Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday, February 19, 2017
This morning I was reflecting on the current state of the church and our Christian faith, when I thought of Karl Barth and what he possibly would say to us.  I went back to this essay from decades ago -- and found so much that speaks to us in our current situation. Barth's focus on Jesus Christ as the center, and all else as peripheral, holds much truth for those of us who are trying to navigate a way in the midst of perilous waters.  Ours is not the first generation to go through chasmic struggles in the church, nor will we be the last. 
This entire essay can be found at:,%20Karl%20-%20Final%20Testimonies%20(Christian%20Library)%20(philosophy).pdf
Final Testimonies 
Karl Barth

Starting Out, Turning Round, Confessing
Dear Catholic and Reformed fellow-Christians:
In this hour I want to talk to you about starting out, turning round, and confessing in the church. Of course there is much starting out, turning round, and confessing, or talk of it, in the world as well. The church is in the world and the world is also in the church. Thus we should never ignore or despise what goes on in the world or is at least discussed in it. If we are not to overvalue it, we are also not to undervalue it. Nevertheless, I am certain that starting out, turning round, and confessing—that of Christians—will serve us best and bring us into the deepest solidarity with what is called the world if we concern ourselves energetically with starting out, turning round, and confessing in the church.
The three concepts mentioned are not marks or essential features or structures of the church. From three different if related angles they are the one movement in which the church finds itself. There are all kinds of movements in the church. There always have been. There can and should be today. But these movements are important and good only if they derive from the one movement of the church and serve this movement. Let us speak today of the one movement of the church’s starting out, turning round, and confessing by which all individual movements, if they are important and good, are determined and limited.  This one movement of the church takes place. It does not happen for the first time today. In many ages it took place in an underground way, perceived only by the few. Even today it still takes place for the most part in this underground way. In its essence it is noticed by relatively few. Nevertheless, it is taking place today much more perceptibly than in earlier times, and the number of those who perceive it in its essence is greater.
The distinctive mark of this one movement of the church, of its starting out, turning round, and confessing, consists today in the fact that in the contemporary church it is taking place in many, although not all confessions.  Our particular interest here and now is that it is taking place or is visible today in the Roman Catholic, or, as I would prefer to say, the Petrine Catholic and the Evangelical Catholic confessions—for we are Catholic too. For the moment it is surprisingly more visible and even spectacular in the Petrine than in the Evangelical confession. But however that may be, there is this one movement of the one church, in our case of the two confessions. We shall have occasion at any rate to focus our attention on both of them together.  But let us get down to business.
The movement of the church is in the first instance a powerful starting out. (I should like to say something specific about the word “powerful” at the end of this address.) Starting out takes place when something already there has grown old and must be left behind, when the night is past, when something new replaces it and a new day dawns. When this is true, and is seen to be true, starting out takes place. Ancient, medieval, modern, and present-day church history is continually an open or hidden history of such starting out, sometimes greater it would seem and sometimes smaller, sometimes successful and sometimes unsuccessful. The model of all starting out—a model which can never shed enough light or be studied enough—is the exodus of Israel out of Egypt for the promised land.
Starting out takes place in a crisis. A resolute farewell is then said to what is familiar, what is close at hand, what has its own advantages, as in the form of the well-known fleshpots of Egypt. And there is a resolute turning instead to what is distant, to what is affirmed in hope, to what has disadvantages, to what is still largely unknown in its glorious form. When the church sets out, it has made a choice, a decision. It refuses to be homesick for what it leaves behind.  It hails and loves already what is before it. It is still here and yet no longer here. It is not yet there but there already. It has a long journey ahead of it -- battles too, and suffering, and hunger and thirst. Unmistakably it sighs. Yet unmistakably, too, it rejoices. It thinks and speaks and acts accordingly. The starting out of the church takes place in this crisis. It is that of the people of God which is still in bondage and yet already freed.  But let us look a little more closely. The true and authentic starting out of the church is first and supremely an acceptance of the future and only then and for that reason a denial of the past. Mere weariness or criticism or distaste or scorn or protest in relation to what has been thus far, to what would now be called the establishment, has nothing whatever to do with the church’s great movement of starting out. When Moses killed and buried that wicked man, that was not by a long way Israel’s liberation from imprisonment. In both confessions today we often hear a justifiable but empty negation—empty because it is not filled with affirmation of the better future. An empty negation will always have a more or less disagreeable and melancholy sound. When the church genuinely negates what has been thus far, it will be a clear negation, but one that is also friendly and cheerful.
It follows, then, that the church’s true and authentic starting out takes place only when it sees the new as promise and therefore as future, as clear and definite promise and future. Some years ago a young man in a gathering of clergy startled me by saying, “Professor, you have made history but you have now become history. We young folk are setting out for new shores.” I replied, “That is good. I am glad to hear it. Tell me something about these new shores.” Unfortunately he had nothing to tell. The exodus from Egypt began when Moses came down from the mount of God and away from the burning bush, where he had heard God’s Word, and was thus able to tell the people and Pharaoh something about where they were going. In the church today there are many likable young people, including young pastors and priests, who tell us very loudly that almost everything must be changed. If only God would tell them, or if they would let God tell them, and if they would then tell others, what is to replace the present set-up, then and only then their activity would have something authentically and credibly to do with the starting out of the church.  
Just a final remark on the first point. The true and authentic starting out of the church will have to take place in an orderly way. Naturally until the caravan is reorganized and the march has begun, there will be some confusion.  The more conservative and more progressive groups in the church will not be in total agreement as to how things should be done. The former will sadly demand that as much as possible of the old should be taken along. The latter in an onrush of joy will tell them that everything must be different. There will also be Christian hippies whose mouths the ecclesiastical police will find it very hard to shut, not to speak of dropouts and the like. But these transitional phenomena must not be allowed to degenerate into permanent confusion. The departure of the church has to be a more or less disciplined event in which there are no winners and no losers. The charism of gyberneseos, the gift of government or leadership, comes into its own here. In the Old Testament story of the exodus Moses was a classical bearer of this gift, and at the time of the reformation so, too, was Calvin, as distinct from Luther and Zwingli. It is not for nothing that in our time a Roman Catholic historian [has devoted] a fine volume to Calvin as seen from this angle. The only pity is that on the Petrine Catholic side there was no likeminded Aaron who had to be taken with equal seriousness. If there had been, perhaps the church could have started out then with comprehensive instead of divided ranks.
The church has its origin in the command of Jesus Christ. It looks and moves toward his new and glorious coming. This is why its starting out, indeed, its whole movement, is such a positive, goal-oriented, and orderly event.  
Secondly, the movement of the church is a powerful turning round. The word “Forward” and the word “Back” are not self-contradictory in the church. Instead they denote the one movement.  In the church the word “conversion” means turning in one’s tracks and then starting off toward the new thing, the goal that is ahead. It is a turning back toward what has already happened originally because only in movement toward this oldest thing of all can there be a right starting out for what is new and future. One of the basic notes of the Old Testament sounds out unmistakably here: “For ask now of the days that are past . . . Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard. . . ? Has God ever attempted to go and take a nation from the midst of another nation . .  . according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?” (Dt. 4:32f.); or again: “Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, what the way of salvation is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).
One must consider carefully, however, what is meant by this common backward movement of the church to see if it is true and authentic turning round.  True and authentic turning round will always see the old to which it turns back as the new for which it is on the point of starting out. By the fact that it is the new, the old here is distinguished from the old things that must be left behind if the church is to start out. For Evangelical Christians that means that it will not be identical with the liberal theology and piety of the nineteenth century from which we have come, nor even, and this has been true since 1517, with the reformation of the sixteenth century and its offshoots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Again, and this applies to you, dear Petrine fellow-Christians, it will not be identical with the world of Trent and Vatican I and what for the last one hundred and fifty years has been rather romantically called the philosophy and theology of the former days, namely, medieval scholasticism, the fathers, and the first Christian centuries.  Listening to the past might be a beautiful idea, but it is not a churchly one either among you or us. On both sides the old to which the church turns back in true and authentic conversion is valid only as in and with and under it there takes place the new for which the church is starting out. Mark you, what we have been saying applies even to the so-called primitive Christianity whose contours as something old may be seen by us in the New Testament. The church does not turn back to primitive Christianity but to the new which is, of course, primarily, directly, and normatively attested for all times in its first records. Paul did not proclaim himself but the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.  So, too, in their own ways did Peter and John and also the Evangelists. He, Jesus Christ, is the old and is also new. He it is who comes [to the church] and to whom the church goes, but goes to him as him who was. It is to him that it turns in its conversion.

But now we must underline the other side too. Seeing that the starting out of the church is a starting out to its origin, the turning round of the church that takes place in and with it is always an act of respect and gratitude in relation to the old which for its part has proceeded in some sense from this origin: not because it is old, not in relation to everything that is old, but in relation to much of the old in which the new, closely viewed, already intimates itself, and in which, carefully handled, the new may also be detected. Israel had before it the patriarchs: Abraham, who in faith left his country and friends for the land that God would show him and did show him; then Isaac and Jacob and the fathers of the tribal league which after a time was brought into the land. And this land that was promised and given to Israel was itself, according to the tradition, none other than that in which the patriarchs as guests had lived and sinned and suffered and set up altars here and there to the Lord. In the the church that is in the process of turning round the saying is true that “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” “All live to him,” from the apostles to the earlier and later fathers. They have not only the right [but also the relevance] to be heard today, not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively. The church would not be the church in conversion if, proud and content with [?] its sense of the present hour, it would not listen to them, or would do so only occasionally, loosely, and carelessly, or if it were to rob what it has to learn from them of all its effect by [accepting] what they want to say to it....

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On Resurrecting the “E” Word…

Evangelism — the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ — has become a missing element in moderate Baptist life.  For a tradition founded in the belief for each person to have a personal experience with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, this is incredible.  Yes, we moderates give lip service to evangelism, but any evangelistic emphasis is virtually non-existent.   
Over the years members have asked why I did not give more forceful invitations.  My reply was that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to save people, not me!  Further, protracted invitations are no longer a culturally effective method of evangelism. These members are well intentioned — they desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ.  While they fail to comprehend that their preferred method of evangelism is no longer effective, they do understand that we are not “evangelistic” in any sense of the word.
 As a rule, we moderates are uncomfortable with the practices associated with evangelism, especially rejecting any confrontational model of evangelism.  We do not like the “you will burn in hell” model, saying we opt for the relational model. We all like the idea of building a relationship with someone in order to enable them to come to Christ. 
The underlying reality is that we have really opted for no model other than baptizing the children who grow up in our churches.  (Since many of us accept transfer without re-baptism we no longer baptize many adults.)  We moderates are terrified of evangelism in any other shape, fashion or form.  Our baptismal rates, my church included, are abysmal.  (After reading this article many of my longtime moderate Baptist friends will think I have become fundamentalist!  There is a lot of irony here, for I have consistently emphasized the ethical/intellectual aspects of our faith over the last 25 years.  Maybe this article is my mea culpa!)
In our operative model of church growth we depend upon other churches to be evangelistic.  How will we grow?  We believe that after persons come to faith elsewhere, they will realize our way of practicing our faith is far superior to theirs.  Once they are sufficiently “mature” in the faith, then they will come to us — so we will grow by transfer. In other words, other churches are the neonatal unit, we are the adult room. However, transfer growth is mostly inadequate to support our churches in the future.  For some reason these believers are not finding our churches sufficiently attractive.  
So, we have a problem: our churches are slowly dwindling. What are we to do?  Most of us opt for thinking that if our buildings are beautiful, up to date and inviting; if our programming, bulletins and worship are engaging — then we will win this slow battle of attrition. Are we sure?
A few years ago I engaged with Scottish Baptists for the CBF of North Carolina.  As I rode the train around Scotland I decided to engage young people in dialogue regarding their faith in God.  I have yet to have one tell me that they attended church other than for weddings and funerals.  Their reasons varied, but most indicated they found no overwhelming reason to attend. Nothing in church life or God intersected with their world in any meaningful way.  
In these ten years hence I have paid attention to young adults in our communities — and I confess that I am beginning to hear many of these same responses.  As our older generation dies off and our churches slowly but surely dwindle, we begin to realize that the “under 40 crowd” are no longer packing our churches.  They give many reasons, but I fear that at the center is a failure to apprehend any meaningful reason for doing so. We have lost the battle at the university and now we are losing it in our homes.
If we do not make sharing of the good news in an intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting pattern the central focus of our mission, then American Protestant Christianity will slowly follow the path of European Protestant Christianity. No, we will not die today or tomorrow…but we will surely die.  
Why our Aversion to Evangelism?
Is our aversion to evangelism based in an unbelief in the good news of Jesus Christ? I think not, though I do believe that we are often victims of an underlying, modern gnosticism, i.e., an “intellectual gospel” which does away with any concept of hell, i.e., an eternal existence apart from God.  We so believe that God is love that we cannot conceive of God allowing any person to go to hell.  We have all come close to saying this in preaching the funerals of persons whose lives contained no scintilla of faith practice.  
Our aversion can be due to what we perceive as a political bias on the part of those who do practice active evangelism.  When we see organizations whose purpose is supposedly to bring people to Christ becoming more politically active, when we see those same groups marrying evangelism with conservative political views as if these went hand in hand, then we moderates tend to ease out of the room.  Coming to Christ and being a disciple of Christ is about a spiritual, not a political reality.  There are many, many disciples of Christ who disagree on the political scene — and there is nothing wrong with that.  When any one political perspective is equated with Christian belief, then we are in deep trouble.  
But, maybe, just maybe, our problem is not that we do not believe in hell or have an aversion to political Christianity.  Maybe our problem is that we fail to see the “hell on earth” in which people are living apart from Jesus Christ. Have we been so long in the Christian cocoon that we have lost touch with what it is like to have no objective meaning or driving purpose to our lives other than our own human nature?  Have we forgotten what life apart from Christ is like?  Are we so removed from our “pre-Christ life” that we do not remember life when ruled by the secular trinity of greed, self-aggrandizement, and success?  Could it be that what we all need “saving from” is first and foremost ourselves?  How can that happen in our time and culture apart from Jesus Christ?
Mixed Messages
Central to the problem are the mixed messages we send in the church.  Too often we equate success with salvation and poverty/financial need with being lost. We confuse dressing well and having good manners with a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.  Let’s ask a blunt question: “Does financial and social success equal salvation?” We see someone whose faith is virtually nonexistent, yet they are a “success” in the world’s perspective: successful business, nice family, house at the beach and mountains, etc., etc.  So, we assume that they have everything together and do not need Christ.  Is that so? Do they need a relationship with God through Christ Jesus?  What can Christ do for them?  
Obviously our answer ought to be no, success does not equal salvation.  To believe the good news of Jesus Christ is to believe that each and every person is in need of a life transforming relationship with God which comes through a personal encounter with and surrender to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Just because one drives a Lexus or lives in a multimillion dollar home does not excuse them from the need of a relationship with Jesus Christ. 
Many Christians sincerely talk about the “community” their church possesses and what a loving community they have.  That’s great — but I fear that we have put community ahead of the gospel.  Genuine Christian community, koinonia, is a by-product, an out-growth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the criterion by which we are judged.  When I have conversations with long-time members I hear the community card played again and again.  What I don’t hear is the desire that we reach people who are different from us.  As a result we are more likely to have Christian clubs — in which everyone resembles everyone else — that we are Christian churches.  If your church looks a lot like you, then chances are you’re in a club and not a church.  
The Centrality of Evangelism as the Purpose of the Church
Why is this important?  The good news of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force in the world.  The gospel is the only force I know which can permanently shift our hearts and minds, our very souls, from self-centered to other centered.  The gospel destroys barriers and brings down walls — cultural, racial and political.  What we need, as Christians, is to let the gospel go forth and to live it out in every aspect of our lives.  Could it be that we are really afraid of the gospel and of its ramifications for our lives and our church?
As Baptists we believe that individually we must come to our own acceptance of Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Yes, in so doing we become a part of the community of faith and join with other believers in serving and worshipping Christ.  Yes, we rarely come to Christ alone — many others are used by God to reach us.  Yes, having Christian parents who love and direct us in our growth as children is of great importance for our faith development. Yes, conversion is a first step — but it is a vital first step, without which none of the other steps will ever take place.  Each of us needs that experience of surrender to Christ Jesus — of all that we have been, are and ever will be — whatever form that may take for us.  
Some how, some way, either we moderate Baptists will return evangelism to its core position as the unifying focus in a wholistic church, or we will die.  Seeing people come to faith in Christ can serve to rejuvenate our own faith and rekindle the fire on the altar of our heart.  Participating in a church in which people express their love for Christ unites a community of faith in ways that nothing else can or will.  It is the center out of which worship, social ministries, social justice, spiritual growth and all the other vital aspects of faith come to life.  
We are now said to be living in a “post-Christian era” which is more like the 1st century than the 19th to the mid 20th centuries.  We are called upon to see ourselves as “resident aliens” or missionaries living not in a Christian culture but on mission outposts in the middle of a pagan land.  If so, then would it not behoove us to look back at the New Testament and see how this first church understood its priorities?  Whether one believes Matthew 28: 16-20 goes back to Jesus as an exact quote or as a summary is beside the point.  Certainly the early church believed this to be their mandate.  Whether one believes Acts 2 is fully historically accurate is again, not of my concern.  Evidently Luke believed that God was doing something dramatic through Simon Peter and these early disciples.  We have to say that Paul, with his missionary journeys, certainly believed that sharing the good news was vital to the purpose of all the churches of which he was a part.
In our post-Christian era over the last 25 years or so many churches have become much more concerned with institutional survival than with missional purpose.  We employ methods of church growth, new programming, etc, for the purpose of gaining new members so they can give to our budget and keep our churches afloat.  Do we see what is wrong with this picture?  Such an approach is totally unethical, for it uses the gospel — and the other — not to help them come to Christ and grow in their faith, but as a way of keeping our beloved communities afloat.  Who is important, here?  Is institutional survival more important than the other coming to Christ?
The “how” of evangelism I have not the time to develop at this point.  In fact, the how can and usually will be unique in any and every particular situation.  An attentive church will figure out for themselves what sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will look like in their context.  Any approach must be configured in ways that are culturally appropriate and individually sensitive, characterized by humility, integrity and utmost respect for the personhood of the other.  What is important is that our churches take seriously the call to be “evangelists,” i.e., sharers of the good news that life eternal is found in a relationship with Christ Jesus.
So, as I walk off into the sunset to retirement, I am asked: “Will the moderate Baptist movement and churches survive in the next 50 years?” My answer is in the form of a question itself: “Do we deserve to survive?”  I believe that we will not only survive, but we will thrive when our focus is upon sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all that we say and do — and in such a way that people are born from above and come to faith in Christ Jesus.  If not, then we will be nothing but museums in which a few people pause and remember “the good ole days.”  Meanwhile, that contemporary church across town is packing them in — even though their theology, ethical teachings and liturgy is not nearly as sophisticated as ours.  
Frederich Nietzsche told the story of a madman who ran through the market place with a lantern shouting “I seek God…I seek God.”  The people laughed, saying to him, “Don’t you know God is dead?”  The madman paused, held up his lantern, looked at the churches and synagogues surrounding him and said, “What are these now but not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”  Just as Christianity died in Europe, so it can die here if anything but the sharing and living out the good news is our focus.

 1I am chief among sinners in this regard.  This article is written from a confessional stance wherein I admit my complicity in what I see as a significant challenge to our moderate Baptist movement.  As one who is moving toward retirement in the next year I see much good that moderate Baptists have accomplished.  However, I live with an underlying sense that we could have done so much more in this vital area of evangelism. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

February 14, 2016

“Repentance as Saying Yes...”
Isaiah 58: 1-12
It’s Lent again — I can see the excitement in your faces and can even read what you are thinking:
“Oh boy, Lent, we’ve been waiting all year for this...just like Christmas. The anticipation in us has been building to a crescendo; we cannot wait to give up a bunch of things we like so that we can prove our worthiness and devotion to God. Do we get to wear sack cloth and ashes like the Jews when they repented? Really, let’s thank God Lent is here; I don’t know what I would do if it didn’t come every year! I mean, that Ash Wednesday service was just the tops — I left so full of the Spirit. And cannot believe how we hang on the edge of our seats wondering which sin you will hammer on this Sunday. Then, there’s Maundy Thursday and Good Friday — where we remember that our sin is what drove our Lord to give up his life. Hey, now there’s a couple of services that will pack them in for sure. Sure am glad Lent finally got here...”

OK, maybe this is a little overkill this morning, but you get my drift. There is no task harder or more “anti-culture” than preaching in Lent. Who wants to hear sermons on self-sacrifice, sin and what we need to give up in our lives? Who wants to go to church and listen to the preacher condemn them every Sunday? Why have Lent anyway? Really...Jesus died that we might be forgiven for our sin...why harp on it? Just ask forgiveness and move on; that’s what other churches do.

Yet, Lent is persistent; it won’t go away. While Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Orthodox churches have observed Lent for centuries; even evangelical churches, Baptist and Methodist included, are now observing Lent, i.e., having a period of emphasis on confession of sin and focus on one’s life in the weeks leading up to Easter. The history of Lent is somewhat fuzzy, but suffice it to say that by 325AD and the Council of Nicaea a forty day period of prayer, fasting and self-examination had become common place in the Christian church. Why 40 days? This period recalls the 40 day fast of Jesus in the desert as he began his ministry. Lent, or something like it, goes back in some form to the early days of the Christian church.

Yet, we commit a grave faux pas in our Lenten observance. Though well intended, the reality is that during Lent we talk much more about what we are going to give up, rather than what we are going to positively do as a symbol of our faith and trust in Christ. The result is that Lent is perceived negatively. We Christians become further known for what we are against rather than for what we are for, for what we are not rather than for what we believe and espouse.
Psychologically this sort of pattern is predisposed to failure. As human beings we are unable to “not focus” on something. If I tell you to not think about the number 9, that’s what you think about. If we are playing golf and I say, “Don’t hit it in the lake on the left...” guess where you will probably hit it? Negative focus never works.

Positive focus, on the other hand, works really well. If we say to our children “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal or you will suffer the consequences,” chances are that will not resonate well with them. However, if we say “Be a person of integrity, honesty and character by always telling the truth for that is pleasing to God,” this is much more likely to take root in them. If a doctor says, “Lose weight,” that may go in one ear and out the other. However, if that same doctor says, “Walk, exercise more, eat right and you will look and feel better and have more energy,” now that gets our ears perked up.

This emphasis is nothing new, Isaiah said as much in our text from the 58th chapter. The situation is that Israel has returned from exile in Babylon and is trying to re-establish her nation in her homeland. However, worship has become perfunctory and ritualistic. She goes through all the right motions; properly observing the High and Holy Days to the nth degree. When she is supposed to mourn and fast in sack cloth and ashes, she does. However, to her surprise she senses not the presence of God, but God’s absence in her worship. Did we hear those words from Isaiah 58 which offer a direct challenge from Israel to God?

Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?1
In other words, they are saying: “God we are doing what we are supposed to do, but you’re not holding up your part of the covenant, i.e., you are not showing up like you are supposed to do. Where are you?”

Did we pay attention to God’s reply through Isaiah?
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

Whoa! Isaiah hits back rather hard, does he not? God rejects their fasting and repentance as unworthy! God does not want them to fast and mourn like this. I can only imagine this sermon hit them like a ton of bricks. What they are doing in worship is totally wrong, according to God. But Isaiah does not stop there; rather he continues with a positive affirmation of what proper fasting looks like:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?3

Now, this paints a different picture of repentance, does it not? God’s fast is not about sack cloth and ashes, but about justice, about setting people free, about helping others to have shelter, food, and clothing. God’s fast is about identifying with the poor rather than living apart from them and refusing to “see them.” For God, worship is about living a life in accord with God’s teachings, not just showing up and going through a show for the sake of others.

Isaiah’s proclamation is consistent with the understanding of repentance in Judaism as a whole The word for repentance in Judaism is teshuva. There are two types of repentance. The first is teshuvá mi-yir’á, "repentance rooted in fear.” This repentance is fear based, either in fear of humans or God. This repentance is acknowledged as a beginning step in Judaism, but it is a lesser form. The highest form of repentance is teshuvá mei-ahavá, i.e., "repentance rooted in love.”4 In this form the repentance comes not from fear but from a deep love of God, a love which is a vivid response in one’s soul to the love one has experienced in God. The greatest repentance comes not from fear of punishment, but out the realization that, at the deepest level of the universe, we are loved beyond belief. Repentance rooted in love is more about what we do, both individually and corporately, in helping others than it is about our piety and prayers. The height of biblical repentance is positive, based in who we are called to be in Christ, not in negativity or fear. Repentance rooted in love recognizes that we are called to live in such a way as to lift not only ourselves, but others around us. As the great Jewish teach A.J. Heschel put it: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not have created the conditions which imprison others, but we all must recognize, in repentance, that we are responsible under God to change them.

Isaiah continues with a strong affirmation of how God will respond to such repentance: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”5

These are tremendous words from Isaiah as they promise that God is coming, he will go before and behind them. Further, the night of their horror will be over — they will cry to God and God will respond. Remember: they are returning from captivity in Babylon. They have just experienced their greatest horror, to be enslaved to another nation. Isaiah goes on to proclaim that not only does God want them to be free, God desires for all to be set free, for all to be liberated from all the bondages of human existence. Isaiah recognizes that as they work to set free those enslaved in one way or another, then they will find themselves being set free as well.

Maybe our repentance ought to look like setting people free, as well. We live in a culture which, while we preach freedom, has people enslaved to all manner of masters. Some are enslaved to addictions; others are enslaved to success; still others are enslaved to wealth while others are enslaved in poverty. The freedom we desire, the freedom we seek — whether we see ourselves as slaves, masters or both — the freedom we need is the freedom found in God through Jesus Christ.
It is the freedom to worship and serve only one Lord, Jesus the Christ.
It is the freedom to be judged by only one person, Jesus the Christ.
It is the freedom to be whom we believe God has called us to be and in so doing to be a liberator of others, to set them free as well.

If we were to study slavery throughout history, one reality would quickly become apparent: not only were the servants enslaved to their masters, the masters were enslaved to their servants as well. The ball and chain which bound the slave also bound the master in both their person and reality.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to a repentance which not only sets us free, it sets others free and in so doing sets all of us free to live our lives in a way that we believe God calls us to do. When we set others free, we set ourselves free as well. We will never know the full freedom of life until all of God’s children are free. When we set people free from hunger and poverty, we set ourselves free. When we set people free from homelessness and addiction, we set ourselves free. When we set people free from all the demons of our world so that they are able to live, laugh and love in the fulness of God’s Spirit, we are set free as well.

How is this possible? Quite simply, we must alter our understanding of faith from intellectual to affectional, from our head to our heart. We Protestants are really good at intellectual Christianity and have been for decades. There is nothing wrong with this, for if we do not understand our faith we will be open to every heresy that comes down the pike. However, in the final analysis faith is a matter of our heart, of our love, of that which moves and stirs us emotionally. In the New Testament the word belief is used as a noun, but more often as a verb, to believe. Belief is not just about what we know, but involves what we do more than what we say. So it is with repentance: when we repent we proclaim that this is the way I am intend to live my life under God. Repentance is not merely a moving from — it is a moving to a certain way of living that is an emotional commitment of our entire being to our Lord and Savior.

So, this Lent let’s join together and set ourselves free from those fears which hold us fast by living up to be the persons we believe God has called us to be. And, let’s see whom else we can help to be free as well...if I’m not mistaken I believe that’s what the New Testament calls sharing the euanggellion — the good news. Lent? Evangelism? Good news? Liberation? Who knew?

1 Isaiah 58: 3a
2 Isaiah 58: 3b-5.
3Isaiah 58: 6-7
4 David R. Blumenthal, Repentance and Forgiveness, 5 Isaiah 58: 8-9 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, 2015

“Reflections on Incarnation”
Luke 2: 8-20; John 1: 14;
And so it is Christmas...or at least Christmas Eve. During our Advent journey we have experienced the gospel in a 3 fold manner: Wait. Want. Wonder. Tonight we will wonder — we will look with amazement back some 2000 years or so and wonder that the birth of a Jewish boy in poverty and anonymity could have such a powerful effect upon this planet spinning its way through time and space. We will wonder at the claims we Christians make for that night and this baby — that in Jesus all of God lived fully and completely...incarnation we call it...and yes, we wonder.
The story is told of a young boy traveling with his father one Christmas Eve in the middle of the depression into the nearby city. Their mission was for the son to show the father what he wanted for Christmas from the many vendors who had lined up their carts on the main street. Upon indicating a chemistry set his father inquired as to the price; he turned away and they walked on a bit further. The writer recalled that when they got to the end of the carts he finally realized that his father had only a few cents saved up, having mistakenly believed that he had enough money to buy what his son desired.
They walked slowly back home without a present, each with their hands in their own pockets. The writer said that he wanted to take his father’s hand, to tell him that it was alright, that he loved him and that having him as a father was enough. However, as he put it, “we were not on that basis.” Instead they walked on, two lonely individuals needing each other but separated by the chasm of years and culture.i
How tragic that on the night remembered by Christians the world over as the defining moment for humankind, a father and son should feel separated from each other! However, what is more tragic is that on this night when we celebrate the Incarnation — that invasion of human existence by the Creator — that for too many of us this story of a dysfunctional father and son more likely signifies the reality of our existence. We are, as it were, walking down the road with God — yet often separated so that we cannot take God’s hand and know God’s love. We are, in Bret Harte’s words, “...not on that basis.”
As humans I believe that we recognize this truth subconsciously, held deep within our psyche. We live a “rather than...” existence, as it were. Old and young, poor and wealthy, male and female, of all ethnicities and racial identities – rather than feel our connectedness to all of life, we feel our separateness. Rather than knowing God’s loving presence we feel God’s absence. Rather than, in our heart of hearts knowing the peace
of God, we feel a deep inner struggle against whatever it is that exists in our universe. We feel loneliness...and we hurt. We live “rather than...”
The gospel seeks to counteract those “rather than” feelings and emotions. It’s message is quite simple: In the birth of Jesus God reaches down and takes our hand...that we might “be on that basis.” In this Bethlehem story we experience God’s power to connect with us in a manner which transcends race, culture, nationality, and/or political persuasions.
Tonight we revisit this Bethlehem narrative because we know that its powerful thematic tentacles creep deep into the caverns of our being and latch hold of our soul. We are a people who quickly forget who we are and whose we are; in our spiritual amnesia we are enticed by other gods and other stories. The most common sin may not be unbelief as much as failing to remember who we are. This Nativity narrative reminds us of from where we came, who we are and where we are going. This simple story of the birth of a Jewish baby in Palestine pulls us into God’s presence in ways that little else can do.
In this story we discover a simple yet profound truth about our God-human relationship: God is love; God is always love; therefore loving relationship lies at the heart of God and of every human being as well. We are nothing without relationship; we exist and love only in relationship. Incarnation informs us that life is about a relationship with God based solely in the love of God.
Yet, even the closest and most tender of our relationships can go stale. It is so easy, is it not, to miss what life is really all about? In a world of pain and heart-ache we are seduced into shutting down our soul that we might avoid the pain that accompanies loss. The tragedy of life comes not so much in what we undergo, as in what we miss in these “shut-down” moments. When we shut off ourselves from others, not to mention God, we place our soul in a prison cell of our own making, missing life and love. And so we live...not on that basis.
As I write this sermon, in my mind’s eye I see refugees leaving Syria and other volatile places around the world — and I think of this first nativity — when Joseph and Mary had to leave their home in Nazareth and under the edict of a foreign political power go to Bethlehem where they might register for the purpose of taxation. Were they not fearful and scared as they traveled the roads, wondering what strangers they might meet? Were they not afraid of the Roman soldiers who occupied their land? Is it not telling that the Lord of all was born in a stable on the backside of nowhere? Does this story not speak to the love of God for each all, even those whom we consider the “least of these?” Do these know enough to live “on that basis?” Or, are they living “rather than...?” Do we?

Oscar Romero, former bishop and slain martyr in El Salvador, put it this way: “I know that I am a thought in God, no matter how insignificant I may be – the most abandoned of beings, one no one thinks of...Think to yourselves, you that are outcasts, you that feel you are nothing in history: “I know that I am a thought in God.”ii
Incarnation reminds each and every one of us that we are thoughts in the very being of God. Let’s allow that thought to roll around inside of us this Christmas Eve. Every refugee, every drug addict, every homeless and hurting person — each and every one of us exists and matters to God.
What if we were to see each other as bearing the image of God? I think of people so afraid of neighbors they do not know and of strangers who do not look like them. Could it be that our calling as Christians is to reach out in love to the other, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or whomever, and share with them the love of Christ? Could it be that if we live out of the Jesus narrative of Incarnational love that we will begin the transformation of our world? Whose narrative do we believe, anyway? The world’s narrative of fear or the Bethlehem narrative of love and faith? Dare we live out of God’s narrative and not that of the world?
I challenge you this evening to look at those next to you, at those with whom you will celebrate this holy occasion — and see in them the very presence of God. If God were standing before you, how would you treat God? How then, ought we to treat one another? Together we can live out the Incarnation and in so doing see the gospel come alive. In Christ we can“be on that basis...”
Thanks be to God who dared to invade our lives and indwell our hearts. Amen.

i I have lost the source of this illustration. ii Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015


“What About the Cross?’
Hebrews 10: 11-18
What are we to make of the cross?  How are we, in the 21st century, modern and enlightened people that we are, to understand the crucifixion of Jesus in the 1st century?  Is the cross nothing more than a vestige of blood-filled, primitive religion which is to be excised in our modern world?
Try as we might — and we do try — as Christians we cannot escape the cross. Crucifixion texts abound throughout the New Testament: 
  • The gospels focus on the crucifixion and resurrection as the apex of the life of Christ. 
  • For Paul, the most prolific author and thinker of early Christianity, the  sacrificial death of Jesus upon the cross is the inescapable truth.  Remember that great statement by Paul? “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   
To be a Christian, a “Christ-follower,” is to be surrounded by the cross; no, it is to be centered upon the cross.  We worship with virtual images of the cross burned into our psyche.  Early sanctuaries reflected the shape of the cross in their very architecture.  Many of us love to sing the hymns of the cross.  
Yet, when we speak of our faith in and love for Jesus Christ today, I hear very few references to the cross.  It is as if we really don’t know what to do with the cross, the bloody, wretched cross.  The cross offends our sensibilities and sense of decorum.  After all, we are really good, lovable and intelligent people — why would we need a Savior to die on a cross for us?  
So often we speak of the love of God, forgiveness from sin, peace with God and eternal life as if these were philosophical entities available on their own.  The nicer we become the less meaning the cross seems to have for us.  The great theologian and ethicist, H. Richard Niebuhr stated the essence of our modern theology in his now-famous quote from the middle of the last century: “A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”  Contrast this with the gospel witness, i.e., the essence of the earliest Christian preaching, that forgiveness for sin and eternal life are available only through the sacrificial death by crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth.  These views are not fully compatible.  Either the cross is central, or the cross is unimportant.  
My observation has been that this move away from having the cross as central to our faith and life is devastating to our faith.  Why?  Simply put: the further we move from the cross, the “better” we look to ourselves and each other and the less we see ourselves as sinners in need of atonement.  Jesus did not die for good people…Jesus died for sinners.  When we forget that we are sinners, we lose the essence of the gospel.  When we diminish the cross, we lose our sense of total dependency upon God and of the depth of love that we encounter in this at once incredible and horrible event.  Why?
In the cross we are confronted by the face of sin and evil such as we cannot ignore.
Often people ask: “Why is there such evil and suffering in the world?”  My answer has become very simple: “Because we humans are alive and well — and we are sinners, pure and simple.”  To be a sinner we do not have to kill another, steal from another or cheat on our spouse.  To be a sinner all we have to do is choose that which is not of God or  God’s will for our lives.  Sin is about selfishness, about an egotism which reigns at the heart of our lives.  Sin is about wanting my way, being master of my own ship, of claiming my own destiny rather than allowing God in Christ to set the course.  Even “nice people” are sinners, are they not?
What face do we imagine when we speak of the face of evil?  Charles Manson? Osama bin Laden?  Adolf Hitler?  Do we ever think of taking a mirror and looking into it?  Ours is the face of evil — for in our sin we partake of evil.  This is quite difficult to imagine, is it not?  
Now that Debby and I have 3 grandchildren our lives have been enriched in so many wonderful ways.  However, I have also been reminded of how difficult it is to reason with a 2-3 year old.  When they get their minds made up they can be virtually impossible to guide, much less control.  As I watched my sons/daughters-in-law working with their children (and they are wonderfully patient parents) I thought, “How must  God feel about us?”  God wants to bless us, to lead us in the paths that are good and right — and we want to fight God at every step.  We want to go our own way, thinking that somehow we know best.  When we grow a bit older we can see that the paths we choose apart from God so often end in pain, suffering, and sorrow — without any sense of hope or God’s presence.  The path of life in God may also have pain, suffering and tragedy, but it is such that in Christ we will be able to accept and move through it.  Apart from Christ our paths end in these tragic consequences; in Christ they move through them into a deeper sense of life than we could ever imagine.  Salvation is through Christ — and it goes through Calvary.
When we look at the cross we are reminded that the removal of sin and evil was neither simple nor painless — and is for our sin and our evil.  Sin and evil are real — and they are removed only through the atoning death of Jesus our Lord.
In the cross we are confronted by the Holiness and Love of God.
We don’t hear much about the holiness of God anymore.  We tend to stress the love of God.  However if we would understand the God of Holy Scripture, then we must see God as both holy and loving.  These central attributes of God go together.  To say that God is holy is to say that God is morally pure and perfect, i.e., that God is without sin.  It is also to say that God is opposed to sin, to all that harms and destroys God’s creation. To say that God is loving is to say that God puts all creation, including humanity, before God’s self.  When we say “God is love” we are saying that God desires with each and all of us an intimate relationship wherein we know and are known, fully and completely.  These attributes of God, properly understood, are inseparable.  Thomas Oden put it this way:
“God would not be as holy as God is without being incomparably loving.  God would not be as loving as God is without being incomparably holy.  God’s holiness without God’s love would be unbearable.  God’s love without God’s holiness would be unjust.  God’s wisdom found a way to bring them congruently together.  It involved a cross.”
When I think of God’s holiness, I think of God’s fierce opposition to that which hurts us, i.e., to sin.  God’s opposition to sin is not based in God wanting to hurt or punish us — God loves us.  God wants the best for us — so when God says, “Don’t eat of the fruit of that tree or you will sure die,” God knows what God is talking about.  For God love is not permissive — it is focused on guiding us into what is best for us.  Adam and Eve believed the lie of Satan that God only wanted to keep them under God’s thumb, controlled and “imprisoned” as it were.  What they discovered is that life as God designed was true freedom and joy, not the life that they chose.  In the cross we find God’s holiness and love coming together to remove the presence of sin and evil from our lives.  
In the cross we find the best image of God’s grace.
So often we throw around words like grace and forgiveness as if they were easy, peasy, nothing to it.  As an agnostic philosopher once said, “Humans love to sin, God loves to forgive sin; ergo, this is the best of all possible worlds.”  Yet, quite frankly, this is not true — at least this is not the true Christian message.  Grace, the forgiveness by God of our sin, came at the highest price — the death of Jesus the Son of God upon an ugly and cruel cross.  
To understand concepts such as grace, sin and forgiveness we must use some metaphors to help us comprehend the atonement, what Christ accomplished on the cross.  None of these metaphors is perfect, but each can and does have an aspect through which we can better grasp God’s accomplishment in and through the cross of Christ Jesus.  
One common metaphor is to see human existence separated from God by a vast and massive, impassable, sin-caused chasm: we cannot cross it by human means.  God’s holiness (God’s refusal to be in the presence of sin) means that we cannot come fully into the presence of God.  This is the reason why there are times when we “feel separated” from God.  Apart from Christ we feel not the presence but rather the absence of God; we have a deep, deep longing for God and we cannot, on our own, cross that chasm. In the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ we have God bridging the chasm as only God can do, in Jesus the Christ.  
Another metaphor is that of paying a legal debt/penalty we owe for our sin.  The idea is that through our sin we are indebted to God; we must pay for our sin to be removed.  Unfortunately, we cannot “pay our own way,” so to speak.  God has already provided the payment in the form of Jesus Christ, for God pays the penalty for our sin, not us.  It is as if God steps down from God’s place as judge and pays the penalty for us.
A sacrificial offering for our sin is a final commonly used metaphor.  Judaism (and many other religions) practiced the blood sacrifice of animals as an offering for their sin.  In our Hebrew’s texts the writer, an anonymous Christian who was probably a former Jewish priest, uses sacrificial imagery to portray Jesus as both the priest who offers the sacrifice and as the sacrificial offering himself.  Because of the uniqueness of Christ — the Son of God who dies in our stead — no other sacrificial offering is necessary.  The sacrifice for sin has been accomplished, once for all, in the death of Jesus.
While each of these metaphors has its limits, each is valuable in helping us to understand the centrality of the cross to atonement and therefore to Christianity.  There is no atonement without the cross; there is no Christianity without atonement.  Hence, there is no Christianity without the cross.
One of my homiletical mentors, John Killinger, introduced me to the short film “The Bridge.”  I don’t know if you have ever seen that movie, but the ending is quite difficult.
It is the story of a fine young couple who have a son. They are very happy together, and the boy is trying to grow up to be just like his father. Then the film shows the father going off to work. He is the switchman for a railroad line that carries people on holiday from one place to another. Part of the line lies over a river, where it must be drawn back most of the time for boats to pass. It is his job to wait until the last moment, then pull the switch that swings the bridge into place before the thundering approach of the train. We, the viewers of the film, see what the father does not see: His little son has followed him to the river and is coming across the bridge. As the train whistle sounds to signal the approach of the speeding train the father sees the boy. If he closes the track, the boy will die. We watch the agony on his face. He loves the boy better than anything in his life. But finally he pulls the lever and locks the bridge into place. We see the people on the train laughing and having a good time as the train races across the bridge. They do not how narrowly they have averted disaster, or what it has cost the switchman. 
This is what the cross is all about…and this is why we can never, ever omit the cross.  Thanks be to God.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262

November 15, 2015

Monday, August 24, 2015


The Sacred Art of Stone Throwing
John 8: 1-11

There is probably no more well-known but also troubling scene in all the gospels than our text this morning. Here we find the religious elite bringing a “sinner” to Jesus — not for forgiveness, but for justice; not for redemption but for revenge.  They were members of the “Sacred Society of Self-Righteous Stone Throwers.”  They loved to find someone doing something “wrong” and bring them to public ridicule.  Why?  Why is a good question, is it not?
Have we given much thought to what goes into producing someone like this?  No one is born legalistic or judgmental; we are forged into that pattern in life.  What forces had so conspired that these had become such ardent attackers of “sin?”  We would not consider these to be “bad” or “evil” persons. They were the pillars of society, i.e., teachers of the law & religious leaders.  These were highly educated and thoughtful men whose primary concern was to have a country in which God’s rule prevailed.  Their public personae was of persons who desired to follow God’s law, the Torah, to the nth degree.  They only sought this same level of righteousness for others as well.  They fervently believed that if all would follow God’s law that not only would their society be successful above all others, but that the Kingdom of God would prevail.  These men would make good neighbors: no loud parties, keep the yards mowed and the flower beds weeded.  They only wanted a good and moral society to live in, did they not?
We know how they felt, do we not?  We see so many changes in morality and so many divergent “lifestyles” that there can rise up in us a desire to set the world straight.  Let’s not kid ourselves — these emotions run deep within all of us.  We are all just a few steps away from joining vendetta groups to bring “sinners” to Jesus for correction and edification in morals.  We are all at times on the verge of taking up stones and bringing the judgment of God (or so we say) on others.
I believe there was an underlying issue which was only tangentially connected with this woman.  These men were afraid — and fear does strange things to us.  They feared they were losing control over their society.  They feared the Roman reaction if this rabble-rousing-rabbi from Nazareth kept preaching his “good news.”  Already his popularity was rising and they feared that he might lead a rebellion that would bring the Roman boot down upon their neck.  Fear does strange things to us — it moves us in ways and down paths we would otherwise never go.
The conundrum that faced Jesus is simple: the Torah (in Deuteronomy) called for the stoning of those who committed adultery.  Roman law prohibited the Jews from carrying out capital punishment of any kind without Roman permission.  If Jesus had said that she should be stoned, then the Romans would have arrested him.  If Jesus had said that she should go free—then he would have been discredited in the eyes of the Jewish faithful.  After all, adultery was one of the Ten Commandments — #7  I believe.  
Years ago as I read this episode more closely a question jumped out at me:  Where is the man?  The last time I checked it takes two to commit adultery.  Why have they only brought a woman?  These men have displayed their hand by bringing only the woman. Was she a married woman caught having sex with a unmarried man?  Probably, but doesn’t that still make both guilty?  Had they set her up with a man solely for the purpose of challenging Jesus? Stone throwers often act in haste rather than thinking through all the ramifications of their actions.
Equally appalling is not so much the issue raised, but the manner of its raising.  These men had not one thought about the dignity or worth of this woman.  In their eyes she was not a woman, but an adulteress who forfeited her right to live upon committing this sin.  They thought of her in terms of adjectives, not nouns.
Jesus knew the difference between adjectives and nouns.  As humans we are never adjectives — they only describe the perception of others.  Yes, this woman was guilty of adultery; but first and foremost she was a woman, a person created in the image of God of worth and value.  When we place adjectives on a person — black, white, Latino, disabled, dishonest, stern, etc., we change the terms of their existence and we have no right to do that.  Jesus saw people apart from descriptors; he saw them as children of God — no more and no less.  Stone throwers confuse adjectives and nouns, because it is easier to kill another if they are less than human.
Jesus’ response to both the men and the woman is truly remarkable.  Initially he says nothing to the crowd, but just kneels down and begins to write in the sand.  There have been all matter of suggestions as to what he wrote —  but we really do not know.  Did he start writing the list of their sins?  Did he write the ten Hebrew letters that summarize the Ten Commandments?  By his refusal to speak to them Jesus indicates that he is not interested in their Wild West lynch mob form of justice, in joining their Sacred Society.  Jesus ignores them and in so doing indicates that he will have nothing to do with their vigilantism.  
However, these leaders will not let this rest; they push the matter so that Jesus finally utters those well-known words: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  You could have dropped an atom bomb in their midst and it would not have had this much effect.  In that second Jesus shifted the focus from her sin to theirs, from her failure to their failures.  Subconsciously they were projecting their shadow side onto her; she was their scapegoat. If they could punish her then they would also remove their sin.  Jesus would not let them do that.  Each must confess his/her own sin — then and today.
We really don’t want to talk much about our sin—do we?  Sin is what other people do—not what we do.  Soren Kierkegaard said that “Sin is either trying to be more than we should be, arrogance or less than we should be, laziness.” Either way we are guilty of falling short of who God has created us to be.
We’re not talking about innocence here — either with the woman, the leaders, or with us.  Life is not a matter of innocence — we are all guilty at some level and we know it whether we will admit it or not.  Confess it we must…for the person who will not confess socio-pathological.  Each and all of us are guilty at one level or another.  Jesus hits them squarely on the nail of universal guilt.  We are all guilty.
The reaction of the crowd is priceless.  One by one they leave, from the oldest to the youngest.  The oldest left first, for they knew well the truth of which Jesus spoke.  Age does that to us; it enables us to see our imperfections so much better than when we are young.  I guess that is why grandparents tend to be so much more lenient than parents; they know well that life is not a game of perfect but of falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up.  When we are young we strive to have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect family, the perfect house, the perfect car, the perfect career—and so on.  By the time we reach middle age we know that there is no such thing as perfect — and that really is o.k.  
Jesus kneels and writes again — until the entire crowd is left.  Rising up Jesus questions her concerning her accusers and then gives her those words of grace: “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”  Can we imagine how this woman felt?  Ten minutes earlier she believed her life was over; now not only was she free, she was forgiven. 
Forgiven! How great is the knowledge and feeling that one’s sin is put in the past and is an issue no more.  As far as the east is from the West, so far has God removed our transgressions from us” is how the Psalmist describes it.  Forgiveness is simply giving a person a second chance on the same terms as the first. 
Have you ever heard of the disease of scleroderma?  It is a gradual hardening of the soft tissue, both inside and outside our bodies.  Unnoticed at first — usually mistaken for aging or some other normal deterioration of our fine motor skills, eventually we realize that something more is going on. 
As horrific as scleroderma is, even more horrendous is spiritual scleroderma, because it not only hardens our heart toward others, it hardens our heart toward the Spirit. When we are unable to feel the reality of our sin and our need for forgiveness, then we know our heart is ossifying — spiritual scleroderma is at work.  When we no longer feel the need to worship, to seek God and know God’s Spirit in our lives — then spiritual scleroderma is at work.  The more it works, the more self-righteousness we become. The more ossified our heart the less compassion and understanding we exhibit for others who fail.  
These religious leaders knew about God’s mercy and forgiveness, but they felt no need for it — their hearts were ossified beyond measure.  This hardening process occurs so subtlety and quietly that we do not notice it until we are well down the path of legalism and judgmentalism.  If we do not see our own need of forgiveness we will never be able to fully forgive others, no matter how much Bible we may quote or theology we may spout.  Could it be that what God really wants in a church is to be a place where forgiveness can be had…no matter what?  Could it be that all else in Christianity is really secondary to forgiveness and grace?  
In Spain a father and son had a falling out and the son said some very harsh and cruel words, leaving the house and swearing to never return.  His father, who loved him deeply, set off to find him. He searched and he searched for months on end, but to no avail. Finally, in one last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the Madrid Newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven; I love you, Your Father.”  It is said, that on that Saturday, eight-hundred men named Paco showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
What about us?  Do we have unfinished business with family and friends?  Is there forgiveness that needs to be offered, to be requested, to be given?  
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?   She said, ‘No one, sir.’  And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and from now on do not sin again.’”

August 23rd, 2015

Sunday, July 5, 2015


The Emerywood Pulpit
“Confessions of a Repentant Southerner…”
Luke 10: 25-37
Week before last, on June 25th, our national somnambulance was once again shattered by the bullets of a deranged gunman.  This time, however, it was in our own beloved Carolinas — Charleston, South Carolina — to be exact.  The details we know all too well — they are ever with us.  On that fateful Wednesday evening twelve African-Americans were engaged in a Bible Study of Jesus’ parable of the “Sower and the Soils” when a young, white male, Dylann Storm Roof, entered the room.  After speaking with them for over an hour, he pulled out a pistol and started firing.  Nine of the twelve were brutally murdered — he reloaded at least twice — and then he calmly left the church and the premises.  He was captured the next day in North Carolina and presumably has seen the last freedom he will ever know.

Once again our nation has been turned upside down as the issues of race and gun violence have raised their ugly heads.  I will leave the issue of gun violence for another day.  My concern this morning is with the underlying racism that drove him to such lengths.  Mr. Roof not only displayed racist photographs and videos on the web, he even told his victims that he was killing them as an act of racial revenge.  “I wanted to start a race war” is what he is said to have told the police and justice officials.

Racism is the proverbial ball and chain around our leg as a nation — and particularly as a region.  No matter how hard we try we just cannot seem to be set free.  As a native of the Deep South for most of my early years — New Orleans, La. by birth and Alabamian by residence — and then in the South for most of the remaining years, I have lived with racism, both open and hidden, my entire life.  (I also lived in Portland, Oregon where I encountered racism just as vicious as in the South.)  Racism is not limited to our beloved South, though it certainly has its tentacles deep in our red clay soil.  However, it is here — and we must no longer ignore it.

For decades racism was socially and culturally acceptable.  In my youth I knew otherwise “good people” who used the “n” word just as any other word; their excuse was simple — “that’s what you called those people.”  However, I must say that we were never allowed to say the “n” word in my home of origin, nor have I ever allowed it to be said in my presence without challenge. 

As a Southerner I have heard incredible rationalizations as to why racism and bigotry were ordained of God.  I have witnessed systemic racism bury itself within the fabric of our culture and work its dirty business unseen and unknown.  If America is ever to live up to its calling as a bastion of freedom and liberty, then we must do our due diligence to recognize incipient racism in all its manifestations; we must work together to eradicate every last remnant of publicly acceptable racism. 

What does it mean to be a racist?  Most of us do not consider ourselves to be racist, and for the most part we are not.  We do not hate another person because of the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the slant of their eyes or any other physical characteristic.  However, not being overtly racist does not comprise the totality of racism — it is only one expression of racism.  Racism is the preference for persons of our own tribe. PLU’s is the commonly acceptable acronym:  “People Like Us.”  To be sure, racial tribalism or “clannishness” is a common, human, cultural trait, but that does not mean that it is an ok lifestyle for those who follow Jesus Christ.  Just because a characteristic or trait seems to be hardwired into our cultural DNA does not justify it one iota.

Racism involves the tendency to visualize another racial group in terms of the worst characteristics of the worst members of that group -- a subconscious racism as it were.  Simultaneously, such racism sees ourselves and our group in terms of the best members of our group.  For instance, in my youth in the deep South I was told (by persons other than my parents) that all blacks were lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, dishonest and uneducable.  Obviously that was not and is not the case, but it was convenient for our white majority to think thusly as it gave justification for discrimination, Jim Crow laws, etc.  

Central to subconscious racism is the development of “slang” terms for persons of other races, terms which insidiously move us toward seeing the other as less than human. Wop, Chink, Spic, Dago — the “n” word…these are just a few of the terms we use which dehumanize another.  These are not just innocent slang terms, but epithets which devalue and degrade a fellow human who also bears the image of God.

Why do we act in this manner?  Simply put, as humans we live with a certain level of residual inferiority, the belief that, at bottom, we are not good enough. One way for us to justify/feel good about ourselves is to denigrate the other as less than human.  We may object that what we see in racists is a “superiority,” but in reality such arrogance is really a covering for deep “inferiority.”  As humans we are driven by fear much more than we are compelled by our faith. Racism, at its core, is fear based — as is all evil.

This is seen quite clearly in the Confederate Flag controversy.  For the most part, those who wave or display the Confederate battle flag are white people for whom life has been at best a struggle.  Economically they are on the bottom rung — or close to it.  Educationally they are usually there as well — those often go hand in hand.  For them this flag is a symbol of their defiance of a governmental system which they believe works against them and for others, particularly African-Americans.  In the early years of the 20th century poor whites and poor blacks often had the same economic struggles.  The sole comfort for these poor whites was that “At least I’m not black.”  Now, as education has offered persons of all races opportunities to grow and develop, the anger and frustration of these who occupy the lower socio-economic rungs has focused on a flag as their symbol and on race as their enemy.  These may claim it is heritage and not hate, but rarely is that the case — and we know it.  For those who want to fly this flag I have only one question: given its history as the symbol of the Lost Cause — of a racially motivated rebellion against our country — would Jesus fly this flag?
Racism is subtle, rarely presenting itself as evil.  Rather, racism, like all sin, masks itself as good.  Many slave-owners did not necessarily consider themselves to be “evil persons.”  Many were active in churches, worshipped God, loved Jesus and sought to share what they understood as the gospel, as truncated as their version may have been.  They were people who were doing what they thought to be right in order to “preserve their way of life,” which they assumed to be ordained of God.  

The specific translation used this morning is one by Clarence Jordan called “The Cotton Patch Bible.”  Dr. Jordan translated most of the New Testament into the vernacular of the South and in so doing personalized these stories and teachings for us.  Here we have the familiar parable of “The Good Samaritan.”  What is shocking about that story is that the usual “good guys,” the persons Jesus’ listeners assumed would stop and help, did not.  Their fellow Israelites crossed over and went on by, even after seeing this one in distress.  When Jesus said that the one who stopped and helped was a “Samaritan,” you would have heard the proverbial pin drop.  He was the last person any Jew expected to stop or wanted to stop.  Samaritans were half-breeds, the result of “inter-racial” families from the days of the Babylonian Exile.  No self-respecting Jew would ever say anything good about a Samaritan.  Yet, Jesus does, because Jesus wants to show his questioner just what it means to be a person of God.

Salvation (the original question posed) for Jesus is not about keeping the law, but about loving one’s neighbor, i.e., for Jesus the neighbor being the one whose need presents itself to me. Further, by making the neighbor a Samaritan — or in our cultural node a black man — Jesus shatters all our pretensions about our goodness and righteousness.

To grow up in the South is to grow up as a conflicted person: loving the people and heritage of which we are apart, yet feeling quite deep shame at the entrenched racism of our past and present. A prime example of this is one of my personal heroes, General Robert E. Lee.  As a son of the South I always felt badly that we fought the Civil War, much less that we lost it.  I became a history major — and in particular a Southern history major — due to my desire to understand more and more about this region of my birth.  General Lee was the salvation for most of the South, particularly the more educated Southerners.  He was the classic figure of a Southern gentleman in every way, not to mention that he was an incredibly good general (other than at Gettysburg where his vanity and pride overran his wisdom.)  Yet, in reality he was a slaveholder and a traitor to his country.  He violated his own oath, taken at his induction as an officer in the US Army, to never take up arms against his own country.  Yes, he stipulated in his will that his slaves should be freed upon his death — but he allowed his wife to keep what she needed until her death.  As I have studied his life through the years I have come to see that he is, at best, a flawed hero.

In the South (and nationally) we have used up all the cliches and metaphors possible to explain away what is really residual racism.  Here we are in 2015 and we still send each other racist emails as supposed “jokes.”  When I replied to some of these with the statement that these were un-Christlike, I was quickly deleted from some lists, and gratefully so.  Who wants a spoil-sport pointing out our racism to us?  We live by the myth that we’re not racist anymore, yet it refuses to go away.  When fraternities on college don blackface for parties we know that racism lingers deep within.  

Last year a pastor and good friend of mine married his daughter to a man whom he said was one of the finest young men he knew.  What was unusual about this was that she married an African-American man.  I saw the pictures and I thought, “How would I respond if I had a daughter who did this?  How would I have responded if one of my sons had married a girl of another race?  Would I be as loving and accepting as my friend?”  I sure hope and pray so.

Jesus Christ came to set us free — and part of that freedom is to be free from the constraints of a cultural racism which is anti-God, anti-Christ and sinful in all its manifestations.  If we cannot see all persons as created in the image of God…if the color of skin or ethnic background keeps us from seeing another in the love that flows from God, then we are living in sin and are in need of the grace of God.  To participate in or acquiesce to any manner of racism — whether in jest or in seriousness — is to participate in sin and evil.

Are we racists?  Maybe not in an angry, vengeful way...few of us would ever think of putting another person down for their race or making crude comments about another over their racial characteristics?  We're too nice and polite, thank you very much. Why, we even welcome people of other races when they attend "our" church!

Yet, I must confess that as a proclaimer of the gospel for now 40 years, I have failed my congregations.  I have failed to help us see that racism needs to be confronted and eradicated whenever possible.  I have allowed us to be comfortable with our congregations being 99.9% white and thinking that this reflects the Body of Christ.  I have allowed us to look the other way when racial issues came to the fore in our community and nation.  I have been at ease in Zion, at peace with a culture that is not close to the Kingdom of God.

Why did I not focus on this enduring residual sin?  Because it is too close to home, that’s why.  Because when I start preaching and teaching about this sin, church people get uncomfortable and say things like, “We’re just not spiritual anymore.”  Why, they may even go to another church if I say too much about it.  So, I just throw it out there once in a while in a sermon, but never in a challenging or confrontative fashion.  This is why I say that I have failed you.  I have let you think that our congregational life as we know it is pleasing to God, when in reality it is anything but.

So, what can we do?

  1. Confess our sin to God and ask for forgiveness.  Confess not only our individual sin, but our cultural sin.  Ask God to forgive us for tolerating theological heresy and sin and accepting them as normative.
  2. Develop a primary value which says that all persons are created in the image of God and as such deserve to be treated with dignity, acceptance, respect and love, regardless of how they treat us in return.  Until we get our values right, our lives will never be right.
  3. Do not be a party to or go along with racism in any shape or form.  Challenge racists statements when made in our presence.  Refuse to laugh at or be party to racist statements or jokes of any kind.  If someone had confronted Dylann Roof we might never have known of a “Charleston Nine.”
  4. Ask God to use us to not only combat racism, but to be integral in working for and building up a community of faith which goes beyond racial and ethnic identities.  To this end we need to intentionally seek to make friends across racial lines.  Develop fellowship meals and “Dinners for 8” with persons of other races and ethnicities.  Have conversations with persons of other races about their experiences; seek to understand what transpires in their lives.  
Can we do this?  Yes, but it will take the grace and power of God, for we cannot do it on our own; we are too weak. Tuesday evening I attended the “Community in Unity” service at St. Stephen’s AME Church.  There was a decent but not great attendance — about 125 or so.  The music was wonderful, the preaching was great.  However, I was blown away by the Rev. Kinston Jones, a young African-American minister who organized the service.  In his remarks he said: “A lot has been said about the Charleston Nine, but not much about the One.  I want us to pray for Dylann Roof, for the salvation of his soul, that he might turn to Christ and know forgiveness and healing.”  Then he proceeded to do just that — to pray for the perpetrator of these horrendous murders.  How do you do that?  How do you pray that prayer when that man has just stated that he wanted to start a war so that all black people would be killed?

You can do that when your heart is surrendered to God in Jesus Christ, when your primary motivation and purpose is not self, but allowing God to love others through you.  Years ago there was a man named John Newton whose life was characterized by rebellion and chaos.  He worked aboard a British Naval vessel, but rebelled against the discipline and deserted.  He was captured, put in irons and flogged.  He later convinced the captain to discharge him to a slaving vessel.  While at sea he went through a tremendous storm, fearing for his life. 

Providentially someone had given him Thomas A’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.  In the bowels of that ship John Newton prayed and asked God to save him.  A few months later he worked on a slaving ship, albeit knowing that what they were doing was wrong.  He hoped and prayed that through his presence he could curb the excesses of the slave trade.  Forty years passed (1787) during which time he grew in his faith and became a minister of the gospel — he had long since left the seas.  Then John Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade for the express purpose of helping his friend and member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, in his campaign to outlaw the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire.  Ultimately they were successful.

During his time as minister he led a Thursday evening prayer service.  Almost every week he wrote a hymn for that service — 280 to be exact.  It was in this stage of life that he penned the hymn for which he is most well-known: Amazing Grace.  In his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, "I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…"  Can we sing that song knowing that it is only by grace that any of us are acceptable?  Can we sing today knowing that as we have received grace, so we are to extend grace…to all God’s children?  Join me in singing this song this morning in repentance, asking God to forgive me for not being more bold and true to the gospel I know and love.

“Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far…and grace will see us home.”


Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262
July 5th, 2015