Monday, April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

Following Jesus, Despite the Crowds

When we gather the children with palm fronds (and pray they don’t start whacking each other over the head!), we engage in recreating the Palm procession of Jesus. It’s wonderful, euphoric and full of beaming congregants watching the familiar drama unfold.

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:

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Remembering Dr Hazel Roper

Burying the saints is part of ministry.  I have long become accustomed, though not numbed from the familiarity of being part of a funeral service where a beloved congregant, family member or friend has died and the people of God gathered for the holy task of burying a beloved one.  Presiding or officiating as a pastor at funerals is particularly difficult when you have to manage your own grief in the midst of this sacred yet fraught moment.  I find such work keeps us connected to our core beliefs, as clergy are tasked with leading people to remember that we are dust at best and this life and its pain and success is fleeting.

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:

A retrospective on the occasion of her 50th year of ordained ministry appeared in 2014:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Wandering the Park and Facing the Future

In Albany, New York’s Washington Park, you will be able soon literally to “tiptoe through the tulips” with the annual Tulip Festival.  If you like tulips, Washington Park will be laden with many beautiful beds of tulips.  They crown a Tulip Queen and the festival weekend provides all manner of amusement and enough fried foods to make a cardiologist weep.
In the midst of the Park, the great fountain will be soon home to pennies and quarters tossed in, the screams of joy as children splash in the waters (especially on a hot summer’s day) and undoubtedly, more than a few youth and grown-ups who decide to give in to their own urge to splash in the waters as well!
When I first visited Washington Park, I noticed the beautiful statuary all around the fountain’s center.  From a distance, I wondered if it was Poseidon with his trident upraised and attended by his court.  As I got closer, I realized that it was a different scene being recreated.
I knew what the subject of the fountain was thanks to years spent in Baptist Sunday School.  The fountain recreates this moment of Moses striking the rocks with his staff and the waters pouring forth. For many around the statue that day, some likely had no clue at what inspired the fountain’s subject matter. 

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?
For all of us, those who see Poseidon, those who see Moses and those who just go “cool fountain” and move on through the snow banks today (wishing for the tulips sooner than later), I say “Welcome to 2017!”   This is the context every local congregation (American Baptist, Christian or otherwise) deals with on a day to day basis.  The brave faith communities are the ones who understand it, mourn the change and then look for ways to move into the challenges such a time as this presents.
When I visit congregations, I find that for many, there’s a very offensive four letter word that I likely get into trouble for bringing up.  The word is (and I hope your ears will not burn as I utter it):  RISK.
Risk is what makes a church or any other organization do something other than feel left on the sidelines by change.  Change comes at us, change rushes past, without looking to see if we’ve reacted to it.  Change, after all, is not the “enemy”.  It’s part of the world we live in.  How we decide to engage what change brings, well, there’s the big question.
Most of us would enjoy church if it were more like the park we can visit in Albany.  A stroll, a bit of leisure and beautiful fountains and tulips appeal far more than church business meetings, balancing budgets and counting attendance.   Yet that park is also the creation and ongoing commitment of a city to keep up the park, plow the snow, plant the tulips and repair the fountain when Moses strikes the rock yet the piping underneath is being difficult and requires more of a plumber than a patriarch to bang upon it.
Church is about brick and mortar (and if you are a Trustee, you pray for the brick and the mortar each night as you remember the last time pointing had to be done and the bills and headaches that followed).  Church is about the worship services that happen (and if you are involved with worship, you know it comes with the weekly wrestling match of getting a sermon to come together, preferably before 3 AM Sunday morning, and the difficulty of getting everything “just right” to help the gathered worshippers sing and pray together, unless a snow storm rolls through the night before).  Church is about the little stuff that makes a person feel connected enough to move from being a visitor to becoming a member (and even learning how to pitch in with committee work, while praying that a term on a church board is for three years, rather than a life sentence).
Church is a lot of things, but it’s more than all of this.  It’s also about evangelism, outreach and being part of a community and its needs.  You’ve undoubtedly heard this over the years in various forms and with opinions about what was tried and what failed.  Indeed, you may have heard the people and Moses and thought to yourself, “Are sure that was back in ancient times?  Some of it sounded quite familiar and hits close to home!”
Every congregation has its ups and its downs.  How it learns to thrive, how to become more resilient to challenge (and in fact even energized by taking the punches and rolling with them as well) will be a matter of learning how to risk and live to tell about it.
What the future holds is uncertain and involves a decision about what risk you are willing to explore.  But remember that whatever each person has on their hearts and minds, whatever each person here wishes to say out loud at the meeting (or outside in the parking lot afterwards), each of us has the blessing of this story about Moses, the people and a rock that sprang forth with water.  God is with us, even when we think God has given up on us (or we’ve just given up on our own).
I’d like to think that the church can be that park where much toil and effort happens by the work of many hands willing to engage in the mundane tasks of day-to-day needs as well as the short moments when tulips are admired briefly over a weekend.  Churches are places where much good can come even from people wearied or worried by the circumstances at hand.   For God is the God of abundance, and with that hope, how can we not move from grumbling and wanting to being given the refreshing sustenance of holy waters that lift us back up and out into the desert once more, knowing that indeed, there will be a Promised Land?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Making Baptist life faithful and alive

Last week Baptist ethicist Robert Parnham died.  Many Baptists around the world have shared their lament at his passing and much thanksgiving for his life and work.

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:

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:

Friday, March 3, 2017

Entering into Lent: Life Awaits

This past week, I was part of three different meetings.  Each was unique in that the conversations were specific to a set of questions and quandaries.  Each was quite similar in that the groups gathered around each table earnestly wanted to seek God's will in the midst of a time of challenge.

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.
Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

Friday, February 24, 2017

When Glory Overwhelms (Luke 9:28-45)

Can any image do justice to this text?
The Transfiguration of Jesus. How do you describe such a powerful scene? Is it all “Hollywood” with bright lights and everything’s a soft, just out of focus blur? Or, is this scene best left to the imagination of the audience, with the film maker only opting to focus on the stunned faces of Jesus’ disciples?  However you picture it, probably it was just like that as well as something far greater. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in divine glory. You will forgive the Gospel writers if they try to use words to capture what happened that day. You just cannot capture the moment.

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

Explorations in Baptist history: Adam Clayton Powell Senior

Rev Dr Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
In the history of New York City churches, surely the Abyssinian Baptist Church is among the great congregations to rise up and minister to the urban multitudes.  Among their past ministers, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. is among the most visionary, leading the church to move to Harlem to replant the congregation in the midst of the neighborhoods changing rapidly with the influx of African Americans moving into the City as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. 

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).] 

Powell was not without his detractors.  In his award-winning book The New Abolition: WEB DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015), historian Gary L. Dorrien recalls Powell's challenges within the congregation and among his fellow African American Baptist clergy.  Early on, he dealt with a faction of the church that wanted to bring back his predecessor, even going as far as to ensure the provided clergy housing was in a building across from the church and with a working brothel in the apartment above.  The church was resistant to his vision to relocate the church out of mid-town Manhattan, even as Powell rightly predicted the shifts of the City's African American populace to Harlem. 

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 (

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. 

NOTE:    For more on the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson conducted years of interviews and a great deal of research to author her Pultizer Prize winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration (Random House, 2010). 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Learning to Breathe Again (Psalm 146)

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!

When I moved from Kansas City to Bennington, Vermont, years ago for a new pastoral call, I joined the local Choral Society. It was the first time since college to be part of a choir singing really more demanding material.  After the first night, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two full hours.  While it was stimulating and engaging, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from singing a few notes I had forgotten how to reach up above the comforts of the bass clef.
One of the key elements of singing is whether you can breathe well. Finding the pitch, being able to carry a tune—these are helpful, but you also have to be able to breathe so that what you are trying to sing has adequate support. Good breathing skills are needed to sing, but they take practice, and that night in September, I realized how out of practice I had become with these skills. Nonetheless, to be able to keep up with the demands of singing the music well, you have to improve your breathing skills.
When the psalms speak of praise of God, the ability to breathe is part of the act of praise. Praise and breathing are intertwined in the Psalms, and for good reason. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, particularly in the Psalter, we breathe only because God has given us breath.
          As the Creation narratives unfold, the book of Genesis refers to the wind and breath that enlivens Creation as that of the Spirit of God being imparted. Without God’s activity, Creation has not come alive. In Genesis 1, the winds that move over the waters and the very act of bringing to life the first human is about God breathing life into Creation, humanity included. (Even the Hebrew word used for wind or breath as well as describing the Spirit of God, called by Christians as the Holy Spirit, is breathy in its pronunciation: ruach.)
Thus, the 150th Psalm calls out, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” reminding that all of Creation breathes together the same breath of life. Thus, the 140th Psalm’s vision of God as “provider of all” refers to death as when God’s breath is taken away such is the Psalter’s notion of how dependent we humans are on God. Thus, the melancholy of the 144th Psalm as it refers to humans as those “who are like a breath; their days like a passing shadow”. The Psalms come from a theological worldview that ties breath and life together as gifted to us by God. Thus, in turn, the act of praise comes about because we have breath, and especially when the created finally remember with all due reverence the Creator who has given us the breath!
The failing of humanity, however, as the 146th Psalm puts it, is when we falter in remembering from where our praise and breath comes from. Psalm 146 gives a criticism here that should be noted: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” The Psalmist offers a contrary word to the way things tend to work in this world. It is in God alone that we find our hope and trust.
See the first two verses of Psalm 146. These are the type of verses of the Bible that you encourage people to memorize and keep close to heart: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (Ps. 146:1-2) If you are able to keep these praises close to heart, and these “princes” or “powers that be” at arm’s length, you have begun to live a more authentic life, getting away from those things that may seem to sound good now, but later and inevitably run out of air.
The psalm turns us away from the foolishness of this world and reorients us to the way of life that helps us breathe again. The spiritual life is not just for emergencies only or the deeply pious. The Psalms are to accompany you by the bed stand, the dashboard, the cubicle at work, the places where you find a moment’s respite, just as they have been there for ancient Israel and all those generations afterward who seek wisdom. In reorienting ourselves back to God, we remember that the only gift we have in this life, the only asset is life itself. What we make of it can be wonderment as well as disaster, but we are better off starting with the simplicity of the Psalm, geared to that which helps us breathe and give due praise rather than disdain or disregard to God.
In my exploits of rejoining a choir, I found myself assigned to sing one of the solos during one of the programs.  For most of us who sing but have no designs at being a professional, it's not just something you go out and belt out like it is American Idol.  I found myself obsessing about number of last minute things. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing to remember: breathe.
I started with the Choral Society as a way to have something beyond the church on a weekly basis.  (Pastors need something like that.  Some find it on the golf course.  Others find it in the choir room.)  Most weeks, I found myself dragging on the way there for a Monday night practice, wore out still from Sunday and frankly sometimes I found myself sometimes pondering, “Should I just go home and hide?” or worse, “Should I go back to the office and keep working?”  (For others, you might find this a familiar conversation with yourself regarding going to the gym.)
However, I kept going, just to give me something that does not involve the rigors of parish life. Ironically, the group sang mostly sacred music, but it is nice just to concentrate on the music without having to think of leading worship, answering email, and figuring several impossible parish matters out before breakfast, because the choral rehearsal is able to turn me back to praise.
During most Monday rehearsals, I would go home with my feet hurting, my back hurting, my voice is weary, but at choir, I find myself breathing more easily. The same could be said for the work of ministry: feet hurt, back hurts, voice weary, but if I can learn to breathe, I’ll find myself leaving behind stress and the seduction of “getting things done” or worse, trying to be “the best”. Instead, I might just find myself getting around to the most important thing: praise.
One other deft movement within this Psalm is also noted. While the Psalmist appeals to the individual to turn away from the tempting personal gain thought to be found in this life, the Psalmist reminds us of whom God is. It is not enough that God’s people get themselves straightened out and reoriented to their own little journey in faith. It is also about being able to praise God, the One who is steadfast in support and care of those otherwise marginalized, usually by those same “princes” or “powers that be”. The thing to keep in mind about the “powers” that try to get us to run our lives by their desire is this: they may not last, but their policies and practices can create a world of hurt for the less fortunate of the world that lasts sometimes over the generations.
The God of Psalm 146 is deeply concerned with those who are less fortunate in this life: the oppressed are given justice; the hungry are fed; the prisoners are liberated; the blind are given sight; the righteous vindicated; the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner are tended. This is the song that ancient Israel and all the generations thereafter are called to sing. As Water Brueggemann says when ancient Israel, the community first called to this psalm’s performance, takes up the Psalm of the day, “Israel sings, and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing”. This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart!
God is not like that puff of air that disappears. God is steadfast, or “keeps the faith forever”. Steadfast is a word that the Psalmist uses that you do not use lightly in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be steadfast means to be undeterred and unshakeable. Again, the Psalmist revels in the irony of human life: we chase all manner of things, only to find that they, and even ourselves, are like a puff of wind. God, the very wind of Creation, is the only stability, and so, again, the Psalmist says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”
I encourage you to talk to one another about ways that you feel God calling you to breathe together as a church.  When you catch your breath, it’s often because you are winded, but it also helps you return to a time where balance can be restored.  When a church has a pastor depart, it can be a time of breathlessness—anxiety, nerves and residual feelings left unprocessed as a pastor departs and the “what’s next?” questions mix together.  During your transition with Pastor Bill, he has encouraged you to think about these concerns and feelings, work through ways to address short-term and long-term needs, and to feel strengthened by the transition and its opportunities for change more than frightened or overwhelmed by them.
You have done this because you have remembered to breathe.  You have done this because you remembered to breathe together.  You have done this because you know from Whom your very breath comes.
Let’s sing our praises to the Lord!  AMEN!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Wise teachings to ponder

Reading the Sunday Gospel text, I recalled two different stories that have some connection with one another. 

In the Matthew reading, Jesus is offering the crowds his Sermon on the Mount.  Just after he gives the Beatitudes, Jesus says,

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-16, NRSV)

In my ruminations, I recalled a bit of rabbinic lore that I believe has some parallels to the Gospel reading:

The rabbis tell a story about a student asking a teacher when it is dawn.
The student asks, "Is it dawn when you can see well enough to tell a sheep from a dog?"

"No," the rabbi said.
"Is it when it is light enough to tell one kind of tree from another?"

"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

Church and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

                 If you were to survey most Christians, I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount would rank up there as one most remembered of the gospels.  Jesus has a crowd gathered, eager to hear his teaching.  The scene could not be more appropriate:  Jesus ascends to a place where he can speak to the masses.  The little cues of Matthew’s narration set up what is about to unfold.  Jesus assumes the posture of teacher, sitting down, attended by his disciples, and then what sounds like a minor detail:  he opens his mouth to speak.  This phrase cues Matthew’s reader that Jesus is one who speaks with authority, just like the “greats” who have gone before.
                  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

Adventures in Repenting (Matthew 4:12-23)

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
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

Remembering the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

This Monday, the legacy and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as a civic holiday around the United States this Monday.  And it's more than "one day" alone.  For many churches and other religious and civic groups, the "MLK Weekend" is a time for advocacy, prayer, marching and initiatives promoting volunteerism and community building.
From my earlier days as a bookstore clerk, I know early January is the target date for many publishers to release their latest "King" related book.  Such releases are timed to educate and help readers enter into the tumult of the Civil Rights Era through the lens of scholarly retrospect and the efforts of a multitude of biographers and writers inspired by King to engage his thought while offering contemporary critique of what parts of the "Dream" have yet to be realized or are in danger of retrogression.

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:

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

The Difference of Being Baptized (Acts 10)

Stained glass panel,
First Presbyterian, Nebraska City, NE
            The baptism of the Lord is a day set aside to recall the story of Jesus’ own baptism.  I find it remarkable that Baptists, of all the different Christian traditions, have not kept this day as a day to celebrate in worship life until fairly recently. 

           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.