In Light of Recent Events

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

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

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

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

Every life matters.

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

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

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

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

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

First of all: marriage.

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

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

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

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

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

And so far, no one has.

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

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

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

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

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

Because every life matters.

Watch video (available after 6/30)

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.

Time for A Phone Fast?

My friend John Ballenger put me on to this YouTube video about us and our smartphones that makes me think it may be time for a phone fast.

Nick Bilton writes:

The two-minute video, which has been viewed more than 15 million times, begins with a couple in bed. The woman, played by the comedian and actress Charlene deGuzman, stares silently while her boyfriend pays no mind and checks his smartphone.

The subsequent scenes follow Ms. deGuzman through a day that is downright dystopian: people ignore her as they stare at their phones during lunch, at a concert, while bowling and at a birthday party. (Even the birthday boy is recording the party on his phone.) The clip ends with Ms. deGuzman back in bed with her boyfriend at the end of the day; he is still using his phone.

Ms. deGuzman’s video makes for some discomfiting viewing. It’s a direct hit on our smartphone-obsessed culture, needling us about our addiction to that little screen and suggesting that maybe life is just better led when it is lived rather than viewed (New York Times, September 1, 2013).

So, that’s what I’m planning to do tomorrow.  It’s my day off, and I’m going to switch off the little screen, get out there, and live some life.  I’m going on a phone fast.

I may tell you how it went afterward, but there won’t be a YouTube video.

I promise.

KOH2RVA: Day 290

CBF General Assembly

After lunch today I’m getting in my car to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I remember my first meeting.

It was in 1991, shortly after I had been called as pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina. For the ten years I had been a Baptist—and for all the years I was in seminary—the Southern Baptist Convention had been engaged in a bitter conflict between the “moderates” and the “conservatives” where all we seemed to do at our annual meetings was fight over things like the authority of Scripture, the role of women in ministry, and the question of who would control the world’s largest protestant denomination. Long before 1991 I was ready to be done with the fighting. So when I heard that a group of Baptists were meeting in Atlanta to give up the fight and get on with the mission, I was eager to learn more. I drove from Wingate to Atlanta and was there at the Omni with 6,000 other Baptists when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed. On the cover of the program were those words from Isaiah 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” I was ready for a new thing, and when I drove home from Atlanta I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that at last I could quit fighting denominational battles and get on with the work Jesus had called me to do.

22 years later I’ve gotten on with my work, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has gotten on with its work, and the Southern Baptist Convention has gotten on with its work. And, praise be to God, I believe we are all doing good work. Richmond’s First Baptist Church has not aligned itself with either the SBC or the CBF, but it does support missionaries through both entities. From time to time we get to hear some of those missionaries speak and tell us about the work they’re doing around the world. And when I hear them speak I can tell where their hearts are.

To a person, their hearts are in the right place.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is trying to be the presence of Christ in the world; the Southern Baptist Convention is trying reach the world for Christ; Richmond’s First Baptist Church is trying to bring heaven to earth, and part of the way we do it is by supporting SBC and CBF missionaries. The other way we do it, of course, is to roll up our sleeves and go to work right here where we are—as missionaries.

I’m going to leave that job up to you for a few days while I go to Greensboro. I won’t be blogging on Thursday or Friday. But if you’d like to know what’s going on at the General Assembly you can click HERE, and even if you don’t you can say a prayer for the work of all kinds of Baptists all around the world. Pray that it would be the kind of work that would make Jesus proud.

And thank God that the fight—at least, that fight—is over.

KOH2RVA: Day 260

old friendsIt’s Memorial Day, and it looks like a beauty. I just stepped out on the front porch to unfurl my flag and everything was so peaceful and sun-drenched—newspapers still on the front porches, absolute quiet on the street. Even now, as I take the first sips of my morning coffee, all I can hear is the birds singing in the back yard.


Yesterday I witnessed a Memorial Day moment that really was heaven on earth. Henry Kellam III (a member of First Baptist Church) invited me to his home where his father, a WW II veteran, was about to be reunited with an Army buddy he hadn’t seen since the war. Here’s an excerpt from the story that appeared in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.


BY TED STRONG Richmond Times-Dispatch

Two old friends saw one another for the first time in 67 years Sunday.

In late May 1946, as seasoned veterans of the Burma front in World War II, they said goodbye at a New York train station. The pair had met at Army basic training in 1943 and been together, more or less, throughout the war, working on a road through the Asian jungle.

They planned to meet back up, but never did. Over the years, Henry H. Kellam Jr., 88, of Raleigh, N.C., and Preston Van Dyke, 89, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., were in and out of touch.

Kellam moved around before settling in Raleigh, where he worked at a Westinghouse plant for 35 years. Van Dyke became a New Jersey mailman.

The men’s reunion Sunday was arranged by their families, who recently got in touch with each other.

“You should have seen them crying when they first got together,” said Kellam’s son, Henry Kellam III.

Van Dyke was already headed to Staunton to meet a 4-month-old grandson, so the Kellams arranged for Henry Kellam Jr. to travel up from Raleigh, and the two men met at the home of Kellam’s son in Richmond’s Fan District.

“I just thought it would be a nice thing to do for him,” said Trudi Van Dyke-Simms, Van Dyke’s daughter.

The two veterans sat on a porch, had their photos taken, met each other’s families, swapped stories and looked through Kellam’s old scrapbook.

Old FriendsIt’s a treasure trove of a book, packed with photos taken with a box Kodak 620: temples, elephants, locals of all stripes, a cremation and suntanned soldiers.

Serving with an engineering unit, the two had been shipped across the U.S. and then across the Pacific. Van Dyke was also with Kellam at the U.S.O. function where Kellam met Thelma Hilbig, his future wife.

In Asia, they worked on the Ledo Road, which led from India across Burma to China, a U.S. ally in the fight against Japan. The road was intended to reduce the need for air supply across the Himalayas to Chinese forces.

Kellam, who ended his service as a technician fifth grade, is quick to say that he was never in combat. He did maintenance on machinery that was building the road and is modest about his contribution.

He recalled volunteering for duty guarding the stockade, because it meant he could get to Calcutta more. He was told to shoot the prisoners if they tried to escape.

“I told them I’d shoot them in the leg, maybe,” he recalled.


It was truly moving to see these old friends together again for the first time in all these years. When I told them I needed to go Henry III asked if I would say a prayer. I did, and as I recall I said something about how reunions like these rarely occur this side of heaven.

But yesterday, this one did.

KOH2RVA: Day 254

YosselinPray for the people of Oklahoma today, friends. The headline of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reads: “Massive Tornado Pummels Oklahoma.” The sub-heads carry the grim news that at least 51 people are dead and more than 140 injured; that a school was devastated and children, some dead, were pulled from the debris; that it was a powerful storm—a half-mile wide—packing 200 mph winds.

It’s that image of children being pulled from the debris of a school that gets me. There’s something about their innocence and vulnerability that makes that scene especially tragic. And even though I don’t believe this tornado was God’s judgment on the people of Oklahoma I still want to know why:

Why do children have to suffer?

I was asking that question on Sunday afternoon as I watched a documentary about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Often it is children, some of them very young, who are the victims of traders and traffickers. Little boys forced to work in rock quarries or make bricks day after day in India. Little girls prostituted in brothels in Cambodia and hotel rooms in Richmond. It’s their faces that break your heart.

There is no joy there.

On the table in front of me on Sunday was the face of a boy from Africa. He was up for “adoption” through Compassion International. And even though I might never meet this boy face to face Compassion International assures me that for a little more than a dollar a day he can receive food, clothing, shelter, and education. In other words, he can be rescued from a life of suffering.

I already sponsor a child through Compassion (Yosselin, from Mexico, in the picture above), but on Sunday I thought about sponsoring at least one more. I like what Tony Campolo says, that “every Christian should have a kid’s picture on their refrigerator.” If we did that—all two billion of us around the globe who call ourselves Christians—it would make a difference. And beyond that we could support the work of the International Justice Mission abroad and the Richmond Justice Initiative here at home, both organizations working to set children free from slavery and the sex trade.

There’s not much we can do about tornadoes, but we can do something about this. We can do our best to bring people to justice who trade and traffic in human flesh, and we can give children a chance to live a different kind of life. Our efforts may not make a difference to all the children in the world, but as I look at Yosselin’s picture, above, I’m hoping they will make a difference to her.