Thursday, January 18, 2018

Listen Before Speaking: MLK Holiday 2018 and 1 Samuel 3:1-20

I offered the sermon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY, on the Sunday of what some consider the MLK Holiday Weekend, an expansion of the one day civic holiday to include opportunities for learning and service in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Seeing that the Revised Common Lectionary readings suggested 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (aka "the call of Samuel"), I revisited key events in King's life where a sense of call was sensed and sometimes wrestled with by even Dr. King himself.  Here's the sermon:


The call of the prophet Samuel might strike you as “low key”. Many times, we think of God’s voice booming, yet here, God is subtle, drawing in the young man through a quiet calling out that at first leaves young Samuel thinking it’s the voice of his elderly mentor Eli.

When Eli sagely realizes Samuel is not just “hearing things”, he gives some advice: When God speaks again, say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It’s an unexpected moment, a call given as a “stage whisper” by the divine voice that could otherwise rumble across the heavens! Yet God works in a variety of ways, most often in ways we’re sometimes not subtle enough to catch onto!

The call of God can happen to anyone. God knows no partiality! We can be called to serve as pastors or missionaries or chaplains or all manner of church-related vocations. And indeed, God calls and gifts each believer for serving others through “secular” and “sacred” means. For a Christian believer, the “call of God” happens in a variety of ways and sometimes crystal clear and other times at first mostly opaque. Yet God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond? How do we hear God when times are so uncertain that it could be said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b)

In the summer of 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity officer of the American Baptist Convention (now ABC/USA) was seeking material for the “Life Service” Sunday. This was an initiative to encourage churches to place especial emphasis in Sunday worship on church vocations, most particularly the importance of people being called to ministry. The publicity office sought testimony and insight from notable people who epitomized a life lived in service to Christ and the Church. Joan Thatcher reached out to a minister with a rising profile in the late 1950s and certainly a good number of American Baptist connections. She sent a letter to Atlanta, asking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking him to write about his call to ministry. As part of her request to Dr King, Joan Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

Dr King wrote back:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry. (LINK: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/my_call_to_the_ministry/index.html)

These words about “call” were shared across the denomination as part of the 1960 Life Service initiative. We hear this word thanks to the careful archiving of the King Papers, held at Stanford University, and made available online for everyone to access. King is on our minds this weekend with the civic holiday and the various ways communities and organizations recall King’s legacy through celebration and times of service to others in need. We hear these words from 1959 with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what significance King would take on for the Civil Rights Movement, his greatest public speeches yet to be seared into the minds of generations yet to come.

Yet, in this moment of reflection, King recalls a shifting of vocations, uncertain until he was certain about his life’s pathway. It was not in the clarity of a singular moment. I am reminded of J├╝rgen Moltmann who looked back at his life and career as a theologian and observed, “The road emerged only as I walked it.” King came to the realization, yet it was not ultimately a one-time event that overwhelmed. Instead, he found his call to ministry “a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.” He had to hear it, live with it, perhaps run from it, and then embrace it, and as any pastor will admit, then keep embracing it through thick and thin (and there’s plenty of that, if you didn’t know already!).

The life of following Jesus, whether we are a pastor or lay person, a new Christian or a long time believer, is about being on that journey, even when it’s uncertain what will come next. We are gifted to serve Christ and the world in various ways, yet we also know we are not meant to have it “all together” (or if you think you must have it all together, may I give you this kind and liberating word that you do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s Kingdom-Reign)?

Certainly, our brother Martin was given a great call and endured much in his following of that call, yet he could also look back and see where there was a dynamic at work where gradually he came into what God called him to become for the church and most certainly matters of a nation’s soul. King was the son of another Baptist minister, Rev Martin Luther King, Sr. Some accounts recall “Daddy King” as resolute in his vision of his two sons, Martin and A.D., becoming pastors, joining him in the ministry of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He sent Martin at age 15 to the Morehouse College, a prestigious historic black college. (A PBS special next month will explore the HBCU. Similarly, the American Baptist Home Mission Society has a video recalling efforts to establish colleges and universities in the South with Morehouse itself named after a significant executive director of ABHMS, Dr. Henry Morehouse.)

Morehouse College was, as it is well known today, a fine school where King was challenged, especially as a younger than average undergraduate. He made it through his studies, and the time came as he said in his 1959 recollection, “I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.” I note here that later this year, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, TN.

Such a moment will be a sad commemoration, yet it will be remembered because of the witness King had built up in the nation’s conscience. We know the “rest of the story” element of King’s life, yet I think again it is well worth noting another “50th anniversary”, remembering that in February 1948, King was sent forth from Ebenezer and his studies completed at Morehouse that may to become a seminary student at Crozer Seminary in September 1948. (Crozer would later close its Chesterfield, PA, school and merge in with Colgate Rochester, thus giving students and alums for years to come a bit of challenge trying to say their alma mater is “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School” in one breath…) Such moments in a pastor’s life like an ordination service may get shuffled away in the hectic pace of ministry with its mix of sermons to write, meetings to attend, appointments to keep, yet I find recalling these “milestone moments” in my life as a pastor are helpful. Once heard, the call to preach is hard to shake loose.

Yet for King in 1959, he looked back at his vocational pathway, exploring other tracks of professional development, embracing the call, then living it out in the years since 1948. Over that next eleven year period, he would marry, start a family, earn a Ph.D, and be called to his first “solo” pastorate, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama. From there, King would become part of the Montgomery Bus boycott alongside Rosa Parks, help found activist groups, including what is now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would become known increasingly around the United States, meeting with presidents and other national leaders. He would feature on the cover of TIME Magazine and publish his first book Stride Toward Freedom.

 Yet, that same time period, those years of “saying yes” to his call also came with the experience of unsettling anonymous calls and letters threatening violence. In late January 1958, King would be sleepless after a disturbing phone call. He found himself in prayer, “Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

In response, King recalls, It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." I tell you I've seen the lightning flash. I've heard the thunder roar. I've felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. Three nights later, King’s home would be bombed. Mercifully, no one was hurt, yet he knew it could have been easily otherwise for his family. Remarkably, King would call for nonviolent response, even as the violence around him threatened to continue. [LINK: https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230026/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/chp_8.htm]

Flash forward to 1959 and he receives this correspondence from the American Baptist Convention. “Could you tell us about your call to ministry, Dr. King? What can you say to inspire especially our youth to explore God’s calling to ministry and mission?” Considering the long path from that initial call to preach, to the wrestling to accept it, to the affirmation and blessing of ordination to schooling and then to such a ministry as this, Dr. King could write of ministry as a call to be embraced and a pilgrimage he found himself on, not for his gain or glory, but to serve the God who called him to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community. What do you hear in this word today, whether it is taken from the call to a young child of ancient Israel or a 20th century Baptist whose legend and legacy may make us miss out on the man who struggled through the long haul and tumult?

How do we understand how to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community? Like Samuel, King was called to tell the people that the Lord was ready to bring a mighty word: “See, I am about to do something….that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (cf. I Samuel 3:11)

So I leave you with this troubling yet fruitful word: God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond?

(Most helpful for this sermon: the MLK chronology published by Stanford’s King Papers Project: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-resources/major-king-events-chronology-1929-1968)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Heralding the New (Simeon's Song from Luke 2)

On the fireplace mantle of my parent’s home, shepherds, magi, a barn full of animals, and an angel hovering above, have attended the holy family these last few weeks. The Nativity set hails back to my mother’s time as a nurse in the early 1970s, a career she gave up when lo unto her, I was born. During her years there, my mother was given this nativity set made by some of the patients. It is one of her treasures in this life, and every year, the Nativity figurines appear in the wooden manger scene that my father built. Even though I do not get home very often for Christmas, I know without a doubt, the Nativity is there.

The Holy Family appears on fireplace mantles, windowsills, even underneath some household’s Christmas trees. Folk who would not consider themselves religious will have one. Perhaps it is just the cultural influence, but I wonder if the image strikes a primal chord within. The scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus reminds us of one facet of human life: family. That word “family” can be complicated, as not all household configurations are the same, not all families have good stories to tell. Somehow, thought, deep down, we are drawn to these figures of mother, father, and child. The Holy Family is holy, yet they are also like us, persons hewn in the same flesh as the rest of us, prone to suffering and joy, part of this world where one can know great success and great hardship.

While most of us just put out the Holy Family or Nativity sets and leave them there, there is one tradition that recalls the great difficulty of Mary and Joseph finding no immediate welcome or hospitality. For many Hispanic Christians, there is a grand tradition celebrated from December 16 to Christmas Eve, called Las Posadas, with each house in the neighborhood agreeing to be the host of each evening’s celebration. Each evening, adults, and children go through the neighborhood, carrying candles, little statues of Joseph guiding a donkey bearing the pregnant Mary, and the crowd sings of the Holy Family looking for a place. They go household to household, ritually turned away until they arrive at the host’s home, where they are welcomed inside.

The lack of hospitality in Bethlehem is one part of the many hardships endured by the Holy Family. The annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary is scandalous as Mary conceives the child out of wedlock and while most certainly a virgin. The hardship of travel to Bethlehem while pregnant, the annoyance of having to be compliant with a census demanded by the occupying Roman government, the frantic scramble to find a decent place to spend the night, and…oh no! Mary’s water just broke!

The scene at the Temple is passed over in the stories of Jesus’ birth. We focus on the manger and the shepherds, angels, and magi. Nevertheless, here again is a story that fits into the difficulties faced by this family. More travel is necessitated, this time to Jerusalem, to fulfill the baby’s ritual purification requirements. Mary and Joseph make their way to the Temple, a place where the people of God gave praise and sacrifice and class distinctions as pilgrims found themselves dealing with the commerce built up around the Temple. The choice of two turtledoves sounds quaint, given the Victorian era carol regarding what one gets over the twelve days of Christmas. The selection, however, gives a very clear indication of Mary and Joseph’s peasant status. These two birds were all they could manage to afford.

To be a peasant in the first century CE was to be one of the multitudes of people who eked out a living as artisans, carpenters, fishers, and day laborers. There was no middle class in Jesus’ day (might not be the same much longer in our day, for that matter), just the peasants, the very few who owned land, and the elite. If you could make a living, you were lucky. If you were a landowner, you were among the few.  If you were an elite, you lived the good life, standing on the backs of everyone else beneath you while helping Rome and its local government thugs to assure your comfort and status (at least for now).

Studying the gospels necessarily involves understanding that most of Jesus’ inner circle, the crowds hearing his teachings, the recipients of his miracles and healings, and the demonically possessed were from the peasantry of the day. Most of his conflicts came from those who were vested in keeping the Temple’s religious and economic interests or keeping Rome’s vice grip of power on Palestine, Jerusalem, and anywhere else that Rome decided it should have power.

We learn that the Holy Family is set in a scene not too far off from our own day, the one that perhaps we try to make go away this time of year. We want a reprieve from the bills, the worries about utility costs rising, the deadlines at work, the anxiety of not having a job or at least one that pays a livable wage, the doctor’s report that we didn’t want to hear, the bully that will still be there on the playground when school resumes after New Year’s. The Holy Family becomes that set of parents you know, struggling to make ends meet, hoping that they have enough to care for their newborn, even if they have to go with one less meal themselves.

Years ago when visiting Ireland, the train we were on loaded up its passengers, and there they were, not “the” Holy Family, but a young family with a little baby, settling into seats near us. The couple could not have been older than perhaps their early 20s, and the baby was not quite a toddler, content to sit on a little table between his parents. For the record, the baby was not a “tiny terror” baby: that child that you somehow get “blessed” to be with on a transatlantic flight, who bellows at high decibel shortly after takeoff and just before landing, or who keeps wondering all over a public event, getting agitated once the parent finally scoops the child up in arms. No, this baby knew he had a good deal. He was cute, and with every burble, every passenger playing “peek-a-boo” with him (myself included), the baby held court among his loyal subjects.

The train door opened, and a grizzled looking old man, postcard of Ireland perfect, came through the doorway, heading for the diner car just behind us. The guy looked like he was itching for a Guinness and some conversation about the latest football match and his scowl said do not stray him from his task. As he passed the young couple, he stopped in his tracks, and a slight smile creased his wrinkled face. With a long bony finger, he tickled the baby’s chin and the baby gurgled with glee.

The old man said, “Long life to thee. May ye walk the earth many years.” With that, off he went.

In the midst of the hubbub of life, in the struggles and challenges of the Holy Family, along comes this elder named Simeon. He spotted them across the courtyard, made his way to them, and as he beheld the infant Jesus; he could not help but burst into song.

Simeon is described as an elderly man who lived his long, long life “awaiting God to comfort Israel”. He has kept a deep and abiding sense of hope that God would provide for his people. The Greek word for “comfort” is “paraklesis”, which is to say that one has “a sense of an aid or help [that] one [can] lean on”. In another Gospel, Jesus tells his faithful that after He has returned to God, Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, calling the Spirit the “Paraclete”. Simeon has spent his life not worrying about how things are going, or when things will come crashing down. Simeon has learned to wait upon God.

Simeon is one of the many faithful folk you encounter while reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that there was once a father who embraced the prodigal, or God being like a woman who never stops looking for that lost coin. Earlier in the story, Mary sees great promise rather than personal scandal in having a firstborn child with no wedding ring yet. Throughout Luke, the many who eat at table with Jesus and are bedazzled or befuddled by a new worldview beckoning in an after-dinner parable.

The Gospel of Luke keeps tossing that word paraklesis here and there into the narrative, particularly as it relates to what people ought to be looking for. Jesus claims the rich, the select few “elite”, have to find their comfort. To Jesus, the poor comprised most of his audience, inner circle, and nearly anyone else around. He claims the poor have another sort of gold standard: the kingdom of God, a vision of the world that Jesus’ disciples have continued to seek, live out, and await for two millennia.

Simeon sees the world with its rough edges, undoubtedly the scars to prove it, just like you and me. He knows that Rome likes to keep control by peace-veiled fear, he knows the Temple itself has become less than what it was intended to be. He knows that this baby will be the great hope he is awaiting as well as one who will suffer mightily in bringing things about. Yet, Simeon knows that in the moment, as well as the beginning and the end, God has the last and abiding word

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Last weekend, I found myself in a similar moment of great anticipation. The lines were long at the movie theatre, but somehow with some friends and my spouse and what seemed to cost about the same as a down payment on the national debt to purchase popcorn and soda, we made it to our seats.

Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi began with the traditional “opening scroll” setting up the story about to unfold, accompanied as always by the powerful overture of maestro John Williams. This time around, the opening scroll talks about the dire circumstances of the Rebels against the First Order, the post-Darth Vader bad guys. The last film in the series left heaviness with the death of a key character and a great deal of loss.

Yet, the narrator holds out that good word that “a spark of hope” will rekindle the fortunes of the downtrodden. A return of Luke Skywalker might be the ignition that the future needs!

Throughout the new Star Wars’ film, characters keep talking about hope: its absence and its abundance. They face difficult situations and great threats, yet even in the depths of loss, the characters find something greater. When Luke is found, he is a hermit, living where he would prefer not to be found and resigned that he had failed. For someone thought to be “the” spark of hope, he is just as down and dejected as those who are on the front lines. What will it take?

For Star Wars, it’s the Force, a somewhat mystical power that solves all manner of plot devices (while creating no end of plot holes, if you talk to the particularly faithful fan base! So the Force is a great human idea, not really anything approaching God’s way of being with us in the world).

As a Christian believer in the midst of Advent, I could feel an even greater hope stirring within, as pop culture often reflects the glimmerings of what the Gospel reveals in full: despite the world doing its worst, Christ brings us into an abiding, lasting hope and way of living our lives faithfully, boldly and without any fears. Luke’s Gospel shows us the true power in the world, one that has no patience for Empire, nor a desire to be anything like whatever humans could conjure up alone. 

No wonder we believers have such great joy in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the hope given has raised up the persecuted, the marginalized and the forgotten, just as surely as Mary’s great song, aka the Magnificat.

At Christmas Eve, we turn from the lead-up to the great Nativity stories themselves. Boldly, we hear this word: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors”, is the message of the angels. As for the earthly powers that be, those who see the world as their plaything, it is a word that they would not want to hear, even if the angels showed up in the halls of power rather than the meadows out in a remote place. The ministry of Christ is one that takes each person seriously as God’s beloved, worthy of worth, able to be the glory of God, fully alive, as an early Christian theologian would put it. A spark of divine hope, indeed!

But how does the believer live in the here and now, where the powers that be would frankly find such talk annoying as it is sort of hard to keep an empire running when the glory is directed elsewhere to a much higher authority (i.e. God who is neither Caesar nor one of many). The Roman Empire plastered every wall with their promise of “Pax Romana”, but any cursory study of Jesus’ day reveals that it was rarely and holistically for every person. (Indeed, Rome was the original Empire that strikes back!) Comparatively, the angels above sing of peace meant for the good of all, not just a politicized commodity that you can control at your whim or to your advantage.

Thus, that baby in a manger is a contrary word to the world very content to keep to its own devices and vices alike. No matter where you flip through the pages of the gospels, Christ in the manger, Christ and his parables, Christ on the cross, Christ and the empty tomb, all are stories of unexpected twists that God alone brings to the plot of life and the status quo we have come to expect or to which we have resigned ourselves.

We seek a lot of things in life, sometimes because we want the perfect moment, the right path, or the charmed life. Christ lays flat all these things, asking us to look at the unlikely, the unadorned, and see there in its vulnerable humility all the power and glory in the most hidden of places. Sin can be found frequently in the world’s glittering appeal, yet in the midst of the world came the Word made flesh, nestled into the swaddling clothes that constrain a baby, and by choice, God’s Son come to be with us, Emmanuel.

That manger may not look like much, but if you look more intently, you will see the very glory of God shining forth as the cattle low, the shepherd bustle in from the hinterlands, and Mary and Joseph marveling at this wee babe born in Bethlehem, destined for Golgotha and here to redeem the world.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent One: Turned the Right Way

On a walk in my neighborhood this week, I noticed the lawn and home decorations for Christmas have arrived in earnest.  Some folks appeared to change to Christmas just after Halloween, but most waited until Thanksgiving dinner leftovers were parceled into twelve days of Tupperware.
One yard had two familiar decorations: an inflatable lawn ornament and a Nativity set.  For the former, I find the daytime walk a bit disconcerting, as the family is not home, so the decoration’s fans are shut off.  At night, you will see a jolly old St. Nick standing on the lawn with a bag of presents over his shoulder.  During the day with the power turned off, the decoration’s fabric is a misshapen lump on the ground, as if Santa stepped out of the sleigh at 30,000 feet and met his untimely end.
The grace of the Nativity set thankfully saved me from other distasteful imaginings.  The plastic form of the Holy Family, the Three Kings, a Shepherd and a couple of cows returned my mind to more sacred matters. 
While my beloved New Testament professor Dr. David M. May (Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City) has reminded a generation of students each year in the Intro to the Gospels course, the Magi likely did not arrive anytime close to Jesus’ infancy, nor was it likely that the cows paid much attention to the family suddenly taking up the corn crib for a makeshift cradle. 

The reality is that the Nativity took place in the midst of an overcrowded small village, the cacophony of strangers from the hinterlands grumbling about being summoned by the Romans and laughing uproariously at the inn’s tavern likely overwhelmed the newborn cry of little baby Jesus. 
The Nativity set can be “lawn decoration”, but I suspicion in our less religiously adherent times, the sight of one usually marks a household wishing to honor devotion rather than custom or cultural expectation.  Nativity sets are not common in my neighborhood, located in Albany, New York, part of the “Capital District”, which is one of the leading “less religious” metropolitan areas in the United States. 
Around these parts, beholding the Nativity in front of a private home tends to signal more intention to share faith than decorate like the Griswold family of cinematic lore.
Curiously, this Nativity set was arranged differently than I had seen in the past.  The Manger is at the center, but the “grown-up” characters of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi are not positioned in a way that you might expect.  Instead of sprawled out to show the scene to the passing car or pedestrian, the figures are focused on the Manger in the middle.  You are more likely see the backs of some figures, all turned inward to direct one’s gaze to the baby.
With the candles of Advent ahead of us, the “12 Days of Christmas” already playing on repeat in the aisles of box stores praying for your brick and mortar commerce, and the sugar shock of various holiday gatherings for home, family and workplace still to tempt us into weight gain, I hope we too will find ourselves turned in the right direction.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christ and the Powers that be

Of late, we have had much conversation about the role of power and authority in the world, mostly because we are looking for better examples of human beings using such things wisely and without grievous result!

For Christians, we ponder the words of Jesus, who teaches he is “the way, the truth, and the light”. We take strength in this teaching and use it as a compass for our way forward into a world of competition and contradiction.  The last Sunday before Advent begins is a celebration of that power:  Christ the King, or Ruler, is proclaimed by the church even as the world thinks of Christmas as one long season of retail magic!

Yet, we must also realize Jesus said these things about power and God's reign in the midst of the same world we know, where some ancient yet distressingly familiar "powers that be" type worldly forces ultimately conspired to do him harm.

Rome and the Temple have their own teachings, and they are not in step, or in remote agreement, with Jesus’ claim to truth. Jesus is not a king of this world. His disciples will not turn to violence. Indeed, these are strange words for Empire to hear, a kingdom deeply vested in having the right amount of troops, weaponry, and control at all times.

When brought before the Roman authorities, Jesus found himself with Pilate, whose questions want to know what sort of king and kingdom Jesus claims. Jesus’ answers are lost on Pilate, as Jesus is not the sort of king of a kingdom that Pilate can understand. Pilate’s career was built upon the dominance of empire. The Temple elite vested their authority through mostly economic maneuverings. In his fine robes, Pilate seems the epitome of “the ways things are to be”, whereas Jesus, roughed up from his captors’ handling, appears to bear the consequence for speaking against “the way things are to be”.

Indeed, Pilate’s question about kingship is turned to a question of truth. Not the “truthiness” of Empire or Temple, the sort of truth that is good for the moment, Jesus seeks to witness, to embody even, the truth of the world as God intends it to be. The truth of Pilate and the Temple will unveil itself within the next generation as a local uprising will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. As for the Church, the early Christians will experience great hardship and persecution themselves, yet it will be the truth Jesus offers that shall allow them great strength and endurance. Pilate’s cynicism demonstrates the hard heart of the world. In hearing the truth, Pilate only hears what he wanted to hear. “What is truth?” is not the beginning of a new sort of conscience taking root. Indeed, with a dismissive sneer, Pilate sends Jesus away for the next step toward the cross.

What sort of people, what sort of “kingdom” is formed by this story? It seems to end with tragedy, yet the gospel reshapes the status quo in the resurrection of Jesus. The kingdoms of Rome and Temple, the “middle men” of Pilate and the Temple elite, shall not stand, even though they seem to hold all of the cards right now. What sort of people does this story intend to empower?

I recall the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian whose career as a gifted theologian and teacher was cut short by the tumult of the Second World War. Bonhoeffer saw the effect of another sort of Empire on the rise, growing in power and might, rising above the reproach of question and fashioning its own “truth” as the way things ought to be.

 While Bonhoeffer would die in the last days of the Second World War at a concentration camp (sentenced to death as part of a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler), his writings remain as a counter-witness to the powers of his day. While living in the turbulence of the times, Bonhoeffer offered a counter-witness to the “way things are to be” being impressed upon his nation.

As he taught seminary students in the mid-1930s, he offered lectures that became his book called “Discipleship”. Therein, Bonhoeffer mentions this same Johannine text in passing as he describes what sort of discipleship is required by the gospel. He writes, “If it engages the world properly, the visible church-community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord” (Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, English translation. Fortress Press, 2003, p. 247-8).

The same question that confused the powers is the same question that challenges (perhaps “haunts”?) the Church. How do we hear this story? Is through ears and hearts shaped by the world, or by those shaped by the gospel? There are stories at competition within us, being of the world and not of the world.

What does it mean to take leave of “the ways things are to be” and “more closely assume the form of [our] suffering Lord”?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Building and ReBuilding: A sermon on the occasion of the 200th year of First Baptist Rome, New York

Preaching at church anniversaries is an occasional duty of Regional ministry, yet I also take great joy in the opportunity!  The First Baptist Church of Rome, New York, celebrated its 200th this past Sunday, and this fall, we have also had churches celebrating 175th and 250th anniversaries as well.

The spread of Baptists across New York State is often told in tandem with NYS Civic History.  The Erie Canal's 200th anniversary is underway in 2017, and among the festivities and retrospectives is the excellent exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY:   Enterprising Waters New York's Erie Canal.  The exhibit will run until October 20, 2019. (For more information, click: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/enterprising-waters-erie-canal
         
I was invited to speak at the Sunday morning worship service of FBC Rome, and I noted quickly the connection of FBC Rome's formation a few months after the Canal's section in Rome began excavation and construction.  I wove the sermon around the theme Scripture:  1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 along with excerpts from a historian's retelling of the Canal's start in Rome and the memories shared within the church's own historical narrative.  My thanks to Rev Cedric Broughton, pastor of FBC Rome, for his work along with the lay leaders serving on the committee for planning a festive celebration in honor of 200 years of ministry and mission!
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           Grace and peace be with you this day!  I am grateful for the privilege and honor of serving as the preacher for this celebratory Sunday morning, recalling the past and committing anew to the future of this congregation. 

To the congregants and friends of First Baptist gathered here this day, to the clergy past and present, especially Revs. Broughton and Htee Gay, and to your former minister and later on our Region’s Executive Minister, the Rev. Dr. William Carlson, I bring greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ and on behalf of the 294 churches of our upstate New York regional family.

With the words of Paul to the church in Corinth in mind, I begin with a moment taken from the pages of local history:

On July 4, 1817, a boisterous throng of citizens paraded out of their small village in central New York before sunrise.  They were armed, but not for war.  Many had been up all night celebrating the holiday and the impending grand event.  They proceeded to a flat, marshy meadow studded with hemlock and birch a mile south of town.  Each carried a shovel.

These words are from the historian Jack Kelly, who researched the development of the Erie Canal as well as the changes the Canal project brought to upstate New York all across its eventual path.  Here Kelly recalls what happened two hundred years ago when the town of Rome, NY, began its significant contribution to the earliest stages of the Erie Canal’s excavation and construction.  (Quotation above from Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal, New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016, p. 40) 

The year 1817 was a good year also in Rome, as that was the year First Baptist was founded.  Certainly, Baptists had been around these parts for years before, but this was the time when a church body was formally established for the purposes of regular worship. On that day in October 1817, there was no church building to gather in at the time.  Certainly, much work had to be done if the loosely organized group was ever going to become a church that lasted.  Small in number, these faithful folks brought faith, willingness to serve and their differing skills and talents.  For those who endeavored against the odds to found First Baptist, each carried their faith.

From the church’s history, newly revised for the 200th anniversary, we read:

In the summer and autumn of the year of our Lord, 1817, several members of different Baptist churches residing in Rome and its vicinity became impressed with an idea that it would promote the declarative glory of God; the honor of the Redeemer’s kingdom and their own happiness (If God in His providence should so order the state of things and prepare the hearts of his children for it) to have a church formed amongst them. Accordingly, after having given notice in the vicinity, they met to consult upon it at the schoolhouse in Wright Settlement, Rome on the 23rd day of October, 1817. The meeting was opened by singing and prayer by Elder Stark. Brother Simeon Hersey was chosen moderator and Brother James H. Sherman, Clerk.   

            We come today to celebrate the 200th anniversary of First Baptist, Rome, even as the State celebrates the same anniversary year for the Erie Canal.  One cannot understand the history of Rome without the Canal, just as surely as First Baptist cannot tell its story in isolation from being embedded in that history as well.  Out of the origins of spirited collaboration, Rome and this congregation faced the future with great zeal, with the uncertainty and opportunity that accompanied such risk taking.  Two hundred years later, with the challenges and celebrations alike that shape history, we are here looking back with gratitude and thanksgiving that indeed “God in His providence so order[ed] the state of things and prepare[d] the hearts of his children for it.”

Such splendid language of faith was also needed when the Erie Canal project was proposed.  Jack Kelly recounts the extreme challenge of designing and engineering a canal when no previous attempt had been successful or enthusiastically supported in the history (to that point) of the United States.  Indeed, the canal became known as a gamble on the part of New York State, its chances of federal funds blocked by President James Madison who vetoed the bill just before his Presidency ended, citing a disdain for federal funds to be used in such manner (Heaven’s Ditch, p. 32).  New York’s Assembly gave the go-ahead, entrusting a major project to engineers who were largely self-taught.  Coming to Rome in early July 1817, the dignitaries realized they were staking their good names on the significant work that loomed ahead with little assurance of future success, let alone project completion.  Reviewing the project’s scope, one could identify many variables and unknowns, yet these New Yorkers dared to try anyway.  The many talents, the shared willingness to risk against the odds, that’s how the largest canal project in American history got underway!
 
            In the New Testament, we learn of the great strength of the Christian church comes from the Spirit gifting each believer with their own abilities for ministry.  Many congregations today struggle to remember this truth faced with challenges of attendance, building issues and cash flow struggles.  The greatest asset of a church is its willingness to take up the call to follow Jesus and empower each and every person in the membership to bring what God has given them uniquely and blessedly for the good of the whole Body. 

Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, a group that deals with a lot of internal division and dissension.  Calling the fragmented factions back together, Paul proclaims,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 

As Paul tries to sort out the issues afflicting the Corinthians, he wisely works toward the healing of the whole gathered people. He speaks of gifts for good reasons. Each Christian is gifted with some talent or ability that contributes to the furtherance of the work of the Gospel. No one is without usefulness to the community of faith. No one is “less than” another. It is a remarkable thing in this world to be told that you have something to offer.  The Church may struggle to say that consistently, graciously and intentionally.  We have our good days and our not so good days, but when we are at our best, we welcome the diversity of gifts rather than narrow it down.  For without God and one another, do we really have a chance of being something greater than an individual or alone?

Meanwhile back in July 1817, the dignitaries would finish their speaking.  The cannons boomed aloud to mark the moment.  And then the contractor was handed a spade to turn the earth.  After he did, “the gesture touched off a frenzy of flying dirt.  Everyone in attendance began to dig, ‘each vying with the other’ said the Utica Gazette, in the pure joy of participating in history”(Kelly, p. 41).
            Likewise, great joy fueled the desire to form a Baptist church in Rome that would come to be known as “First Baptist, Rome.”  Certainly, we tell the story of a congregation sometimes by the litany of pastors who served and what happened during their tenure.  Yet, in the midst of the “official narrative”, it is not just the leaders (ordained and lay) who have made a congregation’s history all alone.   To understand a church’s history, we recall our origins not in 1817, but in the early decades of the first century, when at the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God stirred up the women and men following Jesus, and the Gospel spread with not frenzy, but evangelical fervor! 

Indeed, the best parts of a congregation’s history are when you see evidence that the “many members” of “the Whole Body” become engaged in the ministry of the church.  It’s not meant to be just about the decisions, committee meetings and official minutes of the Church that tell the history.  I look especially at congregational histories to see evidence of when the grit, determination, cooperation and “pure joy of participating” can be discerned in the midst of yellowing pages of old minutes, financial ledgers, newsletters, and other ephemera that collect as a church’s history slowly unfolds.

            The story of First Baptist, Rome, continues to be written.  Even in the past twenty five years since your 175th anniversary observance, your church has encountered challenges (building issues, changing community and its effect on church attendance).  Yet, you’ve been blessed like other parts of the Mohawk Valley with the influx of new settlers, coming not from places like Wales and other European contexts two hundred years ago, but from Myanmar and Thailand.  Welcoming the Karen as part of your fellowship and Htee Gay to your pastoral staff likely was not something you would have predicted in 1992 when the church gathered for its last “big anniversary”. 

            Celebrating today, First Baptist, Rome, can count its blessings while acknowledging the challenges that come inevitably with time’s passage and a community’s economic and social changes.  Your church has been the spiritual home of canal diggers, foundry workers, military families stationed nearby, merchants, homemakers, students and people starting life anew from other places far beyond the Erie Canal’s path.  Blessings upon blessings upon blessings!

            Can we just let that wonderful word soak in for a moment?  Imagine with me what has come before:

All of those wonderful folks who loved the Lord, who loved this congregation and what the church could do for Christ and the world, we remember the two hundred years now coming to a close

And then can we look to the future, seeing challenge and opportunity alike, realizing that God has gifted this church with the great potential of each and every member who chooses to share their gifts and open up possibilities for others to exercise their own individual gift for the greater good.  In such moments, we look to the future just like those folks in October 1817, knowing that God continues providentially to “order the state of things and prepare the hearts of [all God’s] children for it.”

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Recommended resources:

A short history of the NY State Canals:  https://www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html

Kelly, Jack.  Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal. (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016).

A website related to Heaven’s Ditch:  https://heavensditch.com/
 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Generation to Generation (Psalm 145)


As the fall is underway (though this weekend up in the 80s/low 90s seemed to contradict), churches return to "active mode" with their schedules and programming. As it happens, the Revised Common Lectionary suggests the 145th Psalm for the last Sunday of September, so I preached on this text as part of my visit to the First Baptist Church of Ossining, NY, ministering in a diverse community along the Hudson, just about 20 miles north of the NYC line.

(READ PSALM 145)

In some Christian churches, I could ask this question: What is the chief end of man [humanity]? Many in the congregation reply: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
How did they know this? Thanks to catechism.

While we Baptists might associate the word catechism more with Catholicism, a number of Protestant traditions use catechism as well, particularly in the Reformed traditions, especially Presbyterians and Lutherans. Catechism sets up a series of questions and answers for Christians to learn the vocabulary of faith and the beliefs central to Christianity. The question about “the chief end of humanity”, our identity and destiny, appears as Question #1 in some catechisms. 

So, why is this brief handful of words considered so great, so central to what it means to be Christian? To give God due praise and glory means that no other shall receive your faithfulness and dedication. God alone receives our praise and glory, and our understanding of life cannot be without a sense of humility that we exist not for ourselves. Such a faith is unflinching in its theism (i.e. there is a God) and its willingness to say that we give our trust and allegiance to God alone.
In the midst of our lives, such talk may sound too lofty or worse, detached from the life we know. To say that humanity’s very reason for being, our reason for being is to praise God is even difficult. We typically struggle with questions of life, trying to sort out the puzzles and the pain of human existence however the plain-spoken words of this question and answer ought to cause some troubling in your soul. Such thinking calls our bluff and asks us to think about what we really mean when we say we are believers. Is this conversation this morning a “nice thought” meant as a Sunday morning listening yet lost in the shuffle of the other six days of the week, or does this question illumine the faith of Christianity, with its way of discipleship that asks very hard questions of us? 

Answering with “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” is harder than just learning and repeating these words. To live it out means you commit to living out faith daily. Somehow, in the whirlwind of family and deadlines, in the midst of the headlines of the world and the headlines of your little corner of the world, such belief is a tall order. How does one learn such a way of life? And more to the point, can you risk life by living that way?
In the midst of the world, in the great times of trial, the praise of God can take place in every season of life, and it is indeed fitting for us to do so. Giving praise to God is in part a realization that our lives twist and turn, and often without much warning, yet we still recognize the goodness that God intends for the world, even when we cannot see much of it ourselves. 
Christians believe that in the end, whether it is our own or that of this world, God shall have the last word. God shall make all things well. As Augustine said, restless hearts will find their rest in God. To give praise to God, even in the midst of your worst days, understands our lives so much differently, cast not to the winds, but in loving trust of the One who has made us. 
Appropriately, the 145th Psalm raises up a long liturgy of praise. Of all the psalms, many of which call us to praise, this one begins with a self-description. Rather than perhaps “a psalm of David” common for many psalms, the superscription, or title, is simply tehillah, or in English: “Praise”. The psalmist just leaves it at that: “this one…it is praise.” To understand this psalm, you need not look any further than this one word: “praise”. 

Down the centuries, a rabbinical tradition arose, stating, “Every [person] who repeats the Tehillah [praise] of David thrice a day may be sure he is a child of the world to come” (cited Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, 1994, p. 437) Reading this psalm, measuring its words with your heart and mind, is offered as a good word, one that guides you through this life, helping you know your identity against all the other claims of the world to tell you who you are. One could rail against rote (indeed, catechism is often criticized as rote faith), yet in the repetition, if you look closely, you shall find a rhythm worth taking up in your own life. In reading this psalm in times of sorrow, in times of joy, in the midst of disaster and when going to bed after a ho-hum day, this psalm keeps turning us back to our reason for being.

In the midst of this psalm, we find the same wisdom that prompted the later Christian observation that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. The life we live ought to be a life of praise, yet not one that is trite or errs on the side of living faith as if it is “magic” (if I pray or live a certain way, I’ll get a free pass from the unpredictable part of human existence). This sort of praise is meant for those who have diplomas from the School of Hard Knocks. The psalms reflect ancient Israel’s own story, shaped as much by pathos as praise, as much about lament as hope. And in the midst of the collection, we are offered a psalm that points to the life we know as well as the life to come.

We have a holy calling to be involved in the education and upbringing of each child and youth in our congregations. After all, we did not learn the ways of faith alone. We too are the product of the investment and love of generations who have gone on before us. In turn, we share the faith, and hopefully take it very, very seriously as a key investment in what it means to be a congregation. Each of us is responsible for sharing faith and helping our children and youth know that life may be complex, life may even get deeply sorrowful, yet there is a world to come that is worth living and a great calling to live this life fully. This is not just the work of Sunday school teachers. This is not just the work of a Christian education board. This is not just the work of a pastor. It is the responsibility of each one of us to be invested in children, whether just learning to walk, or starting to bridge across the stages of life. You have the wonderful challenge of “being there” for our kids!

I remember very well the witness of grown-ups who made the faith come alive. Teaching a Sunday School class, helping train me to be an usher, welcoming my voice (going through puberty even) into the choir, asking good questions and acknowledging me in the room as the young kid, the moody teenager, the young adult (with the assurance of knowing all things despite knowing very little). I was blessed by those who remembered their faith was not just “theirs” to have, but to share and kindle anew a spark, a flame and a love of God made known through Jesus Christ.

We did not use catechism, so “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” did not get communicated by a standardized teaching. Yet it was there, so when I read what other Christians were taught, I could agree with the good word it imparted. I had seen it lived out in the lives of the church folk who helped raise me up in the faith. I could savor the words of “glorifying and enjoying God forever” as words of faith, not only passed down to me but kept by me as words that anchor me. And today, I share the faith with you through my preaching and through our connections together through the American Baptist tradition and our ministry together as fellow American Baptists in upstate New York.

Sometimes, people will pick up on the fact I do not sound like I’m from the Northeast. (This accent is not from the Bronx nor is it from Maine, so I do “sound funny” pretty much at the outset of talking aloud to folks out here.) The question gets asked, “How did somebody from Kansas get out here?” (I suspicion I would be believed if I casually said it was due to a tornado and some winged monkeys.)
To answer that question is not about “jobs” or “opportunities”. I begin not with a roadmap or some GPS directions. I share that I am here thanks to first learning of the faith from a little Methodist church in a rural Kansas farming community. Later on, my family joined the local American Baptist church, especially for myself and my dad that day in 1984 through confession of faith, profession of Christ as Lord and going fully into the waters of baptism. How I wound up here today is a long journey that is still unfolding, still being discovered, somewhat on my own and somewhat on the way along with the gathered people called “Church”. Without a doubt, I can look back at that history thus far and say, “Praise be to God!” And I know I’m simply joining the rest of the choir, generations present, down the centuries of the past and with those who I hope will hear this sermon today and decide to join along this journey of faith!

Wherever we go in our lives, no matter how our lives play out in one time or another during the seasons of life, we are best known not as people with a list of successes or failures to our name. We are a people who know where we are going and what we should be doing in the times in between. We are a people called to a singular way of life, to praise God now and forevermore.