“Enough, Preacher!”

stop-racism-please
I may have pushed too hard in yesterday’s sermon.

For three weeks after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville I mentioned racism in my sermons and how we need to root it out of our hearts and out of our nation.

I got email from one television viewer who said I had crossed a line, that I had started “preaching politics” from the pulpit.  I didn’t write back immediately, but when I did I said this:

I don’t think I was preaching politics.  I believe it is God’s dream that all his children—red and yellow, black and white—live in harmony.  I believe Martin Luther King shared that dream.  I believe that people who dream of an all-white United States in which black people are either enslaved or excluded have a different dream, and I firmly believe that dream should die.

But I did not preach about Republicans or Democrats, I did not speak a critical word about our president or congress, I did not suggest political solutions to societal problems.  I called on the people of God to behave like it, and to love their neighbors.

I will always do that.

Yesterday I did it again, even though I had told the worship planning team on Tuesday that I thought our congregation had heard all they could hold for a while.  But I couldn’t help myself.  The statistics I heard at a conference on Monday had broken my heart, and my heart had been soaking in those statistics all week: white households control 90 percent of the wealth in America while black households control only 2.6 percent; the top ten percent of white homes are worth $1.4 million or more while the bottom fifty percent of black homes (once the family car is deducted) are worth less than $1,700; a black college graduate can expect to make only two-thirds the income of a white high school dropout.[i]

I was talking about forgiveness, and about sins that seemed too big to forgive.  My hope was that my congregation would hear those statistics and come to me afterward saying, “Gosh!  That’s awful!  What can we do to change that?”  Because I think there are things that can be done, and I think Christian churches in America—both white and black—should be working toward solutions.

I was preaching to people who have shown themselves to be remarkably compassionate, people who have been willing to step forward and engage the problems of our society in order to make a difference, in order, as we say, “to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.”

But yesterday I may have pushed too far.

I may have bumped into the compassion fatigue people get when they have cared as much as they can for as long as they can, or I may have said what I said in a way that made people feel guilty rather than empathetic.  That’s what I heard afterward: “I’m not a racist!” (No: didn’t say that you were); “Where did you get those statistics?” (from Antonio Moore, an African-American lawyer from Los Angeles[ii]); “I have a lot of black friends!” (Exactly!).

I do, too.  And it’s exactly because we have a lot of black friends that we can be moved with compassion for black Americans everywhere, and want them to have what we (white Americans) have.

That’s how Yvette Carnell explained it.[iii]  When I spoke to her after last week’s conference I said, “I want black Americans to have decent housing, and good schools, and adequate health care, and equal opportunity…”  I wasn’t finished yet but I saw her smiling.  “What?” I asked.

“You want them to have what you have,” she said.

Exactly.

 

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[i] “The Angela Project,” hosted by Simmons College in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 11, 2017.

[ii] Find Antonio Moore here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfP8rCe_fAITriqI3UPYF0Q

[iii] Find Yvette Carnell here: https://www.youtube.com/user/YCarnell

 

The Churchgoing Habit

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In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned that the churchgoing habit is an easy one to break.

If I had had more time I might have talked about how it happens, how you take a Sunday off and realize there are all those other things you could be doing during that time, all those other things other people actually are doing during that time: sleeping in, going to the beach, going to the mountains, having a second cup of coffee, reading the New York Times, mowing the lawn, lounging by the pool, or doing nothing much at all.

It’s a nice change of pace, but I’m guessing it could quickly become the new normal.  And it might take weeks, or even months, to become aware that something was missing, something you used to get at church that you aren’t getting anymore.  And on your best days you might acknowledge that what you were missing is pretty important: the fellowship of other believers, the robust singing of hymns, the prayers of the people, the Word of the Lord, and the faithful preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one that consistently challenges the false gospels of appearance, achievement, and affluence.

So I’ve come up with a strategy that will make the churchgoing habit harder to break.

It came to me when I was talking to a couple of guys on their cigarette break.  I was just standing there, and one of them offered me a cigarette.  “No, thanks,” I said.  “I never have developed that habit.”  “Lucky you!” he said.  “I’ve been trying to break it for years.  Cigarettes are expensive!” (he didn’t mention that they can also kill you).  It struck me then that people will pay good money for something that has the potential to kill them simply because cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

And that’s when I came up with my new strategy.

Let’s just pump some nicotine into the air conditioning system at church this summer, let it waft over the pews along with all that cool air as people sit there and listen to the sermon.  They won’t even know they’re inhaling it, but somewhere around Monday or Tuesday of that week they’re going to say, “Man, I’ve got to get back to church!”  They won’t even realize they’re doing it, but as they keep coming to church and keep inhaling that nicotine the addiction will begin to grow stronger and stronger, until they start saying things like:

“I’m dying for a sermon.”
“I sure could use a good hymn right about now, couldn’t you?”
“I haven’t had communion in, like, forever!”
“Will Sunday ever get here?”

I know there are probably laws against adding nicotine to the air conditioning system, but the churchgoing habit has gotten a little too easy to break.

And desperate times call for desperate measures.

–Jim Somerville

What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

What’s in It for Me?

easter-traditions-hero-HEaster is wonderful.  No doubt about it.  It’s exciting to think that Jesus rose from the dead.  But what’s in it for us?  What does the resurrection of Jesus do for us?  That’s the question I tried to answer in my Easter Sunday sermon.  Here’s an excerpt:

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The women who came to the tomb in Matthew 28 received the same message we have received this morning: that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!  But it has a different effect on us than it had on these women.  We’ve heard it so many times that the good news of Easter has become old news.  “Christ is risen,” the preacher says, and we yawn and say, “Whatever!”  But notice what happens to these women.

  1. They are filled with fear. And from the outset we need to notice that this is not the same thing as being afraid.  The soldiers were afraid; “they shook and became like dead men.”  But not these women.  They were filled with fear, which must mean something else.  I’ve looked up the Greek word.  It’s phobos, from which we get phobia.  And one of its meanings is “to be afraid.”  But it can also mean “profound reverence,” or “awe,” and I’m not sure I have enough experience of that kind of fear to tell you what it means.  But I’ve heard about it.   People who have been bungee jumping talk about the rush of adrenaline they get standing there on the railing of a bridge getting ready to jump.  They look down at the river, 300 feet below.  They know that if the bungee cord breaks they will die.  Their hearts are pounding.  Their breathing speeds up.  But then they do it: they dive off the edge of the bridge and scream all the way down, and then bounce up and down at the end of that long rubber band with the kind of relief you can’t experience unless you have almost died.  I can’t know this for a fact, but I believe that when those women heard the news that Jesus was alive they were filled with that kind of fear: the kind that is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.
  2. They are filled with great joy. And this is one of the things I love most about Matthew’s version of the Easter story.  In the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel, by comparison, it says that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  And that’s the end of the Gospel!  But Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly “with fear and great joy” and ran to tell his disciples.  Again, I’m not sure I’ve had enough experience with that kind of joy to tell you what it means but I’ve come close.  I was there for the birth of both my children and the physical symptoms were a whole lot like bungee jumping.  My heart was pounding.  My breathing changed.  Fear may be one of the words I would choose to describe what I was feeling, but the dominant emotion was joy—great joy!  And I know: I’m one of the lucky ones.  It doesn’t always work out that way.  But if it has for you then maybe you know what I’m talking about: when that baby is born you are filled with joy and more alive than you have ever been before.
  3. They are moved to worship. There they were, running through the graveyard, filled with fear and great joy, when suddenly—there was Jesus.  In most of our English translations he says something to them like “Greetings!” but that doesn’t sound right, does it?  I’m thinking he must have used that traditional Hebrew greeting, that he must have held up one hand and said, “Shalom!”  And when he did they saw the mark of the nail.  So, there is no question in this Gospel about who it is; no momentary confusion as in John’s Gospel, thinking that it might be the gardener.  These women are standing in the presence of the risen Christ and they know it.  Without a word they approach him, fall at his wounded feet, and worship him.  And if those other emotions—fear and great joy—are what we experience in those moments when we are most fully alive, then surely worship—genuine worship—falls into the same category.  I’m not talking about excitement.  I don’t mean pumping up the volume and pounding out the beat until you think you’re at a rock concert.  I’m talking about worship, about suddenly finding yourself in the presence of the risen Christ, so that your heart beats faster, and your breathing changes, and the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  And that can happen almost anywhere, even in a graveyard.

But it seems to happen most often in church.

In my work I sometimes talk with people who are unhappy.  They’ve tried to make a life for themselves and fill it with every good thing they can think of, but it still hasn’t worked.  They still aren’t happy.  They come to me thinking I might have some clue about what’s missing.  And often as they talk I think of that line from John’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  He doesn’t only mean that they will have more quantity of life; he means that they will have more quality of life, what we sometimes call “the good and beautiful life,” and that life, apparently, is found in his presence.  So where would you go if you wanted to find yourself in the presence of the risen Christ?  What about the kind of place where every effort has been made to enhance that possibility?  A whole room that has been set apart for that sacred purpose and a whole hour when we turn our thoughts toward him: when we listen to his word, and stand to sing his praises, and sometimes, in the silence of prayer, almost hear him breathing beside us on the pew, and feel the little hairs on the backs of our necks stand up?  Expectation makes all the difference.  When we come to church like those women came to the tomb, expecting an encounter with Jesus, we will not be disappointed.

Because Christ is risen, friends.  He is risen indeed.  It’s the same news those women heard on that first Easter so long ago and it’s as true now as it was then.  On this Easter may it fill you with fear, and fill you with joy, and move you to worship…

…the risen Christ.

–Jim Somerville

What a Fellowship!

donating_clothesEditor’s note: A few weeks ago Beth Fogg told me such a good story I insisted she write it up and submit it for publication.  She did.  She wrote it up and sent it to me.  So, I’m publishing it here and hoping you will find it as encouraging as I did.  Thanks for sharing, Beth!

I am privileged to be one of the many people who gather in the basement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Wednesday mornings for Community Missions.  There we gather as a team of volunteers to pray for each other and for our guests as we prepare for their arrival.  Then we welcome our guests with a brief time of devotion and prayer before working together to meet the needs of our homeless and near-homeless brothers and sisters for hot showers, clean clothes and food.  It has become a real community for me, and is one of the highlights of my week.

It is a place of trust and caring.  We all pray for each other, joke with each other, and love each other.  The fellowship is real.

On a recent Wednesday, two different guests brought something for us.  One guest brought a bag of clothing, newly washed and neatly folded, that she no longer needed.  She wanted to share back with others who have needs.  Another friend brought a bag with a variety of items to donate back, including about 20 washcloths.  We had just been discussing that we were running low on washcloths when the gift arrived!

I can only recall one previous time that I received a gift from a homeless person.  It is a humbling experience.  As a person who has more than she needs, I am motivated to come closer to the spirit of the early Christians described in Acts 4, as they made sure that none of the fellowship was in need.

I am thankful to be part of a church that shares love with our neighbors and receives it back from them!

–Beth Fogg

Freedom Isn’t Easy

Hal-SmithBack in 1984 I got fired from my job.

I had only been married a year.  I had a wife at home who was depending on me for income.  I didn’t know what to do.

So, I called my dad, and he said, “Son, I believe everybody should get fired at least once, and spend at least one night in jail.”

That didn’t really help much, but it was an interesting thought.  A few years later, when I was in seminary, I thought I would try that other thing dad mentioned, spending a night in jail.  I had a friend at seminary who was just crazy enough to try it with me.  So, what we did is go to the county courthouse and sit there all morning waiting for the judge to work through his other cases.  When everyone else had gone he looked at us and said, “What are you here for?”

I said, “May I approach the bench, your honor?”

He said yes.  I came up and said, “My friend and I are students at the seminary.  We think it would be a good experience for us, as future ministers, to spend at least one night in jail, so we’ll know what it’s like, and so we can have more understanding and empathy for people who find themselves in such unfortunate circumstances.”

He said, “You want to spend a night in jail?”

“Yes sir.”

He laughed and said, “Well, I’d love to accommodate you boys, but the truth is, my jail is full.  We got three inmates in cells built for two.  You might go over to the next county and see if you have any more luck.  And so we did.  We spent all afternoon in another courthouse, but at the end of the day the story was the same.  They didn’t have room for us.

So, I still don’t know what it’s like to spend a night in jail, but maybe some of you do, and maybe you know that for all the things you could complain about there are some things that are not so bad.  I heard someone trying to look on the bright side once who said, “Well, at least you get three hots and a cot!”  And what he meant was three hot meals a day and place to lie down at night.

And some people seem to be more comfortable with that than with freedom.

In our Old Testament lesson for this Sunday God’s people have escaped their slavery in Egypt, they have been led out into the wilderness by God’s mighty hand, but there, in the wilderness, they begin to miss the comforts of their old life.

“Oh, that we were back in Egypt,” they moaned, “and that the Lord had killed us there! For there we had plenty to eat. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to kill us with starvation” (Exodus 16:3).

Freedom isn’t easy for any of us, but God seems to believe it’s worth it.

I hope you will join us for worship at 8:30 or 11:00 this Sunday at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, in person or via our LIVE webcast at www.FBCRichmond.org.

–Jim Somerville

 

Are we supposed to be afraid of God?

holygrail049Sunday’s sermon touched on some questions I’ve been getting in “Talkback,” my weekly question-and-answer sessions with First Baptist Church’s adult Sunday school classes.  This excerpt deals with one of those questions.

Sometimes, in my Talkback sessions, someone will ask about that biblical expression, “the fear of the Lord.”  “Are we supposed to be afraid of God?” they ask.  No.  That’s not what the word fear means, not in that context.  It means something more like “awe,” or “reverence,” or “profound respect.”  But you can see where the word came from, can’t you?  From an experience like this one at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19): where Moses went up to receive the Ten Commandments and the people trembled in fear before the mountain of the Lord.  And when the writer of Proverbs said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10), he had something like this in mind, where you have such reverence, such awe, such profound respect for God that when God says, “Thou shalt not” do something then “Thou dost not” do it!  And this really is what wisdom is all about in the Old Testament: it’s about listening to God, and doing what he says, so that your life will turn out well.  If you don’t believe it just try not listening to God, and not doing what he says.  Try murdering and stealing and lying and cheating and worshiping idols and dishonoring your parents and then tell me how your life turns out.

That’s why these are not the Ten Suggestions, but the Ten Commandments; it’s because God doesn’t want our lives to turn out badly.  That’s why he put “the fear of the Lord” in his people all those years ago: so they would sit up straight, and pay attention, and do what he said.  But as I said in Talkback last Sunday we seem to be losing that, and it’s not only in the way we treat the Bible.  I think about how we come to worship these days, or how we don’t come to worship.  This place, for example, has been consecrated as a sanctuary.  It has been set apart for the worship of God.  When we come here we come to meet with him.  And yet we sometimes saunter in, talking and laughing with others, unwrapping a fresh stick of chewing gum, as if we were coming to a basketball game.  Where is our reverence?  Where is our awe?  And when it comes to Jesus, we talk about him as if he were an old friend, or at least someone who used to be a friend.  And maybe when that happens what we need more than anything else is a healthy dose of Transfiguration.

Because on that day Jesus went up on a mountain with a few of his old friends and something happened.  His face began to shine like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light, and suddenly Moses and Elijah were standing there with him.  And poor Peter!  Can you imagine?  Where only moments before there had been Jesus, a dusty carpenter from Nazareth with bread crumbs in his beard, now there was this angel of light.  “Rabbi!” he stammered. “It’s a good thing we’re here.  Do you want us to build three shelters, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah?”  He didn’t know what to say.  But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than a bright cloud settled on the mountain, just like the cloud that settled on Mount Sinai all those years before.  And there may have been thunder and lighting, there may have been the sound of a trumpet, the whole mountain may have trembled just as it did back then but one thing is certain: a voice spoke from that cloud and the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  And that’s when they fell on their faces in fear.

I don’t mean “reverence” or “awe.”  I don’t mean “profound respect.”  I mean fear—good old-fashioned fear, where you have trouble breathing, and your heart starts to pound, and your chest gets tight, and your legs begin to shake.  There was a belief in those days that to look on the face of God was to die, and there they were, those disciples, looking on the face of God’s Beloved in a blaze of glory so bright it burned their retinas.  My Bible says they were overcome with fear, but when I looked up that word in the dictionary it said that to overcome is to overpower, or overwhelm, and when I looked up that word it said, “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass.”  So picture, if you will, Peter, James, and John buried beneath a huge mass of fear, flattened by it as you would be flattened by a tidal wave breaking over your head, or by an avalanche that chases you down a mountain, catches you, and buries you beneath tons and tons of snow.

They thought they were goners.

Who knows how long they lay there like that, trembling, terrified, wondering how it would feel to die, or if they would feel anything at all, when Jesus came to them and touched them?  I tried to picture it, and realized that if they were lying face down on the ground Jesus, in order to touch them, would have had to stoop down to their level, he would have had to reach out, put a hand on their shoulders, and say what he says next, which is, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  And Matthew says when they looked up they saw no one there but Jesus alone—that same dusty carpenter from Nazareth with bread crumbs in his beard.

He’s not someone we have to be afraid of, but he is someone we disciples have to listen to.  How about it?  Have you done anything recently simply because Jesus said so?  Have you not done anything simply because he said not to?

“This is my Son, the Beloved; in him I am well pleased,” God said.

“Listen to him.”

–Jim Somerville