Worship

The worship of God is central at Northminster, blending the Christian liturgical tradition with our own Baptist heritage.  Worship begins each Sunday morning with musical preludes at 10:45 a.m., and Communion is observed each Sunday with laity ministering to laity.  The responsibilities of each person being created in the image of God are taken seriously as we experience the adventure and aspiration of corporate worship, which promotes recognition of inclusiveness, honesty, acceptance, and challenge.  Through worship, we seek to encounter and celebrate the love, mercy, grace, and mystery of God.

 

 

How to be Poor, Sad, Powerless, Hungry, and Blessed

Dr. Darrell Cluck

 February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12  
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I have officially reached the stage of a cranky, old man.

The other day, I literally told somebody to get out of my yard.

I am not proud of my newly acquired status as an crusty, old codger,

But I am bothered by what shouldn’t bother me

And annoyed by what shouldn’t annoy me.

Like the words you hear from an irritating, but well-meaning well-wisher who says,

“Have a Blessed Day.”

Or you ask someone how they are, and they say,

“Blessed.”

I have even seen license plates which declare the vehicle’s occupant

“Blessed.”

Is it merely another way to say, “Have a nice day”?

Is it just a biblical buzz word which has become a buzzkill?

I suppose what bothers me is the contemporary concept of being blessed.

What are they wishing me and claiming to be themselves?

What does it mean to be blessed?

The word translated blessed is the Greek word: “makarios”

“Makarios” in Greek means “fortunate, happy”

And relates to the Hebrew “shalom” meaning “wholeness” and “well-being.”

From what I have heard from some popular preachers of big churches,

Being blessed is being fortunate and happy in the material realm.

“If you are a good Christian, and give a lot to my church, you will be blessed…

Blessed with success in all you do…

Blessed with a happy family…

Blessed with money aplenty…

Blessed with health…”

But is that the kind of blessing Jesus is describing in the text this morning

We call the beatitudes?

Does God make a deal with us that we will always win if we are faithful?

Wouldn’t Jesus himself be the best example of being faithful and true to God?

Wouldn’t that mean that Jesus is the most blessed of them all?

Wouldn’t you want to be blessed like Jesus?

I heard the story of a young man called to preach and eager to begin ministry.

He was so enthusiastic about following Jesus that all he wanted was to be

Just like Jesus.

Blessed like Jesus.

He told his desire to an older minister, who looked him in the eye and said,

“You want to be just like Jesus?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well, good luck, son.”

“Why”

“Because, if you want to be just like Jesus,

You will be estranged from your family,

Have no place to call home,

Depend on the generosity of others for sustenance,

Be run out of town under threat of death,

Have no one who understands you,

See the crowds you once gathered turn against you.

See your closest companions turn against you.

Endure the mockery of a public trial,

Be tortured and die a most excruciating death.”

Do you still want to be just like Jesus?

Do you still want to be blessed like Jesus?

The story never relates the response of the young minister.  How about you?

Jesus taught what he lived, and it was a far cry from the Gospel of Prosperity.

The Gospel is not a get rich, get happy, get healthy, get successful quick scheme.

The Gospel is living in this world guided by the world of God.

The Beatitudes describe what it is like to live in that world of God

In contrast to living only in this world.

What this world values is not what God values.

This world rewards the winners and denigrates the losers.

Not in God’s world.

The formula is reversed: God rewards the losers and humbles the winners.

You have heard the Beatitudes as Jesus spoke them.

Imagine the Beatitudes if spoken by the winners of this world:

Blessed are the rich, for they have everything money can buy.

Blessed are the happy-go-lucky, for they shall live in la-la land.

Blessed are the powerful, for they shall rule with impunity.

Blessed are those who never feel empty, for they shall be filled with themselves.

Blessed are those who destroy their enemies, for they shall sit in high places.

The way of God we see in Jesus is not the way of the world.

The blessing God gives is not of this world.

You may have been blessed when you win the lottery or

You may have been the beneficiary of the laws of probability and incredibly lucky.

Were you not blessed when your house was blown down by a tornado or

Were you a casualty of the laws of meteorology and incredibly unlucky.

Blessed means how you take what happens to you

Far more than what happens to you.

Blessed is a spiritual perspective.

Victor Fankl, a Holocaust survivor, and philosopher tells the story of seeing

A picture of emaciated men lying on bare bunkbeds in a concentration camp.

“How horrible,” said a friend looking at the picture with him.

“No,” he said, “how beautiful.”

“How could that wretched scene be beautiful?” the friend asked.

“Because we were resting in our bunks. It was the one moment of peace.

We had been slaving at hard labor since dawn. Now we could lie down, at last. Beautiful.”

Blessed looks quite different when Jesus says it.

The rules change.

The world is turned upside down.

All we have learned about being smart, savvy, and successful is thrown out.

The rules of the winning in this world

Are replaced with the rules of winning in God’s world.

What would it look like if we were people who won according to God’s rules?

What would it look like if we were true to the Beatitudes?

For us as the people of God, it might look a lot like the Alliance of Baptists.

Not that the Alliance has sole, proprietary rights of the Beatitudes,

But that the birth and life of the Alliance has been an attempt

To swim against the currents of cultural Christianity.

Cultural Christianity is a religious embodiment of the society norms

Without attention to the demands of the Gospel which question such norms.

The Church then becomes an extension of culture, rather than a check on culture.

Theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book  Christ and Culture

Posits the following historic responses of the Church to culture:

Christ above culture, of culture, against culture, in paradox with culture,

And Christ transforming culture.

Only in the American experience have Baptists been in the Christ of culture camp.

In fact, the roots of the Baptist experience in Europe define Christ against culture.

The Alliance moved from Christ against culture to the final,

And what Niebuhr calls the highest form of engagement,

Christ transforming culture.

Here is how the Alliance describes that position:

1) Make the worship of God primary in all our gatherings.

2) Foster relationships within the Alliance and with other people of faith.

3) Create places of refuge and renewal for those who are wounded or ignored by the church.

4) Side with those who are poor.

5) Pursue justice with and for those who are oppressed.

6) Care for the earth.

7) Work for peace.

8) Honor wisdom and lifelong learning.

9) Hold ourselves accountable for equity, collegiality, and diversity.

These principles and the mission articulated in the Covenant we read together

Put the church on course for a head-on collision

With culture and cultural Christianity

And necessitate transformation of church and culture.

They are not too smart of a growth strategy either are they?

Choosing to be a place of refuge for those ignored or rejected by other churches

Does not exactly pack the pews,

Especially if the rejected are from the LGBTQ community.

From the start, the Alliance was inclusive.

When we said that all are welcome, we meant that all are welcome.

Ironically, opening the door to all,

Keeps many in our society away from our door due to their prejudice.

Arguably, the smallest Baptist group in America decided to stay small

To stay true to God’s call for all God’s people to worship and work for God.

It is not popular to be merciful when showing mercy is seen as showing weakness.

The pure in heart are an anomaly in this land of mixed motives.

And peacemakers will always be in the middle of a fight

With a world where conflict rules.

Yet the Alliance sides with the Beatitudes and calls all these unpopular stances,

Blessed,

Because mercy begets mercy in the end.

Mercy starts now but lasts throughout eternity.

Blessed,

Because spiritual focus helps you see God more clearly

And helps you see where God is leading you.

Blessed,

Because making peace is God’s work on earth.

When you make peace,

You are making yourself a part of what God wants to do through you.

Blessed is the Alliance for trying,

Lo, these thirty years, to be the church they could never find anywhere else.

I must confess that I struggle with the moniker, Baptist.

I still have nightmares of being bullied by Baptist in Arkansas

Set on saving every soul in sight and screaming only the savable soul matters.

I still have aversion to certain songs and sayings and screaming.

I also have reservation about some

Theological and ecclesiastical practices of historic Baptists.

I continue to embrace infant baptism

As a meaningful expression of Covenant faithfulness.

I have a higher view of Communion than historic Baptists have held.

Communion is a Sacrament to me, along with Baptism,

And they are unique mystical experiences to me.

I believe the elements are the actual, spiritual Body and Blood of Christ.

Notice I said “actual, spiritual” Body and Blood, not actual physical.

I don’t accept our Catholic sisters and brothers concept of transubstantiation,

It is still actual, physical bread and actual physical wine, but is a spiritual reality.

But I am here,

A member and a preacher in this congregation allied with this Alliance

Because Northminster and the Alliance, for me,

Most closely embody the Sovereignty of God and the Gospel Jesus,

God’s will and way in the world.

Northminster and the Alliance put the faith of the Bible into practice.

Northminster and the Alliance embrace the Beatitudes as their core values.

Northminster and the Alliance attempt to live in this world, but not of this world.

Northminster and the Alliance attempt to live in the world of God

While still living in this world.

And nothing in the principles of the Alliance prohibits me

From my interpretations of scripture.

In fact, they encourage me to read, and think, and practice my faith as I believe.

The basic Baptist principle is freedom,

Freedom to interpret scripture as an individual,

Freedom from the tyranny of an established church,

Freedom from the cultural captivity of the church,

Freedom to shape the life of the church democratically in a local congregation.

I am now free to say, “I am a Baptist”

Because being Baptist means being free.

I am a Northminster Baptist.

I am an Alliance Baptist.

And my Mom would be proud to have me back in the Baptist fold.

Just don’t tell her about the Northminster and the Alliance part.

This is not my Mother’s Baptist church or any other Mother’s Baptist church.

Northminster and the Alliance are new ways

Of doing what Baptist have always done,

Being free enough to say no to “the powers that be” in this world,

In order to say yes to a Higher Power within, beyond, and through this world.

World without end, Amen.

 

 

The Prayer for the 30th Anniversary of The Alliance of Baptists

God with us, for thirty years you have stoked a passion for mercy and justice among a band of Baptists who made covenant to embody your passion through our life together for the world in our time. Today we pause to remember, lament, celebrate and renew this call for just-relationships across all the boundaries that fragment us. From the beginning, we glimpsed the Jesus vision of domination-free relationships between men and women, whites and people of color, gay and straight, rich and poor, persons of differing faith traditions and nations, humans and non-human beings.

Today we offer our gratitude for these three decades of Alliance witness to your Dream for creation. Here and there have been astonishing breakthroughs of partnerships for which we give thanks.

Today we lament that our prophetic, pastoral witness has been only here and there. We confess our hubris in believing this is our work to accomplish. God have mercy. Christ have mercy. Only by your power can we love as we covenanted to love. Only with your Spirit can we risk the vulnerability within every partnership. Only through Jesus do we see the path and energy that transcends barriers. Help us, God, to stand, to stand together on the borders of divisions pointing with our lives to an alternative non-violent way of living.

Today, gracious Spirit, we dare to declare your need of us. Your movement of peace is limited by fear, blaming, and violence that saturates the air we breathe. You too are held back by forces of distrust and disregard. You need us. You need our partnership in the movement toward shalom. You need our hearts, our minds, our feet, our hands, our creativity.

Today we, this Alliance network of Baptists, resolve anew to join your movement. Once again we vow to align ourselves with the arc that bends, however so slowly, toward justice. We say “yes” to the opportunities at hand for us to grasp with fresh commitment. We arise to sing the Song you have placed in our hearts. We arise with our bodies to dance to the music of justice-love that never ends. We arise together along with other Alliance lovers to express the joy for what has been and the joy for what will be. We arise. Amen.

Prayer by Rev. Dr. Mahan Siler, Longtime Leader in The Alliance of Baptists

 

 

CRADLING THE FUTURE

Dr. Darrell Cluck

Luke 2:22-40                                                                             February 5, 2017


When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
(as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"),
and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

 

Was it a blessing or was it a curse?

This promise given to him by God…

This promise that he would live to see the Messiah…

The glorious deliverance of the nation of Israel

And the enlightenment of all nations.

Simeon wondered more often these days.

Blessing or curse?

He had not always wondered like this.

Years ago, when the Spirit breathed the secret,

It took his breath away.

The Holy Spirit had neither revealed anything like this

To anybody else he knew,

Nor had revealed anything to him before this promise--

Nor since The Promise.

Since The Promise…only silence…

Long nights of silence…

When he would lie awake and wait,

Straining to hear The Promise coming

Through his window on the evening breeze.

But since The Promise…only a lifetime of silent breezes.

The days since The Promise had turned into weeks,

And the weeks had turned into months, and the months had turned into years.

The promise said he would see the Messiah before he died,

But he was running out of years…

Perhaps running out of months, weeks, and even days.

Most of his family and friends had already run out of time.

Their eyes had never seen the Promised One promised to them, in general,

And to him, in particular.

Blessing or curse?

Blessing, indeed, if The Promise is true.

But if The Promise is never fulfilled…

Curse…a cruel hoax played on a gullible believer by a deceitful God.

Still he clung to The Promise.

Still he waited.

Still he believed even when he felt like he couldn’t believe.

He could see his eyesight grow dimmer every day.

What a bad joke, he thought.

I, who am to see the Promised One of Israel,

Will soon be able to see nothing at all.

Each day he awoke in expectation,

Only to go to sleep that night in disappointment

Of late, the expectation felt much like dread,

Another day for the promise not to come.

This particular morning, he awoke with a sinking sensation

Of another empty day.

Then inexplicably, something stirred him.

It was not a voice this time,

Not so definitive or clarion…

More like an urge…a strong urge

To go to the Temple.

This was not his regular day or time to go,

But the urge became a compulsion.

Before he could put the notion away, he was dressed and on his way

Through the streets of Jerusalem.

Once at the Temple, his heart sank once more,

Sank like so many times before:

No crowds, no spectacle, nothing out of the ordinary.

He was turning to walk away with that all too familiar feeling of futility

When, suddenly, his eye caught a couple

Presenting their baby for purification, dedication of the first-born and circumcision.

Nothing was unusual about that;

He had seen the ritual performed countless times on countless boys.

Yet, he was drawn to them…inexorably drawn.

Near enough now to get a good look at the child,

He knew why.

For, he saw The Promise.

That ordinary looking baby with those ordinary looking parents

Was the One…

The promise alive and only a few steps away.

He knew it when he first saw him.

It was just as the Holy Spirit had revealed to him.

He saw the Promised One, the Messiah:

The One to bring consolation to Israel,

The One on whom the restoration of all creation rests.

Eagerly, he reached out for the child.

Mary looked at him quizzically, but instead of protectively turning away

From the wild-eyed stranger, she smiled as if she knew some sweet secret

And handed the baby to him.

He held the child in his arms a long, long time

Before he spoke.

But when he spoke, he spoke words which would echo through the ages.

He said a prayer which was a poem and which became a song:

 A song of relief and rejoicing…

A song of God, to God, for God, with God, in God…

A song of letting go

After so many years of holding on…

Holding on to the promises with hands that ached and bled,

Holding on with all his might,

Mustering might he did not know he had,

Holding on past hope or help,

But not past promise,

Never past promise.

The Promise was always there underlying everything.

Now he prayed a poem which sang of letting go:

 

"Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word;

 

for my eyes have seen your salvation

 

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

 

He prayed a poem which became a song that would be reprised

Through the centuries in the liturgical hours,

Begun in the early church and still practiced today,

The liturgical hours are appointed times for daily worship.

The last time for worship in the day is called Night Prayer.

Every night Christians around the world have prayed

And continue praying this Song of Simeon as the last act of worship for the day.

They close their eyes and take their rest with his words on their lips.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”

Just like Simeon, they close their eyes and rest on a promise

They long to see with their own eyes and hold in their own arms.

 

Anna had been given no such special promise.

She had only the scripture, the stories of the rabbis,

And the ceremonies of the Temple.

It was enough for her.

She steeped herself in the activities of the Temple.

It was her life.

God was her life.

She lived in God’s house, the Temple.

She had done so ever since the death of her husband.

When he died, she had no where to turn, no one to whom to turn.

Being from one of the Northern Tribes

And living in the Southern part of the country,

She had no kinfolks near and few kinfolks anywhere.

In New Testament times her tribe, Asher, was virtually lost…

Dispersed to the far reaches of the known world

By invasions, devastations, and deportations…

So, when the good folks at the Temple took her in,

She was more than grateful.

She thought of it as God taking her in;

Therefore, she devoted herself to God:

God’s house, God’s rituals, God’s presence, God’s people.

They called her a prophet, but all she did was fast and pray and say,

“Thus says the Lord.”

She saw people being exploited, people oppressed,

And she proclaimed,

“Thus says the Lord—Do Justice.”

She saw people heartlessly callous to the needs of others,

And she exclaimed,

“Thus says the Lord—Love Mercy.”

She saw people, some in high places, haughty, proud, arrogant,

And she pronounced

“Thus says the Lord—Walk Humbly with God.”

Her prophecies came from the Scripture and the tradition…

Never an angelic apparition…

Never a voice in the night…

Never a miracle…

Just a lifetime of prayer and service.

Her prophecy was not foretelling the future, but forthtelling the present.

She never left the Temple.

Why should she?

It was her life.

God had saved her life,

So, she gave her life to God.

She knew all too well what might have happened to her.

She had seen other girls from far-off villages stranded in the big city.

With no protection, they fell prey to all sorts of exploitation:

Some raped, some killed, some pressed into prostitution,

Some sold into the cruelty of slavery.

But for the haven of the Temple, that could have been her plight.

By this time in her life, she had few expectations.

She was content to do what she did each day.

It was enough.

Imagine her shock when she saw Simeon cradling the future…

When she heard Simeon’s artful song.

She knew.

Immediately she knew it was true.

This was what all the praying and fasting, and proclaiming, “Thus says the Lord”

Was all about.

This was the redemption of Jerusalem and Israel and of all the world as well.

This child was why there was a Temple…Immanuel…God with us.

And he was the purpose of all the rituals she loved

In all their richness and beauty.

He was why they were so beautiful:

God’s Promised One…God with us.

With energy uncanny for an eighty-four year old, she dashed from the Temple

And shouted the news in the streets of Jerusalem

She saw…She heard…She knew…The Promise

Come see…Come hear…Come know…The Promise

She told everyone with the blood

Of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah

And Jacob and Rachel in their veins…

Everyone who had ever waited and worried and wished

For The Promise to come true.

She proclaimed to them:

The Promise has come, she said, and The Promise is true.

Come see the future cradled in the arms of the past.

 

This morning in Epiphany

We may seem so far from Simeon and Anna…

So far in space and time…

Yet, we are right where they are… in that we too

Find our arms cradling the future.

What are you going to do with such an arms of promise?

What are you going to do in response to the promise right before your eyes,

Right in your arms?

We cradle the future in our arms this morning.

Will you be like Simeon, letting go of your hold on the future,

So that the future can get a hold on you?

Because of the promise of God’s presence you see in your arms,

You can rest in peace in the arms of God.

You can rest in peace for the Promised One promises God’s presence

Whatever the circumstances in the days to come

Nothing the future can hurl at us can break the promise of God with us.

Or will you be like Anna and,

Seeing promise of God’s love in the flesh,

Share that love with those who need the Good News

Of God’s love in flesh and blood?

Or will you be like the unnamed and faceless Temple goers long ago

Who moved through that day like it was just another day…

Whose eyes and ears and arms were full only of their own concerns…

Who passed by the promise without pause or regard…

Who were more concerned about being religious and right,

Than being responsive and real?

 

What will you do with the promise of God’s future cradled in your arms?

Will you dread the coming of days without possibility…

Days without promise?

Days without purpose?

Or will you praise the days before your eyes

And in your arms as a gift from God,

Full of the promise of God’s presence?

This moment in time for us, for our church, for our nation

Is God’s gift to us.

What we do with this moment in time is our gift to God.

Be like Simeon and Anna: they were in the right place at the right time.

Let yourself be led to the right places and the right times

So that your future may intersect with God’s promise and power.

Hold on to the promise

Until you are held on to by the promise.

Don’t give in, give up, or give over.

Don’t let the silence convince you of God’s absence.

Keep trusting what you can’t see or hear or feel.

Trust the promise of God to be blessing

Even when it feels like a curse.

Keep your eyes open even though they are tired and weary and world worn and dimming.

Keep close to God’s house and God’s people.

Remember Simeon.

Be like Anna, not that you need to live in the church like she did.

(Although I think some of you are trying to do so even now).

No, just don’t leave the church out when you leave the church.

Carry church with you,

For church is no more or no less than the promise of God with us

Where two or three are gathered in my name; there I will be; there will be church.

Recognize no secular and sacred dichotomy.

Embrace all of life, profound and mundane, as God’s domain.

Do all you do in God, for God, with God, through God.

Be as close to God as the fish is to the ocean in which it swims.

Be as close to God as the bird is to the sky in which it flies.

Like Simeon and Anna

Praise the promise by living the promise

And giving the promise to others.

Cradle the future carefully

As did these two old souls: Simeon and Anna.

Let them lead you to where God’s future is your future.

Then we can rest in peace each night as we sing:

 

O God, You now can let me go.

With my own eyes I see and know

I hold the future in my arms,

The One who saves from all that harms.

A light for all the world to see

Your promises have come to be. Amen

 

 

Prayers of the People

God of grace and love and tender mercy,

We come before you this morning with such mixed emotions.

We are glad for this good day and for the gift of life itself.

Yet, we are saddened by the breaches in the common good of our nation.

Make us wise enough to know your will for our country.

Make us brave enough to choose to do what is right and true.

Even truth itself is in danger in our day, O Lord.

Show us the truth which will set us free and put us in the right.

God of compassion, be with all those who struggle with pain in mind, body, or spirit.

Bring us the healing which only comes from the springs of your mighty strength.

God of love, fill us with love for those who are close to us and those who are afar.

Bridge the gap between good people of varying opinions.

Help us disagree agreeably in order to remain in communion with each other.

Let this time of oneness in worship, create a unity which will continue when we depart.

God of peace, bestow upon us the peace that passes all understanding.

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer we pray.

Amen.

 

Marching Orders for a Movement

Dr. Darrell Cluck

January 29, 2017

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Much has been made of the word “Movement” of late.

President Trump calls his election a “Movement.”

The day after the inauguration, millions of women demonstrated a “Movement” of their own.

The cover of USA today rightly credited Donald Trump with starting two Movements:

The one supporting him and the one opposing him,

Prompting Jake Tapper of CNN to ask, “Moment or Movement?”

Friday the Right to Life Movement marched on Washington, as well.

Not to be left out, one local church had a sign out front declaring,

“We are not a church; We are a Movement.”

We also have a sign out front, not the fancy kind on which you can change the message,

But maybe that’s OK.

Our sign is the sign of a Movement far from momentary,

A Movement which has endured through the ages and comes to us as fresh as the morning news:

“Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly with your God”

Is not only our vision, our motto, and our marching orders,

It has been the vision, the motto, and the marching orders for the People of God for millennia.

Movements may come and go, but this Movement marches on calling us to get in line.

How are we doing with the marching orders of the Movement?

Are we daring to do Justice, living to love mercy, and surrendering to the Sovereign will of God?

As stated earlier, scholars believe this passage constitutes the “Gospel of the Old Testament.”

Why would this pivotal passage appear in a Minor Prophet, Micah?

We call the last twelve books of the Old Testament, the Minor Prophets,

But that nomenclature is misleading.

They are called minor only with regard to size, the size of a scroll.

These “books” of the Bible are relatively small.

In the Hebrew text, they are called simply, “The Twelve,” because all 12 fit on one scroll.

Kings was so long that it took two scrolls to contain it; therefore, I and II Kings.

So, The Twelve are just a major as the major prophets, but more condensed and not as verbose.

The Twelve proclaim the prophetic message of the Old Testament; Testament means covenant.

This passage in Micah summarizes the proclamation of the Twelve

And of all prophetic utterance.

The Biblical image of Covenant is an agreement made by God and accepted by the people.

No negotiation is entailed.  God stipulates and humans cooperate.

God delivered Israel out of bondage and made them a people.

All Israel is and ever will be is a result of God’s deliverance and providence. 

The People of God owe God everything.  Nothing God could ask would be asking too much.

This Covenant language is borrowed from the agreements

Between Overlords and serfs in the ancient Middle East,

Much like the dynamic which existed in the Middle Ages in Europe.

The Overlord owned the land and allowed the serf to live and work the land in return for loyalty.

The Overlord took a large portion of the land’s product and in return protected the serf.

In an interesting twist on tithing, where ten percent of earnings are given to God

And ninety percent are kept by the tither, the formula was reversed in ancient times.

The Overlord in Biblical times got ninety percent and the serf ten percent. 

I don’t suggest that as the model for stewardship at Northminster,

But it does remind us that the Bible is being easy on us comparatively speaking.

So, what does God require of us…10%, 50%, 100% like in the New Testament reading.

The Prophet called Micah couches his question in terms of offerings.

God, what do you want from me?

Do you want holocausts, Lord?

A holocaust or “shoah” in Hebrew was a burnt offering which was totally consumed on the altar.

Nothing but ashes remained.

Most offerings were made by burning the entrails and organs of the animal.

The meat was then eaten, usually by the priests.

It was the origin of feeding preachers fried chicken on Sunday.

Holocausts burned everything. 

That is why the term Holocaust is used for the extermination of 6 million Jews during WWII.

Only the ashes of Israel remained after the Holocaust. 

Ashes, from which a nation rose again.

Is that what you require God, a Holocaust, literally or figuratively?

How about 10,000 rams? How about rivers of oil?

More shoah than David or Solomon combined.

What do you want of me, O God?

Do you want my firstborn child?

Is that how far you want this Holocaust to go?

The cry of Abraham is echoed here.

Abraham brought his beloved son, Isaac, meaning laughter in Hebrew, to be sacrificed to God.

Abraham discovered through his own terror and tears that God demands so much more.

What does God require?

Micah answers for all eternity with words that still demand so much more from us.

And there they are on our sign. 

We drive by them so often.

Display them prominently.

“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”

Three imperatives which grow out of our Covenant with God.

The command to do “justice” utilizes the Hebrew word “mishpat.”

It is used over two hundred times I the Old Testament.

“Mishpat” most often means “to rectify,”

To make right what has wronged people.

And the wronged people, the people in need of justice or rectification

Are consistently seen as the widow, the orphan, and the stranger at the gate.

Why these three groups?

In a patriarchal society, these were the ones who were most likely to be left out

Because they had no rights of their own and had to depend on the care of others.

A widow with no protector was vulnerable for exploitation and abuse.

An orphan with no family was vulnerable to neglect and violence.

The foreigner, refugee, immigrant was kept on the outside of society…a stranger…an alien.

What does God require of us?

The prophets have a radical view of what it means to be religious.

Amos 5:21-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Psalm 50 sums it up in this roughly translated first verse:

“I will take no bull from your house.”

Who is the stranger at the gate needing “mishpat” in our day?

The stranger may be at an airport gate.

Who is the outsider…outside help…outside hope…outside health,

On the outside looking in.

Will we turn a blind eye or will we rectify?

Justice can never be “just us.”

What does Micah mean when he proclaims, “Love Mercy.”

The Hebrew word here is “hesed,” meaning lovingkindness, tender mercies, or steadfast love.

The archaic term “leal” meaning allegiance to a monarch could work if we had monarchs.

“Hesed” is loyal love which will not let up or let go, more devotion than emotion.

Our Covenant with God not only requires we make things right for people who are wronged,

But it requires that we elevate “hesed” as a norm in our life together and our life in the world.

Couldn’t our world use a little more kindness, a little more tenderness, a little more mercy?

Why do you think we are here?

It is right out there on our sign.

Will you be the measure of mercy for someone around you, someone who can sing this song?

THE MEASURE OF MERCY

You show me the measure of mercy.

You share a compassion complete.
You gift me, though I am unworthy,
With kindness and blessing replete.

You grace me with gracious compunction
For tender surrender to peace.

You guard me unguarded by reason.

You revel in reckless release.

You save me from saving for nothing
My heart with its wonder and woe.
You calm me with gentle adoring,
Well loving the one you well know.

I measure the mercy around me;
You are the dimensions I see.

The last requirement is that we not get the big head when we are so good and do so much good.

Walk humbly with your God.

The Hebrew for “walk” is “halacha” which refers to your daily way of life not perambulation.

Conduct yourself with humility.

I have found out the hard way that if you do not humble yourself, God will do it for you.

It hurts to be humble, but it hurts less if you do it yourself and not wait for it to be done to you.

These are the few ways we can practice humility:

To speak as little as possible of one's self.

To mind one's own business.

Not to want to manage other people's affairs.

To avoid curiosity.

To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.

To pass over the mistakes of others.

To accept insults and injuries.

To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.

To be kind and gentle even under provocation.

Never to stand on one's dignity.

To choose always the hardest.
Mother Teresa, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living

 

Humility is not exactly the rage these days.

For most of human history, it was considered a slave virtue.

The weak and powerless were humble because they knew their place,

And did not dare raise their heads.

The rich and powerful had no need for humility because they drank the wine of winning lustily.

Being haughty and proud was their right either by birth or success or both.

What a different set of values is presented in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible.

Doing justice for others.

Mercifully extending kindness to others.

Humbling yourself before God no matter what your pedigree or degree or position in life.

Can you think of anything we need more today than these three imperatives?

The most vulnerable of society require justice and require it now.

Tender mercy, lovingkindness, and steadfast love are in such short supply today

Humility has been pilloried, mocked, and dismissed by those in power.

The high and mighty get higher and mightier

While the low and lowly get lower and lowlier.

But we have a sign from God which can change all that.

The sign from God is the sign out there in front of our church:

“Do justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly with your God.”

The movement of God’s spirit still moves us today.

Will you be moved enough to make a Holy Movement move?

Think this week where you can bring a little justice,

Where you can rectify a wrong,

Where you give someone who has no chance a chance at last.

Think this week where you can be merciful,

Where you can give others the break they don’t deserve,

Where you can break a cycle of retaliation,

Where you be surprising kind and tender.

Find those left out and let them in.

Welcome the stranger, the alien, the immigrant, the refugee.

Take time this week to humble yourself, before someone else does it for you.

See where you have been self-centered, self-serving, self-aggrandizing.

Center on others;

Serve a higher purpose;

Aggrandize God, nothing less.

We have our marching orders:

Justice to do,

Mercy to love,

Humbleness to walk.

Let’s march.

 

Prayers of the People

Blessed are You, Lord Jesus Christ. You crossed every border between Divinity and humanity to make your home with us. Help us to welcome you in strangers, immigrants and refugees. Blessed are You, God of all nations. You bless our land richly with goods of creation and with people made in your image. Help us to be good stewards and peacemakers, who live as your children. Blessed are You, Holy Spirit. You work in the hearts of all to bring about harmony and goodwill. Strengthen us to welcome those from other lands, cultures, religions, that we may live in human solidarity and in hope. God of all people, grant us vision to see your presence in our midst, especially in our immigrant and refugee sisters and brothers. Give us courage to open the door to our neighbors and grace to build a society of justice. Amen.

 

IF YOU GET WHERE YOU’RE GOING,

WHERE WILL YOU BE?

Dr. Steve Jolly

  January 15, 2017

Genesis 4:16; 12:1-5, Hebrews 11:8-9                                         

                    

     It’s almost rite of youthful exuberance: young adults gather at the end of work on a dull Friday or the dorm room fills with a group returning from the last class. Someone asks, “What’a we do tonight?” and after a moment’s pause, almost explosively, someone yells, “Road trip!” And within 15 minutes, without plan or purpose, a car load of kids hits the highway. Direction and destination are left to the whim of the one behind the wheel. That night, they may be in a bar playing pool in Ringgold or laying by a pool in Baton Rouge. Luck may find them comped the Grand Suite at the Omni or they might return home anemic from feeding swarms of blood sucking insects from sleeping on the beach in Gulfport. Part of the excitement of a Road Trip is launching into the unknown with no preparation or planning. Almost like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, the idea is to figure something out on the way down. And in like fashion, the adrenalin rush can force some exciting and creative responses or you end up in a memorable crash and burn event. But it’s a trip everyone talks about for decades.

          Of course, some folks have the opposite problem. Everyone knows the “overly prepared person.” These souls won’t start a trip unless they know, in minute detail, everything that’s going to happen. They have a spreadsheet with fifteen minute slots laying out everything to be done. It’s not just making the reservations; they’ve already researched the museums and historic sites, and could tell you now where and what they’ll have for lunch on a specific day! Like viewing a topographic map, there is no detail left to chance anytime on the road. They do everything possible to suck both the unexpected and adventure out of any trip.

          But if we’re honest, many who claim to follow God can use the same metaphors for our spiritual lives. We do little more than let someone yell “road trip” only to find we’ve impulsively launched ourselves on a journey driven, not by God, but by our own fears or neurosis or by pressures from others? We talk a good game but really travel unaware; unthinking; unprayerful. Yeah, we proclaim a faith in God, but there’s never a time we listen for the whisper of the Divine Voice. Or we assume we should let someone “more spiritual” lead; we let a dominate personality bully us down their desired path. How many folks let the church tell them what they are “supposed” to believe or say, “well, it’s what the pastor tells us, so it’s what God wants me to do.” So, our faith journey is just meandering around looking for comfortable shade.

          Still again, far too many Christians have tried to organize, routinize and rationalize the faith to the point there’s no mystery or adventure in a journey with God. Far too often in my own life, I’ve been lured by the temptation to make Christianity a formulaic tale. Have you not seen Christians so walled in by doctrine, their Christian life as predictable as the scenery from a treadmill? And because they have all the corners nailed down; have the faith hermetically sealed for eternal preservation, they feel secure in telling you you’re wrong and declaring your eternal damnation.

Lest we get too judgemental, remember it’s a big temptation for us all to craft a “safe” faith; have a domesticated Almighty; make Christianity a bumper sticker formula. How often, when we hear God’s voice calling us into a strange land, do we stick our fingers in our ears and start singing “Gimmie that Old Time Religion” and want things left alone; unchanged; static; a “don’t change a thing” theology. When a divine voice speaks of new directions, new ideas, new passions, new ministry, new places to go, do we close our eyes to revelation - because venturing outside our comfort zone is just too much?

To use scripture as metaphor, each of us, like Cain and Abraham, is on a journey. That journey is our life. Some of us are like Cain, wandering around Nod; unprepared, unplanned, unsettled because we’re aware we’re far from Eden, but not really sure where we’ll end up. Or, like Pharisees, we’ve got all the answers and fossilized the faith into unbreathing rules.

Or….or there’s Abraham, who hears a divine voice nudging him forward in the journey, giving us direction, even without the details of where he’ll end up. And for us, because of moments in the Holy Presence, perhaps we, too, can claim the bearing for life is set by a divine compass leading us toward “somewhere over there” – a place we sense God desires us to live as a blessing to the world.

          Note, growing up, my church made the Abraham story a beautiful fairy tale. Abraham was so hyper-holy, he and God were like BFFs. Abraham was so sure of what God had promised, there was no anxiety; no worries about his journey. And in the photo shopped image presented, everyone was smiling, the scenery majestic. Abraham walked with a bounce in his step because God made this the equal of a trip to Disney World!

          But that does the story grave injustice. Abraham was from generations of rooted family. In Ur, Abraham inherited the family business and was doing great. Like Andy in Mayberry, he knew everyone and everyone knew him. Life was comfortable, secure, safe. Can you imagine the internal struggle he felt in the nudge to leave it all behind? What do you think Sara or the rest of his family said to him on his announcement to head off to somewhere he couldn’t even express? What would you say to your family patriarch who sold the multi-generation family business to buy a Winnebago with some talk about God telling him to take everything and head out? How sane does that sound? Add on, this was nomadic life; as risky as backpacking from here to Mexico City with no clue what dangers are out there.

Bluntly, from Abraham to the Exodus to the Magi to Paul’s missionary journey, they all posit a vital question to us in Monroe today: what is the trajectory of our lives? Do we hear a Holy voice? Is there a divine star by which to set our course? Is the direction a worthy one; something godly; something beyond mundane? Do we make a real difference or are we devoting first-rate energies to second-rate causes? Simply, ask this: if you get where you’re going, where will you be?

The late Methodist minister Wallace Hamilton told of a city dad whose two kids begged for a horse. Seeing a horse grazing on a local pasture, the father asked the local farmer to buy the horse. The farmer initially refused - which the dad took such as a bargaining tool. Eventually the farmer finally agreed to sell provided the city fellers could catch his horse. So, the man took his children into the pasture and, after three hours, they had finally corralled and bridled the horse. The farmer, being meticulously honest, told the man, "There are two things I have to tell you about this horse before I take your money. In the first place, he’s awful hard to catch.” That, the city folks had learned. "The second thing," the farmer added with a wry grin, “once you got him, he really ain’t worth catchin’.”

We know things in life like that. And like the horse, you work hard to catch them only to wonder if they were worth having in the first place. A teen betrayed and amid the agony of a broken heart asks it; a young executive puts in 18 hour days working for an ungrateful boss ponders if it’s worthwhile; many try to hold a full-time job and be a full-time parent only question the exhaustion and quality of life; at retirement, we look back and ask “what did we do?"; we face a serious illness and ruminate on the direction of our lives.

Now, I doubt we get to wondering if it’s all worth it because we started out with ignoble goals. Few of us here began our youth like the children in the old commercial who want to file all day, be downsized into early retirement or get paid less in a meaningless job. We likely started out, wanting to make the world a better place; to be heroic in the face of adversity; to marry the one of our dreams and live happily ever after. We desired to be an example of a moral, honest and trustworthy soul and live the Christ-like way. No, it’s not our goals or ideals that are the problem.

Let me give a concrete example. Let’s say as a freshman in college I set out to be a good student and make excellent grades. That’s a worthy goal. But if I spend all evening surfing the web or party every night, I doubt I’ll reach my goal. Simply, to dream of a 4.0 GPA is great; but my passion for it must match the dream. It’s not that I never surf the web or party. But I must be willing to stretch, be thoughtful, intentional; spend the time in preparation, read the vital texts, listen in class. Likewise, if I’m to live a Christian life; nurture my faith; move the needle for Christ, I need to spend time in preparation, read the vital texts, listen to my Lord and make sure what I do is in line with the Gospel.

Abraham trekked across untold miles because he was driven by a quest to find God’s purpose in his life; to have his life in line with God’s vision for it; to live a life of blessing to others. His quest was to answer who he was to become; what his future was to be. Last Sunday, Darrell explored the journey of the Magi driven by a divine star. In that, they found an answer to whether their journey was worth it.

I’m not suggesting there are answers to all our questions, for there’s way too much mystery in life for it to be that simple. But I am certain the value of a person’s life is not in the abundance of things possessed or a bottom line on the ledger sheet. Scripture is clear enough that we can own all the stock of Bill Gates and still lose our soul. Let’s be straight: one primary reason for this hour of worship is to try and stop us in our tracks and, for a brief moment, try to hear the Holy Voice whisper to us or glimpse the divine star and then ask "Look at where you’re headed. When you get where you’re going, where will you be?"

As you and I make our journey, what are the values which are guiding us? What voice is it that calls you forward? By what do you measure success? A rising stock portfolio? That you bought a bigger house? That you won Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest or you made it onto Duck Dynasty?

I am being presented for your consideration as intentional interim pastor. Tonight, I encourage you to prayerfully discern if God wants us to journey together into the “in between time.” Please ask your questions. Express fully what you believe. And if it is your corporate will, it will be my privilege to journey with you into the unknown wilderness beyond Welton Gaddy’s retirement. And we all get it: he’s been the voice of stability, wisdom and vision that is deeply woven into your congregational soul. You can speak a clear “thanks be to God” for all he has done and what he means to you. It’s natural that a journey without him is a time of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty. My task will be to travel with you as you seek the person God is preparing, even now, to be your next permanent senior pastor.

So, from this sacred place, let me promise you three things should you find me the soul to travel with you. First, I pledge you will get no “Saturday Night Special” in this pulpit. I’ll work to craft a sermon worthy of the worship we give to God. Second, I promise to be present. I’ll listen and be there for you. I’ll want to hear your concerns. My door will be open to you. Additionally, amid your individual joys and wounds, I will care for you: dance in the high moments and weep amid your hurts.

But, above all, I promise not to tell you what to do. I’m not here to be the “boss.” I’m here to ask hard questions. As you seek a new senior pastor, I’ll continue to ask if you hear the divine voice; have sight of the Jesus star - ask, “if you get where you’re going, where will you be?” In what direction is God yearning Northminster so you can be ready both to do vital Gospel ministry and receive your new pastor.

Let me make the point: reflect on a congregation – any other congregation. Ask are all their efforts in a self-serving ministry, making everyone there happy or comfortable? Is worship entertainment with pyrotechnics and dancing bears and numbers defining success? Is it playing it safe or doing it the same way over and over again because it’s comfortable? Now, what about Northminster? Is the goal of this congregation to see the Kingdom of God alive and real because you speak truth to power about injustice and defend the powerless; because you comfort the brokenhearted and welcome the stranger; because you do the things that make for peace and give the cups of cool water to the thirsty and love like Jesus loves, - not just those inside the walls, but a broken world? Ask, does this church make a difference? What is God calling you to do? What direction is God’s voice calling? I promise, if you head in that direction – God will have your new pastor waiting there for you! The key is to figure it out through congregational conversations, prayerful discernment, open minded and open hearted meetings. In a way, it’s taking direction from the divine voice and heading out in that direction – both as a congregation and as a person.

Jordana Confino was your typical eighth-grade American teen in Westfield, New Jersey who often complained about how hard was her life; school, clothes, friends, the house rules. So, her mother, Lisa, tried to make a dent in her attitude of privilege exposing her to the condition of girls in Afghanistan who were forbidden to go to school by a culture which saw women as little more than property. What Lisa wanted to impart was, “You got it lucky here, kid.” Instead, like a sponge, Jordana wanted to know everything about the plight of girls there, even visiting the UN in New York for personal interviews. While many peers were obsessed with Twilight films or Daniel Radcliffe, she was talking to her friends about how they could change things. By the time she was a senior, she'd begun 20 chapters of “Girl's Learn” - an organization that pairs groups of teens in the States with schools for impoverished girls and promotes personal one-to-one relationships to empower girls here and there. Because Jordana saw a need, felt the passion and was guided by a vision – a voice or star, if you will - her life found a greater purpose.

It’s been said you can’t tell the difference between a nomad and a pilgrim just by looking at them. Both are travelers you see on the road. The difference is the nomad, a Cain heading into Nod, wanders around without real purpose; the pilgrim, an Abraham, travels knowing they journey with God.

On a personal level, are the things for which you spend your days worthwhile and lasting - or selfish and temporary? Are your days spent on knowing the trivia of SuperBowl statistics or watching NCIS reruns? Or are the passions which drive your life to share Christ’s love? Are you focused on God’s call for truth, justice, grace and love? If you continue in life exactly as you are, will your life be wedded more to the trivial or the eternal? The true meaning of the word "repent” is to change your mind, turn around and go in a different direction. Perhaps if the journey of Abraham grabs our attention long enough for us to truly wrestle with the question of our life direction, we will hear the Holy voice speak with crystal clarity so to “repent” and head in the direction of that visionary voice.

Likewise, as a congregation, Welton Gaddy’s retirement launched Northminster on a journey. There’s always an impulse to do a fly-by-the-seat of the pants, impulsive “road trip” and just head out there to find some shiny new pastor to fill the slot. Likewise, some people may already have the map for the congregational journey marked because they know who they want for the job. But note, neither the road tripper nor the planner have any time for prayer or process; for slowing down to seek God’s will, be silent long enough to hear God’s voice; to study the heavens and find the star with Northminster’s name on it. But if you want to end up where God wants us and find, not just a good pastor but the right pastor, a time of discernment and tough questions about your future are what you’ll need to do.

Abraham found his trek worth it, for it ended where God’s dream called him. May you - and we - be found as wise.

 

THE FIRST AND LAST WORDS

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy

 

October 30, 2016  9 (October 30, 2016 was Dr. Gaddy's last sermon as Senior Pastor of Northminster Church.)

 

1 Corinthians 1:2-3; Philippians 1:3-5

Late on a Saturday night, as the big Delta Jet pulled up to the gate at the Monroe airport, the flight attendant announced the arrival at our destination and said, “I hope your stay in Monroe is a good one.” No one on board the airplane heard my silent response to that announcement. It was a simple prayer, “Oh God, let it be so.” This morning, just short of 25 years later, I have breathed another silent prayer--this one a prayer of thanksgiving prompted by rich recollections that support my conclusion My stay in Monroe has been “a good one.” Hope transitioned into realization. My longing for a spiritual home has been replaced by the feeling of being at home.

Don, Cathe, and Jordan Nixon were on the same flight I was on from Atlanta to Monroe on  that evening.  They were returning from a Christmas vacation and I was arriving here to begin my tenure as pastor of Northminster Church.  The next morning, the first Sunday of the New Year, we would lead worship together and, beyond that, daily seek to nurture a community of faith that deserved to be called a church

         The next day, on that Sunday morning, I stepped into this pulpit, surrounded by a quality of music that touched the soul, and delivered a sermon entitled First Things First. My singular focus was on God.  For me, religion generally, faith specifically, and everything else eventually begins with and relates to God.  Through nearly the quarter of a century I have spent with this church, I have shared more sermons on God than on any other subject.  In the beginning, God!  In the end, God!  Always, God!

Since speaking the 1,791 words in that sermon for that morning, now, from this pulpit, I have spoken approximately 120,000 words on subjects related to worshiping and serving God in a manner that makes a difference for good in us and in our world.  God remains the first word, though after thinking or speaking of God, scores of other words have followed. Many of those words reverberate in my head and heart today as I deliver my final sermon as your pastor.  Prominent among those other words are love, gratitude, church, grace, and integrity.

         Love is the second word though I probably have voiced that word love as much as the name of God because I understand God as love. Not only is love a synonym for God if carefully used, love is the essence of Christianity as I understand it. Repeatedly I have said to you that never are we more like God than when loving another person holistically and unconditionally.  Desiring to better understand the fathomless mystery of God and seeking to learn something of the substance of God-given love, I have tried to provoke conversations about how we best can display our love for God in every realm of our lives--economics, play, politics, worship, work, sexuality, vision, devotion, hospitality, inclusion, and more. Christianity is not about a system of beliefs and doctrines, rituals, propositions, and platitudes; it is about actions motivated and shaped by a love for others nurtured by God’s love for us.

         Gratitude is the next word.  Doxology pervades my theology even as my theology evokes doxology. Serving God is not about shaking with fear, cowering in the face of prohibitions, or scrambling to get to heaven; relating to God is about reverence, comfort, peace, mercy, justice, humility, and celebrating life fully right now. 

What has transpired during our years together is the source of bountiful gratitude. I want to speak about the multiplicity of the dimensions of that truth.

         You are honest people.  Frequently individuals new to our church have asked me if members of this congregation have more problems, pains, and doubts than people in other churches. “No” I always respond quickly; the people here are just more openly honest about almost everything than many other people I know in churches. “Watch closely,” I tell such an inquirer, “You will also see among our members a plethora of thanksgiving, celebration, joy, and faith.”

         Every member a minister we print in our order of worship most weeks.  That was the vision of this congregation from day one--a lay-led church. It has not always been the reality in our congregation, but it remains the goal.  I am thankful that you are wise enough to know that a church is far more a living organism than just another social institution and that everybody in the church is important and has a role to play in this church’s life.

         I am ceaselessly thankful for the priority this church assigns to worship.  I will say to you one last time what across the years I have said with regularity. You cannot build a church on worship alone. Other factors are essential in a holistic ministry--education, stewardship, fellowship, pastoral care, community involvement, forgiveness, and service. But, you cannot have a real church without authentic worship. 

You recognize and appreciate the fact that every facet of worship merits careful preparation and demands excellence and that every member of the church should serve as a worship leader in one way or another. How could we ever justify making an offering to God that is less than the best of that of which we are capable? You understand.

Few choirs commit to the amount of time and energy required by faithful members in our music ministry.  But, such discipline in and commitment to music are essential.  Never should a minister or a choir director in this church apologize for demanding the best music that we can provide in worship.  From day one of my time here, supported by every leader of the music ministry we have had, I recognized the choir every bit as important as the pastor in conveying important messages to the congregation. Good music can touch emotions and stir hearts in ways of which words are incapable.  I have had the great joy of working with the finest musicians one can identify.

         I am grateful for the freedom that I experience in this pulpit and the congregation’s defense of that freedom. I know it may sound strange, but, as I have confessed to you before, there is no place in my life in which I feel a greater responsibility and more freedom than when standing in this pulpit. I hope this pulpit never will be filled by someone who fears criticism, takes short cuts in elaborating good news, or plays to the crowd rather than speaks the truth measured by revealed words from God and the teachings of Jesus.  One of the greatest compliments that I ever received here came from a man who left worship one Sunday morning saying to me, “You know what really disturbs me is that I think you really believe what you say.”  Yes! 

         Though I never have tried to mislead you, God forbid, I always have tried to stay in touch with the fact that I am capable of being wrong.  That is why time and time again I have encouraged you to study what I have said and to be sure you embrace a truth not because I commended it but because you personally have discovered and embraced its reality.  Preaching is a partnership between the person in the pulpit and all of the people in the pews. 

         I am grateful for the sensitivity and courage of our church’s vision and its will to translate visions into actions.  Long ago, you saw a need for a different kind of church in this community and you responded to that vision by creating this unique congregation. You supported my engagements in this community, recommending and working on the creation of a food bank in Northeast Louisiana and later establishing and helping lead a chapter of Habitat for Humanity. You have valued our relationships with cherished members of Temple B’Nai Israel who are as comfortable in this sanctuary as we are when sitting in front of the Torah and engaging in worship. You saw when enough was enough in our relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention and courageously severed our ties with that rogue convention built on a gross misrepresentation of the historic Baptist tradition. You have found meaning in worship led by a rabbi and an imam along with your pastor reading from the Torah, the Qu’ran, and the Gospels.  I will always remember several of us going together to the masque in Monroe at the conclusion of a Ramadan that had been filled with condemnations of Islam and threats of burning the scriptures of Muslims. I still feel the heavy sense of the holy as well as the light heart of joy when, on that occasion, the imam asked me to do the sermon.

Members of this church saw the need for a columbarium to be a part of our ministry.  Judy and her committee carefully moved us to the fruition of that dream so that now some members of our church find a comfort in times of death that was not there previously.

         There is not enough time for me to cite all the sources of gratitude for you that I would like to elaborate--the hospitality we extended to displaced victims of hurricanes who came here hurting and disturbed by assertions that devastation was God’s punishment for our wrongs.  The inspiration and revelations we have experienced through a series of art exhibits and other celebrations of the arts would require an afternoon of discussions.

         For a few moments, I want to speak personally.  During our years at Northminster, Judy and I have been through many of the happiest and the saddest times in our lives.  You were with us in both.  Your support has been invaluable, your understanding remarkable, and your love palpable.  You have let us weep openly and laugh loudly or be together quietly.  Thank you.

         One of your gifts for which I am most grateful occurred in the first month of my ministry here--on the weekend of my installation.  I always have been grateful for you showing our sons that church can be a good place, not just a place of struggle.  The more John Paul and James Welton got to know this church, the better they felt about their parents being here.  That meant more to me than any of you can know.

         You have been not only patient with but supportive of changes that have occurred in my thought, spirituality, theology, and life.  I have been honest with you every step of the way on that journey of mind and heart.  Today I believe far less than when I came here, but numerous beliefs have been replaced by one faith that is unafraid of a search for truth, pulsating with freedom, eager to nurture growth, and filled with a passion to do what is possible.

         Your flexibility and openness to the wild winds of creativity never were more apparent than when, after I resigned as your pastor to accept the leadership of Interfaith Alliance, you asked me to continue my ministry here as Pastor for Preaching and Worship while also serving as president of that organization.  You made possible a life that could not have been more fulfilling even when difficult.  Your call and encouragement gave me the incredible joy of remaining with you in pastoral ministry while serving my country and simultaneously sharing my faith in a manner that conveyed dignity and worth to other faiths and respect for people with no faith and thus helping defend and secure religious freedom--an essential value for continuing our democracy at home and working for peace at home and abroad. You are, and I hope you always will be, a local church with a national vision and global compassion.

         One more dimension of gratitude is necessary.  The confession of an old prophet is locked in my brain.  At the time of his departure, this prophet told his followers that when he came to them, he delivered his message shouting, pleading, and begging, in an effort to change them.  After many years of such antics, he said, he shouted, pleaded, and begged to prevent the people there from changing him.  That is not my experience. You have changed me, and I will always be grateful for that. Having been in your midst, I see more clearly the reason for faith and the importance of morality.  I have discovered the integrity and spirituality that characterize people who are different from me.  No longer can I be patient when people are rejected and disparaged because of their sexuality.  Practically, I knew that people who loved members of their same sex could be profoundly responsible Christians, but here I worked out that reality theologically and dedicated myself to helping secure for members of the LGBTQ community all of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by heterosexual people. Living in our hometown, I am certain about the urgency of racial reconciliation without which our nation, our schools, and our social institutions will fail.  I am more aware than ever before that fundamentalism is not just another religion; it is a threat to all religions. Thinking responsibly and initiating change for the better is a splendid way of loving God.

         That brings me to the last word I want to highlight this morning.  That word is grace

         For just a moment on this retirement Sunday, I have to look back not just at almost 25 plus years of ministry here but at 57 years to the day I was ordained into ministry. I see failures as well as successes, acknowledge changes in my faith as well as a strengthening of my faith, a freedom to ask hard questions and a security to continue my work without satisfactory answers to all of those questions.  I preach the best because I know the worst.  I see ministry much differently now.  I am not an “answer man” representing God ready to explain every dilemma and answer every question. I remain a seeker, a searcher.

A story from John Claypool, my dear, now departed, friend gets at the truth I affirm.   One day, a young man who had lived for years in a village nestled at the foot of a mountain on the top of which set a monastery encountered one of the monks. “Holy Father,” he said, “I have always wanted to know what you do up there in that monastery.”  He spoke of imagining profound spiritual experiences, holy practices, extended periods of prayer, ethereal musings, and daily encounters with saints.  “Is that what you do there?” the young man asked eagerly, “Please tell me what it is like to live in such a holy place.”  “Oh no, my son,” the monk explained, “What we do there is fall down and get up, fall down and get up.”

Those of us on this pilgrimage together do the same--we fall down and we get up and fall down again and get up again.  Our hope is not so much that of changing someone else’s mind or learning a new doctrine for ourselves as it is walking together a shared path on which we can help others up when they fall down and feel the strong arms of those others under us when we fall.

         So, I close this chapter in the part of my life committed to ministry in and through Northminster Church with a quotation from George Bernano’s wonderful old book, the Diary of a Country Priest. The main character in the book is a young priest who is dying.   Bernano’s narrative provides the best explanation I know of the why and the how of my life as well as my ministry here and elsewhere. Faults and failures in my life are of my own doing. Accomplishments, influence, and contributions from my life are consequences of what is possible because of God’s gifts.  One word defines my experience with both bad times and good times. So, I leave with you that word knowing that whatever the situation--in the midst of good and bad, hurt and joy, depression and elation, love and a painful longing for love--the phenomenon that word describes will get you through the present moment and guarantee you another day in which hope can become reality.  My last word for you today was the last word in the life of the young priest. All is grace!  Grasp the promise of that word, share it in deeds, and plod or dance to its music.  All is grace!

PASTORAL PRAYER

Holy God, filled with gratitude we acknowledge our need for the divine gift of wisdom.  When we pray, prompt us to not ask you for that which we can do ourselves or blame you for all that we have left undone.  Strengthen us always to be mindful that, with your help, we can be answers to our own prayers--addressing ourselves most of the requests that we set before you.  Holy One, we speak to you with praise and confession hoping that in the mystical communion that we call prayer we will learn to love and live as you love and as you created us to live.  Amen.

 

(October 30, 2016 was Dr. Gaddy's last sermon as Senior Pastor of Northminster Church.)

 

 

 

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