Wednesday, September 17, 2014

9-14

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A BAPTIST CHURCH?”
I Peter 2: 4-5, 9-10.

“What kind of baptist church is this, anyway?” If I have heard this question once, I have heard it a thousand times. Usually it has an accompanying corollary: “Are you sure you are a baptist minister? You sure don’t sound/look like one to me!”

Unfortunately, there is a stereotypical image that accompanies being a baptist church or minister — and we’re/I’m not it. The image usually has something to do with theological ignorance, shouting and waving the Bible while preaching, re-baptizing persons who have been baptized in another form, scaring people into decisions for Christ so that they do not go to hell and/or condemning people who don’t agree with us to hell. It also includes that famous triad: no dancing, smoking or drinking — at least in front of other baptists. It does include matters such as no divorce, no women ministers or deacons, and women being subservient to their husbands. In other words, what passes for the traditional baptist image is a closed- minded, anti-intellectualism that is long on passion and short on faith.

Sometimes people paint baptists as backwater yahoos who wouldn’t know what to do in the city. There’s the old joke about the baptists going to New Orleans for the Southern Baptist Convention. A restaurant owner was asked how they were as customers and he said: “They came with a twenty dollar bill in one hand and the Ten Commandments in the other — and left town without breaking either one.”

We can understand how much of a shock it is for visitors to look at us and make an association with that image. We have to move outsiders, especially young adults, beyond those images before they will even visit us, much less consider joining. There are many, many days when I have personally lamented: Why don’t we give up our identification as baptists? Why don’t we take baptist out of our church name and see if we are more accepting to others? What good is there in retaining a name if it has been so perjured in the minds of those whom we wish to reach that we cannot be whom God has called us to be? Oddly enough, many of those churches which have perjured the name have now removed it, seeing it as an obstacle to their growth.

To be sure there are good arguments on both sides of that issue — and I am not going to take it on this morning. What I do wish to state is quite simple: here are the reasons I believe that it is important to be a baptist. Some of you may expect me to say things like the Bible as God’s Word or Baptism by immersion only. However, those beliefs are not what motivate me to be baptist — and never have been. As a fourth generation baptist minister I have a long baptist heritage of faith. However, that heritage is not what holds me in the baptist house. Here are the core beliefs as to why, despite all the embarrassment and difficulty such a label can bring, I have remained a baptist minister.

Priesthood of the Believers
Central to our identity as baptists is the belief that while we have ministers, we have no priests. A priest is a holy man or woman, someone who intercedes with God for others and has special privileges with God in this way. We believe that each and every person has the right, indeed the obligation, not only to go to God for themselves, but also to voluntarily go to God for others. We believe that each and every individual has equal access to God through Jesus Christ.

Writing to the early church Simon Peter tells them that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people...” Judaism thought of herself as the priests unto the nations, but here we have Simon Peter indicating that all who call Jesus “Lord” participate in this divine calling. Earlier, in verse 5,
Simon Peter has indicated that they are being built “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ....”

Paganism and Judaism had priests — men who were designated to be their “holy men” whose responsibility was to go to God for their adherents. Often well-meaning Christians want their pastor to be their priest, i.e., their “holy man.” However, in Christianity we have the understanding that Jesus is our priest (Hebrews) who intercedes with God for us — and that all believers are called to be priests for each other. Carlyle Marney almost called his great work on this axiom from Martin Luther — “God at My Elbow.1He really believed that through Christ we represent God to each other.
The priesthood of the believers rises from a deep-rooted, rugged individualism, born of the frontier and a belief that faith is very personal, i.e., an expression of our experience and knowledge of God. We say our own prayers and we go to God for ourselves — no one else can do these for us. As priests each of us are to be persons in whom the Spirit of God lives and who experience God for ourselves. We have no professional “holy men/women” in baptist life. We go to God directly.

Soul Competency
Soul Competency is the belief that every person has the right to stand before God and make their own decisions as to their belief and practice of their faith. It is the direct corollary to the above axiom. If we individually approach God, read our own scriptures and make up our own minds, then we are competent to stand before God as responsible human beings for our beliefs and our actions.
If you know anything about baptist beginnings you know that we were born as a protest movement against a hierarchical, institutional church which exercised total authority over all congregants, telling them what to believe and how to live. No questions or differences allowed. In fact, private reading of the Holy Scriptures was banned as dangerous — the church did not trust individual believers to interpret the Bible and come to their own faith.

Baptists, on the other hand, have affirmed that we have the right and even the responsibility to build our own house of faith and practice. I, nor any other clergy or lay person in baptist life, has the right to tell another that they cannot believe something and be a baptist.

To be sure this practice can result in swimming with the sharks in perilous waters. While baptist ministers are encouraged to attend seminary and be educated, there is no formal denominational requirement as such. Baptist churches ordain whom they will — and no one can tell them not to do so. While lay persons are encouraged to study scripture and to use commentaries in helping them to understand and interpret scripture, there is no requirement as such. While we as baptist have confessions of faith which guide us in our understanding, we have no creeds to which one must attach one’s name. The only central affirmation we possess is of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

This lack of an educational requirement has resulted in some crazy, maniacal and lunatic statements made by baptist preachers and lay people through the years. More often than not, ignorance results in passion, but it also results in the distortion of scriptures, i.e., twisting them out of context in interpretation so as to justify one’s personal desires.

As messy as this doctrine may be in practice, the beauty of Soul Competency it that healthy persons develop a deeper piety and connection to God. In baptist life we soon become aware that we must build our own house of faith in which we live. We cannot fall back on the church or a priest to do our praying and believing for us.

Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State
Central to who we are as baptists is this core belief that the best faith is one that is freely expressed and untouched by any branch or avenue of government. Baptists were born out of a rebellion against the state church in England, a rebellion which continued even to the colonies. Here baptists found that congregationalists, puritans, presbyterians and even episcopalians (anglicans) were not in favor of universal religious liberty. They wanted liberty for themselves, but not for others. We baptists fought in every colony, court and constitutional convention for the rights of free assembly, free belief and freedom from governmental support or intrusion — for all persons of faith and no faith. Our baptist fore-bearers were arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and even physically lashed as a combination of state and religious authorities tried to whip us into theological conformity and submission. However, we baptists were just too stubborn — we would not relent.

The Bill of Rights, which has as its first article prohibiting government involvement in religion, came about because a group of Virginia baptist ministers demanded such of Thomas Jefferson. He needed their support to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America, so they demanded in return for their support this article as the first amendment. They had not supported and fought the Revolutionary War to go back under governmental control or to have a state church. A free church in a free state became the battle cry of baptists and has echoed down the hallways of history across our continent and beyond. The only true religion is an un-coerced, purely free decision of one’s own heart and soul. This is why we as baptists do not baptize infants. We reserve that rite for when the person makes his/her own commitment to follow Christ.

The reality is that this baptist understanding has flowed as a volcanic eruption across the religious landscape of our country and our world. Whereas in centuries past religion was identified with tradition and institutionalism, in baptist life faith became much more person and vital. From the frontiers of 17th century America to the barrios of Latin America, the baptist model of faith has flourished under many, many names. Even the charismatic movements of recent years which are exploding on the religious scene around the world have in their roots this baptist emphasis of a free individual in a free church in a free state. Even in states where there is no freedom, the baptist way prospers. In China, where for decades it was thought that Christianity had died out, this principle has resulted in house churches flourishing from one border to another.

Autonomy of the Local Church
Core to who we are as a baptist church is the fact that we make our own decisions about our life and belief. Emerywood, for example, is free to ordain women and accept persons as members who have not been immersed for this very reason. No other baptist church, association, or convention can tell another baptist church what to think or do. Now, to be sure such groups can evict those with whom they do not agree from membership, but they cannot force us to change or remove the name of baptist. We decide, in our context, what we wish to believe and do.

Several decades ago another church sought to have Emerywood evicted from our local association over our policy of ordaining women and accepting persons who have not been immersed. Fortunately, baptist policy prevailed and we were maintained as members.

This autonomy has been at the bottom of great strife in our baptist life, but also of even greater growth of the Kingdom. There are always those would-be religious/denominational tyrants who wish to dictate to others how they ought to live their faith. In baptist life, you just cannot do that. The result of this autonomy is a grass roots responsiveness to one’s local context and congregation. Whether the issue revolves around worship style, ministry emphases or even social/ethical issues — baptist churches are free under Christ to determine their own particular expression of faith. We do not wait on permission from a hierarchical institution to give us the go-ahead.


Ironically, we find this baptist principle of local autonomy rearing its head in other denominations. Many of our Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian friends find themselves envious of our position. Even the Roman Catholic Church, as magisterial and hierarchical as one can get, finds itself dealing with parishes and groups of Catholics who desire autonomy and freedom to express their faith.

There is, however, a messy side to this autonomy. One can find baptist churches which run the theological, sociological and even educational gamut. Unfortunately, no convention or group of churches has a copyright on the name “baptist.” There are “baptist” ignoramuses of all types, including those who picket the funerals of soldiers killed in battle as their way of protesting against abortion and other issues. Or, one can find educated congregations such as Emerywood, Myers Park in Charlotte, First Winston- Salem, First Greensboro and many, many others in between. All of us carry the name of baptist.

Why ought we to stay in the baptist fold? Any church, no matter their particular background or beliefs, is best served if it associates with churches of like mind and practice. None of us is large enough to provide theological education, social ministries, missionaries and the like on our own. We all accomplish much more when we work together. In the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship we have found a community of like- minded baptists who believe in and affirm these historic principles. As messy as our baptist life may be — and it is — the baptist house in God’s family is still where I choose to live out my faith. The baptist house provides a freedom and an openness which is often missing in other denominations. In the baptist house we find a passion for Christ — for we each have experienced Christ in our lives. In the baptist house we find an acceptance to new ideas and thinking, for we all know that experience of God is key to our faith and practice.

So, in response to the negative image of others I have but one answer: let’s actively counter it. Let’s each of us, on a weekly basis, carry on a conversation with someone wherein we show them the deeper values of what it means to be baptist. My experience has been that when we show people this side of our family, they often say: Wow...I had no idea. I think I would like that kind of church.
And isn't that the goal after all? Are we not to be about building a community of believers, each of whom has experienced the new birth, to come together for worship, work and witness? For me, Christ, my experience of Christ and my obedience to Christ is the key issue — all else pales in respect to that calling. At bottom I am a Christian with a big “C” but a baptist will a “little b.” But, I am a baptist...to borrow a line from North Carolina lore: “I am baptist born and baptist bred...and I die I will be baptist dead!” And hopefully, I will be alive in Christ — whom I have come to know in and through my baptist family.

Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d. 
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 September 14, 2014

1 Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other. Judson Press. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

8-31-14


ICE BUCKET CHRISTIANITY
Proverbs 6: 6-11; II Thessalonians 3: 6-13

By now the Ice Bucket Challenge is old hat to most of us. How many of us have participated in this challenge? I love it — for many, many reasons, not the least of which is it shows how we can cajole one another into doing some really “stupid” things, video them, and put them on social media for all the world to see. To be quite honest, I also love this phenomenon for the money it is raising — over 88 million and counting for ALS. My cousin, the Honorable Timothy Harley, a retired judge in Florida has battled this disease for 10 plus years. (He retired early because of it.) I have watched as both friends and members lost their lives to this disease, including our own Betty Keaton in 2013.

So, what I am about to say should not be taken as a direct critique of this specific emphasis. Rather, I am using it as a model of how too often we approach social problems/issues in our culture: throw money at it, make a splash — and go on to something else. Our attention span for causes reminds me of a reply my oldest son gave me when I asked him why my 20 month old granddaughter’s Mother’s Morning Out class did not have chairs. “Dad, remember at this age children have about a 30 second attention span. They would never stay in the chairs. The teachers would spend all their time trying to get them into the chairs.” Right! I knew that. We spend so much time trying to get people’s attention for worthy causes and events...just sit still and listen!

The Ice Bucket Challenge is flashy, dramatic and easy. However, there is a tremendous difference between dumping a bucket of ice water over one’s head and finding a cure for ALS. There is an ocean-sized chasm between this act and caring for or even visiting someone dying with ALS. I will never forget my visits with Betty Keaton and how her aide would point to words or letters on a iPad, whereupon Betty would blink her eyes — the only part of her body she could move — to spell out words or phrases in order to carry on a conversation. Tedious is the word which comes to mind as I remember her last few months and weeks. Yet I also remember that she was always smiling and always laughing at something. Behind the curtain of paralysis was a mind and personality ever active.

Unfortunately many people approach their faith and church life in a similar manner to the Ice Bucket Challenge: run me through the water (baptism) and let’s get on with life. What they soon discover is that the water part is easy; the hard part is getting down and dirty in the trenches of life and living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Doing church work has always been a struggle, even from the beginning of Christianity. Among the earliest of Paul’s letters — and therefore among the earliest of our written documents of Christianity (52-54 CE) — are those to the Thessalonians. Thessaloniki was a city in Greece which Paul visited early on his missionary journeys and where he established a thriving church. However, after his visit it seems that many of the Christians wondered whether or not they would go to heaven if they died before Christ returned. Also, it seems than many more decided that since Christ was coming — and the church was providing a free daily meal for them — that they would just stop working and enjoy life. These Christians are living off the largesse of the other members of the church who are working and providing the resources for these meals. Paul uses an interesting word here to describe them: we translate it as idling, but other translations include “disorderly” or “out of rank.” In other words, when one is not contributing in some form or fashion to the health and work of the church, one is in a disorderly status.

It is but a short interpretive jump to also conclude that these, while not working outside the church, were also not contributing to doing the work of the church. It has been my experience in life that someone who would not work (not who could not find a job) in the outside world, was not much help at church, either.

By and large, church work is not glamorous. It can be tedious and fraught with tension — after all, you are working with people. Persons pursuing vocational ministry sometimes erroneously believe that ministers sit around all day either praying, reading a few books, drinking coffee, eating lunch with people, and having a jolly good time. When they discover the hours of study required, visitation in nursing homes and hospitals at all hours of the day and night, they are shocked into an awareness of reality. Sadly, many good persons walk away, not wanting to put in those kind of hours.

Likewise, I have had more than one successful business person say to me: “You just don’t know now to organize your work, your staff or people...let me do it for you.” Three months later they are back and saying: “How do you accomplish anything in ministry, anyway? This is the most frustrating experience I have ever had. How do you motivate people when you don’t have a paycheck over them?” I just smile and give a little chuckle...it’s not what you thought, is it?

Several years ago I had a friend share with me a sermon he wrote: it was quite good and I enjoyed it. Knowing him I could see that his thought pattern was that sermon writing wasn’t that hard and by inference being a minister wasn’t that hard...Any educated person could do this. After he kept fishing for more compliments I finally said to him: “John, this is a good sermon. Now, do this 46 times in the next year...with each one showing some modicum of creativity and depth...all the while visiting hospitals, shut-ins, and prospects and then do it for 35 to 40 years. Let me know how that works out for you.” He has yet to answer me.

Later I happen to run into him after visiting a close relative of his who was in a nursing home and rarely spoke. I said, “I saw ‘Fred’ the other day...he replied, “I bet he didn’t say much.” The reality is that he did not say much...but he knew I came...he knew I was there and that I represented our church...and we prayed together. As my friend walked away I thought to myself, you just don’t get it, do you. Ministry is not about doing the easy or popular or even fun thing. It is about serving Christ and representing Christ to people in whatever fashion they need.

The reality is that church work is very difficult. Committees, ministry teams — keeping up buildings, providing weekly meals, visitation teams, etc...it is all quite cumbersome and arduous. I have watched more than one minister or lay-person burn out trying to carry a church on their back.

I found it quite intriguing that Paul, in this instance, issues a command by the authority of Christ Jesus. Obviously this “idling” or “out of rank” was a significant issue for the Thessalonican church. Paul exerts all the authority he can muster: “If you don’t work, you will not eat.” End of story. In other words, if you are not contributing in some way to the overall health of the church, then you will not be able to participate in the life of the church. For when they ate, this was not only a meal, but was the Agape love feast and was front and central to their worship and life as the ecclesia, the called-out ones. Paul’s command is not just about missing a meal...it is literally about ex-communication from the life of the church until one changes one’s behavior.

What a change from how churches operate today! We beg and plead with people to serve. Paul was not about begging and pleading...he was about stating the stark reality that the people of God were a fellowship based in Christ. When people refused to work, they were refusing to take the body of Christ seriously and therefore, their faith and relationship to Christ seriously. He was not afraid to say to these that if they were not willing to work and contribute to the life of the church, they were not welcome in the church.

I have watched churches over the years and have come to one conclusion: we need to help people turn “church work” into “the work of the church.” This is more than a word game...allow me to explain. Church work is seen as tedious and a drag...not what I want to do. Stuffing envelopes, cleaning bathrooms, cooking meals, etc. — who wants to do that? The work of the church — that is about ministry i.e., feeding the poor, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sharing the gospel, worship, teaching and touching people with the love of Jesus. It is often easier to get people motivated about doing the work of the church as opposed to church work.

What is necessary is for us to change our vision — and to see that church work is necessary and vital to carrying out the work of the church. We need to see that when we do “church work” we are fulfilling the mission of the church and the call of Christ Jesus.
  • When we work in the Nursery we are not baby sitting, but providing a service for young parents to come to worship and Bible study .
  • When we work in the kitchen and wash pots and pans we are not doing kitchen work, but enabling fellowship and koinonia to be shared among our community.
  • When we welcome and greet people we are not just be cordial, we are inviting them into a place where they can see their relationship with Jesus come alive.
    Consider the following projects which have been ongoing:
  • Through our garden we are feeding hungry people fresh vegetables in the name of Jesus Christ. Sounds fun, until you get in there and pick the vegetables, having to scour for them as they hide among the vines.
  • Through our Mission Possible Day we constructed bunk beds which have been used by campers so that they might grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. On that day we also carried out many, many mission projects which shared the love of God with others. The result is that simple acts, sharing flowers or a visit, spoke volumes to those who received them.
  • When our House and Grounds Team — or persons such as Jack Reece and Ron Young — beautify our grounds they are not just growing flowers or grass and trees, they are saying to the world “We love our Lord and His church.” When people see our facilities they either know that we take our faith and church seriously, or not.

When we are about the work of the church, we gain a meaning and purpose far beyond our immediate task. Here is where our motivation lies and from which we will draw our staying power. Through church work properly understood we will grow spiritually in our faith, relationally as we work together and numerically as God blesses us. The early church grew because people saw them working together in love and harmony and wanted to be a part of that effort.

The reality is that God needs and works through us — through our agency — to perform God’s work. As a novelist has noted: God takes a hand whenever he can find it, and just does what he likes with it. Sometimes he takes a bishop's hand and lays it on a child's head in benediction. And then he takes the hand of a doctor to relieve the pain, the hand of a mother to guide a child. And sometimes he takes the hand of a poor old creature like me to give comfort to a neighbor. But they're all hands touched by his spirit, and his spirit's everywhere lookin' for hands to use.1

In a recent newsletter from the Wharton School of Business they examined the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” They noted that it succeeded for the usual reasons, but also because of a unifying factor: no one wants to be left out of a good thing. Everyone wants to be involved in something successful and stimulating.2

People ask me from time to time: “How can I help my church to grow? I enjoy it so much and want others to enjoy it as well.” My answer is simple: be involved as a positive influence in what is transpiring in us and through us. Join hands with us in enabling church work to become the work of the church — and you will be amazed at what God will do. Are the tools we work with perfect? No. Are we always wonderful craftsmen who use them properly and efficiently? No. But — the truth is that when we use what God has put at our disposal in a positive and loving manner, it is amazing how our church prospers. Anne Lamott said it best:
It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said “do the best you can with these, they will have to do”. And mostly, against all odds, they do.3

Yes, they do...and in the grace of God our church work becomes the work of the church — and we are blessed beyond all imagination.

Thanks be to God.

Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d. Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 August 31, 2014


1 Alexander Irvine, My Lady of the Chimney Corner, 1913.
2 http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/ice-bucket-challenge-viral/ 3 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

6-29-14


“Admirers or Followers?  
The Choice is Ours”
Matthew 10: 34-39; Joshua 24: 14-15

Are you a Christian? Interesting question, is it not? In today’s world of mass media the word “Christian” has been just about totally stripped of any real meaning. In fact, there are thousands of persons who currently strive to follow Christ 24/7, but for whom the designation “Christian” is so tainted that they refuse to use it. If you ask them if they are a Christian they will likely reply that they are a “Christ-follower,” i.e., that they strive to follow the person and the way of Jesus Christ.

Is this what we have come to after some 2000 years? The cause and person of Jesus Christ has been so distorted and abused that some of his most ardent followers refuse to allow this adjective to be applied to them. Why? What is causing this?

Part of the problem is the misuse and abuse of the word “Christian.” We apply this to businesses, nations, and institutions — which is patently false. They may have individuals who are Christians, and they may have principles and values which are central to Christianity, but an institution cannot have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship is only possible for persons, for individuals who have responded with a commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.

Central to this issue is the reality that the church has promulgated a false faith, a pseudo-understanding of what it means to follow Christ. We have urged people to accept Christ as their Savior and be baptized so that they can go to heaven when they die. That is all well and good as far as it goes...but it does not go near far enough. We have given them salvation on their terms, without any inkling at all of the commitment and transformation needed to genuinely follow Christ with their lives. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard we have made people into admirers rather than followers of Christ:
The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, and songs he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.1

Followers of Christ are not afraid to “take up their cross and follow him,” for they have already surrendered their lives to Christ, totally and completely. For followers of Christ the questions in any given situation are simple: What does Christ need? What would Christ do? How would Christ respond? The follower of Christ has already “taken up their cross,” so risking their fame, their fortune, and their very life for Christ is no big deal. That decision was made when they committed their life, wholly and completely, to Jesus Christ.

However, for admirers of Jesus the situation is a bit different. Their “acceptance of Christ” was about them, not Christ. It was about “going to heaven when they die,” not giving their life to Christ. Their Christian life is about what God can do for them, about how Jesus loves them and wants them to be happy, fulfilled and have every last want be met. Admirers of Jesus stand at a distance from any cross, from any realm of sacrifice — for they are not willing to risk their neck for Jesus or anyone.

These words of Jesus in Matthew 10 cause admirers problems, do they not? They even cause us to step back and reflect. Too often we think Jesus saved us so we can have nice little families, nice little homes, and nice little lives. Then we read a passage such as this and we are stunned, shaken to our core. Jesus says that he came not to bring peace to our families, but a sword...and that he would totally disrupt the family unit. Ouch...

Jesus does not idly state these words about taking up crosses...words which are repeated more than once by Matthew, just in case we missed them the first time. Jews knew what taking up the cross was all about...Golgotha (the place of the Skull) existed long before Jesus was crucified there. They had watched as the Romans had crucified literally thousands of their country men and women. These words about losing and finding life are not idle words to them. These words about commitment, sacrifice and experiencing loss and even death for the sake of following Christ — they are sacred words that the early church held onto — for they knew what Jesus meant. For us, these are words which go against the grain of our church culture of “niceness” and everything we hold near and dear as we admire Christ.

VBS begins tonight, so I don’t want to rattle too many cages. But let’s just understand something: we are not trying to make “Jesus admirers” out of your children. We’re really not. We’re trying to make “Jesus followers” out of them. We want them to so love Jesus, to be so devoted to Jesus, that they grow up, leave home and go follow Jesus wherever that journey may take them. They may go to Archdale, Asheboro, Romania or even Zambia as they follow Jesus. We want them to be such devoted followers of Jesus that the entire world is open to them as their venue and calling to serve Christ. We want them to see no boundaries, to feel no restraints, and to hold back nothing in their desire to serve and follow Christ.

Most of all, we want them to see that for true followers of Jesus Christ, there are no cultural barriers that the gospel cannot transcend — and does not compel us to transcend. Jew, Greek, slave, free — all are one in Christ Jesus according to Paul. Democrat, Republican, wealthy, poor, straight, gay, NRA or ACLU — you pick the divide and Jesus compels us to follow him from one side to the other.

There are several persons whom I have admired through the years. Some of these preceded my lifetime and others I knew. One who preceded and died before I ever knew him personally was Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia. It was set up to be an interracial community before anyone knew what Civil Rights were all about. Jordan himself was a pacifist as well as an integrationist and thus was not a popular figure in Georgia, even though he came from a prominent family. In the early ’50s Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan (later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court) to ask him to represent legally the Koinonia Farm. They were having trouble getting LP gas delivered for heating during the winter even though it was against the law not to deliver gas. Clarence thought Robert could do much through a phone call. However, Robert responded to Clarence’s request:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything, too, Bob.” “It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church on the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be — the cross?”


“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.”

“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” 

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church now?’”2


Every day that we live we are presented with a choice: will we today be followers or admirers of Jesus?

“I would like to but $3.00 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation;
I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please.
4


“...and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”5

1 Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations
2Stanley Hauerwas, cited in “When we don’t ‘carry’ Jesus far enough,” June 21, 2004, Odyssey Web Site, odyssey.blogs.com 3 Overland Park Jewish community shooting, Wikipedia.
4 Wilbur Rees.
5 Matthew 10: 38-39
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Monday, June 16, 2014

6-15

OF SHEPHERDS AND FATHERS...”
Psalm 23; John 10: 1-10
A college religion teacher was leading a tour of Palestine as a summer school class. He gave lectures as they visited the important places. One day as their tour bus was going through the countryside he was lecturing on the Good Shepherd. He noted that there was a difference between shepherds in Palestine and those in the United States. Whereas American sheepherders go behind the sheep and drive them where they are supposed to go, Palestinian shepherds lead their sheep and they faithfully follow him everywhere. He painted this wonderful picture of the warm relationship between the Palestinian shepherd and his flock. Just then the bus had to stop for a flock of sheep that was crossing the road. The students started to laugh when one their classmates asked, “Dr. Jones, why is the shepherd behind the flock and driving them across the road?” The professor was shocked to see that this was true. He jumped off the bus and went up to the shepherd saying, “I have always been told that shepherds in Palestine lead their sheep and the sheep follow because they love their shepherd and trust him. Why are you driving these sheep?” The man responded, “You are absolutely right. Shepherds here do lead their sheep. I am driving these sheep because I am not a shepherd, I am the village butcher!”i
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most beloved in all of Holy Scripture. Even those who are biblically illiterate and/or estranged from God know this Psalm. There is a magnificence about this Psalm which transcends its words and context. From it we all gather nurture and peace as we envision God looking down upon us and caring for us. There is a wonderful convergence this morning of this text and this day — Father’s Day. Let us look at this Psalm and allow the truths which it tells to enlighten us not only about our Heavenly Father, but also about the roles and responsibilities which we, as earthly fathers, have given to us.
INTIMACY: The Lord is my Shepherd. We must pause at this beginning phrase and acknowledge Christ as our Shepherd. In the 10th chapter of John Jesus portrays himself as the Good Shepherd who loves and takes care of the sheep. He says, “My sheep know my voice.” If Jesus Christ is our Shepherd, then we will know his voice. An American was visiting a village in Africa and saw sheep grazing all over town. He asked, “How do the owners know which sheep is theirs?” Came the reply, “The sheep know.” At dusk he watched in awe as the shepherds called and each sheep ran to the voice of his shepherd, not another. I googled this very event this week and to my surprise saw several videos of shepherds doing this very thing. When another called they ignored the voice. When the shepherd called, they all came running.
So it is with we who are fathers and our children. We should know them intimately, from the inside out — and they us. You cannot call yourself a Father if you ignore your children. Children know if you matter to them — and when they know it, they respond. If you know & love your children then they will prosper in that love, live out of that love, and face life with a confidence that they gain nowhere else. Children — both boys and girls — need the love of their father in order to handle the challenges of the teenage years. Without the security of this love and relationship they live in limbo, wondering if they are worthy of being loved or if they have what it takes to make it in life. When a young person knows the full acceptance and love of their father then they are enabled to grow, develop and prosper as God intends.
!
PROVISION: “I shall not want.” As the Shepherd, the Lord provides for our needs, both physical and spiritual. The Psalmist illustrates what it is that he shall not want:
green pastures—food;
  • still waters—water from which one can easily drink;
  • restores my soul—rest and refurbishment of our very being.
    Can we believe that God really wants to provide for our needs—even physical ones? Yes we can, if we remember that God does so in conjunction with our willingness to be responsible, to practice good stewardship, and to work at whatever we are able to do. God has never promised to meet our wants—God has promised to meet our needs. Too often I have encountered those who somehow expected that God would drop their needs right in the middle of their lap. My experience has been that as we work and serve God blesses us far beyond what we deserve. When the Lord is our Shepherd, “we shall not want.”
    As it is with God, so it is with our fathers. We live in a world where it is difficult if not impossible to have a one income home. Whether for good or for bad, the model of a father working and mother at home has all but disappeared from our cultural perspective. However, a father can still work with his wife and take responsibility to see that his children’s needs are met — needs far beyond those of a roof over their heads, clothes to wear or food to eat. Children have needs of acceptance, encouragement, and leadership which are vital to their development. Husband and wife may both work to “bring home the bacon,” — but both are also needed to ensure that the needs of their children are met to the best of their ability.
    !
    GUIDANCE: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” As the Shepherd, the Lord leads us both in the right paths and through the dangerous valleys that await us. When we live life God’s way—then life works. This sounds extremely simple—and even Forest Gump-like in its philosophical approach. However, it has been proved true time and again. God really does lead us to where we need to be and walks with us through the trials that confront us. As Christians, as those who have pledged our lives to Christ, we are not immune to suffering and tragedy and even death. However, we go through these things so much better because of the power and presence of Christ in our lives.
    There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a father, a grandfather, an uncle or a friend providing a worthy and strong model for a young boy, a teen-ager, or even a young man. We all need role models to look up to and after which to model ourselves. One of the great crises in the modern, moderate Protestant church is the absence of men to serve as role models for the children. Children do not need just to be taught by women when in church. To do so is to tell them that church is for women...real men don’t have anything to do with it. Your children may be grown, but it is still vital that you be here and involved so that other children will know that this is important to their lives. Studies have shown that for boys, their entire attitude toward God, Christ, and the church is shaped more strongly by their father than their mother. All of us are needed to ensure that our children develop in their faith walk with Christ. All of us.
    !
    SECURITY: You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” God’s protection is provided for us in our hour of deepest need. The 5th verse requires some historical/cultural background in order for us to properly understand it. In Middle Eastern culture one was obligated to provide lodging and security to a stranger who asked for up to two nights and days. There being no motels or inns and this was the culturally developed pattern of providing safety for travelers. The Psalmist is affirming that God provides this safety and security for him even when enemies surround him. The blessings of God are his in abundance — the anointing of oil and the cup overflowing.

Our deepest and most basic affirmation of faith is that God never abandons us. We may not see the hand of God in the moment and we may not feel the presence of God but do not worry, God is there and God’s hand is there. Just as the shepherd knew his sheep personally and intimately — so God knows us. Every evening the Shepherd would call the sheep and they would come to him to enter the fold. He would stand at the door through which only one sheep could pass — and he would stop each sheep, check it for bites or scratches, anoint whatever wounds were there, and then let it pass into the fold. He would give each animal a cup of cold water to make sure that it would not grow thirsty during the night. Then, after all were secure in the fold, the shepherd would sleep in the doorway so that no wild animals would come after his sheep.
A deep sense of security is one of the great responsibilities of parents and especially of fathers. Our children need to know that whatever life may throw at them, we are there, standing with them, to take it on. In centuries past children were looked at as expendable, as workers on the farm or in the factory. With the coming of the 20th century and the child labor laws and increased education we see our children in an entirely different light: as gifts of God to be grown and developed as did Jesus “in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and man.”
The story is told of how a herd of young male elephants in the Pilanesburg National Park in South Africa — largest in the world — were going wild and destroying endangered white rhinoceros. They were virtually uncontrollable. The park rangers finally realized that these of young males had no older bull elephant around to control them and teach them how to act. Some older bull males were flown in and within a few weeks the younger elephants had calmed down and the rampaging ceased.ii
We have seen this in our own society, have we not. Most teenage boys or young men who get into trouble are either from a fatherless home or a home where the father is all but absent. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it well over 40 years ago:
“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Eastern Seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken homes, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations for the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.”iii
As men we must realize the role our God has created for us and fulfill it to the best of our ability. Our church needs us, our society needs us, and most of all — our young men and women, boys and girls, need us. The need us when they are young and they need us when they are older. Everyone needs a father — and a grandfather! “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want...”
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr. Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 June 15, 2014

i Paul Larsen, unpublished sermon on Psalm 23.
ii http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2013/12/16/251672253/why-we-need-grandpas-and-grandmas-part-1 iii http://thesestonewalls.com/gordon-macrae/in-the-absence-of-fathers-a-story-of-elephants-and-men/

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Monday, June 2, 2014

6-1



What Are You Wearing?
Colossians 3: 12-17
Have we looked around at the variety of clothing that we are wearing this morning? Some of us are in suits and ties, wearing our “Sunday best.” Others of us are in casual clothes as if ready for the golf course or the shopping mall. Some of us are “dressed to kill” whereas others are dressed for comfort. Why do we wear what we do? Why does one person wear a particular color or style of clothing and another something entirely different? I am usually pretty good about picking clothes that match, but occasionally, as I leave the house, Debby will say to me, “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? Are you really going to wear those together?” To which I want to say, “No...I just put them on to get a reaction out of you!

Why do we wear clothes? Most of us would say that we wear clothes in order to conceal parts of our body which we do not wish others to see. That’s not all bad – I am not in favor of universal nudity for anyone over three years of age. Clothes may conceal what we want to conceal, but they also reveal far more about us that we have ever dreamed. God may have made clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their sin, but we have taken clothing to such a state that it states to all who we are and how we see ourselves. A woman who wears tight fitting clothes is often saying, “Look at me – I need your affirmation of my self-worth which comes through my body.” A young man with bulging biceps and washboard abs wears a muscle shirt to show off the fruits of his labors and in so doing is saying, “Look at me – this is who I am!” Whether we are farmers in overalls or executives in three-piece Gucci suits our clothes say as much about us as any statement we wish to make. 

As human beings we divide ourselves into tribes or groups. Part of belonging to a tribe is wearing the uniform or symbols of the tribe. Go to an athletic contest at a college or university and see the supporters of each team dressed in the appropriate colors or wearing clothing emblazened with the logo of their team. We criticize gangs for wearing their colors, but in reality they are doing what humans have done for centuries: using clothing to express our identity. Clothing reveals our tribe, the societal group in which we feel the most comfortable. An offshoot of this is our concern with the logo or brand of clothing which we wear. If a shirt does not have a horse or a crocodile or some other “status symbol” then many will not wear it. Why do we believe a Polo shirt is worth more than a K-Mart special? Price alone does not establish value, but it does establish a “status symbol.” 

Clothing can also reveal our age and/or our generation. I have discussions with my sons about the generational differences in casual dress. My generation prefers boat shoes with no socks whereas theirs prefer tennis shoes or sandals. (The older generation prefers Hushpuppies but that’s another subject.) I once had a pair of bell-bottom, lime green, polyester, Sansabelt golf slacks. They disappeared from my closet several years ago and no one will own up to the crime. The only explanation I ever get is that they were “out-dated” and made me look older than I am.
Clothes not only express who we are but also psychologically mold us into who we wish to become. Gail Ramshaw put it this way:
“In Washington, D.C., are two clothing displays you ought not miss. One is in the American history wing of the Smithsonian, where you can lace yourself up into a nineteenth-century corset. You immediately understand why all those heroines spent all those novels fainting right and left. In a whalebone corset, you cannot bend at the waist; you must perch at the edge of your chair; and, most to the point, you cannot take a deep breath...
“Not far away is the Holocaust Museum where, if you are brave enough, you can see the piles of shoes that the S.S. guards stripped off the Jewish prisoners before, totally naked, all their human protections torn off, they were showered to death. Perhaps the bare feet helped the guards to justify the murders, as if their prisoners, only unclothed skin and bones, were no longer human beings...
“We have shoes on our feet and bows around our neck, and we like our clothes. In this culture, as in most, clothes protect us - give us sexual privacy, indicate our socioeconomic status, bond us with others who dress similarly - reflect our personality - However, though we choose not to admit it, even our jeans are something like corsets; for while announcing me, my clothing to some degree contains me, shapes me, forms me - I have been molded into something that people would rather see than me.”

The Bible is not silent about clothes. Adam and Eve began “naked and not ashamed...” but soon were wearing clothes of fig leaves and later from skins provided by God to cover what had become shame to them. The Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, says of this passage: “God himself had the shame of men covered, he had through this covering of them a new possibility given and thereby established a basic element of human culture. ii George Herbert said it this way: “Nothing wears clothes but man; nothing doth need but he to wear them.”iii 

All this Bible talk about clothes raises the question of what clothing means for us and for God.
  • ♦  Psalm 104:1-2 says that God is clothed in light. In Exodus 28:2ff. Aaron, the first of priests, is said to be dressed in “sacred vestments” to give him honor and holiness. It does appear that, at least in this text, “clothes make the man.”
  • ♦  Psalm 132 talks about the clothing of priests. God’s priests are said to be “clothed with righteousness” (v. 9).
  • ♦  In Isaiah 61:10 the prophet talks about God clothing him with “a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland.” Clothing is again here, as it was earlier in Genesis, an expression of grace. The clothing makes something out of me that I would not be without the special clothes. I put on this robe and I am a priest. Put on another robe, and I’m a judge.
To give someone clothing is to give something of yourself.
So Jonathan and David exchanged clothes, and “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David” (1 Sam 18:1).
  • ♦  Elijah gave his mantel to Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). It was his way of him giving his whole authority by giving him his clothes (2 Kings 2:12-14). With the clothes comes the power.
  • ♦  The biblical writers speak of the clothing of Jesus as having power. If the woman merely touched the hem of his garment (Lk 8:42-48, Mk 5:25-34, Mt 9:19-22), she would be healed. Later, in the book of Acts, if the sick touch the apostles’ garments they are healed (Acts 19:12).
  • ♦  When the prodigal son returns home he is given the best clothing as a sign of his sonship (Lk 15:21). A robe, a ring, shoes show forth to all that the son has all that the father has. Our clothes show forth our identity, our deepest personality, our commitments our tribe. iv

    What does all this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? In our text from Colossians Paul uses clothes as an image of the virtues which we are to have and to display in Christ Jesus. Because we belong to Christ we are different — from the inside out. Just as the clothes one wore in Paul’s day revealed the status and social group to which one belonged, so the virtues one displayed in one’s life revealed the inner person. 

    Did we hear the first part of the twelfth verse? “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved...” These attributes which we are to wear come as a result of what God has done in our lives. They/we are God’s chosen ones, i.e., those whom God has elected to be God’s people. We wear the clothes of the kingdom by God’s choosing, not ours. The result of God’s election, God’s choosing of us, is that we are deemed “holy and beloved.” Just pause with me a moment and think through the ramifications of this statement. These qualities are not something we have done — they are what God has said about us in Jesus Christ. In Christ we are holy and in Christ we are loved. 

    As a result of this new status we are to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” These attributes, these clothes which we are to now put on, come to us as a result of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We do not earn nor deserve them — they come as a gift, a gift of grace.
    Have you ever had an old sweater or shirt with which you just could not part? (I tend to agree with Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, who said: “...beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”) I know I have — and Debby will say to me, “That sweater/shirt is too old and looks drab. Wear one of your nicer ones.”
    “But I don’t wish to wear a nicer one...I want to wear this one.”
Why? Because it fits me in all the right places. So it is with these virtues of Christ. We are called upon to so live out these virtues that eventually they will fit us like a suit of old clothes. We wear them because we could think of wearing nothing else.
In the movie The Lion King the spirit of the dead king says to his son: “You have become less than you are.” One commentator noted that this is a parable about Christian salvation.
To be saved by Christ does not mean that we are radically changed into something we are not. Rather, it means that we become as we are, that we are clothed in new garments that reveal our true nature. Therefore in baptism in the church of the first centuries, the newly baptized was given a new white robe showing forth to all the new status of the baptized - we had returned to our true nature as children made in the image of God. We had become as God intended us to be.v

For Paul the relationship we have with Christ is one of total union. Elsewhere Paul will speak of “dying to self and rising to new life in Christ.” The idea is both simple and profound: as believers in Christ we are one with Christ – our identity is no longer that of ourselves, but of Christ. As we wear clothes to reveal who we are, so we are to put on Christ to reveal who and whose we are. In putting on Christ we gain a new identity but also new relationships. When we put on Christ we put off all other status symbols which are but reflections of our broken world. Our logo is now Christ and we all stand on equal footing before Almighty God. As much as clothes were and are used to separate us into class and economic strata, so how much greater does Christ break down, eradicate, and supercede those worldly distinctions. When we put on Christ we put on the one who unites us wholly with others.

Consider this perspective on our being clothed with Christ:
Special clothing signifies a change, a change from the way we act at work, to the way we act at a party. We are naked, frail creatures, says Genesis. We are not so much physically naked as spiritually naked. We are called upon to fill roles that are too big for us. We must act, decide, function in ways that frighten.
A doctor once confessed to me that one reason why he wore the white uniform, and the mask, and the rubber gloves, was not only for hygiene, but also for encouragement. “If you are going into surgery to cut on another human being’s body, you need to be a doctor, even when you don’t feel like it. When I put on all this stuff, I’m a doctor, no matter how I feel about it.”

What about us? Are there some days when we do not feel like a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ? On those days can we remember the clothes of our soul that we put on at baptism, even Jesus the Christ? Can we remember that through Christ we have a new identity, a new status – Christian? Can we recall that through Christ we have a new tribe – the Body of Christ, the church? Can we recognize our new standing before God: forgiven? What are you wearing this morning, anyway?
i Gail Ramshaw, "Rechely Clad," Weavings, January/February 1996, pp. 30-31
iiGerhard von Rad, The Theology of the Old Testament I, 1957, p. 163
iii George Herbert, The Temple, The Church, Providence, stanza 28. ivFrom Will Willimon, “Who are These Robed in White.”
vAllyne Smith Jr., "Image and Likeness," Weavings, January/February 1996, pp. 26-27