When I was seeking a master’s degree, my professor told me that I should choose a subject for my thesis that was nearest my heart. “Write about something that you truly care about,” he said, “and you will never get writer’s block.” I found that to be true. It is a good rule of thumb for a weekly sermon, too. A pastor should choose a topic for the week at hand that deals with the thing that is nearest his or her heart in that week.
Sometimes that is hard, for there are multiple demands. Monday is Memorial Day. We have already dealt with that, and there is more to come. Even more important, today is Trinity Sunday. Joe and I chose the liturgy and the hymns to fit the occasion; and I planed a sermon on the Trinity. However, this week, this year, I don’t really have the heart for it. Don’t get me wrong. The Trinity is an important doctrine; but most of us have receive it by tradition, and retained it by habit, almost without thinking. It has been a long time since I have heard two members of this church arguing about the Trinity. And it has been almost five centuries since John Calvin and the City Council of Geneva burned his one-time friend, Michael Servetus, at the stake because Servetus had a less than Orthodox understanding of the the Triune God. So, too, there are some who want me to preach on homosexuality and the action of the 2018 Synod. There are other who want me to preach on almost anything else! To be honest, I don’t have the heart for that sermon, either, for I don’t have a lot to add to the paper I have written and posted on our website. That paper is a clear and truthful statement of where I think I must be in this time and in this place. I will say that the paper has been affirmed for me by a number of the responses I have received.
One response in particular is special to me, and it ultimately inspired this sermon. A man who actually resigned his position in his denomination over the issue of his church’s more open ministry to homosexual persons contacted me to say that, since his resignation, he had reached almost exactly the same position I have articulated in my paper. He told me he had to leave his denomination in order to discover his authentic hermeneutic and theology; and he counted me extremely blessed that I could reach the same positions while still serving a congregation.
That is a telling statement. It is not just about him, and not just about me. It is about us, and how we live our lives in the community which is the body of Christ.
We live our lives out in accordance with the Word of God which comes to us through the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. But the Word of God is more than Words on a page. For, in accordance with the will of God, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we live our lives out in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate and Living Word. The writer of the Hebrews captures this reality perfectly when he writes (and I quote):
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:12-13 (Un-quote).
Jesus still speaks to us, and he speaks in three ways. First, he speaks to us in the words of Scripture, and in the way that we read and interpret Scripture in his presence, as a community of faith. As Jesus said, the Holy Spirit “calls to our remembrance” what has been said. Second, Jesus speaks to us in small voice that begins in the heart of one person who dares to listen and then spreads. There are no words, (his) voice is not heard.” yet, as Jesus said, “the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and declares to us that which is to come.” When God speaks to our hearts, whatever the means, we cannot deny it. Third, God speaks in and through the community. the Holy Spirit often speaks to me in the careful and loving tones of a brother, or sister, who whispers their truth in my ears. One never has to shout the truth, a whisper is enough. When I hear a truth from a brother or sister, even if it is contrary to my truth, I try to listen to it, and wrestle with it, before the Lord, in the same way I once wrestled with my own truth. I expect a brother or a sister to do the same for me.
Does the ability to share our truth mean that mean that we will always reach agreement?
Sometimes we do reach a measure of agreement. In Acts 15, the first Apostolic Council had to decide if Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. After no little discussion, the Church in Jerusalem reached a conclusion. They said that Gentiles did not have to become Jews before they became Christians, and they published that decision to the Gentile churches, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” That please almost everyone, with the possible exception of Circumcision party, which, as we know from St. Paul, continued to argue their truth—and insist on circumcision, long after circumcision had lost its relevance. The Circumcision Party had many proof text on their side, but the Living Word, Jesus Christ, made circumcision irrelevant. There are always backwaters. As Paul said:
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. Galatians 5:1-4
Sometimes we do not reach agreement. We see a particularly relevant example a little later in Acts 15. There we read how Paul and Barnabas fell out over John Mark. Mark accompanied them on their first missionary journey; but for some reason, he just quit and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were preparing for their second missionary journey, Barnabas asked Mark to come, and Paul said, “No! If he goes with you, I will not!” And Barnabas took John Mark and Paul took Silas, and now we sing,“It was good for Paul and Silas, it was good for Paul and Silas, it was good for Paul and Silas!” Who was right about John Mark? Was it Paul, or was it Barnabas? In commenting on this passage John Ogilvie wrote that it may be that both Paul and Barnabas were right. God knew that Mark needed the stern rebuke of Paul, and God knew that Mark also needed the second chance offered by Barnabas. It is a classic case of Hegel’s Dialectic—or God’s Dialectic, if you will:Thesis plus Antithesis equals Synthesis. Of course, it was not until many years later than God’s true purpose for John Mark was revealed. Tradition says that Mark stuck by Peter when he was in Rome, right up to his death; and that Mark became Peter’s interpreter and the author of the 2nd Gospel, the one that bears his name. Sometimes, we see God’s wisdom unfold without delay. However, sometimes, we cannot see the wisdom of a decision that we have made as a community before him until after the passage of many years, for only then does it become absolutely plain and irrefutable.
Because God truth sometimes takes a passage of years to make itself known. Living in community is always a blessing, but it is not always easy.
Living in Christian Community is always a blessing. A number of years before the start of World War Two, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little book about Christian community entitled, “Life Together.” In it he said that we ought never take Christian community for granted, for not everyone is blessed with it, and he gave examples of Christians who were forced to live without community, such as those who were in prison, which was strangely prescient for Bonhoeffer himself was hanged to death in a Nazi concentration camp. Bonhoeffer then added some sage advice for young pastors. He said, “A pastor ought never criticize his (or her) church (to outsiders).” That is good advice. A pastor who criticizes his or her church to outsiders will never grow that church. For a church (or a denomination) to grow, its pastors and its members must often love it for more than it is worth. We must love it for more than its worth, in order that it might become all that God intends it to be. Along these same lines, Robert Schuller used to tell pastors attending his school of Church Growth, that they had to “sell” their church to potential new members; and if their church was not particularly marketable, they had to sell “the dream of their church.” I guess I am blessed. In my three decades at New Philadelphia, I have always found this church to be eminently marketable. I used to tell potential new members that, if I were a venture capitalists investing my money in churches, I would most certainly invest in New Philadelphia.
Living in community is always a blessing, but it is not always easy. Sooner of later the people that we love the most will disappoint us. They will disappoint us because in some way they are different than we are, with different beliefs. If you don’t believe this, read about the chaos in the churches before the advent of the American Civil War. The pro-Slavery argument had dozens of texts at their disposal. All assumed slavery, and not one said “free the slaves.” The Abolitionist had only the belief that God made all men in his image, and the slaves themselves looked to the experience of the Exodus. Something that Martin Luther King, Jr. Evoked when he spoke of getting to the Promised Land. Scott Peck says that the hardest thing a church ever has to do it to pass through the Stages of Community. He named three. The first stage of community is Pseudo-Community, when everyone thinks they believe just alike. The second stage of community is Chaos, when people find out they are not all alike, and their beliefs differ. The third stage of community is True Community, in which people accept one another despite their differences. God cannot bless a church until it has achieved True Community. Churches that pass from Pseudo-Community to Chaos to True Community are few and far between. Thankfully, Moravians have a better record than most. We see this in the experience of August 13, 1727. In those days the Moravian Church was made up of at least six different sets of people from six different denominations with six very different theologies, and they were badly divided. On August 13, 1727 they came together, not by setting aside their doctrinal differences—they remained and Zinzendorf even appointed “bishops” to steward each; but by accepting one another in spite of them. It was not long after August 13th that the renewed church adopted the one essential of the Ancient Moravian Unity, “a heart relationship with the Triune God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that issues in Faith, Love and Hope.” That experience of August 13, 1727 has been preserved for us in hymns like:
What brought us together, what joined our hearts?
The pardon which Jesus, our High Priest, imparts;
‘Tis this which cements the disciples of Christ,
who are into one by the Spirit baptized.
The one thing necessary for a church to move from Chaos to True community is for its members to accept one another despite their differences, for the sake of Jesus Christ. That is, each person recognizes every other for their commitment to Christ. It is easier to achieve this when every member of the community remembers the word of Jesus that we must remove the Log from our own eyes, before we remove the spec that is in the eyes of our brothers and sisters.
In the last three decades, I have seen a lot of people come and go from this church. I am glad for those who have come, and sadden by those who have left. Some have left this church, because for things like work, a move, etc. Some have left because it was not the church they had hoped it would be. Others have left because this pastor did not fit with their idea of what a pastor should be. I nearly always do exit interviews, so I could give you a long list of people who have left, and I could go into great detail as to the reasons that they left. For example, about two years ago, I had two individuals leave because I would not swear allegiance to a favorite doctrine. I loved them enough that I wrote them a long paper demonstrating from Scripture why I could not believe as they did; but they left anyway.
Sometimes it is hard to agree on scripture, even when it appears to be plain. There are 55,000 Protestant denominations, and countless independent churches, and most of them came into being because people could not agree on scripture, In this regard, Oswald Chambers was right, “It is far easier to be true to our convictions than it is to be true to Jesus Christ.”
Well, as I have said, I have seen a lot of people leave this church, for one reason or another, and that saddens me. But there is one thing of which I am proud. Even many of those who have left us have continued to grow in the soil of the Christian community they once shared with us. I know this because, over the years, they have come back to us, for one reason or another, simply because they found something here that they could not do without. Some come back for a lovefeast, or a fellowship meal. Others show up at Easter. Some come back to ask me or you, about a problem they are having. I can name several people who came back to us, just to die. I am thankful for each and every one of those who have left, and returned, for whatever reason.
Thirty years ago, on the last Sunday in May—or was it the first Sunday in June, I can’t remember, I was installed as the pastor of this church. Just before I was installed, I made the Joint Board a promise. I did not promise to be perfect, for I knew I had too much human in my being for that. And I did not promise that I would deliver a brilliant sermon every week, for I knew that to be impossible. Likewise, I did not promise that, in points of theology and faith, I would always agree with all of you, or even a majority of you. I did not even promise that my pastoral care would be sufficient to your needs, though I hope it has been. I promised only that I would not quit. I thank God, that despite several temptations to do just that, God has always sent along something or someone to anchor me in place. I have managed to hang on, because at least some few of you—including many who have passed into the more immediate presence of the LORD have refused to let me go. At this juncture, if I can do so with integrity, I would do all that is in my power to do the same for each of you. If the anchor holds—then anything is possible.
It is Memorial Day weekend, so let me end with this example. In 1876, Lucius Lamar, a Senator from Mississippi helped bring Reconstruction to a close when gave a magnificent speech before the Senate of the United States, saying that it was hight time for us to be one nation again, north and south. He concluded the speech by saying that if the illustrious dead from both sides could speak from their heavenly rest, they would say,“My countrymen! know one another, and you will love one another!” (Note) That, I think, is not bad advice for the Moravian Church today. If we truly know one another, as fellow servants of Jesus Christ, we will love one another.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
Note: Kennedy, John F.. Profiles in Courage: Deluxe Modern Classic (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) (pp. 140-141). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.