In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

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The Church and Mr. Coffee

Mr. CoffeeUsually, before I go to bed at night, I make coffee.

Which is to say I get the coffeemaker ready to make coffee first thing in the morning, and set the automatic timer for 4:55 a.m., so that the aroma of brewing coffee will rise to my nostrils on the second floor just before the alarm goes off at 5:00.

And that really helps.

Once I’ve had coffee, I can actually think about how it got here, and it occurs to me that somewhere out there is a factory that makes coffeemakers. Two things seem clear:

1. If there wasn’t a factory to make coffeemakers, I probably wouldn’t have one.
2. If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee, there probably wouldn’t be a factory.

Stay with me.

I heard someone refer to the church as a “disciple-making factory” recently, and I sat up a little straighter because I’ve had that thought myself.

When I came to Richmond seven years ago our mission statement read: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples…” and, almost immediately, I pictured fully formed, fully functioning disciples rolling off the assembly line.

My question, however, was, “What does a disciple do?”

If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee the factory would go out of business. Is there a corollary in church life? Could it be said, “If disciples don’t ______________ the church will go out of business”? And how would you fill in that blank?

The answer to that question could make all the difference.

Some people answer it by saying that disciples make disciples, and if they don’t the church will go out of business. That seems logical, until I apply that same logic to coffeemakers: coffeemakers aren’t supposed to make coffeemakers; they’re supposed to make coffee. If they do it and do it well people will continue to buy coffeemakers and the factory will stay in business.

So, what are disciples supposed to “make,” if not more disciples?

Here’s one answer:

In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom and to give people a glimpse of what the world will look like when God, at last, has his way: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he says, and off they go to do it.

That’s Kingdom coffee, friends, and I believe that if we made more of that the church would have all the business it could handle. That’s what Jesus did, after all, and everywhere he went he drew such crowds that he could hardly breathe. But along the way he was teaching his disciples to do the same things he did, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons, and to do it as a sign of the coming Kingdom.  Is it too much to think that we, in our own way, could do the same?

Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about making coffeemakers, maybe if we put more energy into making coffee, God’s kingdom would come and his will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

Why can’t Christians love Lent like Muslims love Ramadan?

Bim-Adewunmi-007Bim Adewunmi says she loves Ramadan.

“I am not a model Muslim,” she admits, “but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well. It’s my time to shine.”

In a July, 2012, article Bim writes:

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can.  I fast because it makes me feel good.

When I compare Bim Adewunmi’s enthusiasm for Ramadan with the groaning I sometimes hear among Christians who are giving up chocolate for Lent (smile), I feel that we haven’t embraced the rich possibilities of this season.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying and being tested by the devil.  Why can’t we get a little closer to that in our observance of Lent?

None of us is Jesus, but we could fast a little more seriously, come to church a little more frequently, say our prayers a little more fervently during these 40 days, and, like Bim Adewunmi, we could throw out cheerful greetings to everyone we meet on the street.  Jesus said that when we fast we should anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-18).  Wasn’t that a way of saying we should look cheerful instead of miserable?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say about Christians during this season: “Everyone is better during Lent, more patient, more kind,” instead of saying, “Those Christians sure do grumble a lot about giving up chocolate!”?

This is your invitation to a holy and happy Lent, one like you’ve never experienced before, and maybe one you will look forward to next year.

–Jim

 

What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

_________________________
*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

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*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

A Good and Beautiful Year

Jim Somerville:

Some great thoughts here (wink) about what life is for and how to live it!

Originally posted on :

Story by Jim Somerville. Photo by Sean Lumsden-Cook.

For years I’ve been looking for a way to harmonize the good news of the coming Kingdom, so prevalent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the good news of eternal life, so prevalent in John. I think I’ve found it, and if I could sum it up in a few words, I think I would say this:

Jesus came to give us the gift of LIFE – abundant, overflowing, and everlasting – and His vision of the Kingdom was about the place, the reality, where that kind of life could be lived.

book studyIn 2015 I’m hoping that we can learn how to live that sort of life here, at First Baptist, by thinking of our church as a kind of “laboratory” where we practice obeying the clear commands of Christ to see what can happen when we truly love one another, forgive…

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