Rags to Riches

OprahOprah Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn’t stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later be called The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Today Winfrey’s net worth is in the billions.

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We love these kind of stories, don’t we?  These “rags to riches” stories, where some poor kid, through hard work and determination, rises to the top?

I’ve been thinking about that lately where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is concerned.  I’m not saying that he was a poor kid, but let’s allow that his worldview may have been impoverished by the circumstances of his early life.

ralph
Born in 1959, Northam and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor’s farm and as a “stock boy” at Meatland grocery store. 

Humble beginnings, right?  And can you imagine that on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the sixties and seventies, Northam’s appreciation for African Americans may have been stunted by his environment and experience?

In my own experience, growing up in rural West Virginia around the same time, I remember the hateful things that were said about homosexuals (we hadn’t learned the word “gay” yet).

I myself said things that I am ashamed to remember.

But when I moved to Washington, DC, in 2000 I became pastor of a Baptist church in DuPont Circle, home to a large portion of the city’s gay population.  I got to know gay people, some of whom were brave enough to visit my church.  I listened to their stories over coffee in the neighborhood, and many of the stories they told broke my heart.  These days, when someone tells me, “I’m gay,” I remember those stories and feel a generosity of spirit that I didn’t have as a boy.

In its own way, it is a “rags to riches” story, and I’m wondering if Ralph Northam has a similar story where African Americans are concerned.  Would he say that when he posed for a racist photograph in 1984 he was “poor” in terms of his love and understanding for African Americans?  Would he say that now, because of his experience (and, I believe, a wife who keeps pushing him to grow, as my wife does), he is “rich”?  And do we have enough generosity of spirit to allow him to change?

I’ll just bet that when Oprah Winfrey walks into the nice stores in Chicago these days they let her shop.  Nobody says, “You’re poor!” because even though that was once true, it isn’t anymore.

To those who would call Ralph Northam a racist I say, “That may be true.  He may have been a racist once, and he may still be a racist.  I don’t know.  But it may also be true that he used to be a racist in the way Oprah used to be poor.  Maybe this is a rags to riches story.”

If that’s true, it gives me hope that all of us could become more generous in spirit, and learn to love those who are different from us as if love were money and we were all billionaires.

–Jim Somerville

People to Heaven or Heaven to Earth?

rapture-art-designOn Monday morning I posted this question on my Facebook page:

Quick survey: Would you say the PRIMARY mission of the church (not the only mission, but the primary one) is to:

A: Get people to heaven
B: Bring heaven to earth

I invited respondents to type “A” or “B” into the comments box without further comment (while acknowledging that on Facebook that was unlikely to happen).  Still, many of them did just that, and when I counted them up on Wednesday morning the “B’s” had it: 149 out of 181 responses.

I recognize that these people are my Facebook friends, and I’m sure they’ve heard me talk about my church’s mission as “bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.” They’re used to that kind of language.  Still, that’s a solid 82% who think the primary mission of the church is not getting people to heaven but bringing heaven to earth, which is not what I’ve always heard.

In my youth and childhood I often heard that our job, as Christians, was to “save sinners,” which in those days meant I needed to tell my non-Christians friends that they were going to hell.  That was the bad news.  But then I got to tell them the Good News: that God loved them so much he sent his only Son to die for them, and if they would simply accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior then when they died, instead of going to hell, they would go to heaven.

Good news, right?

But what do you do after you “get saved”?  Do you sit on a church pew until Jesus comes back, or until you die, whichever comes first?  No, of course not.  You go out and share the good news with others, who share it with others, who share it with others until the Gospel spreads around the globe like candlelight at the Christmas Eve service—from one wick to another.

That’s a beautiful image, and it reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the good news to every creature” (Mark 16:15).  But the good news of Mark’s Gospel is proclaimed in the first chapter, by Jesus himself.  In Mark 1:15 he says, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.”  These are the first words out of his mouth.  And what strikes me about them is that Jesus does not say, “If you accept me as your personal Lord and Savior then when you die, instead of going to hell, you will go to heaven.”

Instead he talks about the kingdom.

Read the gospels carefully and you will find that Jesus refers to the kingdom some 120 times, more than anything else, and certainly more than heaven and hell.  The kingdom is his primary concern, and when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray that God’s kingdom would come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  But that’s not all he does.  Jesus demonstrates the work of the kingdom by healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, casting out demons, preaching the good news, and then sending his disciples out to do the same (Matt. 10:7-8) because that’s what disciples do.

That’s what I want to do.

I don’t want to be a convert to Christianity; I want to be a disciple of Jesus.  I answered his call a long time ago.  I’ve been following him ever since.  Through my regular study of the Gospels I’ve been listening to him teach and preach, I’ve been watching him help and heal, I’ve been studying his moves and learning his craft and then I’ve been getting out there and trying to do what I’ve learned from him, just like those first disciples.  Because I don’t only want to pray that God’s kingdom would come I want to work to make it so: I want to help Jesus bring heaven to earth.

And that’s the kind of church I want to belong to.

I don’t spend a lot of time preaching about heaven and hell.  I invite people into a life of discipleship.  I invite them to follow Jesus.  I believe that if they follow him faithfully wherever he goes they will end up where he did–in heaven.  I believe that I will.  And when that day comes I don’t want him to have to send some angel to see if he can find my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27); I want him to recognize me at once, because we’ve been working together for years.  I want him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.

“Enter into the joy of your master!”

An Alternative Ending

What-is-truth02-e1456371094832In my sermon for Christ the King Sunday I imagined how things might have been different if the religious and political authorities of Jerusalem had accepted Jesus rather than rejecting him.  I wrote an alternative ending to the gospel story.  Much of it is actually from the Bible.  Some of it is not.  If you are a good biblical scholar you may be able to tell which Gospel I’m using, where I stray off the familiar path, and when I quote from other parts of the Bible.  Ready?  Here we go:

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Now the great crowd that had come to the Festival of the Passover heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:  “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.  Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found it loaded with figs, even though it was not the season for figs.  Peter asked him, “Rabbi, how is it that the fig tree has figs?”  Jesus answered, “O ye of little faith!  Did I not tell you that if you only believed God’s kingdom would come?”  And they all ate and were filled, and afterward took up twelve baskets full.

They came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they were cut to the heart and said to Jesus, “What should we do?”  He said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you so that your sins may be forgiven.”  Now the Pool of Bethesda was there, and seeing it one of the scribes said, “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent us from being baptized?”  And Jesus, looking on him, loved him, and said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

The next day they took Jesus to the governor’s headquarters, but did not enter it, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.  So Pilate went out to them and said, “What do you say about this man?” They answered, “We have come to believe that he is our long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews.”

Then Pilate entered the headquarters, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “I am.”  When Pilate heard these words, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  And calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea.”  Pilate asked Jesus, “Were you born in Bethlehem?”  Jesus answered, “I was.”  Then Pilate brought him outside and said to all the people, “Here is your King!”

And the soldiers dressed him in a purple robe and put a crown on his head.  They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  Then they lifted him up on their shoulders, and carried him through the streets to the citadel of David, and the crowds lining the streets were shouting, “Hail, King of the Jews!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

As they went they saw a man who had fallen among thieves lying by the side of the road and a priest, when he saw him, was moved with compassion.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.  And a certain Levite, when he saw him, put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  Jesus said, “To such as these belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”

They put him on the throne of his ancestor David.  And Pilate took off his own crown and laid it at Jesus’ feet.  He said, “Now the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”  And suddenly there was with the crowd a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  Pilate and his legions left the city that very day, returning to Rome, and Jesus ruled Israel from his ancestor’s throne, and there was peace on earth, forever and ever.  Amen.

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Of course, that’s not the way it actually happened.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an alternative ending to your own story.  If you have been rejecting Christ as king for far too long now, imagine how things might be different if you accepted him, if you stepped down from the throne of your own life and let him sit there instead.

I know: I’m preaching.  But that’s what I do.  If you want more it’s available.  Click HERE for the full text of Sunday’s sermon.  And whether you do or don’t, have a beautiful day today.  Remember: you may live in the United States of America, but

Christ is King!

 

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Painting by Nikolay Nikolayevich, “What is truth?” Christ and Pilate, 1890, oil

 

Sin Away, Dear Friends

102016_ARCHERY-751x325Are you a sinner?

There is a certain kind of Christianity that is obsessed with sin.  In those churches there is a lot of talk about miserable sinners and the way they go around sinning their miserable sins.  Sin is the problem, they say, and the solution is Jesus, who died on the cross to save us from sin so that when we die, instead of going to hell, we can go to heaven.

But Jesus doesn’t usually talk about it that way.

In the Greek New Testament, when Jesus begins to talk about sin it is most often hamartia, a word that means literally, “to miss the mark.”  The other words for sin are used infrequently, and usually in reference to those who are actively opposed to God’s purposes in the world.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was sitting in church and someone mentioned the word sin.  Suddenly, instead of seeing a church full of miserable sinners sinning their miserable sins, I saw a church full of archers pulling back their bows and taking aim at the bullseye in the center of a huge target (it wasn’t technically a vision, but when you have a good imagination it’s often hard to tell the difference).  Yes, some of them missed the mark.  In fact, most of them missed the mark.  But all of them were aiming toward the bullseye.

In this vision Jesus was not dying on a cross to save us from our sins, but standing there with us, cheering us on.  “Good try!” he said. “That was close!”  “Don’t give up!”  The problem was still sin, in that we kept missing the mark, but it didn’t seem nearly so miserable with Jesus there.  And sometimes someone actually hit the mark, and everybody cheered.

Especially Jesus.

Because in my experience church people are not miserable sinners sinning miserable sins: they are people, and often people who are doing their very best to be good people, and do what Jesus would want them to do.  Sure, they “miss the mark.”  We all do.  But at least they are trying to hit it.

And if those arrows are love, and the target is God’s kingdom, then sin away, dear friends.  We may not always hit the bullseye, but every arrow sent flying in the right direction brings us a little closer to Kingdom come.

 

The Horror and the Glory

Jeiwsh MemorialI’ve been asked to speak at the Jewish Community Center in Richmond tonight, as people of faith gather to “Stand Together” in unity with Jewish brothers and sisters who are still trembling after the horrific shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday.

The shootings were horrific.  There is no way to minimize that.  When I read the reports in the newspaper my stomach clenched like a fist.  But I’m a pastor, and part of my job is to help people deal with the tragedies of life.  At breakfast this morning I tried to help my wife, Christy, whose voice broke as she read her post on Facebook, inviting her friends in Richmond to join us at tonight’s event.

I said, “That’s one problem with the news.  In journalism the rule is, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’  And so we end up with a lot of bloody awful news on the front page of the paper.  If that’s all we see, we might think the world is a bloody awful place, and in Pittsburgh last Saturday it was, but most of the time–most of the time–it’s not.”

And then I shared with her part of Brian McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, that I had been reading the night before.  After several chapters in which he points out the problems with Christianity as it currently exists McLaren writes:

There is so much right with Christianity. Sunday by Sunday, caring ministers prepare sermons into which they pour their hearts. Week by week they care for their flock, visiting the sick, honoring the dead, welcoming new life, nurturing those in need of counsel, challenge, recovery, or encouragement. Church musicians practice and prepare a weekly feast of beauty. Faithful people show up and generously show kindness to one another, from sharing after-church coffee and baked goods to preparing epic potluck dinners to cooking nourishing meals for the hungry and lonely. Hospitality abounds. Mission flows. People give money, year after year, so staff are supported, buildings are constructed and maintained, and the good news is spread in word and deed.

And then he writes:

There is so much right with the world. The sun faithfully does its work, bathing us in life-sustaining energy. The moon faithfully does its work, lifting tides and letting them fall, and no one worries it will fail. Water faithfully does its work,the lifeblood of our planet, circulating from cloud to rain to stream to river to sea to cloud. Creatures do their work as well, filling the earth with life and song, sharing the gift of life through death and birth, through nesting and migration, through pollination and germination, each specimen a living miracle if we have eyes to see. Your body, a civilization of cells more sophisticated than any megacity, works amazingly well amazingly often, your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your eyes seeing, your mind aware. There is so much right in humanity. Children play. Adolescents fall in love. Young couples marry. Lovers entangle their limbs, breath, and dreams. Babies are conceived and born and nurtured, through their smiles and cries teaching their parents to love in ways they never knew they were capable of. Friends laugh, plan adventures, throw parties, stick together, weep at gravesides after a lifetime of shared joy. Farmers grow, harvesters pick, transporters transport, grocers distribute, and meals of unimaginable variety and delight are prepared and eaten. Entrepreneurs plan and launch new ventures. Colleagues work side by side as managers seek to steer their companies toward success. Researchers seek cures, discoveries, solutions, understanding. Teachers teach and children catch the gift of curiosity. People are honest. They make promises they keep. People take vacations. They watch the surf, ride horses, cast lines, take hikes, swim, ski, bike, sail, and slow down so they can remember they are alive. Grandparents and elders watch all this, their eyes brimming with tears of joy. There is so much right in the church, in the world, in humanity. There is so much good. And so much beauty. When we see it, even a tiny glimmer of how precious it is, our hearts swell in gratitude and awe.

It seemed to help Christy, and it was a good reminder to both of us that what we see on the front page of the newspaper doesn’t reflect all of reality.  It is part of it, true.  And it is often the part that demands our full attention and our faithful response.  I’m going to stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters tonight.  But when I wake up tomorrow morning I want to wake up in a world that is also filled with the glory of God.

And I pray that glory may not be eclipsed by whatever I find on the front page.

–Jim Somerville

My Political Agenda

PeopleOfEarth-v2-628x353
In the past few months my preaching has been criticized by some for being “too political.”  Others have criticized it for not being political enough.  I really don’t believe my preaching has changed, but the political climate of our country has.  It’s red hot right now; you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.

So, I want to make my political agenda perfectly clear.  I don’t want anyone to have to guess at what I’m “up to” in the pulpit or try to decode the “secret” messages in my sermons.

My political agenda is people.

It begins with the conviction that every person is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and sometimes that conviction is tested.  I went for a jog when I was in DC for a preaching conference a few months ago, and saw a man sleeping in a doorway on 14th Street.  He was turned away from me.  I couldn’t see his face.  But I could see that he had wet himself during the night and the empty bottle beside him suggested he may have been too drunk at the time to know or care.  And yet, there was the image of God lying in that doorway.

It’s not only homeless drunks who bear God’s image: it’s everybody.  It’s wealthy white businessmen reading the Wall Street Journal and poor Hispanic women bringing them coffee.  It’s the man who collects your garbage on Monday morning and the woman walking her freshly groomed poodle in the same alley. It’s the Muslim accountant who works down the hall and the transgender kid waiting for the school bus.  Every one of them is made in God’s image.

If you look for it, you can see it.

My political agenda continues with the conviction that we, as a society, have a responsibility for those people.  That’s what “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” means (Matt. 22:39).  I’m not sure what the most loving thing we could do for that man sleeping in the doorway might be, but I think we need to be asking that question.  I think our politicians need to be asking that question.

In the Gospel of Luke, the preaching of John the Baptist begins with a quote from Isaiah: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low” (Isa. 40:4).  It’s the good news that when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven there will be a great leveling.  As Mary sings in the Magnificat, “God will pull the high and mighty off their thrones.  He will lift up the low and lowly” (Lk. 1:52).  And when Jesus preaches in that Gospel he doesn’t preach on the Mount, but on the Plain—a level place.

It’s a reminder that every person is made in God’s image.  In God’s eyes no one is more important than anyone else; no one needs to be sitting on a throne while someone else grovels at his feet.

Every person is precious. 

I can’t tell you which political party best represents that view, but as Election Day approaches I can tell you that when politicians talk, I listen.  I listen to hear if they are concerned for all people, or only some people.  I listen to hear if they have any plans for lowering the mountains and raising the valleys of disparity.  I listen to hear if they care about the man sleeping in the doorway on 14th Street.

In this week’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45)  Are there any politicians like that in America?  Any who care more about others than about themselves?

Because I’d vote for somebody like that.

 

–Jim Somerville

I got my blog back!

key and lockThanks to Rick Henshaw, our IT guru here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I was able to get back onto my blog after being shut out for more than a month.  I’m still not sure what happened, but my usual login credentials would not work and when I tried to get some help from WordPress I found no contact number I could call, no email address I could write, no online chat assistance (unless you are logged in), and no help from the online forum (which asked for my login credentials).  It’s been a little frustrating, but Rick persevered and found the key that would unlock this closed door.  So, I’m back.  And I hope I will have something to say that’s worth reading, soon.  For now, I just wanted to re-introduce myself and let you know where I’ve been.

See you soon.