Getting Right with Each Other

GroupHandsUnityPB_545x277A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “straight church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?”

I’ve had a good many requests for my sermon from Sunday, June 19, quoted above.  It was number four in a series called “Getting right with God,” based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but as I said in the introduction, it’s not getting right with God that’s the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

I’ve posted the full text of the sermon below with a link to the video at the end.  I hope you will read it or watch it, and if you feel like sharing please do.  I think there’s some good news here.


After worship last Sunday someone asked me why I was spending six weeks talking about “Getting Right with God.”  “Isn’t it fairly simple?” he asked.  I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, and I’ve concluded that getting right with God is not the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

Wasn’t that the problem Paul was dealing with in Galatians?  It wasn’t that God had any trouble welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into his family; it was that the Jewish Christians had trouble welcoming them into the church.  They thought they should be circumcised first, then they could get their names on the rolls, then they could take communion.  And Paul argued, “No, it’s not circumcision that makes us part of God’s family: it is faith in Jesus Christ.”  That seems so obvious to us now that we could almost fall asleep during a sermon from Galatians.  Until someone comes down the aisle who is not like us.  And then we sit bolt upright in our pews and begin to come up with all sorts of reasons why that person should not be a member of the church.

It happened here on January 3, 1965.  At the close of the 11:00 service two Nigerian students who were attending Virginia Union University came down the aisle to join First Baptist Church.  And why not?  They were the sons of Baptist ministers in Nigeria who had heard about First Baptist Church.  They knew it was the church where the president of the Foreign Mission Board was a member and the former president of the Baptist World Alliance was the pastor.  They encouraged their sons to attend. And so, these obedient boys put on their Sunday best and came to church.  And it must have been wonderful to walk into this place when Dr. Adams was the pastor, and the pews were packed, and the choir loft was overflowing.  These students must have gotten a little giddy from the splendor of it all, and when the invitation was given they came down the aisle.

I don’t know what Dr. Adams was preaching that day.  I doubt that he was preaching from this passage in Galatians that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  But something that he said or something that those students felt in this place made them believe they would be welcome.  And so they walked down the aisle and asked to join the church.  As I heard the story Dr. Adams, who had traveled the globe in his work as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and who had gotten to know Baptists of every kind, would have been happy to welcome them.  He knew that in Christ there is neither black nor white.  But this was 1965, and this was Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Adams had the presence of mind to welcome them without promising them membership in the church.  That would be decided a few weeks later, after many long discussions with the deacons and a bitter and painful business meeting that practically split the church.  In the end, by a narrow margin, the congregation voted to welcome those students as members.

It’s interesting that our church history is called “The Open Door.”  1965 was one of those times (and our historian says as much) when the open door was tested.  How open was it, really?  Could we welcome black people, as well as white, into our membership?  The answer was yes, and I’m grateful.  When I think about some of the people I might never have known if this door hadn’t been open I almost weep!  The life of our congregation has only been enriched by its diversity.  We can see that now, looking back.  It’s always easier looking back.  We’ve struggled with other questions since then.  Can women be ordained as ministers in this church?  Can Christians from other denominations join without being immersed?  Can people who are differently oriented be members here?  Again and again the open door has been tested and every time it makes us sit bolt upright in our pews.  So, don’t fall asleep during this sermon from Galatians when Paul is working so hard answer the question of who can be a member of the church and who can’t.

For him the door was open—wide open—and I can almost see him on a street corner in Galatia, inviting people of every description into this new life with Christ.  They might ask, “What do I have to do?”  And Paul might answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus!”  “Is that all?” they would ask.  “That’s all!” Paul would answer.  And then, when they had confessed their faith, they would be baptized, not as a requirement for membership in the church, but as a symbol of their new life in Christ.

In those days, in that part of the world, they would strip off their clothes on the riverbank, symbols of the old life, and then wade out into the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When they came up out of the water it was like they had been born again, and when they stepped out onto the riverbank they were given a new, white robe to wear, a symbol of the new life.  And then Paul might say to them, as he says here in Galatians, “Listen, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus!”  And then he would move on to the next little town and start all over again.

But apparently someone was coming along behind him, telling those new Christians that believing wasn’t enough, baptism wasn’t enough, that if they wanted to be part of God’s family they would have to become Jews, they would have to start obeying the Law of Moses, and the men among them would have to be circumcised.  You can probably imagine what Paul had to say about that.  But you don’t have to imagine it.  You can read it for yourself in Galatians 2.  Paul says, “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (vs. 16).  And as far as circumcision goes, Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after.  “He believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), Paul says, arguing that Gentile believers stand in that same tradition.

You might ask, “Then why did the Jews even need the law?” and Paul anticipates that question.  He says that the Law was “added because of transgressions,” and what he means, I think, is that we humans have a tendency to stray, that on our way from the Present Evil Age to the Age to Come we might wander off the path and get lost.  Have you ever seen two teachers walking with a group of preschoolers, where the teachers are holding on to each end of a long rope and the preschoolers are holding on in between?  It keeps everybody safe until they get back to their school, and then the children let go of the rope and run to the door.   I think that’s what Paul would say the Law was like—like a good, strong rope we could hold on to that kept us from going astray.  Until.  Until it brought us to Jesus.  And then we didn’t need the rope anymore.  We were free to run to him.  And as Jesus himself once said, he is the door, the door that lets us in to his Father’s house.

Can anybody go in through that door?  Let’s see what Paul says.

  • In Galatians 3:26 he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
  • In verse 27 he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
  • In verse 28 he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • In verse 29 he writes: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the Promise”

Can you picture those children of God, still dressed in their white robes, coming into the Father’s house and sitting down around the family table?  Whatever distinctions divided them before have disappeared; they are all one in Christ Jesus.

And Paul says that’s how it should be in the church, but often that’s not how it is.  A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the straight church.  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?  I’m telling you he has opened the door, and if you are in him you are in—period!  All you have to do is believe it, to accept the good news that you are accepted.”

And that’s where faith comes in.

Paul uses that word five times in the first four verses of today’s reading.  Count them: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  Did you get all five?  “Faith, faith, faith, faith, faith!” Paul says.  “That’s what sets us free from the law, that’s what puts us right with God, that’s what makes us part of his family.”  And I want to be careful about how I say this, but I believe that for Paul faith is the new circumcision, the sign of the New Covenant—not some mark in the flesh but a matter of the heart.  So, who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith, and the faith that I’m talking about is the faith that God loves us and wants us for his own.  It’s the gospel Jesus preached.  It’s the message Paul proclaimed.  And most of the time the only thing that keeps us from receiving it is our own disbelief:

“How could God love somebody like me?”

But sometimes others keep us from receiving it.  They say, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “How could God love somebody like you?”  That is at least one of the messages that came out of last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando.  It certainly seems that someone judged those people dancing in a gay nightclub and found them worthy only of contempt.  It’s at least one of the messages that came out of last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.  Someone judged those people who had gathered for Bible study and found them worthy only of hatred.  They may not have done it with guns and bullets, but there have probably been people along the way who judged you, and found you worthy only of contempt and hatred.  And, God forgive us, there have probably been people we judged, people who don’t come to church here because they believe that if they did they would not be welcome.

Who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith.  And who can have faith?  Any one.  Paul would say that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  These days he might add some other categories but it wouldn’t change his message: all you have to do is believe that God loves you and wants you for his own, all you have to do is see Jesus standing at the door, begging you to come in, all you have to do is find the courage to take that first step.  “It takes faith,” Paul might say, “but faith is all it takes.  It is the new circumcision, the sign of the new covenant.  It is not a mark in the flesh, but a matter of the heart.”

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where there is a registration table at the front with all the name tags already made up?  They sit there in their shiny plastic sleeves—the names of all those who have registered for the conference.  I sometimes look at them when I ask for my own tag, and sometimes I see the name of someone I know.  “Oh, look!  John is coming to this conference.  Oh, look!  There’s Betty, or David, or Jane.”  But when we take a break for lunch and I walk by that same table, I usually see some name tags that have not been claimed, some people who were planning to come to the conference, but for whatever reason didn’t make it.  If church were like one of those conferences there might be a table out front with everybody’s name tag on it.  Everybody’s.  And when we went out after the benediction we would see the names of all those people who didn’t make it: some who found something better to do, some who weren’t physically able, but some who didn’t believe…they would be welcome.

–Jim Somerville, 2016


Watch the video by clicking HERE


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.



What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

Is this what life in the Kingdom looks like?

Pink Prayers2
My wife, Christy, teaches Kindergarten at St. Michael’s Episcopal School in the Bon Air neighborhood of Richmond.

A few weeks ago she had to break the news to her headmaster that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  The good news is (because she goes for an annual mammogram) her doctor caught it early.  Christy was reassured that a little bit of surgery and some follow-up radiation would do the trick.  And so, on October 2, she had a “little bit” of surgery.  She has spent the last three weeks recovering and getting ready for radiation treatments, scheduled to begin today.

When she got to school this morning she found that everyone at St. Michael’s was wearing pink as a sign of support, and during chapel everyone was invited to join in a prayer for Ms. Somerville.  A few of the children put their hands on her shoulders, and then everybody tried to get in on the action, leaning forward, reaching out toward a beloved teacher.

Christy told me her hands were busy wiping away tears.

At church lately I’ve been asking people what life in the Kingdom looks like, and wondering if it is that place where we bear one another’s burdens, and wash one another’s feet, and forgive one another’s sins.  When I saw this picture my own question was answered. What does life in the Kingdom look like?


It looks like this, like that place where children wear pink and say prayers for their teacher.

May that Kingdom come everywhere, and not only at St. Michael’s School.

Person by Person

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a post by Susan Grant, who told me this story after the 8:30 worship service last Sunday.  It was so good I told her to write it up and send it to me, and promised I would post it on my blog.  She did, and I did, so here it is.  Enjoy!

Last Saturday I attended a Kathy Troccoli conference/concert at Goochland High School. It was an inspiring morning as Kathy emphasized what God can do in our lives through her theme “Hope’s Alive.” God spoke to me as she gave examples of how she intentionally interacted with strangers to which she felt drawn – like a server at Applebee’s, and a woman at the Nashville airport. Kathy and I are so different… she grew up on Long Island and can be very outspoken. For me, I tend to stay in the background and don’t pay attention to others I pass in a normal day. However as I left Goochland that afternoon, I asked God to give me a boldness like Kathy, to show me whose life I could impact for Him.

It didn’t take long.

That night God reminded me of a gentleman I had seen for years on Sunday mornings sitting on a bench on Patterson Avenue waiting for a bus. I had assumed he was leaving his nearby home to go to work as I was on my way to church at 8 a.m. Several times through the years I had considered stopping to say “hello” to him but thought he would consider me crazy for doing that. However now I knew what God wanted me to do.

On Sunday with boldness and renewed confidence I pulled over into the bus stop. Quickly I walked over to this man with a backpack slung over one shoulder and introduced myself. I told him I had seen him for years as I drove by on my way to church. He surprised me by responding, “Yes, I’ve seen you, too.” I had never seen his eyes meet mine… he was always looking west on Patterson, searching for the bus coming his way. He introduced himself as Chris, saying he worked all night as a security guard at Agecroft Hall. I immediately told Chris I was heading to church and asked what I could pray about for him. With a surprised look on his face he mumbled, “Nothing.” I responded, “Nothing? With all the issues we all have to deal with you have nothing I can pray for?” Chris’ answer as he shrugged his shoulders, “I just try to work through it all.” As I headed back to my car I told Chris I would be praying for him that morning. We both waved to each other as I pulled out to drive the remaining eight blocks to church.

Kathy Troccoli inspired me to plant a seed. Hopefully someone else will water it and God will make it grow. (I Corinthians 3:6) Perhaps on occasional Sundays I can stop to give Chris a sausage biscuit or Croissan’wich to take home to enjoy as his breakfast. I’m praying for myself – that inch by inch God can transform me into someone who can impact lives for God, person by person.

Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

Old friends, two happy senior women talking in parkGuest blogger Becky Payne, church organist and friend of the elderly, shares a story about a recent event that truly brought heaven to earth.


When our pastor, Jim Somerville, challenged our church to “bring the kingdom”, one of our members at Lakewood Manor, Bernice Rodgerson, was a bit puzzled about what she might do to participate in the challenge. At that time Bernice was not well and didn’t get out much. She and I talked about the possibilities and decided she could write notes and make phone calls to other senior adults who are homebound. I gave her several names of ladies in other retirement facilities and she began her “ministry” of encouragement.

Earlier in this year we were discussing one of her ladies and Bernice expressed a desire to visit her. I assured her I could make that happen. On a Wednesday afternoon mid-August Bernice and I went to visit Anne Poindexter. I watched with great joy as these friends greeted each other and talked non-stop for a lengthy time. Anne was happy to share refreshments with us as we talked about our church, our families and Anne’s upcoming 99th birthday. The excitement of these ladies and the sweetness of that visit is etched in my mind.

As we drove back to Lakewood Manor Bernice and I talked a bit about the other ladies she had been writing. You guessed it: this Friday Bernice and I will make the short trip to Gayton Terrace to visit with Betty Grubb!

Should Have Taken the Bus!

2013-11-08 17.27.15I saw Andrew Terry at the Hope in the Cities luncheon yesterday. Andrew is working to bring rapid transit to Richmond, and he recently asked a room full of people if any of us would ride the new “super bus” if it came to the city.

I raised my hand.

I may have had that in the back of my mind yesterday when I thought about how I was going to get to the Omni Hotel for the luncheon. I don’t mind driving downtown. It’s not far from First Baptist Church. But I do mind parking downtown—either searching for an available meter or paying way too much to park in a garage.

So, I asked my smart phone how to get downtown on the bus and it told me: “Walk over to Broad Street, get on the bus heading downtown, get off at 12th Street and walk over to the Omni on Cary Street” Total trip time? “About 27 minutes.” Total cost? “$1.25” (my phone is so smart!).

But I had a few more emails to check and when I finished I didn’t have 27 minutes. So I jumped in my car, whizzed downtown, found an available meter four blocks from the Omni, put in two dollars worth of quarters, and hurried to the luncheon.

One of the first people I saw was Andrew Terry, and I told him, “I almost took the bus!” He commended me for my good intentions but insisted, “We’ve got to get more people riding public transportation.” I said, “Maybe we could have a public transportation day. You pick the date, and I’ll challenge my church to ride the bus.” “Great idea!” he said (stay tuned).

The luncheon was inspiring. Dr. Gail Christopher of the Kellogg Foundation talked about what her organization is trying to do to lift children out of poverty, and noted, sadly, how closely their plight is linked to the idea of race. “Idea,” she said, because human beings are, genetically, 99.9% identical. And yet we have used that .01 percent difference to justify all manner of atrocities, including slavery.

I’ll have more to say about that at another time, but for now let me say that the luncheon ran a little longer than I expected, and when I got back to my car I found a bright green parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper (sigh).

This is why I don’t like parking downtown.

I got in my car and headed back toward the office and at a stoplight on Broad Street I looked over and saw Andrew Terry in his car, motioning for me to roll down the window. He shouted, “Next time we’ll take the bus!” I reached for my parking ticket, held it up and shouted, “If I had taken the bus I wouldn’t have gotten this!” He laughed out loud and said, “I need a picture of that!”

So, here you go, Andrew: this picture is for you. If I had ridden the bus to my luncheon it would have taken 27 minutes and cost $1.25. I got there in 23 minutes in my car, but ended up paying $22.00.

Even I can do the math.