Monday, March 2, 2015


“God, Poverty....& Us.”
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Proverbs 22: 22-23
“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Matt. 26: 11

Poverty — this one challenge has proven to be the greatest we face, both in Christian and other “faith-based” communities as well as to our larger local, state and national communities as well.  What are we to do about poverty in our own local community, not to mention our country and in our world?  How can we, in a world of such technological achievement which has resulted in a high standard of living for so many, help those who are left so far behind to where they struggle to survive?  You have an insert in your worship bulletin which shares some statistics in case you are like me and until recently fairly ignorant about the depth of the situation.

Recently High Point came out at #2 on a national rating; unfortunately it was a rating as a “food-hardship” community, based upon the number of persons who responded that they had wanted for food in the previous month.  Last week Rev. Carl Vierling had an excellent article in the High Point Enterprise explaining this study and how we came to our current ranking.  He addresses many of the question we might have, so I encourage you to read it.  In case you missed it, also on the insert are some statistics prepared by Carl and our own Dr. Joe Blosser.

What are the Causes of poverty and hunger? 
Poverty is nothing new to humankind; unfortunately neither is malnutrition.  Israel was commanded to set aside grain at the harvest that the poor might be able to glean after the workers.  Further, the Jubilee Year was engrained into their law and tradition: every 49 years they were to remit all debts and return the land taken to the original families.  The purpose was to prevent a permanent underclass from developing.  As we saw in our text from Proverbs God is said to take the side of the poor and hungry; there are over 2,000 scripture verses which speak to the plight of the poor and our responsibility before God.  If we believe the Bible is the word of God, the challenge is pretty clear.

What is disconcerting to so many, including myself, is that we have worked for decades in areas ranging from public and foreign policy to local food banks and community meals, yet the challenge is unending.  Every significant church of which I am aware has ministries such as ours which strive to address this challenge, and yet poverty & hunger persist beyond all belief.  Why can we not eradicate these evils?  What are the root causes which entrench it into our world?

  • A lack of education/illiteracy which results in a lack of employable skills.  
  • A failure of personal responsibility combined with poor decision making.  Often alcohol & drug addiction go hand in hand with poverty.
  • Crime and the environment of poverty are integrally related in cause and effect.  It is quite difficult to ascertain which is first, like the chicken or the egg.  Poverty breeds crime and crime breeds poverty. 
  • Single family homes with children: these are far more likely to  be headed by females and to be living at or below the poverty level.  The number one predictor of whether a boy will grow up to go to prison is growing up in a single family home, headed by a single mother, and living in poverty.  
  • The impact of poverty upon one’s cultural environment or mindset cannot be dismissed.  Poor people tend to have more children, to live in environs of mental illness or depression, and to have an outlook of hopelessness toward their plight.  Poverty becomes an intergenerational legacy for family after family. 
  • Poor governmental decisions and governmental corruption.  Much of the monies we have given, both at home and overseas, have been coopted by corruption.
  • War — with the violence and instability that it creates.  We see this currently in Africa and in the Middle East where millions of formerly stable families are now reduced to living in refugee camps.

The Conditions of Poverty
Poverty brings with it a set of conditions which are incredibly similar from one geographical setting to another.  These include:
  • Less access to medical care and therefore weakened physical condition.  Poor children miss more days of school due to illness or come unable to learn due to an illness.
  • Less access to healthy food choices and education about what to eat.  Children in poverty are more likely to be obese as they eat whatever is cheap.
  • A lowered self-esteem so that one “gives up” before one starts.  Self-esteem is vital to a “can-do” attitude that produces learning and growth.
  • Residing in neighborhoods of violence and imminent danger.  The poor are much more likely to experience crime of all sorts, including violent crime.  They are much less likely to report this crime.
  • Malnutrition, childhood diseases and early death surround the poor in many countries.  

There is a prevailing narrative which I often hear — and I once thought myself — that if the poor would just work harder and apply themselves, then they would lift themselves out of poverty, be proud of their success and go onto greater success.  The challenge to that narrative is that psychologically poverty is incredibly disruptive to a healthy and whole sense of self.  Regardless of the conditions which brought on the poverty, the result is that one feels helpless to do anything about one’s conditions.  The mindset of poverty can reduce one’s ability to strive and cope.

As a seminary student I was about as broke as one could be. I had put everything into one trunk and two suitcases, sold my car, and traveled by bus from Little Rock, Arkansas to Louisville, Kentucky.  (When you spend the night in the Nashville bus station you soon learn what poverty is like.)  However, I never thought of myself as poor, for I had been taught to never do that.  I was just in a temporary situation where my bank account was not as deep as I wanted it to be.  In conversations with others in similar situations I realized how fortunate and blessed I was to have been given the gift of vision.  Poverty can be as psychologically imprisoning as any cell we have seen.  We need to help set people free from this prison.

Possible Cures for Poverty
There is no “one-size fits all” cure for poverty and anyone who says that has never really looked at the issue.  Further, the cure for poverty does not come in throwing money at the situation.  Too often we have done that — it has been the main modus operandi of many well meaning ministries and programs.  However, though the last 50 years have seen a decline in poverty for Seniors (primarily due to mandatory participation in the Social Security program,) the reality is that we are not reducing poverty in numbers anywhere near relative to the amount of monies spent.   There are some actions and changes that I believe if we, the church, would incorporate into our response to poverty and hunger that would make tremendous changes in the lives of those who need a helping hand:

  • Emphasis on education, with tutoring and male mentors for young men.  Until a diploma, a vocation and a career is as valued as an athletic trophy we will see eyes opened for many young men way too late. 
  • Higher rates of education not only increase one’s opportunities for employment and therefore one’s potential income, they also decrease the number of children born in single family homes and therefore break the cycle of poverty that is so endemic in many communities.  
  • Education also applies to issues such as how one handles one’s money, i.e., concepts of budgeting and a disciplined approach to how one spends one’s money.  What would happen if we were to join other churches in adopting one or two families a year and working with them to help them move from dependency and poverty to independence and economic stability?  Our Mission and Children’s Ministry are currently taking the lead in this area.
  • Proclaim and live a holistic gospel which centers on a relationship with Jesus Christ, central to which is an understanding of the values and ideals which following Christ entails.  Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ which results in a change in how we live and relate to God and one another.  Most of us are the beneficiaries of these values, many of which have been incorporated into our culture and which we take for granted.
  • A change in the attitude and focus of the “helpers” is also needed if we are to see progress.  We do not need to come to any situation with the attitude of “do-gooders” or that we are better than anyone we may help.  Economic situation often has less to do with innate ability and more to do with the cultural conditions and environment into which one is born.  When I see people “pat themselves on the back” because they provide gifts at Christmas or turkeys at Thanksgiving, I want to just scream.  This attitude is a central part of the problem: these share because this makes them feel good, not for the other.  If we were really concerned about hunger in High Point then we would be involved in a year round process and not just show up at these appointed times.  Are not poor people hungry other than at Thanksgiving? 
  • Our own Mission Team and leadership are looking at a project entitled the “Greater High Point Food Alliance.”  Dr. Blosser is on the development team whose focus is a better coordination of food resources in High Point.  This is well needed and will, I believe, will be well received by our faith community and others.  We need to join together and increase the effectiveness of our response.

If we are to make a difference in the poverty and hunger situation in our society and world then we must open our eyes and realize the stratification of wealth, i.e., the extent to which relationship and societal status engender wealth and enable wealth to pass from one generation to another.  There is no doubt that many in our own community have had the education, intelligence and drive to rise above what we would consider “modest beginnings” and live in relative economic ease.  I could not be prouder of these and I salute their achievement.  We also must recognize that in many situations, being in the right place at the right time, with the right name and the proper connections, was all determinative in their success.  In private discussions with successful people I have asked them how they made it and the conversation has eventually turned to that one person or persons who gave them a truly golden opportunity.  They are forever grateful — and I am glad for them.

What about those who do not have those opportunities presented to them?  What about those who do not have these connections or those helping hands which provide such significant assistance?  What about those whose medical conditions or innate intellectual abilities provide insurmountable obstacles to rising out of poverty?  What about those who work in careers which are vital and important to our society, but are not avenues to wealth?  I am thinking here of teachers, counselors in our schools and EMT personnel, police and fire department employees?  Often these work long hours and exist from paycheck to paycheck.  Are there ways in which we can work together so as to ensure that such people are rewarded and enabled to live relatively stress free in an economic sense?  

In a recent email conversation with Rev. Vierling he shared that the helping agencies are seeing many, many people need assistance who are nothing more than victims of a changing economic structure.  To quote: “Many that are now seeking assistance have never sought help in the past.   They find themselves in a position they never imagined.  All their life they played by the rules, being loyal to their employer working hard, doing all that is asked, and then one day they are no longer employed through no fault of their own.” 

We need a faith understanding which sees issues of social justice as essential to what it means for us to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  When the prophets called upon people to promote justice in their communities, they were calling upon them to correct the injustices of society.  Remember the Jubilee Year which I mentioned earlier as a part of the Jewish Torah?  Before long the wealthy had manipulated the process and the last I read there was no indication that it had ever been practiced to any significant extent, if at all.  If we are not careful we will also manipulate the gospel so that it fits our culture, rather than changing the culture to fit the gospel.

For instance:  from time to time people will state that the only purpose of the church is to “win people to Jesus Christ.”  Quite honestly, I find that a truncated gospel.  Yes, I want you to be converted to Jesus.  But I want you to be so converted that you see the other as one to loved, identified with, and cared for — regardless of cultural or ethnic boundaries.  The gospel I know is a gospel that changes us completely, from the inside out, so that we see others with the eyes of Jesus — and not with our cultural spectacles.

We must see ourselves as interconnected and our plight as inseparably bound with every person upon the face of this earth, wealthy and poor alike.  Do you remember the story Jesus told of Dives and Lazarus?  In this Dives is presented as a good man — but he winds up in hell.  Lazarus — whom all the listeners would have assumed was a “sinner,” wound up in heaven.  Dives’ sin was not that he hated Lazarus, but that he never saw Lazarus; when he did he saw him as one to do his bidding, not as a brother before God.  When we really get converted, when Jesus Christ really comes in and becomes the Lord of our lives, we will see the other as essential to our relationship with God and therefore as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then, and only then, will we begin to make a difference in the cycles of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and violence which plague our city and our world.


Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
March 1, 2015

Poverty/Hunger Statistics 
  • Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
  • 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world); 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
  • Every day approximately 21,000 children in the world die, primarily from poverty or malnutrition issues.

Poverty in High Point 
From Dr. Joe Blosser and Rev. Carl Vierling

  • The poverty rate in High Point is 19.2% versus a state wide number of 15.5%2.
  • Five of the 100 poorest neighborhoods in North Carolina are in High Point3.
  • The poverty rate in these neighborhoods range from 42.2%-59.5%3.
  • 77.5% of the children living in those neighborhoods live in poverty3.
  • 35.7% of males under the age of 5 live below poverty4.
  • 37.9% of females age 15 live below the poverty level4.
  • 39.6% of females 18-24 live below the poverty level4.
  • Poor families by family type4:
  • Married-couple family (27.9%) 
  • Male, no wife present (10.4%) 
  • Female, no husband present (61.7%) 
  • Homelessness in Greensboro/High Point
  • 897 total persons experience homelessness on any given day5. 
  • 101 persons experience chronic homelessness5.
  • 98 vets are homeless any given day5.
  • 327 persons are experiencing a disabling mental health condition or addiction5.
  • 2222 Guilford County students experienced homelessness according to the January 29, 2014 Point In Time Homeless Student Count.5
  • 92 school students are staying in a shelter5.
  •  97 students are living in a hotel/motel or some other place not meant for human habitation5.
  • 1927 students are staying with a friend or family member because their family cannot afford housing5. 
  •  Community Resource Network (CRN)-Emergency Assistance from July 2013 through June 2014.
  • Total rent assistance for 462 households- $138,004.74.  18% increase over last year.
  • Total utility assistance for 4701 households-$947,917.45.  This is a decrease of 25% since last year. 
  • Crisis Intervention Program (CIP) $947,917.45
  • Total households receiving food 12,692.  8.3% increase over last year.
  • Total households served 17,393.  5% decrease since last year.
  • Hunger
  • North Carolina ranks 4th worst in the nation for food insecurity1. 
  • Greensboro/High Point MSA ranks 4th in the nation for food insecurity with Winston-Salem ranked as 3rd worst in the nation1.
  • 19.3% of the population of Guilford County is food insecure —  meaning they are not sure where their next meal will come from1.
  • Of those that are food insecure 31% do not qualify for government assistance1.
  • Greensboro/High Point ranks 2nd (tied with New Orleans) for food hardship in the nation6.  (Food hardship means that at some point in the last 12 months that you did not have enough money to buy food for you and your family.)
  • 25% of those that are at risk for hunger in North Carolina are children1.
  • 31% of the food pantries in North Carolina have reduced the amount of food that they give away and more than 28% of the pantries in North Carolina have had to turn people away because they did not have enough food.
  • There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County with 7 being in High Point.7

 Notes for the paper from Dr. Blosser and Rev. Vierling:
12nd Harvest Food Bank- accessed 5/1/13.
2United States Census Bureau- 4/2/12.
3The N.C. Budget and Tax Center as published in the High Point Enterprise.
4 accessed 4/2/12.  
5Partners Ending Homelessness- accessed 7/21/14
6Food Research and Action Center-  Accessed 05/23/14
7Food Deserts in Guilford County, Guilford County Department of Public Health

Monday, February 9, 2015


The Emerywood Pulpit
“Waiting on God”
Isaiah 40: 21-31
He was a bitter old man — or at least that what he seemed like to me.  He really wasn’t that old — mid-sixties or so — but life had made him feel and look much older.  In reality he was a wonderful preacher, minister and authentic human being.  However, when you have buried your son and every day walk out the front door and see his grave, you can soon grow bitter.  But I get ahead of myself; allow me to digress and tell you the story.

My friend was a Disciples of Christ minister and my mentor in this little backwater area of Northern Kentucky.  Yes, he drank a little too much whiskey and he chewed tobacco on occasion — particularly when we played golf together.  There was nothing fake or sham about Paul… he was as real a human being as any person I have ever known.  He would join “the guys” at the volunteer fire department on Monday evenings.  They loved him and even those who would never grace the door of his church came to him with their problems.

Our lives intersected in 1978 or so when a member of my church took us to play golf.  His grief was very poignant, very real at this point.  The father of four and a small town pastor, he was caught in the throes of deep, deep grief.  Earlier that year his youngest boy had come home from school on break when a friend stopped him in the parking lot of a car wash.  This friend was showing him his new pistol when it slipped from his hand, hit the ground, discharged and hit his son in the femoral artery.  He bled to death 2 blocks from the hospital — nothing could be done to stop the bleeding.  

This son was the apple of his eye.  Bright, articulate and the valedictorian of his high school class, he was studying to be a minister and his father could not have been prouder.  Then came that dreadful day, the first of many as he walked every day of his life out the front door of his home, looked down the street, and there he saw the cemetery and the very grave in which his son lay.
Shortly thereafter I came into his life.  Why, I don’t really know, except for the fact that our common friends thought I might cheer him up and he might mentor me.  They were right on the second thought, if not the first.  Nothing could cheer him up. On the golf course I would turn around, look at him and he would be standing there, in the beauty of a Kentucky fall afternoon with leaves changing and the sun beaming down — with tears running down his cheeks.  “I can’t believe he’s gone” or something like that would mumble from his mouth.  After a while he never had to say anything…I just knew.  He had about him an aura of deep, residual sadness that he never lost as long as I knew him.  I am sure he died with it.

I’ll never forget one morning when I stopped by his home for a cup of coffee after going to the hospital.  It wasn’t yet ten o’clock and he was already awash in tears.  He looked at me with eyes glistening like lightning in their pain and demanded, “Where is this God we worship?  Why hasn’t this God shown up?  Where was he when my son died?”  Of course I had no answer, so I tried to quietly slip away.  I should never have tried that move…it did not work.  “Sit down!” he bellowed.  “Where do you think you are going?  Job had his friends to listen…you’ve got to listen to me!”  So I did and for the next 2 hours or so he ranted and raved, asking questions I could not then nor ever would be able to answer.  I learned more theology and psychology in those hours than from any of the vast theology tomes or Biblical books I read.  Every answer I tried to give sounded meek and tinny compared to the depth of his questions and objections.  Finally I just sat in silence and listened, realizing that no answer was better than the answers I was trying to give.

Where was God that day when his son was accidentally shot and killed?  Was he right to expect God to protect his son?  Where were the guarantees that when we have children nothing bad will ever happen to them?  Who said that as long as we believe in Jesus only good will come our way?

I have found that most people live between two extreme poles when it comes to God’s action.  Some of us assume that God will look after us and nothing bad will ever happen to us.  We live with a sense of entitlement…God owes us this in return for our faithfulness and service.  When God does not show up as we expect, we can become angry and ruthless in our response, feeling bitter and abandoned, wondering if God really cares at all.
Another response to God’s presumed inactivity is to give up on faith and belief all together.  The common doubts that are part of life become overwhelming and we just say, “I knew God didn’t exist.”  Several years ago a minister in our city died at an earlier than expected age due to cancer.  I went to see him and realized that he had become quite bitter, believing that God had deserted him in a time when he was faithfully trying to serve God.  Quite honestly it’s not all that uncommon to see this response, especially from people who have been faithful servants for all or most of their lives.  More than one person has moved from belief to bitterness in wrestling with the absence of God’s love.

Israel is under siege and preparing for the final onslaught of the Babylonians.  God is not showing up to rescue them and they are hopeless.  Isaiah has told Hezekiah as much in chapter 39.  Then in chapter 40 we see the promise of a Messiah to come and restore Israel.  However, this promise is bordered again by frank discussion that what they are experiencing is not God’s presence and salvation, but God’s abandonment.  Israel believes that God has forgotten her and wonders when and where God will show up and fulfill these promises.  She is but as grasshoppers before God; as grass which grows and dies in the heat of the day.

How does God act in human history, in the stuff of our lives?
Sometimes God acts to intervene in a direct and powerful way.  All of us have heard the stories of miraculous healings and such through which God works.  There have been account after account of how God directly answered prayer in one form or another.  Whether the focus was medical, economic or some other such need, the reality is that there are times when it seems as if God has directly intervened.  I will not put these down…I may have even witnessed one or two of these myself through the decades.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen God intervene in a test for a student who was ill prepared, but that’s another story.  What is wrong is to think that direct intervention, i.e., miracle, is the only way in which God works and that if the miracle we seek is not forthcoming then God has abandoned or forgotten about us.  We cannot limit God to one form of working, no matter how much we may desire that to happen.  

Other times God works by interacting with the people of God to bring about God’s will in a particular situation.  Go back and read the Biblical narratives of Israel and we will see that God was always at work through specific people: Abraham, Moses, David — and yes, even the pagan Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor.  Return to the pages of the New Testament and there read the accounts of Paul, Silas and others as they spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  God worked in and through them in ways that even they could not believe. 

Or go look at more recent human history and see people such as Harriett Beecher Stowe, Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Billy Graham, William Carey, and the like.  Go read theologians such as A. J. Heschel, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and even our own Baptists in the South native sons Carlyle Marney, Wayne Oates and Henlee Barnette.  God used these men and women to stir and move God’s people in ways that otherwise they would have never, ever done.  Go, look now and see such women as Lauren Winner, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anne Lamotte and so many others through whom the Spirit of God speaks.  God works by interaction with God’s people who are open and willing to listen and heed.  
Hear me carefully: we are all saved by the grace of God when we are compelled by the Spirit to come to Christ.  However, any human being who has ever come to Christ has also had a human handprint on them…God used someone, somewhere, and somehow to bring that person to faith in Christ.  We do not come to Christ by ourselves…we come as God interacts with God’s people.
God also works in our lives internally, i.e., God acts inwardly in the lives of God’s people.  No, God does not heal every believer who has a life-threatening disease.  Yet, God does work in the life of every believer to take tragedy and make it beautiful, to take what is seen as chaotic and evil and make it into cosmos and life itself.  God does not always heal, but God never abandons.

Too often I have stood beside the bed of a child or young adult whose life has vanished all too quickly before our eyes.  Too often I have walked away from a graveyard or columbarium, having placed into the ground the remains of one whose life was all too short upon this earth.  However, I must honestly say that in my soul searching and wrestling in these moments and days I have found the genuine presence of Christ more real than in any or all of the “good days” that life has brought to me.  

His name was Chuck — and he was all of nine years of age.  He was a big, strapping young boy — full of life and joy.  One day he wasn’t feeling good, went to the doctor and they discovered he had a form of cancer that was virtually untreatable.  It usually went to the brain and once there it was ineradicable.  He underwent chemo and for a year or so did well.  We were able to take him to an Alabama football game and meet Coach Ray Perkins. Then, after about a year I received a call: come quickly for we have a bad diagnosis.  

Arriving in the home I could see that there were no dry eyes to be found.  Chuck was sitting in his recliner and he looked up at me and said:  “Dr. Bob, do something.  I don’t want to die…I am too young to die.”

I had been praying all the way over there, so I reached down inside myself and asked God to give me some words.  “Chuck, you know God loves you.  We really don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know this.  You are in God’s hands…you can live every day to the fullest for God has taken hold of you.  Remember, each person only has today…tomorrow is never promised to anyone.  Just enjoy each day as it comes and we will worry about how many of them later on.”

We prayed and chatted — he seemed to pick up a little.  Chuck died about 9 months after that, at the age of 11.  Just before the funeral his mother said to me, “You remember what you said to Chuck that day?”  Yes, I replied.  “Well, after that he never complained about dying.  He became an inspiration to us all as he knew that no matter what, he would be in God’s hands.”

What was amazing was that this family was not particularly religious or a family of faith.  Yet, in and through this struggle a faith came alive in them that could only have been placed there by God.  Rather than let this experience embitter them, they allowed the Spirit to internally work in them God’s miracle of grace.
When we read these last verses we often think that Isaiah has it backwards: soaring, then running and then walking.  I really don’t think so.  There are times in our spiritual lives when we soar — and those are great.  There are times when we run and in our activity touch so many people — and these are wonderful.  However, there are times when all we can do is walk from one day to the next.  Even in these God is present, even in these times God is at work.

Wait on the Lord…look around…God is at work when and where we least expect.  As Alex Haley’s grandmothers and aunts said to him:  “God may not show up when you want him to…but don’t worry, God will be on time.”

Sunday, November 2, 2014


“Together We Can:  Grow”
Matthew 6: 5-14; Ephesians 1: 11-23

Today I am going to ask you to do something rather difficult and dangerous: listen out of both ears.  Seriously, today’s service is a bit bifurcated — we have two distinct themes: All Saints Sunday and our Annual Stewardship Emphasis: Together We Can.  Are these themes congruent or competitive?  It all depends on how we listen…
All Saints — the Sunday when we remember those who have died and preceded us into the Kingdom of God.  
Stewardship — the season when we speak of how giving of our time, talents, and resources can lead our church to not only sustain her ministries, but to new and even better ministries, i.e., to growth.  Can we imagine doing even more to touch others with the love of Jesus Christ?
Let’s see how these interact.
All Saints Sunday 
Have you ever wanted to be a Saint?  No…not on your radar?  Never has been on mine either.  What does the New Testament mean when it says that we are “saints?”  What is All Saints Sunday about, anyway?
For us, All Saints Sunday is that day when we remember with a sense of gratitude and appreciation those who have participated in the life of the church here on earth and have preceded us into the Kingdom.  We must be careful to neither deify nor sanctify them unduly.  The New Testament deemed persons to be saints by the grace of Jesus Christ, not by their behavior or temperament.  These persons all possessed positive and negative traits such as do we — they were a mixture of “mud and manure” as one has said.  If you look at the history of All Saints Sunday you will discover that it was a day set aside to remember the martyrs of the church, those who gave of their lives that the gospel might go forward.  Being a “saint” is not about being holy or pure, but about being faithful to Christ, especially in difficult circumstances.  Quite honestly, not all were faithful all of the time.  Some had good moments, but otherwise non distinguishable lives.
So it is with our own Emerywood “pantheon of saints:
  • Some were faithful to their Lord and their church — others varied in their participation.
  • Some were generous with their resources — others were downright stingy.
  • Some gave of their time and energy to build this community of faith — while others rarely missed an occasion to tear down those who were building.
  • Some left a legacy of giving more than they took — while others took more than they gave.

What we can say about those who have gone before us is that they were here — they were of this family of God, for better or for worse, in their time and life.  With all of their warts and blemishes, they were part of us, they were our spiritual “kin.”  With all of their goodness and graciousness, they were our church family.  They were “of us” and so, like us, found Christ in this community and served Christ through this community.  
We are inheritors of their legacy; in some ways they are still around in the corridors and classrooms of our past.  We do not work from a clean slate in church — we have a DNA that not only informs but also determines a lot of who we are and what we do as a church family.  Those who began this church had certain theological beliefs and philosophical practices about church which are still present to this day.  We walk to the beat of the drum of our past as much as our present.  A sign on London’s Winchester cathedral puts it well: “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you’re dead.”
Do we realize that our worship and faith is mostly a matter of history?  We talk about what has been in order that the Spirit of Christ might work in us in the present — all of which determines the future.  To a great extent the future is being determined now…not 10-20 years from now. How we live and practice our faith was determined by others, centuries ago.   How we live and practice our faith will determine how those of the future EBC will live and practice their faith. 
All teaching is a matter of history.  Whether it is science, theology, or computer programming — all teachers pass on what has been — for that is what determines what is.  It is the past which determines the future, not the future.  G.K. Chesterton, Catholic thinker, theologian and author, once noted how people who so often say that they are not traditionalists or have broken free from tradition are in reality slaves themselves:  “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
We are a community of faith which values tradition and seeks to let it inform us in our faith and practice.  We are thankful for the community of saints who has preceded us into the Kingdom of God.  All Saints allows us to do just that.
Stewardship: Together We Can — Grow
Like each of these generations before us we stand at a crossroads in the life of our church.  We have significant needs before us and we must rise to meet them if we are to continue and expand our significant ministries.  For a congregation of our size we touch people from all walks of life in more ways than any other I know.  Over the years we have challenged our church to make Missions and Worship her priorities: and so you have.  In Worship our hearts are warmed and souls strengthened by the presence of the Spirit and through Missions we share that love we have received.
The legacy of Emerywood (here’s that history stuff again) is that in days of difficulty and challenge her people stepped up to the plate and delivered.  Contrary to a prevailing myth our church was not populated by landed gentry of unlimited wealth.  Rather, most were business and professional people who plied their trade for a living and had to balance their own books.  Yes, many were successful — but none so much that they could carry the church.  
These were lawyers, bankers, real estate people, stock brokers, accountants, school teachers, dentists and doctors, professors, car dealers, sales people, contractors and yes, furniture and textile people. (This list is not exclusive.  I am sure to have left some people out.)  We were not the church of privilege and wealth, but of those who were educated and worked for our living.  As I have buried so many of these over the years I have been privileged to hear their stories.  You would be amazed at how many of our families that we think had “inherited wealth” were 1 or 2 generations at most removed from an outhouse.  These worked hard, “earned their keep” and in so doing faithfully pledged and supported Emerywood so that her work and ministry might go forward.  Building a church, physically and spiritually, where all might be welcome to hear the good news of Jesus Christ was of primary importance to them.  This was not just a place where they occasionally came, but a community which was a significant part of their lives.  
So, it is today that we find ourselves faced with a momentous challenge and opportunity.  Will we step forward and be faithful to God’s calling or will we wilt and step backwards, more concerned with self than with our community?  Will we use our resources to move the ministries of Emerywood forward — or will we hoard for ourselves the blessings God has bestowed upon us?
There are two elements which are key if we are to be successful in moving forward and growing:
 Participatory: we need for every family and member to pledge and support the financial needs of EBC.  We have far too many who treat giving as an option rather than an obligation of our faith commitment.  Whether you are young or old, of limited means or of unlimited wealth, we need for you to be a part.  
Sacrificial:  We need for all of us to take seriously how much we give.  Some use the “tithe” from the Old Testament as a guide.  The beauty of the tithe is that it is proportional: the less you make the less you give…the more you make the more you give.  Now, I am not a legalist, but I do think we ought to look more seriously at how tithing can work to develop our faith and walk with God.  I have been thrilled at how God has blessed through the years when God’s people have been faithful and used the tithe as a guide.  To be honest, some of us who are older do not have the needs of those who are younger and we can give a tithe and more.  For others just meeting a tithe is a challenge.  I would urge you to begin now at a percentage of 4-5% and then increase by 1% per year until you get to 10% or more. Let me share with you that if you will try, you will be amazed at how God will work in your life to allow you to meet your needs (but not all your wants.)
The reality is that it all of us are needed as faithful stewards for God’s work to go forward.  Over the last few years we have buried a number of persons who were faithful contributors to God’s Kingdom through EBC.  We are in need of our median and younger adults to step forward and pick up the slack that we might continue to grow and minister as we have.  For us to be successful “all” must be involved.  
In The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, the protagonist is a seedy, alcoholic Catholic priest who after months as a fugitive is finally caught by the revolutionary Mexican government and condemned to be shot. On the evening before his execution, he sits in his cell with a flask of brandy to keep his courage up and thinks back over what seems to him the dingy failure of his life. Greene writes:
“Tears poured down his face… he was not at the moment afraid of damnation…He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint…He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.”
All Saints — Stewardship…past and present…maybe they do go together after all.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262

November 2, 2014

Sunday, September 28, 2014



I Corinthians 13
by Robert U. Ferguson, Jr.

Recently I learned a new word from a colleague from the past — ecotone. This is the place where two ecospheres meet and come together, merging as one from that point forward. Where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico is a massive ecotone. Let me quote my friend to get this definition exact: “An ecotone is always a place that is fragile, unstable, shifting, fluid, risky, filled with danger and yet, at the same time, it is a place that is incredibly fertile, where new life is spawned and new hopes are born.”1

Today we find ourselves, according to my friend, in the 3rd great “historical ecotone.” The first was in A.D. 410 with the fall of Rome. The second was in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. When the third began is anyone’s guess, but it is symbolized by the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This event, he suggests, portends the “transition from modernity to postmodernity” — a transition which both preceded this event and continues to this day.

This “ecotone” is a wonderful image to describe the situation in which Christianity and the church find themselves today. We are in as unstable and fluid a situation as I have known the church since its earliest days. As Christ-followers, we are resident aliens,2 living in a world that is not our own. The cultural marriage of church and state, always tenuous, has, like Humpty Dumpty, fallen off the wall and will never be put back together again. As Christians we are no longer the dominant cultural force...our beliefs and values are no longer commonplace.

The biggest challenge for us lies in the emphases of contemporary, postmodern culture: individualism, personal narrative, relative truth — and therefore relative ethics. (What I believe is right for me is right, as long as it does not harm you directly.) These all fly in the face of an institution built on community, meta- narrative, i.e., the big, all encompassing story, and objective truth/ethics. For two centuries and more, right and wrong were easily distinguished in our Christian culture: just go read the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount or the epistles of Paul. Whatever they said, that’s what you did. End of discussion.

This is all gone...whether that is good or not, history will tell. The reality is that being inseparably connected to governmental and society powers had its perks, but the downside was much greater. It is very difficult to be prophetic to a government or society when you are perceived as one of the powers of that establishment.
The result is that churches must now, more than ever, establish their own raison d’etre. We must demonstrate to the world that we are not only necessary, but a vital component of a vibrant and living culture. We must show our communities that without churches the foundation upon which moral and spiritual life depend will be eroded and never replaced.

At Emerywood we are facing a crossroads in our existence. Do we batten down the hatches, keep doing the same old, same old, and hope and pray for different results? Do we recruit young people so we can teach them how we did it so they can do it the same way? Do we jettison all the structures and programs of the past just to replace them with the latest fad in church life? Obviously my answer to all of these is no.

I see a better way, one that is more encompassing but is also quite challenging, for it is one is which nothing is secure, nothing is nailed down except our commitment to God through Jesus Christ. Let me share it with you.

It is my belief that we find ourselves in a situation analogous to the early church. They were a small cadre of believers in a pagan, polytheistic world. They had to learn to work from beneath rather than from above. They could not depend upon the social structures to assist them in any shape, form or fashion. There really was no road map for them — it simply did not exist. They awoke every morning, wondering if Jesus was coming back that day or if the Roman Empire would squash them like so many insects. Their life was tenuous, uneasy, and uncertain. All they knew was that through Christ they knew the love of God; therefore, they were called to live out this love in a world that was completely at odds with their beliefs.

If Emerywood is to succeed in the coming years, it will be because we follow their secret: we learn to love others and in so doing, out-love the world. The key to the early church was not just the truth/gospel they proclaimed, but the love which they shared — with one another but also with the larger world in which they lived. This church had neither army, nor arms ,and no power — but it overcame one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, solely through its love. The early church loved Christ and each other — and it looked for ways in which it could share that love with a world.

What people want to know, more than anything else, is that they are loved. Victor Hugo said it best: “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.” In my experience, when people know that they are loved, they will respond to that love. Every time. The gospel of Jesus Christ spread because it was and is a gospel of love.

Now, to be sure, the early church often got it wrong — they were sinners saved by grace. A quick perusal of I Corinthians will convince us that Corinth struggled with significant theological, ethical and spiritual issues. Partisan bickering over who was the best preacher, which clique was the most spiritual and who possessed the greatest talents and gifts — these were destroying the Corinthian church. Immorality, a given in their pagan world where temple prostitutes were common, had spread throughout the church as well. Their observance of the Lord’s Supper and the Agape Love feast had evidently descended into an event just this side of a drunken orgy.

Paul’s initial answer to this is an emphasis on ethics and morality; but he then moves to stress the necessity of Christ-like love. Paul knew that no matter now many rules and principles he laid down, someone would always find a way around them or ignore them. Paul also knew that if love was the motivating principle of the Christian life (and it was and is), then the ultimate answer to challenges both inside and outside the church is to understand and practice agape love. Paul believed that if he could get the thread of love woven into the fabric of their church as the essential, sine qua non of their existence, then all else would fall into line. If you loved the other then you would not be willing to divide into competing factions and/or to undercut or ridicule or cut down the other in an effort to lift yourself. In fact, Paul knew that if you loved Christ and the other as Christ taught, then you would place the other ahead of your own desires.

I believe that the church which flourishes in the 21st century will be one which is founded upon and lives out this imperative of love. With all the information available, with all the claims upon our time and energies, the world does not need another organization. What the world needs is a community in which it will be loved and be given the opportunity to love others.

Love is irresistible. When we love others, they respond to our love. It is through our loving others that they discover the love of Jesus Christ. We do not just wake up one day and discover that God is love. Think about how we came to God in Christ: direct experience of God is minimal; we experience God through other human beings. We are loved into the kingdom — and then we turn around and love others into that same kingdom.

What does it mean to love others with the love of Christ? Listen again to those verses of our text:
Love is patient; love is kind; love 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.3

Too often we think that to love someone we have to like or approve of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Love means acceptance of the other. Approval of or even “liking” another have little or nothing to do with love. Why? Each of us has our personal cultural blinders on which pre-determine how we see the other. Love enables us to set those aside and accept the other even when they come from situations and cultures radically different than ours.
Love looks to the inside, to the person created in the image of God. Loving them does not mean that we give them carte blanche to run all over us — sometimes the loving act is the tough act. However, when one leads with love/acceptance, then our differences fade away in importance.

The church which thrives will be, in my opinion, the church which best loves not only inside, but even more so outside the walls of their community. It is one thing to love people who are already inside, but quite another to love that person who is outside, whom we do not know or understand. Love, if we really love, works to bring that person from the outside to the inside, to give them the acceptance and understanding they need and seek.
Now, many of you are sitting there wondering, what’s so revolutionary about this? Nothing, and everything, concurrently. Yes, this is the old commandment of Jesus — and yet it remains the most difficult. For love always asks these questions:
  • Not, what can you do for us? Rather, what can we do to help you know God’s love?
  • Not, what have we done in the past? Rather, what is the loving act in the present? (Love is what we do, not what we say.)
  • Not, what about me and my feelings, desires and wishes? Rather, what about the other’s needs and how can we show love to them?
If we can get the “love” right, then all else falls into place. On any issue of significant change of operation or direction, the question is not “What have we done or what do we think we ought to do?” The question becomes, “What communicates and shows love to others? How ought we to conduct ourselves so that the world knows that they are loved?”

For instance, in a recent sermon I raised a peripheral question which we have been kicking around for over 10 years: Ought we to change our name? Are the words “Emerywood” and “Baptist” so restrictive as to keep people from visiting us? The answer usually given depends on our personal perspective. Nothing wrong with that — that’s the way all of us work. However, what if we asked a different question: “Would changing our name open us up to touching more people with the love of Jesus Christ? Is it possible that something as mundane as a name is keeping people from experiencing God through our community of faith?”

Or, consider the question of either enlarging this sanctuary or building another. The question usually revolves around cost and whether we can afford it (not a bad consideration in and of itself.) There is no doubt that we are greatly limited by this space, especially in our pulpit and choir areas. What if we framed the question: “Would building/remodeling allow us to share the love of Christ with more people? If so, then how do we accomplish that goal?”

Or consider the question of how we organize ourselves in SS classes, small groups, Ministry Teams, Women’s Ministry, Men’s Ministry, the Diaconate, etc. The question has usually been, “How have we done this in the past?” What if we changed that question to: “What would allow us to most effectively and efficiently show love and acceptance to persons who do not know Jesus Christ?” 

Or, even take it to a personal level when considering where we will be involved in the life of our church: “How could I be of service in helping someone to know and love Jesus Christ?”

Personally, I love the openness of our congregation to new ideas and new ways of thinking and perceiving. There is nothing wrong with that. However, openness will fade as a primary purpose, for it is at best a methodology, not a purpose. We need each and every facet of our church to ask one question: “How are we enabling people to come to know the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus?”

Consider our Music and Worship Ministry. Rather than ask, “What style of music and worship do I like,” what if we asked: “What style of music and worship touches people with the love of Christ? What do others need in order to come to Christ?”

At present we have some exciting ministries transpiring in our church. I will not name any for fear of the sin of omission. However, we have much work to do. There are several priorities which I believe we must have at this point in our church’s life if we are to see our church become more effective at sharing Christ’s love. These include:
1.  An immediate emphasis on two significant ministries which need re-organization and retooling:
1.1. Andrew Ministry — wherein we reach out and enable visitors to become a part of our community.
1.2. Stephen’s Ministry — whereby we minister to those in times of physical, emotional and/or spiritual need. (These all intertwine, so that if you have one you usually have all three.)

Evaluation of our physical facilities:
2.1. A 3 year plan for bringing our physical plant up to date so that we are not embarrassed by it.
2.2. The appointment of a team which evaluates our worship needs and recommends to our congregation a plan for addressing these needs.

The reality is this: despite our best intentions our vision for EBC is far too small. Most of us ask, “What’s the church doing for me? How are my needs being met? Here’s what I like/want...” We have all heard that hymn sung time and again. I know more verses than I wish to admit.

The problem is that these are the wrong questions and they will never get us to the right answers. Right/ good answers only come with asking right/good questions. The best questions move in the area of purpose, meaning, and calling.

Why do we exist? What is our purpose as the body of Christ?
What does our faith mean to us? How does Emerywood help us to live out that meaning in our world?

What is our calling under Christ in our specific arena? What does God need for us to be in High Point, North Carolina.

We need a broader vision for our church...a vision beyond that of a small, nice, neighborhood congregation known for quality worship and being nice people. We need a compelling vision which says that we will be the place where the hungry, the hurting, the hopeless and the helpless go when they can go nowhere else. We need a vision which says that we will go against the trends which say focus on your target audience solely. We need a vision that compels us to build a church on the love of Jesus Christ. We need a vision of a church which dares to reach across ethnic, economic and social barriers to welcome all persons in the name of Christ. We need a vision which is inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic and accepting of all — for that was the vision of the early church and that is the only vision that is worthy of the name of Christ Jesus.

Are we up to it? You will determine that answer...I cannot. I have tried, on more than one occasion, to stimulate such a vision. For the most part, it has not worked well. Or, let me put it this way: you have congratulated me on a good sermon, but we have seen nothing but minimal effort expended by the majority of our congregation. We have gone back to our old ways, our comfort zone, and cheered from the bleachers while the staff rallied forth. We cannot do this any longer. For one, we go through staff and dedicated members too quickly doing this. Secondly, we are dying faster than we are replacing. Either we will all step up to the plate and work together in sharing the love and grace of Jesus Christ with others, or we will give God no reason to bless us and watch our slow demise all the while singing “Kum Ba Ya.”

Frederich Nietzsche told a wonderful parable, “The Madman in the Marketplace.”4 The madman runs through the marketplace with a lamp crying out, “God is dead...God is dead...” The people, who themselves live as functional atheists, mock him in his belief. They have killed God, Nietzsche believed, yet they were unaware of their deed. At the end the madman finds himself looking at huge temples and church buildings. He asks, “What are these now, if not the tombs and monuments of God?”

If we refuse to be those people whose primary focus is sharing the love of Jesus Christ, then we are living as if God is dead. If we do that, then we can write “Ichabod” above the door — for the glory will have departed. To paraphrase a question from our Lord: “What shall it profit a church, if it gain the whole world and lose its soul? Or, what will a church give in exchange for its soul?”

We are living in an exciting time — a historical ecotone fertile with the right questions. The world is asking, in one form or another, all the right questions of the meaning and purpose of life. The question is whether we will recognize the opportunities and venture out in faith, or will we pull inward, seeking survival as our modus operandi? May God guide us in our decisions and overwhelm us with his love. For in the end, it is only God’s love in Jesus Christ which possesses the power to transform our vision, our understanding, and yes, even us.

1 Timothy George, Between Sweetness and Nausea, First Things, 8.25.14. 
2 William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, 1989.

3 I Corinthians 13: 4-7.
4 Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The Emerywood Pulpit
“What Does It Mean to be Church?”
Acts 4: 32-37; I John 2: 3-11

There has probably never been as tumultuous a time for the church as the present since the Protestant Reformation. Every week I get communiques from minister friends and congregants in other churches asking one vital question: Will the church as we know it survive? This is not, by the way, a liberal-conservative question. There are just as many, if not more, conservative churches who are struggling as there are moderate or liberal. Many, like Emerywood, have added a worship service of a different style to attract new members. This works...for a while. The reality is that the future for church as we have known it looks ominous. What we are all seeing is a future coming where membership and attendance drop precipitously if the present path continues.

What we are seeing, I believe, is more than a conversation about a particular theological bent or worship style. It goes far deeper, even to the core of what it means to be church. In recent years primarily our young and educated adults (millennials) are saying that, on the whole, they see no real need for the institutional church in their lives, regardless of theology or worship style. They believe that they can worship God, do good works, and provide spiritual and moral education for their children, i.e., live good moral and productive lives, apart from the framework of church. Rather than see the church as the primary place (or even a partner) for their spiritual development and expression they see the church as unnecessary to spiritual and ethical development.

We could spend the next month asking and answering the question of Why? And, to be quite honest, we will. Over the next month we will be discussing in our sermon time exactly this question. Or, more to the point, we will be engendering conversations around these questions. Here are the sermon topics:
What Does It Mean to be Church?
What Does it Mean to be a Baptist Church?
What Does It Mean to be a Baptist Church in the 21st Century? (Meg Lacy preaching!) 

What Does It Mean to be Emerywood Baptist Church in the 21st Century?

The question of what it means to be church goes to the heart of this issue of millennials and church involvement. I believe that the rejection of the church by a significant number of millennials is a sign that we, as the church, have gone “off-track.” Rather than blame the millennials, let’s take a hard look at ourselves and see what we see. Are we as missional in our faith practice as a church as we claim to be? Have we lost the New Testament sense of what it means to be church? Have we become more concerned with institutional survival than purpose?

The Centrality of Jesus Christ
In the our Acts text we find the church growing by leaps and bounds. They have come together as those who have pledged themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Though they begin as a Jewish sect, this does not last long and the church undergoes vigilant persecution from both Jewish and later Roman foes. Rather than divide or destroy the church, the persecution has served to pull the church together in an incredible show of commonality and fellowship:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.1

These early followers of Christ were united around one primary belief: that the Risen Jesus Christ was the Messiah, their Lord and Savior, and that through Jesus they received forgiveness from sin and the gift of eternal life. Theologically they were focused on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that meant in terms of God’s presence and activity in the world. They believed that through this resurrection came God’s statement of approval of Jesus: that in Jesus Christ was the fulness of God and in his teaching was the truth of God. Salvation and eternal life, the way to God, was to be found in Jesus Christ.

Did these earlier Christians always agree on what this proposition meant? Not in the least. The church in Jerusalem wanted to impose the ethical and ritual codes of Judaism upon all believers. Paul thought this to be incompatible with a gospel which proclaimed that salvation was by grace through faith and not based on works. Did they always understand exactly who Jesus was and how he was both divine and human? No. They argued for over 300 years about argument which continues to the present.

The centrality of Jesus Christ as Risen Lord and Savior is unmistakable to any reader of the New Testament. Whether in Jerusalem, Corinth, or Thessalonica, the church was comprised of those who claimed belief in and adherence to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Whether of a pagan or Jewish background mattered little; they focused on Jesus as the center of their faith and practice. They committed their lives to worship, trust and obey Jesus. They were centered in and focused upon Jesus the Christ.
If we are to be the church today in any valid sense, then we must focus upon Christ as the center of our faith and practice as well. Our community is not to be found in political agenda or theological certainty, but in our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. When as a little boy I gave my life to Christ, the minister did not ask me my theology or if I affirmed a particular creed. What he asked me was quite simple: “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” This is central to a church which claims the name of Christ.

A People Who
The next aspect that we notice of the early church is that it is a “people who,” and not a “place where.” If we had visited any of the early cities in Asia Minor after Paul’s visits and asked where the church was located, they would have looked at us with amazement. These early Christians met in their personal homes, on river banks, and even in the synagogues and temple porch for a while. For these church was a community, a people who were united around Christ Jesus. Christianity is a faith of holy people — those who have been cleansed and transformed by the atonement of Christ — and not a faith of holy places. Places are holy only when worship is taking place and God is there, among God’s people.

In her better moments the church has always seen herself as a people who. Whether building hospitals, feeding the poor, educating people or providing clothing, the church has always been at its best when it is a people who. When the church saw herself as a people with a purpose, she lifted herself above and beyond her sights. The great German theologian Emil Brunner said it well when he stated: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Another has coined an alliterative phrase to signify the task of the church: “To Worship, Work and Witness.” We gather to do these and we scatter in doing them...but we are still the church, wherever we are.

Relationship with Jesus Christ
As a people who believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we claim to have experienced the new birth in Jesus Christ. Being church is about the centrality of Jesus Christ. The church is a group of people who not only affirm Jesus as Savior and Lord, but who have experienced his forgiveness and the transformation of the new birth in the depth of their souls. This experience is crucial to who we are as church — and always has been.

Too often we think that we are Christians because we grew up in a Christian home or even in what many call a “Christian nation.” In the 17th century Denmark considered herself to be a “Christian nation.” Her great theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, lamented this fact. He noted that if you asked a Dane if they were a Christian, they would reply, “Of course...I am a Dane.” His lament revolved around the fact that they assumed the faith of others was sufficient for their own faith. The result of this was a lot of “admirers” of Jesus, but not a lot of “followers.” Kierkegaard wrote:
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, you know that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Christ, however, never asked for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. He consistently spoke of "followers" and “disciples." It's one thing to admire Christ; quite another to follow him.2

The challenge for us today is that often we find ourselves in this same boat. Yes, the church has been filled with more admirers than followers of Christ — always has been. Too often we find people who, in the life of the church, display arrogance rather than humility, somehow believing that they know best and that their way is the only way. These may deeply admire Christ, but they are missing that key relationship with Christ that transforms all that we do and are. What I hear from younger adults, millennials, is that they are tired of being in churches more filled with admirers than followers. They are tired of seeing the arrogance of small-minded people who demand their way. These younger adults are stressed by a world seemingly coming apart at the seams and they have no time or energy to be a part of such trivialization. When the cause of Christ is secondary to the institutional church and the demands of “admirers,” the church will die. Every time.

Relationship with One Another
As a “people who” we are bound together by our commonality in Christ — our experience of Christ as Lord and Savior. All racial, ethnic, socio-economic, political and other “tribal” identities
are removed in Christ. When we become one with Christ we become one with all of those who claim Jesus Christ, whether we personally like them or not. It is a great tragedy when Christianity becomes identified with a particular political party or entity in some people’s minds. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are Republicans who are Christian and Democrats who are Christian — I’m sure of it for I have friends of each. There are Libertarians who are Christian and Independents who are Christian. I am even sure that there are Tea Party Christians and Socialist Christians.

Who is it that can reach across all these boundaries and bring unity? Nothing less than our experience of transformation and new birth in Jesus Christ. Paul put it well: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”3  When Jesus Christ comes alive in our hearts and life, then all of our relational identities change. No longer do we identify on the basis of our worldly tribal likenesses. Rather now we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We live in a time of increasing polarization and tribalization. Rather than technology uniting it is serving to divide us as through technology we live ever more closely and the differences/dangers are magnified. The evils of the world, once thought to be “over there” are now approaching our doorstep in all manner of ways. Particularly they come through the web, the internet, and mass media as we see the violence and fury of anger and hatred unleashed before our very eyes. The answer to these lies not in bombs, soldiers or drones — as helpful as we may think those elements to be. The answer lies in Jesus Christ and in a transformation of the human heart that leads us to see the other as our brother or sister and not as the enemy. If I love the other in Christ, then how can I possibly see them as one to be killed? 

  • Could it be that the rejection of Christianity by these newfound Islamic terrorists, some of whom are from Western countries, is due to the tired, worn out, institutionalized Christian facade which dominates our landscape? 

  • Could it be that the gap between our faith and practice, i.e., the reality that our actions do not match our words, has caused many to walk away from Christianity as a viable faith?

If there is any hope for the world, it lies in the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Why do I say that? Simply put, only Christianity proclaims a message of transformation, of new birth, and of a faith centered on a relationship with God in Christ Jesus. As good as Judaism and Islam are, they fall short in my opinion for they do not offer forgiveness and transformation that we have in Christ. Do they offer paths to God? Yes, but from where I stand they are paths which fall short in achieving the goal.

If we would be church, the people who call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” then we must be a community focused on Jesus Christ as the center of our faith. Christian community, i.e., the church, is a people who focus on loving Christ and serving Christ — and in so doing loving and serving the other. Recall our text from I John?
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

In his commentary on Galatians 6:10, the church father Jerome describes how John the evangelist, author of the gospel and book of Revelation, preached at Ephesus into his nineties...At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher...when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. The only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.

This continued for weeks, says Jerome. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.” Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"

"Because," John replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”4

Another has said it well:
The reality is that it is only authentic, Christ-love which produces the genuine community of the church. Community means caring: caring for people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community.”5 It is in loving and caring for one another, in the flesh, in our likes and dislikes, our good points and our bad, that community is developed. Community comes out of Christ and Christ alone.

Thanks be to God for the church.  May the church live up to her high calling in Christ Jesus. 


1 Acts 4: 33-34
2 S. Kierkegaard, "Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter"
3 II Corinthians 5: 17
4 Dan. B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus.

5 -Jean Vanier, From Brokeness to Community as posted on the Edge of Enclosure: proper18a.html