mind: grain prices falling and rising (well, mostly falling), pests and pesticides, drought, deer turning your crop into a buffet, freak storms, too much rain, too little rain, flooding, hail, the bills coming in and not enough money to cover everything this month, and the list goes on.
Every farmer goes through this, having that moment when you laugh at yourself. That foolish dream you had, thinking yet again you could plant a crop and turn a profit. Sigh!
 
For the church “with ears to hear”, we have an unsettling thought.  The Church that Jesus seeks to sow in the world does not fit into plans we alone devise, let alone for us to micromanage!
The gospel will be planted where you least expect it, and trying to guess how it will flourish and yield a goodly harvest is at best guesswork and at worst presumptuous on our part.
Where the Kingdom of God grows, there shall be a harvest and we have to learn how to live within the mysterious ways of God.
But can we really handle mystery?  Further, can we be in that mystery as a Church and live to tell about it?
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
 
In the splendid Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, William is a young man seeking money, not literary awards. He writes plays for the theatres with their raucous crowds. Theatre was very much a rough and tumble experience in Elizabethan England. There is a new play needed, and the theatre manager insists that writer’s block is not an excuse. He demands a script readied for the production of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”, a comedy about love and a bit with a dog doing tricks.
The film follows several characters as they rush around, trying to stage a play not quite written with a financial backer and his thugs threatening them with pain if there is no profit.  A young woman disguises herself as a man so she can tread the boards.  At the epicenter of this chaos is a young playwright named Will who seems too flaky to be the great Shakespeare.  Will this end in disaster?  Surely it will!  
Throughout the film, people ask the theatre manager Philip Henslowe what the play is about and more importantly when the play will be ready. Henslowe bluffs to buy Shakespeare and the company more time. When his financial backer storms in, ready to have his men beat him up, Henslowe begs for more time, claiming the theatre business is one whose “natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster”.
The financial backer asks, “So what do we do?” Henslowe replies, “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” the backer is incredulous.
Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
 
If we let them be, the parables confound and unsettle us, defying a quick or complete interpretation alike. In these seed parables, we get a cautionary tale about thinking we know the ways of God and how we should be God’s people. We build our houses of worship, our traditions, our creeds, and still we have sacred texts that challenge and remind us of a faith more comfortable with welcoming children gladly, considering the lilies of the field, and scattering seed and letting things be.  Or as Jesus said,
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
 
I suppose the Markan parable would ask to keep things loose and try not to tame the Spirit’s movement. We certainly need to talk with one other. We need to pray and listen for God in the midst of our ministry and missional work. We need to work with purpose and hope, but at the same time, we are in God’s hands, not our own. The future holds much possibility. So much Kingdom/Reign work is yet to come. God scatters seed abundantly. The harvest shall be abundant. Rather than pondering the future or undercutting its potential by our reticence to embrace it, we enter into the mystery that is God at work in the world.
 
            So, here we are, in the midst of a mystery.  A long-time pastor retires.  A period of search and call happens.  A new pastor was called, arrived and has been serving here for a few months now.  What form will this new season of ministry take?  What will be different about it?  What will come up as the newest experience of an old challenge?   Will we grow, will we flourish, will we have so-so crop yields, will the future be anything like the past (a chronic question in every church), and can we handle a future that looks nothing like the past (a scary question for every church)?   What happens next?   What does the future hold?
 
            Hear the Good News:
 
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Adventures in Baptist History: William Sawyer (1821-1909)

What does an old Bible, likely given as a “presentation” Bible to a young person, tell us about the 19th century in the Capital District of New York?

Earlier this week, I received an inquiry through the local ABCNYS Association about a family wishing to donate a Bible to an area American Baptist congregation. They were going through an elder parent’s household and found a number of Bibles. One Bible was clearly a family heirloom, given the name inscribed. Another Bible they found indeed had an inscription, but the family could not identify any connection to the family or any idea why the Bible had come into their loved one’s possession at one time in the past.

The Bible in question has a handwritten inscription to a person for their attendance of the Sunday School of the Robin Street Baptist Church in Albany, NY. The date given is 1886.

Living in Albany myself, I knew already that there is no American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) congregation by that name any longer. Through some Google searching, I discovered the beginnings of a bread crumb trail about the Robin Street church, which indeed has closed. One thing I discovered via Google Books was a lead on the formation of the Robin Street church.

In a two volume book on the history of Albany, NY, I discovered Robin Street Baptist was part of the efforts of church planting supported enthusiastically by businessman and abolitionist William Sawyer (1821-1909). In this Albany retrospective, we read:

In religious preferences, Mr. [William] Sawyer is a decided Baptist. In 1840 he united with the Pearl Street (now Emmanuel Baptist Church) while Elder Jacob Knapp was assisting Rev Dr B.T. Welch. In 1871, he removed his church relations to the Calvary Church. His interest in the Sabbath School and mission work of the Baptist Church has been great and constant for many years.
 
To it he has given much time and toil and money July 29, 1866, the Kenwood Chapel which was started in 1864 was duly dedicated, Rev. Dr. Magoon preaching the sermon. This he gave to the Albany Baptist Missionary Union as a chapel for church purposes forever. On the day of its dedication the cars of the Albany Railway made the first trip to Kenwood. The Sunday School here numbers about 100.
 
The Robin Street Baptist Chapel was established by Mr. Sawyer in the German Baptist Church on Washington Avenue, November 4, 1866, and removed to the Robin Street Baptist Chapel into a building formerly used as a cabinet factory which he had purchased and remodeled for that purpose April 7 1872 as an Independent Sunday School. To its interests he has ever given his most watchful care. The school now numbers about 300. The Madison Avenue Chapel was purchased by him for Sunday School purposes in the spring of 1867. The school was started August 4, 1867, and placed in charge of the First Baptist Church. It has about 150 members.
 
Mr. Sawyer was one of the earliest and most active workers for the establishment of the Home for Aged Men, in soliciting subscriptions, organizing, and in selecting its location. He was a member of the first Board of Trustees. He has often addressed audiences of young and old in exhortation and textual discourse. His knowledge of the Scriptures, his zealous spirit, his nervous and rather eccentric manner, have made these addresses effective.

Likely some additional research as time allows will help me connect more of the dots about how this Bible came to be presented to a young person attending the Sunday School on Robin Street. Such efforts remind us that congregations come and go, ministry efforts in a community may ebb and flow, but the furthering of the Gospel is always in the hands of one generation passing the faith onwards to the next.

Returning to the Bible's inscription, I realized that the book was presented by William Sawyer himself! 

We may not have a great statue or likely any real institutional memory about William Sawyer and his work among the churches in the area. Nonetheless, a presentation Bible mixed in with other odds and ends of a household yields a testament to sharing faith and spreading the Baptist witness in Albany, New York.  The mission work of a Baptist layman comes back to life once more, offering inspiration for those who might think about being this generation's William Sawyer, sharing the faith with a new generation!



RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

To find out something regarding Robin Street Baptist, I referenced Google Books and found out about William Sawyer.

LINK:  https://books.google.com/books?id=nWkJAQAAIAAJ&dq=%22william%20sawyer%22%20albany%2C%20ny&pg=PA648&output=embed

To discover Mr. Sawyer’s date of death, I played a hunch about cemeteries in the area and discovered his grave at the Albany Rural Cemetery where many luminaries of Albany’s past are interred. (For example, U.S. President Chester A. Arthur is buried there.)

LINK:   http://albanyruralcemetery.org/  (I input William Sawyer's name and searched for a compatible date, knowing his birth date from the above source and seeing minor mentions of his name that he was still alive in the late 19th century.  Sawyer lived into his eighties!)

Friday, May 26, 2017

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

"That would be an ecumenical matter."

During the three year run of the venerable Irish comedy Father Ted, viewers around the world watched the exploits of three priests serving a small Roman Catholic parish on bedraggled Craggy Island.  Quite readily, viewers learn why these three priests are serving together.  Essentially, the Bishop exiled them to a place where they could not get into any more trouble than they had caused previously.

In one of my favorite episodes, the Vatican sends envoys to review the possible miracle of a certain holy relic on the island.  Father Ted and Father Dougal (the middle-aged and young priest of the household) quickly realize they have an issue.  How will the cantankerous, slovenly and erratic old Father Jack possibly be ready to meet the special visitors?   After all, he sits in his chair (mostly), sleeps, grunts and drinks (or sleeps and grunts in his sleep after passing out from too much drink). 

The barely verbal Father Jack is coached little by little to remember how to say socially acceptable phrases.  Eventually, Father Ted tries to help Father Jack learn a phrase that would please the bishops but not require Father Jack to remember much more than that.  They land on the phrase "That would be an ecumenical matter", which Ted observes is just enough to imply you are interested or are able to follow some arcane theological discussion some priests like to indulge in.  Just respond with that phrase, he has learned, and others will consider you profound and wise. 

(And hopefully leave you alone!)

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist tradition has eschewed hierarchy and high structure.  Nonetheless, many Baptists around the world recognize their love of local church autonomy can lead to isolation and missed opportunities for mutual collaboration and encouragement.  While Baptists vary (cf. the "Heinz 57" ingredient list like nature of Baptists just in the United States!), we have local churches who are often relating to churches elsewhere of similar faith and order or common ground ministry and mission goals.

Saying "that would be an ecumenical matter" holds some amusing resonance when attending Baptist organizational meetings.  While low in structure and lines of authority, Baptist inter-church fellowships (Associations, denominations, networks, etc.) can be a great gathering of different and divergent voices, people gathering around common affinities for mission and ministry more than events listed on "the official program" for plenary sessions, etc.  Nonetheless, when such gatherings have discussions traveling down less engaging pathways of discussion, I think of old Father Jack grunting, "That would be an ecumenical matter."

(And for the record, Father Ted's advice translates well in my own context!)

I am quite pleased with a recent article from Dr. Neville Callum, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.  A pastor and scholar, Dr. Callum's writings on the Baptist movement and particularly the large network of Baptists embodied in the BWA are always a welcome discovery when he publishes in a journal or online posting.  Recently, Dr Callum shared a word about Baptists and connecting together:

"From as early as 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in England stated in the celebrated Article 47 of what has come to be called the "First London Confession of Faith" that "Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, everyone as a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needful affaires; of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head."

Eight years later, the Abingdon Association in England affirmed the urgent need of Baptist churches "to hold firm communion with each other."

Over the years, churches existing in close geographical proximity have affirmed their inter-relationship and have developed patterns of cooperation deriving from their fellowship.
This has happened trans-locally in regions and nations and, with the passage of time, internationally, both at the continental and the worldwide levels.

More reflection needs to be given to the precise nature and meaning, not simply the purpose, of Baptists associating at the global level.

Baptist interdependency is capable of bearing the burden of the associational obligation that celebrated Baptist historian William Brackney had in mind when, writing about associations, he emphasized the need for Baptists "to learn again how to wrestle in love with difficult issues and to celebrate one another's successes and bear one another's burdens."

LINK:  http://www.ethicsdaily.com/why-we-must-reclaim-baptist-interdependency-cms-23887

In his essay linked above, Dr. Callum notes the shortcomings of Baptist connections and the need for revisiting the nature of what we take for granted as the current form for those relationships and any implications they may have among Baptist bodies around the world.  He reminds that even in our efforts to be radical Reformers, we are still part of "Church".  

We have a "church" minded ecclesiology, yet that lowercase "c" is as much part of our theological heritage as it can be an impediment to following Christ's High Priestly prayer often cited in ecumenical circles, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  (John 17:21).

With such a prayer, it is indeed always "an ecumenical matter."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mourning at Church

Since the beginning of May, three congregations up in the Adirondacks have been in a season of loss and mourning their pastors.   On Friday, May 5, 2017, Rev Linda Hoeschel died.  Then on May 12, 2017, Pastor Joyce Bruce passed away.  Both women served congregations in rural communities and provided splendid leadership during their time as ministers.

I write this column on the other side of these life transitions, responding to the needs of the congregations going through a very unique form of loss and grief.  As I shared with Linda's two churches recently, it's one thing to go through the loss of a congregant, especially one who was engaged in the midst of the life of a local church.  The loss and grief of losing a pastor is even more complex as pastors are woven into the fabric of a congregation.  It's a shared loss as congregations are families in their own way, regardless of how many people are actually kin by blood relation. 

When Jesus called together his first followers, some of these men and women were indeed related (the brothers Zebedee).  Each person who followed Jesus navigated a challenge with their own biological family, as they would take leave of their kinfolk with no small measure of disruption to the "normal" life they led before hearing Jesus' call.  Dropping your fishing nets to go "fish for people" continues to vex generations of Christians about what it means to hear and follow.  Congregations can be a place where believers can gather together and learn together what the faith calls us to do.  (I realize churches are also prone to circle the wagons and avoid anything that disrupts comfort, but I keep having hope that the Spirit works at ensuring our foundations are solid but our forms are not so set in ruts that we lose our way.)

Pastor Joyce Bruce

About my colleagues in ministry:

Pastor Joyce Bruce served the Jay Baptist Church in the upper Adirondacks for nearly twenty years.  As a lay preacher, she provided her gifts and care to the congregation in this small town church.  The church recalls its origins in a barn, using hay bales for pews back in 1798.  The church has a long history of lay women preachers, as her predecessor served for many years before Joyce was called in 1996.  For the past two generations, the minister of Jay Baptist has been a laywoman preaching, teaching and caring for the needs of the flock!

At her visitation hours on Tuesday afternoon, I brought words of greetings and thanksgiving for her years of service to one of our Region churches.  Her family had musical instruments close at hand, and from time to time, they would take a break from greeting friends and family to play a bit on guitars, clarinets, or mandolins.  A number of persons spoke about Joyce's own musical gifts, starting Sunday morning worship for many years with some "ragtime Gospel" at the piano.


Rev Linda Hoeschel
Rev Linda Hoeschel served a shorter season of ministry, called in March 2015 to her first called position with the shared pastoral call of the Village Baptist Church (Fort Edward, NY) and the First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, NY.  Ordained in 2016, she was a second career minister, called later in life to prepare for the ministry.  She was remembered throughout the May 12th memorial service and celebration as a person with great enthusiasm, care and love for her call and the two flocks who called her to serve. 

After joining the Region staff four years ago, I worked closely with the Ft Edward and Glens Falls pastoral search.  Like the congregation in Jay, NY, the ministry model for the two churches leaned toward a part-time model.  Linda dove into the ministry of two churches, and even as her health challenges came from time to time, her sense of call and the drive to serve God and neighbor sustained her in remarkable ways. 

Grieving a pastor's death is difficult.  Remembering the minister for their gifts and graces, their strengths and their challenges--all of these things allow congregations to rehearse their beliefs in life, death and the Resurrection.  We mourn and grieve differently in such times and at differing pace, yet churches can be a place of remembering well what death means for Christians.  Such memory recasts the loss with hope, the sorrow with a foretaste of faith's promises being fulfilled in God's good End.

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Note:  A resource on the unique situation of a pastor's dying while serving a congregation is the book  "Speaking of Dying: Recovering the Church's Voice in the Face of Death" (Brazos, 2012).  Learn more via this link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/speaking-of-dying/338880.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Pilgrims on the Journey (Luke 24:13-35)

The writer Nora Gallagher speaks of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different within herself about faith and being among others keeping the faith. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.”

Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise.

On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples of Jesus are walking back home, despondent with the news of the crucifixion and unaware of the Easter Good News.  The Resurrected Christ joins them on the journey, yet the two disciples do not "see" him (an ongoing motif of the Gospels, where God's mighty works unfold in plain sight, yet people reserve their judgment to near epic proportions).

Hearing their woeful tale of belief crushed by the powers that be, Jesus engages in a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.

When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a church split, and the folks who “left” form fed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that the newly formed group had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old urban neighborhood church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity for churches in transition who came inquiring about space.

However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including Sunday School curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have?

 I sat in on a Christian education meeting where they wondered what direction to go. I suggested that they could do something without spending any money. The congregation had these beautiful stained glass windows with a bible story in each one. And so the next Sunday, the children got led around the sanctuary of this old church, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark (a crowd pleaser for the tots), Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (not a crowd pleaser for the tots!). Moses on the mountain with the two tablets, and so forth. As they rounded the sanctuary, the kids were asked who this person was in the last stained glass. They said, “Jesus!”

That’s the sort of work that Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, building up the knowledge among those who needed to be acquainted with the texts that led them to this point on the road to Emmaus. It’s drawing close to evening by this point, and the disciples invite him to stay for dinner. Jesus consents, though he is ready to go on the way. (Another sly Gospel shorthand: if the disciples cannot “see” Jesus, they also cannot go “on the way” with Jesus either!) They gather at table and have a simple meal. It’s when Jesus breaks bread that these disciples finally “see” Jesus.

For those perplexed why food and not words get the message across finally, read Luke and its companion, the Book of Acts. There is a great deal of eating that happens in these two books. There are scholarly books that trace the importance in Luke/Acts of the Christians and their meals, because in the breaking of bread, something so simple, the abundance of God becomes clear. In particular, recollect how Jesus breaks bread in the Last Supper, and notice the repetition here at Emmaus: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. In the Last Supper, Jesus foretells of his broken body in the symbolism of the last supper. In the Emmaus meal, the same words and actions are used. And over in Acts, when the early Christians break bread as part of their prayers, proclamation, and sharing in common, they call it not “suppertime” but “Church.” And when it happens at that table in Emmaus, it’s not just a meal. It’s “belief!”

“Were our hearts not burning eagerly within us?” these disciples ask. This experience of the risen Lord prompts them to get up from their table and head back to Jerusalem. They went home despondent, and now they run back to Jerusalem with the news.

Pilgrims. You go to a church service, and you see them out there in the pews at worship. They might light a candle, read the pew Bible, or sit or kneel in prayer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. But there’s one thing that sets them apart from the tourists.

What is it that does that? 

They have seen the Lord.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Way of Belief (John 20:19-31)

During my first year of college, an introductory course engaged students around questions of critical thinking. College takes your worldview and challenges your suppositions, convictions, and myopias alike. Other life experiences can do the same, a time when life challenges you to the extent you learn a new way of seeing things.

As part of this college course, we looked at an image of a young shepherd boy. Somehow, he has stumbled and fallen to the ground. As he picks himself up, he realizes that he has left his familiar meadow and the hillside full of sheep, discovering instead a strange and different world, a place where the unknown and fantastic lurks in a landscape of unknown planets and stars. The college instructor loved using this image as a teaching tool. The little shepherd has a choice now before him: does he crawl back to what he has known (the meadow and hills of a shepherd) or does he crawl forward into this strange and different world?

At the end of John's gospel, we encounter Thomas, crawling through the world in the valley of the shadow of death.  At first, he denies what has happened (i.e. Resurrection) and lists his pre-conditions for belief.  Yet when he beholds the cross-marked Risen Christ, Thomas decides to leap up and confess his faith that something new and different was happening.

“My Lord and my God!” is the resounding confession of the first Christian believers, the culmination of a theological narrative woven throughout the gospel by John, who tells us in the first chapter, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known."

Belief is seeing the world beyond the obvious, seeking to see God at work in the world even when we feel as if God is absent or we obsess about the signs we expect, even demand, to see if we are to believe. Belief asks us to engage a worldview that surprises us anew and sends us off on journeys previously unimagined. As Raymond Brown translates Jesus’ word to Thomas (and to us): “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer”.

This month, a number of commemorative events took place to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War. During the period from 1967 to 1968, King challenged the Johnson administration’s ongoing war in Vietnam and the critical needs of the poor. King found the result of such prophetic vision resulted with immediate challenge from critics, ranging from the White House down to fellow religious and civil rights leaders. The advice was “stick with your field”.

King rebuffed the criticism,
Before I became a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. When my father and others put their hands on my head and ordained me to the Christian ministry, it was a commission. Something said to me that the fire of truth is shut up in my bones. When it burns me, I must tell it.

King’s social witness is part of that same Easter witness required of those who believe in Christ’s resurrection. The gospel is not just a mere set of beliefs or a collection of wise sayings and tales given by a first century Jew from backwater Nazareth. The gospel is about being a believer in Easter, not just when it is time to break out the Easter baskets and enjoy the beautiful lily on the mantle. The Easter story should be deep down in you, words that confess Christ as Lord and God. The struggle to believe is mighty, for you wrestle with the life of faith all along life’s journey. Yet, there is truth found in the resurrection that cannot be tamed, one that pushes us beyond the world as we know it, beyond a sense of inevitable fate.

Belief in Christ, rightfully understood, is one that dances with joy and burns deep down in our bones, knowing that there is a greater reality where God is made known.

Becoming a believer is what the Easter faith calls us to embrace. As John's gospel puts it at narrative's end, these things are written down so that you may come to believe. These words are offered to you so that you, who have never seen Christ as these disciples did, may believe and have life. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter is always upon us

http://savannahnow.com/slideshow/2012-02-22/savannahs-civil-rights-movement#slide-1
 
For the first time in awhile, I had the opportunity to preach on Easter Sunday with two congregations in the Adirondacks.  A piece of that sermon also made it into a blog post for Ethics Daily (www.ethicsdaily.com).  Here's the part that I shared via pulpit and blog over the last few days:
 
Years ago, I was in Savannah, Georgia, for yet another Baptist meeting. Spreadsheets, memorandums, and documents to read, meetings to sit through, and then, the dreaded conference hotel meal: “chicken ala something” for lunch or dinner (and occasionally breakfast). However, at this meeting, I felt an earthquake.
Toward the end of the meeting, our committees boarded chartered buses and toured the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Recounting the history of segregation and the crucible of birthing civil rights in Savannah, the museum displayed many historical reminders of the era before and after the mid-20th century. In the midst of these exhibits was a collage of various signs created by protestors during the 1950s and 1960s. One sign stopped me in my tracks. The sign said, “We sacrificed Easter”.
For years, the downtown Savannah stores practiced segregationist ways: no African Americans could sit at the food counter, yet the merchants still sold to the African American community, especially at Easter time, when the demand for “Easter best” clothes was high. Businesses made a bundle, but Jim Crow still ruled without question.

That is, until the black church leaders called for a boycott of stores at Easter. Soon, the businesses discovered that they faced either changing the rules or boarding up their stores from the loss of business. The witness of a group of disciples willing to speak truth to power made a lasting change possible in their town.
Again, I wonder what would happen if we stepped back from the overly familiar way of thinking of Easter (positively, the “fluffy fun” of Easter bonnets, baskets, and bunnies and negatively in many churches with the lament of “our pews are not as full as Easters long ago”). Instead, could we read this text and ask ourselves, “What does this story tell us we need to be seeing as we live out and share the gospel in this community?” Instead, could we let go and experience this text as a story powerful enough to shake the ground beneath our feet?
Easter is not just this one Sunday. Easter is the beginning and the end: the end of our world in its sinful and broken ways and the beginning of a gathering of disciples who do not fear but move forward in the confidence of a faith that summons us not to familiarity and indifference. Rather, we are told “go forth” as a community that can move forth, even though the earth be shaking, even though Caesar would rather have us not being the radical and contrary types that Jesus’ followers are called to be, and speak and live as if Easter is always upon us.
Alleluia! He is risen! Let the people say, “AMEN.”