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.

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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

 

Learning to Float

learn-to-floatJesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

If I were making a list of all the things I wish Jesus had never said, this saying would certainly be on the list. Not because it’s so bad, or so hard, but because it makes people think of faith as a quantity, as something you can have more or less of.  Usually people assume they have less and wish they had more. If they had more they could move mountains, right?

And sometimes there are mountains to be moved.

In Luke 17 the disciples beg Jesus, “Increase our faith!” but he says to them there essentially what he says to them here: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And I don’t know that I’ve heard it this way before but when I read that passage this time around it almost sounded as if Jesus were saying, “Increase your faith? You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

In a book called The Heart of Christianity New Testament scholar Marcus Borg devotes an entire chapter to faith. He claims that in Western Christianity faith has come to mean holding a certain set of “beliefs,” or “believing” a set of statements to be true. For most people, being a Christian means believing that there is a God, believing that the Bible is the revelation of God, and believing that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for our sins.

Borg (who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota) acknowledges that “for some Christians the list would be longer: believing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; believing in Genesis rather than evolution; believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, that he raised the dead, that he himself was raised from the dead in a physical bodily form, and that he will come again someday. Sometimes the beliefs become very specific, Borg writes: believing in infant baptism instead of adult baptism (or vice versa); believing in “the Rapture”; believing (or not believing) in Purgatory. The list goes on and on, but as you have probably experienced for yourself believing “the right things” is very important to Christians.

But here’s the problem:

All this emphasis on belief can quickly turn faith into a matter of the head rather than the heart. And Marcus Borg would insist that it has happened rather quickly.

Back in the Middle Ages the word orthodoxy meant “right worship” (in fact, that is the literal meaning of the word). But during the Protestant Reformation it came to mean “right belief,” partly because all those Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were still figuring out what they believed. Should we baptize infants or adults? Is communion a sacrament or an ordinance?

And then there was this other thing, the Enlightenment, that changed the way we understood truth. In the Middle Ages no one questioned the story of Jonah and the Whale. It was in the Bible: of course it was true! But during the Enlightenment people began to ask: Could there really be a fish big enough to swallow a man? And could a man really live after three days in its belly? The only truth that counted was that which could be verified scientifically; in other words, truth was replaced with fact (which is a much smaller word).

And so, after being run through the wringer of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, faith has come to mean believing the right things, and believing them no matter what, even if they are not scientifically verifiable.  But it was not always so.  Marcus Borg helps us by looking back to the Middle Ages, and four different Latin words for faith:

1. The first is assensus, from which we get the English word assent, and it means pretty much what you would expect it to mean: giving one’s intellectual assent to a claim or proposition, that is, believing that it is true. The opposite of this kind of faith is “doubt” in its milder form and “disbelief” in its stronger form. For example: you might go from doubting that a fish could swallow a man to disbelieving it altogether. Marcus Borg says that when he was a teenager he had those kinds of doubts and prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” Since then he has wondered, “Is this really what God wants from us: our intellectual assent to a long list of theological propositions? Our heads rather than our hearts?” He also notes that you can believe all the right things and still be in bondage, still be miserable, still be unchanged—that faith as assensus doesn’t have much transformative power. And yet there are some things we can and should affirm. At the bare minimum being Christian means a) affirming the reality of God, b) the utter centrality of Jesus, and c) the centrality of the Bible.

2. The second Latin word for faith is fiducia, and the closest English equivalent is fiduciary, which may mean something to the bankers and lawyers in the room, but doesn’t mean much to me. A better word would be trust, or the phrase “radical trust.” As Soren Kierkegaard might have said, “Fiducia is like floating in an ocean of God’s grace.” Borg says that once, when his wife was teaching an adult Sunday school class, she asked if anyone had ever tried to teach a child to swim. Several hands went up. She asked, “What was the hardest thing about it?” And they all agreed: getting the child to relax and float, to trust the buoyancy of the water. Fiducia is learning to trust the buoyancy of God, and the opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt but anxiety, or worry. In the middle of that storm on the Sea of Galilee, when they were afraid their boat was going to sink, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?” A few chapters later he says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not clothe you, you of little faith?” In both cases he is talking about faith as fiducia: radical trust.

3. The third Latin word is fidelitas, which can be translated as fidelity, or faithfulness, specifically, faithfulness in our relationship to God. It means what faithfulness does in a marriage—being faithful to God in the same way you might be faithful to a spouse. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, but unfaithfulness or adultery. Another biblical word for this kind of unfaithfulness is idolatry—giving one’s ultimate loyalty and allegiance to something other than God. Borg says, “As the opposite of idolatry, [this kind of] faith means being loyal to God and not to the many would-be gods that present themselves to us. Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.”

4. The fourth Latin word for faith is visio, and this one is fascinating. As you might guess, visio is a way of seeing “the whole,” a way of seeing “what is.” And there are three ways of seeing it.

a. One is to see reality as essentially hostile, as if everyone and everything really were out to get you. It may not surprise you to learn that there have been some forms of popular Christianity through the centuries that have viewed reality this way, as if God himself were out to get us, and that—unless we offered the right sacrifices, or said the right prayers, or did the right things—he would.

b. In the second way of looking at reality it is essentially indifferent. Someone with this view might say, “The universe is made up of swirling force fields of matter and energy, but is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams.” And if God is the one who brought it all into being, he has long since stopped intervening or even caring. If you look at reality this way, you might not be as defensive as in that other view, but you might become rather selfish, looking out only for yourself and those you love, since obviously no one else is.

c. In the third way of looking at reality it is essentially nourishing and life-giving. It has brought us and everything else into existence. It is filled with wonder and beauty. It loves us and cares about us. This is the reality Jesus was talking about when he said, “Look at the birds of the air, the flowers of the field.” God feeds them. God clothes them. God sends his life-giving rain on the just and the unjust.

Can you see what a difference faith as visio could make in your life? What a difference there would be in seeing reality as essentially hostile, essentially indifferent, or essentially nourishing and life-giving? This last way of looking at reality can lead to the radical trust we talked about earlier. As Borg says, “It leads to the kind of life we see in Jesus and the saints, known and unknown. Or, to use words from Paul, it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.”

There they are: four Latin words for faith—assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio—and you may have noticed that all but the first are relational words. Fiducia describes a relationship of radical trust. Fidelitas describes a relationship of love and loyalty. Visio describes a relationship of life-giving nurture. Assensus is the only one that means giving our intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions and, as I said, that’s important.

But it may not be the most important thing.

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” And so we try to increase our faith. We try to believe more and doubt less. We try to believe things that are, frankly, unbelievable. And we do it because there are mountains that need to be moved.

But what if that’s not what Jesus meant?

What if he meant, “You don’t need more faith. You only need the tiniest little speck. No, it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place, or more specifically, in the right person.”  Because here is the truth: that little “mustard seed” is found only five times in the Gospels. It’s mentioned twice in reference to faith, as in, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” But the other three times Jesus uses it he talks about how, if it’s planted in the ground, this tiny seed can become a huge bush, even a tree, in which the birds of the air can build their nests. A mustard seed, in other words, is something small that can grow big—if you put it in the ground. But if you put it in a Ziploc bag, and bury it in the bottom of your sock drawer?

That mustard seed will always stay the same size.

What if Jesus is trying to tell us this: that we don’t need a lot of faith, we only need the tiniest little speck. But we need to put our faith in the right place—not in ourselves and our ability to believe—but in God, the One who gives us life and nurtures it, the One who loves us like a faithful spouse, the One we can trust completely, and, yes, the One who can and does move mountains. Let us put our mustard seed of faith in him; let us tend it and nourish it; let us water it with worship, study, service, and prayer;

And then watch it grow.

I keep thinking about Marcus Borg’s wife trying to teach her son to swim, helping him as he struggles and thrashes in the water, telling him over and over again to relax. And then I picture him finally listening to her, hearing her, and obeying her—stretching himself out on the surface of the water like you would stretch yourself out on a king size bed, feeling it beneath him lifting him up, holding him, even as his mother’s arms are beneath him, supporting him. I can almost hear him gasp with wonder as he realizes that he can float, and almost see the smile on his face as he lies there on the water with his eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth as his mother chides,

“O, ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

—Jim Somerville ©2015

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.

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The Church and Mr. Coffee

Mr. CoffeeUsually, before I go to bed at night, I make coffee.

Which is to say I get the coffeemaker ready to make coffee first thing in the morning, and set the automatic timer for 4:55 a.m., so that the aroma of brewing coffee will rise to my nostrils on the second floor just before the alarm goes off at 5:00.

And that really helps.

Once I’ve had coffee, I can actually think about how it got here, and it occurs to me that somewhere out there is a factory that makes coffeemakers. Two things seem clear:

1. If there wasn’t a factory to make coffeemakers, I probably wouldn’t have one.
2. If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee, there probably wouldn’t be a factory.

Stay with me.

I heard someone refer to the church as a “disciple-making factory” recently, and I sat up a little straighter because I’ve had that thought myself.

When I came to Richmond seven years ago our mission statement read: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples…” and, almost immediately, I pictured fully formed, fully functioning disciples rolling off the assembly line.

My question, however, was, “What does a disciple do?”

If coffeemakers didn’t make coffee the factory would go out of business. Is there a corollary in church life? Could it be said, “If disciples don’t ______________ the church will go out of business”? And how would you fill in that blank?

The answer to that question could make all the difference.

Some people answer it by saying that disciples make disciples, and if they don’t the church will go out of business. That seems logical, until I apply that same logic to coffeemakers: coffeemakers aren’t supposed to make coffeemakers; they’re supposed to make coffee. If they do it and do it well people will continue to buy coffeemakers and the factory will stay in business.

So, what are disciples supposed to “make,” if not more disciples?

Here’s one answer:

In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the good news of the coming Kingdom and to give people a glimpse of what the world will look like when God, at last, has his way: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons,” he says, and off they go to do it.

That’s Kingdom coffee, friends, and I believe that if we made more of that the church would have all the business it could handle. That’s what Jesus did, after all, and everywhere he went he drew such crowds that he could hardly breathe. But along the way he was teaching his disciples to do the same things he did, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons, and to do it as a sign of the coming Kingdom.  Is it too much to think that we, in our own way, could do the same?

Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about making coffeemakers, maybe if we put more energy into making coffee, God’s kingdom would come and his will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

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 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.

Ashley Goes To Church

A church beyond beliefMy friend Bill Sachs has written a new book called A Church Beyond Belief (co-authored by Michael Bos).  He gave me a copy last week when we were having coffee together, and said it was a book about how young people find a place in church these days.  He said, “We used to think you had to believe before you could belong.  Now it seems that young people need to belong before they can believe.”

I was intrigued, and the next morning, sitting at my kitchen table, I read through the first few pages.  This is what I read:

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One Sunday morning it occurred to Ashley that she might visit a church. As she awakened, the thought lingered—it amused her. She smiled as coffee finished brewing and she poured a cup. Once visiting a church had been the farthest thing from her mind. Faith seemed like a crutch for the old and weak. Churches seemed irrelevant. Now she was exploring them.

As a student Ashley was confident of her abilities and certain of her future. She moved smoothly through high school and entered a good college. There she began to envision a career and her personal life. Graduation was followed by a job where she began to advance. The young man she had dated became her husband. The world was set, just as Ashley intended.

But Ashley’s world did not become what she had expected. The happiness she anticipated never materialized. For reasons she was still sorting out, both she and her husband had affairs. Counseling did not help, they divorced, and disappeared quickly from each other’s lives. “It’s the only thing we did well,” she mused. “We had nothing spiritual in common,” she thought often.

Ashley paused again at the word “spiritual.” As she sipped coffee, she tried to remember when “spiritual” matters gained priority and even what the word meant to her. Was it when she lost her job, or when she joined a women’s book group? Did “spirituality” awaken when a new job took her across the country? She handled the job fine, but her personal life almost came unglued. Involvement with a married man and evenings with scotch became a downward spiral. Comments at work about sloppy performance struck home. She ended both destructive ties.

Along the way “spirituality” became a key reference point. But more questions than answers surfaced: What did she believe and where did she belong? As these questions bore in on her, Ashley knew she needed to search, and as she searched the questions intensified. Was she alone or were there other people facing similar challenges? Was there something she could believe in that could give her deep roots in life? Was there something beyond her vague, agnostic existence? Was there a group of people with whom she might seek answers together? As these questions came into focus, the thought of attending a church first crossed Ashley’s mind.

Initially the thought surprised her. It was uncomfortable and odd. A church? At first Ashley doubted there could be a congregation for her. Laughing at this bizarre idea, several friends discouraged her. The images of churches were not appealing. Ashley imagined stern morality and threats of eternal judgment. She imagined being coerced to believe ideas that were absurd or to take sides in disputes that seemed pointless. Ashley wanted belief and belonging churches did not seem likely to offer. But she resolved to explore a few congregations. Telling no one, and hoping not to be recognized, she set off one cold Sunday morning.

How will Ashley be received when she comes to church?  How would she be received at your church?  What can we do to give people like Ashley a warm welcome, food for the soul, and a place to call home?  If you’d like to read more of Bill’s book, you can get more information by clicking HERE.