Friday, December 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent One: Turned the Right Way

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

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christ and the Powers that be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

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

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

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

           Grace and peace be with you this day!  I am grateful for the privilege and honor of serving as the preacher for this celebratory Sunday morning, recalling the past and committing anew to the future of this congregation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended resources:

A short history of the NY State Canals:

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

A website related to Heaven’s Ditch:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Generation to Generation (Psalm 145)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Clarence Jordan's great disappointment

Earlier this weekend, I shared on social media:

As clergy prepare for another difficult day in Charlottesville and silence (not even a little bluster!) is likely from high places in our government, I recall this observation from Clarence Jordan.  In his efforts to support integration in 1950s Georgia, Jordan had run-ins with the KKK and local authorities who wanted to perpetuate racial inequality, but his great sadness was the difficulty of being rejected by fellow Baptists and other Christians in southern churches:

 "I would rather face the frantic, childish mob, even with their shotguns and buggy whips, than the silent, insidious mob of good church people who give their assent to boycott and subtle psychological warfare."

Jordan was nearly killed a number of times in his life by people driving by in the middle of the night, shooting at the family home, yet it was the silence of the Church that was worse.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A word on restraint

This week, we have watched the news clips of the leaders of two nations exchanging words that certainly escalate the chances of tension.  As I watched and indeed prayed my way through the headlines and the push notifications of news updates on my iPhone (with two major newspapers I follow sending notices within seconds of one another), I hear the words being said, and I keep slipping back to some other words.

From a sermon on Matthew 27:47-56, the late preacher Fred B. Craddock of Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA), told of his trip to Seoul, South Korea, at the request of the U.S. government.  In his remarkable sermon "He Could Have But He Didn't" (published in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), we read of this experience (pp. 101-2):

"Twenty-five years ago, something like that, what's a year, I think it's twenty-five years ago that I was asked to speak at a president's prayer breakfast.  At that time, these prayer breakfasts were held in this country and around the world where we had troops and consulates.  I got a letter from Washington asking me if I would hold one of these.  I said I would and they said the place we want you to go is Seoul, South Korea.  "Well, sure, I'll just stop by on my way to Candler."  But I was glad to go and I went.

The general in charge, and my host, was General Stilwell, four stars.  He gathered officers and enlisted people in this large room and we had the president's prayer breakfast.  We had a nice breakfast and then we had prayers.  It was not just prayers in name only.  The general's assistant, a colonel, had the soldiers there enter into a period of sentence prayers.  I really was surprised.  I associate sentence prayers with an old Wednesday night service somewhere in the country. They had sentence prayers for mothers and fathers and sisters and babies and for my wife back home and for peace in the world, moving prayers.

There was a young man brought in from Formosa, a private who played the bagpipe.  He played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipe just before I spoke.  The general sat there with tears and he said, "I love that song."

I spoke; he and I talked awhile.  There was a benediction; the room began to empty.  I shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  He said, "I want you to remember us in prayer."

And I said, "I will, you know I will."

He said, "Not for more power, we have the power.  We could just one afternoon destroy this whole place.  Pray that we have the restraint appropriate."  


When I left the room everybody was gone except the general and his aide, a colonel who said, "General, shall I bring the car around?"

He said, "Not now, I want to sit here awhile.  And he asked the private from Formosa to stay and the young man did, of course.  When I looked back before I went outside, there was the general seated alone in this big room.  There was a private out in front of him playing on the bagpipe "Amazing Grace".  

Now isn't that a picture?  Four stars shining, listening to a voice of restraint."

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Path of Life (Psalm 16)

The 16th Psalm revolves around the question of trust.  In the end, where do we place our trust?  While the word “trust” does not appear in the actual Psalm, the idea of trust permeates the text. The psalmist celebrates trust, placing his life and wellbeing in the hands of God.  No matter what happens, no matter what may befall, the psalmist is content to seek his life in God’s care.  He calls out:  “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you”. The psalmist has cast his lot with God, and nothing shall shake him from this resolve.

At this point, I know there are those who read this and harbor a thought or two along the vein of “Yeah, right”.  And that person might be in the majority.  Trust can be a tall order in our American culture.  Gallup opinion polls regularly chart the decline of public trust, especially among persons considered historically trustworthy.  Trust in institutions, authority and high profile individuals have eroded greatly.

When it comes to trust, the conventional wisdom of our culture runs along these lines:  Trust can be broken as soon as it is said to be given.  Trust can be offered only to find it left in tatters.  If you are too free with your trust, you might run into trouble of all sorts.   The best word on trust appears to be this observation:  “Trust:  It’s the hardest to earn; it’s the easiest to lose.”

So what should we make of this psalm with its enthusiastic word about trust in God?  Is it the word of some young writer, composing a song about life, though the psalmist is somebody still wet behind the years?  Does the psalm tether to a reality that you believe possible?

Let me tell you about one young person of faith who taught me a bit about trust. I met him only briefly, yet he left such an impression. He was a young Baptist minister who pastored a very unique congregation. From Liberia, the pastor was part of a temporary refugee camp.  Political upheaval caused this pastor and hundreds of others to flee their country.

The pastor came to the Baptist World Alliance meeting being held that year in Ghana.  He was invited to speak, thought it took much difficulty to procure a “day pass” so the pastor could attend. This refugee camp was fraught with anxiety. Politically, the UN and Ghana's government kept wrangling over how long the refugee camp could stay open. The refugee camp had very little clean drinking water, let alone enough water to meet basic hygiene and sanitation standards.   The pastor shared that among his fellow refugees, they had little knowledge of what would happen once the camps were closed. To many in the camp, returning to their home country itself was not of high attraction.

Curiously, the refugee camp pastor exuded a remarkable level of calm and grace.  He told stories of the church he planted in the midst of the refugee camp, creating a place for the people to gather to sing, to pray, and to support one another.  The gathering would scatter in a few weeks or months when the UN shut the camp down, yet something remarkable happened as the people gathered in the mud or the dust, even as they worried about their political future, or the lack of a decent meal.  The worship at this church for refugees offered them a connection beyond any political map or governmental power.  It may not have seemed the most tangible some days, yet they had called upon God, upon whom they placed their trust.

That day I heard a word about “trust” come to life.

Rather appropriately, I note that the 16th Psalm’s placement in the collection of psalms itself appears to be a little editorial license at work.  The 13th psalm is one of complaint.  The next psalm softens in tone a bit.  By the time the 16th psalm appears, the psalms have moved from edginess to reverence.  We read these psalms one after the other and find something of our own life story in this movement from complaint to confidence.

Even when we claim to be ardent in our love of God and take pride that we keep the faith, we find ourselves sometimes rattled by life circumstances going well beyond our control or go through times when there’s not much hope in sight.  On such days, we find ourselves closer to the psalms of complaint or lament rather than psalms centering on the praise of God or trust in God.  Yet, the Psalter reminds us that there is a word to the otherwise.  You can find lament and pain, suffering and weariness in this life, yet there is also the grace notes of faith, love, and hope to be found as well.

I wonder if this psalm reflects life so well that its celebration of deep trust in God while still living in the world that this psalm is better understood as the word given by an old woman or man to the rest of us young whippersnappers. There is a certain world-weary (or better said, world-wise) tone that I hear in the text.  The psalm arises from a voice wise to the ups and downs of human life, knowing the sorrow, the frustration and the yearning that things played out differently.  The psalmist’s rather radical assertion that God alone is the source of one’s identity is a less than subtle word of challenge to anyone who says otherwise.

The preacher William Sloane Coffin, Jr. spent the last few years of his life knowing that his health was declining, yet he outlived his doctor’s prognoses enough that it became a little joke that he kept having “one last time” visits more than once with his friends. 

Speaking of death and the end of life, the old preacher observed that he found his last years bringing a change to his attitude and outlook.  He proclaimed this good word:

Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life.  For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Strength & Splendor of Belief: Words for Consolation

Last week, I shared a gem of a story from Dr. Fred B. Craddock.   His stories never fail to inspire and stir the heart!  (Indeed, the feedback from last week's post has been quite wonderful as colleagues have learned of this particular story for the first time or joined me in giving thanks yet again for Craddock's insight as he learned around a baptism service that included a camp fire and a square dance!)

I was looking for some good words with the preaching task at hand for the upcoming Sunday.  Recently, one of our Region pastors had a young adult son die of cancer.  As part of the care of the pastor, his family and congregation, I offered to preach on the next available Sunday, which happened to be the day after the same church sanctuary held the son's funeral, officiated by his father the pastor.  Preaching for a colleague is part of the ministry work we do, though I imagine from my own experiences of being kin as well as the officiating clergy, it's good to have an opportunity to sit in the pews without the pressure to be in the pulpit immediately the next day.

I shared a passage from Romans 8:31-39 as my New Testament reading.  Here's what I shared on last Sunday morning:

In 1972, Fred Pratt Green wrote the hymn entitled: “How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ.” In the last verse, Green ends with some words that I wish to use as this sermon’s beginning words:
In Christ, who tasted death for us,
We rise above our natural grief,
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief.

Over the last few days, I imagine you have been feeling, well,…. I suppose the options to finish this sentence to describe our feelings range from descriptors like: numbed, shaken, bereft, stunned, pained, and the list goes on, multiplied by the number of hearts deeply grieved by the death of Jake. When Death comes, grief follows, and we struggle to put words together to express what we feel. And, at the end of things, we find some respite in just being silent and still, pondering the past few days.

In sorting out our thoughts, we turn to the wisdom of sacred text, allowing the ancient cadence of Scripture to provide a rhythm to help us reclaim a measure of hope and grace. I find myself wading into the language of Pauline epistles, which may be an odd place to start. Sometimes, we forget that Paul wrote his various letters not so much for teaching for belief, but in the task of helping churches understand, often in the midst of deep conflict, how their faith called them to live a life together in Christ. In Paul’s letters, we are richly reminded that there is a great strength in the various people called “Church.”

We gather each week in this sacred house of worship, seeking a little respite from the rigors of our lives, yet during a week like this, with a great loss felt deeply within our fellowship, perhaps we sit in the pews feeling shaken as well. I find in the midst of such times to recall Paul’s words to the church at Rome. Despite anything and everything that could go wrong, God does not abandon us. “Nothing” separates us from the love we know in Christ Jesus.

Charles Spurgeon, the great British Baptist preacher of the 19th century, had a personal motto:  "Teneo et tenor".  For those of us (myself included) who did not grow up learning Latin (short of the variant known as "pig"), the phrase means "I hold, and I am held".  The saying is depicted in a stained glass panel in the Baptist ministry training school bearing his name in London.  It depicts one hand reaching up and another hand coming down to clasp it.  "I hold and I am held".  Indeed, “Nothing” separates us from Christ.

Many years ago, I attended Spurgeon's College for a semester, so my wife and I worshipped with various British Baptist churches. One common practice among these churches involved the benediction that was given each Sunday. The minister or worship leader would invite the congregation to say the benediction. The first couple of times, we were befuddled, as the churchgoers did not bow their heads. Instead, they looked around the room at one another, reciting together this verse of scripture: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.”

This practice of saying this verse together is a remarkable reminder of what draws a congregation together. While we are different in many ways, we are drawn together by a common confession and desire to follow God, known to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Our congregation is shaped by grace, love, and fellowship given to us by God. We experience this especially at times when we face challenges and shoulder burdens alongside one another. Especially these days, Ed and Chris have endured much this week.  Such is the nature of "church", where we share the pain of loss with them, and many of you have brought food, cards, words of care, and love along with you.

It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”

And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that.  I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”
(Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Once I visited a family who also lost a son unexpectedly.  As we drew the visit to a close, I said, “Please know that the church is concerned for you and will support you in this time.” The father said, “After the past few days, that is more than evident.”

Such is the nature of "church".  Little by little, even in ways we do not quite realize are graceful moments when we feel nothing but fumbling for the right words or if it's alright to offer a hug, in our own way, we have lived out the grace, love, and fellowship of our faith. Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The name for that: A story about church

The great late preacher Fred Craddock learned many things in his early days of pastoral ministry. He tells this splendid story that I love and will be sharing this weekend in a sermon.

Craddock recalls,

 It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper.

They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.

Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.

And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”

And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.” And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire.

And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”

In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.”

 (Excerpted from Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Installing a New Pastor: Planting Seeds in Earnest

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESEARCH SOURCES:  Behind the Scenes

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


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

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