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.
DAWN OVER DARKNESS
Dr. Steve Jolly
Matthew 28:1-10 Easter, April 16, 2017
Easter. For the faithful who claim the way of Jesus, today’s the most sacred on the calendar. It's why, across the globe, good numbers of people show up for church! You've come despite our culture's norm of using Sunday to sleep in – so if being here is not your usual Sunday routine – we're very grateful you're here. Today, more Americans will climb out of bed and attend a church than any other time of the year (Christmas being the only real competitor). You’ve joined folks from all across Ouachita Parish who got a bit spiffed up and headed to a church. Perhaps you even put on the uncomfortable dress-up shoes so to join with your family and friends to be here! Some of you come excited, your hearts filled with anticipation to experience the colors and pageantry; hear the music and shouts to proclaim the empty tomb.
Now, let’s also admit, some of you are not so excited. You’re a bit bleary-eyed and groggy – worn by a long work week, a late night out or just not quite fully adjusted to Daylight Savings Time. A few of you may be here out of habit – Easter in church is “family tradition.” Some folks show up because of a “drug problem” - the problem of being “drug” to church by parents or a spouse or to appease someone. If any of these are you, I get. You sit a bit sullen, begging for me to hurry up and get this over with. But I’ll also wager there are a few – perhaps even most of you, just perhaps – somewhere, even if just vaguely and deep down inside – you come in hope – hope that somewhere; somehow, you’ll sense something holy; something bigger; something of mystery. But what every your reason, you come – and we at Northminster are deeply grateful.
It might help to recognize you’re not alone. Indeed, as the sun traverses its unceasing course, other Christians throughout the world, from Moscow to Maui gather - just like you. Some held vigil through the night to see the dawn; some gather at first light. But from the start of this day, whenever Christians gather to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth alive. Sin and death are defeated, for Christ has arisen from the grave! It is a statement which bursts from the souls of believers - and it is this belief that brings so many out early today - when many folks would otherwise be sipping their coffee, reading the paper and enjoying the comfort of their bedroom slippers.
But our proclamation is not new. For twenty centuries, Christians met at dawn on Resurrection Sunday to celebrate and shout crazy stuff – we have met a living Christ - and each generation since has done so since.
And it is no accident this is a spring event. When the early church set the date on which to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, they chose the Sunday closest to the first full moon in spring. That's why Easter moves around – it’s linked to the Jewish lunar calendar and the celebration of Passover. Last year it was March 27th and next year it will be April 1st – if you’re the type who enjoys advance warning, you can go ahead and mark your calendar.
But, note, Easter has ALWAYS been a spring word. In pre-Christian England, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn was “Eastre" - and her worshipers rose at dawn on the first day of spring – March twenty-first. Early English Christians noted the Druid’s festival celebrated the triumph of spring over winter; of new life amid a landscape of winter’s death. So, as cultures tend to blend things together, the first Christians in England ended up “adopting” the name for what the rest of Christendom calls Resurrection Sunday. It’s why English speakers call it “Easter Sunday.”
Unfortunately, when those early English Christians co-opted “Eastre,” they also got stuck with magical bunnies laying hidden candied eggs.
But it's not hard to understand. For early English Christians, Jesus did the same thing spiritually as Spring did to the land. With lengthening days, there’s more light in the world. Every blade of green grass, every azalea blossom, every wildflower shouts forth God's message of rebirth. Just as Christ was resurrected, so did the earth seem raised to life from death. It was an analogy easy to make, using the pictures of the pagan religion to help folks understand the mystery of a resurrected Christ: light, life, renewal, rebirth.
And for the world outside the Christian faith, spring is as much of a celebration as they can handle; a party to welcome the clouds of pollen; enjoy Spring Break and start Daylight Savings – that’s something every non-Christian can grab onto. Everyone enjoys Cadbury Eggs, chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. For many, Easter is only about the sweetness of spring.
But we who hold the faith in Christ, who have had moments of standing often stunned in the presence of a Divine Great Mystery. We’ll tell you of how in unexpected places and unimagined ways, we sensed a Living Lord of immeasurable love and powerful acceptance; we know down deep inside, there is much, much more to this day than pastel eggs, fine chocolates and cute bunnies. For us, like an ocean’s wave for which we were unprepared, we were knocked off our feet to find ourselves awash in the embrace of an Eternal Creator whose grace alters us; takes our forlorn souls, forgives us and launches us reborn to the freshness of life. To us, Easter is about the power of the Creator's love to bring light and life to both a world and our individual human souls - both which had been enveloped in darkness. It's about the Kingdom of God; the Divine supremacy of grace over law; of love over hate; of compassion over corruption; of liberation over sin. It’s about the power of Jesus’ life given in self-sacrifice and servanthood – a gift that transforms life corporate and life individual.
Look, we know mystery is not easy to grasp. You see, the world celebrates spring because the nightmare is, this year, the dark might win. Out there, the dread of the darkness is tangible. Just watch the news; sense the dread; listen to the language of politicians and pundits – it’s about fear. Such proclaim the world is unsafe; that the darkness of evil and the power of demonized enemies is ready to plunge the world into the deep-freeze of despair. The world, you see, is obsessed with the cycle of life to death. Indeed, the world understands a crucifixion and death on Good Friday, but stands uncomprehending on Easter morning. But Jesus people – we see it differently.
On Good Friday, Jesus was dead. Now, that’s something we get. We know about death. We've seen it on the news, felt its anguish in losing a loved one, and some of us here garnered a taste of it when disease or accident gave us an unwelcome reminder of our finitude. No, we all understand death. It’s predictable, unchanging, final. Dead is dead - as in forever dead. Like that First Century temple leadership, Pilate and the disciples, the world stands in the dusk of Good Friday with Jesus in the tomb and walk away sure nothing changes dead.
And like death, we well understand failure and sin. You and I get cause and effect. We messed up, we mess up for good. The errors of the past are baggage we cannot let go; pain we know we’ll carry forever. What's done is done and can never be undone. The lie, the theft, the affair, the divorce, the pregnancy, the arrest, the venomous words, the lost youth, the broken body, THE whatever. We are told we’re marred for life, incapable of moving past our mistake. Or our lives are like C.S. Lewis’ early Narnia – where it’s always winter, but never Christmas.
How many conversations have you had just this week that are a litany of what's wrong – how everything – the world, the country, the family, the schools, the kids, the economy – it's all going to hell in a handbasket. How many folks tell you “I’m done in by the evil darkness of illegal immigrants, Muslims, bankers, the left or right wingers, the Yankees, the Illuminati, the surgeon, my parents, the lover who betrayed me” – we point to them and bitterly say they, they are why we’re damaged. If that is us, life is, at its best, heartburn; at its worst, heartbreak. Because in such a mindset, evil and injustice are the ultimate’s; there can be no smiles, no joy, no laughter.
How many have given up on things ever getting better? Have we defined ourselves as defective and life is the ashes of dreams best forgotten? Do we live in the darkness of a Good Friday world where whatever is good in us has been treacherously crucified and our best dreams are buried in a tomb? Do we point to the treachery of injustice, violence, greed, bigotry and war – or the backstabbing boss, the lying neighbor, the spouse who cheated - and declare that in our life darkness wins.
But if you have experienced Christ – there’s another story to proclaim. You see, we have been captured by a different vision - a mystery called resurrection. While the world stood in the darkness of Good Friday, we were joyfully surprised at Easter's dawn. And in the light of that day we discovered the tomb was empty, Christ is risen and we come here and now to proclaim to all the world the words of the first women who came to the grave: He is alive! And we, awash in the awesome power of that faith mystery, know it and affirm it as a real and powerful event; for we know Christ lives within us.
For those skeptics out there, I'll be direct. I can no more prove the resurrection of Jesus any more than I can prove what's beyond the known universe. There are no test tubes or time machines, no shroud or DNA evidence, no spectrographic analysis and certainly no archeological dig which will, in scientific terms prove Jesus came back to life. Someone could give a thousand reasons for the reality of the resurrection and skeptics will always give a thousand and one. I would be a fool to try and argue you into accepting the resurrection as fact. Why? Because the resurrection is a FAITH event, not a scientific event. The resurrection is a mystery of encounter that always – ALWAYS exists beyond logic.
What I can point to is that following the first Easter morning, the followers of Jesus reported an experience of him alive - and in their faith, the direction of human history was changed. Disciples who were sniveling cowards - who ran to hide in upper rooms - were on the streets proclaiming Jesus alive and living out a radical inclusive love. And because they believed, millions after them became liberated souls. Some dedicated themselves to eradicating poverty, curing disease, ending slavery, standing up to tyranny and insuring the dignity of every human soul – even at the cost of their own lives. Because of lives transformed by meeting a living Jesus, other millions were willing to spend their lives caring for the weak and the wounded; crying with the grieving and dancing at weddings and celebrating births. We, who are the inheritors of the faith of centuries of other Christians, come today to affirm that Jesus is alive and the evidence we present comes in the line of the old Gospel hymn: if you ask me how I know He lives, it is because He lives within my heart.
And that individual experience makes the difference. His presence in our lives has moved us beyond the darkness of Good Friday to the light of Easter's dawn. His spirit overcame darkness and replaced it with the light of love. This may conflict with traditional American theology, but I think the main purpose of God in the resurrection is not to wave eternal life under our noses, but as an act of redemption. Think of this: human logic says dead is dead, sin rules and our past cannot be overcome. But in the resurrection, God's love embraces us with such force - that which was seen as irreversible is reversed. Like Jesus' lifeless body, our mistake-racked lives are transformed. By the power of God, failure and fear, every broken dream and psychic wound can be overcome. Our spirit, which was dead because of life's tragedies, is reborn to dance and sing and celebrate abundant living! Simply, if the love of God can raise Jesus from the dead to life, then nothing, nothing, NOTHING we can ever do is impossible to be overcome or forgiven by that same love. Our lives, which were dead, are brought to life by God's redeeming, overpowering love.
Likewise, the light of the resurrection transforms our world, as well. The darkness of despair and anguish is burned away in the brightness of Easter’s light. Let me make the point.
On January 12th, 2010, the earth heaved on the island of Hispaniola, leaving millions of impoverished Haitians amid death and devastation. Will Willimon joined Methodist workers there to provide aid to those who lost what little they had. He reported, on his first Sunday there, in the rubble, amid the stench of decaying corpses, he watched people come from every corner of the community where he worked to gather at what had been a church. Christians gathered amid a landscape akin to a nuclear winter, and possessing nothing more than what they had on their back, not knowing where they would get water or food. But they came to worship. From deep down, they sang joyful hymns, hugged, laughed and upheld each other proclaiming hope because Jesus was resurrected – all while, Willimon noted, Anderson Cooper watched the service, incredulous that those who suffered so much could be so joyful.
But with equal incredulity, I watched seventy people that same Sunday gather in a church fellowship hall and vacuum pack 60,000 meals to be shipped to Haiti by Stop Hunger Now. The Christians who worked that day didn’t care who got the food – the Bishop of Port-au-Prince, a voo-doo shaman, an aged woman or a hungry child. All they knew was there was a place of darkness. But because of belief in the resurrection, they came as light for those wounded and broken.
The resurrection, my friends, is not human logic, but the logic of Divine love. As you leave here, go with joy and laughter, a bounce to your step and happiness in your heart. Celebrate today in the fullness of God's love. Embrace an Easter world where, in resurrection, you are changed, redeemed and made new because Christ's love lives within you. The darkness of your Good Friday world has been overcome! The light of the resurrection's new day pours on us and our world and has transformed us from Good Friday people to Easter people. So, laugh, sing, dance, and rejoice - for Christ is risen! AMEN.
Dr. Steve Jolly
All across Christendom, Palm Sunday is a spectacle. From the smallest country church and store front mission to modern mega-congregations to vaulted cathedrals, Christians make a big deal out of today. Huge brass sections blare out trumpet fanfares. Multi-colored flags and banners decorate sanctuaries. Palm leaves and cloaks are liberally thrown around. “High church” types will pull out all the stops with marching choirs, gold altar ware and a much of the “smells and bells” as they can cart down an aisle. Congregations with a dramatic flair will even have actors in Biblical costume and a donkey riding down the aisle. Even in my “anti-liturgical” Baptist church growing up, you’d have the children’s choir waving palm leaves and the communion table flowers liberally sprouting them. We truly like to do everything we can to re-create the excitement, joy and exceptional fervor of Jesus “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.
And it makes sense on one level. All of us enjoy a great parade. It certainly a lot more fun to shoot off liturgical fireworks than to sit in bleakness. It’s a “wower” to be uplifted by majestic music being played at full blast. And we delight in proclaiming with the throng on that dusty road that Jesus is God’s anointed. On top of that, after six weeks of Lent, we’re ready for something upbeat. Palm Sunday is a celebration that is only slightly behind Easter and Christmas in the majesty and beauty the church attempts to bring to the day.
But I also have no doubt that to the non-Christian observer, we must look insane.
Today, amid the excitement of Jesus entering Jerusalem, we have to admit this as the beginning of the end of Christ’s human life. Because he enters Jerusalem as he does, we who know the end of the story, recognize how our Lord threatens the established Temple order, disappoints the militant masses and sows the seeds of fear that lead to his death. We know today marks the spiritual countdown to the crucifixion. To underscore that, each day next week at noon, we will gather in this building to reflect on the daily events leading to Calvary. In the Maundy Thursday evening communion and the Good Friday reflections, we will force ourselves into the darkest territory Christians travel. Holy week is about intolerance, fear, hatred, betrayal, greed and every base human expression we know - and it all rolls toward Golgotha and Jesus bleeding to death on a cross.
I think, looking at most Christians, they have a point. Don’t most sermons for today paint a “revisionist entry?” How many Christians (including us) develop an ideal mental image of that parade that twists the original? We sing with passion and wave the branches with enthusiasm because we are welcoming “King Jesus.” But what kind of king? Aren’t we exactly like the Jewish followers of the First Century? The king we welcome is constructed from our desires – one that obscures who’s actually before us. In our mind, Jesus is a superhero; unafraid, chin out, and confident as he knows God’s got his back and that in the end, he’ll put his opposition in their place. That’s because, I feel, the people along that road, and if we're honest, the “king” we see in our minds, is not the Jesus of Luke 19 but the Christ of Revelation 19: I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice, he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns....He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.... He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh, he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
Now that’s more to our taste! We American Christians want that image, for it fits the Jesus we want to worship – a powerful, kick-butt, angry and wrathful Messiah who’s going to take care of business! That’s who we see when we look at our king: a Jesus who’s going to kick out the infidels with their strange religion, skewer those with a different (and of course, evil) theology from ours and trample over the opposition to bring back the ideal days of yesteryear when men were men and women were women, jobs were great, we were on the top of the heap and everyone knew their place – which is beneath us!
But such an image is neurotic denial of what’s really there: a young rabbi riding on a tiny colt on a dusty dirt road who has chosen humility and love rather than power. Poor, working folks with high expectations but no ability to afford a red carpet, cut the equivalent of flowering azalea’s and throw them on the road along with their hoodies. There’s no marching band, no lush orchestrations, no Hollywood choreography or make up. It’s gritty, sweaty, smelly - real life. We want pyrotechnic rock concerts - we get third world poverty and very common characters. So, for an outsider coming to this day with ordinary eyes, they can’t for their life figure out what all our pageantry and excitement is about.
In honesty, if our “rah-rah” activity here is about seeing Jesus as a “power figure,” then we’re no different than the crew in Jerusalem that day. If the excitement comes from a desire for an angry, mighty Messiah with blazing eyes coming to punish the evil, we might shout “hosanna” today, but, boy, do we miss the point. If you and I worship a wrath-of-God Jesus, then we have blinders on to a Christ who delights in lilies, hangs out with hookers, crooks, foreigners and untouchables, forgives adulterers; we never see a Jesus who’ll stand on the lowest rung of the social order so as to kneel and wash filthy feet as a way to call us to humble servanthood; who empties himself of power to show the great depth of God’s love for you and for me.
OK - we do have something to celebrate today - it’s just not what the world sees.
The Old Testament scripture is of the death of Israel’s first king, Saul. Indeed, things go so bad amid the battle noted, Saul’s entire family is wiped out. You get it? Not only is the royal leader dead, everyone trained to take over after him, all the heirs to the throne, they are wiped out. To you, all the wheels have fallen off. To have been living at that moment, one would have seen the utter destruction of the nation at hand – that things couldn’t get any worse than they are. It was a moment of wretched agony, death, defeat and misery. Yet, without the tragic death of Saul, Israel would never have had its greatest monarch, King David. In the seeds of Saul’s death were the plantings of Israel’s greatest re-birth. But if you lived in that moment, you’d never see the agony of this defeat as necessary to such greatness.
Here’s the point: it’s the grace of God revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross that can grab our souls enough to know the love of God which gives us wholeness and peace. We know how much we are loved by the Almighty because it gets revealed to us in Christ’s travel to Golgotha. If not for that moment on a cross between two thieves, we’d might never grasp the depth and power of God’s love and tender mercies for us - the extent of our Creator’s desire to reconcile with humanity.
So, while it’s the horror of Holy Week, it’s a tragedy to celebrate, for in it we find ourselves healed and whole in the hope and mercy given us in Christ.
Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem began the tragedy of Holy Week. But it also begins the story of our redemption. Today begins a nightmare for which we should wear sack cloth and ashes, but it is also a moment to understand the power of a love that transforms us and see us through our darkest days. As Jesus enters by the Mount of Olives and moves singularly toward crucifixion, we understand well the words penned by Isaac Watts we sang last Sunday: Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.
April 2, 2017
I'd Be Better Off Dead
It’s called “NDE” – Near Death Experiences. And while the letters may not be part of our lexicon, the issue has been part of both our religious and cocktail party conversation since Raymond Moody’s 1975 book Life After Life. I was in seminary when it came out and everyone was abuzz about how some persons who were “technically dead” – that is, with no heartbeat or respiration – when revived by CPR, cardiac difibulators and drugs – claimed to have experienced an out of body awareness. While some experienced nothing, others felt they were floating. A few reported knowing that they were, indeed, dead and in a place of light, peace and painless tranquility, often in the company of long gone beloveds. After that book, everyone from physicians and psychologists to Hollywood screenwriters and revival preachers made much of it. Today, qualified scientists estimate up to eight million Americans have had such encounters.
Suzanne Guthrie, the Episcopal chaplain at Cornell University, writes of her own NDE. Writhing in incomprehensible pain, she felt sucked through a tunnel to a place of blessed freedom from both pain and the limits of the body. While there were no lights, relatives or divine souls around, she had a moment of spiritual clarity, aware how shallow a life she’d lived. While quite happy to leave the agony of her gurney she was, she notes, overjoyed to be in her new place of revelatory openness.
That is, until she heard a nurse screaming her name. In the moment, she found herself amazingly conflicted. On the one hand, in this reality were her husband, young children, friends work she enjoyed. At the same time, this reality held both pain and the power to jerk her away from the immeasurable centeredness and joy she’d held. Her response was reactionary, unthinking and from the gut: “NO! Don’t do this! Don’t bring me back to this life! This is like ripping a candy bar from the hands of a four-year-old!” Simply, whatever was “over there” for her was so good, she had no real desire to return. Later, her experience leads her preacher side to ponder the scripture of today and ask a blunt question: How do you think Lazarus felt?
Most of us – and you can include me – prefer not to think too much about death. Oh, we all make that intellectual assertion that the day will come when we are no more. But, as the late singer Dean Martin once quipped with false politeness, “You can take all my friends first.” We see the “survival instinct” as primary and no one in her or his right mind would prefer death to life. Whether it’s fighting for the last seat on a life raft to boulder trapped Aron Ralston severing his arm to escape certain death, we get it.
Which brings us to today’s Lenten lectionary text. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, are close friends to Jesus. Outside the circle of disciples, if Jesus had a “BFF” – it’d be among this family. So, folks asked why would Jesus, who’d healed so many others, stay away while Lazarus languishes of disease and dies. Upon Jesus’ arrival four days later, there are wild emotions running rampant - confusion, grief, hope, anger. Lazarus, per Jewish custom, had been buried with all the rites and burial clothes in a huge stone covered cave. As touching anything connected with the dead made one ritually unclean - that is, unfit for worship – once a body was buried, you left it alone. That means Jesus having the stone rolled away is shocking. But instead of going in and touching Lazarus, Jesus calls into the cave for him to come out. And according to John, the voice of Christ restores the decaying body so that the life and soul of Lazarus is returned to this existence.
If you take scripture literally, Lazarus does not have a NED – for there was nothing “near death” about it. His was no Princess Bride Wesley’s “mostly dead.” But pause long enough to reflect on Guthrie’s question. If Lazarus had been dead for four days, how would he react to hearing the call back into life, even if it comes from the Messiah, his friend? Was Lazarus eager to be again with Mary and Martha; to sit again at Jesus’ feet; to enjoy good wine and taste honey; to feel the sun on his face and observe the breadth of the Milky Way; to feel the warm embrace of skin to skin or smell the familiar odors of kitchen or fragrant flowers? Did he hear the voice of Christ call him back and leap with excitement to be back on earth?
Or was the answer like Guthrie’s on the gurney: “No!” Was the journey back to his body a felt sentence into a prison of flesh and blood; into a world of troubles and limits; of blisters and bunions, broken hearts and abundant tears?
Well, we don’t know. But Lazarus does come out, double bound by both the burial sheets and the body in which he now resides. He struggles out, called by the voice of his Christ. And no doubt struggles into the arms of his sisters. If they were like us, all there are awash in awe, fear and astonishment. Everyone there knows dead people don’t come back. Dead is dead. So, for this miracle to occur, they know they stand in the presence of a power far beyond their comprehension. Some will fall awestruck before the feet of Jesus, grasping he is the incarnate presence of God; others will recoil in fear that he is animating ghouls by some demonic power.
And that’s the slice at the end of the 11th Chapter. The temple leadership decides Jesus must die, not because their hearts are pure evil, but because they can’t hear the divine in Jesus’ voice. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin…. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas interpreted Jesus’ miracles as the work of the devil – an evil out to destroy the worship of the One True God held in Jerusalem’s temple. Therefore, if Jesus was left unchallenged, he would, as Caiaphas expected of a self-proclaimed Messiah, challenge Roman rule. And the Romans, he knew, would do what they ended up doing some fifty years later; wiping out the nation and leaving the Temple in ruins. For the religious elite, Jesus had to go. The cross, now, was truly “dead ahead” for our Lord.
But there’s a part of the story we seldom explore – and it’s not about Jesus. It would seem Lazarus, resurrected, returns to daily living: shopping at the grocery store; going to the movies; working in his garage, interacting with those around him. And like any oddity, to some, he becomes the focus of fascination and curiosity. Some people point and stare. A neighbor whispers to him, “Man, are you OK? I mean, are you still Lazarus or an alien pod person?” Others, he terrifies as if radioactive or carrying Ebola. Lazarus is literally “living proof” of the power of the Gospel of Jesus; of what Jesus, can do. So, there’s this verse in chapter 12: So, the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many people were going over to Jesus and believing in him.
Poor Lazarus. He was physically dead and, if you take scripture’s word for it, living in the comfort of God’s eternal care. Suddenly, Jesus calls him back into human reality. And perhaps he returns with greater appreciation for the gift of relationships and all the physical delights the world offers. But I suspect he also lived with the melancholy of yearning for the taste of eternity he’d known. Yes, he could take comfort that his life, returned to him, not only dried the tears of Mary and Martha, it illuminated who Jesus was – the Messiah, God’s Son, the Christ who fully lived out the compassion, mercy and grace of his Heavenly Parent. Lazarus could see the purpose of his return was to point to who Jesus was.
But he also knew his return was a draft of bitters. In the same glass of life’s sweetness was the poison of potential murder. Because he now lived, he was painted with the bulls-eye of assassination. No doubt he told Jesus – “You brought me back for this? To be run through with a sword? Have someone slit my throat? Thanks a lot! Next time, don’t do me any favors!”
Look, most of us would think being granted new life, a second chance, to have God walk us out of our tombs would be exactly what we want. Dodging the bullet or escaping the grim reaper are what our prayers to God are often about. What Jesus did, most of us would think Lazarus had won the lottery. But not so fast.
OK. Get out your highlighter and note this. We say we want God to come into our lives. We would proudly proclaim we would want Jesus to do to us what he did to Lazarus. We want an encounter with Jesus that brings us fully to life, to transform us from our dead, old, bound up and entombed existence. “Please, God, come awaken us to the newness of life; transform us and call us out to be with you!” But I’m not so sure we know what we’re asking for. You see, when God gets hold of us; when we get transformed by the power of our Creator; when Jesus calls our names from our place of death into a place of life; when the Holy Spirit takes our four-day old dead soul and transforms it into something fully alive - don’t be shocked if there are moments when you begin to think you’d be better off dead. And don’t be surprised if there are those around you who preferred you the old, predictable and dead way - and will work to take you back to where you were.
Thomas Becket was a political “yes” man for English King Henry II. Safe and in the king’s pocket, he was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. But God called Becket out of his tomb of political expediency and changed him into a devout ascetic who challenged the king’s corrupt ego and power – a challenge that led the King's Knights to murder him in 1170 as he was preparing for worship. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the middle kid in a preacher’s family who doubted his dad’s faith. He was just another student at Morehouse College when Jesus called him out of the safety of his dead soul and gave him a vision of how the church and the Gospel could be transforming forces for racial equality. So instead of being just another preacher, he was living proof of the Holy Spirit – by a life that challenged and changed society – that is, until he was assassinated in April of 1968 at age 39. Oscar Romero was a Catholic priest closely aligned with the El Salvadorian government when he was appointed San Salvador's Archbishop in 1977. Everyone expected him to side with the nation’s military dictatorship. However, he heard Christ call him to into a resurrected life as the loudest voice exposing government torture and terror, defending the rights of the poor. For his outspoken critique, he was shot and killed as he elevated the host during Mass in March of 1980.
Three people who heard Jesus call them out of their tombs of complacency, safety, moral deadness. And like Lazarus, simply because their resurrected lives pointed to the power of Jesus, their Temple elites decided the status quo needed them dead as well.
I have no clue when or how you will hear Jesus call you from out of your tomb into the fullness of life with Christ. But if you walk out of your tomb into the light of day, your transformation will confound and challenge what all around you thought they knew about dead. The Gospel will not only rock the foundations of your existence, it will up-end the very structures of the world around you. It will bring you from what feels like death to life; from your mundane existence into the Kingdom; from sin to grace; from wounded to healed; from injustice to righteousness; from exile to home; from violence to peace and from enemies to brotherhood. And it can do it for this world where evil, violence, lies, poverty and oppression thrive. But it can only happen if we, like Lazarus, hear Jesus calling us and respond.
But it comes at a cost. Never doubt it. You say you want to be fully alive in Christ? I pray you do. It'll mean you'll forgive those who hurt you. It'll mean you'll love and serve the unlovable. It'll mean you'll no longer remain silent but challenge racism, sexism, abuse, personal and corporate greed. It’ll force you to both live with a different mentality and find an injustice to confront. It'll make you both odd and it will display the power of Christ. And it will virtually scare the hell out of some – who preferred you dead to the Gospel. Don't be surprised to find yourself like Chaplain Guthrie screaming “no” when Jesus calls. In the face of the Gospel, ask seriously - are we be better off dead?
March 26, 2017
Texts: 1 Samuel 10:1, 14-27
Title: Hiding Out Among the Bags (Jolly)
Today’s Biblical story is not generally familiar. If you’re not steeped in the odd texts of scripture (which, by the way, this one isn’t in the cycle of the Lectionary), you might be scratching your head thinking “where did this story come from?” and wondering where I’m going with this. This text might seem confusing or esoteric. However, the problem is generally reading an ancient story through 21st Century eyes. When we pull back the curtain of culture, we often discover a number of things both interesting as well as spiritually instructive. So, bear with me, I promise you, there’s a point – so hang with me on background.
Now, you may know the “biggie” Old Testament stories: Genesis’ creation, Noah’s flood, Babel’s tower, Father Abraham; Joseph in Egypt. That’s followed by Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy as the Hebrew people are released from Egypt’s slavery and given the divine laws of the Torah. After that, even for folks steeped in church life, stories get fuzzy. Make note we get to today’s reading in 1 Samuel through Joshua and Judges. Joshua’s the post-Moses leader who gets the Hebrews into God’s Promised Land. Judges, like Gideon and Sampson, were noted Hebrew leaders who got the community established in Palestine. By the time we get all the way to Samuel, there are no more judges. Samuel’s not a political leader “judge,” but a religious leader - a “prophet.”
That’s because at the start of his Biblical book, Samuel’s world is in transition. Several generations of Hebrews have been living in the land. The tribes are frequently invaded by neighboring pagan city-states. Indeed, virtually every small kingdom was in the business of trying to expand territory and political clout. So every year somebody – Canaanites, Sidonians, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites or Jebusites – you name them – show up, having declared war. This is a constant thorn in the side of God’s people, keeping them anxious about which group will make trouble next.
Now, as Samuel hits the scene, there are three divergent political perspectives among the Hebrews. Group one values strong tribal ties. They prefer no centralized governmental structure. To them, like many in today’s world, blood lines are the cultural cement. They were totally content with an atomistic political environment – a “state’s rights” mentality - because they did not want some other tribe telling them what to do. For them, the status quo is working well. These folks liked the tribal decision process where an occasional Judge was selected by consensus to temporality handle a problem.
There was a second group of deeply religious souls who wanted to keep the nation theocratic. The system of the Judges, to them, indicated how the people relied on God. They saw God as the “king,” the one who'd promised to care for, protect and watch over the people. Indeed, they preached it was the Judges who distinguished the Hebrews from the surrounding king-led pagans. To such, any other system showed a profound lack of faith in God and was downright blasphemy.
But it would seem the majority saw the system of the Judges as a dangerous path. Yes, it had worked in the past. But things were changing. In their eyes, it was only a matter of time before some kingdom swept their fragmented and ill prepared community into the sea. The nations with a king, they felt, had ready-made stability. If there was a threat, a king could give an immediate order, call out an army and march off to face an enemy with speed rather than wait until a threat was evident, then select a leader, gather an army and only then go to battle. Such worried the Hebrews might not just get caught asleep at the invasion switch, but might find themselves overrun before anyone had the chance to sound an alarm. On top of that, what would happen if some tribes got myopic and did not see it in their self-interest to defend another tribe? To put it in contemporary terms, imagine there was no “United States,” but 50 individual “tribes”. Then say Mexico or the Canadians marshaled an invasion army. Under the system of the Judges, some individual would have to arise, convince the divergent states to unite and gather an army. What if a Judge could not convince the “tribe” of Maine or Minnesota to perceive the Mexican army as a threat? Or what if people in Florida or California had no desire to go fight for a tribe as distant as the Michiganders or Montanans? To a significant number of Hebrews, a king could unite the tribes into a single nation and protect them from destruction.
It's in this political and theological division the prophet Samuel lives. Amid this debate, the Bible records a young man named Saul gets sent by his family to round up some errant donkeys. The journey sends him near the home of the prophet Samuel. While there, Samuel, out of what feels like nowhere, steps forward and anoints Saul to be the king: Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “The Lord hereby anoints you ruler of His people Israel.” Now, Samuel is the closest thing the Hebrews have to a national preacher. To all, he’s revered as speaking God’s spiritual wisdom and providing insight. To simply be reading this text, it would seem God’s answer to the tribal problem is to leave the Judges behind and go for a king – establishing the Kingdom of Israel.
But it’s not that simple. In theological terms, scripture gives something of a schizoid interpretation of Samuel’s actions. On the one hand, the Bible tells us God is not really happy with this. To choose an earthy king over God's leadership is seen as a slap in the divine face. God tells the Hebrews if they select a king, it’s going to come with some abusive costs. “If you don’t stay with Me in charge,” God basically says, “then be prepared to be slaves to a king. A king will make you pay taxes, confiscate your land, build palaces, take a ton of wives, impress you into an army and be a literal royal pain.” God doesn’t come right out and say it’s a sin to choose a king, but you can tell the Almighty is not happy. Much like a parent with a kid who’s going to put all his hard-earned savings from an after-school job into a convertible with 200,000 miles on it, God makes it pretty clear He thinks this is a lousy idea.
On the other hand, remember this is a start on the path to King David and ultimately the route to the Messiah. It may be some tinkering with the text by a post-Davidic writer, but in Samuel you'll also see verses implying God loves the idea of a king. Across the subsequent chapters, you’ll find subtle statements on what a grand plan it is to have a king. So much so, that when David hit’s the scene, the King is “God’s man;” a utopian ideal. God's king leads the nation in justice and preserves the faith. But in 1 Samuel, none of that is settled business.
But with that as background, note Samuel sees something in Saul which the future king does not see in himself. So, when Saul gets home from his donkey hunt, he makes no comment to his family about his encounter with Samuel – kind of like having your mate come home from work, you ask how the day went to be told all mundane events, but they fail to tell you the Pope called and wants to make them Envoy to the White House. It’s hardly something they would forget, so you know the omission is intentional.
So, sometime after the anointing, it comes time for Samuel to proclaim to all the people they now have a king. He calls for a major gathering at Mizpah – one of the holy sites where folks worship. Then we get this strange description of how Saul gets chosen to be king all over again – this time by a kind of lottery system. It would seem Samuel wants folks to know Saul is chosen by the divine hand of God – so Samuel had all Israel come forward by tribes, the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. Then he brought forward the tribe of Benjamin, clan by clan, and Matri’s clan was taken. Finally, Saul son of Kish was taken. Now, I’m hesitant to suggest Samuel rigged this, but it’s clear Saul is to be king. You can almost see Samuel drawing into the lottery bucket, pulling out a name and saying….”and the winner is….Saul, son of Kish! Come on up, Saul and claim your prize! Long live the king!”
Only no one comes forward. Samuel looks around earnestly and mumbles, “Hey, he was here just a minute ago…” But it seems Saul, knowing how this was to end, has slipped out. And by some divine instruction, they find him hiding among the bags folks brought for their trip to Mizpah. A strange start to kingship – no question.
Imagine watching Dancing With the Stars and as the scores are tallied, there’s a palpable tension. Then, Tom Bergeron announces the season winners: “It’s Nyle DiMarco and Peta Murgatroyd! You are the winners!” The band breaks into a robust fanfare, the crowd screams amid roaring applause, but as the camera pans back to the stage, Peta is alone. Minuets pass as the camera crew finally finds DiMarco hiding amid the scenery back stage. Only then, as the crew drags him to the platform does he acknowledge the audience and accept his award. Would not everyone think Nyle's nuts?
Unless you recognize Saul is a reluctant king. Oh, we think we'd love to be a royal – the wealth and power. “It's good to be the king,” we say. But remember, Saul knows not everyone is happy to have a king. The job is going to come with intense political heat. He'll face scorn and venomous personal attacks from a group that thinks he has no legitimacy. Add on, it seems Saul doubts his ability to pull of this king thing. He’s a shy country boy used to chasing donkeys not commanding a country. So, at the moment we'd expect him to run into the spotlight, he chooses to take a dive behind a set of Samsonite.
And at this point we find the spiritual lesson for us. Each of us has a moment when we know we are called on by God to make a difference. We can either step up to the moment or we can hide. Like Saul, we know what we should do may not be uniformly welcomed. Your PTA needs a president, your company needs a voice of conscience, your church needs a Transition Team member. It’s clear you’re God’s choice to affect things. But your doubts talk: “I don’t know if I can unify the group, handle the criticism or take the heat.” It’ll be a lot easier to just chase donkeys and do the mundane. God surely is wrong, you think. You tell yourself “I'm just not cut
In truth, you and I are immensely gifted for God’s work. We awake each morning with our heads dripping with the oil of God’s anointing call and the kiss of Christ’s affirmation – whether that call is to minister to a neighbor amid crisis, a friend whose life desperately needs the grace of the Gospel story, a community or a congregation living in the fear of the future or the dangers of a culture alien to Jesus’ mercy, forgiveness, selflessness and resurrection power. Jesus tells us we have more important work to do than chase after donkeys. Ask yourself what it is God wants you to do to build up the Divine Kingdom? We are Christ’s chosen by the power of the Gospel: to speak truth to power, defend the weak, proclaim release to captives, lift up the broken and take the outcast into the healing and embracing arms of God’s family, to listen for the Divine vision for a congregation.
It was a cold December night in 1989 when Romanian police came to arrest Laszlo Tokes. Tokes was the pastor of what had been a small and insignificant Reform church in the small and insignificant community of Timisoara (TIM-ISO-ARA). However, Tokes was one who preached the Gospel with such power and loved others with such grace, the church grew, and grew and grew, finally having 5000 attend on Sunday. This was not good news to the Communist Party who sent the police to arrest the pastor. But somehow word got out and when the police arrived, they found the entrance of the church blocked by hundreds of Christians of incredible diversity: Adventists, Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostals. When police arrived, a 19-year-old Baptist student named Daniel Gavra (GAV-RA) passed out boxes of candles, lit one and then shared his light with those around him. Within moments the front of the church was a sea of candlelight - and in that act, all the centuries old religious prejudices which divided the Christian community melted away. Because of an idea and the courage of a Baptist teen, the landscape shifted. It took days, but the Communists responded with force. In the subsequent altercation, Gavra was shot and lost a limb. However, that moment of peaceful courage in the face of brutal force galvanized Romanians and within days, protests overthrew the Ceausescu regime, opening the door to democratic reforms. Because Gavra's courageous leadership, his idea to symbolize Christian love and unity in non-violence, his nation was transformed. But it took him hearing God's call and having the faith to step forward and act. I’d be remiss, as we’re looking for leadership amid a transition time not to remind you that your gifts will be vital to Northminster; to God’s dream for us here; for you to listen and step forward to speak so we may hear Christ’s voice within you.
When you sense God's call, there will be those – perhaps those close to you – who will say, “you can’t do this” “how can this fellow save us?” and bring you no gift of affirmation. It will take listening carefully to God's Spirit, finding courage and creativity to do it. But you are God’s anointed empowered to do Christ's kingdom work. In the prophets God gives you, hear your call. Just don't make us go looking for you hiding out among the bags!
March 19, 2017
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7
Title: So What Have You Done For Me Lately? (Jolly)
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott draw the comic Baby Blues - the adventures of Wanda and Darryl MacPherson, harried parents to ten-year old Zoe, seven-year old Hammie and one-year old Wren. One Sunday panel held Wanda pushing a grocery cart with Zoe and Hammie barraging her with requests: “Mom, can we get some of this?” “Mom, can I have one of these?” “Mom, aren't we out of this?” As the kids are a blur around her, Wanda evaluates each request and gives a “yes” to each. Suddenly, Zoe screams before a colorful box of ultra-high sugar cereal. “I've always wanted to try this! Can we get some?” Hammie joins in, “Yeah! Me too!” Without pause, Wanda simply says “No.” Zoe and Hammie suddenly go pouty. “You never let us get anything.”
If you have kids – or were a kid - you know this story. Parents can give fifty yes answers but woe to the one “no.” Watch the drama unfold. If you're lucky, you get the poked out lower lip. If you're unlucky, you get rage melt down, tears like a river, screams you're sure are heard in Shreveport, a throw-yourself-on-the-cereal-isle-floor that should earn your kid an Academy Award. When my kids were at the top of their game, I’m sure such a tantrum lives in the minds of every witness with equal clarity as surviving a tornado. I’m just lucky I had small kids in the day before YouTube!
You'll forgive the easy theological line I can draw here. We people of faith affirm we humans are God's children. Therefore, it's not hard for a pastor to point to the obvious: if we are children, we frequently behave like children. Oh, we can be like a child who throws arms around a mother or father and says with absolutely unguarded hearts, “I love you.” Often in our worship, we give our Creator the fullness of our souls; wept the unguarded tears; giggled joyfully in the mystery of the Holy Presence. We know those, who in childlike tenderness, care for the hurts and needs of others and with simple exuberance dance in delight.
But we also know the tantrums. How often as God's Children do we whine or fuss or complain or demand to get our way or threaten to hold our metaphorical breath until we turn blue? Look, people are people – and every congregation has moments of being held hostage to someone who does the church equivalent of a three-year old rolling on the cereal aisle. How many Sunday School classes or church business meetings ended following some angry rant, endless nit-picking complaints or emotional meltdown...and if I'm honest – it's just as much me prone to doing this as anyone else.
So when I read the ancient narrative from Exodus, I'm keenly aware I'm not reading a four millennial old story. I'm reading the script of my life. It might as well be me tromping around in the desert with Moses, for what goes on there is not much different than how I behave in my 21st Century journey.
If Exodus is not a familiar text, allow a small backstory. Up to today’s short narrative, the Exodus story has been the best of a Star Wars special effect production. It starts when God calls Moses amid the pyrotechnics of the unconsumed burning bush. From there, Moses confronts Pharaoh about the deep injustice of slavery on the Israelites. Then, by the power of God's hand, plague after plague make life wretched for the Egyptians, culminating with the Angel of Death taking the life of the entire first born of Egypt. Finally released from bondage, the People of God are put at risk by a bitter, impulsive go-back-on-his-word Pharaoh who sends out his army to destroy the Hebrews. And before their very eyes, God delivers them by a huge wind so they can journey safe across the Red Sea. But just as Egypt’s chariots and soldiers are about to catch up with them, the winds cease and the waters return to drown the most powerful army on earth. The Hebrews watch this miracle of redemption, followed by the provision of manna amid their hunger. When we pick up the story, they are now in the safety of the Sinai and well fed. Moses has begun to lead them to the Mountain of the Lord where they are to actually encounter the God who saved them.
However, before they get there, they stop to rest at Rephidim. It would seem it’s no oasis, being thin on drinking water. So before long, the throng demands Moses do something. “Hey, Moses! Get us some water....and we mean now!” Moses does not seem unsympathetic – indeed, he may be yearning for a bottle of Aquafina himself. But Moses lays out an argument that should seem self-evident. “Look folks, don't get so bent out of shape. God is the one who got us here. I'm sure God will provide. Just chill.”
You’d think this crowd would not need a lot of convincing. They’ve been eye witnesses to the plagues, the drying wind which won their freedom and the miracle of manna. If you see a divine touch in any of these things, it would make perfect sense for Moses to argue that a God who did all that “wow” stuff isn't going to dump you in the desert just to die of thirst. Simply, it shouldn't be much of a stretch to remember the handy work of God and so trust the Divine to work out the water problem.
But it would seem this group is much like the American populace: they suffer from a short attention span. A week ago is a century and month might as well be ancient history. It's as if they say “I only deal with the here and now...and right now, I'm a very unhappy camper. So, you do something!” The Holy text records, But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
You hear a little whine there? “Why did you get us freedom? There's no water here. The days are too hot. The nights are too dark. I liked the sunsets over there better. The date figs are too sweet. The hot tub's got too much chlorine. The baristas at the Starbucks are too slow.” Moses must have tried to reassure them. “Come on, people. Put on your big people pants. Don't you remember all that God has done for you? You saw the miracles!” “Well, yeah,” they seem to reply, “but what has God done for us lately? We’re thirsty now! Tell God to fix it or we’ll quit and go home!” You get the feeling, if Moses had pulled a water jug from beneath his robe, they'd might have argued his water was too wet!
And when Moses gets to unload with the Almighty, he sounds like many a parent. “God, you aren't going to believe what a royal pain I'm dealing with here. They're making a scene and blowing this thing all out of proportion! I am fed up with this. These people are going to be the death of me! What can I do?” And as we know, God does provide water for His people. But if the people have forgotten the marvels of God's hand, Moses is not so ready to forget their attitude. So as a permanent reminder for their sniveling, he draws up the town's incorporation papers and names it “Massah and Meribah” - places of testing and strife.
In short minutes, we'll leave here and head toward our dinner tables. Later, a number of you will sprawl out to watch basketball, enjoy some family time, hit the theater or just relax. Yet amid the slower pace of a Sunday, we might want to also be reminded of the Hebrews at Meribah. It reminds us how easy it is to forget all the wonderful blessings of God’s hand and get captured by the ills of the moment. We are all a grumbling lot. I may feel 99.9% fine, but put a pebble in my shoe and all I'll talk about is how my foot hurts. Even if I was sitting before a crammed table on a Thanksgiving Day, how vocal would I make my irritation if the hot water heater goes out or the electricity fails or the computer crashes or the ham’s too salty? It's easy for any of us to get focused on the problem du jour and let it consume the landscape of our attention. Some might call it human nature to complain; others a lack of maturity or spiritual depth. Some would see it as sin or ingratitude. Whatever we call it, we all know it far too intimately.
One reason we gather each Sunday in this marvelous sanctuary is to stop long enough to think about that which is bigger than us and our complaints. Ultimately, that's the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the God that brought the Hebrews out of bondage; the same God the Christian text tells us sent Jesus to show us how to live amid the transforming love of our Creator. We come together on a Sunday because we have all been embraced by what the Hebrew text calls God’s hesed – the steadfast, loving kindness of God; what Jesus called compassion; what Paul called grace; what John called agape: love. We've sensed it in our souls. We've been blessed by it in everything from the tenderness of family and friends to the joy of walking in a spring breeze or in the ripe sweetness of an autumn’s apple or a cold drink slaking our sweaty thirst.
And when I am in awe before the marvelous Creator of the universe; the maker of each of you here and in who's holy image you are made; the intimate lover of our souls – suddenly all the inconveniences to whine about seem smaller; even petty. I start to see with a broader perspective than my own life. Yes, there's a rock in my shoe, but, you know, I've got shoes. Yes, I'm hot or cold, but I have a place of comfort and the warmth of fellow worshipers and friends. Yes, I may be thirsty, but I have been liberated; loved; forgiven; comforted and held by God's hand. Being in the presence of God does not take away what I see as an annoyance – or even something that, in reality, is down-right searingly painful or threatening. But it does broaden my vision. To know the God that got me this far and loves me totally – this God will not abandon me; that the Divine I know in Jesus will make me OK, even if the circumstances are not OK; that even into death, God’s love is there to sustain me. And in that, I can widen my vision to the bountiful blessings around me in the moment, even if the moment has me thirsty and water is scarce. What Moses saw that the ancient Hebrews could not was the depth and breadth of God's blessings. When we stop to worship, it changes, not what we see, but how we see it. In God’s presence we can absorb the truth of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s statement “Everything can be taken…but one thing: To choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way.” Hold that for a moment.
Vermont minister Cordelia Burpee tells the story of Phillip, a young man who just “showed up” one evening at her church. The congregation held a free community meal for homeless or financially stressed persons each week. Run by a group of women who were generally good hearted but also generally disorganized, the cooks were chronically late. That meant the meals ranged from pretty good to barely thrown together. One afternoon, as the women gathered, Phillip came in with them. Burpee introduced herself and asked if he needed something. It turns out he’d seen the women chatting in the parking lot and followed them in. Phillip had just returned to town after a decade’s absence and was just wandering around. “I wanted to see how things worked here and if there was anything I could do to help.” As he seemed eager, the women embraced him. Burpee noted her group asked no real questions nor got territorial, but quickly welcomed him into their midst.
Over the weeks, Phillip was fantastic. He provided ideas and organization. He moved the meal from paper items to tablecloths and linen napkins – which he dutifully collected, laundered and returned with the next week, folded and ironed. He would arrive early and place fresh flowers on the tables and greeted people at the door as if they were honored guests. Because of his keen eye and ear, they learned to celebrate birthdays and got a grasp on health and employment struggles. Simply, Phillip’s presence transformed a nice idea into a deeply meaningful ministry.
Eventually Burpee got Phillips story: as a gay teen, his religiously fundamentalist family disowned him. Now HIV positive, he’d returned to his hometown to seek re-connection with his family - which still rejected him. At what could have been the most devastating and isolating moment, he decided to do something for others – and turned to Burpee’s church. There, he found Christians of acceptance and purpose. Burpee wrote: “Phillip kept the meals going during holidays and bad weather, sometimes by himself, because he never wanted anyone to show up and discover a locked door. In the process he transformed those meals into a joyous celebration of our common connection. Each evening was full of laughter and joking as folks drifted from table to table to greet each other.”
You get it? Phillip had abundant reason for despair. Instead, he became God’s blessing on a myriad of wounded souls. At a moment of emotional devastation, he found a way to be water to the thirsty. And then there’s Burpee’s congregation. Rather than build a wall of suspicion to a new face, they were God’s blessing to Phillip, providing the embracing love he so desperately needed. They were water to the parched psyche of a young man who had every right to complain. Make note how when the church was living Christ’s love, it was an oasis in the desert to Phillip - and Phillip became an oasis to others.
And let me add, the interim period for a congregation can seem like wandering in a waterless wilderness. It’s easy to whine about how good it used to be and live amid the anxiety of the unknown. But make note, the God who birthed Northminster and brought us “safe thus far” is also the God who is with us in this very moment; who will not abandon us to a desert death and will, if we are open to the Holy Spirit, lead us into an abundant promised future.
Lent is an introspective time – to reflect on what God has and is doing in our lives. So if we think about “what has God done for me lately?” our Creator has left us awash in hesed; in Christ’s agape – even when I am in the dry and dusty deserts of living. Wherever I am, I am richly blessed by the Holy Presence and by you, my neighbor. And when I ponder it; when the enormity of God’s kindness and love is grasped, all I can do is I fall to my knees in thanksgiving for what was, what is and in excitement for the future. Shall we journey there? AMEN
March 12, 2017
Texts: John 3:1-16
Title: Religious But Not Spiritual (Jolly)
Methodist pastor James Harnish tells of a high-powered lawyer – we’ll call him “Larry” - ask him to coffee one day. The lawyer, with only minimal experience with church, got straight to the point, asking: “Can I get to know Jesus without the church?” It was not asked with a bitter edge, but with the same curiosity of a prospective homeowner asking if a pool membership came with the purchase. Larry, you see, had not rejected religion. But up to now, faith was a philosophical exercise. He'd not been raised in a religious home and so, in college, he crafted some ideas about God just as he had on constitutional law and appropriate lawn care. Then he moved into his profession and started a family having put matters of faith away like old photos in the attic. Like many, he'd say he was “spiritual but not religious,” having a faith perspective, but not practicing a faith tradition. Larry saw religion and preacher types as he did electricians or plumbers: unless you had a crisis requiring one, you didn’t deal with them. Add on, thanks to TV and the Religious Right, “the church” was where religious zealots or the psychologically “needy” resided. So over his career, Larry-the-Lawyer had given clergy types like me a wide berth.
I get it. Avoiding clergy has become more normative of late. On dozens of occasions, I've had a friendly introduction continue in conversation over travel or weather, hometown and families. At some point, I get asked my profession. “I'm a minister,” I respond. Nine times out of ten, there's a short pause. Then, “Really! What kind of church?” “Baptist.” Now there's a long pause, as if I'd just confessed I'd eaten a live lizard for breakfast. “Oh.” And then a long pause.
At this point, things tend to go in one of three directions. One is to have the conversation abruptly terminate – as in “Wow! I need run. I think I left the light on in my refrigerator!” The aversion to clergy is palpable; akin with the fear the highly allergic hold for bee stings and peanuts. I understand as their assumption is I’m a cultural stereotype: a hair-on-fire fundamentalist or plastic shyster out to con them. Such run for the exit.
Or there's the guilt response: a grandmother took them to church as a child but when they moved out, they just never found the “right” church. These folks express a lot of “ought and should” religion – kind of like having a gym membership. They believe it'd be good for them to go, but when they've gone, it's no fun. They get beaten up for their life choices or church feels like work. Most tell me they still believe in God. They're spiritual - but just not currently practicing a religion.
But the most passionate – and to me, saddest responses come with anger. They have a form of “religious PTSD.” Wounded and hurt, they've had nothing to do with a church in years because a priest or pastor split the congregation or lied to them or had an affair or wouldn't do their wedding because there was dancing at the reception or the preacher doing favorite Aunt Bertie's funeral proclaimed she was frying in hell because she was divorced or became an Episcopalian or...well, pick your point. It gets clear they are still in great pain from clergy abuse or a congregation that focused on hostility over healing – and to be blunt, most of them have good reason.
Such are the “spiritual but not religious.” Up to a third of Americans define themselves that way. Researchers call them “The Nones” - not the cloistered Catholic women in habits - but those when asked to write on the line that asks “religion,” they reply “none.” Such comprise an increasing number of Americans under age thirty. They claim a faith in some kind of divine Almighty, but have no use for an organized religious tradition.
I suspect you know these folks. Hey, you may be one! I’ve known a number of folks who practice a devout individualistic piety. A friend’s farm-living grandmother dutifully had morning devotions, read her Bible, spoke frequently about God and lived a caring, compassionate life – but in her youth got disgusted with the manipulation, anger and hypocrisy in the little Holiness congregation in which she was raised - so had no use for “the church” even while holding a deep connection to God. I respect and understand such folks, for they actually fit the moniker: “spiritual” - that is, having a meaningful and ongoing relationship with God – without a connection to an organized religious community. Don’t you know non-churched folks a thousand times more active in caring for the poor, sick and wounded than the average weekly church member? And if I’m brutally honest, as we declare faith is about a personal, intimate relationship with God in Christ, it can happen without all the boxes in which we put our traditions.
But equally honest, “spiritual but not religious” can also be a cover – a cover for angry wounds or taking the easy path.
Angry types unload a list of evils they see in “organized religion.” They point to the Crusades, the 100 Years War, the current violence of fundamentalist terrorism, Klan bigots to fraudulent faith healers. This gets presented as prima facie evidence – as if all faith practices are like this. And I agree there's plenty of historical evidence of evil masquerading as religion and then ask, “so, what else that's organized are you against? Organized hospitals? You know, people go into a hospital and sometimes bad doctors or nurses make people die. I've known hospitals who've hired crooks and drug addicts. If they were less organized, I guess they'd be better.” Or, “I hate organized music. If only there was more chaos in how orchestra's and choirs operated, I'm sure the sounds would be a lot better.”
Look, any organization – including the church – can do some horrible things. Physical and spiritual abuse exists far too frequently. History is replete with evils done by religious folks corrupted by power or zealotry. But just as organization provides efficiencies to do bad things, it can also promote wonderful things. It was the early church whose love challenged oppressive inequalities; the church also established the first hospitals and orphanages; tended the poor; led the fight against the slave trade and pushed for civil rights – and today provides all kinds of social services. Let me give you one example.
One interim time question is a good Lenten introspective question. Reflect on Northminster. If it were not here, would Monroe be less? Would your spiritual journey be diminished if not for its inclusive and reverent space for worship, to encounter God, to be embraced as God’s beloved? Because we “organized,” this church has exceptional art and music. I’ve already heard from some of you that this is the only church that’s a “safe space” for your wounded soul to find God’s comfort, healing and embracing, inclusive faith. Don’t we provide “organization” so individuals can work in a variety of ministries from the DeSiard Street Shelter to being readers and mentors to kids in Early Head Start. How does the Mission Trunk meet need? Imagine if we said, “Let’s be disorganized!” What church could do prophetic social justice or found social ministry work? In being “organized,” people of faith do more - target a social ill; share God's love with greater impact. It’s why we followers of Jesus get organized – to nudge the world toward God’s Kingdom dream.
But frequently, “spiritual but not religious” is a cover for spiritual lethargy. As sociologist Robert Bellah noted, many Americans worship in The Church of Me. Such can talk a great “I love God” language and post pious Facebook memes. But they would never ponder tutoring kids after school or be a regular volunteer at hospice. One advantage of being in a healthy faith community is others help me refine my faith - push me to honestly examine and explore what I believe. In community people know me and my story. And when my ego is bloated or I’m being as authentic as a plastic flower, if they love me as Christ does, they look me square in the eye and say, “Steve, come on, that’s just BS.” Hey, I need you to be Christ to me.
But, then I expect the valid argument for being “spiritual but not religious” is they see a place bloated with those who are the opposite: “religious but not spiritual.” The Biblical story of today is a classic example of someone who was exceedingly devout in form and ritual: someone who knew a lot about God but never encountered God. Look again at the story.
Nicodemus was, by the standards of 1st Century Judaism, a guy at the top. To in today's church terms, a bishop or on the board of trustees of a divinity school. He was the kind of guy who could recite sections of the prayer book by memory; been chair of the Church Council; finance, personnel and property. He could teach all the finer points of doctrine. But a new preacher in town’s throwing out some interesting, if radical, interpretation on the faith. So, he arranges to have a theological chat with Jesus after sundown. Jesus begins the discussion with an analogy - how authentic religion emerges from being “born again.” Nicodemus seems thrown by this phrase. “You mean the only way to be a “real Christian” is to crawl back into your mother?” “Of course not,” Jesus explains. “Everyone gets born bodily. I'm talking about a spiritual rebirth. When a soul encounters God's Spirit, – kind of like Moses at the burning bush or Isaiah in the smoky Temple – the power of meeting God changes you. What you value, what you think, how you treat other people – all that gets changed. You're so different, it's like you've been 're-born!’” But Nicodemus still didn't get it: “How does this happen?” Now Jesus seems totally aback: “You're one of the major leaders of the faith and you don't get it? You spend all your time talking about God, worshiping God - and you mean you've never actually experienced God? Look, Nicodemus, I'm telling you about God's transforming spirit because I've experienced it. If you're all wrapped up in the religion but never had a spiritual encounter, then what I'm saying, I'm sure, makes no sense.” Then John allows his editorial: God loved the world so much that Jesus came as a way into that spiritual experience; that “second birth” and feel alive forever.
Nicodemus was the poster child for “religious but not spiritual.” He lived by all the rules of the faith tradition. He was there every time the door was open. He gave a lot of money. He poured his time and energy into the institution. His problem was he knew all about God but he never met God. To Nicodemus “church” was about 11AM worship, committee meetings and showing up. However, he never lived embraced by the grace of God which connected him with loving his fellow souls.
Which brings me back to Larry the lawyer. Larry had conceived “the church” as little more than a place to enforce an oppressive set of rules which had virtually nothing to do with Jesus. To Larry, looking in from the outside, the church was the home of the Nicodemus crowd.
That is, until the cancer. Larry was confronted with a stage four tumor. In his practice was another lawyer, Jessica. Larry knew her as a superlative lawyer and a thoughtful, grounded person - and while she never flaunted her faith, her belief in God and her church life seemed honest and real. Jessica was the type of person Donald English described when he noted too many Christians try to be salespersons when we should be in the business of giving out free samples. For Larry, Jessica’s “free sample” lifestyle was an advertisement for a Jesus worth exploring.
So Larry came to Harnish with questions. “Can you know Jesus without the church?” “Well, yes,” Harnish told him. But added, the church was where Christ’s followers sought to be embraced by Holy Mystery and were supposed to be doing Jesus-work. In effect, Harnish said, if you want to know more about Jesus, one simple place to “see” Jesus was in the lives of church folks like Jessica. But Larry was still unsure. He confessed his life was hardly “churchy.” How would all those Jesus folks handle his presence? Was there room in a church for a guy with a lot of hard questions and a less than saintly lifestyle? The pastor’s answer: come check us out.
Harnish noted his congregation was one of those eclectic groups with open minds as well as open arms. From politics to theology to sport teams, agreement was low. But they did live with a passionate unity on the presence of a living Creator at work within them. So, when Larry showed up, he found a group of people both spiritual and religious; continually “born again” and unified by the mystery of God’s powerful presence pushing them to live out what it meant to be a Christian.
Over the weeks, Larry joined a group reading the Gospels and Henri Nouwen’s book Letters to Mark about Jesus. “I really like Jesus,” Larry quipped. “This guy is cool.” Larry the lawyer later confessed he was impressed on how early British Methodists challenge abuses of child labor and worker safety in the courts (a lawyer would). So, when Larry was to travel to the Mayo Clinic for major surgery, it seemed natural that Jessica and the study group gathered in the pastor’s office on Sunday to pray with Larry and his wife. Hugs and tears along with a Divine presence sent him into the hands of the surgeons. And hugs and tears and Divine presence welcomed him back. It was then, full of questions as ever, Larry told Harnish, “I get the impression I should be baptized. What’s that about?”
Could such happen here? I know at Northminster we perform the rituals of our faith; we say the prayers; we share the bread and cup. It’s clear we are a religious people. But Lent is a good time to ask “are we spiritual?” How much is the mystery of a living God found in our midst? How well do we live awash in the Holy Spirit that guides our lives and pushes us outside the walls to both live our faith and challenge the evils of our day? How congruent is what we proclaim and how we act? This Lent, may the wild wind of the Spirit blow through us, loving the world as Jesus loves. And that can make us spiritual and religious. So may it be. AMEN.
Jesus’ Temptation and Ours
Dr. Steve Jolly
Matthew 4:1-11 March 5, 2017
If you didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, you might wonder, “What’s up with all the purple?” Growing up in my small-town Baptist church, the white-walled sanctuary held a color change only to bring in red poinsettias at Christmas and the only seasons I knew were winter, spring, summer and fall. However, if your background is Methodist, Episcopalian or Presbyterian, you recognize there’s also “church seasons” - and corresponding colors which have nothing to do with the weather. They are, instead, linked to the Gospel story. Some Baptists have rediscovered the symbols of seasons and colors: royal blue in Advent to prepare for the birth of king Jesus; white at Christmas and Easter for purity and holiness; red at Pentecost for the flame of the Holy Spirit; green in other times to symbolize eternal life. Today’s purple – a symbol of royalty and repentance - is used in Lent – the seven-week season prior to Easter where Christians are called to remember Jesus’ death on the cross and prepare for the celebration of the resurrection.
Now, early Baptist’s ditched Lent – largely because it’d become a huge downer. Even now, most American Christians look forward to Lent as they would being doused with a bucket of cold water on a winter’s day: we endure it or we avoid it.
In truth, Lent started out of the biggest blow out party the church could throw. Early on, a tradition emerged for new Christians to be baptized on Easter Sunday. It was a wonderful day of celebration, food, laughter and joy as new souls committed to the Jesus way, proclaiming to the world, “I’m a Christian.” But with Roman persecution, someone thought it might be a good thing if those to be baptized spent time reflecting on what they were getting themselves into. So, like a new member’s class, congregations set aside time leading up to Easter for reflection on the Gospel and preparation for baptism. How long should this time be? Well, someone noted, after Jesus got baptized, he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his ministry. Why not set the days prior to baptism; before Easter, for a “Being a Christian 101 class?” And so, the season of Lent took root.
But, over two thousand years, the church stuck a ton of add-on traditions. Some are worthy to ponder; others are unhealthy extremes. Unfortunately, those extremes left Lent with the feel of burlap underwear. Folks today equate Lent with melancholy and misery. It need not be true. Just remember the origin of this Lenten church season: baptism and the value of preparation.
Jesus’ baptism: let’s begin there. It must be one of the high moments in Jesus’ earthly life. According to Matthew, John the Baptist – the camel hair wearing, locust eating prophet – was holding revival services out by the Jordan River. His message was a harsh critique of religious legalism. Repentance of the heart, he said, makes one right with God. All the Temple sacrifices in the world, he suggested, couldn’t equal a sincere “I’m sorry.” So, one day when the Temple set shows up at the Jordan River to be baptized, John gives a stick-it-in-your-ear rant on the arrogance of the religious elites….[W]hen he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Translate: “You slippery snakes! You think just being dunked will make you OK with God? Forget it. You’ve got to live like you’re sorry for your arrogance, bigotry and selfishness. And don’t give me that stuff about “God likes me best because I’m Abraham’s kid.” These rocks live more in line with Abraham’s faith than you guys do. If you don’t show humility and mercy, expect to catch hell.” This did not help him make friends among the Temple set.
But the message did sit well with the poor and the religiously outcast. And it’s among that throng Jesus shows up. John senses Christ’s purity and begs Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus will have none of that, choosing to identify with those he came to save. So, when Jesus emerges from the water, he hears his Heavenly Father say, “Good job, Son. I’m proud of you.”
And if that was all there was to the story, Lent might not exist. But Matthew adds, Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil… Baptism first, wilderness temptation second. Only with both these elements do we start to understand the value of Lent.
Most scholars sense, at his baptism, Jesus got a full grasp of his calling as God’s Son. Like a camera flash, it’s a sudden high moment of discovery, affirmation and sky high emotions; a defining, once-in-a-lifetime, soul shaking and foundational revelation – a marvelous mountain top experience. So what does Jesus do? Throw a party? Rush off to gather disciples or perform miracles? No, none of that. Instead, he heads to the desert for solitude and silence; reflection and contemplation; isolation and prayer; thirst and hunger. And there, alone, he faces temptation – all the things which could destroy his call; every element of evil to keep him from following God’s design of living out the Gospel of love, selflessness and being his Father's Son.
Now, some folks see this story as metaphor. The “Wilderness,” in reality, is the area around the Dead Sea: baking heat, toxic soils, stifling stillness. As a metaphor, it sees Jesus withdraw into a dark, lifeless, agonizing sense of isolation where no other soul can reach him. It’s a place many of us can understand, for we've been in our spiritual desert places – alone, vulnerable – at our weakest. Likewise, the metaphor folks would suggest, Jesus “desert” was an internal place where he was down, alone and open to temptation.
Likewise, there are those who personify evil in the Devil, a supernatural Satan as real and present as you or me. Others see “the devil” as a metaphor for the reality of evil in our lives; the allure of sin, the ease with which we become demonic in our treatment of others; how unceasing our ego whispers in our ear.
Note: Jesus stopped everything and spent time inside himself. How, he had to resolve, am I going to present my Father’s Good News? How do I live out being God’s Son? These were his wilderness questions. The Devil gives him answers – alluring, yes, but evil none the less. And we can learn much from Jesus’ answers if we will arise from our lives of comfort and distraction and spend time with Christ in the desert.
“Turn these stones to bread,” was the first temptation. Satan’s first suggestion on how Jesus could bring in the Kingdom of God is an economic lure – a classic political promise. “Hey, Jesus, you want to spread God’s word and build a kingdom? Then give everyone what they materially want. They want food? Give it to ‘em. They want a house with a two-car garage? Provide it. Give ‘em hefty stock prices, tax cuts or free Wi-Fi! Put a chicken in every pot and bread on the table. Watch the people sign on!” Jesus reached into the Old Testament and cited God’s ancient admonition: “Humans are not to live by bread alone, but by God’s word.” Christ did not say food or a decent standard of living were unimportant. But he acknowledged spiritual health and a rich soul will never come from finite, material goods. The Kingdom way was not to be reached through bread or money.
“Why not leap off the temple?” was temptation number two. This is the temptation of the circus ring and Hollywood glitz. Give ‘em a great magic show and you’ll glean status and power. You can build God’s Kingdom on entertainment.
On the surface, we get how shallow this is – that is until you think about all the attention and print given to last Sunday’s Academy Awards. How many zillion webpages covered in detail the Best Picture screw up or how someone’s dress looked like last year’s or what jokes zinged or flopped? We poured a river of ink onto paper because we are fascinated by a good show. We make idols out of those who can sing, dance and weave a good story. The tempter tried to pull Jesus into getting admiring fans and autograph hounds. Indeed, how many ministers try to build congregations with a cult of personality or build a megachurch with a flashy show for which people pay big bucks to watch? But celebrity is not the Jesus way. Our Christ calls us to humility, authenticity - and to live grace, honesty, love and justice in the gritty slog of the day-to-day.
The final temptation was to show Christ “all the kingdoms and their splendor.” Jesus saw the glories of Rome, yes. But ALL kingdoms – past, present and future. Jesus saw the splendor of the Chinese and Japanese emperors; the Mayans and Incas; the Egyptians and Ottomans; the European Empires and majesty of our United States. Jesus, evil pledges, could be the central figure of control in all these; Christ could establish an iron fisted theocracy; he could shape the world however he wanted. All he had to do was worship power. But like Frodo discovers in The Lord of the Rings, Jesus knew, power is always corrupting – something those in government and business AND religion should note. One cannot compel others to live godly Kingdom lives without the power of punishment and the evil of usurping free will. Theocrats fail because they use the tools of evil, thinking they can construct something holy from a bloated ego and a belief they are God. And at this point, Jesus tells Satan to take a hike. “I will only worship God. Take your trinkets and go.” And so Jesus takes the path of selfless servanthood and grace by which to be about his Father’s business.
But here’s the main point: we face the exact same temptations. We are tempted to believe we can make our personal world perfect if we simply have enough money; enough popularity; enough power. It’s why we so often say, “if only I had that car or house; if only people would pay attention to me; if only I was in charge, then things would be right.” The demonic whispers in our ear, just as it did to Jesus, and tempts us to think the way to build the Kingdom of God is with money, success and security.
Now, let me add, as a congregation, we also face some real temptations as we journey in this interim period. For some of you, the temptation is a form of fatalism – let the church leadership make all the decisions; oh, we hired Steve to decide that. Your temptation is to sit back, keep your mouth shut and see what others produce. That way you’ll not have to do any of the prayerful work of discerning God’s dream for you or Northminster. Plus, you get the joy of being easily critical of any decision: “They picked our new pastor, not me! I never liked anything they decided!”
But more likely, the temptations are in the “let’s just get this over with and hire someone! What do we need all this talk for, anyway?” You may be tempted to rush past the discomfort of the journey for a quick fix. Or perhaps your temptation is to play God and think you know already who God wants for Northminster. We don’t like the risk in dialog; in prayerful discernment; in listening for the voice of God – because the risk is you or I might not get it our way!
Jesus overcame his temptations - and this same Jesus can help us overcome our own. He is the exemplar, the compass by which we can navigate our souls through the tangled thickets of everyday living – as individuals and as a community of faith. Jesus helps us grasp that God does not send a savior to help us realize our dreams but that we are here to help God realize His dream.
Which brings us back to Lent. One great potential for the preparation season of Lent is for us to spend some intentional time to examine things. In Lent, we can find Jesus as our guide; to face our fears and listen for God’s vision; the Divine Dream and discover how we are to be God’s children, living out our Kingdom call. If we do so, then, perhaps also like Jesus, when we emerge from our forty days, we will be ready to preach and teach and minister to human need – both as individuals and in our interim conversations.
Lent need not be a downer. But it is to be introspective. In Lent, let us arise and go to Jesus – even if he’s out there in the wilderness, for he has much to teach us there.
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!
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.)