Gospel Storytelling

tim_lowry_1_mariposa_2015We’ve got a big storytelling festival coming up at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on the weekend of January 27-29.  It’s called the “Hearts Afire” Festival, and it’s going to be amazing, featuring some of the best storytellers in America (like Tim Lowry, above).  But it’s also a good analogy for what happens when you pick up the Bible and begin to read.

For example:

There’s a kind of storytelling festival going on in the first four books of the New Testament.  One at a time Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, step out on the stage to tell us their stories of Jesus. All of them are stories about the same person, but all of them are different, and that can be a little confusing. For example, we’ve just come through the season of Christmas, where we’ve heard two different versions of the Christmas story—Matthew’s and Luke’s. Sometimes we get the details mixed up, and think the shepherds and the wise men ended up in the same nativity scene (nope!). But maybe we could do better than that in this new year. Maybe we could let each of these Gospel storytellers tell the story of Jesus in just the way he wants, and maybe we could be grateful for the differences.

I sometimes say that if there has been an accident at a busy intersection, the investigating officer will be grateful if there were four witnesses, one standing at each corner.  That gives him four different perspectives on the same event.  And even though there was only one accident, and his final report will tell only one story, it will be informed by four different stories, and because of that he will have a better, clearer picture of “what really happened” than if there had been only one witness.  In the same way we should be grateful for the four different perspectives we have on Jesus, and the four different witnesses who provide them.

Matthew, for example.

This is Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, which is Matthew’s year.  From now until Advent we will spend more time in the Gospel of Matthew than any other Gospel.  For that reason today might be a good day to let him step out on the stage all by himself, and tell his version of the Jesus story, or at least the beginning of it.

  • It begins in an interesting way, with the genealogy of Jesus. If you’ve ever been asked to read it aloud you know how hard it is to pronounce some of those names.  You may wonder why Matthew started his Gospel like that.  But I think he wants us to know that this is not a new story, but the continuation of a story God has been writing from the very beginning, from the time he called Abraham and promised that through him the nations of the world would be blessed.  I think Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise.   And so he tells us that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen generations from David to the time of the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to Jesus, the Messiah.
  • And then he tells us how the birth of the Messiah took place, and his version is very different from the Christmas story we usually hear. According to Matthew Joseph and Mary didn’t travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem: they already lived there, though not in the same house.  But after Joseph had a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife he did take her—he married her—and brought her into his own home, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.  So, no stable, no angels, no shepherds in Matthew’s Christmas story: just a newlywed couple having a baby at home.
  • And then, after a year or so, they got a visit from some magi from the east. Jesus would have been a toddler by then, a beautiful brown-eyed boy clinging to his mother’s skirts, staring at those wise men. We don’t know how many of them there were; there might have been two, there might have been twenty.  But they came bringing gifts for the new king of the Jews after learning from Herod’s wise men where that new king might have been born, and following a strange star that came to rest over his house.
  • And can I pause long enough to tell you how much I love the image of that star shining over that house? Because this is the story we tell on the Day of Epiphany, January 6:  we tell the story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus.  All they had was the light of that star to guide them to his house, and I can almost see the starlight shining on his beautiful face, reflecting in those big brown eyes.  But in the same way the days get longer and longer at this time of year, the light that shines on Jesus gets brighter and brighter on these Sundays after Epiphany; we see him more clearly for who he really is, so that by the time we reach the end of this season—Transfiguration Sunday—his face will be shining like the sun!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod, and not to tell him that they had found the child, but to go home another way.  And when Herod found he had been tricked he was furious.  He rounded up his troops and sent them to Bethlehem, to kill every baby boy under two years old.  But Joseph was warned in a dream to get up that very night, to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and that’s what he did.  Good old Joseph.  Good old faithful, obedient Joseph.  When Herod died he brought his family back to Israel, but when he heard that Herod’s son was on the throne he kept moving, and settled his family in Nazareth.  That’s where Jesus grew up.  That’s where he learned his father’s trade.  And that’s where he was when he got the news about John baptizing in the Jordan…

(for the full sermon from January 8, 2017, click HERE)

How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

_________________________
*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

KOH2RVA: Day 317

Children's MinistryMy daughter Ellie and I have been talking about “branding” lately, something she’s interested in. She says that your “brand” is the first thing people think of when they think of your company. So, when you think of Maxwell House you think of coffee; when you think of Schwinn you think of bicycles, and when you think of Levi’s you think of blue jeans.

But what do you think of when you think of Richmond’s First Baptist Church?

Some people think of us as “that big church on the corner of Monument and the Boulevard.” I’ve heard that some people think of us as “that rich church,” or “that fancy church,” or that “country club church,” (although I couldn’t get anyone to admit it). But my favorite is the one I heard during last year’s youth Christmas pageant, when someone joked about running into some people from that “heaven to earth church.”

That’s a brand I could live with.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first thing people thought of when they thought of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was heaven coming to earth? That could mean so many things! It could mean that when you are sitting in our sanctuary on Sunday morning, listening to the choir sing, it’s like heaven on earth. Or it could mean that the congregation is working to bring heaven to earth all the other days of the week, outside the sanctuary. It could mean both, and ideally it would, but either way, being known as the “heaven to earth church” would not be a bad thing.

So, is that our brand? Is bringing heaven to earth the first thing people think of when they think of Richmond’s First Baptist Church? I don’t know, but I do know that I got email yesterday from a woman in Louisville, Kentucky, who sent me a copy of a hymn about heaven coming to earth because she said that when she saw it, it reminded her of First Baptist, Richmond.

Where would she get such an idea? I don’t know. She might read this blog from time to time. Or she might subscribe to one of the Baptist state newspapers that has carried our story. Or she might visit the Ethics Daily web site, or get electronic updates from Associated Baptist Press. When I was at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship recently—a national gathering of Baptists—I was surprised by how many seemed to know about our efforts to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

But suppose we were successful? Suppose that by the grace of God, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, and through the tireless leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ we were able to bring heaven even one inch closer to Richmond? What then? What if children were lifted up out of poverty? And racism became a thing of the past? What if no one was hungry or homeless in our city? What if the hospitals were empty? What if the streets were clean? What if strangers greeted one another as friends? What if the love of Christ were known and felt? What if sins were forgiven, and hopes restored, and lives made new? What if the presence of God lit up the city like sunshine, and the Spirit of God became the very air we breathed?  How many more people would know our story then?

If being known as the “heaven to earth church” moves us one inch closer to that vision, then I’m for it.

KOH2RVA: Day 171

Lottie Moon, famous Baptist missionary to China

Lottie Moon, famous Baptist missionary to China

This year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA isn’t the way we’ve always done missions at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

When the church was founded in 1780 I’m guessing that its mission was to provide a place of worship for Baptists moving to the new and growing city of Richmond.

As the Baptist mission moved west, onto the American frontier, I’m guessing that the people of Richmond’s First Baptist Church supported that movement (I really need to ask our historian, Virginia Darnell, about these things. She will know).

When the Triennial Baptist Convention was formed in 1814, it provided a new way for Baptists to work together to support the foreign missions effort. By collecting offerings that would send missionaries to places like China and Africa, Baptists from many different churches could cooperate in a common venture.

When Baptists split into two groups in 1845, largely over the issue of slavery, Richmond’s First Baptist Church became a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and for the next 150 years we did missions the SBC way. In fact, the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention was “born” in the basement of First Baptist Church.

Baptists “split” again in the early 1990’s, but this time First Baptist Church kept its tent big, making a way for its members to support missionaries through the Southern Baptist Convention or though the newly formed, and more moderate, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

It was around that same time that short-term, volunteer mission trips began to be so popular. “Ordinary” church members (not professional missionaries) began to come home from mission trips to faraway places talking about the work they had done, the things they had seen, and the people they had met. When I came to Richmond’s First Baptist Church in 2008 there were 18 mission trips on the church calendar.

At our annual staff retreat in May 2012 Lynn Turner suggested we take the whole church on a mission trip, and the only place we could get everybody to—physically—was Richmond, Virginia.

And so, in some ways, a year-long, every-member mission trip seems like a natural next step in the evolution of missions at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  But let me point out what may not be obvious:

• We haven’t stopped providing a place of worship for people who live in the Richmond area.
• We haven’t stopped supporting missions on the American “frontier” (we take up a special offering every year for North American missions).
• We haven’t stopped praying for, raising money for, or sending foreign missionaries (in fact, the amount of money we give to global missions each year is staggering).
• We haven’t stopped supporting missionaries through the Southern Baptist Convention.
• We haven’t stopped going on short-term, volunteer mission trips to places beyond Richmond.

But we have started doing this other thing, inviting every member of First Baptist Church to find a way, this year, to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia—this place where we live, this place that we love. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever been directly involved in missions, in a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty way. And for many of them, it’s been love at first blister.

I think Jesus wants us to worship, and pray, and love, and serve, and give, but I also think he wants us to go. Thanks to KOH2RVA we don’t have to go very far to get a taste of what his mission is all about.

KOH2RVA: Day 158

ShawarmaYesterday was Ash Wednesday, and often on that day I fast—that is, I “go without food for religious reasons.” Last year, for example, I promised myself that every time I felt a hunger pain on Ash Wednesday I would think “Jesus is Lord,” to remind myself that my stomach is not.

I was going to do that again yesterday but when I checked my calendar I saw that I had already made plans to have lunch at the Old Jerusalem restaurant, and so I shrugged my shoulders and let out a half-hearted sigh. “Looks like I’m not going to be able to fast today,” I said, to no one in particular. “I forgot that it was Ash Wednesday when I made the appointment and now it’s too late. I can’t very well call off lunch, and it would be rude to sit there and watch my guest eat while I didn’t.”

Plus, I love the Old Jerusalem.

It’s near the intersection of 7th and Franklin downtown, just a few steps up the hill and to your left. There’s a sign on the front door that says “Halal,” which is the Muslim equivalent of “Kosher.” One of the things I love about the restaurant is that you can take your Muslim or Jewish neighbors there without any fear of offending their dietary restrictions. There’s no pork on the menu, and no alcohol either. Everything is prepared according to the traditions of the Middle East, which is home to both Muslims and Jews.

For all of those reasons, it’s where I usually meet with my interfaith group. We sit at a big table near the window, and the owner brings out platters of hummus and warm pita bread to get us started. Soon we are munching on (delicious!) falafel, digging into hearty beef and chicken shawarma, and finishing up with hot tea and “ladies fingers” for dessert. Throughout the meal we are talking and laughing and making wild gestures, often to the servers to bring us more food. It’s fun.

Which is part of the reason I was there yesterday.

The owner, a smiling, gregarious Jordanian named Tahir, wants to renovate the restaurant. He wants to create the kind of ambiance that will attract the dinner crowd (right now the Old Jerusalem looks a whole lot more like a lunch place than a dinner place). But it’s going to cost some money and he’s having trouble getting a loan. He was in the construction business before this and went bankrupt when the economy crashed in 2008.

That’s where Jeff Dortch comes in.

Jeff is a member of First Baptist Church who used to be a banker. One of the things he does is consult with church members who have fallen on hard times. He takes a look at their finances and helps them come up with strategies to get back on their feet. I took him to lunch with me to see if he had any suggestions for Tahir.

Tahir greeted us with a smile. He seated us at a booth. He asked the waitress to bring out some hummus and warm pita. And then he told Jeff his story, complete with his plans for renovation. You could see his eyes sparkle as he described the stonework, the arches, and the fountain he hoped to put against one wall. When he went back to the kitchen Jeff told me quietly that restaurants were notoriously bad investments. He wasn’t sure he would be able to help Tahir. But he also agreed, as he took another bite, that the falafel was delicious.

Why am I telling this story on the 158th day of KOH2RVA, our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia? Because my friend Imad Damaj (a VCU professor) knew a Muslim brother who was struggling to keep his restaurant going. He invited Bill Sachs (an Episcopal priest) and me (a Baptist pastor) to join him for lunch. He introduced us to Tahir and asked if we knew any way to help. I got in touch with Jeff Dortch and took him to lunch at the Old Jerusalem.

I don’t know what will come of it all, if anything, but at the heart of it is one person trying to help another, and reaching out through friendship to another person, and then another. It’s the stuff the parable of the Good Samaritan is made of,

And the stuff of which heaven is made.

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Click HERE to see the Yelp! reviews of the Old Jerusalem, remembering that there will be at least one crank in every bunch who loves to complain.  And think about this: if you’ve ever been to the Holy Land consider hosting a reunion lunch or dinner at the Old Jerusalem.  As the sign above the door says, it’s “A Taste of the Holy Land.”

KOH2RVA: 120

sailorIn my sermon a few weeks ago I told the story of my friend Harvey Michael, who was headed for Japan on a Navy troop ship during World War II, certain that he was going to die in combat, when—to his amazement—the war ended, the ship turned around, and he found himself the owner of a life he never thought he would have—a “bonus life.’ He said he thought he should do something good with it and decided that he would either be a Baptist preacher or a high school English teacher.

The preaching didn’t work out.

So, for most of his life he was a high school English teacher, and a good one, but the thing I admired most about him was the way he lived his life, as if each day were a gift. I told his story in my sermon on December 23 and then, a few days ago, got this letter from Deborah Hocutt, one of our newer members:

Dr Somerville:

I’ve listened to your message on the “bonus life” over and over. Oh, how I wish it would sink into the hearts of those at FBC and beyond!

For over twenty years I have been living that “bonus life.” Knowing that the doctors had never seen anyone survive with stage 4 cervical cancer like mine, I am keenly aware of what a God-given miracle each day is for me, and that each “bonus day” is an opportunity to give back to God by being His human arms to embrace, and His human smile to show love and compassion. I don’t take this responsibility lightly but with much love and gratitude.

If others could, just for a moment, know what it’s like to live “God Days”—that bonus time—oh, how we would see heaven on earth! So don’t stop shouting it from the rooftops. Don’t stop praying and witnessing. Don’t stop talking about a bonus life!!!

Deborah

OK, Deborah. I’ll keep talking about it. You keep living it. And let’s see if we can find some others who will use their “bonus lives” to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Maybe some of them will comment on this blog, and tell us what they’re up to.