KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 232

EG2At the end of worship yesterday Lori Bianco slipped me a folded piece of paper with a KOH2RVA story written on it: an account of a moment when the Kingdom of Heaven came to Richmond, Virginia, and she was lucky enough to have a front row seat.

She wrote:

The family I nanny for was going through some old clothes to give to Goodwill, and I asked if I could have them for a little girl who lives in an apartment complex where a friend of mine lives. She always has a big smile on her face, even though I always see her in the same outfit, and all through the winter, only sandals on her feet.

I brought over a box and a bag full of little girl treasures. When I knocked on the door, the children could not open the door since they were babysitting for their little sister and their mom was sleeping. I told them I would come back in a little bit.

I went across the road to have tea with a family from Egypt, and saw her little face pressed against the window…waiting impatiently for me to come back.

When I went back I was immediately let into the apartment. I put down the box and bag, but they were hesitant to look at it all. So I started to pull out the different things. This adorable little girl smiled at everything I brought out. Then I pulled out a pair of Barbie sandals, and her eyes grew large, she sucked in her breath, and her face lit up with the biggest smile possible.

Her Egyptian mother, who spoke very little English, repeated “God bless you!” over and over.

This was by far the highlight of my week, and the blessing I received from them far outweighed the little that I did for them.

When we do things like this—simple acts of kindness and generosity—we often take people by surprise. They want to know why we would do such a thing. That gives us the perfect opportunity to say, “Because of Jesus. Because this is what I think Jesus would do.” If they know who Jesus is, it might cause them to think about him in a different way, not only as someone they’ve seen in pictures, hanging on a cross, but as someone who comes and gives smiles and hugs and Barbie sandals to little girls. And if they don’t know who he is and say, “Jesus who?” Well!

That’s the perfect opportunity to tell them.

KOH2RVA: Day 231

peter-cornelius-the-bibleIs it just a coincidence?

On the same day I’m preaching about the time Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, someone who was considered “unclean” by the Jews, I have been invited to a reception for the retiring pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church—what some people call “the gay church.” After that I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at Congregation Or Ami—a reformed Jewish synagogue just off Huguenot Road—for a discussion on aging with dignity that will include end of life issues. After that I’ve been asked to say a few words at the ordination of Krista Mann Manuel, a recent BTSR graduate who is now serving at Tomahawk Baptist Church.

Fifty years ago there wouldn’t have been a “gay church,” I probably wouldn’t have been invited to serve on the panel at a Jewish synagogue, and a Baptist church would probably not have been ordaining a woman. The times they are a-changin’ as Bob Dylan might say, and the question I have to ask is this one: Is the church caving in to the culture, as some people fear, or is the Holy Spirit on the move?

Here’s an excerpt from today’s sermon:

The Jewish Christians, the ones Luke calls “the Circumcised,” wanted to know why [Peter] had been spending time with the Uncircumcised and eating with them. It was against the law!—the Law of Moses, that is—it was contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture! I was trying to imagine a comparable situation last Friday when I bumped into Victor Davis over at Clark Springs Elementary School, where I tutor. Dr. Davis is the Baptist minister who did our January Bible Study last year. I said, “Victor, in our time and place, who is it that would be considered ‘unclean’ by the church?” And without hesitating he said, “The gays.” And so, on the way back to church, I thought: What if a local Baptist minister went on a mission trip to New York and found out when he got home that pictures of him hanging out at a gay nightclub in Manhattan had been published on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch? Don’t you think there would be a special called deacons’ meeting that very afternoon where the chairman would hold up the newspaper and ask, “What’s this all about?”

I don’t have time to tell you how the sermon comes out, not now, but if you’ll come to church at 8:30 or 11:00 this morning, or tune in to our webcast at http://www.fbcrichmond.org, you’ll hear the rest of the story. And maybe tomorrow or the next day I’ll tell you what happened at the pastor’s reception, and the panel discussion, and the ordination service.

It’s an interesting world we live in.

KOH2RVA: Day 230

Glen Lea Artists

Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion, is recovering nicely from his recent hospitalization and surgery (to relieve swelling and pressure on the brain following a fall from an eight-foot ladder). I can tell because on Thursday I got about twelve emails from him, all work-related. One of them was an update on the partnership between Richmond’s First Baptist Church and Glen Lea Elementary School in this year-long, every-member mission trip we call KOH2RVA.

I’ve told you about Karen, who finally got off the bus and discovered what a joy it is to read to second-graders at Glen Lea. And I’ve told you about Brenda, the artist, who was inspired to invite Glen Lea students to participate in the church’s recent art show (I love the photo above). Yesterday I learned that Raylene is helping out once a week in a kindergarten class, so that an exhausted teacher can get a few minutes’ rest.  Karen and Brenda and Raylene are heroes, but if you take a look at the list below you will see that lots of people have been doing lots of things to bring heaven to earth at Glen Lea. You will also see that there are some opportunities coming up for those who are still looking for a way to get involved. If that’s you, let Steve know you’d like to help by sending email to: Blanchard@fbcrichmond.org. He’s feeling better. He’ll help you get off the bus. He may even hold your hand and tell you to watch your step.

Participation at Glen Lea through KOH2RVA

• October 15 Teacher Appreciation (done by Ruth Szucs and 11th grade girls)
• November 5 Provided dinner to teachers and staff during Parent/Teacher Conferences
• November 10 Sponsored cake walk and book giveaway table at fall festival
• November 19 Provided shuttle service to Community Workshop
• February 14 Sponsored Love To Read book collection
• April 15 Sponsored essay contest. Essays picked up May 6 with winner receiving Chuck E. Cheese package.
• May 7 Provide 70 gifts to teachers for Teacher Appreciation Day
• June 12 Provide Appreciation Dinner for staff
• Approximately twenty volunteers giving time and gifts to the school
• Provided school supplies for students and teachers
• Sponsored homework club prizes for various classes
• Art students presenting their art at FBC Art Show

KOH2RVA: Day 229

2013-04-26 07.24.30On Monday of this week a few of my colleagues and I met with Dr. Terry Whipple to continue our conversation on making Richmond “the healthiest city in America.” According to Forbes magazine we’re already number 12. What would it take to move us to 11, and then 10, and then 9? That’s what we talked about on Monday and Dr. Whipple’s interest, of course, is helping people who are sick and suffering get better. His brilliant strategy is a program called the Physician Within, an educational mission designed, as Terry say, “to keep people out of the emergency room.” So, if you or someone you know is suffering from back or neck pain, don’t miss the next session of the Physician Within, Saturday, May 4, from 9 – 11:30 in the dining hall at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

But that’s only the half of it.

Because being the healthiest city in America involves more than not getting sick. It also involves getting, and staying, healthy. So, cities are rated on the number of walking trails and bike paths and public parks they have. They’re evaluated by the question: “How many people are out there, eating less and moving more?” Because that’s the kind of thing that can make a city truly healthy, and not just unsick.

So, my brother Ed came to visit at a bad time, when all that was still on my mind. On Thursday we loaded the canoe on top of the car and spent about four hours paddling on the James, downriver through some riffles and then back upriver, portaging around a dam or two and digging in to buck the current and get back to our starting point. By the time we got finished our arms were tired. But later that afternoon, I took him to the Jewish Community Center, where I work out, and while I was lifting weights in the fitness center he swam laps in the pool—lots of them. This morning I brought him along for ecumenical jogging with my friend and Episcopal priest, Wallace Adams-Riley, and although we didn’t run as far or fast as we usually do, I think we ran enough that Ed was beginning to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

I left him out there on the sidewalk, still talking to Wallace about his work as a missionary in Mexico, and how St. Paul’s Episcopal Church might want to invest in the work that he’s doing (God love ‘em, these missionaries never miss an opportunity to talk about their work). I came in to blog, and have breakfast, and recover from the run. Soon I’ll be dressed and ready for work, and out there on the streets again, thinking more about Richmond’s spiritual health than it’s physical health, and doing what I can today to bring heaven a little closer to earth.

For my brother Ed, heaven may come when he and his wife Debbie drive away from Richmond later this morning, and for the five-hour trip back to Rutherfordton, North Carolina (where they’re staying while on furlough), he gets to put his feet up and rest.

Adios, Ed. Come again soon!

KOH2RVA: Day 228

Brothers smallLast night my brother Ed spoke at First Baptist Church (he’s the one on the far left in the picture, the oldest of the six Somerville boys. The others are Scott, Jim, Greg, Gray, and Bill). Ed is a missionary in Mexico, where he has been serving for more than 12 years. He told the church last night that when he first went to Mexico he took his wife, Debbie, and all eight of his children with him: his own missionary “team.”

But then he told us why he went.

He said that when he was still in his twenties he prayed that God would let him lead 100 people to the Lord in his lifetime. But then he became the director of a Christian camp in North Carolina and in one summer he baptized a hundred kids.

And so he prayed again:

“Lord,” he said. “I wanted to bring 100 people to know you in my lifetime and now I’ve done that. Would it be too much to ask that I might bring (gulp!) 1,000 people to you?” But God reassured him that he was a big God, and after ten summers directing that camp Ed had baptized 1,000 kids.

And so he prayed again:

“Lord,” he said. “I never dreamed that I would lead 1,000 people to know you in my lifetime. You tell me you’re a big God. Are you big enough for this? What if I asked you to let me lead 10,000 people to know you?”

And that’s how he ended up in Mexico, where some 85 percent of the people don’t have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Ed is trying to get the Good News to them, mostly through a Christian camp he calls “El Monte” (the Mountain). The work has been harder and slower than he might have expected, but God is a big God, as Ed would say. Nothing is too hard for him.

It occurred to me as Ed was speaking last night that he’s not really trying to bring heaven to earth. He’s doing this the old-fashioned way: he’s trying to get people to heaven. But when he talks about the way those beautiful brown faces shine with joy as they learn of the love of Jesus, and the way the tears begin to flow, I think heaven does come to earth,

Every time a heart is broken open,

Every time the grace of God gets in.

__________________________

Hint: if you visit the El Monte web site, and want to know more, click on the pull-down menu called “Updates” and type in this password: elmonteupdate

KOH2RVA: Day 227

Wilfredo de JesusTime magazine recently published its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, complete with brief essays on each one written by other influential people. For example: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote about hip hop artist Jay Z; Academy Award winner Jodie Foster wrote about this year’s Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence; and Mega-Pastor Rick Warren wrote about Wilfredo De Jesús, a “transformative Christian voice.” This is what he said:

Wilfredo De Jesús, better known as Pastor Choco, embodies the true definition of what Christ said the church should be. As the senior pastor of New Life Covenant Ministries, one of the fastest-growing churches in Chicago as well as one of the largest Assemblies of God congregations in the nation, Pastor Choco encourages others to go out into the community not just with words but with his own actions. Under his leadership, New Life is reaching out to the outcasts and forgotten in our society — the homeless, women suffering with addiction and prostitution, and young people in gangs.

But his influence spreads far beyond the Chicago area as vice president of social justice for the nation’s largest Hispanic Christian organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. With Hispanics playing such a large role in the expansion of the evangelical church in the U.S. and their vast influence on the political landscape, Pastor Choco is and will continue to be a strong, ardent voice on the direction of our country.

What got my attention, of course, is that part where Rick Warren, arguably the most influential pastor in America, said that Wilfredo De Jesús, one of the 100 most influential people in the world, “encourages others to go out into the community not just with words but with his own actions. Under his leadership, New Life is reaching out to the outcasts and forgotten in our society—the homeless, women suffering with addiction and prostitution, and young people in gangs.”

I sometimes say, “If you’re trying to bring heaven to earth, just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” It sounds as if Pastor Choco and his congregation are doing exactly that in Chicago. In their own way, the people of First Baptist Church are doing exactly that in Richmond.

And who knows what kind of influence they may have?