If Someone Wrote a Play

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A friend called this week to let me know how much he had appreciated my Easter sermon, and how much–under the present circumstances of his life–he needed it.  And so, with his encouragement, I’m posting it here: a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on March 27, 2016 under the title, “Author of Life.”

For nearly three years, from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013, I got into my car at 12:30 on Friday afternoons and drove to Clark Springs Elementary School to spend some time with my “lunch buddy,” Jaylen.  It started with a clergy conference I attended at Richmond Hill, where I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia estimates the number of prison cells it will build on the number of children who are not reading by fourth grade.  I thought I should do something about that, and so I called Raylene Harton, a member of this church who was working with the Micah Initiative, a partnership with Richmond Public Schools.  I said, “Can you help me find a third grade boy who needs some help with his reading?  If you can, I’ll go and sit with him for an hour each week and see if I can make a difference.”  So, she did; she found Jaylen.  And for nearly three years I did what I could to help.

Jaylen could already read, but I tried to help him read better.  He was kind of a mumbler, so I asked him to read aloud as if he were reading the news on television, and worked with him on his e-nun-ci-a-tion.  I asked him what he was interested in, and when he said “football” I went to a neighborhood bookstore to see if I could find an age-appropriate book.  While I was there the owner told me that what the kids were reading those days was a series called the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”  So I bought one of those and took it to Jaylen, and that day we hardly talked at all; he couldn’t stop reading.  The next time I went to see him we talked about writing, and how wonderful it was that someone could dream up all those things and put them in a book.  I said, “Here’s the magical thing about writing: you can write anything you want.  You can put yourself in the story; you can be captain of the football team; you can score the winning touchdown.  “If you want to, you can fly.”   And I wish you could have seen his face in that moment.  That boy—who had been held down by so many things in life—picturing himself flying like a bird, realizing, perhaps for the first time ever, that he was limited only by his imagination.

It’s a secret I’ve known for years.

When I was in elementary school I sometimes got bored, and when I did I would look out the window and daydream.  I dreamed about all sorts of things.  I dreamed about flying, usually with a red cape flapping behind me like Superman.  I dreamed about having a magic wand that really worked.  I dreamed about holding hands with my fourth-grade crush, Bamma Donohue.  As I got older I daydreamed less and less, but I didn’t give it up completely.  One day when I was stuck in traffic in DC I imagined pulling back on the steering wheel and feeling my car rise up into the air, and then stepping on the gas and going wherever I wanted to.

Some of you could write a book about that.

The best writers know that with words you can move not only cars, but people.  Shakespeare (who was considered a pretty fair writer) wrote both comedies and tragedies.  He knew that with words you can move people to tears or make them laugh out loud.  In one of his best known plays, Romeo and Juliet, he tells the heartbreaking story of a young couple who couldn’t live without each other.  When Juliet is told that she will have to marry someone else she drinks a potion that will make her appear to be dead so that Romeo can steal her body out of the tomb and take her away to live with him forever.  But Romeo doesn’t know about that plan; the person who was supposed to tell him is detained.  So, when he learns that Juliet has died he goes to her tomb, weeps over her body, and drinks a vial of poison so he can die by her side.  When she wakes up and finds him dead she kisses him, hoping there will be enough poison left on his lips to kill her, but when that doesn’t work she stabs herself with his dagger, and falls dead on top of his body.  I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone; this play has been around more than 400 years.  But when it’s done well it still makes people gasp, it makes them weep.  They get up from their seats brokenhearted, but believing in true love as never before.

Which brings me to a song I’ve wanted to share with you for years.

It’s a song by David Wilcox, who is not a “Christian musician,” but maybe a musician who is a Christian.  I don’t know.  It’s not something he talks about much.  But when he talks about music he says, “Music is about all the different kinds of feelings we can have—we can be scared, we can be angry, we can be hopeful, we can be sad. We can be all these things and have company in it. Music is sacred ground.”  And so he wrote this song called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.”  I remembered those words last Tuesday, when I heard about the bombing in Brussels, and felt that old sense of hopelessness wash over me.  I thought, “When will this madness ever end?  How many more lives must be lost?” and then I thought of this song.  Listen to the lyrics.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.

And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

And I want to pause there for a moment, because I think that’s what was going on in those last few days before that first Easter.  “If someone wrote a play just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late?”  If William Shakespeare wrote Jesus’ story, for example, would he not have him arrested and tried before Pontius Pilate?  Would he not have him nailed to a cross and left there to die?  Would he not let his enemies mock him and deride him?  Would he not go ahead and let it happen—let him die?  Would he not have his dead body taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb?  Would he not have a heavy stone rolled in front of the opening so that everyone in the audience would say, “It’s over!  Whatever hopes we had have been crushed.  If we thought Jesus was the Messiah we think so no longer.  It’s obvious that he’s dead, he’s gone, Evil has won!”

But the song goes on:

If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is

Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love can show the way.

And there it is, the surprising reversal that leaves you gasping and actually does glorify what’s stronger than hate.  Just when you thought Evil was going to win Love intervenes, rolls back the stone, and raises Jesus from the dead.  Wilcox never comes right out and says so but for those who believe it’s hard not to hear the Easter message in this song.  We know, that even in that moment when it looked as if Evil had won, even as those women were on the way to the tomb, it was Love who mixed the mortar, and it was Love who stacked those stones, and it was Love who made the stage there, though it looked like they were alone.  In that scene set in shadows, like the night was there to stay, there was Evil cast around them, but it was Love who wrote that play, and in that darkness Love showed them the way.”

There is a difference, however, in the author of this play and someone like William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare could write whatever he wanted.  He could have written a play in which Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.  He was limited only by his imagination.  God, on the other hand—the Love who wrote this play—is limited by human freedom.  From the earliest chapters of Genesis we learn that he loved us enough to make us free, and sometimes we have used that freedom to do terrible things, to write scenes of unspeakable horror.  Some human being dreamed up that nightmare scenario in Brussels, where dozens of people would die at the moment a suicide bomber worked up the nerve to push a button.  As much as God hates such moments, as much as he turns his eyes away from such carnage, he does not stop it.  He has made us free—free to live and love and laugh, free to hate and hurt and kill.  Free to nail his son to a cross.  Free to toss his body in a borrowed tomb.

But after we have done our worst God is free to do his best, and early on that first Easter Sunday he did.  Think about those women who got up to go to the tomb.  They went like people called in to identify the remains of bomb victims.  They were expecting to see only the worst: the lifeless body of their beloved Lord, stretched out on a cold slab of stone.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually saw: the tomb open, two men in dazzling clothes asking them why they were seeking the living among the dead, and then telling them that the one they sought, Jesus of Nazareth, was not there, that he had risen.  Think of how they must have gasped.  Think of how they must have felt the cold, dead body of hope at the center of their chests come to life again.  Shakespeare himself could not have written a play with a more joyful ending, but Shakespeare would know that joy depends upon its opposite: that until you have experienced sorrow you hardly know what joy is.

In an article published late last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked if he planned to change his Easter sermon in light of the Brussels bombings.  He said, “You bet I am.  I’m going to say that it’s Easter Sunday morning but it looks like Good Friday afternoon.   The world seems to be filled with a lot of death, a lot of lies, a lot of evil, a lot of violence. We’re tempted to think that the powers of darkness have the upper hand. We find ourselves stuck on Good Friday afternoon, when the sun was eclipsed, and the world went dark, and the earth trembled out of sorrow.  We don’t have to look outside to the world to think we’re stuck on Good Friday afternoon,” he said.  “We look within our own hearts and we find sin there, we find darkness there, we find evil there; we find reasons to feel discouraged, lonely, isolated. But Easter Sunday is God the father saying life has the last word, goodness trumps evil, truth is victorious over lies and mercy triumphs over violence. We need to hear that.  In light of what happened in Belgium this week that message seems to have a special poignancy.”[i]

Joy looks brighter against the backdrop of sorrow.

All the best writers know this.  David Wilcox knows this.  At one of his live concerts he introduced this song by saying, “So, this is about this perfect world.”  And then he smiled, because everyone knows that it isn’t perfect, but he went on to say, “You couldn’t find a place better to care or to love.  But that’s certainly not the logical decision.  The logical decision would be to bunker down in the fear and just not be very alive at all.”  And then he began to sing: “You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason we should dream, that the world could ever change, you’re saying love is foolish to believe, ‘cause there’ll always be some crazy, with an army or a knife, to wake you from your daydream, and put the fear back in your life.  But look, if someone wrote a play, just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage, to look as if the hero came too late?  He’s almost in defeat, it’s looking like the evil side will win, so on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins, ‘It is Love who mixed the mortar, and it’s Love who stacked these stones, and it’s Love who made the stage here, although it looks like we’re alone.  In this scene set in shadows, like the night is here to stay, there is Evil cast around us, but it’s Love that wrote the play, and in this darkness Love will show the way.'”

I think he is right: I think this song can help us live in a world like this one.  As Shakespeare said, we can see the world as a kind of stage, on which good and evil are acting out their parts.  And when we hear about an act of terrorism in a place like Brussels we can imagine that Evil has just had its moment.  But as soon as Evil walks off the stage Good walks on.  You begin to see people using their human freedom to help and heal.  And in a world like this one we are called to be those people.  It could be something as simple as helping a third grade boy with his reading.  It could be something much more grand.  But we have to do something.  We have to follow the way of Love.  We are Easter people.  We cannot allow ourselves to be entombed by fear.  At the end of his song Wilcox says:

And now the stage is set,
You feel your own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet,
So we get up on our feet and do your best.

We play against the fear,
We play against the reasons not to try
Playing for the tears,
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes

For it’s Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love will show the way.[ii]

Jim Somerville © 2016

 

 

 

______________________

[i] http://www.lohud.com/story/news/religion/2016/03/25/lohud-easter-messages/82158990/
[ii]
David Wilcox, “Show the Way,” on the Big Horizon album, 1994.

Can Anything Bring Us Together?

politicsExcerpts from a sermon preached on January 31, 2016, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

The title of today’s sermon is: “Can Anything Bring Us Together?” And let me be clear that when I use the word us I’m not talking about us as a church: I’m talking about us as a nation.

Honestly!

Other than the recent unpleasantness some people call the Civil War has there ever been a time in history when we, as a nation, were so divided? I think I could understand division between Democrats and Republicans, but watch the debates and you’ll see that there is division within the parties. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen so much finger-pointing and name-calling. And when it comes to the issues themselves—things like immigration, gun control, and same-sex marriage—everybody in America has an opinion, and instead of listening to each other to see what we can learn we seem to spend our time shouting at each other, trying to drown out the voices on the other side.

Before I say another word let me assure you that this is not going to be a “political” sermon. When I interviewed with First Baptist, Washington, years ago someone asked, “How do you feel about politics?” It was a good question, especially for a church in that city, where politics is in the very air you breathe. But I said, “I am about the least political person I know. I’m almost apolitical.” And they said, “Good! That’s just what we’re looking for!” Because they had made it a rule years before to check all partisan politics at the door.

It was a good rule for them and I think it’s a good rule for any church. Politics can divide us in ways we don’t need to be divided. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). And so, as his followers, our job is to do whatever we can to bring heaven to earth, which is more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work than standing around debating politics. And when it comes to that maybe we could lay aside our own interests and discern the will of God, and then vote for those people and policies that line up most closely with His will, not that any of them will do it perfectly.

My friend Don Flowers is a pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, and this morning he’s preaching on one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not murder.” It seems clear to him that it is not God’s will that we should murder each other, and so he’s putting five white crosses on the church lawn to represent the five people who have been murdered in Charleston so far this year. He wants his congregation to think about those people. He wants them to hear their names. He believes those people were precious to God and that God didn’t want them to be murdered. But I don’t have to think about it very long to imagine what kind of backlash will come, about how many people will assume Don is talking about gun control and trying to take away their Second Amendment rights. If I know Don he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s rights; he just wants the murders to stop. The gun owners I’ve talked to want the same thing. On either side of most issues are people who love their country and want the best for it. They simply have different ideas about what the best is and how it might be accomplished.

We forget that sometimes, and instead of treating each other like fellow Americans we treat each other like enemies. Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post in which I tried, unsuccessfully, to blame it all on talk radio. Someone who commented on that post said: “I think it is too simplistic to blame it on talk radio. Surf the internet for a while and read comments people leave after various articles and talk radio begins to sound like a Sunday school class. It goes beyond those as well. Newspapers, magazines and television all contribute. We have become a deeply divided nation and it only appears to be getting worse. Why? Could it be that in our modern age when we can find out about events happening on the other side of the world faster than what is happening down the street that we are on “information overload?” Are human beings really wired to handle the constant barrage of information that comes our way? Could it be fear that causes us to recoil and back into our safety zones, simply because we can’t process everything fast enough? Safety zones are useful. They are the places where we know and are known, touchstone places where we can process and understand without feeling threatened. Might not the church be a good place to begin the healing of the division?”

Well, it might. But then again it might not.

Not all of you made it to church last week but I talked about that time Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue and said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” I talked about how it’s easier to preach that passage in some places than in others: easier in the homeless shelter, for instance, than the country club. But I said, “Here at First Baptist Church we seem to be such a close-knit family that good news for any of us is good news for all of us. When Jesus says he has good news for the poor, our wealthy members rejoice, because they know and love our poor members. They are part of the family. They want them to hear good news.” But it wasn’t like that in Nazareth. After Jesus preached that sermon the people carried him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him off a cliff, because what they heard him saying was that he had good news—but not for them.

I went on to talk about Paul’s metaphor of the body from 1 Corinthians 12, where he says that we Christians are the body of Christ and individually members of it, that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” any more than the head can say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other in the body, and when any member of the body is suffering we all suffer together, whereas if any member of the body is rejoicing we all rejoice together.

It’s a beautiful picture of the church and I think it applies to this one, but Paul used it with the Corinthians because they were divided; deeply divided. They were like the disunited states of America. And apparently it came down to this: that some of them spoke in tongues and others didn’t. And the ones who spoke in tongues began to think of themselves as special and different from the rest. “You only speak in the tongues of men,” they would say: “I speak in the tongues of angels.”

That’s why Paul spends all that time talking about the body in chapter 12: he’s trying to convince these Corinthians that just as the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” the one who speaks in tongues can’t say to the one who doesn’t, “I don’t need you.” He wants them to love and care for one another just as the whole body bends down to minister to a stubbed toe. “All of you make up the body of Christ,” he says, “and all of you are members of it.” He’s not just painting a pretty picture in this chapter; he’s trying to put the dismembered body of Christ back together again. And believe it or not that’s what he’s doing in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter.

We often read this text at weddings, mostly because it has the world love in it. “Love is patient, love is kind,” we say, and then smile at the blushing bride and the handsome groom and hope they will have that kind of love for each other. But this text might be better suited for a session of marriage counseling than for a wedding ceremony. It was written for people who were going around thinking they were better than others in the church simply because they had the more obvious spiritual gift. God forbid! Paul writes (with enough force to break off a pencil point): “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love? I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal! And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love? I am nothing! If I give away all my possessions, or even offer my own body as a sacrifice, but do not have love? I gain nothing!”

Can you begin to hear what Paul is getting at? He’s talking directly to those people in the Corinthian church who think they are better than everyone else simply because they have certain spiritual gifts. In another one of his letters he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and says, “The fruit of the spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). And I might add it’s not only the first of the fruits, but the one by which the entire tree is known. “Love is patient,” Paul says (in full admonishment mode): “it doesn’t push and shove its way to the front of the communion line like some of you. Love is kind, it doesn’t step on other people’s backs to get to the top. Love is not envious (as you are) or boastful (as you are) or arrogant (as you are) or rude (as you are). It does not insist on its own way, as some of you do; it is not irritable or resentful, as some of you are; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, Love rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

“But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. [All these spiritual gifts you’re so proud of; they’re not forever, they’re for building up the body of Christ! So stop going around acting like you’ve achieved perfection.] For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child [just as some of you are now doing]; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. [I want you to do the same!] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [we don’t have the full picture], but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part [I’m only human, after all]; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So, what will be left to us, when tongues and knowledge and prophecy come to an end? Faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

That’s a good word, and the more I’ve thought about Paul’s closing argument the more I’ve thought that these may be the three necessary virtues of the church in our time as well as his.

  • Faith, Paul says, and that’s what I find myself wanting to say to people who get so exercised about politics, as if this or that election were going to make us or break us. “Have a little faith,” I want to say; “not in politics, and certainly not in politicians, but in God—the One who made heaven and earth, and who has watched over the rise and fall of empires for millennia now!”
  • Hope, Paul says, and I want us to have a little of that, too; not hope in the future, but hope for the future. Things don’t have to get worse and worse, necessarily; they can get better and better. We can help them get better and better. But not if we’ve lost our hope. I look at this church, at this country, and wonder why our very best days can’t be ahead of us. We’ve got to hope for that, we’ve got to pray for that! But most of all, we’ve got to…
  • Love, Paul says. And this is not only the greatest of these three virtues, it is the real test, because Paul makes it clear that he is not asking us to love people who are just like us, or people who are members of our chosen political party; he is asking us to love those who are not like us; he seems to believe that this is the only thing that can bring us together.

And it’s worth a try, because whatever else we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. America is more divided than that church in Corinth, with the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head saying to the foot, “I don’t need you.” There has to be a better way. Maybe that’s why, after Paul has exhausted the metaphor of the body, he says, “There is a better way”: it is the way of love, and it looks like this:

It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.

There’s not a political candidate out there who could get elected on that platform, but don’t you wish there were? Don’t you wish someone would stand up and say, “Enough of this. We’ve tried every other way; let’s try the way of love!” Well, someone did, and they crucified him, and yet—2,000 years later—we are still talking about him. His way was the way of love, and something in us still knows it is the only thing…

That can bring us all together.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

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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Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Indeed!

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

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

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

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

Come Celebrate a Miracle

BrailleIn the post below, guest blogger Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor of Christian Worship at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, tells the story of a real-life miracle, and invites us to come and celebrate it with him on April 27.  Read the story, save the date, and then come…celebrate a miracle.

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This year, we have been challenged by our pastor to partner with others in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, VA. The initiative is called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two” (KOHx2), and it’s all about bringing heaven to earth through partnerships. Here is one way we are seeking to do just that:

Two years ago, our church procured the new Celebrating Grace Hymnal. It has turned out to be a wonderful worship resource for us, full of the old and the new, brimming with countless ways to express our faith. Our pew racks are full of them. They are within an arm’s length of everyone who has gathered for worship. All you have to do is open the book to see the rich possibilities for singing a “new song unto the Lord.”

Unless, of course, you are blind.

Lewis Myers asked me if we were going to provide Braille copies of the new hymnal for our blind members. Honestly, I had never thought about it. None of us had thought about it until Lewis wanted to know how members like Mark and Melody Roane were going to sing the hymns from the new hymnal. I spoke to the editor at Celebrating Grace who said he was sorry, but there were no plans to produce a Braille version.  “Well, then,” I thought.  “If no one will do it for us we will do it ourselves!”

But how do you do-it-yourself when it comes to a Braille hymnal?

Robbie Hott, a computer genius in our church designed a template to input all the texts into a database. Anyone, could go to the site and enter texts (using some basic guidelines) so we could build an electronic resource that would eventually become Braille.

We contacted Brian Barton at the Braille Circulating Library, just down the street from the church, and they volunteered to produce the Braille version for us, at no cost. We are almost to the final product. Two years of really hard work and scores of volunteer hours later, we are about to have the Braille edition of our new hymnal in our hands.

You can learn more about the fascinating process by viewing the video below.

So, here is a partner in our neighborhood who is seeking to do the very thing we have been called to do: to make our neighborhood a little more like God would want it to be—accessible, hospitable, and full of praise. Together, we are doing that.

I tried to imagine a way to bless the Braille Circulating Library in the manner that they have so generously blessed us. It came to me that the perfect person to facilitate this blessing would be Ken Medema. Ken is a long-time friend, a blind singer-composer whose concerts are full of prepared and spontaneous stories set to music—much of which is composed on the spot! He has been to our church before and is always a smashing hit.

So I have invited Ken to present a benefit concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Sunday, April 27 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and all proceeds go directly to our neighbors, the Braille Circulating Library. It is a win/win. We get to experience an incredible concert and we can bless the Braille Lending Library with a generous gift to support their ongoing ministry in Richmond.

You can buy tickets at the church during the week or on Wednesdays and Sundays. You can also buy them online simply by clicking HERE.

Join me in supporting this concert and watching the Kingdom come ever closer as both the blind and the sighted sing praise to God.

–Phil Mitchell

Which Jesus Will We Give Them?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

KOH2RVA: Day 359

2013-09-02 10.59.19It’s the Tuesday after Labor Day, and for many the first day of school. Parents all over the region are rousing their sleepy children, feeding them a healthy breakfast, helping them into stiff, brand-new, back-to-school clothes, and then getting them onto the bus or dropping them off at the front door of the school with a lump in their throats. Say a prayer for those parents and children (and for teachers and administrators) today.

Education isn’t easy.

But yesterday I saw a different kind of education going on. It didn’t look easy, but it did look like fun.

I was at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, participating in the “Sidewalk Chalk of Love” event (the concept is simple yet brilliant: show up at school on the day before it starts and write messages of encouragement on the sidewalk with chalk; it’s especially brilliant at those schools where children need a little extra encouragement, like the Cooper School or Glen Lea Elementary; some of our members showed up at both). There I was, trying to think of something encouraging to write, when Claudia Harris and her daughters, Morella and Isabella, showed up.

Claudia went to work immediately, sketching the outline of a gigantic unicorn, and then her girls went to work making it beautiful. Morella made a rainbow-colored horn and a rainbow-colored tail. Isabella thought it would be fun to chalk the bottoms of her feet and then fill in the outline with her purple footprints.

Apparently it was.

But I imagined the conversation that took place before all the fun began:

“Girls, we’re going over to the Anna Julia Cooper school to write encouraging messages on the sidewalk.”

Why?

“Because not every child is as lucky as you are. They don’t all have two loving parents who encourage them every day. They need a little extra boost.”

Oh. OK.

But think of the education those girls were getting yesterday. Even before the start of school they were learning that we (followers of Jesus) think of others and not only ourselves; that we try to help and encourage others, especially those who don’t usually get much help or encouragement; and that we are willing to make some sacrifices toward that end, even if it means taking an hour out of our own activities on the last day of summer vacation.

I said to Claudia, privately, “I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing for your girls,” and she said, “Oh, we love our church. There are so many great opportunities!”

That’s music to a pastor’s ears.

Claudia meant that there are great opportunities through First Baptist to educate her children, to teach them how to be generous, selfless, faithful followers of Jesus. But Claudia and her husband Noel are taking responsibility for much of that education. After all, we didn’t send a bus to her house yesterday; she brought the girls herself. She and Noel want them to learn how to do the work of the kingdom. They are grateful for all the good opportunities the church provides.  And me?  I’m grateful for them.

May their tribe increase.