Sunday, May 29, 2016

Harvesting the Grain: Remarks for the First Baptist Church of Herkimer, NY at its closing of 182 years of ministry

            In the summer and fall of 1801, a Massachusetts Congregational minister was sent on a preaching tour to evangelize upstate New York.  The minister kept a journal, and the entries frequently expressed dismay and even irritation at the lack of religion as well as the type of Protestants that already had settled in the area.   In his journal entries, the traveling preacher records these words:  “The county of Herkimer contains 14,503, and no minister, excepting illiterate Baptist preachers.” 

            The rude word of this visiting evangelist dismissed what was otherwise quite evident in his findings.  Even at the turn of the 19th century, the area had many Baptists, who were willing to be faithful to the Gospel, build some of the earliest area churches and kept a good witness as towns and cities developed in these parts.  While the minister measured God’s favor and the one true religion based solely on counting Congregationalist numbers (and we Baptists have been just as guilty ourselves), religion in the developing Herkimer County area was blessed by those who were willing to be in the minority (i.e. religious when not too many around them chose to be) and in the midst of their community.
Flash forward to 1888.  Herkimer’s Baptists organized on February 17, 1888, with nineteen charter members.  A few years later, the present church building dedicated on July 8, 1902, just over a hundred years after that Massachusetts missionary had declared not much hope for the area.  For the past 128 years, Baptists in Herkimer have been part of the community and even called in more recent years a pastor who had standing with the Congregationalists.  (Somewhere up above, that old missionary likely fainted.)   
Flash forward to May 2016.  Leading up to this day, undoubtedly memories of the past have been on the minds of the congregants, former congregants and friends of the church as the decision was made to dissolve this church.  We come here to mourn a closing but also to give God due glory for the Baptists who preceded this church, who sustained this congregation over 128 years and the legacy being left to support Baptists here and elsewhere around upstate New York through the ABCNYS Region. 
Churches tell their story often through the official church histories written and published, surely some of you have these keepsakes at your home along with other treasures.  The nooks and crannies of church buildings with bulging filing cabinets and old boxes of bulletins and mementoes tell part of that story.  But more importantly, you come today with memories held close to the heart and replayed in one’s mind that tell the stories less likely to be captured by historians.  This place is where baptisms and communion, potlucks and board meetings, weddings and baby presentations, wedding anniversaries, celebrations, recollections of times of peace within the church body and times of disagreement (It wouldn’t be a Baptist church if there weren’t occasions when somebody fussed at somebody else).  And, of course, we gathered to say goodbye to a loved one, sing some hymns and give God due glory and thanksgiving for a life now ended.
All of these memories are close to the surface especially this day, and so we have our feelings mixed with gratitude, thanksgiving, hurts and pondering questions of “what if?”  It’s all there and it’s all welcome as we remember rightly the complex tapestry of narratives that remind that a church made up of human beings, trying our best to be faithful to the Word, and yet being like any other church body throughout Christianity’s existence, jars of clay, fragile and fallible yet treasures before the Lord.
We mourn the day as a time of closure and loss.  Yet, can we also remember that history has a good and holy purpose within it?  Just as the grumpy preacher from Massachusetts found in 1801, the Baptists in these parts are made of stern stuff.  While the church here at this corner in downtown Herkimer comes to a close, the legacy of First Baptist will be just as rugged and durable as the origins of the first Baptist settlers of Herkimer County. 
Even as the church struggled in recent years with declining numbers and resources, the congregants and Pastor Bell deepened in their love of this community and its needs.  A backpack program was started for transient persons to help them in their daily needs.  Coffee with a Cop provided a safe place for citizens and police officers to gather to talk about the community’s needs and build up trust when other parts of our country struggle.  Congregants gathered to discuss the different ways the Four Gospels provide insight into the mission each Christian is called to undertake, and they found inspiration to keep up the good work already underway.  The Shepherd’s Table provided community partnerships to help meet the needs of a community’s food insecure households.  This church may have considered itself small in number, but I would argue, you had a great big missional footprint even in your last years.
Yet, we must admit with due humility that the closure of First Baptist, Herkimer, is part of life.  Congregations are not “eternal”, but temporal like all things, subject to decline and death.  Nineteen people took the risk to charter this church and about the same number took the risk to say this particular church’s days have come to an end. 
In the midst of a sense of loss and sorrow, may we hear yet again the Good News of the Gospel: 
 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
So with these words of Jesus, I offer a word hope to this body of believers as you go your separate ways.  Each of you here who have been part of this church are seeds, ready to be planted in other congregations and to use your gifts to strengthen ministries all around this area.  In your leaving here, you are now welcome to go and strengthen ministries elsewhere with your presence and volunteerism, leadership and love of God and neighbor.  It is a time of dying and yet rising again, just as our faith tells us that the life of discipleship is all about. 
Even as First Baptist, Herkimer, closes its doors, may we remember this not as loss, but resurrection, going forth as hopeful people to serve God and neighbor here and elsewhere around Herkimer and Herkimer County.  Indeed, may this service be remembered as the harvesting of grain, so that God’s work continues and bears much fruit.  AMEN.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Continuing: The Positive Response to Change

For several years, I worked at a Cokesbury Bookstore located on the campus of Central Seminary in Kansas City, KS. A smaller store than most Cokesbury owned stores, we had a lot of customers who sought out the specialist books carried in a more "academic" type religious bookshop. One customer liked to say, "I prefer this place as a pastor. I can look until my heart's content."
Our shop was what it was set up to be: a seminary bookstore that handled all the course texts and then had the overhead of a larger parent company to be there year-round and also carry titles where the specialist interest (i.e. academic religious) could be well stocked. While not every book sold over and over again, it helped seminarians, pastors and interested lay readers find treasures to delight and inform them.

As with all other things in life, a Cokesbury seminary store or any other type of Cokesbury "brick and mortar" shut down two years ago. By then, I was off in the ministry field, yet I still felt sorrow when the decision came for the United Methodist Publishing House (aka Cokesbury, aka Abingdon Press/Upper Room Books) decided for its long-term future to conclude its retail operation and focus instead on e-commerce and their phone call center as points of connection with customers.

An era came to an end, yet the ministry of UMPH continues.

Dealing with congregations in various stages of life, I have empathy for church leaders when they begin the pathway toward closure, or better yet, the holy work of ensuring a church's legacy. In the past three years of Regional ministry work, I have assisted churches with the necessities that come with dissolution, yet I've also spent time talking about how the decision feels and how to process what it means to be faced with the decision, let alone deciding to start down the path.

Congregations, especially in my Baptist/Free Church tradition, have a great level of focus on ministry in the local church. Once a local church's life span comes to an end, it can be hard to remember that the local congregation may conclude its ministry, yet the Church goes onward. While you have to work carefully through the legal needs of dissolving a church and other due diligences related to asset distribution, it can be helpful for congregants and the pastor to reflect on the process of saying good-bye to a particular history, identity and sense of belonging. In turn, it is helpful to encourage church members to remember that the ministry of the Church (i.e. the larger Body of Christ) continues, and each person can go forward after the closure and become a seed to strengthen the ministry of another congregation by their joining and participation elsewhere.

A congregation's era comes to an end, yet the ministry of the Church continues.

Likewise, as news came in recent months of the decision of Andover Newton Theological Seminary and just this week of Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School to sell their properties and relocate seminary operations elsewhere, I thought this was quite appropriate. While a hard decision to let go of familiar surroundings, these two seminaries plus nearly every other ABCUSA related seminary (including my alma mater Central Baptist Theological Seminary) has decided to prioritize their educational mission over aging and outmoded buildings. ANTS will become part of the Yale Divinity School campus. CRCDS will be relocating elsewhere in the metro Rochester, NY area.

Reading about the most recent round of ABCUSA related seminaries beginning a significant "game changer" type transition, I commend Dr. Marvin McMickle's letter to the CRCDS community and related stakeholders about the decision. In part, he observes,

"More and more of our students are using fewer and fewer of the campus resources we provide – and pay for. The number of students who commute to campus continues to rise and these students have no need for our dorms, do not eat meals in the refectory, do not require a physical library, do not need a campus bookstore and do not have the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful campus grounds, given the significant demands on their time. When taken together, these factors lead to an unavoidable conclusion: our campus was built for a time and style of theological education that no longer exists. Remaining here will not meet our needs going forward and will not help us further the mission."
(To read McMickle's full letter, click this link:

About a decade ago, Central Seminary not only relocated a decade ago to another part of the Kansas City metro area, CBTS has also been able to expand its multi-site course offerings elsewhere and increasing its educational offerings while freeing itself of an older campus with escalating maintenance issues.  A capital campaign recently announced at Central is quite promising to help round out the current campus with additional amenities for students and other learners.  To learn more, click

A seminary campus' era comes to an end, yet the theological education efforts continue! 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost: When the Spirit Moves, the Church Moves Too! (Acts 2:1-21)

The Wild Goose,
Celtic image for the Holy Spirit
Do you remember the song from childhood? You might have heard it somewhere along the line if you grew up in the church. Ironically, it was my grandmother, not one for churchgoing, who taught it to me. It involved clasping your hands together, and making your fingers into a steeple. (Sort of hard to describe on paper!) The words went like this: Here is the church/here is the steeple/open the doors/see all the people.

When you are three years old, this is pretty entertaining to say the least. Now as an adult (and a minister nowadays), I catch myself thinking of this childhood experience, sometimes delighting in the simplicity, other times, as my brain spins with budgets, meetings, sermons to write, phone calls to return, websites to update, I crave the simplicity of what Grandmother Hugenot taught me about the Church. My first lesson about “church” was not a creed (though they help form faith). It was just a simple word to remember: “see all the people.”

“See all the people” came to mind when I traveling to Ghana in western Africa to participate in the 2007 gathering of the Baptist World Alliance. While English was the primary language of the gathering, the break-times out in the conference hallways reminded me a bit of Pentecost. One break time, I went into one of the corners and closed my eyes and just listened for a few moments. Persons carried on conversations in many languages, animatedly talking about a host of things. This global gathering of people, coming from across political and geographic boundaries alike, were assembled together because of their common belief in Christ and their desire to follow the Spirit’s leading. When we read the international news of strife and conflict, the day of Pentecost seems a bit too idealistic. How could all of those nations be possibly together in one room? The trick is to listen carefully. Out of all those conversations, I kept hearing one word bounce around from conversation to conversation, lilting across the room in a dozen accents. That word? “Jesus”

It is our common belief in Christ that draws us together as a people of God. We may differ on some matters of faith (especially if you get together a roomful of Baptists), but all in all, we confess together the same name. The same name that joins us together with generations of saints, great and small, all endeavoring to be faithful, sharing the good news, and living out the teachings of Jesus for their day and time. Christ calls out to the world, and we are the people who form around his call to repent and believe that the Kingdom-Reign of God is indeed at hand. So you look across that gathering of diverse people, the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and you just have to marvel at the diversity called “Church”.

At the same time, while it is our common confession of Christ that gathers a people, it is the Spirit of God who enlivens the Church and kindles the diversified gifts of the people. On Pentecost Sunday, we recall that it is the Spirit whose mighty wind and flame transforms a group of people into a movement. Christ is the head of the Body; the Spirit is the fire that burns within. The Spirit ignites the mission and ministry of the Church, empowering a people to be more than the sum of their parts. The Spirit brings to life the Church.

The earliest stories of the Church record remarkable adventures, of a little movement clustered around Jerusalem, moving to the ends of the earth. A fairly obscure group starts in Acts 1, endures persecution and uncertainty, and winds up with its last words coming from one of its number (a remarkable convert named Paul) preaching “with all boldness and without hindrance”. Even though Christ has ascended to heaven, even though the Church struggles with the challenges before them, the Spirit beckons them, enlivens them to go forward, carrying out the commission to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. In contemporary times, the Book of Acts can be summed up by a quip from William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who once said, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, then you grow wings.”

In the book of Acts, the Spirit is a constant presence in the life of the early Church, empowering the people as well as prompting them to go beyond their comfort and familiarity. To be a people called “Church” moving in the power of the Spirit is not for the faint hearted! The Iona Community of Scotland, a Christian religious group, points us to a good image for the Spirit. Rather than the passive looking dove familiar as an image of the Spirit, the Iona Community claims an ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit in all of its publications and music. The Celtic symbol of the Spirit is that of a wild goose, full of energy and hard to catch! (I would add that the “wild goose” is a rather plucky image!)

The Spirit inspires and fans to flame not an institution but a movement, a gathering of people summoned to a life unexpected and roads less imagined.

When I lived in southwestern Vermont, we were quite close to the Massachusetts state line.  Just over the line is Williams College where on campus you will find a memorial marker noting where there was once a haystack there in 1806. That’s right: a haystack, something that one would take for granted as part of the 1806 countryside.

A group of Williams students would gather to pray together, however, a sudden thunderstorm came out of nowhere. The students took shelter in the haystack and continued their conversation. The results of their conversation sound audacious: they resolved there and then to create a worldwide mission effort. Within six years, their efforts created the first American “foreign mission society” and started sending out missionaries. From one haystack just down the road two centuries ago began something incredible. It would sound near reckless that one conversation, one moment of daring thought, would make so much possible. Then again, it is a sign that the Spirit is at work!

Recently you heard about the unfortunate and very disturbing way that Lowville area residents learned that a major employer shut down its plant with little warning.  After a sudden meeting with staff was called, soon 157 workers were told to gather any personal items and to leave the facility in thirty minutes time.  On a Friday, the end of the work week for many, it was the end of jobs, long years of service and the abrupt loss of income and benefits.

The Lowville Baptist Church heard this and felt called to help out.  They began working through the weekend on developing local partnerships and getting stakeholders together to figure out ways to help families get help with medicine, groceries and other basic needs.  Within another couple of days, with the Region and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, the church requested and received $5000 in emergency grant funds from One Great Hour of Sharing.  By May 3, the church reported over $25,000 had been raised and over $12,000 given out in vouchers administered by the church's deacon fund.

Like many of our churches around the Region, Lowville Baptist is a smaller church by the standards of a mega church, which unfortunately many churches seem to think is the only measure for what a successful church should look like.  Yet thanks to the years spent hearing and more importantly heeding the gospel, Lowville Baptist created abundance when scarcity seemed to overshadow the future.  They partnered with other churches and organizations, the best way to respond to community  needs.  They felt the Spirit's urging them to do something, and indeed, a "small church" made a great big difference!

When we think that we have everything we know about the Church and its capacities (and limitations) mapped out, the Spirit blows through our midst, sometimes a gale force wind, other times, like a breeze on a summer day. We think the Church can be one thing, when it can be so many other things. The mistake we make, however, is losing sight of the Pentecost story, the day that a group was gathered together and formed into something diverse yet unified, sent forth to share the gospel with the world. The ways that this gospel can be shared are as many as the people called to share it. Whether it is through teaching, dancing, serving meals, construction, advocacy, care giving, singing, and the list goes on and on, the gathered people called Church share the story of Christ crucified and raised in resurrection glory to all of humanity.

I suppose it would be fair game to put it this way: If you think of Pentecost as time long ago, you might have missed the point. The Spirit is still moving in our midst, calling us forth, empowering us for the many ways of ministry. We are still learning what it means to be a church moving in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God! AMEN.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension: Hope Ascending (Ephesians 1:15-23)

In writing a story, sometimes you will end with an epilogue. The main action is over, the plot has run its course, but the author adds a final section that allows some sort of ending or closure. For example, the dragon has been defeated, the kingdom saved, and now the knight and princess share a quiet scene at the end. Cue the grand music, and then the end credits roll as people dig around for their jackets and purses and start trying to remember where they parked outside the movie theatre.
The ascension of Jesus is treated as mere epilogue to the greater story. The gospels narrate the life, death, and resurrection, and now Jesus offers words of blessings and leaves the stage. Most Christians, though, tend to stop the story here, speaking less about what happens “next” in the story of Jesus. Did you know that the story continues?

As narrated by the Nicene Creed, Christ ascends in glory to sit at the right hand of the Father, where he shall be until he returns to judge “the quick and the dead”. (NOTE: This particular phrase came from the creeds, not Louis L’Amour.) For centuries, Christianity has recited creeds along the lines of confessing belief in Christ, the one born of a virgin, who lived his life among us, and died upon the cross. Then comes the pinnacle of Christian belief. We confess that on the third day after burial, Christ rose from the dead.
We might dismiss the Ascension as an “extra scene”, optional to tell only if there is time left at the end or just a bit of extra story that feels like “filler” to pad out the end. The Ascension is critical to the story of Jesus, serving as epilogue to the Gospel and “prologue” to the sequel, the story we call “Church”. The Ascension is the prologue of what is about to happen in the story ahead. Usually, prologues are brief scenes that set the stage, foreshadowing what is to come. Here, Christ ascends into the heavens above, and the disciples are staring up at the skies above. Now the question looms: “what happens next?”
This day, we find ourselves somewhere between “epilogue” and “prologue”. The story has finished in part, but not in full. The Church can keep staring off into the heavens, hoping for a glimpse of the Christ who shall return. Often, the temptation is to do just that. Baptist activist and New Testament translator Clarence Jordan used to joke most Christians live as if the Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father, who art in the heaven, stay up there”. If we understand the ascension, we live with expectation of the “not yet”, while embracing the call to live in the “here and now”. As Jordan translated Acts: “Get your work britches on! We’ve got work to do!”

In the day of the New Testament writer Paul, the first Christians were dealing with the ambiguity. Jesus said he would return. We believe he will. The world seems to be falling apart, so where is he? It is a subtext of the New Testament, this lingering question of “when?” Paul speaks to it in his writings, affirming that there will come a day when Christ shall return, speaking of death not having the last word, and the day when we shall see in full, not in part, the glory of God. Nonetheless, the New Testament writers, Paul included, do not subscribe to a “wait and see” approach. The New Testament writers called upon Christians to live in the “here and now”. Early Christianity engaged in all manner of care for those in need, sharing resources, and welcoming persons regardless of race, social class, or gender. While they waited, the early Church also “got their work britches on”.
The early Church did so under the shadow of the Roman Empire. Christianity was an often persecuted, barely tolerated movement, only enjoying widespread acceptance when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the early fourth century. In the years of Paul’s ministry (approximately the 40-60s of the first century), Christians endured great persecution and hardship, including Paul’s death at the hands of Romans in the early 60s. Despite the difficulty and adversity, the early Christians did not give up on the here and now. They were an expectant people, but they waited with remarkable faith, not just for Christ to return in judgment and glory. They also kept living out their lives, shaped by the gospel’s call to tend one another and “the least of these, my brothers and sisters”.
It is that radical witness of the early Church, that ability to stick to it, even when one’s hope for Christ’s return wears thin, even when the pressures of living out the contrary witness of the gospel seemed too much, it is this radical witness to Jesus that resounds in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul gives thanks for the dedicated faithfulness of the congregation, celebrating the goodness of what they do together for the sake of the gospel. Imagine these words as ones of encouragement to a little gathering of believers: May you know Christ, the one whom God
raised from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

To the New Testament, this is the way the world should be perceived, not as a place where sin, brokenness, and death have the final word. Keep your head out of the clouds and the wonderings of “when”. Live as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ provide you the pattern for how you live your life. Let this story of the Ascension be the prologue to a life lived in faith.

In the midst of Paul’s thanksgiving for the distant Ephesian congregation, Paul also imparts a blessing. Being Paul, however, the blessing comes in one long strand of pearly wisdom, a run-on sentence you used to get your knuckles wrapped for writing in middle school grammar. Paul offers:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Vermont writer Frederick Buechner references these words of Paul in his 1999 autobiography The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found. In this book, Buechner writes of imaginary conversations he has with his departed relatives and friends. Buechner’s life has known its share of sadness and loss, yet through his faith, especially in his writing of novels and essays, Buechner has found the gospel there in the midst of his life.
Buechner does not profess to have explored the greater depths of the faith (I argue this point with him, for he writes with such candor and perception). Nonetheless, in his life pondering God in the midst of things, Buechner has glimpsed enough of that rich and abundant hope Paul speaks of that he is satisfied that the gospel is indeed wonderfully true. In the midst of the hurts, fears, loss, and sorrow of life, Buechner claims there is a deeper wisdom and joy to be found if we only but seek it. Out beyond the sum of our fears and loss, our inadequacies and anxieties, there exists a wonderful, abundant, and life-giving way.

We live in a world often prone to feeling its broken down nature, yet Christians are given this vocabulary full of contrary words to live by. Words like peace, joy, love, and hope stand out and ask us to define them, not with wishy-washy triteness, rather through the concrete experience of letting our eyes be open to the world, yet seeing what really matters through our hearts shaped by the great hope we find in Christ Jesus.
Through belief in Christ, the one who was born and lived among the marginalized, whose death was at the hands of the “powers that be” of this world, and whose resurrection, Ascension, and promised Return, we learn to tell, and live out, a different story. The response of the faithful is not to turn blind eye toward the sufferings of the world, nor are they to be willing or silently complicit partners to these sufferings taking root in political, economic, or social policies.
The Ascension is part of the greater story of Jesus and those who would dare follow him. We await with anticipation his return, yet we live in the meantime with hearts enlightened and emboldened to speak and live truthfully to the gospel and its mandates. Like the early Christians, we catch ourselves sometimes pondering (and even sometimes longingly so) questions of “when?” Like the early Christians, Paul blesses us to see with the eyes of the heart, and live in the “here and now” as well.