Monday, April 24, 2017
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
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.
Friday, April 7, 2017
Ironically, what appears cute and photogenic is really more along the lines of political street theatre. What type of grown-ups are we if we do not tell our kids that this waving of palm branches is being faithful to a king who is unlike no other king or ruler they will learn about in school?
If we do things right, we will raise our kids what it means to be a follower of Jesus, who was unafraid of empires and “powers that be”, speaking of God’s sovereign claim to the world.
As Holy Week unfolds, we tell a story of colliding worlds; as the differences are drawn between the Roman empire/Jerusalem’s political and religious elite and the Reign of God with its Servant King Jesus. The question for Christ’s follower looms: can we give a witness when our world collides with the one proclaimed by the gospel?
In the mid-20th century, the unthinkable happened. A woman named Grace Thomas ran for governor of Georgia. Not only breaking customs about women running for high office, Grace also ran on a desegregation platform. She finished dead last.
A few years later, she ran again in 1962. As the Civil Rights era was gaining momentum, her platform of racial tolerance was still unthinkable.
On a campaign stop in Louisville, Georgia, she deliberately chose the town square for her remarks. The town square was once a slave market in times past.
Telling her story, the preacher Thomas Long recalls:
As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come. This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”
The crowd stirred. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.
Grace paused in midsentence. She said softly. “I am not.”
“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get all those [blasted] ideas?”
Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to a steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”
(From Long's book Preaching From Memory to Hope, p. 19-20).
Hosanna...praise be....Hosanna....Lord, save us.....Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.
An oral history interview was conducted in 1979 with Grace Thomas. Listen to her reflections via this link: http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ggdp/id/5330
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
On Monday, a difficult yet joyous day happened at the Calvary Baptist Church of Lowell, MA. A sanctuary full of mourners gathered together to say farewell to a beloved family member, friend, colleague, mentor and veritable legend. The Rev. Dr. Hazel Roper lived out her ministry in local church pulpits, around the table with churches all around upstate New York and advocating for clergy and churches in the sometimes difficult discussions about clergy compensation, clergy pensions and everything else that most of us struggle to speak about, let alone discuss frankly about "money and church" matters.
Hazel Roper excelled in pastoral ministry, whether in local church or denominational work. I count myself as one of the many pastors who benefited from her keen insight, firm resolve and wise ways. She assisted a congregation I served with understanding the complexities of clergy pay and pension, something that when I myself retire in the 2040s will be most thankful got started years ago with her skillful advising. She kept in touch after I moved into the Regional ministry work with upstate New York churches myself, working with a number of congregations in pastor searches and other needs where Hazel's interactions years ago created moments of clarity during conflict and challenge. Indeed, as I told her once, I could work with healthier churches in the present day thanks in part to the helpful and insightful work she did with pastors and congregations. Indeed, I have heard it said in recent days that Hazel is considered the reason some churches remain in better shape all these years later, thanks to her careful work in the 1990s and early 2000's.
As I passed word to colleagues about Hazel's unexpected passing, I kept hearing stories of mentoring conversations. A number of clergywomen serving today give thanks to Hazel as a mentor, an inspiration and an exemplar of a determined Baptist woman called to serve God and the Church through ordained ministry. A pastor at the funeral gave a brief testimony, simply saying Hazel was her example and a "she-ro" of the faith.
When the family offered their memories, it was noted that Hazel was a long-time member of the Lowell church, going back to her childhood. When she retired decades later from ministry, she served again as a lay leader, providing her talents as the church moderator. When the Calvary church burned when Hazel was nine, she offered the pastor her piggy bank's contents to help rebuild the church. Fittingly, memorial gifts in her memory are suggested for the present day church's roof repair fund!
As I listened to the many words of testimony given by family and friends, congregants and colleagues, I noticed the two stained glass panels flanking either side of the altar area. To the left, the traditional image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, benevolently tended the sheepfold. On the right, the image was of Jesus kneeling in prayer with his gaze heavenward, most likely in that moment alone in the time just before his betrayal and death. While such images are overly familiar subject matter for stained glass, the two images paired well with the liturgy and testimony unfolding in the altar area.
As we journey through the Lenten season, I ponder mortality and what it means to live a life of significance. Hazel left a legacy that is like faith itself, a matter of things seen and unseen. As the call went forth that day earlier this week, we have the challenge to raise up more Hazels to serve Christ and God's people. Her legacy is already enriching the lives of people who attend churches who are healthier for her ministry work years ago. Her legacy lives on in the women and men she encouraged to stick out ministry's most difficult moments or when vocations seemed too distant to be "ours" to accept and undertake.
When somebody asked how the funeral went, I said, "It was the best type: you laughed, you cried, you listened to the Good Word and good words and then you went downstairs for a great big meal." How else should a Baptist be remembered than a rousing time to sing, to give thanks to God and to be nourished by the memories and table fellowship afterwards?
Thanks be to God!
Dr Hazel Roper's obituary appears via: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/lowellsun/obituary.aspx?n=hazel-a-roper&pid=184705560&fhid=2434
A retrospective on the occasion of her 50th year of ordained ministry appeared in 2014: http://www.lowellsun.com/lifestyles/ci_26183585/living-history
Friday, March 24, 2017
As an obviously religious person (the robe is always a dead giveaway at church, isn’t it?), I found myself wondering how the generations of Park visitors saw this same fountain. Surely when it was dedicated, it was with great pride and common knowledge of this story from Scripture. But today, with the Capital District ranking highly (and nearby Vermont the same) with a distinct “religiously disinclined” or “nones” populace, did the fountain in Washington Park resonate with mere aesthetics (for it is beautiful) and really not with the biblical text inspiring its creation?
Friday, March 17, 2017
I met Robert a couple of times over the years, and I have been a contributor to the Ethics Daily website for years. Without a doubt, Robert offered his keen intellect and deep faith to the task of encouraging Baptists to think and act out the implications of following the Gospel.
Recently, Ethics Daily carried a recent blog post of mine. They tagged the article to identify it along with other articles about "Baptist life". Looking at the other articles similarly tagged on Ethics Daily show the stories of Baptists involved in a number of needs, local and global. You learn of Baptists learning to explore faith within and well beyond the four walls of the local church.
Read these articles via: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/section/columns-on-baptist-life
Once you have explored these essays and articles, you can see the ongoing legacy of Robert Parnham, faithful Baptist, and be inspired to go and do likewise.
Note: For the articles I've contributed to Ethics Daily (since 2005--wow, has it been that long?), click this link: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/search.php?search=Hugenot&location=-1
Friday, March 3, 2017
Sometimes my work is to bring resources. I shy away from suggesting that I, or anyone else around the table, will have "the" answer or worse, a "quick fix". Instead, I advise the slower, the patient, the less anxious, the less immediately understood way forward. (Admittedly, such work is a tough sell, especially when I'm feeling the need for expedience or anxiety drives more than I care to admit.)
As we begin Lent, Christians have the opportunity to examine the spiritual life and decide what priorities have to be claimed or reclaimed, what practices and habits should be given up, and how to learn these things with a spirit of humility and provisional grace (for others as well as ourselves!).
Thomas Merton offers a prayer that I often share with groups when conversations come to an end. I share it with you:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Friday, February 24, 2017
|Can any image do justice to this text?|
Vague attempts at describing the Transfiguration of Jesus might be as follows: overwhelming glimpses. Sounds a bit like an oxymoron: seeing more than you can handle but in just a brief, fleeting moment. But perhaps that’s for the best. In the biblical texts, any time you encounter even just a moment of God’s presence, the experience just cannot be tamed into easily recountable words or images.
Nonetheless, when one encounters God, there is good reason to speak of the experience. It may come in the oddest of moments or at the most appropriate times, yet you know that in the midst of things, you have encountered God. The best way to enter into the Transfiguration narrative is to hear about those times when God has been experienced. You might call them “mountain top moments” or “God sightings” as a pastor I know used to call them.
The writer Robert Coles shares a wonderful story of an argument he once had with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was an advocate for the poor and the church’s calling to identify and live with those in need. Dorothy Day was also a person accustomed to staring down her opponents (bishops included). A formidable servant of God is the best way I would put it after reading her story! Thus, an argument with Dorothy Day would be quite memorable.
Coles and Day were arguing about how the spiritual life really worked. Coles said that he pressed Day on how she knew spirituality worked. Dorothy Day explained that we live long, secular days and experience short sacred moments.
In the religious world, “secular” is a word that we tend to use as “the opposite of something that is sacred.” Day had experienced in her own life this knowledge that no matter how long things went on that seemed mundane or not necessarily out of the ordinary, there were always times, even if brief, when you experienced something unmistakably evident of the sacred at work.
Of course, there is another dimension to experiencing “sacred moments.” When we are suddenly in the midst of such a spiritual time, it is more than just feeling. The Bible tells of many times of mere mortals experiencing time in God’s presence. The most intense of these experiences is called a “theophany”. When Moses stands before the burning bush or Isaiah is taken up into the highest heavens to be called as a prophet, again, words seem so shallow to capture the moment. But look at any decent Bible dictionary, and you’ll read about theophanies as always ending, no matter where they occur, with a call to serve.
Jesus took these disciples up the mountain to pray. As you will remember, Luke’s talk of the prayer life of Jesus is always on the fervency of Jesus ‘ prayers. Jesus withdraws to pray not because of being overwhelmed but because of his connection to God. Jesus invites his disciples to a life not fraught with duties and obligations, but one of passion, and devotion even if it is shaped by sacrifice and simplicity.
The disciples fall asleep and miss out on the beginning of the transfiguration of Jesus. They wake up to see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and Jesus caught up in divine glory. As they scramble to their feet (and their brains are a little scrambled too!), they start trying to figure out how to mark this occasion. Peter even suggests that they set up a marker to commemorate the event.
Then the divine voice rumbles from above: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And suddenly all that talk of drawing up a holy monument goes to the wayside. The disciples fall silent. Their first response is not to speak. They are overwhelmed by the Holy.
Yet, in true human fashion, as soon as they are silent before God, the disciples start trying their best to come up with something to explain the moment. Sometimes, God cannot be explained, yet we will exhaust ourselves trying to explain God and God's ways.
To make sense of the Transfiguration, or any moment that is God-suffused, we need to wrestle with the “so what?” question. We see a brilliant sunset, receive a wise word at just the right time, or experience a moment that suddenly makes sense of the knot our life seems to be in. To experience God is not about “feelings”; it is about “knowing” that God is prompting us to something beyond our imaginings. The disciples are overwhelmed by the moment, confused by the moment, and even try to make sense of the moment by offering to build something commemorative. Then the voice of God speaks, and they realize that there’s something much bigger going on. In the true fashion of a holy experience, they realize that words just cannot make up explaining what has taken place.
The brilliance of the Gospel traditions, Luke and Mark alike, is evident here. When the disciples descend to the places down below the mountain, Jesus and the disciples are asked to help people in need. The call to serve is made quite clear when the disciples come down from their high places and encounter the needs below.
One error that the Church often makes is keeping faith all about the high moments. Over the centuries, Christians have tended to put their energies into building big monuments that are commonly called “church buildings”, “cathedrals” or “church campuses”. We do this for the glory of God, yet we tend to forget that the church is really about people, not buildings, and if we are ignoring the needs of people around us, we are missing the gospel that Jesus preached and modelled. Even when affirmed by God, Jesus did not ignore the needs awaiting him down below.
The healing of the child at the bottom of the hill symbolizes our own call to be disciples who can have these “God sightings” AND know how to live out a life shaped by the call to serve God and tend the needs of this world. We must remember that even in the blessings and joys of encountering God at work in the little and big things of this congregation’s life are indeed blessings and joy, but they are also calls to serve.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
|Rev Dr Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.|
Among those Powell influenced was a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose worldview was reshaped by hearing Powell's sermons and experiencing the ministry of Abyssinian during his brief sojourn in the United States. Certainly, many biographers connect Powell as a main motivator of Bonhoeffer's decision to return home to Germany as part of the resistance to Hitler and Nazi Germany. [A more in-depth study of the Bonhoeffer/Abyssinian connection is found in Reggie L. Williams' Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).]
As part of the social gospel movement of his time, Powell envisioned the church far more engaged in the community and dealing with social needs and challenges. Holding a meeting for potential stakeholders, Powell found stiff resistance among the one hundred black Baptist leaders, including "one minister [who] delivered a fifteen-minute tirade against the idea of a community center before asking what it was" (Dorrien, 438). Powell's vision of "a place where the people of the community could learn things and be together" did not match many clergy's vision of the church as a place for evangelism alone. All but eight of the visiting African American pastors declined further involvement with this project, leaving Powell primarily dependent on partnership with the then predominately Euro American organization the Baptist New York City Mission (presently known as the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, one of the ABCUSA's most diverse Regions).
Powell would found a food pantry, create programs and grow Abyssinian's presence in Harlem throughout his ministry. Nonetheless, the lack of support from his fellow pastors must have been painful. He did not seek further outreach to his black church colleagues for the next eleven years (Dorrien, 438).
While the social gospel is often associated readily among Baptists with Walter Rauschenbusch's body of writings, Powell incarnated the precepts of a progressive and evangelizing ministry in his many years at Abyssinian. Perusing the website of Abyssinian's current day ministries and mission, the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., is well evident (www.abyssian.org).
Powell credited his ministry and pastoral passion to the experience of growing up in difficult circumstances. At nineteen years old, Powell was living hard and playing hard as a miner in Rendville, Ohio. A chance encounter with a powerful preacher on a Sunday morning "sent an arrow of conviction to his heart" (Dorrien, 426). He credited his rediscovery of faith as a key element to his rising up from a troubled youth and becoming a pastor.
Particularly, Powell credited the mentorship of G. M. P. King, President of the Wayland Seminary and College (later known as Virginia Union University). Under King's influence, Powell recalled:
"To me, [King] possessed the magnetism of the polestar. His life radiated beauty, goodness, courage, honesty, truth and love. These virtues cannot be taught by words. They can only be imparted by a life which possesses them in abundance." (quoted by Dorrien, p. 427).
Exploring the life and legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., we discover how a good mentor helped a young person connect with the ways that move many, not just the one, forward. Influenced by such a "polestar", Powell multiplied the gospel message through the many ministries coming out of Abyssinian and into the neighborhoods around Harlem and well beyond.
Friday, February 10, 2017
This Sunday morning, I am the guest preacher at a church in a time of pastoral transition. Led by a very able interim minister, the church has benefited from the careful time of being in discernment about its future and processing how it understands its identity, mission and its past history.
As a Region staff member involved with the pastoral search and call support to the church, I thought about the best text for the Sunday morning service with such a context outlined above. I opted to share a sermon around the 146th Psalm that calls us to praise and to remember to Whom we have our very breath--if we remember to breathe!
Friday, February 3, 2017
In my ruminations, I recalled a bit of rabbinic lore that I believe has some parallels to the Gospel reading:
"No," the rabbi said.
"No," the rabbi said. "It is when you can see the face of a stranger and recognize it in the face of a brother or sister. Until then, no matter how light it is, it is still very dark."
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Speaking with authority is a difficult concept for us nowadays. We live in the midst of a 24 hour news cycle, where matters of public discourse get turned into the grist mill of news commentary and pundits battling ideological differences, and then Stephen Colbert and others end the night, poking fun at the pundits. (They do not want for comedy-worthy material from either side of the fence.)
Authority does not carry much weight. We live in a time of distrust that any authority has much good to say, or if it sounds good, such talk needs scrutiny. We look for bias. We presume a subtext at work. We frown, arms folded, skeptical that much good can come of this political speech or that ideological way of thinking.
Jesus has gathered for a multitude with very little distrust. In fact, he seems to be rather harried with the adoration and praise. He has started his ministry, gathered some disciples, but the groundswell of people interested in hearing more and receiving his healing touch is overwhelming. He has struck a deep chord among the people of rural and coastal Galilee.
Fast forward to the end of this story called “gospel”, however, and you find that Jesus is alone, walking (as best he can) towards another place, one called “Golgotha”, or that is, “the place of the skull”. The crowds that are around him are mostly hostile. The disciples are nowhere to be found.
It could be said that what he says up there on the Mount is the first of many things that will not sit well with his detractors. It is said that he is too controversial, too against the grain. It angers them enough to the point they conspire to get rid of him.
Some people, called Christians, say that Jesus spoke with authority, unlike any other.
The Sermon on the Mount is part of that unusual message of Jesus. In these nine short sayings, Jesus begins his task of imagining a different sort of world. Imagine if you will that a major political speech began not with a critique of Wall Street, but with a story from a soup kitchen, or if a Congressional panel interviewed peace activists, rather than military generals, about the defense needs of the country. Yeah? I know, it sounds pretty far-fetched. While it is not part of the world as we know it, the Beatitudes proclaim it gladly.
Here, we find that different world of the Beatitudes at work. For example, the grief-stricken are given promise of comfort. The earnest humble type will be received gladly into God’s kingdom-reign. Those who live in fear of persecution will have safety. And the list goes on…..
The Beatitudes are an extension of what Jesus was first saying as his ministry began: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near”. The crowds have gathered as Jesus has brought hope to the rural, mostly forgotten places of Galilee. He is willing to share this teaching beyond his “faithful” inner circle. Everyone is welcome to hear this word, yet the response will be mixed. Can we live in such a world as Jesus’ beatitudes put forth?
With Jesus’ teachings, there is an innate tension between the present and the future. How will we be comforted from our grief? How will we feel vindicated when the world seems against us? How do we manage when there’s not much hope to be found around us?
The Beatitudes have a curious grammar. On one hand, Jesus names people who “are” in a certain predicament or live in a way less desirable to others (i.e. do you really want to be known as “meek” when the culture says, “be strong!”?). In the same breath, he draws them into the future, a much brighter, hopeful time. How hopeful is this future? It is astonishing!
How so? Let’s again look at the meek. Imagine the quieter, less competitive type as the person ahead of you in the line to Heaven’s gates. It goes against the story (or perhaps better said, myth) of life as we know it that you need to be aggressive and competitive to get ahead. Yet, Jesus says those who are not the best players of that sort of game, or who choose not to be, are the ones who “get ahead” in God’s realm.
In these beatitudes, Jesus is reshaping our expectations of what the future holds. For those who feel like perpetual students of “the School of Hard Knocks”, there will be a reckoning, and for once, it will be one you want to come about! The burdensome issues of the present shall give way to a future where the playing field is level, and a truly peaceable kingdom, one remarkably unlike Rome, shall reign.
The grammar of the Beatitudes is subversive. We are given a vision of the future as God will bring it about. Jesus also intends for those hearing these beatitudes to work in the here and now as if that future is the pattern we follow in our present day actions. We live as a people who decline to give in and let the “lesser” folks or the forgotten or the bereft or the condemned or the unjustly treated be left to arbitrary treatments. The Beatitudes swing back and forth between “what will be” and “what we need to get things to be”.
In our most common English translations, the Beatitudes describe various people in crisis getting their liberating word about God’s future for them by being called “blessed”. In truth, the concept underlying the Greek word Jesus uses (Gk. makarios) is better translated as “esteemed” or “honored”. The persons who have already lost the most stand to gain greatly, not only in alleviation of their predicaments or impoverishment but in their standing in the kingdom that shall last: the kingdom of God. “Esteemed are those who grieve” or “honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” places a different spin on the Beatitudes. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann claims that such teachings of Jesus highlight the gospel’s belief in “the dignity of the poor” (The Way of Jesus Christ, pp. 99-102). When Jesus pronounces blessings upon the vulnerable, he also provides a word about how strong the “weak” shall be when the Kingdom of God draws near. Without these esteemed and honored peoples, the Kingdom/Reign cannot live up to its potential (cf. Moltmann, 101-2). Such a far cry from the world where those perceived as “weak” are marginalized or tossed aside.
A few years back, I became acquainted with a pastor who serves an American Baptist congregation in Florida. The church named itself the “Church of the Beatitudes”. It is known as one of the few ABC/USA congregations in Florida. It is also known for its commitments to the community, social justice, and its stand with those less fortunate. Over the years, the congregation has grown into the name they chose all those years ago. They became who they called themselves to be. They endeavor to be the followers that Jesus was looking for when he gave these beatitudes long ago.
Sometimes, we Baptists name our congregations based on a variety of factors. “Second Baptist” can mean they were the second one to form, or in many cases, the first one to split off of the “First” Baptist congregation. (We have a habit of church planting by way of church split.) Other times, we name a church based on a neighborhood or a community name (I used to serve a Kansas City congregation named Brenner Heights.) A few Baptist churches are named after noteworthy people (i.e. there are more than a few “Judson Baptist Churches”, so named after the renowned missionary).
Curiously enough the same challenge is given to each congregation, regardless of its name or even its denomination. For those who follow Christ, the question arises about the Beatitudes: will you be part of the proclaiming of Christ’s word? Do you live alongside those considered inconsequential by larger society? Is your faith community a place where dignity is understood to be granted without exception by God, and not by whatever prevailing societal politics or ecclesiastical polity might say? Each congregation that follows the gospel has to ask itself whether or not it is also “a church of the Beatitudes”.
Friday, January 20, 2017
These words of Jesus come at the end of a very long introduction to Jesus and his identity as the Son of God and Messiah. Up until this passage, Matthew’s gospel has been largely about “setting the stage”: a lengthy genealogy with all those names from the Bible, meant to show Jesus as the culmination of God’s long involvement and investment in human history, as told by Israel. (Really, that list is one of those passages we all hope isn’t scheduled the Sunday when you have to read scripture. As we used to say back home when lists of tongue-twisting names came up in the readings, we would say, “And there were people”.)
After the “begats and begots”, then it seems a bit like Christmas, telling the story of magi wandering over the territory and Herod conniving to assuage his insecurities about competition, if it weren’t for that dreamer named Joseph who navigated the difficult social and political challenges of a miraculously pregnant virgin wife in a stone-throwing society and a royal court not beneath slaughtering innocents to protect the king’s petty fears.
Then it’s the pyrotechnics of baptism, as John the Baptist chastens the masses with his call to conversion and then gets a shock when it’s time to baptize Jesus. It’s not just every day when the heavens open, a dove comes down and James Earl Jones does the voice over. Toss in forty days and forty nights of testing and temptation out in the desert (dude with pitchfork included), you’d think the prelude is most of the story, yet the gospel is just getting underway.
Jesus steps to the center of the stage and in one short sentence, summarizes what has come before and what is just about to unfold. The agenda and the tone for the gospel are set in these ten words, inviting those who listen to consider a new way of looking at the world and themselves. These ten words constitute a challenge to those ‘kingdoms’ of the earth that their power and interests are not the timetable that Jesus and his followers will be living out their lives. It’s the beginning of a story that continues to this day, the story of Jesus and those who would follow him.
Despite what you might think, the first word, repent, is all about a journey getting underway. When I hear the word, I usually think of how the word is used among those who I would call the “evangelically strident”, Christians who use the word with a bit of edge in their voice. When living in Kansas City, I would see them occasionally at a prominent traffic stop, walking up and down the street with microphone cords trailing back to small amplifiers. The word “repent” was oft-used in the 30 seconds one might spend waiting for the light to change, and your lane of traffic just starting to get underway. Such fervor really did not make much of an impression on most people waiting in traffic. They sat there, trapped by the red light, trying not to make eye contact with the street preachers, perhaps cranking up their car stereo to drown out the preaching.
The word “repent” gets a bad rap, thanks to the sometimes artless ways the word is communicated. Shorn of interpretative baggage usually framed by images of “sorrow and remorse”, the New Testament word “repent” by itself is quite a powerful word, as the word Jesus uses in the gospels (Gk metanoia) means “to change the direction of one’s life” (“Matthew”, New Interpreter’s Bible). Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet such a concept can be that lifeline we have been looking for, a word that gets in edgewise of the “stuck” feelings we have about our lives, or when we dare to engage possibilities previously unexplored in our lives. To repent is less the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call. To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life. Repenting means you ain’t going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction.
Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you? I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel. As he spoke of repentance as “change”, he would talk about things that kept us down and then through a positive change in one’s life, how one could feel renewed or unburdened when making good choices about how one lives life. He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways one lived before and then after repentance took place. Making that leap, that change is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy for its own good. In joy, we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored. Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise. To repent is literally a transformative act
For the Christian believer, to repent means turning one’s life to the way of Jesus. Rather than wearing oneself down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, the Christian seeks to trace her way through the contours and questions of the gospel. Reading one’s way through Matthew’s gospel, you encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing. Matthew gives up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, taking up the way of Jesus, who said “you should love your neighbor as yourself” and that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes. (Don’t we all wish the IRS repented in such a manner?) Peter’s headstrong attitude is given a test when he realizes he cannot walk on water.
Repentance stretches a person, as you continue down a path that you could not have previously imagined. To choose repentance, the decision to reshape one’s life, is necessary if one is to choose Jesus. Over the next few Sundays, we’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount as our reading from the gospel. As we shall see, teachings that seem “simple” will ask very hard questions of persons as they live in the tension of the world’s ways and the ways of Jesus.
This mindset is needed if you are to live in the kingdom of Heaven. To live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom you would otherwise claim close allegiance. Matthew’s gospel warns a follower of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome.
This kingdom of heaven shall be a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (i.e. Herod who just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are going to be declared second fiddle to this movement called “the kingdom of Heaven”. Jesus selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrates the “otherness” of the Kingdom of Heaven raising up those that the Empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.
In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise. The disciple will be not only evangelizing the good news, the disciple will be the example for why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, a repenting and faithfully following Christian has many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.
Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: are we admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus? Admirers might like Jesus from afar, yet followers are the ones who take up the Cross and follow the way of Jesus. To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s era Georgia.
Jordan led a group of people committed to racial integration, living as an intentional community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother who was a lawyer. Jordan’s brother refused as it might harm his law practice and his political aspirations. In their argument over the matter, Clarence pointed out that the two of them joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys. Clarence wondered if his brother had missed something along the way about Jesus being his Lord and Savior. Jordan wanted his brother to answer this question: Do you just admire Jesus or do you follow Jesus? (Cf. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 57).
A man walks down the shoreline and summons fishermen to follow him. They leave their lives behind and follow. Were these fishermen in their right minds? What sort of religion asks for such commitment without it veering off from “faith” to some type of fundamentalism or cult-like behavior?
How do ordinary folks like you and me claim to follow rather than admire Jesus? The gospel narrative offers puzzling questions and leaves unsettling questions within us. Is it bravery or bravado that one makes when choosing to follow Christ?
How does one repent and live to tell about it?
Friday, January 13, 2017
Personally, I gravitate toward reading again the modern epistle to America written by Dr. King while sitting in a jail cell. The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" speaks like the rest of the King corpus of sermons, interviews, writings and speeches: searing words meant to evoke the prophets of old while not letting today's generation off the hook (that of King's day and those we live these days). Here is one of the many links to the full letter online so you can read it as well: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
In particular, I recall a section where King engages in a matter of rightly remembering the past. Too often, we tend to yearn for nostalgia and forget how things really played out, especially for those marginalized by the victor's narrative. King preaches to the choir here, calling his fellow Christians to remember rightly:
"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century...."
Powerful words from the 1960s continue to summon the Church and society alike. Ponder with me what it means to be part of the faithful these days. And do not keep Martin's legacy "past tense" (or worse yet, only remembered once per year with a service of worship or honored by just a single day of service).
Friday, January 6, 2017
|Stained glass panel,|
First Presbyterian, Nebraska City, NE
After all, the day celebrates the importance of baptism to the New Testament church, and our very name as a tradition comes from our historic commitment to baptism as “believer’s baptism”. That is, we affirm the baptism of persons by immersion and at an age where the person makes his or her own decision to believe in and follow Jesus. Observing the day in the Church year given to remembering this ritual so closely tied to our history and heritage is a most appropriate and fitting thing for Baptists to do.
That being said, while we are a people who have been seeking an understanding of “church” patterned after the ways of the New Testament church, we have made some adjustments over the years.
Today, it is more customary for a person being baptized by a Baptist church to be baptized inside. (An Episcopal friend from college claimed the Baptists have “holy hot tubs”.) Previously, many churches I have known had a history of outdoor baptisms down the way, even during the Northeast's cold, "cut a hole in inches-thick ice" winter. (Of course, if one wanted to go "old school" and be baptized in the river this month, it would be a test of discipleship….)
Baptist churches differ when it comes to membership, some who welcome Christians baptized in other traditions and even by the “other” way of baptism (i.e. “sprinkling”), and other congregations steadfast in their practices that you must be baptized by immersion only to be a member. Ironically, while the Baptist tradition can be described as a people in search of the New Testament church, we might forget that the churches of the New Testament era were constantly being surprised by the Spirit, whom sends the faithful often in varying directions. What seems "settled" can be "unsettled by the Spirit of God.
That’s where we find Peter in today’s reading. The confident leader is tossed into the deep end of the unexpected. In the gospels, Peter is lifted up among the disciples, told by Jesus he is “the rock” upon which the Church will be built, a central figure in the gospel stories. Yet, here is the “rock” himself, an original follower of Jesus, finding himself less the sure church leader and more like his earlier days, when thinking himself able to walk out onto the waters. Indeed, he’s in the middle of a situation that has thrown him into the deep end.
Our reading today is just one part of a longer story about Peter of the inner circle and the one that should have been the odd man out: a Roman centurion. Cornelius has become a God-fearer, that is, someone who has taken great stock in the religious beliefs of Israel. Hearing the gospel, Cornelius wishes to follow Jesus and be baptized. Indeed, he wants his entire household to become baptized.
The problem? He is a Gentile, aka “an outsider” or in more modern terms, “the other”.
Now, Peter, the great confident orator at the Day of Pentecost, finds himself fumbling for words. What he has taken for granted (the faith is only for Jews and not non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles) was not the final word. Even a gospel is spreading to the ends of the earth, the Church’s boundaries are being tested.
Reading Acts 10, we hear first of Cornelius when the centurion sends word that he would like to have Peter come to his house. Peter is a bit puzzled, though he is told that Cornelius is a friendly person to the faith. Up on the rooftop, Peter experiences a strange vision. In this vision, a sheet descends from the sky, and Peter sees a variety of animals. A voice tells Peter “to kill and eat” what he sees. Peter is hesitant, as among the animals are those that he does not eat to keep religious purity, or kosher laws. Three times, this vision comes to him. Each time, Peter hesitates. How could this be?
Now at Cornelius’ home, the puzzle pieces are starting to fall together. God has brought together this Gentile from Rome and this one-time fisherman from backwater Galilee. Cornelius is not to be left out of the gospel’s good news. What had been a “given” about the faith was not “the last word”. Again and again, as the Church finds its identity in the book of Acts, the Spirit keeps shifting the direction of the early Christians, unsettling what might have been thought settled once and for all.
So it is now with Peter, beginning to do what is familiar (preaching the gospel) while learning on the fly what is changing about the faith. In fact, Peter admits as much. In the Greek text of Acts 10:34, one scholar renders Paul’s words: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, p. 188). Here, the book of Acts emphasizes how Peter “is just now grasping or coming to understand” (p. 191) the implications of what is coming to pass. It is one thing to realize what God is doing. It is quite another to realize that it changes what you have taken for granted.
Peter, whose mind had been stretched by the parables and teachings of Jesus, is now experiencing another challenge, brought to bear on his own sense of the boundaries of faith. Gentiles could express faith in the God of Israel, the same God whose prophets claimed would be drawn to the light of Jerusalem’s glory, yet deep down, Peter shared a degree of religious skepticism that Gentiles had much worth beyond these lofty ideals. Now, the visions coming to Peter and Cornelius alike were the beginnings of a greater dream: the gospel that goes well beyond the understandings of the faithful. Writing in the mid-20th century, Southern Baptist scholar Frank Stagg observed, “There are those who continue to say that Peter opened the door to the Gentiles. It would be closer to the truth to say that the Gentiles opened a door to the larger world for Peter.” (Quoted in Barr, et al, The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009, p. 486).
Over the centuries, the story of Cornelius and Peter has been a wonderful tale of evangelism and a cautionary tale for the faithful. The gospel goes forth, even if the “Church” lags behind out of disregard or disdain. Baptist history is likewise a testament to the contrary word of the gospel to the sometimes reticent body of believers to open the doors too far, lest “those people” get in.
On one hand, Baptist history reminds us of how severely early Baptists were considered outsiders and made to feel unwelcome by other Christians for holding less popular beliefs and practices. An early Free Will Baptist traveling evangelist John Colby, a native to Vermont and New Hampshire, traveled across New England and subsequently “out west” (back then, the “frontier” was Indiana) on preaching tours in the early 19th century. In his memoirs, Colby recalled a particularly one preaching engagement where most of us would have left discouraged. Persons showed up to make his visit to a certain neighborhood very difficult, including locking one place he was to speak to a crowd and then hiding the key. Colby’s opponents did not wish to let this preacher come into their town, as Baptist evangelists were not considered legitimate enough clergy bringing a message deemed worth hearing.
In the midst of such difficulty, Colby persevered, recalling earlier that same week when he had the pleasure of baptizing four young men who heard his word gladly. On that occasion, he referred to Acts 10:34-35. While his memoirs do not record his sermon that day, Colby recalls that he felt empowered to speak “with more than common freedom of mind”, a remarkable witness to the Spirit who kept his spirit moving forward, in times of great success and times of great adversity. Colby’s memoirs witness to Acts 10 as a text about Christians learning to welcome the gospel, even as some within the Church find themselves struggling to grasp that God is more inclusive than sometimes “the faithful” can envision. (This excerpt from Colby’s story is referenced in Barr, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 475-6.)
As we gather this day to recall the baptism of the Lord, Baptists celebrate what makes our tradition’s name so important: the call to follow Jesus and to be baptized ourselves, to give continuing assent to the way of Christ. Baptists celebrate baptism as a turning away from our sinfulness and living out our lives as faithful witnesses to the gospel. So it is that we find ourselves in the midst of a local congregation, yearning to be with other believers and involved in the task of working together to serve the Lord. Baptism signifies our desire for new life in Christ while it also levels the playing field that the world (and yes, even religion itself) prefer to keep more of an obstacle course that only the “right type” of people can traverse. Bradley Chance, a contemporary Baptist biblical scholar, notes that in Acts 10 “the system of categorization” has changed. Previously, it “would have discouraged Peter from associating with the ‘other’ peoples” (quoted Barr, et al., The Acts of the Apostles, p. 501). What does it mean to follow God with such an expansiveness to divine welcome and inclusion? Such a story from Acts 10 should be remembered, not forgotten, when we feel challenged by the stranger at our gate, the person who does not readily appear to fit in with "us" (and therefore is known as one of "them").
The baptism of Jesus points to the new order being brought about in the Kingdom-Reign of God. The gospel is given to the whole world in all its diversity, bringing together into one body the many. In the search for “New Testament church”, we might find ourselves looking for some sort of “good ole days when things were better”, when in reality, the book of Acts shows us that even in our earliest days, the Christian faith was being schooled by the Spirit of God, who knows no partiality and presses us to keep our vision of “faith” and “church” ever flexible, ever humble, and ever expanding.